What are your favorite short hikes?
February 22, 2021 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been doing a lot of hiking this past year, and I have come to especially appreciate the kind of hike that you can do before lunch and still have time and energy left to do other stuff in the afternoon (work, sightsee, even do another hike). So like, a chill 2-3 hour hike, not too hard. What are your very favorite short hikes in North America?

Other parameters:
- No longer than 6 miles/10 km (a bit longer's fine if it's fairly flat or exceptionally awesome)
- No more than 1000 ft/300 m elevation gain (again, a little more is fine if it's really worth it, less is usually better)

Uneven/rocky/root-y terrain is fine, I have good shoes. If I have to use my hands to climb over some rocks, that's also fine, I'm short so that happens a lot. Anything really technical or hazardous is out.

Bonus points for anything within a day-trip distance of Chicago (I know that's hard mode, so please don't feel limited by this!)
posted by goodbyewaffles to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Not close to Chicago, but if you ever make your way to Maryland/Virginia, I love Great Falls and all of the trails. Billy Goat is the famous one but I have gone 6-8 miles on other sections with relative comfort.
posted by anya32 at 8:47 AM on February 22

I never managed to get down to Starved Rock, but I'd imagine it's very tidily in parameters. I'd also imagine that the bluffs along the Mississippi if you follow North Ave / Rte 64 all the way west, are pretty good. But driving all that way has left me too darned tired to really look for them.

Where I live now, my favorite (currently closed) is the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River trail. It's an out-and-back that can go as long or as short as you want it to - take the right side trail and you can be (deliberately, not at all accidentally) on your way to Canada. But you get a great experience going three miles out and then back. The scenery is tremendous as you hike through very fertile second growth forest between the middle fork of the Snoqualmie river and steep (but occasionally hikeable) bluffs and mountains. It doesn't actually gain much altitude but it wanders gently up and down in a way that makes for a proper bit of work when hiked at pace. The first mile is moderately busy, but less bad than other popular trails (except in the early spring when folks minds turn to hiking but the higher altitude trails are still snowed in), but after that it's increasingly placid and quiet, especially past the 12 mile mark when you pass the last spot that counts as anything like a trailhead.

The Middle Fork valley has a number of trails along these lines as well - mostly not big altitude gainers (though you absolutely have that option, and it's worth it) with knock out scenery. My trips out there always serve to confirm my decision to move back to Seattle after many years in Chicago.
posted by wotsac at 8:50 AM on February 22 [3 favorites]

Acadia National Park has plenty of short hikes of varying difficulty, many with vistas. I'd go in shoulder season. You've also got a bus ride to Bar Harbor for happy hour, it's perfect.

In Michigan, I'm more familiar with town walking than nature hiking. Grand Haven, Traverse City, and Marquette have great bike/walk paths. I also enjoyed walking through Duluth and Two Harbors MN. And ya know, Mackinac is good for walking.

Hard to go wrong with West Virginia, too.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:59 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

many years since I've been there, but Point Lobos on California's central coast stands out in my recollection as the GOAT of short scenic hikes.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:04 AM on February 22 [6 favorites]

Yellow Springs, Ohio is within day trip range and there are some nice hikes around there. Glen Helen, John Bryan, Clifton Gorge. It’s where I grew up and started hiking, which is to say that the trails are not so onerous that a 10-year-old can’t do most of it. It holds up as an adult too. Plus you end up in the town of Yellow Springs, which is fun. Lots to do there.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:07 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (recs for specific trails are particularly useful. thanks for everything so far!)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:07 AM on February 22

The St. Louis Metro Area has a bunch. My favorites are Lone Elk and Castlewood State Park.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:08 AM on February 22

In DC Rock Creek Park has two trails that run roughly along either side of the creek, the Valley Trail and the Western Ridge Trail. NPS says "think of them as the sides of a ladder," as there are multiple connections between them. Aside from one optional rock scramble (there's a fork in the trail where you can choose your difficulty) the slopes are nothing worse than moderate and it's pretty flat overall. Because of all the connecting trails you can create your own loop of almost any length. I generally walk from my house so I usually do about 3-4 miles within the park and get the rest of my distance to and from.
posted by fedward at 9:49 AM on February 22

So there are many options if you ever find yourself on vacation in New York City - a couple of them are even WITHIN New York City.

