As the popularity of hiking vacations grows, scores of walkers have tightened their laces and discovered tromping over trails sparks an instant connection with the land -- a wonder that's hard to replicate from the comfort of a car or tour bus.
Of course, this kind of interaction with nature also provides fantastic exercise, combining sightseeing and workouts into one. We've selected five unforgettable hiking vacations sure to lead you into the thick of your destination.
Inca Trail, Peru
If you like history and mind-blowing vistas, lace up your boots and head for Peru's Inca Trail. The four-day, 27-mile hike starts outside the tiny town of Ollantaytambo and winds through a number of knee-buckling passes in the Andes Mountains. It ends in the famous stone city of Machu Picchu, from which hikers can return via train
Most of the hike parallels the Urubamba River along a granite trail the Incas built more than 1,000 years ago. Along the way, the trail passes nearly a dozen archaeological sites -- cities, farms, places of worship and lookouts that serve as evidence of the Inca's heyday before the Spanish Inquisition.
Today, as part of an effort to minimize environmental impact, trail access is limited to 500 people per day, and most hikers participate as part of guided groups. Groups meet in the modern city of Cusco and take buses to the trailhead. The groups hire porters to carry equipment, so hikers need only to worry about enjoying the scenery.
Most of these organized treks include rustic tent accommodations and surprisingly delicious three-course meals. Of course, they also include a final day at Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas." From Intipunku, known as the "Sun Gate," Picchu hangs in the mist like an oasis. Not even the photographer Ansel Adams could have properly captured its beauty.
Cape Scott Trail, British Columbia
Overgrown inclines. Gorgeous beaches. Boot-soaking bogs. Swollen rivers. Diversity is the name of the game on the new, 36-mile Cape Scott Trail at the northern tip of British Columbia's Vancouver Island. To call the five-day hike challenging would be the understatement of the century. Relentless is more apt.
The adventure begins gradually. From the trailhead at Cape Scott Provincial Park, the trail follows an old settler's road along a creek through a 4-mile stretch of bog. With every step, the muck threatens to add to what surely has become a sizable boot collection. Not even gaiters are impervious.
From there, most of the trip involves platform camping and hiking on beaches. Beautiful? Yes. Leisurely? Not even slightly. Like most beaches in the Pacific Northwest, this canted shoreline is covered with rocks that knock like cue balls with every step. Considering that 30-pound pack of food and gear on your back, the odds of twisting an ankle here are nearly as high as those of seeing a black bear.
The highlights of this hike are its river crossings. Because the rivers are so wide, park rangers were forced to erect cable-car crossings for both waterways. Hikers must pull themselves across, an effort that leaves shoulders throbbing from overuse. Still, the euphoria of traversing wilderness rivers is hard to replicate anywhere in life.
Via Ferrata, Italy
Most tourists go to Italy for the food and wine. Some, however, go for the one-of-a-kind hiking (and mountain climbing) in the Dolomites, or Italian Alps. The most popular hiking trails in these mountains are the Via Ferrata. These "iron roads" comprise a system of mountain trails equipped with fixed cables, ladders and bridges.
The trails themselves date to World War I, when Italian forces built them as a way to move infantry from one section of the Alps to another. Today, with the war in the distant past, the routes provide the perfect venue for hikers looking for a day-long escape (inns are plentiful for those who wish to turn the trip into a weekend getaway).
Two of the Via Ferrata trails stick out as particularly challenging. The VF Ivano Dibona, which begins at the base of the Rio Gere lift system, traverses the Monte Cristallo ridge, a calf-burning route that takes about eight hours to complete. The trail is like a living history lesson, as it passes several World War I fortifications along the way. One thing the trail doesn't offer is food, so be sure to bring your own.
Another popular hike in the area is the six-hour trek through the VF Lagazuoi Tunnels, a labyrinthine network of tunnels inside Mount Lagazuoi that actually descends into the mountain itself. During the war, these tunnels were used as vehicles to attack the enemy. Today, however, they are as much a part of the Italian countryside as wild fennel and mountain goats.
Larapinta Trail, Australia
Itching for a good hike through the outback, mate? Then head to Australia's Larapinta Trail, a 130-mile trek through the Northern Territory of the island continent. The tromp traverses part of the country's West MacDonnell National Park, one of the most remote parks in the world. Almost the entire hike is desert.
For logistical purposes, the trek is divided into 12 sections, each of which can be completed in 1 or 2 days. Each section is accessible by off-road vehicle, making it easy for hikers who aren't interested in hiking the whole trail to drive from one section to another. Just be sure to bring a tent, as there is no lodging for miles.
The route itself passes some of the most spectacular natural features in all of Australia: Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen. Starting at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the Larapinta ends at Mount Sonder, a 4,500-foot peak and the second-highest mountain in the territory.
Perhaps the best way to end a long day in the hot Australian sun is to watch the pink-and-orange sunset, unfurl a sleeping bag and look up. Repeat visitors to the Larapinta say this part of Australia offers some of the best stargazing in the world. Even the loquacious Steve Irwin was speechless here.
Skeleton Gorge, South Africa
With a bird's-eye view of Cape Town, South Africa, Table Mountain National Park provides the perfect setting for epic day hikes to see the sights. Of all the trails on the namesake Table Mountain, the path through Skeleton Gorge is by far the most beautiful. Just pray that your hamstrings can handle the nearly vertical ascent.
The trail begins just outside Kirstenbosch, one of eight National Botanical Gardens in the country. Starting at Cecilia Forest, the trail is flat for the first section, and then climbs steeply into the gorge. This second part of the hike is tricky, with two ladders and loose river stones to negotiate as the summit comes into view.
From the 3,500-foot summit, the trail offers panoramic vistas of Table Bay on the Pacific side of the cape, Camps Bay on the Atlantic side and, of course, the city of Cape Town. There's also a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the Hely-Hutchinson Dam, which forms a reservoir that stores drinking water for the entire area.
The trail follows Nursery Valley down through Nursery Ravine, past stands of indigenous ferns and the occasional baboon. But for those who'd rather descend in style, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway is a less taxing alternative. As the tram inches bay-ward, the experience puts the elevation into perspective -- it certainly is a long way down.