If you’re like me and are loving the task of making your 2023 hiking bucket list, I have some epic day hikes to add to your list! Dreaming up this year’s list was fun because most of them are hikes that I’ve never done before. Some are similar hikes/areas with new experiences—like this year’s goal to backpack in a familiar backcountry with both kids or for them to experience their first 14er! But I don’t usually talk about hikes that I haven’t done before, because without the personal experience (yet) I can’t expect you to “take my word for it.” However, THESE hikes below….you can take my word for it. And I hope you do! They are epic.
We rarely revisit the same travel destination as a family more than once, so the fact that we have been back to most these hikes twice (maybe 3 times or have it on our list AGAIN), says a lot about the breathtaking beauty of each of these regions. These recommendations span Washington, Canada, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and even Hawaii. These are classic day hikes (or backpacking trips if you want to immerse yourself in the region) that should be on every hiker’s list.
Keep in mind that I’m not a photographer nor do I have a fancy camera, so many of these pictures don’t do these hikes justice. You can do a quick google search for the epic shots for confirmation. All of these photos were taken with an iPhone and probably an OLD one at that. It’s also worth mentioning that we did all of the below hikes with our kids in tow—either hiking on foot or when they were young enough to be carried the whole time in the Osprey Poco Carrier or Beco Gemini (ahhhhh…..the easy days when they had no choice in the matter!). With the exception of the Grand Teton National Park suggestion, I would not necessarily classify these hikes as “kid-friendly,” but they are definitely proven to be “kidpossible”, as all hikes are!
I’ll try to keep this short and sweet and give you my 5 favorites so I can get onto researching and dreaming up my own 2021 Hiking Bucket List. Let me know if the comments below if any of these make your list!
Disclaimer: These are not trip reports or detailed hiking guides, but rather inspiration and ideas for future hiking trips. Be sure to research in depth trail, weather, and trip reports. Many of these hikes require permits, advanced reservations, and thoughtful logistics. Be smart, be safe, Leave No Trace and Recreate Responsibly.
LAKE O’HARA – EPIC DAY HIKES IN YOHO NATIONAL PARK, CANADA
Nothing quite does it for me like the Canadian Rockies. If reincarnation is a thing—my wish is to come back as a Canadian. If you haven’t explored this area, there are tons of epic hikes that are bucket list worthy. Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park is one of my personal favorites because it’s remote enough (you either have to hike in 7 miles to access the area or take the shuttle bus service), but also has some unique creature comforts (like tea time at the Lake O’Hara Lodge!). How cool is that?! We visited in the summer the first time, although the water is not warm contrary to the picture below of my friend Katie jumping in. More of a polar plunge sort of situation. We loved it so much we had to return the fall the year after once my son was born. In the fall it’s a completely different experience as it’s sprinkled with golden larches.
Regardless of the season, the two best hikes once you’re “in” are the Alpine Loop Trail and Odaray Grandview.
Lake O’Hara to Lake Oesa and Opabin Lake (via Alpine Loop Trail)
This hike is a lake lover’s dream—hence the three lakes listed in the title. It starts at the iconic Lake O’Hara, then you climb to Lake Oesa, then take the Yukness Ledges over to Opabin Lake. The closest AllTrails route I can find for you doesn’t include the Yukness Ledges variation but I recommend adding the additional 1.1 miles. With the three lake loop, the mileage is 6.3 miles with about 1700 feet elevation gain, according to our Strava. It’s rated as moderate, but I was 4 months post-partum after a gnarly labor so my face was beet red the entire hike it was hard.
This hike gets you high above Lake O’Hara at 8,203 feet. It’s 5.8 miles out and back with a 1938 feet elevation gain. You can see several lakes throughout this hike as it hugs the flanks of Odaray Mountain. The largest lake in view is Lake McArthur—which is another worthy hike in this region. Keep in mind that the Odaray trail may restrict access (to 4 or 5 parties per day) due to sensitive grizzly habitat so you will want to head out early for this hike as getting turned away would be a huge bummer. I was stressed about this both times but we lucked out! Stay up to date with trip reports and the full stats here.
