TOP OF THE WORLD
Follow through on a New Year's resolution to get in shape and enjoy the outdoors by planning a few hikes in 2016. It's cheaper and far more rewarding than toiling away in a gym or lazing away at a resort. In 2015 Cheapism.com rounded up some of the most spectacular walks, hikes, and treks across the United States and around the globe, from picturesque strolls that take just a few hours to multi-day adventures through rugged terrain. Here are the top picks.
Hana Livingston contributed reporting.
THE LOST COAST, CALIFORNIA
This land along the Pacific Ocean in Northern California was so rough that engineers redirected Highway 1 to avoid it, and the 53-mile trail remains secluded. This surprisingly challenging trek has two sections: The northern part hugs the ocean so closely that hikers have to keep an eye on the tides to avoid being washed out; the southern part weaves through an old-growth redwood forest.
CHAPEL LOOP TRAIL, MICHIGAN
At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Chapel Loop Trail provides dramatic views of rainbow-colored sandstone cliffs plunging into Lake Superior. The trail leads past 60-foot Chapel Falls before winding atop the cliffs, sometimes only a few feet from the edge. Don't miss the gravity-defying rock formations rising out of the water, including Grand Portal Point, Lover's Leap, and the striking Chapel Rock.
TORRES DEL PAINE, CHILE
Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park is defined by three towering granite peaks, one of the primary draws on a multi-day circuit. Mountain huts provide accommodation on this popular trek, and hikers can expect to see spectacular glaciers, azure lakes, and plenty of wildlife, including llama-like guanacos.
TALL TREES GROVE, CALIFORNIA
The 300-foot ancient giants of Redwood National Park put the relationship between humans and nature into striking perspective; even the ferns are giant here. A 3.9-mile hike through a seemingly endless expanse of the most massive tree species on Earth brings visitors past the 368-foot Howard Libbey Tree, considered the world's tallest since its discovery in 1963.
TRANS-ZION TREK, UTAH
Covering parts of several different trails, this roughly 50-mile hike takes trekkers into canyons and through hot, dry desert -- making it a good hike for early summer, before the most intense temperatures strike. The start and end points are fairly remote, so local outfitters offer pickup and drop-off service.
This trail offers a variety of terrain, including glaciers, rivers, lakes, hot springs, and even the active volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Despite wind and snow, which can make for a difficult trek, the 34-mile journey is one of the most popular hiking routes in Iceland and generally takes just two to four days. Lodges along the way must be booked months in advance, but hikers can camp outside and use the facilities if no space is available inside.
NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT LOOP TRAIL, UTAH
Three natural stone bridges are the highlights of this 8.6-mile loop trail. Hikers journey over two bridges of 200-plus feet, and the loop winds up in Armstrong Canyon with the Owachomo Bridge, estimated at 100,000 years old. Along the way are well-preserved Pueblo ruins, and hikers can search for petroglyphs on canyon walls as they pass.
MAHA'ULEPU HERITAGE TRAIL, HAWAII
This two-mile trail highlights the last undeveloped stretch of coastline on Kauai's south shore. Narrow cliff-side paths showcase stunning views and limestone rock formations. Starting at Shipwreck Beach, brave souls can jump off a cliff into the ocean, mimicking Harrison Ford and Anne Heche in the 1998 movie "Six Days Seven Nights." Don't miss the heiau ho'ola, an ancient site where offerings were made to the god of the sea to ensure good fishing. Hikers sometimes spot migrating humpback whales, sea turtles, or an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or nene, Hawaii's state bird.
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE LOOP, MEXICO TO CANADA
At a pace of more than 15 miles a day, hiking the full Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada would still take about six months. A 54-mile loop through Rocky Mountain National Park offers a bite-size portion, with highlights including lakes, waterfalls, and even some bushwhacking. The trail reaches an elevation of about 13,500 feet above sea level, so allow time to acclimatize.
CLAYTON LAKE STATE PARK, NEW MEXICO
Clayton Lake has appeal that far outweighs the inconvenience of an out-of-the-way location with no cellphone service: It is a certified International Dark Sky Park, boasting some of the best stargazing in the country. Visitors can use telescopes for free the observatory, which has a retractable roof and hosts "star parties" to teach visitors about the night sky. Hikers can target a dam on the edge of a 170-acre reservoir in the middle of rolling grasslands or seek out Clayton Lake's other claim to fame: 500 preserved dinosaur footprints.
JOHN MUIR TRAIL, CALIFORNIA
This 212-mile trail runs from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, overlapping with the Pacific Crest Trail. Although it is one of the most beautiful and famous in the country, it's not very busy, and hikers are frequently left in solitude. Several camps and stores in the High Sierra backcountry provide supplies and warm showers along the way.
FIFTY MOUNTAIN-NORTHERN HIGHLINE TRAIL, MONTANA
This trail (sometimes used by Continental Divide hikers heading to Canada) is among the hundreds of miles of hiking in Glacier National Park. With steep ascents, the 30-mile journey isn't for novices, but those who have prevailed say the breathtaking scenery is well worth it.
