A truly great trail winds into the essence of a place, so when assembling this list of the world’s great hikes we kept an eye on more than the footpath. We looked for walks that travel deeper into a location’s history and culture. Sure, there’s outdoor adventure on each of these 20 hikes, but the trails also tell a rich story. So here they are, the holy grails of trails across the world. —Doug Schnitzspahn
Mount Kailash Pilgrimage, Tibet
Photograph by Michael Runkel, Robert Harding/Corbis
Best For: Yogis and others seeking spiritual enlightenment
Distance: 32 miles
Legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner was once awarded a permit to climb Kailash, considered sacred to five religions. According to Hindus, the perfect pyramid of the 22,028-foot peak is where the god Shiva sits in meditation. The mountain is also a holy place to Buddhists, Jains, the Ayyavazhi branch of Hinduism, and the ancient Bon religion of Tibet. Messner decided not to deconsecrate the summit, which has never been attained by human beings. When a Spanish team planned to climb it in 2001, Messner suggested that they go find a more difficult summit. It remains unclimbed, although in recent years the Chinese government has begun to build a road on the sacred pilgrimage path, known as the kora.
While the mountain itself is forbidden, traversing 32 miles around it is an important ritual. All this religious significance means that while Kailash is not a place for mountaineers, it does draw crowds of pilgrims seeking its powerful good grace. It’s also a first-class Himalaya trek encompassing meditation sites at waterfalls, the sacred cave of Zuthal Puk, and 18,600-foot Dolma La Pass.
When to Go: April through September. Numerous companies offer tours that deal with the logistics of getting into Tibet and driving to the base of Mount Kailash, which can be crowded with pilgrims.
Insider Tip: After you complete the kora, take a dip in nearby Lake Manasarovar. At 15,060 feet, it’s one of the highest lakes on the planet. According to Hindus, the waters purify bathers, and ablutions here complete the Kailash pilgrimage.
Israel National Trail, Israel
Photograph by Yagil Henkin, Alamy
Best For: Long-distance hikers with a love of both ancient and contemporary history
Distance: 580-620 miles
Passing through vast empty desert and winding into kibbutzim, the Israel National Trail (INT) delves into the grand scale of biblical landscapes as well as the everyday lives of modern Israelis (with opportunities to stop in the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). But beyond the immense sense of history and breaking news, the trail powerfully connects to something that often gets lost in all the headlines—the sublime beauty of the wilderness of the Middle East. The southern end of the trail crosses the harsh and lovely Negev, still populated by wandering Bedouins and long-horned Nubian ibex and filled with wildflowers in spring. There’s not much water to drink along the way, though the trail crosses plenty of wet spots. It dips into the 600-foot-below-sea-level waves of the Sea of Galilee, flanks the baptismal River Jordan, and runs along Mediterranean beaches north of Tel Aviv. The southern terminus ends in the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea.
Of course, the INT does take hikers to spots that have immense significance in the Judeo-Christian world and beyond. Among these is the sheer climb up the 1,929-foot peak of Mount Tabor, where Barak and 10,000 Israelites defeated Sisear and the Canaanites as recorded in the Bible’s Book of Judges. The heights of Mount Carmel are sacred to Jews and Christians as well as to Ahmadiyya Muslims and followers of the Bahá'í faith. More modern sites, such as the Metzudat Koach memorial, commemorating 28 soldiers who died taking a fort in the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, speak to the still ongoing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. But life on the trail is safe and far from current hostilities. In fact, the joy of the trail is meeting the Israelis hiking it and spending some time in small kibbutzim where the local people will take hikers into their homes. On the trail, there is peace and friendship.
When to Go: The early spring (February to May) is the best time to enjoy the trail. Avoid the heat of summer.
Shortcut: The trail is divided into 12 smaller sections, each of which makes a worthwhile shorter trip. For a one-day excursion, the three-mile climb to the top of Mount Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration overlooks the Jezreel Valley to Mount Carmel, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, and Mount Hermon.
Insider Tip: The biggest blessing here comes in the form of “trail angels” along the INT who give a helping hand and often offer a place to stay free of charge to thru-hikers. The updated list of trail angels with contact information is located here.
North Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa/Lesotho, uKhahlamba/ Drakensberg Park
Photograph by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Alamy
Best For: This is a big, long backcountry hike with no true trail that requires both outdoor skills and some familiarity with travel in Africa. Many travelers here book guides.
Round-Trip: 40 miles, from Mont-aux-Sources to Cathedral Peak
The Zulus call these peaks uKhahlamba, “barrier of spears.” A vertiginous escarpment of volcanic basalt bursting from ancient sedimentary rocks, the Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in South Africa, crowned by the Amphitheater, a three-mile-long, up-to-3,280-foot-high wall of rock. The range forms the border between South Africa and eastern Lesotho and the uKhalhlamba/Drakensberg Park is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, as well as by various local designations.
A trek across this epic landscape begins by ascending chain ladders to reach the top of this barrier and the plateau of Mount-aux-Sources, where the Tugela River plunges 3,110 feet off the top in a series of five cascades that make for the second highest waterfall in the world. From here, the trek crosses the high plateau—broken by rock formations, views out across the cliffs, and the huts of Sotho herdsman—before it works its way down past more waterfalls and river crossings before meeting up with the welcome civilization of the Cathedral Peak Hotel.
The Drakensberg is also filled with caves. Some, like the aptly named Rat Hole Cave, are claustrophobic. Others are massive, like the infamous Cannibal Cave, which sheltered San who were persecuted by Zulus and white settlers. They left behind an artistic legacy of cave paintings that illustrates their connection with these unique mountains and makes the Drakensberg one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent. Emerge from one of the caves and look out over the land and you will feel the true timelessness of this place.
When to Go: Late summer and fall (March to May)
Shortcuts: The 12-mile Mont-aux-Sources, which requires clambering on chain ladders, is the first section of the full trek and a worthy day trip. The long day hike to Tugela Falls covers 13 miles to reach the world's second highest waterfall. Cathedral Peak can be hiked and scrambled on a six-mile jaunt from the Cathedral Peak Hotel.
Insider Tip: The most popular campsites can be targets for petty crime, so set up tent a bit off the beaten path or stay at a hut or hostel. It's not a good idea to hike alone.
Cinque Terre, Sentiero Azzuro, Italy
Photograph by Celentano, laif/Redux
Best For: Families (if kids tire you can always take the train between towns); romance seekers; Europhiles; older hikers
Distance: It’s about seven miles between the five towns on the direct (and popular) Sentiero Azzuro, the Blue Trail. It's also possible to make the hikes between towns longer (and steeper) by heading up the trails into the hills.
Ever since guidebook author Rick Steves began gushing about the charms of the Cinque Terre two decades ago, the place has jumped to the top of European travel itineraries. In fact, it can be absolutely overwhelmed with tourists eager to hike the Blue Trail, also known as Trail No. 2, the path that connects the five colorful villages—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore—perched on the Mediterranean. But somehow the charm of the place has survived. Despite all the tourism, the towns still feel left back in time and many of the locals still only speak Italian. Vernazza especially feels straight out of a fairy tale, with its bright little buildings crowded onto a spit above the blue sea.
It's the hike itself, however, that's the real draw of the place. The Blue Trail hugs the rocky Ligurian coastline, which is so sheer here that the Cinque Terre can only be practically accessed by train or foot. The path wanders through vineyards and serves up postcard views of the towns. The sun, the fragrance of wild herbs, and the slow crash of the Mediterranean all combine for a romantic aura that will soften even the most unsentimental of cynics.
Beyond the Blue Trail, other paths climb into the hillsides, an escape from the hordes and often a necessary detour around occasional closures caused by the elements temporarily wiping out the Blue Trail. Take your time—the true secret to the trail is not the walk, but the dose of dolce far niente you can indulge in when you reach one of the towns and relax with a glass of local Cinque Terre white (you just passed the grapes that made it) and a slowly savored meal.
When to Go: The spring and especially the fall are best because there are fewer tourists and it’s cooler. Summer is hot and miserably crowded. Don't even think about August.
Insider Tip: Since it is not directly on the water but perched on a hill, sleepy Corniglia is the best bet for a last-minute room when other spots are booked. It’s also nicely situated about halfway along the walk.
Yoshida Trail, Mount Fuji, Japan
Photograph by Lemuel Montejo, Getty Images
Best For: Anyone who wants to take part in what has become a Japanese cultural tradition
Distance: There are several trails to the top of Fuji but the most popular, the Yoshida Trail, covers about eight miles.
Many hikers would put the climb of Mount Fuji on the list of worst trails in the world. Quite simply, the 12,389-foot volcano—the highest point in Japan—is one of the most climbed mountains in the world, with over 300,000 hikers looking to reach the summit each year. And it’s quite easy to access since its four major trailheads can all be reached via public transport from downtown Tokyo.
But it’s the crowds themselves (a third of which are foreigners) that make Fuji, made iconic by the 19th-century wood prints of Katsushika Hokusai, such a memorable climbing experience. You can stop for noodles and a seat in front of a fire in the huts along the way, and if you want to watch the sunrise from the summit you’ll most likely do so with over a thousand new friends. Wilderness experience? Certainly not. But it is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural trip. Just remember what the Japanese say: “You are wise to climb Mount Fuji once but a fool to climb it twice.”
When to Go: The official season is July through August. The crowds are smaller in June and September, but the huts may be closed and public transport slows down. In the winter, Fuji requires technical mountaineering and snow safety gear.
Insider Tip: You won’t escape the crowds but you certainly will have fewer people on the trail in front of you if you try one of the less traveled paths to the summit, such as the Gotemba Trail, covering about ten miles and 4,723 vertical feet.
