Our Favorite National Parks Hikes

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When it comes to National Parks, we try to make a point to take a hike at every unit we visit. For us, that’s the best way to feel like we really experienced the park. Some National Parks hikes are better than others and we have had our fair share of not-great moments on hikes, like getting bombarded with ticks at Pea Ridge National Military Park or doing 17 miles on what was supposed to be a 12-mile loop in Yosemite Valley. 

But we have had some really epic experiences on the hundreds of miles of trails on the National Parks hikes we have done. We have walked in the footsteps of the American Revolution, seen amazing scenery and had heart-racing wildlife encounters. 

Exploring outside is a great way to travel during the pandemic.
Bonnie hiking the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

These are some of the best hikes we have done in a unit of the National Park Service and the ones we talk about and remember the most. We highly recommend each of these hikes. That said, we can’t guarantee you will have the same experience we did, especially when it comes to wildlife.

While some of these hikes are short and easy, it’s important to always be prepared for the unexpected. You should always carry water, be aware of the weather and make sure you know the route. We encourage all hikers to carry the 10 essentials, especially on longer hikes.

Read more about the 10 essentials here.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

National Parks Hikes Through History

You will find plenty of great historic National Parks hikes. You can walk in the footsteps of pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the Civil Rights leaders and the Founding Fathers. These are some of our favorite hikes that take you through history as much as nature.

Exploring the American Revolution at Minute Man National Historical Park

I love Minute Man National Historical Park. Not only is it the cradle of the American Revolution, it is also the cradle of American Literature. 

The heart of this park is the Battle Road Trail, a five-mile trail that mostly follows along the old road between Concord and Lexington. Since the battle started in Concord, at the North Bridge, we suggest you start there, check out the Old Manse and The Wayside for their connection to American Literature and then walk the trail towards Lexington.

The minuteman memorial stands a few feet from the North Bridge, where "the shot heard 'round the world" was fired in Concord.
The minute man memorial stands a few feet from the North Bridge, where “the shot heard ’round the world” was fired.

You will follow along the road that turned in a battlefield as the Minute Men pursued the retreating British troops in a running gun battle that started the American Revolution. This is a profound walk through history. Be sure to take note of the spot where Paul Revere was captured and the markers for the fallen, including markers for the British soldiers.

Read more about visiting Concord here.

Finding Pre-Columbian Ruins at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

To be fair, this isn’t much of a hike. It’s only a little bit longer than a mile but it’s a really pretty hike that takes you through one of the coolest places you can visit in the National Park Service. 

Gila Cliff Dwellings preserves Mogollian dwellings located inside a canyon with a creek flowing below. The trail takes you through the wooded floor of the canyon before ascending up to the cliffside dwellings. There you will find ladders that will take you up into the ruins and the ability to explore these ruins on your own. 

The hike up to see these rooms passes through a gorgeous canyon and is one of the prettiest National Parks hikes we have done.
You can see several structures under the cave ceiling.

The trail loops back to the parking lot, providing views in the distance of the nearby wilderness area. While this hike is short, it provides a unique look into pre-Columbian American culture and the views are great, too! We chose this as one of our favorite National Parks hikes for the nice views and incredible ruins.

Read more about Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Walking Through One of the Bloodiest Moments in the Civil War at Antietam National Battlefield

Most Civil War battlefields do not lend themselves to hiking just due to the large size of the battlefield. There are a few exceptions, though. In fact, the best way to see the Cornfield at Antietam is to get out and hike it.

The Cornfield was the site of some of the most brutal fighting on the bloodiest single day in the Civil War. Antietam is the first of only three battles fought in the North during the Civil War and was a sound defeat for the Confederate Army. 

Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.
Nearly 8,000 soldiers died at the Cornfield at Antietam.

The 1.6-mile loop trail at the Cornfield takes you around the field with several numbered stops to give you perspective on what happened during the battlefield. It is humbling to walk where nearly 8,000 men died in a few hours during the Civil War. It is well worth your time.

Read more about visiting Antietam National Battlefield here.

