These 10 Hiking Trails Will Blow Your Mind

Top experts—from trail runners to CEOs to beloved authors—reveal the trails that fuel their dreams.

TE ARAROA TRAIL IN NEW ZEALAND

Hiker: Dan Ransom, filmmaker

In His Words: What puts the Te Araroa on the top of my dream list is the variety. New Zealand is famous for its diverse landscapes, and the Te Araroa links close to 3,219 kilometres of coastal sand, alpine ridges, and jungle bushwhacks traversing national parks and farmland and winding past volcanoes. After bagging the Triple Crown of long trails in the U.S., the Te Araroa would be the obvious target for that next big thru-hike.

Distance: 3,000 kilometres 

Why You Should Go: Maori for “the long pathway,” the Te Araroa, which is split into 160 tracks and typically takes five months to finish, cuts through the heart of New Zealand from Cape Reinga at the North Island’s tip to Bluff on the South Island’s edge. Amble along bays flanking the South Island’s Queen Charlotte Track, explore river valleys bursting with Maori culture in the North Island’s Whanganui National Park, tramp over slopes of the active Tongariro volcano, or meander through the otherworldly Takitimu Forest.

When to Go: October through April

About Ransom: Landscape photographer, adventurer, and filmmaker Dan Ransom is well known for his striking work on Last of the Great Unknown, a documentary detailing the escapades of explorers Rich Rudow and Todd Martin as they attempt numerous technical first-descents of slots in the Grand Canyon. In addition to exploring slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau, this Utah resident enjoys long backpacking trips in the Utah’s Uinta Mountains and Wyoming’s Wind River Range. When he’s not out adventuring, he uses words, videos, images, and graphics to tell stories for a variety of clients.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING/ALAMY

TOUR DU MONT BLANC IN FRANCE, ITALY, AND SWITZERLAND


Hiker: Topher Gaylord, ultrarunner, Under Armour SVP/GM Outdoor Group

In His Words: Circling Mont Blanc—the rooftop of Western Europe—is one of the most special hiking experiences in the world as you travel through three different countries and over several mountains passes with some of Europe’s most dramatic glaciers on display. You can soak it in and take your time over seven to 10 days or fast pack in three days. No matter how you choose to do it, it is an adventure of a lifetime!

Length: Around 160 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Discover the Alps and circumnavigate the Mont Blanc massif—composed of Mont Blanc (4,810 metres) and a flank of impressive peaks and glaciers—by following a beloved long-distance trail that changes constantly. At times it meanders through meadows teeming with blossoms; at others it teeters on spine-tingling sections of exposed rock.

With the highest peak in Western Europe looming overhead, you touch three countries, descend into seven different valleys, and top out on a number of high points including the Col des Fours, France, and the Fenêtre d'Arpette, Switzerland (2,584 metres). Huts perched along the way allow you to enjoy comfortable nights without having to carry a tent or food.

During the day, take a break from walking to relish local delicacies (think fondue, wine, homemade bread, and slices of local cheese) in charming villages. Many complete the trail in 10 days, but taking it slow allows for maximum enjoyment or side trips, including a climb of Mont Blanc itself.

When to Go: Summer, when huts are open and snow won’t block your progress

About Gaylord: Equal parts athlete and exec, industry veteran and former Mountain Hardwear President Topher Gaylord now heads up Under Armour’s outdoor group. An accomplished skier, climber, and windsurfer, Gaylord is a top ultrarunner with a long list of accomplishments that includes a second-place finish in the first North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in 2003, which he has run eight times since, and top finishes in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Miwok 100K Trail Race.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MENNO BOERMANS, AURORA

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL IN CALIFORNIA, OREGON, AND WASHINGTON

Hiker: Scott Jurek, ultrarunning champion

In His Words: Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has been a lifelong dream. The sheer beauty and variety of the great Pacific mountain ranges along with the journey of a long thru-hike traversing the U.S. north to south is the main allure. While I have many trails on my list all over the world, exploring my own country ranks highest.

Length: 4,265 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) begins with a tramp through the hot dry Mojave, ends in the lush mountains of British Columbia’s E.C. Manning Provincial Park, and tackles a series of extremes in between, including climbing 13,153-foot Forester Pass between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and exploring the Cascade volcanoes via Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Weather, logistics, and long stretches without towns make this challenging to tackle in one fell swoop, but with planning and prep, it’s a doable task. Nature rewards those who persevere with a majestic voyage through seven national parks and a lifetime of national forests, state parks, and wilderness areas.

