That old saw about the journey being the destination? It's usually a bunch of hooey. But there are exceptions. Presenting our first-ever roundup of the greatest hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, drinking, and underground (yes, underground) trails in the country.
Best Pacific Coast Trail
Starting at the Palomarin Trailhead, near Bolinas, the 5.5-mile Coastal Trail in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore features views of the Pacific (watch for whales), a swimming spot in Bass Lake (watch for nudists), and the holy-crap 30-foot-tall Alamere Falls (just watch). Overnight at the oceanside Wildcat Camp ($15 per night; nps.gov), about five miles from the trailhead and one mile from the falls.
Best Grand Canyon Trail
It doesn’t have a name, and the only easy way to access it is to float the Grand. Stop at Kanab Canyon, at mile 144, and hike in. Three miles up the canyon, there’s a huge alcove where most hikers tend to stop. Don’t. Hike a half mile up, turn right into the slot canyon that enters from the east, and walk another half mile. At the end of the canyon, you’ll find the 100-foot Whispering Falls tumbling into a 15-foot-deep swimming hole.
Best Trail that Requires a Boat and a Gun
It’s not for the faint of heart. The rugged, 32-mile Cross Admiralty Canoe Trail connects seven lakes on Southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island via mud and boardwalk portages. Launch at the Tlingit fishing village of Angoon, a six-hour ferry ride from Juneau ($72 round-trip; alaskaferry.com), or hire a water taxi (call Whalers Cove Lodge, in Angoon; 800-423-3123) to start at Mole Harbor, the trail’s eastern end. Either route involves navigating tidal whitewater in Mitchell Bay. Did we mention the bears? There are some 1,600 of them. In addition to a firearm, you’ll want tide charts, a VHF radio, a fly rod (the lakes are jammed with trout), and an Alaskan buddy with a boat.
Best Sea-Kayaking Trail
With stop-off points on 146 granite isles, the Maine Island Trail offers more options and solitude than either Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands or Washington’s San Juans. Go in September, when the swell is below four feet. Start with the 30-mile loop around Great Wass Island and flag down a lobster boat in Moosabec Reach (expect to pay $2 per pound) for a proper camp feast.
Best Prehistoric Trail
Tracing what geologists call a terminal moraine, Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail stretches as far south as the glaciers crept. All that scouring left its mark, and that’s the coolest thing about the 1,200-mile trail: whenever you’re on it, it’s safe to assume you’re hiking or cross-country skiing (mountain biking is generally not allowed) through the state’s most interesting terrain. Check out New Wood State Wildlife Area, home to a few wolf packs.
Best Trail Within City Limits
Portland, Oregon’s 30-mile Wildwood Trail, where you can theoretically knock off an ultra-distance trail run in solitude, through stands of old-growth forest, before your morning commute.
Best Trail Named After Booze
The views are spectacular, the fish are eager, and the name can’t be beat: the 14-mile Whiskey Mountain Trail, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, stops at three trout-filled lakes. Give yourself three days.
—Ali Taylor Lange
Best Stairway to Trout Heaven
The place is prime griz habitat. But stay strong. After just three miles, the Meadow Creek Trail in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness—accessible via 60 miles of dirt roads—drops down to the South Fork of the Flathead, the best native cutthroat river in the lower 48.
Best Mountain-Bike Trail You Have Heard Of
Because of the twisty singletrack. Because of the 2,700-foot descent to the Colorado River. Because it put Moab on the map. Utah’s 14.5-mile Porcupine Rim Trail.
Best Mountain-Bike Trail You Haven't Heard Of
Traversing North Dakota’s rugged badlands, the 136-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail stretches up and over craggy bentonite cliffs, across flowy sections of prairie, and through aspen groves. Book Dakota Cyclery’s four-day tour, The Works (from $695 for two; dakotacyclery.com).
Best Imitation of a Tour De France Climb
Independence Pass, the 37 well-paved, lung-busting miles between Aspen and Twin Lakes, Colorado.
