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Backpacker Magazine – May 2005

America's Hardest Dayhikes

Push yourself on any of these challenging hikes

by: Mike Lanza, BACKPACKER Northwest Editor

3. Great Range Traverse
Adirondacks, NY

90 Miles: 25 Elevation Change: 17,600 feet X Factor: Endless ups and downs

There's no small irony in the fact that New York's tallest peak is merely the last challenge on this classic loop-and far from the toughest. The route scales nine peaks, including six 4,000-footers and the aforementioned 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy. But numerous cols and false summits, plus heinously eroded trail beds, wear you down physically and psychologically. From Keene Valley, the murderer's row of peaks includes Rooster Comb, Hedgehog, Lower Wolf Jaw, Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Haystack, and Marcy, from which you descend the Phelps Trail. Gut-check moments include a half-mile of teetering above a 700-foot drop on a knife-edge between the Wolf Jaws-inevitably followed by a steep climb-and the southeast face of Gothics, a scary-steep, exposed descent over open slab rock. (The face used to have cables to aid hikers, but, fittingly, they've been removed.) There are long stretches of scrambling and ladder-climbing, and you'll need to carry enough water for the day. Contact: Adirondack Mountain Club, (518) 668-4447;

4. Windom Peak
San Juan Mountains, CO

85 Miles: 20 Elevation Change: 11,600 feet X Factor: Violent thunderstorms

Once you commit to Windom, there's no dawdling over views: In summer, the lightning risk is so great that climbers should top out by 11 a.m. That isn't easy, given the 10-mile, 5,800-foot hump through increasingly thin air to the precarious 14,082-foot summit. You'll likely hear the clock ticking as you maneuver through a talus field halfway up, solve off-trail scrambling and route-finding problems, and tackle the crux: a brutal ascent from Chicago Basin to the summit that climbs 2,900 feet in just under 2 miles. Wind, hail, and snow often enter the picture, even in summer, and then there are the daunting logistics. Windom lies deep in the heart of the San Juans, part of the aptly named Needle Mountains, so it's tougher than most 14ers to bag in a day. In fact, you'll need to catch an 1880s steam locomotive that follows the Animas River Canyon just to get to the trailhead, then camp nearby (no hardship-it's lovely aspen country) for the compulsory alpine start. Contact: San Juan National Forest, (970) 247-4874;; Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, (970) 247-2733;

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jul 03, 2014

Badwater Flats to Telescope Peak. over 11,300' of pure elevation gain without factoring in trail changes. Shortest distance with the greatest elevation change in North America, world record triple digit heat, no water, extreme weather changes.... Just how did this not make the list?

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Jun 26, 2014

Hike Smart by going to to plan your Grand Canyon adventure. The Grand Canyon continues to claim more lives every year for a variety of reasons; hikers become lost, hikers arenít prepared for the elements they encounter, or a simple photo op turns tragic. Live to hike another day by staying found and knowing how to use a compass. Even skilled explorers can become lost or somehow end up spending the night hunkered down because of weather or injury. Many people never consider that they might end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors or waiting for medical help --and so they hike without the essentials. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors. Read "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart" (Amazon). A compass doesn't need a signal, satellites, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it and this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Learn how to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. This book is for all ages. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart."

Star Star Star Star Star
Apr 07, 2013

It is interesting that the two hikes with the highest mileage are both on the East Coast! As far as the Pemi-Loop goes, Backpacker Mag is totally correct! It's not the mileage or the elevations gain/loss that hurts you in NH; it's the rocks! They don't call it the Granite State for nothing...

Nov 20, 2011

My experience was that Mt Whitney was a doddle. Did that a couple years ago, and was back by 13:30. Grand Canyon I did this year, and it was much, much harder due mainly to the heat/dehydration.

I'm from the UK, and I'm considering, for 2012: A US road trip that begins with the Cactus to Clouds, follow that up with a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim then the Timberline Trail and finish with the Enchantment Lakes traverse. Is there a time of year when I could realistically do all of these within three weeks?

