By Michael Lanza
Are you looking for great trip ideas for your personal “bucket list?” Well, you’ve clicked to the right place. This freshly updated list spotlights 10 of the best adventures in the U.S.—from Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, Sequoia, Glacier Bay, and Yellowstone (photo above) to the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, Wind River Range, and some adventures that may not be on your radar—all of them worthy of your bucket list.
All of them are also trips that you should—or must—start planning now to take them in 2021.
The 10 trips described below—each with an inspiring photo—all stand out in personal memory among the countless trips I’ve enjoyed over the past three decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog. They all have links to stories at The Big Outside with many more images and info, including my expert tips on planning and taking each trip. (Those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full.)
I update this list regularly to feed you fresh and timely ideas—and to help make your bucket list, like mine, continually get longer rather than shorter.
I can help you plan any of these trips—see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you and to read scores of comments from people like you whom I’ve helped plan an unforgettable adventure. See also my E-Guides page for my downloadable, expert e-guides to many of America’s best backpacking trips.
I’d love to read any thoughts, personal experiences, or suggestions you want to share in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Backpack Incomparable Glacier National Park
Glacier ranks among the favorite national parks of backpackers, and little wonder: No place in the Lower 48 really compares with it. From its rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and sheer cliffs that soar high above lushly green valleys, and over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, to megafauna like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and grizzly and black bears, these million acres in the rugged Northern Rockies simply deliver an experience you can’t find in any park outside Alaska.
I’ve backpacked multiple times all over Glacier, most recently when three friends and I hiked 94 miles mostly on the Continental Divide Trail through the park—unquestionably one of the entire CDT’s best sections. The park’s more than 700 miles of trails enable trips of varying distances, from beginner-friendly to serious, remote adventures in deep wilderness.
My e-guides to two long and magnificent treks through Glacier, “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” detail all you need to know to plan and execute those trips safely and describe shorter variations on those routes, while my blog stories (see below) provide basic planning details.
Reserve a permit starting March 15 for groups of one to eight people and March 1 for groups of nine to 12. And, of course, I can give you a customized plan for a backpacking trip of any length in Glacier; click here to learn how.
See my stories “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and “Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
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Take Yosemite’s Best Dayhikes and Backpacking Trips
Half Dome, the John Muir Trail, Tenaya Lake, Mount Hoffmann, the Mist Trail, Upper Yosemite Falls, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Cathedral Range, Cathedral Peak, and Cathedral Lakes—these names are nearly as famous as the park that harbors them: Yosemite.
But in numerous trips backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing there over the years, I’ve discovered that other corners of Yosemite are equally spectacular if not as well known, including the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Clouds Rest, Red Peak Pass, Matterhorn Peak and Matterhorn Canyon, Burro Pass, Mule Pass, Benson Lake, and Dewey Point, among many.
This flagship park’s finest backpacking trips and dayhikes offer a variety of experiences that will awe you no matter how much time you have or how many times you’ve been there. Plan to submit a Yosemite permit application 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking.
See my stories about backpacking trips through Yosemite’s two biggest chunks of wilderness: a 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows and an 87-mile hike north of Tuolumne (both of which have shorter options). See also “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
I know Yosemite’s unique wilderness permit system very well, and I’ve helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in Yosemite—including helping some obtain a permit after they had failed applying on their own. Go to my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can do that for you.
You want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Backpack the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier
Backpacking the Wonderland Trail around glacier-clad, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, one repeatedly sees “The Mountain” (as Washingtonians know it) fill the horizon—a sight that can stop you in your boots. If it’s fair to say that no multi-day hike in the contiguous United States is quite like the Wonderland Trail, that’s partly because there’s no mountain in the Lower 48 like Rainier.
But the WT isn’t just about views of Rainier. It also features some of the most beautiful wildflower meadows you will ever walk through, crystalline creeks and raging rivers gray with “glacial flour,” countless waterfalls and cascades, and likely sightings of mountain goats, marmots, deer, and possibly black bears.
