Some of the most spectacular hikes in the world are also the most dangerous. It seems that no matter how many people plunge off the edge of a cliff or die from hypothermia in sub-zero temperatures, there will always be people willing to brave the elements in their quest to earn a moment in the wild beauty of the world’s most inaccessible places.
What makes a hike dangerous?
The routes on this list are prone to sudden inclement weather, poor infrastructure, dangerous wildlife, volcanic activity, rockslides, mudslides and more. Apart from the elements, hikers have even died on these routes because of heart attacks, or even just from an unlucky fall.
While some routes, like the via-ferratas, require hikers to be strapped in, there’s always the risk of equipment failure or human error. If you do dare to tackle these terrifying hikes, always come prepared and follow the safety warnings of the local authorities!
What You'll Learn
- Mt. Washington, USA
- Chadar Trek, India
- The Darién Gap, Columbia/Panama
- The Maze, USA
- Shackleton’s Route, South Georgia Island, Antarctica
- Via ferrata, Dolomites
- Hua Shan, China
- Northern Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa
- El Caminito del Rey, Spain
- Kalalau, Hawaii
- Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala
- Abuna Yemata Guh, Ethiopia
Mt. Washington, USA
The Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire calls itself the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather” and that’s probably not too far from the truth.
Despite these statistics, many people set out to conquer the peak wearing nothing but a t-shirt and flip-flops.
The weather here is deceptive and what starts out as a sunny day with blue skies can quickly turn sour – Mount Washington lies at the confluence of several storm paths. Because conditions can change drastically in no time at all, the New Hampshire Fire Marshall’s Office is serious about one requirement: that anybody visiting Mount Washington must be able to self-evacuate without help, no matter the conditions.
Chadar Trek, India
The Chadar Trek along the frozen Zanskar River on the edge of the Himalayas is possibly one of the most breathtaking treks you’ll ever undertake, with frozen waterfalls and sheer cliffs rising up to the heavens.
As the only route linking the Indian cities of Ladakh and Zanskar, it’s a vital area for the local community, which has survived for centuries in this remote, icy region.
Trekkers started flocking here a few decades ago when the challenging Chadar Trek gained notoriety as a bucket-list must-do. The week-long trek requires hikers to surmount altitude sickness and subzero temperatures as low as -30° F, walking gingerly over a slippery frozen river and camping in caves hollowed out by the water over the years. Occasionally, it requires stumbling over rocks in places where the ice has melted.
Sadly, a combination of climate change and the trek’s own fame means that every year the river freezes less solidly, victim to warmer temperatures and too many people.
On days when the river crossing is not possible, hikers face the option of scaling the sheer gorge walls instead – perhaps even more perilous than the frozen river.
The Indian government is planning to build a road through the region, which will facilitate access and bring even more people to the region – so time is running out if you want to see it in all its glory. If you do attempt this trek, please remember to practice responsible tourism.
The Darién Gap, Columbia/Panama
The Darién Gap is a 55-mile missing stretch of road between Panama and Colombia. Building a road here is unfeasible, or at the very least expensive, given the swampy and mountainous terrain, and the only way to traverse it by land is on foot.
The Darién Gap has been called the world’s most dangerous journey, and although only the most die-hard adventurers come here, it’s an increasingly popular route for migrants hoping to reach the US.
The trail is often unmarked and passes through rainforest, swamps, jungles, mountains and rivers prone to flash floods.
You’ll have to keep an eye out for snakes, crocodiles and poisonous plants and bugs – even the mosquitoes can carry malaria and dengue fever. But the challenging terrain is just the tip of the iceberg.
This is prime guerrilla territory and you risk running into guerrillas, bandits, drug traffickers and police checkpoints. Still interested? Don’t do it alone – get the appropriate permissions, hire a guide and be prepared to pay through the nose as the journey is frowned upon.
The Maze, USA
Red rock curves sinuously in every direction, ruggedly beautiful and almost impossible to navigate. This is The Maze in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, a labyrinth littered with dead ends and gullies.
