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Transcaucasian trail
Photograph: Andrei Bortnikau

9 of the most breathtaking hikes in Europe

Trek your way through the continent’s most spectacular scenery, from the UK and France to Slovenia and Scandinavia

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson
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We get it: you’ve done your local park to death. There’s only so many times you can wander past the off-licence and around that yellowing patch of grass – or tempt yourself outside with the promise of a takeaway coffee.

If you’re looking for something more dramatic – and want to actually, finally, book that trip away – there are some truly breathtaking hiking trails across Europe that mean all those mid-pandemic strolls can be passed off as practice. A new book, ‘Wanderlust Europe’, points would-be walkers in the right direction. Some of them are hundreds of kilometres long, but if you’re not quite up for a lifetime-defining pilgrimage, use the signposted paths to take in the impressive scenery for a day or two.

Here the book’s author, Alex Roddie, picks nine of the very best hiking trails across the continent, from the UK and France to Slovenia and Scandinavia. Let’s be honest: we could all do with a proper adventure right now – and this could be one of the best ways to do it.

Most breathtaking hikes in Europe

The Pennine Way
Photograph: Andy Wasley

The Pennine Way

Start Edale, England

Finish Kirk Yetholm, Scotland

Distance 407km

Duration 16 to 19 days

‘You’ll find the Pennine Way on almost every list ever written of the world’s best long-distance trails. It has earned that designation because of a near-perfect blend of classic British scenery, genuinely iconic landmarks, hiking that’s challenging yet accessible, and a long and illustrious history. The Pennine Way is to the UK what the Appalachian Trail is to the USA: a big walk that has been enjoyed by generations and changed countless lives.

This range of hills forms Britain’s backbone. While they’re lowly in height compared to many other mountain ranges in Europe – the highest point, Cross Fell, is only 893 metres (2,930ft) above sea level – the Pennines have a quietly dramatic character, along with a rural charm that makes for fine hiking countryside. There is no grand wilderness here, no soaring rock pinnacles or glaciers. What is to be found are hundreds of kilometres of quiet, empty moorland, big skies, and a true sense of hiking through a country’s heart.’

The Transcaucasian Trail
Photograph: Andrei Bortnikau

The Transcaucasian Trail

Start Chuberi, Georgia

Finish Ushguli, Georgia

Distance 135km

Duration Six to eight days

‘Have you ever wondered how a long-distance trail comes into being? Sometimes they evolve organically, becoming popular after a travel writer or film points the way, but more often they’re developed over a long period of time – deliberately, methodically, and with a lot of hard work. Such is the case with the Transcaucasian Trail (TCT). This ambitious project, begun in 2015, aims to create a world-class long-distance trail network more than 3,000km in length, following the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains throughout Armenia and Georgia. Though it will be many years before completion, one of the finest sections, through the Upper Svaneti Valley in Georgia, is already open to hikers.

The Greater Caucasus is a vast and very wild range of mountains spanning several different countries. These peaks are significantly higher than the Alps – Elbrus, at 5,642 metres (18,511ft), is the highest mountain in Europe – and they are very different in geology, natural history and culture. This is one of the most diverse regions in the world. Hikers who are used to the Alps will find a radically different experience here.’

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Kungsleden
Photograph: Lizzie Shepherd

Kungsleden

Start Abisko, Sweden

Finish Hemavan, Sweden

Distance 440km

Duration 21 to 28 days

‘There’s something understandably intimidating about the idea of hiking north of the Arctic Circle. It’s easy to visualise hardcore expeditions involving sleds, endless snow and more risk than most hikers are willing to take on. However, there’s a lot more to the Arctic than the polar ice, and happily one of Europe’s best long-distance trails is an Arctic route suitable for the intermediate backpacker. It just happens to visit some of the finest wild mountain country in Europe, and if you’re into big routes in wilderness areas, the Kungsleden (King’s Trail) should be on your wish list.

During the Arctic summer, the mountains of Swedish Lapland shed most of their snow and experience a whirlwind spring. Flowers sprout, the forests turn green, and for a while, the sun turns above the horizon for 24 hours a day. This is prime hiking time above the Arctic Circle. The terrain and weather aren’t too different from what you’d experience in Scotland, and, in fact, many backpackers who started out on Scottish routes such as the West Highland Way and Cape Wrath Trail, have eventually taken the next step to Arctic Scandinavia. Imagine the Scottish Highlands, but bigger, more remote and with higher mountains.’

The Hornstrandir Trail
Photograph: Lisa Germany

The Hornstrandir Trail

Start Hesteyri, Iceland

Finish Veiðileysufjörður, Iceland

Distance 54km

Duration Four days

‘Iceland has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best places in the world for otherworldly mountain landscapes, wilderness and wildlife. It’s also a superb hiking destination. While the Laugavegur Trail is the classic trek on every hiker’s wish list, the opportunities for multi-day walks on Iceland are almost limitless, and the Hornstrandir Peninsula offers more esoteric charms. Although there are no formal long-distance trails in this nature reserve, hikers have been coming here in small numbers for decades, and there are now several loosely established trails on the peninsula.

Hornstrandir is Iceland’s northernmost peninsula, jutting out into the Westfjords – a landscape of low mountains, fjords and vast open spaces. There is no road access, which means that the only way of getting to Hornstrandir is by ferry from Ísafjörður, which is itself a 40-minute flight from Reykjavik. Some of the return ferries – such as the one back from Veiðileysufjörður, the endpoint of your journey – require booking in advance.

The walking here offers a real feeling of adventure and isolation, although there is just enough infrastructure in the form of trails and established campgrounds to make it a feasible proposition for intermediate hikers. And while the weather even in summer can be challenging, there are no large mountains or glaciers to negotiate.’

