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, the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab 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 people.
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. This list draws from three decades of my experience exploring the parks, including formerly a field editor for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. On these 15 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.
Share your questions or thoughts about these hikes—or suggest your own—in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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 (lead photo at top of story).
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.
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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. In the same neighborhood as Half Dome, comparatively unknown Clouds Rest offers an even bigger panorama, taking in Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, plus 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.
Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard 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.
Don’t let either of those facts discourage you, because this hike is a gem with a big payoff at the top. 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.
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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, into majestic Death Canyon, 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 spanning a large swath of the Teton Range.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Grand Teton, Yosemite, or other parks using my expert e-guides.
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.
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Dawson and Pitamakan Passes, Glacier
At nearly 7,600 feet, Dawson and Pitamakan passes—and the several miles of high, alpine trail connecting them in the southeast corner of Glacier National Park—deliver sweeping panoramas of remote, icy peaks and strikingly blue alpine lakes from high above valleys carved into classic U shapes by ancient glaciers.
Connect them on a strenuous, 14.8-mile loop with 2,500 feet of up and down by catching an early boat shuttle across Two Medicine Lake and hitting Dawson first, ahead of the crowds that hike it (a 9.4-mile, out-and-back walk). The early start will increase your chances of seeing wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and you’ll leave most of the other hikers behind on the alpine traverse between the passes and the descent from Pitamakan. To shorten it, walk partway out the almost flat trail leading north from Dawson Pass and then double back (though you’ll encounter a stream of dayhikers).
See more photos of Pitamakan Pass and read about dayhiking the loop over Pitamakan and Dawson passes in “The 6 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park,” and see “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Hermit Trail, Grand Canyon
While most dayhikers flock to the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails—and both are wonderful (the latter ranks among the best national parks dayhkes)—you can find rare South Rim solitude on a beautiful dayhike even in the peak spring and fall seasons.
Take the park shuttle to the end of the Hermit Road and descend the Hermit Trail into the canyon of Hermit Creek, slicing through the canyon’s vivid Supai and Redwall layers. It’s rocky and steep in spots—that’s why you’ll see few people. Turn around and retrace your steps when you like. Breezy Point is 5.5 miles and about 2,200 feet downhill and the Tonto Trail junction is seven miles and over 3,400 feet. Remember that going up is harder.
See photos in my story “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” which describes a five-star Grand Canyon ultra-hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, with easy transportation logistics (as opposed to hiking the canyon rim to rim).
Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”
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.
See See my story “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef National Park,” all of my stories about Capitol Reef National Park on my All National Park Trips page.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks” and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
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.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
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.
Make your hikes better. See my reviews of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking” and the 8 best hiking daypacks.
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.
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The Maze District, Canyonlands
Road access keeps the crowds away (high-clearance, 4WD vehicle required), but if you can get there, the combination of beauty, adventure, and solitude—we saw one other hiker out there—on this rugged, 13-mile loop arguably outranks every other hike on this list.
Reached via remote dirt roads on the park’s west side, Maze Overlook sets the tone with a heart-stopping panorama that explains this district’s name. The slow, steep, 0.8-mile drop from there into the Maze zigzags over ledges and involves challenging scrambling and exposure, but it’s well-marked with cairns (as is the entire hike). In the South Fork of Horse Canyon, swing north, east, and eventually south down the canyon with the Harvest Scene pictographs and follow the often-circuitous route, weaving and climbing ledges, southeast to Chimney Rock. There, follow the trail north-northwest back to the South Fork of Horse Canyon and Maze Overlook.
See all stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside and watch for my upcoming feature story about backpacking the Maze.
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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.”
Loop Around the City of Rocks National Reserve
While not an actual national park, 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.
See a menu of stories at my All National Park Trips page at The Big Outside.
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