It's hard to imagine that some of the best hikes on the planet are not here to stay. But threats to the environment, natural disasters, war, and politics that favor development over recreation and conservation could wipe out many trails, as well as the ecosystems through which they wander. The following ten trails are in trouble. Worse, the threats they face signal far greater troubles for the future of wild places and the planet. —Doug Schnitzspahn
Arch Canyon, Utah
Photograph by Bill Hatcher, National Geographic
What’s at Stake: Native American sacred sites, archaeological treasures
Threats: ATV use, looting, state public lands transfer
Cutting deep into Utah’s iconic red rock on the mile-high reaches of Cedar Mesa, Arch Canyon looks as wondrous as a national park. The deep sandstone canyon running out from the high reaches of the Abajo Mountains and along the 120-mile-long monocline of Comb Ridge lives up to its name. Stunning natural arches grace the soaring sandstone cliffs—including the unique formation of Angel Arch, with its lone, delicate tower of sandstone. Like the rest of the surrounding Colorado Plateau, the place was formed when geological uplifts brought ancient sedimentary rocks to the surface, and eons of water and wind have worked to sculpt them since.
But that natural beauty is only part of the story of Arch Canyon’s significance: The canyon is also full of ruins from the ancestral Puebloans who lived and farmed here, thriving until they suddenly moved out around A.D. 1300. Many contemporary Pueblo people in the American Southwest trace their roots to these inhabitants and come here for ceremonies. While many of the ruins in Arch Canyon are still marvelously intact, the 9.5-mile trail up the canyon allows motorized use for seven miles, making it easy for looters and well-meaning hikers to damage the ancient walls and carry off artifacts. Motorized vehicles are also changing the canyon’s streambed. The trail crosses it 120 times as it winds up to the upper reaches of the canyon.
Prognosis: The fate of Arch Canyon, and the entire region, which is rich in archaeological sites, is blowing in the political winds. Native American tribes and local and national conservation groups are pushing for it to be protected as part of a 1.9-million-acre Bear’s Ears National Monument, which would prioritize the protection of cultural and natural resources. Local conservative politicians in Utah, however, are demanding that areas like Arch Canyon be open to more motorized use, and Utah’s legislature has already passed a bill demanding federal land here be given to the state, which would loosen management restrictions. Who will win? The Obama Administration has ramped up efforts to create more national monuments before the president leaves office but has yet to create a truly controversial monument. The backing of the tribes may push the drive for the monument, but a strong shift in conservative leadership could also empower the state-control movement.
Leuser Ecosystem Trails, Sumatra, Indonesia
Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic
What’s at Stake: One of the most biodiverse rain forests on the planet, which provides habitat for critically endangered wildlife
Threats: Development of palm oil, pulp, and paper plantations; mining; road building
One of the last truly wild chunks of rain forest left in Asia, Sumatra’s 6.5-million-acre Leuser ecosystem harbors some of the most cherished and threatened wildlife on the planet. The dense jungle and peat swamps are the last refuge of critically endangered charismatic megafauna, including the Sumatran orangutan (one of the last two populations of orangutans left on the planet), the Sumatran elephant (which has seen its population plummet by 80 percent in the last 25 years), the Sumatran tiger (under intense pressure from unchecked poaching), and the Sumatran rhino (which was declared extinct in Malaysia this year and only numbers a hundred animals in Sumatra, see the National Geographic story here). It’s also home to more than 105 mammals, 382 birds, and 95 reptiles and amphibians. Beyond that, it’s also a wellspring for human survival, providing water to millions of Sumatrans and sequestering carbon in its rampant foliage. That incredible biodiversity makes the place a magnet for ecotourists and hikers looking to come close to the last remnants of the wildlife that once roamed Asia.
But bulldozers and loggers have moved into this paradise, pushing wildlife out and eliminating biodiversity (Indonesia, on average, loses two million acres of rain forest each year). The danger is especially bad in areas such as the lowland rain forest of the Lokop-Peunaron, where local activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Rudi Putra says ten elephants are killed each year.