Best Technicolor Trail
From mid-July to mid-August, Grand Teton National Park’s Alaska Basin goes off with lupine, Indian paintbrush, and columbine. Start from the Alaska Basin Trailhead in Idaho and hike in eight miles.
Best Cuts of the Appalachian Trail
North Carolina’s Standing Indian Mountain—the grandstand of the southern Appalachians—is 1,000 feet above anything else nearby. And totally underappreciated. In Vermont, there’s a 23-mile section between Route 12 and Hanover that’s classic New England birch-and-pine forest: Robert Frost terrain.
—Warren Doyle, 61, 16-time hiker of the AT, as told to Charles Bethea
Best Trail to Sleep On (Unintentionally)
Around 2007, there were proposals for gas drilling in the Wyoming Range, and environmental groups started putting maps together to highlight what a great recreational resource it is. They put this trail on the maps. I thought, Hot damn, I’m going to mountain-bike it. I decided I didn’t care that there wasn’t much of a trail. I started using this program called TopoFusion to stitch together a GPS track. In ’08 and ’09, I figured out the northern half. You know those little trail signs? There’s gotta be a hundred of those spread out along the route. None of them has a trail next to it. I’ve nearly slept on the trail twice now, unintentionally. Last year I almost put it all together—rode 70 of the 80 miles in two days. It drives my wife nuts. This summer, definitely—I’m going to complete it in one multi-day shot.
—Luke Lynch, 35, Wyoming state director, the Conservation Fund, as told to Sam Moulton
Good sandals are mandatory for explorers of the pristine, absurdly lush Queets Valley, in Washington’s Olympic National Park: to access the 16-mile Queets River Trail, you first need to ford a waist-deep river.
Best Trails Ending in Hot Springs
1. Boulder Creek Trail, Lowell, Idaho Length: 5.5 miles. Destination: Stanley Hot Springs. Temperature: 103 degrees.
2. Little Bear Canyon Trail, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico Length: 6 miles (through a rugged slot canyon). Destination: Jordan Hot Springs. Temperature: 94 degrees.
3. Hot Springs Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas Length: 3 miles. Destination: Langford Hot Springs. Temperature: 105 degrees.
Best Stretch of the Continental Divide
The eight-mile above-treeline hike from Berthoud Pass, Colorado, on Highway 40 near Winter Park, to James Peak links four 13,000-plus-foot peaks. Drop down to Heart Lake to camp among wildflowers.
Best Trail Detour
Deep in Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness,the Appalachian Trail runs into the Gulf Hagas Loop, an eight-mile day hike through a dramatic slate gorge. Highlights include sheer vertical drops, waterfalls, two river fordings, and natural pools that form swimming holes. The easiest access is from Katahdin Iron Works Road, off Route 11.
Best Through-Hikes You've Never Heard Of
1. North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail starts at Clingman’s Dome and travels 947 miles to the Atlantic. Highlight: 82 miles of beach trail on the Outer Banks.
2. Most hikers spot more bears than people in the mountains and pine forests of the 223-mile Ouachita Trail in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Recommended campgrounds: Winding Stair and Big Brushy.
3. Traversing Utah’s Uinta Mountains, the aptly named Highline Trail stays above 10,000 feet for the better part of 100 miles.
Best Trail for Designating a Driver
The 405-mile route between Denver and Durango, Colorado, contains about 40 great breweries, beer bars, and brew pubs. Your mandatory stops: >Denver’s Euclid Hall (euclidhall.com). Beer: Steamworks Euclidean Pale Ale. >Aspen Brewing Company (aspenbrewingcompany.com). Beer: Brown Bearale. >Ouray Brewery’s sunny roof deck (ouraybrewery.com). Beer: San Juan IPA. >Durango’s Ska Brewery skabrewery.com. Beer: Ten Pin Porter.
Best Trail to Hike Just Once
After knocking off Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail, you’ll feel proud. But also mosquito-bitten, muddy, and ready for a month on the couch.
Best Trail for Getting High
The 28-mile Skyscraper Traverse, through Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, crosses three high-alpine passes so remote they haven’t been named yet. Trek Alaska guides a nine-day trip (from $2,695; trekalaska.com).
