We’re lucky in Europe, with some of the most varied and visually dynamic countryside and mountain ranges on the planet. Although the altitude might not be world beating, the visuals absolutely are.
From the rugged and eerie beauty of the Scottish coast through the broadband splendour of the French Alps, to the exquisite Picos de Europa, there is literally something here for everyone. These are the best hikes in Europe.
How to prepare for your hiking trip
The preparation for some of these routes has already filled many a book, but preparedness is a state of mind, they say, so general tips apply. Make sure you have the skills and equipment for your chosen route (often crampons and an axe are a good idea), and do a course if you have any doubts. General fitness is always a good thing to have in hand in advance, and make sure those hiking boots are broken in well – even wearing them on the commute is a good idea if you’re short on time.
Getting the miles in with your chosen rucksack is also key to avoid unexpected hotspots, and once you’ve found your perfect boot/hiking sock combo get a few pairs of the latter – a fresh pair of socks can feel like the ultimate in luxury after a few days on your feet. Elsewhere on the kit front we'd recommend investing in one of the best waterproof jackets, to keep you protected and try in unpredictable weather, and a pair of walking trousers or dedicated hiking leggings to keep you comfy and moving freely. Even if you plan to stick to marked trails, a map (and GPS) are essential backups, as are emergency contact details for the country you’re in.
Finally, don’t be tempted to carry too much ‘stuff’ just in case it comes in handy – a heavy pack will make all these routes into an endurance test rather than fun, which is hopefully what you’ll have, in absolute spades. Enjoy!
1. Mt Buet, Aiguille Rouges, France
There are many beautiful sights to behold in the Chamonix valley, dominated by the dome of Mt Blanc and in the shadow of the spires of Les Drus, an area that has been drawing the tourist crowds for centuries.
However, rather than the highly popular and often busy Tour De Mont Blanc route that follows the valley, slide off to complete the Tour De Aiguilles Rouges, a four/five day hut-to-hut meander that culminates in the rugged 3096m Mt Buet.
The views are wall-to-wall alpine mountains of the highest calibre, interspersed with chocolate box villages. Easy access via Geneva airport and shuttle bus makes this an ideal long weekend trek in the summer.
2. Haute Route, Zermatt-Chamonix, France/Switzerland
If the Chamonix valley doesn’t hold enough excitement for you, then perhaps the Haute Route (high road) will provide enough excitement. Instead of looking at the scenery you’ll be right in it on this 10-12 day mission encompassing 10 out of 12 high alpine peaks and 112 miles.
There is a ski-touring variation in more wintry conditions, and you’ll need to be fit, acclimatised to altitude and competent crossing glaciers with crampons and axe. However, the reward will be memories to last a lifetime.
Access either via Chamonix as above, or Zermatt in Switzerland.
3. Barre des Ecrins from La Bérarde, France
Heading south for the summer, the hike up into the hanging valley of Vallon du Borne Pierre beneath Europe's southernmost +4000m peak is a shorter affair, but no less impressive.
Notching up more than 1000m of vertical ascent, the latter part switchbacking up a steep moraine (Glacier de Borne Pierre), this is a strenuous but impressive day hike out of the scenic base of La Berarde, itself on the very doorstep of the stunning Ecrins national park.
Access is relatively easy, with shuttle buses running from Grenoble Isère airport and Lyon.
4. GR20, Corsica
The mighty GR20 crosses Corsica diagonally, running some 180 km in total and passing through some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in Europe. It’s a real challenge too, with nineteen thousand metres of ascent and descent, spread over around 15 days with more than six hours walking each day - not for the unfit or faint-hearted.
The trail is split into two broad sections, north and south, the northern section being more challenging and mountainous. The Cirque de la Solitude section, involving chain-equipped near vertical descents, is worth saving some courage for.
Best as a summer trek, when a string of mountain huts and refuges will be open (book ahead) and therefore you’ll have water and sleeping space for the duration, although food is a mixed bag. The route is passable in winter, but as a self-supported ski-touring expedition.
Access to the Northern starting point, Calenzana, is by bus from Sainte Catherine Aeroport.
5. Helvellyn, Lake District, UK
Helvellyn holds an almost mystical place in the UK mountains. Without being the tallest or the hardest, it’s well regarded, especially when ascended via Striding Edge, a spectacular affair culminating in a narrow and breezy ridge.
A mere seven and a half-odd miles and just under 1000m of ascent might make this seem like an easy option, but do not be fooled, this is proper mountain walking. As in many other UK classic ridge escapades (such as The Cuillin and Aonach Eagach) there are short downclimbs, but these can be avoided if required via small paths that jink around the crest.
However, these paths can prove more challenging than the crest itself, so sometimes honesty is the best policy. The easiest access is by car, from the pay and display car park in Glenridding, but train then bus from Penrith is possible.
6. Southern Upland Way, UK's first official coast to coast hike
One of the UK’s best kept walking secrets, the Southern Upland Way runs coast to coast for an epic full length of 212 miles, or 12 to 16 day’s hiking, from Portpatrick on the south-west coast of Scotland to Cockburnspath on the east.
While the full distance may be a big challenge, the route can be broken down into shorter stretches that would suit families or others short on time, as it is all about immersive rolling hills rather than abrupt summits - classical hillwalking, in other words.
There is a huge selection of accommodation along the route, from camping to high-end hotels, so book ahead and book tactically - hot showers are less of a luxury than you’d think after a long day, such as S St John’s Town of Dalry to Sanquhar, which is a chunky 25 miles.
7. The Central Picos Circuit, Picos de Europa, Spain
Finally, take a tour through the rugged limestone of the Picos de Europa mountain range, one of the last remaining genuine wildernesses in Europe - there are wild bears and wolves, so watch your food!
The jewel in the crown of the extensive Picos de Europa area is the Central Picos Circuit a five or six day ramble combining the Central Picos Transverse with the Cares George and the Jermoso Transverse, giving you an astounding week of hut-to-hut walking (refugios) in alpine meadows, steep limestone crags and beech woods that is without doubt among the highest quality alpine walking anywhere in Europe.
There are several variants for those who would rather camp than use the huts, depending on budget and willingness to carry equipment. Access is via the town of Cangas de Onís, from which a bus runs to the trailhead at Ercina Lake.
Lead image credit: Getty