Twelve Toughest Trails
Twelve trails that'll chew you up, spit you out, and have you begging for more.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you buy the notion that every trail has a distinct personality, then the Devil’s Path in New York’s Catskill Mountains is like a bad-tempered barroom bouncer with a 24-karat heart. One minute this 24-mile bruiser has you on all fours begging for mercy, then a short while later you’re brushing yourself off and being escorted to a show-stopping vista, where a pat on the back and a warm, “Here, you earned this,” await.
Challenge and reward, pain and payoff-these opposing forces make the Devil’s Path and the rest of our down- and-dirty-dozen trails both alluring and unique. Some are steep, and others will test you with altitude, wind, sun, scree, lack of water, or too much water (see “Grunt Factor,” which rates each on a scale of 1, for easiest, to 5, most difficult). But in the end, for all your sweat and effort, you’ll stand in a special place few hikers will ever reach, and have the immense satisfaction that comes from being able to say, “I did it!”
-Jim Gorman, Senior Editor
Local legend has it that the Devil’s Path derived its name from the first Dutch and German settlers to the Catskill region. Supposedly, they took one look at the high, deeply notched mountains marching west from the Hudson River and figured that only the cloven-footed Devil could walk such steep, treacherous ground.
I have an alternate theory on the origin of the name: Ol’ Beelzebub dabbled in trail design before finding other ways to try men’s souls. How else to explain a route that regards the fall line as suitable trail bed, or demonically follows rocky ledges you scale using both hands as well as feet? The net result is a pint-size trail with an elevation gain and loss of Rocky Mountain proportions: over 14,000 feet. That’s quite a wallop.
Ah, but the Devil is a wise trail builder and knows that it’s pleasure, not pain, that seduces the unsuspecting hiker. Spill-away views into four states, quiet woods, plenty of wildlife, and more miles spent above the magical 3,200-foot line (where the landscape instantly transforms from ho-hum mid-Atlantic to Far North) than any other Catskill trail, are just a few of his temptations. Resist, if you can.
Where: The eastern trailhead is located at the end of Prediger Road, just off NY 16 (Platte Cove Mountain Road),
7 miles west of West Saugerties. The western trailhead is on Sprucetown Road (NY 6), 6 miles east of West Kill and NY 42.
Route: The 23.6-mile Devil’s Path ascends seven peaks, six of them above 3,500 feet. Plan on devoting three days to hiking the entire trail and arrange for a car shuttle. Pack plenty of water so you can camp high in the mountains, away from the crowds and bugs that congregate near streams and springs.
Grunt factor: 5. Elevation gain/loss is severe, and scarce water means you’ll carry at least 8 pounds (a gallon) of water more than usual.
The payoff: The pleasurable 2-mile stroll across spruce- and fern-covered Plateau Mountain is like a visit to the wilds of northern Maine. Other heights yield terrific overlooks for rest and lunch breaks. A single road crossing means you get a sustained backwoods experience.
More information:Catskill Trails, a five-map set, is available from the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference (P.O. Box 2250, New York, NY 10016; 212-685-9699; www.nynjtc.org; $9.95). -J. Gorman
Slickrock Creek Trail
Early afternoon and already our legs quiver. Lungs wheeze like we’ve got a four-pack-a-day habit. For all our effort, though, we’re only partway up the infamous Slickrock Creek Trail in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Two more miles of unrelentingly steeps lie ahead. We’d been warned about this trail, but that’s like telling a kid to stay away from the cookie jar.
The upper section of the Slickrock Creek Trail is widely considered the hardest hike in the southern Appalachians. Its nickname among local hikers is “The Ballbuster.” As we found out, all kinds of body parts get worked over on this hike. The fun begins where Slickrock Creek Trail leaves the creek and rockets skyward through dense rhododendron. Successfully completing this climb takes stamina and willpower. You’ll know you passed the test when you burst into the bright sunlight on Stratton Bald and delight in the jaw-dropping vistas of untrammeled wilderness.
Where: Slickrock Creek Trail begins on US 129 near Cheoah Dam and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Route: Hike a 21.7-mile loop by climbing up the Slickrock Creek Trail and descending the Haoe Lead, Hangover Lead, and Ike Branch Trails. A side trip to Bob Bald adds 2.8 miles.
Grunt factor: 5. The climb from the trailhead to Stratton Bald is 4,181 feet. Then, of course, you have to go down.
