Photograph by Chris Butler, Photolibrary
Our national parks are full of peaks that can be reached by nearly anyone in good physical condition, with proper gear and preparation. Some of these are fairly easy hikes, while others are moderately strenuous. As always, know your personal limits and get advice from a park ranger before setting out for a summit.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
Many of the Sierra Nevada summits in this eastern California park (including 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states) are reached by either very long and strenuous day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. Lookout Peak, however, offers a wonderful vista for far less effort and preparation. You can make a short hike to the 8,531-foot top from the Big Meadows Road in Sequoia National Forest, but a more satisfying (and scenic) approach is via the Don Cecil Trail, which ascends the north-facing slope of Kings Canyon beginning in the Cedar Grove area. The hike climbs about 4,000 feet in seven miles, passing a lovely cascade on Sheep Creek along the way. The reward for this workout is an eye-popping panorama east toward the head of Kings Canyon, which shows the U-shaped form of a typical glacier-carved chasm. It’s truly one of the best views in the combined Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Located on the eastern boundary of Yellowstone in the Absaroka Range of northwestern Wyoming, 10,568-foot Avalanche Peak can be climbed on a trail that begins near Eleanor Lake, between the east entrance to the park and Yellowstone Lake. (Park at Eleanor Lake; the trail is across the road on the north side.) The hike ascends (somewhat steeply at times) 2,100 feet over 2.5 miles through lush conifer forests of subalpine fir and Englemann spruce—look for deer and elk—and an alpine basin to an above-timberline panorama that includes Yellowstone Lake to the west and the Absarokas to the east, with sharp-topped Hoyt Peak relatively near. The Avalanche Peak Trail may not be snow free until July, but the brief summer season brings a colorful display of subalpine wildflowers, including yellow columbine, purple larkspur, and Indian paintbrush. This is a popular summer hike, so if a degree of solitude is wanted, set out at dawn.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The aptly named Stony Man (the top is a mass of boulders and rocky cliffs) isn’t the highest point in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. But at 4,011 feet, it’s only 40 feet lower than Hawksbill, which rises in the Blue Ridge Range about three miles to the south. Stony Man arguably has better unobstructed views, including the vista west over the seemingly endless Appalachian Mountains, forested ridges stretching to the horizon like green ocean waves. Stony Man can be climbed from a parking area near mile 39 on the park’s Skyline Drive, or from the Skyland area a couple of miles south. Either way, it’s a hike of less than two miles with an elevation gain of less than 1,000 feet. But there’s a bonus to starting the hike at the trailhead near mile 39: a short spur trail to the cliffs of Little Stony Man. Get an early start to avoid some of the midday crowds on this popular hike. It is especially pretty in late June, when the mountain laurel is blooming.
Death Valley National Park, California
Some peak-seeking folks are going to head straight for Death Valley’s high point: 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, part of eastern California’s Panamint Range. It’s a hard 14-mile round-trip with a 3,000-foot elevation gain, rewarding hikers with fantastic views of mountains and, of course, Death Valley, including the lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level. An alternative, though, is nearby Wildrose Peak, which offers vistas nearly as good for quite a bit less work. The 4.2-mile (one way) trail to the 9,064-foot summit has great views along the way as it climbs 2,200 feet through piñon pine–juniper forest, open ridge tops, and barren scrubland dotted with cacti. The views begin to open up after the first two miles. These high- country hikes are among the few outdoor activities possible in summer in Death Valley National Park, where the average July daily high temperature is 115°F. Both trails begin in Wildrose Canyon, east of Wildrose Campground.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
The scenic symbol of this western Texas park is El Capitan, a massive limestone escarpment that rises prominently above the Chihuahuan Desert landscape at the southern terminus of the Guadalupe Mountains. El Capitan isn’t the highest point in the park, though: That’s 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, which is also the highest point in Texas. To stand atop the Lone Star State requires a hike of 4.2 miles, ascending around 3,000 feet. Don’t be discouraged at the start of the climb; the trail actually becomes less steep after the first 1.5 miles. The route doesn’t have a lot of shade, but at times it does pass through groves of pine and Douglas fir. Atop Guadalupe Peak sits an odd aluminum pyramid placed here in 1958, before this site was made a national park; it commemorates overland stage and air travel. On a clear day, the panorama of surrounding desert and mountains seems as big as Texas—and that’s plenty big. The round-trip hike takes from six to eight hours, depending on a person’s physical condition and desire.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Sure, anyone can drive to the Continental Divide on Trail Ridge Road, but a person gets real satisfaction by hiking up to the backbone of our continent. In north-central Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, this hike to the broad summit of 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain begins at picturesque Bear Lake and requires no climbing skills at all. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other for 4.4 miles while ascending 2,849 feet. But stop often along the hike, anyway, to enjoy spectacular views of Longs Peak (the park’s highest mountain at 14,259 feet) in the distance, with forested slopes, glacier-carved valleys, and alpine lakes nestled in between. Wildlife is plentiful. The rugged, pointed summit of 12,713-foot Hallett Peak, the next Continental Divide mountain south of Flattop is also easily seen. To reach that peak means continuing another 0.6 mile and ascending another 400 feet or so. Getting to the top of Hallett does require a bit of boulder scrambling, but it doesn’t require anything too difficult. On its summit, a hiker will probably feel more like a “mountain climber” than on the summit of Flattop, which is well described by its name. Both hikes are considered somewhat strenuous, with the round-trip to Flattop taking around eight hours; continuing on to the summit of Hallett would add a couple more hours. Beware of the high altitude if not acclimated to the Rocky Mountains; it can take an unexpected toll on a person.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Scenic views of Crater Lake are abundantly available to you in this Oregon park—an incredibly deep-blue lake set within the caldera (collapsed summit) of an ancient volcano that exploded 7,700 years ago. Quite naturally, one of the finest panoramas can be enjoyed from the 8,929-foot summit of Mount Scott, the park’s highest point and a popular hiking destination. Not only does Crater Lake lie in the foreground below but the long-distance vista takes in Mount Shasta in California and, in Oregon, Mount Thielsen and the Three Sisters. There’s a historic fire lookout station at the top, too, which is still manned. The alpine wildflower display below the summit can be spectacular in mid- to late July. The moderately strenuous trail to the top gradually climbs 1,479 feet in 2.5 miles, beginning at a trailhead on the eastern part of Rim Drive, which circles Crater Lake. A very snowy location, Crater Lake National Park may not be fully open until mid-July, and the high elevations may already be covered with snow by October.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
There’s plenty to see from roads and on short walks around this northern California national park, including four different types of volcanoes (plug-dome, composite, shield, and cinder cone) and hydrothermal features such as hot springs, bubbling mud cauldrons, and steam vents. For a wonderful overview of the volcano-shaped landscape, though, it’s a fairly simple matter, if acclimatized, to reach the top of Lassen Peak, ascending 2,000 feet over a distance of 2.5 miles. The largest plug-dome volcano in the world (one in which lava cooled and plugged the outlet vent), Lassen overlooks the rugged remains of an ancient volcanic peak called Mount Tehama, which collapsed hundreds of thousands of years ago. On a clear day, Mount Shasta, 75 miles to the northwest, is visible. Much nearer and to the northeast lies the Devastated Area, a landscape showing the effects of Lassen Peak’s violent May 22, 1915, eruption, which sent out massive amounts of ash, steam, and gas. Rising to 10,457 feet, Lassen Peak is one of the snowiest places in northern California, and most of the park’s main roads may not open until July. The trail to the top of Lassen may be snow free for only three months or so.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
The hike up to the glacier-carved summit of eastern Nevada’s Wheeler Peak is no lazy stroll—it has an elevation gain of about 2,900 feet over 4.3 miles—but look on the bright side: It’s a chance to stand atop a “thirteener” (Wheeler rises to 13,063 feet) after beginning your hike at the high starting point of 10,160 feet. The trail first snakes through aspen groves before climbing through meadows and stunted stands of Englemann spruce and limber pine and across an exposed ridgeline to the windswept summit beyond. Along the trail are excellent views of the Snake Range and the desert landscape of Great Basin below, with more mountain ranges off in the distance. The trailhead is reached via the paved, 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which climbs steeply from the park’s eastern boundary to Wheeler Peak Campground. The upper part of the road is usually closed by snow from November to May. While on Wheeler Peak, take the time to visit the groves of bristlecone pines, with some trees more than 3,000 years old, twisted and gnarled in picturesque shapes.
Zion National Park, Utah
Every year, thousands of people visiting this southern Utah park successfully make the 2.5-mile hike to Angels Landing to enjoy what may be the most spectacular view in one of America’s most beautiful places. This adventure comes with serious cautions, though: The last half mile traverses a very narrow ridge (in geological terms, a sandstone fin) with sheer drops on both sides. Even though chains have been installed for safety, several people have fallen to their deaths here. The Angels Landing Trail begins at the Grotto and ascends 1,488 feet to its 5,785-foot end point, a small summit once described as so isolated that “only an angel could land on it.” After a fairly easy two miles, the trail reaches Scout Landing, where many hikers decide not to continue; the last section is no place for those afraid of heights or for small children, and Scout Landing itself has a fine vista of Zion Canyon. Recalling their trip later, many visitors to Zion remember reaching Angels Landing as one of their most thrilling outdoor experiences. If you want to try this hike, you should keep its challenges in mind and start early in the day to avoid crowds.
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything—National Parks