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 the Wind River Range (lead photo above), Glacier Peak Wilderness, Great Smoky Mountains, Southern Sawtooths, and the Grand Canyon, to the White Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, Eagle Cap, and Capitol Reef—all of them trips that belong on every serious outdoor adventurer’s bucket list. All of them are also trips that you must start planning for now to take them in 2019.
The 10 trips described below—each with an inspiring photo—all have links to stories at The Big Outside with many more images and info for each one. I update this list regularly to keep feeding you fresh ideas—and making 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.
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.”
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 mountain lakes. Beyond beauty 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.
Read any story linked here. Join now for access to ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus a FREE e-guide!
Backpack the Great Smoky Mountains
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.
Read my story “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Don’t let red tape foil your plans. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Backpack Deep Into Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
I had been hiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooths—the wilderness that’s sort of 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 can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Go 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 geologically 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.
Even after numerous trips over the years, I returned three times in the past year, backpacking the rugged and stunning, 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim in May 2018, dayhiking rim-to-rim-to-rim across the canyon and back over two days last October, and backpacking six days this past April from the South Kaibab Trailhead to the Tanner Trailhead; and I’m returning again this October to attempt to run rim-to-rim-to-rim (the last two trips you will read about eventually at The Big Outside). The Grand Canyon can get addictive, but in a good way.
Hike the canyon smartly and safely. Get my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
See my many stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside, including my feature stories about dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim and dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim; backpacking the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop; 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.
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.
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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Explore Zion National Park
Tick off the best dayhikes and backpacking trips in Zion—Angels Landing, The Narrows, The Subway, the West Rim Trail, 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.
And like other popular parks, a trip to Zion requires planning months in advance to get local lodging and any other needed reservations.
See all of my stories about Zion, including “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 e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Visit Yellowstone in an Off-Season
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, 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. 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.
See my stories “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” “Ask Me: 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.
Read about how climate change is affecting Yellowstone and other parks in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
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.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Plunge Into Solitude in Capitol Reef
Squeeze through slot canyons, hike trails through a landscape of rock formations that look sculpted by a giant child with an unlimited supply of mud and crayons, and camp below night skies lit up like Times Square with stars. Situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, southern Utah’s Capitol Reef has comparable scenery without the crowds. It’s one of the most overlooked and underappreciated gems of the National Park System.
Read my story about my family’s weeklong trip there, “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” and see a menu of all stories about Capitol Reef at The Big Outside.
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