1. Staten Island has a big-ass park right bang in the middle, most of which is forested. And this park has seven hiking trails in it, of various lengths. One of them is a nature trail for kids, and one is a mixed-use trail where bikes are allowed, and the others are more straightforward trails for hiking. And despite your being in the middle of one of New York City's 5 boroughs, they are surprisingly "nature-y" - I've hiked the White Trail twice now, and both times I saw more deer than I did people. (The last time I went I took a friend, and we saw a five-point buck!) There are a few points where the trails cross streets, but the streets in question are usually more residential places without heavy traffic, and they're pretty well-marked. Your biggest challenge may be in actually getting TO the trailhead without a car; but I've been able to get to and from either end of the White Trail on city buses, and would also have been able to bail out of a trail mid-way if necessary on yet another bus.

2. Van Cortland Park is up in the other end of New York City, in the Bronx. That has seven trails winding through it - many of which are short and easy hikes. Two of the trails, however, also cross the city border and lead you further north for more exploration - the Putnam Greenway connects to the South County Trailway in Yonkers, NY, which stretches for another 14 miles north away from New York City. However, only a very short distance up the South County Trailway from the New York City border you come to Tibbets Brook Park, a lovely park with a number of services. The northern end of Tibbets Brook has a lot of "attractions" like mini golf, a pool, etc., but the southern end - which you would reach first - is more "natural", with a lake and a few park benches and a gazebo across the lake.

3. Van Cortland is also the southern terminus for New York State's Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, a 26-mile trail that follows the path of a former aqueduct that ran from upstate New York down to a reservoir in New York City. The aqueduct itself is no longer in use, but walking along the top of it made for a very convenient and level hiking trail linking some pretty residential towns north of New York City. Conveniently, too, these same towns also are served by the Metro North commuter train, so you could easily take a train to one town, hop on the Croton Aqueduct trail and walk to another town, and hop back on the train there to come back. There are scores of trail guides for the Croton Aqueduct system, and several include suggested "start the trail at this town, and then get back on the train to come home at this one" itineraries.

....The New York/New Jersey trail conference has an interactive map you can use to search for potential hikes, filtering by all manner of criteria (trail length, the kind of trail, difficulty, whether dogs are allowed, whether you can get there via public transit, etc.).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:52 AM on February 22 [2 favorites]

I spent some years in Southern Illinois, so I have some favorites from that part of the state.

the Giant City Nature Trail is an easy hike and is amazing. If you go, definitely have fun (and be careful) around Fat Man's Squeeze.

There is also the incredible Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest. I have honestly never been anywhere as beautiful as that forest, and seeing the photos online makes me ache to go back.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 10:09 AM on February 22

Oops, bad link to Fat Man's Squeeze in my comment.

Here is a link to pics.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 10:17 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

I just did an excellent one near Boone called the Nuwati Trail, accessible from a parking lot on the Blue Ridge Trail. Beautiful, fun hike that takes you over several creeks and ends at a really neat rock outcropping with views up the side of Grandfather Mountain.
posted by saladin at 10:25 AM on February 22

We recently went to Big Bend National Park, and there were a number of hikes that fit this and I found enjoyable:

- favorite was the Lost Mine trail, just do the first mile or so and you get to an amazing view
- some canyon trails - Santa Elena Canyon, Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff, and Closed Canyon

The park overall is awesome.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:40 AM on February 22

Head up to Duluth and Ely, MN -- there are tons of trails in the area. Duluth gives you access to the North Shore, and Ely has a lot of short trails in the area (to say nothing of the BWCA -- but you're not canoeing).

posted by wenestvedt at 11:05 AM on February 22

Starved Rock is a perfect day trip from Chicago; it’s not huge but also the trails are in segments so you can choose how far you want to go. It is pretty busy, though. I went on a very nice fall Sunday this year and it was honestly a little too crowded. If you stay overnight, though, there are adorable little cabins built in the 30s with the CCC and I love them.

