14 Best hikes in North America and South America
Trying to decide where to go next to find some of the best hiking in the world, while trying to escape the big crowds?
Some of the most off-the-beaten-path hikes in the world can be found while traveling in North America and South America. There are incredible options to go hiking in nature, and offer the opportunity to explore less-visited trails that will surely surprise you. I am constantly on a search to explore new opportunities to find hidden gem activities while traveling, discovering about some of these hiking destinations is so inspiring.
To be able to put a list of these 14 amazing hiking destinations, I have asked a group of travel experts on their favorite hidden gem hikes in North America and South America, and these are their top picks to inspire and help you to plan your epic hiking.
Best Hikes in North America & South America - Safety Tips for Hiking
Safety First! Before we review these amazing off the beaten path hiking opportunities, let’s remember to travel safe:
- Always search for travel advice from the local authorities, for the location you are planning to travel. Check the weather conditions, best time to visit, safety regulations, and of course, always follow the guidelines for a Responsible travel and help to preserve the environment
- Make sure you have appropriate hiking gear, specially shoes. A good pair of hiking shoes can make or break your hike.
- Always carry with you enough water and keep hydrated
- For any longer and challenging hiking, make sure to do some fitness preparation prior to your trip and respect your limits
- Have travel insurance. There are many options right there, but my personal preference is World Nomads, since their process is easy and simple, from getting a quote to making a claim.
Best Hikes in North America & South America - Off the beaten path
1- Stairway to Heaven - Oahu, Hawaii
Also known as the Haiku Stairs on Oahu, Hawaii, the Stairway to Heaven is arguably the most epic attraction on the entire island of Oahu. Stairway to Heaven is hidden in the center of the island, you will find 3,922 stairs leading up the imposing mountain ridge, often at a vertical incline, with only a hand-rail to catch you. There are many sections that truly do seem like a ladder although with common sense and in fair weather conditions it isn’t as dangerous as it sounds.
The hike takes around 3-hours return trip, with 4,000 ft long hike, but you can expect to spend an hour or so at the summit taking in the incredible views of the ridges and vast coastline from the top viewpoint.
A very interesting story about this place is that the stairs were originally constructed in 1942 by the U.S. Navy as a top-secret facility for transmitting radio signals to ships that were sailing throughout the Pacific Ocean. The stairs were then opened to the public for hiking until 1987 when they were unfortunately deemed unsafe because of disrepair. This is probably the most famous of all the hikes on Oahu and has been covered by most newspaper outlets.
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2- O Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park - Patagonia, Chile
In the very south of the Andes, close to where this mighty mountain chain meets the ocean, lies some of Patagonia’s finest hiking. Torre del Paine National Park, with its glut of massive glaciers, cobalt lagoons and magical scenery has quickly become the region’s most popular park for the adventurous hiker and no route better encapsulates its appeal than the O Circuit.
A nine- to eleven-day trail, the O Circuit in Torres del Paine is the park’s hiking jewel. Each day sees you trekking across some of Patagonia’s most glorious terrain. You’ll follow the path of tumultuous rivers as you track them to their source: glaciers that hang perilously over crystalline lakes, before climbing up and over the John Gardner Pass where dazzling views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field for as far as the eye can see await.
But the park’s most famous landmark is yours to be treasured on the final day of your hike. Wake before dawn to clamber up to the torres del paine, three granite towers that are most spectacular as the dawn casts orange rays across the scene.
Along the way, you’ll carry all of your belongings – camping equipment and food – and pitch up in remote campgrounds where the only sounds you’ll hear are those of the wilderness around you. Wildlife abounds in these lands, with guanaco (the wild cousin of the llama) and wild horses a common sight in the park, while puma are even possible to spot. What’s more, the O Circuit connects with the more famous W trek – a five-day, marginally less challenging hike – on day four, meaning you get to experience both this iconic route and the remotest, most pristine parts of the national park, which receive far fewer visitors.
3- Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, USA
Bright Angel Trail is the main trail leading from the south rim of the Grand Canyon all the way down to the Colorado River at the bottom. There is no better way to appreciate the enormity and grandeur of Grand Canyon than to see the sides towering high above you on both sides from the canyon floor. The entire trail is 11 miles each way and is too intense to be done down and back in one day. To experience the full trail, therefore, you will need to stay in one of the few campgrounds in the canyon or make a reservation at Phantom Ranch. The “ranch” is a collection of rustic cabins and dorm buildings set among groves of trees, not far from the river. Reservations are hard to get, but even if you aren’t successful, it is still definitely worth it to hike at least part of the Bright Angel Trail.
