Deciding the best trekking holidays and most iconic treks by continent, is daunting. Actually it is a mountainous task. I have done a fair amount of trekking but obviously I have not hiked every trail so how can I choose the best?
I have based my choices on the treks that non trekkers – even my granny – may have heard of, choosing the two most iconic treks by continent. Are they ‘thee’ iconic treks that everyone would choose… you see my problem! My plan is to put my boots on and check them out for myself, ticking off the best trekking holidays as I go.
So, what follows is my journey to date. It is also my wish list of what I feel are the most iconic treks by continent. Agree or disagree, hopefully you are inspired to put your boots on, and join me on the trail.
Europe is not short of a few treks, and most countries within Europe will claim one of the best trekking holidays. With a wealth of languages, cultures, valleys, mountain ranges, iconic scenery and direct travel from the UK, most treks are accessible and offer more than just the trail.
Berchtesgaden National Park, on the border of Austria and Germany, will satisfy history buffs as Hitler’s Eagles Nest is located in this park. Whilst the Fjords of Norway have eight national parks, including amazing mountains and landscape covering ice and snow to green lands and water.
From Iceland to Ireland, Mediterranean to mountain, and Balkan to Baltic there is a lifetime of iconic treks in Europe. However I chose the Mont Blanc Circular in France and the Way of St James in Spain.
160 km, 10-12 days (The Alps – France, Italy and Switzerland)
Geographically speaking, this 160 km circular journey takes in the Mont Blanc Massif, the largest mountain range Western Europe. The route normally begins and ends in Chamonix, France and the trek is anti-clockwise, crossing the Italian and Swiss borders returning to France via the Col de Balme.
Throughout the Mont Blanc Circuit you will enjoy endless green valleys, white peaks and quaint secluded villages. Mont Blanc is almost always in your sights, and is an amazing view to wake up to each morning. And is well deserving its spot as one of the best trekking holidays in Europe.
Allow 10-12 days to for the whole trek, or customise to suit your agenda and stamina as there are plenty of side trips and alternatives. For example, trekking at great heights, the 180 km linear Haute Route is a more challenging option. Or consider summiting Mont Blanc itself which is possible for anyone with good fitness, a head for heights and a week to spare for the training.
784 km, 30 days (Pyrenees – France and Spain)
As the story goes, the remains of St James were transported from Jerusalem to Northern Spain and buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Thus a pilgrimage was born in the Middle Ages which remains popular today. Traditionally the route starts from your home, so there are parts of the trail in many European countries.
The French route is the most iconic as the routes from other countries link up with it. It starts at St Jean de Pied de Port and covers seven regions of Spain. Popular with hikers and cyclists, the 30 day journey is not just about reaching Santiago. ‘The Way’ is about meeting a wealth of people, from all walks of life, whilst emerged in beautiful countryside and local medieval history.
Short of time for the full Way of St James? Take advantage of shorter routes, starting at Sarria, a mini pilgrimage will take one week.
Asia is the largest continent and nowhere near as confined a landmass as Europe. Geographically the landscapes range from Arctic to tropical, coastal to mountain and desert to rainforest, meaning a vast range of treks and cultures can be explored.
It is almost impossible to choose the best trekking holidays in Asia. Comparing the likes of Mount Fuji in Japan with Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, the Northern Hills of Vietnam with the Siberian tundra or the Steppes of Mongolia with Mount Batur an active volcano in Bali.
All are iconic treks and would make a great trekking holiday. But for me Everest Basecamp in Nepal and The Great Wall in China top the list.
62 km, 12-14 days (The Himalayas, Nepal)
The Everest base camp trekking holiday is probably one of the three most iconic treks on the planet. Nepal relies heavily on tourism, and as such the locals make you feel very welcome and it is a pleasure to travel around.
Normally you fly to Lukla (2,845 m) where your trek begins. Steadily increasing in altitude through isolated but amazing villages reaching 5,360 m at its highest point. Staying at teahouses along the way and hiring Sherpa guides and porters helps make the trek a little easier.
Along the route you’ill see Namche Bazzar (3,440 m), which is the Himalaya’s largest market and Tengboche (3,867 m) which is the highest temple in the region. You’ll be trekking with awe inspiring views of the Himalayan peaks – Everest, K2 and Lobuche, to name a few.