PIEGAN PASS – EPIC DAY HIKE IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
First, let me say that Glacier National Park holds a special place in my heart. I know I already said Canadian Rockies were my favorite, but this area is a close second. I’d also be happy if I came back as a marmot in the alpine of Glacier in my next life. Bryce and I spent our honeymoon at Many Glacier Lodge so it stills gives me all the feels. We did some epic hikes on that trip as well, but Piegan Pass was one we conquered when we came back with our kids and it takes the cake. Here are some honeymoon photos from that region (not Piegan Pass) so you can see how fresh we looked pre-kids and living on love—and could hike 19 miles in a day. Okay, Bryce can still do that but not me. Also, we ran into a moose!
Now that we’ve taken that trip down memory lane, let’s get back to this bucket list hike. This hike is no joke when it comes to mileage and gain. There are a couple of ways to do this hike. You can do it as a thru hike (which is how AllTrails lists it—12.4 miles from point to point, starting at the Going to the Sun Road and ending at our honeymoon “resort”). Or you can do it as an out and back, which is what we did it. We started at the same spot on the Going to the Sun Hwy and turned around at the top of the pass. This route is 9.5 miles out and back with an 1805 feet elevation gain and is rated as hard. I’d agree.
HANAKAPI’AI FALLS TRAIL – EPIC DAY HIKE IN NA PALI COAST OF KAUAI, HAWAII
So far with this epic list, I could start each sentence with…this hike is no joke. And also how much I looooove each region. Kauai is no different. I suppose if I can’t come back as a Canadian or an alpine marmot, I’ll settle for a Kauaian rooster. The Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail hike is 7 mile out and back with 2404 feet elevation gain and is rated as difficult. It is the beginning portion of the full Na Pali Coast Trail to Kalalau Beach. However, once you get up at least 500 feet of vertical (about 1.5 miles in) you get the full views. That’s about as far as we trekked due to recent rain and mud that made it unsafe (I had to pull the mom card on this one), plus we hit the jackpot with the rainbow, so we got what we came for. I’m sure Bryce would have pressed on as he is one of those crazies who has done the full 22 mile Na Pali Coast Trail in one day. SMH. I think I’ll take my own advice here and add this one to my next bucket list since I’d like to see the Hanakapi’ai Falls—300 feet of cascading waterfall into a lush paradise. That sounds like just the reward you deserve after this challenging hike. Be sure to check accessibility and permit requirements for this hike, as advanced shuttle reservations are currently required. You can find more information via the Hae’ena State Park site.
SENTINEL PASS – EPIC DAY HIKE IN BANFF NATIONAL PARK, CANADA
Similar to those in Glacier National Park, this is another hike that holds a special place in my heart. Bryce and I hiked this pass when I was pregnant with our first child and even shot our pregnancy announcement from the top. We were destined to a raise a hiker from the beginning!
We came back the very next year to show our daughter, Emerson, this beautiful spot and it turns out I was already pregnant again with our second! All I am going to say about that is—yes, they are very close. So naturally, we had to come back a 3rd time (yep, the very next year!) to hike this as a family of 4. And luckily that time I was NOT pregnant! But don’t be blinded by my nostalgia of this hike—it really is that beautiful and worthy of multiple visits! Our favorite season for this hike is in the fall so you can catch the golden larches magic. Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Trail is a 6.8 mile out and back hike with 2598 feet of elevation gain and is rated hard. As with all of these epic day hikes, it’s worth the work!
CASCADE PASS AND SAHALE ARM – EPIC HIKES IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK IN WASHINGTON
Before our recent move to Colorado, we were fortunate to spend the last 13 years in Washington exploring the PNW. Bryce is a “list” guy, so he spent his weekends crossing off (almost) every hike in the 100 Classic Hikes of Washington. I’ll provide an in depth list and trail guides on our favorites in Washington, but Sahale Arm is at the top of the list, so I’ll at least give you a tease. As with most of these longer day hikes, they can also be done as a backpacking trip. My first experience on this mountain was actually my very first backpacking trip! We were fortunate to sleep on the edge of the Cascades and get this amazing sunset. Remember, 2010 (or probably more like 2008 since we never had the newest stuff!) iPhone here with no editing so imagine this in a 2021 lens…
It was pretty much this trip that solidified that this Bryce dude was a keeper. And so when we eventually got married, 2 years later, we returned to this spot the morning after with our out of town friends and family to show them this beauty. On that day, we did the Cascade Pass Trail, which is a beautiful destination in it’s own right and more of a true “day hike” mileage. To Cascade Pass, it’s a moderately rated 6.5 mile out and back hike with a 1781 feet gain. I may not have prepped my post-wedding crew about the intensity of this hike—especially hungover. But it was a memory!
