Classic treks are prone to crowding in peak season. So if you’re looking for solitude, here are some less well-trodden but equally satisfying options
With an ever-busier road threatening the pristine scenes and tranquility of the classic Annapurna Circuit, this offbeat alternative visits a little-trodden region, trekking around the massive massif of 8,163m Mount Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak.
The going is moderate in difficulty and magnificent in scenery. From Gorkha you hike along rice terraces and past ice-clear rivers and yak herders, with Himalayan peaks brooding all around. At the heart of the experience is the chance to embrace village life in the Tibetan communities en route, which are dotted with flag-strewn gompas and mani stones – but not cramped teahouses or other trekkers. In fact, only a limited number of visitor permits are issued each year here, leaving the rhododendron forests, narrow gorges and Larkya La Pass – at 5,140m, the trek’s spectacular high-point – blissfully untrampled.
Or try… spurning Base Camp for the lesser-known Kangshung Face of Everest, Tibet; finding monasteries, mountains and meadows on the Laya Trek, Bhutan.
Alternative to… Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy & Switzerland
Why? For an offbeat exploration of one of Europe’s great ranges
Time: 10-15 days
Difficulty: 3/4 Ups and downs on decent trails; some via ferrata
The Swiss and Austrian sections of the Alps grab all the headlines in Europe, while the craggy-peaked pinnacles of the Dolomites – less lofty, perhaps, but spectacularly formed – sit quietly to the south. But these karst formations make for fabulous walking, the Alta Via 1 nipping between glaciers and valleys from Lago di Braies in the north to the thoroughly Italian town of Belluno.
En route stay in rifugi (mountain huts), which serve up dramatic views and feasts of varying quality. Without a tent your pack will be lighter for tackling the trail’s via ferrata – fixed-cable climbs pioneered by Italian soldiers defending these mountains during the Second World War. Height-haters can bypass the scariest of these on alternative routes and find their military history at the Open Air Museum of the Great War instead.
Or try… village-visiting among the Pindos Mountains, Greece; hiking in the ‘realm of the giants’ in Jotunheimen, Norway.
Alternative to… Grand Canyon Kaibab Trail, Arizona, USA
Why? For an atmospheric world of canyons, grottoes and rock art
Time: 3-4 days
Difficulty: 3/4 Prone to flooding; planning essential
While the Grand Canyon’s vastness is difficult to comprehend, skinny Buckskin Gulch offers the opposite – at points it’s so narrow you need to take off your backpack to squeeze through.
Starting from Wire Pass trailhead, you enter an avenue of red-rock swirls, the USA’s most awesome slot canyon, where sunlight variously shafts through – and is blocked by the high walls of – the geological gash. The going is simple: there’s no waymarking needed, just follow the gorge, wading through rivers and keeping your eyes peeled for Native Indian petroglyphs. It’s not samey, though – the walls twist and turn, creating a sheer face here, an intriguing cave there, or widening to reveal the blue, blue sky of the American South-West.
Do not attempt this from mid-July to mid-September, when flash floods render the canyon – at points just 3m wide and 30m high – treacherous. And expect the unexpected, as those same floods change the canyon’s shape and obstacles, ensuring no two hikes here are ever the same.
Or try… walking through gorges to another world wonder on the Dana to Petra trek, Jordan’s ‘Inca Trail’; delving into Africa’s deepest on the Fish River Canyon Trail, Namibia.
Alternative to… Milford Track, New Zealand
Why? For a Great Walk without the crowds
Time: 4-5 days
Difficulty: 2/5 Well-marked; easy
New Zealand boasts nine official Great Walks. Fiordland’s Milford gets clogged in season, and bookings are difficult to come by. The Heaphy, which snakes across the north-west of South Island, is a quieter proposition, its greater length and remote setting keeping away the big crowds.
It packs a lot in, too. Most walk it east-west, and starting from the trailhead near Collingwood you’re soon in dense forests of beech and miro, traversing spooky downs and alpine basins of gorse, crossing boggy creeks and swing bridges over wild rivers to hit the white-sand beaches of the Tasman Coast.
The route is steeped in history – this is rugged territory once toured by Maori hunters and 19th-century gold prospectors, the only souls (save kiwis, keas and other birds) to take on this inaccessible chunk of west coast.
Avoid the high-summer peak: come from mid-February to March to avoid the masses, or brave the trail in winter to have the cosy huts to yourself.
Or try… stepping back in time on Stewart Island’s Rakiura Track, New Zealand; swapping the 4WD for boots on the Fraser Island Great Walk, Australia.
Alternative to… Camino de Santiago, Spain
Why? For a brand-new, age-old pilgrimage
Time: 25-30 days (though shorter sections are doable)
Difficulty: 4/5 Long and remote
Though only waymarked in 2004, the history of the St Paul Trail goes back far further, partly following the course of the saint’s first missionary journey in Asia Minor.
Starting from Perge, near Antalya in south-west Turkey, the trail heads north past cooling waterfalls, canyons, time-lost villages, lakes and Roman ruins to end 500km later at the ancient remains of Yalvaç.
It’s not easy – steep ups and downs are the norm, and hotels and shops en route are scant. But in return you’ll find rural communities low on facilities but big on Muslim hospitality, and a real wilderness experience, hard to find elsewhere in Europe.