Thanks in part to its remote location, The Maze receives a scant 2000 visitors a year – so don’t expect anybody to find you if you get lost in here! As if that weren’t enough, the temperatures can be scorching and you’re liable to run across a flash flood or a rockfall while you’re here.
There’s no relying on your GPS either, as it’s been known to lead people astray. The National Park Service is careful to warn people about the dangers of the location and so far they have prevented accidental deaths.
However, there have been a few people trapped in this area for days before they were rescued – as depicted in the movie 127 Hours, which was based on a true story.
Shackleton’s Route, South Georgia Island, Antarctica
In August 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out to cross Antarctica and promptly got stuck in the icy waters. After months of awkwardly drifting in the frozen ocean, the hull of their ship finally cracked and left them stranded on an ice floe.
Their only hope was to reach the island of South Georgia, 1200 miles south of South America, where they could beg for help from whaling crews.
Several of the crew set off in a small lifeboat to try to reach the island, which they did – but they landed on the wrong side. They were then forced to walk a further 32 miles before finally reaching the whaling station in a very bedraggled state.
Today, adrenaline junkies have the opportunity to retrace the steps of this woebegone crew.
You’ll have to overcome steep trails, arctic passes and glaciers pockmarked with dangerous crevasses, but the effort is worth it: how many times have you ever hiked next to a waddle of penguins?
Via ferrata, Dolomites
Via ferrata means “iron way” in Latin and refers to a path over a cliff that’s made a little safer because it’s been installed with an iron cable. You strap into a harness, clip it to the cable and sidle along.
It’s said that via ferratas were first used as by Europeans as early as the 15th century, and they saw heavy traffic during World War I when the Austro-Hungarian and Italian armies used them to travel across the Dolomites.
Nowadays they are hugely popular in the Alps and the Dolomites. The highest via ferrata in the world is at Mt Kinabalu, (Malasian Borneo), reaching a dizzying altitude of 12 388 ft above sea level.
Via ferratas are a fantastic way to access terrain that’s just a little bit too treacherous for a normal hike. Thanks to an assortment of cables, suspension bridges, handholds, etc., you can scramble up cliff edges without worrying about slipping and falling off the edge.
But although you’re clipped in, you need to unclip the carabiner every time you hit a new bolt and reclip it after the bolt. The via ferrata gear will only break your fall as soon as your carabiner hits the bolt, so if you’re unlucky, you could fall several dozen feet before you stop.
Despite the apparent safety precautions, vias ferratas have taken their fair share of lives over the years. A British woman fell off a 600 ft cliff in 2009 in front of her horrified husband, and an Austrian man fell off a via ferrata in Switzerland in 2017.
Hua Shan, China
The highest of China’s Five Great Mountains, Hua Shan is located 75 miles from the city of Xi’an. It’s famous for its hazardous cliffs and drop-dead gorgeous scenery (no pun intended).
Appropriately named sections like “Thousand-Foot Precipice” and “Hundred-Foot Crevice” give a hint of what lies in store at the five peaks of this mountain – hikers here must use steep stairs carved into the stone and rickety ladders set into vertigo-inducing cliffs.
The most infamous section is the plank walk on the South Peak, where hikers must clip into a harness to undertake a very precise journey across tiny planks bolted into the cliff edge.
Despite the danger, Hua Shan attracts hordes of visitors each year who come to see the sunrise from the East Peak, marvel at the unique rock formations and relive the legends that permeate this holy Taoist land.
Rumor has it that Hua Shan claims the lives of around 100 people per year, partly due to overcrowding on the narrow footpaths. Put away the selfie stick and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other!
Northern Drakensberg Traverse, South Africa
The full Drakensberg Grand Traverse is a doozy of a hike that takes over a week to complete, with compulsory checkpoints to hit if you want to say you’ve really completed it.
The official route of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse is around 140 miles long and runs the length of the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Along the hike you’ll summit six 10 000 ft mountain peaks and encounter a range of climates.
Not for nothing is it called the “Drakensberg” – meaning “dragon mountains” in Afrikaans and referring to its characteristic jagged peaks. This is a UNESCO heritage site and the scenery is unbeatable. It’s also Africa and if you’re lucky you might see a zebra or two!
