In 1970, green pioneer Dennis Hayes conceived of Earth Day as a single moment where people everywhere could explore and renew their commitment to protecting the environments and ecosystems that inspire them. This year, coordinated events involving everything from marches to city cleanups to reforestation efforts will take place on April 22 in nearly 200 countries.
Trash collecting and fun runs are fantastic and essential ways to celebrate and give back. But to truly instill conservation and stewardship values in the next generation of outdoor lovers, we’ll need to get them outside — way out. Luckily, Earth Day coincides with National Parks Week (April 15-23), when admission is free and parks offer loads of special events and programs.
Want to make the loved ones (young and old) in your life into conservation-crazed park fans? Try some of our favorite Earth day national parks hikes — each of which has more than enough to hook beginners, engage the experienced, and nurture a lifelong affinity for the natural world.
(Gear tip: Shoulder season hikes have the potential to swing hot or cold without much warning. Fast-wicking clothing (especially shirts close to skin) will help you stay dry in either case, which is essential to stave off overheating or getting chilled.)
Olympic National Park: Hoh River/Second Beach
Distance from Seattle, WA: 111 Miles
Olympic is like the sampler platter of national parks. With temperate rainforests, glaciated alpine ridges, and rugged coastline all inside its borders, about the only thing it’s missing is a desert. Start at the Hoh Rainforest, where ancient 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce trees stand as a testament to the wonders preserved when federal protection stopped logging from reaching too deep. A ranger-led Hall of Mosses tour on a sub-mile paved path is great for small kids or those with disabilities, and the adventurous can explore waterfalls, Sitka Spruce as thick as a minivan, and the milky blue Hoh River itself as long as they dare on the trail’s 17 miles. End the day with ¾-mile hike down to the storm-sculpted sea stacks standing sentinel at Second Beach. Search tide pools for sea life and stay for sunset: The half-moon beach extends for another five miles. A sun hat like the Wick-ed Cool Sunhat can help protect you from the sun’s rays.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Deep Creek Trail
Distance from Charlotte, NC: 151 Miles
Despite being the most-visited park in the system (11 million people stopped by in 2016), Great Smoky Mountains holds surprising amounts of quiet and solitude in its thick woods, high balds, and waterfalling creeks. The Smokies also show that great things can happen when man and wild collaborate: In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built hundreds of miles of trail and infrastructure, simultaneously lifting people out of the Depression and providing access for generations to one of the greatest wildernesses east of the Mississippi. Enjoy some of their first work on the Deep Creek Trail, which leads to 45-foot Indian Creek Falls and 80-foot Toms Branch Falls over 1.9 miles. Look for lingering wildflowers like trillium bursting between trees and near creeks. Humid spring days are perfect for wicking base layers like the Wick-ed Cool Short Sleeve shirt.
Yosemite National Park: The Mist Trail
Distance from San Francisco, CA: 210 miles
The soaring granite domes and mythic waterfalls of Yosemite have bewitched human eyes and spurred iconic adventures (Royal Robbins himself comes to mind). But perhaps no one has been more inspired than John Muir, the godfather of American conservation who both spurred on the nascent national park movement and founded the country’s preeminent environmental organization, the Sierra Club. He explored around the country and the world, but he always returned to Yosemite’s sacred cathedrals: “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” he said. The magic can scarcely be captured by one single trail or a year of trails, but beginners would do well to start at The Mist Trail, where thundering falls flow over cliffs like giant horsetails. Highlights begin at the Vernal Falls footbridge at .8 miles, but it’s worth the strenuous extra half mile to stare down Vernal’s 315-foot pour-off. Make it another 1.5 miles for the real stunner: Nevada Falls careens almost 600 feet to the valley floor. Bonus: Earth Day is perfect timing to see the falls at their strongest, during spring snowmelt runoff. Sections of the trail are exposed to sun while others are constantly bathed in mist; staying comfortable in both with a multi-use layer like the Royal Robbins Diablo Chill Long Sleeve is important.
Even if you can’t make it for Earth Day, these are life-list hikes any time of year. Too far? Find a national park near you and start exploring.
April 15–16 and 22–23: Visit for free! On these National Park Week weekends, every national park will give you free admission!