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May 2005

America’s Hardest Dayhikes

Push yourself on any of these challenging hikes

5. Cactus to Clouds Trail
Mt., San Jacinto from Palm Springs, CA

80 Miles: 23 Elevation Change: 13,400 feet X Factor: Broiling temps

Sure, it’s a big deal to climb Mt. Whitney-but on the highest peak in the lower 48, you begin at 8,360 feet. To conquer Cactus to Clouds, you start on the desert floor and ascend 10,700 feet-a vertical half-mile more than Whitney. Two fun ways to put your pain in perspective as you churn up the unmaintained trail: The trek to San Jacinto’s 10,804-foot, boulder-strewn crown is only 800 vertical feet shorter than the climb from Everest basecamp to summit-and comparable to doing more than a thousand flights of stairs. Start before dawn, because temps hit triple digits more than 100 days a year, and there’s no water below 8,500 feet. But come prepared for wild temperature inversions and possible rain and hail up high; the worst scenario is to be forced to descend waterless in the ruthless afternoon heat. From the top, where you’ll see every major peak in Southern California and all the way to the coast, most people hike down 2,300 feet and take the tram back to town; the hike’s tough enough without adding another 8,000 feet of downhill. Contact: Long Valley Ranger Station, Mt. San Jacinto State Park, (951) 659-2607; Palm Springs Aerial Tram, (760) 325-1391;

6. Great Smoky Mountains End-to-End

78 Miles: 32 Elevation Change: 12,300 feet X Factor: Mud, bugs, humidity

It’s a safe bet that leisurely Bill Bryson won’t ever wax poetic about doing this one-day walk in the woods. The Appalachian Trail‘s infamous switchback-free section from Newfound Gap to TN 32 at the national park’s northeast corner breaks you down mentally and physically, rising 4,600 feet and dropping (perhaps literally) a staggering 7,678. The Smokies’ famed low clouds and chronically wet ground (Bryson writes of rain falling there "with an endless, typewriter pattern) lend the incessant downhill a distinctly Appalachian flavor-you’ll churn through slick mud, rocks, and roots. When it’s clear, the views from ridgelines along one of the AT’s highest stretches are the best in the Southeast. Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1297;

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