On Foot: Best Day Hikes On the Planet

There are such epic hiking adventures to be had in a single day, almost everywhere you go to be outside. I love the ritual of that early morning, a stuffed daypack and the reality that you have a huge, beautiful day ahead on foot. Not to mention those end-of-the-day, exhausted celebrations where you relive your favorite stretches. From the canyons of Utah, to the mountains of the French Alps, to the famous tramps (hikes) in New Zealand, here are a few of my favorites.

Highlights
You’ll have never seen a place more green. Hundreds of shades of it, with waterfalls and babbling brooks. Gleninchaquin is something out of a dream—yet it’s the beautiful reality in Southwest Ireland. This family-owned park, overseen by Donal and Peggy Corkery, is a long, narrow coombe valley on the northwest side of the Beara Peninsula, just outside of Kenmare. Entrance fees are five euros for adults, three for students, and free for young children. There’s hiking, sheep shearing, fishing, and outdoor educational opportunities. I’d encourage you to think about spending a full day out at the park, tackling the trail called “The Boundaries Hike.” It’s a six- to seven-hour round-trip hike and is for experienced hikers (since there’s scrambling involved and not many trail markers). The route will follow the boundaries of Gleninchaquin Park, which are defined by the high ridges of the Caher Mountain Range. Upon your return to Kenmare, be sure to grab a few pints at Crowley’s before your dinner. Stay at the Brook Lane or the Kenmare Park Hotel.
Aiguille du Midi, 74400 Chamonix, France
France’s Chamonix Valley is one of the most scenic places on the European continent. It’s a narrow river valley which houses everything from rock-climbing centers to pulsing bars and pubs, and on both sides of the river the peaks of the French Alps explode thousands of feet into the sky. While there are numerous ways to experience the grandeur of the mountains from Chamonix—boarding the ski lift at Les Grands Montets, biking along the steep ridges, or paragliding off the many peaks—the most accessible might be a ride on the Aiguille du Midi cable car, a hair-raising ascent that gains 9,200 vertical feet over the course of 20 minutes. From the summit perch you can take in a 360-degree view beneath Mont Blanc, and from this frigid vantage point set nearly at the top of Europe, it’s almost possible to reach straight out and touch the sky.
Utah, USA
As its biblical name implies, Zion National Park has the appeal of a place out of time. Established on November 19, 1919, the canyon and its surrounding landscape feel like a natural temple, full of arches, hoodoos, and imposing walls, some of which stand more than 2,000 feet high. Jump on the shuttle and venture up canyon, hitting the side hikes along the way to the Narrows, or break away from the crowds and trek the backcountry trails for a more intimate experience. While it takes effort to reach, the more remote northern section of the park is worth the journey if you want to escape the tourist hordes.
163 Ardmore Street
This is your view from the top of the Diamond Lake Hike, which starts about 12 kilometers outside of the town of Wanaka. The views are so beautiful from the summit that it’s nearly impossible to ever head back down the mountain. The track starts from the car park and follows an old road to Diamond Lake. The track then climbs to a viewing platform above the lake that is a great spot for a water/snack break and some photos. From here you’ll have two options: 1) A lower-level circuit that takes in the Lake Wanaka viewpoint, with great views of both the lake and its islands. 2) An upper-level circuit that winds its way to the top of 775-meter Rocky Mountain. At the top you’ll be rewarded with views that include the Southern Alps and Mount Aspiring. If you do the longer, second option, your round-trip mileage is just over eight kilometers and a good estimate for time would be three to four hours (with breaks). Note that many walkers do both routes from the Diamond Lake viewing platform.
Lion's Head, Signal Hill, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa
The hike up Lion’s Head affords incredible views. Since the trail winds around the mountain, you’ll have the unique opportunity to see every side of Cape Town from above. When you start, the ever-stunning Table Mountain will be just to the left, but soon enough, you’ll be facing Robben Island in the distance, with all of Cape Town below. The Lion’s Head hiking trail is eight miles round-trip and takes about three to four hours to complete, depending on your pace. If you happen to be in town during the full moon, be sure to start hiking mid-afternoon and bring your headlamp and a picnic dinner. Along the way, you’ll meet many a local honoring their monthly tradition of hiking up, eating dinner during the sunset, and hiking back down in the moonlight glow.
