To be super clear: I’m not a hard-core hiker. I’ve never climbed a 14er (despite living in Colorado for a decade) and I have no plans to traipse the Appalachian Trail, hobbling around with one hiking boot on like Reese Witherspoon in the movie adaption of Wild. That being said, checking out nearby hiking trails is one of my favorite things to do on vacation. Whether it’s weaving in a half-hour or dedicating a half-day or more, hiking on vacation is—literally—a breath of fresh air, and one of the very best ways to get amazing views (and amazing photos).
The best part? Working up an appetite! Besides the obvious health benefit, hiking equals hungry! For me, that’s a huge plus because while I like hiking, I LOVE trying local food and beer when I’m away from home. And you can only squeeze in so many yummy snacks and hearty ales before that overstuffed, I’m-on-vacation lethargy kicks in. So, hit the trails first, and enjoy some awesome vacay food (and beers) afterward. You’ve earned it, right?
Now, for super technical elevation and trailhead info, hit up AllTrails.com or TripAdvisor. This is just a real person’s review of seven real good vacation hikes and really good post-trek bites:
1) Camelback Mountain in Arizona
A few years ago, I had just one free afternoon during a work trip to Phoenix. Now normally, I 100% would not recommend hiking at 2 or 3 o’clock in the hot, feels-like-you’re-on-the-surface-of-the-sun Arizona heat. But it was my only chance, so I sunscreened up, packed up plenty of water, and headed straight to Camelback Mountain, a popular destination just 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix with an aptly named, iconic summit that looks like the hump of a camel’s back.
About the hike: There are two trailheads, both ranked “difficult.” Echo Canyon Trail is shorter and steeper, while Cholla Trail is longer but with a less severe incline. Given my late afternoon start time, I chose the “shorter,” more vertical Echo Canyon route. And I’m not gonna lie. This. was. hard. Beautiful … but hard.
Besides the dry heat and sun, the challenge of Camelback Mountain is its steep elevation and rocky terrain. You’re climbing ~1,200 feet to the summit in just 1.5 miles, so at times, you’ll feel like you’re literally climbing straight up through gravely patches and around big boulders. At several points, I had to use my hands to scale up the trail and found myself wondering if this was hiking or rock climbing?! (By the way: This is called a “scramble,” something I didn’t know at the time. It’s mentioned on about a million online reviews I didn’t bother reading, but you likely will need your hands to “rock scramble” to the summit on this trek. You’re welcome!)
Is this some sort of Arizonian Mt. Everest? No. It’s tough, but do-able if you take your time, pace yourself, take breaks in the shade, and drink lots of water. It’s actually considered one of the most popular things to do in the area and while I think it was probably (?) the hardest hike I’ve ever done, there were little kids that ZIPPED by me having the time of their lives. (And a few older hikers also passed me with ease while I took a breather—or five.) So, I’d say it’s challenging but “worth it” as long as you’re comfortable and careful.
About the payoff: The 360 views made it all so worth it. You can spin around and see all of Phoenix—and more—from the top. Plus, all the cacti, red rocks and dusty fauna make it feel so uniquely Arizonian. When you finally see that summit sign at the top, heart pounding, you’ll be glad you pushed yourself all the way up.
Where to eat & drink afterward: In-N-Out Burger! I know, I know—it’s a chain. But you just can’t get this deliciousness on the east coast. So, unique? Maybe not. Delicious? OMG, YES. After 2+ hours of steep, sunny exercise, I annihilated an Animal Style Double Double, fries and a chocolate shake—guilt-free. I skipped soda and alcohol though in favor of chugging water all night to replenish and recover after the scorcher that was Camelback Mountain on a sunny afternoon.
- Water, water, water
- Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen
- Take your time. Use the handrails where they’re offered. Be careful not to roll an ankle on rocks.
- Don’t wear shoes you don’t mind ruining. You’ll never ever get the red clay dirt and dust off them. Trust me and my toasted Nikes.
For more information, visit climbcamelback.com
2) Ne Pali Coastline on the island of Kauai in Hawaii
If Camelback was the most challenging, this was probably the most beautiful hike of my life. Insanely vibrant colors. Waterfalls. Beaches. Rivers. Caves. Streams. Tropical forest canopies. This 11-mile (22-mile round trip) Kalalau Trail has it all, and while it can be challenging, you can make it as long or short as you’d like. By starting at Ke’e Beach, you’ll find yourself at Hanakapiai Beach after just a couple miles. After a few more (challenging) miles, you’ll have made it to Hanakapiai Falls, an epic 120-foot waterfall tucked in Hanakapiai Valley.