Friends have also gone down to the Dan Ryan woods and had nice day hikes. Bonus, you’re right by Original Rainbow Cone.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 11:08 AM on February 22

Favorite from my college days is Rock Creek Trail in Kankakee River State Park. Take the "tricky offshoots" listed in the link. It's really lovely, especially in fall. Much closer to you than Starved Rock.

Favorite in more recent times is the Buffalo Viewing Trail in the Midewan National Tallgrass Prairie. There are other fine hikes there as well.

Waterfall Glenn in Dupage County - and even better if you know someone at Argonne National Labs nearby. They have the white deer.

Others -
Indiana Dunes -
Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria IL - kinda sad, but there are animals
Route 66 hike in Litchfield IL
posted by rw at 1:47 PM on February 22

Matthieson State Park is next to Starved Rock, and I've enjoyed the hiking there more, and the scenery is gorgeous there too, and less crowded. The forest preserves in the Palos woods areas south of Chicago but still in Cook County are really nice - often hilly terrain, lots of woods and water, a variety of distances. Devils lake state park in Wisconsin has great hikes. Farther away, my favorites are in Glacier National Park. So many good ones but Avalanche Lake is a good one. Finally, if you're on FB, there's a group for IL hikers and campers where people share good local hiking info.
posted by j810c at 3:30 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

I'm going to stretch both your distance and elevation gain parameters a tiny bit.

Bean and Bear Lakes Loop is my favorite day hike on the north shore of MN. 6.3 miles long and about 1000 ft elevation gain. But it's worth it! Honestly, you could spend a month slowly working your way from Duluth to the Canadian border and do a different day hike every morning and afternoon and still have more to explore at the end of the month.

We went to Teddy Roosevelt National Park a few years back and went on some fantastic day hikes. Jones Creek Trail and the Petrified Forest hikes were delightful - we went at the very end of September so we caught the end of autumn color (mostly grasses out there). Okay, the Petrified Forest hike was about 10 miles but it's generally flat so it goes fast. You can also drive in on a Ranch Road (forget which one) and cut some time off.

If you ever get up to the UP, the Mosquito Falls and Chapel Loop is worth it. Alright alright it's also about 10 miles but it's a really great hike. You can cut some of the loop off by taking shortcuts (actual shortcuts, not bushwhacking through the woods shortcuts).

In Las Cruces, NM: It's just called "slot canyon" and its hands-down the best short hike I've taken in years. Drive out on a ranch road, literally hop a fence, and follow the footprints to the opening of a slot canyon. Follow the canyon for a while and once you emerge, follow the path up to the top of the butte. It's only about 2.5 miles but it was a solid little hike. We were surprised by how much elevation we gained and didn't notice...because when you're in the slot it's so nice and cool.
posted by Gray Duck at 4:10 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

The St. Louis area has many many hiking trails! Across the river from St. Louis, you can visit Cahokia Mounds - A World Heritage Site - and hike up to the top of Monk's Mound where you can get a view of the arch.
posted by Ostara at 7:48 PM on February 22

Been a while since I've been, but Governor Dodge State Park in Wisconsin has some nice trails. Worth going to see the waterfall. Here's a list of trails. You could go in the morning and stop in Madison on the way back for lunch (in good times).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:07 AM on February 23

Mt. Misery and Mt. Joy in Valley Forge National Park, PA. The two trails are close together and the combo can be done in less than 3 hours. You're mostly in the woods the entire time and the trees are so beautiful. Some hills but not at all difficult.
posted by daikon at 1:58 PM on February 24

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