The word “hike” may make many people think of trekking to the top of unbelievable majestic mountains. In reality, there are also many accessible trails that lead hikers straight into wildlife habitats, stunning waterfalls and other breathtaking views inside America’s most popular national parks.
Based on information provided by the National Park Service (NPS), here are hikes that are fit for beginners but still have that wow factor.
The Hoh River in Washington’s Olympic National Park is surrounded by a rainforest rich with old-growth trees covered in moss, nurse logs and views of Blue Glacier and Mount Olympus, making it one of the most beautiful places in America’s state and national parks. And though there are a bunch of trails to pick, a good one for beginners is the Spruce Nature Trail. The flat 1.2-mile loop goes through the temperate rainforest to Hoh River and has less than a 100-foot elevation gain. The best time to hike this trail is from March until October.
The Fairy Falls Trail hike is just a few miles north of Old Faithful, and also offers trekkers views of an amazing waterfall and hot springs. The trail starts near the Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the most mesmerizing places on earth, off the Grand Loop Road. A walk through a lodgepole pine forest then opens up to beautiful 200-foot-tall Fairy Falls. The trail is typically accessible from May to November.
Hot Springs Mountain Trail, located in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, is an easy stroll with several scenic overlooks. The trail goes around the top of North Mountain and through a lush green forest. NPS refers to the journey as “one of the most rewarding trails in the park” and Hot Springs National Park is one of the best weekend trips to take in the spring.
The Balanced Rock Trail lies at the base of a show-stopping rock formation in Utah’s Arches National Park. The Balanced Rock, a top natural wonder, is a giant rock balanced on top of a thinner pedestal of stone underneath it. The 0.3-mile loop trail leads to a view of The Windows and the distant La Sal Mountains — and the beginning of the trail is also paved and wheelchair accessible. According to NPS, it should take about 20 minutes to walk through this trail, and hikers can continue around Balanced Rock by following a marked path. The elevation gain of the trail is less than 50 feet.
There are boardwalks that take you back in time, and then there are boardwalks that lead you into a scenic lush forest. The Boardwalk Loop at Congaree National Park in South Carolina is the latter — and it’s the ideal beginner hiking trail. The 2.4-mile boardwalk has an easily accessible flat surface that makes for a breezy stroll into the Congaree wilderness to spot wildlife amidst the towering green trees.
There are over 500 miles of hiking trails in this relatively underrated national park that range from easy to very strenuous levels of difficulty, according to the NPS. The Story of the Forest Trail in Shenandoah is an almost 2-mile-long loop located near Syria, Virginia, where hikers can spot beautiful wildflowers and sometimes wild animals. It’s the best place if you’re looking for a quintessential nature walk.
The National Park Service suggests visiting the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail in California’s Death Valley National Park during February and April when the native Salt Creek Pupfish are active and can be seen splashing around along the boardwalk streams. The flat half-mile loop is easy to walk on and is wheelchair accessible. Death Valley, with its complex geological formations and below sea-level disposition, is one of the 50 best things to do in California that aren’t Disney or the beach.
Old Faithful may be the most iconic landmark in Wyoming, but Yellowstone also has much more to offer. Wraith Falls Trail is a short and easy hike with a splendid view of one of Yellowstone National Park's beautiful waterfalls. It’s located in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, a 1-mile there-and-back trail that begins and ends at the same trailhead. The elevation gain is only 65 feet, making it a no-brainer if you’re looking for a painless trail to hike in Wyoming.
Besides the Douglas-fir forest and lake views, one of the highlights of Trout Lake Trail is the wildlife along the way, a great option for animal lovers. Along with wildflowers, look for black bears in the meadows of the northeastern part of the park and always keep a safe distance. The 1.5-mile trail is best hiked in the summer and fall.
The Crater Rim Trail in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park goes around the Kilauea’s summit caldera. And you might be surprised to know you can actually hike through an active volcano. This easy hike is no ordinary stroll through a national park — along with the active volcanoes, it’s bursting with native plant and animal habitats, symbols of Hawaiian deities, scenic vistas and a lush rainforest. The hike is accessible from several locations along Crater Rim Drive.
The area of Bear Lake is one of the most popular in all of Rocky Mountain National Park for its wonderful balance of beauty and accessibility. Hikers can take a 1-mile stroll around Bear Lake with a barely noticeable elevation gain of 20 feet to see the park’s mountains and green trees reflecting on the lake below. Along the same trail, hikers looking to continue can follow through the pine forest another half mile to Nymph Lake, which is covered in colorful water lilies. The trail becomes difficult to pass in the winter, usually requiring spikes.
Queens Garden Trail is considered to be the least difficult trail when entering Utah’s Bryce Canyon from the Rim Trail. While trekking the Queens Garden trail, hikers will see strange natural wonders like hoodoos — tall, thin spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of a badland. The hike is pretty short, too, at less than 2 miles long.
Yosemite Valley in California has no shortage of scenic escapes with mountains, meadows and waterfalls everywhere you look — it’s a place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. And though there are some strenuous trails in the national park, there are a few easier ones for beginners, like Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, which is only a mile-long loop with an elevation gain of just 50 feet. The short walk leads to a top-to-bottom view of Lower Yosemite Falls, where visitors are likely to hear the roaring falls before even seeing them.
Another beginner-friendly trail in Yosemite is the Cook’s Meadow Loop, which takes trekkers through the heart of its most iconic and photographed views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point and Sentinel Rock without a strenuous hike. The straightforward and wheelchair-accessible loop is flat and only a mile long.
© Bradley Dailey | Dreamstime.com
Out of all the hiking trails in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the easiest may be the Window Trail. The short trail is only a quarter-mile long and leads to a view of an intricately eroded canyon in the popular Badlands Wall with structures that almost look like pointed stone pyramids or abandoned churches in a desert region.
© Robert Waltman | Dreamstime.com
Arches National Park can be found in Moab, the prettiest town in Utah, with its stunning rock formations and red sand. The Skyline Arch trail is a short hike on a flat and well-defined path — ideal for beginners. A fun fact that you can share on your hike is that one night in November 1940, a large chunk fell out of the arch and instantly doubled the size of the arch opening.
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Heron Pond is a very popular spot for viewing birds and other wildlife, and the Swan Lake Loop Trail is as magical as it sounds. The charming loop in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park winds through forests and wetlands below snowcapped mountains. In autumn, the park is one of the best places to see fall colors.
The Ship Harbor Trail is a family-friendly 1.3-mile trip along the beautiful shore of Acadia National Park in Maine. The first loop of the trail is wheelchair accessible and the second loop is mostly flat with a few log-framed steps. A number of habitats exist along the trail’s Southwest Harbor, so be on the lookout for some wildlife. The mudflats and ocean views make for a peaceful, calming and beautiful hike.
There aren’t many national parks where you might be walking along with an alligator, but Everglades can make that claim. The Anhinga Trail is one of the park’s most popular trails because it takes walkers through a sawgrass marsh where they may find some other species basking in the yearly summerlike weather. Nearby wildlife includes alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons, egrets and more.
Sunrise Nature Trail in Mount Rainier National Park is a 1.5-mile route through subalpine meadows where hikers can catch breathtaking views of Mount Rainier and the Cascades. The trail begins at the upper end of the Sunrise picnic area, which naturally means it’s one of the best places to watch a gorgeous sunrise.
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