Over the past decade, author Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles over six continents to research this list. He here tells us his picks for the world’s 15 best hikes, including Patagonia, Tasmania, Newfoundland, and Petra. Read more in his best-selling book Classic Hikes of the World or his forthcoming book Classic Hikes of North America (to be released in 2012).
1. GRAND CANYON HIKE, Arizona. Rim to Rim to Rim
Round-Trip: 44 miles, 4 to 6 days
When to Go: Everybody does this hike in September to October or April to May, so go in March or November for a more contemplative experience.
Any walk in the Grand Canyon is going to rate pretty high on the Richter scale of hikes, but this route shows you both rims and the river, offers different trails in and out, and gives you enough time within one of the greatest features on Earth to actually savor the majesty of the natural architecture. Time travel through the multicolored layer cake of the Colorado Plateau for two billion years’ worth of geology, from the Kaibab limestone at the rim to the Vishnu complex at the river, all on good “corridor” trails with known water sources and pleasant camps.
Insider Tip: Bomb down from the South Rim via the uber-direct South Kaibab Trail to cross the Colorado River on the Black Bridge and camp at Bright Angel camp. Then ascend through the Box, the inner heart of the canyon, up to Cottonwood Camp and the remote North Rim. On the return trek, cross the Colorado on the Silver Bridge and ascend to the South Rim through Indian Garden via the Bright Angel Trail, better suited for uphill travel.
2. EVEREST BASE CAMP TREK, Nepal – Lukla to Everest Base Camp
Round-Trip: 70 miles, 16 days
When to Go: Pre-monsoon (March or April) gives you the rhododendrons in bloom and lots of climber action, but post-monsoon (November) gives you drier weather. Go with guide services that use local Sherpa guides, cooks, and porters—it’s part of the experience.
Arguably the greatest of all high-mountain journeys, this stroll through Nepal’s Khumbu district lets you see three of the highest peaks on Earth (Everest, Lhotse, and Lhotse Sar) in one glance—and dozens more Himalayan giants along the way. A favorite is the view from Thyangboche, called by renowned mountain explorer W.H. Tillman the “greatest view in the world.” But it’s the deep immersion in the Sherpas’ Buddhist culture that will bring you back for the friendly villages, the monasteries, and the polyglot scene of world travelers who come for the high-octane pilgrimage to Everest.
Insider Tip: Go slow on the way up. Healthy hikers could cover 35 miles in two days, but the need to acclimatize means you’ll take ten days on the trek in to Everest, but only three on the trek out. The enforced downtime allows you to savor the experience—and the culture of people who live there.
3. FITZ ROY TREK, Patagonia, Argentina – El Chaltén to Laguna Torre to Poincenot Camp to Laguna Eléctrico
Round-Trip: 36 miles, 4 to 7 days
When to Go: February to March to avoid the crowds of midsummer and enjoy stable fall weather when the infamous Patagonian winds abate
Hike among Argentina’s fabled Fitz Roy Massif, the iconic ridge where the peaks of Poincenot, St. Exupery, and 11,073-foot Fitz Roy itself rise out of the steppes of Patagonia like a vision. This grand tour gives you three views of Fitz at sunrise, with Cerro Torre and Marconi Pass thrown in for good measure. This ramble through Delaware-size Los Glaciares National Park takes you from gnarled, spooky beech forests and open plains to glaciers, roaring waterfalls, and granite monoliths afire with orange dawn light.
Insider Tip: From Camp Poincenot, hike up in the predawn hours to Laguna de los Tres by headlamp for the full impact of sunrise on the Fitz Roy Massif.
4. PETRA THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, Jordan – Dana Reserve to Petra
Round-Trip: 50 miles, 7 days
When to Go: October through April, when desert temperatures relent—a little. Go with Adventure Jordan, the local company that discovered this 50-mile route through the deserts, mountains, and peaks of Jordan.
At the top of an ancient stairway carved into the red rock, the narrow defile leads around a sharp bend, and suddenly you are stopped cold. There stands the exquisite carved façade of Al Deir, better known as the Monastery, perhaps Petra’s grandest monument. And you have it to yourself. To enter the Nabataean city of Petra in a small party at the conclusion of almost a week in the rugged wilds of the Kingdom of Jordan is a far more satisfying arrival than pulling into the parking lot with its idling tour buses ten miles away. That’s what makes the weeklong trek unique.
