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With summer unofficially over and your beach days numbered, now’s the perfect time to plan your next outdoor adventure, like hitting one of the gnarliest hiking trails in the U.S. To help your pick a destination, we’ve rounded up eight of the toughest treks, which might be closer than you realize.
If you’re an experienced hiker and in fairly good shape, most of these hikes can be done in one day, though a few of the longer ones can be broken up into two days. But take caution: These trails are no joke and require forethought to complete safely. (Note: We are not responsible for sudden clarity, stronger muscles, or any other blissful effects that come with the challenge.)
1. Skyline/Muir Snowfield Trail (9 miles)
Mount Rainier, WA
This chilly trail provides an intimidating alpine climb for those looking for up-close views of the towering Mount Rainier. It starts out easy with a breezy saunter through a mountain meadow. Then you’ll catch glimpses of cobalt lakes before vaulting up 2,800 feet in 2.2 miles to the Muir Snowfield. The abrupt vertical ascent isn’t the thing to be scared of, though. The nightmarish winter weather that can blow in off of the Pacific Ocean at anytime is what has contributed to the deaths of 87 climbers on the surrounding mountains. Mount Rainier is also an active volcano—good luck!
2. Ruckel Ridge Loop (9.6 miles)
Columbia River Gorge, OR
Though it’s one of the most challenging hikes in this gorge full of taxing trails, the Ruckel Ridge Loop isn’t the most strenuous trek on our list: It’s just the one that will give you the best workout. On the way up, expect to climb to 3,700 feet in 3.8 miles through moss, old-growth Douglas fir, and basalt pillars. Be prepared to use your entire body when you reach The Catwalk, an exposed and narrow (it’s a foot wide in some places) rock with drops to both sides. Topping off at the Benson Plateau, the stiff walk down features sublime views of the Gorge and strolls through wildflower-filled meadows.
3. The Maze (13.5 miles)
To remind yourself of the subtle dangers of the Canyonlands, we suggest watching the movie 127 Hours before taking on this hike. Make sure you know how to handle a map and have plenty of water before descending into a literal labyrinth, which is ensconced in a sandstone prison heated to a toasty 110° in the daytime. Local rangers suggest bringing along a GPS unit to help deal with the fact that this “trail” is rather trail-less. Dead-end canyons, dry washes, and continuous sandstone features tend to blend together, often stymying the most savvy of adventurers. Don’t forget to file your detailed itinerary with a ranger—most people don’t survive a self-amputation.
4. Slickrock Creek Trail (13.5 miles)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, NC
This trail goes near some of the last virgin stands of old-growth trees on the East Coast and travels through rain forest-like terrain that’s dense with rhododendrons and rushing moss-soaked streams. After you brave the 10 slippery stream crossings without breaking an ankle (“Slickrock” isn’t just a playful nickname), the slow and relentless ascent will test your stamina and waste your lungs. The last five miles to the top of the 5,360-foot peak are strenuous but allow you to experience the idyllic Stratton Bald—the grassy, treeless sub-alpine balds are scattered throughout the peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
5. South Kaibab Trail/Bright Angel Trail (17.6 miles)
Grand Canyon, AZ
This is probably the hardest trail on the list for the simple fact that you are descending into a huge hole in the ground, and then have to climb back out. There’s also little to no water available on the trail, and summer temps reach well into the 100s every day. The hike to the bottom is steep and fast, but offers amazing views of the canyon walls that throngs of tourists rarely get to see up close. Once you complete the first part of the route, rest at the Phantom Ranch, where food and drinks are available. If you make it back up to the top, pat yourself on the back—the Park Service doesn’t recommend that anyone tries to do a rim-to-floor hike in one day due to the dangers of dehydration (and the more than 250 people they had to rescue last year).
6. Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon Loop (20 miles)
Grand Teton National Park, WY
When you get your first glimpse of the Grand Tetons, their size will bewilder you—surely you’d need to be a fully outfitted mountaineer to attempt to even get close to touching the peaks. Jump on this loop, though, and if you can pound out an eight-mile, 4,000-foot vertical route to the 10,800-foot Paintbrush Divide you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of colorful, banded rock walls framed by the Teton Crest and the entirety of the Jackson Hole valley. But be prepared to test your willpower with never-ending switchbacks and slowly thinning air.
7. Presidential Traverse (23.5 miles)
Presidential Range, NH
If you’re up for conquering 11 peaks and more than 9,000 feet in elevation in a single day, meet our presidents—Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Located in the rugged and unforgiving White Mountain National Forest, hikers often get lost once they break above the treeline at 3,500 feet (six of the peaks are above 3,500 feet) and encounter the freakish weather that can include snow and ice—even in the middle of summer. And just to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, U.S. Forest Service signage reads: “The area has the worst weather in America…Turn back now if the weather is bad.”
8. Devil’s Path (23.6 miles)
Most serious hikers scoff at the thought of an East Coast trail coming close to the mountainous West in terms of strenuousness. But a little trail just two hours outside of New York City will leave the hardiest of globe-trotting mountaineers pleading for salvation. The Devil’s Path is home to six peaks above 3,500 feet and spans over 14,000 feet in length. Test your footing with near-vertical slabs of slippery rocks and dense undergrowth, and reward yourself with spectacular views of splashing waterfalls, secluded woodlands, and vistas that span four different states. It’s a far cry from the hubbub of the city.
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