Talk to most mountaineers, trail runners, or mountain bikers, and they’ll tell you that hiking is the weak sibling of adventurous outdoor sports. A little too slow, a little too granola, not enough adrenaline. But that’s not always the case—some of the most dangerous adventures in the world involve simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Exposure, wild animals, guerrilla fighters, heat, bugs, crumbling trails—these are just some of the variables that can turn a walk in the woods or through the mountains into a flirt with death. Here we present 10 of the world’s most dangerous hikes. Granola optional, guts required. —Jason Daley
Huayna Picchu, Peru MrHicks46/Flickr
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be a tough trek, and it takes a few casualties each year. But the real danger begins when you follow the trail past the mythical city and up Huayna Picchu, aka the “Hike of Death.” The old Inca staircase is carved out of granite and climbs about 1,000 feet in less than a mile, but the route is full of rotting, crumbling rock, slippery stones, and exposed corners.
Clouds and mist make the journey more difficult, and in parts, hikers must cling to old steel cables. Going up is the easy part—coming down the steep slope often paralyzes travelers with fear. But it’s worth the pain—the view from Huayna Picchu on a sunny day is the best bird’s eye of Machu Picchu below.
The Maze, Utah Indigoprime/Flickr
The most remote section of Canyonlands National Park receives about 2,000 visitors per year, and not because it isn’t worth visiting. The red rock labyrinth known as The Maze is difficult to reach and almost impossible to navigate, full of dead-end gullies, and always presents the danger of rockfalls (think James Franco in 127 Hours) or deadly flash floods.
The sheer danger of the place—which rangers emphasize to any visitors, insisting on detailed itineraries and good communication—has kept fatalities in the area to zero, though there was a double suicide in summer of 2013. Deaths and accidents in the rest of Canyonlands, however, are a regular occurrence, and show just how deadly The Maze would be—if anyone could get there.
Mount Hua Shan, China Ondrej Zvacek
Pilgrims have climbed to the temples on the five spires of Mount Hua Shan for centuries. Almost all the climbs are treacherous, with nearly vertical stairways and few handholds. However, the plank trail to the South Mountain is a different story. Called the most dangerous hike in the world, it consists of wooden platforms bolted onto the mountainside.
Trekkers need to hook into an iron chain paralleling the boards, which hover thousands of feet above the ground. Even getting to the trail is difficult, including a climb up a vertical rebar staircase. At one point, the planks disappear entirely and hikers must use small divots carved into the rock. There are no official death statistics, but there are rumors that 100 people per year die on Huashan. Multiply that over centuries, and it may be the deadliest peak in the world.
Kokoda Track, Papua New Guinea Aussiegall/Flickr
The Kokoda Track has seen plenty of death in its time—in 1942 it was the scene of intense fighting between the Japanese and Australians. The route lay almost dormant until the last decade when adventurous trekkers discovered the 60-mile slog connecting the outskirts of Port Moresby to the village of Kokoda.
Since then, the route, which takes 4 to 11 days to complete, has increased its body count by six, with hikers facing malaria, extreme heat, frigid nights, and daily bone-soaking afternoon rains. The route itself has been called a stairmaster in a steam room, with ankle-deep clay muck, slippery roots, and portions that become waterfalls.
Grouse Grind, Vancouver mr.l/Flickr
There are dozens of beautiful hikes around Vancouver, British Columbia. The Grouse Grind isn’t one of them. The short trail gains 2,800 feet in just 1.8 miles, including 2,830 stairs, making it one of the steepest trails anywhere. Which is why mountaineers and fitness freaks use it for training. The problems come when the unprepared take on the Grouse.
Since 1999, three people have died on the trail, and a big percentage of the 80 technical rescues the North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services performs each year take place on the Grind when winded hikers take a tumble, poop out, or lose their way as night falls. The trail is so grisly it often takes 12 rescuers to get a hiker off the mountain.
Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa PhilippN
The stat that is often repeated about the Drakensberg Traverse is that before 1985, fifty-five people lost their lives. After that, we guess, officials got tired of counting, but deaths are reported almost every year on the 40-mile trek through Natal National Park that crosses some of the most exposed—and beautiful—alpine terrain in the world.
The most daunting part may be the beginning—two rickety chain ladders take trekkers to the ridge, where animal tracks, herding trails, and rock scrambles are cobbled together to make up the trail. But the rewards are worth it, including a stop at the Amphitheater, a rock cliff that is three times larger in area than El Capitan.
Cascade Saddle, New Zealand EliDuke/Flickr
If you want all those Lord of the Rings vistas, you have to travel to Mt. Aspiring National Park on New Zealand’s South Island. But you may want to skip the route to the Cascade Saddle, an 11-mile, 2-day trip through beech forest and alpine meadows. Despite the views, in the last few years at least 12 people have lost their life in the saddle, mainly from falls, including a German trekker in July, 2013. The carnage has been enough that in August the local coroner demanded that officials either close the path down or re-engineer it to make it safer.
Aonach Eagach Ridge, Scotland Nick Bramhall/Flickr
Aonach Eagach is one of Scotland’s most iconic Highland scrambles. The 4-mile route, which follows Glen Coe Valley, crosses two munros, or mountains, and offers some of the best views in the country. It also offers a knifes edge trail with steep scree and grassy slopes on either side, sections of technical scrambling, and no shortcuts off the ridge if the weather turns bad. That’s where most of the problems begin—ridge walkers try to leave the ridge before reaching Sgorr nam Fiannaidh peak and the easy way down. There are several fatalities and accidents on the peak every year, including two deaths in 2009.
Kalalau, Hawaii Jeff Kubina/Flickr
The Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coast is Hawaii at its best—isolated jungle, steep volcanic slopes, with a pristine undeveloped beach at the end. But the 22-mile round-trip hike through paradise can turn sour quickly. The path’s three major stream crossings can swell rapidly during a rain, and falling rock, especially around waterfalls is always a concern. Crawler’s Ledge three quarters of the way through the trek can turn into a dicey walk along its sheer ledge during the rain.
The trail has taken several lives and caused countless accidents, but the narrow path isn’t the biggest danger—over 100 people have met their end while swimming on the trail's remote beaches, and the transient community living on the shore can be rough. Last year, a drug addict threw a Japanese hiker off a cliff, setting off a 4-month manhunt.
El Caminito del Rey Gabirulo/Flickr
In the El Chorro Gorge in Spain’s Malaga province, the Caminito del Rey (Little King’s Path) is hangs over 100 feet up on sheer cliffs. The two-mile concrete and steel path was built over 100 years ago to serve workers on a local hydroelectric plant, but over time it’s become a destination for adventure seekers, especially as sections of the pathway have crumbled. Officially closed to the public, hikers still play Fear Factor on the route, which requires spidering over 10-foot sections of missing trail. Even when the state finishes a reconstruction of the path sometime in the next two years, the Caminito will still stay on the list of top vertigo-inducing trails.