Challenge Accepted: Tackling the 8 Hardest Hikes in the US

Hiker signing the summit log on Mt. Whitney

Do you enjoy hikes that get your heart rate up or hikes that are more type 2 fun than type 1 fun? Challenge yourself and push your body to its limits with the hardest hike in the US These hikes are absolutely not for beginners and require proper preparation and experience, but those who complete them will find a huge sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. 

How We Determine the Hardest Hikes in the World 

There are a lot of different factors involved in determining the difficulty level of a hike. To create this list, we took the following factors into account:

  • Length of the hike
  • Elevation gain and loss
  • Terrain
  • Weather

Some people may struggle more with rocky terrain or with elevation gain than others. Part of being safe and successful on challenging hikes is self-awareness and knowing your own strengths and limits. 

Safety Tips for Difficult Day Hikes

Hiking always comes with risks such as injury, getting lost, or other emergencies. Difficult hikes come with even more risk and the remote locations and terrain often prevent quick rescue in emergency situations. That’s why it’s important to be able to self-rescue on long day hikes or survive for 2-3 days before rescue can reach you. 

Here are some tips to ensure your safety on even the most dangerous hikes in America: 

  • Carry the ten essentials for wilderness survival on every hike. 
  • Always tell someone you trust where you are going, what route you are taking, and when you plan to be back. 
  • Start hiking early in the morning to ensure you will have enough daylight to finish. Also, there is usually less chance of alpine storms in the morning. 
  • Use lightweight trekking poles on these hikes. Make sure to get ones that collapse so that you can easily stow them in your backpack when you need your hands for scrambling. 

8 Hardest Day Hikes in the US 

Below are the most difficult hikes in the US. Because measuring the difficulty level for hikes is somewhat subjective, we have ranked the hikes based solely on length rather than overall difficulty. The mileage and elevation gain provided for each hike are estimates, and exact numbers may vary.

1. Barr Trail

Hiker at the summit of Barr Trail, one of the hardest hikes in Colorado

Location: Pikes Peak, Colorado

Length: 26 miles

Elevation gain: 7,500 feet 

Permit required: No

Barr Trail takes you to the top of Pikes Peak. At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak is one of the 14ers that hikers can ascend without technical skills or gear needed. In a state with 54 14ers, it’s hard to pinpoint the hardest hike in Colorado, but this is certainly one of the longest day hikes. 

There are several ways to get to the top of Pikes Peak. This route starts in Manitou Springs, CO and takes the Barr Trail all the way up. Visitors can also drive to the top or take a passenger train, so expect to see a crowd at the summit. Due to extreme weather conditions, this trail should only be hiked in the summer unless you have winter mountaineering experience.

2. Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim

Warning sign on the hardest national park hike in the Grand Canyon

Location: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Length: 24 miles

Elevation gain: 4,300 feet 

Permit required: No

This hike differs from most of the other hikes on this list in that you hike downhill first before hiking uphill. The most common way to hike this trail is from north to south because the south rim is 1,400 feet shorter than the north rim. You will take the North Kaibab Trail down to the bottom of the canyon and traverse across the canyon to the Colorado River. Here you cross the river on an impressive bridge and begin the hike up the Bright Angel Trail. 

Rim to rim is one of the hardest national park hikes, but permits are only required if you plan to spend the night within the canyon. The inner gorge of the Grand Canyon is a truly magical place, and I highly recommend spending a night or two exploring if you can.

3. Mt Whitney

Ice on Mt Whitney, one of the hardest hikes in California

Location: Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Length: 22 miles

Elevation gain: 6,100 feet 

Permit required: Yes

Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, which makes it a very popular summit for day hikers and backpackers. You will be hiking in a steady stream of other people. Like all 14ers in the US, Mt. Whitney commonly gets afternoon thunderstorms. Therefore, it’s extra important to start early on this one. A lot of hikers aim to watch the sunrise at the summit. It’s also common for people to backpack this trail.

Please help keep Mt. Whitney sustainable for future generations by properly bagging, carrying, and disposing of your waste after your hike. The alpine soil cannot handle the amount of human waste from hikers in this popular area. 

