I might not be the most rugged traveler on the planet, but there’s nothing I love more when I’m on the road than a great hike. Hiking is not only an amazing workout, but is the best way to get to know the place you’re in – flora, fauna, topography, oh my!
I make a point of hiking just about everywhere I go, so narrowing down this list of the hikes I consider to be the best in the world was tricky, to say the least. Do you have any hikes or treks to add to my choices for the world’s best hikes?
1. Kata Tjuta – Northern Territory, Australia
The iconic Uluru usually steals the show when it comes to massive rock formations in Australia’s red center, but I found Kata Tjuta, which is colloquially known as “The Olgas,” to be much more interesting, if only because it has dozens of lobes, rather than the single “rock” that comprises Uluru.
The same can be said when it comes to hiking Uluru vs. hiking Kata Tjuta. While the Uluru “base hike” mostly entails flat (albeit beautiful) terrain, the changes in elevation, vegetation and color as you wind in and out of Kata Tjuta make it one of the most beautiful hikes in the world, if you ask me.
2. Lion’s Head – Cape Town, South Africa
I believed what they told me – that Lion’s Head was “moderately challenging” – until I saw the grips and chains.
Climbing Lion’s Head (and it really is more of a climb than a hike) pushed me as a person because I could, at any moment, have fallen to my death. Yet I persevered, arriving at the top of the mountain just before sunset with a full moon hanging over the city. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful sight. I have definitely never felt more triumphant in my life.
3. The Sacred Valley of the Incas – Maras, Perú
Like Kata Tjuta, the Sacred Valley of the Incas comes in a distant second as attractions in its region (Machu Picchu is number one) go. Not surprisingly, I found the Sacred Valley to be a much more enjoyable hike than Machu Picchu – and not just because I wasn’t hungover hiking the former.
To be sure, when my Israeli friend Assaf (pictured above) and I arrived in Maras, the village nearest to the Sacred Valley, we were literally the only foreigners there, a fact that remained the whole four hours and 13 km we hiked through some of the most dramatic, unspoiled scenery I’ve ever seen, all the way to the mysterious Moray ruins. Definitely one of the best hikes in the world!
4. Qingcheng “Back” Mountain – Sichuan Province, China
You know how Stevie Nicks sings “I climbed a mountain and I turned around” in “Landslide”? That’s kind of what happened to me at Qing Chen Hou Shan, in rural Sichuan, China, a few hours from Chengdu, except that I slid down the muddy mountainside on my ass.
See, the plan had been to hike all the way up the mountain and spend the night in the monastery at its peak. Unfortunately, my hostel owner downplayed the severity of damage that remained in the area from the 2008 earthquake, which was still bad enough that most of the former hiking paths were reduced to rivers of mud.
So why am I listing this as one of the best hikes in the world? For starters, the scenery is indeed spectacular, even if you can’t really hike high enough to see most of it. Plus, nothing deflates a cocky ego like sliding down a mountain on your ass.
5. Ramon Crater – Negev Desert, Israel
My favorite thing about hiking the so-called “green trail” down into and across Ramon Crater was how incredibly silent it was – if I held my breath, I literally couldn’t hear anything! Indeed, I was totally alone for all but one moment on the five km hike, which took me down hundreds of meters and lasted about two hours.
Not only was Roman Crater one of the best hikes in the world, but the nearby town of Mitspe Ramon was also pretty nice.
6. Tugela Falls – Drakensberg, South Africa
It might seem unfair that South Africa gets two entries on this list of the world’s best hikes, but then South Africa is probably the world’s best hiking destination, so if anything it should have more. Speaking of superlatives, Tugela Falls, in the country’s Drakensberg district, is the “highest” waterfall in Africa, although the water falls in five stages, so it’s not technically the biggest. Or something.
Highest, tallest or no “-est” at all, Tugela Falls nonetheless provides the most incredible panorama I’ve ever seen (this was after Lion’s Head, which previously held that title). The scenery of the Drakensberg in general is pretty epic, which is convenient, since you’ll be spending at least 4-5 hours hiking up and down the mountain where you find Tugela Falls.
7. Tayrona National Park – Santa Marta, Colombia
Parque Tayrona, as it’s known in Spanish, is one of Colombia’s top tourist draws for locals and foreigners alike. Officially deemed a “natural” park, it’s about as cut off from the world as I’ve been: Cabo San Juan beach, a popular stopping point after hiking for a day, is practically off the electrical grid.
As was the case with Qing Chen Shan, Parque Tayrona makes my list of the best hikes in the world not only because of its beauty, but because it kicked my ass. I met some Scandinavians while en route, and we hiked the “back way” over a particularly tall mountain to get to the park exit, in defiance of advice we received from every local we met.
We (obviously) made it out of the park alive, but not without having to sprint through the jungle during a three-hour downpour and wade across a waist-deep river!
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.