World’s Most Demanding Hiking Trails

El Chorro by Roberto Lumbreras
El Chorro by Roberto Lumbreras

Here in BC, hiking is an extremely popular hobby. It's understandable considering that BC is known internationally for it's amazing hiking trails, many of which ascend through old growth forests. Hiking can almost be called a noble sport due to it's reflective nature ~  (as Thoreau put it: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow”) and allows people to commune with nature while engaging in truly challenging exercise. Today’s post is for BC hiking enthusiasts who might have an interest in learning about some of the most demanding hiking trails in the world; trails where the joy of hiking merges into successfully overcoming nature's challenges and testing the limits of your endurance.

1. El Caminito del Rey

Translated from Spanish as “The King’s Little Path,” El Caminito del Rey is often cited as being the world’s most dangerous trail. Situated in southern Spain near the village of Alora, in the province of Malaga, this extreme walkway winds along the steep walls of El Chorro gorge. Originally, the route was constructed over four years and finished in 1905 to provide the workers who were building the hydroelectric power plants at Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo falls with a means to cross between the falls carrying materials and for easier inspection and maintenance work on the channel. The inauguration of the path took place in 1921, when Spanish king Alfonso XIII officially opened the walkway. Since then, the path has been deteriorating up to its present condition, where it’s only good only for thrill-seeking adventurers. Also, hiking the trail is now illegal after a terrible accident in 2000 where several people died tragically. Some sources say that the Spanish government decided to restore the trail in 2006, but no reconstruction works have taken place so far.

Passage by Rosino
Passage by Rosino

The hike is just over three kilometres, including the return route. The walkway construction ranges from 100 to 300 metres above the river, leaning on a 90-degree mountainside incline, overseeing sharp rocks. The  trail is just about a metre wide and almost no original handrails remain, so anyone suffering from a fear of heights would definitely want to steer clear of this adventure. The rails have been replaced by a safety-wire running along the length of the path. The safety-wire, however (get this) unreliable, so people often rent harnesses at a little climbing shop (run by a cool German guy) under the trail. Many parts of the path are falling apart and climbers are forced to use newer support fixtures often spaced four to five feet apart with nothing in between. This results in huge open-air gaps that need to be crossed...think Indiana Jones.

2. Huashan (Mount Hua)

Mount Hua (also known as “Number One Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven”) trail is considered to be one of the most challenging trails in the world. In the 1990s, the local government decided to try and make the trail safer by installing a few railings and stone steps. It’s situated in the Shaanxi Province, approximately 120 kilometres east of Xian city, near the city of Huayin in China and is one of the Five Sacred Taoist Mountains. Traditionally, it was believed that Mount Hua had three peaks, but now it’s acknowledged that it actually has five, which from afar, makes the mountain look like a flower. The great history and religious significance of the mountain (the walkway was originally used by monks) is probably one of the reasons why this extremely dangerous trail is often full of people with no professional equipment or mountaineering skills. On the other hand, this is exclusively a hiking trail with no climbing segments, so the equipment wouldn’t do much help anyhow. Since the Chinese government doesn’t issue any statistics about injuries or deaths occurring here (and more specifically claims it’s always zero), you can only guess how many people have lost their lives hiking Mount Hua.

Flags by takwing kwong
Flags by takwing kwong

The hiking route that takes you up to the top demands your constant concentration and attention, as a single wrong move can cost you your life. The most dangerous part of the trail is probably the Changong Zhandaoa, a 13-foot long and one-foot wide plank path winding along the 90-degree mountain cliff! After a slight reconstruction of the path, there are now also some chains present so it’s possible to strap yourself to them with a harness. This newly-added chain is also the only handle on some segments of the trail, supplemented just by a couple of footholds in the rock.

Another extreme part of the route is the steep (or some would say vertical) Heaven Stairs. The staircase is very narrow, so the biggest danger here is that someone might slip and cause others to also fall. Even though this trail basically sounds like a death trap, here's an interesting fact: lots of Chinese visitors choose to take on the route at night in order to watch the sunrise. Traditionally, it was considered much safer not to see what’s under you to avoid vertigo. Hmm. I guess you could say it's about perspective.