Santa Cruz Trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Photograph by Bennett Barthelemy, Tandem
Best For: South American travelers and trekkers who want an experience beyond the Inca Trail; trekkers looking for high elevation without traveling to the Himalaya
Distance: 30-plus miles
While the Himalaya get all the attention when it comes to high-altitude trekking, Peru's Cordillera Blanca offers the solitude of big mountains with far less of the hassle of the premier routes in Asia. It's also a less-crowded alternative to the hordes headed to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. The mountains take precedence here—the Cordillera Blanca are one of the most concentrated collections of big peaks in the Western Hemisphere, with 33 summits topping 18,000 feet and 16 over 19,500 feet, including 22,205-foot Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru, all squeezed into a 13-mile-wide, 112-mile-long corridor.
There are numerous epic treks that delve into these subtropical, glaciated peaks, but the Santa Cruz serves up a little bit of everything in four days. It may be the easiest way to experience high altitude, if such a thing is possible, since it crosses over 15,580-foot Punta Union Pass, which is higher than any peak in the contiguous U.S. The path crosses the dramatic backbone of the continent, but it’s not all altitude-sickness-inducing wilderness. The hike begins in the lively city of Huaraz, often referred to as the “hiking capital of Peru,” where you can hire guides or simply meet up with like-minded souls looking to venture out on the Santa Cruz unsupported or try more ambitious routes like the 11-day Huayhuash Circuit that crosses 18,012-foot Punta Coyoc.
When to Go: April through September. The weather can be incredibly reliable here for such high mountains.
Shortcut: There are numerous day hikes out of Huaraz that get deep into the heights of the Cordillera Blanca. You can reach the stunning blue waters of 14,600-foot Laguna Churup via a 6.4-mile round-trip hike and scramble.
Insider Tip: In Huaraz, Cafe Andino is the place to grab a coffee and gather beta on the route from fellow hikers and adventure travel company La Cima Logistics, especially since recent landslides have covered parts of the Santa Cruz.
Hayduke Trail, Utah and Arizona
Photograph by Lee Cohen
Best For: Desert rats; hardcore hikers looking to spend several challenging months alone in the wild; red-rock fans who want to explore the area in shorter trips
Distance: 800-plus miles in 14 sections
Named for Edward Abbey's fictional eco-warrior (introduced in The Monkey Wrench Gang), the Hayduke traverses six stunning national parks of the Colorado Plateau—Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Zion. It clambers up to around 11,420 feet on Mount Ellen near Capitol Reef and then plunges to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at 1,800 feet. Along the way, it hops down the plateau’s famed Grand Staircase—layers of sandstone and limestone excavated by the region's rivers that tell a geologic story of ancient oceans and sand dunes buried by time.
Though the megatrail brings hikers to wonders too numerous to count, from the sweeping views of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to the secret ruins in Dark Canyon, be forewarned: The Hayduke is only a "trail" in the roughest sense. Much of it is unsigned and unmarked as it works its way into slot canyons and across slickrock. It’s a celebration of the landscape that captured Abbey’s imagination and fueled an environmental philosophy to keep the place free of developers and government.
When to Go: Spring and fall are best, since the summer is too hot and water then is too scarce. Snow can be an obstacle in winter.
Shortcut: Each of the 14 sections is classic in its own right. If you can only do one, try section two, which covers 47 miles along the Colorado River and in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
Insider Tip: The trail crosses numerous highways and dirt roads, offering ample opportunity to cache food and water.
Laugavegurinn/Fimmvörðuháls Pass, Iceland
Photograph by Libin Abraham, My Shot
Best For: Vulcanists and hikers who want to see Icelandic wilderness while spending the night in huts
Round-Trip: About 48 miles
One of the most popular hiking routes in Iceland was closed when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in spring 2010, bringing air traffic across the Atlantic to a halt. The first eruption actually occurred on Fimmvörðuháls Pass—the high spit of land between Eyjafjallajökull and the larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap—covering the trail in volcanic rocks, which is just a small part of what makes this route so magical. But a reroute of the trail has opened since the volcano stopped erupting in May 2010. It is even better for taking in the new twin craters of Magni and Móði, which were named after the sons of Thor, the hammer-wielding thunder god. But the chance to peer into recent volcanic destruction is just a small part of this route’s appeal.
A quarter of the population of the island claims to believe in elves or other mythical creatures, and after hiking through the lava fields and mountains of this route, you may begin to believe as well. It's a visceral landscape, with the ice caps of two glaciers and the raging North Atlantic on the horizon. The route winds down into Thórsmörk (literally “Thor’s wood”), a park that even harbors a few trees, a relative rarity here. Along the way, well-maintained huts house foreigners and plenty of native Icelanders. The final walk from Fimmvörðuháls to Skógar runs along a ravine filled with waterfall after waterfall and ending in the massive 200-foot-high cascade of Skógafoss. If Katla does erupt, the trail could be closed or change, so do this hike soon.
