By Michael Lanza
Are you looking for great trip ideas for your bucket list? Well, you’ve clicked to the right place. This freshly updated story spotlights seven of the best wildlands in the U.S., including Glacier, Yosemite, North Cascades (photo above), and Sequoia national parks and three wilderness areas, plus three international adventures that may not be on your radar—all of them worthy of your bucket list.
All of them are also trips that you must start planning now to take them this year—including rapidly approaching backcountry permit-application dates for those four parks.
The 10 trips described below all stand out in personal memory among the countless trips I’ve enjoyed over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer 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 your bucket list, like mine, continually refresh as you steadily tick off new trips.
I can help you plan any of these trips—see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how and to read scores of comments from people like you whom I’ve helped plan an unforgettable adventure. See also my E-Books page for my expert e-guides to many of America’s best backpacking trips, and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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.
Get Lonely in the North Cascades
On at least three major lists of the least-visited national parks, North Cascades ranks in the top five (and most of the top 10 are in Alaska). For backpackers who prefer to have a beautiful wild place almost to themselves, that’s a good thing.
A sprawling swath of glacier-clad mountains and thickly forested valleys, North Cascades has long been one of my favorite parks—and it has one of the best backcountry campsites I’ve ever slept in.
On my most-recent trip there, a friend and walked 80 miles through the heart of the North Cascades National Park Complex just as the huckleberries ripened and the larch trees blazed yellow with fall color in the last week of September. Our grand tour from Easy Pass Trailhead to Bridge Creek Trailhead took us through virgin forests of giant cedars, hemlocks, and Douglas firs, and over four passes, including Park Creek Pass (lead photo at top of story), where you turn a 360 overlooking waterfalls and glaciers pouring off cliffs and jagged, snowy peaks amid a sea of mountains.
North Cascades National Park holds an Early-Access lottery for permit reservations from March 4-15, 2024—enter especially if you’re seeking any popular backcountry camps in the park—and opens general permit reservations on April 29.
See my story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades,” which has my tips on how to plan and take this trip, including shorter variations of the route, and all stories about North Cascades National Park at The Big Outside.
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Backpack Incomparable Glacier National Park
Little wonder that Glacier ranks among the favorite national parks of backpackers: No place in the Lower 48 really compares with it. From its rivers of ice (which are disappearing rapidly due to climate change) pouring off 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 in September 2023, when two friends and I hiked for a week 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-books describing 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. They also describe shorter variations on those routes.
And, of course, I can give you a customized plan for a backpacking trip of any length in Glacier; click here to learn how.
Starting in 2024, Glacier will hold two early-access lotteries, on March 1 for large groups of nine to 12 people and on March 15 for standard groups of one to eight people, for a date and time between March 21 and April 30 when they can apply for a permit reservation. Glacier makes 70 percent of backcountry campsites available for reservations and 30 percent of campsites available for walk-in permits.
See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in Glacier National Park” and all stories about backpacking in Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Want my help planning any trip on this list?
Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Trek through These Little-Known Peaks in Spain
From minutes into our hike up the Cares Gorge in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park, walking through a herd of chamois in a gorge that looks like an impressionist painting with its soaring, white and gray limestone cliffs dappled with greenery, we were enchanted by these mountains that resemble a smaller replica of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains—and I was flabbergasted that I had only first heard of this place months earlier.
And the adventure seemed to only get better and prettier with each day.
My family hiked a 52-mile (84-kilometer) loop over five days through the highest and most rugged and vertiginous peaks of the Picos de Europa. At every turn, we gaped at enormous limestone cliffs and jagged peaks. Like other European treks, it had a civilized flavor, as we walked valleys with tiny, quiet villages and grazing sheep and cows and spent our nights in mountain huts or inns. But like the best international treks I’ve taken, the Picos have an element of stark, rugged beauty, which we saw hiking through alpine terrain where we went hours without seeing other hikers.
See my story “The Best 5-Day Hike in Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains.”
Read any story linked here and ALL stories 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 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. For backpacking, plan to apply for a wilderness permit 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the week you want to start hiking.
If you want to backpack Yosemite this summer, the time to apply for a wilderness permit is now.
See “Backpacking Yosemite: What You Need to Know,” “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and all of this blog’s stories about backpacking in Yosemite, plus my expert e-books to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”
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-books to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
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 reside near or at the top of that list. The Winds are also one of the few mountain ranges in the contiguous United States where—if you put in the effort to get beyond the very few popular trailheads—you can hike for days below 13,000-foot peaks and count more alpine lakes than people.
