Anyone active in the outdoors community around Chattanooga has likely heard of Randy Wharton. The founder of Chattanooga-based nonprofit Wild Trails is also an ultramarathon trail runner, long-distance paddleboarder, and lifelong outdoor adventure seeker.
His love of nature is a given, but Wharton offers some extreme descriptions for his passion for the outdoors and the lifestyle he’s created around it, which he calls "radical health."
"When you’re in this kind of shape there isn’t really a day where you couldn’t wake up and go run 30 miles," he says. “I do this stuff every day, [but] not because I want to stay healthy. It’s kind of like when somebody has gotten addicted to heroin. Certain addictions are just impossible to break, and [addiction to nature] is just like that. It’s hard for somebody who has never experienced radical health to know how it feels.”
"There’s a connection with nature that’s such a huge part of the experience," Wharton adds. “I’m certain there’s no way it would be the same if I ran 10 miles on city streets. There’s an energy that’s out there in nature that you just don’t get when you’re in the city. It’s an amazing feeling.”
While not everyone can run 30 miles at any given moment like Wharton, most outdoor enthusiasts can relate to the mental and physical connection to, or even craving for, nature. And it turns out, there’s a name for it: biophilia.
As our increasingly urbanized cultures across the globe become more stressed out, depressed, and addicted to technology, more and more scientific studies are making correlations between nature exposure and benefits to both physical and emotional health. And when we lose our nature fix, we often feel crummy or crabby.
If this sounds familiar, here’s a handy set of reference questions to ask yourself and find out—are you addicted to nature?
If you find yourself more stressed out if you don’t get your trail time … you might be addicted to nature.
"Even after just 15 minutes of being outside, our brains and bodies start to respond [and] people experience a boost in well being," says journalist Florence Williams, who has written extensively about the science behind nature’s benefits. “Our blood pressure goes down, our heart rate variability changes in a way that’s more resilient to stress, and our cortisol levels—our stress hormones—can decrease.”
This de-stressing is attributed to factors beyond the positive effects of exercise. Consider a study in which researchers in Japan sent groups of people to walk in the forest and other groups to walk in the city, and measured the effects on both. The nature walkers had markedly higher positive benefits and lowered stress levels than the city walkers, leading researchers to theorize that it was the immersion in nature that led to the benefits. So if you’re feeling stressed out, you may just need some nature in your system to chill.
If you find yourself feeling depressed after being stuck inside all week … you might be addicted to nature.
While working on her recent book, _The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creativ_e, Williams spent time with researchers in Finland whose studies showed that people who spend at least five hours a month in nature are able to better resist and ward off mild depression. According to the researchers, that’s the recommended monthly minimum for maintaining emotional health, but more is generally better.
"Nature benefits exist on a dose curve," Williams explains. “So the benefits depend on how much nature you have.”
"Five hours a month isn’t very much in my book," she adds. “I need to go out every day, so I think there’s some individual variability.”
In other words, if you’re in the "addicted to nature" category, you likely need to get outside more to stay emotionally healthy.
If your creativity and focus plummet if you haven’t been breathing clean outside air … you might be addicted to nature.
Yep, nature makes you more creative too. In studies by psychologists from the Universities of Kansas and Utah, students who spent several days hiking and camping in the wilderness performed 50 percent better on tests measuring their creativity than when they took the same tests before spending time outdoors. Other studies showed boosts in memory, cognition, and focus after connecting with nature, whether that meant walking outdoors or simply looking out the window.
Add to that hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence and stories from the great scientists, writers, and artists of history—many of whom claimed that their best ideas came to them during a walk in the woods—and you’ve got a great recipe for sparking creativity: Get outside.
If you find yourself more selfish, self-absorbed, and generally crabby when you haven’t seen a sunset in weeks … you might be addicted to nature.
There’s a lot of new research looking into the power of awe: that powerful feeling you get while, say, soaking up a stunning sunset. It turns out that experiencing awe-inspiring natural beauty actually makes us better people.
"Imagine looking up at the Milky Way, or looking at an incredible waterfall, or seeing a moose in the woods. We have this sense of awe that makes us—our egos—feel smaller," Williams explains. “We tend to view our own personal problems as being less significant, and then we feel more connected to each other and the power of the universe.”
Researchers are finding that the more people experience awe, and the perspective of feeling smaller but still connected to something bigger and more significant than themselves, the better their emotional health.
"Nature and wilderness are critical for civilization," Williams adds. “It really does make us more community-minded, it makes us look out for each other, and it makes us better people. Even if we live in a city, it’s still important to seek out those moments of awe and beauty. You can find it in a sunset, a bird flying overhead, or the rivers in your town. Cultivating that awe is something you have to learn how to do.”
