The United States has over 600 million acres of public lands, waiting to be explored. Some of the lands are covered with paved, flat walkways. Others? Not so much. The hardest hikes in the US take you to remote corners of the American backcountry, up and down steep cliffs, across raging rivers, and through harsh desert.
I’m always looking for new trails to challenge myself on. So I asked other lady bloggers about their favorite hard hikes. These trails all involve big mileage, big elevation, rock scrambles, and/or extreme conditions — but they feature epic views that will make you glad you put in the effort.
Read on to discover their recommendations — from the Rockies to Appalachia to Hawai’i’s jungle-clad cliffs and beyond!
- 1 A note about safety for the hardest hikes in the US
- 2 Kalalau Trail, Kauai
- 3 Backpacking in The Needles, Canyonlands National Park
- 4 Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park
- 5 Lower Gulch, Escalante, Utah
- 6 Three Ridges Wilderness, Virginia
- 7 Keyhole Route: Longs Peak, Colorado
- 8 Linville Grand Loop, North Carolina
- 9 Upper Yosemite Falls, California
A note about safety for the hardest hikes in the US
There are hard hikes, and then there are dangerous hikes. The line between them is thin, subjective, and different for every person. Some of the hikes in this post would be dangerous for some hikers.
I’m not one to pre-judge anyone’s abilities in the outdoors. For too long, athletically built White men have used “it’s too hard for you” as a tool to gatekeep the outdoors for people who look like them. It’s not cool — our public lands are for everyone. So I’m going to give you all the information you need to decide whether these hikes are safe for you, but trust you to know your own limits.
If you’re interested in pushing it, my strongest recommendation is to get yourself a compass and ask someone to show you how to use it. No need for an expensive navigation course! Non-GPS navigation skills open up these trails, and thousands more across the country, as safe possibilities. The difference between safe and dangerous is often the difference between knowing how to find your way back, and relying on an electronic device.
And if you’re not sure whether a trail is safe? Think about what a search and rescue crew would say if they had to come get you. Would they think you had a freak accident? Or would they be frustrated that you put them at risk to do something you weren’t prepared for?
Finally, always make sure someone off-trail knows where you are and when you’ll be back — within hours, not days. If you don’t have anyone you can send details to, write them on a piece of paper and leave it in the glove compartment of your car. SAR crews know to look for it there if your car sits at a trailhead for awhile.
Kalalau Trail, Kauai
Recommended by Nikki of She Saves She Travels
The NaPali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii contains one of the hardest and most memorable hikes in the US. Because over 80% of the island of Kauai is inaccessible via roads, hiking is the only way to experience the NaPali coast up close.
The Kalalau Trail, or NaPali Coast Trail, is routinely ranked as one of the 10 most dangerous trails in the world. It can really only be done in dry weather, as rainy conditions make many parts of the trail impassible.
The first two miles are muddy and there are some ups and downs. Then, you’ll wade across the Hanakapiai River. From here the hike is full of switchbacks, going from valley to ocean and back. Hug the coast and see the most incredible views!
Mile 7 is known as ‘crawler’s ledge’ — an extremely exposed, gravely, wind-blown traverse where many people lose their feet. Be prepared with the right gear — i.e. trekking poles — for this hike!
Most hikers camp at the beach at the end of the 11 miles and make it a two day hike. With incredible views, you’ll want to soak it in! Plus, after you’re done, you can take a dip and go for a snorkel at the gorgeous Ke’e Beach at the trailhead.
Hiking the Kalalau Trail past the Hanakapiai River requires an extremely competitive camping permit, which includes Haena State Park admission. They become available at midnight Hawai’ian time 60 days before your hike — and they’re gone by 12:05 am.
If you can’t get a camping permit, snag a much-less-competitive reservation to Haena State Park and just hike the first two miles.
Distance: 22 miles
Elevation gain: 6,100 feet
Permits required: Yes — camping permits required past the first 2 miles, even if you plan to day-hike or run it.
What makes it hard: Extremely exposed, knife-edge ledges. Drownings are alarmingly common from flash floods at the many river crossings and currents on the beaches.
Backpacking in The Needles, Canyonlands National Park
Recommended by Michelle of The Wandering Queen
One of the best backpacking trips in Utah is located in the Needles district in Canyonlands National Park. This trail is one of the hardest hikes in the US due to how hot it is and how little water there is.
But if you’re up for the challenge, it is one of the most rewarding experiences. This area is filled with slot canyons, caves, rocks that you need to climb and scramble, and insane formations you will never see anywhere else. Since it is so difficult, there are minimal crowds.
The mileage depends on how many nights you want to backpack and what trails you want to hike. Just make sure you ration your water out every day — you need 6+ liters a day for drinking alone, plus cooking water, from May-September.
One of the best campsites in the park is the CP2 campsite. The Needles are jutting out in the distance, and it is utterly stunning. This is a great area to watch the sunset.
