Hungry For Vert? These 6 Steep Hikes Have Brag-Worthy Elevation Gain (2024)

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Casual lakeside strolls and meadow walks may be idyllic, but sometimes it’s nice to feel the burn. I’m talking about those arduous ascents that make your calves scream, rocky staircases that feel like they’ll never end, and lofty peaks that put your lungs to the test. The struggle is worth it when you’re rewarded with unreal views and hard-earned summit solitude.

Are you up to the challenge? Grab your trekking poles and find your inner strength on these steep hikes across the country.

Cactus to Clouds Trail, California

Trail Type: Point-to-Point

It ain’t called cactus to clouds for nothin’—this strenuous climb ascends from the desert floor in downtown Palm Springs to the top of Mt. San Jacinto, the second-highest peak in southern California. The 21-mile trek begins on the southern border of the San Gorgonio Pass, winding over technical, boulder-strewn terrain. As you walk, you’ll find the trail flanked with desert agave, California junipers, and thick stands of Ponderosa pine.

Knees not what they used to be? Avoid the hike down by catching the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway—the world’s largest rotating tram car. The 10-minute lift to the bottom affords riders non-stop views of Chino Canyon’s dramatic cliffs. Pro tip: Temperatures in the high country of the San Jacinto Wilderness rise to dangerous levels (110 to 120 degrees) in summer; hike this trail in early spring or between late September and early October to avoid heat exhaustion and other dangers.

Manitou Incline, Colorado

Trail Type: Out-and-Back

Like a stairmaster but outdoors, this local testpiece takes on 2,744 steps and 2,000 feet of elevation gain in under 1 mile. The glute-busting climb follows a straight and narrow stairway up the eastern flank of Pikes Peak, an iconic Colorado 14er. To do the iconic 4.5-mile round trip hike, start at the Hiawatha Gardens parking lot. After about 1.3 miles, you’ll find yourself at the base of the Incline, where you’ll begin the famously grueling climb. (Don’t worry:If you get partway up and realize you’ve slacked on your uphill training , there’s a bailout point onto the Barr Trail about two-thirds of the way up the staircase.) At the top of the Incline, be sure to drink in the view. Then, follow the scenic 3.2-mile descent down the Barr Trail back to the trailhead.

Those eager for more elevation can continue to the top of Pikes Peak—adding 12 miles and 7,900 feet of elevation gain (one way). Note: Climbing down the Manitou Incline’s staircase is highly discouraged, so plan to hike back via the Barr Trail.

Hungry For Vert? These 6 Steep Hikes Have Brag-Worthy Elevation Gain (1)

Mt. Si Trail, Washington

Trail Type: Out-and-Back

Fan of switchbacks? This hike was made for you. The 8-mile, round-trip trek to the top of Mt. Si tests hikers with 3,200 feet of vertical climbing. The Goldilocks of steep trails, Mt. Si Trail is neither too strenuous or too easy—it hits that sweet spot of constant but achievable burn. That makes it a popular choice for novice hikers looking for a solid challenge, as well as more experienced hikers training for summits like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood.

Although the views along the route are obstructed by dense Douglas fir and western hemlock, wildlife are still easy to spot. Keep watch for native mountain goats on the steep cliffs, as well as black bears, elks, cougars, and coyotes prowling through the forest. But on clear days, true reward awaits at the top: The Cascades, Snoqualmie Valley, and Mt. Rainier are all visible from the summit.

Wildcat Mountain, New Hampshire

Trail Type: Out-and-Back

Summit five peaks in one fell swoop on this trek to Wildcat Mountain, one of the most popular and most rugged New England 4,000-footers. Following Wildcat Ridge, hikers will summit Wildcat’s E, D, C, and B summits before reaching the route’s highest peak, Wildcat A. The first mile challenges hikers to a strenuous start with 1,300 feet of elevation gain to the summit of 4,062-foot Wildcat D.

If you’ve got more time, consider a backpacking loop: Ambitious peakbaggers can continue on for the nearby Pemi Loop Trail—a grueling 32-mile loop that circles the western half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The route connects eight 4,000-footers: Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, South Twin, Bond, and Bondcliff.

Devil’s Path Trail, New York

Trail Type: Point-to-Point

Go toe-to-toe with the Devil in the Catskills. The treacherous Devil’s Path Trail lives up to its name for its steep ascents, rocky scrambles, and devilishly demanding terrain. East Coasters consistently call this trail one of the hardest trails east of the Mississippi River. Thru-hikers will bag five peaks as they cross the Catskill High Peaks. The trail’s steepest section—a 1,700-foot climb up Sugarloaf Mountain—rewards the bold with expansive views across the forested Catskills and verdant Indian Head Wilderness. If fall color is more your vibe, target the second week of October for peak foliage.

Hikers also have the option to extend their trip by linking up with the 23-mile Escarpment Trail near the eastern terminus of the Devil’s Path Trail. This addition adds an extra 5,000 feet of elevation and turns the hike into a 50-mile journey.

Cavanal Hill, Oklahoma

Trail Type: Out-and-Back

There’s only so much elevation you can clock within the Great Plains. But Oklahomans and visitors alike can take pride in completing the famous almost-5-mile trip up the “Cavanal Hill Killer.” Topping out at 1,999 feet from sea level, “The World’s Highest Hill” is a mere one foot shy from earning a mountain designation. Yet despite its official status, it offers mountain-level views: On clear days, summiters can see the Poteau River Valley as well as the Ouachita and Kiamichi mountain ranges. There’s no official hiking trail to the top of Cavanal Hill. Instead, walk to the summit via a blacktop road that leads to the top—an accessible climb for folks on feet or wheels.

From 2024

Hungry For Vert? These 6 Steep Hikes Have Brag-Worthy Elevation Gain (2024)


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