Ancient trails, legendary landscapes and pilgrim’s paths... From laid-back wanders to the planet’s most challenging hikes, these are the walks that shaped the world.
Period of history: 1.75 billion years ago (canyon’s oldest rock)
Walk length: 34km; 2–3 days
The Grand Canyon cuts an almighty dash through the Colorado Plateau, is 446km long, up to 29km wide, more than 1.6km deep and just shy of two billion years old. That’s the age of the venerable Vishnu schist at the base of this geological layer cake, which is best viewed by walking from canyon top to bottom and back up again. Follow in the footsteps of the Ancestral Puebloans, using the Bright Angel Trail to descend from South Rim to the Colorado River, via ancient pictographs and a riot of ever-changing rock. Spend a night in the canyon’s bowels before ascending the North Kaibab Trail to read the rock strata in reverse.
Period of history: 600 million years ago (rock formation began)
Walk length: 10.5km; 3.5hrs
According to the indigenous Anangu, Australia's iconic Uluru was created by spirit people at the dawn of time. According to geologists, however, it was formed around 600 million years ago, when sandy deposits condensed below a long-gone sea. Either way, a circumnavigation of the mighty monolith reveals an unexpected array of cracks, crevices, formations and fissures that aren’t visible from a distance, caused by aeons of erosion (or ancestor snakes, depending on your beliefs). The Base Walk is also the most respectful way to appreciate Uluru – the Anangu consider the rock sacred and the path up it dangerous, so ask you not to climb.
Dunes in Naukluft NP (Dreamstime)
Period of history: 45–80 million years ago (age of desert)
Walk length: 120km; 8 days
Hiking the Naukluft Trail is hot, thirsty work. But then, this is a hot, thirsty place. The Namib is considered the world’s oldest desert, and arid conditions have prevailed here for at least 45 (perhaps 80) million years. The trail itself loops through the ravine-sliced Naukluft Mountains, which demarcate the Namib’s eastern edge, and which date back two billion years themselves. Follow dry rivers and plateau-top paths, and use chains to haul yourself through narrow gorges. The only signs of life will be fellow trekkers at the well-placed huts and a menagerie of hardy wildlife, from quiver trees and rock dassies (hyrax) to weaverbirds and oryx.
Period of history: 20 million years ago (Iceland began forming)
Walk length: 55km; 4 days
Iceland is odd. Here, on this 20-million-year young island, geology is still very much in action, and the landscape is as energetic and pimpled as a pubescent boy. The Laugavegur showcases some of this spirited geology, running from Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk via a fizz-bang of thermal springs, steaming streams, lava fields and rainbow-hued rhyolite peaks.
Period of history: 45,000 years ago (history of indigenous peoples)
Walk length: 966km; 6–8 weeks
The indigenous Noongar have inhabited Western Australia for 45,000 years. They lived dispersed across the region but also walked hundreds of miles to gather together for trade and ceremonies. The Bibbulmun were a subgroup of the Noongar, and WA’s great long-distance trail is named after them. Beginning near Perth, the Bibbulmun Track goes walkabout via the Murray River, giant karri forests, rolling farmland and the Darling Range before it hits the Southern Ocean and follows the coast east to Albany. Indigenous people once hunted turtles around here; now you’re more likely to see kangaroos bouncing on the beaches and, in season, whales passing by offshore.
Hikers in Hawaii (Dreamstime)
Period of history: 5.1 million years ago (Kauai formed)
Walk length: 18km; 1–2 days
Hawaii is like a series of diminishing smoke rings. The tectonic plate on which it sits is slowly inching over a volcanic hotspot, which occasionally burps out masses of magma, creating more islands. Kauai is the oldest ‘belch’, so time and tides have had longer to sculpt its landscapes. Especially dramatic are the island’s Na Pali cliffs, a towering rock rampart cloaked in forest and waterfalls, and all-but inaccessible to everyone bar hikers on the Kalalau Trail. Using pathways first created by 13th-century Polynesian settlers, it’s possible to inch along this shore, Pacific crashing on one side, impenetrable rock on the other.
