From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything
Great Smoky Mountains, U.S.
The Great Smoky Mountains, long regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee Indians, is a region rich in natural diversity and pioneer history. Named by the Cherokee for the mysterious wisps of blue-gray smoke that often shroud the highest peaks, this majestic mountain range marks the southern climax of the Appalachian chain. Established as a national park in 1934, the area today spans a magnificent 500,000 acres (202,500 hectares), making it the largest wilderness area of the eastern United States. Within proximity of its extensive 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) of walking trails lies an abundant reserve of both natural and historic interests. The Smokies are home to more than 130 species of trees, 1,500 varieties of flowering plants, and 200 types of birds. Nestled within this haven of cascading waterfalls and fantastic mountain vistas stand the preserved remnants of pioneer heritage: the log cabins, farmhouses, grist mills, and barns built in the 18th and 19th centuries by European settlers. Entering into this immense and abundant forest, walkers can retrace a pioneer past that follows the footsteps first marked by the Cherokee Indians.
A walking tour throughout this northern wonderland—not far from the region’s hub of Québec City—reveals natural and cultural treasures. The Saguenay Fjord estuary is a unique ecosystem where fresh water blends with sea tide, creating this journey’s special environment. Granite cliffs plunge into the St. Lawrence River, where villages cluster by the water’s edge. There is an extensive trail network in the Saguenay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Granite peaks, brilliant lakes, high gorges, hanging waterfalls, eagles, and snow geese—all are common sights. Nearby are authentic auberge inns to relax in French Canadian comfort.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Imagine walking a spectacular coastal path with the Mediterranean on one side, mountains on the other, and Italian fishing villages just ahead. Now multiply that experience by five. Welcome to the captivating region linking the “five villages” of the Cinque Terre. Footpaths cross the terraced slopes of the Riviera di Levante to hamlets with pastel-colored buildings and contrasting shutters and lead to brightly painted boats in small harbors. Walk past trattorias and a solitary abbey to a rocky promontory with the sea always in full view and a clear sky overhead. Stop in at the Splendido hotel in Portofino.Along the route, there’s Ligurian cuisine, including characteristic Italian pesto made from locally grown basil—a source of particular pride among chefs and restaurateurs from these neighboring villages, each one claiming the best recipe. Sciacchetrà is a rare, crisp, fragrant white wine, a specialty harvested from the Cinque Terre’s terraced vineyards. Stop in at the Splendido hotel in Portofino.
Cloud Forests of Costa Rica
A cloud forest is a tropical forest that’s usually found near the top of coastal mountains and is covered in clouds throughout most of the year. Walks through those of Costa Rica represent the ultimate encounters with nature’s boundless variety. Traveling on foot, you’ll explore rugged craters and lagoon waterfalls, freshwater ponds and tranquil sea coves. Cloud forest trees tower above, and wide rivers run through lush floral lanes. One part of the adventure provides a lofty perspective on the area’s abundant natural wonders, as you cross bridges suspended high above the forest. Brilliant colors and wild sounds create a vibrant and exotic sensory experience. You’ll find a variety of lodgings in Costa Rica to renew your enthusiasm for another day’s discoveries in this striking land.
Timeworn paths invite walkers into a world of splendor and captivating legends here at the British Isles’ westernmost point. Ireland’s historic past comes alive in the southwest region, where ancient abbeys and castles stand alongside quaint country homes. Walk the Dingle Peninsula, past stone cottages set against dramatic cliffs on one side of the route, with small islands far away to sea on the other. Discover ancient Iron Age ruins on the western tip of the peninsula at Slea Head. Follow a path through the moss-carpeted forests in Killarney National Park. Set out by boat to explore historic Inisfallen Island on Lough Leane. Andstroll along County Kerry’s spectacular sand dunes.The walk is also rich in wildlife discoveries; you might see red deer, otter, and great crested grebe, especially around the Lakes of Killarney.Lively pub lunches with a pint of Guinness close at hand in small farming villages offer a sweet taste of local culture. Evenings find the warm embrace of Irish hospitality at splendid village hotels—a highlight is the Cahernane Hotel in Killarney, a former estate of the Earl of Pembroke.
