Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes
By Michael Lanza
Imagine this: You’re heading out on a long, beautiful hike deep in the backcountry, but instead of a full backpack, you carry a light daypack. You’ve avoided hassles with getting a backcountry permit. There’s no camp to set up and pack up, because you’re not backpacking, you’re dayhiking. Yes, I love backpacking—living in the wilderness, getting into that mindset of not knowing or caring what day it is or what’s going on in civilization. And I do it a lot. But sometimes, I’d rather knock off a weekend-length—or longer—hike in one big day.
A completely different way to experience a hike, walking 15 to 20 or more miles in a day feels liberating in how lightly you travel and how much ground you can cover. I’ve done it many times simply because I had just one day free and wanted to see as much as possible. But there are some long stretches of trail that, to me, just cry out to be hiked in a day—for aesthetic reasons, because the length and access are just right and the scenery top shelf.
Among the many long dayhikes I’ve done in three decades of hiking all over the country, these are my favorites. If you have a favorite long dayhike that you think belongs on this list, tell me in the comments section at the bottom of this story, and I’ll try to get to it.
#1 The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
Arguably the granddaddy of ultra-dayhikes, traversing the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again constitutes not only the most demanding stroll on this list, but a double, top-to-bottom tour of one of Earth’s most magnificent and unfathomable natural features. The r2r2r, as it’s known, ranges from 44.5 to 47.8 miles with about 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, depending which trails you use. Backpacking the route requires obtaining one of the most hard-to-get backcountry permits in the National Park System, so if you possess the fitness and skills to knock it off in a day, that may offer your best chance of actually doing it. Of course, the shorter alternative is to hike across the canyon in just one direction, halving the distance, using available shuttle services to travel between the rims before or after your hike (depending on your lodging arrangements).
See my story “A Grand Ambition, Or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
#2 Logan Pass to Many Glacier, Glacier National Park
Take one of the prettiest moderate-length dayhikes in the National Park System—Glacier’s Highline Trail—and tack on waterfalls, a view from above a glacier, and a walk down a valley flanked by peaks, and you have the 16.4-mile, point-to-point traverse from 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Many Glacier, via Swiftcurrent Pass. This hike delivers uninterrupted views of the park’s jagged peaks and cliffs, and there’s a good chance you’ll see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The distance includes the optional but very worthwhile side hike—1.2 miles and a steep 1,000 feet—to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, a notch in the long cliff known as the Garden Wall.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
#3 Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
From the post-card view of the granite domes and cliffs flanking Tenaya Lake, to two of Yosemite’s finest summts and two of its most spectacular waterfalls, this 21-mile traverse hits many of the park’s best and most famous landmarks. After admiring the view from Tenaya Lake’s southwestern shore, hike up 9,926-foot Clouds Rest, culminating with its gripping, sidewalk-width summit ridge, with a drop-off of several hundred feet on the left and a cliff on the right that falls away a dizzying 4,000 feet—a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan. Then comes Half Dome’s thrilling cable route (lead photo at top of story)—for which you need a permit—followed later by a descent of the Mist Trail past 594-foot Nevada Fall and 317-foot Vernal Fall, before finishing at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley.
See more photos and information in my stories “Ask Me: Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome,” “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows.” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park and California national parks at The Big Outside.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and 6 favorite daypacks.
#4 Traversing Zion National Park
Few “dayhikes” on any list of ultra-hikes get as long and scenic as this, but the north to south traverse across Zion National Park has earned something of a cult following among uber-fit hikers and ultra-runners. From Lee Pass Trailhead to East Entrance Trailhead—with a short shuttle-bus ride in Zion Canyon from The Grotto to Weeping Rock—you’ll navigate a 47-mile grand tour of some of the most amazing scenery in the Southwest: deep chasms with burnt-red and white walls, soaring cliffs and beehive rock formations, and edge-of-the-rim walks high above labyrinths of slot canyons. Throw in a few stunning, short side hikes along the way—Northgate Peaks, Angels Landing, and Hidden Canyon—and you log more than 50 miles on one of the most incredible days of hiking in the entire National Park System.
See my stories “Mid-Life Crisis—Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion In a Day” and all of my stories about Zion National Park.
#5 Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop, Grand Teton National Park
Probably the most popular backpacking trip in the park, the 18-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop from String Lake Trailhead, with a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, sees hikers and runners regularly notching it in a day. The scenery is classic Tetons: serrated peaks and deep canyons with rock walls soaring thousands of feet overhead, and waterfalls tumbling off those walls in Cascade Canyon. Plus, the loop crosses the highest point reached via trail in the park, 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, where the panorama takes in a huge chunk of the Tetons; and passes the park’s cliff-ringed Lake Solitude on the descent through the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, where you’re looking straight down the glacier-carved valley at the towering north walls of the Grand Teton and Mount Owen.
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#6 High Divide-Sol Duc Loop, Olympic National Park
Like the above hike, this 18-mile loop with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain is popular with backpackers, but a doable objective for many fit dayhikers—and a great day in a mountain range that’s largely beyond reach to all but backpackers and climbers on strenuous, multi-day outings. Hiking counter-clockwise, you’ll pass lovely Sol Duc Falls, with its triple columns, and climb through old-growth rainforest to higher meadows carpeted with lupine and other wildflowers. On a clear day, the High Divide Trail’s long alpine traverse delivers views across the deep, lushly green trench of the Hoh River Valley to ice- and snow-blanketed Mount Olympus. After passing beautiful Heart Lake, set in another sprawling meadow, the loop makes a gentle descent below ancient, giant trees along the Sol Duc River. You’re likely to see elk and mountain goats at higher elevations and black bear almost anywhere.
