You can pack a lot into five miles — we’ve found slot canyons, redwoods, caving, 100-year-old via ferrate, sand dunes, summits, just to name a few. Sometimes you don’t need to hammer out 10 miles, or a full day, or really even get too far from your car to see the good stuff (or completely destroy your legs). Coast to coast, here are our picks for the best hikes under five miles (in no particular order):
1. Ding and Dang Canyon Loop, San Rafael Swell, Utah
A step above “entry level” as far as canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell is concerned, Ding and Dang canyons form a loop cutting through the sandstone reef, its undulating walls closing down to as narrow as a foot wide in spots, but as high as a couple hundred feet. Depending on the level of the sediment on the floor at different spots in the canyon, a rope can be handy for climbing or descending some of the tricky scrambling spots.
2. The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah
Driving east along the Virgin River through Zion National Park, the canyon walls become steeper, higher and more dramatic until you reach the last parking lot, at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead at the back of the canyon. If you have water shoes and sturdy trekking poles or a hiking staff, the adventure starts where the trail ends — walking the riverbed back into the canyon between the skyscraper-tall walls (photo, above). Of course, the canyon is quite a bit longer than 2.5 miles, but you can get a couple miles in and turn around for a dose of hiking like nothing else in the United States.
3. Tall Trees Trail, Redwoods National Park, California
Entrance to the 3.7-mile Tall Trees Trail is controlled by the Park Service and requires registration to get one of the only 50 first-come, first-served hiking permits issued each day. But then you’ll get a chance to walk around, and even into, some of the enormous redwood trees in the park, some as tall as 360 feet and 12 feet diameter.
4. Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park, Maine
In 1912, Rudolph Brunnow looked at the the sheer granite cliffs on Champlain Mountain in what is now Acadia National Park and went to work, drilling holes and installing iron rungs for passage up and across the peak’s east face. One of the most famous hikes in the park today, the Precipice Trail climbs 1,000 feet over 1.6 miles and ends at the summit, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
5. Wild Cave Tour, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
OK, it’s not so much a hike as it is guided spelunking in Mammoth Cave — walking, crawling, squeezing through tight spots underground. You’ll be given coveralls to wear (to help minimize the spread of White Nose Syndrome, which has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S.), as well as a hardhat, gloves, and headlamp for the four-hour tour through variable subterranean terrain.
6. Star Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
“Sand” isn’t the first answer most people say to word-association tests about Colorado, but the Great Sand Dunes are the tallest sand dunes in North America, sitting at the foot of 14,000-foot peaks at the south end of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Star Dune isn’t actually the tallest dune in the park, but it looks like it, and the sand-slog to its 650-foot “summit” takes most folks one to two hours.
7. Piestewa Peak, Phoenix, Arizona
Not many cities have mountains shooting 1,500-plus feet above their streets, but Phoenix has plenty, including the uber-popular Camelback and nearby Piestewa (formerly Squaw) Peak. Both are great urban hikes, but Piestewa has a fun bit of scrambling near the top and an equally commanding view of the valley below. It’s a crusher, though, gaining 1,200-plus vertical feet in 1.2 miles.
8. Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park, California
This hike up the Mist Trail gains 1,000 feet up to one of Yosemite’s biggest and most famous waterfalls — the Merced River spills over the booming, 317-foot-tall Vernal Fall at the 1.5-mile mark. Be careful on the rock steps, which are often covered in the namesake mist from the falls. It’s mega-popular (for good reason) up to Vernal, but for solitude you can tack on a few more miles up to Nevada Fall (which makes the hike six total miles).
9. Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park, Montana
Compared with most of the good (but long) stuff in Glacier National Park, at a round-trip distance of 2.7 miles, this hike through alpine meadows and past towering 8,500-foot peaks is a relative stroll in some of the park’s best scenery, in the habitat of mountain goats, marmots, and wildflowers in season. Starts at the Logan Pass Visitors Center — get there early in the morning to beat the crowds.
10. Cascade Head (Nature Conservancy Trail), Oregon
Out and back, this hike is 6.8 miles, but a car shuttle keeps it at a mild 3.4 miles — and if you park a car at the lower trailhead and start from the upper trailhead, it’s all downhill for 1,300 feet, too. But we’d recommend earning the view, hiking up through the forest to the headland meadows to vistas of the Oregon coast (when the weather cooperates) north of Lincoln City.
11. Misery Ridge, Smith Rock State Park, Oregon
Misery Ridge was so named by the members of Oregon’s Mazamas mountaineering club, who notched the first ascent of Smith Rock’s Monkey Face in 1960, after they commuted daily up and over the ridge from their bivy to work the climbing route. But it’s not that bad: three miles, 1,000 feet of climbing up the trail between Smith’s golden volcanic welded tuff towers to a view of the snowy peaks of the high Oregon Cascades 35 miles to the west.
12. Whiteside Mountain, North Carolina
A 90-minute drive from Asheville, this 2.5-mile loop trail climbs 600 feet to the 4,930-foot summit of Whiteside, above the the 750-foot high quartz diorite gneiss cliffs on its southeast face, argued to be the biggest cliff in eastern North America and sometimes called the “Yosemite of the East.”
13. Mt. Sherman, Colorado
Yes, you can bag a Colorado 14er in less than five miles of hiking. But you may find the air to be incredibly hard to breathe from the minute you start walking from the trailhead at 12,000 feet. Sherman is the state’s “easiest” 14er, as in least work to walk up, and it’s a worthy summit with a bit of mining history on the way up. If five miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain is too much, consider driving or taking the railway up Pikes Peak. But that wouldn’t be a hike, then, would it?
14. Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Delicate Arch is practically the Utah equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. It takes slightly more work to get to it than Lady Liberty, but is so worth it on the 1.5-mile trail across southern Utah’s famous slickrock standstone, with an up-close view of the arch and the La Sal Mountains behind. It’s no secret, of course, but if you take a headlamp and hike out in the extreme-early morning or at dusk, you’ll have a better chance at solitude.
15. Tallulah Falls North and South Rim Loop, Georgia
Georgia’s two-mile, 1,000-foot-deep Tallulah Gorge is one of the grandest canyons in the eastern U.S. Sample the best on this short but steep (2.5 miles, 850 feet elevation gain) hike starting at the bottom of the gorge. Tallulah sports six different waterfalls along its length, as the Tallulah River drops 500 feet in just a mile — you’ll see the tallest, 96-foot Hurricane Falls, from the bridge passing over it.
16. The Jug, Salome Creek Wilderness, Arizona
The Jug might be one of Arizona’s most famous slot canyons, a five-mile romp down Salome Creek a couple hours east of Phoenix that samples it all — rappelling, swimming, and scrambling on water-polished granite. That said, it shouldn’t be attempted without at least some rappelling experience and, of course, a 150-foot rope.
17. Mount Washington summit via Tuckerman Ravine trail, New Hampshire
You’ve heard of Mount Washington, no doubt. Amazing mountain, amazingly bad weather, famous for hiking, skiing, climbing, beautiful scenery, even wildflowers. Know what else is great? There’s a road to the top, so you can have a friend pick you up and just do the one-way hike up Tuckerman Ravine without having to turn around and head back down — descended is of course nice, but then it would push it outside our five-mile threshold.
18. Cascade Mountain, New York
Cascade Mountain has a reputation as one of the easiest Adirondack “46ers,” but it’s still a big climb: 2,000 feet of elevation over 2.25 miles to a rocky, treeless summit that means views of all the surrounding peaks, including the Adirondacks’ Great Range and Vermont’s Green Mountains.
19. Waihee Ridge Trail, Maui, HI
With a pair of sturdy shoes and a little bit of a drive, you can hike even higher than the helicopter tours of Maui. The Waihee Ridge Trail tackles 1,560 feet of elevation gain over 2.25 miles up the ridge, giving way to better and better views of the neighboring canyons and central Maui, ending at the summit of Lanilili Peak.
Note: No, we didn’t list every awesome five-mile hike in the country. What did we leave out? Fire away.
Photo by Shutterstock