9 Extremely Challenging but Worthwhile Hikes

Backpacker on Kalalau Trail, Na Pali coastline, Hawaii
A backpacker walks toward razor-sharp ridges on Hawaii's Na Pali Coast.

Johnathan Ampersand Esper / Getty Images

The word "hiking" can connote a casual stroll through the woods or a strenuous mountain scramble. For those who fall into the intermediate-to-experienced range, a challenging trek like the Inca Trail, which ascends the Andes and terminates at the famous Machu Picchu citadel, or Spain's Caminito del Rey, which follows a narrow bridge pinned to the vertical walls of a deep gorge, might be more befitting.

Hikers who tackle such routes must often 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, elusive species, and untouched natural landscapes.

With high levels of fitness, experienced guides, knowledge of wilderness safety, and the right equipment, adventure-seekers will certainly be able to handle these nine extremely challenging hiking trails.

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Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Peru)

Inca Trail with grass-covered mountains in the background
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Most tourists arrive at this famous, storied Peruvian attraction by train, bus, or sometimes by helicopter. A few intrepid visitors, however, attempt to reach the ancient city on foot via the 25-mile-long Inca Trail.

Unpredictable alpine weather and altitudes of more than 13,000 feet make the journey a hazardous undertaking. Altitude sickness often plagues hikers — even fatalities, due to mudslides, falls, or lightning, are not unheard of. 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.

The Inca actually comprises three intersecting trails, altogether taking four or five days to hike. One of the biggest rewards to travelers is passing through several different Andean ecosystems, each offering a unique glimpse of the natural beauty in this part of South America.

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Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail (Arizona)

Hiker on a trail deep in the Grand Canyon

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Traveling internationally isn't necessary to find a challenging trek. The Bright Angel Trail is one of the few trails that leads Grand Canyon National Park visitors down to the Colorado River from the canyon rim.

The steepness and altitude (more than 4,500 feet, or just short of a mile, in elevation change) are bad enough, but worst of all is the heat. The 9.5-mile trail is a multiday journey in temperatures that routinely top 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of the trail is completely exposed to the sun, so people who are not prepared will find themselves in danger rather quickly.

Most do only a section of the trail, then turn around at one of the early rest stations placed at intervals along the path. For others, though, the tremendous views and rare chance to walk into an iconic natural landmark are reasons enough to go the full distance.

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Caminito del Rey (Spain)

Hikers walking a narrow bridge along vertical cliff face

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This Spanish walkway, translating to “the King's Trail” in English, clings to the side of a gorge in the southern 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. The good news is that it continues for less than two miles.

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.

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Devil's Path (New York)

Low-angle view of footbridge over Diamond Notch Falls

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This 25-mile trek through upstate New York's Catskill Mountains requires not just strong legs but also strong arms. Sections of the trail lead walkers over precarious rock ledges and coax them up rocky chutes.

If you count all the ascents along the Devils' Path, which passes over the summits of six of the Catskill's tallest peaks (Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, Hunter, and West Kill), the total distance climbed is more than 9,000 feet.

So, why tackle the Devil's Path? The views are decidedly stunning from lookout points near and on those peaks. The Twin Mountains, in particular, offer access to vistas that stretch out for miles over the lower Catskill peaks.

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Pacaya Volcano Trail (Guatemala)

View of the Pacaya volcano from its base

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This very active volcano in Guatemala sits only about an hour from the city of Antigua. It's not the walk itself that makes it an extreme trek — in fact, the three-mile hike up the slope (1,500 feet of elevation gain) is relatively easy.

Rather, it's the active steam vents and rivers of lava that run near the trail. Aside from the steam and lava, the volcano also emits gases that could prove toxic, so hikers have to avoid 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 less safe and generally inadvisable.

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West Coast Trail (Canada)

Hiker looking out over the beach and ocean
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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, but the going is rough.

It features cliffs that are scaled with nothing more than wooden ladders, rickety bridges, and steep slopes that require scrambling. There's also a substantial population of bears, wolves, and cougars inside the island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, where 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.

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Kalalau Trail (Hawaii)

Hikers on a narrow, unforgiving path along steep cliff
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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 halfway along). The path travels along the beach, 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 a coastal view, though. There are stunning overlook spots where hikers can admire both the ocean and the tropical valleys.

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North Drakensberg Traverse (South Africa and Lesotho)

People hiking through barren landscape toward rock formations

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This challenging 40-mile trek, part of the even-longer Drakensberg Grand Traverse, takes walkers through two countries, South Africa and Lesotho, over about six days. It's difficult because it climbs to almost 10,000 feet above sea level, and because there's no true trail, although ropes and ladders are fixed to help hikers in especially steep places.

A guide is necessary for people who don't have backcountry skills or who aren't familiar with the hazards of hiking in this high-altitude portion of Africa. The landscapes here are truly epic — think high plateaus, steep mountain slopes, rocky cliffs, towering waterfalls, and panoramas of grass-covered hills that reach up to the clouds. There are also some cultural attractions along the route, including caves that contain paintings left by the region's early inhabitants.

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South Coast Track (Australia)

Hiker walking through a meadow on the South Coast Track

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One of Tasmania's most challenging hikes, the South Coast Track, is also the most beautiful. It's 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 even 10 miles per day might be ambitious. 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.

Challenges aside, hikers on this track — located between the town of Melaleuca and Cockle Creek, a settlement near the capital city of Hobart — are treated to isolated beaches, towering mountain ranges, lush forest, and scenic rivers.