When to Go: To avoid hiking on snow-covered slopes in the Sierra and Cascades, most hikers begin on the Mexican border in April. Ideally, hikers finish by October to avoid new snow.

About Jurek: Having earned living legend status by winning nearly all of ultrarunning’s top events—including the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135, and the Western States 100 (which he won a record seven times in a row)—Scott Jurek wowed the running world again in 2015 by averaging nearly 80 kilometres a day over 46 days to set a speed record on the 3,523-kilometre Appalachian Trail. His bestselling memoir, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, details how his 100 percent plant-based diet turned him into an endurance machine.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE SCHIRF, AURORA

EVEREST BASE CAMP TREK IN NEPAL

Hiker: Jim Whittaker, mountaineer

In His Words: I would recommend the trek to Everest Base Camp to anybody. The people are incredible, the scenery can't be beaten, and you get to take a look at Everest or Chomolungma, the "Goddess Mother of the World." It's spectacular just to see the highest point on planet Earth. In 1963, it was a 298-kilometre trip. These days you can start by flying into Lukla, a village at 2,743 metres with a slanted airstrip that makes for a hell of a takeoff and landing. In May, the rhododendrons are in bloom with orchids growing in them. There are guesthouses on the way up. You can get a beer. There are wastebaskets on the trail. They have done a nice job of cleaning it up. I made the trek to Everest Base Camp last year but had to turn back near the camp due to intestinal difficulties. I went 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary of the climb with Nawang Gombu Sherpa, who summited with Whittaker in 1963, and our families. That is when my son Leif decided he wanted to climb it. Who knows, I might wander up there again.

Length: About 64 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Though increasingly popular, this is still a remarkable bucket list trip that will move your heart and touch your soul. As you pass through the heart of the Khumbu region, travelling in the shadow of jagged, snowcapped peaks—many of the highest on Earth—all thoughts of the outside world disappear.

Immerse yourself in local culture, experience the village of Namche Bazaar, and visit the famed Buddhist monastery of Pangboche before reaching base camp (5,380 metres), where Everest towers over 3,353 metres above. A day hike to Kala Pattar (5,517 metres) offers an unobstructed look at the fabled Khumbu Ice Fall and Everest's summit.

Though many return the way they came, making a loop by heading up and over Cho la Pass reveals the breathtaking and less crowded Gokyo Valley.

When to Go: March to May (before the monsoons move in) and September to November (after monsoon season)

About Whittaker: On May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. Before climbing to the top of the world, Whittaker was already a proficient mountaineer with many summits in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He led the first successful American summit of 8,612 metres K2—the world's second highest mountain and a more difficult climb than Everest—in 1978 and the 1990 Everest Peace Climb, which included American, Soviet, and Chinese mountaineers who helped remove two tonnes of trash from the mountain.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL ADDAMS, AURORA

OVERLAND TRACK IN TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA

Hiker: Cheryl Strayed, author

In Her Words: The Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia, is a 62- to 80-kilometre-long trail (depending on where you finish) that goes through some of the wildest and most beautiful natural terrain on the planet (or so I hear). The trail is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Plus, it's in Tasmania! I've always wanted to go there.

Length: 64 kilometres (80 kilometres with the hike around Lake St. Clair)

Why You Should Go: While exploring the World Heritage-listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, you’ll experience solitude, untouched terrain, and an array of landscapes including highland mountains, rain forest, alpine lakes, and eucalyptus groves. Plus, because the wombat, platypus, and Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet, call Australia’s southern island state home, this area is a biodiversity hotspot offering countless opportunities for watching wildlife.

Many hikers take six days to savour the trail, but itineraries vary since the presence of huts means you can go light; plus, side-trip options abound. Two favourite add-ons: scrambling up Tasmania’s highest peak, 1,617-metre Mount Ossa, and hiking around Lake St. Clair—Australia’s deepest lake—to end the hike instead of riding a ferry across to the finish.

When to Go: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife requires hikers to make reservations and travel north to south during the prime season of October 1 and May 31. Winter weather can be rough, but the trail is open.

