What turns a humble hike into something bucket list-worthy? Location, location, location. Some of the best hiking trails in the world are destinations in and of themselves.
From sandy desert basins to moss-draped mountain peaks, these hiking trails are extreme in unique ways that deliver unparalleled beauty. They’re also worth conquering just to say you did.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
The highest mountain in Africa also happens to be a dormant volcano with three peaks, five ecosystems (from desert to snow) and a glacier that sits over 16,000 feet above sea level. Despite Mount Kilimanjaro’s extremes, it’s conquerable for non-expert hikers if you’re in reasonably good shape — on one condition.
Kilimanjaro’s hiking trails need to be walked slowly in order to avoid the altitude sickness that prevents more than half of its yearly visitors from making it to the peak. Getting to the summit will still be hard (and takes five days, minimum) but going with a local guide and taking your time to spot wildlife and camp along the way will ensure you get the full experience. G Adventures offers four different routes to the summit, and can get you in and out in as little as seven days.
Peru’s Inca Trail is one of the best hiking trails in the world, making Machu Picchu overcrowded to the point of feeling like a theme park. Did you know the Lost City of the Incas has its own Wi-Fi and app? For a more remote hike that’ll still mean seeing Machu Picchu from a distance, Choquequirao comes with more bragging rights and a unique view of ancient Incan wonders.
A lost city of its own, Choquequirao is accessible via a seven-day, 100-mile hike that’s said to be five times harder than the Inca Trail. High in the Andes and less-explored than Machu Picchu, Choquequirao might not always be this way: It could soon have a cable car or bridge connecting it to Machu Picchu — an effort by the local government aimed at relieving some Inca Trail foot traffic. Get there before that happens if you want to see untouched ruins and Machu Picchu from above — without crowds in the way.
The Back Route to Petra, Jordan
Another lost city that draws a surprising number of crowds, Petra’s crowded Treasury is easier to appreciate after a grueling hike through the remote Petra Basin from Little Petra — a smaller pocket of sandstone-carved ancient homes and tombs 6 miles from the main drag. This route to Petra’s hidden Monastery, which is even bigger than the Treasury, avoids the tourist-clogged steps by arriving from the other direction for an easier down-step entrance into Petra that will also allow you to fit in more hiking.
Only a tour guide will be able to get you safely through the Petra Basin’s meandering canyon trails and into Petra from the rear. Intrepid Travel’s Trek Jordan eight-day itinerary includes both Petra’s main drag and a guided hike through the back route to Petra. Don’t miss the steep climb to see the Treasury from above, and then head to the ancient Nabatean city’s High Place of Sacrifice for a sprawling view of the Lost City’s caves and decorated tombs.
Pennine Way, United Kingdom
Some of the best hiking trails in the world sit in the heart of England on the Pennine Way, a rugged 268-mile stretch that meanders over mountains, beside waterfalls and past friendly pubs and cheese farms where you can stop for a pint or a bite.
High Cup Nick’s far-flung countryside views and High Force waterfall’s rapids are among the many wonders along this backbone of England — and extremes you can enjoy between stops in cozy English villages like Cowling and Greenhead.
Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim
Seeing the Grand Canyon without the crowds isn’t easy, but it’s possible if you’re willing to descend and climb its best hiking trails for uninterrupted views of the Colorado River and Arizona’s arid desertscapes. The Grand Canyon is 10 miles from rim to rim as the crow flies, but the rim-to-rim trek into and out of the basin is a lot longer to conquer on foot.
The Grand Canyon’s North Rim to South Rim hike heads 14 miles downhill into the chasm if you start from the North, from which point you’ll then ascend 4,500 feet on a 10-mile hike to the South Rim along one of two trail options — Bright Angel or South Kaibab. The 24-mile trek can be done in as little as a day, but you might want to take a few for the chance to fully take in the scenery with a stay at Phantom Ranch, or to backpack and camp under the stars (to camp, you may need a permit).
Te Araroa Trail, New Zealand
Walk the length of New Zealand — both the North and South Islands — on a trail that takes 50 to 80 days per island to complete if you dare tackle the full 1,800 miles. Te Araroa has a lot to choose from though, meaning you can conquer a months-long trip, plan for a several-days-long adventure, or take it slow on a family-friendly day hike.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most popular day trip for its aqua-colored Emerald Lakes and moon-like volcanic craters. Multi-day walks like the East Ahuriri Track can take as little as two days, meandering through beech forests, valleys, and across rivers for a bite-sized dose of New Zealand’s mesmerizing natural scenery. The Te Araroa Trail’s website offers up many recommended multi-day or single-day trails.
Great Ocean Walk, Australia
Not only is it one of the best hikes in the world, Australia’s Great Ocean Walk is also the best way to see Victoria’s coastal wonders — like Castle Cove, Wreck Beach and the 12 Apostles — in one adventure. Spot shipwreck anchors, towering rock formations and glowing sunsets from Great Ocean Walk’s 62-mile stretch along the southern coast. The hike is recommended to be done over eight days, and with the help of audio guides available for free download online (for both iOS and Android) you won’t miss a step of the history and nature around you.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia
Located near South America’s southernmost tip, Torres del Paine National Park is a vast expanse of dry tundra, blue glaciers, snow-capped mountains and some of the best hiking trails in the world. A lengthy Patagonian trek in this national park will test your limits, and is best done with a local guide.
If you want to thrive on your Patagonia experience rather than just survive, REI Adventures offers Chile and Argentina experiences ranging from luxe glamping to voluntourism for a vast array of ways to see Torres del Paine.
Kumano Kodo, Japan
A network of ancient pilgrimage routes, Kumano Kodo is one of the world’s best hikes, and an up-close way to see Japan’s pagodas and lush mountains. Kii Hanto is the biggest peninsula on Japan, yet it’s far off the tourist track. Reward long hikes up forest slopes and mossy stairways with relaxing stays at ryokan, or Japanese inns run by local families, where you can enjoy tea and a soft futon bed to rest your feet after spotting shrines and wildlife on the 8- to 14-mile treks.