The 6 Most Physically Challenging Hikes in the United States

As the temperature drops, it’s tempting to relax on your couch all day. But if you want to channel your energy into something mentally and physically challenging, we recommend hiking. A long hike is a great way to spend a day knowing that once you reach the summit, you’ll be overwhelmed with feelings of awe and accomplishment. You’ll also get to see many of America’s picturesque natural wonders.

Pack your most rugged outdoor gear and strap on your best hiking boots for here are the most physically challenging hikes in the United States for 2021. The journey will be tough (and perilous), so we suggest checking out our guide on how to prepare for a long-distance hike.

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Kalalau Trail

Kauai, Hawaii

A scenic view of the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii.
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If (good) 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 4,000-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 need 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. If you make it to the end, 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.

Half Dome Cable Route

Yosemite National Park, California

The cables on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California.
Steve Dunleavy/Getty Images

There are few peaks in the United States more iconic than Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The Granite peak reaches nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor and has a 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 sketchy 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 2019). The biggest threat, park rangers say, is from quick-forming lightning storms that have the ability to fry anyone whose misfortune places them on the metal cables at the wrong time.

Read more: Best National Parks 

Bright Angel Trail

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

A hiker enjoying the view of the Bright Angel Trail.
Nigel Killeen/Getty Images

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 on this popular 4,380-foot deep, 9.5-miles round trip rim 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-degree 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.

Devil’s Path

Catskills, New York

Trees and rock formations in the Devil's Path.
Brandt Bolding/Getty Images

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 the Devil’s Path’s landscape.

The Maze

Canyonlands, Utah

A breathtaking view of The Maze.
Ian D. Keating/Flickr

The Maze — a super-heated playground of sandstone fins — is the most inaccessible part of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. You need a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle to take you the 45 miles down a treacherous dirt path past the ranger station just to get to the trailhead. 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 1,000 or so people attempt this crazy trek every year.

Read more: Why You Should Have a Handheld GPS

Muir Snowfield Trail

Mt. Rainier, Washington

A scenic view of the Muir Snowfield Trail.
Stephanie Bergeron/Unsplash

This hike might seem easy at first, but rapidly changing weather conditions and an ice-ridden vertical climb make this one especially dangerous. Hikers begin their route on a paved trail through a summer meadow before ascending 2,800 vertical feet in 2.2 miles to get to the Muir Snowfield. Hikers should come prepared with food and proper equipment like crampons and possibly ice axes before committing to this trek, as winter weather from the Pacific Oceans comes in fast and hard at this altitude. Hiking Project warns potential climbers that people have died on the Muir Snowfield in the middle of June, so you can never be too safe. The last 250 vertical feet to the summit are seemingly endless, and even challenging for experienced climbers. For those that make it to the top, an unobstructed view of Mt. Rainier up close and personal awaits, complete with hanging glaciers, tall seracs, and yawning cracks.

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