What’s the best thing you can do with 24 hours? It depends where you are, who you’re with, and how you’re equipped – but with these classic day hikes, all you need are two feet.
1. Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park, Needles District, Utah
This loop in Canyonlands’ Needles District is a full-value 11 miles of desert: You’ll tiptoe past cryptobiotic soil, across slickrock, dip down and into a couple washes, and into Chesler Park, a flat meadow surrounded by “needles,” the red-and-white striped pinnacles up to 100 feet tall. You’ll also get to experience the Joint Trail, a short section that’s just like a slot canyon – sheer vertical walls 20- to 40-feet high, as straight as a hallway, pinching down to less than three feet wide in some spots. You’re not in an actual slot canyon, just the space between giant boulders that somehow lie parallel to each other for about a quarter-mile. And you may have a hard time resisting the urge to chimney your way up between the walls.
2. Half Dome Cables Route, Yosemite National Park, California
Don’t hate this hike because it’s popular. So are the Beatles and that doesn’t make them less awesome. Yes, it’s famous. Yes, in 2011, Yosemite issued all the permits for May and June weekends in just five minutes. In 2012, the park did a permit lottery instead, which means it’s basically the Black Friday $2 Wal-Mart waffle maker of dayhikes. Except, you know, it’s absolutely mind-blowing. The stout 16.5-mile round trip hike (via the Mist Trail) hike leads to the cables up Half Dome’s back side, where you’ll take in a view of the entire Yosemite Valley, and head over to stand on top of the Visor, the granite perch sticking out into the abyss over Half Dome’s Northwest Face.
3. Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah
One thousand-plus feet of thrilling exposure on a fin jutting into the middle of the red sandstone cathedral of Zion Canyon – and it’s only two miles from the trailhead. The Angel’s Landing Trail (photo, above) is a kind-of via ferrata in that you’ll hang onto log chains bolted to the rock on this route’s most-dangerous sections (hikers have fallen and died here). This might be as close as most of us get to climbing one of Zion’s big walls, minus all the technical rock gear and the portaledge.
4. Presidential Traverse, Presidential Range, New Hampshire
The only thing prouder than tackling the dozen-plus peaks of the Presidential Range in a day – at minimum 20 miles with 8,500 feet of elevation gain — is doing it over two or three days in the winter. But if winter suffering isn’t your thing, find a stable weather day in the summer or early fall and bounce along the ridge high above New Hampshire on whatever variation you choose – south to north, vice versa, summiting all the peaks in the range, or summiting just the peaks named after presidents. Any way you do it, it’s one of the biggest hiking days you can have in New England – in both views and exertion.
5. Glacier Gorge trail to Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Maybe the fastest and mellowest way into Colorado’s alpine scenery, this 2.8-mile stroll only gains 700 feet on its way into the aptly named Glacier Gorge. Mountainsides sweep thousands of feet down to the series of lakes at the bottom of the U-shaped gorge, and the first, Mills Lake, may be the best place for lunch in the entire park. Walk onto the rock peninsula that pops out into the middle of the lake for the best view. The trail continues another 2.2 miles all the way back to Black Lake if you feel up for another 700 feet of elevation gain and the weather is stable.
6. Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
If you want the full canyon experience from the South Rim, you can try to hammer out the 4,400 feet of elevation down to the Colorado River and back up in a single day among the crowds on the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails – or you can do this moderate hike and get the best views without dragging yourself on a desert death march. The Grandview Trail stays out front in the canyon, not dipping into side canyons or drainages, ensuring that the views never let up here. The short, round-trip six-mile hike still covers 2,500 feet of elevation loss (and then elevation gain on the way back up to the South Rim), so pack a lunch.
7. Tall Trees Trail, Redwoods National Park, California
You know the redwood trees you can drive a car through? Yeah, they’re not on the pristine Tall Trees Trail, which tours a grove of majestic trees as big as any you’ll see in Redwoods National Park (up to 360 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter). To keep it that way and to protect the enormous redwoods there, the Park Service locks the gate six miles up the road from the trail and issues permits (and the combination to the lock) to only 50 cars per day. The entire hike here is only 3.7 miles, but takes a half-day to execute, including the 45-minute drive from the park visitor center where you’ll grab a first-come, first-served permit/key to the castle.
8. Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
This hike tackles a steep 4.1 miles alongside the active Exit Glacier, the only area of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park that’s accessible by car, and leads to a one-of-a-kind viewpoint of the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield in North America at 300 square miles (or 1,100 square miles if you count all the glaciers descending from it). Peer into an Antarctica-worthy stretch of snow and ice, as far as you can see, a look back into the last ice age. The trail passes through areas of salmonberries, which means you might see a black bear on your hike – a nearly daily happening on this trail.
9. Knife Edge, Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine
Katahdin’s iconic summit is famous for Thoreau’s writings about it and also famous for being the end of the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail. Its “Knife’s Edge” might be the most famous ridgeline in the Northeast — the trail is only three feet wide with a thousand-plus-foot drop on either side. But don’t worry, that part only lasts for 1,500 feet. Start at the Roaring Brook Campground and take the Helon Taylor Trail 3.2 miles to the summit of Pamola Peak, where the Knife Edge leads to Katahdin’s summit.
10. Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Hiking into nearby Cascade Canyon is more popular, but Garnet Canyon delivers with less crowds: A half-day climb on good trail and a short bit of scrambling right into the heart of the Teton Range, in the shadow of the Middle Teton and the Grand above. Starting at the Lupine Meadows trailhead, you’ll climb more than 2,600 feet into the canyon, passing fields of wildflowers on your way up above views of Bradley Lake and Taggart Lake. Just over four miles of steady climbing takes you into the steep-walled canyon, winding around boulders and along streams, Depending on the time of day, you’ll be sharing the trail with climbers headed for the Middle and the Grand Teton.
11. Spray Park, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier’s trek up to Camp Muir is a sort of mini-Everest Base Camp trek for PNW dayhikers, and it’s certainly one of a kind — but Dan Nelson, author of the guidebook Day Hiking: Mount Rainier National Park, says his the best hike on the mountain is off in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park, starting at Mowich Lake. He says what makes this 7-mile round-trip trek special are the meadows going from subalpine to alpine, colored by swaths of wildflowers and sparkling blue ponds, and the awe-inducing views of Rainier whenever it appears.