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From sea to shining sea, the American landscape is dotted with breathtaking mountains, rivers, and glaciers — and plenty of fantastic hiking trails that offer you the chance to see them up close. But with so many national parks and iconic trails to choose from, how do you decide which hikes are worth your time? To help narrow your search, we've picked the top ten legendary trails for any outdoors enthusiast who wants to take on an American classic.
The Pacific Crest Trail
This stunning route is one of only two trails in the U.S. that can take you all the way from Mexico to Canada, with no shortage of incredible views of the Pacific coast along with the way. You won't find another trail that boasts as much ecological diversity as the Pacific Crest; if you travel the full length, you'll encounter mountains, deserts, forests, and even glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Thousands of people enjoy the beauty of this enormous trail each year, but very few take the months required to trek all 2,650 miles — finishing the complete trail is one of the most legendary and elusive goals among expert hikers.
The Grand Canyon South Rim Trail
In contrast with many other hikes on this list, this trail is relatively easier and more accessible — almost anyone in good health can hike the complete South Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon. The trail's legend status comes from its panoramic view of the nation's most revered geological landmark over the course of nearly three miles. For the most intimate experience with nature, it's best to hike this trail during the winter months when crowds die down.
The John Muir Trail
This California trail is actually shares much of its path with the Pacific Crest Trail, but it's famous enough in its own right. The rousing hike offers unparalleled views of the vast mountain ranges that line the Pacific coast. The trail spans 211 miles (339.57 km), a small subset of the Pacific Crest but still a sizable undertaking, and it is best for moderately experienced hikers looking to explore the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Park.
The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is the east-coast equivalent to the Pacific Crest's sweeping tour of legendary geological features. At a whopping 2,200 miles in length, this trail winds through every state between Georgia and Maine. Referred to by hikers as the "A.T.," the Appalachian Trail boasts close to 3 million visitors every year, but only 3,000 attempt to complete the hike in its entirety.
The Mist Trail
If you want to explore Yosemite, this jaw-dropping trail has you covered. The Mist Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite for a reason — although it's only 3 miles long, the trail shows off some of the park's most stunning geological features in its short span. After two to five hours of an intense upward trek, hikers stumble upon the legendary Vernal Fall, known for its beautiful mossy surface and colorful sedimentary structure. A 7-mile version of the hike takes you to Nevada Fall for an equally memorable view.
The Narrows of Zion
This legendary hike in Utah's Zion National Park isn't for the faint of heart. In place of a trail, hikers must walk through the Virgin River — not along it, through it. Participating in this challenging hike requires special waterproof shoes and gear, since the 10-mile path is completely submerged in the river, which may have water that reaches up to knee height depending on which month you decide to conquer the infamous route. Signs posted around the trail caution prospective hikers against embarking on the journey during inclement weather, since flash floods in the Narrows have been known to kill dozens of people each year.
The Wonderland Trail
This 93-mile trail encircles Mt. Rainier, Washington state's premiere geological feature. The Wonderland Trail is a challenging hike that bobs up and down between mountain and valley altitudes, culminating in a 3,000-foot altitude gain at the top of the mountain. While on this trail, you'll experience dozens of strenuous obstacles from thick lowland forests to chilly high alpine areas, but in the end, you'll finally get the unparalleled 3,000-foot view from the top of the mountain that makes this hike a bucket-list endeavor for wilderness adventurers all over the country.
The 100-Mile Wilderness
The name here says it all. This challenging subset of the Appalachian Trail snakes through 100 miles of Maine's most rugged, untouched territory, providing well-prepared hikers with an unprecedented look into the natural beauty of the northeast United States. Moose, berry bogs, ephemeral streams, and towering pine trees are just a few of the captivating ecological wonders you'll experience on this advanced hike through Maine's back country. The area is so remote that even transportation is difficult to arrange — unlike the rest of the AT, where shuttles are readily available, prospective hikers must coordinate their own licensed modes of transport to even reach the trail head. Although this obstacle makes the route less accessible (and subsequently less popular), it enhances the mystique and allure of the iconic trail for those experienced hikers who are ready to tackle it.
The Continental Divide Trail
In a league with the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail stretches all the way across the country through five Western states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho. This 3,100-mile trek was one of the latest major trails to be established, opening as recently as 1978, but it has gained notoriety for its length and the incredibly diverse scenery along the way. Glaciers, mountains, deserts, and grasslands are just a few examples of the incredible biomes situated along this trail.
This list wouldn't be complete without mention of Hawaii. The Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile trek that follows Kauai's coastline, and it takes hikers through a variety of ocean side features such as beaches, sea cliffs, and rain valleys. One of the most dangerous aspects of hiking this trail is encountering a rogue wave, which may sweep up at any time during the beach portions of the hike. Hawaii's park officials caution visitors against getting too close to the water, but when you're face-to-face with the clear blue depths of Hawaii's pristine beaches, the temptation to jump in is strong.