The Most Thrilling Day Hikes in the U.S.

When you think of America’s most legendary hiking trails, the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail or the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail may come to mind. But there are plenty of breathtaking trails across the country that don’t take months of endurance to complete. These are some of the most thrilling day hikes in the U.S.

By: Joe Sills
Related To:

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

Photo By: Joe Sills

1: Half Dome (Yosemite National Park, California)

For many, ascending Half Dome is the ultimate American day hike. The iconic granite dome rises 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, and even for experienced hikers, the 14- to 16-mile journey to its summit can be a heart-pounding rush. Half Dome’s final 400 feet are famous for the metal cable system that allows hikers to pull themselves up to the summit. The cables alone are not for the faint of heart, and the area’s sudden afternoon storms and lingering snow mean that mother nature won’t allow every hiker who attempts the trip up Half Dome to make it.

A trek to the top of Half Dome will mean a full 10- or 12-hour day on the trail. Permits are required year-round and can be applied for via the National Park Service.

2: Angel’s Landing (Zion National Park, Utah)

This five-mile hike takes adventurers from the floor of Zion Canyon to a jaw-dropping, tunnel view 1,488 feet atop Angel’s Landing. The hike begins with a leisurely, two-mile stroll beside Utah’s Virgin River, before ascending 21 consecutive switchbacks at Walter’s Wiggles. There, the journey starts in earnest, as the final half mile to Angel’s Landing traverses an extremely narrow, rocky path that often requires the use of chains for safety. The view, though, is worth the risk as this five-hour trek delivers one of the most stunning views in America.

3: The Mist Trail (Yosemite National Park, California)

This quest through Yosemite Valley may be the most stunning hike in America during the spring, when snow melt sends Nevada and Vernal Falls roaring over the park’s granite cliffs. This seven-mile journey takes hikers over, under and—at times—through two of the Sierra’s most monstrous waterfalls. In parts, The Mist Trail merges with the 210-mile John Muir Trail, giving day hikers a taste of what backpackers experience every day on its rocky steps. Its lower portions also serve as a staging area for the grueling hike to Half Dome.

Hikers can take the direct route to Vernal Falls from the Happy Isles bus stop in Yosemite Valley, or branch off towards Clark Point for a less crowded hike over the top of both falls, returning down the same route most hikers take "up."

4: The Narrows (Zion National Park, Utah)

Zion scores double features on this list, though it could easily post a hat trick with the addition of the Subway. For casual day hikers, though, The Narrows takes the cake as a perfect complement to Angel’s Landing. Where Angel’s Landing puts hikers on top of Zion Canyon, The Narrows puts you deep inside of it. Day hikers can make the 3.6-mile bottom-up hike from the base of the canyon and into the swirling waters of the Virgin River.

Hikers willing to brave the waters are rewarded with one of the most surreal landscapes in the southwest. Top tip: Go early to avoid crowds, and always check water conditions with an outfitter before setting off.

5: Druid Arch (Canyonlands National Park, Utah)

One of the most impressive arches in the Canyonlands/Arches National Park area will take nearly a half day to visit, but the 10.8-mile trek to Druid Arch is worth the trip. Druid Arch is reached from the Elephant Hill trailhead in Canyonlands National Park. The trail itself traverses sandstone ledges, desert plateaus, creek beds and even a dry waterfall in its gradual climb towards the 450-foot-tall arch. Pack plenty of water for this one, and leave yourself time to get out of the shadowy canyons before the sun vanishes.

6: Ptarmigan Tunnel (Glacier National Park, Montana)

Built in the 1930s for horses and park tours, the 240-foot Ptarmigan Tunnel is a relic from the formative days of America’s ecotourism industry. Since 1975, the National Park Service has opened the steel doors on either side of Ptarmigan Tunnel to allow hikers to access stunning views of Many Glacier Valley and the Belly River Valley. At times, the trail is flanked by a 1,700-foot wall. Hikers are enveloped in a world of peaks and crisp, glacial air on this 10.7-mile trek.

Fair warning: The Ptarmigan Tunnel trail is a hotspot for grizzly bears and is occasionally closed due to bear activity. Check with the National Park Service before attempting this breathtaking trek.

7: Skeleton Point (Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona)

Located on the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, Skeleton Point sits three miles and 1,200 feet down into the gorge itself. The rocky outcrop offers 360-degree views of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, and makes the perfect turnaround point for hikers who only have one day to spend in the Grand Canyon. On moonlit nights, it’s also an easy hike for adventurers who don’t mind braving the dark to avoid crowds—but be wary, as hikers have fallen to their deaths on this seemingly innocuous trail.

8: Devil’s Garden (Arches National Park, Utah)

The longest and most difficult trail at Arches National Park, Devil’s Garden Trail makes a meandering, 7.2-mile loop through some of the most iconic landscape in the American southwest. While its first mile or so—to Landscape Arch—are heavily trafficked, the view becomes more private as the trail turns primitive past Double O Arch at 2.1 miles. From here, hikers rely on cairns to mark the trail, which requires scrambling up sandstone rock fins high above the desert plateau below. A full loop here will take you four to five hours.

9: Mount Whitney (Lone Pine, California)

The tallest peak in the contiguous United States can be summited in a day, but the journey to its 14,505-foot summit is one of the most extreme day hikes in America. The task requires an early morning start—well before dawn—in a 22-mile bid to the top. From the trailhead at Whitney Portal, hikers must ascend 6,000 feet, averaging 550 feet of elevation gain per mile along the John Muir Trail.

For hikers who aren’t adjusted to the altitude, it’s suggested to spend two days acclimatizing at Whitney Portal before attempting to summit. The journey to Whitney’s barren summit takes hikers through lush valleys and a spartan alpine moonscape as the trail winds its way to the top.

10: Cascade Canyon Trail (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)

The 9.3-mile hike along Cascade Creek is filled with panoramic views and up-close encounters with wildlife. Moose and bear sightings are common along the trail, which begins with a ferry ride across the crystal-clear Jenny Lake. The trail follows Cascade Creek to the base of the Grand Tetons, serving up one of the most breathtaking vistas in the Grand Tetons.

Hikers visiting the Cascade Canyon Trail should know how to handle an encounter with a black bear, grizzly bear or moose. Though the trail is heavily trafficked during peak season, it is used by both humans and animals.

Shop This Look