The Dalai Lama refers to the journey as ‘steps to heaven’. Each step slows with increasing altitude, however, a slow journey means you can enjoy the views. Managed properly anyone can reach basecamp and if lucky an expedition could be in progress.
21,000 km, half day hikes to a lifetime (China)
Writing about iconic treks, the nation of China will not forgive me if I don’t include the Great Wall of China. According to Chinese folklore ‘you have not lived until you have seen the wall’, and with a staggering 21,000 km length, including all its various branches, there is plenty of it to go around.
Started in the 7th century BC, the wall has been rebuilt and added to many times. But considering it’s a 2,000 plus year old, man made structure it is doing fairly well. With amazing history and architecture, the wall runs along the historical east to west northern borders of China.
The ‘Great Walk’ is broken in to sections, but the eight closest to Beijing are the most popular. The wall stretches along mountains, rocky hillside and exposed ridges, so for significant treks good fitness is required.
Although the entire length would not take a lifetime to walk it is an undertaking that would be measured in years. You can of course take on a bite sized chunk. Whatever route you wander, you’ll walk in the footsteps of ancient warriors, and gain an appreciation for one of the seven wonders of the world.
Trekking in South America is largely dominated by the Andes – the longest continental mountain range in the world – which spreads over seven countries. For hikers this is like a kid in a sweet shop, with a pick and mix of distance, altitude, climate, terrain to choose from and home of some of the best trekking holidays on the planet.
At one end of the scale Cidad Perdida in the Colombian Northern Andes, can be completed in a comfortable three days. Known as ‘The Lost City’ it was only discovered fifty years ago. The Illampu Circuit in Bolivia, however, is an enormous challenge which requires acclimatization and dedication.
Although spoilt for choice choosing the most iconic treks in South America is fairly easy. The Inca Trail in Peru and Fitzroy Massif in Patagonia, Argentina and Chile stand out from the crowd due to their popularity and enduring allure.
40 km, 4-5 days (Cusco, The Andes, Peru)
The Inca trail consists of three overlapping treks of which the Classic Trail is the most popular. With Machu Picchu the cover shot of many travel magazines it has inspired many people to travel let alone hit the trail.
Machu Picchu trekking holidays begin in Cusco (2,800 m) and quickly rises in altitude, before reaching 4,200m at ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ which is the highest point of the journey. On the way to the majestic Machu Picchu, Incan tunnels and terraces are passed, some covered in vegetation and others fully exposed.
The journey includes the infamous ruins, such as Phuyupatamarca, Wiñaywayna and Intipata. However the main draw is when the trail leads through the ‘sun gate’, and the grandeur of the Machu Picchu ruins can be viewed below.
Most people come for the ruins. But the experience of the trek, stunning views and jungle vegetation make the Inca Trail one of the best trekking holidays, and it can be combined with many other adventure activities in Peru.
120 km, 10-12 days (Patagonia, Argentina & Chile)
The Patagonia area of Southern Chile and Argentina is exceptional due to the strangely shaped geographical granite spires and resonant glaciers. With the rugged terrain and changeable weather this area is very different to the jungle coating most of South America. There are many treks and tours of Patagonia available but the Patagonia Circuit is my choice.
Torres Del Paine National Park has more than its fair share of granite columns, but the visit to Lake Grey is possibly the highlight of the trek. From this viewpoint you can see the glacier of the Patagonian ice cap cascade 60 km to the lake.
The Fitzroy Massif is based on the border between Argentina and Chile and remains one of the most technically challenging mountains for climbers. The iconic Patagonia Circuit trek follows a route below and around the mountains, which mean you wake up to the majestic view every day.
When we think of North America the outdoors is often overshadowed by the cities, Disneyland, sport and corporate giants such as Google and Microsoft. But North America is rich in national parks and without doubt has some of the best trekking holidays.
Banff National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains has many trails to explore. With alpine mountains and glaciers this area of outstanding beauty is Canada’s oldest national park.
