By Michael Lanza
For many people, 2020 was a hard year. I hope you stayed healthy and safe and were able to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible—and to take some adventures that inspired you. I had five planned trips (four backpacking, one river) canceled due to the pandemic and wildfires, but I was also fortunate to get out on five really nice backpacking trips—four of which were new places for me—and fit in a good bit of dayhiking, climbing, trail running, and even some river kayaking. This year, every outing felt especially critical to getting through these difficult times.
The 14 photos in this story are favorite images from my 2020 trips, some of which you may want to take.
They include a classic backpacking trip widely regarded as one of America’s best—the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. But this story also has images from a few backpacking destinations that may not be on your radar but are each quite beautiful hikes: the Ruby Crest Trail, Hells Canyon, and the High Uintas Wilderness. You’ll also see photos below from a couple of hard-core adventures I took this summer: a 96-mile traverse of the Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail and most of which is above 10,000 feet; and a classic rock climb of a 1,000-foot granite wall in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
Scroll through the photos and short anecdotes from each trip below. Some include links to stories about those places that I’ve already posted at The Big Outside—many of which require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my tips and information on how to plan and take those trips. Watch for my upcoming stories about the other the places described below.
And, of course, I can help you plan any of these trips or any other you read about at The Big Outside—giving you the benefit of my nearly three decades of professional experience identifying, planning, and successfully pulling off great adventures. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you, and my downloadable e-guides to some of America’s best backpacking trips.
I’d love to hear what you think of any of my photos or the places shown in them, or upcoming plans you have. Please share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
And I hope my photos help inspire you to start planning your adventures for 2021—because these are the experiences that give meaning to our lives.
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Backpacking in Hells Canyon
In the first week of June, my family and another family who are good friends, plus our teenage daughter’s best friend, took backpacked a section of the Snake River National Recreation Trail 102, on the Idaho (east) side of Hells Canyon. From Pittsburgh Landing, north of Riggins, Idaho, we hiked south for about six miles to camp for two nights in a large meadow beside the historic Kirkwood Ranch.
From that campsite, some of us took an out-and-back dayhike a few miles south on Trail 102 to Suicide Point, where the trail traverses the top of cliffs some 500 feet above the river, with a long view south up canyon. At a time when the pandemic prevented us from leaving Idaho and boat tours were not operating in Hells Canyon, we had the place mostly to ourselves, save for a few private boating parties that pulled up for a brief visit to Kirkwood.
I’d backpacked in Hells Canyon several times previously, on both the Idaho and Oregon sides, including the entire, 21-mile length of the Snake River National Recreation Trail 102, which generally stays fairly close to the river and offers a scenic introduction to the deepest gorge in North America. A national recreation area of over 650,000 acres and over 210,000 acres designated as wilderness, Hells is an overlooked but stunning and rugged landscape of cliffs, grasslands, and desert wildflowers where you may see more elk and bighorn sheep than other people.
See my story about a 56-mile solo backpacking trip on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon and watch for my upcoming story and more photos from this recent trip.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
Backpacking Utah’s High Uintas
In mid-July—after the pandemic put the kibosh on our plans for two backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies (and I hope to get back there to write about those before too long)—I backpacked a six-day, roughly 58-mile loop in northeastern Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness with my wife, daughter, and her friend, a highlight of which was tagging Utah’s highest summit, 13,538-foot Kings Peak.
Our loop from the Uinta River Trailhead proved to be more scenic and—except for Kings Peak—lonelier than I’d expected. We hiked past alpine lakes well over 10,000 feet, crossed three passes ranging from around 11,000 feet to about 12,800 feet, and enjoyed some beautiful campsites in the Uinta River Canyon, beside an alpine lake at nearly 11,000 feet, and in Painter Basin at over 11,000 feet, at the foot of Kings Peak.
Our dayhike up Kings Peak—which ranks seventh among the 50 state high points—from our camp in Painter Basin was a fun day and featured a bit of third-class scrambling and boulder hopping up the summit ridge. And the panorama from the highest piece of rock in the Beehive State convinced me that I need to spend more time exploring that mountain range.
Watch for my upcoming story about my family’s backpacking trip in the High Uintas. Meanwhile, see all of my stories about backpacking in Utah and my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest” at The Big Outside.
