In a world of extreme sports, hiking may seem like a rather tame activity. If that's your perspective, perhaps these 10 hikes will change your mind. From sheer mountainsides to broiling desert canyons, these dangerous trails regularly test the mettle of the most hardened outdoor enthusiasts and leave many breathless—sometimes permanently.
1. Angel's Landing: Zion National Park, Utah
This wickedly narrow trail is not for the timid. Though the 5-mile path is well maintained and even paved in places, the last half-mile ascends over 1,400 feet along a slippery spine of sandstone that drops off hundreds of feet on either side. Several people have fallen to their deaths trying to reach the formation's 5,700-foot peak in the past decade alone. One seasoned hiker said, “It scared the hell out of me.”
2. Hua Shan Trail: Huayin City, China
Probably the most insane hiking experience devised by man, the trail up China's stunning Mount Hua will have you inching across narrow wooden planks thousands of feet in the air. Any error in judgment here is likely to be your last. There are no nets or guardrails to catch you if you slip. However, you'll climb creaking ladders, cling to wobbly cables and encounter staircases so vertical, they make even seasoned mountaineers dizzy with dread. Even worse, it's mostly a two-way trail—meaning you'll have to squeeze past the hikers coming down from the 7,000-foot South Peak summit. Add in the occasional bout of snow or strong gust of wind, and you'll be lucky to escape with your life, let alone clean underpants.
Surprisingly, tackling this hike requires little gear. Chinese college students regularly undertake the challenge in t-shirts and sneakers, and you can reach the summit and return in less than a day. However, warm clothes, grippy gloves and hiking boots wouldn't be a bad idea.
3. El Caminito del Rey: El Chorro, Spain
An easy contender for the most dangerous hike in the world, “The King’s little Pathway” started out as a series of walkways through the El Chorro gorge for employees of a nearby hydroelectric plant. Years of neglect, however, have turned these three-foot-wide paths into crumbling concrete barely supported by rusty beams. Though safety wire runs the length of the 2-mile trail, it is anything but safe. If you go, prepare to cross 10-foot-wide gaps in the walkway and test your balance on single beams jutting out 350 feet above the El Chorro river. You won't need much gear for this hike, but rock climbing skills are essential. The Spanish government has plans to renovate the trail in the future to make it safer and more accessible to casual hikers.
4. Kalalau Trail: Kauai, Hawaii
This hike to the coast of Na Pali is widely considered one of the most spectacular in the world. It's also one of the most treacherous. The mantra here is, “Don't look down.” The trail takes you along steep ocean cliffs 4,000 feet above a deadly tide. Again, there are no guardrails here to keep you from plunging off into the surf. However, there is plenty of slippery mud, hairpin switchbacks and the occasional freak storm to keep you on your toes. You can easily hike the 11-mile trail in a day and catch the gorgeous sunset over the Pacific. Just be sure to bring hiking boots, rain gear and your nerve.
Of course, those who succeed in reaching the top are rewarded with amazing panoramic views of the surrounding canyon. If you're feeling brave enough to take on this desert hike, pack your hiking boots, extra water and sunscreen.
5. Wendenstock, Switzerland
Take a steep mountainside, cover it with wet grass, and you get this death-defying hike courtesy of the Swiss. A slip-up here will have you tumbling hundreds of feet down rocky slopes. The few hikers bold enough to try it have called it the most hair-raising hiking they've ever attempted. Potential hikers may want to consider wearing boots with cleats. Incidentally, the cliffs at Wendenstock also offer some of the most technical rock climbing in the world. Only attempt it if you've run out of other things to climb.
6. West Coast Trail: Vancouver Island, Canada
Don't be fooled into thinking this hike is anything like pleasant walk on the beach. This 48-mile trail along the Pacific coast boasts some of the most rugged terrain in the world. Tread the seaside portions of the trail at your peril; a high tide may leave you stranded, or a rogue wave may sweep you out to sea. The woodland portions will have you clambering down narrow wooden ladders and crossing deep chasms by means of rickety bridges and boardwalks. If you stop at a campsite for the night, watch where you put your food. The trail is crawling with wolves, cougars and grizzly bears. The weather is frequently bad as well, often dumping inches of rain in just a few hours. No hiker has completed this trek without injuries.
