New Year Inspiration: My Top 10 Adventure Trips
By Michael Lanza
I often get asked, “What’s your favorite trip?” And I can’t answer that one. To pick just one from all the amazing adventures I’ve had the good fortune to take feels like an impossible task. So instead, I’ve assembled the following list of my 10 all-time favorites (so far). It includes, among other five-star trips, backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and John Muir Trail; hiking across the Grand Canyon; and trekking in Iceland (photo above) and Patagonia.
So as you’re thinking about what great adventures to take this year, consider that these admittedly subjective, personal picks are chosen from scores of backpacking, dayhiking, paddling, trekking, and other trips I’ve taken, domestically and internationally, over more than two decades as a writer for Backpacker magazine and other publications. See also “My Top 10 Family Adventures;” some of these trips could have made either list.
Make it a very happy new year.
The Teton Crest Trail is, step for step, one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable backpacking trip: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, cliff-flanked, glacier-scoured canyons; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears. I fell in love with the Tetons on my first visit, more than 20 years ago, backpacking from Death Canyon Trailhead to Leigh Lake Trailhead, and I’ve returned at least 15 times since then to rock climb, dayhike, bag most of the major summits, canoe, backcountry ski, and backpack. I never grow tired of the sight of these peaks. [Note: Type “Teton Crest Trail” into the search box at The Big Outside and you will find all of the stories and Ask Me posts I’ve written about backpacking here, including my story about a family backpacking trip.]
Few corners of the planet remain as pristine as this national park that’s the size of Connecticut, which sits at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness the size of Greece. On a multi-day sea kayaking trip here, you can see massive tidewater glaciers explosively calving bus-sized chunks of ice into the sea, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, mountain goats, seals, sea otters, brown bears, and a variety of birds and wildflowers. It feels like traveling back in time to the end of the last ice age.
If hearing the JMT described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail”—as it often is—seems to you like a hyperbolic claim, then you really must go see for yourself. For mile after jaw-dropping mile, you walk below incisor peaks of clean granite, past more waterfalls than anyone could name in a thousand lifetimes, along pristine wilderness lakes nestled in rocky basins, and over passes topping 12,000 and 13,000 feet with views that stretch a hundred miles. Whether or not you agree with that claim, it will be one of the most wonderful research projects you’ve ever done.
I had dayhiked and backpacked in the Grand Canyon before three friends and I set out to hike from the South Rim across to the North Rim and back again—more than 44 miles and 11,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss—in a day. But we passed that entire day (or at least the hours of daylight) gaping at the scenery on this grand tour of one of the planet’s most magnificent and unfathomable landscapes: an infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers. Whether you do it in a day or, as most backpackers do, spread it over several days, you won’t encounter any other place that compares to the Big Ditch.
One of the most prized trekking destinations in the world, Torres del Paine National Park is a place of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, and some of the world’s largest glaciers pouring into emerald lakes. Of twisted lenga trees, raging whitewater rivers, and the most relentless winds you’ve ever encountered. Patagonia is a dream destination for backpackers all over the world. Read this story to learn how to do Patagonia right.
You think of Glacier National Park and you think of mountain scenery that justifies a badly abused adjective: awesome. You think of wildlife sightings that are possible in few places in the Lower 48: bighorn sheep, so many mountain goats you may lose count, and possibly even black bears and grizzly bears. This 90-mile tour of northern Glacier—broken up into two hikes, a 65-miler and a 25-miler, and simplified logistically by the park’s free shuttle buses—delivers everything that makes Glacier a favorite of backpackers.
Do you believe in elves? Icelanders do, or at least enough to route highways around places considered the abodes of elves and trolls. Credit a landscape of raw beauty that has shaped the values of its hardy people. Smaller than Kentucky, the country has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. While exploring rugged trails through old lava flows, thermal features spewing steam into the sky, and mind-boggling waterfalls and glaciers, I began to think of Iceland as like a first crush, a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to fall in love with, hard to leave. You will feel the same way.
I’ve long considered Capitol Reef one of our most underappreciated national parks (and I’ve visited it numerous times now and posted stories about other trips there at The Big Outside). But when my friend Steve Howe, a local guide and longtime explorer of Capitol Reef’s backcountry, told me that a mostly off-trail, 17-mile traverse he’d mapped out—crossing canyons, steep scree and slickrock, and passes in Capitol Reef’s signature geologic formation, the Waterpocket Fold—is as scenic as the John Muir Trail, I had to see for myself. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Hike every day through a starkly beautiful, Arctic-like landscape of mountains plastered with snow and ice, and valleys bisected by rushing streams or filled with iceberg-choked lakes. Then spend every night in the most comfortable mountain huts you have ever encountered, eating meals fit for a four-star restaurant—that’s trekking Jotunheimen. From the multi-cultural experience to exciting stream fords and the opportunity for more challenging, optional side hikes—like the steep scramble up a peak named Kirkja and the all-day hike to Norway’s highest summit, Galdhøpiggen—this adventure was a home run for everyone in our group, age nine to 75.
One of the least-visited rivers in the contiguous U.S., the upper Owyhee River carves narrow canyons of sheer rhyolite and basalt walls, densely populated with spires, into the sagebrush and grassland high desert sprawling over southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. On an eight-day, 82-mile, class III-IV kayaking descent, we saw not another person until our final evening, camped within two miles of the takeout. Not for the faint of heart—besides technical whitewater, there are long, strenuous portages, and water levels are only high enough in spring, when cold rain, snow, and high winds are de rigueur—kayaking the achingly beautiful upper Owyhee ranks among the most remote and wild adventures in the Lower 48.
Past Top 10 Adventures
I update the above list every year, and sometimes one or two trips get bumped for one I’ve taken more recently and like better. But that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Also, in some years, there have been trips that would have made this list if it were my Top 11 instead of Top 10, so I mention them here because I think you’ll enjoy reading about them—and perhaps expanding your own adventure to-do list. I will maintain this list of runners-up favorite all-time adventures—to give you a longer list of dream trips.
Having hiked through the eastern side of America’s second national park, Sequoia, on the John Muir Trail, I was eager to backpack with my family in this park that’s home to many of the highest mountains and one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48. We walked a nearly 40-mile loop from the park’s Mineral King area, through a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book laying open on the lake bottom.
With more than 40 summits rising above 13,000 feet along the Continental Divide, the Wind River Range delivers killer mountain views, gorgeous lakes, and serious wilderness adventure; it belongs on every backpacker’s list. But how about biting off a big piece of the Winds in one day? Read about a one-day, 27-mile, east-west crossing of the southern Winds, from the Bears Ears Trailhead in Dickinson Park to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead. On an alpine traverse that kept us above 11,000 feet for many hours, we drank up expansive vistas of soaring granite cliffs and peaks.
Although just spitting distance from the world-famous Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. And it has it all: intensely green forest of moss-draped, twisted beech trees, huts perched in spectacular locations, and inspirational views of mountains cloaked in snow and glaciers in Mount Aspiring National Park.
If you’re surprised to see this trip on my list, all the more reason to read about it. Every morning, I ran nine to 12 miles of trails across hills with breathtaking views of cliffs plunging into the Pacific, or through groves of towering Redwood trees. (You can hike it instead, of course.) Every evening, I stayed in a delightful inn while enjoying five-star meals and excellent beer or wine. I also learned to “embrace the hills” on this wonderful adventure—a great getaway for an active couple of any age.