From coast to coast, there are endless trails to trek through some of the country's most beautiful landscapes. Rugged and technical to smooth and easy, these seven top hikes will suit both the intrepid adventure seeker and the more cautious beginner.
As with any outdoor pursuit, be sure to plan ahead, bring lots of water, invest in good shoes, and pack in good snacks, a camera, and sunscreen. But most importantly, be prepared to bask in the radiance of the great outdoors.
Enchanted Rock: Fredericksburg, Texas
While Texas Hill Country offers a wide array of activities to enjoy, hiking Enchanted Rock is a unique opportunity to get a taste of the region's natural wonders. Believed by early Tonkawa Indians to be a haven for ghosts, the great batholith that rises 425 feet above ground as one large granite outcropping received its name not only from its folklore history, but the magnificent views and natural play-scape that this 640-acre rock formation provides. Just a few miles north of Fredericksburg along Highway 16, Enchanted Rock is a perfect day escape for leisurely hikers, families, overnight campers, and even romantics looking for a special place to "pop the question"—it happens here a lot. The entire Enchanted Rock State Natural Area offers a four-mile trail for hiking, but the main attraction is the straight climb to the top of the great granite dome. (Rock climbers can also find a few faces to climb along the back side of the rock. Just watch out for snakes.)
Hike Through the Vines: Napa, California
Moderate (Must be 21)
Offering a much needed change from the typical wine tasting, Stony Hill Vineyards, a longtime Napa icon, offers a special "Hike through the Vines" by appointment, for parties of 4-12 people. The program gives guests the opportunity to not only taste some of their sought after wines, but also explore the beauty of Napa wine country from its hillside vantage point overlooking much of the valley.
You'll start on Spring Mountain at Stony Hill's Ranch House terrace, learning about the winery's 60-plus year history as being one of the country's top chardonnay producers. Following, third generation vineyard proprietor Sara McCrea along with winery pup, Milo, will lead a customizable hike throughout Stony Hill's 160-acre property. Relax with a picnic featuring some of the McCrea family's favorite local treats and a special wine tasting. The day-long experience is $100 per person. Appointments are encouraged to be made 2-3 weeks in advance.
Warner Parks: Nashville, Tennessee
Just beyond Nashville's bustling cityscape, Percy Warner and Edwin Warner State Parks lie west of town near the Bellevue suburb. Both parks offer a picturesque break from the city with rolling hills, grassy fields, horse paths, and the shade of towering hardwoods. The Mossy Ridge Trail in Percy Warner Park is a great morning or afternoon jaunt for those who want to get a brisk hike in, or for families who want an easy stroll through the beautiful landscape. This particular trail runs in a 4-mile loop that offers a variety of scenic views with a few rigorous hill climbs in between. (Word to the wise: if you'd rather wind up on a downhill path at the end of your hike, head to the right at the trail head and continue the loop from there.) The beautiful woods along the trail offer ample shade, which can reveal dogwoods in full bloom in the spring, boldly colored fall foliage, glimpses of natural springs, and lush grassy meadows. Beyond the trail, the park offers a number of picnic tables throughout as well as playgrounds for kids who need to work out a little extra energy. You can access the trail from the Deep Well entrance off Highway 100.
The Narrows: Zion National Park, Utah
Located in Zion National Park in the southwestern portion of Utah near Springdale, The Narrows is truly a unique hike that extends a full 16 miles along—and within—the Virgin River as it creeps through a spectacular sandstone gorge in Zion Canyon. Among the many alluring features to encounter while braving the often chilly waters on the hike are natural springs, hanging gardens, and sheer sandstone walls weathered by hundreds of years of wind and water erosion that stretch up to 1,000 feet high. As you may expect from its name, going deeper into the hike, the canyon walls close in and narrow around you.
Depending on the rainfalls that year, you can expect to be in the water more than half of the time. (It's best to buy or rent neoprene socks and sturdy hiking boots for the often cold and slippery river bottom.)
Walking the entire 16 miles from the top of The Narrows down is a grueling experience often taking more than 12 hours to complete. You can also opt for the more approachable "Bottom to Top" approach, which offers a shuttle from the main park grounds to the Temple of Sinawava where you follow a one-mile walk that leads you to begin wading up the river. From here, hike as far as you like. (Just know that you return the same way you came.) A popular turning point, especially for those with younger ones in tow, is the Orderville Canyon, which is just more than 2 miles from the shuttle stop. (Give yourself a couple of hours to reach it depending on the river current.)