The variety is vast, but for the best of all worlds walk in spring for manageable temperatures on the Anatolian plateau, profuse wild flowers and snow streaks on the 2,000m-plus mountains. For the latest on the trail – path alterations and issues – check www.lycianway.com
Or try… walking between the 88 sacred sites of Shikoku Island, Japan; circumambulating
holy Mount Kailash, Tibet.
Alternative to… Marangu Route, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Why? For isolated African slopes
Time: 6-7 days
Difficulty: 4/5 Terrain can be tough going and weather wet
Thankfully open for business (Rwenzori NP was closed between 1997 and 2002 due to troubles on the Congolese border), this is the ultimate in wilderness trekking. And it’s tough – though picturesquely placed huts dot the route, the trails are heavy with vegetation, the rain pretty reliable and the Bigo Bogs as energy-sapping to walk through as they sound.
The pay-off is hiking through a superlative mountain range – the peaks surrounding you tower over 5,000m – with few other trekkers. Looping anticlockwise from Nyakalengija, let the local Bakonzo porters take the strain (and the proceeds of your walking) and enjoy the rugged landscapes. The trek takes you past the shimmer of the Kitandara Lakes and to the base of Mount Stanley (Uganda’s highest, and climbable on a side trip), but best is the constantly changing wildlife – it’s a botanical run-down of climatic zones, with highlights including giant lobelia, heathers and thick forest patronised by the odd colobus monkey and 290 species of birds.
Or try… wildlife-watching on the lesser-used Rongai route up Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; meeting baboons on a traverse of the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia.
Alternative to… South West Coast Path, UK
Why? For a deserted coast of castles and kippers
Time: 4-6 days
Difficulty: 1/5 Flat and well-serviced with villages and pubs
The famous Devon-to-Dorset coastal trail is a stunner, but it’s long (1,014km) and the seaside towns are besieged by ‘grockles’ (tourists) in peak season. Look north instead, to the oft-overlooked stretch of shore from Creswell (near Morpeth) to Berwick-upon-Tweed and the Scottish border. Here, more volatile weather deters the masses from visiting some of the country’s best beaches.
So much more than sand, though, this coastal meander mixes in shrieking sea bird colonies (spied offshore on the Farne Islands – a worthy detour), multiple nature reserves and quaint harbour towns – don’t miss a smoked kipper supper in Craster. Perhaps best are the formidable masses of Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh castles, the former a romantic ruin jutting out into the surf; the latter (pictured) in prime condition, lording over a sweeping strand.
The route is well waymarked and the terrain largely flat, making this a simple stroll. Just plan around the weather – and the real ale-serving pubs en route. Alternatively, if you want to stretch your legs further, keep going on St Oswald’s Way – one of Britain’s newest long-distance paths. The 156km route runs south from Holy Island, and covers the same stretch of coast before nipping inland along Hadrian’s Wall to Heavenfield.
Or try… avoiding hills on the North Norfolk Coast Path from Hunstanton to Cromer; walking along the edge of Europe – from Norway to Scotland (including the NCP) – on the North Sea Trail.
Alternative to… Jebel Toubkal, Morocco
Why? For a greener, more diverse North African hike
Time: 5 days
Difficulty: 3/5 Moderate days, moderate altitude
Size isn’t everything. While Toubkal tops the High Atlas at 4,167m – and thus draws peak-baggers – M’goun is just 100m lower, yet largely ignored. Which is foolish: the surrounding peaks, valleys and villages offer a diversity absent from its more popular neighbour.
In the shadow of M’goun you’ll walk from Tabant amid lush lowlands, blooming with wheat fields and apple orchards, through ancient Berber villages, atmospheric with dusty-red kasbahs. Camels amble among the boxwood bushes and nomadic shepherds “Salaam” as you pass.
Higher up, the landscape is windswept and dramatic – dinosaur remains have been found in these parts, and the whole scene feels older than the hills, something you can contemplate while sipping mint tea at lofty campsites. The ascent of M’goun itself is gentle, if altitudinous, affording sweeping views of the barren Tarkeddid Plateau and
snowy patches beyond.
Or try… pioneering in the Hoggar Mountains, Algeria; ignoring Mt Sinai in favour of quieter Jebel Katreen, Egypt.
Alternative to… Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Why? For a more challenging Asian expedition
Time: 7-9 days
Difficulty: 4/5 Steep ups and high humidity
Though 4,095m high, oft-climbed Kinabalu is a relatively simple prospect compared with ‘only’ 2,187m Gunung Tahan. You need a guide and permits, as well as the fitness to tackle the luxuriant jungle of Taman Negara National Park and the myriad river crossings between starting point Kuala Tahan and the summit itself. As compensation you’ll hike through prolific cloud forest and montane oak, past pitcher planets and orchids; elephant tracks are often spotted.
Day two’s 27 hills, day three’s unremitting climb and day four’s vertiginous ridges will test your mind and matter, but when you reach the mountain’s top, the views make it all worthwhile.
Or try… hiking with Second World War history on the Kokoda Trail, Papua New Guinea; traversing Taiwan on the Nenggao Cross-Island Trail.