See all of my stories about Olympic National Park at The Big Outside.
If you like this list, check out my story “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
#7 Crossing the Wind River Range
Huge vistas for much of the way, in one of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains, are the payoff on this 27-mile, east-west crossing of the southern Winds, from the Bears Ears Trailhead in Dickinson Park to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead. With a cumulative elevation gain of about 4,500 feet, this traverse stays above 11,000 feet for many miles, with views of peaks rising above 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide. Don’t pass up the 20-minute, off-trail side trip up 12,250-foot Mount Chauvenet, overlooking a row of peaks that includes Buffalo Peak, Camel’s Hump, and Mounts Washakie and Hooker. But the hike’s highlight is the Cirque of the Towers, a mind-boggling horseshoe of sheer-walled granite peaks standing shoulder to shoulder.
Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb”
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”
#8 Mowich Lake to Sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park
From any angle, Mount Rainier looks impossibly big, rising 8,000 to 11,000 vertical feet above trails around its base—more relief than all but a few peaks in North America. Still, the best views of The Mountain are from its northern flanks, where you look up at the largest glacier in the Lower 48, the Emmons, and get close-up with the Carbon Glacier, the longest (5.7 miles) and thickest (700 feet) American river of ice outside Alaska. On a rugged, 22-mile hike from Mowich Lake to Sunrise, you’ll also cross sub-alpine meadows like Spray Park, renowned as one of the Pacific Northwest’s power spots for wildflowers like lupine, beargrass, phlox, goat’s beard, and pink monkeyflower.
See my story “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs at Mount Rainier,” and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park at The Big Outside.
#9 Presidential Range ‘Death March’
This archetypal huge dayhike—the first known traverse dates back to 1882—the 20-mile, 8,500-foot “Death March” of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range remains above treeline for 15 miles, with vistas spanning the White Mountains. And the distance and difficulty hit a sweet spot—within reach for fit hikers, hard enough to fire aspirations, especially given the notoriously rocky and steep character of trails in the Whites. Starting at one of the trailheads below 5,367-foot Mount Madison (the Air Line and Osgood Trail are personal favorites) and hiking south to Crawford Notch (to tick off the harder, northern summits first), purists tag all nine summits along the way, including the Northeast’s highest, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington—where winds exceed hurricane force an average of 110 days a year, and the average year-round temperature is below freezing, at 27.2° F. Pack a jacket.
See my stories “Step Onto Rock. Step Down. Repeat 50,000 Times: A 20-mile, Nine-Peak ‘Death March’ of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range,” “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range,” and all of my stories about the White Mountains.
#10 Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, Grand Canyon
Want a five-star Grand Canyon ultra-hike that’s much simpler logistically than cruising rim to rim (hike #1, above)? The 24.8-mile traverse from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim, with some 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, slices through the vivid Supai and Redwall layers and crosses five major tributary canyons of the Colorado River, from the huge, burgundy cliffs of Monument Creek to the jaw-dropping amphitheater of red and white cliffs and castle-like towers at Horn Creek. No wonder it’s a popular backpacking route. And don’t worry about transportation: Park near the Bright Angel Trailhead, take an early shuttle bus to Hermits Rest, and walk back.
See my story “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” and all of my Ask Me posts covering the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
#11 White Cloud Mountains Loop
The most obscure place on this list, and one of the newest wilderness areas in the country, the White Clouds of central Idaho have national park-caliber scenery, yet remain relatively unknown. The range harbors about 150 peaks over 10,000 feet and scores of gorgeous mountain lakes above 9,000 feet, including the highest salmon-spawning waters in North America. Mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, black bears, and wolverine call these mountains home. On a partly off-trail, 28-mile loop from the Fourth of July Trailhead, two friends and I visited most of the Boulder Chain Lakes, passed below the highest peak in the White Clouds, 11,815-foot Castle Peak, and crossed Chamberlain Basin, a forested bowl ringed by a jagged skyline.
#12 Pemi Loop, White Mountains
There are hard hikes, and there are really hard hikes. And in the grueling department, few compare with the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s rugged Whites. Starting from Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) 5.6 miles east of Lincoln, the 32-mile loop, with approximately 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss, follows a series of ridgelines around the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the very heart of the Whites, tagging nine summits en route (with the possibility of more via side trips). The list includes the popular Franconia Ridge, which reaches its apex at the 5,260-foot summit of Mount Lafayette; and more remote peaks like Garfield, Mount Bond, and the spectacular Bondcliff. It’s as beautiful as it is punishing.
See my story “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about the White Mountains.
#13 Black Mountain Crest Trail, Mount Mitchell
There are a few ways one can climb the highest peak east of the Mississippi, North Carolina’s 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell. But the longest, hardest, and most scenic is the Black Mountain Crest Trail. While its stats—11.3 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of about 5,000 vertical feet—don’t compete with the other outings on this list, those numbers only begin to communicate its physically taxing nature. From the Bowlens Creek Trailhead at 3,000 feet outside Burnsville, N.C., to the summit of Mitchell, the trail passes over numerous summits that top or approach 6,000 feet, while varying from slick trees roots and mud to granite bedrock. But it also provides a pleasant jaunt through rich Southern Appalachian forest, and long views of North Carolina’s blue ridges.
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