The full Wonderland loop around Rainier is a seriously strenuous, 93-mile trip, with over 44,000 cumulative vertical feet of elevation gain and loss. But because it can be accessed from several trailheads, you can choose between thru-hiking all of it—which takes up to nine to 10 days—or backpacking shorter trips of varying lengths on sections of the trail. And choices like where to begin the loop and which direction to hike it, and whether to take a popular detour onto the higher and more-scenic Spray Park Trail, all affect the trip’s overall difficulty—which I spell out in detail in my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
See my stories “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and “An American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” about a 77-mile hike on what I consider the WT’s best sections (a route described as one of the alternate itineraries in my e-guide).
Click here now to get my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
Explore the Wind River Range
Come up with a list of the best backpacking trips in America that do not require you to reserve a permit months in advance, and rank them in order of scenic magnificence, and Wyoming’s Wind River Range would have to be near or at the top of that list. The Winds are also one of the few mountain ranges in the contiguous United States where you can hike for days below 13,000-foot peaks and count more alpine lakes than people.
Among the several trips I’ve made to the Winds, two friends and I backpacked a 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park to Titcomb Basin, where we camped between two alpine lakes at over 10,500 feet, below granite walls rising 3,000 feet above us to summits nearing 14,000 feet. We also followed an off-trail route (optional on this trip) over a 12,000-foot pass above Titcomb Basin—one of three passes that high on this trip—and passed dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes.
Most recently, I joined three companions for a very rugged, seven-day, 96-mile south-to-north traverse of the Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail—one of the most difficult and stunning adventures I’ve ever been on.
See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “The Wind River High Route—A Journey in Photos,” and “A Walk in the Winds: A One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and watch for my upcoming feature story about the Wind River High Route.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
See the Best of Zion National Park
Tick off a list of the premier dayhikes and backpacking trips in Zion—Angels Landing, The Narrows, The Subway, the West Rim Trail, Observation Point, the Kolob Canyons—and you’ve also named some of the most scenic pieces of wild real estate in the entire National Park System. And this relatively tiny park compared to the big wilderness parks—Zion could fit inside Yosemite five times, inside Yellowstone 15 times, and inside Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias 89 times—packs a lot of epic scenery into a small area. Even after several visits there, I still have adventures on my to-do list for that park.
While Zion has become the fourth-most-visited national park, it’s still possible to escape the crowds there—something I’ve figured out how to do on even the most popular hikes, like Angels Landing and The Narrows.
Apply for a backcountry permit in Zion on the 5th of the month, two months prior to the month in which you want to take your trip—for example, apply on March 5 for a trip in May. And like other uber-popular parks, a trip to Zion requires planning months in advance to get any needed lodging reservations.
See my story “Insider Tips: The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park,” which includes my expert tips on how to avoid the crowds when hiking in Zion, plus my stories about a family backpacking trip in the Kolob Canyons and West Rim Trail, hiking The Subway, and backpacking The Narrows at The Big Outside.
See also my story “The 10 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks.”
Click here now to get my expert e-guide to backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
Backpack Sequoia National Park
With some of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 and a constellation of backcountry lakes, California’s southern High Sierra belong on any list of top backpacking destinations in America. And Sequoia National Park hosts one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48—a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book lying open on the lake bottom.
On a six-day, 40-mile backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park, my family hiked through a quiet backcountry grove of giant Sequoias and over 10,000-foot and 11,000-foot passes at the foot of 12,000-foot, granite peaks. We camped at two lakes that earned spots on my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites.
While many backpackers heading for the High Sierra point their compass at Yosemite and the John Muir Trail—creating enormous demand for those backcountry permits—far fewer set their sights on areas of Sequoia like where my family backpacked. That means it’s an easier permit to get, and the scenery rivals anywhere in the Sierra.
Apply for a permit on March 1 for a trip during the park’s quota period of late May through late September.
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Yes, You Really Gotta See Yellowstone
I could fill a story with a list of Yellowstone National Park’s unique features and reasons why everyone American should visit the park as a requirement of citizenship. (In fact, I have.) But just take my word on this: go there. I’ve been numerous times, at all times of year, and it’s always enchanting and beautiful.
