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, Zion, Glacier, Sequoia, and Olympic national parks to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, White Mountains, Wind River Range, Sawtooth Mountains, and Eagle Cap Wilderness—all of them trips that belong on every serious outdoor adventurer’s bucket list.
All of them are also trips that you can still plan and take in 2020.
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’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.
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 varied sampler that awes you no matter how much time you have or how many times you’ve been there.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, for this summer, Yosemite has changed its usual system for issuing first-come permits. Under this change, you can apply online for a wilderness permit from 15 to nine days in advance of your chosen starting date, and be entered into a 14-day lottery for permits. Wilderness permit reservations granted already for 2020 will still be honored. See nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
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.
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. See also “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
You want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Explore the Best of Zion National Park
Tick off the best dayhikes and backpacking trips in Zion—Angels Landing, The Narrows, The Subway, the West Rim Trail, Observation Point, the Kolob Canyons—and you’ve named some of the most scenic pieces of wild real estate in the entire National Park System. I’ve been there several times and still have adventures on my to-do list for that park.
While Zion has become the third-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. And like other uber-popular parks, a trip to Zion requires planning months in advance to get local lodging and any other needed reservations.
Find updates on Zion’s opening status at nps.gov/zion/index.htm.
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 feature 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 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.
For 2020, Glacier is issuing backcountry permits only on a first-come, walk-in basis. That mean this summer will offer a rare opportunity to just show up at Glacier and obtain a permit to start backpacking the next day.
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 more basic planning details.
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.
Get my expert e-guides to the best backpacking trip in Glacier
and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
Backpack Sequoia National Park
With some of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 and a constellation of stunning backcountry lakes, California’s southern High Sierra belong on any list of top backpacking destinations in America. 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, and camped at two lakes that earned spots on my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites.
While many backpackers zero in on Yosemite and the John Muir Trail—creating enormous demand for those backcountry permits—far fewer set their sights on areas of Sequoia like the trip my family took. That means it’s an easier permit to get, and the scenery rivals anywhere in the Sierra. I still consider it one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever hiked.
For 2020, Sequoia is issuing all wilderness permits only by advance reservation online. Find the latest information at nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm.
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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 (lead photo at top of story). You’ll enjoy five-star views of Glacier Peak, the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, and incredible mountain lakes.
Beyond amazing spots like Spider Meadows and Spider Gap, the Upper Lyman Lakes basin, Image Lake, and the area around Buck Creek Pass, this trip produced one campsite that made my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites and two camps that made 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 of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
Want my help planning any trip you read about at my blog? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Hike in the White Mountains
I’ve hiked more miles in New Hampshire’s White Mountains than I could estimate; I even authored a hiking guidebook to New England for several years. Still, like jumping into an icy lake, the constant high-stepping and relentlessly arduous nature of these trails shocks me every time I come back to hike here again. But the rugged beauty of these little peaks, and especially the views from their rocky alpine crowns, keep me coming back.
On an overnight hike from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch via Galehead Hut and Franconia Ridge, I actually saw parts of the Whites where I had not stood before—like the viewpoint from Zeacliff above the Pemigewasset Wilderness (photo above)—and other spots I had not been to in years, while reflecting on my long personal history there. These mountains should be a destination for hikers and backpackers from outside the Northeast, too, especially during foliage season.
While the Appalachian Mountain Club’s huts in the Whites are closed for 2020, and the AMC is not operating its hiker shuttles, there are designated backpacking campsites along this traverse.
See my story “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about the White Mountains at The Big Outside.
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Backpack the Wild Olympic Coast
Hiking and camping on miles and miles of wilderness beach. Stone pinnacles rising out of the pounding surf. Sightings of seals, sea otters, bald eagles, and blue whales. Climbing and descending rope ladders in dense rainforest, where giant Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and western red cedar grow to 150 or 200 feet tall, some with diameters up to 15 feet wide.
Those are just some of the many highlights of a three-day, 17.5-mile hike of the southern stretch of the coast of Olympic National Park—truly one of the best backpacking trips in America, and one suitable for a family with young kids (ours were nine and seven when we took them).
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
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Backpack 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, and rank them in order of scenic magnificence, and the Winds must be near or at the top of that list.
On the most recent of 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.
See my story “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin.”
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
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 this trip takes you into the deepest corners of Idaho’s premier mountain range.
Read my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” 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 trip in the Sawtooths and elsewhere.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
Backpack Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness
The popular Lakes Basin, including Mirror Lake (above), is merely the best-known area of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, in the Wallowa Mountains—but it is representative of the mountain scenery throughout the range.
Protected as a primitive area since 1930 and one of the inaugural group of federal wilderness areas designated in The Wilderness Act of 1964, the Eagle Cap has granite peaks, beautiful mountain lakes, white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, and abundant wildflowers that make it feel like a piece of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern Oregon.
Read my story “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness,” about my family’s five-day backpacking trip there.
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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