The trail starts from near Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village and after passing through a tunnel cut into the rock, starts down a series of switchbacks traversing the steep sides of the canyon. Half way down is Indian Garden, which is the last turning back point for day hikers. The trail continues down and eventually crosses the river over a narrow suspension bridge and finishes at Phantom Ranch. There is a huge elevation change, so take your time and enjoy being below the rim (and take plenty of water!) Grand Canyon is most easily reached from Flagstaff, where there is an airport, car rentals and shuttle buses to the canyon.
4- Choquequirao to Machu Picchu - Cusco region, Peru
The best hike I’ve done in South America is the Choquequirao to Machu Picchu trek. As the name suggests, this 9 day hike connects the little known Inca City of Choquequirao with its much more famous sister Machu Picchu. As you hike along the routes that the Incas themselves took when moving about their empire, there are Inca trails along the way… (Like the famous Inca trail, but unrestored and very captivating!) You also camp near the ruins of Inca Tambos… which are what the Incas used for inns or rest.
If that incredible and little known Inca history is not enough to wow you – the beautiful Andes Mountains are always breathtaking, and this part of the Vilcabamba ranges are no exception.
And best of all – the Choquequirao to Machu Picchu trek is virtually un-touristed – very few people make this epic trip each year, so it’s likely that you will only meet locals and their llamas along the way. Unless of course you are an experienced outdoorsperson I would recommend doing this trek using a Cusco based outfitter, and booking in advance as that supports the principles of responsible tourism. In addition – my other advice is – be properly acclimatised, and get fit! As this is a difficult trek, losing and gaining 1500 metres several times as you cross a number of river canyons, you should be both fit and also resilient.
5- Rucu Pichincha Volcano - Quito, Ecuador
One of the most challenging yet stunning hikes I’ve done was trekking to the stop of the Rucu Pichincha peak on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. Rucu Pichincha is one of three summits of the Pichincha volcano, an active giant that towers over the high-altitude city of Quito. The summit clocks in at 4,700 meters, or over 15,000 feet.
It’s a 4-7 hours hike, depending on your skill level and how well your body deals with the high elevation—and I promise you it’s worth the sweat. The Rucu Pichincha hike takes you through lush Ecuadorian mountains offering sweeping views of the city below. The trek itself involves some scrambling at the very end, making it that much more exciting when you reach the summit.
At the top, you’re awarded with a 360-degree view of the sprawling metropolis and countryside below. It truly feels like you’re on top of the world—or looking out of a plane window. The sense of accomplishment is like no other, and the reward more than makes up for the grueling hours of ascent.
Aside from the incredible views at the summit, the popularity of the Rucu Pichincha hike is also due to its location in Quito. The hike is easily accessible from the city, making it one of the most popular things to do for adventure travelers. While some sites recommend you go with a guide, I had no problem hiking to the summit without one. As long as you follow precautions for the high elevation—like bringing lots of water, headache medicine, and going at your own pace—you should be fine!
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6- Ice Hiking the Ricketts Glenn Falls - Pennsylvania, USA
In the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, Ricketts Glen State Park is one of the best places to hike. The state park, between the Poconos and Philadelphia, offers 26 miles of hiking trails, ranging in degree of difficulty. The 7.2 mile Falls Trail is the most challenging hike, and the one that offers the greatest reward. For an even more incredible experience, try ice hiking the Ricketts Glen Falls Trail.
The Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park winds past 21 waterfalls that range in height from 11 to 94 feet. These majestic displays inspire hundreds of thousands to visit each year. The rocky terrain can be slippery and has several steep descents. Because the trail offers so many varied challenges, it’s a great day hike for adventurers who want a challenge. The views make the effort worthwhile.
While the hike is beautiful year-round, ice hiking in winter is the best way to experience the falls at Ricketts Glen State Park. The falls trail is closed to the public during winter because of the danger risk to those without proper gear so a guided hike is the only way to access the falls trail in winter. Tour companies provide ice picks and crampons to those who need them. They’ll send a list of other recommended gear with reservation confirmations.
Ice hiking the Ricketts Glen Falls Trail is such a unique experience. Waterfalls are always beautiful, but when the trail is draped in icicles, it becomes even more spectacular. At the base of the 94′ Ganoga Falls, look up all around. The world is draped in ice.
There’s good news for this hike. The upward climb back to base is actually easier than the downward hike in winter. Climbing ice is easier than descending it. Whether hiking in winter or summer, the Ricketts Glen Falls Trail rewards adventurers with beautiful scenery year round.
Submitted by Karen Dawkins of Family Travels on a Budget where she writes about family travel, adventure experiences and historic destinations.