4. Cactus To Clouds Trail

The tram going to Mt. San Jacinto

Location: Palm Springs, California

Length: 22 miles

Elevation gain: 10,400 feet 

Permit required: No

SoCal has a plethora of long, arduous summit hikes, but Cactus-to-Clouds (C2C) takes the cake as the hardest hike in California. It starts at an elevation of about 400 feet and ascends to the top of Mt. San Jacinto at 10,834 feet. Based on elevation gain alone, this may be the hardest hike in America. It’s certainly the hardest hike in the US that I have done.

Most of the elevation gain occurs in the first ten miles as you hike up from Palm Springs. At this point, you will reach a tram station which has a restaurant, a small store, and potable water. Hikers striving for a C2C summit will keep hiking another 6 miles to the top of Mt. San Jacinto. Then, you will need to hike back to the tram station and take the tram back down to Palm Springs. 

5. Kalalau Trail

The Kalalau Trail, one of the hardest hikes in Hawaii

Location: Kauai, Hawaii

Length: 22 miles

Elevation gain: 5,000 feet 

Permit required: Yes

While you aren’t summiting a mountain on this trail, it’s still a hard hike. The trail follows Kauai’s rugged coast of lush jungle. You will be walking up and down cliff sides and over rocks that are wet and slippery. It gets hot here, so overheating is another one of the hiking dangers that you should be aware of here. The Kalalau Trail is widely considered the hardest hike in Hawaii. It’s an extremely popular trail, and advanced reservations are required for all hikers and backpackers. One of the major benefits of this trail is that you can hike it all year round. 

6. Presidential Traverse

The White Mountains of New Hampshire covered in snow

Location: White Mountains, New Hampshire

Length: 19 miles

Elevation gain: 9,000 feet 

Permit required: No

The Presidential Traverse is considered the hardest hike on the East Coast. The White Mountains are home to the hardest hikes in New Hampshire. While these mountains are not as tall as those in the western US, the terrain and weather conditions make this area challenging and dangerous for hikers. The White Mountains often have snow and ice on them even in the summer, and visibility is often very low due to clouds.

The Presidential Traverse is named after the 9 peaks it summits – each named after a US president. The first portion follows the Valley Way trail to Madison Peak. The route combines several other trails to bag Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, Mt. Monroe, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Pierce, and Mt. Jackson. This is a point-to-point trail which means you will either have to hike the 19 miles back, hitchhike, or schedule a shuttle. 

7. Half Dome

Kim Dohner hiking Half Dome, Yosemite's hardest hike

Location: Yosemite National Park, California

Length: 16 miles

Elevation gain: 4,800 feet 

Permit required: Yes

Half Dome is definitely the hardest Yosemite hike. This iconic route starts at the bottom of Yosemite Valley. You can either start on the Mist Trail, the park’s most popular trail, or the nearby John Muir Trail (JMT). You will pass two impressive waterfalls early on the hike (Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls) before the Mist Trail and JMT merge into one. You will follow the JMT until the Half Dome Trail turn-off. 

The trail is difficult up to this point because of the elevation gain and the rocky terrain, but you haven’t reached the hardest part yet. The Half Dome Trail leads to cables in the granite for the last 400 feet to the summit. This section is extremely dangerous because the rock is steep and slick. Some hikers use gloves and a climbing harness to clip into the cables with a carabiner for extra safety. 

8. Angel's Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

Angel's Landing, one of the most dangerous trails in the US

Location: Zion National Park, Utah

Length: 5.4 miles

Elevation gain: 1,488 feet 

Permit required: Yes

You may notice that this trail is shorter and has much less elevation gain than the other trails on this list. Though short, Angel’s Landing is still one of the hardest hikes in Utah due to the difficult and dangerous terrain of the last section of the trail. It has cables to help you balance, similar to Half Dome. While this trail is less steep than Half Dome in parts, falling off the thin rock formation would surely be lethal. Wear shoes with good tread and carry microspikes or YakTrax in the winter as ice is often present. The 360-degree views of Zion from the top are worth the hike up!  

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