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Best Dayhikes In America

With strong legs and an ambitious plan, you can see more wild country in 12 hours than some backpackers see in a week, and still make it home in time for dinner.

A Ditch In A Day
Traverse a billion years of weathered rock when you hike deep into a canyon (and back) in a day.

Arizona: Grand Canyon Rim To River

Descend thousands of feet into a canyon in a day and you’ll witness not only billions of years of geological handiwork, but weather that transcends several seasons. Jane and I experience this as we huddle on a ledge that’s 1,500 feet below the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and 3,000 feet above the Colorado River. From the shelter of a rock overhang, we watch fat snowflakes and grape-size hail pellets spiral past our faces and down into the abyss of Bass Canyon. Scanning the walls of the canyon, I also realize that we may be the only hikers watching the storm swirling around us.

We’re some 20 raven-miles west from the crowds hiking the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails, the dayhikers’ highways to the canyon floor. Unlike most rim-to-river dayhikes in Grand Canyon National Park, the South Bass sees few people. Only true solitude seekers make the 30-mile, dirt-road pilgrimage through the Kaibab National Forest and Havasupai Reservation to reach the South Bass. (Contact the park for directions.)

As the storm passes through, we listen to an eerie vibrating noise that’s getting louder. We are so utterly alone that anything seems possible, and we half-joke that the industrial-strength humming might be an approaching UFO. A spaceship-size cloud floats by us, followed by a loud rumble. Thunder. We laugh at the realization of what the noise actually is. The canyon’s massive walls and gaping space does strange things to sound–and to your mind.

When the sky settles down, we resume our trek, searching for cairns where the path becomes faint. By the time we reach the bottom at Bass Rapids, the sky is blue and we collapse on a broad sandy beach and listen to the roar of churning water. Another good thing about the South Bass is that the top is a few hundred feet lower here than at more popular trailheads. If you’re hiking the whole canyon in a day, that gives you just a little bit longer to enjoy surprising sights and sounds below the rim.

Guides: Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, by Ron Adkison ($14.95). Grand Canyon National Park (Trails Illustrated/National Geographic Maps; backpacker.com/mapstore; $9.95).

Contact: Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca.

–Annette McGivney

Nevada: Twin River Canyons Loop

Hiking a river canyon in a single day is an unmatched experience for any hiker. Covering two canyons in a day is sublime. This 15-mile loop climbs South Twin River Canyon, crosses an aspen-shaded pass, and descends the more rugged North Twin River Canyon back to the trailhead. It offers reliable water and unique canyon scenery, with buttressed ridges soaring high above historic mine ruins. Expect river crossings that can be deep in spring or after heavy rain. You’ll find the trailhead 6 miles up North Twin River Road (Forest Service Road 080), 67 miles north of Tonopah, NV, via US 95 and NV 376.

Contact: Tonopah Ranger District, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, (775) 482-6286; www.fs.fed.us/htnf.

–S. Howe

Utah: Owl Creek/Fish Creek Canyons Loop

This film-chewing route offers a brilliant introduction to southeast Utah for the newcomer or a reminder of its scenic splendor for the experienced canyon hiker. Owl and Fish Creeks have sculpted majestic stone cathedrals deep into the vast scenic expanse of Cedar Mesa. It’s a tough 17 miles (about 15.5 in the canyons, 1.5 of mesa top) to complete a loop of the two canyons in a day. From the trailhead off UT 261 near Blanding, the trail drops down into Owl and climbs even more steeply up again from Fish. In the canyon, you’ll find many reasons to linger: well-preserved Anasazi ruins, towering sandstone beauty, picturesque Nevills Arch, virtually irresistible side canyons. Permits are required and available at the trailhead.

Contact: BLM Moab District, San Juan Resource Area, (435) 587-1500; www.blm.gov/utah/moab.

–B. Tilton

Pennsylvania: Pine Creek Gorge

Hike Pine Creek Gorge and you’ll see why it’s dubbed the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania." Follow the 30-mile West Rim Trail and you’re guaranteed some of the widest-and no doubt the deepest-views in the state. Steep canyon walls are blanketed in mixed hardwood forest that comes alive with color every fall. The rambling vein of Pine Creek flows 1,000 feet below the rim. Additional trails lead you down where you can relax and soak your feet. Access the West Rim Trail through Colton Point State Park, 5 miles south of US 6 at Ansonia in north-central Pennsylvania.

Contact: Tioga State Forest, (570) 724-2868; www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/stateforests/forests/tioga/tioga.htm.

–Kris Wagner

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