Hiking through iconic trails is an experience no one forgets. After all, there’s a reason why routes like the Appalachian Trail and Angel’s Landing are so popular—they’re renowned as some of the most beautiful and exhilarating places to challenge your body and connect with nature.
But while the famed routes, trails, and rivers are always worth exploring, there are so many other underrated and well-hidden options that can be just as rewarding, if not more, to explore.
Traveling off the beaten path is often where the magic truly happens. But how do you find “secret” trails and rivers in America? Well, you can do the pioneer thing and search for them yourself. However, that approach comes with its own challenges and the need for a fair amount of trail hiking experience.
Or, you could read through this list of carefully compiled hidden hiking gems across the United States. We’ll guide you through eight extraordinary and surprisingly lesser-known trails, rivers, and natural swimming pools to explore next time you feel like exploring someplace a little off the beaten track.
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8 Hidden Trails And Rivers Everyone Should Explore
There’s something really special about exploring a trail or river that only a handful of other hikers have traversed before. The busiest routes may have broad appeal for their long-standing popularity, but lesser-known spots are often more interesting and memorable.
Furthermore, exploring hidden gems can also make you a more experienced and knowledgeable hiker.
Lesser-known trails give you a better perspective on the natural glory that the US has to offer and a deeper appreciation for its many secret nooks and crannies. Below are eight secret trails and rivers across the US for you and your favorite fellow hikers to dip in, amble, and enjoy.
1. Shellrock River Greenbelt and Preserve, Idaho
This trail is like the holy trifecta of natural hidden gems; featuring a mountainous trail, kayak-friendly river, and horseback route, this is a place that every nature enthusiast needs to experience.
Along this moderately challenging trail, you will encounter dense woods, ponds, meadows, and limestone bluffs. If you’re lucky, you may also encounter some shy wildlife. Bring your bathing suit, an inflatable kayak, and plenty of snacks and drinks to keep you fueled while exploring this dynamic greenbelt. If you have a horse or lease one in the area, you can take advantage of the horseback route too.
2. Hidden Creek Trail, Alaska
While it’s true that the first phase of this trail isn’t particularly spectacular, once you pass the bend, you’ll enter Hidden Creek, which is hidden behind a grassy marsh. Because it’s hidden from view, many people miss the trail when hiking around this area of the Alaskan wilderness, but it’s a trail that you need to look out for as it’s absolutely spectacular.
Hidden Creek encompasses the breathtaking Skilak Lake, which is swimmable, and a panoramic view of the Kenai Mountains. A simple and relatively easy trail to hike, this is the kind of path you can explore as a family or as someone with limited hiking experience.
3. Dripping Cave Trail, California
Tucked away in Orange Country is a unique cave trail well worth adventuring to. What makes this route special is that it’s multi-use, meaning it’s open to equestrians, mountain bikers, and regular on-foot hikers. This can make for a memorable exploration and plenty of interesting encounters along the way.
The Dripping Cave part of this trail is allegedly an old refuge used by Native Americans to protect themselves from the Juan Flores robber gang.
Also a designated wildlife sanctuary, the Dripping Cave Trail is home to a wide range of endangered plant and animal species. It’s a moderately challenging trail ideal for those with intermediate experience.
4. White Cloud Mountains, Idaho
Often overshadowed by the ever-popular Sawtooth Mountains, the White Cloud Mountains are just as spectacular, if not more so, than their sibling trail. If you’re into long-distance scenic routes, the White Cloud Mountain trail makes an excellent path, albeit a little challenging at times.
Best suited to more experienced hikers, these glorious, brisk mountains are home to several wild animals, including gray wolves, black bears, elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. However, it is relatively unlikely you will encounter any of these animals close-up.
5. Squak Mountain Connector Trail, Seattle
This easy-to-moderate hiking trail is named “Squak” after the sound that its heron inhabitants make while visiting during springtime and fall. This is the kind of place where you can bring the whole family and an adventurous dog for stimulating but manageable treks through the fresh mountain air.
This is an easy-to-moderate trail suitable for a wide age range and various levels of experience. It’s also a great entry-level trail for those seeking to improve their hiking stamina in a relatively gentle, safe, and fun way that everyone can enjoy.
6. Gauley River, West Virginia
Who would have thought that one of the world’s best whitewater destinations is right here, tucked under the beautiful West Virginia Mountains?
105 miles long, the Gauley River merges with the Kanawha River, featuring multiple recreational whitewater zones and a narrow structure that makes it easy to navigate.
While you can just dip in and out where it suits you, the full stretch of Gauley River is best experienced through a multi-day trip, easily accommodated by the campsite areas around it. This hidden gem is best suited to experienced trail walkers and kayakers. The river is described as a “whitewater rollercoaster” and has several stretches of Class V rapids, making it crucial that kayaking safety rules are followed at all times to avoid accidents or emergencies.
7. Big Woods Trail, Illinois
Just 1.5 miles long in total, the Big Woods Trail is a true hidden gem of the Illinois outdoors. A lesser-known part of the Fox River Trail, this trek is ideal for hikers seeking a short, stimulating, and scenic journey through historic Native American trails.
Forming one part of the many trails within the Forest Glen Preserve, the Big Woods Trail is designed to be accessible to everyone. It’s suitable for day hikers, young children, and people with disabilities. It’s even wheelchair friendly as it is flat, wide, and has no obstacles.
8. Havasu Falls, Arizona
While not technically a river, the Havasu Falls are a hugely underrated swimming hole just next to the iconic Grand Canyon. Overshadowed by the big GC, Havasu Falls is a collection of sparkling turquoise waterfalls and swimming holes found on the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
Remote and peaceful, Havasu Falls offers oasis-like beauty and refreshment in the arid desert climate, and the fact that it is so well hidden makes the experience even more rewarding.
Here’s the catch: you need a permit to access it, and even once you obtain it, you need to go on a 10-mile hike to get there. You can also arrive by helicopter, but naturally, that’s not a very accessible option. However, if you can manage the walk, it’s well worth the effort!
See New Places, Explore Secret Spaces
When it comes to trails and rivers, popularity doesn’t always denote quality. Veering off the beaten path may feel like a risk, but it is often the catalyst for discovering places you’d never thought to explore before, creating new memories and new experiences to enjoy.
Plus, less-traveled trails and rivers often mean less foot traffic, allowing you to enjoy a quieter, more peaceful hike away from the hustle and bustle of more popularized routes.
Don your comfiest hiking kit, grab a couple of protein-rich granola bars, and perhaps a hiking partner or two for company along the way. Take a chance on the road less traveled; you may just find your favorite new place to explore, swim, and enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors.