There’s nothing quite like arriving at Machu Picchu on foot through the Sun Gate. It’s stunning to see the incredible Machu Picchu ruins, the mountains, and the Urubamba River valley spread out at your feet.
“I loved the [Royal Inca Trail] hike. The mountains, views of glaciers, and views of the river are spectacular the entire way. And I thought Wiñay Wayna was stunning. Finally, I thought the best views of Machu Picchu were from the Sun Gate, like the Incas intended. To me, we would have missed out on part of the experience just riding the bus up to the front door.” – Kent S.
There are two ways to arrive at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. The most traditional way is on the 4 or 5 day Inca Trail Trek from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. However, you might not be interested in a multi-day trek, or permits are already sold out for the trek over your travel dates.
A newer option is to hike the Royal Inca Trail, which is the last day of the Inca Trail. You skip the first few days of the long trek by taking the train part way to Machu Picchu. You disembark the train at km104 and hike up to Wiñay Wanya Ruins, where you join up with the Inca Trail. Then you hike to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. You finish the hike by walking through the outskirts of Machu Picchu, admiring them for the last mile. The following day, you return for a full day at Machu Picchu and a guided tour of the ruins.
The Royal Inca Trail is about 7 miles (11 km). It’s a moderate hike. If you’re a seasoned hiker, the hike will be easy for you (although you’ll definitely be pushing yourself up the steep but short stairs). If you’re not a hiker and aren’t particularly active day to day, the hike will be challenging for you. If you’re fit and active in your daily life, but don’t do much hiking, the trail will be moderate for you. The first 3 miles (5 km) of the hike is a steady uphill climb until you reach Wiñay Wanya Ruins, at which point you take a break for lunch. The last 4 miles (6 km) of the hike is mostly flat with a few steep stair climbs, or downhill.
The Royal Inca Trail is permitted, so you do have to plan this hike in advance, but the permits don’t sell out nearly as quickly as the full Inca Trail. You can generally get permits up until about a couple weeks beforehand.
This is a great hike in it’s own right, not just because you get to arrive at Machu Picchu on foot. You also get to explore the Inca ruins of Chachabamba and Wiñay Wanya, both of which can only been seen if you’re traveling on foot. You have stunning views of the Urubamba River valley and the surrounding mountains throughout the day. You also get to experience Machu Picchu in the late afternoon and early evening, when the light is beautiful and when there are fewer people.
Side note: there are a few names for the Royal Inca Trail. It’s also called the Short Inca Trail or the 2 Day Inca Trail. All names refer to the same thing: the 1 day hike on the Royal Inca Trail followed by a day to explore Machu Picchu.
Hike Stats: Elevations & Distances
Starting Elevation at km104 Train Stop: 6,889 ft / 2100 m
Distance between km 104 and Wiñay Wanya Ruins (lunch spot): 3 miles / 5 km
Highest Elevation at Wiñay Wanya Ruins: 9,512 ft / 2,899 m
Distance between Wiñay Wanya Ruins and the Sun Gate: 2.5 miles / 4 km
Distance between the Sun Gate and the Machu Picchu Ruins: 1.5 miles / 2 km Ending Elevation at Machu Picchu Ruins: 7,972 ft / 2,530 m
Total Distance: 7 miles / 11 km
Total Elevation Gain: 2,623 ft / 799 m over 3 miles / 5km
Total Elevation Loss: 1,540 ft / 369 m over 4 miles / 6km
Recommended Trips with the Royal Inca Trail
For those who want to see and do a lot, but don’t have a ton of time, this adventure combo is perfect. Hike, SUP, bike, kayak and snorkel your way across 3 diverse islands in the Galapagos Islands on this action packed 6-day multisport adventure, checking out the Galapagos’ iconic wildlife all along the way. Then explore the history of the Incas in Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas by whitewater rafting, hiking, and mountain biking before finally hiking the last day of the Inca Trail to arrive to Machu Picchu on foot through the Gate of the Sun. Trip Length: 13 Days Destinations: Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island, San Cristobal Island, Cusco, Sacred Valley, Royal Inca Trail, Machu Picchu Lodging: 3-Star Hotels in the Galapagos, 3-Star Plus Hotels in Peru Activities: Wildlife viewing, snorkeling, hiking, optional surfing or boogie boarding, optional Scuba diving, optional kayaking, optional stand up paddle boarding, Inca ruins, markets, cultural experiences
Experience the best Inca sites on day hikes around Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Machu Picchu, then relax in in comfortable, local boutique hotels at night. You will experience Peru like no other tourists and you will even get to hike the last day of the Inca Trail to arrive to Machu Picchu on foot via the Gate of the Sun, just like the Incas did centuries ago. World-class guides will entertain you and enhance your understanding of what you are seeing, giving you a very complete Inca Peru experience. Trip Length: 6 Days Destination: Cusco, the Sacred Valley, & Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru Lodging: Charming & Boutique 3-Star Plus Hotels Activities: Day hikes, Inca ruins
On the Ultimate Lares Trek with 1-Day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you enjoy Cusco before heading out to trek the Lares Valley where you camp in small, Quechua-speaking villages and interact one-on-one with the direct descendants of the Inca's before hiking the last day of the world-famous Inca Trail to arrive to Machu Picchu on foot via the Gate of Sun. Length: 9 Days Destination: Cusco, Sacred Valley, Lares, 1D Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Peru Lodging: Comfortable tent camping, boutique hotels Activities: Moderate hiking, cultural interaction, Inca ruins