Another worth mentioning is Yosemite National Park in California, USA. At least 95% of the park is a designated wilderness and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
From the Alaskan tundra to the tropical everglades and Chihuahuan Desert bordering US and Mexico to the Great Lakes between US and Canada there is again a vast amount of choice. But for me it’s the Chilkoot Trail, spread between Alaska and Canada, and the Appalachian Trail in Eastern USA, that make my list of iconic treks.
53 km, 3-5 days (Alaska and Canada)
The Chilkoot Trail travels through the Coast Mountains which border Alaska and Canada. Departing from Dyea in Alaska and arriving at Bennett, British Columbia the trekker will walk the path of prospectors. Once the only way to the Yukon gold mines it has been likened to an eerie museum in an isolated wilderness.
The Trail has previously been subject to avalanche warnings, and travel delays are common due to changeable weather, so a well thought out itinerary and suitable equipment are necessary.
You’ll walk through Spruce trees in the alpine zones and temperate coastal rainforest lower down. Along the route you’ll pass icy lakes and glaciers and there is a good chance of seeing wildlife such as moose, eagles, bears and wolves.
3,500 km, 5-7 months (Appalachian mountains, USA including states of: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine)
The Appalachian Trail is reputedly the longest marked, hikers only, trail in the world. It follows the Appalachian Mountain range across 14 states of eastern United States, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The terrain is often steep and rocky, but manageable to experienced hikers. Most hike from the south following the sunny weather north. Depending on the time of year snow and winter-like conditions are more likely the further north you go. Although not officially part of the trail you can follow the Appalachian range into Canada to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Interestingly most trekkers take on a trail name for the duration of the hike. This is normally describes them, their state of mind, their past or their (hopeful) future. Although some people give themselves a name, more often it is acquired on the trail through experience.
Many people attempt to complete the trail in one long journey to be awarded ‘thru hiker’ status. It has to be completes within 12 months, and only around one in four succeed.
For most people the trail is broken down into sections and tackled over many years. Either way of experiencing it the trekker with be immersed in nature, see native flora and fauna, wonderful scenery and in finding their trail name will learn something about themselves.
Africa is huge and diverse! From north to south lie many different countries, cultures, languages, climates, national parks and peaks. Each with their own set of rules, permits and immigration. But don’t let that put you off as Africa has some of the best trekking holidays.
The Ethiopian Highlands are the largest continuously elevated area of Africa. Rarely dropping below 1500m, and reaching up to 4500m they are often referred to as the ‘Roof of Africa’ and offer a wide range of trekking. The Simien Mountains, famed for the freestanding pinnacles, is a strenuous 12 day trek. Or the Bale Mountains a much easier three day trek.
There are fabulous treks all over the continent. The Skeleton coast of Namibia, Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda, Okavango Delta in Botswana, Table Mountain in South Africa all stand out. But, for my favourite continent, my two iconic treks are Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
62 km, 5-8 days (Kilimanjaro National Park, Eastern Rift Mountains, Tanzania)
At 5,895m Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa, and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. As one of the highest trekking only summits, it is often mistakenly considered an easy mountain to ‘climb’.
The climbing season is split between January–March and June-October. It offers one of the highest accents in the short timescale possible. Because of its steep incline, and with only a short acclimatisation, a high proportion of trekkers never reach the summit. Good fitness, acclimatization days, and booking with a reputable company are recommended.
There are seven routes that lead to the Uhuru Peak. The two that are most popular are Machame because it is cheaper, shorter and still very scenic, and Marangu because it provides hut accommodation. However, we recommend the Kilimanjaro Lemosho route which is considered the most beautiful, and being slightly longer it has the highest success rate due to extra acclimatisation.
Although thousands climb Mount Kilimanjaro every year it is an expensive trek particularly by African standards. As an alternative there are many similar, but cheaper, East African mountains to trek.
60 km, 2-4 days (Atlas Mountains, Morocco)
The Atlas Mountains of northern Africa spread across Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Mount Toubkal (4167 m), of the High Atlas of Morocco, is the highest point in Northern Africa. An African adventure that is within easy reach of Europe and achievable by most people make this one of the Iconic treks of Africa.
