(Lonelyplanet) – There’s no better way to see the natural wonders of North America’s national parks than on foot. From easy rambles through Southern forests to hair-raising scrambles across narrow rock faces thousands of feet in the air, get out of the car and make some memories on these one-of-a-kind day hikes.
Grand Canyon National Park
Bright Angel Trail – Short
Start/Finish: Bright Angel Trailhead
Duration: Mile-and-a-half resthouse – 2-3 hours; Three-mile resthouse – 4-5 hours; Distance: 3 miles/ 6 miles; Difficulty: Moderate-difficult
If you have limited time in the Grand Canyon, you can’t do much better than this beautiful hike. The wide and well-maintained corridor trail offers shady rest-houses and stretches along a delightful creek. At the trailhead, the canyon beckons in all its glory. If you suffer vertigo, look to the left for a while – the first five minutes are the hardest. Highlights include two tunnels, Native American pictographs and the visual reward of the dramatically broad Tonto Platform.
Bright Angel Trail – Long
Start/Finish: Bright Angel Trailhead
Duration: Indian Garden, 5-7 hours; Plateau Point, 8-10 hours; Distance: 9.2 miles or 12.2 miles round-trip; Difficulty: Difficult
Continuing down the Bright Angel adds difficulty but brings you to the shady oasis of Indian Garden. For an even more challenging and very exposed hike to expansive views of the inner gorge, cross Tonto Platform along a spur trail to reach Plateau Point. It’s a popular destination for strong day hikers, but the long, exposed stretch can be searingly hot.
A log footbridge crosses a stream in a green forest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perfect for family-friendly day hikes © Photosbyjam / Getty Images
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Anthony Creek Trail
Start/End: Cades Cove picnic area
Duration: 2 hours; Distance: 2 miles to Anthony Creek Bridge; Difficulty: Easy
The most-visited National Park has plenty of rugged trails for experienced hikers that lead to stunning vistas. But for an introduction to the creek-and-forest charms of Cades Cove (and the Great Smoky Mountains in general), take this easy, kid-friendly ramble. With log bridges, burbling creeks, spring wildflowers and soaring trees, the backdrop for the trail is a page from a children’s fantasy tale – just watch out for the horse poop!
Snow-covered Cathedral Peak is reflected in a lake at Yosemite National Park at sunset
Cathedral Peak rises above Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park © AdonisVillanueva / Getty Images
Yosemite National Park
Start/Finish: Cathedral Lakes Trailhead
Duration: 4–7 hours; Distance: 8 miles (upper lake); Difficulty: Moderate
Easily one of Yosemite’s most spectacular hikes, this steady climb through mixed conifer forest ends with glorious views of Cathedral Peak from the shores of two shimmering alpine lakes. Cathedral Lake, the lower of the two lakes, sits within a mind-blowing glacial cirque, a perfect amphitheater of granite. The upper lake is less spectacular when measured against the lower lake, but by all other standards it’s utterly sublime.
A senior couple stands by a wooden sign at the summit of Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park
Mt Washburn is an excellent place to get an overview of the forces that continue to shape Yellowstone National Park © Allison Achauer / Getty Images
Yellowstone National Park
Start/Finish: Dunraven Pass trailhead
Duration: 4 hours; Distance: 4 miles; Difficulty: Moderate
Yellowstone’s most popular day hike offers unsurpassed 360-degree mountaintop views, with the chance of spotting bighorn sheep and black bears. This popular return hike climbs gradually to the fire lookout tower on the summit of Mt Washburn for some of the park’s best views. Interpretive displays in the lookout make this a memorable place to get a sense of the awesome scale of the Yellowstone super-volcano.
A lone tree on a small island on Leigh Lake at Grand Teton National Park Wyoming
The rugged beauty of the Grand Teton mountain range is on display at Leigh Lake © RalphAnderson / Getty Images
Grand Teton National Park
Leigh & Bearpaw Lakes
Start/Finish: Leigh Lake Trailhead
Duration: 3½ hours; Distance: 4 miles; Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Though it’s the most crowded sector of the park, there’s scenery in the Central Tetons to please everyone: lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, canyons and viewpoints. This hike showcases all of it, in a fun, flat family outing skirting forest-clad, crystal-clear swimming holes. Always keep track of your picnic food, since bears are frequently spotted here. Along the way, your surroundings open up to fine views of Mt Moran and its Falling Ice and Skillet Glaciers.
Hiking boots are stretched out over a coastline view as people are resting at the top of a mountain in Acadia National Park
After a difficult climb, there’s time always time for a rest in Acadia National Park © ericcote / Getty Images
Acadia National Park
Start/End: Bowl Trailhead
Duration: 2 hours; Distance: 6 miles; Difficulty: Difficult
The only National Park in New England, Acadia has a handful of hikes that a feel a bit like a European via ferrata, where you’ll be ascending stretches of the trail with the help of iron, ladder-like rungs. Those with a fear of heights may want to skip this one. The trail goes right up the face of the mountain, and you’ll soon find yourself climbing up steep sections along narrow exposed cliffs.
Reflection of the trees and the tea house at Lake Agnes in Banff National Park
The teahouse at Lake Agnes is a popular – and picturesque – sight in Banff National Park © Goofy79 / Getty Images
Banff National Park
Lake Agnes & The Beehives
Start/Finish: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Duration: 4 hours; Distance: 6 miles; Difficulty: Moderate to Lake Agnes, moderate-difficult to Big Beehive
This is the walk that practically everyone who visits Banff National Park – and especially Lake Louise – wants to do. It’s crowded, but the sights are unmissable, visiting a historic teahouse, two mountain lakes and a fantastic cloud-level lookout. The route takes in forest trails, hidden lakes and scenic viewpoints, but it is steep (especially around the Big Beehive). The teahouse is often busy, but it serves a huge selection of exotic teas, soups, cakes and sandwich platters.