Hit the trail on these iconic and under-the-radar hikes through unforgettable desert, mountain, and coastal terrain
1 of 44Jen Judge
Williams Lake, Taos, NM
Get an alpine start to your day on the gradual 2-mile hike to Williams Lake, at 11,300 feet in the high country above Taos Ski Valley. The trail parallels the Rio Hondo upstream to the lake. From there you can look up at New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak; if you’re feeling ambitious, follow the faint goat path that scrambles up the scree field on the north side of the tarn to the summit above, with views 60 miles north to Colorado.
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands offer shoreline views, crashing surf, and a surprising wildness. Join the parade of cars winding up twisty Conzelman Road to Hawk Hill, but don’t stop there. Drive a bit farther to the beach parking area on your left, and you’ll see signs for the trail to Black Sands Beach. The 0.75-mile hike down (slightly rickety) steps is sure to put the rosy in your cheeks, and the narrow strip of beach is windy, wild, and stunning. Another great spot is the Tennessee Valley Trail, which winds 2.2 miles (one way) past rolling hills toward a secluded beach awash with green and black basalt pebbles.
It's on a lot of people's life list of adventures--the demanding hike/climb up 8,800-foot Half Dome. Allow at least 10 hours, and know that the last 900 feet of trail is a steep climb up the dome, with you clinging to cables for the final 400-foot ascent.
Golden Throne Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Capitol Reef is Utah’s second-largest national park, with slot canyons, arches, cliffs, and 31 miles of well-marked trails—yet only one-fifth the number of Zion’s visitors. It’s a steep 2 miles up the Golden Throne Trail, but the views will do their mightiest to distract you.
Coachella Valley is home to the Santa Rosa Mountains, where granite, desert flora, and sweeping views surround primo hiking. And La Quinta, 25 miles southeast of Palm Springs, is a great entryway for hikers: Take the Cove to Lake Trail, a 2.5-mile one-way trek. Or, for serious burn, consider the strenuous 7.5-mile Boo Hoff Trail.
Ranger-led morning hikes often travel through volcanic landscapes up to the summit of the 10,000-foot volcano in Haleakala National Park; on a self-guided tour through the Hosmer Grove forest, you could spot an ‘i‘wi, a rare Hawaiian bird. Or spend a whole day hiking the Sliding Sands Trail through the eerily lovely crater itself, immersed in a wilderness of volcanic cinder, strange plants, and tumbling clouds.
Popular for a reason: Colorado’s most photographed landscape is even better in living color, when the distinctive symmetry of snow-dusted Maroon and North Maroon Peaks are framed by a ribbon of aspens, all reflected on shimmering Maroon Lake. Of course you won’t be alone, but still it’s worth the crowds.
Limestone Canyon and Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, Foothill Ranch, CA
About 90 percent of the area burned in a 2007 fire, but the 4,300 acres of oak woodland canyons and grassland hills in Trabuco Canyon are recovering nicely with flowers like phacelia, lupines, mariposa lily, canyon pea, and wild rose blooming from about March through May. Bonus: stunning rock formations along Red Rock Trail (4.5-mile round-trip).
This is the hike you’ll brag about back home, assuming you’re up for doing it. You hike 2.5 miles up cliffs so steep you have to negotiate them with the help of chains bolted into the rock; the final portion of the trail rides a narrow rock fin with dizzily sharp drop-offs on either side. The reward: phenomenal views and aforementioned bragging rights.
It would take you five months to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. But for a long weekend that’s high on thrills per mile, try the 17-mile stretch through Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness. Hiking from Frog Camp/Obsidian Trailhead on State 242 to the South Sister Trailhead at Devils Lake offers a sampler of the fir forests, waterfalls, jagged peaks, and serene alpine lakes for which the PCT is famous, plus the wondrous Obsidian Limited Entry Area, covered with the sharp-edged black rock. It just may inspire you to hike the other 2,633 miles.
The Adams Gulch area offers good out-and-back hiking and mountain biking in the Sawtooth National Forest, with golden fall color and views of rocky 8,275-foot Griffin Butte. There are trails for a range of motivational levels, from the poky 1.5-mile Shadyside Trail to the grueling 14-mile Adams Gulch loop.
Two major Big Sur landmarks are located in this 3,583-acre park. Partington Cove is about 2 miles north of the park’s entrance. Head inland via the Tan Bark Trail into the redwoods, turn around when you’ve had enough, and come down to the shoreline. The overlook of McWay Falls is one of the prettiest spots on the California coast. The falls plunge straight down 80 feet onto an inaccessible beach. A short trail starts from the park’s main parking area.
In a town full of first-class hikes, locals love this one. The 5-mile trek winds through Coconino National Forest, with stop-and-stare views of terraced sandstone formations, and plenty of quiet moments to sneak up on grazing deer.
A challenging 5.6-miler lined with wild sage, blue columbines, and firs in the White River National Forest. There’s a 2,000-foot elevation gain up to 11,866 feet, but the alpine views are a sweet reward.
Catch one heck of a spring show is on view at Anza-Borrego, California’s largest state park. First-timers can’t miss the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, a 3-mile round-trip flowering with brittlebush, desert lavender, and ocotillo. For a hike twice as long, there’s the 6- mile round-trip into Hellhole Canyon for blooming barrel cactus, lupine, and phacelia, plus Maidenhair Falls. Four-wheeling flower fans, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose on the 20-mile Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail.
