Table Mountain National Park, South Africa
What to Expect: A hidden gem of a trail that’s just a stone’s throw from Cape Town, one of the best cities on the planet
Distance: 4.3 kilometres round trip
To say that Lion’s Head is a hike anyone can do belies the difficulty and danger of a trail that ascends 2,000 feet in just 2.7 miles—not to mention the steep step just beneath the summit of the sandstone bluff, in which a series of chains, metal rungs, and ladders have been installed to help you reach the prominent, bare top.
On the summit, the reward is an incredible vista of Cape Town. It’s a local tradition to climb Lion’s Head during a full moon to take in the pale light reflecting off the waves of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Table Bay on the other, with the lights of Cape Town spread out beneath your feet.
Thrill Factor: Plenty of people do this hike every day, but ascending the chains at the top demand a degree of skill, strength, and fortitude to stay safe.
Easier Option: There is actually an easier, alternate path around the chains to the top of Lion’s Head—less of a thrill, but much safer (especially if you are on a full-moon hike).
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENNY MARTY, ALAMY
Jotunheimen National Park, Norway
What to Expect: A long, steep hike above immaculate lakes and beneath the high mountains in one of Norway’s most famous national parks
Distance: 13 kilometres one-way
Norway’s best cocktail of giant mountains and icy lakes is served up refreshingly cold in Jotunheimen National Park. "Jotunheimen" means “home of the giants” in Norwegian, as it’s home to some of the highest peaks in northern Europe.
The Besseggen Ridge trail follows a steep and rocky ridge that ascends to 3,000 feet above two contrasting lakes: the glacial-fed, emerald-green Gjende lake on one side and the navy-blue Bessvatnet on the other. The eight-mile trail connects Memurubu and Gjendesheim. Though it can be hiked from either direction, or even round trip, the most popular tactic is to catch the morning ferry from Gjendesheim to Memurubu then hike back at your own leisurely pace.
Around 30,000 people come to experience Norway’s most popular hike during its short seasonal window from June to September. But the crowds hardly detract from the experience of hiking through Viking country, in all its ancient myth and natural wonder.
Thrill Factor: It’s a demanding five-to-seven-hour hike one way. Though it doesn’t require technical skills, hikers do need to be in shape. Consider making it more of an adventure by pitching a tent and spending a night atop the ridge.
Easier Option: There is a flatter trail along Gjende lake, which avoids ascending the ridge but also skips out on some of the more dramatic vistas.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE TAYLOR, ALAMY
EL CAMINITO DEL REY (THE KING'S PATHWAY)
El Chorro, Spain
What to Expect: An airy and tenuous man-made pathway traversing a vertical limestone bluff, hundreds of feet above the Guadalhorce River in southern Spain
Distance: Boardwalk: 2.8 kilometres; entire path: 7.7 kilometres
Originally constructed in the early 1900s as a catwalk for hydroelectric workers travelling between Chorro Falls and Gaintanejo Falls, El Caminito del Rey earned its nickname, the “King’s Pathway,” when King Alfonso XIII made the airy trek to open the Conde del Guadalhorce dam.
The three-foot-wide wood and stone path, impossibly cantilevered against a vertical cliff like a rickety piece of scaffolding, fell into disrepair over the years, tempting bold hikers to execute low-level rock climbing manoeuvres to bridge gaps in the walkway—all with a 300-foot drop beneath their feet. Five people died here between 1999 and 2000, earning the trail the reputation of the world’s deadliest walkway. El Caminito del Rey was subsequently closed for repair. It reopened in 2015, far safer but also slightly less vertigo-inducing.
Thrill Factor: Though El Caminito del Rey is no longer a death wish, it’s still a wild walk in a vertical world of cliffs and canyons, high above a turquoise river.