Plan for spending nearly your whole day hiking this trail if you want to see both the falls and the beach, as it could very well take up to about eight hours. There’s a wide variety of terrain—lush, flat valleys, trails that go right through streams of water, and some really, really steep sections of narrower, sea cliff trails. By the end, which of course is mega uphill to get back to the trailhead parking lot, I channeled my inner Dory and told myself to “just keep hiking, just keep hiking” to power through those final steps.
About the payoff: There’s nothing quite like working up a sweat in the plumeria-infused, humid Hawaiian air and then dipping into an icy-cold legit waterfall to cool off. Really take your time chilling out at the waterfalls and playing on the beach for hiking breaks (and to soak up those once-in-a-lifetime-views). And even if you only do the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail to the beach and back, you’ll still experience ocean views that are so techni-color magnificent, you’ll have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s really real life.
Where to eat & drink afterward: The Hanalei Dolphin. This laid-back, locals’ favorite is on Kauai’s South shore side, right off the Kuhio Highway between your Na Pali area hike and Princeville. It’s a fish market, restaurant and sushi bar all in one. Order the tuna poke bowl. Maybe even two. We ordered tuna poke bowls every single day during our weeklong Kauai trip and The Dolphin’s were hands down our very favorite. Mayyyybe because we were omg-post-hiking-starving?, or maybe just because they were just THAT good. (It’s the latter.)
- Pro tip: Definitely wear hiking shoes that can handle water (like Keene’s Sport Sandals) or pack plenty of dry socks and maybe even a spare pair of sneakers or boots. There’s so much water on this trail if you’re not careful to stay dry, you’ll get the worst blisters of your life by hiking with slightly wet and sandy feet. (Insert my husband.)
- Break in said hiking shoes before setting out on this trek. (Insert husband’s said blisters.)
- Parts of this hike can be strenuous—many hikers carried hiking sticks to lean on and leverage.
- Pack snacks! We forgot ours (doh!) and were very hangry while watching other happy, smarter families snacking at the Falls.
For more info, visit Kauai.com
3) The Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado
This one’s a two-fer. I went to school at the University of Colorado (Go Buffs!), so when I’m back for a visit and want to do something “Boulder-y,” it’s always a tie between hiking Chautauqua or Mount Sanitas. While both are tucked into the Flatirons and just about a 10-minute drive between trailheads, you’ll feel like they’re worlds apart.
About the (Chautauqua) payoff:
Chautauqua Trail is green, wide and expansive—picture families slowly hiking up toward the faraway jagged mountainscape, couples enjoying the views hand-in-hand, a friendly game of frisbee at the base, shady swaths of trees and a really nice, slow and steady incline. You’ll get glimpses of views here and there, but you’ll mostly enjoy the feeling of just being “in” the mountains themselves. This is family-friendly Boulder hiking at its best. You can even bring your dog, as long as they’re on a leash. And with connections to many other trails, you can once again make this hike as short or as long as you’d like.
Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado
About the (Mount Sanitas) payoff:
Mount Sanitas is a steeper, rockier and narrower trek along a ridgeline that’ll give you EPIC views both to the east and west. Look one way and you’ll see Boulder. All of it. On a clear day, you can see for miles and spot Folsom Stadium, Boulder Reservoir and sometimes even the Denver skyline. Turn around and you’ll get just as amazing views to the west of the even-higher-up peaks of Flatirons. There are two paths: Mount Sanitas Trail is harder, and the Sanitas Valley Trail is flatter and easier. Both are beautiful. Both will get ya’ breathing hard. But the views are worth the huff and puff.
Mount Sanitas hiking trail in Boulder, Colorado
Where to eat & drink afterward:
- For a casual bite of burgers or pizza with beer, there’s no beating The Sink, which is part of the collection of bars, coffee shops and burrito joints across campus called “the Hill.”
- For a more upscale-but-still-laidback vibe, you want The Chautauqua Dining Hall. It made whitewashed shiplap cool way before Joanna Gaines did. As a Boulder, Colorado, staple since 1898, it’s got fresh food with a full bar and scenic surroundings, and it’s just uniquely Coloradoan.