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, GEORGIA TO MAINE
It takes five to seven months to cover the entire 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Don't have that kind of time? Consider a shorter trip from the southern terminus in Springer Mountain, Georgia, to North Carolina. Options in the north, such as the Great Valley of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, also offer a taste of the trail that won't disappoint.
FALL CREEK NATIONAL RECREATION TRAIL, OREGON
Most of this trail just east of Eugene runs parallel to Fall Creek, where hikers encounter charming footbridges, bubbling side streams, a few whitewater sections, and the occasional rainbow trout. The hike is a family-friendly 13.7 miles round-trip through old-growth forest. A burned-out span from the 2003 Clark Fire stands in startling contrast to virgin Douglas fir and red cedar up to 500 years old. Near the Slick Creek crossing, keep an eye out for a large cave where Native Americans used to shelter during long hunts.
TOUR DU MONT BLANC, FRANCE, ITALY, AND SWITZERLAND
This trail -- one of the most famous in Europe -- goes through France, Italy, and Switzerland in a circular route in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. The scenery is stunning, and even hikers doing the full, 11-day loop can get by without a tent and don't have to carry food, because several villages dot the route.
STARVED ROCK STATE PARK, ILLINOIS
Unusual rock formations are the park's trademark, but there are also secret waterfalls and canyons to explore along 13 miles of intersecting trails. Visitors can hike along the rim or descend into the canyons ringing Starved Rock, the highest point. This is a popular day trip from Chicago, so the park can be crowded in the summer, especially on weekends. Go in the winter for peace and quiet, to see the frozen icefalls -- and possibly glimpse a bald eagle.
OVERLAND TRACK, AUSTRALIA
Tasmania, the island state off the southeast tip of Australia, is home to the Overland Track, a 40- to 50-mile hike through the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Many make the six-day journey from Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair in the hope of seeing a platypus, wombat, or Tasmanian devil, with summit views and waterfalls along the way. Summer is the busiest season; expect mandated routes and a limited number of hiking permits.
PERCIVAL-MORGAN LOOP, NEW HAMPSHIRE
This adventurous 5.5-mile loop offers many iconic New England treasures: sweet wild blueberries, groves of paper-white birch trees, and views of the lakes region. Expect to navigate exposed rock ledges, scramble up steep rock, squeeze through a series of caves, and scale a 50-foot wall via three ladders. The summits of Mount Percival and Mount Morgan, each higher than 2,000 feet, offer sweeping views of Squam Lake and Franconia Ridge -- best enjoyed with a handful of fresh-picked blueberries.
BROOKLYN BRIDGE, NEW YORK
The bridge spans the East River, and a four-mile march on a dedicated pedestrian walkway provides a much better view than drivers get heading from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A few of the landmark structures visible on the way include the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Freedom Tower at 1 World Trade Center, Ellis Island, and New York Harbor.
THE KING'S TRAIL, SWEDEN
The Kungsleden (King's Trail) is a 100-mile path inside the Arctic Circle, used by the Swedes for more than a century and well populated with inexpensive huts offering shelter -- or use of their facilities for hikers who prefer to pitch a tent and pay less. The trail is divided into four legs, each taking about a week to complete; the most popular is the route between Abisko and Kebnekaise in the trail's northern section.
WHITETAIL TRAIL, NEBRASKA
In scenic Ponca State Park, the bluffs of the Missouri River are blanketed with forests of oak and walnut trees and surrounded by rolling prairie. This stretch of the river hosts wildlife including bald eagles, elk, and beavers. Songbirds and wildflowers emerge along the 1.3-mile trail in spring, and vivid foliage and migrating waterfowl make for scenic hiking in fall. A $5 fee includes access to several other short, pleasant trails, including the Old Oak (1.9 miles), leading to a 366-year-old oak tree, and the Corps of Discovery (1.4 miles), which some say offers the best views.
THE LONG RANGE TRAVERSE, CANADA
This trail through the Long Range Mountains in Newfoundland is best for those who know how to use a map and compass; it's 20 to 25 miles long, and unmarked. Five campsites along the way provide target destinations, and the initial 2,000-foot ascent pays off quickly, with stunning views of fjords, thousand-foot rock faces, and mountain ponds. Hikers can often go long stretches without seeing others on the trail besides moose and caribou, adding to the magic and hinting at the difficulty of this six-day trek.
HAWK RIDGE NATURE RESERVE, MINNESOTA
As many as 100,000 raptors fly overhead each season on their way around Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Eagles, hawks, ospreys, and falcons can be spotted easily on this two-mile stretch of the 296-mile Superior Hiking Trail along the north shore; just keep an eye on the 600-foot bluffs overhead. The best time to go is mid-August through November, but the "Big Days," when tens of thousands of hawks fly over, are generally Sept. 10-25.