Period of history: 3000 BC (age of Stonehenge)
Walk length: 58km (85km with detours); 4–5 days
No one really knows why, 5,000 years ago, the then-residents of south-west England dragged a load of stones to the Wiltshire plains and arranged them in impressive circles. But following the Great Stones Way, from Barbury Castle (south of Swindon) to Old Sarum (north of Salisbury) gives a much broader picture of Neolithic man – and those that came after. This walk incorporates not just Stonehenge, but landscapes scarred by barrows, burial mounds, ditches and avenues, as well as Roman roads, Norman churches and Victorian white horses. A living lesson in British history.
Great Wall of China (Dreamstime)
Period of history: 400–200 BC (wall first constructed)
Walk length: Around 4,989km; 15–20 months
The Great Wall of China wasn’t one wall. It was a multitude of defensive strands built over 2,000 years by successive paranoid dynasties to protect themselves from the ‘barbarians’ to the north. Also, it’s reckoned only a third of the wall still remains. These factors make it impossible to walk the whole thing, which roughly stretched from western Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan, in the east. But segments can still be traced, many just north of Beijing. For a wild, un-Disneyfi ed wall walk, try the steep, mountain-backed Jiankou section or the unrestored ramparts at Gubeikou.
Period of history: 300 BC - AD 150 (Late Mayan Preclassic Period)
Walk length: 59.5km; 5 days
In its golden age, the Mayan city of El Mirador was twice the size of better-known Tikal; it was even home to 72m La Danta, the Maya’s tallest pyramid. However, it was abandoned around AD 150, subsequently swallowed by jungle and only rediscovered in the 1930. Still only 20% excavated, El Mirador is only reachable via a strenuous, sweaty, bug-infested hike from the village of Carmelita. It’s worth the effort though, not only toexplore the site but to uncover other Mayan ruins en route, from the ball court at El Tintal to the temples of Nakbe and the raised sacbe (causeways), which the Maya themselves used to travel between cities.
Period of history: 250 BC (road completed)
Walk length: 16km; 4hrs
The Romans were famously good at roads. So good, in fact, that one of their first – the Via Appia – still exists today, 2,000 years on. Originally, this linear link ran from Rome to the port of Brindisi. Today, the first 16km is the easiest to follow. Leaving the Italian capital at the Porta San Sebastiano, one of the most impressive gates in the Aurelian Walls, the route runs through the Appia Antica Park via an unfurling of ancient sites, including the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (meaning ‘Lord, Where Are You Going?’), built on the spot where it’s said Peter had a vision of the risen Jesus.
Period of history: 7 BC – AD 33 (the purported lifespan of Jesus)
Walk length: 64km; 3–5 days
This Holy Land hike begins in Nazareth, where Jesus was raised; it finishes at the ruins of Capernaum, where Jesus lived during his years of ministry. Between is a landscape besprinkled with Biblical resonance. Walk via Zippori, where Mary is thought to have been born; Kfar Kana, where Jesus allegedly turned water into wine; the limestone cli s of the Arbel Valley, where Jesus likely travelled; and the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where he is said to have multiplied loaves and fishes to feed 5,000.
Machu Picchu (Dreamstime)
Period of history: AD 1200–1550 (rise and fall of the Inca civilisation)
Walk length: 45km; 4 days
The tenure of the Inca was short but sweet. The South American civilisation emerged around AD 1200, conquered most of the continent, but were then virtually wiped out by the Spanish by the mid-16th century. However, they left quite a legacy, not least their route through the Andes to the ‘lost’ city of Machu Picchu. The four-day Inca Trail, which starts near Cusco, is littered with Inca artefacts, from the ceremonial baths at Huinay Huayna to the fragments of pavement beneath your feet. Arriving at the Sun Gate to look down on Machu Picchu itself is the ultimate walkers’ reward.