If ** you get antsy if you’re not regularly running 30 miles, paddling Class V’s, or shredding trails on your bike … ***you might be addicted to nature (and, maybe, adrenaline too).*
While nature plays a big role, when it comes to high-octane adventure sports or extreme physical activity, you’re probably also addicted to some combination of adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins.
"When you start thinking about adventure sports, that’s kind of a different brain network that kicks in," Williams says. “Then you’re talking about a dopamine dependency, where you do need a big hit of dopamine that you can only get from a certain level of adventure sports. I think that nature is a part of that, but I don’t think that it’s the whole picture.”
Put another way, you don’t have to be bombing down a mountain at 40 miles an hour to appreciate nature or reap the benefits of being in it.
"We all have different tolerances for nature and different types of nature that we prefer," Williams says. “Some of us might feel great looking at the ocean, and others of us are freaked out by how wide open it is. We need to pay attention to how we feel when we’re outside, how we feel in different kinds of nature immersion settings. Some people are going to be on that side of the bell curve where they may need a big bang and they may also need the adrenaline rush of the sport.”
So you’re addicted to nature. What now?
Embrace it, and be grateful it’s a healthy addiction: Nature is the cure, not the disease.
"I think that addiction to nature is sort of our default state," Williams notes. “I think we’re all supposed to be addicted to nature because that’s how [our ancestors] survived—they needed to totally understand and feel connected to the natural world.”
According to experts, the real problem is not that some of us are addicted to nature, but that so many of us aren’t. Increasingly, people whose lives play out almost entirely in urban environments are addicted to technology and disconnected from nature—and so much is lost in that imbalance. And it’s not just the obvious effects like weight gain: We lose the peace that comes with a walk in the woods, the creativity sparked by a run on a trail, the thrill of testing your limits on a crag or a river, and the wonder of looking up at a clear sky full of stars.
The negative effects we feel when we don’t get our nature "fix"—depression, stress, selfishness, or lack of focus—are all really just indicators that we’re missing something that is inextricably tied up in the core of who we are, not just as outdoor enthusiasts or adrenaline junkies and everyone in between. Nature also connects us to something far more primal and long-lasting: who we are as humans.
"We are natural beings, and we have to interact with other natural beings, not just human beings," Wharton says. “There’s something out there in nature. I used to run a lot faster, but since I slowed down, I see more. There’s an interaction with nature that happens that we just need.”
From the Smokies to the Rockies, and the Everglades to the highest point in Maine—and everywhere in between—the United States is full of world-class hikes. Whether you’re a hardcore peak bagger, out for an ambitious day hike, or are obsessed with the panoramic views for your Instagram feed, there’s always something thrilling to lace your hiking boots up for. Here, we tapped RootsRated editors for intel on some of the best hikes in the United States. Use them as inspiration for your next outing—or as a reason to plan a trip.
Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming
There are a lot of really great hikes on this list, but Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail might just take the cake as being the most epic. For 35-45 miles (depending on your route), this slender singletrack path cuts a dwarfed, serpentine figure as it slices through the heart of one of America’s most stunning mountain ranges, linking together its very best features along the way. Over the course of two to five days, hikers will pass through wildflower-filled meadows, over airy mountain passes, past glacially-fed tarns, and across expansive basins that swallow up hikers and spit them out as tiny, inconsequential specks against the jagged backdrop of the Tetons. In short, this trail will skew your perception of what constitutes a bucket-list worthy hike. Pro tip: Permits are hard to come by, but because the trail weaves in and out of national parklands and national forestlands, if you camp in national forest designated areas, obtaining a permit isn’t necessary.
Roan Mountain, Tennessee
Ask any Southeastern backpacker what the best overnight trek in the region is, and the majority will tell you: the 14-mile traverse of East Tennessee’s Roan Mountain Highlands via the Appalachian Trail is a true standout. Not only is it home to one of the most unique shelters on the entire A.T. (the Overmountain Shelter, better known as "the barn" because it’s, well, a two-story barn), but it also offers up some of the best grassy “bald” hiking in America. Think of it almost like the Southeast’s version of ridgeline hiking: You’re above the trees, surrounded by a sea of billowing grasses in the foreground and a sea of bluish-gray mountains sprawling into every direction in the background, with nothing in the way to obstruct these views. The only downside? Cameras rarely do Roan justice.
