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.
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.
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.
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.