- For fine dining and unbeatable once-in-a-lifetime views? Shower, dress up and check out The Flagstaff House. It’s literally perched atop Flagstaff Mountain and you’ll be able to look down on all your hiking accomplishments with one of the best-rated meals in town.
Photo courtesy of The Sink
- I’ve never personally encountered any, but there are black bears and mountain lions in Boulder. Read these tips to be ready.
- Again: water, water, water.
- Colorado is high-altitude. Don’t push it too far, too high, too fast. If you feel light-headed, dizzy, dry mouth or shallow of breath as you ascend a trail, stop, sit, put your head between your knees and acclimate.
4) Mystic Falls in Yellowstone National Park
There’s obviously tons of hiking to be had at Yellowstone National Park. Seeing Artist’s Point from every which way and vantage point. Trekking to the top of Mt. Washburn or down the canyons of the North Rim Trail. Taking the quick 1-mile journey to the upper observation deck of Grand Prismatic or continuing onto the Fairy Falls Trail with its wispy, fairy-like streams of water. There are LOTS of options. My favorite? Mystic Falls Trail.
About the hike: Starting at Biscuit Basin, it’s just under three miles to the 70-foot waterfall. And if you’re lucky, it’ll be EMPTY because the nearby Fairy Falls Trail and Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail get the bulk of the crowds. It’s short enough not to take up your whole day or even your whole afternoon. We were in and out in less than two hours, but it was a magical little unplanned side stop of our trip. Subjectively: this one felt easy, with a few places requiring a bit more careful footwork around rocks and slick surfaces the closer you get to the falls.
About the payoff: The falls, duh. 70-foot streams. Wildflowers. Majestic rocks. Take a mental snapshot. This is one of those relaxing, soothing, happy places you’ll want to pull up in your brain when “real life” back home gets a little crazy.
Where to eat & drink afterward: After Mystic Falls, if you’re heading north around the Yellowstone Loop, stop right by the Mammoth Hot Springs for a bite at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room. It’s a certified Green restaurant and you’ll see dozens of elk grazing right outside the restaurant, al fresco style.
If you’re headed south after Mystic Falls Trail, dine in the historic Old Faithful Dining Room, where you can try local cuisine like deep-fried smoked trout ravioli, braised beef meatballs from Montana Family Ranches or elk jalapeno cheddar bratwurst. (Just try not to think about your elk friends from Mammoth...)
- Bring your bear spray. Everywhere and always in Yellowstone, bring your bear spray. Rental cannisters are conveniently available right at the bag claim area of the Jackson Hole Airport.
- Watch out for slick rocks.
For more info, visit this Mystic Falls Trail page
5) Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park
This one really rivals Ne Pali Coastline for “most beautiful hike” but in such a different way. As Yellowstone’s “neighbor,” Grand Teton National Park offers up this incredible hike that’ll make you feel like you’ve walked into a movie with its majestic trees, abundant wildlife, waterfalls, rocky mountaintops, wide lookouts and the royal blue waters of Jenny Lake.
There’s truly something for everyone in the family at this Wyoming hiking destination, starting at Jenny Lake Trailhead.
- Hike 2.5 miles to get to the beginning of the Cascade Canyon Trail, or take a shuttle boat across the lake for a small fee.
- Hike for just half a mile through a gorgeous conifer forest and over wooden log bridges to stop and admire Hidden Falls, or keep going a bit further up a rocky, mountain edge trail to Inspiration Point, where you can enjoy sweeping views of Jenny Lake and Jackson Hole.
- Turn around to take the kids or grandparents back to Jenny Lake Trailhead for ice cream and some R&R, or keep hiking through Cascade Canyon another 2-3 miles to check out views of the 12,928-foot-tall Mt. Owen.
- Officially “finish” this hike five miles out to the Forks of Cascade Canyon and back, or keep going with overnight camping gear (and a permit) all the way out to Lake Solitude.
- Hug the lake on the “hiking” way back to the trailhead parking lot or hop back on the water shuttle for the “boating” way back and kick your feet up for a job well done.
About the payoff: Yes, the lake, mountain and waterfall views are amazing. But my favorite part? We spotted several baby deer with their mama near the canyon meadows and lots of cute marmots throughout the trails. (No bears, though. Maybe next time.)
