The idea of the road and long foot journeys is as old as the notion of travel itself. In a post-pandemic context, with slow travel fast becoming a necessary concept, the great long-distance hike is again on the horizon. Earlier this year, the long-awaited Trans Bhutan Trail—an ancient trade route that has also seen military advances and pilgrimages—was announced. Elsewhere in the world, caminos, thru-hikes and national trails cutting through entire countries and regions, have come up in recent years, revealing stunning pastures and settlements at a pace that advocates of mindful travel find more suited to their yen of exploration. Spurred by urgent action from communities incentivised by the promise of better economic prospects, some of these run like spines along the mainlands or coastlines of countries, while others exist as the spirited bones of grand routes of the future, undaunted by land borders or geopolitical conflicts. Here are 16 that deserve your attention right now.
This much-venerated pilgrimage retains its well-trodden status even today. The Jacobean Holy Year (the most popular time to walk a camino) was extended the first time in its history, from 2021 to 2022, due to the pandemic. This celebrated network of pilgrimage trails converge at the shrine of the apostle St James the Great in northwestern Spain. Walkers typically opt to start their camino on routes in France or Portugal, though several begin and end in Spain. There are multiple versions of the trail, and one of the more popular routes has been the Camino Frances, an 800-kilometre journey that you can begin from the 12th-century town of St Jean Pied de Port, taking about five weeks to cover the distance on foot. Cut out specially for newbies to long-distance trails, the well-marked Camino Frances offers plenty of opportunities to find fellow pilgrims on the way and lodge at cosy public and private hostels. santiago-compostela.net
In 2011, a devastating earthquake rocked Japan’s Tōhoku, leading to over 16,000 deaths and an immeasurable loss of property and resources. Eight years later, the Michinoku Coastal Trail, a 1,025-kilometre path on the eastern coast of the island, was completed as part of a conservation effort to revive the destroyed area. The landscape shifts from forests and mountainous passages to pristine beaches and areas inhabited by fishing communities. Begin your walk from Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, past memorials and striking ocean scenery, lakesides studded with pines and beeches, and historical sites and shrines aplenty, before completing the journey at Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. Much of the Michinoku Coastal Trail is still without adequate signage, so travellers looking to truly soak in its untrammelled joys must carry sufficient navigational material, including trail maps and a compass. Read more at www.michinokutrail.com
One of Europe’s most-awaited slow adventure circuits is the Via Transilvanica, or ‘the road that unites”. Running 1,400 kilometres from Putna to Severin, this wild trail that features the best of Romania’s nature reserves with a cultural value, medieval castles, citadels and monasteries—while encompassing ten of its counties—is set to be inaugurated in October 2022. The trail, which can be walked and cycled, is perfect for those looking for a few weeks of absolute wilderness and halts with breathtaking views. Travellers can camp or stay at local homes that are associated with the project.
In 1999, some of Turkey’s oldest roads—mostly Roman roads, ancient walking routes, and mule trails—were put under identification and protection. Conceptualised and way-marked by historian Kate Clow, this collection of old paths has come to be known as the Lycian Way. Etched between the coast and mountains of southwestern Turkey, the 550-kilometre route starts from Hisarönü and ends in Geyikbayırı, Konyaaltı, and trekkers who like to take on steep gradients will enjoy the challenge. Much of this trail is steeped in the country’s scenic countryside, and birdlife and water bodies are never too far away, which also means plenty of swimming or canoeing opportunities. Village homes and small hotels among other options for spending the night are available all along the way, as are campsites. History buffs, too, will enjoy coming face to face with the UNESCO world heritage cities of Letoon and Xanthos among other historical sites. Read more here.
