World's Scariest Stairs
All is right with the world when you’re gazing down from the rooftop of Milan’s Duomo. That is, until you remember the steep marble stairs that got you there—and are your only way down.
Stairways can leave just as much of an impact on your memory as the places they lead you. Some are so eye-catching they look like they belong in an M.C. Escher painting, while other stairs are downright intimidating, especially when they stand between you and a site you flew half way across the world to experience.
In Peru, for instance, travelers need to tackle about 600 feet of slippery granite rocks carved into the mountainside to reach the Moon Temple at Machu Picchu. And at Yosemite National Park, you can’t take a selfie at the top of Half Dome without climbing a cable ladder up the rock face for more than 400 feet.
All it takes is a misstep for any old staircase to become treacherous (just ask Jennifer Lawrence), yet some standout for being especially scary. A set of stairs in Hawaii is so precariously perched that climbing is now illegal. In China, there’s a stairway with an age requirement. Other stairs are intimidating for more psychological reasons, such as the creaking noises made by the world’s longest wooden stairway in Norway, or the eerie atmosphere at “The Stairway to Hell,” part of an abandoned industrial complex in Japan.
Travelers with nerves of steel—and eager for bragging rights—follow these stairs because of what they find at the end, whether a sacred Hindu temple or the top of a spectacular waterfall. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of accomplishment that comes once you’ve taken that last step. Safely, that is.
Angkor Wat Temple Stairs, Cambodia
In this super-humid hotbox of Buddhist history, there’s no shame in bowing down on your hands and knees or pulling yourself up with the provided ropes to scale the nearly 70 percent inclined stairs of Angkor Wat’s uppermost temples. Guides claim the steps were made to be so steep to remind people that heaven was hard to reach—though you might make the same argument about Earth as you try not to tumble on the way down.
The Verrückt, Kansas City, KS
It takes guts just to reach the starting point of the world’s tallest and fastest water slide, opened July 2014. To get to the top, you’ve got to climb the 264 steps that snake up the slide’s tower in 25 turns. When you’ve summited at 168 feet—that’s one foot taller than Niagara Falls—pat yourself on the back and take a selfie. Then brace yourself for the water slide’s initial 50-foot linear drop, which can reach 65 mph. The only alternative is to turn around and suffer the 17-story walk back down those nauseating steps.
Pailon del Diablo Waterfall, Ecuador
At first it’s lovely to notice that the staircase adjacent to these waterfalls was designed to blend in with the tropical landscape. But consider the name—in English, the Devil’s Cauldron—and the evil tricks the steep steps can play. They are made of smooth, oversize pebbles that provide little traction, and when you're looking down, they blend together, creating an optical illusion of a stone slide. They’re also slippery from the constant mist from the falls and even though there’s a metal railing to save you from any spills—but don’t count on that too much—it too is drenched with water droplets.
Half Dome, Cable Route, California
What’s between you and the most iconic peak in Yosemite Valley? A seven-mile (one-way) all-incline hike through the wilderness that culminates with climbing up the rock face along a cable ladder for more than 400 vertical feet. If you’re up for the challenge, snag one of the 300 hard-to-get daily permits available for Half Dome between Memorial Day and mid-October. (Check your footwear and the forecast; rainy conditions have proven fatal.) From the summit, you’ll take in panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.
Inca Stairs, Peru
At Machu Picchu, 600 feet or so of steep, slippery, cloud-covered granite rocks the Inca carved more than 500 years ago into the side of Huayna Picchu (the peak in everyone’s photos) lead to the rarely visited Moon Temple—and a spectacular view of the ruins. The park limits the climb to the first 400 visitors each morning and has added some metallic chains in the worst parts, so hold on because on one side is a sheer, damp wall and on the other, a straight drop into the Urubamba river.
Statue of Liberty, New York City
If you want to gaze out from Lady Liberty’s crown, check your claustrophobia at her feet. The platform’s only access is via a cramped, 146-step double-helix spiral staircase with just six feet of head clearance—and it’s teeming with tourists. Real troopers, however, will make the entire tight 377-step hike up all the way from the lobby, the equivalent of climbing a 20-story building. These physical challenges all come after you’ve managed another feat: snagging one of the hard to get passes that allow entry into the crown. They have to be booked at least three months in advance, are name and date specific, and are limited to four per order.
Flørli Stairs, Norway
Norway’s Flørli Power Station is the starting point for the best hikes around the town of Lysefjord—and its stairs will make you gasp for two reasons. First, there are 4,444 steps that ascend a staggering 2,427 feet from the bottom. Second, it is the longest staircase in the world made entirely out of wood, meaning you should be paying close attention to each mysterious creak and crack you hear.
Mount Huashan Heavenly Stairs, China
There’s no official count of steps on this cardiac stress test carved into a sacred Taoist mountain. Perhaps because anyone attempting to conquer this vertiginous washboard wall has lost count, distracted by the dizzying drop and its threat of death. Eventually, the steep “heavenly stairs” stop, and this becomes the most hellish horizontal walk in the world—a three-plank-wide walkway with only a chain to hold onto, flush against the wall of flat rock. When that’s done, there’s another set of meandering, mountainside stairs. If you get to the top of Mount Huashan, you’ll discover that “heaven” is a remote teahouse with a terrific view.
