A truly great trail winds into the essence of a place, so when assembling this list of the world’s great hikes we kept an eye on more than the footpath. We looked for walks that travel deeper into a location’s history and culture. Sure, there’s outdoor adventure on each of these 20 hikes, but the trails also tell a rich story. So here they are, the holy grails of trails across the world.
1. The Patagonian epic: Laguna de los Tres, Los Glaciares, Argentina
Hikers visiting Torres del Paine often add on an expedition to the national park of Los Glaciares, which offers equally stunning scenery, not to mention a wealth of day hikes and multi-day treks. This 14-mile (22km) hike is one of the classics, carrying you deep into the mountains of the Fitz Roy range.
The name – the Lagoon of Three – refers to the trio of mountains that lie in wait at the end of the trail: Cerro Fitz Roy, Aguja Poincenot and Torre, rising like rocky guardians around the lakeshore.
2. The sunrise hike: Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
In world terms, this conical mountain isn’t all that high – only 7360ft (2243m) – but don’t let its size fool you. It’s a punishing climb, favoured by pilgrims who come to see the Sri Pada, or sacred footprint, said to have been left by either Buddha, Shiva or Adam, depending on which religion you happen to belong to.
There are six possible routes to the top, but the one most often used by trekkers is the Hatton Trail, a steep uphill slog involving numerous stairs cut into the mountain.
3. The coastal walk: South West Coast Path, UK
England’s longest waymarked footpath, and the longest of the UK’s 16 National Routes, follows the beautiful coastline of the island’s southwestern-most peninsula. Hikers planning to tackle its entirety, from Minehead in Somerset through the quaint towns and geologically rich coastline of Cornwall and Devon to Poole Harbour in Dorset, are advised to allow at least a month. Twice that time is recommended if you want to walk at a leisurely pace and linger over the views – and cream teas – in spots such as Bigbury-on-Sea, where Agatha Christie penned her crime novels in the art deco hotel on Burgh Island.
4. A Japanese journey: Tateyama-Kamikōchi hike
The classic hike covering the length of the North Alps takes around seven days in the most spectacular alpine scenery Japan has on offer. This hike starts at Murodo (8040ft, 2450m), the high point on the enthralling Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, which links the western and eastern sides of the North Alps with a series of cable cars, buses, trolley buses through tunnels and a walk over the Kurobe Dam.
5. The African high peak: Mt Toubkal, Morocco
Apex of the Atlas range, 13,671ft (4167m) Mt Toubkal is also the highest peak in North Africa. You can get up and down it in two days if summiting is all that matters, but making a longer circuit not only helps with acclimatisation, it also offers a greater insight into local Berber culture.
6. The rope and cable trail: Caminito Del Rey, Spain
Do you dare walk a trail once nicknamed the ‘Walkway of Death’? The Caminito del Rey (King’s Path) near Málaga in southern Spain, which reopened in 2015 with new cables, cliff-hugging boardwalks and a suspension bridge that wobbles with every hesitant step, is still scary – though you’ll no longer see your life flash before your eyes.
7. The lake walk: Enchantment Lakes, Washington, USA
This is a gruelling climb up mountains in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, yet it pays off in an otherworldly realm of granite slabs, jewel-like tarns and lofty spires. The going is arduous – the viewless Snow Lake Trail demands strength and endurance as it traverses a strand of steep lake basins partitioned by high granite walls. You’ll appreciate a walking stick or trekking poles in several places.
The clear waters of Upper Snow Lake provide solace for weary hikers on the way up, who must later summon courage for a perilous log crossing over a waterfall that spills from the sheer-faced rim of Lake Viviane.
8. The wildlife walk: Rakiura Track, Stewart Island, New Zealand
Stewart Island’s kiwis – the southern brown kiwi – are extra-large. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any easier to spot. You’ll have to wait until dusk then head for Ocean Beach in the Glory Cove Scenic Reserve, giving the protected Hooker’s – aka ‘New Zealand’ – sea lions a wide berth. Since you’ll need a permit to be there after 6pm it’s worth joining a guided tour.
However, the Rakiura Great Walk on Stewart Island does offer almost-certain sightings of lots of New Zealand birdlife, including kaka parrots, bellbirds, tui, fantails, little blue penguins and an abundance of wading birds.