While tourism as we know it today is a relatively new concept, travelers around the world have been undertaking walking pilgrimages for millennia. In fact, going on pilgrimage was the often the only opportunity people ever had to leave their native villages.
Mormon Pioneer Trail, USA
In the mid-1800’s, members of Joseph Smith’s Mormon church were forced to head into the west to find a new home. Mormons followed a 1,300-kilometre trail through five states on their way to a new home in modern-day Salt Lake City. The going was tough, and pioneers passed through difficult but stunning terrain, including Bear River, a massive gorge cut into surrounding cliffs by the Sweet water River. These days, some spots on the trail make for popular pilgrimages. However, many sections of the trail are eminently hikeable and bikeable and are frequented by adventure enthusiasts who enjoy a bit of cultural history alongside natural beauty.
Via Francigena, France & Italy
The Vatican in Italy has long been a beacon for Christian pilgrims, and its star has hardly dimmed in recent years. Naturally, Rome is far more easily accessible these days as compared with the Middle Ages. But back then, it wasn’t as difficult as you might think. The Romans were famous for their roads, and the Via Francigena (“the road that comes from France”) was a well-traveled, well-maintained route. Pilgrims would come to see the Holy See and its various treasures, but the journey was impressive in equal measure. Today, you can hike the entire route, which officially begins in the English town of Canterbury, just like the pilgrims of yore.
St. Olav’s Way, Norway
If you’re pressed for time when following St. Olav’s Way, you can always take the train. But the 640-kilometer route is best walked with plenty of time in hand in order to enjoy Norway’s natural and often secluded natural scenery. Tracing the route of medieval European pilgrims to the tomb of St. Olav in Trondheim, the trail is more difficult than the popular Camino de Santiago in Spain, but often more rewarding. The Nidaros Cathedral, the endpoint of the journey, is worth the effort in itself, though the difficulty often inspires a spiritual sense of accomplishment, too.
Camino de Santiago, Spain
Otherwise known as the “”Way of St. James”, the Camino de Santiago is one of the most famous Christian pilgrimages. Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists trace one of the many paths from trailheads throughout Western Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, following routes that date back to the Middle Ages. The pilgrimage takes anywhere from weeks to months to complete, ultimately cutting through rural northern Spain. Pilgrims follow the famous scallop shell symbol on signposts along well-marked routes.
For Christians and non believers alike, the Camino is extremely popular: almost 300,000 pilgrims were issued a certificate of completion (a compostela) in 2010.