Lost Palm Oasis is a sheltered, steep-sided ravine in Joshua Tree that hides more than 100 spring-fed California fan palm trees. The network of outlying springs that surrounds the palms supports a diversity of plants and attracts an array of thirsty animals (including bighorn sheep) during late spring and summer, when water is scarce in the desert.
Start the hike at the Cottonwood Spring trailhead, which lies along an ecological transition zone between Sonoran Desert and the higher, wetter Mojave. Along the way, you'll see plants from both ecosystems, including creosote bushes and desert willows (you won't see many Joshua trees in this part of the park, but you'll see plenty on your drive in).
The surroundings are impressive from the start. Outcrops of granite boulders sit amid a landscape of high ridges, arroyos, plateaus, small canyons and rocky washes. Cacti and myriad other plants grow in white sand.
In spring, a riot of vibrant wildflowers—more than 30 species—and cactus bloom pink, red, green and yellow, making March and April some of the best months to go.
Distance: 7.2 miles R/T
Elevation Change: Approximately 1,500 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Duration: 6 hours
Best Time to Go: Year-round.
How to get there: Joshua Tree National Park is about a three-hour drive from Los Angeles via I-10. For precise directions to the park, visit the National Park Service website. You can also click here for a trail map. The hike begins at Cottonwood Spring, about six miles inside the park's southern boundary.
Come to Death Valley for spring wildflowers, but stick around for surprising hikes like this one, which overlooks some of the park's most spectacular landscapes.
This trail is one of Death Valley's most popular, and for good reason. It passes down through the steep, dark fortress-like walls of Gower Gulch, where Borax mines still remain from a late-1800s "white gold" rush. From there, it crosses open desert and enters the steep red mudstone and mosaic walls of Golden Canyon—along a former road that was washed out by a flash flood in 1976—to the wrinkled upheaval of the badlands beneath Manly Beacon. Side canyons branch off everywhere, and are fun to explore.
If you go in the morning, hike counter-clockwise around the loop, allowing you to get the longest view—from the base of Manly Beacon, looking over Golden Canyon—while early morning sun still highlights the rock's rich colors. If you start in late afternoon, hike it clockwise.
Distance: 6.9 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 655 feet
Difficulty rating: Moderate
Duration: 1-3 hours
Best time to go: Anytime besides summer. Plan to hit the trail at sunrise or close to sunset (if you go the latter route, plan to be finished before dark, but bring a headlamp just in case).
How to get there: The closest airport is the Las Vegas McCarren International. Rent a car from there to make the 130-mile drive west to the national park. The hike starts from scenic Zabriskie Point, through the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch before looping back to Zabriskie Point.
This leisurely walk will take you through stands of some of the country’s tallest, most jaw-dropping redwoods, including the Howard A. Libbey tree that stands almost 368 feet tall. At one time, Libbey was the world's tallest known living thing. But then, in 2011, two hikers discovered a tree they named Hyperion that stands about 11 feet higher. The location of this tree has never been revealed, and Libbey is the only "formerly world's tallest"—among several contenders—accessible to the public.
If you can peel your eyes away from the canopy, you’ll also notice the moss-covered maples, rhododendron bushes, giant ferns and huckleberry patches along the trial.
Note that you’ll need to arrive early at the Kuchel Visitor Center to snag one of only 50 permits issued daily.
Distance: 7.8 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 650 feet
Difficulty Rating: Easy
Duration: 3-4 hours
Best Time to Go: Year-round
How to get there: Fly into Crescent City or Medford, Oregon and rent a car to drive out to the Northern California coast. For detailed directions from each location, check out the Redwood National Park website. Head to the Kuchel Visitor Center once you’re inside the park.
The trail to Cub Lake crosses over the Big Thompson River at the western end of Moraine Park, an ancient glacial meadow surrounded by moraines. From there, it rises gently, passing beaver ponds on the way to a small mountain lake with long views to the mountains beyond.
It's best to hike it in the spring—when wildflowers burst into bright yellows, blues, purples, pinks and oranges, elk are abundant in Moraine Park, mosquitoes aren't yet swarming and melting snowpack swells the creeks and rivers—or fall. The hike is great for spotting other wildlife, too. Squirrels, voles and rabbits attract predators such as coyote, foxes and bobcats, and black bears can be spotted foraging after their long hibernation.
