Want to transform your trek from a walk in the park to a walk on the wild side?
You can experience the bold vistas of U.S. national parks while putting your hiking skills to the test. The following hikes are equal parts strenuous and rewarding. If flat ground is more your style, these trails are not for you. But if you have a taste for adrenaline and don’t mind a challenge, read on.
Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park
Most travelers admire the views from nearby Skyline Drive, which meanders through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (114 kilometers from Washington, D.C.). Little do they know better views await them by foot — if they dare.
Old Rag Mountain is the most famous hike in Shenandoah for good reason. Once you reach the summit, you have a clear 360-degree view of the park. The 14.48-kilometer round trip takes most hikers seven to eight hours from start to finish. Prepare for rock scrambles, tight squeezes, steep hills and precarious shuffles along cliff sides. But the vistas make it worthwhile. Local tip: Arrive before 8 a.m. to beat the crowds.
Old Rag Mountain is Shenandoah National Park's most popular (albeit most challenging) hike.
Half Dome Hike in Yosemite National Park
Ranging from 22.5 to a 25.7 kilometers round trip, Half Dome is no easy climb. In the final stretch, cables line the way to help hikers reach the top of the steep rock without climbing equipment.
You can complete the hike in a day if you start early, and the views of the part from Half Dome's summit make the hike a worthwhile challenge. To hike Half Dome, you can apply for an advance permit throughout the month of March, prior to the start of the hiking season. From this pool of applications, the park will randomly grant access to 300 hikers per day. You can also try to obtain a permit the day of your hike, but there are no guarantees.
It takes most hikers 10 to 12 hours to reach the iconic Half Dome summit and climb back down.
Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park
While short, Angels Landing’s ascent offers a challenge. The 8-kilometer round-trip hike offers stunning vistas and quickly escalates to a rough finale of steep, sheer drops with chain grips to aid those striving for the summit. The view from the 454-meter rock formation makes it well worth the vertigo.
There is little room for error along the narrow Angels Landing Trail. Be sure to hold on tight to the chain railing.
Alum Cave in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Found within Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee, Alum Cave is a “rock shelter” rather than an actual cave, so there’s no worry for the claustrophobic. This 7-kilometer round-trip trail will take your breath away with its views and steep climbs.
Hikers start by ascending a rock staircase (with the help of hand cables) to reach Arch Rock. Then, the trail hits its stride with a climb up nearly 1.5 kilometers of solid rock. Those with extra energy can continue past Alum Cave to Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Alum Cave Trail may be the shortest route to Mount Le Conte, but it's also the steepest.
Grandview Trail in Grand Canyon National Park
The Grandview Trail is renowned as one of the toughest hikes in Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, with little shade, steep climbs, rough trails and plenty of ledges. It’s recommended only for experienced desert hikers. But as its name implies, this hike of up to 10.3 kilometers (round trip) also offers sweeping views of the canyon and the Colorado River.
So do less intimidating options, though, such as the 9.6-kilometer round-trip South Kaibab Trail. The climbs remain steep, but the trail is better maintained. No matter what trail you pick, avoid the brutal summer months unless you’re comfortable losing a lifetime’s worth of sweat on a one-day hike.
The Grandview Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a challenging hike all year round. It makes a great alternative for hikers who are unable to reach the backcountry trails on the North Rim during the winter.