One reason for hiking’s long-lasting and widespread popularity is the ability to choose whatever level of danger and challenge you want. So while some might prefer lazy day hikes, for others the best hiking trails are the ones full of switchbacks, drop-offs, and dead ends.
The trails covered below offer some of the scariest challenges, and most dangerous conditions available to hikers today. While they’re not for the faint of heart, these trails also offer some of the most stunning views and interesting ecosystems you’ll ever encounter.
After all, the difficulty of reaching these places helps keep them undisturbed in their natural beauty. So, whether you’re looking for the best hikes in Yosemite National Park, or want to make a pilgrimage to some of the scariest destinations on Earth, these trails will not disappoint!
1. Huayna Picchu, Peru
There’s a reason Huayna Picchu is first on our list of scariest and most dangerous hikes. Climbing 1,000 feet in less than a mile, the “Hike of Death” trail extends from Peru’s famous Machu Picchu ruins at the end of the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail can be challenging in itself, but this extension up Huayna Picchu mountain is one of the riskiest sections.
Providing some of the most stunning views of Machu Picchu itself, the mountain can be summitted safely, but many of the tourists who trek up these ancient Inca steps each year aren’t properly prepared. The problem is, this isn’t one of the best-maintained trails. Parts of the granite steps are rotting or crumbling and, in some places, the only thing to hold onto is a set of old steel cables.
Being high in the Andes, the mountain is often covered in clouds and mist and it’s recommended to only attempt the climb under sunny and clear conditions. Many also underestimate the steepness of the trail, especially coming down. So, take your time, choose your path carefully, and don’t rush past other climbers. Otherwise, you might end up at the bottom much more quickly than planned!
2. Mount Huashan, China
Our next trail on the list is also quite ancient. Trekking to the top of Mount Huashan is a centuries-old tradition. For those who make it to the top, there are Buddhist and Daoist temples that offer refreshments, including what some say is the best cup of tea in the world. Although it seems likely any tea at all would taste amazing after a journey like this one!
Visitors access the temples by climbing the “Heavenly Stairs” carved into the northern peak, or via a trail made of wooden planks bolted into the side of the south mountain. At some points, even the wooden planks disappear and climbers are left to make do with small divots in the rock.
It’s a well-known destination for thrill-seekers and so has become a bit crowded over the years. Still, it’s one of the scariest hiking trails out there, and it’s worth the trip to see the view from the top. Many recommend staying to see the sunrise from the summit even though the hike only takes about six hours round trip.
3. The Maze, Utah, USA
The western US is home to a few of the most dangerous hikes on Earth. Utah, in particular, has some truly amazing treks and makes our list twice. For her first entry, Utah offers The Maze in Canyonlands National Park. Aptly-named, The Maze is a series of gullies, rock formations, and ridges that form a natural labyrinth of red rock.
The formations are both strange and beautiful, but National Park rangers warn against traveling to the area without a detailed itinerary, good communication, and several backup plans. The biggest dangers that hikers might face in the Maze include sudden weather changes, often leading to flash floods, rockfalls, and dead-ends.
Thankfully, there have been no accidental deaths in the area, but this is in part because very few hikers actually make it out to this remote and dangerous part of Canyonlands National Park. If you’re looking for isolation, this trail is an effective way to get it.
4. Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa
Drakensberg Traverse is a 40-mile trail across the Natal National Park, the Drakensberg Traverse requires a longer stay than some of the other hiking trails on this list. There’s no law, of course, that you have to do the whole trek, but it would be a shame to go through the challenge of starting this journey if you don’t intend to finish it.
So, how exactly doe the trail start? With two rather old chain ladders which take trekkers up the ridge and start them on the mismatch of herding trails and animal tracks which make up most of the Traverse. The other reason to go the full 40 miles if you’re going to hike the Drakensberg Traverse is that there are amazing views along just about every inch of the trail.
One of the most famous is the Amphitheater, a rock face with three times as much surface as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. While the views are well worth it, they exist because the Drakensberg Traverse is one of the most exposed sections of alpine territory on Earth. So keep a close eye on the weather and be ready to shelter in place if it changes quickly.
5. Kalalau Trail, Hawaii, USA
Located in the northwest of Kauai Island, Hawaii’s Na Pali Coast is a well-loved destination for hikers of all abilities. The Kalalau Trail in particular offers a challenging hike through the natural beauty of Hawaii’s jungles, as well as amazing views of natural features like waterfalls and volcanic slopes.
In addition to the gorgeous views and landscapes, the biodiversity in this region makes it a great hiking trip for birdwatchers and amateur naturalists in particular. The wildlife is part of the risk as well, however, with plenty of large, biting, and even venomous insects to look out for.
Rockfalls and flash floods are also of concern to trekkers on the Kalalau Trail. But most of the related casualties actually happen in the water along the trail. The beautiful beaches along the trail and at the end may be a part of the attraction for hikers, but they present some challenges of their own.
If you’re going to swim as you go, pay attention to ocean currents and the depth of the water, and always make sure a buddy knows where you are. Here too, wildlife is a defining feature and can be a big risk for those who go into the water. Tiger sharks are the largest threat, but yellow-bellied sea snakes can also deliver a venomous punch.