Easier Option: Hike alongside the lakeside beaches of nearby Ardales National Park, or hire a tour guide to explore the prehistoric art in the Ardales Cave, a geologically unique cavern outside of the town of Ardales.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIKO JIMENEZ, ALAMY
LEUKERBAD VIA FERRATA
What to Expect: A demanding climb directly up the 9,652-foot Daubenhorn’s sheer, rocky face provides big exposure—and a full-body workout
Distance: 920 metres of elevation gain
The bridge between hiking and technical rock climbing is the via ferrata, Italian for “iron path,” in which a vertiginous system of metal ladders and hand rails allow ascents of big cliffs in a way that’s accessible to most people, even those without formal climbing experience.
Switzerland’s mighty Daubenhorn lords high above the rolling green valleys of the Valais Alps and the sleepy resort town of Leukerbad. The Daubenhorn can be climbed by way of Switzerland’s longest via ferrata—an adrenaline-inducing experience that takes about eight hours total.
A turnaround point a third of the way up the climb provides a merciful reprieve for those who want a shorter day or who’ve decided they’ve just had enough. From there, the “big” via ferrata continues, with 3 hours of exposed-rock scrambling, tenuous traverses, and arm-pumping climbing up steep ladders with thousands of feet of air beneath your feet.
Thrill Factor: With a harness and a tether that allows you to stay clipped into the metal ladders, you can experience the kind of views and exposure formerly known only to veteran rock climbers.
Easier Option: Consider making the two-hour hike from Leukerbad to the top of Gemmi Pass, a steep hike that gains 900 meters of altitude on a trail that’s well maintained.
Catskill Forest Preserve, New York
What to Expect: Don’t underestimate this stretch across six diminutive summits in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It’s been called by some the hardest hike on the East Coast.
Distance: 29 kilometres
From start to finish, the grueling Devil’s Path exacts pounds of flesh, especially if it’s completed in a single day, an elite challenge sought by strong, fit hikers. The trail crosses five of the Catskill’s 35 High Peaks—those over 3,500 feet—and tests trekkers with loose rock, vertical scrambles, and sheer drops. The entire traverse is typically completed in two days, but there are also options to climb any one of the five peaks along this trail as a single day’s outing.
The native Lenape named this region Onteora, or “The Land in the Sky.” Sure, these peaks may not be the dramatic outcrops of the Rockies, but they don’t give up their summits easily—a backcountry challenge that’s a godsend for being just a three-hour drive from downtown Manhattan.
Thrill Factor: Danger abounds on the deceptively steep and slick Devil’s Path. Wear sticky rubber approach shoes and don’t be surprised to find yourself pawing for protruding roots to use as handholds.
Easier Option: Nearby Overlook Mountain provides all the panoramic views, without any of the burliness, of Devil’s Path.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN P. O'GRADY
Aeolian Islands, Italy
What to Expect: The chance to see lava sputtering from the summit of a perfectly cone-shaped, active volcano in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea just north of Sicily
Distance: 400 metres elevation gain
Stromboli is a paradigm of volcanic architecture. The tiny 4.6-square-mile island boasts a consummate cone-shaped summit that spews fire and magma all day long, and at shockingly regular intervals.
The volcanic belches are regular and predictable enough that hikers can scramble to the 3,034-foot summit and peer into the molten cauldron without much risk. A “Strombolian Eruption” occurs every 20 minutes or so, and has been for the past two millennia.
Major eruptions are the outliers, though they still do occur—the last one scored the sides in 2007, and there was another big blast in 2003. The odds are still in your favour though, and besides: Where else can you stand just 500 feet away from hot, spewing magma?
Thrill Factor: Consider hiking to one of Stromboli’s three active lava craters at night to better witness nature’s greatest fireworks display.
Easier Option: Boat tours depart every night and provide views of the lava from a safer distance out on the water.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGE BROKER/ALAMY
AONACH EAGACH RIDGE
What to Expect: A test of balance and steel along Britain’s most exposed ridge, with stunning views of lakes nestled in the idyllic Scottish Highlands
Distance: 6 miles
Running like a dragon’s backbone through the Scottish Highlands, the Aonach Eagach is the ridge to rule them all. Called the U.K.’s most exposed hike, the Aonach Eagach clambers over two munros (the term for Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet): Meall Dearg (3,127 feet) and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (3,173 feet).
