Hiking is having a moment. Whether it’s the exercise or the pure fresh air folks crave—or simply a brief, scenic escape from rou-tine—record numbers are enjoying this outdoor activity, from Snow Lake Trail near Seattle to the end of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Hiking can be a strenuous challenge. But even at its most leisurely it gets you off the couch—and into nature. It requires stability, mobility, endurance and strength, and has many fitness benefits. Just one hour of trekking can burn up to 500 calories, depending on the incline level and the load being carried. While hiking is a powerful cardio workout, the trails are also less taxing on your joints than asphalt or concrete, making this activity more forgiving on ankles and knees than running.
The sport builds strength in your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hips and lower legs while boosting bone density and improving blood pressure. It may even be a cancer fighter: According to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, long-distance hiking trips may improve antioxidative capacity, which helps fight off disease.
Being out in the wild, away from everyday stress factors and tech toys, can get your mind and spirit in better shape too. It can increase attention span and boost creative problem-solving. Hiking is a proven meditative activity because the repetitive motion of strides is calming; it decreases stress response and lowers the body’s cortisol levels. Some studies show that people regularly exposed to natural surroundings have decreased depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, headaches and inflammation. Some fitness experts predict that hiking will become more popular than yoga as a stress-busting workout.
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned hiker, there are magnificent trails all across the country that will get your heart pumping vigorously while you enjoy spectacular views. Here are a standout half-dozen.*
On trails like these six you’ll reap benefits physically, mentally, spiritually—and scenically.
*Trail difficulty rankings are sourced from Alltrails.com, an off-road recreation website.
MCWAY FALLS OVERLOOK TRAIL, JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK Big Sur, California
Difficulty Level: Easy
Along the storied California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco lies Big Sur, a jewel of the Pacific Coast. This trail offers a nearly flat stroll that ends with flawless views of the iconic McWay Falls. Here, water drops 80 feet from a granite cliff into a sandy cove below and flows into the mighty Pacific Ocean. And also check out the one- mile Partington Cove Trail, also in the park. This steep but short hike will take you across a rustic wooden bridge, then down a 60-foot tunnel where you emerge onto the park’s only beach access. Confirm that the trails are open before heading to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, as recent wildfires may have closed some of them.
HOH RIVER TRAIL, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK Forks, Washington
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
The scenery along this route can best be described as an enchant-ed forest. Winding through one of the few true rainforests left on the planet, the Hoh River Trail features moss-covered stones along the picturesque river, ancient trees towering over beds of ferns and Roosevelt elk feeding in meadows with sweeping mountain views. Most of the trail is flat and appropriate for all fitness levels. However, the last five miles become more strenuous, so beginners may want to plan to end their hike near Five Mile Island or Lewis Meadow. For more seasoned hikers looking to push through, the payoff is huge. From here it’s nine more miles to the Blue Glacier Overlook, where visitors see an impressive slab of a glacier along the side of Mount Olympus.
DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE Porter, Indiana
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Located just 50 miles south of Chicago along beautiful Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers raw coastal beauty and a variety of habitats. Visitors can access the lake – shore by car or by boat. The West Beach Trail System offers hikers unique bird-watching, secluded pathways lined with wildflowers and jack pines and, of course, one-of-a-kind water views from a succession of colossal dunes. This trail system has two different hikes—a three-and-a-half-mile trek that takes about three hours or a one-mile hike that can be done in about an hour. Summer hikers should pack a bathing suit. After a good walking workout, visitors can cool down in the lake or just relax on the sandy beach.
WAVE TRAIL,VERMILION CLIFFS NATIONAL MONUMENT Kanab, Utah
Difficulty Level: Moderate
With its swirling red sandstone walls, Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, is one of the most surreal scenes in the country. But interest in this iconic slot canyon is so high that visitors must explore with a guide and contend with crowds at any time of year. However, the Wave Trail across the Utah border in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument offers hikers a similarly psychedelic environment without the crowds (only 20 people are given permits to hike this trail per day) and an opportunity to be active. The desert trail starts at Coyote Buttes and winds through enormous Navajo sandstone walls made of curvy layers of red, pink and yellow rock. More experienced hikers should continue the adventure down the trail to see more unbelievable rock formations and stellar views, such as Top Arch and Melody Arch. Apply for a permit in advance at the Bureau of Land Management’s official website. The out-of-this-world location is worth the extra planning.
MARYLAND HEIGHTS LOOP, HARPERS FERRY NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Difficulty Level: Difficult
History buffs will especially love this Mid -Atlantic hiking trail. The loop starts and finishes in the quaint West Virginia village of Harpers Ferry. The town itself is a National Historic Park, brim-ming with 19th -century architecture, museums, exhibits, trades workshops and living history events. The hiking trail passes the remains of a naval artillery battery built in 1862 and a Union army fort built in 1863. Other Civil War remnants seen along the way include ammunition pits and breastworks. The path gets more intense as you climb cliffs that overlook Harpers Ferry with stun-ning views of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. After a stren-uous hike, visitors can reward themselves at True Treats Historic Candy, a store near the trail’s end in downtown Harpers Ferry that specializes in sweets from the 1500s through the mid-1900s.
SAM’S POINT AND VERKEERDERKILL FALLS TRAIL Cragsmoor, New York
Difficulty Level: Difficult
The star of this hike is the Verkeerderkill Falls, where a 180-foot waterfall drops to the bottom of an isolated canyon. Access to cliffs around the canyon is unfettered, and hikers feel as though they are the first humans to discover the scene. Spring and summer are the best times of year to see the falls in full, rushing glory. Hikers can also climb down steep rock and a series of ladders for a third of a mile into ice caves cold enough to hold snow through July. The trail winds through an endan-gered dwarf pitch pine barren and abandoned berry-picker shacks, remnants of a time when the area was known for wild blueberry gathering. Hikers mount several cliffs—including Sam’s Point—for views of High Point Monument in New Jersey, the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains.