The European continent is made up of fifty countries that span 3,930,000 square miles (10,180,000 square kilometers) and are home to about 741 million people. But although Europe is densely populated and extensively developed, it is home to some of the finest backcountry hiking in the world. Well-worn and well-marked paths criss-cross the continent, like Europe’s long-distance path network. In this article, we cover seven of the finest trails for a European hiking adventure.
View of Mont Blanc
1. Tour du Mont Blanc
For decades, hikers have been circumambulating the Mont Blanc massif, trekking through lush Alpine meadows and crossing high mountain passes. The conditions on the Tour du Mont Blanc require would-be trekkers to be in good physical shape and strong of will. The combined elevation change is 32,736 feet (9,978 meters), which is more than Mt. Everest is tall. The trail circles the EU’s highest mountain from France’s Chamonix to Italy’s Courmayeur and back, with a little dip into Swiss territory. The TMB can only be hiked from late June to September, when snow and ice have cleared from the trails. Go in late June to see dazzling wildflowers, or in September to avoid the July and August crowds. Remember, it’s one of the most popular long-distance hiking trails in Europe. A standard itinerary is 12 nights and 11 stages, with an average daily hike of a bit less than 10 miles (16 km), enough to conquer with a moderate amount of training. The TMB offers a mix of boutique hotels and mountain refuges and ample access to food, enough to satisfy even the pickiest trekker.
Scottish highlands on the West Highland Way
2. West Highland Way
The West Highland Way is one of Europe’s youngest and most accessible long-distance hikes. With a trailhead in Milngavie (pronounced “mull-guy”), one of Glasgow’s suburbs, the WHW is a mere 30 minutes from Glasgow’s airport. The trail winds nearly 96 miles from the Scottish lowlands to the rugged highlands on centuries-old trails formerly used by shepherds, soldiers, and stagecoaches. Total elevation change is nothing like some other trails on this list, but the constant ups-and-downs of some stages can be a real challenge to unprepared hikers. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to recover with a pint (or two). Soon after leaving Milngavie, the countryside opens up to the lochs, moors, and mountains for which Scotland is famous. Hikers walk the forested shores of Loch Lomond, traipse through the swampy Rannoch Moor, and climb the Devil’s Staircase to the top of Aonach Eagach, the highest point of the WHW at 1,804 feet (550 meters). The hike terminates at Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain at 4,411 feet (1,345 meters) tall. Hike anytime between April and November, but be aware that midges are out in full force in July and August.
Corsican mountains seen from the GR20
Running north to south on the island of Corsica, the historic homeland of Napoleon Bonaparte, the GR20 is known as one of the top trails in the world, and one of the most difficult in Europe. The GR20 follows the central, mountainous ridge of the island, challenging hikers with a combined elevation gain and loss of 34,500 feet (10,500 meters), almost 2,000 feet more than on the TMB. The terrain of the GR20 is reminiscent of hikes winding through the Alps: rugged pine forests, steep and rocky slopes, and crystalline high-elevation pools. And just like in the Alps, refugios dot the GR20, offering trekkers a place to resupply and recharge. Despite the warm Mediterranean sun, the high mountain passes of Corsica are usually snow-covered and unpassable until early June. July and August are the most popular months for the GR20, but also the hottest. September has become a favorite for hikers, as services are still available, but the heat and crowds have lessened.
Sunrise on the Camino de Santiago
4. Camino Francés (El Camino de Santiago)
The Camino Francés is one of Europe’s best-loved hiking trails and a part of the larger Camino de Santiago, one of the most important pilgrimages in the Catholic tradition. The routes of the Camino have been traveled by Christian pilgrims for over 1,000 years, and before that by pagan tribes who came seeking land’s end. In the past, there was no single pilgrimage route. Those who walked the Santiago de Compostela started and ended their pilgrimages at their own front door. According to the Pilgrim's Office of Santiago Cathedral, there is still no set starting point to the Camino; a pilgrimage can start anywhere in the world, so long as it is completed on foot, horseback, or bicycle. The official Camino Francés route begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, and runs 481.5 miles (775 km) through the vast plains and rolling mountains of the Spanish countryside. The Camino Francés is also one of Europe’s best-developed trails, and hikers can find food, water, and accommodation around every bend. The mild Spanish weather means that hiking season lasts from May until October. Some hikers choose to travel in winter, when the trails are less busy, but Camino winter can be very wet, snowy, and cold.
5. Alta Via 1
The bare, rocky peaks of the Dolomites rise dramatically from their forest-covered bases, standing in stark contrast to the surrounding countryside. The Dolomites, in the far northeast of Italy, are part of the larger Alpine mountain range, but locals consider them to be their own mountain range. Like the Alps, the Dolomites are host to a spiderwork of trails, specifically the eight alta vie, or “high trails.” Of these, the Alta Via 1 has emerged as the hiker’s favorite. The Alta Via 1 climbs steep mountain passes, crosses sweeping meadows, and skirts clear, blue lakes. It is rated as difficult because of the rocky and sometimes treacherous terrain, the sharp elevation gains and losses, and exposure to the elements. Just over one hundred years ago, many parts of this route were impassable, as they formed the boundary between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in World War I. The land mines have been removed, but hikers will have to watch out for cow patties left behind by cattle summering in the high meadows. Trails in the Dolomites are closed off for most of the year by snow and ice, only opening from June until September, which, coincidentally, is the same time the mountain rifugios open. Hikers are recommended to learn some Italian or some German to get by up here, because English is not always guaranteed.
6. Walker’s Haute Route
The Walker’s Haute Route shares much in common with the more popular Tour de Mont Blanc. Both begin in Chamonix, France, at the base of Mont Blanc, but while the TMB circles back around to its point of origin, the Walker’s Haute Route continues east, further and higher into Switzerland. The Walker’s Haute Route is a more demanding trek than the TMB in terms of length, elevation change, and terrain. The combined elevation change here is over 6,500 feet more than on the TMB, for a total of 39,730 feet (12,000 meters). Hikers on the Walker’s Haute Route will cross eleven mountain passes in total, some of which are steep, treacherous, and better off bypassed in inclement weather. Of the twelve highest peaks in the Alps, the Walker’s Haute Route passes under ten, and ends in Zermatt, at the foot of Europe’s most recognizable mountain, the Matterhorn. As with other hikes in the region, the best time of the year to hike the Walker’s Haute Route is from June until September, with the most popular month being August.
The Laugavegurinn, or Laugavegur Trail, is Iceland’s most famous hiking trail. Originating in Landmannalaugar in the Icelandic highlands, the Laugavegurinn runs north to south through a kaleidoscope of psychedelic green meadows, steaming hot springs, black volcanic rock, massive glaciers, and rainbow mountains. The landscapes of Iceland can seem alien at times. They are desolate and eerily beautiful. The Laugavegurinn is a mere 34 miles long, but the extreme nature of Iceland will challenge hikers. Iceland is not known for good weather in general, but out in the highlands the weather changes are taken to a new extreme. Bring gear for bad weather. The lack of trees, and therefore lack of cover, puts hikers at the mercy of the elements. Hikers might catch a glimpse of herds of Icelandic horses galloping across the countryside; farmers let their horses run free during the summer months, gathering them at the end of the season and sorting them off to their respective owners. The Laugavegurinn terminates in Thorsmork, a green and fertile valley at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and brought air traffic across Europe to a halt.
The Right Hike for You
With so many world-class hikes to choose from, picking the right one can be just as hard as finishing it. Think about your fitness level and preferred environment: Do you want to walk rolling hills or pump up and down mountain passes? Pine forests and crystal lakes or geysers and volcanic plains? Lochs and moors or peaks and shores? No matter your preference, our team of experts is happy to help you find the dream trek that fits your budget and time constraints. Feel free to give us a call at 1-414-377-3555 or send us an e-mail any time. We look forward to hearing from you and helping to plan your next adventure.