Exploring Apache Pass at Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Fort Bowie National Historic Site preserves the site of Fort Bowie and the site of the Battle of Apache Pass. Apache Pass was a critical location along the Southern Emigrant Trail and home to a freshwater spring. One of the things that makes this site unique is you have to hike in to get to the visitor center!

This hike is a 3-mile loop that takes you through several important sites on the way out to the ruins of the fort itself including the old cemetery, the location of the stage station and the spring. On the way back, the trail takes you by some of the positions of the Apache warriors during the Battle of Apache Pass.

Overlooking Fort Bowie
Overlooking Fort Bowie

We really loved hiking out this trail and learned a lot about the Apache War and the origins of the conflict. The hike is really great, too, with lots of really gorgeous views! We did this hike in the winter and it tried to snow on us the entire time, so be prepared for the weather no matter when you go.

Read more about our visit to Fort Bowie National Historic Site here.

National Parks Hikes Through Scenic Landscapes

These National Parks hikes are some of the prettiest hikes we have ever taken. Beyond just having pretty views, these hikes seem to have an “Oh wow!” moment around every corner. 

Staggering Views at Badlands National Park

When it comes to truly unique landscapes, you won’t find a better example than Badlands National Park. The grasslands lead up to beautiful rock formations carved by the elements. While temperatures can get pretty hot in the summer, getting out on the trail in the early mornings will reward you with gorgeous views.

We love the Castle Trail, which is a 10-mile out and back trail spanning the north side of the park. It’s mostly flat and winds through a mix of prairie and hardened badlands. It seemed like there are amazing views around every corner. 

Grant hiking the Castle Trail. Note the trail marker on the right.
Grant hiking the Castle Trail.

We spotted a whole bunch of bighorn rams along this trail, which was really cool. While there are some shorter trails, the Castle Trail really takes the cake here and it is worth getting up early on a hot day to enjoy this hike in the morning.

Read more about hiking in Badlands National Park here.

Finding Solitude in Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited of the National Parks in lower 48 states. It is remote and you have to take a several hour ferry or floatplane to get there. But it is one of the prettiest, most relaxing places I have ever been to. 

If you take the ferry to Rock Harbor, you can hike the trail out to Scoville Point. This hike is a 4.2-mile loop that takes you through dense forest with plenty of views of Lake Superior. I suggest hiking the trail clockwise to get the best views on the return trip.

Grant taking a picture near Scoville Point.
Grant taking a picture near Scoville Point.

While spotting wildlife in this area is kinda difficult, we did see a fox just off the trail and a moose at the end. The views at the point are guaranteed and more than worth your time. 

Read about our visit to Isle Royale National Park here.

Discovering a Glacier at Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park is one of our hidden gems of the National Park Service. This gorgeous park is located in eastern Nevada and is home to the only glacier in Nevada. 

When we got to Baker, NV, where the park is located, the temperature was in the mid-90s in the shade and it is very much desert. By the time we got up to the trailhead, we were over 10,000 feet, there were plenty of trees and temperatures in the mid-70s. 

A glacier is one unique feature in Great Basin NP.
One of the truly unique features of Great Basin National Park is the Wheeler Peak Glacier, a rock glacier and the only glacier remaining in Nevada.

There are several hikes at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive but the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail was our favorite. The 4.6-mile trail winds through a grove of Bristlecone Pine trees, some of which are more than 4,000 years old!

Beyond that, the trail ascends to a rocky debris field with a great view of Wheeler Peak and the glacier below it. Even in late June, there was still plenty of snow at elevation, so watch your step!

Read more about Great Basin National Park here.

Hiking Among the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks and has some of the most unique rock features you will ever see. While you can get a great view of the formations from the canyon rim, getting down in the canyon is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. 

We chose the Figure 8 Loop, a 7.2-mile combination of the Queen’s Garden, Peekaboo, Navajo and Rim trails. Since you start atop the canyon, you are presented with commanding views right off the bat. As you follow the trail, you end up among the hoodoos, the signature sandstone spires of the canyon. 

On the trail in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Bonnie at the Wall of Windows. She’s wearing her fleece-lined pants which proved quite warm despite the single digit temperatures.