Best Trail for Donating Blood
The 282-mile Superior Hiking Trail follows the spine of the ancient Sawtooth Mountains from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border. The mosquitoes are often thick, so plan accordingly: the empty trails through birch forests, side trips along rivers that lead to towering waterfalls, and views of Lake Superior are worth it. The 82 backcountry sites along the way are first come, first served, and free.
Best Trail for Dessert
Between mid-August and mid-September, an endless supply of huckleberries lines Washington’s Pacific Crest Trail corridor. Make for the 100-mile section south of White Pass (on Highway 12) through Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Bring cobbler fixings and your Dutch oven.
Best Canoe Trail
One lake, two states, tons of wildlife, and 15 miles of rapids. And that’s just one day on the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which arcs across New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Hampshire, and Maine. For a weekend sampler, put in at Umbagog Lake, the heart of the 25,650-acre Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Maine–New Hampshire line. Let the loons, bald eagles, and osprey overhead preoccupy you. But as you drift into the Androscoggin River, it’s time to reengage: the 17 river miles to Pontook Dam are full of Class I–III rapids.
It’s illegal and slightly dangerous. But exploring the Freedom Tunnel, an Amtrak passage underneath Manhattan’s Riverside Park, is one of the only surefire ways to be alone in New York City. That, along with the stunning graffiti, makes it a singularly thrilling experience. Head to the north end of Riverside Park and hop the chain-link fence near 123rd Street. Turn left and you’ll find the mouth of a tunnel wide enough to fly a small plane through. Enter, enjoy the worm’s-eye view of Gotham’s innards, and keep an ear out: Amtrak trains still travel here. You can easily avoid them, but they’re quieter than you might think.
Best Urban Trail Ending in Water
San Francisco’s steep 3.5-mile Land’s End Trail offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surfers below.
Best Wilderness Trail Ending in Water
Approximately 7,700 years ago, Oregon’s Crater Lake was formed when a volcanic eruption blew the top off Mount Mazama, leaving a 4,000-foot-deep crater that, like a giant bathtub with no drain, gradually filled with rain and snowmelt over the millennia. That’s why it has such a distinct Crayola color—and why you feel so compelled to jump in. There’s only one way to reach the lake: the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which descends nearly 700 feet over the course of a mile.
Best Trail that Doesn't Exist
The best thing about the Lolo Trail, an ancient American Indian route over the rugged Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho’s Panhandle and western Montana, is that no one knows exactly where it is. Lewis and Clark traveled it in September 1805 and experienced the coldest, hungriest leg of their three-year journey. But use of the trail faded, and its route along the high ridgelines was all but forgotten. Nowadays, we know that it roughly parallels Route 12 through the Lolo and Clearwater national forests. Hunt for clues at the National Forest Service’s Lolo Pass Visitor Center (208-942-1234). With a little map work, you can find scattered traces of the route—or get lost with a fly rod on Montana’s Lolo Creek or a kayak on Idaho’s Class III–IV Lochsa River.
Best Trail in Canyon Country
Shenanigans Canyon, in the North Wash, an hour southeast of Hanksville, Utah, is a classic, with canyoneering challenges of increasing difficulty as one descends. With an experienced guide, it’s accessible to an average canyoneer.
—Aron Ralston, 35, author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place, as told to Mattie Schuler [Editor’s note: Take Ralston’s advice about the guide—Shenanigans can be gnarly. And pack a good knife.]
Best Bike Tour
The Pacific Coast Route spans 1,853 miles, from Vancouver to Imperial Beach, California. Ride from north to south—the tailwinds are better and you don’t have to cross the road for ocean views. (AdventureCycling.org)
Best Trail in the Line of Volcano Fire
The Big Island of Hawaii’s 20-mile Puna Coastal Trail, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the largest active volcano on earth, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, crosses cinder flats and twisted lava flows and arches. Bring a hammock, sling it between palms on lonely black-sand beaches, and don’t forget: when you’re hiking through a lava field, bring extra water.