7- Capim Açu Trail - Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Hidden in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean lays an archipelago that is considered one of the most beautiful in the world: Fernando the Noronha, also one of Brazil’s poshest destinations.
The main reason to do the short flight from Natal or Recife is clear: you want to see how astonishing nature is. I cannot but start to speak about its sandy beaches, usually framed by astonishing cliffs or rocks in the sea. Praia do Sancho might easily be the best beach you saw in many years!
Another beauty of Fernando de Noronha lays under its clear blue waters. Most of the area is indeed part of a Marine National Park and it houses some of the most copious colonies of spinner dolphins in the world. It is no surprise to see many of them entering Baia dos Golfinhos every morning. Other typical sights in the island are giant tortoises, who use the most secluded beaches to lay their eggs. When you swim in Praia do Sueste you will most probably encounter one or two of them, not worried about your presence and happy to have you at a respectful distance.
Finally, go to Fernando de Noronha to do some hikes. Most people only stay on the wonderful beaches, just missing likewise hidden spots only reachable after some medium-difficulty walks. My favourite is also the one that fewer tourists do: Capim Açu. People usually do not like it because it is the only hard hike on the island. Four to six hours walking on stones along the shore and uphill until you reach the forest are prohibitive when you just want to have a flip-flops-holiday. But this is also the only way that you can reach the westernmost part of the island, which is also the wildest. The first part, from Praia do Leao to the cave with a small natural pool just above the rough waves will be one of the most beautiful experiences in your life. My mind was so relaxed that I felt as calm as if I had done some meditation.
So, please, visit Fernando de Noronha, but do not forget to have hike on the Capim Açu trail!
8- Cerro Castilho - Patagonia, Chile
Patagonia is an incredible place for hiking with several world renowned trails and many off the beaten path routes. Cerro Castillo trek inside the Cerro Castillo National Reserve is one of the lesser-known hikes in Patagonia. Here you get to enjoy the beautiful Patagonian landscape without tourist crowds.
The trek is 53km long and it takes 3-4 days to complete. The trail starts in Villa Cerro Castillo, a small town on the Carretera Austral. The scenery along the trail is truly spectacular; mountain peaks, indigenous forest, crystal-clear rivers, turquoise lakes and hanging glaciers. Walking the route hikers have great chances of spotting wild animals such as South Andean deer, guanacos, red foxes, Patagonian skunk and the elusive puma. The best season for trekking Cerro Castillo is November to March. Hikers have to carry camping gear and food.
There are no shops or restaurants inside the park, it’s a totally wild experience.
9- Montaña Machu Picchu - Peru
Hiking the Montaña Machu Picchu is one of the most epic, but also, one of the most the less popular options for hike while in Machu Picchu. This mountain hike is located 10,000 above seal level, and it offers incredible views from the Inca Sanctuary, including panoramic vista of the Urubamba River and the mountains scenery.
The hiking is not too long. It is only 2 km (1.2 miles) and the total time to climb up and down is about 2-3 hours. But considering the altitude, combined with the heat and humidity is what makes this hiking so challenging. I am a physically very active, and yet, I had to stop to catch my breath every 10 minutes during the way up to the Montaña. I would recommend some fitness preparation for this hiking.
The trail is well-marked , and you will want to stop along the way to rest, but also, to admire the view points, they are absolutely stunning. As you get closer to the mountain base, you will notice that the steps will become steeper, narrower and more challenging. When you reach to the summit you will have a awe-inspiring view from Machu Picchu, the Huayna Picchu and Putucusi Mountain, and it is a prefect opportunity for pictures, get some resting and recharge the energy before you decent, which will take about 30 minutes less than the summit.
You will need to have a combination ticket for both, to visit Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, and I recommend to get the tickets weeks or even months in advance, since 400 visitors are allowed to climb it per day.
10- Joshua Tree National Park - California, USA
Joshua Tree National Park may not be among the biggest and best-known parks in America, but it is certainly one of the most unique national parks I’ve ever visited, anywhere. It’s one of my favorite examples of incredible nature in the world, and believe it or not, it is located roughly two hours outside of one of the biggest cities in the United States; Los Angeles.
Joshua Trees are actually oddly shaped yucca plants, and they range from small to towering, dotting many areas in the 800,000-acre park (hence the name). Joshua Tree National Park spans both the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and covers multiple altitudes and ecosystems throughout the park. With the strange plant-life and bulbous rock formations, it’s easy to see why so many movies and television shows were filmed here.
