If you're stuck for time – or thigh power – these iconic day hikes squeeze a week's worth of scenery into less than 24 hours...
Iceland is wonderfully weird. And a whole lot of that weirdness is squeezed into this testing trail, which starts near the ocean and ends amid the Thorsmork mountains. Completing this in one day is tough – and some choose to take two, overnighting at the halfway hut – but it’s doable, especially if you hike in July and August when the light lasts forever and the weather is at its best.
The trailhead is above staggering Skogafoss, one of Iceland’s finest falls. It can be busy, but you’ll soon lose the crowds, hiking northwards across the river-cut grassy tundra via 20-odd more waterfalls and onto a wild plateau that seems as if it’s been dropped from outer space. This glacier-licked realm is ruled by two huge, rambunctious volcanoes – Katla and the infamous Eyjafjallajokull – which are constantly sculpting new steamy craters, lava fields and pumice piles. The views from the trail’s highpoint (1,068m) are possibly the best in Iceland, and followed by a descent into ‘Thor’s Valley’, an area of towering icy peaks, crystalline rivers and some of Iceland’s most beautiful hiking.
Like that? Try this… Besseggen Ridge, Norway (17km), a classic ridge trail that runs right through Jotunheimen National Park, with access to the trailhead easily available by boat.
If you want to probe the upper heights of KwaZulu-Natal’s uKhahlamba-Drakensberg escarpment but only have a day to do it, this is the trek to pick. By driving up to Sentinel Peak car park (2,600m), you can bypass a lot of climbing, leaving more time for the good, high stuff; from the trailhead, there’s ‘only’ 570-or-so metres to ascend to reach the top of the range.
At first the route rises via steep zigzags, basalt cliffs, bulky buttresses and possible sightings of baboons and bearded vultures. Then things get really spine-tingling: to gain the summit plateau, a series of chain ladders dangles from the near-vertical face of the Mont-Aux-Sources massif – though acrophobes can take the (steep) alternative up Beacon Buttress gully if they’d prefer. From the top are panoramic views across the majestic horseshoe-curved Amphitheatre, which make it clear why the Zulu call these mountains Quathlamba (meaning ‘A Mass of Spears’). You can also peer straight down Africa’s highest multi-tier plume, Tugela Falls (948m).
Like that? Try this… Skeleton Gorge, South Africa (6km), one of the most beautiful routes up the most iconic of South African peaks, Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
Difficulty: Easy–tough, depending on your route
To hike along the Grand Balcon Sud is to promenade with giants. This natural veranda traverses the northern slopes of the Arve Valley with – on a clear day – uninterrupted views across to the Mont Blanc massif. If you don’t have time to trek the multi-day Tour de Mont Blanc, this is an excellent taster. It’s very accessible, too, with cable cars zipping up from Chamonix to save you 900-odd metres of climbing.
The hardy could walk the route’s whole length, from the Col des Montets (near Tré le Champ) to Les Houches, making for a long, undulating walk, starting in the chamois-grazed Aiguilles Rouge Nature Reserve and finishing with a punishing but splendidly rugged descent. An easier option is to ride the cable car to La Flégere and spend a couple of hours walking to Plan Praz, massive mountains all around. At Plan Praz, there’s a choice: descend via another cable car or hike/ride up to Le Brévent, the 2,525m peak renowned since the 18th century as the best place to marvel at Mont Blanc. From here, Western Europe’s mightiest mountain looks close enough to touch.
Like that? Try this… The Faulhornweg, Switzerland (16km), the essence of the Alps in one walk, combining a cog railway, blisteringly blue lakes and Bernese Oberland icons.
Difficulty: Moderate (tough in bad weather)
There’s a reason why this North Island classic is often touted as the ‘world’s best day walk’: it has a bit of everything. Firstly, it’s rich in folklore and Maori legend – its slopes are dotted with tapu (sacred sites). It also has Hollywood connections, these barren mountains having doubled convincingly as Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. On top of that, it runs a grand environmental gamut from old lava fields and Alpine tussock to lush podocarp forest and volcanic strange – the upper reaches, including the saddle between Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, are a netherworld of sulphurous lakes, multicoloured rocks, steaming fumaroles and ground that’s hot to the touch.
And lastly, the Crossing is a manageable challenge. There are some testing ups, including the lung-busting 378-step ascent of the Devilʼs Staircase and a scramble to reach the high point at Red Crater (1,886m). But other than that, it’s not so difficult, unless the weather comes in – then you will feel like you’re walking on Tolkien’s Mount Doom.
Like that? Try this... Pouakai Crossing, New Zealand (19km), a lesser-known one-day gem that traverses the lower slopes of North Island’s Mount Taranaki and promises fewer crowds.
You still need a permit to hike the shorter version of the iconic four-day Inca Trail. But while the 500-per-day permit allocation for the full route sells out months in advance, the additional 250 permits available for the Royal Route rarely do. This means you can follow the famed Inca pathway and approach Machu Picchu on foot even if you leave your booking a bit late.
The day walk usually starts with a train ride from near Cusco through the Sacred Valley to 'Km 104'. Hopping off here, you’ll cross a footbridge over the Urubamba River, check in with the park rangers and then pick up the famed Inca highway. There’s a stiff climb up to the old religious ruins and ceremonial plaza of Chachabamba, before orchid-flecked cloud forest, a refreshing waterfall and the terrace-lodged Inca bathhouses at Wiñay Wayna. After around six hours, you’ll arrive at Intipunku (the Sun Gate) for the classic first glimpse of Machu Picchu, tumbling down the hillsides below.
Like that? Try this... Huchuy Qosqo Trek, Peru (17km), an easy hike to the little-known site of Huchuy Qosqo (‘Little Cusco’), offering the same amount of Inca intrigue but – most importantly – minus the crowds.