NORTH DRAKENSBERG TRAVERSE, SOUTH AFRICA
The remote 41-mile North Drakensberg Traverse in South Africa winds its way up the Drakensberg Range (Dragons' Mountains) with a challenging series of switchbacks and chain ladders -- and no marked path or designated campgrounds. (Some hikers may want to hire a guide.) The area features dramatic plateaus, caves with ancient bushmen paintings, a Cape Vulture colony, and some satisfying swims. Nearby Tugela Falls is the second-highest waterfall in the world, helping make this an unforgettable journey.
AUXIER RIDGE LOOP, KENTUCKY
The intricate canyon system of Red River Gorge is a premier rock-climbing destination offering more than 60 miles of trails and more than 100 natural stone arches. The 6.1-mile Auxier Ridge Loop offers a panoramic view of the gorge, passes the 90-foot-tall Courthouse Rock, and provides an interesting view of the park through a pair of 20-foot-wide windows at the Double Arch. Go in spring as the flowers bloom or in fall as the leaves change color.
QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK, NEW ZEALAND
Through forest and bush, along skyline ridges, and beside sparkling bays, this trail stretches 44 miles from Ship Cove to Anakiwa and usually takes three to five days to complete. Bikers also use the trail, which is well-maintained and relatively easy. A ferry service brings travelers back to the start and to points along the trail -- which means those willing to pay need carry only a camera, food, and water; luggage can go by ferry.
BILLY YANK AND JOHNNY REB TRAILS, PENNSYLVANIA
The 10-mile Billy Yank Trail and four-mile Johnny Reb Trail wend through a number of historical landmarks and monuments, including the Gettysburg battlefield, where Confederate and Union troops famously fought a three-day battle that left 51,000 Americans dead or wounded. Strong hikers can scramble to Big Round Top, and the Johnny Reb includes Cemetery Ridge, site of Pickett's Charge, as well as the National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Entrance is free.
HARDING ICEFIELD TRAIL, ALASKA
Climb gradually from the valley floor through forests and meadows and be prepared to pause when rising above the tree line -- that's the start of this trail's spectacular view of the Harding Icefield, a snowy sheet of 40 glaciers spread over 300 square miles. Black bears are spotted almost daily nearby; hikers should educate themselves on bear safety.
MOUNT CAMMERER, NORTH CAROLINA AND TENNESSEE
There's not even an entrance fee to get into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, home to Mount Cammerer and one of the most difficult -- and rewarding -- hikes in the South. The trail gains 2,500 feet of elevation over a dozen miles, starting out on the Chestnut Branch Trail and connecting to the Appalachian Trail. The mountain is 4,928 feet at its peak and offers sweeping views of the forested Pigeon River Gorge and neighboring peaks such as the 6,621-foot Mount Guyot.
CHICAGO LAKEFRONT TRAIL, ILLINOIS
A 18.5-mile stretch of park along Lake Michigan offers a fresh way to explore the Windy City in summer, with the blue waves of Lake Michigan on one side and iconic Chicago architecture on the other. Follow the trail past free attractions including the Lincoln Park Zoo, Grant and Jackson parks, and Navy Pier, as well as Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and Soldier Field.
GULF HAGAS TRAIL, MAINE
The 100-Mile Wilderness is considered the wildest, most challenging part of the Appalachian Trail, but this 8.9-mile loop within it is only moderately difficult -- a perfect day hike for those with a sense of adventure. Hikers first ford the Pleasant River on foot, then pass seven waterfalls; scenic Screw Auger Falls is particularly ideal for a refreshing swim. The three-mile gorge is sometimes called "The Grand Canyon of the East" (although it's one of several with that nickname).
SOLSTICE CANYON, CALIFORNIA
Outstanding among the many beautiful hikes in the mountains around Los Angeles, the Solstice Canyon Trail offers a shaded hike with interesting features to explore, including a small waterfall, a creek, and a Virgin Mary statuary. The 5.9-mile path is mostly paved, and dogs are welcome. Continue on the Deer Valley Loop trail for 1.3 miles for peaceful ocean views, or take the more challenging Rising Sun Trail.
THE WALKER'S HAUTE ROUTE, FRANCE AND SWITZERLAND
Over the course of 10 to 12 days, hikers on this 112-mile trek from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, skirt glaciers and snow-capped mountains and delight in green alpine valleys filled with wildflowers. The trek is most popular during summer, and it's best to reserve a bed at the seasonal mountain huts between mid-June and early September. (A separate Winter Haute Route leads hikers across glaciers and snowy mountains.)
BOWL OF FIRE, NEVADA
mountains -- a dramatic, surreal must-see for anyone visiting Lake Mead. The 8-mile loop trail is challenging -- temperatures can soar, the landscape makes it easy to get lost, and there aren't always other hikers around -- despite being less than an hour's drive from Las Vegas.
CASCADE AND PORTER MOUNTAINS, NEW YORK
Hikers hoping to conquer the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks may well start with the Cascade and Porter Mountains. They're part of a 4.2-mile trip climbing through forests and over rocks before reaching a bald 4,098-foot summit, where 360-degree views of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and the Great Range seem too good for a relatively easy hike. Add a side trip to Porter for more views with fewer crowds.