The area around Cub Lake is marshy and ringed with trees. From the base of the lake, you can see Stones Peak in the distance. For a good aerial view, continue along the main trail toward the Mill Creek Trail Junction. For a more robust hike, continue on to the junction with Fern Lake Trail at the Pool, and loop back to the east.
Distance: 4.6 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 643 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Duration: 4 hours
Best Time to Go: Spring and Fall, when elk frequent the trail.
How to get there: Fly into the Denver airport, rent a car and head out to the Beaver Meadows Entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. For more detailed directions, check out this map or visit the National Park Service website.
Despite its spooky name, the petrified scenery here is anything but scary. The fossilized forest is over 220 million years old, where rich deposits of petrified flora and fauna are the ghostly remains of ancient wetlands and massive redwoods from the Late Triassic period.
As you hike through Blue Mesa, keep an eye out for the Newspaper Rock Sandstone, a prominent sandstone bed in the Badlands area, banded in vibrant hues of lavender, jade, azure, gray and sage green. Along the trail, large chunks of crystallized wood sit jeweled in vivid purple amethyst and clear quartz.
What you see is beautiful, but be sure to leave everything where it is. The region is a significant paleontological research site, and taking any of these items is illegal and strictly enforced.
Distance: 1.1 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 210 feet
Difficulty Rating: Easy
Duration: 1 hour
Best Time to Go: Year-round. Although this hike is in Arizona, the park’s elevation at over 5,000 feet means that the weather is more temperate than lower elevations in the area.
How to get there: Fly into Phoenix, rent a car and head northeast toward the town of Holbrook. For the best directions, visit the National Park Service website. The Blue Mesa trailhead is located at mile-marker 15 on Park Road.
The pristine Hugh Norris Trail begins on the saguaro-studded bajada—the transition zone between mountain and Sonoran Desert floor—and climbs a ridge to the lofty summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountains. It's the longest trail in all of Saguaro National Park, but the climb is long and fairly gentle and affords sweeping views of the surrounding mountains over most of its length.
As the trail climbs, the dry, choking heat of the valley floor gives way to cooler temps and curious desert flora, including ocotillo, cholla and the giant saguaro cactus for which the park is named. Saguaros can grow up to 60 feet tall, and live for as many as 150 years. There's plenty to look at as the trail continues past an old mine shaft and transits 4,422-foot Amole Peak on its way to Wasson, where the entire Tucson Valley spreads out before you with the Santa Catalinas as a backdrop.
Distance: 9.8 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 2,100 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate–Strenuous
Duration: Allow a full day
Best Time to Go: Spring and Fall
How to get there: The nearest airport is Tucson International. Rent a car and drive to Bajada Loop Drive, 3.5 miles north of the Red Hills Visitor Center in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park.
The trip to Delicate Arch, that famous piece of rock plastered across Utah license plates, is a classic hike in Arches National Park. With incredible sandstone formations and views to the distant Le Sal Mountains, there are amazing photo opportunities to be had for relatively little leg work.
The 65-foot-tall arch was originally a freestanding Entrada Sandstone fin, but was carved out over time by erosion and weathering. This process continues and park officials are not sure how long the arch will remain. Go early to have the arch to yourself, but beware of ice in shady patches, especially on steep sections of rock.
Distance: 3 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 480 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Duration: 2-3 hours
Best Time to Go: March-October (early morning is best to avoid crowds)
How to get there: Arches National Park is in southeast Utah, just five miles north of Moab. Fly into Salt Lake City or Grand Junction, Colorado. Once in these cities, you can rent a car to get to the park. There is also shuttle service from certain locations.
Big Bend offers ample proof that a desert is not a wasteland. Its topographic diversity, from the 7,000-plus-foot-tall Chisos Mountains—the only mountain range contained entirely within a national park—to the depths of Santa Elena Canyon, helps it support unparalleled biodiversity, including 450 bird species (more than any other national park) and 1,200 plant species.
As the trail rises into the Chisos you can examine that biodiversity. Along your route, the bunchgrasses, yuccas, sotols, cactuses and creosote bushes of the low-elevation Chihuahuan Desert give way to mountain plants like Alligator junipers, Mexican Pinyon pines and Emory oaks. Scan the hillsides for the Strawberry cactus, rumored to have one of the tastiest fruits of any desert plant.
