By Michael Lanza
The imminent end of summer always feels a little melancholy. After all, it marks the close of the prime season for getting into the mountains. But it also signals the beginning of a time of year when many mountain ranges become less crowded just as they’re hitting a sweet zone in terms of temperatures, the lack of bugs, and fall foliage color. Autumn also stands out as an ideal season for many Southwest hikes, with moderate temperatures and even some stunning color.
From Yosemite to the North Cascades (lead photo, above), Grand Canyon to Grand Teton, the Great Smokies to Zion and more, here are 10 of my favorite backpacking trips that get even better in fall.
North Cascades National Park
In the last week of September, with huckleberries ripe and tasty and the larch trees blazing yellow with fall color (lead photo at top of story), a friend and I took an 80-mile hike through the heart of the North Cascades National Park Complex, a sprawling swath of heavily glaciated mountains and thickly forested valleys. 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, where waterfalls and glaciers pour off cliffs and jagged, snowy peaks.
We enjoyed five sunny, glorious early-fall days; but, of course, snow can fall in these mountains in September, so watch the forecast. The good news: It’s easy to get a backcountry permit—no reservation needed in most of the park. North Cascades has long been one of my favorite parks (it has one of the most inspiring backcountry campsites I’ve ever slept in). But not many backpackers know this place: It’s one of America’s least-visited national parks. That’s good if you like to have a beautiful wild place to yourself.
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 80-mile route.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Unquestionably one of the East’s premier backpacking destinations, the Great Smokies have two peak seasons: spring, when about 1,600 species of flowering plants—more than found in any other national park—come into bloom; and fall, when dry air and moderate temperatures settle in, insects have mostly disappeared, and the forest paints itself in the brilliant hues of autumn foliage. While you’ve probably seen many photos of the classic vistas from Great Smokies summits of overlapping rows of blue, wooded ridges fading to a distant horizon, I’ve found that much of the park’s magic resides in its rocky streams tumbling through cascades, and a diverse forest where you may hear only the sound of birds.
On a 34-mile, October hike in the park, beginning near Fontana Lake and traversing a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, I enjoyed a grand tour of this half-million-acre park, including 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 very popular fall hiking season.
See my feature story about that trip, “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains,” and all my stories about Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hiking and backpacking in western North Carolina.
Show up and hike. See my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Grand Canyon National Park
You already know that spring and fall are the prime seasons for backpacking in the Grand Canyon. But while weather can be unstable in either season, in spring you’re aiming for a window between when snow and ice melt off the rims in April and when the scorching temps hit the inner canyon in May. In fall, though, you’ll enjoy dry trails, a surprising amount of color in the sparse desert vegetation, and pleasant temperatures often lasting into November (which was when I backpacked there with my daughter).
Backpacking permits for the corridor trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—are in high demand. Sure, grab those campsites if available; but if not, I recommend the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, or the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead—or even combining or overlapping them. Both feature sublime campsites, stretches of flatter hiking along the Tonto Trail with views reaching from the Colorado River to the South and North rims, and crossings of deep side canyons with flaming-red walls shooting straight up into the sky.
See my stories “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail,” and “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” and my downloadable e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” (photo above).
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Yosemite National Park
Want to know the hardest thing about backpacking in Yosemite? Getting the permit. Well, okay, the hiking itself can be tough at times. But the competition for backcountry permits in this flagship park is stiff, especially for popular trailheads in and around Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. That’s why backpackers in the know go after Labor Day. While early-season snowstorms occasionally slam the High Sierra in autumn, nice weather often lingers through September and well into October—my favorite time in the High Sierra.
In fact, I’ve helped numerous readers of my blog figure out how and where they can get a last-minute, walk-in backcountry permit in Yosemite, and then laid out the route for them. See my Custom Trip Planning page if you’d like me to do that for you in Yosemite or for any trip I’ve written about.
With the population pressure eased up in late summer and autumn, you can often score a walk-in permit—without a reservation—for a five-star hike of almost any distance, hitting top Yosemite summits like Clouds Rest and Mount Hoffmann, and the incomparable Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, plus remoter areas like Red Peak Pass, the highest pass reached by trail in Yosemite.
Then the only hard aspect of the hike will be… you got it: the hike.
See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” and “Ask Me: Where Can I Hike in Yosemite in Late Fall?”
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
Grand Teton National Park
Like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, Grand Teton is a park where securing a backcountry permit reservation requires being on top of the process months in advance; after May 15, no reservations are accepted for the rest of the year, and only walk-in permits are issued, up to a day in advance of a multi-day hike. But the park also sets aside about two-thirds of available campsites for walk-ins. While demand is huge for those during July and August, as with other parks, it tails off steadily after Labor Day.
The combination of relatively high elevations and a northerly latitude brings a slightly higher probability that snow will fly in the Tetons in late summer or early fall. But beautiful summer weather, with pleasant days and crisp nights, can extend into late September and even October, a season when you’ll see aspens turn golden and hear rutting elk bugling. And few backpackers show up at park offices seeking a permit—you can walk in, grab one, and go.
