The benefits of hiking ... let us count the ways: a sense of adventure, connection with the great outdoors, an excuse to exercise, time away from it all. But some of the most well-known national parks charge hefty entrance fees and, for overnight treks, require expensive camping permits, not to mention the outlay for gear, food, camping permits, and so on. Cheapism.com searched backpacking websites and hiking best-of lists and interviewed knowledgeable hikers to assemble a catalog of 20 trails that can be accomplished in one day; most are free and the others charge a small fee.
20 Amazing Hikes in the U.S.
Tucked away in Michigan's wild Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is named for its breathtaking rainbow-colored sandstone cliffs plunging into Lake Superior. The Chapel Loop Trail leads past the 60-foot Chapel Falls waterfall surrounded by leafy forest, then winds atop the sandstone cliffs, at times only a few feet from the edge. Expect spectacular views of coastline and gravity-defying rock arches rising over the water, including Grand Portal Point and Lover's Leap. You'll also get picture-perfect views of Chapel Rock, a rock formation rising out of Lake Superior with a lone tree perched on top, its roots bridging the mid-air gap to the mainland. The trail ends at Mosquito Beach, where a creek flows over sandstone steps that turn into giant rock layers visible beneath the waters of Lake Superior.
Walking among giant ferns while gazing up at 300-foot ancient giants at Redwood National Park puts the relationship between humans and nature into striking perspective. These old-growth redwood forests contain the tallest and most massive tree species on Earth. Tall Trees Grove is an ideal place to appreciate the pristine natural beauty. A 3.9-mile hike there and back runs past the 367.8-foot Howard Libbey Tree and a plethora of indigenous flora and fauna. Permits are free but only 50 are issued each day, so get there early to snag one. For a two-day overnight trip, hike the Redwood Creek Trail that leads to Tall Trees Grove (8 miles each way).
Natural stone bridges are a highlight of Utah's stunning rock landscapes. This 8.6-mile loop showcases three natural bridges plus well-preserved Pueblo ruins. Starting at the Sipapu trailhead, hikers cross the longest bridge, the 225-foot Sipapu Bridge, and then continue on to the Kachina Bridge, 204 feet long. Along the way, search for petroglyphs on the canyon walls nearby. The loop winds up in Armstrong Canyon with the park's oldest bridge, the Owachomo Bridge, estimated to be 100,000 years old. A seven-day pass to the park costs $3 a person or $6 for each vehicle. This hike is easy to do in a day, but if you want to camp overnight, the nightly fee is $10.
Highlighting the last undeveloped stretch of coastline on Kauai's south shore, this trail explores secluded beaches and sand dunes as well as narrow cliffside paths with stunning views of the ocean and limestone rock formations. Start at Shipwreck Beach where brave souls can copy the cliff jump into the ocean seen in the movie "Six Days Seven Nights." Along this two-mile hike, check out the ancient heiau ho'ola, a place of worship where fish were once offered to the god of the sea to ensure good fishing. Between November and March, the Paa dunes may offer sightings of humpback whales migrating back to the islands from Alaska. You also might see sea turtles or the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Local fisherman may know where to spot a nene, Hawaii's state bird, of which there are only 800 in existence.
Probably one of the most remote hikes on this list, Clayton Lake has no cellphone service, but the out-of-the-way location has a distinct advantage: It's a certified International Dark Sky Park, which means it boasts some of the best stargazing in the country. The Star Point Observatory has telescopes to use for free and a retractable roof, and hosts "star parties" at least monthly where visitors can learn about the night skies. Sitting on the edge of a 170-acre reservoir in the middle of rolling grasslands, hikers can trek to and across the dam, perhaps catching a glimpse of pronghorn antelope. They can also hike to Clayton Lake's other main attraction -- 500 preserved dinosaur footprints. These are some of the best examples of dinosaur tracks that can be seen outdoors, not in a museum. Day trips cost $5 for a car, and overnight camping is $8 a night.
Just east of Eugene, Fall Creek Trail is best known for its natural swimming holes and beautiful fall foliage. But the trail has something to offer year-round: colorful spring wildflowers, summer swimming and fishing, wild mushrooms and vivid leaves in fall, and peaceful winter solitude. Most of the trail runs parallel to Fall Creek, with a number of charming footbridges, bubbling side streams, a few whitewater sections, and the occasional rainbow trout. A span of burned-out forest from the 2003 Clark Fire is a startling contrast to the rest of the old-growth forest, with virgin Douglas fir and red cedar that have stood for 300 to 500 years. Just after the Slick Creek crossing is a large cave where Native Americans used to find shelter during long hunts. This family-friendly trail is 13.7 miles round-trip.
Unusual rock formations are the trademark of Starved Rock State Park, but there are also a number of secret waterfalls and canyons to explore. There are 13 miles of marked trails and many more unmarked trails, and most of them intersect, so your best bet is to grab a trail map from the visitor's center and bring along a sense of adventure. Starved Rock itself is the highest point in the park, surrounded by canyons like Ottawa and Aurora that can be hiked along the rim or all the way to the bottom. This is a popular day trip from Chicago, so the park can be crowded in the summer, especially on weekends. For a really special experience, go in the winter to see the frozen icefalls. Winter visitors also might glimpse a bald eagle.
Sweet wild blueberries, groves of paper-white birch trees, and sweeping views of the lakes region are some of the iconic New England treasures on this adventurous 5.5-mile loop. Hikers navigate exposed rock ledges, steep rock scrambles, a tight-squeeze section through a series of caves, and a 50-foot ascent via three ladders up a sheer rock wall. The summits of Mount Percival and Mount Morgan, both over 2,000 feet, offer panoramic views of Squam Lake and Franconia Ridge -- views best enjoyed with a handful of fresh-picked wild blueberries.
You don't have to go to a national park to enjoy an exhilarating hike with a photo-worthy view. How about a hike across the Brooklyn Bridge? The bridge spans the East River connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, a 1.1-mile walk across. A dedicated pedestrian walkway rises above the vehicle traffic and provides much better views than driving across. A few of the famous landmarks visible during the walk include the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Freedom Tower at 1 World Trade Center, Ellis Island, and New York Harbor. Start your hike from the Brooklyn side so you can take in the iconic Manhattan skyline.
Nebraska probably isn't the first place you think of for amazing hikes, but the Ponca State Park might change your mind. Forests of oak and walnut trees blanket the bluffs of the Missouri River, surrounded by the rolling hills of mixed-prairie grasslands. Here, the Missouri River -- the longest river in the United States, or as locals call it, the "Big Muddy" -- is preserved as a National Recreational River and looks more wild and scenic than elsewhere along the river. In spring, the Whitetail Trail passes through meadows of wildflowers in bloom, including white cicely, blue phlox, and Canada violet, and hikers will experience the sights and sounds of orioles, indigo buntings, and other songbirds. In fall, brilliant foliage and migrating waterfowl make for scenic hiking along the prairie ridgetops. Bald eagles, elk, and beavers also inhabit the park. For $5 a person hikers get access to several short, pleasant trails, including the Whitetail Trail (1.3 miles), the Old Oak Trail (1.9 miles) that leads to a 366-year-old oak tree, and the Corps of Discovery Trail (1.4 miles) with excellent views of "Big Muddy."
Bring your binoculars! As many as 100,000 raptors fly over this nature reserve each season on their way around (not over) Lake Superior. Visitors can see red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, bald eagles, golden eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, and other raptor species soaring over the 600-foot bluffs above the largest of the Great Lakes. The hike is a short two-mile stretch of the 296-mile Superior Hiking Trail running along Lake Superior's north shore. The hike starts at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth and ends at the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve's scenic overlook at Skyline Parkway. The best time to go for bird-spotting is mid-August through November. The "Big Days," during which tens of thousands of hawks fly over the reserve, are generally Sept. 10-25. Access is free, but both the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve and the Superior Hiking Trail are nonprofit organizations, so donations are appreciated.
Known as a premier rock-climbing destination, the intricate canyon system of Red River Gorge offers more than 60 miles of trails and more than 100 natural stone arches. For a panoramic view of the gorge, try the 6.1-mile Auxier Ridge Loop. The loop passes the 90-foot-tall Courthouse Rock and provides an interesting view of the park through a pair of 20-foot-wide windows at the Double Arch. Go in spring to smell the wildflowers or in fall to catch the leaves changing colors. In June and July, meadows of rhododendrons bloom pink. In winter, you may have the trail all to yourself. The park is free but a permit is required for backcountry camping.
