“When you’ve seen one hiking trail, you’ve seen them all.”
Blasphemy. Hiking the same local hill might be a repetitive experience to some, but if you, the avid hiker, has heard someone offer you a complaint similar to what you read above, tell them you beg to differ.
Our planet, after all, is a vast and wondrous place. We have not yet fully explored even our own backyards of each nation, and when the world is your playground, you can find some very unique and transformative hiking experiences. Here are ten of some the most unique hikes this side of Mars. We have included a variety, from pleasant to downright terror-inducing.
1. McAfee Knob, Appalachian Trail. There’s no way the Appalachian Trail doesn’t make an appearance on its list. The AT is nearly 2,200 miles in length of mostly wilderness. For a unique perspective, the 3.9-mile one-way jaunt up to McAfee Knob typifies the attraction of the entire Appalachian region. It has been called the most-photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail, and that’s saying a lot the entire trail extends throughout the eastern United States. The near-panoramic view of the Catawba Valley is well worth the tricky 3.9 miles. Well-marked trails, moderately difficult. It is well worth the hike because of the incredible 270 degree views.
2. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Speaking of rare environments, you’d be surprised at the combination of Mediterranean beauty and inland Europe difficulty offered by Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. In fact, the luminescent lakes contain dissolved limestone, which give them a glowing blue-green quality that looks like no other water on Earth. Tourism is popular, but heavily regulated considering the Croatians take their beautiful spot very seriously. Distances and heights vary – you can ascend some 350 meters to Korana bridge or go much higher if you want, so difficulty varies as well.
3. East Ramon Trek, Israel. Drybeds, Biblical terrain, flatlands, the risk of flash floods – this site in Israel has just about everything a daring adventurer could want. The Israel National Trail spends two weeks specifically in the Negev Desert, which itself includes the East Ramon Trek, a trek of some 42 kilometers that will require multiple days, though you can reach it by bus. Though the land there is serene, the environment is quite challenging and the fact that the Negev is truly a desert should be respected.
4. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. For utter splendor and excitement, the 20 mile trail to Machu Picchu will take four days to traverse. This is a very strenuous climb, with altitudes that will challenge even the most intrepid. Passing the Cloud Forest, you will reach Dead Woman Pass at 13,780 feet above sea level. There are many smaller ruins to view along the way to the eerily perched castle-like abodes that touch the sky. Avoid the monsoon season, but pack your rain gear and tents along with plenty of supplies. Due to the immaturity of past hikers, laws were passed in 2001 requiring tour operators to lead any groups desiring to climb the trail. Regardless, it will be a hike that you will never forget.
5. Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. Many people forget that the California side of Yosemite holds one of the most iconic images of the entire park –t he Half Dome. A 16 mile, 12-hour trip to get all the way to the top is not an easy thing for casual hikers, but the views you are rewarded with more than make up for the effort. This is the quintessential western hiking route, especially considering the half dome is so unique that you can’t find its equal in the continental U.S.
6. Kamikōchi (Nagano-ken). This amazing area in Japan hosts the country’s most beautiful scenery and is often referred to as the Japan Alps. The level of difficulty varies but the draw is the incredible views along the Azusa-gawa, a crystal clear river, lined with bamboo grass and straddled by ethereal walking bridges. The first Sunday of every June is considered to be the official opening of the season for hiking, and it opens with a festival honoring a missionary who cultivated a love for mountaineering as a sport in Japan.
7. Crater Rim Trail, Hawaii. Logging it at an 11 miles round-trip, there might be no more “alien” hiking experience on Earth than the Crater Rim Trail. It’s a strenuous climb, bring plenty of water and snacks, but the element of volcanic beauty and real-life danger (the trail is often moved or closed because of volcanic activity) make it one of the best hiking spots on Earth. It’s not only unique, but it’s impossible to find anywhere else but Hawaii.
8. Mount Kailash Pilgrimage, Tibet. For sheer inspiration, this will knock your hiking socks off. This is a trek that is quite familiar to Tibetan monks, requiring great endurance and lung capacity due to the high altitudes. The 32 miles of mountainous splendor are perfect for reflection and gratitude. When you are done, be sure to stop for a swim at Lake Manasarovar. It is one of the highest lakes in the word at over 15,000 feet above sea level.
9. El Caminito del Rey, Spain. If you want your breath to come in short gasps, not just from hiking but from terror as well, give this unique trail a go. Balance precariously on the edge of cliffs where the trails have given way and long fallen into the cavernous regions below. We can definitely say this is a difficult and challenging hike, times ten, even death-defying. It was closed to public access, which has only served to make it even more popular for action-adventurists. Be warned. People die on this hike.
10. Mt Huashan, China. This could be the most dangerous hiking trail in the world, though there are a few that could prolong the debate. One of the five sacred mountains for the Chinese, it wanders near the mountains of Tibet and offers paths so narrow that you may only pass by rubbing your ear against the cliffs which, incidentally, is the name of one of the sides of the North Peak. There are many different hiking trails offered from the central location. All of them long and treacherous and promising certain death from loss of footing.
This only covers the beginning of a very long list of unique places to wear down some shoe leather. But it should certainly give you a few ideas as you pack for your next trip; both of where to go and, perhaps, where not to go.
Paul Moore writes for an Appalachian area real estate business, nestled against the beautiful Smith Mountain Lake shores, not far from McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail.