Sarah Baxter | 17 May 2023
15 of the world's epic walking trails
Whatever your ability, these diverse treks will show you rare wildlife, unique cultures and immense scenery. Are you ready for the challenge?
Whatever your ability, these diverse treks will show you rare wildlife, unique cultures and immense scenery. Are you ready for the challenge?
Best for… An alternative classic
Start/end: Bunglas (Donegal)/Larne (Antrim)
Distance: 485km; 25 days
Not content with spanning thousands of kilometres of the USA, the Appalachian Trail has spread across borders, linking what was once – 175 million years ago – one single mountain range rippling across super-continent Pangea. The Ulster chapter launched in 2011; investment in 2021 has seen the trail improved, plus new signage and trail art installed.
The route is diverse, starting on the Atlantic coast by the sea-smacked peak of Slieve League (in the Republic of Ireland) before heading into the Blue Stack Mountains, past peaceful Lough Eske and Killeter Forest, via the Sperrins (Glenelly Valley is a highlight), along the UNESCO-listed rocks and bays of the Causeway Coast and through the Glens of Antrim, finishing by the Irish Sea at Larne.
Or try… Saint Patrick’s Way, Ireland’s alternative to the Camino de Santiago. The 132km route links Armagh, where the saint founded his first church, to Downpatrick, his final resting place.
Best for… A Med mountain challenge
Distance: 180km; 10-14 days
Glance at a topographical map of the ‘Ile de Beauté’ and it’s no surprise that the GR20 has a reputation as one of Europe’s toughest hikes. This Grande Randonnée cuts a north-west-to-south-east diagonal along Corsica’s relentlessly mountainous spine, clocking up around 19,000m of ascent and descent via steep slopes of scree and boulders – terrain usually reserved for rock climbers or, back in the 18th-century, Corsican guerrillas fighting for independence.
But what ups and downs they are, revealing an astonishing world of icy, jagged peaks, dipping valleys, glacial lakes, shepherds’ huts, pine forests and aromatic maquis. Accommodation is in basic refuges – sleeping in close confines with your fellow walkers is part of the challenge.
Or try… The 674km French section of the GR5, which follows the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean; the whole route takes around five weeks.
Best for… Island-hopping on foot
Distance: 247km; 8-13 days
Why walk across one island when you can tick off ten? The Hebridean Way traverses the Outer Hebrides archipelago, linking (south to north) the remote outposts of Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis.
En route lies a bit if everything. There’s wild moorland, craggy hills, blinding-white beaches and flower-speckled machair grassland. There are Bronze Age remains, a Bonnie Prince Charlie trail and the Neolithic stone circle of Calanais. And there are corncrakes, white-tailed eagles, otters and red deer. Six causeways and two ferries help you hop along, while the slow walking pace allows for a proper immersion in the islands’ distinctive Gaelic culture.
Or try… The Channel Islands Way, around 185km of Gallic-inflected walking, circumnavigating Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm (plus a few ferry trips too).
Best for… Dipping in and out
Start/end: Jeju Island
Distance: 425km; 26 days
The leftovers of an underwater volcanic eruption, Jeju Island lies south of the Korean peninsula and is a land apart – it’s the country’s only self-governing province and has a distinctive culture. The Jeju Olle Trail (olle meaning alleyway) comprises 26 connected routes of between 10km and 20km. These run around the edge of the island and showcase its tropical beaches, fishing villages, thatched houses, curious hareubang (‘grandfather’ statues) and numerous oreum (volcanic cones), as well as offering good views to 1,950m Hallasan, South Korea’s highest peak. Many people walk it in sections, collecting stamps in an official trail passport; good choices include Olle 6, for condensed Jeju highlights, and Olle 10, which passes several oreum. Complete all 26 sections and you enter the thru-hiker Hall of Fame.
Or try… Hong Kong’s Lantau Trail (70km) loops across the rugged isle in 12 stages; try sections two and three, which include the highlights of Sunset and Lantau Peaks.
Best for… Offbeat Alberta
Start/end: Forgetmenot Pond
Distance: 42km; 3-4 days
Ah, Alberta. Immediately Banff and Jasper national parks spring to mind – both jaw-dropping hiking terrain. But for scenery that’s just as impressive, but with just a fraction of the crowds, look to Kananaskis Country instead. Just west of Calgary, in the foothills of the Rockies, K Country has high peaks, sharp ridges, dazzling-blue lakes, forests of aspen, pine and spruce, plentiful moose and a lot of hiking trails.