As a frequent desert hiker of the American Southwest, what I appreciate most about this park is how distinctly alien it feels. It is truly a desert escape and hosts a multitude of hikes for many levels, ranging from under a mile to a whopping 35-mile trek.
My most memorable hiking moment in the park was on the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, which is a moderate in-and-out 3 mile hike over rocky peaks filled with green barrel cacti. All of a sudden, when you reach what truly is a natural desert oasis, green palm trees rise unexpectedly out of the reddish brown earth, and if you’ve made it that far, you may as well climb all the way down to the small pool of water and shade.
This hike is truly spectacular and anyone who enjoys the desert should experience Joshua Tree National Park at least once in their life.
11- Santa Cruz Trek - Cordilleras Blancas, Peru
The Santa Cruz trek is a 3 to 4 days trek in the Peruvian Andes Mountains. The hike takes you through some incredible sceneries with bright turquoise lakes, tall pointy mountains, as well as flat deserted landscapes. The trail is taking you from about 3700 meters altitude and mountain landscape, and down to 2900 meters altitude and more tropical nature.
The journey is amazing and along the way, you’ll walk past the Santa Cruz mountain at towering 6,259 meters above the ocean. However, the highest point on the hike is 4760 meters.
To hike the Santa Cruz trek, you will have to get to the town of Huaraz. The easiest way to get there is by bus from Lima, the ride is about 7 hours, but absolutely worth it. Before hiking the trek, it is recommended to spend at least a couple of days acclimatizing to the altitude in Huaraz. Do a couple of day hikes to some of the many beautiful attractions in the area. The hike in itself is of moderate difficulty. You can pay to go with a tour that will bring you to, and from the trail, set up camp, and bring donkeys to carry food, gear, and most of your things as well.
This way, you’ll just carry a day-pack with necessities and can focus on enjoying the unique nature. If you, however, have some trekking experience, it’s absolutely possible to do the trek alone. If you are ever in Peru, don’t miss out on this amazing trekking opportunity with views that will be hard to forget and well worth sore feet.
12- Big Bend National Park - Texas, USA
The most unique hiking experience I’ve ever had was the epic South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park. This small national park is hard to get to in the stark West Texas desert, but the drive and stunning hiking trails are worth every minute of the many hours spend in the car to reach it.
This is the only national park in the United States that houses an entire mountain range within its borders and some of the best hikes in Big Bend are here in the Chisos Mountains. The South Rim is one of these mountain trails. It’s a strenuous trail 12-mile loop trail that culminates with an epic view of the southern rim overlooking Mexico below.
Sitting on the edge of the cliffs with our picnic lunch watching three separate thunderstorms pour down over Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert below us was an experience I’ll never forget.
If you enjoy camping, pack your gear to take advantage of this trails many backcountry campsites and sleep under the milky way. If the trail is too strenuous, hike a portion of it like the shorter Pinnacles or Laguna Meadows trails. There’s truly something for everyone here!
13- Reef Bay Trail - St. John, US Virgin Island
One of the best and most rewarding hikes in the Virgin Islands is the Reef Bay Trail on St. John. The strenuous 6 mile out and back hike takes you through the lush tropical forest and past ancient petroglyphs, a waterfall, and ruins of a sugar mill before ending at the ocean.
From the lookout point just past the trail head, the view down the mountain to the ocean will give you an idea of what’s in store. Although the descent is relatively easy, the return climb is 3 miles back up the mountain, so make sure to save some energy.
Most of the sights are located just a short hike from the end of the trail at the ocean. So if you’re more in the mood for a relaxing leisurely hike, take a private charter to the bay and hike up to the ruins and petroglyphs. For something more middle of the road, the National Park Service offers guided hikes from the top of the mountain to the bottom with a boat ride back, seeing everything, but avoiding the more difficult return hike.
No matter what way you choose to see it, the Reef Bay Trail is one of the most interesting tropical hikes in the Caribbean.
14- Angel's Landing - Zion National Park, USA
The Best Hiking in America can be found in Zion National Park. Hiking in Zion is a special experience. There are so many stunning hikes in Zion to choose from but the most popular is Angel’s Landing.
Angel’s Landing is a difficult hike that includes using chains to pull yourself up to the top but the views are worth it. All of the most popular hikes in Zion are rated as difficult but there are easy hikes in Zion as well such as Canyon Overlook and Timber Canyon Overlook.
No matter which hike you go on in Zion you will enjoy the beauty and nature that can be found at Zion. Zion has definitely increased in popularity recently and is very busy. The best time to visit Zion is between October and March. In the peak summer months you can wait up to 90 minutes for a shuttle and the trails are full as well.