When to Go: The huts are open from late June to mid-September. It's an Icelandic tradition to hike Fimmvörðuháls Pass on the summer solstice, so you’ll have company then. In fact, the whole route is so popular that it’s referred to as “Laugavegur,” the name of the main boulevard in Reykjavik.
Shortcut: You can also simply hike Fimmvörðuháls Pass from Thorsmork to Skógafoss, covering 12 to 14 miles over a long day.
Insider Tip: Despite the remote location, buses run from Reykjavik to the starting point at Landmannalaugar hut during the summer.
The Way of St. James via the French Way, Spain
Photograph by Samuel Aranda, Corbis
Best For: True pilgrims and hikers looking for a long walk through Europe
Distance: 472 miles
The Way of St. James, or the walking path to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, which is thought to house the remains of St. James, has been a trade route since ancient Roman times and a Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. All that foot traffic has made it not just a sacred journey for the devout, but also one of the best walking paths in Europe. There are numerous "ways" to travel to the sanctuary, many of them maintained, but the most popular is the French Way, which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and rambles across the Pyrenees into the heart of the Galician countryside, taking in cities like León and Pamplona, the latter famed for its running of the bulls in July.
Since it sees so many hikers, the French Way, which has been declared part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, is well maintained and signed with the exploding star that is the symbol of the pilgrimage. Though ample accommodations and easy access to supplies make it possible to speed hike, it's more fun to savor glasses of rioja and stop in small towns along the way or to hear the stories of pilgrims and the prayers they hope to have answered (or sins washed away). If you’re walking at night, be sure to look up at the sky—the Way of St. James route parallels the path of the Milky Way.
When to Go: In spring and fall the weather is cool and crowds lighter. Stay away in August, when all of Europe goes on vacation.
Shortcut: The English Way, traditionally taken by pilgrims who took a ship to Spain from England and then walked to Santiago de Compostela, is a much shorter trail, just 45 miles from the seaport of A Coruña to the cathedral.
Insider Tip: If you are in fact doing the Way as a religious gesture, you can purchase a pilgrim's passport, which is like a coupon book good for low prices on accommodations and meals along the trail.
Continental Divide Trail, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico
Photography by Ben Herndon, Tandem
Best For: Dedicated thru-hikers, but it can also be appreciated in smaller sections by all levels of day hikers and backpackers
Distance: 2,268 miles of completed trail, 832 unconstructed
When Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide at a spot in the Bitterroot Range in 1805, the expedition defined America as a country spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) crosses the backbone of the continent, the mighty Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Montana, which still harbor that sense of untamed wilderness that fueled (and sometimes slowed down) the nation’s manifest destiny.
Unlike its eastern cousin, the Appalachian Trail, the CDT is still quite rough and incomplete in parts, requiring bushwhacks, hikes down dirt roads, and odd, circuitous rambles. (Sadly, the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, which put volunteers to work building and maintaining the trail, shuttered its doors in December 2011 due to financial difficulties.) But it’s wilderness that’s at the heart of this trail that cuts through Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. At some points the divide is breathtaking, as when it crosses the high, trailless crags of Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park. At others, it’s oddly subdued, especially in Wyoming's Red Desert, where it runs around a basin that doesn’t drain into either the Pacific or the Atlantic.
When to Go: Timing is the biggest challenge in a region where snows can block trail all season long. Most thru-hikers begin in New Mexico in the spring and hope to reach the Canadian border before the fall storms roll in.
Shortcut: There are endless possibilities to bite off chunks of the CDT. Some of the best lie in Montana, where the trail cuts through little visited wilderness areas like the Centennial Mountains and the Italian Peaks.
Insider Tip: To avoid some of the official trail’s tedious detours, the Continental Divide Trail Society has defined a route that doesn’t follow the official trail as marked by public land managers.
Bibbulmun Track, Australia
Photograph by Pelusey Photography
Best For: Pretty much anyone—from families to hardcore speed hikers—who want a sense of the wonders and people of southwest Australia
Distance: About 600 miles from Kalamunda to Albany on the south coast. The track is divided into 58 sections. There are 49 shelters along the track for thru-hikers.
Southwestern Australia's answer to the Appalachian Trail is quite new. The 600-mile walk is the brainchild of a local hiker who wanted people from the city to "go bush.” It was first opened in 1979, but did not reach its present complete state until 1998 (thanks in part to construction by prison crews, oddly harkening to Australia’s history as a penal colony). But it is based on much older Australian traditions—the walkabouts that the continent's aboriginal people still undertake, often for months at a time, into the bush. The Bibbulum is, in fact, named for the indigenous people of the area (the Bibbulum or Noongar people who still live here), and it winds into the land of the original inhabitants and the wonderland of Australia's endemic flora and fauna.