Umm Qais in Jordan’s northwest is a much fabled site, holding the ruins of the Hellenistic city of Gadara: it is where Jesus is said to have exorcised the demons inside two men into a herd of pigs. A unique vantage point, it overlooks three countries, Jordan, Israel and Syria, and the Sea of Galilee. It is also the starting point for the Jordan Trail, one of the most exciting thru-hikes in the Middle East currently. The 675-kilometre route, which was set up in 2015, takes about 40 days to cover, and ends in Aqaba, offering hikers the delicious prospect of a swim in the Red Sea. The knowledge base for the hike is excellent, and the trail website abounds with information, down to route maps, GPS guides and elevation charts. Travellers can wild-camp or halt at homestays along the trail, which passes 75 towns and villages on the way. Read more at jordantrail.org
Yet another long-distance hike making waves in the Middle East is the Palestinian Heritage Trail that runs 500 kilometres through the West Bank. Established to foster peace and boost local development in the region, it passes more than 50 Palestinian cities and other local communities between the historic settlement of Jenin, four millennia old, in the north and the Judaean city of Hebron in the south. On the way, hikers come upon the world’s third-oldest Christian church, stunning ancient Islamic sites, desert castles, legendary mountains and monasteries and a lot more. Read more at phtrail.org
Excitement about the reopening of the Trans Bhutan Trail has been high ever since its announcement earlier this year. Expected to run for 403 kilometres from Haa to Trashigang, the trail will allow travellers to access some of the most remote parts of the tiny Himalayan nation. The trail is expected to be officially launched in late September 2022, when the country formally reopens for international travel, and according to sources, the trail will be offered to all international travellers who fulfil entry requirements. Extensive restoration has been undertaken for setting up the route, including that of 18 major bridges, hundreds of stairways and pathways that run for several hundred kilometres. Travellers will be able to trek, bike and camp throughout, as they cover nine dzongkhags, over 400 historical sites and parts of Phrumsengla National Park. Read more at www.transbhutantrail.com
The Great Himalaya Trail, which charts 1,700 kilometres through the high Himalayas, is supposed to connect five countries—Pakistan, India, Nepal, China and Bhutan: a mind-boggling 4,500 kilometres spanning dizzying passes and some of the world’s highest mountains. Until the day that becomes a reality, the current trail—a patchwork of unmarked routes—typically takes around five months, as travellers embark on a near-Herculean adventure that starts at Kanchenjunga on Nepal’s eastern border, coming face to face with some of nature’s most spectacular wonders (the Annapurna region, the Gokyo lakes and precipitous passes including Sherpani Col and Amphu Labtsa) and concludes in Humla in the west. Unless you’re a veteran of long-distance trails and rapidly changing weather conditions and terrain, it is ideal to take on shorter sections of the trail and sign up with an expedition or trekking company. Read more at www.greathimalayatrail.com
Inspired by the Appalachian Trail, journalist Avraham Tamir came up with the idea for the Israel National Trail in the 1980s. The Shvil Yisrael, as it is known in Hebrew, came about in 1995, from Kibbutz Dan, near the border with Lebanon, to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. The 1,100 kilometres take two to three months to hike, taking one across the many natural and human landscapes that find shelter in these parts, along with historical sites such as Tel Arad and Masada. Mostly, all trails are well-marked and facilities like handrails and ladders are available on stretches or connections that might otherwise feel challenging. Earlier, finding a place to stay would have been a problem, but now, courtesy of ‘ trail angels ’ active along the route, that is changing. Their healthy network is growing quickly and it is quite easy to get comfortable beds, meals and showers when you’re hiking the trail. Read more at www.israeltrail.net
Completed in 2011, New Zealand’s Te Araroa—a 3,000-kilometre tramping trail along the length of the country’s two islands—is unquestionably the best way to witness the Polynesian country’s natural majesty. Travellers must, however, set aside at least four months to hike the entirety of its length, which runs from Cape Reinga in the north to The Bluff, a seaport town in the south. Turquoise rivers, beaches with dramatic views and high country sheep stations in the impossibly serene South Island await those who do take the plunge. For information on stops to make, stocking up food and supplies, and maps for individual sections, read more here.
