What Are The Best US National Parks Purely for Hiking?
For a long time we have wanted to make a list of the best US National Parks for hiking. A REAL list, mind you…not just a crappy click bait article, of which there is no shortage. Problem was, we had not yet visited enough of the National Parks to put forth a credible argument.
With our recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, however, we feel we have now visited enough of the parks to start compiling a serious list.
Note that this is not a list of best National Parks overall. Indeed, we would question if such a list is even possible. Some years back Brian toyed with making just such a list, but abandoned the effort after it became clear that a rational ranking of parks is completely impossible without a frame of reference. In other words, before you judge, you have to answer this question first…why do you go to the National Parks?
The answer to this question will very much determine what your ideal park will be. Here’s five general sorts of National Park visitors, each with a different answer to that question:
- The Outdoor Recreationist: Wants wilderness, but needs some degree of developed facilities and infrastructure. Hikers are a subspecies of the Outdoor Recreationist. So are paddlers, trail runners, mountain bikers, rock climbers, cross country skiers…
- The Backwoodsman: Wants total wilderness. No trails, no facilities required; in fact the less the better.
- The “Auto Tourist:” Wants well developed facilities, convenience and sightseeing opportunities close to (preferably on) blacktop.
- The ‘Eco-Tourist’: Destination oriented tourists who come from afar; want whatever it is they want, and are willing to pay a high price (in sweat or money) and stand in lines to get it.
- Rubes: Want to be just about anywhere else but in a National Park but are there anyway because, you know, it’s vacation and you gotta spend the money somehow.
Depending on what sort of experience you want to have, a the appeal of a park will vary greatly. For example, hikers will doubtless enjoy the great balance of backwoods and established trails offered by Glacier, Zion and Grand Teton National Parks; auto-tourists will gravitate toward the auto-friendly parks such as Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountain; backwoods junkies will doubtless head way off the grid to Alaska. Eco Tourists will want the “Big Ticket” items like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. The rubes, meanwhile, will be happy anyplace with wi-fi and a snack bar.
Our list of the best National Parks overall would be heavily biased toward our (and particularly Brian’s) point of view. Each persons opinion will vary, and what’s right for us may not be right for most anyone else.
There have been some interesting attempts at such a list. Reneeroaming has a very solid one which places the Alaskan Parks quite high, an entirely rational conclusion. However, she uses a ‘points’ ranking system…Brian is not a big fan of this sort of thing, because a weighted system assumes you can balance out a variety of apples/oranges things that in truth will resist comparison.
For example, Petrified Forest has better facilities than North Cascades — because PFNP was developed for car touring, whereas NCNP was deliberately left wild and rugged. To assign more ‘points’ to Petrified Forest for having better facilities would effectively be punishing North Cascades for failing to be what it is isn’t supposed to in the first place.
There’s a few choices on this list we cannot agree with under any circumstances, such as placing Great Smoky Mountain National Park above the Grand Canyon, Zion or Yellowstone. And what the heck did the Canyonlands do to land at number 33? Nor can we fathom why hidden gem Guadelupe Mountains bottoms out at 50th with a rating of 5 of 10 points in the ‘scenic’ category. That sure wasn’t the Park Brian saw.
Nonetheless, this list is pretty good compared with most we’ve seen, and gets far more right than wrong. If we had to go with any list we’ve seen online (most of which turn out to be godawful clickbait) we’d be tempted to go with this one.
Brian and Sylvia obviously DO believe it’s possible to present a list of the best National Parks for hiking. Hikers are a smaller community than ‘visitors’; they share the same ideas, the same goals, the same purpose. You might not get complete agreement, but you could achieve consensus. The things that make a park great for hiking in our opinion are:
- Lots of great, challenging trails
- Lots of great, unique scenery
- Lots of opportunities to VIEW the scenery
- Some developed infrastructure
- Not too crowded (some crowds on the blacktop side of the trail head are tolerable)
Here’s the first attempt at the list, which is subject to change:
- Zion Canyon
- King’s Canyon
- Grand Canyon
- Mount Rainier
- Grand Teton
- Rocky Mountain
We have not quite settled on the tenth. Presently we are leaning towards Canyonlands, but our minds could be swayed. If we had to pick one more…probably Haleakala.
We have visited all those parks save, alas, Yosemite…but I don’t think anybody really disputes that John Muir’s old stomping ground is in fact one of the premier places to hike in the lower 48, if not the world.
Note that none of the National Parks of Alaska appear here. This is mostly because we have not visited the Frontier State yet. But it is also a reflection of Alaska’s exceptionally wild and rugged character. There are very few marked trails in Alaska, very limited facilities, a very long list of things that can go wrong in the back country and a very short list of options when it does. Because of this, we feel Alaska, great as it may be, is perhaps unsuited for traditional hiking. We might change our minds on this once we have had an opportunity to explore.
Apart from Alaska, the best candidate for that last spot among parks we have NOT yet visited might be North Cascades.
Some notable omissions…Brian and Sylvia are more familiar with Great Smoky Mountain National Park than any other, having visited it at least once every year for over a decade. We are entirely sanguine about our decision to leave it off the list — if we had a second group of ten, it would fall somewhere in the middle of that group. While we feel that it is the best National Park for hiking east of the Rockies, we are also quite convinced that the hiking in the western United States is FAR better than the eastern. You can read our article on the subject for more on why this is so.
We love Great Smoky Mountain National Park…but it is not in our top ten list for hiking
(Also note that if Brian were to pick his favorite place to hike in the east, he would pick the White Mountains of New Hampshire above the Smokies. It’s not even close, really.)
We are also ashamed to say we have not visited Maine’s Acadia, despite its being the closest National Park to Boston, Brian’s place of birth. We intend to visit in the near future, and will keep an open mind; but it will take a fair piece of convincing for us to promote this tiny and very crowded park to the first group of ten.
By the way, if you wondering why Yellowstone isn’t on this list…well, it’s obviously a magical place, but the granddaddy of all National Parks is simply not a hiking Mecca. It was designed so that masses of people could visit and see its treasures right from the roadside, not from a trail. Yellowstone’s trail system ranks not only behind that of Glacier, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks, but also that of nearby wilderness areas such as Wind River, Bob Marshal and Maroon Bells/Snowmass.
We’ll continue to build this list as we go…we’ve got an open mind when it comes to hiking!