Conquer the Challenge: Hardest Hiking Trails in the US

by | Jul 3, 2024 | Peru Travel Blogs | 0 comments

hardest hiking trail in us

Embark on an adventure of a lifetime as we unveil the Hardest Hikes In The U.S. From rugged terrains to breathtaking vistas, these trails offer a true test of endurance and courage for avid outdoor enthusiasts.

As you navigate this guide Best Hikes in the USA, discover essential details about each trail, including miles of hiking, elevation gain, and seasonal considerations.

Whether you’re seeking the adrenaline rush of scaling steep peaks or the serenity of remote landscapes, our curated list promises an unforgettable experience.

Get ready to push your limits and conquer the toughest hiking trails in the US, as we delve into the heart of adventure.

Grant Teton national Park USA
Weekend backpacking USA – what is the hardest hiking trail in the US?

Conquering the Peaks: 17 of America’s Most Toughest Hikes

For the seasoned hiker seeking a true test of endurance and a breathtaking reward, these 17 trails across the US offer unparalleled challenges and scenic vistas.

Remember, these hikes demand proper preparation, fitness, and adherence to safety guidelines. Let’s explore these epic adventures:

READ: Best Hikes In the World

1. Sierra High Route, Sierra Nevada, California

  • Distance: 200+ miles
  • Estimated Time: 3-4 weeks
  • Permits: Wilderness permits are required. Obtain them through the Inyo National Forest: [invalid URL removed] or Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: https://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/permits.htm websites depending on your route.
  • This classic thru-hike traverses some of the Sierra Nevada’s most spectacular high alpine terrain. Expect route-finding challenges and a true wilderness experience.

2. Long Trail, Green Mountains, Vermont

  • Distance: 272 miles
  • Estimated Time: Varies depending on pace, but typically 2-3 weeks.
  • Permits: No permits are required for through-hiking, but short sections may require permits for camping in designated areas. Check with the Green Mountain Club: https://greenmountainclub.org/.
  • The oldest long-distance hiking trail in the US, the Long Trail offers ridgeline hikes with stunning views and notoriously variable weather conditions.

3. The Maze, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

  • Distance: Varies depending on the route chosen, typically 5-10 miles.
  • Estimated Time: Varies depending on the route chosen, but allow a full day for exploration.
  • Permits: Self-permitting wilderness area.
  • Not for the faint of heart, The Maze is a labyrinth of unmarked canyons and requires excellent navigational skills and desert survival knowledge.

4. Angels Landing Hike, Zion National Park, Utah

  • Distance: 4.5 miles round trip
  • Estimated Time: 4-8 hours
  • Permits: Permits are required year-round due to limited space on the summit ridge. Apply through the National Park Service lottery system: [invalid URL removed].
  • This iconic hike features a thrilling ascent up a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs. Not recommended for those with a fear of heights.
national geographic best hiking trails in the world
best hiking trails in the world for beginners

5. Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

  • Distance: 93 miles
  • Estimated Time: 7-10 days
  • Permits: Permits are required for backpacking. Apply online through the National Park Service permit system:
  • This loop trail encircles majestic Mount Rainier and offers stunning wildflower displays alongside challenging climbs and exposed ridgelines.

6. Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

  • Distance: 15 miles round trip
  • Estimated Time: 12-14 hours
  • Permits: Permits are required year-round. Apply through the National Park Service permit system: [invalid URL removed].
  • One of Colorado’s most popular “Fourteeners,” Longs Peak demands mountaineering skills due to steep climbs, exposed areas, and potential for altitude sickness.

7. Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

  • Distance: 7.2 miles round trip
  • Estimated Time: 4-6 hours
  • Permits: No permits required.
  • This scenic hike leads to the base of Grinnell Glacier, offering stunning mountain views. Be prepared for a steep climb and potential snow/ice on the trail, especially early in the season.

8. Half Dome Hike, Yosemite National Park, California:

  • Distance: 14-16 miles round trip
  • Estimated Time: 12-16 hours
  • Permits: Permits are required year-round due to limited space on the cables section. Apply through a lottery system several months in advance here: [invalid URL removed].
  • This world-famous hike features a challenging climb with cables to reach the granite dome summit. Not recommended for those with a fear of heights.
half dome hike hardest hike in The World
Hardest Hikes in The World

9. Grand Teton Summit, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming:

The Grand Teton Summit in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, is a challenging but incredibly rewarding hike for experienced mountaineers. It’s not your typical day hike!

