National Park Hiking TrailsPosted by Whole Earth | 08.18.2020
National Park Hiking Trails
Americans are lucky. We have access through our national parks and public lands to an astonishing variety of landscapes. Rocky coasts and sandy beaches; ancient and youthful mountain ranges; temperate rainforests, Giant Sequoias, Bristlecone Pines and old growth forests; scorching deserts, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and so much more.
For us, part of getting ready for a trip to a national park is doing our research ahead of time so we can arrive with a plan that usually includes a series of hikes to some of the most scenic and unusual spots in the area. We get our information from guidebooks, park websites, and word of mouth from friends. We’ll have a map or two, study the routes and decide what to carry with us and the optimal shoes for the hikes.
The park service has different kinds of trails to get visitors to the sights in each park. The main factors in determining the type of trail are distance, terrain and difficulty. Some trails are loops of less than a mile or several miles. Others like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails travel through multiple parks and national forests and are well over two thousand miles long. Some trails are up and back while others may be a part of a system of trails. We always carry a map with us so we have a good idea of where we are in relation to where we’d like to be.
Terrain is a great fashioner of trails. Over flat, high traffic areas, paths may be wide, smooth, and in some cases, even paved. As trails pass through forests they’re usually narrow and can be strewn with rocks and exposed roots. Mountain paths that traverse sharp slippery fields of rock can be difficult to navigate. And desert paths that cross over dunes can be unstable as well.
The difficulty of a trail is generally determined by the elevation gain over the distance of the route. For example, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the difficulty ratings range from 0.4 (25 feet gain over 0.4 mile) to 22.39 (3993 feet gain over 14.4 miles). In our national parks, a difficulty rating under 5 is considered to be easy; 5 to 10 is moderate, and anything over 10 is considered strenuous.
The easiest trails are wide and flat with low grades, ideal for slow walkers and bicycles. And when paved they’re smooth enough for wheelchairs and strollers. It’s always good to know the rules of right of way on these multiple use trails. Rule of thumb is horses and pack animals have right of way over hikers who in turn have right of way over cyclists. We like Moab Vent 2 Hiking shoes for easy trails and for walking in our neighborhood as well. They combine comfort and stability and are ready for a fast reaction should we need to jump quickly out of the way of a non-complying cyclist.
Boardwalk trails can be found in all sorts of environments. They’re most commonly used as a bridge over creeks and wet or marshy ground, but they can also be found on sandy trails near beaches and in deserts. Another type of boardwalk trail is literally that – a board to walk on. These are found in sensitive environments like old growth forests where the desire to give access to a natural treasure is balanced with the desire to have the absolute minimum impact on the environment. We need to stay on the board, so shoes like the Keen Newport H2 for men or the Keen Whisper for women that combine foot-feel and grip work well for a single boardwalk.
The vast majority of trails in our national parks are dirt footpaths. They’re usually wide enough for one person and sometimes for two people walking side by side. Some are quite smooth but we can also find trails that are a rugged mixture of dirt, rocks and roots. Add a strong gain in elevation and we have to keep a close eye on where we put our feet. For trails like these we want an all-purpose mid hiking shoe like the Salomon OUTline Mid GTX that’s lightweight, grippy and offers protection for our ankles.
The last category of trails to be found in our national parks is off the beaten track, that is, no path at all. Heading out into true wilderness areas usually requires a permit, so be sure to check beforehand. It’s very important to understand the terrain to be traversed so a topographical map is a must. Rock, scree, roots, mud, sand, dense underbrush and slick creek crossings are just a few of the possibilities when we head out cross country. The Oboz Sawtooth II Mid Hiking Boots are ready for the challenge. They’re tough, comfortable and offer secure footing in demanding situations.
And finally, as we hike in our national parks, we’re careful to practice Leave No Trace. We stick to the trail; we carry out our trash; we take photos but otherwise leave nature as we found it; and we respect wildlife and our fellow hikers. We leave no trace except our footprints, and we hope you will as well as you enjoy the pleasures of hiking in our national parks.