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The Ten Best Hiking Trails In The United States
by Mike Burgess

I'm very partial to hiking, and great hiking trails are everywhere in the US. I have attempted to compile information and some critiques on the best hiking trails in the country (subjective - my own opinion and that of the websites and reference guides I used to put this list together) and you may agree or disagree with the title of "best", but at a bare minimum I think we can all agree that these trails are at least "great" and well worth the effort of lacing up the boots and hitting the dirt. I have hiked most of these, and I have hiked a zillion trails that don't come anywhere near this list.

I chose these hiking trails for safety, the challenge of the walk, the beauty these trails present on all sides, the accessibility even in winter, and the proximity to emergency services should the need arise. Most or all of these are family-friendly and most provide rest areas or vista point stations to relax and take care of nature's call, other than doing it right out in nature. And so I give you my version of the Best Hiking Trails in America.


Safety Note: Before attempting to hike any trail, particularly a wilderness trail, always make sure you are physically fit enough to do so. Stretch and limber yourself up, even to just hike on a flat, paved road. Check with your doctor if you have medical problems and let him/her know where you are going and when, and give him/her as much of a description of the hike as you can.

Never, never, never hike alone. Always take at least one companion with you. Always tell at other people EXACTLY where you're going, how long you expect to be gone and emergency contact information just in case. Wear good, strong, insulated, steel-toed boots with laces. Make sure they are new or in good repair, but in every case, broken in. Blisters are the worst enemy of anyone on a hike, and can be a real problem. I always suggest wearing long pants to go hiking. You never know what lurks in the weeds.

I HIGHLY suggest always wearing a hat while hiking, especially if you're going out overnight. The head is the number one place the body loses heat from, so always keep a hat at hand. Also bring plenty of sun block, at least SPF 30, a first aid kit, plenty of water, plenty of food, and if you take prescription medications be sure to bring at least two days supply of medication beyond what you might need.

Walkie talkies, GPS, a sharp folding knife, matches and a flashlight are also basic gear to bring. If you're hiking in a location that has cell reception, a cell phone could be a lifeline in an accident. Maps and a compass can help tremendously as well. If you're doing overnighters, tents and sleeping bags are important. An extra set of clothing and weather protection like a warm jacket or rain gear can be useful. Now all of these things may or may not be necessary, depending on the length of your hike, but it's a good list just to be sure.


1. The Appalachian Trail - also called "the AT', this is the quintessential zenith of all hiking trails in the United States. It covers nearly 2,200 miles in 14 states (no need to even think about rest stops and resources - they're everywhere) and it has hundreds of places to enter and leave. The AT crosses all kinds of terrain from mountainous wilderness to city streets. It extends from Maine to Georgia and can take as many as six months to complete. About 2,000 people per year set out to master the AT and only 400 hardy souls make it. That's the trip for the hardcore hikers, like I used to be. I hiked it, beginning-to-end, when I was 22. I would love to do it again but my 48 years outrank my ego. The AT is very family friendly and has terrains and locations fit for anyone. Services abound there. It's well patrolled and as far as obstacles that might threaten safety, they do keep it pretty well maintained. The beauty of the surroundings is unsurpassed, and it even passes by Camp David, just in case you want to pow-wow with The Chief. Possibly the best hiking trail on Earth.

2. Superior Hiking Trail - travel up north to Duluth, Minnesota and jump onto this outstanding trail, also known as "The Northern Beauty". It has several points of entry and exit but unlike the AT, it's only 210 miles long. Originally developed in the 1980s it hasn't been around as long as the AT, but the scenery is absolutely spectacular. The trail takes you north from Duluth all the way to the Canadian border. Of course the issue once you get to the end of this, like any of these wonderful hiking trails is, 'how do I get back?'. The good news is that it only took three weeks to get to where you are now so home is only three weeks away. The scenery includes not only wildlife of many sorts (including moose and bear) but also a great, great view of Lake Superior. I finished hiking this trail on my 30th birthday and wanted to go back, but my wife (who drove up to meet me in a rented Jeep) wasn't having any of that. We flew home to California the next day.

3. John Muir Trail, California - consistently referred to as one of the Ten Best Trails in the World. The trail begins at Yosemite, in what John Muir himself referred to as the "Range of Light". It is totally a 223 mile jaunt to Whitney Portal including side trips along the way to Half Dome, Vermillion Resort and Mt. Whitney itself (14,505 ft), if you choose to go that route. Although it's comparatively safe and there are Ranger stations in several locations, this is a tough hike in its entirety, which is why many people--including myself--typically hike shorter sections. I have walked sections of the Muir more times than I can probably recall, but never the entire thing. If you're tough enough and the weather is on your side (some passes can still have snow into July, creating a very short season), it should ideally take 21 days. The best times to hike the Muir are August through September, as some passes snow in as early as September. This is a hike you prepare for, get all the logistics right and really insure for safety and services, as much of the trail is pretty remote. Still it is unmatched in its panoramic majesty and breathtaking scenery. John Muir Trail Site

NOTE: if you're going to start at either Whitney or Yosemite, getting permits is difficult. Apply at least six months in advance, and make sure your permit is in the office on Feb. 1 of the year you are planing to hike. Getting permits for other trailheads on the Muir is a lot easier.