The Big Elbow Loop is a good choice for back-country beginners. It’s easy to follow, affords fine mountain views and is served by basic-but-beautiful riverside campsites (complete with fire pits, pit toilets and bear lockers). There are options to add on other trails too: a scramble up Mount Romulus, hike to Upper Tombstone Lake or the nearby 8km Upper Kananaskis-Rawson Lake Trail.
Or try… The tougher 32km Tamarack Trail, in Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park, a dramatic hike along the Continental Divide – one for more experienced backpackers.
Best for… Literary leg-stretching
Distance: 395km; 20 days
2021 marks 700 years since the death of the poet Dante Alighieri, making it apposite timing for a walk along the Vie di Dante. This new trail strides across Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, linking Dante’s tomb in the mosaic-filled city of Ravenna to his birthplace in Florence (home to the Dante House Museum), retracing the probable route that the author took following his exile from Florence in the 14th century.
Along the way lie the wild Apennine Mountains, welcoming agriturismos, hilltop villages and stops linked to the man himself, including Pontassieve (where Dante’s said to have met Beatrice), Acquacheta waterfall (mentioned in Canto XVI of Inferno) and Romena Castle (where he once stayed).
Or try… The Coleridge Way, an 80km amble across Somerset and Devon in the wake of the Romantic poet, from Nether Stowey (where he once lived) to Lynmouth.
Best for… Year-round island adventures
Start/end: Órzola (Lanzarote)/Orchilla (El Hierro)
Distance: 560km; 5 weeks
One trail, seven islands: the GR131 extends across all of the sub-tropical Canaries, making it possible (with a few ferries or flights) to cross Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro in one go.
Each has a distinctive character. The 37km of GR131 crossing La Gomera – the ‘walkers’ island’ – takes in rock towers, ravines and misty laurisilva cloud forest. Lush, steep La Palma claims 66km, which ascends above the wild Caldera de Taburiente to 2,426m Roque de los Muchachos before following the Ruta de los Volcanes to the island’s southern tip. The 42km stretch across El Hierro is full of drama, tracing the island’s wild spine before descending to the remote volcanic far west.
Or try… Madeira – this southerly Portuguese island has a perpetually mild climate, dramatic dips and ridges, and over 2,000km of levadas (irrigation channels) to walk along.
Best for… Rare wildlife, wild shores
Start/end: Angourie/Red Rock
Distance: 65km; 4-5 days
Located 480km north of Sydney, Yuraygir National Park encompasses the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in New South Wales. It’s the traditional land of the Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl nations – many areas remain rich in cultural significance – and homeland, too, to an impressive natural diversity and abundance.
As you follow the wave-slapped shoreside trail – scrambling along cliffs, wading through creeks, passing littoral rainforest, swimming in the sea and camping out on the sand – you may encounter rarities such as squirrel gliders, eastern grass owls or endangered coastal emus; between June and October, migrating whales might be spotted offshore.
Or try… The 104km Great Ocean Walk, a meander from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles, tracing Victoria’s most iconic stretch of coast; look out for koalas, whales, seals and little penguins.
Best for… Balearic heat and history
Distance: 185km; 20 days
Created in the 14th century so that knights on horseback could patrol Menorca’s shores, the Camí de Cavalls (aka the GR223) has, in the 20th century, been repurposed as a well-waymarked trail, accessible to mountain bikers, horse-riders and hikers. It’s divided into 20 gentle sections (between 5km and 13km), designed so that, in a day, you could walk a stage out and back, with time for exploring, sun-lolling and swimming too.
Maó, the capital, makes a good start-point. Walk anti-clockwise from the old harbour, looking out for secret coves, ancient burial chambers, Franco-era bunkers, Spanish talayots (watchtowers), holm oak forests and a bevy of birds – the whole island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and some 220 species have been recorded here.
Or try… Mallorca’s 140km GR221 – or ‘Dry Stone Wall Route’ – which follows old cobbled paths and traditional walls to traverse the Tramuntana Mountains.
Best for… An epic – in miniature
Start/end: Campo, California/Manning Park, British Columbia
Distance: 4,270km; 4-6 months
The PCT is a hiking colossus, tracing the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains the full height of the USA, from its Mexican to Canadian borders. It’s reckoned around 800 people attempt it each year; about 60% finish. If you have the time, go ahead. If not, consider a smaller portion, like the 110km section from Tuolumne Meadows – the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada – to Sonora Pass, via the remoter reaches of Yosemite Valley.
Here, glaciers have gouged the great lumps of granite into cathedral-like domes and peaks, interlaced by rivers, lakes and cascades. Wilderness permits are required for multi-day hikes; the 19km out-and-back day hike from Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin Camp is a sublime appetiser.