A Tip for the less adventurous: there’s a cable car that carries visitors straight to the North Peak, so you can skip the ordeal of actually surviving the trail and simply enjoy a spectacular view of the mountain.

3. Kokoda Trail

The Kokoda Trail or Kokoda Track links towns of Buna and Gona on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea all the way to Port Moresby on the southern coast. It’s one of the world’s most prominent and challenging treks and is a 96-kilometre, single-file walkway in the extreme Papuan environment.

The track has an intriguing history behind it. Originally, it was used by 19th century gold miners who needed a passageway to cross to the Yodda Kokoda goldfields. During World War II, it became an important battlefield between Japanese and Australian forces between July 1942 and January 1943 (for more information, see the Kokoda Track Campaign).

Crossing the creek by superRelish
Crossing the creek by superRelish

All in all, the trail takes from four to twelve days to complete, depending on an individual's skills and fitness level. The funny thing about this demanding trek is that local people from Papua New Guinea usually can complete the trek within three days’ time. Climate often poses the biggest challenge for trek tourists: visitors have to endure different topographies ranging from swamps to rugged mountainous rainforest, with sweltering days and intensely frigid nights.

The highest point of the route is 2,190 metres above sea level, as the trail snakes around the peak of Mount Bellamy. The best time to do the trek is definitely the dry season, ranging from April to September,  Kokoda in the rainy season is dangerous.

If the actual trail isn’t too precarious, why is this route listed here? During most of its segments, the Kokoda trail is extremely remote and far from civilization. The isolation mixed with the humid tropical climate can result in tricky encounters with fun tropical diseases like Malaria that might strike and overwhelm you without any aid nearby. In 2009 alone, six Australian trekkers died from natural causes on the track during separate incidences.

In recent years, the Kokoda Trail’s popularity has been significantly rising. While in 2001 only 76 adventurers took the hike, in 2009 more than 4,300 people set out on the journey. Many young Australians see this as an extreme challenge and have come to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, viewing the journey as a sort of pilgrimage. After this recent Aussie-eco-tourism boom, several companies offering guided tours have been established. They provide great service and can tailor the Kokoda experience according to your needs and abilities. By using the experienced guides and following their advice, the trek can be done in a much safer manner.

4. Kalalau Trail

Kalalau Trail by Geordie Mott
Kalalau Trail by Geordie Mott

The Kalalau Trail winds along the picturesque Na Pali coastline on the Kauai Island in the state of Hawaii. The 11-mile trail used to provide the only land access to the legendary Kalalau Valley; however, it has been falling into disrepair throughout the 20th century.

Rated at a 9 out of 10 difficulty level by the Sierra Club, this trail is only recommended to backpackers with strong endurance and perfect physical condition. The nature of the trail varies from muddy puddles to eroding cliffs with narrow footpaths (get ready for the famous “crawler’s ledge” at the seven-mile mark).

Adventurers have to cross steep inclines and declines (at one point, hikers need to climb up 800 feet over 1.25 miles) and traverse five valleys before reaching Kalalau Beach, the final destination of the journey. Three big streams need to be crossed along the way, which can get very tricky if the water level’s up. 

Additionally, loose rocks from the cliffs, slippery conditions on muddy parts of the trail and the unbearable midday heat and humidity make the 11-mile Kalalau Trail a worthy challenge for this list. Apparently, the pristine environment of the trail makes the journey worth it. Hikers can look forward to seeing one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world with amazing views while wandering through a jungle full of lush vegetation and colourful rare plants.

Completing the hike can last either one or two days, depending on the physical conditions of the hikers. However, be careful: visitors are only allowed to camp on Kalalau Beach and you need to obtain your permit, which is limited to five nights, in advance. For those who realize that they need an extra day during the trek, it’s possible to spend the night at Hanakoa Valley with a Kalalau permit. No drinkable water is provided throughout the trek, so make sure you filter the water or bring in your own supplies.

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