Great American hikes to plan for next year, from the rugged Grand Canyon, to the iconic Pacific Crest Trail
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The Narrows Utah
- Start/Finish: Temple of Sinawava/Big Spring
- Distance: 10 miles
- Time: One day
- Difficulty: Moderate
A short but exhilarating route, The Narrows navigates the tightest section of Zion Canyon, a craggy gorge that is just six to nine metres (20ft to 30ft) wide but 610m (2,000ft) high. Starting at the Temple of Sinawava, a natural amphitheatre of red sandstone cliffs, the paved Riverside Trail leads to the mouth of the gorge. There is no path from here; instead, you must walk into the shallow Virgin River. The water is cool and deliciously refreshing on weary legs, but there are slippery, uneven rocks to negotiate on the relentless plod upstream. Other noises gradually fade away until all that is left is the constant gurgling of the shallow but fast-flowing water. After a two-hour walk, you will see the river running into Orderville Canyon, formed by a tributary creek. Over millennia, the impossibly tight walls here have been smoothed and rounded like melted wax, and are scoured with tiny gouges. As you wade further upstream, the cliffs seem to change colour, turning deeper shades of red, amber and brown. Finally, the gorge opens up a little at Big Springs, a pebbly cove where freshwater tumbles into the river and the hike ends. nps.gov/zion
John Muir Trail California
- Start/Finish: Happy Isles/Mount Whitney
- Distance: 211 miles
- Time: Three weeks
- Difficulty: Challenging
Negotiating a series of vertiginous ups and downs, the John Muir Trail is a challenging hike. Walkers must tackle the “Golden Staircase” – a steep 457m (1,500ft) ascent via 50 or more jaw-dropping switchbacks – and the final climb up Mount Whitney, where the moonscape summit seems to overlook the whole of California.
Jumping into a snow-fed lake after a sweaty hike is far more energising than a shower, and it is hard to resist the glistening depths of Lower Cathedral Lake, Thousand Island Lake or Garnett Lake. After drying off and setting up camp, settle down to stargaze to the soundtrack of rustling winds and screeching hawks. In the morning, the sun rises over jagged peaks, and deer and bighorn sheep clamber up the rocky slopes. With scenes like these, it’s easy to see why the Scottish-American naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) fought so hard to protect this stretch of wilderness. nps.gov/yose
Colorado Trail Colorado
- Start/Finish: Denver/Durango
- Distance: 486 miles
- Time: Four to six weeks
- Difficulty: Easy to challenging
This trail gives hikers a taste of Colorado’s wild, rugged interior, which has changed little since the Ute people roamed the Rocky Mountains centuries ago. Most walkers start in Denver and tramp south, saving the steep San Juan Mountains for last. The first stretch to Kenosha Pass snakes through the South Platte River valley up to vast meadows sprinkled with spring wildflowers. Deeper into the Rockies, the air becomes fresher, and the creeks faster and colder. Groves of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cling to the slopes. Deer and elk graze on the high meadows, while bighorn sheep and marmots skitter across the trails. Later, the path crosses the cattle country of Cochetopa Valley, home to cows, cowboys and wide-open country. The final section through the San Juan Mountains is the most challenging but rewarding. Vast alpine panoramas unfold ahead and the trail rolls down to Durango, where well-earned Western-style hospitality awaits. coloradotrail.org
Pacific Crest Trail California, Oregon and Washington
- Start/Finish: Campo/Monument 78
- Distance: 2,650 miles
- Time: Four to six months
- Difficulty: Challenging
As spring emerges in California in late April, walkers skirt the edge of the parched Mojave Desert. Tramping through the summer, dedicated through-hikers conquer the High Sierras, where saw-toothed peaks rise like giant waves from the valley floor. By September, they will have clambered over great ridges of Oregon and tackled the rain-lashed, snaggletoothed North Cascades of Washington state. On the cusp of autumn, the intrepid reach a Canadian border fringed by honey-gold larches – and new paths that press ever northwards into winter. pcta.org
Jenny Lake Trail Wyoming
- Start/Finish: Jenny Lake Trailhead (loop)
- Distance: Seven miles
- Time: Three to four hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
The trail around Jenny Lake at the heart of Grand Teton National Park cuts through tranquil forest glades, providing mesmerising glimpses of the saw-toothed Teton range at intervals. It is best to tackle this half-day route in the morning, and to hike around the lake counter-clockwise, so that you can catch the Tetons glittering in the new day’s sun.
Even when the peaks are not visible through the trees, the forest has its own charms. Long patches of thimbleberries interrupt the cottonwood, alder and aspen. These raspberry-like fruits are black bears’ favourite treats, so look out for animal tracks.
Bears are not the only creatures that call the park home. River otters, muskrats and beavers make themselves busy in the lake and on its shores, while coyotes and mule deer hide among the trees. In the early morning, moose gather at the two aptly named Moose Ponds, on the south side of the lake, to bathe. But, again and again, the Cathedral Group – the tallest mountains in the Teton range – steal the scene. nps.gov/grte
Bright Angel Trail Arizona
- Start/Finish: Bright Angel Trailhead (loop)
- Distance: 19 miles
- Time: Two days
- Difficulty: Challenging
Hiking the rim-to-river Bright Angel Trail, following a natural fault used for millennia by the Havasupai people, offers a chance to get to grips with the Grand Canyon’s gargantuan proportions. The trail starts by traversing seemingly endless switchbacks, framed by soaring cliffs. Gorgeous, multi-hued views emerge at every turn as you zigzag down through the rust-coloured Redwall Limestone zone of the canyon.
Finally, the trail flattens out as it crosses the shale-smothered Tonto Platform to reach Indian Garden, a lush oasis engulfed in cottonwood trees, and Garden Creek, a gully of plunge pools, water-sculpted rocks and glistening cottonwoods.
Then it’s down again, through almost black canyon walls of Devil’s Corkscrew to Pipe Creek, which is lined with prickly pear, willows and brittlebush. For the final, blisteringly hot section, you clamber over sand dunes before reaching a silver bridge across the churning waters of the Colorado River. On the other side lies Bright Angel Campground, where you can recharge before tackling the uphill climb the next day.
For a wilder experience, hike the North Kaibab Trail – the least visited but most difficult of the three trails at Grand Canyon. On this route you will pass through every ecosystem to be found between Canada and Mexico, from fir trees and aspen at the rim to desert vegetation at the base. nps.gov/grca
This is an edited extract from Unforgettable Journeys (DK Eyewitness Travel, £25). The book also includes epic drives, train journeys, boat trips and bike rides.
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