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 backpacking and other trips in the U.S.—from Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier (photo above), Sequoia, Canyonlands and Yellowstone national parks to the Teton Crest Trail and a few adventures on water and land 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.
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 Teton Crest Trail
I’ve had the good fortune of taking many of the best backpacking trips in America. But of them all, the Teton Crest Trail is the one I’ve returned to the most times—most recently in August 2019, when it seemed just as beautiful and inspiring as the first time I backpacked it more than 25 years ago. That’s because this traverse of Grand Teton National Park has everything: incredible views almost every step of the way, wildflowers, killer campsites, a good chance of wildlife sightings, and even, at times, a measure of solitude.
It’s challenging but not severely difficult (we took our kids when they were in grade school) and delivers a five-star adventure in one of America’s most spectacular mountain ranges. This is an enormously popular trip, so plan on reserving a backcountry permit when the park starts accepting them in early January.
See my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” and my numerous posts about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park.
I’ve helped many readers plan a Teton Crest Trail backpacking trip. See my Custom Trip Planning page.
Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.
Dive Deep Into the Grand Canyon
I think it’s fair to say that you cannot call yourself an accomplished backpacker or dayhiker until you’ve gone down into the Grand Canyon—and arguably multiple times—simply because it’s so unique, challenging, and mind-boggling beautiful and vast. Every hike there has only fueled my appetite to explore more of the 1.2 million acres in America’s fourth-largest national park outside Alaska.
I’ve explored the canyon on numerous backpacking trips and rim-to-rim-to-rim ultra-runs and hikes, including seeing the surprisingly lush oases on the rugged and stunning Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim; enjoying an adventure with repeated surprises on one of the canyon’s hardest multi-day hikes, the Royal Arch Loop; and backpacking from the South Kaibab to Lipan Point—including the Escalante Route, which has hands-down one of the best overlooks I’ve ever seen in the canyon. Afterward, I understood why a longtime backcountry ranger had told me beforehand that that traverse is “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.”
The Grand Canyon can get addictive—but in a good way.
Apply for a popular Grand Canyon backpacking permit beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, by Dec. 1 for a trip in April or June 1 for a trip in October.
See my many stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside, including “5 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Grand Canyon.” and “Fit to Be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day.”
Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:”
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
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.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Experience the Magic of Paria Canyon
Paria Canyon has rightly earned fame as one of the best backpacking trips in the Southwest—arguably top five if not top three—for its towering walls painted wildly with desert varnish, massive red rock amphitheaters and arches, hanging gardens where the few springs in the canyon gush from rock, and sandy benches for camping, shaded by cottonwood trees.
For much of the first three days of this typically five-day descent, you pass through the Paria’s twisting narrows, where walls of searing, orange-red sandstone shoot up for hundreds of feet. The walls press in so close at times that you can cross the canyon in a dozen strides. Sunshine often ignites the upper walls and reflects warm light downward, painting every wave of rock in a subtly different hue. You’re often walking in the shallow river, and pockets of quicksand add an adventurous element to this trek.
It’s done alone or combined with its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch—which gets so tight that you have to take off your pack and squeeze through sideways.
This is a popular hike, so apply for a permit reservation as soon as they become available, which is after 12 p.m. on the first of the month, three months in advance, for example, on Jan. 1 for a trip anytime in April.
See my story “The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon.”
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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.
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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 where my family backpacked. 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.
Still, apply for a permit on or soon after March 1 for a trip during the park’s quota period of late May through late September.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
At a slickrock pass between two canyons in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, we soaked up a view that would make Dr. Seuss smile. Stratified cliffs extended in three directions from where we stood. Stone towers 200 to 300 feet tall, with bulbous crowns bigger around than the column on which they sat, seemed ever at the verge of toppling over. And this Seussian vista stretched for many miles, as far as we could see.
Days later, we hiked through sprawling gardens of sandstone arches in Arches National Park, admiring the largest from below, scrambling up into some of them, even discovering quiet corners of the park where we could enjoy a more-remote arch or a small side canyon to ourselves.
Arches has become increasingly busy, but still retains its magic, especially when you walk a few miles out a trail. Similarly, the Needles District of Canyonlands is popular with backpackers. Arrange any camping or lodging and apply for a permit reservation soon for a trip next spring and apply for a Canyonlands backcountry permit on or soon after Nov. 10 for a trip beginning between March 10 and June 9; for trips at other times of year, see the application calendar at nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm and recreation.gov/permits/4675315.
See my stories “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and “Still Waters Run Deep: Tackling America’s Best Easy Multi-Day Float Trip on the Green River,” and a menu of all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.
Whitewater Raft Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River
One of the most scenic, remote, and thrilling adventures my family has ever taken has been whitewater rafting and kayaking six days down Idaho’s classic Middle Fork of the Salmon River. We’ve done it twice and we’re already planning out next Middle Fork trip with a large group of friends and other families—yes, it’s that much fun.
Flowing like an artery through the heart of the 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—100 ratable rapids, a number of them class III and IV—plus beautiful side hikes to overlooks and waterfalls, hot springs, and some of the loveliest beach campsites you’ll ever fall asleep on. Do this trip, and take it guided if you don’t have whitewater boating skills. (I recommend our favorite river guiding company.)
Guided rafting trips on the Middle Fork book up months in advance—sometimes two years in advance for popular, mid-summer dates. Apply between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31 for a permit for a private party trip during the control season (May 28 to Sept. 3) through the online lottery at recreation.gov.
Paddle the One-of-a-Kind Everglades
Under a hot February sun and cloudless sky, we paddled kayaks across the perfectly still, dark-chocolate waters of the East River. Flocks of snowy egrets flew in close formation overhead. White ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, and brown pelicans flapped above the wide river and the green walls of forest on both sides, and great blue herons glided past, their wing spans equal to an average human’s height. We slipped through narrow mangrove tunnels, where tangles of thin branches arched overhead.
That was just the first day of a delightful family adventure in the Everglades, the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States—bigger than Glacier or Grand Canyon, twice the size of Yosemite, and one of Earth’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries.
As a person who loves the mountain, I had never seen myself exploring the Everglades. After my first, brief visit, I knew I had to return and spend more time there, because this place is so fascinating, rich in wildlife, and now so gravely threatened by the rapidly changing climate—and I knew I wanted to take my children there.
Winter is the prime season for paddling the Everglades: Temps are warm and there are few mosquitoes. Backcountry camping permits are only issued in person at the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center or at the Flamingo Visitor Center.
See my story “Like No Other Place: Paddling the Everglades.”
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking or hiking trip.
Want my help with yours? Click here to learn more.
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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