So much of the world can be explored on foot—awe-inspiring landscapes, glimpses of wildlife, encounters with new cultures. These North American hiking trails (including ones in Central America and the Carribbean, of course) let you set off into such wonders. From a multi-day trek alongside a French-Canadian fjord to an iconic Hawaiian coastal path, these are among the most spectacular routes for wandering into the wilderness—with an emphasis on solitude, since many of these hikes are not crowded. Although some of these strenuous hikes take a full day to a week or more, they can be split into shorter, more manageable treks.
Howe Sound Crest Trail, British Columbia
Within a 30-minute drive of downtown Vancouver, this heart-pumping trail tiptoes through hemlock forests, alpine tundra, and along high, airy ridges with views of islands and the navy-colored sound below. At times, hikers must climb hand over foot, hop between boulders, and brave thrilling exposure. But the spectacular landscape—views of peaks like Mount Harvey and the Lions, a descent past lakes and blueberry bushes—make this surf-and-turf journey worth it. Distance: 17 miles point-to-point, one to three days.
Kalalau Trail, Kauai, Hawaii
From the sea, the plunging, plant-choked cliffs of Kauai’s Napali Coast appear impenetrable. But this fabled, exposed trail skirts them, traveling along jungle cliffs between Ke’e Beach and Kalalau, an idyllic Hawaiian spit of sand reachable only by foot or boat. Things can get slippery and dangerous when it rains, and the steep path isn’t for acrophobes, but natural wonders beckon: waterfalls cascading down the valleys, views over the Pacific clear to the horizon. Distance: 22 miles out and back, one to three days.
Le Fjord Trail, Québec
The Aboriginal people of Québec called Saguenay Fjord Pitchitaoitchez, roughly translated as “that which flows between two mountains,” and it’s an apt description of the terrain in the national park that bears its name, about three hours northeast of Québec City by car. This moderately difficult hike rambles through balsam fir and birch forests, passing rocky alpine lookouts with views over the fjord some 600 vertical feet down. Critters you might see: black bears, beavers, even moose. Distance: 26 miles point-to-point, two to four days.
Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming
One of the United States’ premier wilderness treks, this strenuous hike links trails across Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park which delve into high alpine scenery fit for royalty: fields bursting with wildflowers, dark peaks spearing the sky, bucolic lakes, and a preponderance of big wildlife (bison, bears, wolves). Campsites along the way include a tent platform on the shores of Marion Lake and nooks on the Death Canyon shelf. At the latter, you’ll fall asleep overlooking an expansive canyon striped with cliff bands. Distance: About 35 miles point-to-point, 4 to 5 days.
Sierra High Route, California
It’s rumored that only a few dozen backpackers a year complete this doozy of a high route, a ribbon which winds along the spine of the Sierra Nevada range and deep into Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks. Though it’s not far from California’s dense population, the route feels light-years away with its rocky scrambles, fields packed with wildflowers, and starry night skies. Distance: 195 miles, 15 to 20 days.
Brooks Range Traverse, Alaska
In summer months, fit, experienced backcountry hikers must hop a bush plane to delve into this northernmost band of the Rocky Mountains, where there are no established trails (or campgrounds) but dramatic, pristine Alaskan nature abounds: peaks as high as 9,000 feet, valleys full of tundra plants, caribou herds (and the grizzlies that hunt them). “It’s arguably the greatest place in North America for wilderness trekking,” says Andrew Sruka, a pro backpacker and former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Distance: Varies; most trips seven-plus days.
Just off the shore of California, Channel Islands National Park feels untouched compared to the rest of the state—and it’s often overlooked compared to the Golden State’s more popular national parks. That’s a shame, since the 249,354-acre park offers pure ocean beauty across five islands and their surrounding marine ecosystems.
Recommended by: Sally Jewell, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, understands how the national parks have become an enduring legacy in the lives of ordinary people. As the CEO of the iconic co-op retailer REI, she oversaw the growth of a store that did not just sell outdoor gear but also encouraged its members to get out and explore public lands. President Obama named her Secretary of the Interior in 2013, making her the second woman to serve in the job.
What Makes It Special: “From growing up enjoying Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier National Parks, to a lifetime of regular visits to national parks across the country, each place is special in its own way. I love all of our national parks—natural, historical, and cultural—I find my park wherever I am,” Jewell says. “In March of this year, I visited Channel Islands National Park on Santa Cruz Island. The trip was part of President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative, and I had a great time hanging out with 90 fourth graders while handing out their free passes to America’s public lands.”
Go Here: “For many of these children, the field trip represented their first trip to a national park and their first boat ride ever, and they were eager to share all that they had learned in school from national park ranger Monica about the Channel Island fox. The Channel Island fox was on the verge of extinction 16 years ago, with its population down more than 90 percent. A partnership came together to assist with the fox’s recovery, including removing non-native wild and domesticated animals that destroyed habitat. The children had learned all about the science and collaborative efforts that were needed to save the fox from extinction, and they understood just how special it was that they could witness this animal back in the wild. Thanks to the teachers, ranger Monica, and the people who worked on the fox’s recovery, these children now have a connection to this special place and inspiration to become scientists and public land stewards themselves.”
Presidential Traverse, New Hampshire
In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, this route connects nine peaks named after U.S. presidents via 8,500 vertical feet of climbing, much of it in sensitive alpine territory above the tree line. European-style hiking huts dot the route, hosting hikers in bunks and feeding them breakfast and dinner. Midway through the trek, you’ll summit Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast where—on a rare clear day—you can gaze over five states. Distance: 19.8 miles point-to-point, one to four days.
Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala
Several volcanos loom above the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala (one of National Geographic Travel’s Best Trips of 2020), including Fuego volcano, still actively rumbling and spouting smoke and fire. To see its mind-blowing force, climb its peaceful, dormant neighbor, the 13,045-foot Acatenango. A route skirting farmers’ fields, and old-growth cloud and pine forests, leads to a scramble up a barren cone of loose rock to the summit. The reward? Views of mighty volcanoes, countryside, and even Lake Atitlán. Distance: 9 miles out and back, one to two days.
Waitukubuli National Trail, Dominica
Amid the jungle landscapes and volcanic rocks of one of the Caribbean’s least-touristy islands, this relatively new trail (open since 2013) brings visitors to small, interior communities of Dominica’s indigenous Kalinago people. The trail is well-signed and takes in hot springs, cliff-secluded beaches, and cinnamon trees, but come prepared for steep, slippery slopes and sweltering heat. Distance: 115 miles point-to-point, 10 to 14 days.
Longs Peak Climb, Colorado
You can bag a “fourteener”—a mountain rising over 14,000 feet—by hiking the Keyhole Route to the top of the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, just 75 miles northwest of Denver. Around 15,000 would-be summiteers attempt this feat each year, but only half of them make it because of altitude sickness, fatigue, or foul weather. Savvy hikers start as early as 2 a.m. in order to complete the route through alpine tundra, over granite boulders, and past glaciers and lakes. Distance: 15 miles out and back, 10 to 15 hours.
- Nat Geo Expeditions