The payoff: Camping amid the lush meadows on Stratton Bald, where the delicious combination of cool breezes and wide-open views is unparalleled.
More information:Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses, by Tim Homan (1998; Peachtree Publishers; 800-241-0113; $14.95) and The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Citico Creek Wilderness Map (Cheoah Ranger District, Rt. 1, Box 16A, Robbinsville, NC 28771; 828-479-6431; $4.75).
-Jean Gauger and Hiram Rogers
King Ravine Trail
Picture a trail roughly as steep as the backside of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, line it with shifting, lichen-coated boulders, and you’ll get some idea of what to expect on the King Ravine Trail. Still, nothing prepares you for the real thing. Panting like a steam engine, eyes flitting from map to slope, you’ll undoubtedly wonder, “The trail goes up there?!”
It does, climbing 1,100 vertical feet in half a mile. That’s why the King Ravine Trail is considered one of the hardest-and not surprisingly, least-traveled-trails in the Presidential Range. Hike the King Ravine, and any footpath thereafter will seem tame.
But before reaching the steep stuff, you’re treated to a subterranean obstacle course called the Subway, which will have you clambering over boulders inside a cave, and the Ice Caves, which will send cooling shivers down your spine in the heat of summer.
Where: Start at the Appalachia trailhead on US 2 in Randolph, New Hampshire.
Route: Follow the Air Line and Short Line Trails to the King Ravine Trail, which reconnects with the Air Line below the summit of Mt. Adams. For an extremely rigorous and beautiful 23-mile loop, continue on the Air Line to the summit of Mt. Adams, descend the Star Lake Trail to Madison Hut, and take the Osgood Trail over Mt. Madison and down into the Great Gulf Wilderness. Follow the Great Gulf Trail to the Gulfside Trail and back to the Air Line, which you descend to the trailhead.
Grunt factor: 5. The climb from the trailhead to Mt. Adams is a back-breaking 4,400 feet in 4.5 miles.
The payoff: Squeezing through cool boulder caves and scrambling up a headwall that would satisfy any seasoned mountaineer.
More information:The AMC White Mountain Guide (1998; Appalachian Mountain Club; 800-262-4455; $21.95).
From Jackson Hole, the Teton Range issues a taunt straight out of a Clint Eastwood script: “Go ahead, just try it.” Of all the trails into these dauntingly vertical mountains, none climbs higher or more relentlessly than the route through Paintbrush Canyon to the 10,800-foot divide above. But the rewards are doled out in equal measure to the effort. Or as Clint would ask, “Are you feeling lucky?”
On the way up, you can be excused for feeling beset by all of the forces of nature as the air thins, the high-altitude sun beats down, and switchbacks go on and on like a bad acceptance speech. Even gravity seems to tug a little harder.
But stick with it because, with walls “painted” in bands of brown, gray, and white rock, Paintbrush Canyon is regarded as one of Grand Teton National Park’s most stunning sights. When you stand at Paintbrush Divide, you look up and down the Teton Crest, as well as across Jackson Hole to the Gros Ventre Range. It’s a sublime view usually achieved only by tying into a climbing rope.
Where: String Lake trailhead is off of Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park, 25 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming.
Route: The Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon loop is 20 miles. For a 36-mile trek, follow Paintbrush Canyon to the Teton Crest Trail and finish through Death Canyon (vehicle shuttle needed).
Grunt factor: 4. You’ll lose count of switchbacks on the 8-mile, 4,000-foot climb to Paintbrush Divide.
The payoff: Mountain views normally reserved for technical rock climbers.
More information: Both Trails Illustrated (P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen CO 80437-4357; 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com) and Earthwalk Press (5432 La Jolla Hermosa Ave., La Jolla, CA 92037; 800-828-6277) publish maps.
The Three Apostles
Mt. Everest it ain’t, although winded backpackers who reach Huron Peak’s 14,003-foot summit will tell you the journey is just as epic.
Huron is the high point and last leg of a four-day, lung-searing loop that orbits The Three Apostles, a snow-creased masiff just shy of 14,000 feet. This rough-and-tumble patchwork of trails and informal paths clambers twice over the Continental Divide before scaling a tricky boulder field to Huron.
Expect sweaty switchbacks and a continuous pageant of mountains that can induce vertigo. Twelve-thousand-footers are so common that many are unnamed. Lingering cornices and snowy cirques flout summer’s warmth. Lush green meadows are smothered with a painter’s palette of wildflowers.
Be forewarned, though. This sojourn is rugged and will challenge even the most experienced trekkers. Count on a daily spanking by thunderstorms. Loose scree and ill-defined paths demand the tenacity and route finding skills of a mountain goat. If you visit in spring or fall, definitely pack crampons and an ice axe, then let the elevation celebration begin.
Where: The Three Apostles are located in central Colorado. From Leadville, drive south on US 24. Just south of Granite, turn right (west) onto Clear Creek Canyon Road (FR 390). Continue 2.7 miles past Winfield to South Clear Creek trailhead.
Route: Six trails create a 27-mile loop. Take the Lake Ann Trail to the Timberline Trail, veer southeast to Texas Creek Trail, then head up an unmaintained path along North Texas Creek to the Pear Lake Trail. Cross to Huron Peak trailhead north of Cloyses Lake and follow the faint trail up and over Huron Peak. The switchback descent to the west leads to the trailhead.
Grunt factor: 4+, for climbing a total of 7,500 feet.
The payoff: Unequaled alpine scenery, including top-of-the-world vantages of The Three Apostles, and five of the Collegiate Peaks’ 14,000-foot pinnacles.
More information: The best map is Buena Vista/Collegiate Peaks, #129 (Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen, CO 80437-4357; 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95).
Capitan Peak Trail
Billy the Kid felt right at home in the Capitan Mountains. But then, the outlaw had a horse. Backpackers must hoof it up the Capitan Peak Trail in south-central New Mexico to reach one of the finest ridgeline hikes in the southern Rockies.
Get ready to sweat, pardner, because the trip from the trailhead to a breathless climax on Capitan Peak covers 3,783 vertical feet and takes you from desert to purple mountains majesty in less than 6 miles. At least the sideshow along the way is interesting. At the 2-mile mark, spectacular Chimney Rock looms, a spire of red stone towering over prime elk and bear range. Further on, rivers of rock attest to the region’s molten birthright, and rare ancient forests of aspen, spruce, and fir rise improbably above cactus patches and antelope flats.
From the summit, the views are out of this world: an unobstructed 360 degrees that includes the Staked Plains, Chihuahuan Desert, Guadalupe Reef, and snowy Sangre DeCristos. Speaking of otherworldly, UFO headquarters (Roswell) is visible in the distance, so watch out for hovering spacecraft.
Where: From Carrizozo at the junction of US 380 and US 54, travel east on US 380 to Capitan. Exit onto NM 246 north. Follow it to Forest Road 130 headed south. Take FR 130 to the trailhead at Pine Lodge.
Route: Use Capitan Peak Trail to create a high-flying, 32-mile backpacking trip by connecting with the 8.5 mile Summit Trail, then linking with 15 miles of less strenuous loops on the North and South Base Trails.
Grunt factor: 4; steep ascents, loose rock, innumerable switchbacks, and little water.
The payoff: An opportunity to experience remote wilderness, plus views that frame the best of the West.
More Information:New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide, by Bob Julyan and Tom Till (1999; Westcliffe Publishers; 800-523-3692; [email protected]; $24.95).
Grandview Trail,Grand Canyon
The raft-swallowing rapids of the Colorado River defy labeling by the standard whitewater rating system. That’s why paddlers invented the Grand Canyon Scale. Backpackers should do the same for the canyon’s trails.
All Grand Canyon hikes are hard-stupendous drop-offs, hot sun, sparse water-but an informal dividing line separates the truly difficult from the wicked: need rope or not? Of the need-rope variety, the Nankoweap Trail on the North Rim is the most notorious; for saner people, the Grandview is challenge enough.
On this trek, reaching the river is cause for celebration, partly for the accomplishment but mostly thanks to the perfect riverside beach you’ll call home for a few days. Gradually, though, the realization sinks in that you have to get back to the rim, which means a 13-mile, 4,800-foot climb through the canyon’s rocky, sunbaked terrain. The final push ascends a sheer slice of Coconino sandstone that’s a real nail-biter. But look on the bright side: Each step up reveals a little more of the famous canyon, where views are so breathtaking they jump the scale.
Where: The Grandview Trail is in northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, 10 miles east of the visitor center on East Rim Drive.
Route: Combine the New Hance Trail (going in) and the Tonto/Grandview trails (going out) for a 21-mile loop.
Grunt factor: 5. The elevation gain/loss totals 9,200 feet.
The payoff: Watching the sun set from a riverside camp, as golden light fades to pink and purple on a vertical mile of rock.