Buckskin Gulch, Utah
In a region as labyrinthine and loaded with slot canyons as Southern Utah, it’s difficult to say that Buckskin Gulch is the definitive best slot canyon hike in the region. But it’s certainly the longest and the deepest … and, yeah, probably the best, too. For 13 miles, these narrows snake through a mazy tunnel of towering red rock walls, often no more than a wingspan’s width apart and so tall that they block out sunlight. Some hikers choose to link up with nearby Paria Canyon for an overnight 20-mile trip, but for day hikers, it’s just as rewarding to park at the Wire Pass Trailhead and embark on an out-and-back distance of your choosing. The important things to remember with this hike are largely water-related: First, flash floods are a very real threat, so be sure to check the forecast and plan accordingly. Second, bring more water than you want to carry; the dehydration creeps up quick in the desert.
Mount Katahdin, Maine
The tallest mountain in Maine and the North Star, northern terminus of the famed Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin is truly legendary. It juts upward out of the sprawling expanse of lakes, ponds, and deep woods that define Baxter State Park and towers over the land with a commanding presence. The most iconic way to reach the summit is via the vertiginous spine of the 1-mile Knife’s Edge Trail. Along its impossibly narrow and serrated saddle, hikers scramble from Pamola Peak across Chimney Peak to South Peak and finally to the 5,267-foot summit of Katahdin. Once the (likely fog-shrouded) summit photos have been snapped, a roughly 5-mile descent via the Appalachian Trail will take hikers back to the Katahdin Stream Campground trailhead 4,100 feet below.
Grayson Highlands, Virginia
In a word, the Grayson Highlands of Virginia are breathtaking. In 19 words, they are an almost make-believe land of high mountain meadows, 5,000-foot peaks, thick rhododendron tunnels, and mystical wild ponies. Like most state parks, there’s a large variety of activities to pick from (camping, bouldering, fishing, and horseback riding), but arguably the best way to get a comprehensive taste of the park’s character in a condensed snapshot is to hike the 8.5-mile out-and-back to the summit of Virginia’s highest point: Mount Rogers. The route starts out from the Massie Gap parking area along the Rhododendron Trail. It links with the Appalachian Trail, traveling through grassy pastures sprinkled with boulder outcroppings, and then eventually connects to the Mount Rogers Spur Trail, which twists through a lush, mossy forest to the summit.
Clouds Rest, California
The 14.2-mile round-trip hike to the Clouds Rest summit offers an exceptional taste of what Yosemite National Park is all about. As you’re standing atop its 9,926-foot perch, high above Yosemite Valley from a less-witnessed vantage point than the famous Half Dome buttress, with a giant sea of granite and coniferous pines and sequoias below, it’s hard to feel anything but utter awe and respect for your surroundings. The trailhead is located in the northeast corner of the park. From here, it’s a 7-mile mostly uphill trek whose elevation chart vaguely resembles a healthy year in the stock market—a few spikes up steep ridges here, a few dips into gullies there, but with a pretty consistent uphill hockey stick growth toward the summit. What the chart won’t illustrate, however, are all the glorious intangibles along the way—babbling snowmelt streams, sequoias so stout you’d need a group of five to fully hug them, ever-expanding panoramas as you ascend, the tranquillity at the summit, and of course, the icy plunge in Tenaya Lake as a refreshing reward once you return to the trailhead.
Wheeler Peak, New Mexico
It’s weird to think that the tallest peak in New Mexico would be overshadowed by anything within the immediate vicinity. But with Southern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park some two hours to the north, and the cultural hotspot of Taos about 45 minutes to the south, that’s kind of what happens to Wheeler Peak. Don’t let this lack of regional recognition fool you, though: The 8.2-mile round-trip hike to this lofty summit in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is one of the best in New Mexico and a true lesson in uphill slogging. Averaging about 800 vertical feet per mile, this trail takes hikers through lung-expanding evergreen forests and then up lung-crushing climbs above treeline. What you’ll remember other than the impressive summit panorama will be the near endless collection of switchbacks that seem to pinball you back and forth, side to side, and up-and-up through a seemingly infinite sea of scree. Patience—and quad-strength—are both virtues on this hike.
Appalachian Trail, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
For Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the 72 miles of the A.T. within the Smokies represent one of the most revered sections of the entire 2,200 mile route. For long-weekend backpackers, this stretch represents one of the most efficient and spectacular ways to get an intimate taste of America’s most visited national park. Whichever way you slice it, the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies is a spectacular hiking experience teeming with old-growth forests, incredible biodiversity, challenging climbs, sprawling mountain vistas, and a booming population of fearless and curious black bears. You can’t go wrong with any day hike section you choose along this route, but to really maximize the experience, a 4-5 day excursion that covers the entire 72 miles is your best bet. Overnight permits are required, so make sure you plan in advance.