Take a hike into the past at the Gettysburg battlefield, where 70,000 Confederate soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee famously fought 93,000 Union troops in a bloody three-day battle that left 51,000 Americans dead or wounded. Hike along the Billy Yank Trail (10 miles) and the Johnny Reb Trail (4 miles), which take you past a number of the site's historical landmarks and monuments. The visitor's center sells a booklet ($2) for each trail, sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America, that provides historical descriptions of each point of interest. Strong hikers can scramble to the top of Big Round Top on the Billy Yank Trail for a view from one of the highest points in the park. The Johnny Reb Trail offers a view from the perspective of a Confederate soldier. It includes Cemetery Ridge, the site of Pickett's Charge, as well as the National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Entrance to the park is free and the trails are dog-friendly.
Prepare for dramatic vistas on this hike, which starts on the valley floor and climbs gradually up through forests and meadows. When it rises above the treeline, you're greeted with a spectacular view of Harding Icefield -- a sheet of snow and ice spread over 300 square miles with 40 glaciers. Black bears are spotted almost daily near this trail, so hikers should educate themselves on bear safety. The Kenai Fjords National Park has no entrance fees or camping fees -- all you have to do is get there.
The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few national parks with no entrance fee, and is home to Mount Cammerer, one of the most rewarding -- and difficult -- hikes in the South. The trail gains 2,500 feet of elevation over 12 miles, starting out on the Chestnut Branch Trail and connecting to the Appalachian Trail. Mount Cammerer is 4,928 feet at its peak, straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The summit offers sweeping views of the forested Pigeon River Gorge as well as neighboring peaks, like the 6,621-foot Mount Guyot.
The 18.5-mile stretch of park along the shores of Lake Michigan offers city-goers a new way to explore Chicago and hikers a change from wilderness scenery. Take in the blue waves of Lake Michigan on one side and iconic Chicago architecture on the other. Not only is the trail free, but it passes several other free attractions, including the Lincoln Park Zoo, Grant and Jackson Parks, and Navy Pier. You also can stop at the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, the Chicago Children's Museum, and Soldier Field. Be sure to enjoy the view of the downtown skyline from outside Adler Planetarium. Parts of the trail may be crowded when the weather is nice, but you'll be rubbing shoulders with locals. Avoid going in the winter when the frigid winds whipping across the lake are brutal.
Gulf Hagas is a perfect day hike section of the Appalachian Trail for those with a sense of adventure. It's part of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, considered the wildest and most challenging part of the Appalachian Trail. Hikers first wade through the Pleasant River on foot, then the trail passes seven waterfalls, most of which are ideal for a refreshing swim, particularly the scenic Screw Auger Falls. Views of the 3-mile gorge reveal why it's nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the East." Wildlife abounds on this moderately difficult 8.9-mile loop. The cost is $6 for Maine residents and $10 for out-of-staters.
Beautiful (and free) hikes are in abundance in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles. The Solstice Canyon Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains offers a rare shaded canyon hike with plenty of interesting features to explore, including a small waterfall and creek and a secret Virgin Mary statuary. Perhaps the most intriguing is the ruins of a 1950s mansion that burned in 1982. There are several other ruins, as well as the oldest still-standing stone building in Malibu. The 5.9-mile path is mostly paved and dogs are welcome. For peaceful ocean views, continue on the Deer Valley Loop trail for 1.3 miles. A more challenging option is the Rising Sun Trail, which climbs a steeper incline in full sun above the canyon floor, with views of the ocean and the canyon and ruins below. Parking is free but spots are limited, so get there early.
Brilliant red sandstone formations are the "fire" at the bottom of the "bowl" formed by gray limestone mountains. The dramatic and surreal landscape of the Bowl of Fire is a must-see for any visitor to Lake Mead. The 8-mile loop trail is challenging -- temperatures can be high and the landscape makes it easy to get lost. Perhaps the best way to explore the Bowl of Fire is to meander around, scrambling over the Jurassic-age red sandstone outcrops without worrying about the trail. If you lose your bearings, the suggestion is to go downhill, and you'll eventually end up at the Callville Wash and a local road. The entrance fee of $5 a person or $10 for a car includes seven days of access to the entire recreation area.
For those looking to conquer some (or all) of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Cascade and Porter Mountains are a perfect start. The 4.2-mile trip starts with a climb through forests and over rocks before breaking out onto the bald 4,098-foot summit of Cascade Mountain. The 360-degree view of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and the Great Range seems too good for such a relatively easy hike. Add on a side trip to nearby Porter Mountain for more views with fewer crowds at the summit. With six million acres, the Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. After Cascade and Porter Mountains, you might find yourself eager to conquer the other 44 High Peaks.