Best US National or State Parks for Intermediate Hiking?
January 12, 2021 5:37 PM   Subscribe

While I was able to find out some useful info from searching the archives, most questions/answers were geared towards either expert hikers or people on the other end of the spectrum. My partner and I are somewhere in the middle though.

One distraction from the world right now is early-stage planning of a future hiking-trip. One thing I'm running up against is that most advice I'm finding online (via Metafilter archives or elsewhere) is either geared towards avid/expert hikers or total novices/families.

My partner and I are in our 30s, relatively good shape, are comfortable using a compass/topo map to navigate if needed, have invested in good hiking boots/shoes, etc. But we have our limits: the most intense hike we've done in the last couple years was 11.4 miles with 1683 ft elevation gain, and that was great but I'm not sure we could handle much more than that. A place with a lot of hikes in the 8-12 mile range with a similar amount of elevation would be ideal. We also have a low to moderate fear of heights - we are fine to be within feet of major drop offs and do some mild scrambling, but no ledges for us (i.e. most of the hikes at Zion seem terrifying, but the main trails down the Grand Canyon seem doable, fear of heights-wise).

Other factors:

1. We don't mind some crowds, but have a strong preference for being able to avoid people for at least part of the day (crossing paths with a few hikers here and there is fine–we've been to Rocky Mountain National Park close to peak season, and an early start/avoiding the main trailhead worked)

2. We both work in education, so will want to travel sometime between May-August. We currently live in the deep south, so our tolerance for heat is perhaps higher than most, but obviously Death Valley is not our best option.

3. Because of COVID (and the slowness of the vaccine rollout), we're especially interested in places within a days drive. The boundaries of what we could reach in a day include: Central Texas in the West to the east coast as far north as South Carolina, and then Missouri/Tennessee to the North. But we're also interested in thinking about places we'd have to fly to, even if it's not feasible this summer.

4. Also because of COVID, any park that requires a lot of planning in advance to get shuttle ticket reservations, etc. is probably not the best for this summer, since we don't want to plan anything too firmly for obvious reasons.

5. Doesn't need to be a State or National Park.

posted by coffeecat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn’t fit into your day-trip agenda, but might fit your long-term plan. Indiana has more than a few state parks that have great hiking trails. I recommend Brown County, Turkey Run, and Clifty Falls state parks. There’s some good deep woods hiking on well-maintained dirt trails. Lots of hills and creeks.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

my most common "hike" is really just a 5 mile walk in a local national wildlife refuge, they are all over the place, and get overlooked. Just one set of loops really. NWR's aren't really set up so much for hiking were I live--more about a nature walk, but it is close, and I can go there with no planning at all because it is so close.
posted by th3ph17 at 6:07 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

If you can push up to 2000-2200 feet of gain, the Seattle area is a great place to visit in the summer. Obviously not a day trip, but I'd imagine it's worth the trouble.
posted by wotsac at 6:43 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I live in NC so I’m partial to it but I would recommend trying to match up with the Congaree (SC) synchronous fire flies in May and then head over to the Blue Ridge/Smoky mountains. I’ve been trying to visit all 41 NC state pros and I’ve been really pleased on how easy it is to pick a park, look at the website for it, scroll to the bottom and easily digest the map and choose a trail. That being said, hiking near Pisgah, Gorges, Mount Mitchel, Elk Knob, or Mount Jefferson would all likely provide what you’re looking for. (Pisgah doesn’t have such clear mapping/trail outlines but might fit better with your drivability and is beautiful. For guidance, check out the Mountain to Sea Trail and some of their day hikes for ideas). There’s also some good paddling through Gorges State Park if that’s of interest to you
posted by raccoon409 at 6:43 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Perhaps this is too far for you, but Sedona AZ has gobs of hiking - hundreds of trails of varying degrees of difficulty. This site is a good resource for hikes. Also this site has a good list of hikes. May and early June will be the best time to visit as July-Sept is quite hot. There won't be a lot of crowds. If you can, grab an AirBnB; I recommend staying in Oak Creek. The scenery is incredible. Nearby is Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon with tons of hiking options there. Happy Hiking!
posted by shw at 6:48 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

To clarify: we aren't looking for day-trips but places we could drive to within a day (i.e. 10hrs max) and then spend around a week hiking. And we welcome places we'd have to fly to, even if it won't work this summer!
posted by coffeecat at 6:50 PM on January 12

Being in the south, have you explored all the Natl Parks? Blue Ridge, Smoky Mountain, Mt Mitchell, Pisgah Natl Forest, Dolly Sods?
On preview, as raccoon409 wrote.
posted by TDIpod at 7:19 PM on January 12

