Top Ten Day Hikes in the Southwest

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Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument  (Andrew Gunners/Photodisc/Getty)

10. North Loop Trail
7-mile loop in Hill Country State Natural Area, TX
West of San Antonio lies the Balcones Escarpment, a long geologic fault zone that divides Texas into east and west. Balcones—the Spanish word for balconies—is an apt way to describe how the hill country suddenly juts up from the gently rolling blackland prairies. Limestone steps lead to canyon overlooks, and rocky paths cross knee-high creeks—ideal terrain for hikers, especially during the comfortable days of early spring, when temperatures average in the mid-60s and the wildflowers start to blossom. Hill Country State Natural Area, near the cowboy outpost of Bandera, is a 5,400-acre preserve with more than 30 miles of trails. And the seven-mile North Loop, which climbs over rocks and roots to Cougar Canyon Overlook, makes for a great intro to the entire parkland. Hikers do share the North Loop with mountain bikers, so watch out for fat-wheelers as you're gazing out over those spring-fed canyons and grasslands dotted with oaks.

9. Lower Manzana Trail
8-mile circuit in Los Padres National Forest, CA
The Lower Manzana wanders along a canyon creek, tucked within sandstone walls, eventually running into an abandoned schoolhouse from a former pioneer community that flourished here in the 1880s. The trail is fairly level, and most activities center on the creek (swimming, fishing, rock-hopping). You can spend a night at the Schoolhouse Camp or return early and enjoy the finer comforts of life in the exclusive neighborhoods of nearby Santa Barbara. As you might've gathered by the presence of the schoolhouse, the terrain is pretty mellow, making it a fantastic intro hike for young hikers. The more experienced can tack on the Potrero Trail, which sits a mile down the Lower Manzana. Start at the Potrero Camp and climb 1,500 feet to the sharp edge of the Deck, where a landscape of jagged rocks and caves becomes visible.
Check out our profile of Lower Manzana Trail—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

8. Rinconada Canyon
2.2-mile circuit in Petroglyph National Monument, NM
Albuquerque is home to a 17-mile-long canyon called West Mesa that's an open-air vault of prehistoric art. The volcanic walls host more than 15,000 rock art images, or petroglyphs, dating from as far back as 2,000 years ago. There are ranger-led tours of Boca Negra Canyon, but to see art without the crowds, consider more remote areas of the monument. Our pick? Rinconada Canyon. The 2.2-mile round-tripper leads high up the canyon walls, home to canyon wrens and earless leopard lizards. The trail can be incredibly hot during midday in summer, so come here close to opening at 8 A.M. Please also note that Native Americans consider the entire West Mesa a sacred place and may very well be having a ceremony. Be respectful, as you would be in any place of worship. What this hike lacks in length, it makes up for in distractions, with copious amounts of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs, rock wall alignments and shelters, and wildlife roaming in the canyon vegetation. Other hikes in the park, like the 1.5-mile Piedras Marcadas Canyon hike, can be tacked on to give you a full tour of the park's attractions.

7. Pine Creek Canyon Trail
4-mile circuit in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, NV
A mere 20 miles west of the Vegas Strip, desert hikers strike pay dirt at Red Rock Canyon. This is the edge of the Mojave, where red and yellow sandstone cliffs stretch 7,000 feet into the Nevada sky and Joshua trees scatter across the desert floor. Many of the better day hikes branch out from the 13-mile loop road maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. The four-mile round-trip Pine Creek Canyon Trail carves into the cliffs through a narrow canyon lined with ponderosa pines and sycamores. Wildlife on the route is as abundant and varied as the indigenous plant life. Coyotes, kit foxes, and bobcats all live in the canyon. If you want to stay in the wilderness rather than return to Sin City, there's one established campsite with 71 spots located two miles east of the visitor center. But plan carefully: Temps can dip into the mid-30s in the fall, winter, and early spring.
Check out our profile of Pine Creek Canyon Trail—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

6. Mount Moriah
11-mile circuit in Great Basin National Park, NV
A four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Great Basin National Park is a little-known gem where mountains over 13,000 feet rise dramatically from the desert floor. Wheeler Peak (13,063 feet) is the highest mountain in the park, but if you want diversity of terrain, push on north of the park to Mount Moriah Wilderness Area, an 81,082-acre area that borders Great Basin inside the boundaries of Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Local rangers suggest trekking the 11-mile Hendrys Creek Trail to the summit of 12,067-foot Mount Moriah. The 5,000-foot vertical climb takes you through thickets of piñon pine and vast glades of aspen. At 11,000 feet, you reach the Table, Moriah's rolling sky-high plateau where stands of twisted bristlecone pines continue their tenacious grip on life—at 3,000 to 4,000 years old, these are the oldest type of tree on the planet. From here, it's a rock scramble up to the summit. If visibility is good, you can look across an uninterrupted carpet of sagebrush for a good 100 miles.

Published: 23 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 21 Sep 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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