12 Great Hikes

National Park Service

NPS is responsible for supervising and maintaining all designated national parks, battlefields, historic places, and monuments.

Mountain ranges are stark features of the western U.S. and in their heights are many outdoor wonders: Yosemite valley and Crater Lake, steamy geysers and ancient glaciers, volcanos and canyons. Many of these spectaculars are preserved by the National Park service for us to visit and enjoy. This trip I planned to do exactly that.

Since I was driving from D.C. to Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles for the JazzTrax festival I decided to leave early and visit some parks. I chose to focus on parks in the mountain ranges of the Rockies, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas. Furthermore, in the time available I’d try to find at least one hike in each which I’d consider “great”. My initial goal was ten parks.

Across four weeks I visited 13 national parks. Most I had visited previously, multiple times, but some were first-time visits. In every case I could easily have spent more time but managed to have enough time to do some hiking and exploring. Only Badlands didn’t fit my criteria of being located in a western mountain ranges so I didn’t blog about it. Neither did I write about the national monuments I visited. There is no shortage of beautiful places to visit in this country!

In chronological order, the national parks I visited were: 

Clicking on any of these will take you to my blog post for that park where you’ll learn about my “Great Hike”. You’ll also find links to primary NPS resources along with 10 of my favorite pictures for each park. If nothing else then I’d recommend you scroll to the pictures as I was blessed with amazing weather in some of the world’s most beautiful spots.

The mountains of the west are dramatic and recent and stand in contrast to much older and more worn mountains of the east. Each has its charm but the drama of nature is much more pronounced in the western ranges. I love the outdoor west; I love that the NPS preserves best bits of it for me to visit.

This won’t be the last time I go hiking in western national parks.

The next time can’t come too soon!

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Badlands: The one that got away.

Garden of the Gods

Mysterious to the point of feeling eerie, the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs will also take your breath away. This little gem is accompanied by an excellent Visitors Center. Well worth the side trip.

To a great extent I stayed focused on my “12 Great Hikes” trip. Tempted to visit the Grand Canyon, I avoided it. Drawn toward Zion, I repelled it. Pulled upon by Arches, I steered clear. It was emotionally difficult but my days were numbered and I had a goal to achieve. Where I slipped was in the Badlands.

With its long-eroded formations, Badlands National Park has a different character throughout the day. The first time I visited was in the late afternoon and early evening where the affect of the setting sun left me with a feeling of awe. I took pictures galore and enjoyed tootling around very much. In a place with so much character I was yearning to see it in the morning light … and that’s exactly what I did this time.

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Great Sand Dunes

Aspen Trees at Great Dunes

Aspen trees around Great Sand Dunes NP at high elevation in the fall.

Great Hike: None

I don’t like hiking in sand and, as you might guess from this park’s name, there is a lot of sand here. However, just because I didn’t find a great hike doesn’t mean that Great Sand Dunes NP isn’t a fun place to visit. As a matter of fact, it is!

The dunes are bordered by creeks, backstopped by mountains, and flowing with soft sand. For kids and kids-at-heart this park is a place to come play. You can take off your shoes and walk through the sandy base or scramble up the dunes and throw yourself down its soft sides. Since there are creeks all around the perimeter, oddly, you can frolic in the water or make sand castles just about any time. Me? I enjoyed taking pictures, especially around sunset when the late day color and long shadows gave the mounds additional character.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway tried to cross the Rockies by way of the Gunnison River but found the Black Canyon impassible. Still, it did arrive at the canyon's mouth at Cimarron.

Great Hike: Gunnison Trail (caveat: this is only for experienced hikers) 

Nature created conditions where a powerful river cut a deep and narrow slice out of a hard granite terrain. The result is a canyon whose walls are very steep and access to the river below is very difficult. One consequence for visitors wanting to hike in the park is that there are few trails of any length. Almost all the trails are short and lead to overlook points along the rim road. One of the few exceptions is the Gunnison Trail which descends 1,800 feet in just one mile. Along this trail you actually hike from the rim to the Gunnison River’s shore. There was little doubt that this would be my pick!