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
You don’t need climbing skill or equipment to scale Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome. Using steel cable handrails, hikers can ascend 400 feet up the backside of this granite monolith to reach its summit of 8,840 feet, with panoramic views of the Sierra Mountains in all directions. From the Yosemite Valley floor, Half Dome is a strenuous, 12- to 14-mile round-trip hike. Break up the journey by hiking 4.7 miles to Little Yosemite Valley to camp. Then, hike 3.5 miles to Half Dome and hit the cables early before they’re super crowded. Usually, the cables are accessible May through October, and permits are limited, so set a reminder to snag one as soon as they open on March 1. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and bring sturdy gloves.
Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon National Park
The 41.4-mile Rae Lakes Loop showcases some of the most stunning scenery in the High Sierra. Beginning at 5,041 feet in a forest of pines, cedars, and cottonwoods, the trek requires nearly 7,000 of climbing for hikers to visit emerald meadows and cobalt lakes surrounded by mammoth granite towers. While the hike includes the heart-pounding, 2.1-mile ascent of Glen Pass at 11,998 feet, grades are generally moderate and water is plentiful along the way. To avoid several intense climbs, do this hike clockwise. Due to high demand for permits, book as early as possible to March 1, when permits are released, and hike in May to avoid summer crowds.
Appalachian Trail, Georgia section hike
Northbound AT thru-hikers begin their 2,200-mile journey in Georgia, where the trail climbs high, exceeding 4,000 feet of elevation, to offer epic views from rock outcrops and sublime walks through emerald forests of rhododendron, mountain laurel and moss-covered boulders. Stretching 78.6 miles, the Georgia portion of the AT is not only beautiful but also challenging, with steep, rugged terrain that strains less-seasoned hikers and causes some to abandon their dreams of hiking to Maine. If a thru-hike is a little too ambitious for you, the Georgia AT includes many access points, so several day hikes and short trips are possible. If you begin at Neels Gap you can visit the Mountain Crossings gear store to mingle with thru-hikers and see the only point where the AT passes through a manmade structure. From there, make the steep climb to the summit of Blood Mountain to explore a unique stone trail shelter and enjoy a remarkable view of Appalachian ridges rolling to the horizon.
Florida National Scenic Trail
One of the most iconic trails in the Southeast, this 1,300-mile route stretches from the state’s Panhandle all the way to Big Cypress National Preserve at the southern end of the state. But you don’t have to tackle the whole thing to savor some of its highlights, from serene marshland to spectacular wildlife viewing. Take your pick from a number of excellent section hikes: A few recommended routes include the 11-mile stretch from Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs, one of the trail’s oldest sections, and hikes around Hopkins Prairie, where you’re likely to see sandhill cranes and eagles. Campgrounds, both primitive and traditional, are interspersed along the way, so you can easily turn your day hike into an overnighter.
The Dipsea Trail, Marin County, California
Don’t let this trail’s whimsical name fool you: The approximately 7-mile stretch is a doozy, with nearly 688 steps—in the first mile—and long uphill stretches for nearly 2,000 feet in total elevation gain. Even so, doing the Dipsea is a must for any Bay Area hiker or active-minded visitor, with forests that look like they’re lifted from a fairytale book, flowy single-track through majestic redwoods, and a finish at the Pacific Ocean. The trail is also home to one of the most infamous trail races in the country (and the oldest): The Dipsea Race, which has drawn hardy runners to battle its roots, ruts, and other ankle-twisting obstacles since 1905. Whether you run it or hike it, you must do it.
Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, Santa Cruz, California
You can hike its sections separately, but to really experience the essence of this 31-mile trek, one of the best in the San Francisco Bay Area (if not all of California), it’s best to make a true adventure of it, with two overnighters on trailside campgrounds. Built over seven years by a local nonprofit, the trail treats hikers to roaring waterfalls and towering coastal redwoods and passes through two excellent state parks, Castle Rock and Big Basin, before culminating at the Pacific Ocean. Another big plus? With a start in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the trail is all net downhill. No surprise, then, that reservations fill up fast, so plan ahead and be patient—it’s well worth the effort.
Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, New Hampshire
The iconic 6,288-foot Mount Washington in the White Mountains is a challenging and worthy summit, especially in the winter. While many are drawn to its eastern slopes to ski Tuckeman’s Ravine, a select few hike the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on the western side to the mountain’s peak. This demanding, approximately eight-mile round-trip route challenges hikers with steep and exposed sections, icy scrambles, and the threat of erratic weather and strong winds. But the stunning views, frozen waterfalls, and exhilaration of standing atop New England’s highest peak make the cold toes, burning lungs, and treacherous trek worth it.
Longs Peak, Colorado
Longs Peak’s 14,255-foot summit looms over Colorado’s northern Front Range, a mountainous beacon summoning the adventurous. A journey to the top of Longs is a truly epic undertaking—even for fit hikers. The standard ascent route via the Keyhole is a 15-mile outing with more than 5,500 feet of elevation gain and is usually done in a single 10-to-14-hour push. Most begin in the darkness around 2 am, catching the sunrise above treeline about five miles in at the famous boulder field. Crossing through the Keyhole dramatically changes the character of the hike from a steady, class-2 cruise to a wild, exposed, class-3 scramble along well-marked ledges. A tough push up a loose gully called "The Trough" grinds up to 14,000 feet, where there is still work to do. A steep scramble through the “Home Stretch” exits atop the surprisingly flat, broad summit block. After all that work, there’s still the challenge of getting down safely. Big, bold, and tough, Longs is one of the most amazing adventures in the Rocky Mountains.
Mount Frissell, Connecticut/Massachusetts
At 2,454 feet, Mount Frissell stands in the heart of southern New England and New York’s rolling Taconic Mountains. When the full force of the changing seasons paints the trees in hues of red, yellow, and orange, this hike makes a strong case as the most beautiful in the region. A modest, 1-mile trail start from Mount Riga Road in Massachusetts and gently climbs through scrub oak to the summit of 2,289-foot Round Mountain before continuing to the top of Mount Frissell. Unlike most hikes, however, you’ll get the best views beyond the summit. Passing into Connecticut, hikers come across the highest point in Connecticut at 2,380 feet on the south slopes of Mount Frissell—keep going! At 0.5 miles past the highpoint pin is the Connecticut-New York-Massachusetts tri-point marker, and roughly another mile past that are the panoramic views of rolling farmland and distant Appalachian mountains from 2,311-foot Brace Mountain. Return the way you came for excellent views of neighboring mountain domes to the north.
Peak One, Colorado
At 12,933 feet, Peak One is more than 1,400 feet lower than Colorado’s highest peak, but what it lacks in elevation it makes up for in unmatched views. Access is easy, with the trailhead located right off highway I-70. Hikers climb past the ruins of an old mining town before breaking treeline. A class-2+ ridgewalk reveals the depth and beauty of Colorado’s high country. Dillon Reservoir sits at the foot of the peak to the east, where the mighty Front Range 14ers stand in the distance. The northern views are dominated by the mysterious and challenging Gore Range, while far-off Sawatch Range mountains decorate the western horizon. A fun, brief scramble ascends the summit. Turn around at that point for an 8-mile out-and-back with more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain—or keep traversing along the Tenmile Range to Tenmile Mountain and beyond. Hiking from Peak One to Peak Ten is one of Colorado’s big point-to-point testpiece adventures.
Humphreys Peak, Arizona
The highest point in Arizona, 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak is an ambitious peak to bag, with an impressive history to ponder as you conquer it. Geologists speculate this strato-volcano once stood much higher until it experienced a Mount St. Helens-style eruption that resulted in its trademark bowl and diminished height. The Arizona Snowbowl ski area is set on the flanks of the peaks San Francisco Peaks, of which Humphreys is the tallest. A hike to the top travels through pine forests and out of treeline along a well-maintained trail through chunky volcanic rock. Admire the power that shook the land as you take the final steps to the airy summit, where views span out into the lowlands that transform into far-off deserts and canyons. It’s about nine miles round-trip, with 3,000 feet of elevation from the standard route on the Humphreys Peak Trail.
Greenstone Ridge Trail, Isle Royale National Park
Located on an island in Lake Superior that’s 45 miles long and just nine miles wide, this national park is so remote you’ll have to take a ferry or seaplane to access it. But once you do, you’ll have your pick of 165 miles of hiking trails that cover spectacular terrain, including the ruins of an old copper mine and a lighthouse that dates back to the late 1800s. Many hikers flock to the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs along the spine of the island, but the Minong Trail is a 52-mile trek that’s slightly harder, but with far fewer people and just as stunning views, wildflowers, and up-and-close wildlife viewing. Choose from several out-and-back routes, or make it a point-to-point overnight trip (there are 36 first-come, first-serve campgrounds) and you just might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Written by Selena Makrides for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.