The health benefits of regular long walks are well-known. As Dr. John Swartzberg, chair of the Editorial Board of BerkeleyWellness.com, has noted, evidence shows that "walking through forests can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve various aspects of immune function." Here’s a group of movies that celebrate the pleasures and rewards of long, long walks: hikes and treks, alone and with others, in the woods, on mountains, and even across continents.
For anyone remotely interested in hiking, there's not a dull minute in director Mark Flagler's Appalachian Impressions. For two hours, the documentary not only shows viewers the grand and subtle glories to be found along the Appalachian Trail—what the film calls "the most famous hiking trail in the world"—but also shares stories from some thoroughly engaging men and women who have hiked it.
Watch a trailer for Appalachian Impressions.
Few people would argue that the low-budget indie feature Southbounders is a cinematic masterpiece. But in its portrait of a young woman (played by Amy Cale) attempting a six-month Appalachian Trail thru-hike from Maine to Georgia—and the motley but generally appealing crew of fellow hikers she meets along the way—the movie's a genial, genuine look at the impulse that makes people lace up their boots and head into the woods.
Watch a trailer for Southbounders.
Not, strictly speaking, a hiking movie—star James Franco spends most of the movie stationary, trying to extricate himself from a seemingly impossible, grisly situation in which he’s trapped by a boulder that has fallen on his arm—127 Hours is nevertheless an intense, often beautiful rumination on the extremes people go to in order to survive. Based on the true story of hiker/canyoneer Aron Ralston, the Danny Boyle-directed film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Franco) and Best Picture. Be warned: It's not for the squeamish.
Watch a trailer for 127 Hours.
Written, directed, and produced by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, The Way is a quiet, sneakily powerful movie about grief and fellowship along the famous Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) pilgrimage route in Spain. Sheen plays an American doctor who meets other pilgrims hiking for their own deeply personal reasons as he follows in his dead son's footsteps along the Way. A wonderful ensemble cast and smart, unobtrusive direction from Estevez.
Watch a trailer for The Way.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson, an Australian traveler and writer who in 1977 trekked with her dog and four camels (yes, camels) almost 2,000 miles from Alice Springs in the center of the continent westward to the Indian Ocean. Beautiful to look at (the film won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for cinematography) and featuring a truly great performance by Wasikowska, Tracks is a deep dive into what pushes some people to set out alone into the unknown.
Watch a trailer for Tracks.
In addition to having the most clever title of any hiking movie ever made, this documentary is also notable for not being an over-the-top, "Look how intense we are!" paean to hardcore adventuring. Instead, it follows five friends, all artists, as they hike and soak in the beauty of California's 200-plus-mile John Muir Trail—which stretches from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous U.S.— in a year of record-setting snowfall in the Sierra Nevada range.
Watch a trailer for Mile … Mile & a Half.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who battled heroin addiction and other demons by hiking the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Canada, Wild is a riveting portrait of self-discovery—and features an excellent performance by Reese Witherspoon. At times hard to watch, the movie is simply unforgettable.
Watch a trailer for Wild.
Frankly, this film about two old friends tackling the Appalachian Trail is not quite as compelling as the beloved and enormously entertaining Bill Bryson book it's based on. That said, it's still a perfectly amiable, well-made movie starring some excellent actors—Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Nick Nolte, and others—who bring a welcome professional charm to this story about friendship and the rewards of facing one's mortality with humor and grit.
Watch a trailer for A Walk in the Woods.