World's Scariest Hikes
His left hand clutching rock, a foot searching for purchase on an icy plank below, writer and TV host Robin Esrock looked down from his precipitous position on China’s Mount Huashan. A spiraling fall, hundreds of feet to a canyon floor, would be the result of any misstep. “This is the moment where I’ve officially lost my mind,” he said, recording his adventure with a handheld camera.
The Mount Huashan trail, popular with domestic tourists, trudges up steep staircases cut into rock. It climbs ladders bolted into stone. Eventually, it becomes a dicey balancing act where hikers traverse a vertical face on wooden planks fastened to a sheer cliff wall. Esrock hiked and ascended for hours to complete the route and reach a temple at the peak.
Risking your life to go for a hike may seem extreme. But around the world, thousands of travelers boot up and take a gamble for a walk in a magical place like Mount Huashan. These hikes, though frightening, are accessible to almost anyone in moderate physical shape.
A good example is the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, an 11-mile route along the island’s remote Na Pali Coast that is among the most paradisiacal paths on earth. Green walls rise 4,000 feet from the ocean waves, but loose rock, cliff falls, and flash floods are dangers on the winding tropical trip. Fit hikers complete the Kalalau Trail in a long day. Backpackers camp halfway through.
The trail itself is not the only danger. A couple miles into the Kalalau hike you’ll find Hanakapiai Beach, an epic and remote strip of sand below Kauai’s cliffs. Powerful riptides can carry swimmers away, and the beach has been the unfortunate site of many drownings. Despite the dangers, the trail is safely traversed by thousands of hikers each year.
In Canada, another infamous trail follows Pacific Ocean waters on a remote stretch of Vancouver Island. The 48-mile West Coast Trail was built decades back as a route to rescue shipwreck victims. Today, the WCT is within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Along the rugged route, animals haunt many hikers’ fears. Three potential man-eating beasts—bears, wolves, and cougars—lurk in the thick woods along the path. But you’re more likely to twist an ankle than encounter a wolf. Terrain on the WCT is notoriously harsh. Muddy trails, hand-over-hand ascents, and wooden ladders positioned for passage up vertical valley walls offer multiple venues to tempt fate and test Murphy’s Law.
In China, on Mount Huashan, Robin Esrock knew he was tempting the gods. He hiked and climbed on the edge for hours. At the end of his self-filmed production, Esrock kneeled at a temple on the peak and uttered a quiet prayer. “Thank you for letting me survive that,” he whispers, a soft voice trailing as the wind picked up.
WestCoast Trail, VancouverIsland, Canada
A man-eating trifecta of bears, wolves, and cougars call the woods around this trail home. Yet adventurers come from all over the world to hike the 48-mile route, which was built decades ago as a seaside trail to aid troubled ships that came in from the fickle Pacific waters offshore. Today, hikers spend up to a week attempting to traverse the trail, which is inside the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Steep slopes, bridges, and wooden ladders up cliffs create an injury-prone path where a twisted ankle can leave you out of luck for days.
Rover’sRun, Anchorage, AK
Bring your bike helmet and your bear pepper spray! According to the Alaska Fish and Game department, a “few dozen” brown bears roam the area around Rover’s Run, a popular mountain-biking trail in the outskirts of Anchorage. Indeed, a mauling this year and one in 2008—both nonfatal—have prompted local officials to consider shutting down the trail. It is a former game trail converted for biking and skiing use. Alaska Fish and Game says it “has long been a place where bears come down from the mountains and congregate for salmon heading upstream to spawn.”
Often cited as the toughest hiking trail in the East, this east-to-west voyage in the Catskill Mountains of New York traverses the spine of the mountain range. It is just two hours north of Manhattan, but the route is wild; hikers will find rocky and near-vertical sections, waterfalls, and slippery slabs of rock on knee-crushing downhills. Long, precipitous, and difficult, the path travels 25 miles and ascends six major Catskill peaks. And did we mention the bears? Be sure and hang your food supply in a tree at night to avoid black bear harassment.
Cliffs rise 4,000 feet out of the ocean. Falling rocks, copious mud, rain, and flash floods are commonplace. Traversing Kauai’s paradisiacal Na Pali Coast, this dramatic and remote wilderness path is a winding, 11-mile feat complete with waterfalls, lush jungle, slippery descents, and hairpin switchbacks abutting 300-foot drops directly into the ocean surf below.
Routeup Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala
A trek uphill to see steam vents and rivers of lava on Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano is a popular tourist hike, since it’s near Guatemala City. But after a shower of volcanic rock killed a reporter this spring, Pacaya National Park closed the trail. Visitors were soon bypassing the usual route, according to an Associated Press article, and heading up the volcano through a private farm in a nearby village.
KokodaTrack, Papua New Guinea
For various tragic reasons, four hikers died in separate incidents on the Kokoda Track during the 2009 trekking season. The trail runs for 60 extremely remote miles overland through Papua New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Mountain Range, climbing to more than 7,000 feet. A journey on the trail—which was the site of a World War II battle between Japanese and Australian forces—takes 4 to 10 days for most groups. Weather swings between hot days and frigid nights. Malaria and other tropical diseases are constant threats on what is among the world’s most dangerous long-distance backpacking routes.