The best time to trek The Narrows is in the warmest part of the year from mid-June to mid-September. As with most rivers, flash flooding and hypothermia are constant dangers. Be sure to check conditions, plan ahead, and use proper equipment. While most of the river may be knee-deep, there are portions that could be up to your shoulders, so be prepared to get very wet. Even in mid-summer, the water can be cold, so pack warm clothing. Oh, and be sure to use the restroom at the Temple of Sinawava before your hike as you won't find any in The Narrows.
Long Trail South: Stowe, Vermont
A historic destination, the Long Trail is officially the oldest long-distance trail in the states running the entire length of Vermont. But you don't have to hike the whole thing to get a taste of its beauty. Give Mount Mansfield a try. The highest peak in the state, the summit ridge is said to resemble a human face with its prominent features named Adams Apple, Nose, Forehead, and Chin. From Stowe, take VT Route 108, which leads you to Taft Lodge, a nice stopping point to stop for a snack before trekking the remaining fraction of a mile to the top. (Be warned, this last portion of the hike has steep rock faces, but reveals breathtaking views.) The total trip is about 5 miles round trip with a 2,200 foot elevation gain. Keep in mind hiking season in Vermont really doesn't begin until after Memorial Day. In fact, following ski season, Mount Mansfield is closed from mid-April through the end of May. But most outdoor enthusiasts are able to enjoy the trail through much of October.
The Kalalau Trail: Kauai, Hawaii
Intermediate to Difficult (depending on weather)
This 11-mile trail leads from Ke'e Beach to Kalalau Beach on the island of Kauai and serves as the only land access to this part of the coast. This rugged landscape reveals jagged cliffs, steep, narrow valleys, an array of tropical plant species, and idyllic ocean views. For the advanced hiker, this trip should take a full day, but plan to start early as the afternoon heat can be stifling. Along the way, you'll traverse 5 valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach. While the trail is typically graded and maintained, frequent flash floods and dramatic weather patterns tend to create a few obstacles. For a shorter, more accessible hike, the trail from Ke'e Beach to Hanakapi'ai is only two miles and affords beautiful coastal views. A word on swimming: While there are limited areas that allow for swimming, take caution as strong tides and currents have caused many drownings over the years. These areas are best for experienced ocean swimmers.
West Maroon Trail: Aspen to Crested Butte, Colorado
If you're looking for a full-day adventure without the fuss of preparing for an overnight, the Maroon Bells hike from Aspen to Crested Butte should make the grade. Many visitors opt to hike from Aspen, spend the evening dining in Crested Butte, and take a shuttle back to Aspen for the night. The trail promises spectacular views of the Maroon Bells, which are a pair of peaks in the Elk Mountains with elevations above 14,000 (also known as "fourteeners"). You'll also see Pyramid Peak, Crater Lake, and into the peaks around the Gothic Valley. In the summer, the trail is home to a colorful array of wildflowers. At almost 12 miles with a 3,400 foot elevation gain, this hike can take about 6 hours depending on your level of fitness. (Those still acclimating to altitude may want to plan for a few extra stops.)
Be sure to start early as afternoon thunderstorms are common and dangerous. Wear waterproof footwear as there are a few areas with stream crossings depending on the weather. Parts of the trail can be strenuous with a number of steep climbs and loose talus rock, but the views make it well worth the effort. Hikers and backpackers start the West Maroon Trail at about 9,500 feet with a glimpse of the tranquil Crater Lake about 2 miles into the hike at about 10,000 feet. The apex of the pass includes a rather steep ascent, be prepared to pace yourself.
There are a variety of shuttle options that will pick up at the end of the trail to take you into Crested Butte or back to Aspen. Dolly's Mountain Shuttle and Alpine Express Shuttle are both recommended. Also, Maroon Bells Shuttles offers to transport your own vehicle to either trailhead.
Photo credits: Enchanted Rock via Dreamstime.com; Napa Valley via Shutterstock/Andrew Zarivny; Percy Warner Park via Dreamstime.com; Sunset over Mt. Mansfield via Dreamstime.com; Kalalau Trail via Dreamstime.com; Crested Butte via Dreamstime.com; Zion National Park via Shutterstock