Hiking out of Kalamunda, 45 minutes east of Perth, the track begins in forests of marri and jarrah, the most common eucalypts in the area, which shelter many snakes, the symbol of the Bibbulum. It’s common to find snakes, ranging from the death adder to the tiger snake, nonchalantly sunning or slithering along here. Along the track, there are also rare creatures like the numbat, a termite-eating marsupial that looks like a cross between weasel and opossum, and the chuditch, a quoll or carnivorous marsupial, that is threatened by nonnative, and very poisonous cane toads. Along the Donnelly River, 250-foot-tall karri eucalyptus shelter purple-crowned lorikeets squawking far above in the canopy.
Besides all that wildlife, though, it's the social aspect of the trail that makes it most Australian. At the campsites you will meet hikers from around the globe as well as regular Australians who have fulfilled the original promise of the trail and are spending time simply walking for weeks to better understand themselves and the unique place where they live.
When to Go: The austral spring (September to November) and fall (March to May) are the best times, with hikers starting in spring heading north-south to avoid the heat and those in fall making the trip from south-north to outrun the winter.
Shortcut: It's easy to access most segments of the Bibbulmun Track for day trips or shorter overnight jaunts. The Bibbulmun Track Foundation even offers Day Walk Map Packs to make it easy to do so. One of the best spots for day walks is in the giant karri forests of the Donnelly River.
Insider Tip: It’s worth taking time out of the hike to explore the “track towns” it passes by and/or near. Pemberton, in particular, has been developing its wine industry since it was made an official wine region in 2006, so stop and taste some of southwest Australia’s Shiraz and chardonnay (which is particularly good here).
West Highland Way, Scotland
Photograph by Clearview/Alamy
Best For: Anyone in decent hiking shape who wants a taste of the remote Highlands
Round-Trip: 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William
Opened in 1980 as the first of Scotland's system of Great Trails, the West Highland Way (or Slighe na Gàidhealtachd an Iar) dives straight into the heart of the most rugged and romantic swath of the Scottish landscape. It cuts through the Highlands that kept out the Romans in ancient times and have helped the Scots retain their national character throughout history.
The trail can feel big and windswept at times, taking in the rocky peaks and rolling grasses of Glen Coe and climbing the Devil's Staircase path on the Aonach Eagach ridge. But the route also takes in more subtle beauty, including the bogs of Rannoch Moor and the shores of bucolic Loch Lomond.
Along the way, it stops in villages such as Rowardennan, where hikers can spend the night in a warm bed, take time out from the trail to tour the loch, and perhaps dare to sample authentic Scottish haggis washed down with local Glengoyne single malt. And if this hike does not feel long enough for you, it just became a part of the International Appalachian Trail, so you could continue your trek from here up into Greenland through Canada and all the way to Maine, since these mountains are part of the same primordial range as the Appalachians in the U.S.
When to Go: Scottish weather can be notoriously bad, even in the summer, but warmer months are best, if not crowded.
Insider Tip: Though it’s not officially part of the way, the trail skirts along Ben Nevis, the highest point in the United Kingdom at 4,409 feet. Despite that distinction it’s a fairly easy diversion to spend a day ascending about 4,000 vertical feet from Fort William to the top via the Tourist Route.
Shackleton's Route, South Georgia Island, South Atlantic/Antarctica
Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic
Best For: Explorers; history buffs; travelers already on guided Antarctic journeys
Distance: 22 miles from King Haakon Bay to Stromness, including glacier travel
Stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea for more than nine months in 1915, Ernest Shackleton and his men abandoned their ship, The Endurance. After floating in a camp on the ice and then taking to their lifeboats, captain and crew ended up on Elephant Island just off the Antarctic mainland. From there, they had to engineer their own rescue, jerry-rigging a lifeboat so that Shackleton and five of his crew could cross 800 miles of the roughest seas on the planet and land at a whaling station on South Georgia Island. The only problem? A storm beached the boat on the opposite side of the island from the station, meaning three of the party had to cross the mountains and glaciers to finally reach help. They succeeded, putting nails through their boots for crampons and using a carpenter's adze as an ice axe.
Hiking part of Shackleton's route across South Georgia is a true epic, crossing over unpredictable, crevasse-covered glaciers. On the black-sand beaches thousands of penguins and elephant seals squawk in their nesting grounds. It's a bird-watcher's paradise—countless species breed along the route, including the light-mantled sooty albatross, giant petrel, and arctic tern. The traverse of South Georgia ends in the same spot where Shackleton and his crew finally ended their epic, at Stromness, which is now abandoned but filled with gentoo penguins.
When to Go: The Antarctic summer runs from December 20 to March 20 and offers the best window of weather. Shackleton made the crossing in May.
Shortcut: You can cut out the glacier travel and hike 3.4 miles, a half-day trip from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. This was the last leg of Shackleton’s trip across the island and is accessed by many commercial tour operators, who dub it the “Shackleton Walk.”
Insider Tip: You will most likely need the services of an outfitter, as the marine navigation is perilous. It’s also expensive, if not impossible, to stay on the island. But so many people want to hike “Shackleton Walk” that the British government has limited party sizes to a hundred—so you may not be alone.