Among the most recent of several trips I’ve made to the Winds, my wife, a friend, and I backpacked a five-day, roughly 43-mile loop from one of the less-busy trailheads on the west side of the range, following some of the most scenic trails I’ve walked in the Winds to high passes and gorgeous lakes around every turn; 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; and two friends and I backpacked a 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park, camping our first night between two alpine lakes at over 10,500 feet below granite walls rising to summits nearing 14,000 feet, crossing three 12,000-foot mountain passes, and strolling past dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes.
Most recently, on a four-day hike in August 2023, a friend and I camped near a gorgeous lake every night and crossed four passes, including a “back door” entrance into the amazing Cirque of the Towers, and I left there thinking we’d just done the best multi-day hike in the Winds. Watch for my upcoming story about that trip.
See “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Wind River Range” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
I’ve helped many readers plan a wonderful backpacking trip, ideal for them, in the Wind River Range. See my Custom Trip Planning page to see comments from many readers and learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog.
Get the right gear for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Trek Through Italy’s Dolomite Mountains
Located in the northeastern Italian Alps, with one national park, several regional parks, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dolomites thrust a dizzying array of spires and serrated peaks into the sky, gleaming like polished jewels in bright sunshine and virtually pulsing with the salmon hue of evening alpenglow. They strike a sharp contrast with the deep, steep-sided, verdantly green valleys and meadows. On a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through one of the world’s most spectacular and storied mountain ranges, my family hiked a 39-mile (62-kilometer) section of the roughly 112-mile (180-kilometer) Alta Via 2, or “The Way of the Legends.”
An alpine footpath famous for scenery that puts it in legitimate contention for the title of the most beautiful trail in the world, the AV 2 is also known for comfortable mountain huts with excellent food—and a reputation for being the most remote and difficult of the several multi-day alte vie, or “high paths,” that crisscross the Dolomites. On one of the all-time best adventures I’ve ever taken, we discovered that it was all of those things and more.
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
See the Glorious Southern Sierra in Sequoia National Park
With some of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 and a constellation of backcountry lakes, California’s southern High Sierra rank among the prettiest 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, 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 up to six months in advance for a trip during the park’s quota period of late May through mid-September.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking or hiking trip.
Want my help with yours? Click here to learn more.
Wander 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 range, one of the most remote and least-visited areas of these mountains. A friend and I backpacked a four-day, 57-mile route, 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 a 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-book “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 stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooths at The Big Outside.
I’ve helped many readers plan a wonderful backpacking trip, ideal for them, anywhere in the Sawtooths. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you, too.
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-books.
Trek Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park
Picture this: an Arctic-looking landscape vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, wildflowers, and lichen blanketing glacial-erratic boulders. Cliffs and mountains that look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe. Thick, crack-riddled glaciers pouring like pancake batter that needs more water off starkly barren peaks rising to more than 8,000 feet. Braided rivers meandering down mostly treeless valleys, and reindeer roaming wild. Summit views of a sea of snowy, glacier-clad peaks rolling away to far horizons.
That describes my family’s weeklong, roughly 60-mile, hut-to-hut trek through Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park—whose name means the “Home of the Giants.”
Our adventure combined pristine wilderness with the most luxurious huts I’ve ever stayed in—some featuring private rooms, hot showers, and restaurant-caliber meals—a trail network that allows for flexibility in route options, and optional side hikes to summits with mind-blowing views of mountains buried in snow and ice, including the highest peak in Norway. Some of us also hiked a spectacular ridge traverse known as “the most famous hike in Norway,” which I’d normally receive as a warning sign, but in this case, it’s a rigorous hike that I’d return to in a second.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
See the Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness
When you’re ready for a backpacking trip with challenge to match its scenery, then take on the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. You’ll enjoy five-star views of Glacier Peak, the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, and incredible mountain lakes.
To give you some perspective on how big a fan I am of this near-loop, this trip produced one campsite that made my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites, two camps that grace my list of the nicest campsites I’ve hiked past, and it harbors one of my favorite backcountry lakes.
Plus, this hike has a little spice: the off-trail route over 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which holds snow all summer and can be challenging, depending on the firmness of the snow and the skill level of the backpackers.
See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop,” and all stories about the North Cascades region 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 “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”