The journey starts at Imlil (1740 m) and a steep, rocky trek follows. Although not a trek famed for its scenery, it is broken up by traditional Berbers’ villages, where a smile and a hot meal is much appreciated. Mt Toubkal is often combined with other Morocco adventure activities.
Nelter Hut (3,210m) is the final resting place before the summit to Mount Toubkal. Depending on the season, time may be taken to practice walking in the snow. The summit is straightforward, but stamina is needed. Once at the top the panoramic views of the Atlas Mountains will take away what little breath you have left.
Bushwalking in Australia could take you along scenic coasts, up majestic mountains, across endless deserts and through sweltering rainforest. Both Australia and New Zealand are very well set up for hiking and include some of the best trekking holidays available.
The Kakadu trek in the Northern Territory, is remote but has hidden watering holes and waterfalls. Like crocodiles? Crocodile Dundee was filmed here. The Royal National Park of New South Wales, will keep you by the coast. You may come for the beach and the wetlands but seek out the original Aboriginal rock art for a cultural treat.
Trekking around the Olgas, Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Devil’s Marbles in the red Centre of Australia is popular. If you prefer mountains try hiking the Grampian Mountains in Victoria or the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, which includes Australia’s highest point – the 2200m Mount Kosciuszko.
Over in New Zealand famous trails include the Tongariro Circuit which includes the excellent Tongariro crossing – an eerie volcanic landscape that in winter becomes covered in snow. On the South Island the Abel Tasman, Routeburn Track and Kempler Track are all very popular.
But in the end the two iconic treks of Australasia stand out. The Overland Trek from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair in Tasmania and the Milford Trek in New Zealand.
65 km, 6 days (Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania, Australia)
The Overland Trek is based within the Central Highlands of Tasmania in Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair National Park. The park’s rugged beauty, wild landscape and lakes were created by ancient glaciations leaving behind a diverse environment that has been made a World Heritage Site.
This trek is known for glacially carved valleys, alpine environments and ancient moss covered temperate rainforests. It starts by Cradle Mountain in Ronny Creek, Cradle Valley and ends at Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest lake.
A lot of the trail is in an Alpine environment so you need to be prepared for all weathers. The trail is littered with many side journeys, such as the opportunity to summit the iconic Cradle Mountain, or Tasmania’s highest peak Mount Ossa (1600m).
Although the Overland Trek can be done with average fitness if you want to fit in some of the side trips you will need to be in good shape and not afraid of a scramble. The trek needs to be booked in advance and a fee paid.
53.5 km, 4 days (Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand)
The Milford Trek is based in Fiordland National Park in the south of the South Island of New Zealand. It starts at Lake Te Anau and finishes at Milford Sound, Sandfly Point. The trail starts with a boat journey and what follows is one of the best trekking holidays on the planet.
The terrain varies greatly, from alpine hiking over mountains, to coastal Fiordland. As does the climate and the amazing bird and plant life you see along the way. Hiking through sheer sided glacial gorges, walking over suspension bridges add to the adventure and it is rightly known as one of the most beautiful treks in the world.
This World Heritage Site is a highly regulated trek in New Zealand during the summer season. It must be walked in four days, no matter the weather. Facilities are limited and private camping is not allowed, so trail walkers need to book this iconic trek in advance.
A side trip to the spectacular Sutherland Falls is a must, it is the fifth highest waterfall in the world and New Zealand’s highest. At the end of your trek be sure to explore Milford Sound. A relaxing boat cruise will show you the best spots. But if you want to get closer to nature – and still have the energy after the trek – a kayaking trip will really allow you to explore.
So there you have it the most iconic treks by continent. Yes I know we have missed out Antarctica. This is because trekking in Antarctica is of a technical nature, it is not achievable without specialist training and equipment so it’s beyond the scope of this article.
Please note these ‘best trekking holidays’ are the most iconic treks, those that many people have heard of – for example if you tell granny you are climbing Mt Kilimanjaro you’ll get a better reaction than if climbing the less known Mt Meru.
We appreciate that for many people their favorite treks are those less visited, where they have the trail to themselves. We also appreciate that even only looking at these popular and iconic treks there are many others that could be added to the list. So please leave a comment letting us know your favourites.
If you’re inspired to hit the trail then check out these trekking holidays worldwide.