Nineteenth-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than trees.” Quote that line to any avid hiker or climber, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Hiking and climbing not only put you deep in the lap of nature – but they’re also great forms of exercise. Hikers and climbers in the U.S. have thousands of options to choose from, and many of the best can be found in the country’s national parks.
The National Park Service (NPS) boasts 423 different areas that span more than 85 million acres in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas boast more than 21,000 miles of hiking trails as well as climbing options for every skill level.
Keep reading to learn about the best national parks to go hiking and climbing. Before heading out, be sure to check the NPS website at www.nps.gov for information on opening dates and hours, entrance requirements, contact info, and COVID-19 restrictions (if applicable).
Redwood National Park, California
The Tall Trees Trail at Redwood National Park takes you past the world’s loftiest redwoods, some of which rise as high as 400 feet. This is one of the more rustic hikes you’ll find anywhere, with deep forests and little indication of human development beyond the occasional trail marker. The park offers dozens of trails with hundreds of miles of hiking options.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Experienced hikers will probably prefer the longer backcountry trails at Congaree, but novices might like the Boardwalk Loop better. As the name suggests, this loop features an elevated boardwalk that takes you past old-growth swampland. Go at night and you’ll see thousands of fireflies light up the darkness. You might also spot wildlife such as deer and wild pigs.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Hikers who prefer an underground setting will find plenty to like at Carlsbad Caverns, where you can hike deep inside the Guadalupe Mountains and pass some of the world’s biggest cave rock formations. Numerous Native American pictographs dot the cave walls, and you’ll have a chance to see the Monarch, which is the tallest column in the cave system. To hike the popular Slaughter Canyon cave you’ll need to be part of a tour, and reservations are recommended.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
A must-hike at this park is the trail that lets you view the Kalapana Lava, which seeps into the Pacific Ocean. You’ll even have a chance to hike across lava flows, so bring the right gear – in this case, thick hiking boots or shoes. Day hikes at Hawai’i Volcanoes also take you past and through craters, petroglyphs, and lush rainforests.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royal tends to fall under the radar compared to other national parks, which means it’s an ideal place for a rustic, unspoiled hike through pristine wilderness areas surrounded by Lake Superior. If you take the Greenstone Ridge Trail, you might have a wolf sighting along with a chance to see moose and rare birds. This trail provides a good introduction to those new to backpacking.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the oldest climbing destinations in the U.S., with options ranging from conventional mountaineering to bouldering, rock climbing, big wall climbing, and ice walls. Experienced climbers will be drawn to the granite rock formations and peaks. Because the park encourages clean-climbing techniques, it’s best to avoid putting up bolts or leaving permanent marks on the rock.
Yosemite National Park, California
Located in the western Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite is best known to climbers for El Capitan (aka “El Cap”), a vertical rock formation that rises more than 3,000 feet. That’s not the only attraction, though. Other popular climbs are Washington Column, Leaning Tower, and Liberty Cap. You’ll need a permit for wilderness camping for multi-day climbs. Yosemite doesn’t allow motorized drills, though you can use hand-powered drills to add bolts.
North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades is home to the Forbidden Peak, a glacial horn that rises more than 8,800 feet. The summit is surrounded by three ridges to the north, west, and east and provides both icefield and valley views. You’ll find some challenging terrain here, so it’s best for experienced climbers. There are also sport climbing and bouldering options available.
Zion National Park, Utah
Zion’s sandstone cliffs rise more than 2,000 on some routes, making for challenging climbs best suited for experts. Inexperienced climbers are better off trying some of the bouldering options. Zion’s main canyon boasts a pair of accessible bouldering areas that are suitable for both veteran climbers and beginners. The cliffs get very hot during the summer, so the best seasons for climbers are spring and fall. No special permits are needed for day climbs, but you will need a permit for overnight stays and bivouacs.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Veteran climbers who enjoy a challenge will like Olympic, which features rugged, rocky terrain that’s often loose and fragmented. Most of the rocks here are sandstone, shale, and pillow basalt. You’ll have to hike through dense foliage and forest areas to access many of the climbing areas here, so it’s best suited for knowledgeable and experienced backpackers.