Shipwreck Coast/Shi Shi Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Photograph by Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic
Best For: Pretty much anyone. It’s an easy trip in good weather and an ideal family backpack adventure since the “trail” is beach walking in most places and there are numerous tide pools to poke around in and random surprises in the flotsam and jetsam.
Distance: It’s 20 miles from Rialto Beach to the Lake Ozette Ranger Station. From Lake Ozette, you can tack on another 15 miles from the ranger station to Shi Shi Beach. The whole trip can be completed with a shuttle or as a massive out-and-back 70-mile trek.
America’s Manifest Destiny never reached this far north and west on the continent. The Olympic coastline is as it has been for eons—wind-and-wave-hammered, isolated, and strewn with massive logs and giant strands of kelp. All that makes it one of the most unique backpacking adventures in the lower 48: a wilderness beach hike untrammeled by resort homes and boardwalks.
But it’s not a spot for sunbathing and bodysurfing, either. It has been dubbed the “Shipwreck Coast” for good reason. Hiking up from Rialto Beach, you’ll pass the Norwegian Memorial, erected in honor of the 18 young men who perished and were buried here in the 1903 wreck of the Prince Arthur, and the Chilean Memorial, burial site of a dozen others who perished in the 1920 sinking of the WJ Pirrie.
And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The beachscape, which is part of the 2,408-nautical-square-mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, is full of life and always changing: low tides expose tide pools filled with orange and purple stars, urchins, sea anemones, and other intercoastal life. Black bears and Roosevelt elk sometimes range onto the beach. Sea lions and seals bark from the offshore sea stacks. You can spot whales on the horizon. Those massive marine mammals are an essential part of the culture of the Makah, the native people who still live here north of the park and are in legal negotiations to continue to hunt the whales from cedar canoes. Spend a few days here and you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled to a time before the U.S. coastline was tamed.
When to Go: You can expect bad weather any time here (the annual rainfall averages up to a hundred inches), but, in general, August and September are when high pressure systems make for blue skies.
Shortcut: Simply park at one of the trailheads at Rialto, Ozette, or Shi Shi and take as long or short of a walk as you would like on the beach.
Insider Tip: The raccoons are relentless along the coast. Be sure to hang your food at night.
GR 20, Corsica, France
Photograph by Franck Guiziou, Hemis/Alamy
Best For: Hikers who aren’t afraid of heights and enjoy ending the day with a nice meal
Distance: 112 miles
The greatest of Europe's Grande Randonnées, or GR trails as they are more commonly known, is on an island in the Mediterranean. But Corsica, known best as the birthplace of Napoleon, offers up some of the steepest mountains on the continent, including the 8,878-foot Monte Cinto jutting up from the sea. While the GR 20 is a right of passage for European hikers, it has remained off the radar for most North Americans, who would be shocked to find treacherous mountain traverses on this island famous for its beaches.
Though technically part of France, Corsica claims its own language (closer to Italian) and culture, which is often openly at odds with the French government. This has led to terrorist acts and assassinations over the years. But there are no politics on the trail, which is a melting pot of European and other hikers, all looking to enjoy the mountains and spend time tasting cheeses and chestnuts at the refuges at the end of each trail section. Here, weary hikers can sip local wine and sleep in a warm bed, making the GR 20 the most luxurious adventure walk on the planet.
When to Go: Summer. It can get quite crowded in July and August, but the refuges are not always open in June or September. Winter brings snow.
Shortcut: If you don't have time for the entire trek, visit the Cirque de la Solitude, where the trail is so steep that hikers need to cling on to chains in the rock to keep from tumbling down into the abyss.
Insider Tip: If you want a bed in one of the refuges, you’ll need to get an early start. But even if you sleep late, you won't need to pack much food since you don't need to be staying at one to eat there.
Copper Canyon/Tararecua Canyon, Mexico
Photograph by Janusz Wrobel, Alamy
Best For: Desert rats looking to move on from southern Utah and the Grand Canyon; hikers who want wilderness mixed with indigenous culture
Distance: About 40 miles and 20,000 vertical feet
Copper Canyon is actually several canyons in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert carved by six rivers that merge into the Rio Fuerte. While none of the canyons are bigger than the Grand Canyon, several of them are deeper (the deepest, Urique Canyon, drops 6,165 feet). Stretching over 25,000 square miles, the region is far larger than its northern neighbor. A railway line chugs through the canyons, and the native Tarahumara (also known as the Rarámuri) live in towns in some of the most remote reaches.
The Tararecua Canyon, which cuts down 4,675 feet, is one of the best spots in the complex for wilderness hiking, especially because of the thermal springs at the bottom, ideal for recovering from the big hike. A hike across the canyon and back stops for a soak in Recohuata Hot Springs, crosses several rivers, and requires a bit of canyoneering savvy. There are steep bypasses and spots where a rope could come in handy. It also stops in the Tarahumara village of Pamachi.
