Walking-based activities are proving to be a favorite among US travelers and abilities, says Andrew Eames
This has been the year of the hiking movie. In January, we had Reese Witherspoon in Wild, taking on the Pacific Crest Trail. In September, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte went out on the Appalachian Trail for A Walk in the Woods. Both movies will have a big impact on local hiker numbers, but what about the overall picture?
Although the size of the market isn’t quantified, surveys conducted by the Adventure Trade and Travel Association and Outside magazine both agree the most popular activity for US adventure travelers is exploring on foot.
However, the hiking component isn’t necessarily booked up in advance, as Alistair Butchers from G Adventures explains: “We find people travel to exclusively hike a specific trail or mountain that’s on their bucket list, but we also see guests opting for hiking as an optional activity. You don’t necessarily have to be a hardcore fitness junkie to do so either”.
Liz Einbinder from Backroads agrees. “Some people seek out active hiking trips and have traveled on many of our offers, whereas others want to see a specific destination and choose our trips as a great way to experience an area. We always choose scenic and interesting route, whether it be a walk through vineyards or a hike through the hills to a charming town. We include cultural elements as well, which could be an olive oil tasting or a sheep shearing demonstration.”
Popular destinations are Peru’s Inca Trail and Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, plus Nepal, Patagonia and Mont Blanc. Coming up are the likes of Turkey’s Lycian Way and the Landmanalaugar Trail in Iceland (G Adventures), along with Cuba, Colombia and Biarritz to Bilbao (Backroads).
Beside the US-based operators with their large menu of offerings, there are also locally-based operators in popular destinations
— specialists who know the trails intimately. They include Greenways Travel Club, whose best-selling offerings are Vienna to Prague and Budapest to Krakow. Slow Tours Romania offers hiking in Transylvania, Maramures and Bucovina, regions that feature hiking for weeks without meeting any fence or other barrier.
Operators are bullish about the future. Liz Einbinder from Backroads suggests the 100th anniversary of the US national park system in 2016 will be a big force in promoting domestic travel. Meanwhile, the continuing strength of the dollar against the euro will boost European travel too.
We suggest: Transylvania
Why: This huge pastoral section of Romania, located alongside a broad sweep of the Carpathian mountains, is a slice of old Europe, with horse-and-cart agriculture, orchards, scythes and homemade food. It’s wholly organic and very traditional. The people (a mix of Romanians and ethnic Hungarians) are very hospitable, and cars are still relatively uncommon. While there are no particularly celebrated long-distance hikes, the whole place is ribboned with tracks and trails. A guide is essential, particularly as there are threats from bears and shepherds’ dogs. Particularly good areas for walking are Maramures, with its wooden churches, and the Saxon villages south of Sighisoara, home to historic German-speaking communities. There are castles too, of course, but the blood-sucking aristocrats of Transylvania are purely fictional.
Where else: Spain’s Mediterranean islands of Mallorca and Menorca are especially lovely in spring, when the almond trees and orange groves are in blossom. Menorca has inaugurated the Cami de Cavells, a hiking route that goes all the way around the coast.
We suggest: Morocco’s Atlas Mountains
Why: Easily accessible from Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains aren’t fearsomely high, although the likes of Mount Toubkal (13,671ft) will be snow-capped in the winter. The key attractions here are the landscape and the culture of the Berber people who live in mountain villages — some of which are fortified like something out of Game of Thrones. Anyone who’s trekked in the Himalayas will find the Berber experience instantly familiar, with village homestays, porters and mule trains. Places like Kasbah du Toubkal offer comfortable accommodation well placed for day-long hikes in several directions, allowing hikers to take things at their own pace. This is a year-round destination, but the clear days of spring and fall are best, as there’s a high chance of snow and ice in winter.
Where else: Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is an intensely rewarding albeit tough six-day hike. Despite the name, there’s no actual mountaineering. It has a well-developed infrastructure with local guides and accommodation en route.
Central & South America
We suggest: Peru’s Inca Trail
Why: A selfie taken at Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, is probably worth more than one taken anywhere else on the planet. Particularly if hikers have arrived at this masterful and mystical labor of humankind shortly after dawn, having just trekked for four days. They won’t be alone, however, as this is one of the most heavily-trodden routes in the world. The classic option is four days, with overnight camping, but there are options ranging from two to seven days. The trail itself is only part of the experience. Sections of it sit around 9,842ft above sea level, a height which can be a challenge. Therefore guests will inevitably spend some preparation time in the delightful mountain city of Cusco, acclimatizing to the altitude, and blazing away with their cameras at the highly photogenic Quechua people. The best months to do the trail are May to September.
Where else: Costa Rica’s cloud forest is a riot of vegetation, with bromeliads, vines, orchids and ferns. The advantage of this Central American destination is its variety: Pacific and Caribbean coasts, volcanoes, rainforest and cloud forest — all in a very compact area.
We suggest: The Appalachian Trail
Why: One of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, the Appalachian trail runs down the eastern cheek of the US, through 14 states, all the way from Maine to Georgia. Parts of it, particularly at the southern end, have just been celebrated in the new Robert Redford movie A Walk in the Woods. The trail is a mighty 2,180 miles long, so it’s not about to get crowded anytime soon. Between two and three million people walk it every year, but only around 2,000 manage to do the whole thing. Accommodation en route is a mix of campsites and around 250 basic shelters, which are free to use. When it comes to terrain, hikers can take their pick: the hardest sections are in New Hampshire and Maine, whilst the easier parts are in Maryland and West Virginia. The trail’s website divides it into sections, grading the difficulty. appalachiantrail.org
Where else: North of the border, Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park is a mix of forest and lakeland, with particularly rich wildlife — including wolves. The park has designated backpacking trails and lodges ideal for day-long hikes. Fall colors here are fabulous, particularly when reflected in the lakes.
We suggest: Bhutan
Why: This relatively secretive nation, just east of Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, has excellent trails and a truly spectacular festival culture. The quality of the scenery isn’t the only reason for choosing to travel on foot: Bhutan’s tourism is carefully controlled (only a certain number of high-value visas are issued), and if guests travel by vehicle they’ll be steered towards tourist-approved hotels and restaurants. Hiking, albeit along officially-agreed routes, gives them the chance to meet non-tourism professionals and provides a first-hand impression of Bhutanese life. Furthermore, some key sites such as the Tiger’s Nest monastery at Paro, clinging to a rock face, are only accessible on foot.
The mountainous landscape does mean trails such as the five-day Druk Path from Paro to Thimphu can be quite challenging. Most itineraries to Bhutan mix hiking with sightseeing, and the Bhutanese season mirrors Nepal: best from October to May, although snow can be a problem on high ground in December and January.
Where else: The earthquakes of early 2015 damaged some of the infrastructure on the major trails of Nepal — the Annapurna circuit and Everest Base Camp, for example — but it remains a stunningly beautiful place, and it needs tourists to return.