For the most part, this trail is not tough but it does have some uphill sections that aren’t exactly easy. At the end, hiking back up out of the canyon is reasonably strenuous. The switchbacks are steep and we stopped to rest a few times on the way up. Still, the views were amazing and so worth the struggle. 

Read more about Bryce Canyon National Park.

National Parks Hikes – Animal Encounters

These are some of the best (and scariest) animal encounters we have ever had in a national park.  We can’t guarantee any sort of animal encounters on your National Parks hikes. That said, the experiences we have had have been nothing short of amazing, even if they were a bit hair-raising at the time! 

The Cycle of Life in Wind Cave National Park

When most folks visit Wind Cave National Park, they are solely concerned with visiting the cave. While the cave is gorgeous and we highly recommend a cave tour, the real treat at Wind Cave NP is what’s above ground. That’s why this park is one of our hidden gems.

The park is located at the southern end of the Black Hills and is home to quite a bit of wildlife, including a bison herd which is believed to be one of the last remaining genetically pure herds in the country. At a park ranger’s recommendation, we hiked the Lookout Point-Highland Creek-Centennial trails loop. This 4.5-mile trail took us through prairie and forests and made for one of our favorite wildlife encounters. 

One of our favorite National Park hikes in Wind Cave National Park.
You can turn the Lookout Point Trail into a loop by coming back on the Centennial Trail and it is one of our favorite National Parks hikes.

About 2/3 of the way through the loop, we heard a crash off to our right and a fawn came sprinting across right between Bonnie and I. We looked through the brush and saw a coyote chase another fawn. Its mother was following the chase, bleating the entire time. 

After several twists and turns, the coyote caught the fawn. The mother deer paced by, bleating the entire time. After watching for a bit, we decided to keep on hiking to avoid separating the mother deer from her other fawn which had run past us. 

This hike remains one of our favorite National Parks hikes.
The coyote caught up to the fawn and killed it.

Honestly, it was like watching an episode of Wild America happening right in front of us… so cool to see!

For more information on hiking in Wind Cave National Park, click here.

Finding Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular National Parks and for good reason. The drives are amazing, the views are staggering and there are plenty of great National Parks hikes. There’s also a lot wildlife in the park and you can’t help but see elk as you drive through. But it wasn’t elk we were looking for on the west side of the park. We wanted to find a moose.

We decided to hike the East Inlet Trail, stopping at Adams Falls and then continuing for a couple miles. The trail continues for several miles but we only hiked about 4 miles total. 

Grant taking a picture in the East Inlet.
Grant taking a picture in the East Inlet.

The views were staggering! Mountains framed a beautiful river valley with tall ground throughout. That’s where we spotted the moose. It was hanging out in the grass and I was able to walk out to take pictures of it. So cool!

As we walked back, I let folks know where the moose was and, increasingly, I got a nonchalant response. Then we came around a bend and there was another moose right off the trail. 

Moose on the trail
Moose on the trail.

We stayed to take pictures for several minutes while the moose decided to slowly move across the trail! Wow! You don’t really understand how big these creatures are until you see them in person!

Read more about our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park here.

Bears on the Trail in Yellowstone National Park

Everyone knows bears are thing in Yellowstone National Park. You will notice every Park Ranger carries bear spray. We have seen bears on every summer visit to this park. We know that any trail we hike could have a bear on it. 

So, when we went to hike the Beaver Ponds Loop and saw the Park Service warning about bears in the area, we took it seriously. We strapped bear spray on and got out on the 5-mile loop trail. 

Look for any warning signs at the trailhead of your Yellowstone hikes!
A warning sign for the trail we were about to hike. Yes, we saw bears.

We ran into a couple of groups who said they had seen bears on the trail. Ok. We made a point to make noise, saying, “Hey bear!” around any blind corner. We ran into the first bear on the trail. It was about 75 yards off the trail and could not care less that we were there. We took a few pictures and kept moving. 

The Bear Likes Hiking on the Trail, Too!