The Tarahumara have inhabited the canyons since long before the conquistadors and still live according to many ancient traditions, the most well known in the U.S. being their prowess as long-distance runners. Their barefoot running technique and the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon were made famous in Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, which precipitated the current trend of minimal or barefoot running. But, of course, you don't have to go without hiking boots to experience the canyons alongside their native inhabitants. Just remember to leave a small gift, a sign of respect in Tarahumara culture.
When to Go: This is a prime shoulder-season hike, with temperatures most accommodating from March to April and October to November.
Insider Tip: “Bring a jacket,” says Will Harlan, the only non-Tarahumara to win the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon. “The 4,000-[foot] differential between canyon floor and rim means large temperature fluctuations. It can snow on the cooler canyon rim while being balmy on the canyon floor below.”
Great Himalaya Trail, Nepal
Photograph by Alex Treadway, National Geographic
Best For: Epic adventure seekers
Distance: The Nepal section covers over a thousand miles in the high Himalaya, broken down into ten relatively easier-to-manage sections. The trail can be completed in four to six months if all goes according to plan and the weather complies, and it’s been speed hiked in under 50 days.
Though the concept of the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) is new, the footpaths are not. Truly the GHT is not a trail at all but a vision that connects the highest route across the Himalaya—through India, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan—on existing trekking trails and ancient trade and pilgrimage paths. While it is still a concept in other countries, in Nepal the GHT has been turned into a reality: a thousand-mile adventure walk that takes in many of Nepal's 8,000-meter peaks—including Everest—that was first completed by a team taking 162 days in 2009. The grand plan of the trail is to promote responsible tourism here in the midst of political instability in Nepal and ever-increasing masses of tourists looking to trek to and climb the world's highest peaks.
Along the way, the trail takes in the trips of several lifetimes. There are the famed peaks, but they’re the backdrop—the true challenge is ascending and (worse on the knees) descending the high passes, including the imposing trio of Sherpani Pass (20,128 feet), West Col (20,154 feet), and Amphu Laptsa Pass (19,193 feet) between Everest and Makalu.
And beyond the mountains, there’s the chance to see wildlife such as the endangered snow leopard, herds of blue sheep, and yaks in the peaks, and takins and red pandas in the forest. There are guest huts, monasteries, and teahouses. There are Sherpa people who have lived here for centuries and Western mountaineers looking to make a name on alpine routes. The dream of the trail (which will stretch over nearly 3,000 miles from Pakistan to Bhutan when completed) is coming true. It is representative of a new globalism that puts people on the same long path even in one of the most extreme natural places on the planet.
When to Go: Weather is always iffy in the high Himalaya. April and October are best bet months. Trekkers need to work around the summer monsoon season.
Shortcut: Any one of the ten sections of the trail makes for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The Annapurna and Mustang Trek, in the shadow of 8,000-meter giants Dhaulagiri (26,798 feet) and Annapurna (26,545 feet), is one of the most popular in Nepal—for good reason—and takes about three weeks.
Insider Tip: If the trail sounds too intimidating, but you still want to traverse Nepal and the Himalaya, try the Green Route, a parallel, lower version of the GHT that avoids the highest passes, which can require technical skills and be closed by weather. It's possible to move back and forth between the lower and upper trails as a contingency plan.
Benton MacKaye Trail, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina
Photograph by Wesley Overvold
Best For: Long-distance hikers who want to experience the way the founder of the Appalachian Trail wanted that hike to be
Distance: 300 miles
It may at first seem ironic that the newest (and by many accounts best) long-distance hiking trail in the South is named after a Harvard-educated, government worker from New England. But Benton MacKaye, a co-founder of The Wilderness Society, was also the man who came up with the idea for one of the South’s biggest outdoor legacies—the Appalachian Trail. The new Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), which officially opened in 2005, recaptures the vision MacKaye had for the AT. It’s a lonely, steep, sometimes nebulous route that starts along with the AT at Georgia’s Springer Mountain and ends back on the AT after crossing Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rambling through eight Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas along the way and celebrating MacKaye’s desire to preserve ecosystems without human tampering. There’s neither a social scene nor crowds as on the AT, just high Appalachian wilderness and a few like-minded souls out to explore it.
There’s more here too for creative hikers. Since the BMT starts and ends at the Appalachian Trail and crosses it just before it enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park, forming a massive, bottom-heavy figure eight, it allows for hikers to make a variety of loops. The southern loop (combining BMT and AT) is 364 miles and the upper loop covers 158 miles in the park. Tracing the entire figure eight racks up over 500 miles. It’s also possible to intersect with other long-distance trails for options such as the Georgia Loop (a steep, rugged 55-mile hike that follows the BMT), the Duncan Ridge Trail, and the AT.
When to Go: Beat the heat by hiking in spring and fall.
Shortcut: A 20-mile backpack from Beech Gap on the Cherohala Skyway to the Slickrock Trailhead on U.S. 129, including the Citico Creek and Slickrock/Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Areas in North Carolina and Tennessee, takes in old-growth forest and steep trails.
