national trails hiking

Happy Trails

10 scenic hikes that showcase the best of America

They scale majestic peaks and cross ancient waterways. They traverse vast desert, lush forests, and snowy evergreens. Their wonders stretch to the far corners of our land: southern Florida and northern Maine, Nome, Alaska, and Hawaii’s Big Island. And they trace the stories of our past—the bold journey of Lewis and Clark, the ingenuity of the Pony Express, the triumph of Selma marchers to Montgomery, the tragedy of Cherokees evicted to Oklahoma.

Spanning more than 55,000 miles, our national trails cover America—and reveal it like nothing else. If our national parks are the picture of America’s splendor, then our national trails are the unforgettable pixels. Oct. 2 marks the 50th anniversary of Congress’ creation of the National Trails System, which today encompasses 11 National Scenic Trails, 19 National Historic Trails, and nearly 1,300 National Recreation Trails. Together, these land and water routes are longer than the Interstate Highway System and seamlessly intersect with national and state parks, national wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management territory, and national forests.  

Depending on their location, you can experience national trails by foot, bicycle, car, boat, horse, even snowmobile. Serious adventurers should check out the National Park Service and the Partnership for the National Trails System for online trail overviews. For those who simply want to ramble for a while, consider the following walks, selected for their proximity to major cities. Just remember two magical words: comfortable shoes. Happy hiking.

Pacific Crest

National Scenic Trail

Length: 650 miles
Southern Terminus:  Campo, California
Northern Terminus:  Monument 78 on the Washington State–Canadian border
Fly Here: San Diego

What you’ll find: One of the three major north-south trails in the system, the Pacific Crest Trail runs through California, Oregon, and Washington and showcases iconic terrain of the American West, including the stunning expanses of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range. For a more modest hike, try Anza–Borrego Desert State Park. There, you can take a slow climb through the desert that may appear spare and even desolate, but a keen eye will spot an abundance of hidden and vibrant flora and wildlife. To the north, the PCT passes through some of the most scenic forests in California at Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks. Be sure to pack plenty of water. Scissors Crossing is a 9-mile out-and-back adventure through a hilly, arid landscape at Anza–Borrego, about a 90-minute drive east of San Diego.

Did you know? Outdoorsman Clinton C. Clarke, considered “the father of the PCT,” proposed the trail to the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service in 1932. The PCT appeared on a government map for the first time in 1939. 

Juan Bautista de Anza

National Historic Trail

Length: 1,200 miles
Southern Terminus:  Nogales, Arizona
Northern Terminus:  San Francisco
Fly Here: San Jose and San Francisco

What you’ll find: Get a sense of what Silicon Valley was like more than 240 years ago. At Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve in Cupertino, California, follow the footsteps of Juan Bautista de Anza, a former captain in the Spanish military, who between 1774 and ’76 led an expedition that identified a path from Sinaloa and Sonora (now Mexico) to San Francisco Bay.

Did you know? Mission Dolores, built by Anza settlers in 1776, is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.


National Scenic Trail

Length: 1,000 miles, with an additional 300 miles planned
Southern Terminus:  Ochopee, Florida
Northern Terminus:  Fort Pickens, Florida
Fly Here: Pensacola, Florida

What you’ll find: Not many long-distance hiking trails can be compared, even in part, to sunset strolls along the beach. But at the northern end of the Florida Trail, the restorative effects of sea breeze and salt air from the Gulf of Mexico will keep you going as you clamber over powdery sand dunes and approach the end of the Panhandle. Don’t rely on a physical trail or tracks to find your way—those are eroded or obscured constantly by wind-blown sand. Instead, follow the bright orange poles in the dunes along Santa Rosa Island, a barrier island east of Pensacola Beach. The Dunes Preserve Trail there scales white dunes over more than 3.4 miles, passing coastal wetlands, salt ponds, a maritime forest, and needlerush marshes. Sunset and early morning are ideal times for this hike, given the possibility of high heat during the day. (Nearly 90 percent of the trail use occurs from October to May, when the weather is cooler and drier.) For a longer wander, travel the last 6.9 miles of the Florida Trail near the end of the Panhandle, ending at Fort Pickens.  

Did you know? The Florida Trail is one of three national scenic trails entirely contained within one state—the other two are the Arizona Trail and Ice Age Trail, in Wisconsin.  

Ice Age

National Scenic Trail

Length: 600 miles, with 600 more to come
Southern Terminus:  St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
Northern Terminus:  Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Fly Here: Milwaukee and Minneapolis–St. Paul

What you’ll find: This trail is a 1,200-mile trek through Wisconsin that will put you in touch with your inner geologist—even short hikes will render you an expert on glacial lakes, moraines, kettles, eskers, and drumlins. For end-to-end hiking during warmer weather (hundreds of miles of connector trails link the blazed segments), combine camping with indoor lodging—The INN Style Program, via the Ice Age Trail Alliance, suggests lodging possibilities. In the Kettle Moraine State Forest, 25 miles west of Milwaukee, you can scale Lapham Peak, which reaches 1,233 feet. You can also climb a 45-foot tower for panoramic views of Wisconsin and Illinois. The western end of the trail, the St. Croix Falls Segment, is an hour from the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport. 

Did you know? The National Park Service protects 208 National Wild and Scenic Rivers in 40 states and Puerto Rico—totaling only one-fourth of 1 percent of the nation’s rivers.