Pretty soon, we got to a wide open area and we could see some elk several hundred yards downhill from us. As we hiked, I looked down and saw the elk all looking in the same direction: ahead of us. I said to Bonnie, “I think the other bear is ahead of us.” We kept walking, looking for the bear. Then the smell hit me. Bears have a very musky scent and I was smelling it. 

Just then we saw the bear heading uphill. I stepped in front of Bonnie and put a hand on the bear spray and said, “Hey bear.” The bear looked at us and did not seem bothered. 

We met bears on one of our Yellowstone hikes!
We saw two black bears while hiking the Beaver Ponds Trail. They barely even noticed we were there, but we were glad we had bear spray, just in case.

About that moment, two hikers stepped out of the woods on the far side of the clearing. They started hollering and making a ridiculous amount of noise. Basically, they were trying to scare the bear away… right toward us. 

Fortunately for all involved, the bear took it in stride. It walked about 10 yards uphill of the trail and started walking toward us, parallel to the trail. We held our ground and watched as this largish bear passed by, walked about 10 yards past us and then went down to the trail. It kept on going away from us. All it wanted was to use the trail. After relaxing a bit, we met with the other folks on the trail. They gave a half-hearted apology for trying to scare the bear toward us. 

The Beaver Ponds Loop is a scenic Yellowstone hike.
One of the beaver ponds on the aptly-named Beaver Ponds Trail.

We continued the hike and really enjoyed the gorgeous scenery along the trail. We were so stoked to see a bear out in the wild. It’s one thing to see one from your car… it’s a completely different experience to see one on the trail!

Read more about hiking in Yellowstone National Park here.

Almost Getting Stampeded in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is one of our favorite parks. Not only does it have a huge connection to my favorite president, it is also home to some gorgeous scenery and plenty of bison! 

We love bison. To us, they are the symbol of the West and the freedom of the Plains. So, I was all about the prospect of running into bison on the trail on our hikes in Theodore Roosevelt NP. While up in the North Unit of the park, we decided to hike the 4-mile Caprock Coulee Loop. 

Bonnie admiring the view on the knife edge ridge on the Caprock Coulee Trail.
Admiring the view on the knife edge ridge on the Caprock Coulee Trail.

This hike takes you through the rugged badlands with amazing views of the Little Missouri River and long expanses of canyons. As we hiked, we got to a knife’s edge ridge and saw a small herd of bison well below us. Cool! We hiked down and ended up right where the bison were. 

What Not to Do When You Run into Bison on the Trail

They were right on the trail. We made sure they could see us, didn’t come any closer to them and just watched. But, we also quietly worked to figure out what to do. We were about three miles in on a four-mile loop, so turning around wasn’t a good option. With the bison herd was on the trail ahead of us, continuing forward wasn’t an option either.

Somehow, we spooked them. My best guess is they were not used to dealing with humans and thought we were predators. 

A bison herd we spotted in the distance... and got to see up close and personal later on.
A bison herd we spotted in the distance… and got to see up close and personal later on.

First, they rushed off one direction, then another, then back towards us! We quickly scrambled up the side of the canyon wall as they stampeded by! Yep, that was a much closer encounter than we wanted.

It took a bit for the stragglers to pass by but eventually we got back on the trail… only to run into a bull bison standing right on the trail further down!

Bison stampeding by.
Bison stampeding by.

We had to bushwhack around it (so glad I learned how to really use a map in the Army!) and eventually rejoined the trail. 

Despite the encounter with the bison, this really was one of the best National Parks hikes we have ever taken and can’t recommend it enough!

Read more about almost getting stampeded by bison here.

Final Thoughts on National Parks Hikes

We have literally put hundreds of miles on our hiking shoes in national parks. It is probably our favorite thing to do in every park we visit.

We have had some really amazing experiences out on the trail and I wouldn’t trade any of them, even the scary ones! There is something truly freeing about being out in nature where anything can happen. 

Grant and Bonnie hiking the trail to Fort Bowie NHS.
Heading into some snow/freezing rain on the 1.5-mile trail to Fort Bowie NHS.

We hope you will get out on a hike on your next visit to a National Park. Who knows what you adventure you will find out on the trail?

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

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