Stick anyone next to a cliff and they’ll inch forward and peek over; put anyone in a supercar and they’ll double the speed limit. We all want to stay safe and comfortable, sure, but in those moments when we lose our footing and time slows to a crawl, we are undeniably living in the moment. Call it suicidal or call it truly living. Here are ten trails that return hikers to their baser need: staying alive.
The Maze – Canyonlands, Utah
A Giant Advert For Garmin
Aron Lee Ralston, played by James Franco in the film 127 Hours, was trapped by a boulder for over five days in the remote Blue John Canyon in southeast Utah. A little farther southeast, in the remotest section of Canyonlands National Park, lies The Maze. After traveling hours from the nearest ranger station in an AWD, high-clearance vehicle, visitors hike into an endless web of red, dusty, dead-end gorges carved over the millennia by ancient rivers. Down in the canyons, it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of where you are, the temperatures top 110 degrees in summer and rainstorms produce flash floods. But because the dangers are so evident, visitors to The Maze are almost always prepared and experienced; that, paired with watchful park rangers, has kept the death toll steady at zero.
Huckleberry Mountain – Glacier National Park, Montana
Grizzly and Black Bear Food
Of all the grizzly bears that currently range in the lower 48 (which is estimated at a depressing 1,500) over half reside in Montana. Of the grizzlies in Montana, most ranged down from Canada into Glacier National Park, a notoriously beautiful park that draws over two million visitors a year despite being way the hell up in Montana. Although most nature magazines depict them chomping on leaping salmon, grizzly bears’ diets are actually made up of mostly plant material, and berries are among the most attractive. That’s why Huckleberry Mountain Trail, one of the wildest trails of Glacier National Park and covered in huckleberry shrubs, is so dangerous. If you end up going during huckleberry season, bring some bear spray and a big stick.
Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
Hot Tourist Killer
The second most visited National Park in America is the Grand Canyon, annually forcing over a million dads to pack their minivan full of sunscreen, sandwiches and kids and drive into the middle of the Arizona summer to see a huge hole in the ground. And it is huge, which is why hiking from the rim to the Colorado River is such a sought after accomplishment. The way down is a relatively easy hike, and tourists generally waste the cool morning getting down to the river before they realize that the return trip — the second half of the 9.5 mile trail — is back up the canyon, now awash with afternoon heat. Despite the trail being well maintained and dotted with water stations, inexperienced tourists, not realizing quite how hot it gets, often suffer from heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you’re skeptical of the danger of the heat or the stupidity of the tourists, consider that rangers have found people dead of dehydration with water still in their packs.
Mount Washington – White Mountains, New Hampshire
Cold Tourist Killer
What Bright Angel Trail has in heat, Mount Washington has in cold. You’ve seen the “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers, but plenty of people would rather summit the mountain without the help of four wheels and an engine (some as part of the Presidential Traverse, of which Washington is the highest summit). Mount Washington is known for rapidly changing weather conditions, as is the entirety of the White Mountains. People aren’t dying here in winter gear; they started their hike in a t-shirt when it was sunny and 70 and then all of a sudden they’re standing in 40-degree weather under darkening skies on the summit which, as Bill Bryson described in his bestseller A Walk In The Woods, experienced one of the highest recorded wind speeds on the planet at 231 mph.
Devil’s Path – Catskills, NY
Slippery When Wet
Covering 24.2 miles, an elevation gain/loss of 14,000 feet, and ascending six major peaks, this is considered one of the most difficult trails on the east coast. The trail is slick with algae and moss, and when the weather turns cold it gets icy. Hikers must climb over and around slick rocks and tree roots, sometimes along cliff ledges. Despite this, the trail draws hikers from the entire northeast because of its stunning views and central location (only two hours from NYC).
Kalalau Trail – Kauai, Hawaii
Trouble in paradise
On the oldest and northernmost Hawaiian island there is an 11-mile trail with a reputation. In 2012 a woman fell to her death at a waterfall along the trail. A few months later, a man was thrown from a cliff by one of the many illegal squatters that camp in the valley the trail traverses. Besides the “residents”, hiker must beware crumbling ledges, which skirt along above crashing ocean waves, and the rain, which can cause the three streams that intersect the trail to rise, stranding hikers. Don’t let the sun and fun attitude of Hawaii deceive you. These beaches are far from touristy.
Barr Trail – Pikes Peak, Colorado
I’m Totally Fried, Man
Hikers heading to summit Pikes Peak face the threat of lightning, especially in the summer. Weather patterns converge overtop the 13-mile-long exposed approach to the peak, much of which is above the tree line. Weather changes rapidly, and lightning can strike without much warning, so keep your eyes to the sky and don’t be the tallest thing around. While not the nationwide leader in lightning strikes, Colorado ranks near the top among states for deaths caused by lightning, and El Paso county, where Pikes Peak is located, is one of Colorado’s most struck counties.
Mount Hau Shan – Shaanxi, China
The Classic Shit-Your-Pants Adventure
Talk about an historically dangerous hike. “Trails” snake around Hua Shan and up to its five peaks, the highest of which is the South Peak, at 7,087 feet. As early as the Eastern Han Dynasty, the mountain, with shrines topping its peaks, was a hot spot for Daoists looking to isolate themselves and focus on their spirituality. The routes leading to the top, built around the 3rd or 4th century A.D., still survive today in an “improved” but unbelievably primitive state. In most places only three or four planks hug the cliff face, while a guide cable prevents climbers from falling down the vertical drop.
Suicide Forest (Aokigahara) – Mount Fuji, Japan
Nothing to joke about
The 14-square mile forest that sits at the base of Mount Fuji is the most common place for suicidal people to meet their end in Japan. Legends say it’s haunted by Yurei (angry spirits) and that iron deposits cause compasses to act erratically, stranding visitors deep in the woods. One thing that’s for sure is that the forest is so thick, with such minimal wildlife, that hikers experience eery silence, only hearing their own feet weave through fallen leaves. Despite this, the Ice Cave and Wind Cave attract tourists, along with the thrill of hiking through such a storied forest.
El Camino Del Ray, Málaga, Spain
The King’s Pathway
Built in 1905, the pathway was originally intended to shuttle workers from hydroelectric plants at Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo Falls. The concrete walk, which is one yard wide and without a handrail, fell into disrepair due to disuse and became something of a tourist attraction for thrill seekers. Then, in 2000, two hikers fell to their death and access to the pathway was restricted before plans were made for revitalization. Those that sneak on the path (we don’t recommend it) will find it deteriorating in many areas and completely gone in others, replaced by rusted cross beams sticking out of the cliff face at odd intervals.