If you are feeling ambitious, you can continue onto Sahale Arm Trail which makes the hike a 11.6 mile out and back with 4038 feet gain. I know, I know, I’m sure you are shouting at me—“Kristin, that is NOT a dayhike!” I get it, but you have to remember who I am married to. I agree with you that 4000 feet of gain in a day is pretty gnarly so if you have the ability to stay the night, I highly recommend it. Be sure to check the National Park Service website as the road to Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm can often be closed due to washouts and road damage.
INSPIRATION POINT TO JENNY LAKE LOOP – EPIC DAY HIKES IN GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING
I’m throwing this one in because Grand Teton National Park is epic in its own right and I wanted to include a true “kid-friendly” hike to this bucket list. Besides, I couldn’t leave the Tetons out as this park is a close second in my favorite U.S. National Parks. Okay, tied for second with Yosemite. It’s so hard to choose!! Inspiration Point via the Jenny Lake Boat Shuttle is a heavily trafficked easy hike in the park. If you keep pressing beyond the point, this trail loops back to the Jenny Lake loop and the back half of the trail is much less traveled. If you make this a loop like we did, it’s a 3.5 mile hike with 594 feet elevation gain and is rated moderate. Either way, I would actually call this hike easy as all of the kids in our group (4 and older) hiked this on their own with
no minimal complaints.
ICE LAKES TRAIL – EPIC DAY HIKES IN SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS, COLORADO
If you made it all the way down to the bottom of this very long hike, you will be rewarded! This list would not be complete without a mention of our favorite day hike (so far) in our new home state of Colorado. I am so pumped to explore Colorado more. The little we have done here already has blown my socks off and this hike in the Ice Lakes Basin tops the list. The best way to do this hike is as a “lollipop” loop from the Ice Lakes trailhead—seeing both Ice Lake and Island Lake. You can check out my full trail guide on Ice Lakes Basin, where I recommend making it a loop and seeing Island Lake first so you are looking down at Ice Lake the whole way down. Island Lake is okay, but Ice Lake will take your breath away. I guess I shouldn’t be so harsh on Island Lake. It’s also beautiful and if wasn’t being compared to Ice Lake, it would be worth a day hike in its own right but Ice Lakes is just stunning so I kind of feel bad for it. When we got to Ice Lake Walker yelled “it looks like a RAINBOW!!!” at the top of his lungs. Okay, just at his regular volume which is most people’s “top of their lungs.” Everyone laughed and it was super cute, but he was not wrong.
As a loop, this hike is 8.5 miles with a 2700 feet elevation gain. This hike is special to us as it was my 5 year old, Emerson’s, first long hike she completed on her own two feet and she was super proud of herself. We of course had our second carrier because we never expect it. On these bigger hikes, I plan to carry and then am pleasantly surprised when they hike and give mom a back break. But in this case I was pleasantly impressed. These were not a flat 8.5 miles! This girl is fierce. Sadly, this trail is currently closed to due to the Ice Fire in October 2020 so check back here for updates. Hopefully you will be treated with blue skies and wildflowers like we were (in mid-August).
If you’re interested in adding any of these hikes to your hiking bucket list this year or in the future, be sure to check back here before the summer for the full write ups—trail details, our experiences, insider tips, logistics and planning, where to camp nearby, and suggestions if you plan to bring your kids on these hikes. I’ll also share why I think Lake O’Hara is the best destination for your baby’s first backpacking trip! If you don’t want to miss these posts, be sure to subscribe to our email list below. If you’re looking to start smaller, check out the First 5 Things to Teach Your Kids About Hiking. and if you need help with backing your backpacks, this list will tell you everything you need for a dayhike with kids!
And of course, if you take my suggestion and do any of these hikes, I’d love to hear how it went! Please drop me a comment below if you add any of these to your bucket list!