This 1,400-kilometre foot trail hugging the Welsh coast first came up in 2012 as a national trail of sorts, offering evocative windswept beaches and fabled headland, heritage tours of 13th-century castles and perfect extended family excursions into nature. Easily walkable for the most part, and cycle-friendly in some sections, the Wales Coast Path is reportedly the only long-distance coastal way in the world to be entirely waymarked. Even now, only a fraction of its walkers complete the entire journey, notwithstanding that it is the best way to experience the wildlife, history and culture of the region holistically. Depending on one’s fitness levels, it could take anywhere from seven weeks to three months to complete the journey. Read more at walescoastpath.co.uk
Often described as the next big thing in trekking, this is an ambitious project that is eventually expected to connect national parks in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan and put in place a model for sustainable tourism, notwithstanding the political tensions plaguing these borders. Once this is achieved and permits become easier to obtain, the trail will span 3,000 kilometres in the South Caucasus. This trail is currently offered separately in the three countries, where valleys speckled with wildflowers, forest corridors and snow-swaddled peaks and alpine expanses await exploration. The region is also highly biologically diverse, with a “mountain of tongues” present in the form of local communities that speak these languages. Mostly, guesthouses are available for overnight stays, and the June-August period is the best to tackle the trail. Read more at transcaucasiantrail.org/en/home
Egypt’s first long-distance trail connects a batch of ancient travelling routes used by the region’s Bedouin tribes. First stitched together in 2015 as a 220-kilometre hike with help from members of eight existing tribes in the South Sinai to combat the struggling local tourism industry as well as empower the region’s ethnic communities, this trail that boasts storied oases and stunning wadis was recently expanded to 550 kilometres. To be operated as a three-part trail (those who wish to go the entire distance are welcome to) initially, the full length of the route is typically expected to take a month and a half. And as they go about emulating historical pilgrimages along the route, travellers will come across sublime mountain passes, rock paintings that date back to the Crusades, and historical sites including the twin summits, Jebel Sinai and Jebel Katherina. Read more at sinaitrail.net
This 3,525-kilometre trail is probably the most famous thru-hike in the world, having inspired many long-distance national hikes, including a few on this list. Every year, about three thousand hikers attempt the complete distance, but only around a fourth go on and accomplish the feat in around five to seven months. Encompassing 14 U. S. states between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, this official Scenic Trail brings you face to face with constantly shifting vistas and flora and fauna across the six national parks and eight national forests that it passes on the way. Stay at overnight shelters and cabins available on a first-come basis. The most fun part? You get to adopt an amusing trail name, just like M. J. ‘Nimblewill Nomad’ Eberhart, the 82-year-old who in November 2021 became the oldest ever person to hike the entirety of the AT. appalachiantrail.org
Starting in the Chilean capital of Santiago, travellers on the Greater Patagonian Trail will go from the northern precordillera to the picturesque valleys nestled in the Andean ranges, bushwhacking through the wild, meeting arrieros (local muleteers transporting goods), staying at improvised shelters. Vastly different from all the other entries on this list, the Greater Patagonian Trail enjoys no official recognition as a national trail, but is an adventure known only among the international hiking community. The route network is informal, totalling 20,000 kilometres in all, while the main route runs for 5,000 kilometres. Adaptability, assimilation and acceptance are at the core of completing the GPT in any way, and multiple ways and routes to do so exist. To read more or get the hiker’s manual put together by German engineer and explorer Jan Dudeck, visit here.
Completed in 2017, the longest trail in the world runs for some 24,000 kilometres across the dramatic Canadian wilderness and some of its oldest towns, from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Also called the Trans Canada Trail, the multi-use trail is a network of close to 500 smaller recreational trails taken care of by local groups, provincial authorities and other agencies. Despite the grizzly bear being a predator in these parts, they typically do not pose a major threat to hikers. Hike along the greenways, paddle Lake Superior and Salish Sea and bike the dirt tracks, and after two years or so, you might end up one of few still that have finished the massive route. Read more at tctrail.ca
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2022.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.