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,” and my popular, downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”
Want my help planning any trip you read about at my blog? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Zion National Park
Here’s what I’ve discovered about Zion in numerous visits since my first one more than two decades ago: The more time you spend there, the more you discover there is to do—so you need to keep coming back. But exploring Zion faces seasonal limitations, especially for its two premier backpacking trips. The nearly 50-mile, north-south traverse of the park—which can be done in shorter sections—crosses high plateaus that often remain snow-covered into May, with one creek crossing that can be challenging in the high water of spring.
The North Fork of the Virgin River often runs too high in spring to make the overnight descent of The Narrows; and while much of it is shaded and cool even on summer’s hottest days, the top and bottom are exposed to the broiling sun. September and October offer prime conditions for these hikes—and the cottonwood trees turn golden in October—and I backpacked The Narrows with a forecast for ideal weather in early November.
See my stories “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows” and “Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery,” and my downloadable, expert e-guide “Backpacking the Narrows in Zion National Park.”
Glacier National Park
Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers experience first-hand what many backpackers haven’t yet discovered: September and even early October can offer the best conditions for a multi-day hike through one of the Lower 48’s two most inspiring park in terms of megafauna (the other being Yellowstone), and arguably the most spectacular for backpackers. I know because three friends and I ran into many CDT thru-hikers on our own 94-mile traverse of most of the CDT through Glacier last September. (Our route took a couple of detours off CDT to hit what I think are many of the park’s scenic highlights.)
We saw mountain goats and numerous bighorn sheep, moose, and black and grizzly bears—and the piles of fresh scat from the bears we didn’t see—and heard rutting elk bugling every morning and evening. We also enjoyed much of Glacier’s finest scenery, from vistas of knife-blade peaks scraping the sky to one lovely waterfall, lake, and creek after another. After several backpacking trips in Glacier—including the one I consider the best backpacking trip in the park—I’ve concluded that CDT thru-hikers have very fortunate timing on their side when they reach Glacier.
See my stories “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and “Rugged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,” plus my downloadable e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park,” with my expert tips on planning and hiking the Northern Loop, and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.”
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best thru-hiking pack.
Capitol Reef National Park
Spring and fall are the seasons to backpack in the desert Southwest, mostly because the blazing heat of summer has dialed back to a temperature range that humans can survive. In Capitol Reef, with its somewhat higher and cooler elevations, the fall hiking season stretches from early September well into November. And consider this fact: While many of the Southwest’s best backpacking trips require applying for a permit months in advance, so few people backpack in Capitol Reef that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk, grab a free permit for a multi-day hike, and hit the trail immediately—no reservation needed.
And Capitol Reef’s soaring red cliffs and white beehive formations, broad river canyons and narrow slots certainly compete with southern Utah’s four other national parks in the splendor department. I’ve backpacked with my family in Spring Canyon—where easy hiking and water availability were much appreciated with young kids—done an overnight camping on the rim above Upper Muley Twist Canyon, and made a stunningly beautiful and adventurous, mostly off-trail, three-day traverse of the park’s signature feature, the topographical maze of cliffs and canyons known as the Waterpocket Fold.
See my stories “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First,” “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” “Ask Me: Where Should We Backpack in Capitol Reef National Park,” and “The Most Beautiful Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: Crossing Utah’s Capitol Reef” at The Big Outside.
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If ever there were mountains that screamed to be explored in fall, these are those. New Hampshire’s rocky and steep White Mountains are where I wore out my first several pairs of hiking boots, and I still return every year for their awe-inspiring brand of suffering. While the fall colors that usually peak in early October are beautiful throughout the Whites, my top two picks for fall backpacking trips are a 32-mile loop around the Pemigewasset Wilderness and a 24-mile traverse from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch, mostly on the Appalachian Trail.
The 32-mile Pemi Loop from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) crosses eight official 4,000-foot summits, including the alpine traverse of Franconia Ridge—with its constant panorama encompassing most of the Whites—and a walk along the rocky crest of remote Bondcliff, in the heart of the Pemigewasset. Crawford to Franconia overlaps some of the Pemi Loop’s highlights, while adding killer views of Crawford and Zealand notches. (Tip: Definitely take the short side trip to the overlook at Zeacliff, photo above.) And you can add on the summits of Bond, Bondcliff, and West Bond by tacking on an out-and-back side trip that adds several miles.
See my stories “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” “Being Stupid With Friends: A 32-Mile Dayhike in the White Mountains,” about dayhiking the Pemi Loop, and “Ask Me: What Are Your Favorite New England Hikes?”
Be comfortable and safe on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail
A multi-day hike with views around almost every bend of a towering volcano draped in snow and ice, where you pass through forests of ancient, big trees—sounds like the classic Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, right? Actually, it’s the 41-mile Timberline Trail looping Oregon’s 11,239-foot Mount Hood, and it competes with the better-known Wonderland for scenic splendor, waterfalls, and wildflower meadows, while delivering a higher degree of excitement and challenge with its full-value creek crossings. Although the wildflowers are obviously past bloom in fall, the creek crossings become reassuringly easier, the crowds thinner, the air crisper, and the views no less stunning.
Granted, the year’s first snowfall can certainly happen at Hood in September or October. That said, autumn delivers many days of glorious weather in the Pacific Northwest, and the Timberline is less than half the distance of the Wonderland, making it easier to knock off with a decent weather window. (Plus, unlike the Wonderland, the Timberline involves no permit hoops to jump through.) If the forecast promises a string of three to five reasonably nice days, aim your compass for the Timberline Trail.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
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