Edward Abbey once wished for wanderers of the wilderness: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” These five hikes, nestled into some of the world’s most breathtaking and beloved landscapes, are sure to fulfill on the iconic author's will. They'll incite breathlessness, wonder, and for some, intense vertigo. These hikes aren’t for everyone—indeed most of them are crooked, winding, and dangerous—but for those who crave heights and exposure, they seemingly sit on top of the world, and should sit atop your to-do list.
Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome is arguably the most iconic natural American landmark. It has had the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt, wilderness explorer John Muir, world-class climber Alex Honnold, and a host of other legends fawning over its behemoth, shapely granite form for decades.
The hike itself is about as challenging as it gets without the need for a climbing harness. It will leave you wildly exhilarated, and more than likely with sweaty palms. After conquering the last quarter mile, aided by bolts and intrepid willpower, the uncontested view of Yosemite Valley is enough to bring a grown man to his knees (which, truly, happens quite often). Permits are required to hike Half Dome. They are awarded by preseason, online, and by walk-up daily lotteries through the National Park Service.
No guardrails? No problem for those who don’t mind a 3,500 foot sheer drop into sweeping vistas of Yosemite Valley and a second-to-none view of El Capitan. A short 2.2-mile hike with just 230 gained feet may not shatter your personal record book, but looking down into The Fissures from Taft Point is sure to deliver a quick shot of adrenaline to your system.
The Fissures are natural vertical gashes in the granite near the cliff’s edge, dropping through the full extent of the granite mass, exposing the valley floor thousands and thousands of feet below. The exposure here is no joke—it’s highly advised to exercise extreme caution around the edges.
Upon his first look at this towering, knife-blade fin back in the early 1900s, Frederick Fisher is claimed to have shuddered and said, “only an angel could land on it.” Though other names have been proposed for this impressive monolith that triumphs over Zion National Park, "Angels Landing" endures.
The staggering 1,490 feet of vertical gain required to reach the summit is seriously intrepid—we're talking an extremely narrow trail with 800-foot drops on one side, 1,200 on the other. Sensitive to preservation of the area, no guardrails have been installed, and cable guide-wires are intermittent to the dismay of some and to the thrill of others. From the summit, majestic 360-degree views of Zion Canyon unfurl beneath your feet. But don’t expect to enjoy them in solitude, even considering the challenging nature of this hike; it’s one of the most popular in the park.
Though Yosemite and Zion are two of the most iconic National Parks in the country, heavy crowds, the heat, and strict park rules sometimes infringe upon a soul’s ability to truly take it in. Not so in the Mount Margaret Backcountry that encompasses Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It's privy to a host of alpine lakes and very few people.
The Whittier Ridge Trail is a loop that registers a strenuous 14.2 miles and over 2,000 feet of vertical gain, and in many places traverses along exposed ridgelines. Though no rated climbing is required, careful navigation and scrambling is needed in sections to the great thrill of those who celebrate white-knuckled hiking. The prize: staggering views into the crater of Mount St. Helens, and an amazing perspective into the ecological devastation wrought by its eruption in May of 1980—it’s hauntingly beautiful to note the massive old-growth trees that were blown uphill during the blast, and the new growth that abounds.
When you crunch numbers like 1,520 vertical feet in a short 3.7 miles, you know you’re in for some serious climbing. Those who wish to conquer Devil’s Castle, one of the most prominent geographical icons of the Wasatch, had better be prepared for some low class-five scrambling and careful route finding. Traversing on the knife-edge and into the steep chute just below the first summit is a major crux, and here, many turn back, though there is plenty of good scrambling beyond this point for those unafraid of exposure.
The rugged dark face of Devil’s Castle provides a stunning backdrop for Albion Basin—the view is known well by Alta skiers. The traverse along the back side of this towering feature is well loved by locals, but still experiences low congestion. Bagging nearby Sugarloaf Peak (11,051 feet) is an added bonus, achievable with a quick out-and-back.
For more information, full maps, stunning photos, and detailed specs, check out each adventure’s own page below.