From the ancient city of Dana, the route leads down to the Feynan Eco-Lodge before crossing the vast arid expanse of Wadi Araba before climbing into the Sharah Mountains past iconic oasis and Bedouin camps toward Petra itself. The off-trail travel through the deserts and mountains can be grueling, exacerbated by the heat, but the hike sets you up to enter Petra in a receptive frame of mind, ready to absorb the mystical qualities of the Rose Red City.
Insider Tip: Do your research before you arrive. Time in the canyon system of Petra is precious, so it’s best to know what you want to see before you arrive. Besides the iconic sites of the Siq, the Treasury and the Monastery are mystical venues, as are the Place of High Sacrifice and the Great Temple.
5. GRINDELWALD, Switzerland – First to Lake Bachal to Faulhorn Hut
Round-Trip: 10 miles if you ride up and walk down, 2 to 3 days
When to Go: High summer is the season here, but hikable weather often extends into September, when the Europeans are back at work. The Faulhorn closes in October.
Perhaps the biggest payoff for effort applied in the Alps, this ridiculously beautiful walk takes in the scenic highlights of the Bernese Oberland—including the notorious Eiger and its more impressive sister peak, the fearsome Shreckhorn—looming across Grindelwald’s fairy tale valley.
All this, and a night or two at the comfortable Faulhorn hut or berghotel, impossibly perched at 8,800 feet on its namesake peak, for just a day’s worth of hiking. And you can shave some time off that by taking a cable car up to First. Walk the whole way from Grindelwald and you’ll earn that beer you’re drinking on the terrace as the setting sun paints the Eiger’s north wall a blood red.
Insider Tip: Even if you ride the lift on the way up, be sure to walk down, and have lunch at Waldspitz, a classic Swiss mountain chalet where you’ll enjoy a tasty rösti watching snow plumes blow off the summit of the Shreckhorn so close it’s scary.
6. YOSEMITE GRAND TRAVERSE, California, United States – Post Peak Pass to Tuolumne Meadows
Round-Trip: 60 miles, 6 to 7 days
When to Go: Reaching as high as 12,000 feet, this trans-Sierra route is open only from mid-July to mid-September.
It’s hard to say “Sierra in summer” without thinking of granite towers rising above sparkling high-country lakes into deep blue skies. This traverse is a cheat sheet of Yosemite backcountry, touching more than a few of the real high points of the Sierra in just a week, including an ascent of Half Dome via the Cable Route.
Starting on obscure trails in the Ansel Adams Wilderness with unexpected views of the Minarets and other landmark Sierra Nevada peaks, this hike soon enters Yosemite National Park to follow the unique drainage of the Merced River. The traverse then joins the iconic John Muir Trail for a spectacular finish among the spires of the Cathedral Range. An unexpected highlight is the jaunt through the extensive drainage of the Merced River, the lifeblood of Yosemite Valley, where the route traces the headwaters through waterfalls, granite basins, and channels, interspersed with sprawling, sublime sub-alpine meadows.
Insider Tip: The trailhead logistics for this trip can be challenging, so make things easy by doing this trip with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, who pioneered the route and have mastered the journey from start to finish.
7. CHILKOOT TRAIL, Alaska and Yukon Territory, U.S. and Canada – Skagway to Bennett Lake
Round-Trip: 33 miles, 3 to 5 days
When to Go: The Coast Range opens up a bit earlier than the Rockies, so you can push the season a bit. Late June to early October works most years, but August has the best weather—and sees the heaviest traffic.
The very names on this epic route—the Golden Stairs, the Scales, the Stone Crib—are redolent with the suffering of 1898 gold miners, and there’s no mistaking the history here. Both sides of the trail are littered with rusting remains of equipment the miners jettisoned out of exhaustion. More than a century later, the backcountry journey those miners blazed, driven by greed, has become one of the iconic wilderness routes in North America. It’s a natural. The route rises quickly from tidewater to crest Chilkoot Pass at 3,300 feet. But instead of dropping back down, it meanders more than 20 miles through an alpine wonderland, while losing only a thousand feet before returning to its terminus at Bennett Lake.
Insider Tip: Spanning two national parks, two countries, a state, a province and a territory, Chilkoot Trail makes staging a challenge. Solve that by starting and ending in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and use the robust infrastructure for trailhead transport. Take the White Pass and Yukon Railway over the mountains to Skagway, a stupendous ride, and have Alpine Aviation pick you up in a floatplane at Bennett Lake for the outrageous 45-minute flight back to Whitehorse, in plenty of time for a beer on the deck before dinner.