Length: From 6km
Difficulty: Easy (Dove Lake), tough (Cradle Mountain)
Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park encompasses some of Tasmania’s – and perhaps Australia’s – most spectacular scenery. And while the 65km Overland Track is great for those with the time, it’s easy to enjoy the best of the park in a day. The simple 6km circuit of Dove Lake hugs the shore, passing swathes of button grass, little sandy beaches, glacial rocks, trickling streams and a magnificent stand of mossy myrtle-beech forest. It also offers the classic view: the craggy spires of Cradle Mountain reflected in the glassy water (and the intrepid can tag on an ascent of the peak).
Alternatively, a 13km-return climb leaves from Dove Lake and passes Wombat Pool (keep a lookout for its namesakes), sapphire-bright Crater Lake and a frizz of alpine moorland to reach the base of the peak. It’s then a white-knuckle clamber up cluttered scree and columnar towers to reach the 1,545m summit. Hair-raising, vertiginous, an absolute beaut.
Like that? Try this… Wineglass Bay & Hazards Beach Circuit, Tasmania (11km), an easy, gorgeous walk on the Freycinet Peninsula, taking in Tassie’s most photogenic sweep of sand.
The trouble with trekking up a mountain is that when you’re on it, you can’t see it. Better to take a step back in order to get a good overview. Sarangkot is just that. This 1,600m-high lookout near the laid-back hiking hub of Pokhara affords a panorama of some of the Himalaya range’s highest peaks, from bulky Dhaulagiri (8,167m) in the west across to Annapurna II (7,937m) in the east, and encompassing the perfectly pyramidal Machhapuchhare (6,997m), known to some as the fabulous ‘Fishtail’. In the foreground, rice terraces rise to gorgeous green hills.
It’s possible to make a loop from Pokhara, ascending a trail that peels off from the north side of Phewa Lake and descends via Bindhyabasini Temple. Or start from the village of Naudanda, walking through forest and Bhramin and Chhetris villages to Sarangkot, with its teahouses and lookout. The views are especially soul-stirring in dawn and dusk – visit between October and December for the best chance of clear weather.
Like that? Try this… Nagarkot to Dhulikhel, Nepal (16km), a classic traverse close to Kathmandu, with the Langtang peaks visible most of the way and – maybe – a glimpse of Everest thrown in for good measure.
This leisurely trail is a chance to spend a day in bygone Japan. During the Edoera, the Nakasendo – ‘the road through the mountains’ – was one of the country’s main highways, linking then-capital Kyoto with the emerging city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Parts of this once-vital artery for foot travellers still remain, and one of the best sections lies between the old ‘post towns’ (rest stops for officials) of Magome and Tsumago, deep in the Kiso Valley.
In Magome, restored inns cling to the main street; start by walking a little west of town to find a section of ishidatami (original Edo paving), then follow the Nakasendo north-eastwards, via cherry trees, paddy fields and stone tablets, to top the Magome Pass. From here, the path drops gently through cedars and past waterfalls to reach Tsumago, the best-preserved post town around. Here, wires and telephone poles are banished from the main street and the former waki-honjin (the premier inn, once reserved for senior samurai) is now a museum. If you like, you can keep going, following the Nakasendo for another 4km to Nagiso, past rolling farmland and the hilltop ruins of Tsumago Castle.
Like that? Try this... Jiankou to Mutianyu, China (10km), a difficult if magnificently unmanicured section of the 5,000km-long Great Wall. Parts are off-limits and the going can be treacherous, so best bring a guide.
Wyoming’s Grand Teton range, a compact but perfectly formed wall of granite that rockets, foothills-free, from the Jackson Hole valley, is quite the sight. And it becomes more impressive the deeper you delve. Those with no time for a big backcountry adventure can get a day-fix by following the Cascade Canyon Trail to The Forks and back, a combination of mirror-like lakes, a hidden waterfall, pristine conifer forest, super lookouts (especially from Inspiration Point) and plentiful thimbleberry and huckleberry scrub much loved by bears (take precautions).
The hike begins at Jenny Lake, where you can either follow a path around the lake’s southern shore to reach the mouth of Cascade Canyon or chop 6km off the total hike by riding the shuttle boat across the water to the trailhead. From here, the route climbs stiffly at first but gradually eases. And as it plunges further down into the ravine, the walls begin to narrow, the forest thickens, marmots squeak, moose might be seen in the creeks and the marvellous mountains press in ever tighter.
Like that? Try this… Highline Trail, USA (17km), a sublime sortie into the soaring peaks of Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Rising 2,244m from the tea-cloaked Central Highlands, Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s premier pilgrimage destination. A sacred footprint, appropriated by many faiths, is said to sit on its summit, and thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and curious hikers make the climb each year. The trail rises past plantations, butterfly-flittered cloud forest and mountain views, but it’s also a culture-rich endeavour, taking in sacred shrines, chanting sadhus, all-night chai-sellers and prostrating devotees.
There are several routes around the mountain. Most popular is to ascend via the short, sharp 5,500 steps of the Hatton Route (7km), which climbs from the village of Dalhousie; you could descend the same way, or via the longer Father’s Path (11km), finishing in Ratnapura. Most pilgrims set off in the small hours – during the December to-May pilgrimage season, the route is strung with lights. The aim is to summit in time for ira-sewaya – the sunrise phenomenon – when Adam’s Peak casts its pyramidal shadow onto the misty plains below.
Like that? Try this... Koyasan Choishi Michi Trail, Japan (23km), a one-day pilgrimage trail – which can be made shorter by train – to reach the temples of sacred Mount Koya.