More information:Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino (1997; Sierra Club Books; 800-935-1056; www.sierraclub.org; $15).
Charleston Peak Trail
In the Southwest, where big mountains are a dime a dozen, 11,918-foot Charleston Peak is a standout. It’s one of the tallest peaks between the Sierra Nevada and the southern Rockies, and a base-to-summit elevation profile of 9,700 feet makes it truly imposing.
Once on the summit ridge, the trail ambles gently among gnarled bristlecone pine and sidesteps jagged cliffs. Atop Mt. Charleston, the ridge narrows, the views extend into California and almost to the Utah line, and you feel suspended in space.
Complicating matters for hikers attempting this 18-mile loop is the fact that winter snowmelt disappears into the underlying limestone quicker than a retiree’s nest egg at the slot machines below. Unless you catch lingering snow before the end of June, you’ll have to carry all your water.
Where: The South Loop begins in a picnic area at the end of NV 157, 19 miles west of US 95. The North Loop begins nearby, on Echo Road.
Route: For an 18-mile loop, ascend via the North Loop, and collect water at a convenient spring halfway up. Descend via the South Loop, road-walking back to the start. Spur hikes to 11,059-foot Griffith Peak and 11,528-foot Mummy Mountain (no trail) add extra miles.
Grunt factor: 4 (5 if you’re not altitude acclimated). The trail rises 4,200 vertical feet.
The payoff: Hundred-mile vistas from one of the most extreme mountain ramparts in North America, plus ancient bristlecone pines and impressive limestone cliffs.
More information: Grab a copy of Hiking the Great Basin: The High Desert Country of California, Nevada, and Utah, by John Hart (1992; Sierra Club Books; 800-935-1056; www.sierraclub.org; $14.95).
-Richard A. Lovett
Hoh-High Divide Traverse
The Olympic Mountains have it all, and the Hoh-High Divide Traverse samples it in rapid-fire succession: rain forest, raging rivers, lupine spiked meadows, deep valleys carved by vanished glaciers, and craggy summits.
But perhaps the crowning glory of this 45-mile adventure is the High Divide itself, a long, meadowy crest that offers close-up views of glacier-decked Mt. Olympus. From the Divide, the glacially scoured U of the Hoh Valley drops so far at your feet that 200-foot fir trees look like the nap on a shag carpet. Somehow, the bugling of elk manages to drift up from 4,000 feet below.
This route is not for the faint of knee, since it refuses to stay up once it gets up. First it climbs 4,400 feet, then descends 2,700 feet, then climbs 2,700 feet, descends 1,900 feet, climbs 2,300 feet, and descends 4,800 feet.
It ends gently, with a nearly level 9.5-mile walk through the primeval setting of the Hoh Rain Forest-perfect for contemplating a tough challenge well-met.
Where:Olympic National Park, starting at Lake Crescent trailhead on US 101 and finishing at the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.
Route: Not one trail, but several that lead to the following landmarks: Barnes Creek, Boulder Lake, Appleton Pass, High Divide, and Hoh River.
Grunt factor: 3. Elevation gain/loss totals more than 19,000 feet, but you have at least four days in which to tackle it.
The payoff: The whole schmear, from rain forest to close-ups of glaciated Mt. Olympus, with meadowy campsites and glistening lakes in between.
More information: Both Custom Correct maps (3492 Little River Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98363) and Green Trails, Inc. (P.O. Box 77734, Seattle, WA 98177; 800-762-6277; www.greentrails.com; [email protected]) sell informative hiking maps of Olympic National Park.
Ruckel Ridge Trail
In case you were wondering what it’s like to run the obstacle course in Army basic training, the Ruckel Ridge Trail in the Columbia River Gorge offers a fair approximation. Earn your stripes on root ladders, near-vertical sections of trail, and “The Catwalk,” an elevated basalt walkway so narrow that scooting across on your butt is an option.
The gorge is renowned for tough hikes, but none beats Ruckel Ridge. It soars 3,700 feet in 3.8 miles through a vertical landscape of hanging gardens and moss-carpeted Douglas fir forest. Portland mountaineers train for nearby volcanoes on Ruckel Ridge.