Where to eat & drink afterward: A group of hikers offered us some of their ice-cold beer when we finally finished our 8+-mile hike and it really hit the spot, both for the taste buds and for the sense of shared camaraderie out in this beautiful, nature-filled setting. There are several options for your post-hike meal—we ate at Peaks at Signal Mountain Lodge, which has great views of Jackson Lake (along with what might have been the best chicken fingers and fries of all time.) Peaks is also right next door to the Deadman’s Bar, offering a great atmosphere, drinks and nibbles.
- We were told it’s not a matter of if, but when and where you’ll see black bears. Carry bear spray, consider tying bells on your shoelaces and/or make noise by clapping or shouting when you’re rounding a bend that you can’t see around to avoid startling a bear with your presence.
- Keep an eye on the shuttle boat times. If you miss the last sailing of the day, you’ll be hiking that extra 2.5 miles back to your car.
For more info, visit the Forks of Cascade Canyon webpage
6) Lanikai Pillbox Hike on the island of Oahu in Hawaii
Yep. Hawaii again. Also known as the Kaiwa Ridge Trail overlooking Lanikai Beach on the windward side of the island, this one’s the underdog of Oahu hiking trails. Most people want to hike Diamond Head, but I found it to be crowded, full of concrete and chain-link fences, and well, anticlimactic.
At Pillbox, we had the trail all to ourselves. And while it’s not on many top popular lists of things to do (not sure why) it’s breathtaking—literally and figuratively. It’s gorgeous and steep at times, but relatively easy and short, at less than two miles long, and there’s just something beautiful about the juxtaposition of neon graffiti on the old military bunkers (aka pillboxes) against the bright blue ocean and golden dune views.
About the payoff: At the top, you’ll get panoramic views of Lanikai, Kailua, Waimanalo Beach, mountains, and island “mokes” out in the ocean. If you only have time for one Oahu hike, skip Diamond Head and head here. I’d take these Lanikai views over looking out onto the city street of Waikiki any day.
Where to eat & drink afterward: If the Pillbox is a hidden gem of a hike, Buzz’s Original Steakhouse is its counterpoint as a tucked away local favorite spot to eat and drink. Again, it’s not on the top tourist lists, so you’ll feel like you’re “in the know” when you experience the amazingness that is their “Artichoke Surprise” specialty pupu plate, smothered in butter and garlic. And if you’re like me and love a good theme, wash it down with the perfect pairing to your hike: a cold bottle of Lanikai Brewing Co.’s Pillbox Porter. As those warm, plumeria winds and tiki torch fires surround you, you won’t regret taking the road less traveled.
- The first five minutes are tough as you’re going through a bit of a muddy stairstep section. It’s smooth sailing from there, so keep going!
- Be sure to read the signs about parking and towing on nearby residential streets.
For more info, visit this AllTrails.com review
Here’s just a few more hikes, bites and drinks to round out the list:
A Cades Cove trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Hike the trails at Cades Cove in the Tennessee section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, followed by a visit to the Dancing Bear Lodge’s Appalachian Bistro.
- Also in the Smokies, try Clingmans Dome, followed by a scratch-kitchen meal and craft beers at Local Goat in the Pigeon Forge area near Gatlinburg.
- Climb the highest peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, followed by a sweet time at Tupelo Honey in nearby Asheville.
- Head over to Diamond Head State Monument on Waikiki’s coastline, followed by a savory hot dog and sweet shaved-ice at Hula Dog Kuhio.
- And finally: The Hallmark-worthy, little known secret that is picture-perfect Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Try the easy and gentle Smarts Brook Trail right off Rte. 49, followed by the best sandwiches of your life at Mad River Coffee House.
Smart Brooks Trail in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire
Hike, eat, drink, repeat. It doesn’t get better than that, right?
Wishing you happy trails and safe travels!
All information is subject to change. This article is a curated guide and is neither sponsored nor considered an official endorsement. Please be sure to check information directly with any/all tours, guides or companies for the most up-to-date and direct details.
Jennifer C. Harmon
Jenn is the editor-in-chief of the Checking In travel blog. She loves coffee, wine, writing, traveling, working with all of our amazing guest bloggers, and getting to tell our guests’, owners’ and team members’ vacation stories. Jenn and her husband, Anthony, have mastered the art of the long weekend couples’ getaway (sans kids). And while it’s too hard to pick just one type of “favorite vacation,” her three-way tie would be: a snowboarding trip, going to Hawaii or sailing with Disney Cruise Line.