The 12 Best Uncrowded National Park Dayhikes
By Michael Lanza
The best-known dayhikes in America’s national parks are certainly worth adding to your outdoor-adventure CV. Summits and hiking trails like Angels Landing in Zion, Half Dome in Yosemite, the North Rim Trail overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Glacier National Park’s Highline Trail, and many others represent the highlights of the crown jewels of the National Park System. But for that very reason, unless you take those hikes outside the peak seasons or times of day, you can expect to encounter a lot of other hikers.
But there are other national park dayhikes that remain off the radar of many hikers—so they attract a small fraction of the number of people flocking to the popular trails. On these 12 hikes, you’ll find scenery just as majestic as those famous trails, while possibly having these spots to yourself (as I did on several of them).
You might want to bring along a friend or your family—just to make sure you don’t get too lonely.
Taylor Canyon, Zion
Easily accessible but far from the well-beaten paths of Zion Canyon, the five-mile, nearly flat, out-and-back hike up the Taylor Creek Trail explores a canyon with walls rising nearly 2,000 feet above a cool forest watered by a vibrant creek. You’ll pass two historic cabins dating back decades, and at the end of the maintained trail, reach Double Arch Alcove, a pair of giant arches in the Navajo sandstone beneath 1,700-foot-tall Tucupit Tower and Paria Tower.
See my “Photo Gallery: Hiking the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park,” and all of my stories about Zion at The Big Outside.
Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest, Yosemite
The view across Tenaya Lake of a breathtaking sweep of granite domes and cliffs sets the tone for this 14-mile, round-trip hike up 9,926-foot Clouds Rest (lead photo at top of story). In the same neighborhood as Half Dome, relatively unknown Clouds Rest offers an even bigger panorama, taking in Yosemite Valley and an ocean of mountains spanning most of the park. But the hike’s highlight comes in the final 300 yards traversing the narrow summit ridge, above dizzying drop of 4,000 feet—that’s a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan.
See more photos from Clouds Rest and a video in “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” as well as “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park.
Don’t miss my story “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Eagle Peak Trail, Mount Rainier
The fact that this trail ascends relentlessly nearly 3,000 vertical feet in 3.6 miles partly explains its obscurity. But the main reason may be that it lies somewhat out of the way, starting in the little village of Longmire, in a park already possessing an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dayhiking options. But it passes through lush, quiet, old-growth Pacific Northwest forest and crosses wildflower meadows, ending at a saddle at 5,700 feet in the rugged Tatoosh Range, with a jaw-dropping, closeup view of Mount Rainier.
Static Peak, Grand Teton
While no casual stroll—17.2 miles and 5,000 vertical feet round-trip—Static Peak unquestionably ranks among the finest dayhikes in Grand Teton National Park. But it’s often overlooked by visitors, who focus on the canyons farther north. From Death Canyon Trailhead, hike past views of Phelps Lake, along a roaring cascade, and eventually to a panorama from 10,790-foot Static Peak Divide that encompasses Death Canyon, Jackson Hole, Alaska Basin, and the southern Tetons. Continue up the half-mile, 500-vertical-foot user trail to Static Peak’s 11,303-foot summit for even bigger views.
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Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost Canyons and the Peekaboo Trail, Canyonlands
While nearby Chesler Park commands the attention of most hikers in the Needles District of Canyonlands, the less-traveled trails into Big Spring, Squaw and Lost canyons and the Peekaboo Trail deliver similarly mind-blowing views of 300-foot-tall candlesticks and cliffs. The 7.5-mile loop from Squaw Flat campground up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon follows a circuitous route up steep slickrock over a sandstone pass overlooking the canyons and miles of redrock towers. For a longer outing, add five to six miles to explore Lost Canyon and the Peekaboo Trail.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all of my stories about Canyonlands.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, Yellowstone
The Blacktail Deer Creek Trail doesn’t climb a mountain or pass any thermal feature. But from its nondescript trailhead east of Mammoth, it meanders across gently rolling grasslands and meadows that look like an American Serengeti, where there’s a good chance of running into herds of elk and bison—or wolves or bears. Reaching the cliff-flanked Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River at 3.7 miles, you can continue in either direction along the river; a quarter-mile downstream lies Crevice Lake, whose waters reflect the forest, hills, and cerulean sky.
