Any fan of the great outdoors will tell you that the best way to experience nature is to strap on some good boots and head to a park—or literally take a hike. And while it’s always worthwhile to get out and about on any local trek, the National Trails System can be one of the most unforgettable ways to take it all in. Administered by the National Park Service (NPS), it provides a network of more than 88,000 miles that includes national scenic trails, national historic trails, and national recreation trails. Whether you’re looking to gain a new perspective on the past or forge a deeper relationship with nature, these paths can help guide you along the trek of a lifetime. Read on to see which national hiking trails experts say you need to add to your bucket list.
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The vast wilderness of the American Southwest has inspired millions of trips to take in its beauty. But those who manage to tackle the region’s premier path will get to experience it in a truly unforgettable way.
“The Arizona National Scenic Trail stretches from the border of Mexico to Utah, covering over 800 miles along the way,” Elise Armitage, travel expert and CEO at whatthefab.com, tells Best Life. “While it’s long from beginning to end, it’s a great fit for hikers of all skill levels as it has sections that are remote and rugged for more experienced hikers and sections that are easier to trek for those new to hiking.”
The trail offers glimpses of some of the most recognizable sites in the country and arguably the world, passing through the Grand Canyon and Tonto, Coconino, and Kaibab National Forests. “Plus, the diverse vegetation, wildlife, and scenery of the trail are unmatched,” Armitage adds.
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At 2,650 miles spanning across California, Oregon, and Washington from the Mexican border to Canada, the Pacific Crest Trail is considered by many a bucket list item in its own right. But even if you don’t plan on crossing the entire span of the country on foot, you can still take in some of its highlights bit by bit.
“What’s great about the Pacific Crest Trail is it can be done over one long backpacking adventure, or it can be sectioned off and explored leisurely over time and different seasons,” Brittanie Harbick, co-host of the Travel Squad Podcast, tells Best Life. “This allows a wide variety of adventurers to enjoy it and tailor their experience to what suits them.”
Every year, millions of visitors flock to Hawaii for the state’s natural beauty. But those really looking to take in the splendor of the landscape should consider bringing their hiking boots along.
“Few experiences will ever compare to walking under the stars as you gaze down into a lake of bubbling magma. This is the experience that awaits hikers along the Crater Rim Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island,” Adam Marland, travel writer and photographer for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life.
“The 11-mile loop circles the Kilauea Caldera, providing views of steam vents and a lava lake. It is rated as ‘easy’… or as easy as an 11-mile hike gets, anyway,” he explains. “Visitors can start and end their trek at several locations along the Crater Rim Drive or simply drive from one to the next. The most popular and photogenic is the Kīlauea Overlook access point.”
But before you hit the trail, you may want to check in with the NPS: Marland warns that since the volcano is still highly active, the path is prone to unexpected closures.
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Venturing into the outdoors doesn’t always mean planning for epic walks. Some of the nation’s best hikes are actually found on the manageable national recreation trail system and can be completed in less than a day.
“Anna Ruby Falls are actually twin waterfalls located right outside of Helen, Georgia,” Erin Moreland, travel blogger at Super Simple Salty Life, tells Best Life. “The family-friendly hike to the 150-foot waterfall is less than a mile round trip, meandering through the forest and past boulders and streams on a wide paved trail.”
National historic trails are as long on American history as they are on physical miles. But one in particular allows for a relatively approachable way to take in some of the nation’s most significant historical sites and monuments in a path that traces the troop movements in the War of 1812.
“The Star Spangled Banner Trail also offers history lovers non-strenuous hiking at Fort McHenry in Baltimore,” travel expert Leslie Carbone of Sancerres at Sunset tells Best Life. “You’ll certainly get your steps in by walking from site to site in Washington—including the White House, the Capitol, and the Smithsonian’s American History Museum—and you’ll encounter many monuments and memorials along the way.”
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If you don’t have it in you to trek clear across Arizona, you might still want to consider sneaking in one of the most memorable parts by tackling one of the most coveted trails in the southwest.
“Hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is on a lot of adventure-seeker bucket lists, but few realize that you can walk across the canyon and up the other side,” Sophie Clapton, a travel expert and writer for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life. “The North Kaibab Trail is the only access trail in the Grand Canyon National Park North Rim section. It is also the least-traveled of the three maintained trails to the canyon floor and, at almost 1,000 feet higher in elevation, the most difficult as well.”
While this strenuous bit of trail may be more for those at a higher hiking skill level, you can still enjoy the experience with mule trips that are available from mid-May through mid-October, Clapton says.