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.
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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.

You have one free day. One single, solitary day to see the wide, wild world. It may be the last 24 hours of your family vacation, a layover day during a business trip, or a late-summer Saturday with (finally!) no weddings, yard work, or soccer practice. You wish you had time for an overnight, but there's just one day. Today. How will you spend it?

May we suggest a dayhike? Before you start snickering, understand that we're not talking about an easy stroll down your neighborhood nature trail. We haven't traded in our tents and boots for a motel and sneakers. But we know that busy people sometimes need to squeeze their wilderness wanderings into the space of a day. And dayhiking has its rewards. With a lighter load, you can move more quickly and comfortably through life-list quality terrain, often seeing twice as much scenery as you would if carrying a pack. You can save time and money on food, gear, and overnight permits. And you'll avoid waiting lists for the trails you want to hike. Then there's the simple pleasure of pizza and beer at the end of every day.

With these rewards in mind, we want to send you on a butt-kicking, proud-to-be-a-backpacker, dawn-to-dusk wilderness adventure. Read the following pages for trails that let you...

>> Bag a week's worth of high peaks in North America's best ranges.

>> Hike to the bottom (and back) of the deepest canyons.

>> Explore the wild interior of classic national parks.

Hike A Handful Of High Places

Claim the crown jewels of any mountain range when you link several summits in one long day.

New York: Adirondacks' Great Range

High peaks are like potato chips: It's tough to stop after just one. You taste the sweet smell of balsam in the air, hear the crunch of tundra underfoot, and feel a sudden, irresistible craving for the next panoramic payoff. Fortunately, summits are better for your arteries, not to mention that part of your soul that needs the nourishment of high, quiet places.

My favorite big day back East involves a 24-mile traverse of the Adirondacks' Great Range. A daunting marathon of summits and saddles, this hike gains and loses more than 10,000 feet in elevation as it passes over eight 4,000-footers. The high point is New York's tallest peak, 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy, but each mountain offers its own delights. There are shimmering views of Vermont's Green Mountains, delicate clumps of diapensia clinging to fissures in lichen-encrusted rocks, and dwarf fir twisted by the wind into shapes so grotesque you wonder if trees feel pain. On the steeply tilted slabs leading to several of the summits, you understand why Easterners sometimes sniff at the Rockies: There's an airy, alpine feel to the high Adirondacks that complements the verdant forests below, reminding us that you can enjoy the best of both worlds in one day.

Starting from The Garden trailhead at the end of Johns Brook Road off NY 73 in Keene Valley, follow the Phelps Trail 9.1 miles to the summit of Marcy. Descend south via the Marcy Trail, taking the Elk Lake-Marcy, Bartlett Ridge, and Haystack Trails around to the Range Trail. Enjoy the wide open summits of Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, Armstrong, and Upper Wolf Jaw as you gradually descend to the Wolf Jaws Trail. Turn left to the Southside Trail, which passes several splendid swimming holes as it parallels Johns Brook back to The Garden.

Guide:Guide To Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region ($16.95, includes map).

Contact: Adirondack Mountain Club, (518) 523-3441; www.adk.org.

--Jonathan Dorn

Tennessee/North Carolina: Iron Mountain Gap to Nolichucky River

Just north of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this 17.8-mile section of the Appalachian Trail offers rugged climbs and nonstop scenery. One moment you'll be standing on the wide grassy bald at Beauty Spot, enjoying a 360-degree view of the green, undulating Black Mountains, Big Bald, Flattop, and Roan Mountain. Another, you'll be threading through a stand of red spruce, a rarity in the Lower 48, atop Unaka Mountain. The towering trees and bare, eerily quiet forest are unlike anything you'll experience elsewhere in the Southeast. Start at the trailhead on NC 226/TN 107 at the state line and finish at the Nolichucky River, near Erwin, TN. Catch a shuttle back to your car, or spend a day rafting the class III rapids.

Contact: Nolichucky/Unaka Ranger District; Cherokee National Forest, (423) 638-4109; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/cherokee.

--Gina DeMillo

Colorado: Hagues Peak to Lawn Lake

For a day that combines solitude, challenge, and superb scenery, try this 22-mile, shuttled loop that takes in 5,600 feet of elevation and Rocky Mountain National Park's fourth highest summit. Begin at the Dunraven/ North Fork trailhead, located 2 miles north of Glen Haven on Devils Gulch Road, near Estes Park. After 13 miles and several alpine lakes, you'll summit Hagues Peak (13,560 feet). From there, hike down the south ridge to Rowe Glacier Lake (snow travel often required) and continue down the 9-mile Lawn Lake Trail. Take a break at Lawn Lake and gaze upward to several surrounding high peaks, including Mummy and Fairchild Mountains. Hike out to the namesake trailhead near the Park's east entrance.

Contact: Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1242; www.nps.gov/romo.