Prognosis: Like many rich, intact natural environments across the planet, the Leuser ecosystem is in the sights of big industries looking to develop natural resources. For the Leuser, the biggest threats are massive palm oil plantations, which bring jobs but also bring unbridled road building and wholesale destruction of the native biota. While nearby Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is most likely safe, the surrounding forest of the greater Leuser ecosystem is up for grabs, and the wildlife here need more than island communities in the park for long-term survival. Indonesian president Joko Widodo and palm oil producers seem keen on opening up and developing the Leuser, or at least to turning a blind eye (illegal clearing of land is already under way). Only dedicated action on the part of global conservation groups may be able to slow down the coming development. The biggest hope is that snack food companies and other manufacturers that use palm oil will agree to speak up in the protection effort.
Stairway to Heaven, Oahu, Hawaii
Photograph by Michael Gabbert
What’s at Stake: A unique, historic step trail in Hawaii’s mountains
Threats: Erosion; management costs; user conflicts
Climbing into the mists of the lush ridges of the Ko'olau mountain range on Oahu, the Stairway to Heaven (or Haiku Steps), had become one of the most talked about spots to hike on the island. The vertiginous 3,922 metal steps and path, first built as wooden ladders by the U.S. military to access a secret radio antenna during World War II, allow for easy access into high hills where native flora—much of it nearly wiped out when Hawaii became colonized—still grows, including lulu palms and kanawao hydrangea. The trail also served up sweeping views of the green interior of the island, the city far below, and the blue reaches of the Pacific.
There’s only one problem: Despite its popularity (and a restoration effort that cost $875,000 but was opposed by private landowners), even before the storm damaged it, the hike was never officially open to the public. The majority of hikers here were making the climb illegally, although they were not often prosecuted. So when a massive storm wiped out important portions of the steps in February 2015, local administrators declared their intention to close it down for good.
Prognosis: The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which is currently spending $160,000 to keep people off the steps, claims that the Stairway is never going to reopen. In fact, it has plans under way to remove the stairs. Some local groups have protested and volunteered to manage the trail, but they're butting heads with local government and private landowners who want it gone. No matter what, the prospect of it ever officially opening to full public use is close to nil.
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Photograph by Richard Nowitz, National Geographic
What’s at Stake: The wild soul of the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail should be at the top of every hiker’s bucket list. It plunges for eight miles and 4,380 vertical feet into the natural wonder’s colorful layers of sandstone and limestone until it reaches the bottom and the Colorado River, taking in the expanse of the place in a way that’s impossible to comprehend even while standing at the edge far above. The hike draws all types mesmerized by the canyon: runners looking to go rim to rim, guests riding mules to Phantom Ranch at the bottom, casual amblers simply looking to take in the depths of one of nature’s greatest cathedrals.
The canyon hasn't always been so revered as a purely natural sanctuary, however. At the turn of the 20th century, many interested parties wanted to mine it or develop it into a type of built-up resort. But President Theodore Roosevelt used his executive power, in the form of the Antiquities Act of 1906, to preserve the place, turning it into a national monument that later became the national park it is today. When he first looked down on it, five years earlier in 1903, he stated: “I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."
Yet the same forces Roosevelt sought to stop are back. At the forefront is the one-billion-dollar Grand Canyon Escalade project, a partnership between the Navajo and private developers. The plan will build a massive development of hotels and restaurants, as well as a tram that would bring tourists to the canyon floor in ten minutes on land just outside the park.
Prognosis: More than 4.5 million visitors flock to the Grand Canyon every year, so it’s no surprise that developers see the opportunity to profit off all those needy tourists—and many of them actually do want a way to enjoy the natural wonder that’s easier than humping down and back up the Bright Angel Trail. Already, helicopter tours head down parts of the canyon, and developers outside the park are planning projects that could stress resources. On the other hand, the Bright Angel Trail itself is in no pressing danger, and park officials are intensely dedicated to maintaining Roosevelt’s vision. But when it comes down to it, there is very little they can do to halt the lure of moneymaking developments on private lands outside the park’s boundaries.