Pont Drift, Botswana
I love the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, near the Limpopo River. The opportunity to explore the 25,000-hectare reserve by bicycle or by foot is something that rarely happens on a safari. You can arrange morning and late afternoon walks with one of their phenomenal rangers, staying in the comfort of camp in the evenings, or you can opt to head out on a three- or four-day adventure on foot, camping each night. Either way, you’ll soon be among the elephants, giraffes, and other beautiful animals in their natural surrounds.
Dewey Point, California, USA
There’s an absolute gem of a hike in Yosemite National Park that anyone who loves a good winter snowshoe hike should do. It’s a seven-mile out-and-back trek from Badger Pass to the inspirational Dewey Point, which is on the south rim at just over 7,000 feet elevation. It’s hard to find a more glorious view in all of California. The joy of having only a few fellow adventurers up there with you in winter—it’s truly a treasure. During my recent visit, the packed snow meant that I didn’t even wear my snowshoes the majority of the time and instead just had on my trail running shoes. You can rent shoes at the Badger Pass recreation center, if you don’t have your own. Get out there and soak up the wild magic.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA, USA
Golden Gate Park was formed out of an expanse of sand dunes to the west of the city in the nineteenth century—a history that is still discernible in the rolling topography of much of the park’s more than 1,000 acres. Over 13 million people visit the array of gardens, lakes, trails, museums, and monuments each year. Some of the most popular attractions are clustered to the east, including the de Young art museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Japanese Tea Garden. A little farther on is Stow Lake, the largest body of water in the park and a good spot for boating and strolling. Just past Spreckels Lake is a bizarre sight: a herd of American bison. Generations of these iconic beasts have been kept in the park since 1892; they mostly stand around the paddock like idling, hairy bulldozers. Children enjoy seeing the Dutch Windmill at the west edge; they may not be so fussed about the nearby Tulip Garden, but they’ll like the waterfowl pond in the Botanical Garden and the carnivorous plants in the Conservatory of Flowers. There are three playgrounds, too; the Koret contains a colorful working carousel from 1914. Active visitors can tour the park by Segway or check out the golf course, the disc golf course, or the archery field. Festivals take place throughout the year, and the Music Concourse hosts free concerts on Sundays in the summer.
Lake Matheson, West Coast 7886, New Zealand
Lake Matheson is a magical little spot near Fox Glacier. It’s a great place to take a walk at sunset, before enjoying dinner and some local wine at the Matheson Cafe. On a clear day, the reflection in the lake proudly displays all the reasons to be in love with the Westland National Park region of New Zealand, while the rugged peaks of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook rise out of the mountain range. This is glacier country at its best. The lack of wind—the lake is set within the dense rain forest—means Lake Matheson’s surface is calm and still. The reflection photo opportunities have made this lake the most photographed body of water in New Zealand (and that is saying something). The walk around the lake takes about an hour and a half, and you have three viewing platforms offering exceptional perspectives along the way. Hit the trail just before sunset and have a glass of Otago Pinot Noir at the cafe while you watch the sun set over those mountains. The cafe opens at 5:30 p.m. and I’d suggest the mushroom risotto.
Urupukapuka Island, Northland, New Zealand
There are 144 islands in the Bay of Islands on the North Island of New Zealand, and Urupukapuka (the largest of them all) aims to please. Check out the island’s website to help plan your day, which will be a fabulous and full day that includes a boat ride and a serious day-hike to and from either Paihia or Russell. All of the hikes finish with time on the hidden beach pictured here, before you head up your final hill to get back to the docks and catch your ferry back to the mainland.
Hotels
California, USA
“We wanted to go to Yosemite, but didn’t have time.” I’ve heard this refrain from several San Francisco visitors and they all have said it with regret. Yes, the reverent national park is outside of a short-drive comfort zone – it’s more of a weekend adventure than a wine country day trip. But with a little stamina and the right timing, a trip to Yosemite can be done in a weekend from San Francisco. The weekend won’t be all rush-rush or budget breaking either. You can do this weekend getaway and see monumental sights like Half Dome, take relaxing walks and hikes, and get a taste of camping at Curry Village.