The summit rewards you with panoramic views of the Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico, sweeping cliffs left behind after a fault line sank 75 million years ago.
Distance: 4.7 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 1,300 feet
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Duration: 3 hours
Best Time to Go: October–May.
How to get there: The Midland and El Paso International airports are closest to Big Bend. You’ll definitely need to rent a car for the 3.5- to 4.5-hour drive. Check at the ranger’s station for exact directions. The trailhead begins at mile 5.1 on Basin Road.
This hike takes you to Yosemite's Mariposa Grove, the largest grove of giant sequoia trees in the park. Walking among the hundreds of sequoias—the biggest living things on earth—is a solid reminder of how small humans really are. You feel like an ant scurrying across the floor in a house of wise old giants (thankfully they stay put, though).
This grove is truly at the heart of Yosemite, since its preservation is one of the main reasons the national park was created in the first place. Over time, people have become familiar with each tree, granting them fanciful names like Bachelor and Three Graces, Grizzly Giant, Clothespin Tree, Faithful Couple, Telescope Tree and Galen Clark Tree.
If you take the time and put forth the effort to familiarize yourself with them—that'll require a six-mile hike through both the upper and lower groves, with a big, 1,200-foot elevation gain—you'll be rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
Distance: 2.2 miles round trip for the lower grove, 5-6 miles for both the upper and lower grove.
Elevation Change: 1,200 feet
Difficulty Rating: Easy-Moderate
Duration: 1-4 hours
Best Time to Go: Year-round
How to get there: The nearest airport is Fresno-Yosemite International. Rent a car from there and drive 1.5 hours to the south entrance. Take a right after the entrance gate and drive 2.2 miles to the trailhead.
Everything is bigger in Texas, even the big hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the state (8,749'). The stony trail rises 3,000 feet from the high Chihuahuan Desert, passing through pinion, white and ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir on its way to the lofty summit. At the top is the most sweeping view in Texas, with the Guadalupe Mountains spread out in New Mexico to the west, and the former Butterfield Overland Mail Route of the Pony Express (commemorated with a stainless steel pyramid that's planted on the summit), which passed just to the south of the peak.
The hike isn't easy, with the big elevation change and some of the windiest conditions in the U.S. In fact, Edward Abbey had this to say in his essay On the High Edge of Texas: “The climb by foot trail is difficult but not beyond the ability of any two-legged American, aged eight to eighty, in normal health. The wind continues to blow, unceasing, unrelenting. When I asked a local woman about the wind she said that it always blows in West Texas—from January to December. Must be hard to get used to, I suggested. 'We never get used to it,' she said, 'we just put up with it.'” And, if you can put up with it, you'll be rewarded with an unforgettable hike.
Distance: 8.4 miles R/T
Elevation change: 3,000 feet
Difficulty rating: Difficult
Duration: 6-8 hours
Best Time to Go: Spring and Fall.
How to Get There: The nearest airport is El Paso International. Rent a car and drive to Pine Springs Visitors Center. The trailhead is in the RV section of Pine Springs Campground.
As you climb to this lookout in Grand Wash Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park, imagine you are scanning the surroundings for outlaws in the American Old West. It’s a fitting game, as Cassidy Arch was named after Butch Cassidy, the notorious train and bank robber who is thought to have hidden from justice in the area.
Cassidy Arch is part of the Kayenta sandstone formation in the Glen Canyon Group, a rock feature that spreads across Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. From the top of the arch, you have excellent views of both Grand Wash and Capitol Reef, the national park’s namesake.
Capitol Reef comprises almost 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata, with rocks as old as 270 million years old. The most noticeable features are the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol buildings and the rocky cliffs that look like a coral reef. It is considered the most scenic portion of the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle on the earth that extends almost 100 miles.
Distance: 3.5 miles R/T
Elevation Change: 670 feet
Difficulty Rating: Difficult
Duration: 3 hours
Best Time to Go: Year-round. Be sure to check the weather report so you're dressed appropriately.
How to get there: Cassidy Reef National Park is about a four-hour drive south of Salt Lake City. For specific driving directions, visit the national park website. You can also click here for an orientation map of trails within the park.