--Steve Howe

Washington: Glacier Peak Wilderness

Steep, fractured walls and high, ragged peaks along the crest of the Cascades beckon hikers to this wilderness. Quiet groves of soaring old-growth conifers blanket the area below treeline. Above treeline, meadows stretch out below tattered ridges and at least a dozen summits cloaked with active glaciers. Cirques and hidden basins hold more than 200 lakes, many unnamed. To sample this splendor in a day, follow the 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail between Suiattle Pass, near Darrington, WA, and Stehekin Valley Road, between High Bridge and High Bridge Camp.

Contact: Mt. Baker Ranger Station, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, (360) 856-5700; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs.

--Buck Tilton

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

Tour The Wildest Parts Of Classic Parks

Don't have 2 weeks's vacation to backpack America's parks? See the country's best backpacking in a day.

Wyoming: Paintbrush/Cascade Canyons, Grand Teton National Park The first time I hiked the trail through Paintbrush Divide, high amid the rocky skyline of the Teton Range, I carried a heavy backpack. That burden didn't diminish my awe of jagged peaks tearing at the belly of the sky, but the climb seemed to last a lifetime. The second time I hoofed up to the pass, I carried a daypack and felt like my feet had wings. I can honestly report that not feeling physically beaten, and enjoying pizza and beers that evening, did nothing to diminish my appreciation for the views. I saw the best of this national park, sights usually reserved for multiday hikers.

The loop hike linking Paintbrush and Cascade canyons in Grand Teton National Park is arguably the park's premier long dayhike or single-night backpacking trip. The canyons complement one another like works of art in different media--Paintbrush, a canvas of brilliant geologic color arrayed in bands across towering rock walls; Cascade, a sculpture of stone and water with great cliffs split by waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet. Between the two lies the hike's crux, 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide, where you're rewarded with a panorama of peaks. Tucked into an amphitheater of tall cliffs at the head of Cascade Canyon's north fork, Lake Solitude invites you to an icy bath. The Paintbrush-Cascade loop covers nearly 20 miles, all on good trail, and climbs nearly 4,000 feet. Start at the String Lake trailhead off Teton Park Road, just north of Jenny Lake. Cascade Canyon provides a more gentle descent than Paintbrush, so the recommended direction of travel is going up Paintbrush.

Guides: Free hiking maps and brochures are available through the park visitor center and online. Teton Trails, by Katy Duffy and Darwin Wile (Grand Teton Natural History Association, 307-739-3606; www.grandtetonpark.org; $6.95).

Contact: Grand Teton National Park, (307) 739-3300; www.nps.gov/grte.

--Michael Lanza

Maine: Acadia National Park Traverse

If you've passed on hiking Acadia because there's no backcountry camping, you've missed some of the finest seacoast views in the country from surprisingly rugged, glacier-sculpted "peaks" that rise 1,500 feet above the Atlantic. On this 13.5-mile traverse, you'll bag the park's six highest summits, hike above the trees, and earn your views. From the Park Loop Road in the east to ME 198 in the west, link these trails: Bear Brook, Beechcroft, Dorr Mountain East Face, Dorr Mountain, Dorr Mountain Notch, Cadillac Mountain South Ridge, Cadillac Mountain West Face, Pemetic Mountain, Pemetic West Cliff, Pond, Penobscot Mountain, Sargent Pond, Sargent Mountain South Ridge, Grandgent, and Parkman Mountain.

Contact: Acadia National Park, (207) 288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad.

--M. Lanza

Wyoming/Montana: Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park

The best time to knock off this 18- to 22-mile hike is during the shoulder seasons, when snow locks up the high country and wildlife lingers in the valleys. You'll likely start and end in the dark, but daylight will reward you with classic Yellowstone views and close encounters with bison herds. The path follows the river's spectacular lower gorges, passing by dark canyon walls with the river booming around corners and over Knowles Falls. Most of the hike is downhill or level, punctuated with a couple of moderate uphill climbs. The biggest challenge is the often-hazardous crossing of Hellroaring Creek, at mile 2.2. When I went, in November, the water was partially frozen. I wasted an hour finding a way across at some risk; instead, I could have spent the time walking the extra 1.7 miles upstream to a bridge. Schedule an hour for a car shuttle, dropping a car in Gardiner, MT, at the trailhead just north of the Yellowstone River bridge. Drive back to the Hellroaring trailhead, near Tower Junction on Tower-Mammoth Road, to start.

Contact: Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell.

--Alan Kesselheim

California: Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

The 16.4-mile round-trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome is an exercise in confronting the unbelievable. First-time hikers gaze doubtfully at the twin lines of steel cable handrails ascending a 45-degree granite slab. But the tasty views before the cables are but an appetizer for the satisfying meal waiting on top: a panorama encompassing Yosemite Valley and a sweep of the High Sierra. From the Happy Isles trailhead, take the John Muir Trail, the Mist Trail alternate route, then rejoin the John Muir to the Half Dome Trail.

Contact: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose.

--M. Lanza