8. TONQUIN VALLEY, Canadian Rockies, Alberta, Canada – Portal Creek to McCarib Pass to Tonquin Valley and Out via the Astoria River
Round-Trip: 27 miles, 3 to 5 days
When to Go: July to September; it can snow any day of the year.
Watching the sunrise light up the enormous broadside of the Ramparts, throwing golden reflections into the waters of Amethyst Lake, is an experience worthy of any effort expended to get into this wild valley. First photographed in 1915, the unrelenting beauty of the Tonquin Valley, nestled deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, has drawn pilgrims ever since—including Ansel Adams, whose very first trip as a Sierra Club photographer was right here. This big hiking loop takes you in over high, scenic McCarib Pass and out via the lovely Astoria River, laying the whole mind-blowing landscape before you in a backcountry journey to rival any.
Insider Tip: If all those grizzly bears wandering around make you uneasy, consider booking accommodations at two wilderness lodges hidden at the edges of the valley. Founded as horsepacking operations, both the Amethyst Lake Lodge and Tonquin Valley Lodge increasingly cater to hikers looking for a bit of comfort and home-cooked meals in this wild place.
9. BAY OF FIRES, Tasmania, Australia – Stumpy’s Bay to Bay of Fires Lodge
Round-Trip: 16 miles, 4 days
When to Go: October to May is the season for this beach route along the northeastern shore. Go with the Bay of Fires Walk; it’s the only way in or out.
From the start in Mount William National Park to the finish at the impressive Bay of Fires Lodge, the route never deviates from seemingly endless beaches of blinding white sand and surreal rock formations lapped by a turquoise Tasman Sea. Only the occasional headland of granite boulders, turned blood red by lichen or forested points of shoreline, pushes you up and out of the coves. The Bay of Fires walk is a four-day guided trip; you can’t do it solo, as there is no water on the route so no place to overnight. The first day takes you out to a permanent camp at Forester Beach. The second, longer day finishes at the architecturally striking Bay of Fires Lodge. It’s as green as they come—in fact, you’ll pump your own water up to rooftop tanks for a shower. Day three is the ultimate reward: free time on the stunning Bay of Fires coast with the comforts and fine wine of the lodge at your beck and call.
Insider Tip: Don’t bother learning to discriminate between the species of snakes on Tasmania—they all have fatal bites. Strikes are rare, however, so just keep your eyes peeled for the slithering black creatures when you’re crossing the headlands.
10. LONG RANGE TRAVERSE, Newfoundland, Canada – Western Brook Pond – Gros Morne Mountain
Round-Trip: 23 miles, 3 to 5 days
When to Go: Relatively low elevation means this route opens in June and can be hiked until late September. But come prepared: The Long Range Mountains are on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and take the brunt of some of the worst weather in the world. Go with a guide service if you’re not an expert navigator.
This off-trail traverse takes you from inland fjords lined with 2,000-foot-high granite cliffs draped with wispy waterfalls deep into Gros Morne National Park. The rugged seaside plateau is just one reason Newfoundland is the new mecca for adventure. The landscape here is as dramatic as it is remote: It was carved by glaciers from massive, uplifted blocks of granite that form the expansive plateau, a wild place still loaded with moose and caribou. Good skills with map, compass, and GPS are required here, as no marked or maintained trails penetrate this unique wilderness. So wild is this trek that the park wardens won’t give you a permit unless you carry a locator beacon (they call it a caribou collar). This ensures they won’t have to search the whole park if you fail to emerge on time.
Insider Tip: The impenetrable alpine krummholz vegetation (called tuckamore on Newfoundland) in Gros Morne is so dense it seriously complicates navigation. One useful technique is to follow “caribou leads,” trails carved through the tuck over centuries by moose and caribou. Then take a GPS waypoint and adjust your vector as required when you pop out the other side.
11. QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK, New Zealand – Ship Cove to Anakiwa
Round-Trip: 44 miles, 3 to 5 days
When to Go: Located on the sunny north end of the South Island, near the famed wine growing region of Marlborough, the Queen Charlotte can be done virtually year round. Hike with Marlborough Sound Adventures, who have the logistics wired.
