10 Adventures to Put on Your Bucket List Now
By Michael Lanza
Do you have a “bucket list?” How long is it? I’m not sure how many trips there are on my list, which I’ve maintained for years, but I can tell you its word count: 18,519 words (including notes about each trip). And it keeps getting longer, not shorter, even though I tick off new trips every year. This year, for example, I trekked the majestic Tour du Mont Blanc with my family (see below) and adventured in Costa Rica, and next month I’m backpacking an 87-mile traverse across Glacier National Park.
If you’re looking for great ideas for your bucket list (and who isn’t?), you’ve clicked to the right place. I’ve assembled here 10 of the best adventures I’ve taken over nearly three decades as an outdoor writer and photographer—all of them trips that belong on every serious outdoor adventurer’s list—with information based on my personal experience, and links to stories at The Big Outside with many more images from and info about each one.
Because here’s the thing about bucket list trips: They usually require planning months in advance. Procrastinating gets you nowhere but in a seat at your computer.
I’ll update this list regularly, too, to keep feeding you fresh ideas—and making your bucket list continually get longer rather than shorter.
I think it’s fair to say that you cannot call yourself an accomplished backpacker until you’ve backpacked in the Grand Canyon, simply because it’s one of the few places so geologically unique, challenging, and mind-boggling beautiful and vast. Every hike there has only fueled my appetite to explore more of its 1.2 million acres (America’s fourth-largest national park outside Alaska). See my stories about several trips in the Big Ditch, including hiking across the Grand Canyon; backpacking 29 miles from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead; the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead; a rugged, 15-mile trek from the New Hance Trailhead to the Colorado River and up to Grandview Point; and backpacking the experts-only, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop.
The season for backpacking in the Grand Canyon is around the corner. Visit my All National Park Trips page and scroll down to Grand Canyon for a menu of all of my stories about that flagship park.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Think about this for a moment: Walking a trail around “The Monarch of the Alps,” 15,771-foot Mont Blanc. Spending nine to 12 days hiking through three Alpine nations—France, Italy, and Switzerland—and your nights in high mountain huts with knock-your-socks-off views of crack-riddled glaciers pouring off rocky peaks. Or staying in comfortable lodging in iconic mountain towns like Chamonix and Courmayeur, and quieter villages with incredible views as well. Eating some of the best food of your life and washing it down with regional wine and beer.
Widely considered one of the world’s great treks, the Tour du Mont Blanc is as much a rich cultural experience as a one-of-a-kind scenic hike. Bonus: Abundant public transportation allows you to customize your hike to suit your stamina level and abilities. See my recent blog post about the trip and watch for my upcoming feature-length story.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
You’ve seen photos of classic Great Smoky Mountains National Park scenery, with overlapping rows of blue, wooded ridges fading to a distant horizon. But on a 34-mile hike from lower elevations near Fontana Lake up to the park’s crest, traversing a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, I enjoyed a grand tour of the wonderful variety in this half-million-acre park, one of the premier backpacking destinations east of the Mississippi.
I sat beside rocky streams tumbling through cascades; walked through forest that harbors 1,600 species of flowering plants (76 listed as threatened or endangered in North Carolina and Tennessee) accompanied only by the sound of birds; and, of course, looked out over an ocean of blue ridges from 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome and the park’s highest bald, 5,920-foot Andrews Bald. I also found a surprising degree of solitude, even in the popular fall hiking season. I’ll post a feature story about that trip soon at The Big Outside. Meanwhile, see my “3-Minute Read: Backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park” and all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in North Carolina.
Glacier National Park is one of my favorite places to backpack, but much of it is quite remote and challenging. My family’s three-day hike on the Gunsight Pass Trail, when my kids were nine and seven, was just as scenic as any trip I’ve done there, without the physical and logistical difficulties. We saw a mountain goat near Gunsight Pass, camped beside Gunsight Lake, and got views into one of Glacier’s most beautiful cirques, the one harboring Lake Ellen Wilson.
Read my story about it and see more images, and see all of my stories about Glacier National Park. (I also write more about that trip in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.)
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
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. A multi-day sea-kayaking trip in Glacier Bay (lead photo at top of story) offers a glimpse of what the world was like 10,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age drew to a close. Read my story about my family’s adventure there. (I also write more about that trip in my book Before They’re Gone.)
One of the most scenic, remote, and thrilling adventures my family has ever taken was whitewater rafting six days down Idaho’s classic Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Flowing like an artery through the heart of the second-largest federal wilderness in the continental United States, the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is about a far off the grid as one can get in the Lower 48. And there’s a lot of whitewater—300 ratable rapids, a number of them class III and IV—plus beautiful side hikes to overlooks and waterfalls.
Now my family is planning a return trip down the Middle Fork. See why in my story “Big Water, Big Wilderness: Rafting Idaho’s Incomparable Middle Fork Salmon River.”
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One of my earliest, major backpacking trips (and I’ve returned many times since), the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park has everything: wildflowers, killer campsites, incredible views almost every step of the way, and even a degree of solitude along some stretches.
See my stories “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” about backpacking the TCT with my family, as well as my numerous posts about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park, with photos and tips on backpacking there.
After the Teton Crest Trail, hike the other nine of “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”
Not many trips will feel so remote and big, as well as delivering an incredibly photogenic landscape and no small degree of challenge, as this nearly 40-mile backpacking trip I took with my family in Sequoia National Park, which included a campsite on picturesque Precipice Lake (above).
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
An Arctic-looking landscape vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, and wildflowers. Cliffs and mountains that look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe. Thick, crack-riddled glaciers pouring off mountains like pancake batter that needs more water. 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. The world’s most comfortable huts and excellent food. That describes my family’s weeklong, roughly 60-mile, hut-to-hut trek through Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park—the “Home of the Giants.” Read my story.
Last but hardly least, this dusk photo shows a campsite two friends and I shared on the Dome Glacier, with a stunning view south toward Washington’s Glacier Peak, an adventure I will write about in a future story at The Big Outside. Meanwhile, see my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.” You might also like my “Photo Gallery: 12 Nicest Backcountry Campsites I’ve Hiked Past.”
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