I love wildlife and cool rock formations as much as the next person, but what really draws me to national parks is the hiking.
I have visited nearly 40 national parks, memorials, preserves, etc., around the country. They all hold a special place in my heart, but the ones that really stand out are those where I challenged myself with a hike.
There is no better way to feel like you have truly explored a place than by putting your feet on the trail and giving your lungs and legs a good work out.
It was a hard choice, but I managed to narrow my favorite’s list down to three of the best national park hiking trails. I hope this list inspires you to get out and hit the trail!
1. Highline Trail – Glacier National Park
Distance: 11.8 mile loop (or 7 miles out and back)
Hiking is a popular activity at Glacier National Park. With over 700 miles of trails that scale snow covered peaks, trek past glacier fed waterfalls, and skirt the edge of deep blue lakes, it’s no surprise that the park reports more than half their annual visitors take at least one hike while visiting.
We’ve visited Glacier twice, and both times enjoyed some truly spectacular hikes. The second time we tackled the Highline Trail Loop. This popular trail travels high above the Going-to-the-Sun Road, along an open ridge called the ‘garden wall’.
There’s a couple different ways to hike this trail. You can either begin at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and hike a total of 7 miles out and back to Haystack Pass.
Or you can leave your car at the Loop parking area, take the shuttle up to the visitor center, and then hike nearly 12 miles along the ridge and through the forest back to your car. That’s the route we chose.
While it’s a long hike, the elevation gain of 1950 feet is spread out in such a way that there’s really only one steep section, which in my mind ranks it as more moderate than difficult.
However, it’s worth noting that this trail is not for those with a fear of heights. The first section requires a walk (or for some what might feel like a march of death) along a 5-foot wide ledge that hangs like a shelf off the side of the cliff.
It’s a short section — less than a mile — and there are cables for safety, but it’s not for everyone.
If you can make it through that test of will you’ll be rewarded by a long section of gentle uphill overlooking the Going-to-the-Sun Road below.
After roughly 2.5 miles the trail begins to climb up a series of switch backs to the top of Haystack Butte. Many people stop here to take in the view or have a lunch break.
This is also a good turning around point if you plan to do the hike as an out-and-back.
The trail continues at a gradual uphill, alternating between open and wooded sections to the Granite Park Chalet.
This impressive stone structure was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1913 and 1914 as a rest stop for travelers in the area.
There is a rooming house, a small concession area, and some picnic tables for resting and snacking.
We peeked in the windows of the rooming house and it looks like a comfy, if rustic, spot to spend a night or two. We heard that it’s a very popular destination and they recommend making reservations a year in advance!
Leaving the chalet, the trail goes downhill for the next four miles. Much of this section of the trail travels through an area that was burned by a large wildfire in 2003.
Evidence from the fire is everywhere, and what was once a wooded trail is now an open meadow.
At the bottom of the trail you will cross a stream and pop out of the woods onto the road across from the Loop parking area. You made it!