About Strayed: Cheryl Strayed, now an accomplished speaker and writer, started out as the most unlikely hiker in this group. At age 22, she lost her 45-year-old mom to cancer, an event that set her on a dark path of heroin use, divorce, and promiscuity. Unable to cope, Strayed escaped to the Pacific Crest Trail, and even though she’d never really backpacked before, she pushed on from California to Oregon to complete a 94-day, 1,100-plus-mile exploration. She shared the details of her physical, emotional, and spiritual journey in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, an inspirational tale that speaks to so many of us who have found peace, beauty, and ourselves by spending time in nature.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHNATHAN AMPERSAND ESPER, AURORA

FRANCONIA RIDGE LOOP/TRAVERSE, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Hiker: Jonathan Waterman, author, photographer, adventurer, and activist

In His Words: The Franconia Ridge knife-edge in New Hampshire is not technical—and I can think of many steeper knife-edge trails where a slip equals a quick ride to eternity. But once on top, if you catch the trail in isolation early or late in the year, its miniaturised flowers and intricately placed stone steps (to keep you from trampling the fragile flowers) offer a glimpse of alpine worlds otherwise found far away from the well-trammeled White Mountains. As a boy, I knew of no headier experience than this trail.

Length: About 14 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Despite its popularity (up to 700 hikers a day, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), this iconic hike in the White Mountains—which gets to the point by climbing 3,480 feet in four miles—offers a respite from the everyday.

Truly a rite of passage for explorers, this journey stays well above treeline for 4.3 kilometres as you traverse 1,603-metre Mount Lafayette, 1,551-metre Mount Lincoln, and 1,061-metre Little Haystack on narrow, rocky Franconia Ridge. Depending on the weather’s whimsy, this section can be full of jaw-dropping panoramas and breaks to enjoy tiny tundra wildflowers or it can require a rapid retreat from punishing winds and lightning. Either way, this is a quintessential eastern U.S. adventure.

When to Go: Midweek, especially in fall, when crowds have abated and autumn foliage is peaking

About Waterman: Award-winning writer, photographer, and filmmaker Jonathan Waterman’s career began as a ranger on Denali, North America’s highest peak. Known largely for exploring the north, including paddling the Northwest Passage, Waterman shifted focus to Southwest rivers when he and photographer Pete McBride followed the Colorado River from source to sea and documented the sad state of the waterway in two books (Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River), a film, and a National Geographic wall map. Waterman's latest book is Northern Exposures: An Adventuring Career in Stories and Images.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KYLE SPARKS, AURORA

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, CALIFORNIA, OREGON, AND WASHINGTON

Hiker: Andrew Skurka, long-distance hiking machine, guide, and writer

In His Words: The John Muir Trail is an overcrowded highway and it too often goes low when the best terrain is almost always high. The Sierra High Route is not necessarily more stunning than the other big routes I've done, but it's certainly more concentrated, putting the effort- and time-to-reward ratios off the charts. While the Colorado Rockies may be home for me, the High Sierra is the most majestic and rugged mountain range in the Lower 48.

Length: 314 kilometres 

Why You Should Go: Many of Skurka’s biggest accomplishments are out of reach for mere mortals. Not the case for this route, a challenging tour of all the best California’s High Sierra has to offer, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, John Muir Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument, and Yosemite National Park.

Shrewd route-finding skills are required since more than half of this escapade scrambles over peaks and ridgelines sans trails. Many hikers choose to tackle this five-segment route in chunks over several separate trips, though Skurka and ultrarunner Buzz Burrell cranked it out in just eight days and four hours.

When to Go: Summer or early fall, after the snows have melted and before they begin again

About Skurka: An accomplished adventure athlete, speaker, guide, and writer, Andrew Skurka helped define light and fast backcountry travel with a number of solo long-distance backpacking trips, most remarkably the 4,700-mile, six-month Alaska-Yukon Expedition; the 12,552-kilometre, 11-month Sea-to-Sea Route; and the 11,064-kilometre Great Western Loop, which took him seven months.

Named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2007, this author of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide leads trips in which he shares his knowledge with those interested in learning about backpacking gear and skills. 

PHOTOGRAPH BY RACHID DAHNOUN, AURORA

DOSEWALLIPS TO LAKE QUINAULT IN OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON

Hiker: Sally Jewell, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and former CEO of REI

In Her Words: I first hiked this route at age 12 with a group of children and a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Black. My husband, daughter, and I did the hike a few summers ago. The trail goes between a beautiful temperate rain forest and rhododendron grove near Hood Canal at sea level, through beautiful alpine meadows to the snowfields of Anderson Pass, and into Enchanted Valley—home to black bears and elk. It continues along rushing Graves Creek, flows into the Quinault River, and then pours into Lake Quinault. Be prepared for wildlife, wildflowers, history, serenity, and a comfortable, three-day backpack—with a bear canister for food, of course!

