The via ferrata has been a literal fixture of alpine life for over a century: in the mid-19th century, mountain dwellers needed a reliable way to reach elevated spots without committing to arduous hikes — or, worse, seeking out a pass. Their solution: what became known as the via ferrata, or "iron path," a series of metal climbing aids, whether steps, cables, ladders or the barest of ledges. Vie ferrate (plural) became better known during World War I, when the pathways evolved from local climbing solutions to military infrastructure. As Austrian and Italian soldiers fought for the tactical advantage in the Dolomites, each installed series of pathways along mountain walls, primarily to haul supplies. Over the years, steel and cabling replaced ropes and ladders — but many remain.
One hundred years later, those fixed climbing routes are now popular tourist attractions. While they're still most common in the Alps — particularly in Austria and Italy, though France and Switzerland as well — they can also be found everywhere from New Zealand to Banff. The appeal is obvious: clip onto a safety cable, and even novice adventurers can experience some of the adrenaline rush usually reserved for real-deal rock climbers. Most require few technical skills; even kids can handle some routes. What they have in common: a priceless vantage on the world's most beautiful places.
Below, we've compiled seven places where you can acquaint yourself firsthand. Do look down.
Location: Giovanni Lipella in the Italian Dolomites
In brief: A real-deal via ferrata used by soldiers during World War I, through tunnels dug by alpine soldiers and between mountain shelters.
You'll see: Better if you bring a flashlight for the tunnel — you'll climb more than 300 feet inside it
While you're there: Explore the mountains' lakes and waterfalls
Location: Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland
In brief: Climb cliffside above one of Switzerland's biggest glaciers — a UNESCO World Heritage Site
You'll see: The pale green surface of an alpine lake, as the via ferrata goes right above it
While you're there: Take the gondola to the top of nearby Riederalp and hike to Eggishorn — then grab a drink on the slopes of Bettmer Alp
Location: Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia
In brief: The world's highest via ferrata, designed for adventure seekers without climbing chops
You'll see: A good deal of Borneo, the dense Malaysian jungle
While you're there: Add on an excursion to the top of Mount Kinabalu, the highest point in southeast Asia
Location: Queensland, New Zealand
In brief: Fun-for-everyone adventure trails, with 12 routes of varying difficulty
You'll see: The city of Queensland, Lake Wakatipu
While you're there: Queensland is New Zealand's adventure HQ — use it as a jumping-off point to hike the classic four-day Milford Track hike
Location: Mount Nimbus, Banff, Canada
In brief: First, you go by helicopter to a mountain lodge — then travel by helicopter to the via ferrata
You'll see: The peaks of the Canadian Rockies — from a suspension bridge
While you're there: Relax at the 26-room Bobbie Burns Lodge, hopping a helicopter each morning to your hiking spot
Location: Val d'Isère, France
In brief: A "quite hard" trip up the French Alps
You'll see: This ski resort in its full-on relaxed summer style
While you're there: Mountain bike down slopes usually reserved for skiers
Location: Gran Canaria, Spain
In brief: An adventure trail in the mountains of the Canary Islands, 60 miles west of Morocco in the Atlantic. Choose from five routes of varying difficulty.
You'll see: Gran Canaria's rough mountainous terrain — part Sierra Nevadas, part Arizona
While you're there: Spend the rest of the day at the Playa de Inglés