The Oregon Trail
Extending from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, this historic trail was the way west for some 300,000 emigrants for more than 20 years from 1841. Today the trail, traversing 2,170 miles (3,492 kilometers) of road, includes 125 historic sites and many opportunities for walks and hikes. One walking tour begins at the base of volcanic Mount Hood, along the mighty Columbia River, past waterfalls leading to spectacular mountain views and meadows filled with wildflowers. Visit the Pioneer Woman’s Grave near Government Camp, where several trails lead to other historic sites. You can see a replica of the original toll gate that marked an alternate toll road in operation from 1846 to 1919. The Oregon Trail is also rich in the history of Native Americans, whose civilizations in this region reach back thousands of years. This environment also yields a culinary bounty; fine wines, sweet herbs, and fresh salmon all complement the splendor.
Faraway enclaves reachable only by foot or boat distinguish this island destination. You’ll walk past hidden coves, descend into little-known gorges, and follow cobbled pathways to Venetian castles and snow-white beaches on a deep blue sea. These walking days can be stretched with swims, taverna lunches, and picnics under a canopy of olive trees within full view of the Mediterranean. Crete holds the distinction of being home to Europe’s earliest civilization, the Minoan, and its legends and natural treasures run so deep that historians, archaeologists, and travelers alike continue to make bold, new finds. From the old harbor in the fortified town of Chania, to forays into the remote southern coastal reaches of the island, and walks into the palace of King Minos, only Crete’s astonishing natural beauty could possibly rival the region’s historic importance. It is no wonder that fable and fact meet in the Greek islands.
Ancient citadels rise on the horizon. Buddhist temples and carved wood farmhouses are discovered along fertile valleys. Swiftly flowing rivers dash across an open landscape, the snowcapped Himalaya towering in the distance. The journey in the Kingdom of Bhutan leads into the heart of a modern-day Shangri-La. Exploring temples and elegant fortresses, called dzongs, on foot helps one experience the serenity that characterizes the Bhutanese way of life. Surrounded by gorgeous mountain vistas, paths lead to hillsides forested with rhododendron and blue pine, golden farm fields with mustard and buckwheat, and rustic villages.Travelers have only recently been allowed to visit Bhutan, and tourists to the country are still limited to a fortunate few. There is a warmth and hospitality to experience in local culture, customs, and ceremonies. From vistas overlooking the Punakha Valley to the intricately patterned Thimphu weavings, the walk has beauty in this peaceful realm.Lodgings in Bhutan are ideally situated for natural scenery—in a forest, overlooking a river, or perched on the rim of a valley. Local cuisine is a unique blend of unusual and piquant tastes.
Spirits soar at the sight of the alpine landscape; and what better place to walk than over breathtaking mountains. The average altitude of 4,428 feet (1,351 kilometers) exceeds many of the highest peaks elsewhere. Venturing into two culturally distinct regions and hearing three languages along the way, you can experience variety, wilderness, and Swiss hospitality. Beginning in Kandersteg, chairlifts and gondolas take you to flower-strewn paths, pristine lakes, and waterfalls. Look over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, framed by five summits, ancient glaciers, and mountain ranges that seem to extend forever. There is no better way to end the day than by sharing a fondue and cornichons, topped off with a bite of chocolate.
Nova Scotia, Canada
Dark green hills and rugged shorelines create a superb setting for walking adventures in this maritime gem. Paths lead through the heart of the spectacular Cape Breton Highlands National Park. From Cheticamp, an Acadian fishing village famous for its music and rug-hooking, explore headland cliffs where bald eagles soar above. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is 1,000 feet (305 meters) below and leads to an expanse near North Harbour Beach, where there are opportunities to set out to sea on whale-watching tours. Walk through fishing communities with deep Scottish roots, in isolated meadows, along craggy coasts, and on cobblestone beaches.