9 Extremely Challenging but Worthwhile Hikes

A woman walking on a log crossing a river

Paxson Woelber / Flickr

Few people think of hiking as an extreme sport. For most, hiking is more like a leisurely walk in a natural setting. However, there are some trails that go beyond a casual stroll. They provide the kind of challenge that turns a simple walk into an all-out adventure.

Hikers who tackle challenging trails often have to face variables like unpredictable weather, rapid elevation changes, slippery pathways, and even aggressive wildlife. But these kinds of extreme walks are more than a test of skill. Often, as the difficulty of a trek rises so do the odds of encountering stunning views, rare species of wildlife, and untouched natural landscapes.

The following trails are certainly not for casual hikers, but with a high level of fitness, experienced guides, knowledge of wilderness safety, and the right equipment, adventure-seekers will certainly be able to handle the challenges on the trail.

1
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Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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Tourists arrive at this storied Peruvian attraction by train, by bus, or even by helicopter. A few intrepid visitors attempt to reach the ancient city on foot via the Inca Trail. The Inca is actually made up of three intersecting trails, with most people taking the Classic Inca Trail, which requires a four- or five-day mountain trek. The great thing about this hike is that it passes through several different Andean ecosystems, making it possible for hikers to get a true look at the unique natural beauty of this part of South America. At the same time, unpredictable alpine weather and altitudes of more than 13,000 feet make the journey a hazardous undertaking. Altitude sickness is a common problem among hikers and fatalities are not unheard of (though people who know the symptoms and look out for them are usually able to avoid disaster by getting to lower elevations quickly). Guides and tour companies provide support for hikers who want to take on the Inca Trail, and some adventurers even opt to hire porters for the trip.

2
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Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail

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You don't have to travel to another continent to find a challenging trek. The Bright Angel Trail is one of the few trails that visitors to Grand Canyon National Park can use to journey from the canyon rim down to the Colorado River. This trek is not for the faint of heart. The trail is 9.5 miles long and descends more than 4,500 feet (that's just short of a mile in elevation change). Most visitors attempt a short section of the trail, turning around at one of the early “rest stations” that are placed at intervals along the path. Why go all the way? Because the views are tremendous and experience of walking down one of America's great natural landmarks is truly unique. The steepness and altitude make this a challenging hike, but the biggest danger is the temperature. This is not a morning walk, but a daylong journey (actually the National Park Service warns against making the top-to-bottom-to-top trek in one day) in temperatures that routinely top 110 degrees. Much of the trail is completely exposed to the sun, so people who are not prepared to handle the heat will find themselves in danger rather quickly.

3
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Caminito del Rey

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This Spanish walkway (sometimes shortened to Camino del Rey – “the King's Trail” in English) is a path that clings to the side of a gorge in the southern Spanish province of Malaga. Over the years, sections have eroded away, and sometimes hikers find themselves confronted with the choice of turning back or crossing narrow ledges or steal beams that once supported the now-completely eroded path. Guided tours are the best option for this trek because they can provide added security features — including safety lines, which are attached to the rock wall above the pathway so hikers can hook on during the journey. Even with the extra safety measures, Caminito del Rey is still an extreme hike that is truly one of the classics of Europe.

4
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Devil's Path

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This 25-mile trek through upstate New York's Catskill Mountains requires strong arms as well as strong legs. Sections of the trail require walkers to climb over rock ledges and scramble up rocky chutes. If you count all the ascents along the Devils' Path, which passes over the summits of five of the Catskill's tallest peaks, the total distance climbed is more than 9,000 feet. Why tackle the Devil's Path? The views are stunning from lookout points near or on the summits of the peaks. The Twin Mountains, in particular, offer access to vistas that stretch out for miles over the lower Catskill peaks.

5
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Pacaya Volcano

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This very active volcano in Guatemala sits only about an hour from the city of Antigua. It is not the walk itself that makes this an extreme trek. In fact, the hike up the slope is relatively easy compared to the other journeys on this list. What makes this an unusual place for a hike are the active steam vents and rivers of lava that run near the trail. As with some of the other hikes on this list, the safest way to walk on Pacaya is with a guide. Aside from the steam and lava, the volcano also emits gases that could prove toxic, so hikers have to be aware of standing downwind of particular vents. Because of its proximity to the city, this is a popular tourist attraction, but people who choose to hire a private guide can easily avoid the crowds and get further up the mountain than casual day-trippers are allowed to go. Travel without a guide, however, is inadvisable because of the many dangers.

6
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West Coast Trail

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This trail on nature-dominated Vancouver Island has some of the most stunning scenery in the entire Pacific Northwest. Rugged coastline and lush forests surround the path, giving hikers contact with a variety of landscapes. The going is rough, with cliffs that are scaled with nothing more than wooden- ladders, rickety bridges, and steep slopes that require scrambling. And we also have to mention the high populations of bears, wolves and cougars inside the island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the park inside which the entire trail is located. At 48 miles, the West Coast Trail is not a particularly long hike, but people have been known to take up to a week to make the journey because of the difficult conditions.

7
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Kalalau Trail

Karl S Johnson/Flickr.

This beautiful trail through the tropical landscapes of the Na Pali Coast on the Hawaiian island of Kauai is only 11 miles long. However, it has such extreme changes in altitude that most hikers require two days to complete the walk (there are camping areas half-way through the journey). The path travels along the beach and then turns inland and passes through two steep valleys, crossing several sometimes-swollen streams along the way. When traversing the walls of the valleys, trekkers will come across especially narrow spots, including one infamous area known as Crawler's Ledge. The steep climbs and dangerous drop offs are worthwhile for people who appreciate good views. There are stunning overlook spots where hikers can view both the ocean and the tropical valleys.

8
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North Drakensberg Traverse

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This challenging trek takes walkers through two countries, South Africa and Lesotho. The landscapes here are truly epic, with high plateaus, steep mountain slopes, rocky cliffs, towering waterfalls and panoramas of grass-covered hills that reach up to the clouds. There is no true trail that covers the length of this route, but ropes and ladders are fixed in especially steep places to aid hikers. A guide is necessary for people who don't have backcountry skill and who aren't familiar with the hazards of hiking in this high-altitude portion of Africa. There are also some cultural attractions along the route, with caves that contain paintings made by early inhabitants of the region.

9
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South Coast Track

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Tasmania has some great long distance hiking trails. One of the most challenging, the South Coast Track, is also the most beautiful. Hikers on this track between the town of Melaleuca and Cockle Creek, a settlement near Hobart, the territorial capitol, get to see isolated beaches, towering mountain ranges, lush forest and scenic rivers. This is a wet place, so hikers have to contend with mud at many times of year. Swollen rivers and streams, which become rushing rapids after the frequent rainfall, must be crossed regularly, making this a very challenging journey (and one that all but requires a guide). The hike is only 52 miles, but the conditions are so variable that making 10 miles per day might be ambitious and hikers may find themselves traveling no distance at all if rivers are flooded or if they are unable to time their hike right to avoid high-tide in the seaside areas of the trail.