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