  • Trail: Multiple Routes (Exum Ridge or Teton Traverse are common)
  • Distance: Varies depending on route (typically 7-10 miles round trip)
  • Highlights: Dramatic mountain scenery, panoramic views, sense of accomplishment

Reaching the Grand Teton Summit requires technical climbing skills, proper equipment, and a high level of fitness. The most common routes are the Exum Ridge and the Teton Traverse, both exceeding 7 miles round trip with thousands of feet of elevation gain. Many climbers opt for a multi-day trip, camping at high camps along the way.

Because of the challenging terrain and potential dangers of altitude sickness and rockfall, it’s highly recommended to attempt this climb with a professional guide service.

best hikes in the us
best hikes in the US National Parks

10. Capitol Peak Via The Knief Edge, Colorado

Capitol Peak, located in the Elk Range near Aspen, stands out as one of the most thrilling 14,000-foot peaks in the array of Colorado’s hiking options. When viewed from a distance, it presents a majestic mountain that commands the horizon. However, it also holds a reputation as one of the most perilous and exposed peaks in the nation.

The Elk Range showcases some of the loftiest, most picturesque, and most demanding mountains in the state. Its proximity to Denver has led to a surge in popularity among outdoor enthusiasts, drawing in a growing number of visitors. Yet, the high number of hikers can create a false sense of security. Just a few decades ago, only a handful of individuals would venture to climb Capitol Peak each year; however, in 2017, the peak tragically claimed five lives in just six weeks.

The most notorious segment of the hike is the Knife Ridge, a narrow 150-foot-long ridge of sharp granite rock with sheer drops of over 1,000 feet on either side. This part of the trail is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. A single misstep could lead to a fatal fall. Seasoned climbers may hand-traverse the section to the left of the ridge, while other adventurers choose to straddle the ridge by placing a foot on each side and shuffling across.

Starting from the Capitol Creek Trailhead, this challenging hike spans 17 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 5,300 feet, prompting many to split the trek over two days. Completing this hike safely requires a blend of hiking, scrambling, and climbing skills.

11. Camp Muir, Mount Rainier National Park

Embark on the 9-mile round-trip hike to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier, a journey that begins serenely. Initially, stroll along the Skyline Trail, where a vibrant display of wildflowers awaits for 2.3 miles. As you progress and ascend, you’ll reach the Muir Snowfield. Though not a glacier, this terrain remains snow-clad throughout the year. Next, traverse 2.2 miles — ascending over 2,900 vertical feet.

Across an unmarked path through the expansive white landscape. Stick to the snowfield for safety; stray too far left or right, and you’ll encounter treacherous crevasses and the towering cliffs of neighboring glaciers. Does it sound demanding? Indeed, it is, but that’s not the sole factor adding peril to this challenging hike.

12. Mount Whitney, California

The Mount Whitney Trail is a challenging but rewarding hike that leads to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The trail is 22 miles round trip and gains over 6,000 feet in elevation. The hike is strenuous and requires a good level of fitness, but the views from the summit are truly spectacular.

Here’s a breakdown of the difficulty, location, and length of the Mount Whitney Trail:

  • Difficulty: Hard. The hike is long, strenuous, and reaches high altitudes. Hikers need to be in excellent physical condition and be prepared for the challenges of altitude sickness.
  • Location: Inyo National Forest, California. The trailhead is located near the town of Lone Pine.
  • Length: 22 miles round trip. The hike can take anywhere from 12 to 16 hours to complete.
USA National Parks
Horse Shoes National Parks USA

13. Kalalau Trail, Napali Coast, Hawaii

  • Distance: 22 miles round trip
  • Highlights: Coastal views, lush valleys, secluded beaches

The Kalalau Trail is an epic adventure on Kauai, Hawaii, offering unparalleled beauty and challenging hikes. It’s the only way to access the dramatic Napali Coast by land, with towering emerald cliffs, lush valleys, and hidden beaches.

