Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park
Loop hikes are considered to be the pinnacle hiking experience.
With fresh views at every step, none of your time or energy is wasted.
The circular trails listed below also all offer incredible experiences in some of America’s most treasured public lands.
Some could be challenging day hikes while others are best enjoyed as weeklong adventures.
Don't forget to get our hiking tips before you begin your hiking journey!
1. Pemi or Franconia Ridge Loop/Traverse, Pemigewasset Wilderness, New Hampshire - 32 miles (1-3 days)
This iconic trek through the trail-packed White Mountains crosses eight summits, which is why it’s considered the second hardest day hike in the U.S. (we recommend savoring it over a few days). The “Pemi” boasts beautiful wildflowers and lots of peace and quiet, especially in spring and fall. It connects with the part of the Appalachian Trail known as Liberty Spring Trail. As one of our named ultimate American hikes, this place was also dubbed by one Wilderness Volunteer as the “ultimate vacation.”
photo credit: Flickr, Winged Foot
2. Four Pass Loop, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado - 26 miles (2-3 days)
Colorado has an abundance of awesome mountains, but the Maroon Bells are considered the most photogenic in the entire continent of North America. This loop starts at Maroon Lake and winds through alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, past gorgeous lake shores, over four 12,000-foot passes, and around these iconic snowy peaks. Free permits must be obtained at the trailhead.
photo credit: Flickr, Rick von Glahn
3. Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon National Park, California - 41 miles (4-5 days)
Rae Lakes may be the most popular backpacking trip in the Sierra, even more desirable than Yosemite or Tahoe. Hikers will see everything wild California has to offer in Paradise Valley: blue skies, clear lakes, incredibly old trees, glacial valleys and granite domes. Avoid crowds by venturing in September and be sure to take the time to explore iconic Fin Dome in Sixty Lake Basin.
photo credit: Flickr, sheenjek
4. Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington - 93 miles (10-14 days)
Some consider this easily navigable but lengthy loop an absolute must. The 100-year-old trail passes more than two dozen glaciers as it encircles Mount Tahoma/Rainier. High-alpine wildflower meadows, deep forests, and glimmering waterfalls make it an unforgettable trip. The many ascents and descents offer 18 beautiful campsites as well as several options for food resupply. You can also hike this one in segments, especially since it is accessible from nine trailheads.
photo credit: Flickr, Henry C
5. Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming - 18 miles (1 day)
The jagged Tetons have some great loops, but this one is considered the best. Experience the Tetons up close and score some winning views of the Cathedral Group. An eight-mile climb leads hikers to 360-degree vistas at Paintbrush Divide. For a gentler descent, hike up Paintbrush and down Cascade.
photo credit: Flickr, DavidnKeng
6. Outer Mountain Loop, Big Bend National Park, Texas - 30 miles (3-5 days)
Big Bend is one of America's largest parks, but it’s also one of its quietest. It has mountains, mesas and piñon woodlands in addition to incredible desert sunsets and starry nights. This remote trip should be hiked November through April, though, as heat can make the rugged journey almost unbearable. Plan to carry a couple days' worth of water and refill at Juniper Canyon and Blue Creek.
photo credit: Flickr, Len Hardy
7. Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona - 34 miles (4-5 days)
This challenging loop is for experienced canyon hikers with basic canyoneering skills as there's a short technical rock climb in this remote area of the Grand Canyon. Even though it's starts at the popular South Rim, this trail offers seclusion as well as stellar campsites. Check out our list of other wild places with outstanding rock climbs here.
photo credit: Flickr, crosby_cj
8. Timberline Trail, Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon - 41 miles (3-5 days)
Some visit Mt. Hood to scale its 11,000-foot heights, but this historic trail leads you around its belt. It offers scenic views, interesting geologic features, and plenty of wildlife. One section also joins with the famous Pacific Crest Trail.
photo credit: Flickr, Ryan Lµdwig
9. North Circle Route, Glacier National Park, Montana - 65 miles (7-8 days)
The icy giants that this park is named for may disappear by 2030, so plan to take in the marvels of the North Circle soon. You’ll venture under the Continental Divide, by an old stone chalet, over Fifty Mountain Pass, and through the famous 75-foot Ptarmigan Tunnel.
photo credit: Flickr, cedwardmoran
10. Three Sisters Loop, Three Sisters Wilderness Area, Oregon - 55 miles (3-5 days)
In this treasured area, the third, fourth and fifth-largest peaks in the state are surrounded by gorgeous lakes and alpine meadows. But what’s most unique about this place is its volcanic wonderland of cinder cones, glassy obsidian, lava flows and pumice flats. With relatively small elevation changes, this hike is a bit easier than others in the northwest too.
photo credit: Flickr, V.H.S.
11. Grand Island Loop, Grand Island National Recreation Area, Michigan - 19.5 miles (2-3 days)
This area may be less visited than the well-known Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore but it is a local favorite. Take the ferry to this destination boasting sea cliffs, serene coves and secluded campsites. The loop starts with Rim Trail taking hikers along Grand Island’s shoreline and through fern-filled forests. If you bring binoculars, you can spy Pictured Rocks two miles away.
photo credit: Flickr, Monika Soltysik
12. Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Loop, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina - 57 miles (5-6 days)
This park is America’s most-visited one but only a fraction venture to the section in North Carolina. Start at high Clingmans Dome and follow the Appalachian Trail before descending to Fontana Lake. Hikers will be able to take a dip at swimming holes, munch on wild berries, catch fresh trout and stretch out on giant rocks. The colors in fall are absolutely astounding.
photo credit: Flickr, John Coley
13. Gospel Hump Loop Trail, Gospel Hump Wilderness, Idaho - 68 miles (6-8 days)
This peak-packed wildland is overshadowed by Idaho’s popular Sawtooth Wilderness, but it is just as breathtaking - and more solitary. You will likely spy only wildlife and perhaps a few kayakers. Camp and dine on the sandy beaches of Salmon River, saunter through meadows of wildflowers and lakes, and take in views from 8,000-foot buttes. September is the best time to visit.
photo credit: wilderness.net (John McCarthy)
14. Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Utah - 20 miles (2-6 days)
This half-loop actually requires a shuttle, but Buckskin Gulch alone makes it noteworthy. Transporting hikers through narrow red rock to the Paria River, it is one of the longest non-technical slot canyons in the world (plan to bring a 40' rope in case though). This challenging route provides plenty of rewards for hikers who will end their days camping under shady maple trees. Be sure to get a permit and check the weather forecast ahead of time.
photo credit: Flickr, Chris M Morris