The Five Most Physically Challenging Hikes in the USA

the five most physically challenging hikes in usa hiking
Ah, Summer. The days are long and the Friday’s are short; time to get out off the treadmill and onto the trail. No more pre-programed hills or feeling like a glorified gerbil. The real deal is calling…which means hiking in nature. We’ll always love a lazy stroll, but if you’ve been training relentlessly all winter and are up for an adventure, then here are five physically challenging hikes in the United States that should do just the trick.

1—Kalalau Trail, Kauai, Hawaii

Kalalau Trail, Kauai, Hawaii
Kalalau Trail, Kauai, Hawaii. Photo Credit, Flickr User Miguel Vieira

If looks could kill, few would last more than a few minutes on this dreamy 11-mile stretch of the lush Na Pali Coast on Hawaii’s remote Kauai Island. Instead, a few other features of this picture-perfect hike could lead to your early death. Like the narrow trail that ventures through five different Hawaiian valleys, hugging 4000-foot high volcanic cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. Scary, but it becomes downright horrifying by adding just a little moisture, which turns the earthy path into a pissed off slip and slide. And the trail just so happens to be littered with waterfalls on top of three flash-flood prone jungle rivers. In April 2014, these floods caused 121 hikers to be rescued in just one day. While you’re navigating the precarious path praying for no rain, you’ll also have to mind the locals. There’s a community of not-always-so-happy-to-see-you hippies that have long lived by the trail; in December 2012, one tossed a Japanese tourist off a cliff. And fun fact: The 2009 Mila Jovovich horror film, A Perfect Getaway, was set along the trail. If you make it, the reward is handsome—the impossibly perfect secluded beaches of Hanakapi’ai and Kalalau. Seasoned hikers can do the trail in a day, but most will need to camp out at one of the two pre-approved campsites.

2—Half Dome Cable Route, Yosemite National Park, California

Half Dome Cable Route, Yosemite National Park. Credit: Flickr User Mark Doliner
Half Dome Cable Route, Yosemite National Park. Photo Credit, Flickr User Mark Doliner

There are few peaks in the United States more iconic than Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The Granite peak reaches nearly 5000 feet above the valley floor and has flat-surfaced top with views that have shown up in Ansel Adams’ artwork. For the most part, the 14-mile round trip trail is a moderate hike—steep, but not technical. It gets sheisty at the last 400 feet, where since 1919, two meager metal cables, have allowed hikers to climb up to the top. No ladder. No railings, No safety equipment. The cable route can get crowded, despite the need for a permit (on weekends) and every year there are rescues and sometimes deaths (the last happening in 2011). The biggest threat, park rangers say, is from quick forming lightening storms that have the ability to fry anyone whose misfortune places them on the metal cables at the wrong time.

3—Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon Arizona
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon Arizona. Photo Credit, Grand Canyon National Park

Take warning in the fact that the park service staffs something called Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) whose sole purpose is to urge the unprepared to get off the Bright Angel trail. They also man water stations for overheated hikers along this popular 4,380 feet deep, 9.5 round trip rim to river trail in the Grand Canyon and still there are over 200 rescues a year. A few things hikers regularly forget? There’s little shade along the way and temperatures increase as you descend into the canyon, regularly reaching the 110 mark. In case you miss someone from the PSAR, there are also signs in every imaginable language warning hikers of the treacherous hike. If you must walk down the Grand Canyon, bring some water, your own shade, start early and rest often. Don’t be that dude.

4—Devil’s Path, Catskills, New York

Devil's Path New York. Photo Credit, Flickr User Miguel Vieira
Devil’s Path New York. Photo Credit, Flickr User Miguel Vieira

Less than two hours drive from Manhattan is one of the country’s most underrated treks—25 miles of gorgeous Catskills views, waterfalls, wildlife and a whole lot of scaling of slippery, rocky walls. It may seem quaint by Rocky Mountain standards, but the trail includes steep, vertical climbs where you’re only holding onto tree roots. It meanders across seven peaks (including the famed Indian Head peak) at a grueling, 14,000 feet in combined elevation. Taken piece by piece, the trail is moderate, but attacking it all at once can be downright deadly. Deaths and rescues are a regular part of this trail’s landscape.

5—The Maze, Canyonlands, Utah

The Maze, Canyonlands, Utah. Photo Credit, Flickr User Mike Renlund
The Maze, Canyonlands, Utah. Photo Credit, Flickr User Mike Renlund

This superheated playground of sandstone fins is the most inaccessible part of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. You need a high clearance 4X4 vehicle to take you the 45 miles down a trecherous dirt path past the ranger station just to get to the trail head. Enter without a topographical map and GPS (and the ability to use them) and you may never find your way out of the mess of dead end valleys. It seems the National Park Service has done a good job at keeping the inexperienced out; despite this being one of the most dangerous hikes in the country, there have been no deaths reported yet. But that could have something to do with the fact that only 1000 or so people attempt this crazy trek every year.


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