4. Ozark Highlands Trail - I covered part of this when I was 17 as an Eagle Scout. I was leading a group of other Scouts on a high-adventure hike. I hadn't been there before but we had some great guides and did 25 miles in two days, stopping along the way for everything a young Scout could possibly want to stop for. The entire trail is 165 miles long and takes about two and a half weeks to hike end-to-end. The nature and panorama are absolutely breathtaking. It's safe, has reasonably good terrain, and has services available as well. When you get to the summit you can watch the sunset over Oklahoma. One of the interesting features along this trail are three stone cabins built in the 1930s and available for overnight use.

5. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon - one of the most beautiful and enjoyable hikes in the West, this is a short (5 mile) roughly circular hike around the summit of the crater and the lake below. It's short but challenging (steep in places) and a lot of fun. Nature abounds and beauty is everywhere. But remember, it's Oregon, so the weather (and particularly the wind) can get you. Prepare for sudden temperature changes by stuffing a jacket in your back pack, or maybe a rain slicker. This is a round-trip kind of a trail so you will end where you started, on beautiful Mount Scott. According to one website, "This hike isn't for the fainthearted; you'll gain 1,500 feet in 2.5 miles of climbing. But the 360-degree views of the lake, the Klamath Basin, and California's distant Mount Shasta make it a great destination."

6. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park - I hiked this trail two years ago with a sixty-year-old former professor of mine, now a life-long friend. You start out on Kilauea Iki, a trail lasting 4 miles, at a lush tropical rain forest, then the trail eventually opens up onto a sweeping panorama of black lava. Look around and you'll see steam vents, where hot gases waft through the cracks of Little Kilauea's crater. Expect two to three hours total hike time with all extremes in between. Looking to the left of where we ended up we saw a pretty dazzling display of lava, light, and sound at Kilauea's main crater.

7. Mount Whitney Trail, California - This is one of my favorite high-altitude hikes. One of the most popular hikes in the West, competition to get on the trail is fierce and permitting is difficult (see my note below). It's a tough hike, but one that I seem to have had good luck on. The statistics are against me, though. Of the 30,000 hikers permitted to hike to the summit, only 10,000 actually make it. You'll do an average of 13 hours a day on this hike, some do more and some do less. Ideally, due to weather and altitude concerns, you're talking 3 days and two nights to cover the roughly 22 round-trip miles of this hike. Elevation gain in the entire hike - 6,100 feet. No small amount but obviously doable. Make sure you're physically fit to do this hike. It would have ranked higher but due to its difficulty and area where there are terrain safety concerns it is closer to the bottom of my list than the top. Prepare for this trip, get it all together and follow the safety rules and it will be one of the most beautiful hikes you will ever undertake.

Note: Access is restricted between May 1st and November 1st, permitting only 60 backpackers and 100 day hikers daily on the Mount Whitney Trail. Permits are doled out on a lottery basis. Get your permit applications in to the office on Feb. 1 of each year (by mail - unfortunately, this is not online) and you have a really decent shot at getting on. In all cases the applications MUST be received by Feb 15. There are a number of alternative hikes to the summit for which the quota does not apply. If you do not get one of the precious permits, ask about other options. SummitPost Mt. Whitney Site

8. Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina - Panthertown Valley Hike - Starting at Cold Mountian Trailhead, this is an 8.8 to 10 mile hike, depending on which trail you choose once you get started. It passes five waterfalls and meanders through valleys and hits some pretty steep terrain. It's a safe hike though, and has many attractions along the way, so it is one of the most interesting hikes you'll take. It is almost entirely surrounded by lush greenery at least 8 months of the year, but check with the national Parks Service regarding season and permits. The hike is definitely leisure time at its best. The fresh mountain air and deep green forest are enough to put any troubled mind at ease. Total elevation change is about 1,120 feet, to a total of 4,210 feet. It is a long hike. I have only hiked part of this hilly loop and took one of the inlet trails back because a member of our party got sick, so I have yet to hike the whole thing. Pisgha/Panthertown Hike

9. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina - Moses Cone Park Trails - this is an easy hike on well maintained roads and trails, 25 miles long, absolutely pristine wilderness. Part of the Moses Cone ("The Denim King" of the 1880s) Estate, this is a hiking trail to take for its beauty and ease. Safety is paramount here and there are lots of services. It's a good camping trail and I would suggest 2 days and one night to take it all in, although some people do the entire trail in a day, from early morning to dusk. It's a bit fast for me, but to each his own. It is mostly paved and very accessible. Check with the National Park Service authorities for dates, permits, availability. I have never hiked this trail but I do know several people who have and can't say enough about it. Moses Cone Trail in the Blue Ridge Parkway

10. Bastrop State Park, Texas - Lost Pines Trail - I'm not really big on Texas hiking trails, mostly because they are typically so flat, but this one does make the list. I have never hiked it but I have heard tons of things about it and it intrigues me when so many people talk about something like this, so I plan to hike it next Spring. I'll let you know how it turns out. The information I have been able to gather is from word of mouth (relatively vigorous hike, no real dangers, only a few safety stations around, but apparently cell hones work on this trail, according to one person who has hiked there), and the folks in Texas have to be among the most hospitable I have ever met. This is a seven mile hike under the authority of the Texas State Parks, and you will need to check with them for permits and other information. It sounds like fun. Bastrop State Park - Lost Pines Trail


Published: Aug 11,2008 12:33
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