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The Mercantour Traverse
Photograph: Alex Roddie

The Mercantour Traverse

Start Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée, France

Finish Menton, France

Distance 188km

Duration Eight to nine days

‘When viewed from space, the Alps form a great arc spreading from Vienna to Monaco, and in the extreme southwestern corner reside the Maritime Alps – a compact range straddling the border between France and Italy. These mountains are lower and sunnier than their Swiss counterparts, and in most cases, a little friendlier to hikers as well. Although there are a few glaciers, they’re small, hidden against the north faces of major peaks, and don’t tend to get in your way. If you’re looking for a challenge, however, you’ll still be able to find one.

The best corner of the Maritime Alps is arguably the Mercantour National Park. With its beautiful landscapes, diverse flora and fauna, and traditional way of life, it offers a glimpse at what the more popular areas of the Alps might be like without the crowds. There’s just enough tourist infrastructure to make it a convenient destination for hiking, but it’s quiet enough to feel truly wild in places. And the scenery is, of course, second to none.’

The Harz Border Trail
Photograph: Sebastian Berbalk

The Harz Border Trail

Start Hornburg, Germany

Finish Tettenborn, Germany

Distance 97km

Duration Five to six days

‘For decades, the iron curtain carved Europe in half. Now nature is bouncing back. The European Green Belt initiative, which began in 2003, has created a habitat corridor stretching over 12,500km from the Black Sea to the Barents Sea. The strip of land once used to separate East from West went uncultivated and undisturbed for decades, giving wildlife free rein of the area. Now it forms a nature corridor linking areas of biodiversity along the entire length of the former iron curtain.

Unsurprisingly, the Green Belt has attracted cyclists and, especially, hikers. One of the best sections of Germany’s Green Belt is known as the Harz Border Trail. This 97km route bisects the Harz Mountains – a region of forested uplands including the summit of the Brocken, one of Northern Germany’s most beloved mountains. The area is popular among hikers, with a network of basic wooden shelters and plenty of villages for resting and resupplying. Thanks to the relatively easy terrain, this is a straightforward long-distance walk suitable for relative beginners. The Harz Mountains also have a system of hiking awards known as the Harzer Wandernadel. At 20 checkpoints you can collect stamps for your passbook; collect them all and you can claim a Harz Border Trail pin.’

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The Mettelhorn
Photograph: Alex Roddie

The Mettelhorn

Start / Finish Zermatt, Switzerland

Distance 18km

Duration Nine to ten hours

‘Hiking in the high Alps generally sticks to the lower foothills, passes and valleys. The Swiss landscape throws up countless insurmountable barriers to hikers, from glaciers to towering 4,000m peaks, and there’s generally a clear divide between walking and alpinism. However, in a few places it is possible for mortals to get up close to the high-altitude jewels in Switzerland’s crown, and Mettelhorn is one such place.

Depending on your point of view, Mettelhorn is either the easiest mountain in Zermatt’s Mattertal valley or the hardest. Climbers with ambitions on peaks such as the Matterhorn or Lyskamm will see Mettelhorn as a useful training climb to test their fitness and start the process of acclimatising their bodies to high altitudes. Hikers will view it as a challenging peak in its own right, perhaps the climax of a walking holiday in the area. However you approach this mountain, it’s a well-deserved classic and a must-do objective.’

The Slovene Mountain Trail
Photograph: Ash Bhardwaj

The Slovene Mountain Trail

Start Maribor, Slovenia

Finish Ankaran, Slovenia

Distance Up to 617km

Duration Up to 37 days

‘The Slovene Mountain Trail, also known as the Transverzala, is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the European Alps, and it fully deserves its classic status. Although Slovenia is a small country, it contains a vast range of landscapes: forests, rural farmland, limestone karst and the peaks of the Julian Alps. It’s also one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, with 90 percent of its land area above the 300-metre contour.

Within Slovenia’s compact landscape, there is some truly magnificent hiking, and it’s as accessible as any you’ll find, with a good network of huts and comprehensive waymarking. The trail connects 55 mountain huts, 23 peaks and five towns. The diversity of this trail is reflected in its varying levels of difficulty. Some sections are straightforward, while others, typically in the high mountains, are much more difficult. Some climbs even involve via ferrata (exposed rock faces protected by ironwork, requiring safety gear and a head for heights to cross).’

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The GR20
Photograph: Chris Townsend

The GR20

Start Calenzana, Corsica, France

Finish Conca, Corsica, France

Distance 180km

Duration 12 to 16 days

‘The GR20, traversing the Mediterranean island of Corsica from north to south, is one of the world’s best multi-day hikes. It has a ferocious reputation, too, and while you’ll often find the GR20 on lists of ‘Europe’s toughest trails’, fit and prepared hikers who have spent time scrambling up and down big mountains will find it well within their capabilities. The terrain’s rough, but this is no rock climb. The trail is well marked and there are regular options for accommodations and resupplying.

This hike is about one thing: mountains. The goal is to spend as much time up high in rugged, awe-inspiring scenery as possible. With its sunny Mediterranean climate and acres of rocky ridges and cirques to explore, the GR20 is a paradise for the mountain-loving trekker. Like many of the GR (Grande Randonnée) paths, the GR20 has lots of optional variants and side trails; while the classic trek takes about a fortnight, those wishing to take their time could add several days to create a more varied itinerary. There are also lower-level options that take some of the sting out of the route. However, to get the full GR20 experience, you’ll want to stay high.’

‘Wanderlust Europe: The Great European Hike’ is published by Gestalten.

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