The 15 Best National Park Dayhikes in the West
By Michael Lanza
America’s most stunning landscapes are protected within our 59 national parks, and some of the finest corners of our national heritage can be reached on dayhikes. Many can be done by kids and novice hikers. I’ve spent a few decades exploring most major U.S. national parks, making numerous trips to popular ones like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Grand Teton, and Zion. From the thousands of very scenic miles I’ve hiked over the years, I’ve assembled here a list of the best dayhikes you can walk in our parks.
Some of these hikes you may not have done yet or heard of. Others are famous and popular, but there’s a reason for that: They are mind-blowingly gorgeous. For reasons of location, terrain, and unusual natural features, they stand out even in parks with multiple, five-star footpaths. You don’t set out on some these hikes expecting solitude (although you can find it by doing them early or late in the day or outside of peak season; I offer tips below on the best times to do some of these hikes). You go there for a one-of-a-kind experience.
I put together this list of 15 favorite national park dayhikes in the West based on personal experience (and if I’ve missed an outstanding, favorite hike of yours, please suggest it in the comments section below to give me ideas for future trips). I’ll expand it whenever I knock off a new trail that belongs here.
Use this as your tick list of great national park dayhikes to knock off, and I guarantee you’ll experience the best miles of trail our National Park System has to offer.
South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
You can’t go wrong on any dayhike in the Grand Canyon, but the South Kaibab is widely considered the premier trail in the Big Ditch. Following the crest of a narrow ridge that descends all the way to the Colorado River, it delivers expansive canyon views beginning within minutes of the trailhead. It’s seven miles and 4,780 vertical feet from the South Rim to the Colorado River—a one-day round-trip appropriate only for very fit hikers with desert-hiking experience, who are carrying enough food and water for a big day (there’s no water along the trail)—but you can turn back at any point, choosing the length and difficulty of your hike. Start at first light and you’ll not only have the trail mostly to yourself, you’ll be looking out over the Grand Canyon as the prettiest light of the day spills across it.
See all of my stories about the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Upper Yosemite Falls, Yosemite
Besides it towering granite walls, Yosemite Valley is famous for its waterfalls that plummet hundreds and thousands of feet. The tallest, Upper Yosemite Falls, drops a sheer 1,400 feet (2,425 feet including the middle cascades and Lower Yosemite Falls, making the total waterfall the world’s sixth tallest). At its brink, you’ll traverse a catwalk chiseled out of a granite wall to a ledge (with a safety rail) where you can peer down at the freefalling water and out over Yosemite Valley, nearly 3,000 feet below. The round-trip hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is 7.2 miles and 2,700 feet, but you can turn back at any point, such as at Columbia Rock (a mile and 1,000 feet uphill from the trailhead), which has a broad view of Yosemite Valley; or a half-mile farther, near the base of the upper falls, where you can stand in the rain of its intense mist.
Highline Trail, Glacier
From 6,646-foot Logan Pass, the high point on Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Highline Trail traverses north across rolling, alpine terrain above treeline, with uninterrupted views of the park’s jagged peaks and soaring cliffs. It’s common to see bighorn sheep and mountain goats along the trail, and occasionally sight a black bear or even a grizzly (bring binoculars). Hike in daylight as a bear-safety precaution, but start early morning, before most hikers, for the best chances of seeing wildlife. Distance options include turning around at any point or hiking 11.8 miles to The Loop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which, like Logan Pass, is a stop on the park’s free shuttle bus. Or hike the 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park, spend the night at the Granite Park Chalet (make a reservation months in advance); and the next day, either backtrack to Logan Pass or continue over Swiftcurrent Pass and descend to Many Glacier, another 7.6-mile day.
Angels Landing and West Rim Trail, Zion
The 2.5-mile, 1,500-foot (one-way) ascent of Angels Landing culminates in one of the airiest and most thrilling half-mile stretches (actually, 0.4 mile) of trail in the entire National Park System: You scale a steep ridge crest of solid rock, on a path at times just a few feet wide, with steps carved out of sandstone and chain handrails in spots (see lead photo at top of story). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Angels Landing really has no peers. Two tips: If you can hike a strong pace, start early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and the heat of midday. And after summiting Angels, continue up the West Rim Trail for another mile or two; you’ll not only lose the crowds, you will enjoy increasingly dramatic views of Zion Canyon and venture into a quieter, sublimely beautiful area of giant beehive towers and white walls streaked in red and orange. The trail eventually climbs through exposed switchbacks to the West Rim, roughly five miles and 2,000 feet from The Grotto Trailhead where the hike begins.
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North Rim Trail, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone
With more than 10,000 geothermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and at least 300 geysers—two-thirds of the planet’s known geysers—Yellowstone is a land of marvels. Plus, you have a virtual guarantee of seeing more bison and elk than you can count and possibly other wildlife like wolves, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, and grizzly and black bears. But of all the trails in the park, I’ll submit the North Rim Trail, hundreds of feet above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, as the most spectacular. Traversing the rim for 3.2 miles from Inspiration Point to the overlook of 109-foot Upper Yellowstone Falls, the trail passes several dramatic overlooks of the canyon’s crumbling, golden walls. Don’t pass up the side trip down the steep switchbacks of the half-mile-long Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, which, as advertised, leads to the very lip of 308-foot Lower Yellowstone Falls.
Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, North Cascades
North Cascades is one of the wildest, most rugged and spectacular, and least-visited parks—and after several trips, one of my favorites. With 9,000 feet of severe relief between the highest, jagged summits and deepest, rainforest valleys, more than 300 glaciers, and year-round snow coverage, the range has earned the nickname the “American Alps.” But with 93 percent of its nearly 700,000 acres designated as wilderness, much of this park can only be seen by people willing to hike long distances over multiple days. Lucky for dayhikers, the 7.4-mile, 1,800-foot round-trip hike to Cascade Pass delivers views usually reserved for backpackers and climbers. Continue past it up Sahale Arm for steadily expanding views of a sea of pinnacles, ice, and snow. It’s another 4.4 miles and 2,300 feet to the trail’s end at Sahale Glacier Camp, but turn around at any time.
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Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton
The Tetons are another mountain range where some of the best views are enjoyed only by hiking many miles or tying into a rope. But Garnet Canyon, where soaring granite walls form a horseshoe beneath the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons and neighboring peaks, offers arguably the best views in the park that you can reach on a moderate dayhike. From the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, it’s about four-and-a-half miles with more than 2,200 feet of vertical to the grassy area known as The Meadows, where there are campsites by a creek. The last stretch to The Meadows crosses an area of massive boulders beyond the end of the maintained Garnet Canyon Trail, but the views are just as good before the boulders. Hiking to Amphitheater Lake, ringed by cliffs and forest high on Disappointment Peak and reached by a trail that forks off the path to Garnet Canyon, adds four miles out-and-back.
Navajo-Queens Garden and Peek-a-Boo Loops, Bryce Canyon
Descend into Bryce Canyon on the Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Loop and you’ll walk through a maze of the multi-colored, limestone, sandstone, and mudstone spires called “hoodoos,” which resemble giant, melting candles, including one of the park’s best-known formations, Thor’s Hammer. But continue beyond that popular and short hike onto the Peek-a-Boo Loop, and you will lose the crowds—and discover the scenic heart of Bryce Canyon, hiking below row after row of towers in shades of flourescent red and orange, like the aptly named Wall of Windows. The hike, mostly on good trails that are easy to follow, weaves among tall hoodoos, passes through doorways blasted through walls of rock, and wraps through amphitheaters of wildly colored, slender spires—a delightful, half-day hike that constantly changes character. The six-mile loop, with a cumulative elevation gain and loss of about 1,600 feet, begins and ends at Sunset Point.
Half Dome, Yosemite
One of America’s most iconic and sought-after hikes, the trek to Half Dome’s 8,800-foot summit—a tough 16 miles round-trip from Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and loss—reaches its literal and emotional apex at the several hundred vertical feet of cables the park installs on the steep slab leading to the vast summit plateau. At the top, many hikers venture to the ledge known as The Visor that overhangs Half Dome’s famous Northwest Face, posing for photos on that granite gangplank thousands of feet above Yosemite Valley. Nothing compares with this hike. Ascend the steeper Mist Trail past 317-foot Vernal Fall and 594-foot Nevada Fall, and after climbing Half Dome, descend the John Muir Trail—which has a classic view back toward Nevada Fall, the granite dome Liberty Cap, and the back side of Half Dome. Tip: Start an hour before sunrise to get ahead of most other hikers on this popular route.
See “Ask Me: Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome,” which includes links to information about obtaining a coveted permit to dayhike it, and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks.
Third Beach to Strawberry Point, Olympic
Stone pinnacles called sea stacks rise up to some 200 feet out of the pounding Pacific Ocean. Sea otters, seals, and whales swim offshore and bald eagles fly overhead. Mussels, sea stars, and sea anemones carpet boulders in tide pools. In one of Earth’s largest virgin temperate rainforests, Sitka spruce and western red cedar grow to 150 feet tall, with diameters of 10 or 15 feet, and Douglas fir and western hemlock soar well over 200 feet. The 73 miles of coast in Olympic National Park comprise the longest strip of wilderness seashore in the contiguous United States, remote and mostly accessible only to backpackers. But dayhikers can sample it on the relatively flat, 10-mile, out-and-back dayhike from Third Beach Trailhead on La Push Road to Strawberry Point, one of the spots with a cluster of offshore sea stacks. Up for 14 miles round-trip? Continue to Toleak Point, where at low tide you can scramble out onto some sea stacks.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast,” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park at The Big Outside.
Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches
Just three miles out-and-back with less than 500 feet of elevation gain, the well-traveled path to what is probably Utah’s most famous and most-photographed natural arch is best done in the evening, timing your arrival at Delicate Arch for before sunset. Although still popular as a sunset hike, it’s more pleasant than trudging it during the heat of the day, and the sunset light seems to electrify the sandstone’s burnt color. One of the pleasures of the hike is how the final stretch of the trail traverses the side of a small slickrock cliff before suddenly popping you out on the rim of an amphitheater of solid rock, looking across the big bowl at Delicate Arch, with the La Sal Mountains, snow-covered in spring, visible through its keyhole. Tip: Bring a headlamp and jacket and linger until well after sunset, when most other hikers have already started back, and you’ll enjoy a quieter walk under a sky riddled with stars.
Skyline Trail, Mount Rainier
The 5.5-mile, 1,700-foot Skyline Trail loop from Paradise, on the southern flank of Mount Rainier, delivers everything you go to this park to see: in-your-face views of The Mountain and the cracked face of the Nisqually Glacier; thick carpets of lupine, mountain heather, and other alpine wildflowers; waterfalls, and marmots perched on trailside boulders. You might see climbers on their way up to or returning from Camp Muir, the base camp for ascents of the standard Disappointment Cleaver route. Have lunch at Panorama Point, with a sweeping view of the Tatoosh Range and sister Cascade Range volcanoes like Adams, St. Helens, and Hood. At the footbridge over Myrtle Falls, follow the short spur trail descending to a better view of the waterfall, There are a variety of interconnected trails above Paradise to create shorter or longer loops. Tip: Often buried in snow until early August, this hike is prettiest when the wildflowers are in full bloom, around mid-August.
Grandview Trail, Grand Canyon
A narrow footpath descending through numerous switchbacks, often crossing the face of cliffs, the Grandview Trail raises the ante for exposure and excitement compared with the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails. Like those two trails, it presents a continuous slide show of Grand Canyon scenery—but it’s much less busy than those two South Rim corridor trails. From Grandview Point at 7,400 feet, the trail drops a steep 2,500 feet in three miles to Horseshoe Mesa. Tip: On the mesa, follow the campground trail toward the pit toilets. At the fork, bear left and continue a minute or two beyond the last campsite to a cliff-top overlook with one of the best views from Horseshoe Mesa. Explore around the mesa, where you’ll find rusting artifacts from the canyon’s mining past. Note: In winter and early spring, much of this trail becomes treacherous with snow and ice, requiring traction devices like microspikes.
Chesler Park, Canyonlands
Hiking to Chesler Park has the quality of approaching the city of Oz: Chesler’s red and white towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone, rising to upwards of 300 feet tall, form a castle-like rampart on the horizon, looming ever larger as you near it. Then you stroll through a gap in the towers that forms a natural doorway into Chesler, a horseshoe of sandstone spires arcing around a patch of desert about a mile across. From ledges overlooking the park and the badlands outside its walls, you get a sweeping view of white-capped mushrooms and burnt-red spires of stone sprouting from the earth. The loop hike around Chesler passes through The Joint, a slot with walls barely more than shoulder width apart. At 11 miles round-trip from the Elephant Hill Trailhead, with only about 500 feet of gradual elevation gain and loss, it’s not hard for the distance, and the payoff is one of the most fascinating corners of the Southwest.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all of my stories about Canyonlands National Park.
Cohab Canyon and Frying Pan Trail, Capitol Reef
Of southern Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is probably the least-well known—luckily for those of us who love the place. And while you could spend years exploring its many hidden corners and lonely backcountry, one short hike of a leisurely two to three hours in the park’s core features huge scenery for relatively little effort. The Cohab Canyon Trail extends just 1.7 miles between UT 24 near the Hickman Bridge Trailhead and the park’s Scenic Road near the historic Fruita community; either shuttle vehicles (or a bike) to hike it end-to-end, or hike out and back from the trailhead near Fruita Campground. “Windows” in the rock pockmark parts of Cohab’s orange walls, and you’ll find some super narrow and very short slot canyons branching off it. But the highlights are the spur trail to Fruita Overlook, ledges about 400 feet above the valley of the Fremont River, and an out-and-back side trip on the Frying Pan Trail. Within 20 minutes of coming out of Cohab on the Frying Pan Trail, you’re on top of the park’s predominant geological feature, the nearly 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, taking in a panorama of creamy-white, burgundy, and blazing-orange domes and cliffs.
See my “Photo Gallery: Exploring the Wild Playground of Capitol Reef National Park,” and all of my stories about Capitol Reef at The Big Outside, including feature stories about three different trips on my All National Park Trips page.
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