A unique journey through the sunny hills of the Marlborough Sounds, the Queen Charlotte follows the dragon’s back ridge that separates the blue waters of Queen Charlotte Sound from those of Kenepuru Sound. Water taxis take you from the town of Picton to the start, at Ship’s Cove, where Captain Cook hung out frequently between 1770 and 1779, and the finish at Anakiwa. You can camp the whole way, a style of hiking the Kiwis call “freedom walking,” or choose to turn the jaunt into a cush day-hiking experience not unlike trekking in Nepal—except your gear is carried by boat, not yak. Go luxe, and you can crank 15-mile days and stay every night in comfortable lodges at Furneaux, Punga Cove and Portage.
Insider Tip: The Queen Charlotte is one of the few tracks in New Zealand open to mountain bikers for part of the season. Go early or late in the season if you want to ride, or choose high summer if you want a more tranquil hike without bikers coming up behind you.
12. MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, Uganda – Central Circuit, Ruwenzori Range
Round-Trip: 38 miles, 6 to 7 days
When to Go: December to March, the “dry” season. Go with guides and porters; they know the way and are not expensive.
When approaching high-altitude glaciers, you don’t often hear locals say, “There are elephants here.” But everything about the Ruwenzori Range, Ptolemy’s legendary Mountains of the Moon, is unexpected. Looming on the Uganda-Congo border, these peaks make up the highest range in Africa, rising to 16,765 feet at the Margherita summit of Mount Stanley. (Kilimanjaro and Kenya are taller, but they aren’t ranges.) You’ll hike three days through two 14,000-foot passes and mind-bending forests of giant groundsel and giant lobelias to get to the Bujuku Hut, base camp for those wanting to climb Mount Speke. Hike one more day to Elena Hut, base camp for those who want to climb the glaciers, and try for the summit of Mount Stanley for its unique views of the Congo Basin. Two more trail days take you over Scott Elliot Pass, the highest on the circuit at 14,344 feet, and back to the starting point for your eventual return to Kampala.
Insider Tip: Bring a pair of indestructible camp shoes impervious to moisture, such as Crocs. The circuit can be a muddy mess. Walking in the creek beds often makes for the best progress. It is essential to be able to change into something dry and reasonably comfortable for your feet at day’s end.
13. KALALAU TRAIL, Kauai, Hawaii, United States – Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Valley
Round-Trip: 22 miles, 3 to 5 days
When to Go: May to September for drier weather; April or October for more solitude
The finest coastal hike in the world, this rugged route through Kauai’s impressive Nā Pali Coast will challenge you physically with tropical heat and steep trails, and scare you with exposure on muddy slopes. But after a day of slogging 11 miles through the fluted cliffs above surf that crashes like howitzer fire on the coast below, you are rewarded with a view of the impossibly serene mile-long arc of golden Kalalau Beach along the shimmering Pacific. The Kalalau Valley itself holds fairy-tale waterfalls and lush tropical jungle, well worthy of exploration, but the highlight is camping right on the beach, with the Western Pacific before you, reflecting the setting sun.
Insider Tip: It’s hot, and you’ll be tempted, but don’t even think about cooling off with a swim at Hanakapi’ai Beach on the way in. All those small, makeshift memorials are erected in the memory of hikers who thought they might enjoy wading in and were immediately swept out to sea by the violent rips.
14. CROAGH PATRICK, Ireland – Summit Climb, Westport, County Mayo
Round-Trip: 8 miles, 1 day
When to Go: Spring through fall is best for weather, but the climb can be done year round when the summit isn’t covered with snow and ice. Expect fog, wind, rain, and hail rolling in off the Atlantic at any time.
A climb of this gnarly, holy peak provides ample beauty, challenge, and spiritual power to really experience this long-settled country. Croagh is the Gaelic word for “sharp mountain,” an apt term for this steep ascent of the 2,507-foot mountain where St. Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and nights in prayer at its summit. More than half the people who come to climb the rocky, exposed, and lung-churning trail to the top are not hikers of any stripe, but pilgrims paying homage to St. Patrick, who, with his Celtic cross design, symbolically brought Christians and pagans together. Stunning views of Clew Bay and all of verdant County Mayo are the payoff for making it to the top, with its tiny white chapel. A Guinness in the centuries-old Campbell’s Pub at the base is the mandatory finish. There, the most oft heard phrase is, “Wow, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Insider Tip: Myth says that if you climb Croagh Patrick seven times, your entry into heaven is assured despite previous bad behavior.