Period of history: AD 800 (Teyuna built)
Walk length: 45km; 5 days
Just as the Inca hid Machu Picchu amid the Andes, the Tayrona people secreted away their own Ciudad Perdida (‘Lost City’), deep within Colombia’s Caribbean-coast jungle – but about 600 years earlier. These days it’s a jungle-bashing, river-fording, bird-filled walk to reach the ruined city of Teyuna, which sits in the shadow of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. A climb up 1,200 steps provides the final reveal, delivering you onto a stone terrace from where you can explore – though only a fraction of this vast site has been reclaimed from the forest’s grip.
Period of history: AD 774–835 (lifespan of Kobo Daishi)
Walk length: 1,100km; 40–50 days
Priest Kobo Daishi trudged all over Shikoku before gaining enlightenment and founding Shingon Buddhism, so this pilgrimage around Japan’s fourth-largest island is a fitting tribute. The scenery is varied, ranging from rugged mountains and the shores of the Seto Sea to stretches of tarmac through urban sprawl. There are 88 temples en route, where henro (pilgrims) make offerings of coins and osame-fuda (name slips), and chant mantras and prayers. Pilgrims can begin where they choose, as long as a full circumnavigation is made – there is no start or end, it’s all about the journey.
Period of history: AD 990 (route first walked)
Walk length: 1,700km; 80 days
Pilgrimage was all the rage in medieval Europe, with the faithful traipsing to shrines continent-wide. The Camino de Santiago is most famous, but there were many others, including the pilgrimage from Canterbury, religious epicentre of England, to Rome, heart of the Christian church. In AD 990, Archbishop Sigeric undertook this journey and recorded his route, giving us an early guidebook to the Via Francigena. The route crosses Kent, hops into France, runs through Lyon and Reims, enters Switzerland, surmounts the Alps and dashes down Italy, via the Apennines and Tuscan hills, to end at St Peter’s in Rome.
Period of history: AD 1517 (Luther publishes his theses, which transformed Christianity)
Walk length: 2,000km; 3–4 months
Disillusioned by the Catholic Church, friar Martin Luther pinned his outspoken Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 – essentially starting the Protestant Reformation and revolutionising Western religion. The Luther Trail has been created to celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary of Luther’s dissertation, with strands branching out across the states of Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Saxony and Bavaria, to reveal the history of the Reformation via the churches, hometowns and pilgrim routes of its main players.
Waves battering the Australian coastline (Dreamstime)
Period of history: AD 1770 (Captain Cook lands in Botany Bay)
Walk length: 94km; 7–8 days
The Botany Bay area of Australia has changed a bit since 1770, when Captain Cook dropped anchor. Back then, this wooded coast was home to a few Gayamaygal people. Today, it’s the most populated part of Australia. This makes the Sydney Great Coastal Walk a lively mix of dazzling beaches, big-city buzz, colonial sites and Aboriginal heritage. There are unexpectedly empty beaches towards Park, where a statue marks Cook’s first landing and indigenous rock art abounds.
Hiker on the John Muir trail (Visit California)
Period of history: AD 1838–1914 (John Muir’s lifespan)
Walk length: 340km; 20–24 days
John Muir is the father of the national parks movement. Without this Scottish-American naturalist-nomad there might be fewer wildernesses left to walk through. Muir’s particular passion was Yosemite, California’s great granite valley; he called it ‘by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter’. Now, thousands follow the trail named in his honour to discover the Sierra Nevada for themselves. It’s a tough undertaking, largely because you need to carry all your supplies. But being immersed in the pine forests, peaks, mirror lakes and wildflower meadows, it’s clear to see why Muir fought for their protection.
Period of history: AD 1841 (headhunting suppressed)
Walk length: 19km; 2–3 days
The Headhunters’ Trail links cave-riddled Gunung Mulu National Park with the river port of Limbang. It follows the route Kayan tribes once used to launch raids on their neighbours – who they sometimes decapitated, preserving the heads as grizzly souvenirs. Headhunting was rife in 1800s Borneo; however, in 1841 Governor James Brooke suppressed the practice, which makes this walk perfectly safe, though still an adventure. Start with a longboat trip, then trek out amid the wildlife-rife forest and shard-like Pinnacles; finish with an Iban homestay for an insight into 21st-century tribal culture.