Length: 55 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Washington's Olympic Peninsula, characterised by glacier-capped peaks and verdant rain forests, is one of the wildest, most isolated spots in the Lower 48. Extra effort and a willingness to brave the crazy and wet weather are required, but this exploit, which winds through lush trees and flower-strewn alpine meadows in the southern part of the park, makes it worth it.

Once there, you’ll understand why the former Secretary of the Interior would hold the Enchanted Valley so close to her heart: It’s exactly the sort of pristine wilderness the National Park Service works to protect.

When to Go: July through the end of September, though expect rain any time of year

About Jewell: Sally Jewell, an avid rock climber, skier, paddler, and mountaineer—with seven summits of Rainier and one of Antarctica’s Vinson Massif under her belt—served as the 51st U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 2013 until 2016. Schooled as a mechanical engineer, Jewell’s varied professional experience included time in the oil and banking industries before she stepped in as president and CEO of REI. Jewell’s ability to balance her work alongside conservation achievements won her the Audubon Rachel Carson Award.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL HANSON, AURORA

CARIBOU TRACKS IN GATES OF THE ARCTIC NATIONAL PARK AND ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, ALASKA

Hiker: Terry Tempest Williams, author and environmental activist

In Her Words: The trail I dream of walking? Any caribou trail in Gates of the Arctic National Park or Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can hear their clicking ankles on the tundra, and I imagine walking behind them in silence in that vast expanse of wilderness.

Length: The caribou migrate 193 to 644 kilometres

Why You Should Go: Witness a true wildlife wonder as massive herds of caribou move en masse across Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which covers 8.4 million acres in the Brooks Range just above the Arctic Circle, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a hotly debated 19.6-million-acre wilderness known for its abundance of both oil and caribou.

Caribou use ANWR’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain as a calving ground, but oil exploration and drilling threaten to disrupt this ecologically fragile area. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that Congress federally designate the coastal plain as wilderness based on its extraordinary value and pristine conditions—a recommendation Congress has yet to act upon to ensure long-term protection.

Outfitters offer guided trips that allow you to hike along with caribou as they migrate in ANWR or Gates of the Arctic, which has no drilling conflict.

When to Go: Spring and fall, when the caribou undertake their great migrations

About Williams: An activist and author, Terry Tempest Williams writes to give voice to wild places and the animals and people who call them home. Her titles include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and most recently, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. Her conservation work has earned a number of awards, and in 2015, she and her husband, Brooke, purchased Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases in Utah as conservation buyers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DESIGN PICS/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

LONG RANGE TRAVERSE IN NEWFOUNDLAND, CANADA

Hiker: Peter Potterfield, author and adventurer

In His Words: I’m a pretty jaded guy, but I would go with the Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland. The hike is in the Long Range Mountains near the Gulf of St. Lawrence along Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, with cliffs nearly the height of El Capitan that tower above the sea. To follow the crest makes an unforgettable journey from the fjord of Western Brook Pond to Gros Morne Mountain, one of the highest in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a route you have to earn: 40 kilometres by map and compass (there are no trails here) through an impressive wilderness populated mostly by moose and caribou—but not Homo sapiens. The payoff is genuine solitude, pristine camps, and the joy of travelling untrammelled backcountry in Canada’s most out-there province.

Length: Nearly 40 kilometres 

Why You Should Go: Bring solid navigation skills for this rugged, unmarked backcountry route that romps across a vast expanse of mountains in Gros Morne National Park. Every bend reveals another wonder: blue water sparkles from coastal fjords, granite cliffs tower overhead, animal paths lead to hidden lakes, and spruce groves harbour five designated wilderness campsites, each placed a day’s walk apart.

Your final day culminates with the expedition’s literal and figurative high point, Gros Morne Mountain, a 806-metre granite dome that, as Newfoundland’s second highest peak, enjoys a perch high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

When to Go: Mid-June through September; hikers must obtain permits through Parks Canada

About Potterfield: An award-winning journalist with more time on the trail than most, Peter Potterfield has written more than a dozen books on outdoor adventure, including In the Zone, Classic Hikes of the World, and Classic Hikes of North America. A contributor to Outside, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, and other publications, Potterfield played a major role in advancing online adventure reporting as editor of MountainZone.com and GreatOutdoors.com, where he writes a regular column called Wilderness Notes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK GOODREAU, ALAMY

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