The word “epic” is uttered a bit too lightly these days. Once reserved to describe the fantastic voyages of brave explorers, it’s now readily used to describe a really good burrito. In order to set an accurate benchmark for the word, this collection of America’s toughest day hikes aims to define some of the most truly epic ways to spend 24 hours. To fit our criteria, theses treks had to be non-technical hikes that are regularly completed in a single day and are packed with thrilling elements such as airy exposure, difficult navigation, gutsy traverses, and long distances. Those who challenge themselves on these hikes will earn bragging rights even more glorious than the epic cup of coffee that got them out of bed in the morning.
1. Longs Peaks, Keyhole Route – Colorado
Despite being one of the most difficult 14,000’ peaks in Colorado, summer days see the pre-dawn parking lot aglow with hundreds of headlamps of aspiring summiters embarking on the Keyhole Route, the most popular way to the top of Longs Peak . Slightly less than 50% of the hikers who attempt Longs actually reach the 14,255’ summit. The 15-mile round trip has over 5,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and the lion’s share of the work is done in the last two miles, where a series of tremendously exposed ledges traverse into a steep, loose, gully, that tops out around 14,000’. From there, the last 250’ are on steep rock, leading to the strangely benign, flat summit block. More challenging may be the descent, where views of the sheer drops and dizzying heights will be unavoidable. Add to that the fearsome winds and regular afternoon thunderstorms that have trapped many hikers on open terrain. All this equates to a hike that requires great endurance, guts, route-finding skills, and a little bit of luck.
2. Mount Whitney, Whitney Portal – California
Mount Whitney, 14,505’, is the highest point in the lower 48 states and, by default, the highest mountain in California. The trail to the summit begins at Whitney Portal, 8,360’ and then climbs over 6,100’ and 11 miles (one-way) to the top. The good news is that the trail itself is immaculately maintained, non-technical, and easy to follow, but don’t make the mistake that this is going to be a leisurely stroll in the hills. Ninety-seven switchbacks in a row? Yup, there are 2.5 miles of them. Thin air, sizzling sun, and the looming threat of storms mean that hikers have to keep a good pace in order to finish the 22-mile round trip in style. Have a good heart-to-heart with your quads before attempting this classic test of endurance.
3. Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park – Utah
With a 5,790’ summit that rises nearly 1,500’ from the ground below, it was remarked upon by Frederick Fisher in 1916 that it was so narrow, only an angel could land upon it. However, clever trail construction has allowed mere mortals to stand atop its harrowing, highest point. It’s only 5 miles round trip but along the way hikers will challenge the notorious set of tight switchbacks known as The Wiggles, followed by hiking along narrow fins of rock, some only 5 feet wide with drops of over 800’ on either side. The exposure is known to tighten the most fortified of sphincters. Bolted-in chains serve as merciful guidelines along the way to the final summit push, where dazzling views of Zion Canyon await for those bold enough top out. Stay focused on the way down since gravity will be doing its best to unseat your footing along the steep sections of rock.
4. Mount Olonoma – Hawaii
A 1,643’ summit that juts out of the land like a tropical, tree-encrusted, shark fin, Mount Olonoma in O’ahu is chronically underestimated. At 4.1 miles round trip and an “official” rating of class 3, it seems like the kind of place where hikers can zip up and down and be off to surf in the mid-afternoon sun. It’s this mentality that has given dozens of unprepared hikers the opportunity to say aloha to search and rescue. The spine of rock that connect the three summits is wet, class 4 (or by some accounts, class 5) terrain, notably en route to the third and final summit. Many people choose to hike the first two peaks and leave the third peak for those with ropes, which is a very good idea, but confident, experienced scramblers regularly ascend the peak without the aid of ropes. At least three climbers have fallen to their deaths in recent years and there have been dozens of rescues.
5. Devil’s Path, Catskills – New York
Like many other hikes in this list, the 23.6 mile Devil’s Path in the Catskills can be broken up into a multi-day adventure but hikers who are up for the challenge can knock out seven mountain summits (six of which are over 3,500’) and traverse some of the most beautiful terrain in New York. Oh, there’s also the matter of the 18,000’ (!) of elevation gain made as hikers roll along the ridgelines. And it’s not just a matter of covering the miles; in classic northeast style, trailbuilders eschew switchbacks for most of the route, instead choosing the most direct line, which requires hikers to endure bouts of exposure and mash themselves into rock chimneys. Even the most ardent anti-dabber will reach out for roots to stabilize themselves on the more unbalanced terrain.
6. The Mahoosuc Mile, Appalachian Trail – Maine
Most hikers agree that this 1 mile section of the 2,179 mile Appalachian Trail is the most challenging of them all. Located in western Maine, this section of the trail passes through Mahoosuc Notch. The challenges here may be subtle compared to other hikes: mossy boulders, narrow caves, and several sections with drops just far enough (around 10’) to seriously damage the bones of any hiker who doesn’t take them seriously. Some of the squeezes turn your backpack into your worst enemy, pushing you into unbalanced stances, while lingering ice can sweep the feet out from under hikers like lightning. This trail is famous for breaking the trance of thru-hikers with a dose of crawling, clawing, and scrambling (which, for some, is also a whole lot of fun).
7. Lone Eagle Peak, Indian Peaks Wilderness – Colorado
There are dozens of worthy candidates for Colorado mountains that toe the line between technical and non-technical—Capitol Peak, North Maroon Peak, and Little Bear Peak all come to mind—but none live on the edge quite as much as 11,920’ Lone Eagle Peak. It’s 16 miles round trip, though the bulk of those miles are on peaceful trail from the Monarch Lake Trailhead. The class 4 scramble along the “Solo Flight” has vexed experienced climbers, mostly because the route finding is often unclear and involves wickedly exposed scrambles around unseen corners and through steep notches. The last portion of the scramble is actually climbing down to the summit from the nearby shoulder of rock. While it’s possible to place spotty protection and use ropes, many who have scaled the peak claim the notion of protection is merely illusory (and slow). To safely claim this summit, scramblers must be adept at a skill that is seldom practiced: downclimbing. Mix in the sustained exposure and loose rock and you have a summit that is only for the bold.
8. Upper Slickrock Creek Trail, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness – North Carolina
This 3 mile section of the Slickrock Trail connects the lower Slickrock trail to the Naked Ground, the place where you will likely take count of the myriad of slashes, bumps, and bruises you endured on the way up. Locals affectionately call it the “Nutbuster” though to be fair, the trail here is certain to batter many parts of your body equally. Faintly maintained, the barely legible path that ascends 2,000’ to a high point over 4,800’ has been forcibly overtaken by a collection of briars, thorns, fallen trees, slick-as-oil moss covered rocks, defiant stumps, all woven together by a matrix of ankle-snarling roots. Chances are the water crossing on the lower trail will have made your skin supple and soggy, perfect for the aggressive flora that aims to chew you to shreds. It’s easy to get lost in the messy brambles, and the air can be quite a bit colder as you reach the higher sections. Gaiters are advised and possibly a jock-strap, even for the ladies.
9. Borah Peak, Lost River Range – Idaho
Along with Mount Whitney, 12,662’ Borah Peak is a state highpoint. To get a clue about how tough this hike, the standard route is known as “Chickenout Ridge”. Borah’s location is somewhat remote, even by Idaho standards. On paper, it’s a 6.8 mile round trip outing, with a little over 5,200’ of elevation gain—tough stuff, but not unusual for a sturdy mountain hike. What makes Borah a beast is the namesake Chickenout Ridge (known less comically as the Southwest Ridge Route). From a distance, the shoulder of rock looks friendly and inviting, but when you get close up, it reveals its true intentions. Steep, unstable, class 3 rock culminates in a few daring class 4 moves, many of which have caused hikers to conclude that they’d rather go home and watch TV than summit Borah Peak. For those brave enough to summit, the downclimbing may very well be the crux of the entire trek.
10. The Maze, Canyonlands – Utah
While they don’t expressly say it, the National Park Service’s message to aspiring hikers to the Maze is, “Sure, you can hike it. You’ll probably die, but hey, that’s none of our business.” They certainly don’t make it easy to reach. It takes at least 3 hours on a 4×4 road just to get to the start of the Maze proper. Once there, your mileage may vary depending on your goals, but the terrain here is baffling to navigate—but wow, is it ever gorgeous. Rounded white rock cliffs, slickrock, polished slot canyons, hidden pools, and airy crags explore the most remote part of Canyonlands. The fabled Chocolate Drops formations may very well be worth the visit, if you can find your way out. Ancient petroglyphs adorn some of the most isolated walls in the region, a testament to the natives who mastered desert living. For those willing to boldly immerse themselves in the Maze, the only issue is they may want to extend their visit beyond a day.