There’s no escaping the environmental impact of traveling… unless we decide to travel on foot. Trekking the world’s best hiking trails is arguably the most eco-friendly way to travel. It’s as carbon-neutral as it gets, especially if you carry all your outdoor gear, sleep in a tent and remove all your waste.
Long-distance hikes are becoming more and more popular each year. It’s partly due to the success of books/films like Wild and A Walk in the Woods, in which hiking for days/weeks/months on end is portrayed as a reflective, spiritual experience.
Although the number of trekkers grows each year, you’re still likely to find yourself alone with nature when you hike a long-distance path. And despite the discomfort you’ll no doubt experience along the way, the journey is sure to be a transformative one.
Sadly, many hikers are far from being responsible travelers, littering the trails or causing wildfires by being careless around camp. You know the old adage, “take only memories, leave only footprints”?
Let’s keep that in mind as we hit the trails. Here are our picks for seven of the world’s best hiking trails– all of which provide memorable experiences sure to stay with you for a lifetime.
The Pacific Crest Trail (USA)
Narrowly beating out the Appalachian Trail among our picks for Best Hiking Trails in the US, The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT for short) rose to worldwide fame after Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book Wild was published in 2012. But it was well-known in hiking/backpacking circles long before then.
The 2659 mile-long trail stretches between the Mexican and Canadian border, crossing the states of California, Oregon and Washington 150 miles east of the Pacific Coast.
A thru-hike of the PCT takes 4-8 months and is usually done in a northbound direction. This helps minimize the chances of encountering snow, as the trail follows the highest portion of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges.
Most people hike the PCT in sections rather than trekking it all in one go. Some of the most scenic portions include the John Muir Trail in California, which crosses some of the state’s most beautiful national parks (221 miles), and the Sky Lakes Wilderness section in Oregon (28.7 miles).
The Camino de Santiago (Spain)
Many of the world’s best hiking trails are a relatively recent creation. For instance, the PCT was established only over the last century. But the history of the Camino de Santiago spans over a millennium: It was traversed in the Middle Ages by pilgrims bound to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, to visit the grave of St James.
There are dozens of trails bound for Santiago found all over Europe. The most popular of them all is the Camino Francés, which starts in the village of St Jean Pied-du-Port in France, then crosses the Pyrenees and northern Spain from east to west.
The Camino Francés is about 500 miles long and takes between three and four weeks to hike.
The trail is very well marked with signs and there are many albergues (dormitories for pilgrims) situated all along the trail. This trail can get crowded in summer.
Less-trod alternatives include the Camino Portugues (heading northwards from Lisbon) and the Camino del Norte (close to the northern Spanish coast).
The Annapurna Circuit
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit trail is the second most popular trekking activity in Nepal (after Everest Base Camp). But veteran trekkers consider this among the best hiking trails in the world.
The 128-mile, horseshoe-shaped trail was originally a trading route that locals walked with their yaks and donkeys. It typically takes around three weeks to complete.
One of the highlights is crossing Thorung La pass at an altitude of 17,769 feet, where strings of prayer flags flutter in the wind, with snow-capped Himalayan peaks making for a stunning backdrop.
It’s not strictly necessary to have a guide to complete the Annapurna Circuit. Accommodation and food can be found in teahouses, which are small guesthouses dotted all along the trail.
However, hiring a local guide and porter will definitely add a lot to the experience. They’ll allow you to understand the significance of what you’ll encounter along the trail and assure help is at hand if altitude sickness hits.
The W Trail (Chile)
The W Trail– in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia– is home to some of the world’s most dramatic and pristine mountain landscapes.
It’s a delight to explore on foot thanks to abundant water springs and mild temperatures, even during the height of summer.
The trail is between 37 and 52 miles long, depending on variants. It usually takes 4 days to complete, with accommodation usually in tents or refugios (mountain huts).
Highlights of the W Trail include the Cuernos del Paine (a massif set around a lake), the glacial Valle Francés (which is criss-crossed by streams and surrounded by glaciers), Torres del Paine (three granite towers reaching up to the sky), and of course all the cute Guanacos you’ll encounter along the way!
The Inca Trail (Peru)
Another of South America’s great adventures, the Inca Trail is a 4-day hike across the Peruvian Andes. It passes several ancient archaeological ruins in the picturesque Sacred Valley before ending at the Sun Gate, where hikers are rewarded with sunrise over the ruins of the great Inca city of Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail crosses a variety of landscapes, climbing to almost 14,000 feet before descending into a beautiful cloud forest where birds fly through the mist.
However, the trail has suffered severe environmental impact due to mass tourism. As a result, hiker numbers are now limited to 500 a day (including porters and guides), but it can still feel crowded sometimes.
For this reason, we recommend considering alternative trails such as the Lares or the Salkantay, which allow closer contact with local communities and nature.
The Lares trail goes through several villages and accommodation is typically in homestays. The Salkantay travels even higher than the Inca Trail– the highest point is over 17,000 feet– offering great views all the way.
The Karhunkierros Trail (Finland)
Nordic countries are great places to hike thanks to Everyman’s Right, a traditional practice that allows people to access all public and private land for recreational purposes.
In Finland you can hike and camp wherever you like, provided you keep a reasonable distance from private homes. You can also forage for mushrooms and berries and go fishing without a license.
In summer, Finland experiences mild climate and round-the-clock sunshine. We recently completed a 250 mile summer hike across Finland, and it was truly one of the greatest experiences of our lives.
Next year we hope to go back to hike the Karhunkierros, a 50-mile trail from Salla to Kuusamo (in Finnish Lapland) that goes through Oulanka National Park. Karhunkierros means “Bear’s ring”: The trail is not ring-shaped, but bears do live in the area.
The Great Trail
The Great Trail, formerly known as the Trans-Canada Trail, is the longest network of recreational trails on the planet.
The trail runs all over Canada, from the Yukon to “Mile Zero” in Newfoundland, crossing through most of Canada’s provinces and territories along the way.
The whole network is about 12,000 miles long and about 80% complete. It aims to be finished by Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.
The only question that remains is who will be the first thru-hiker to add this to their completed list of the world’s best hiking trails? –Margherita Ragg
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer and English teacher from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition. She is one of the hosts of the @WednesdayRoamers weekly Instagram competition. Her other passions (in no particular order) are rock climbing, skiing, homebrewing and her cat Tappo. Follow Margherita on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
If you enjoyed reading the Best Hiking Trails for Your World Bucket list, you might like:
CALIFORNIA: Hiking The John Muir Trail
Hiking The Annapurna Circuit: Why It May Be Now Or Never
INTERVIEW: Appalachian Trail Guru Winton Porter