Janssen Observatory, Mont Blanc, France
The steps are short and sweet. They’re not cramped, they come with railings, and they don’t get too crowded. What can make these stairs squeamish is their placement at the summit of the tallest mountain in the Alps, when they're open to the elements—gale-force winds and chilly temperatures.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
One of the most important Hindu holy sites outside of India is this series of cave shrines nestled into the side of a mountain about eight miles from Kuala Lumpur. The highlight: accomplishing the ascent of 272 steps that lead 330 feet up the rock to the main Temple Cave. It’s not just the stone stairs that test your temerity; it’s the sneaky macaque monkeys. They aren’t afraid of people and are liable to steal stuff right out of your bag. So while it’s a good idea to climb without any food, it also can’t hurt to say a prayer before going up. You may do so at the temple of Hanuman—the “noble monkey”—to the far left of the entrance, near Ramayana Cave.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Gaudí envisioned a forest canopy when designing the rooftop of this Roman Catholic church, but climbing the spiral staircase to its towers feels more like crawling up a Slinky. Not only does it coil high along the tightly enclosed walls, but there’s also no banister to prevent you from barreling over the middling edge while you’re walking up and down with hordes of other people.
Haiku Stairs, Oahu, Hawaii
Can stairs be so seriously scary that they’ve been banned? Answer: yes. The 3,922 rickety steps that lead a half mile up Oahu’s Koolau Mountain Range pose such a risk, it’s actually illegal to climb them. There’s even a guard placed at the bottom to stop you from going up. Nicknamed the Highway to Heaven, they were built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy as a means to installing communications wires. After World War II, they became popular with daredevil hikers, but by 1987, they had closed to the public for safety concerns, and they stay that way, despite a 2003 renovation project.
Duomo di Milano, Milan
No visit to Milan is complete without having marveled at the view of Italy’s northern city from the roof of this famed cathedral stacked with about 2,000 statues. But in order to check it off your bucket list, you’re required to wiggle up and down a steep, slender staircase in a shaft way clogged with tourists. Tip: head to La Rinascente, a department store across the street with a rooftop café that serves up perfect views of the cathedral and skyline—no stairs necessary.
Moaning Cavern, California
Imagine climbing down a 100-foot-tall curlicue staircase, welded almost a century ago, deep into the darkness of a damp cave known for its eerie wails and moans. Or just head to this place and experience the real thing. Once you're at the bottom, as the hair on your neck settles back down, you’ll be rewarded with a cave so big it could fit the Statue of Liberty.
Tunneling through the 1.2 miles of nearly airless ossuaries that contain the disturbed bones of the six million Parisians whose remains were transferred here in the 18th century is spooky enough. But then you’ve also got to contend with 130 claustrophobic steps that spiral down from the sunny skies above into the somber catacombs below.
Cape Horn Stairs, Chile
There are only seven cruise ships that disembark at Cape Horn Island, the most southern scratch of land before Antarctica. They come to visit the Albatross Monument, dedicated to the thousands of sailors who lost their lives on this harrowing journey through tides so treacherous, even some modern ships can’t get close enough to make land. Once ashore, you’re greeted by 162 ocean-sprayed steps, but the most problematic part comes up top when the stairs flatten into tiers of slippery, wooden boardwalk, through a tundra of unrelenting mist-filled wind, strong enough to blast you off into the cold, marshy land on either side.
The Exorcist Steps, Washington, D.C.
One of the most frightening falls in film history happened in the movie The Exorcist, on these innocuous-looking stairs found at the end of M Street in Georgetown. Crewmembers padded each of the 74½ stairs for the stuntman to fall down, and they got the scene in two takes. Study Latin, read some scripture, or, er, exercise on them…if you dare.
Stairway to Hell, Hashima Island, Japan
Heartbeats quicken on this abandoned island of industrial ruin. And nowhere more than in this dingy stairwell that used to be the most heavily trafficked walkway, connecting the mining community that worked and lived here from the 1950s to the 1970s. (The stairway’s name references the "hellish" pain it caused on daily commutes.) At the top was the colony’s most important spiritual structure, Senpukuji Temple, which has long since tumbled, leaving only a solitary shrine standing.
Cedar Creek Treehouse Observatory, Washington
Only a few people ever get to experience the expansive views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Valley from this serene tree-house observatory. But even more unique, and certainly unforgettable, is the climb up the 82-foot spiral stairway that gets you there. It is one of the only cantilevered stairways on earth built into a tree. As you step higher and higher, it’s best you don’t think too deeply about those planks supported by nothing more than some bolts and the trunk of this centuries-old fir tree.
Derinkuyu Stairs, Cappadocia, Turkey
More than a thousand years have passed since this stairway was carved into a soft volcanic-stone shaft. Try not to imagine it collapsing under the 150 feet of sandstone between it and the land above as you make your way down the 75 or steps, with just four feet of clearance. Experts aren’t clear on the backstory of this subterranean complex, but it was inhabited by various civilizations until the 10th century; and then became lost until 1963. The burrowed stairs lead to a small church, and Derinkuyu remains open for tours, which can get unnervingly large toward the middle of the day.
Taihang Mountains Spiral Staircase, China
While some might come to the remote town of Linzhou in the Taihang Mountains for hiking, the real draw to venture so far southwest of Beijing is rising to meet the challenge of this 300-foot-tall spiral staircase. But bring your pen, because before twisting your way up the sickening 21 turns on this bizarre beanstalk, you’ve got to sign a form that says you’re in good health and aren’t over the age of 60.