The White Mountains in New Hampshire may work. You could be based in North Conway and do a variety of hikes, up to summitting Mount Washington. Many have bald tops and nice views. Lots of streams, not many crowds. Mount Keasarge and Pleasant Mountain just over the border in Maine are two moderate hikes that I’ve enjoyed.
posted by Sukey Says at 7:40 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

It's not a day trip, but Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is the hidden gem of the NPS. The North Unit is particularly scenic, and you'll often be greeted eagerly by a park ranger who is literally the only other human being in the park, which is super cool.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:42 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Ok, I’m just going to throw this out on the fly-to end of the spectrum: Anchorage, Alaska and hereabouts has spectacular hiking in the front range of the Chugach and I’d help plan you a hell of a hiking circuit. :) You’d need to up your game a little in terms of elevation but not a ton- you can do a lot with 2000 feet here. Snowpack melt is unpredictable but most places are always good by mid-June.

Seconding North Conway/the White Mountains, which is where my husband was living as a compromise wilderness before he came to Alaska. :)
posted by charmedimsure at 7:44 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Just making sure you know about, which has reasonable hike difficulty ratings.
posted by lab.beetle at 8:15 PM on January 12

So if you do Seattle, there are loads of hikes at Mts. Rainier and St. Helens and in Olympic NP and environs that would be fine for both of you. But I'd suggest thinking outside the parks, too: get this book, base yourself in the high desert near Bend, and hike your heart out, enjoying snow capped peaks and gorgeous lakes as a bonus. The town is nice enough for takeout/adult beverage/grocery needs.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:02 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I think one reason you've had trouble finding guidance on "best" intermediate hikes is because at that level, there are TONS of options. Every National Park, National Forest, and State Park of decent size will have trails 8-10 miles in length, with moderate elevation gain. I suggest thinking about your preferred region instead - ie, do you want rainforests or cactus? After hiking, do you want true Tex-Mex cuisine in a small town, or great seafood in a vibrant city downtown? Etc. Then, you can look for "best" hiking trails in that smaller area and still have good options.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 6:00 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

A vote for getting yourself to Catskill, NY or Hudson, NY when it's again safe to travel that far. You can get a hotel room in or nearby either town and be within a hour's drive of scores of incredible 8 to 12-mile hikes. The Catskill Park, of course, but also the South Taconic Trail, Taconic Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the brand new Empire State Trail. (Source: I have spent the last 9 months hiking most of these trails.) Both towns are full of amazing dining and cultural events and ties to our country's political and artistic history.

I also second the idea of getting yourself to the Olympic penninsula. The varying landscapes (physical and cultural) there are astonishing.
posted by minervous at 10:10 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

If you want a reasonable place to camp on the edge of Olympic National Park, memail me. Site includes a tiny cabin with sleeping loft, fire pit, beach rights, and access to running water.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 5:45 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I really like Central Texas/Hill Country but I freely admit it's often got a lot of tourists and it's as hot as anywhere else in Texas, so I'm not sure how well it would for a summer week-long trip. But I'll lay it out there so y'all can get a sense of options.

Bonus: Central Texas has great BBQ, very nice swimming holes and tubing in summer, and plenty of good beer. If those don't sound like pluses, there's also art galleries, shopping (boutique and outlet), and some small historical museums.

There's some very nice hiking at the state parks in Central Texas; I link to the Blair House Inn site because I also stayed there (fabulous people) and Wimberley is a convenient base to explore from. Elevation changes in this area are not intense; the 'hills' are foothills by my West Coast standards.

For something a little different, there's East Texas and the Piney Woods/Pine Curtain. There's four national forests (Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Angelina, and Sabine) there. I haven't hiked it myself, and I don't think I'd make a trip that long for it, but it would definitely be off the beaten path.

Finally, if you'd be willing to go further afield, then Big Bend (there's a state and a national park; the national one is the famous one) is amazing. There's enough space that you are unlikely to run into folks off the beaten path. Elevation can change quite a bit but you can plan it out so as to avoid that. Note that it's dangerously hot down there in summer so you'd want to time it carefully. Wide variety of hikes, amazing night skies, and of course there's Marfa and Terlingua and Alpine for your art and cultural needs.
posted by librarylis at 9:27 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

In Missouri there are many options, but one of the best is the Ozark Trail. The trail is over 390 miles in length, divided into a few contiguous sections.

Thanks to the excellent work of the Ozark Trail Association, you can find all the info you need to plan your hike, whether it is a day, two, or 10, and whether you're just going to do a few miles a day or many.

They also list campgrounds, cabins, B&Bs, hotels, shuttle services, etc. And on top of that, your re-supply points, stores, and so on.

You can use that info to plan any type of trip you like, from short and easy to a multi-day adventure.
posted by flug at 10:11 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

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