Some say the journey is its own reward, but that’s not always true when it comes to hiking. In fact, many hiking enthusiasts will freely admit to cursing their picturesque natural surroundings when the trails get particularly steep or treacherous. They’ll wonder why they chose to put themselves through such misery … until they reach the end. The endpoint of a truly great hike—be it a breathtaking view or the most soothing waters your aching feet have ever stepped into—can throw all doubt and regret out the window. There are trails all over the United States that attract novices and experts alike because their ends make the struggle and strain of the journey completely worthwhile. In these cases, the destination is the biggest reward of all.
Kalalau Trail, Hawaii
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Walking this popular trail in Kauai’s Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park shows you the beautiful coastline, but not without some effort on your part. The Sierra Club calls this one of the country’s most difficult trails. Its eleven-mile terrain hardly stays level and gets pretty rugged at times. But at the end lies Kalalau Beach, a gorgeous piece of land accessible only on foot, by sea, or by air. You can opt to hike during the day and camp out on the beach at night.
Trails to Half Dome, California
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Many of Yosemite’s visitors dream of reaching the top of Half Dome, but that’s no small feat, especially considering that the last four-hundred-foot stretch of the trail requires climbing up cables because the ascent is so steep. But if you reach the top, you’ll see 360-degree views of the valley and the High Sierra from 8,800 feet above sea level. The trip is fourteen to sixteen miles there and back (depending on which of the two main trails you take), which makes a one-day journey possible if you start at sunrise or earlier. However, there’s a less extreme camp at Little Yosemite Valley, about halfway up the trail.
Conundrum Creek Trail, Colorado
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After a grueling 8.5-mile trek through the Maroon Bell–Snowmass Wilderness just outside Aspen, Colorado, few things feel better than soaking in one-hundred-degree waters with gorgeous mountains as the backdrop. Backpacker magazine says Conundrum has the best views of any hot springs in the country, and Time magazine called it one of fifty authentic American experiences in 2008. Clothing’s optional at these hot springs, so don’t be surprised if you get even more of a view than you expected.
Bright Angel Trail, Arizona
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Unlike the other main trial to the Grand Canyon (South Kaibab), Bright Angel offers more shade and places to get water. It starts at the south rim of the canyon and goes down 4,380 feet and about eight miles to the beautiful Colorado River. According to the National Park Service, you shouldn’t try to go to the river and back in a day, especially on really hot days; an average of 230 people have to be rescued in the Grand Canyon every year, many of them on the Bright Angel Trail. Backpacker calls it one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the United States, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing the Indian Gardens and the spectacular Grand Canyon scenery—just come prepared with camping gear.
The Hollywood Trail, California
Photo source: T. Huff
What stands between you and this iconic sign perched on Mt. Lee is a mere 1.5 miles and 550 feet of elevation gain. You’ll encounter horse droppings along the way (there’s a ranch nearby), but the trail will also give you one of the best views—and escapes from—the chaotic city life of Los Angeles below. Once you get to the ledge right above the forty-five-foot-tall letters, you’ll see giant mansions, all the different neighborhoods and their landmarks, and the Hollywood reservoir. Don’t think about sitting on the letters, though; razor fences, circling helicopters, and surveillance cameras are always there to stop you. For an extra-clear view, go the day after it rains.
Mount Riga State Park Trail, Connecticut
Photo source: Daniel Case (Wikimedia Commons)
At the end of this trail lies Bear Mountain, the highest point in Connecticut and the place to see views of three states—New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—at once. The twelve-mile hike is part of the famous Appalachian Trail and goes through gorgeously green forests with wildflowers and wildlife. The Appalachian Mountain Club lists it as one of the best trails for seeing ancient forest growth. You’ll also walk by lakes and sweeping valleys before you reach the top.
OldRag Mountain Hike, Virginia
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There are a few ways to reach the top of Old Rag Mountain, located in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, but Backpacker suggests ascending via Ridge Trail and coming back on the Saddle Trail. At the top, you’ll find panoramic views of the Virginia landscape and lush, colorful plant life. It’s seven miles round-trip, which doesn’t seem that long, but it does involve scrambling up boulders for a short duration. Because the view at the top is so coveted, this climb’s almost always crowded, but less so during the winter.
Raven Cliff Falls Trail, Georgia
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This 2.5-mile path goes along Dodd Creek, which winds through the Raven Cliff Wilderness area. Along the way, you’ll see streams, big trees, and even some waterfalls in the Chattahoochee National Forest (part of White County, Georgia), but nothing compares to the awe-inspiring Raven Cliff Falls at the end. The walk there is fairly easy, but you’ll need to climb up a steep path to get to the top of the cliff. But it’s short and not that strenuous, making this hike suitable for families and people who don’t want to spend all day hiking.
Main Mount Whitney Trail, California
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Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight states, which makes it an extremely popular destination for hikers. Located in the Sequoia National Park, the eleven-mile trail starts at Whitney Portal, about thirteen miles from Lone Pine, California. You’ll see meadows and lakes along the way, but the best vistas are reserved for the top of the summit, where you’ll find the clearest views of the High Sierra. Campers can set up shop along the majority of the trail.
The ends of these popular hikes can replenish the most tired and weary of walkers and instill an invigorating sense of accomplishment in them. But it takes a lot of preparation beforehand to reach that point. Make sure you have a permit (if necessary), the right equipment, and plenty of water and snacks to keep up your stamina. Even the most experienced hikers read up on what to expect and what to bring before embarking on any journey. Besides, the more you know about what awaits you at your next destination—and how to ensure you’ll get there—the more motivation you’ll have to keep walking when the trails get tough.
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