Natchez Trace

National Scenic Trail

Length: 65 miles; the Natchez Trace Parkway is 444 miles long via automobile.
Southern Terminus:  Milepost 17 of the parkway, near Natchez, Mississippi
Northern Terminus:  Milepost 427, near Nashville
Fly Here: Nashville

What you’ll find: Both the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail and the Natchez Trace Parkway, which administers the trail, follow the Old Natchez Trace, a forested corridor moving through lands once inhabited by the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez tribes, and later traversed by Kaintuck boatmen, European settlers, traders, and the military. At milepost 427, stop at Garrison Creek, part of the 20-mile Highland Rim Trail. There, you can climb and descend along the natural slope and decline of the rustic Tennessee hills. There’s more elevation gain than initially appears, ensuring a good cardio workout at the end of the day. 

Did you know? Much evidence suggests that the formative path of the Old Trace was carved by bison and giant sloths more than 10,000 years ago. 

Pony Express

National Historic Trail

Length: 1,900 miles
Southern Terminus:  St. Joseph, Missouri
Northern Terminus:  Sacramento, California
Fly Here: Salt Lake City

What you’ll find: When making your way uphill toward the pinnacle of Big Mountain Pass, try to envision riding a horse up and down these rugged mountains on a mission to deliver mail. The hike begins at the Little Dell Reservoir and can be between 3 and 10.7 miles. For a shorter hike, begin at Affleck Park Campground or at a roadside entry between Little Dell and Affleck. 

Did you know? At Big Mountain Pass, in addition to being on the Pony Express Trail, you are also on the California National Historic Trail, which preserves the route taken by fortune-seekers and new settlers during the 19th-century Gold Rush.

North Country

National Scenic Trail

Length: 4,600 miles
Southern Terminus:  Crown Point State Historic Site, New York
Northern Terminus:  Lake Sakakawea State Park, North Dakota
Fly Here: Grand Rapids, Michigan

What you’ll find: In its entirety, the North Country Trail (the longest in the system) celebrates the specific beauty of the upper Midwest—forested expanses, broad and lolling lakes, and carved and sculpted coastline. The trail through the Huron-Manistee National Forests, 45 minutes north of Grand Rapids, is a journey into the heart of a thriving woodland. It’s possible to hike 139 miles of the NCT at Manistee within a week. Or you can drive 75 minutes north from Grand Rapids to the M20 trailhead near White Cloud for a scenic northbound excursion into forest that is enveloping and seemingly endless.  

Did you know? The NCT continues toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the shoreline at Hiawatha National Forest, a startlingly beautiful unit of the National Forest System, borders three of the five Great Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan.

New England

National Scenic Trail

Length: 215 miles
Southern Terminus:  Guilford, Connecticut
Northern Terminus:  Near Royalston, Massachusetts
Fly Here: Hartford

What you’ll find: This hike offers quintessential New England, especially during autumn—crisp fall leaves, a stroll through breathtaking northern forest, and a lofty, climbing tree canopy. While accessible in any season, autumn is ideal, as the brisk air will keep you cool along the 500-foot ascent on Section 18, along the Metacomet Trail. Just northwest of Hartford, this 6-mile hike through Penwood State Park is steep in places—and picturesque.

Did you know? Have a long layover in Hartford? The northern portion of Section 18 is 5 miles from Bradley International Airport and easy to get to via a rideshare.

Continental Divide

National Scenic Trail

Length: 3,100 miles
Southern Terminus:  Glacier National Park, Montana
Northern Terminus:  Hachita, New Mexico
Fly Here: Albuquerque, New Mexico

What you’ll find: Much of the Continental Divide Trail is challenging, but the results are worth it: Just outside of Albuquerque, at El Malpais National Monument, you’ll see dormant volcanoes and chiseled, blackened lava fields within an otherworldly landscape that’s gradually being reclaimed by plants and animals. Consider that, while more than 2,000 people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail each year from end to end, fewer than 200 do the same with the CDT. It’s the one that will test you even under the best of conditions. At the El Calderon Area of El Malpais, explore an extinct volcanic cinder cone and the depths of a lava tube. The Calderon Loop at El Malpais is a 3.8-mile circular trail that’s suitable for all skill levels. The 7.5-mile one-way Zuni–Acoma Trail crosses jagged lava flow areas and is more challenging; consider making a shuttle by placing a vehicle at either end of the trail, or just hike a portion. 

Did you know? In 1962, volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Trails Association and the Colorado Mountain Club initially marked the trail in Colorado by nailing blue cans to trees, terming the CDT the “Blue Can Trail.”

Star-Spangled Banner

National Historic Trail

Length: 560 miles, as a land and water route
Southern Terminus:  Fort Howard Park, Maryland
Northern Terminus:  Near Sotterley Plantation, Maryland
Fly Here: Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

What you’ll find: The U.S. was a young nation fighting for its survival when the British invaded in 1812, and much of the trail, which retraces the movements of American and British troops, imparts the story of how our fledgling country held onto its independence. But beyond the history, you’ll find the scenic beauty of the Chesapeake coast and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. 

Did you know? Francis Scott Key penned the national anthem, originally titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. 

Amy Beth Wright and Derek Wright founded Parks and Points, a website dedicated to sharing writing about public lands. Join them on Twitter @ParksandPoints. Email comments to [email protected].

Photography by Justin Clemons (header and Pacific Crest), William DeShazer (Florida), Marc Muench/Tandem Stock (Natchez Trace), Louis Arevalo/Tandem Stock (North Country), Michael DeYoung/Tandem Stock (Continental Divide)

Originally Published October 2018