Sacred Headwaters, British Columbia, Canada
Photograph by Paul Colangelo, National Geographic
What’s at Stake: An entire ecosystem and indigenous way of life
Threats: Mining, drilling, dams
Tucked deep in the interior of British Columbia, the Sacred Headwaters is the name for the high alpine wildland where the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers begin their voyage to the Pacific—and where their abundant salmon return to spawn. Inhabited by wolf packs, Stone’s sheep, and grizzly bears, the place is holy to Canada’s First Nations tribes, especially the local Tahltan people, who revere the land itself as part of their cultural and religious heritage. The sheer wildness of the place doesn't include much when it comes to developed trail systems, but that's the beauty of it. This is true wilderness, and American conservation icon John Muir once marveled over the place. Hikes here ramble out to nearly inaccessible spots, such as the obsidian fields of 6,489-foot Todagin Mountain and the steep depths of the Stikine Canyon, which has never been run in a raft. It’s also still the living home of the Tahltan people, who continue to travel and live off the land as they have for centuries.
Author, scientist, activist, and National Geographic Society Explorer Wade Davis also calls the Sacred Headwaters home, and he has railed against the constant threats on the untouched land from the specter of mining and drilling interests. In 2012, pressure from the Tahltan people, other locals, and conservationists convinced Shell Canada to withdraw from a massive coal-bed methane gas project—spread over a million acres—that would have devastated the untouched plateau. Now, Davis and others have a plan to preserve the entire region as the largest protected area in North America, even as the government of British Columbia continues to approve large-scale mining operations here.
Prognosis: The fate of the Sacred Headwaters hinges on political will—and the hunger of the energy industry. The Tahltan nation and activists such as Davis must convince the Canadian government, and the global community, that the value of the Sacred Headwaters as the largest protected natural and cultural area in North America outweighs the quick money and permanent damage of mining and energy development. That is not an easy sell. Despite the victory over Shell—and the tribe recently convincing the government to buy back coal licenses from Fortune Minerals, which moved in once Shell was out—the Sacred Headwaters is still under threat from developments such as the open-pit Red Chris mine and the coming of a new power line, which could encourage more development.
Jabal Maswar, Yemen
Photograph by John Miles, Getty Images
What’s at Stake: Peace and prosperity
Threats: War and terrorism
With its long history of fierce independence and traditional culture holding on in rough desert mountain strongholds, Yemen—which is not blessed with the massive oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and other Arabian kingdoms but does guard the passage of the Red Sea where much of that oil is shipped—has long attracted adventurous foreign romantics. Lording over one of the most popular regions for hiking in these broken hills, the mountain citadel of Jabal Maswar, with its terraced hillsides, offers up not just a sweeping view of surrounding Mahweit and its fantasyland of steep, sweeping ridges and fortresses, but it is also a reminder of the struggles that have defined the character of the country.
Perched high on the 10,630-foot peak, the town of Husn Adh-Dhari still moves to the pace of lost time. And it will most likely stay there. The place has always been dangerous and somewhat lawless, but it has only gotten worse as conflict in the Middle East continues. Since 2011, violence and conflict have closed these mountains to foreigners. A revolution that began in street protests has sent the country into chaos, and the Yemeni division of al Qaeda is considered one of the most active and dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. The ongoing civil war, the ascendency of the Islamic State in Syria, and the ability of terrorist groups to take advantage of the chaos in Yemen mean that the trouble here is far more serious than not being able to hike.
Prognosis: Due to the danger in the country, the U.S. State Department suspended embassy operations in Yemen in February 2015 and has issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens in the country. The situation has only escalated, and the Saudi military has gotten involved in the Yemeni rebellion in order to stabilize its interests in the region. The conflict has the potential to get worse. While hiking seems irrelevant with this backdrop, many people in the region would be happy to simply be able to enjoy walking in their mountains in peace and welcome visitors, but that is not happening any time soon.
The Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine
Photograph by Meg Haywood Sullivan/Aurora Photos
What’s at Stake: The integrity of the most famous and popular long-distance hiking trail on the planet
Threats: Overuse, management conflicts
It seems impossible to think that the beloved Appalachian Trail could be in danger. After all, it is, in fact, well-protected and managed by the outstanding efforts of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) as well as the legions of thru-hikers who have found themselves (or at least their trail names) on its 2,189.2 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine. But the threat comes from within: All those hikers—and their numbers are swelling—could love the trail to death.
The chief complaint about trail overcrowding has come from the administrators of Maine’s Baxter State Park, the site of 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin itself. Park director Jensen Bissell sent a letter to the ATC in November 2014 complaining that thru-hikers on the AT were only a small percentage of the visitors to his park, which has an especially strong and binding mandate to preserve its wilderness character, and that they were disturbing the deep solitude of the place and making a mess. He warned that Baxter was not bound to host the AT and that he would consider moving the northern terminus off of Katahdin, and has shown he means business by issuing tickets to AT hikers who break park rules. That move would significantly alter the soul of the trail, since so many hikers see the mountain as a point of pilgrimage, essential to the experience of the hike.
But the trail faces problems away from Baxter, too. It hosted a record of more than 2,800 thru-hikers in 2014, and by some estimates nearly four million people hiked on some part of it that year. Those hordes are maxing out the facilities on trail, which has already been nicknamed a “human highway.” The result is trail damage, not to mention huge impacts on the experience of thru and day hiking.
Prognosis: Mixed. Record numbers of people are sure to hit the trail in 2016, especially after the release of the Robert Redford/Nick Nolte thru-hiking film A Walk in the Woods in September 2015. And Bissell’s dissatisfaction with the behavior of thru-hikers in Baxter is only sure to grow as his rangers write more tickets. But the ATC is excited about the idea of more hikers on the trail and more people caring about not just the AT but also the wild lands and mountains it passes through. The organization has been busy working with regional land managers to ensure that hikers obtain the proper permits and understand the rules, to upgrade facilities (especially privies), and to promote education and "leave no trace" ethics through the efforts of ridge runners and other passionate trail volunteers on the ground. The AT will endure, though the experience of hiking it may change (and there’s no guarantee it will always climb to the top of Katahdin).
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Photograph by R. Tyler Gross, Aurora Photos
What’s at Stake: The famed snows of the highest mountain in Africa
Threats: Climate change, deforestation
At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the mountain with the fourth highest topographic prominence—that is, the actual height from its lowest contour line to the summit, rather than from sea level—on the planet, behind only Everest, Aconcagua, and Denali. (It's also considered the highest freestanding mountain on Earth since the massive, dormant volcano is not part of a surrounding range.)
But Kilimanjaro is fairly easy to summit: An estimated 25,000 head to the roof of Africa each year, and two-thirds of them make it. The most popular route, the Machame, requires a week to complete, both to spend time acclimatizing to the elevation and to cover the 38.5 miles of hiking and some scrambling in spots, especially the thousand feet of the Barranco Wall.
While that route and the mountain itself are not going away, the snows of Kilimanjaro, or at least its glaciers, definitely are fading. According to Pascal Sirguey, a research scientist at the University of Otago in New Zealand who has been studying the mountain’s melting ice, Kilimanjaro’s Credner Glacier could be gone by 2030 if current rates of glacial retreat continue. A 2012 NASA report estimated that the mountain lost 85 percent of its ice between 1911 and 2011. The cause of that melting cannot be tied to a single cause, however, with everything from Earth’s rising temperature to deforestation around the mountain being liable.
The complexity over the reasons for the melting ice has embroiled the mountain in a battle over political interpretation of scientific observations. Guides and frequent climbers know one thing for certain: The mountain’s glaciers and snowfields are getting smaller each year.