The hike’s crux involves precariously teetering across a thin, rocky spine with the threat of a certain death fall on either side. No rope is required, but there’s no room for error either. The truly dodgy bits are contained to just two of the six miles, however, though memorable shimmies up chimneys and crawls across ledges appear throughout.
You’ll find views of Ben Nevis (4,412 feet), Britain’s tallest peak, on top, while tasty single malts and foamy black beers await in the pubs in the village of Glencoe far below.
Thrill Factor: Surviving the gauntlet that is the Aonach Eagach ridge demands a high proficiency in scrambling and down climbing, as well as the ability to keep a cool head when it matters most. Mountaineers may enjoy the added challenge of full Scottish winter conditions, when ropes, ice axes, and crampons would be mandatory, of course.
Easier Option: The nearby Devil’s Staircase, despite its name, is an easier and safer option: six round-trip miles of hiking for splendid vistas of Glencoe.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WARBURTON-LEE, ALAMY
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
What to Expect: Although you can drive to the summit of Mount Washington in the summer, Huntington Ravine offers a more challenging, and more rewarding, experience.
Distance: 5.8 miles round-trip
A myriad of paths lead to the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire—the Northeast’s tallest (and deadliest) peak—including a road that can be driven in the summer. Yet few summer hikers choose to tackle Huntington Ravine due to its difficult scrambling on steep, slick granite boulders covered in lichen. This single fact makes the trail dangerous in thunder storms, which can tear in quickly in the White Mountains.
With so much rock scrambling, the Huntington Ravine trail can feel more like a rock climb for many hikers. In fact, the trail itself is a popular ice climb in early winter and an extreme backcountry ski descent in early spring.
Still, the challenge of finding a route up a steep, rocky ravine to reach New Hampshire’s apex is an extra special merit badge when it comes to climbing Mount Washington.
Thrill Factor: Mount Washington may be diminutive by Rockies standards, but its height belies its seriousness. Over a hundred people have died here, and some of the highest wind speeds ever clocked on Earth have been recorded on the summit. As a class 3 scramble, Huntington is not for neophytes. Route finding skills and a keen mountain sense are mandatory.
Easier Option: Most hikers opt for the less technical Lion Head trail to the summit. This is also the best descent if—or rather, when—the weather turns.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSE AZEL, AURORA PHOTOS
Owen Stanley Range, Papua New Guinea
What to Expect: A historic multi-day trek through a beautiful, if menacing, jungle
Distance: 60 miles one way
In 1942, the Kokoda Trail, a single-file track through the Owen Stanley Range of Papua New Guinea, was the site of a battle between the Japanese and the Allied (primarily Australian) forces. Today, the trail brings upwards of 3,000 hikers per year, who spend anywhere from three to 12 days completing this jungle thoroughfare—though the Kokoda has also been run in a blistering 16 hours.
The hike itself has many ups and downs, including the summit of Mount Bellamy (7,185 feet). But the real challenge, beyond its length, is the sadistic whims of tropical weather and disease-carrying mosquitoes. Political issues have also been a factor as the local Koiari people have, at times, spontaneously closed the trail in protest of not benefiting from the fees charged to hike it. That said, the huts and indigenous towns along the way are quite welcoming.
Thrill Factor: The risks of backcountry jungle travel demand a type of commitment not found elsewhere. You’d be wise to hire a guide to help you navigate the hostile flora and fauna, and any risks that may arise when passing through local tribal lands.
Easier Option: Loloata Island, outside Port Moresby, provides a more leisurely jungle experience, with snorkelling and diving opportunities aplenty. There’s even a wrecked World War II bomber to satisfy the history buff.
PHOTOGRAPH BY EDWARD REEVES, ALAMY
DRY FORK COYOTE GULCH
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
What to Expect: Nature’s version of an amusement park comes in the form of a series of fun slot canyons that just about anyone can enjoy exploring
Distance: 5 miles round-trip
In Dry Fork, some of Utah’s best slot canyons are also some of its most accessible. Three narrow tributaries—Peek-a-Boo, Spooky, and Brimstone Gulches—all contain mind-bending sandstone canyon walls. The formations are the result of ancient sand dunes being buried, turned to stone, sent back above ground by tectonic uplift, and finally carved by eons of flash floods and wind. That all has given today’s hiker is the opportunity to romp, slide, and squeeze through cracks and wafer-thin slots that are as ancient as time.
