By Michael Lanza
Solitude has always reigned as one of the holy grails of backpacking: We all dream of finding that lonely campsite deep in the wilderness with an amazing vista, or hiking for miles or days encountering few or even no other people on the trail. Unfortunately, reality often conflicts with expectations for many backpackers when they discover that the dream trip they’ve been anticipating for months was apparently a dream trip for an awful lot of other people, too.
But the truth is that there are many ways to find backcountry solitude because the odds work in your favor: Most wilderness trails have few or no people on them most of the time. The search for solitude is less a needle-in-a-haystack conundrum and more a matter of thinking outside the box: You simply have to understand where and when to look for it—and stop thinking like everyone else thinks.
I’ve learned the tricks for finding solitude described in this story over more than three decades (and counting) and innumerable thousands of miles of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. Following these practices, I have enjoyed surprising degrees of solitude even on popular trails in major national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Glacier, Zion, the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains, and others, as well as in wilderness areas, mountain ranges, and desert canyons across America.
I believe these tips will work for you, too.
Please share what you think of my tips or any of your own tips for finding solitude in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Click on any photo in this story to read about that trip.
1. Hit Less Well-Known Areas of Popular Parks
The first truth to understand is just how heavily concentrated most backcountry use is in the most popular parks. Chew on these stats for a minute:
• From 2011 to 2016, the number of permit requests for starting the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park doubled, reaching about 3,500. That explosive growth prompted Yosemite to implement a rolling lottery for JMT permits. These days, that system operates efficiently and fairly—yet still, nearly 70 percent of applications are unsuccessful.
• I once interviewed a retired backcountry ranger who’d worked for 37 years in Yosemite, 25 years as wilderness manager, and had hiked every trail in Yosemite “probably about 10 times.” (The definition of “good gig.”) He said about 10 percent of the park’s hundreds of miles of trails—the JMT from Happy Isles to Donohue Pass and the Sierra High Camps loop—accounts for about 80 percent of all trail use. Little Yosemite Valley alone accounts for almost 20 percent. He told me: “There are areas of the park where you will see very few people.”
• Up to 2013, Mount Rainier National Park received around 800 applications every March (when the park begins accepting permit requests for the year) for wilderness permits to climb or backpack in the park, including all or part of the Wonderland Trail. That number jumped to 1,400 in 2013, 2,000 in 2014, over 2,700 in 2015, and 5,900 in 2017—44 percent of them for backpacking the Wonderland Trail. The park has campsite capacity to grant about 900 permits annually for the entire Wonderland, about one in three of the roughly 2,500 applications for a full Wonderland permit.
• When applying for a backcountry permit in the Grand Canyon on the earliest date possible (four months in advance), the success rate in obtaining one goes from nearly 100 percent for trips from December through February to around 40 to 65 percent in April and October. Upwards of 75 percent or more of applications for backpacking the three popular corridor trails (Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab) in spring or fall get denied.
The flip side of those statistics reveal that many backcountry areas even in popular parks see far less demand for permits, such as northern Yosemite and a hike I consider Yosemite’s best-kept secret backpacking trip, numerous trails in Glacier including sections of the Continental Divide Trail (lead photo at top of story), the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop, Escalante Route, and Clear Creek Trail and Utah Flats Route, Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop, the Maze District in Canyonlands, Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon, and a gorgeous swath of the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park, among many examples. I even enjoyed solitude on most of a solo, 34-mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains—during the October peak foliage season.
I’ve helped many readers of my blog plan a backpacking trip—and successfully obtain a permit—in Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and other uber-popular parks. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan all the details of your next adventure.
See my stories “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” and “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking,” the menu of stories on my All Trips List, and my expert e-guides to backpacking trips.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
2. Go Outside the Peak Season
You may have read this tip before and thought it sounds decidedly unappealing. If so, reconsider your apprehension because this represents one of the easiest strategies for finding solitude.
Good weather often persists into autumn in many mountain ranges—while backcountry use tends to tail off sharply after Labor Day. I’ve long considered September the best month for backpacking in Western mountains and have almost always encountered mild, dry days, cool but not frigid nights—and no bugs. In the Southwest canyons, moderate temperatures often arrive by late winter or early spring and the fall season can extend late October and November.