Don’t miss the slot canyon on the Joint Trail. This is a great place to day hike, and it is a magnificent area to explore in the early morning.
Backpacking through the Needles Canyonlands is no easy feat. It is a very challenging backpacking trip with so many amazing sights.
Distance: Variable, up to 25 miles
Elevation gain: Variable, up to 3,500 feet
Permits required: Yes, but they’re easy to get as walk-ups
What makes it hard: Huge (12+-liter) water carries and extremely exposed terrain.
Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park
Recommended by Melinda of Mel on the Go
Hiking Maine’s Precipice Trail is like rock climbing without a harness. It’s the danger that makes Precipice Trail so difficult. Short but challenging, the climb up Mount Champlain rewards brave hikers with spectacular views and bragging rights for the accomplishment.
Precipice Trail is perfect for thrill-seekers who will take pride in surviving Acadia Park’s most dangerous hike. The 3.2 mile loop seems short, but the trail quickly rises over 1,000 feet on sheer cliff faces.
This is not a relaxing hike on a tropical vacation. It is strenuous and scary, so be in good physical shape and mentally tough before attempting this climb. Take it seriously as people have died on this trail.
It is a beautiful hike with lots of variety from staircases to boulder jumping to wooden bridges, meaning hikers will experience a lot in the 2-3 hour walk. The path is well marked and easy to follow, featuring ladders, ropes, and handrails to assist hikers in the ascent. Keep your hands free on this hike so as to grip those iron rungs tightly.
Making it to the peak is the hard part: once there you can celebrate. A loop trail, you will take a different and easier path to the bottom.
After hiking Precipice Trail, you may need a nap or a massage. Your muscles will be tensed the entire hike!
Recommendations for hiking Precipice Trail: wear good hiking boots that grip, a light backpack for water and snacks, keep your hands free with a GOPro headmount for photos, and don’t look down! It’s nerve-wracking enough climbing those cliff walls, you don’t want to terrify yourself immobile.
Entry fees at Acadia National Park are weekly. It costs $30 per car or $15 per person if arriving by foot or bicycle.
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation gain: 850 feet
Permits required: No
What makes it hard: Exposed cliff faces, ladders, ropes, and steep drops.
Lower Gulch, Escalante, Utah
Recommended by me!
Grand Staircase-Escalante is the most remote and wild place I’ve ever been. Sure, you could drive along Highway 12, through the town of Escalante, and be fooled into thinking there’s civilization here. You could get trapped in long lines at Peekaboo Slot Canyon. But head out into the backcountry and you’ll get a very different idea.
I rolled up to the backcountry permit office on Memorial Day weekend to ask for recommendations. I told the ranger I wanted to avoid crowds. I meant “I don’t want to be surrounded by lines of people like at Angels Landing.” The ranger handed me a computer-printout map of a canyon called Lower Gulch, told me to take 8 liters of water and a compass, took my emergency contact info, and wished me luck.
I drove out along the Burr Trail on a 102-degree day for 15 miles, to an unmarked pull-out on the side of the road. The map indicated that I should scramble into the canyon below. Then, all I had to go on was a hand-drawn arrow from the ranger pointing north.
I proceeded to trek 17 miles through the Gulch, using my compass, a general sense of canyon topography and a completely wrong AllTrails map. (To give you an idea of how bad AllTrails was, I’m not even going to link to it, because it’s the wrong trail. The Lower Gulch route runs in the opposite direction.)
You think navigation through a canyon would be easy — just follow the riverbed — but Escalante contains entire canyon systems, formed by rivers with many intersecting forks. Where the canyons are wide, you may have options of 10+ diverging paths, only one of which is correct and safe. If you guess wrong, you’ve got a steep scramble up one wall and down another to get back on track. (Trust me, I had to do it twice.)
Along the way, I saw mountain lion droppings and a peregrine falcon. The scenery was otherworldly — if you picture a nuclear apocalypse where you’re the only survivor, that’s how it felt.
I drank every drop of the 8 liters of water. I did not see another human — or even a sign that another human had ever been there, like, ever — the whole time.
Distance: As long as you want — I went out for about 7 miles, turned around, and got lost on the way back. You can theoretically backpack all the way to the Escalante River for about 25 miles but you’d need to carry ~20 liters of water and navigate a slot canyon with a pack.
Elevation gain: I logged 1,000 feet, but if you don’t get lost, it’s nominal.
Permits required: No
What makes it hard: I cannot emphasize enough how extremely dangerous this hike would be without fabulous navigation skills. You are on your own through unmarked, unmaintained, often-unchartered wilderness with no formal map, no usable GPS navigation, and no hope of encountering help. If you’ve never done a long bushwhack with only a compass and a loose sense of where you’re headed, do not do this hike. Additionally, it’s crucial to let the rangers know you’ll be doing this hike, so they can start a rescue party same-day if needed.