Spooky is the real standout, and, like Peek-a-Boo, it’s safe enough for kids. Spooky is a perfect, narrow crack that’s so tight some adults may have to suck in their bellies and turn sideways. Local lore has it that one hiker got stuck for days until his waist size dropped enough to permit him an escape.
Thrill Factor: Brimstone Gulch is dark and gloomy and the most dangerous of the three slots; however, the threat of flash floods in any slot canyon must be taken very seriously.
Easier Option: If tight squeezes are not your thing, you can hike out to a swimming hole beneath a waterfall at Calf Creek Falls, one of the most enchanting areas of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IRA BLOCK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
BLACK HOLE OF WHITE CANYON
What to Expect: An adventurous swim through the cold, murky waters of a dark and memorable flume
Distance: 5 miles
Adventure awaits in the Black Hole of White Canyon. The name of the game here is to follow the water downstream and figure out how to safely bypass a series of obstacles, including dropping down through chimneys of rock.
As you continue to descend down into the earth, the walls grow darker and twist hauntingly—you’ve now arrived at the Black Hole. Over 50 feet above you, you may see trees wedged into upper reaches of the canyon, a testament to the awesome size and power of the Colorado Plateau’s seasonal flash floods.
Though it’s necessary to be aware of the threat of flash floods, the best way to admire the floodwaters’ craftsmanship that has carved out this enchanting canyon is still while bobbing in the water.
A wet suit is recommended in all but the hottest conditions.
Thrill Factor: Slot canyons change from season to season as floods deposit new obstacles to be bypassed. A strong love of the unknown and a little ingenuity will go far down there.
Easier Option: A great beginner slot canyon is the nine-mile Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon loop in the San Rafael Swell, not too far from White Canyon. They offer up a real slot canyon experience with no technical obstacles or swims.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF DIENER, AURORA PHOTOS
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana
What to Expect: A demanding backcountry hike to Montana’s highest point that requires a keen mountain sense, a high tolerance for exposure, and the ability to bust out a few technical moves
Distance: 19.4 miles round-trip, with an 8,208-foot elevation gain
You don’t need to travel to the Himalaya to experience true alpine isolation. In fact, the 12,807-foot Granite Peak in Montana is as remote and demanding as any international expedition-worthy summit. With a 10 to 20 percent success rate (mostly due to weather), Granite Peak is an impressive Lower 48 summit trophy worth chasing.
Depending on whom you ask, the ascent could be characterised as anything from a Class 3 scramble to a 5.7 rock climb. You may not need a rope, but it’d be wise to bring one and know how to use it.
Dizzying exposure near the summit augments the out-there feeling as the big, bad Beartooth mountains spread out in all directions. Once on top, you’ll be about as far from civilisation as you can get.
Thrill Factor: Steep, technical sections and capricious, fast-moving weather patterns thwart many Granite Peak aspirants. But when everything goes right, there’s no greater joy than standing atop of the aptly named Treasure State.
Easier Option: The neighbouring Froze-to-Death Mountain (11,765 feet) offers up a fantastic view of Granite Peak in all its glory.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM LAMAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
CRYPT LAKE TRAIL
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
What to Expect: This hike just might have it all: A boat-accessed trailhead, four spectacular waterfalls, an ominous 60-foot tunnel through a mountain, and an end point at a beautiful lake.
Distance: 10.8 miles round-trip
The Crypt Lake Trail, despite its macabre name, contains all the elements of a world-class adventure. Somehow the 5.4-mile hike to Crypt Lake, which gains a total of 2,300 feet, goes by quickly as you bypass four long, elegant waterfalls, cascading 600 feet down the sedimentary rock walls of the sheer peaks. You will also have to balance along a narrow ledge (the park has affixed a cable handrail if you need it) and scurry up a metal ladder via ferrata style.
