On The Road
Seven Hikes To Clear Your Head
From old Tibet to the English Lake District, discover the walking trails that soothe the soul
Trek to the South Pole, Antarctica. Photograph by Mr Rob Smith, courtesy of ALE
The travel-industrial complex places ever more egregious demands on our downtime. If we are not kitesurfing, paddle-boarding, heli-skiing, zip-lining or zorb-rolling across the world, what do we even have to brag about? Yet there is merit in slowing things down, to simply walk or hike or whatever you want to call it. It is the least elaborate form of adventure, requiring no exertion greater than the barely conscious placing of one foot in front of the other. And yet it opens the senses to so much. “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” said Mr John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who gave his name to one of the world’s greatest hiking routes, more of which below.
Be it a breathtaking mountainscape, an opportunity for solitary reflection or a conversational deep dive with a companion, freed from the distractions of daily life or the noise of more frenetic activities, hiking is a form of repose at velocity.
Here we present seven of the best walks anywhere, some of which will require sturdier footwear and a higher level of fitness than others (although more manageable sections can be picked from most of the longer routes).
A historic slice of Pacific jungle, Papua New Guinea
Walking through Nauro Village on the Kokoda Track. Photograph by Mr Tom Cunningham, courtesy of Epic Private Journeys
The Kokoda Track, or trail, was the site of a key WWII battle between the Allies and Japanese forces on Papua New Guinea. The jungle route across the southern end of the Pacific island, which sits less than 100 miles off Australia’s north coast, had been established decades earlier as a strategic route between ports. Yet it is only this century being rediscovered as a trekking destination and something of a rite of passage for young Australians.
Only a handful of small villages and war memorials dot the tough, 60-mile route that takes in raging river crossings, bewitching waterfalls, muddy ridges and thick jungle – and more than an Everest’s worth of ascent – but enterprising locals have erected shelters and offer hikers fuel along the way in the shape of sweet potatoes roasted slowly in banana leaves in fire pits, among other delicacies. The other reward for the slog: rare and relatively easy access to virgin jungle and a slice of Oceanic war history.
What to pack
A walk through the Wild West, US
Fin Dome on the John Muir Trail on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photograph by Ms Brittany Nunnink, courtesy of the PCT Association
It would take several months to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653-mile thread dropped on North America’s west coast. It links the Mexican and Canadian borders, passing through California, Oregon and Washington, as well as 25 national forests and seven national parks. With time for only one section, the John Muir Trail, which runs along the Californian stretch of the Pacific route through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is the most obvious and, arguably, spectacular choice.
Named after Mr John Muir, the Scottish-born Victorian naturalist who devoted his life to exploring and preserving the region, it stretches for more than 200 miles and is a challenging hike with more than 14,000m of ascent in the Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Those not on sabbatical may still need to pick a section, although a French ultra-endurance runner completed the whole route in less than three days in 2017. However you do it, this is wild country. Hikers will need backpacks, tents and thighs of steel.
What to pack
Trek to the South Pole, Antarctica
Ski Last Degree trekkers pull sledges across the polar plateau. Photograph by Mr John Beatty, courtesy of ALE
More than a century after the expeditions of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Antarctica is opening up to visitors. And not simply to the cruise passengers who traditionally only skirt its icy shores. Each year, about 50 people pay Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions to take part in guided “last degree” adventures. Groups are dropped with a guide at 89 degrees latitude and take 12 days to walk – on skis – the last 70 miles to the Pole. It’s a tiny chunk of the heroic polar journeys of yore, but nonetheless an epic undertaking for mere mortal adventurers, with up to 12 hours on foot each day and a heavy sled to haul through the bitter cold and high winds. But then, holiday bragging rights don’t get much greater than “I walked to the South Pole last week”. Just be prepared to pay about $65,000 for the pleasure.
What to pack
The classic Tour du Mont Blanc, France/Italy/Switzerland
Part of the Mont Blanc Circuit. Photograph by Ms Cat Griffin, courtesy of Exodus Travels
Mont Blanc itself is the photogenic heart of the famous trail that encircles its massif. The 110-mile Tour du Mont Blanc, typically hiked in 11 days of summer (or 20 hours if you are superhuman and want to win the annual race around it), passes through the mountainous corners of France, Italy and Switzerland. It is a serious challenge, with 10,000m of climbing and some demanding terrain, but it cannot be beaten for its combination of alpine scenery and heritage. It is also a boon for camp sceptics. There are rustic mountain huts and genteel B&Bs along the route, and the chance to wash away the sweat and grime in comfort in the bigger ski resorts. In Chamonix, La Folie Douce hotel is the biggest – and loudest – opening this year. Should you wish to start and finish in Courmayeur, on the Italian side, a massage in the sleek spa at the new luxury Le Massif hotel may be in order by day 12.
What to pack
A lake walk in Wordsworth country, UK
Lake Grasmere in the Lake District. Photograph by Mr Andrew Turner/Getty Images
There are not many corners of the planet where literary inspiration is so accessible and well preserved. Not that visitor numbers in the Lake District are as they were in 1799, when Mr William Wordsworth made his home at Dove Cottage on the banks of Grasmere, a lake and village of the same name. The poet had been on a walking tour himself when he stopped at what was, he later wrote, “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”. Generations of fell walkers and romantics have been similarly moved by the Lakes, a verdant landscape of ancient oaks, heather-clad hills and drystone walls. There are serious hikes for the adventurous, but for an easy afternoon stroll, take in a circuit of Grasmere (the lake) itself, starting at the village, where Dove Cottage has been maintained as a museum. A very modest four miles later, finish up at the Daffodil, a luxury hotel and spa right on the lakeshore, below Dove Cottage, for afternoon tea with a view.
What to pack
Strolling through old Tibet, China
Caravane Liotard’s caravan to the top of the Nizhu mountains. Photograph by Mr Constantin de Slizewicz, courtesy of Caravane Liotard
Yak bourguignon and butter tea are on the menu with Caravane Liotard, a romantic Frenchman’s attempt to revive the spirit of China’s old tea routes for curious latter-day hikers. Mr Constantin de Slizewicz, who lives in the region with his family, organises four- and six-day treks through the valleys of China’s southern Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, a mountainous region that once belonged to Tibet. Groups with mules and traditional, but luxuriously appointed, canvas bell tents follow the old Tea Horse Road that linked Tibet to China for centuries, taking in multiple unsung natural wonders such as the azure Lake Aboudje. A team of Tibetan muleteers sets camp each night, spreading antique rugs in a dining tent, in which fine wines and lavish candlelit dinners are the reward for a day of hiking through rhododendron and juniper plants and over high mountain passes.
What to pack
The Path of the Gods, Amalfi Coast, Italy
Positano, as seen from the Path of the Gods. Photograph by Ms Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images
It would be easy to imagine that the only way to enjoy the Amalfi Coast is with the top down at the wheel of a vintage Alfa Romeo. Do that by all means, but don’t leave Italy’s rugged Sorrentine Peninsula without taking a step or two away from its famous road to hike along the Path of the Gods. Part of a network of routes, ingeniously cut into the cliffs above the sea to link villages before the road even arrived, the Sentiero Degli Dei is a hilly, rocky, five-mile series of Mediterranean vistas of escalating beauty. Take it from east to west, from Bomerano to Nocelle, just outside Positano, for the best views and do it in the morning so that the sun is behind you for Instagram purposes (and so that you don’t expire in the summer heat). At Positano, after a gelato on the beach and a Campari soda on the terrace at Franco’s Bar, stay at Villa Franca with its stunning cliff-top pool.