Three Ridges Wilderness, Virginia
The 15-mile loop hike across Three Ridges Wilderness in Virginia is both extraordinary, and at times, extraordinarily challenging. With an elevation gain of nearly 4,000 feet, you’ve really got to dig deep to complete this hike, which includes mountain vistas, cascading streams, overnight shelters and many steps along the iconic white-blazed Appalachian Trail.
This hike begins just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roseland, at the Reeds Gap parking area. Here you can pick up the southbound Appalachian Trail that will guide you through the George Washington National Forest. From the start, you are climbing, but thankfully you are quickly rewarded with a scenic west-facing view before the 1-mile mark. The real treat comes at the 3.7-mile mark when you reach the show-stopping mountain views.
Many people turn around after this view, but there are more views to come, like at the 6.2-mile mark when you reach Chimney Rock. You’ll soon reach the low point in the hike — elevation-wise — when you reach Harpers Creek Shelter. Many people stop here for the night, but a hardy few will continue on to re-gain all the elevation and complete this hike in one day.
If you thought you had to dig deep before, wait until you reach the Mau-Har Trail at the 9.3-mile mark. There are some cascades, even a waterfall if you time it right with the seasons, but it’s mostly a steep, unrelenting climb. There are no views to motivate you to press on.
The end is near when you reach the Maupin Field Shelter at the 13-mile mark. From here, it’s just 2 miles to complete the hike in the parking area. Be sure to bring at least three to four liters of water, as well as a water filter and purifier to fill up at streams along the way.
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
Permits required: No
What makes it hard: Steep climbs, lots of which are toward the end of the hike
Keyhole Route: Longs Peak, Colorado
Recommended by Meg from Fox in the Forest
Elevation gain: 4,911 feet
Permits required: No
What makes it hard: Scrambles, steep drops, rough terrain, and high elevation
Linville Grand Loop, North Carolina
Recommended by me!
Of all the hikes I’ve done — and considering I log over 1,200 miles a year, that’s a lot — nothing has challenged me quite like the Linville Grand Loop.
Linville Gorge Wilderness is in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Western North Carolina. It’s known as the Grand Canyon of the East. But a complete traverse of the Gorge is actually more intense than the maintained, popular hikes of the Arizona national park.
There is no official route for the Linville Grand Loop. Instead there are two “anchor” trails and a variety of route options to connect them. Some of these trails involve literally vertical ledge climbs. Some involve tightrope-walking a rattlesnake-laden ledge, 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. Some involve bushwhacking through nettles so thick you can’t even see where you’re going. There is no route option that doesn’t require each of the above at least once. To put a finer point on it, there’s a popular loop that encompasses half the Grand Loop — the easier half. It’s lovingly named ITAYG — which stands for “Is That All You Got?”
None of the trails along the loop are marked, and only the 7 miles you’re on the Mountains to Sea Trail are maintained. The only accurate map of the area is the community-maintained Avenza map — AllTrails for the area is a joke and no paper maps include the informal paths in the Northeast Quadrant. (You won’t find them on your own — in summer they’re completely overgrown, while in winter the leaves on the ground mask any trace of someone else having walked there.) While you’ll see crowds around popular lookouts like Shortoff, Table Rock and Linville Falls, you’ll also walk 20-mile stretches without seeing another human. You’ll have to cross the wide, deep, fast Linville River.
But what makes this hike so challenging is you must complete it in two nights. Backpackers are not allowed to camp in the Gorge longer than that. That means you need to be able to knock out at least 15 miles a day — on terrain where locals have a saying, “a mile in the Gorge is two miles anywhere else.” Don’t attempt this hike if you’ve never done a 20+ mile day hike.
That being said, the scenery is mind-blowing. Camp at Sitting Bear for sunset views all the way to Grandfather Mountain, or watch the sunrise from the iconic Chimneys rock formation. Swim at Devil’s Hole or Spence Ridge, and search for wildflowers, mushrooms and wild berries. There’s truly nothing like the Gorge — if you’re up for the challenge.
Distance: Varies depending on trail choices, typically 37-45 miles
Elevation gain: 9,000+ feet, of which 6,000 is concentrated in just 9 miles.
Permits required: Yes, on weekends from April-October. Call the Grandfather Ranger District to book.
What makes it hard: What isn’t difficult about this hike? Seriously — extreme elevation with a pack, unmaintained trails, challenging river crossing, exposed ledges, steep scrambles, mud, 15-mile water carries, rattlesnakes and copperheads everywhere…multiple people die every year on much shorter hikes in the Gorge. Don’t come unprepared.
Upper Yosemite Falls, California
Recommended by Val from VoyageswithVal
Elevation Gain: 3,218 feet (6,026 to Eagle Peak)
Permits Required: No
What makes it hard: steep, exposed switchbacks, lots of elevation gain in a short distance
These 8 trails are not the only extremely difficult hikes in the country, of course. There are countless other peaks to climb, rivers to ford, wildflowers to see. If you have another favorite challenging trail, let me know in the comments!
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