Lake Aloha, California, USA
Welcome to Northern California’s Desolation Wilderness, the perfect place to hike near South Lake Tahoe. Lake Aloha is a well-deserved and divine place to take a dip after having tackled the climb up from Echo Lake. I’d suggest parking your car at the Echo Lake parking lot. Make sure you have everything you’ll need for a 12+ mile hike. From the parking lot, you’ll cross the small dam (leaving the boat dock behind you) and then turn left at the trailhead and start your hike up and along Lower and then Upper Echo Lake, along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Eventually that turns into the Pacific Coast Trail that will take you along Tamarack Lake before a quick jaunt to the Lake of the Woods. From there, you’ll have some uphill climbing and some scrambling over serious boulders as you head up to the endless and enchanting Lake Aloha. Because you’ve worked so hard to get there, you’ll find yourself one of only a handful of people—if any—that made it, and it’s the perfect place to eat the lunch you’ve packed and take a quick dip to cool off. You still have a big return trip to get back to the trailhead but at least it’s mostly downhill this time. If you’re tuckered out by the time you see the signs for the water taxis at the dock on Upper Echo Lake, there may be another option to cover the final three miles. If it’s before 6:00 p.m., head into the hut and use the on-site phone to ask for the boat service provided by Echo Chalet. It costs $12 per person, one-way.
Wildcat Canyon Rd, Orinda, CA 94563, USA
You’ll love the views you’ll have of the EBMUD Watershed while you’re hiking or mountain biking along Nimitz Way in both Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and Tilden Regional Park. The views really open up once you’re in the area considered the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the East Bay Skyline National Trail. I’d encourage you to grab one of the printed maps you’ll find at every trailhead in the park that is next to a parking lot. If you park in the Inspiration Point parking lot, you’ll end up exiting the lot and turning right on the Nimitz Trail. It’s a lovely, rolling, paved path that turns into the East Bay Skyline Trail. It’s up to you how far you’d like to go and whether you’d like to create a loop or do an out-and-back hike. With map in hand you can easily descend by taking a left off the Nimitz Way at several different points, such as Laurel Canyon, Wildcat Peak Trail, or Conlon Trail. Just know that your return back up to Inspiration Point via the Meadows Canyon Trail or the Curran Trail means you have some beautiful uphill terrain. If you’re a trail runner, a dog walker, or just someone that values a long walk in a beautiful spot to clear the cobwebs, Tilden Regional Park should be your go-to place in the East Bay. Happy hiking!
Oregon Coast Highway
This is a hike that, on a day when the weather is cooperating, is a transformative experience—it’s just that beautiful. I lucked out when my arrival to the John Dellenback Dune Trailhead coincided with a break in the rain and clouds I’d seen all morning. It’s easy to miss the turn-off, so be sure to look out for the single brown sign that is located 10 miles south of Reedsport and 16 miles north of Coos Bay. Once you’ve parked, follow the hiking trail signs that lead you through a lush, green conifer forest. You might even spot a few slow-moving newts along the path, so watch your step. Soon the sand comes into view and you head toward the ridgeline from where you can see your 2.7-mile path out to the beach. If the weather has been clear, the walk through the sand can feel a lot longer. Since it’d been raining overnight and all morning, the mid-November sand was packed pretty hard and it made for a quicker out-and-back hike. The colors are astounding and the patterns will blow your mind. I was out there for about three hours and didn’t see a single other person or even another human’s tracks in the sand. I did see many animal paw prints and I hoped I’d see the animals come out of their hiding places. This spot in the sand dunes is an exceptional day trip and a hike that just may crack your top ten list.
Row River Trail, Oregon 97434, USA
On a recent road trip hiking and biking my way through Oregon, I fell hard for the entirely car-free, 17 miles of paved biking/walking trail just outside of Cottage Grove called the River Row Trail. Pine forests, roaring rivers, Dorena Lake—it was all so peaceful and all so stunning. A great place to begin and end your ride is Cottage Grove. The trail is one path that runs from point A to point B; it’s the perfect thirty-mile out-and-back and is almost entirely flat riding. One treat of the bicycle ride was the chance to follow the half-dozen historic covered bridges along the route. After your ride, celebrate all the green that you witnessed and argue over your favorite covered bridge at the Axe and Fiddle pub in town. Cheers!