The most memorable moment, perhaps, is the 60-foot crawl through a tiny tunnel in the mountain to reach the other side. The payoff is the chill picnic awaiting you beside a peaceful alpine lake.
Thrill Factor: The danger of a long ledge traverse is mitigated thanks to an In-Situ steel cable handhold, but the thrills and chills of the Crypt Trail are present throughout.
Easier Option: Avoid the exposure and length of the Crypt, and check out the 6.5-mile roundtrip jaunt to Wall Lake.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN SYLVESTER, ALAMY
Pacaya Volcano National Park, Antigua, Guatemala
What to Expect: Roll the dice and hike to the summit of a smouldering, active volcano to see one of nature’s greatest shows.
Distance: 3.2 miles round-trip
Just 20 miles outside the metropolis of Guatemala City, 8,373-foot Pacaya is a consistently moody volcano. Pacaya first blew 23,000 years ago and it’s showed no signs of being done. After a relatively brief century of dormancy, Pacaya awoke in 1965 and it has been sputtering ash and lava ever since. An eruption in 2014 sent ash raining down on Guatemala City, Antigua, and Escuintla.
Though safety could never be guaranteed on an active volcano, tour operators run trips into the caldera. Some even let you camp out overnight, where you can watch pyrotechnics from your tent window and roast marshmallows over fumaroles or hot lava. It’s a quick and easy hike, but steep and at elevation so you may breathe heavy on the way up. You’ll certainly exhale once you get there and see rivers of molten magma at your feet.
Thrill Factor: When you’re that close to Pacaya’s active crater, you’re definitely in the proverbial dragon’s den. The treasure is getting to see one of nature’s most tremendous forces up close. Tug the dragon’s tail, then get out of there. At the very least, check current volcanic monitoring here.
Easier Option: Cerro de la Cruz offers vistas of Antigua and is a safe option due to the presence of nearby police to protect against robberies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDRES VALENCIA, AURORA
Machu Picchu, Peru
What to Expect: Machu Picchu is world famous, but it’s far from adventurous and not that scary. Huayna Picchu is.
Distance: 1,181 feet of elevation gain
Machu Picchu needs no introduction. The still-sacred, ancient Incan citadel is a famous UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most significant archaeological sites on the planet.
Despite its lofty reputation, the actual hike to Machu Picchu is not all that thrilling. You may wheeze from the elevation and the navigation of thousands of stone steps, but it won’t inspire much fear.
Huayna Picchu will.
The 8,924-foot pyramid peak rises over 1,000 feet above Machu Picchu and requires a sketchy scramble that includes exposed ledges, stepping onto rocks that are sticking out of the cliff with only the abyss below, cable handholds, and slippery stone staircases. But for the view above the ruins and the surrounding Andes, it’s totally worth it.
Thrill Factor: The tight, steep, and slippery trail could easily result in a deadly fall, but fortunately there are only 400 people allowed to climb Huayna Picchu per day, cutting down on the congestion a bit.
Easier Option: There are plenty of extraordinary hikes leading up to Machu Picchu, but consider the lesser known Ancascocha Trail.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ETHAN WELTY, AURORA
Huashan National Park, China
What to Expect: Combine the terror of teetering along creaky high-rise scaffolding with the serenity of an ancient Taoist mountain wilderness.
Distance: 9.3 miles
Ascending Huashan, one of China’s Five Great Mountains, is a walk into the spiritual history of China itself. For millennia—before the cable cars and hordes of tourists who swarm along many different paths—the way up Huashan was supposed to be difficult, testing the pilgrim who wished to find Tao, or The Way.
Huashan is actually a massif containing five individuals summits, the highest of which is the 7,087-foot South Peak.
The Chang Kong Zhan Dao (or “Plank Road in the Sky”) is the boldest way to access the South Peak. It’s a loony, fun ride of ladders, foot-wide wooden boards that don’t inspire much confidence, cables, and steps hacked into the cliff—all hanging in the sky.
Thrill Factor: You can rent via ferrata-type gear to protect yourself as you navigate the Chang Kong Zhan Dao, but even so, it is a truly dangerous hike. You could always consider taking the new, safer, and far more traditional trail to the summit of South Peak—but what fun would that be?