If you're going to do more than a day's hiking here, you'll need a full set of gear: food, water, backpack, first aid kit, boots, rain gear, bear mace, maps and a very sturdy tent. You'll also need to get a hiking permit well in advance of your trip; overnight stays on the trail require one.
7. Half Dome: Yosemite National Park, California
In a park full of challenging hikes, Half Dome is undoubtedly the toughest one. During the 16-mile hike, you'll ascend over 4,500 feet to nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. If the rugged trail up the granite mountain weren't hazardous enough on its own, the last 400 feet to the summit requires using a vertical cable trail to scale the dome's slippery face. In addition, the peak frequently hosts afternoon thunderstorms; almost as many hikers have died from lightning strikes as falls. The only thing more electrifying than the weather is the scenery from the top.
Here's what you'll need for this climb: extremely grippy shoes, extremely grippy gloves, plenty of water and food, sunscreen and a permit to climb the cable trail. Permits are distributed by lottery two days in advance, so be sure to apply early. The cable trail is only open during the summer months, from mid-May to October, depending on the weather.
8. Rim to Rim: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is home to some of the most majestic scenery in America. It's also home to steep trails and scorching desert temperatures. A rim-to-rim hike is an intense experience, covering 24 miles, over 4,000 feet in elevation changes and significant temperature variation. Temperatures can be a cool 39 degrees on the rim and reach 110 degrees by the time you hit the canyon floor. Then there's the matter of which trail to take at the South Rim. Choose the South Kaibab for a shorter, steeper hike sans water, or the longer, more scenic Bright Angel Trail that has seen more deaths by heat than any other path in the park. At any rate, it's going to be blistering. A rim-to-rim hike is only possible mid-May to early November due to winter closures along the North Rim, and hiking enthusiasts recommend avoiding the mid-summer months of June, July and August.
For this hike, you will need the usual camping gear, along with plenty of water, a water filter or purifier, and special clothing to shield your skin from the sun. You'll also need a permit to camp overnight in the canyon. Only the most extreme and foolhardy hikers attempt to do this trek in a day.
9. Paintbrush-Cascade Canyon Loop: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Probably the most scenic hike on this list, the 19-mile loop encompassing two mountain canyons still demands plenty of hiking grit. The trek begins at just under 7,000 feet above sea level, then gains and loses an additional 3,800 vertical feet during the course of the hike. To say this is bear country is an understatement; park rangers suggest wearing a bear bell to scare the grizzlies and black bears away from the trail. The path also moves through a variety of terrains: swamp, meadow, alpine forest, ice and boulder fields. Snow is present on some areas of the trail even in late summer.
In addition to the usual camping gear, trekking poles are recommended. Expert hikers can complete the route in a day, but most will want two or three days. Like most national parks, Grand Teton requires a permit for overnight camping.
10. Longs Peak: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Longs Peak is one of the world's famous 14-ers: a peak that reaches 14,000 feet in elevation. Not surprisingly, it's the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the one most sought after by hiking and climbing enthusiasts. The most popular route to the summit is the Keyhole Route, which is only a true hike from about July to September. The rest of the year, ascending the peak requires full-on mountaineering gear due to snow and ice. The 8-mile Keyhole Route (16 miles round trip) is a class 3 climb. Those who attempt to hike it can expect to do significant maneuvering over slick rocks and sheer granite faces, as well as enduring an elevation change of 5,000 feet from the trailhead. Mountain storms are also an issue.
If you opt to go without climbing gear, be sure to take the basics: food, water, first aid, hiking boots, poncho and a rope. You won't need a permit to climb this peak, but you will need plenty of fortitude.