The infamous section is the Northern Drakensberg Traverse, where hikers must climb chain ladders built in the 1930’s before going back down into Cathedral Peak.
Later on in the trek, you’ll come across the Amphitheater, a sheer cliff face that is three times the size of El Capitan at Yosemite. This is the location of the world’s second-highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls, which drops 3110 feet down into the river below.
The Australian Geographic reports that there were 55 hiker deaths recorded here before 1985, most of them due to unlucky falls or harsh weather. Nowadays, it’s not just nature you need to worry about – in 2016, three men were attacked by bandits.
El Caminito del Rey, Spain
El Caminito del Rey, or “The King’s Little Pathway,” was originally constructed by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in the early 1900’s.
It was a way for hydroelectric power plant workers to maintain a water channel that led to El Chorro Dam near Málaga, Andalusia.
While the total route is 5 miles long, the main attraction is the narrow 2-mile footpath, including a narrow footbridge, that snakes along the edge of the Gualdalhorce River in the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge.
This treacherous trail has claimed its fair share of lives, including a drowned canyoneer and three boys whose zipline broke with them attached to it.
As the path gradually fell into disrepair, it was closed to the public but still managed to kill four trespassers who were drawn by the challenge of scaling the gorge. The path reopened in 2015 after extensive renovations, with the number of visitors capped at 600 per day.
On days when sections of the path are closed due to weather or rockfall danger, hikers can take an alternate route through a tunnel that’s home to several species of bats.
Despite the renovations, there’s no getting around the fact that one wrong step could send you plummeting over the edge. To top it all off, this is vulture territory and these creepy birds will be circling overhead, just waiting for you to plunge to your doom!
Hawaii’s 11-mile Kalalau trail is deceptively beautiful, boasting tropical flora, waterfalls and pretty views of the Pacific Ocean.
Don’t be fooled – this trek harbors a deadly combination of rockslides, severe drop-offs and stream crossings that are prone to flash floods. In 2016 a man fell to his death near Kalalau Beach, and in 2014 a 19-year-old girl died when she was swept away by the stream at Hanakoa.
Parts of the trail are poorly marked and starting to erode, and require a permit to hike them. The tricky Crawler’s Ledge, for example, is a narrow path along a brittle cliff edge where one wrong step could send you flying down to the ocean below.
But the deadliest section of this hike might surprise you: it’s the rip currents at the seemingly idyllic Hanakapi’ai beach that have claimed the lives of more than 100 swimmers.
Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala
Lush vegetation gradually gives way to stark volcanic landscapes at the Pacaya Volcano, one of several dozen volcanoes in Guatemala.
The Pacaya Volcano is one of the country’s three active volcanoes and has erupted at least 23 times since the Spanish started keeping records after their invasion of Guatemala. As of July 2018 volcanic activity at Pacaya has been on the rise again.
The thrill of volcanic eruption and the striking views of the volcano belching out smoke bring thrill-seekers from all around the world, often making the hike after dark when it’s easier to spot the red lava.
Even when it’s not currently erupting, the volcanic rock can be hot and slippery. The very top part is now closed to tourism after several fatalities.
Abuna Yemata Guh, Ethiopia
Said to be the world’s least-accessible place of worship, this Tigray church is perched on a 2500 ft cliff.
To get here, devotees – and hikers – must brave sheer walls, narrow ledges and rickety bridges, while sometimes being buffeted by strong winds. Most people do the trek barefoot.
Surprisingly, this trail has no death toll as of yet, which is amazing considering the number of pregnant women, babies and elderly people who come here to worship.
Abuna Yemata Guh is one of over 100 Tigray churches scattered throughout the cliffs.
It was reportedly quarried out of the rock in the 5th century AD by Father Yemata, an Egyptian priest who chose the location because it would help protect the church from enemies. Ethiopia’s history dates back to the Old Testament and the Tigray churches remain an important place of worship today.
Have you attempted any of these challenging hikes? Would you dare?