Hiker on the Chilkoot Trail (Dreamstime)
Period of history: AD 1897–98 (Klondike gold rush)
Walk length: 53km; 3–5 days
When three prospectors found gold in a stretch of the Klondike River in 1896, they triggered one of the world’s great stampedes. Thousands sailed for Dyea, Alaska, and made the arduous on-foot journey to the Yukon goldfields. This involved toting all their worldly possessions up the ‘Golden Staircase’ to top the 1,067m Chilkoot Pass – the border between the US and Canada. Many stampeders made the journey dozens of times; plenty just gave up, abandoning their possessions by the trailside. When you hike here today, crossing white-water rivers, negotiating bear-roamed forest and facing that precipitous climb, some discarded items can still be seen.
Period of history: AD 1879 (Battle of Isandlwana)
Walk length: 8km; 3hrs
The Anglo-Zulu War was brief yet brutal. It lasted for just under six months, and was ultimately won by the British, but involved the worst defeat on African soil in the British forces’ colonial history. The Fugitive’s Trail follows the retreat route used by British soldiers at the Battle of Isandlwana, when they were heavily outnumbered by Zulu warriors. Survivors tried to run from beneath the mighty rock towards the Buffalo River. This route, which crosses scrubby savannah, a deep gully, a steep hill and a raging river, is now littered with cairns that mark where the men fell.
Period of history: AD 1915–18 (Italian Front)
Walk length: 120km; 10–12 days
Horror amid beauty: during the First World War, the sublime pinnacles of the Dolomites became a bloody front line. Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces fought each other for four years, building lookouts, guard-posts and trenches to secure their positions, and constructing via ferrata (‘iron roads’) to help them navigate the slopes. Along the Alta Via 1, which links Belluno and Lago di Bráies, you can still use rungs and cables to get around. At Lagazuoi, you can walk through preserved tunnels dug by both sides.
Hiker in the Himalaya (Dreamstime)
Period of history: AD 1953 (Everest is climbed for the first time)
Walk length: 130km; 12–14 days
In 1852, the Great Trigonometrical Survey discovered that the prosaically named ‘Peak XV’ was actually the highest mountain in the world. Such a designation instantly had people itching to conquer the 8,850m giant, but it wasn’t until 29 May 1953 that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally did so. The Everest Base Camp trail follows the same route Hillary and Norgay used to reach Everest’s bottom, via the Sherpa hub of Namche Bazaar and the breathtaking peaks of the Khumbu Valley. Base Camp itself might be ‘only’ 5,340m, but trekking here or, better, to the top of nearby Kala Pattar, gives visitors an inkling of how it must feel to stand on top of the world.
Section of the Berlin Wall (Dreamstime)
Period of history: AD 1961–89 (Berlin Wall existed)
Walk length: 160km; 7–10 days
The Berliner Mauerweg is one of the most chilling trails included here. This circuit follows the old footprint of the Berlin Wall, which encircled West Germany, keeping the city’s inhabitants – and essentially a whole continent – divided for almost 30 years. There’s little actual wall left now, though a few graffitied remnants have been preserved. However, plaques and relics along the way provide reminders of that not-so-distant past, with stories of escape and execution dotting bucolic lakesides and now-lively streets.
Period of history: AD 1985 (Simpson and Yates’ expedition)
Walk length: 120km; 12 days
The Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit is not quite as dramatic as the events laid out in mountaineer Joe Simpson’s book, Touching the Void, but it isn’t far off. The 1985 expedition that it recounts, which famously saw Simon Yates cut Simpson’s rope, and an injured Simpson somehow survive, took place on the terrifying slopes of Siula Grande. As if in deference, the Huayhuash Circuit loops around this 6,344m peak, via an army of mighty mountains; a short detour leads to Siula’s base camp, for throat-choking views of the glacier that Simpson had to crawl his way down.
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