If you want to spend time in the great outdoors without stepping too far off the cultural path, consider planning a hike around a historical event or campaign. Hitting a well-beaten trail will give you a glimpse of centuries past alongside the beauty of the land, and you’re likely to meet some interesting people along the way. Historic trails can range from flat to mountainous, short trips to multi-day affairs, but each will offer a special brand of excitement and curiosity. Here are some particularly remarkable treks that promise a rich and fulfilling experience.
1. El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James)
A particularly well-known pilgrimage, but the popularity of El Camino doesn’t weaken the spirit of the trek. In fact, the path marked by the shell symbol (more accurately, any of several paths) that winds across the north of Spain to the shrine of Apostle St. James the Great offers an excellent mix of community and spiritual reflection. This was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, but given that it has carried on each and every year since its inception, you will be walking in the steps of countless famous and infamous pilgrims that have gone before you.
On the edge of Scotland sits Iona, an island with a rich and creative history stretching back through the Early Christian era and into the Iron Age. The story of the Irish prince Columba brings many visitors to this little perch off the western coast: in 563, he settled the island with a group of monks where they founded a missionary outreach that become the center of Celtic Christianity. You can still see parts of the earth wall and ditch that enclosed Columba’s settlement. It’s a fairly small island, and certainly mild in terms of hiking, so plan to visit some other highland trails (like the West Highland Way) if you’re after a longer hike.
2. Hadrian’s Wall Path
Considered to be one of the best walks in the UK, the path along the ancient Roman fortification highlights the beautiful ruggedness of northern England and the important cultural heritage of the region. The wall was erected in the 3rd century AD to keep the Pictish Scots out of Northern England, and despite the expected erosion, some parts of the wall still stand. Expect to see remains of forts and castles along the path, including the impressive Roman fort of Segedunum. This is a pretty popular site in the summer months, but it’s certainly worth seeing, even if you choose not to hike all 135 km.
3. North Drakensburg Traverse
If archeological history piques your interest, consider this trek over the mountainous region that divides South Africa and Lesotho. Reserved for the truly adventurous history buff, this trail is long and demanding, but the rewards are singular. The main historical interest is in the caves, especially the Cannibal Cave, where the persecuted San people left behind cave paintings expressing their connection to this land.
4. Inca Trail
The Inca road system is a lasting monument to the Pre-Colombian society of South America, and the trail to Machu Picchu in Peru is the most notable (and cherished) of all. Inca trade, military and transportation relied on these roads, and the summits of the mountains were reserved for religious rituals and sacrifice. If you take the road to Machu Picchu, you may have to share the path with a number of other tourists, but you’ll be rewarded with a view of the ancient royal Inca estate.
There are amazing hiking, walking and biking trails all over the world, and they’re often the most affordable way to get the best views and interesting information. Look into guided tours around your destination, or ask locals about the best places to walk. You may find a hidden gem that takes you off the tourist track and into a new cultural perspective.