Although the Philippines is better-known for its islands and beaches, it’s also home to a multitude of mountains. Reef to ridge, summit to sea, the archipelago lends itself to adventures for every outdoorsy-type; even those who prefer to stay on the beach cannot escape the sight of mountains looming in the background.
Luzon is a perfect example of this diversity. At 109,965km2, the largest island in the country has hundreds of mountains and hiking destinations that showcase a range of environments — from coastal grasslands to cloud forests, active volcanoes to benign mossy forests.
From Metro Manila, many hikes can be completed comfortably in one day. But for avid hikers, all of Luzon is a wonderland, and you can hike for days or even weeks in the endless trails of the Northern Cordilleras, going from village to village, passing through rice terraces and pine forests to reach its lofty, cloud-capped peaks.
1. Mt Maculot
A traditional favorite of local hikers, Mt Maculot (930m) is one of the most scenic mountains in the country, perched on the edge of the volcanic Taal Lake. A wooded, straightforward ascent of one to two hours leads you to “the Rockies”, where you can enjoy stunning views of the lake and the plains of Batangas province.
For a longer hike, continue for another hour to the summit, and traverse to a religious shrine simply called “the Grotto”. This cultural dimension aside, this trail goes through a tropical rainforest with some challenging parts, making for a well-rounded, rewarding day.
Tip: Reward yourself with a stomach-warming hot bowl of lomi, a local noodle soup with a milky broth, or a serving of bulalo, a stew of beef shanks, both of which are specialties of the province. For a sumptuous meal try Hapag Filipino in General Luna Street, Lipa, Batangas.
2. The mountains of Wawa
Level: Easy to Moderate
Though long steeped in myth, the mountains of Wawa have only been discovered as a hiking haven very recently, but thanks to their proximity to Metro Manila (less than a two-hour drive), they’re now a wildly popular day-hike destination.
Two nearly identical mountains, Mt Pamitinan (426m) and Mt Binacayan (424m), were said to have been separated by a legendary hero called Bernardo Carpio, forming a river that still bisects the two peaks. Connected to Mt Pamitinan via a saddle, Mt Hapunang Banoi (516m) is a slightly taller and more challenging hike with the same rocky landscape.
Requiring some scrambling in the limestone formations, each of these mountains takes three to four hours to complete, and all three can be done in one long day. Each peak is breathtaking, offering views of the Sierra Madre mountain range amid dramatic rock formations.
Tip: Wawa Dam at the foot of the mountains is an attraction in itself, surrounded by a gorge vaguely reminiscent of Taiwan’s Taroko. As Metro Manila is close enough, you may want to aim for a meal in the Maginhawa area in Quezon City, a foodie hotspot.
3. The coastal peaks of Zambales
Subic and San Antonio, Zambales
Level: Easy to Difficult
Facing the West Philippine Sea, Zambales is carved with a network of trails that connects coves and peaks through coastal grassland slopes. Easy and popular hikes include a trek to Anawangin Cove from Pundaquit (two to three hours), or a traverse to Nagsasa Cove passing between Mt Cinco Picos and Mt Dayungan (three to four hours). More challenging is the hike up Mt Balingkilat (1,100m), which takes seven to nine hours or much longer if you’re aiming to traverse to Anawangin Cove. All of these hikes are exposed, so be sure to bring some sun protection and reapply from time to time.
From the coves, which make for good camping grounds, most hikers take a boat to take them to Barangay Pundaquit in San Antonio, a small fishing village. If you have enough time, don’t miss the side trip to Capones Island, site of an old lighthouse, just 45 minutes away by boat.
Tip: Subic Bay, formerly a US naval base, still retains an American flavor and offers a number of activities, including joining a wilderness camp to learn survival skills. For a hearty post-hike meal head to Texas Joe’s along Waterfront Road.
4. Mt Makiling
Los Baños, Laguna and Santo Tomas, Batangas
For those who want a sneak peek of the country’s tropical rainforests, Mt Makiling (1,090m) is an excellent choice. Just over 60km away from Metro Manila, its status as a forest reserve under the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) has kept it in pristine condition: you will be almost completely surrounded with trees throughout the hike, and if you’re lucky you may even chance upon a Rafflesia flower along the trail.
The usual, well-marked route (six to seven hours) starts at UPLB. However, you can also aim for the more challenging traverse from Santo Tomas (seven to nine hours), which offers a deeper immersion in the rainforest and more scenic views. Either way, Mt Makiling is a great day hike especially for nature lovers.
Tip: With its laid-back vibe, the UPLB campus is a great place for hanging out after the hike. Herb Republic and Dalcielo along Lopez Avenue are good choices for meals, Café Antonio along the National Highway has great coffee, and Milka Krem in UPLB’s Baker Hall offers fresh, local carabao’s milk.
5. Mt Arayat
Arayat and Magalang, Pampanga
Towering over the Central Plain of Luzon, Mt Arayat (1,030m) in Pampanga is another great day-hike 90 km north of Metro Manila. Its geographic significance is matched by its cultural richness: legends speak of a forest deity called Mariang Sinukuan who inhabits its slopes.