6. Cascade Saddle, New Zealand
This trail has become very popular after the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, which feature New Zealand’s Mt. Aspiring National Park. Fans might recognize the Cascade Saddle area as the setting for Isengard in the films. While you won’t face anything as scary as orcs or goblins, the trail presents some real-life challenges to visitors as well, such as bad weather and rockfalls.
An 11-mile trail through alpine meadows and beech forests, the trail is especially dangerous in foul weather, and many of the reported casualties are the result of missteps going down the slippery rock faces. It’s a beautiful journey though, and officials may be altering the trail soon to reduce the number of slippery sections you have to cross.
7. El Caminito del Rey, Spain
Originally constructed as an access point for a local hydroelectric plant, El Caminito del Rey consists of a two-mile concrete and steel path through El Chorro Gorge. El Chorro Gorge, in the Málaga region of Spain, extends for over a hundred feet below the trail, which hangs from the cliff edge above.
While El Caminito is officially closed to the public, adventure seekers make pilgrimages to the destination still. This has only made the trek even more dangerous, though, as many sections of the trail have crumbled and climbers have to navigate over as much as 10 feet of missing trail in some sections. With a 100-foot drop below you, that’s no small feat!
8. Mist Trail, California, USA
The Half Dome is one of Yosemite National Park’s most popular and recognizable features. You might not know that it can also be one of the most dangerous! There are other pathways up the Half Dome, but Mist tRail remains the most popular.
This is in part because of the stunning views you get along the way. In particular, you’ll want to get a good look at the waterfalls, including Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, which are especially loud and turbulent in the spring. The last 400 feet are the most dangerous.
While steel cables are available to help you up the final ascent, rainfall can make this section deadly rather quickly. If you’re starting to see a pattern, you’re right: bad weather is one of the biggest dangers for hikers at all skill levels and this holds true for the Half Dome’s Mist Trail as well. Almost all the recent accidents recorded on this trail happened when the rock was wet.
9. Angel’s Landing, Utah, USA
Returning to Utah once again, Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park is the last of the US hiking trails we’ll cover on this list. Not to be confused with Bright Angel Trail in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, the canyons in Zion National Park are grand enough in their own right.
With steep drop-offs and many switchbacks, this can a tough trail to tackle but, in the end, you’ll find unbeatable views of the 270-million-year-old rock layers of Zion Canyon. Heat can be an issue on this trail, so hikers should get an early start, especially if you’re visiting in the summer. It takes about five hours to complete the hike round trip.
You’ll start at the Grotto Trailhead and traverse such interestingly named places as “Refrigerator Canyon” and “Walter’s Wiggles.” The trail ends at the Angel’s Landing Sumit and, thankfully, a few hardy trees cling to the peak, providing much-needed shade at the end of the trek.
The trail itself is a lot sturdier than some of the ones on this list, but the continuous switchbacks and steep drops make it a mentally challenging undertaking for even the most physically fit hikers. That’s why it beats the Bright Angel Trail which, while still pretty scary, is a bit more straightforward of a trek.
10.Via Ferrata, Italy & Austria
The Via Ferrata, or Iron Way, has been a destination for adventure seekers for centuries. Located throughout the Alps, this series of protected mountain pathways is the namesake of the “Via Ferrata Set.” Now an important piece of any climber’s kit, the via ferrata set is a system of lanyards and carabiners used to attach yourself to the cables for which this route is named.
These pathways were first developed during the 15th century but were used most extensively during World War I as routes for specialized troop movements. Now, these routes are outfitted with much more modern safety features, including the steel cables that climbers attach to using a via ferrata set, as well as guide rails, platforms, and more. Today there are similar routes all over the world, but it’s worth seeing the first to take the name and soaking in some of the history of the Italian and Austrian Alps as well.
Preparing for A Dangerous Hike
As you might infer from the last destination we looked at, getting the right gear is an important part of preparing for any hike, and especially those in more dangerous locations. For treks that involve climbing, you should make sure your harness is well-fitted and that you have backups of anything that could break or be lost. You’ll also want to keep a well-stocked first aid kit on hand as many of these destinations are quite remote.
Beyond gear, preparing for a trip to one of the most dangerous hiking trails on Earth should include a good amount of research and planning. What natural features are nearby? What weather patterns should you look out for? Pay special attention to potential weather issues as even a relatively safe trail can become treacherous in the rain.
One good rule of thumb is to assume that everything that can go wrong will. So even if the weather is supposed to be nice, make sure you have warm and protective layers on hand. This is especially true in mountainous or coastal regions (like most of the trails on this ist) where the weather can change rapidly and without warning.
When going on any kind of hike, you should also make sure that someone knows where you’re going, what time you’re starting, and when to expect you back. This way, if something terrible happens, help will reach you quickly. You’d be surprised how many hiking fatalities are the result of someone getting stuck without help because no one knew they were missing until too late.
It can be fun to challenge yourself and seek out dangerous hiking trails like the ones on this list. But remember, any hiking trail can turn deadly if you’re not well-prepared. In fact, many of these dangerous climbs have much lower fatality statistics than more “basic” trails. That’s because most of the people who make it out to these treks are well prepared for what lays ahead.
Just like any trail can be dangerous, any trail can be tackled with relative safety as well, even the ones on this list. The trick is to have a detailed plan for any backpacking or hiking trip. Have an idea of what might go wrong and be prepared to respond to challenges like bad weather, accidental falls, and wrong turns.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on how to use a via ferrata set!