As examples, target post-Labor Day—the later the better for fewer people and less competition for a backcountry permit, weather permitting—to hike many northern Rockies or Pacific Northwest trips such as “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park,” the Teton Crest Trail, Wind River Range, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail; late September or into October for “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” or the John Muir Trail, mid-autumn for Zion’s Narrows (I hit a perfect weather window in early November—although I watched the forecast and our hike was preceded and followed by cold, wet weather), and late March to early April or late October well into November for “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.” And we enjoyed even more solitude than usual by backpacking the Maze District in Canyonlands in the first week of March.
My related tip no. 9 (below) shares a trick I’ve learned about the transitional times between peak and off-seasons.
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3. Go to Wilderness Areas Instead of National Parks
For many good reasons, national parks are the marquis destinations for everyone who loves the outdoors. But the U.S. has over twice as much wilderness as parks: more than 111 million acres compared to 52.2 million acres in parks. That’s an area larger than California spread across more than 760 designated wilderness areas that are managed for the same values and uses as the large, wilderness-based national parks—although often without a need to reserve a permit in advance.
Many federal wilderness areas were protected before some newer parks and were once considered for national park designation—in other words, they’re just as nice, but without the red tape, renown, and crowds of some parks.
Want some suggestions?
I have long seen similarities between Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and the Tetons and High Sierra. The Wind River Range certainly compares for majesty with any mountains in the West and may be outdone only by the High Sierra in its abundance of beautiful alpine lakes. While getting a backcountry permit for the John Muir Wilderness and others in the Sierra can be competitive, it’s nothing like trying to get a permit in parts of Yosemite or for the John Muir Trail.
Moreover, the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood is in many respects the scenic equal—and a shorter version—of Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Paria Canyon unquestionably ranks among the very best multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest. You’ll find outstanding mountains and solitude in much of the High Uintas Wilderness, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Pasayten Wilderness, and Eagle Cap Wilderness, and on the Ruby Crest Trail.
Looking for a trip in the East? One of my favorites is this 32-mile loop in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
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4. Go to the Places You Rarely Hear About
Yes, some wilderness areas are as popular and crowded as some national parks—or even more crowded, especially if they lack a permit system or other management regulations that control the numbers of people. Proximity to population centers exerts a major impact on the numbers of people seen on trails (the subject of the next tip).
But sometimes it’s simply a matter of a destination becoming well known—a name familiar to many people all over the country. If you read and hear about the place frequently, other backpackers are reading and hearing about it, too.
Seek out places you rarely or never hear about—like some of those in the menu of stories on my All Trips List, including southern Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, Hells Canyon, and Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains and wild and remote Idaho Wilderness Trail.
Start planning your next adventure now! See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “How to Plan a Wilderness Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips.”
5. Go to Places Far from Big Cities
Living in Idaho, a largely rural state where the biggest city is much smaller than the major cities in many states, I have explored many mountain ranges and canyons visited by few other people simply because there aren’t very many people who live within a half-day’s drive of these places. Conversely, parks like like Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, Grand Canyon and others lie within reach of millions of people for a weekend trip.
Travel to places that lie several hours’ drive from major population centers and airports and you are virtually assured of seeing fewer people.
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6. Backpack Deeper into the Backcountry
When I planned a 150-mile hike—split into two backpacking trips—to explore the most remote corners of Yosemite National Park (photo above), that pair of trips illustrated a phenomenon I have seen repeated many times in many places: The deeper we got into the backcountry, the fewer people we saw.
With most backpackers taking trips of 50 miles or less, the falloff in numbers of people in the backcountry becomes significant the more miles you put between yourself and the nearest trailhead. Spending more days in the backcountry also eases you into a different mindset that brings its own rewards, beyond finding solitude, but which solitude amplifies.
I’ve enjoyed the myriad benefits of longer trips on this 80-mile hike through the North Cascades National Park complex, this 57-mile hike in the remote interior of Idaho’s Sawtooths, this 74-mile trek I’ve called “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon,” this 94-mile traverse of Glacier National Park (photo at right), and this 130-mile hike through the High Sierra, mostly on the John Muir Trail.
Upping your game from 40-mile backpacking trips to, say, 80 miles, or a thru-hike of a long trail like the John Muir Trail, becomes much more feasible when you get smarter about your trip planning and habits in camp and on the trail and lighten your gear.
See my stories “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” “5 Tips for Getting Out of Camp Faster When Backpacking,” and “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip.”
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.