With travel on the minds of so many of us these days, it’s no surprise that we could all use some serious time away to stretch our legs and reenergize our minds. Whether it’s getting out for a day hike or spending a week out on the trail, the physical and mental health benefits of hiking are just an added bonus to witnessing Mother Nature’s own artistry.
THE MAJESTIC CANADIAN ROCKIES
As hiking and exploring national parks across the globe continues to grow in popularity, vacationers are flocking to destinations like Canada’s Banff National Park in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Established in 1885 as a railroad tourist destination, it’s also Canada’s oldest national park. Banff encompasses 2,564 square miles of mountainous terrain, with many glaciers and ice fields, dense coniferous forest, and alpine landscapes. With over 994 miles of maintained trails, Banff National Park offers some of the best hiking on the planet, whether an easy hike to incredible vistas or more strenuous treks deep in the backcountry.
A two-hour drive from Calgary, the park’s main commercial center is the small town of Banff, in the Bow River valley. Rushing rivers, snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows, and glacially-carved cirques make the wilderness surrounding the town a popular destination for hikers. Trails lace the Banff area, ranging from low-elevation strolls to more strenuous full-day outings that lead to some of the best alpine passes in the Canadian Rockies.
While Banff National Park might hold the title as Canada’s best hiking destination, it doesn’t hold exclusive rights throughout the North American continent. That claim remains up for debate, with plenty of competition south of the border in the western U.S.
THE WILD WEST
Southeast of Banff, some 341 miles, Glacier National Park in Montana encompasses more than 1,545 square miles in two sub-ranges of the Rockies. Called the “Crown of the Continent,” its topography, like Banff’s, includes alpine meadows, deep forests, soothing waterfalls, more than 50 glaciers, 200 sparkling lakes, 1,000 plant species, and hundreds of animal species. With over 700 miles of managed trails, it too is a hiker’s paradise. Grinnell Glacier Trail offers some of the best views of the park’s primitive and unspoiled beauty, as well as the rapidly disappearing Grinnell Glacier.
On the West Coast, California’s John Muir Trail, a 215 mile-long section of the much larger 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs from just north of the Canadian/U.S. border to Mexico, has been described as “America’s most famous trail.” Scaling the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Park, it has a total elevation gain of 47,000 feet and for most of its length, the trail is in the High Sierra backcountry and wilderness areas. Passing through large swaths of alpine and high mountain scenery, John Muir Trail lies almost entirely at or above 8,000 feet in elevation. It’s panoramic, picture-postcard views are world-famous, providing a lifetime of memories.
Zion National Park in Utah, distinguished by Zion Canyon’s steep red cliffs, is one of the world's best places for canyoneering, the sport of descending slender canyons. The national park invites adventurers to lower into fantastic watery slots and river-filled canyons that range from strenuous hiking and wading to technical challenges with swimming and rappelling. Forest trails along the Virgin River lead to the Emerald Pools, with their waterfalls and a hanging garden. Also along the river, partly through deep chasms, the Zion Narrows becomes a wading hike when 600-foot canyon walls close in, making the Virgin River your only trail.
Other popular hiking trails in the western U.S. to consider include Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Trail, the epic Lost Coast Trail in California’s King Range National Conservation Area, and South Kaibab Trail in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.
WANDERN IN GERMANY
The recent boom in hiking’s popularity is not limited to North America however, with outdoor activities taking center stage around the world. In Germany, wandern (hiking) has been a passion of its people for centuries, with 68% of Germans hitting the trails in 2019. In fact, May 14th has been Germany’s National Day of Hiking since 1883. Home to 124,274 miles of sign-posted trails, from high-altitude treks in the Bavarian Alps to woodland hikes in the Black Forest, hiking has been Germany’s most popular outdoor activity for decades.
Blessed with an abundance of varied landscapes perfect for hiking, Germany boasts over 53,000 trails for hikers of all abilities. The Rheinsteig, a 193 mile, 23-stage trail, is one of Germany’s most famous. The route follows the east bank of the Rhine River from Wiesbaden to Bonn. The upper middle Rhine Valley, with its density of castles and views of steeply sloping vineyards, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002 and the opportunity to sample from Germany’s wine-making region along the way only adds to its popularity.
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