Jul 14, 2011

Mahoosuc Range Traverse from Gorham NH to Old Speck Mt ME, about the same mileage as Pemi Loop, but more elevation gain and more rugged terrain, including AT's "toughest mile" at Mahoosuc Notch.

Pavel Chernikov
Jun 20, 2011

Here's another good one: Hut to hut White Mountains traverse, 50 miles, 17k elevation gain (34k elevation change). Usually the goal for this one is under 24h.

Pavel Chernikov
Jun 20, 2011

"Bob Marshall's big hike" traverse in ADK, about 32 miles, 13500 elevation gain (27000 elevation change). It's basically Great Range on steroids.

Hikin' Jim
May 28, 2011

How were the scores calculated?


Feb 08, 2011

Cactus to Clouds is best done in late fall before the snow starts to hit, or early spring after it has melted. You want a clear trail without ice, and the ability to get up high enough in the morning without the desert heat killing you. We started at 4 am last October, made it to the tram station at 10:30 and relaxed for a half an hour before pushing to the top in about another 1.5 hours. Getting to the tram station is the hard part, the few miles up to the top is well maintained and relatively easy.

Shelli Johnson
Oct 18, 2010

What time of year is optimal for hiking the Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA trail?

Shelli Johnson
Oct 18, 2010

What time of year is optimal for hiking the Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA trail?

Sep 03, 2010

The Timberline Trail still (as of 2010) has a section closed after flooding in 2006 washed out a section on the north side and destabilized steep slopes. Too bad because it's a super hike.

Another hike in Oregon of similar mileage, but less vertical would be around the Three Sisters (Bend).


Morning Star
Apr 14, 2010

Telescope Peak from Shorty's Well, Death Valley, CA. Score: 110. Miles: 30. Elevation change: 12,000. X-Factor: Skull frying heat in the middle of nowhere.

Dec 02, 2009

@Chenendez asked, "Why not Rim to rim to rim? Well why not Rim to rim to rim to rim?"
A: Because r2r2r is done in a day, many times per year, and r2r2r2r is not.

Then @Chenendez asked, "What happens once you reach the top of San Jacinto? Do you radio in the copter to airlift you out? How do you possibly make it back in the same day?"
a: This guy did it in 10.5 hours. and I'm sure well-trained people will typically do it under 18-20 hours.

They didn't call this "hardest dayhikes" because they're easy, you know. But they're definitely possible.

Yaakov Relkin
Nov 16, 2009

What happened to the Devil's Path in New York?
It's 25.5 miles and has 18K feet of elev. change!

Nov 10, 2009

Why not Rim to rim to rim? Well why not Rim to rim to rim to rim? Isn't that harder? What can possibly beat that? I know. Rim to rim to rim to rim to rim. This article just shows some people have nothing to write. I got a real hard day hike for you. Go from Santa Monica pier to Mt Baldy. So this is suppose to be a day hike list. What happens once you reach the top of San Jacinto? Do you radio in the copter to airlift you out? How do you possibly make it back in the same day? You can't camp, because that would be a backpack trip, and wouldn't be in the same day. Hmmmmm.....

Aug 11, 2009

Mt. Whitney is tougher than suggested here. 6000 ft of elevation is nothing to sneeze at, and the fact that it happens, for the most part, above the tree line adds another dimension of difficulty. How many people have I seen balk at about 11,000 feet because of the effects of altitude sickness. And bring sunglasses because the sun is surreally bright at that elevation, as well.

Robert Burns
Jul 20, 2009

Recently did The Great Range in reverse as a backpacking trip that included Dix and Noonmark. Missing in the description of the GR above is Basin Mountain, which is between Saddleback and Lower Haystack. Also missing is the class 3-4 climb at the top of Saddleback. We did this in reverse, going from Marcy back to St. Huberts, abandoning ship after Gothics (which sports new cables up the southern ascent) because of some pretty raucous thunderstorms. The escape route featured the pretty cool Pyramid Peak, however.

May 26, 2009

Granted, this is outdated, but I have seen the latest top hikes recently, somewhere. I have hiked several of these hikes and they are awesome.
Question..... why isn't the Rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon on the top list? I sure is up there in miles and elevation. It kick most of the hikes in a heart beat.


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