The 7 Best and Most Spectacular Hikes in America’s West
Sky of West Point Evening / © Wei Zhang / Flickr
Throughout the history of America, the West has been a source of legend and wonder. It’s the site of our Manifest Destiny, a place of palatial forests and immense cliffs, the home of cowboys, bright stars, and howling coyotes. But really, when it comes down to it, the West is a great place to hike.
Yes the West is huge. It can be hard to figure out where, exactly, one should strike out for a mind-blowing hike. Other than tropical jungle, there’s every type of terrain imaginable. There are rainforests, high deserts, mountains, canyons, plains, and even an entire landscape of nothing but lava rock called Craters of the Moon.
Don’t let size and variety discourage you. Here are the best hikes to get you started exploring the western United States.
Grinnell Glacier: Glacier National Park, MT
Grinnell Glacier Trail / © Jeff P / flickr
They don’t call Glacier National Park the Crown of the Continent for nothing. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with over 700 miles of trails. Here, you’ll find one of the most spectacular hikes in the West. Why? Because you’ll get the chance to view a rapidly disappearing sight: Grinnell Glacier. You have two choices for this hike. Either start at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, or shuttle across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The shuttle cuts off 3.4 miles of the hike, for a hike that totals 7.6 miles.
Along the way to Grinnell Glacier, you’ll glimpse stunning Grinnell Falls rushing from Grinnell Lake down the headwall. You’ll sail through alpine meadows and gaze out at 9,553 foot Mount Gould and Gem Glacier. Finally, you’ll encounter famous Grinnell Glacier, which was discovered by the founder of Audubon Society, George Grinnell.
Half Dome: Yosemite National Park, CA
Half Dome / © Mitchel Jones / Flickr
If you can get a permit for the cable section of the trail, Half Dome is one of the most phenomenal hikes you’ll take in your life. There’s a reason for the cable section—the dome is steep. At 14 miles, this hike is very difficult. Warning: people have died attempting this, both with and without the cables. But if you can summon the courage, it’s well worth it.
Start from the Mist Trail at dawn, ascend 900 feet past gigantic Vernal waterfall, and then Nevada Fall. Wear hiking boots with good traction. Bring at least a gallon of water. After the sub-dome you’ll reach the cables. Grip them tightly and take your time. At the top of Half Dome, you’ll partake in the most astonishing view of your life. Do not attempt this hike in rainy weather.
The Lost Coast Trail: King Range National Conservation Area, CA
Lost Coast / © Bureau of Land Management / Flickr
Total distance on the Lost Coast Trail is 25 miles, so be prepared for a multi-day event. It’s epic. From Mattole Trailhead in Northern California, you’ll encounter historic Punta Gorda Lighthouse. Then, you’ll follow the coastline on soft sand and rock beaches, private beaches where you can camp, redwood groves, fern grottoes, and rugged overlooks of the Pacific. Before you reach the southern Usal trailhead, a bluff with a vista over one-thousand feet above the ocean will afford you some whale-spotting opportunities—and will take your breath away.
Zion Narrows: Zion National Park, UT
Zion Narrows / © Robbie Shade / Flickr
This hike tops many a list—there’s nothing like it. Just be prepared to test the water. The Narrows of Zion National Park is the North Fork of the Virgin River, where the canyon walls close in, and your trail is the river. In the Wall Street section, you’re walled in by 600 feet of sheer red rock, shielded from the sun, wading through the cool water. Great for summer days. You’ll need a permit for the two longer, top down hikes. But the more casual bottom up hike, starting at Temple Sinawava and ending at Big Springs, doesn’t require a permit and is a delight. You’ll need waterproof shoes, and most people like to bring hiking staffs to help keep their footing on the slick river bed.
Pacific Crest Trail: Devils Lake, OR
Pacific Crest Trail / © Samantha Levang / Flickr
The entire Pacific Crest Trail extends from E.C. Manning Provincial Park in Canada to the border of Mexico. That’s the type of trip to test anyone’s abilities. But if you don’t have a whole five months to spend, try the 17 miles of trail stretching through the superb scenery of Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness. Start from the Fog Camp/Obsidian Trailhead on State 242. End at the South Sister Trailhead at Devils Lake. You’ll take in fir forests, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and the Obsidian Limited Entry area, covered in sharp black obsidian rock.
Hoh River Trail: Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, WA
Upper Hoh River Trail / © David Lee / Flickr
At 31 miles, the Hoh River Trail hike is a 3-day event that will introduce you to the incredibly lush rainforest eco-system. Towering moss-covered cedars, spruce, and fir trees rise out of a verdant bed of moss and ferns. You’ll find plenty of places to camp along the way to the base of Mount Olympus. There, you’ll view the gorgeous Blue Glacier. Come equipped for the possibility of rain. And there’s a lot of wildlife, including elk and black bears. Black bears and other critters are attracted to food at campsites, so consult information on protecting your campsite.
South Kaibab Trail: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
South Kaibab Trail after thunderstorm / © Grand Canyon NPS / Flickr
On the South Kaibab Trail, you’ll experience the Grand Canyon scenery that is beyond comparison. The majority of this hike ushers you along the top of a ridge looking out on the mesas of the canyon. It’s 6.5 miles, with some strenuous switchbacks, so hydration is essential. Guides recommend taking this before 10 or after 4 to avoid peak heat. Midway through, aptly named Ooh Aah Point leaves you breathless with sheer visual magnificence. Approaching O’Neill Butte, Cedar Ridge offers an incredible panorama of desert canyon contours. Bring your easel and paints.
About The Author: Daniel Matthews is a freelance writer and musician from Boise, ID. As a travel enthusiast with a passion for the written word, he loves to write about different destinations when he gets the chance. Please find him on Twitter @danielmatthews0.