Why do people hike? Is it simply a holdover from our wanderings when we were hunting and gathering? After all, humans and prehumans didn't exactly have mass transit. Walking was a necessity. If a tribe wanted to relocate to greener pastures, there was only one way to do it.
Even if part of our desire to walk the Earth is hardwired, there's also the obvious - the beauty of Mother Nature. Vistas and waterfalls, giant redwoods and granite mountain faces aren't typically visible from the interior of your car. And even when they are, it's not the same as feeling the earth beneath your feet and standing on the edge of the cliff. There's also a simplicity in putting everything you need to live on your back and walking into the woods to commune with your surroundings. With no distractions or modern conveniences, you can learn a lot about yourself on a hike. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods to live deliberately and you can, too. Here are 10 of the best hiking spots the United States has to offer.
10. Pacific Coast Trail
If you're interested in seeing a large span of the western United States by way of a massive thru-hike, then the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is for you. Over the course of its 2,650 miles (4,264 kilometers) you'll hike through three states, seven national parks, 24 national forests and past more than 1,000 lakes. You'll also descend into 19 major canyons and make your way over 60 major mountain passes on this route from Mexico to Canada [source: Pcta.org]. You'll even pass through some of the other places on this list that we'll talk about in more detail later.
The PCT, first explored by hiking groups from the YMCA in the 1930s, was eventually secured as a single and complete border-to-border trail. The trail is so varied that it passes through six of the seven ecozones in North America, touching everything from the low desert to the arctic-alpine country. There are brave souls who thru-hike the PCT, but with accessibility from San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, it's a popular choice for urban weekend adventurers as well.
9. Appalachian Trail
What the Pacific Crest Trail is to the West, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is to the East. And like the PCT, the Appalachian Trail isn't so much a "spot" but a series of spots. In this case, the trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and passes through 12 other states along its 2,178 miles (3,505 kilometers), making it the longest marked trail in the Unites States. It was completed in 1937 and passes through six national parks and eight national forests [source: Appalachiantrail.org]. More than 6,000 volunteers help to maintain the trail and its 165,000 blazes - painted markers that show the way along the trail.
If you're interested in a thru-hike you'll need to plan ahead. The standard way of doing so is to mail care packages with your food and supplies to stops you'll be passing through along the way. The A.T. Web site is a great resource when it comes to planning your thru-hike, with tips, itineraries and links to organizations that provide thru-hike workshops.
8. Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is the jewel of the national parks program in the United States. More than 5 million people pass through the gates each year to gaze upon the awesome vistas that only the Grand Canyon can provide [source: Northern Arizona University]. If you're interested in hiking into the canyon, you should know a few things first. Most notably, you should realize that what goes down must come up. Day hikers that traipse into the canyon often find themselves worn out before facing the ascent back to the rim. Starting your hike with a brutal downhill descent makes the Grand Canyon hike different than any other and can challenge even experienced hikers who aren't used to it. It's also vital to carry plenty of water with you, especially during the summer months.
There are 15 official trails leading into the canyon. If you plan on spending the night you're going to need to plan well ahead of time in order to secure your backcountry permit. The park only issues 13,000 permits against 30,000 requests each year [source: NPS.gov]. For solitude, try out the North Rim - this gets about 10 percent the number of visitors as the more familiar South Rim.
7. Yosemite National Park
Most any of America's national parks are gorgeous, but California's Yosemite may take the cake as the most spectacular. Occupying 747,956 acres (or 3,027 square kilometers), the park is roughly the same size as the state of Rhode Island and has 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of hiking trails - enough to satisfy the most ardent enthusiast [source: NPS.gov]. More than 3.5 million people visit the park each year, and there are more than 15,000 backcountry permits issued each year for overnight backpackers.
When it comes to choosing what part of the park to explore by foot, don't get too picky. With dozens of trails that cover those 800 miles, you're sure to have a fulfilling experience wherever you go. In planning your hike, visit the National Parks Service Web site to check out the areas you might like to try. There are dense forests, glacier-formed mountains, lakes, rivers and no shortage of wildlife. The peaks of El Capitan and the grandeur of the giant sequoia trees are not to be missed.
6. Glacier National Park
Montana's Glacier National Park is a true hiker's paradise, with more than 730 miles (1,174 kilometers) of marked trails within its boundaries. It's such a popular hiking destination that more than half of the people who enter the park are there to set off on foot and explore. The park and its trails are known for impressive mountain peaks, isolated alpine lakes and no shortage of wildlife. The park gets its name from the huge glaciers that helped to shape the park's rock formations 10,000 years ago. In 1850, the park had 150 glaciers, but today there are only 26 remaining. Because of climate change, those are predicted to be gone by the year 2020 [source: NPS.gov].
Like most of our national parks, you'll need a backcountry permit to hike overnight in Glacier, but you don't need to plan a year in advance like the more popular Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Another consideration for hiking in Glacier is the snow line. By mid-June you can hike the lower elevations with no fear, but you'll have to wait until late July for the snow to melt in the higher elevations.
5. John Muir Trail
John Muir was a legendary naturalist and founder of the conservation organization The Sierra Club, a conservation organization. At age 26, Muir came to San Francisco and looking for "any place that is wild," eventually ending up in Yosemite. He protested the human impact on what he considered to be the most beautiful land in all of the United States and was instrumental in its inclusion as a national park.
Ten years after his death, the state of California appropriated $10,000 to begin the construction of the John Muir Trail. After 23 years, the result was a 211-mile (339-kilometer) Crest-Parallel trail. This means that instead of the typical crest to valley hike, most of the trail lies in the high elevation. In fact, aside from the beginning of the hike in Yosemite, the trail fails to go below 8,000 feet (2,438 kilometers). As a result, hikers that brave the trail through the Sierra Mountain Range are treated to hundreds of mountain lakes, canyons, granite cliffs and peaks as high as 14,000 feet (4.62 kilometers). The hiking season generally runs from June to September because of the snow in upper elevations.
4. Zion National Park
For a taste of some of the most beautiful cliffs and canyons the desert has to offer, give Zion National Park in Utah a try. Whether you choose to stay up top on the rims or delve into the canyons (or both) you'll be sure to see a diverse ecology on your hike. Like all national parks, plan ahead and secure your backcountry permit for any overnight excursions. Or you can take in an easy day hike to view the waterfalls, high sandstone canyon walls or the valley of the Virgin River.
The well-traveled trails in Zion Canyon are the most popular with hikers, but the "slickrock country" offers some excellent vistas as well. For some gorge hiking, there's no better place in the United States than the sheer walls of the Zion Narrows. This trail puts in you at the base of some of the highest and narrowest canyon walls in the world. Some parts of the trail are so narrow that you need to remove your backpack and pass it through by hand as you creep through sideways - not recommended for claustrophobics.
3. Arches National Park
The beauty and majesty of Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, is something all fans of desert hiking (and biking) need to witness at some point. The red rocks and more than 2,000 precarious sandstone arches are a sight to behold, and there's no better way to see them than to walk amongst them. Many of the trails at Arches aren't difficult, making it easy for the novice day hiker to get out and explore. But just because they aren't full of massive mountaintop ascents doesn't mean you won't get some spectacular views. Not all the trails are easy though. There are a number of moderate to difficult hikes, meaning steep and rocky trails await you.
If you feel up to it, try the Devil's Garden Trail. This is the longest in Arches at 7 miles (11.2 kilometers) and takes you past eight arches. And no trip to Arches would be complete without viewing the world-famous Delicate Arch. You can view it from a lookout point near a parking lot, but it is best viewed up close by taking a short hike to its base.
2. Mount Whitney
Only three hours from Los Angeles, Calif., Mount Whitney holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain peak in the lower 48. If you want to get that peak experience, you're going to have to make the 22-mile (35.4-kilometer) round-trip hike on its 100-year-old trail to the summit. If you dare try, keep in mind that it's for serious and experienced hikers. Only half of 16,000 people who attempt it each year reach the summit, according to park rangers. Altitude sickness and fatigue are the main reasons people turn back.
Standing tall at 14,497 feet (4,418 meters) above sea level, Mount Whitney will force you to traverse river crossings, navigate 97 switchbacks and slick boulders, and make your way through a snowfield before reaching the summit. And what do you do once you reach the top? Most likely you'll relax and take in the wonder of its unparalleled 360 degree views - for about an hour. Then it's back down again, armed with memories, some pictures and a certain sense of accomplishment.
1. Denali National Park
If you want to experience some of the best rugged and untamed country in the United States, you'll have to leave the mainland and venture into Alaska and Denali National Park. Denali is not like most national parks. Hikers here aren't typically cruising along on well-marked, cut trails. This is Alaska, after all, and as such, most of the hiking in Denali is trail-less.
This means true backcountry hiking and the myriad challenges that come with it. It also means you'll be forging your own path, something not many hikers are able to do in most parks. You'll encounter dangerous and uneven terrain, streams you may not be able to cross and brush so thick you may need to go around, even if it adds miles to your journey. Because of the rough nature of hiking in Denali, and the near certainty that you'll encounter some dangerous wildlife, it's not recommended for the weekend enthusiast or novice hiker.
Photo: Frank Kovalchek under a Creative Commons license.
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