6 Spiritual Adventures to Challenge the Mind and Body

July 9, 2017

A quiet walk in the woods can be a spiritual experience, and countless hikers head to redwood groves and high places to find a sense of awe. But if following a dirt track is a kind of prayer—the hypnotizing rhythm of feet and breath an ancient song—some trails are true religious pilgrimages, routes laid down by the faithful.

From the high peaks of South Korea to an Irish landscape of heather and bogs, these hikes draw believers from around the world, following paths trod by Christian pilgrims, Buddhist monks, and Celtic pagans. And whether they sleep in historic abbeys or under the stars, devotees hike in a long tradition of spiritual seekers in the wilderness. With wild beauty and fascinating culture, these trails call even secular trekkers to make the journey, pulling on their boots for the hike of a lifetime.

Croagh Patrick, Ireland

Ireland’s patron saint fasted for 40 days on the peak of this gentle mountain, which overlooks fields of heather, bogs, and the islands of Clew Bay—it’s also the mythical site where he banished the snakes from Ireland. More than 25,000 Catholic faithful follow in his footsteps on the yearly Reek Sunday walk, hiking up the slopes of Croagh Patrick to a small summit chapel.

But when Saint Patrick came to the mountain in 441 A.D., Croagh Patrick had already had been a pilgrimage place for thousands of years. Archeologists have unearthed the ruins of a Celtic fort that once stood watch over the peak, and Ireland’s pagans once gathered here to reach pre-Christian spirits and celebrate Lughnasa, an exuberant Gaelic kickoff to each year’s harvest season.

El Camini De Santiago, Spain

Winding through the French Pyrenees, then skirting the northern edge of the Iberian Peninsula, pilgrims have walked to Santiago de Compostela for at least 11 centuries. Not that they’ve followed a single path—what’s now known as the El Camino de Santiago has braided and split throughout the years, worn into the earth by Christian pilgrims from across the continent.

The end of their long walk was the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, believed by some to hold the remains of St. James the Apostle. And just as in the early days of Catholic pilgrimage, many hikers on the Camino stay in a series of albergues, or shelters, often in monasteries and converted churches. But the rewards aren’t strictly spiritual. The city is also known for its signature almond cake, which is topped with a sugary cross of St. James.

Kumano Kodo, Japan

Nestled into the peaks of the Kii Mountains, a trio of grand shrines bring Japan’s Buddhists to the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage, following paths walked by monks and emperors for more than a 1,000 years. But the region’s spiritual significance pre-dates the 6th-century arrival of Buddhism in Japan, with evidence that it’s been a sacred place for nature worshippers since pre-historic times.

Now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the grand shrines of Kumano blend Buddhism with Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, and the trail is lined with small Oji shrines that house local deities and offer welcome respite for walking pilgrims.

And in a twist that’s a tidy fit for Japan’s complex religious traditions, there’s no one trail that defines the Kumano pilgrimage. Travelers can choose from four main routes that cut through the mountains or along the coast, passing through traditional villages, towering bamboo forests, and rice paddies along the way.

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