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Joshua Tree NP

Wrigley Memorial

Catalina Island was purchased by the Wrigley family in 1919. To this day they remain committed to the preservation of the island, William Wrigley Jr's original ambition. This memorial is in his honor.

Great Hike: Barker Dam

My ambition has been to go on a great hike in each park and not necessarily to determine the best hike after an exhaustive survey. Though sometimes I tried for the higher standard, after more than 25 miles of hiking these past three days on Catalina Island I didn’t have it in me today to strike out on long trails. Consequently I consulted with the Visitors Center ranger and narrowed down my list of prospects. 

Before talking about my hike I want to describe the park. Most people haven’t heard of Joshua Tree NP and with good reason. It’s only been around as a National Park since 1995 and while it was created for several reasons there is one stand-out reason which affected me. 

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Sequoia and Kings Canyon NPs

Catalina Casino

My turn-around point was off the coast of Los Angeles where I attended the JazzTrax festival, a perennial favorite, and home of the world famous Avalon Casino.

Great Hike: Zumwalt Meadows

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are two national parks which share a border. They’re both vast, their histories are intertwined and they are run out of the NPS as one unit. Given I had one day to take in both of them I made a plan to skim the surface. No time for extensive hikes but I’d make every effort to pass though each of their five regions and visit its primary sites, as recommended by Park Rangers. First stop was the Visitors Center for advice on how best to spend my time.

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Yosemite NP

Mono Lake

As you exit Yosemite in the east, you arrive at Mono Lake. While drab on the surface, its waters support migratory birds with brine shrimp and fly populations galore.

Great Hike: Four-Mile Up and Panorama+Mist Down

Twice in the past few years I’ve visited Yosemite Valley. Once it was a cold and slushy mess after a snow storm and once it was a flooded and rockslide-ridden jumble after a rain storm. Adding insult to injury, last time I even got a flat tire! Imagine how exited I was then to learn I would be in Yosemite for three days with crisp air, cool temps, and hardly a cloud in the sky! I was ready to enjoyed this park!

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Crater Lake NP

Touching Crater Lake

Everyone has those silly little things they want to accomplish. One of mine was to touch the water of Crater Lake. Now I've done it and here is the proof!

Great Hike: Sun Notch Trail

The hike I chose is more a sentimental favorite for me and perhaps not for everyone. Sun Notch Trail is short (0.5 miles), relatively level, and not exactly full of sites to see. However, parts of the trail along the cliffs provide excellent views of Phantom Rock, a deliriously appealing island within Crater Lake. I’ve visited the park three times in the past few years and was never able to get close to Phantom Rock due to weather. This time on this trail I was practically on top of it while the morning sun made it shine. Finally I was able to photograph her in detail.

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Lassen Volcanic NP

Muffler Man Cowboy

Muffler Men are everywhere! Even on backroads in the middle of nowhere they can be found, with unique character and custom detailing, in magnificent shape and accompanied by a Guest Book which request you provide your contact information!

Great Hike: Bumpass Hell

Until I arrived at the hydrothermal basin at the end of Bumpass Hell Trail I wasn’t sure which path I’d select as my Great Hike. Many were enjoyable but this one had steam plumes, radiant ground colors, bubbling waters, and the smell of sulfur in the air. Add that my best views of Lassen Peak came from along the trail and you’ve got the winner. It was a crowded path on this beautiful Saturday but well worth the 3 mile effort each way.

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Mount Rainier NP

Saluting Mt Rainier

Before and after Rainier I visited with family. The Pacific Northwest is where my heart calls home and I have more relatives in the area than you can shake a stick at. I’ve tried!

Great Hike: Sourdough Ridge

I had only finished my second hike and I knew that it was “The One”. At a starting point of 6,400 feet, twice the height of my favorite hike in Shenandoah, my hike took me upwards. Easy destinations can take you to 7,000 or 7,200 feet. Me? I climbed to 6,800 feet and ambled along a path called Sourdough Ridge. The word “ridge” in this case is key because at these altitudes you can see forever in many directions. I could look south to Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Hood or north to snowcapped mountains in Canada. On a day such as today, what I could see was astounding. No doubt, my One Great Hike for Rainier is this hike in the Sunrise Area of the park.

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