Still today, even among the mechanized flurry of our industrialized lives, there's something deeply soothing, invigorating, almost necessary about walking longer distances. A certain rhythm, clarity and calm can be attained that lifts you above the entangled difficulties of everyday life, allowing you to see and feel more clearly. And there's no better way to way to immerse yourself in the atmosphere and tactility of a landscape than to walk through it, navigating its contours and seeing it change around you. The trails listed here traverse an immense variety of terrain, from the sand blown deserts of the Old West to the forested slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, threading the great American wilderness that has inspired millennia of artists, poets, painters and dreamers.
The Pacific Crest weaves the entire length of the West Coast, spanning California, Oregon and Washington on a route that connects Mexico and Canada and totals 2650 miles. It moves from barren desert, up the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, over mountain passes, beneath jagged glacial peaks, through lush green valleys, down into rocky canyons and through shadowy forest. Walkers can choose between short day trips on snippets of the trail, or five-month attempts to hike the whole lot. In the latter instance, an excellent voluntary organization called the Pacific Crest Trail Association provides advice and guidance on tackling it all.
Before crossing the border into Canada, stop by some of these fantastic national parks in Washington
Mirroring the Pacific Crest as it traverses the eastern United States, the Appalachian Trail follows the green-cloaked Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, passing through 12 other states en route. Much of the trail is forested, which has given it the nickname "the green tunnel", but it also runs over swampland on boardwalks and bog bridges, through meadows, beside rivers, and up above the treeline on its final northern stretch. The mountains are home to an immensely bio-diverse assemblage of temperate wildlife as well as an enormous array of birdlife. The trail as a whole totals around 2200 miles, and walking its entire length constitutes America's most famous hiking challenge.
The John Muir Trail follows much of the same route as the Pacific Crest, but it eschews deserts and valleys for high mountainous elevations – once it has climbed out of its beginning point in Yosemite, it remains above 2400 meters for the entire rest of the hike. This passes through the same sublime American wilderness that ensorcelled John Muir, the famous writer and naturalist who came to California in 1924 and so fell for the wild beauty of Yosemite that he devoted much of his life to campaigning for its protection. The trail's 211 miles encompass Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks as well as Yosemite, and finishes at the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Whitney.
Hikers should also take a look at Hopper's list of great California national parks to find more trails in California
Teton Crest is an intense, challenging mountain trail that, despite totalling only 40 miles, is likely to take even experienced hikers several days. It threads through the Teton Mountain Range in Wyoming, passing pristine mountain lakes, high alpine meadows and the narrow 10-mile plateau of Death Canyon Shelf, while weaving in and out of Bridger-Teton National Forest at its lower elevations. Starting from the south allows you to finish at tranquil String Lake, a glistening high-altitude lake framed by pine forest and snow-dusted Teton peaks.
Wyoming is also on Hopper's list of the ten best places to see wildlife in the United States
Longs Peak rears dramatically above Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, the park's only mountain over 14,000 feet. On clear days, its flat, football-field-sized summit hosts breathtaking views over the rugged Rockies to the east and the Great Plains rolling away to the west. Reaching this summit is no picnic, however, and requires some careful hiking and a small smattering of technical climbing. After six miles of walking from the trailhead, hikers must scramble over a field of giant boulders, then clamber up a section of narrow ledges and steep cliffs suspended over hundred-meter drops. Less-experienced hikers and climbers determined to reach the summit are advised to do so with a guide, and there are several simpler hikes to specific spots on the mountain's slopes.
Acadia National Park, sequestered on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, consists of a more accessible terrain than many of the trails in this list. Visitors can bike round it on historic carriage pathways, and paved roads climb many of the mountains, including its highest peak, Mount Cadillac. A welcome exception to this trend is Mount Sargent, whose wild pinnacle can only be reached by foot via the challenging Sargent Mountain Loop. Steps and iron rungs have been embedded in the mountainside to make the ascent possible, but you still have to work hard, hiking over forested ridges and exposed granite ledges to reach the peak's magnificent views of ocean, mountains, cliffs and coastline.
This sublime one-day hike provides a mesmerizing quick-immersion experience of Yosemite National Park. Starting on the Yosemite Valley floor, hikers ascend past the torrents of the Vernal and Nevada Falls on the famous Mist Trail, before heading up up the granite face of Half Dome, using steel cables fixed to the rock. It's a tough and tiring eight-and-a-half-mile climb, with euphoric Yosemite vistas awaiting those who make it all the way to the top. The route is exceptionally popular, so one way to escape the crowds is to camp in Little Yosemite Valley and set off as the dawn light settles over the park's forests, meadows and mountains.
Glacier National Park covers over a million acres in the northernmost reaches of Montana, and is threaded through with 700 miles of hiking trails. Its rugged mountains are separated by deep, U-shaped valleys, carved out millennia ago by vast glacial movement. Some of these valleys are now carpeted with wildflower meadows, while around 25 active glaciers remain in the park's higher reaches, tremendous vestiges of the last ice age. The largest and most spectacular of these is Grinnell Glacier, which can be reached via this eponymous hiking trail. The route winds round Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes, then rises above a patchwork of lakes, meadows and mountain passes to reach the great glacier itself.
The Glacier National Park is also featured in Hopper's article on the best places to go camping with the family in the United States
The trail to Angel's Landing meanders alongside the gently flowing Virgin River and passes through cool Refrigerator Canyon before beginning its spectacular ascent. 21 steep switchbacks carry the trail up a sheer cliff face, reaching a series of narrow paths that spill out onto a thin ridge flanked by jagged chasms. From here, hikers look out over one of America's iconic views, as a green valley rolls away between vertiginous red canyon walls to a distant horizon of vast, craggy mountains.
The Zion National Park is also featured in Hopper's ranking of the best national parks near Las Vegas!
Running from the Grand Canyon's north rim past Nankoweap Creek and onto the Colorado River, this trail is generally considered the toughest of the descents into the canyon. But it is also immensely rewarding, a glorious escape from crowded, sanitized viewpoints and into the raw and wild canyon. The trail is thought to have originated as a path used by the Ancestral Puebloan people, and remnants of their granaries can still be seen at the end of the hike.