The trail is a 22-mile round-trip journey, so plan for an overnight camping trip or a very long day hike. Be aware that the trail can be dangerous, with steep sections, river crossings, and slippery rocks. Permits are required for both day use and camping, so plan to secure yours.

The difficulty of the Kalalau Trail varies depending on the section you hike.

  • The first two miles to Hanakapiʻai Beach are considered moderately difficult.
  • The next four miles to Hanakoa Valley are challenging, with steep switchbacks and river crossings.
  • The final stretch to Kalalau Beach is the most difficult, with a very steep climb and uneven terrain.

14. The Enchantments, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington

The Enchantments Thru-Hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington, is a legendary trek that offers a taste of heaven on earth for experienced backpackers. Here’s a breakdown of its difficulty, location, and length:

  • Difficulty: Hard. The hike is long (18 miles one-way), with significant elevation gain (around 4,000-6,000 feet) and rugged terrain. Steep climbs, loose scree, and potential exposure require good physical fitness and strong hiking experience.
  • Location: Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington. The most common access points are the Stuart Lake Trailhead and the Colchuck Lake Trailhead.
  • Length: 18 miles one-way. Most hikers complete the Enchantments as a multi-day backpacking trip, spending 2-3 nights exploring the core Enchantments basin and enjoying the scenery. Permits are required for overnight stays, so plan and apply well in advance, especially during peak season.

Highlights:

  • Alpine Lakes: The centerpiece of the Enchantments is a chain of stunning turquoise lakes nestled amidst towering granite peaks. Expect to be awestruck by Upper and Lower Snow Lake, Aasgard Pass, and countless other scenic wonders.
  • Granite Peaks: Rugged, glacially-carved granite peaks like Aasgard Pass and Dragontail Peak dominate the horizon, providing a dramatic backdrop for your hike.
  • Pristine Wilderness: The Enchantments offer a chance to experience a truly pristine wilderness area. The hike takes you far from crowds, allowing you to immerse yourself in the beauty of the alpine environment.

Things to Consider:

  • Permits: As mentioned earlier, permits are mandatory for overnight stays. The application process can be competitive, so plan well in advance, especially if targeting peak season (July-September).
  • Weather: Be prepared for variable weather conditions in the mountains. Temperatures can drop significantly at night, and sudden rain or thunderstorms are always a possibility. Pack accordingly.
  • Experience: The Enchantments is not for beginners. Steep climbs, loose rocks, and potential exposure require good route-finding skills and strong hiking experience. Consider your fitness level and experience before attempting this challenging yet rewarding trek.
Grand Canyon USA NP
USA Best Hikes Grand Canyon

15. Rim-to-Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Difficulty: Hard. This is a long, one-way hike (typically 21-24 miles) with significant elevation changes (over 6,000 feet of descent and ascent). The extreme heat in summer can further heighten the challenge. Good physical fitness, strong hiking experience, and proper acclimatization are crucial.

Location: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The most common route combines the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim with the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim.

Distance: 24 miles one way. Most hikers complete this as a multi-day adventure, with an overnight stay at either the South Rim or Phantom Ranch (a lodge located at the bottom of the canyon) to break up the journey.

Highlights:

Canyon Landscapes: Witness the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. Experience the dramatic transformation of vegetation and geological features as you descend and ascend.

Diverse Ecosystems: The hike traverses several distinct ecosystems within the canyon, from the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the rim to the desert landscape at the bottom. Observe a variety of plant and animal life along the way.

Dramatic Elevation Changes: The descent and ascent offer breathtaking vistas and a true sense of scale as you navigate the immense canyon walls.

Planning Your Rim-to-Rim Hike:

  • Permits: Depending on your chosen route and overnight location, permits might be required for both day hiking and camping. Research and obtain necessary permits well in advance, especially during peak season.
  • Logistics: Consider factors like transportation between the rims, camping arrangements (if applicable), and resupply options. Many guided tours offer logistical support, or you can plan your self-supported adventure.
  • Seasonality: The South Rim is accessible year-round, while the North Rim typically closes due to snow in winter. Aim for spring, fall, or even early winter on the South Rim for milder temperatures. Summer heat can be dangerous at the lower elevations.
  • Training: Don’t underestimate the physical demands of this hike. Train properly with long-distance hikes with elevation gain to prepare yourself for the challenge.