Chimney Rock Canyon, Capitol Reef
By Capitol Reef standards, the 3.5-mile Chimney Rock Loop is “popular”—meaning you may see a few other hikers. But few dayhikers and backpackers explore lower Chimney Rock Canyon’s tall, sheer, red cliffs and truck-size boulders littering the bottom of the dry canyon. For stunning views of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs—especially near sunset—hike the Chimney Rock Loop, which begins three miles west of the park visitor center on UT 24, and then out and back down Chimney Rock Canyon to Spring Canyon, a total distance of about 6.5 miles.
Telescope Peak, Death Valley
From 11,049-foot Telescope Peak in Death Valley, the highest summit in the largest national park outside Alaska, more than 11,000 vertical feet of relief separate your shoes from the valleys to either side. The panorama encompasses a vast reach of barren, sharply angled, rocky ridges. The 14-mile, round-trip hike, with nearly 3,000 vertical feet of gain and loss, wanders a circuitous route with almost non-stop views, culminating in a beautiful summit ridge walk. Go from April to May or September into November to avoid the deadly heat of summer.
See my story “11,000 Feet Over Death Valley: Hiking Telescope Peak,” and all of my stories about Death Valley National Park at The Big Outside.
Heather Pass-Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades
In the vertiginous North Cascades, usually only climbers enjoy the views of this park’s sea of jagged, snowy peaks, that you get on this 7.2-mile loop from the Rainy Pass Trailhead on WA 20. Starting in a forest of towering fir, hemlock, and spruce trees, you climb to views of cliff-ringed Lake Ann, dramatic Black Peak from Heather Pass, and at Maple Pass, much of the North Cascades. Go in August or early September, after most of the snow has melted out, and when the huckleberries are ripe and columbine and other wildflowers bloom.
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Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree
You won’t get far into the Wonderland of Rocks before feeling like you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Frequently not much more than a sandy wash, the Boy Scout Trail winds for nearly eight miles, from the Park Boulevard to Indian Cove Road, through a mind-bogglingly beautiful and disorienting maze of massive granite formations rising from the desert floor. Even most climbers stick to the rocks closer to park roads. Hike in from the south trailhead and turn around, or shuttle a vehicle to make the full traverse. Peak season is fall through spring.
The Dunes, Great Sand Dunes
Walk toe-to-heel along the inch-wide crest of giant sand dunes, with crazily steep drop-offs on each side. Then pause and listen to the eerie “singing” when sand avalanches down those faces. Hiking any distance in the 30-square-mile sea of dunes rising several hundred feet tall in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, in the shadow of the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is enchanting. But there are no trails, so you must navigate by sight or map, or retrace your footprints back to the start (as long as wind hasn’t covered them over).
See my story “Exploring America’s Big Sandbox: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes.”
Make your hikes better. See my reviews of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry” and 6 favorite daypacks.
Loop Around the City of Rocks National Reserve
This National Park Service reserve has long been popular with rock climbers for the hundreds of granite monoliths liberally salting the high desert of south-central Idaho. But it remains largely unknown to hikers, so most City of Rocks trails remain quite lonely. For a diverse experience ranging from high views overlooking this “silent city” of pinnacles to aspen-lined creek bottoms, hike the loop of roughly nine miles (with shorter options) from Elephant Rock on the Tea Kettle Trail, North Fork Circle Creek Trail, Stripe Rock Loop, and Box Top Trail, including about a quarter-mile of dirt road from the Box Top Trailhead to Elephant Rock. “The City” has become one of my family’s favorite getaway spots for camping, climbing, and hiking.
For information, visit nps.gov/ciro.
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