Like something out of an action move, via ferratas—systems of fixed routes of ropes, ladders, and suspended bridges—were originally designed to connect isolated villages in the European Alps. These high-altitude ropes courses proliferated during World War I as a way to ease Italian and Austrian soldiers’ movements through steep terrain. In the decades that followed, local mountaineering clubs restored many of these “iron roads,” replacing ropes with steel cables and flimsy wooden ladders with iron rungs.
The routes have since become popular with hikers who want to explore the mountains but lack the skills and gear to safely tackle technical climbing routes. Rather than carry cumbersome ropes and place gear as they go, climbers on a via ferrata wear harnesses and use carabiners and dynamic (shock-absorbing) ropes to “clip in” to the fixed system of cables.
These types of fixed routes are now being built on almost every continent and functioning as vertical playgrounds for experienced climbers and neophyte thrill-seekers alike. Each course is tailored to its landscape and all promise plenty of bird’s-eye views from adrenaline-pumping vantages.
Here are a few of our favorites—from historic iron roads to newfangled record-setters—and where to find them.
The Italian Dolomites
The Dolomites, a chain of 18 peaks in the northern Italian Alps, are a via ferrata paradise. The region is full of sheer cliff faces that tower over narrow valleys and bring out a traveler’s aspiring mountaineer. Some of the routes up 10,968-foot Marmolada mountain date back to the early 1900s and can take around 13 hours round-trip. The half-mile Via Ferrata delle Trincee is dotted with great views and the remains of WWI-era Austrian military outposts. With more than 200 routes to choose from in the region, it’s worth hiring an experienced guide service to help you design a single- or multi-day adventure.
United Arab Emirates
Just 90 minutes from Dubai’s skyscrapers and neon lights, you’ll find the striated red sandstone of Jebel Jais. The 6,300-foot mountain is the tallest in the United Arab Emirates and boasts the country’s only via ferrata. Book a guided tour with Jebel Jais Ras Al Khaimah to scramble over boulders, shimmy up rock faces 230 feet above the closest ledge, and thrice traverse the mountainside via zip line. The route—which runs for almost two-thirds of a mile—takes approximately four hours to complete and was the first iron road in the Middle East.
Note: This route is closed for the summer—winter season dates will be announced soon. Check here for updates.
British Columbia, Canada
British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains are littered with jagged rock faces, small waterfalls, mammoth glaciers, and a few via ferratas. The Mount Nimbus via ferrata—North America’s longest—is a six-hour adventure that starts with a helicopter ride. En route to the 9,000-foot summit, climbers follow paths of iron rungs along ridges thousands of feet above the ground and cross a wood plank suspension bridge that stretches 200 feet through the open air. CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures offers multi-day, all-inclusive trips.
Wanaka, New Zealand
Wildwire Wanaka, the world’s highest waterfall via ferrata system, towers above an emerald valley in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Expert guides lead climbers along the three routes. Of the three, Go Wild is best for beginners and Wild Thing is suitable for intermediate climbers. On the most difficult, Lord of the Rungs, the fit and fearless ascend 1,000 feet to the top of Twin Falls. The climb—which includes 2,500 ladder rungs, a three-wire bridge, a Tyrolean traverse, and a helicopter descent—takes about seven hours and requires grit and a willingness to get wet.
Todgha Gorge, Morocco
In Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, the 500-foot russet cliffs of Todgha Gorge face off across a 33-foot-wide dry riverbed. Here, the Maghreb’s first and only iron road is a climbable work in progress. Julio Soares of Aventures Verticales—a guide service that rents safety gear—developed the course and has plans to expand it. The open section climbs to almost 400 feet high, traverses more than 600 feet of mountainside, and takes roughly 1.5 hours to ascend.
Telluride, Colorado, United States
Built in 2006, Telluride’s iron way was, until recently, a local secret. The increasingly popular route runs along the red volcanic cliffs of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Unlike most via ferratas, which focus on vertical gain, the 1.5-mile “Krogerata” moves climbers sideways across the wall. Parts feel like exposed hiking, but at the crux of the route, climbers traverse for 100 feet over a 300-foot drop using iron rungs for footholds. Telluride-based Mountain Trip leads 2.5- to three-hour excursions.
Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia
The highest iron road is in Sabah, Malaysia, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It starts just above 11,000 feet and ends at 12,388 feet. Climbers can choose between two routes—Walk the Torq and Low’s Peak Circuit. The former is suitable for beginners and children, while the latter requires fitness and a serious hankering for adventure. Low’s Peak Circuit covers two-thirds of a mile and crosses suspension and narrow Nepalese bridges; accompanied by professional Mountain Torq guides, climbers typically finish the route in about five hours as part of a Mount Kinabalu summit trek.
Sacred Valley, Peru
With zip lines, a 300-foot rappel, a hanging bridge, and more than 1,000 feet of climbing routes, Natura Vive’s Sacred Valley via ferrata offers adventurers a chance to truly engage with the Peruvian Andes rather than simply hike through them. The guided tours run three to four hours, and those who like to sleep on the edge as well as play there can end with a night in the Skylodge Adventure Suites, a trio of pods attached to a cliffside.