16. Mount Rainier, Washington

Mount Rainier National Park boasts the Wonderland Trail, a legendary 93-mile loop hike that fully circumnavigates the iconic Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Cascade Range. This challenging trek is a true test of endurance, but the rewards are immeasurable – from majestic glaciers and vibrant wildflower meadows to diverse ecosystems and a profound sense of accomplishment.

Difficulty: Strenuous. The Wonderland Trail is not for the faint of heart. It’s a long-distance hike with significant elevation gain and loss (over 46,000 feet in total!) Expect rugged terrain, including sections with steep climbs, snowfields (depending on the season), and potential exposure. Excellent physical fitness, strong backpacking experience, and proper gear are essential.

Location: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. The trail can be started at various trailheads, with Longmire, Sunrise/White River, and Mowich Lake being the most popular options.

Distance: 93 miles loop. Most hikers complete the Wonderland Trail in 10-14 days, allowing time to enjoy the scenery, navigate the challenging terrain, and rest. Backpacking permits are required, and planning well in advance, especially for peak season, is crucial.

Yosemite-national-park-trip
California vacation Yosemite and Half Dome MT

17. South Maroon Peak (Maroon Bells), Colorado

The South Maroon Peak, nestled within the Maroon Bells-Aspen Wilderness in Colorado, beckons experienced hikers with its rugged beauty and sense of accomplishment. This challenging 11.5-mile round-trip trek rewards those with the fitness and experience for it with breathtaking mountain vistas and a true test of their mountaineering skills.

Difficulty: Hard. The South Maroon Peak is not for casual hikers. Expect steep, rocky ascents with significant elevation gain (over 4,500 feet). Loose scree, route-finding challenges, and potential exposure require excellent physical fitness, strong scrambling skills, and a good sense of balance. Be prepared for high-altitude conditions, which can include thin air and unpredictable weather.

Location: Maroon Bells-Aspen Wilderness, White River National Forest, Colorado. The trailhead is located near Maroon Lake, a popular scenic destination in Aspen.

Distance: 11.5 miles round trip. This hike is typically completed in a long day (12-16 hours) due to the challenging terrain and significant elevation gain. It’s not recommended for those unaccustomed to such demanding hikes.

Highlights:

  • Rocky Ascents: The South Maroon Peak route involves navigating steep slopes and rocky terrain, offering a thrilling yet challenging ascent.
  • Stunning Mountain Views: As you gain elevation, be mesmerized by the panoramic vistas of the surrounding Maroon Bells and the Elk Mountains. The scenic reward makes the strenuous climb worthwhile.
  • Challenging Terrain: The South Maroon Peak hike is not for the faint of heart. Loose scree, sections with exposure, and route-finding challenges demand strong technical skills and a sense of adventure.
best hiking trail in the world
Best Hiking trail in the World

Important Considerations:

  • Permits: Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the Maroon Bells-Aspen Wilderness. Check with the White River National Forest for details and availability.
  • Weather: Mountain weather can be unpredictable. Be prepared for sudden changes in temperature, wind, and rain or snow, even during the summer months. Pack appropriate clothing and gear.
  • Experience: This hike is best suited for experienced hikers and mountaineers with strong route-finding skills, a good level of fitness, and the ability to handle challenging terrain at high altitudes.
  • Guided Ascents: Due to the demanding nature of the hike, consider joining a guided ascent with a professional outfitter, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the area or lack high-altitude mountaineering experience.

Conclusion

The United States boasts a vast network of trails, catering to all experience levels. But for those seeking an ultimate challenge, the hikes mentioned here offer a true test of endurance, skill, and mental fortitude.

From navigating high altitudes and technical terrain to conquering long distances and diverse ecosystems, these trails promise an unforgettable adventure for seasoned hikers who crave a deep immersion in the country’s most spectacular landscapes.

So, lace up your boots, train diligently, and prepare to embark on an epic journey that will push you to your limits and leave you with a profound appreciation for the wilderness.

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Cesar Conde

I’m Cesar Conde Licensed Tour Guide in Peru, owner of Tour Leaders Peru and Travel Advisor. My other side job is a Digital Nomad. I share my amazing travel experiences, stories, guides, and itineraries for travelers like you and me!

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