For some hikers, the ideal trail is a smooth, flat pathway leading to a view. For others, it's a rugged track blazed through the deep woods. The Sierra Nevadas offer both types of excursions and everything in between.
There are thousands of miles of trails to choose from -- Yosemite National Park alone has 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) of trails [source: NPS/Hiking Safety]. Some are suitable for children. Others require technical rock climbing skills. In Yosemite, you might start with the trail to Bridalveil Falls, the famous cascade that breaks into a mist as it drops down a precipice. The trail is an easy half-mile walk along a paved path that offers a cool spray in summer. The falls drop 617 feet (188 meters), almost four times as far as Niagara Falls.
A popular but challenging hike in Yosemite is the climb up Half Dome, the iconic rock outcropping that towers 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above Yosemite Valley. It's 14 miles (23 kilometers) round trip and requires a permit. The trail leads to the huge stone outcropping that's one of the park's premier sights. Two parallel cables attached to the rock assist hikers up the final 400-foot (122-meter) climb. The view from the top is dazzling [source: NPS/Day Hikes].
The High Sierra Loop takes you on a tour of the highlights of Yosemite. It's a strenuous all-day hike of 12.8 miles (21 kilometers) with 3,124 feet (952 meters) of elevation gain. Shuttle buses take you to the beginning and pick you up at the end. Along the way, you'll come close to Vernal and Nevada Falls and get a great view of Half Dome [source: Modern Hiker].
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks feature their own great trails. Only a quarter-mile (402 meters) long, the Moro Rock trail mounts a steep staircase for 300 feet (91 meters) to reach the top of a huge granite outcropping. On a clear day, the views of the high peaks of the Sierras from this vantage point are breathtaking.
The Sierra National Forest has 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) of hiking trails [source: Forest Service]. The Jackass Meadow Handicap Access Nature Trail provides easy access to a grassy meadow, rock outcroppings and a variety of trees. The trail is 0.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) long and accommodates wheelchairs. The Kaiser Peak Trail is a tough 10-mile (16-kilometer) hike with a 3,000-foot (914-meter) climb. You start at Huntington Lake in the Sierra National forest, which is already 7,000 feet (2134 meters) above sea level. At the top, you'll have a glorious view of the entire central Sierras.
For experienced hikers, the Sierras offer trails you can walk for weeks. The John Muir Trail, for example, is one of the outstanding hiking trails in the U.S. It stretches from Yosemite through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the spectacular stretch of craggy peaks along the Sierra crest. The beauty of this area inspired Adams, one of America's premier nature photographers. The trail ends at the very peak of Mt. Whitney. Hiking the complete 215 miles (346 kilometers) requires careful planning and takes about a month [source: Muir Trail].
Along all these trails, you'll be taking in some stunning scenery. Keep reading to find out about the vast range of landscapes and terrain in the Sierras.