National parks play a vital and storied role in the American fabric. The National Park Service just celebrated its 100th birthday on August 25, 2016, commemorating the establishment of the parks system on August 25, 1916. Today, with 409 park sites spread over 84 million acres in all 50 states, no matter where you’re located in the United States, you’re never far from a national park. When all it takes is a few hours drive, at most, to get out and explore one of these sites, there’s no reason not to take advantage of their natural splendor.
From national historic sites to vast feats of nature like Yellowstone and Yosemite, from desert terrains to bubbling geysers, the national parks offer something for everyone. The National Park Service offers plenty of opportunities to get out and explore the parks across the continental US. For instance, they launched a “Find Your Park” initiative in honor of the centennial celebration to help connect people to parks through education programs, community assistance projects, social media, and more. The National Park Service also offers passport stamps to keep track of every park you’ve visited- a badge of honor for any park enthusiast.
As informative and in-depth as the National Park Service website is, it can be a little overwhelming to navigate! You can search for parks by state or category to learn more about them, but every park offers a different experience. Many offer wonderful, scenic hiking trails. Here are my picks for the top six parks for hiking. These parks offer the most scenic hiking trails, in my opinion, and are suitable for a wide range of hikers, from beginners to old pros. Keep in mind, this list represents just a fraction of all the wonderful hiking trails out there in America’s national parks!
When completed, the North Country Scenic Trail will be the longest continuous hiking trail in the United States at 4,500 miles long, linking seven (that’s right, seven) states. Right now, you can get out and explore 2,000 miles of trail meandering through an array of natural, scenic, historic, and cultural sites. It goes without saying that this park is a perfect destination for hikers- just be sure to plan your trip ahead of time, since distances between trailheads can vary and there are different rules and regulations for the different sections of trail.
If you enjoy long walks on the beach, then Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River, is the perfect park combining gorgeous Maine seaside views with challenging terrain. With more than 120 miles of hiking trails traversing steep seaside slopes, lakes, ponds, and woodlands, this park will not disappoint! Fun fact: Acadia is one of the only places on the east coast with uninterrupted views of the Milky Way.
Joshua Tree National Park, located in Twentynine Palms, California, is a desert oasis where two ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together. Despite the harsh desert conditions, the park is teeming with plant and animal life, and is perfect for hikers. The park offers a variety of trails, from short nature hikes to long and strenuous ones.
At nearly 1,200 square miles and with a variety of natural features including waterfalls, glaciers, meadows, and giant sequoias, Yosemite is a hiker’s and nature lover’s paradise. The park has 750 miles of trails to explore and the National Park Service describes the park, established in 1864, as a “shrine to human foresight.”
One visit to Yellowstone, and you’ll understand right away why it was named the country’s first national park. Watching the famous geyser, Old Faithful, erupt is a must for tourists, but the park, with its abundance of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, and rivers, offers so much more for those that want a more immersive experience. Encompassing 2.2 million acres and more than 1,000 miles of trails, you could walk for days and never explore the same area twice.
You know that saying, “Everything’s bigger in Texas?” Well, it certainly holds true for this national preserve. It’s even in the name! Explore bayous, pine forests, 185 bird species, and an abundance of wildlife as you hike through approximately 40 miles of trails winding through nine different ecosystems.
Catoctin Mountain Park, honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy on the U.S., is perfect for historians and nature-lovers alike! The park offers 25 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to more strenuous. It’s worth stopping at the visitor’s center before you begin your trek to learn about the cultural sites worth exploring along the trails, such as the Whiskey Still, Sawmill, and Catoctin Iron Furnace, as well as historic remnants of Roosevelt’s New Deal, including structures of the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.