Prognosis: Bleak. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are most likely doomed. Whether their rapid shrinking is caused by manmade climate change and whether they will be gone in a decade or longer, there is nothing that can be done to stop the melting. See them now, because Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"—which in itself is about loss and regret and death and not being able to do anything to stop it—seems bitterly appropriate: “He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.”
Temperance Flat, California
Photograph by Peter Bennett, Getty Images
What’s at Stake: California’s San Joaquin River Gorge
Tucked up in the Sierra foothills but just a short drive away from the teeming population center and agribusiness of Fresno in California’s thirsty Central Valley, the 11-mile San Joaquin River Trail runs along a whitewater gorge popular with kayakers. Exploding with wildflowers in the spring, it’s a classic multi-use trail, shared by hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders looking to escape Fresno’s sprawl. Local conservation groups have worked hard to protect the place, applauding when five miles of the gorge were recommended for Wild and Scenic designation by the Bureau of Land Management and claiming a victory in a nearly two-decades-long legal fight that is returning Chinook salmon to a river that had been bled dry by diversions. The Temperance Flat Dam would drown all of this.
The proposed 600-foot-high construction would hold 1.3 million cubic feet of water, which is quickly becoming more precious than gold in a state suffering from a long, damaging drought. It would go in just upstream from the existing Friant Dam and its 4,900-acre Millerton Lake and flood the gorge, the trail, and natural curiosities such as the Millerton Lakes Cave system, a unique, mile-long corrasional cave.
Prognosis: This is a classic California water war. Conservation groups such as Friends of the River are lobbying hard and calling for public comments against the Temperance Flat Dam alongside recreationists. But the scare of the prolonged drought that continues to choke California may be enough to convince the public that the dam is necessary (despite Friends of the River’s argument that it would only provide 0.2 percent of the state’s annual water supply). The water would also go to irrigate crops in the Central Valley, and farmers wield incredible power in the area. Local lawmakers keep pushing the project forward and conservationists keep fighting against them. The main sticking point right now is the three-billion-dollar price tag, but Fresno County officials are working with other counties to apply for bond money to get that funding.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
Photograph by Paul Chesley, National Geographic
What’s at Stake: The clean waters in a North American wilderness stronghold
Threats: Sulfide mining
Straddling the Canadian border, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is best known for, you guessed it, canoeing. After all, the system of lakes and waterways, which was kept legally roadless and protected by the Wilderness Act in 1964, holds a whopping 20 percent of all the freshwater in U.S. Forest Service lands. But the one-million-acre wilderness, which connects to Voyageurs National Park in the west and to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park in the north, also supports an impressive, and unheralded, network of hiking trails that access the same waters at a walking pace ... and without the portages.
The longest of them, the Border Route Hiking Trail, humps 75 miles across the place, taking in cliffs, lake views, waterfalls, and the loneliness of Minnesota’s old growth in this remnant of the great wilderness that once spanned much of North America. Its empty spaces are also home to vibrant wildlife populations, including proud moose and shadowy packs of gray wolves.
Taken together, this massive chunk of wilderness is one of the icons of the American conservation movement, and one of the few in the Midwest, so it seems impossible that it would be under threat. But a complex of mines, railroads, and industrial buildup has already been permitted by government agencies and is under way just outside of these protected areas. These looming sulfide mines would extract ores such as copper and nickel and in the process could choke the Boundary Waters with runoff polluted with sulfuric acid, mercury, and other poisons. The proposed Twin Metals Mine, three miles from the wilderness boundary and in the Kawishiwi watershed that flows into it, would be the largest underground mine ever in the state of Minnesota.
Prognosis: The permits have already been granted and exploratory drilling has started, but expect an outcry when campaigns like Save the Boundary Waters get legs and spread the word to the area’s passionate adherents. They face a tough task when stacked up against the monetary resources and current government cooperation with the mining corporations, however. As things progress, this fight will be front and center in national news, with the outcome resting on how much public support and legal funding the conservation groups can drum up.