Once out of the gorge and up onto the surrounding plateau, you’re in for a treat as the hiking becomes downright easy. Interlocking trails offer creative hikers unlimited opportunities to ramble, but consider hiking the Ruckel Creek Trail (#405) to the Pacific Crest Trail, which you follow to Wahtum Lake. From there, either take the Eagle Creek Trail back to your car or backtrack all the way on the Ruckel Creek Trail. The descent is steeper, but the views from Hanging Meadows are incomparable: A riotous flower display aesthetically competes with Washington’s snowy Mt. Adams and the Columbia River cutting through the Cascade Mountains.
Where: Begin at Eagle Creek Campground, near exit 41 from I-84, east of Portland. The trailhead is at site #5, but directions are tricky and best explained in the guidebook below.
Route: You’ll need a guidebook to unscramble the first mile (a mess of campground, road, powerline, and spur trails). The trail, once located, is straightforward. Once you’re at the top, it’s easy going.
Grunt factor: 5 to the summit; 1 to 2 thereafter.
The payoff: Solitude and old-growth forest; the descent includes high, flowery slopes and incredible Columbia Gorge vistas.
More information:35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge, by Don and Roberta Lowe (1995; Frank Amato Publishers; 800-541-9498; www.amatobooks.com; [email protected]; $15.95).
Bradwell Bay Wilderness
Are you sure alligators hibernate in winter?” I ask my companion. We’re thigh deep in tea-colored water and surrounded by bearded cypress trees that predate the first colonies in America.
“Yeah,” he replies, “but keep your eyes open for snakes.” Sometimes the difficulty of a hike is not its steepness, but what it does to your head.
The 22.5-mile stretch of the Florida Trail through Bradwell Bay Wilderness in the northwest part of the state slips into a mystical forest worthy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Bony, primeval-looking cypress knees poke through the water, Spanish moss covers every tree, and wild orchids shine like jewels on islands of bright, white sand. Soggy socks and wet drawers are a given in the 8-mile swamp section, where water levels range from ankle- to waist-deep. Carry a full day’s water, and don’t get caught in the swamp after dark.
Where: From Tallahassee, take US 319 south to Sopchoppy, where you pick up FL 375 north. After about 7 miles, take the turnoff for Forest Road 314 north, which you follow for 1 mile to the trailhead parking area.
Route: You’ll need a car shuttle. From the trailhead, head east on the Florida Trail into Bradwell Bay Wilderness. Monkey Creek is a good place to camp for the night, then follow the Sopchoppy River to the trailhead at Forest Road 321 near Sopchoppy.
Grunt factor: 1 for physical demands, 5 on the psychological scale.
The payoff: Experience a beautiful cypress swamp, wildflowers, abundant wildlife, and solitude.
More information: Map 10, Apalachicola East (Tampa Reprographics, 3711 W. Grace, Tampa Fl 33607; 813-874-7711; $4.50). –Sally Kemp
The fortunate few who reach the Caribou Lakes basin in northern California’s Trinity Alps can be divided into two camps: Those who brave the Caribou Scramble to get there, and those who use easier access routes.
Intrepid hikers who tackle the shadeless, waterless, merciless Scramble are easy to recognize. They straggle into the granite-walled paradise like battle-weary soldiers, nursing leg cramps and basking in the unmistakable glow of victory. They’ve just breached the jagged spine of Sawtooth Ridge and witnessed the glorious view of Caribou, Emerald, and Sapphire Lakes spread at their feet like jewels in a necklace strung across imposing gray peaks.
Caribou Scramble is located deep in the heart of the Trinity Alps, an isolated range that rakes the sky and delivers scenery and steeps to match. The Scramble itself is only 2 miles long, snaking up through manzanita in 100 heartbreaking switchbacks, give or take a few. Don’t give up, though, because to the victor go the spoils.
Where: The Caribou Scramble is located in northern California’s Trinity Alps, 30 miles northwest of Trinity Center via CA 3 and Coffee Creek Road.
Route: Best for solitude and scenery is a 26-mile loop beginning at Big Flat trailhead and linking Tri-Forest, Caribou Scramble, and Old Caribou Trails.
Grunt factor: 4. The Caribou Scramble climbs 2,300 feet, yet feels like 10 times that. Elevation gain/loss for the entire route is 13,000 feet.
The payoff: You enter the Caribou Lakes basin through its stunning backdoor. Plus you earn bragging rights; even a local ranger had to admit, “I’ve never gone up the Caribou Scramble. It’s bad enough going down.”
More information:The Trinity Alps: A Hiking and Backpacking Guide, by Luther Linkhart and Michael White (1994; Wilderness Press; 800-443-7227; www.wildernesspress.com; $15.95).