Or try… Part of the 3,500km Appalachian Trail – aficionados love the tough but dramatic 140km section along New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.
Best for… Middle-earth escapades
Start/end: Maden Dam/Hogsback
Distance: 100km; 6 days
Did the Eastern Cape’s Amatola range really inspire Tolkien? Some say the author’s nanny was from the village of Hogsback, and regaled a young JRR with magical tales of her home… There’s certainly something of the Middle-earth about the landscape here, with its moss-draped Ent-like woodlands, flower-flecked meadows, giant worm hills, indigenous pirie forests, gushing waterfalls, cinematic mountain views and Xhosa legends.
The trail itself, which runs from missionary-founded King William’s Town to mountain-tucked Hogsback is tough, though a series of basic-but-comfy huts (with beds, bathrooms and communal braai barbeques) help ease the strain. There are plenty of places to cool off with wild swims en route too.
Or try… Spain’s new Camino del Anillo (‘the Ring Road’), a 120km trail through the northern Sierra de Guadarrama, inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Best for… Road-trip rambling
Start/end: Puerto Montt/Cape Horn
Distance: 2,800km; 20 days-plus
Don’t worry, you don’t have to thru-hike the whole length of southern Chile. Rather, the Ruta de los Parques de la Patagonia (launched in 2018) is an epic road-trip that links more than 60 communities and 17 national parks, providing scenic access to many trekking opportunities along the way.
This covers classic treks in Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine, but it also includes virgin trails established in newly designated protected areas. For instance, the 100km Jeinimeni-Avilés Circuit skirts the Aysén region’s new Patagonia National Park, via Gloria Mountain, ancient Tehuelche wall paintings, hanging glaciers, native forest (resplendent in autumn) and swooping condors.
Or try… The Ruta 40 highway traces the Andes down the western border of Argentina; use it to hop off for hiking around the Argentine Lake District, Perito Moreno National Park and the Fitzroy range.
Best for… Jungle pioneering
Start/end: Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve
Distance: 58km return; 4-5 days
It’s claimed only a couple of hundred people have ever conquered Victoria Peak, the second-highest peak in Belize. At 1,124m, it’s not so very big but it’s a true test: located deep in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary – the world’s first jaguar preserve – its flanks are precipitous and cloaked in dense, damp forest.
A local guide is mandatory for the out-and-back trek, as is a good level of fitness and a head for heights (some sections require scrambling and ropes). The pay-off, though, is hiking into a pristine wilderness of waterfalls, orchids, hummingbirds and howler monkeys, with sweeping views over an unbroken canopy of green and nights spent in hammocks, drifting off to jungle sounds.
Or try… 3,821m Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest point, summitable in two days; from the top, on a clear day, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Best for… Performing an ancient pilgrimage
Start/end: Takijiri-oji/Kumano Nachi Taisha
Distance: 68km; 4-5 days
Honshu’s Kii Peninsula is riddled with pilgrimage trails, a 1,200-year-old network called the Kumano Kodo that leads to the region’s sacred Shinto shrines – aside from Spain’s Camino de Santiago, these are the world’s only UNESCO-listed pilgrimages. The 68km Nakahechi (Imperial Route) was the Kumano strand favoured by nobles; it originally started in Kyoto but now begins at the Takijiri-oji shrine, from where it rambles via rice paddies, pine forests and misty mountains.
It also passes the venerable hot springs village of Yunomine Onsen, where pilgrims perform ablutions before visiting the key trio of shrines: Hongu Taisha (home to a record-breaking 33m-tall torii gate), Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Well-signed and well-preserved, the Nakahechi is the best Kumano Kodo option for self-guided walkers.
Or try… The 1,150km Shikoku Pilgrimage, a sacred circuit around Shikoku island, linking 88 temples.
Best for… Second-highest splendour
Distance: 75km approx; 5-7 days
The 4,071m M’goun Massif is only 100m lower than Jebel Toubkal – North Africa’s highest point. But that 100m makes all the difference, drawing peak-baggers to the country’s zenith and leaving M’goun much quieter, despite being arguably the more attractive landscape.
Here, the circuit trail loops via windswept cols and summits dusted in snow but also broad, green valleys, neat terraces, orchards and walnut groves, weird rock formations and Amazigh (Berber) villages teetering on the slopes. The literal high is the straightforward slog up M’goun itself, from where views stretch across the Draa valley to the Sahara Desert.
Or try… Bulky Mount Meru (4,566m), Tanzania’s second-highest point, with Kilimanjaro views and wildlife sightings but only a fraction of the Kili-traffic.
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