Fish Creek Falls is that easy gem of a short hike to do with your kids or elders, as long as you can avoid the crowds. It’s located five miles east of downtown Steamboat Springs in the Routt National Forest and the parking lot typically fills and overflows on weekends, so get there early, before 10a.m. if you can. It’s only a quarter of a mile down a sloping trail along Fish Creek Canyon to a bridge with a view of the 283-foot-tall falls. There is an upper trail that is wheelchair-accessible trail with a beautiful viewpoint as well.
30820-30854 U.S. 40
It’s impossible to capture the scene with a photo. As you move along the well-marked trails on the Western Summit side of Rabbit Ears Pass, the trees appear to lean in and study you as you go. There are seven set trails to choose from at the parking area & trailhead if youre looking to cross country ski or snowshoe. We’d had so much recent snowfall when I went out for this jaunt, I knew it’d be slow going and five miles would feel more like ten, so I chose the seven mile round trip option that included South Summit Loop and North Walton Peak Trail. In the four hours I was out there, I greeted only two other people- it was an absolute escape. I make it a point to never have music in my ears when truly trying to experience a place of wilderness and it amazed me how I felt I could hear every nearby fox’s footprint and each snow pile’s fall from a heavy branch. Left alone only with my internal, on-going life and work to-do-list and an incredible sense of awe, I tromped through this literal winter wonderland. Careful on the drive out of Steamboat if it’s been snowing recently and make sure you bring a spare set of socks and gloves with you, in case you happen to step (chest high) into a few huge holes of soft snow (as I did several times). Water, snacks and extra layers are crucial and be sure to let someone know where you’ll be, since you won’t have cell signal out here. Welcome to Colorado. Be ready to lose (and find) yourself in ways you maybe never quite expected.
Steamboat Springs, CO 80487, USA
Despite being northern Colorado, Steamboat Springs offers belly-filling home-style southern cooking at the Low Country Kitchen right on Lincoln Avenue. Dig into the classics (without the greasy coating), like fried okra and buttermilk fried chicken, or go for the jambalaya or hush puppies. For south of the border–style grub, pop into Salt & Lime and head for the rooftop seating. Start with some loaded nachos then choose from a range of classic tacos and burritos; finish off with fresh churros. The menu changes frequently, with new and exciting dishes becoming available.
Ul. od Sigurate 7, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croatia
A city of red-tiled rooftops, pine- and cypress-shaded hills, and sparkling turquoise waters, the Old Town of Dubrovnik stuns with both its architecture and scenery. Its surrounding stone walls, built between the 11th and 13th centuries to protect the city from war and epidemics, stretch for a full 1.3 miles, comprising an immense system of forts, bastions, and walkways that offer breathtaking views. Hike along them, then be sure to check out the Lovrijenac Fortress, built atop a 100-foot rock looking out toward Venice (Dubrovnik’s historic rival). The Old Town’s main street of Stradun, known locally as Placa, is also worth exploring. It’s especially nice in the late afternoon, when the sun shines off the historic buildings and swallows soar in the blue sky above.
Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast 7886, New Zealand
I was a glacier virgin. I had never seen one in person before, much less set foot on one. That all changed though as the helicopter lifted off and took off towards the incredible Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island. Almost as soon as the Glacier Helicopters flight lifted off, Mt. Cook popped into view, a looming presence throughout the area. We skirted over the lush rainforest and before I knew it, we were on top of the glacier. It’s amazing really; the glacier looks exactly like a glacier should look. It was a vast, frozen river leading from the tops of the mountains to the valley below. We landed at the top for a little exploration and impromptu snowball fights before taking off again to zoom past the massive crevices of the ice mountain. The ride back included even more impressive views of the glacier and the flat plains below leading to the Tasman Sea. It really is strange to see the glacier adjacent to the mild valley below. There’s something surreal about it all and that makes it one of the best adventure activities in New Zealand. For your own glacier adventure, visit the small mountain town of Franz Josef where you can find tour providers operating a variety of ice-based activities, including these extraordinary helicopter tours.
53000 East, Historic Columbia River Hwy, Bridal Veil, OR 97010, USA
Multnomah Falls is a gorgeous sight located about 45 minutes by car outside of Portland, Oregon, on the Columbia River Gorge. Several hikes of differing degrees of difficulty offer vantage points to view the falls. The sound of the rushing water is a soothing composition from Mother Nature.
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