Mt Arayat has two peaks: North Peak in Magalang Town and South Peak in Arayat town can be done as separate hikes (five to seven hours each) or connected in a traverse (six to eight hours). With established facilities — including picnic grounds and swimming pools — at the trailhead, the latter is a better idea. Don’t miss the viewpoint near the summit overlooking the Pampanga River meandering across the endless rice fields.
Tip: For classic Kapampangan fare — Pampanga is dubbed the Culinary Capital of the Philippines for the sheer variety and inventiveness of the local cuisine — head over to Everybody’s Cafe in Nepo Mart, Angeles City.
6. Mt Isarog
Panicuason, Camarines Sur
An old volcano rising to 1,966m above sea level, Mt Isarog is home to the Philippine deer, wildcats, monkeys and wild boar — not to mention 143 species of birds. Its location in the Bicol Peninsula on the south-east leg of Luzon, facing the Pacific, is credited for its rich biodiversity.
Living up to its reputation as Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water), numerous rivers and waterfalls are found on its slopes; the classic hike passes through at least of two of them. At the mossy-forested summit, rewards include a view of the distant cone of Mayon volcano peeking from Isarog’s majestic caldera.
Tip: Naga City, the starting point for the Mt Isarog hike, is also the gateway to other adventures, including wakeboarding; you can head further south to enjoy views of Mayon volcano (closed to hiking due to volcanic activity).
7. Mt Namandiraan
Cervantes, Ilocos Sur
Level: Moderate to Difficult
The highest mountain in Ilocos Sur, Mt. Namandiraan (2,331m) is an excellent hike in the Cordilleras that combines history, scenery, and a chance to go off the beaten track. The hike begins at Bessang Pass, site of a heroic World War II battle, and after passing through a village, meanders through an endless array of pines.
Tip: Having already crossed over Bessang Pass to Cervantes, why not go all the way to Sagada? The fabled mountain town with a host of outdoor activities (and nice restaurants) is just two hours away by local public transport. Otherwise, you can also make your way back to the highway in Ilocos Sur and head up to its picturesque capital city of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
8. Mt Napulauan
Another historic mountain in the Cordilleras that combines nature and culture, Mt Napulauan (2,642m) was the mountain where Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita made a last stand — and, according to legend, buried stolen treasure that includes a golden Buddha — in the final days of World War II. A spellbinding mossy forest — where stunted trees take on anarchic shapes, and various ferns line the trails — awaits the hiker in Napulauan.
On a clear day, the summit offers views of the Cordillera peaks, and if descending via the Hapao trail, one can glimpse at the Hapao Rice Terraces, another World Heritage Site.
Tip: The town of Banaue, home to the famed rice terraces and gateway to more attractions, is just an hour away from Hungduan, Ifugao. Because of the cold weather, curry dishes with native red rice are a popular choice in Banaue’s many eateries: you can buy a kilo or two of the native rice in the market to take home.
9. Mt Amuyao
Barlig, Mountain Province
Level: Moderate to Strenuous
If Mt Napualauan gives you a chance to view a World Heritage Site, Mt Amuyao (2,702m) actually allows you to trek along the them on the way to Batad, Ifugao, after reaching Luzon’s fifth highest summit.
One has a choice of starting and ending the hike in Barlig, but the three-day traverse to Batad makes the long trip from Manila more worthwhile. This trek alternates between pine and mossy forest and passes through two of the most pristine villages in the region: Cambulo and Pat-yay, where many houses are still built in the traditional style.
Tip: From Bontoc in Mountain Province, the Maligcong Rice Terraces are worth the half-day trip. Sagada, moreover, is just an hour away. Those doing the traverse to Batad, on the other hand, can hike for a couple more hours to reach Tappiyah Falls before heading out to Banaue.
10. Mt Pulag
Benguet and Nueva Vizcaya
Level: Easy to Strenuous
The highest mountain in Luzon at 2,922m, Mt Pulag remains a great hiking destination, one of the best the country has to offer. Those looking for an easy hike may take the very popular, if congested, Ambangeg Trail, while serious hikers are advised to consider the steep, pine-surrounded Akiki Trail; the mossy-forested Tawangan Trail; or the long Ambaguio Trail. Depending on how you combine them, you can easily spend three to four days on the mountain.
Mt Pulag’s pine and mossy forests are classic Cordillera and can be enjoyed for days, but truly sets the mountain apart is its golden-brown summit, carpeted with dwarf bamboo and tufts of pink azaleas. And the view from the highest point in Luzon is nothing short of breathtaking: mountains upon mountains over a sea of clouds, as far as the eye can see.
Tip: Baguio is the closest major city, and an extra day exploring the thriving art scene — from the BenCab Museum to Tam-awan Art Village — will make the trip north even more rewarding.
This story first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Smile magazine.