Tamalpais is Northern California's best-loved mountain. More than 1.5 million visitors a year hike, bike, ride horses, and stand awestruck in its redwood canyons. But, remarkably, the Marin County hillside still retains a good deal of mystery. There are wild canyons, hidden routes, and discoveries in its roughly 25,000 acres, from the ridgetop to the grassy slopes and beachside coves. Here are two treks to try: Dipsea Trail, the mountain's most famous route, and Cataract Trail, a lush favorite in early spring.
The geologic fantasyland of Arches has webs of trails with mind-blowing views. But don’t miss the easy 3-mile round-tripper to the park’s most iconic landmark, Delicate Arch. From the trailhead at Wolfe’s Ranch, follow the route past Ute petroglyphs onto waves of swelling sandstone where the freestanding arch rears up to defy gravity. Time your trek during the magical twilight hour—you won’t be alone, but you will see a spectacle some 70,000 years in the making ignited in the crimson colors of sunset.
Summer typically means overcrowded campgrounds and overpriced hotels, but not in Utah’s Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, where four off-season ski areas offer jagged granite scenery and knee-deep wildflowers and hikes that deliver a lot of wow for very little work.
An epic backpacking trip is one way to see the Arizona Trail. But a chill hiking weekend in the throwback town of Superior will do just fine, where you'll find frontier ruggedness mixed with a Mayberry-in-the-desert vibe. The Arizona Trail, the Southwest's answer to the Appalachian Trail, stretches from the state’s Mexican border to Utah. While it would take months to hike its entire length, less ambitious hikers rejoice: The trail is conveniently broken into 43 sections. Head south from Superior on the Alamo Canyon section, and rest peacefully in town where comfy lodgings and good dining await.
Zion Narrows is one of the national park’s most spectacular hikes. The full 16-mile trip is one of the great adventures anywhere―you follow the Virgin River up into sinuously carved slot canyons. But it’s an undertaking, requiring park service permits, proper gear (including water-proof boots and walking sticks), and attention to weather conditions, notably summer thunderstorms and flash floods. More casual hikers can get a taste of the narrows by continuing upstream past the end of the Riverside Walk toward Big Spring; the park service offers frequent guided hikes here as well.
Head off Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and hike the short, easy trail up to the impressive Grizzly Falls. The 75-foot waterfall is at its best in spring, when the thunderous force is so strong you can feel the reverberations in your chest.
See a rich spectrum of greens: the deep emerald of licorice fern, the wan olive of hanging club moss, and the turqoise of Sitka spruce needles. One of the best ways to see this verdant brilliance is the Hall of Mosses Trail by the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.
Located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Dal Ball Trails consist of more than 30 miles of single-track hiking and biking paths that connect to other Santa Fe trails. Explore the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, or tackle the steep but popular 4-mile hike to the summit of Picacho Peak for views of downtown and the desert.
The 10.5-mile loop circles Upper Newport Bay. There are multiple entry points, but we recommend starting at the Vista Point Lookout for the best views. Walk along the bluffs; when you reach Big Canyon, detour off the main path and cross the footbridge. You’ll hit a shaded nature trail alongside a stream that’s known as a hot spot for bird-watching. Bring your binocs.
Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve, Guerneville, CA
Hear that? Absolute silence. At the Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve, an 805-acre grove of old-growth sequoias just north of town, it’s everywhere. Savor the solitude as you crane your neck trying to find the tops of trees 300 feet tall—and 1,400 years old.
The Wildlands Conservancy’s Mission Creek Preserve houses one of the prettiest hikes, following the year-round stream that’s the source of the area’s renowned drinking water. Bonus? It’s also one of the least traveled. The green desert valley jumps with quail and rabbits, as the 4-mile (one-way) West Fork Trail ascends gently toward Mt. San Gorgonio and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Located 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas is one of Nevada’s oldest state parks, a sci-fi–like land of red sandstone and gray limestone formations that sees more lizards than visitors. Hike the White Domes Trail for a jaunt through canyons of contrasting color.
South Mountain Park has 51+ miles of dog-friendly hiking and biking trails that snake through desert slopes and arroyos. Top hike: Fat Man’s Pass, an easy-to-moderate trail that loops between two tight-hugging boulders. To pass, stand sideways and suck in your gut (yes, there’s a detour option).
Hike into the desert in Scottsdale’s 16,000-acre backyard. You can access this wide-open desert park and its 60 miles of looping multiuse trails from a number of trailheads—we like the 4-mile loop trail from the Gateway Access Area.
Chino Canyon at Mt. San Jacinto State Park, Palm Springs, CA
If you can tear yourself from your poolside perch, hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and head to the top of Chino Canyon at Mt. San Jacinto State Park. A 10-minute ride up the mountainside on the rotating tram (gotta love the 360° views) swoops you up to a dizzying 8,516 feet, where it’s typically 30 degrees cooler than the valley floor, and there are 54 miles of forested hiking trails to explore. Take a free guided nature walk, or strike out on your own on the 1.5-mile Desert View Trail loop with sweeping valley vistas.