Insider Tip: Pack a fly rod. There’s fishing for a wide range of native and introduced species along the trail, including rainbow, brook, and brown trout as well as largemouth, smallmouth, and redeye bass.
The Snowman Trek, Bhutan
Photograph by Peter McBride, National Geographic
Best For: The hardest of hard cores
Distance: Over 200 miles, usually a 25-day trip. By law you must travel with a guided tour company in Bhutan.
The Snowman is quite simply the most difficult long walk on the planet. Though it covers just over 200 miles, much of the route is higher than the highest points in the continental United States, crossing 11 passes over 16,000 feet and topping out at 17,388 feet on Rinchen Zoe La Pass. At that elevation weather is unpredictable and altitude sickness a real concern. Barely half of the people who start the Snowman end up finishing. Plus, the trek is in Bhutan, a constitutional monarchy that carefully regulates tourists to keep the country timelessly unspoiled but tough to navigate and lacking many technological advances.
All those difficulties, however, add up to what simply may be the best hike in the world. Bhutan's strict tourist policy means you won't bump into many other travelers as you would on treks in Nepal. Instead, you'll feel like a modern Heinrich Harrer, a visitor to a Buddhist kingdom untouched by iPhones and traffic. The trek passes through places like Laya, home of the indigenous Layap people, and the village of Thanza at 13,700 feet, where guides exchange horses for yaks to tackle the even more difficult terrain ahead. Then there are the peaks themselves, more than 7,000-meter giants that reach above the clouds, such as Zogophu Gamp and Masang Gang. But change is coming to Bhutan—the nation is allowing more tourists in and slowly meeting the West, so go soon.
When to Go: The window of opportunity here is very small, with October and sometimes April being the only months to avoid the snow and rain that will close the high passes.
Shortcut: The trek around soaring 24,035-foot Jomolhari peak is a challenging weeklong adventure in the high Himalaya. The Druk Path takes five days and crosses the high range between the town of Paro, site of the country's international airport, and the capital city of Thimphu, which famously has no traffic lights.
Insider Tip: The government of Bhutan imposes a minimum tariff of $250 per day on foreign visitors to Bhutan. Though that includes things like accommodations, prepare to spend at least $8,000 for a Snowman trek. There is no budget or self-guided option.
International Appalachian Trail, U.S., Canada, Greenland, Scotland, Spain, Morocco
Photograph by Serge Ouellet, Gaspésie Hike Nature
Best For: Appalachian Trail thru-hikers looking to beef up their resumes; hikers with a fondness for primordial geology
Distance: The current trail includes approximately 1,862 trail miles from the end of the U.S. Appalachian Trail in Maine to the North American trail terminus at Crow Head, Newfoundland.
The IAT is an attempt to connect a primordial mountain range that traversed part of the supercontinent of Pangaea more than 200 million years ago before separating into multiple ranges. What remains of those peaks in North America has become the famed Appalachian Mountains of the United States, but few of the Appalachian Trail's thru-hikers will want to admit that the mountains continue on into Canada—and don't stop there. The remains of those mountains stretch from Labrador to Greenland and then down to the European continent, with vestiges in Scotland, France, Spain, and even across Gibraltar to Morocco. More than a geological odyssey, the trail was the brainchild of former Maine Governor Joseph Brennan, who wanted to connect the cultures spanned by the mountains.
The result is a trail that currently rambles through the rough ranges of the Canadian seaboard, taking in the habitat of moose and caribou, as well as belugas and other migrating whales in the Saint Lawrence. The trail connects the cultures of both continents as well—symbolically so at the UNSECO World Heritage site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where Vikings first reached North America 500 years before Columbus. Make it all the way to the newest northernmost section of the IAT in Uummannaq, Greenland, and you’ll most likely need to travel by dogsled. Follow through to the theoretical conclusion in Morocco and you may need to travel by camel. More than any other footpath, the IAT may be the symbol of the globalism of the new millennium.
When to Go: The season for the IAT is shorter than that for the standard Appalachian Trail and requires ocean crossings, so it is best done in summer or in chunks.
Shortcut: Quebec's Gaspésie National Park represents one of the biggest chunks of wilderness on the Eastern seaboard and a walk on the IAT in its Chic-Choc Mountains puts hikers high above the Saint Lawrence River in the midst of rare woodland Atlantic-Gaspésie caribou.
Insider Tip: The Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge (or Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs), operated by the province of Quebec, offers a first-class respite from nights in shelters and tents, replete with a hot tub and sauna.
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About the Writer
Boulder, Colorado-based Doug Schnitzspahn knows trails. He spent six seasons building and maintaining them while working for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and Idaho (even constructing sections of the Continental Divide Trail featured in the story). He has put his outsoles to the tread of many of these classics in Corsica, Iceland, Quebec, and South America. He is also the editor-in-chief of Elevation Outdoors magazine.