Easier Option: Huashan’s five summits provide options for everyone, from cable cars to North Peak and West Peak, and an easy hike up to East Peak—an ideal location for doing sun salutations at dawn.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STUDIO LASKA/GETTY IMAGES
KAKUM CANOPY WALK
Kakum National Park, Ghana
What to Expect: A tour of one of Africa’s most biodiverse tropical jungle canopies via a unique network of suspension bridges strung a hundred feet from the ground between the trees.
Distance: 1,150 feet
In Ghana’s Kakum National Park, African forest elephants tramp through the underbrush. Civets and leopards hunt in the dark of night. Bongos and little duikers browse between the trees. The canopy is home to colobus and endangered Roloway monkeys, and over 250 bird species and 500 butterfly species flit through the high branches.
The best way to check out this vibrant ecology? Take a hike in the sky.
A series of hanging bridges and floating nets, strung a hundred feet above the forest floor, provide ecotourists up-close access to a canopy formerly only reserved for climbers. Keys to actually seeing wildlife? Being lucky and staying quiet.
Thrill Factor: This is one of the most unique and fun ways to see a rainforest—just as long as you’re not afraid of heights.
Easier Option: Take a ground-level walk with a guide from the visitor centre. Or head over to the Monkey Forest Resort, a nearby private sanctuary, to be guaranteed a glimpse of native fauna.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WIETSE MICHIELS, ALAMY
LOW’S PEAK VIA FERRATA
Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia
What to Expect: Designed with the beginner in mind, Asia’s first via ferrata is easily the most fun path to the summit of Malaysia’s highest peak—even if it isn’t the easiest way.
Distance: 1,198 feet of elevation gain
Mount Kinabalu (or Low’s Peak) is not just the highest point in Malaysia, it also ranks 20th on the list of mountains with the most prominence—it rises to an altitude of 13,435 feet straight from sea level, a similar prominence to Mount Rainier and K2.
The stunning granite mountain, with its high altitude and close proximity to the Equator, supports one of the highest concentrations of endemic plant life on the planet, including the world’s highest concentration of wild orchids.
Hiking this peak is grueling no matter how you slice it, but certainly the most fun way to the top is the via ferrata, which tackles sheer cliffs, crosses swaying suspension bridges, and requires steely nerves to climb hand over hand on metal rungs drilled into the rock face, with nothing but open air all around.
Thrill Factor: This via ferrata was built with beginners in mind, but even seasoned rock climbers will find themselves challenged and engaged by the exposure and altitude. Mountain Torq runs tours and requires participants to be at least 10 years old.
Easier Option: Consider hiking to the top the old-fashioned way. Walk to the Laban Rata lodge at 10,735 feet and acclimatise. From there, it’s another 2,700 vertical feet up the Summit Trail to the top.
PHOTOGRAPH ROBERT HARDING/ALAMY
Zanskar River Valley, India
What to Expect: An incredible Himalayan journey up a frozen river to reach inaccessible spiritual villages in the middle of winter
Distance: 46.6 miles round-trip
When winter takes hold of the Ladakh, or “Land of High Passes,” region of India, there’s only one way to access the high, Himalayan villages of the Zanskar Valley—walking down a deep, dark gorge on the frozen ice of the Zanskar River itself.
Tour companies offer nine-day to three-week trips upriver to the Buddhist monastery of Karsha in February, when the river is most solidly frozen.
Along the way, trekkers sleep in caves, just like local porters have for centuries. It’s a committing and bone-chilling trip—one that dishes up intangible rewards.
Thrill Factor: Trekking through the Himalaya is demanding enough, but adding in the complexity and hazards of mid-winter travel make the Chadar Trek a memorable if demanding, experience.
Easier Option: Consider hiking the Zanskar Valley in the summer. A three-week trek across 10 mountain passes from the monastery at Lamayuru to the village of Darcha has its own challenges but doesn’t present the frozen dangers of the Chadar.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN STEVENSON, AURORA