We first took our kids when they were too young to even remember it. Many of Yellowstone’s thermal features—like my favorite, the park’s biggest hot spring, Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin—are reached on short, easy walks, making Yellowstone an ideal vacation for families with young children or anyone looking for an easy adventure.
But the uncrowded off-seasons of fall and winter are, in my opinion, the best times to see Yellowstone. Autumn offers frequently gorgeous weather without the traffic of summer. And of the many trips I’ve taken in America and around the world, I still consider cross-country skiing in Yellowstone one of the most special, for the wildlife viewing, the fascinating natural features like erupting geysers, the relatively low bar for skill level (it’s very family-friendly—and you can snowshoe instead of skiing, too), and how winter completely transforms the landscape.
You may hear tales of traffic jams in Yellowstone during summer, and yes, it’s a busy place. But just go there—and start planning months in advance to secure needed reservations for camping and lodging. For backpacking, apply for a backcountry permit prior to April 1, when the park begins processing applications.
See my stories “In Hot (and Cold) Water: Backpacking Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon,” “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone,” and “Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone,” and all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Backpack the Wild Olympic Coast
The 17.5-mile hike of the southern stretch of the coast of Olympic National Park, spread over two to three days, crosses back and forth over a boundary between a couple of unique environments that make this trip extraordinary.
From the beach, where you walk most of the time, you look out at scores of stone pinnacles called sea stacks rising up to 200 feet out of the frequently mist-shrouded ocean and pass boulders wallpapered with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones. Sightings of seals, sea otters, whales, bald eagles, and to my kids’ delight, lots of slugs are regular occurrences.
You will also hike in the deep, cool shade of giant Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and western red cedar that grow to 150 or 200 feet tall, some with diameters of up to 15 feet, in one of Earth’s largest virgin temperature rainforests, following muddy trails that are surprisingly rugged for having little elevation gain and loss. In a few spots, these trails skirt impassable headlands where you ascend and descend rope ladders in very steep, sometimes cliff-like terrain.
Make a backcountry permit reservation in Olympic National Park up to six months in advance of your starting date at recreation.gov, where campsite availability is provided in real time.
Truly one of the best backpacking trips in America, the southern Olympic coast is a great adventure for a family with young kids (ours were nine and seven when we took them and loved it).
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.
Backpack Deep Into Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
I had been hiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooths—the wilderness in my back yard (or pretty close)—for years, when I finally got around to exploring the deep interior of the southern Sawtooths, one of the most remote and least-visited areas of these mountains. A friend and I backpacked a four-day, 57-mile route from the Queens River Trailhead, visiting numerous, incredibly picturesque alpine lakes—some of which undoubtedly see few visitors.
I’ve long thought that the Sawtooths look like they could be the love child of the High Sierra and the Tetons, and that 57-mile hike takes you into the deepest corners of Idaho’s premier mountain range. Read my story about that trip, “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”
Looking for a Sawtooths adventure that’s shorter and more accessible? The multi-day hike I’d recommend is a four- to five-day, roughly 36-mile route from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake, including one side trip to one of the finest lake basins in the entire range.
See my story “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit” and my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” which tells you all you need to know to plan and pull off that trip and includes three alternate itineraries that allow you to shorten the hike to four days or extend it to six or seven days. And see a menu of all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooths at The Big Outside.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking or hiking trip.
Want my help with yours? Click here to learn more.
Sea Kayak Alaska’s Glacier Bay
See seals, brown bears, mountain goats, humpback whales, bald eagles and a huge variety of large birds, and 2,000-pound Steller sea lions. Hear and watch bus-sized chunks of ice calve explosively from a glacier whose snout spans a mile across and rises a sheer 300 feet out of the sea. Camp on wilderness beaches with views of peaks soaring to over 15,000 feet just miles from the ocean.
Merely listing the wildlife my family saw while sea kayaking for five days in the upper West Arm of Glacier Bay National Park, a park the size of Connecticut, speaks volumes about its wildness. A multi-day sea-kayaking trip in Glacier Bay offers a glimpse of what the world was like 10,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age drew to a close. This adventure remains one of the very best my family or I have ever taken.
Read my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay” at The Big Outside.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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