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Backpacking Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail
Sometimes disappointment—having to cancel our trip to Canada—leads to new opportunities. I had been eying the Ruby Crest Trail for several years and decided the coronavirus-impeded summer of 2020 seemed like the perfect time to visit a wilderness area that sees relatively few backpackers and dayhikers compared to marquis parks and mountain ranges around the West.
Immediately after our Uintas hike, my family backpacked a four-day, approximately 36-mile traverse of the Ruby Crest Trail. We saw the wildflowers blooming, had moderate daytime temperatures and comfortably cool nights, and saw relatively few mosquitoes—unusual for July in many mountain ranges—and few other backpackers.
Hiking it south to north, the Ruby Crest Trail transitions from a high-desert landscape speckled with granite monoliths to aspen and conifer forests and barren, alpine terrain spotted with stunning mountain lakes. Much of the traverse remains high above treeline, with sweeping views.
See my feature story about backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail.
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking and hiking trips. Want my help with yours? Click here.
Backpacking the Wind River High Route
It seems impossible to overstate the magnificence of the Wind River High Route, an elegant, high-elevation, multi-day traverse of one of America’s most majestic mountain ranges, Wyoming’s Wind River Range. In August, three friends and I backpacked the roughly 96-mile route from south to north, about two-thirds of it off-trail.
Weaving back and forth across the Continental Divide about a dozen times and staying mostly between 10,000 and 12,000 feet while racking up more than 30,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss, we crossed 10 named alpine passes ranging from nearly 11,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet—nine of them off-trail—tagged the southernmost and northernmost 13,000-foot summits in the Winds, and hiked over endless miles of talus, scree, snow, glaciers (but no technical terrain beyond a bit of third-class scrambling).
From the world-famous Cirque of the Towers (lead photo at top of story) to one amazing valley or cirque after another, we walked the shores of innumerable stunning alpine lakes and immersed ourselves in frigid creeks tumbling over granite ledges and through wonderful pools seen by far more trout than humans.
Almost relentlessly rugged and physically and mentally taxing, with navigational challenges—and sections with hazardous loose rocks—the Wind River High Route is, mile-for-mile, arguably the most jaw-dropping trek through any mountain range in America (and I’ve taken many of the very best over the past three decades).
See my story “The Wind River High Route—A Journey in Photos” and watch for my upcoming feature story about the WRHR at The Big Outside.
The right gear makes any trip go better. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
Rock Climbing the Elephant’s Perch in Idaho’s Sawtooths
I’ve done quite a lot of backpacking, dayhiking, climbing, and backcountry skiing in Idaho’s premier mountain range, the Sawtooths, over the past 20-plus years. But returning to rock climb the Elephant’s Perch, a 1,000-foot-tall cliff of golden granite, with my 19-year-old son, Nate, in August, will be one of my most cherished memories of this place.
Towering over the Saddleback Lakes and the Yosemite-like valley of Redfish Lake Creek, “the Perch” is a destination for climbers from all over the country. Nate and I backpacked in to the lakes, spending two nights camped on a rock slab above the shore of the first lake, which sits at the toe of the Perch.
On our second morning, we set out early and spent much of a glorious, sunny day climbing the cliff’s standard route, the Mountaineers Route, which has several moderate pitches rated up to 5.9. Back in our camp that evening, Nate—who has climbed with me since he was about five years old—said to me, “It was nice to finally get to that.”
See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside.
Click here now for my expert e-guide to the best backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains!
Backpacking the Wonderland Trail Around Mount Rainier
In the first week of September, at the tail end of summer, two friends and I backpacked a 77-mile near-loop around Mount Rainier, hitting some sections of the Wonderland Trail that I had not hiked before and a popular and scenic variation of the Wonderland on the Spray Park Trail. Besides giving all of us a much-needed break from the bleak news inundating us every day at home, it put the glory of this long hike on full display.
One of America’s best multi-day hikes—especially of more than a week—the Wonderland Trail makes a 93-mile, strenuously up-and-down circuit of the 14,411-foot, heavily glaciated, tallest volcano in the Lower 48, a peak widely considered the queen of the Pacific Northwest: Mount Rainier.
The trip features roaring rivers gray with glacial “flour,” countless waterfalls, giant trees, some of the best wildflower meadows you will ever walk through, and ever-changing views of ice- and snow-cloaked Mount Rainier. Seeing “The Mountain” appear as you round a bend can stop you in your tracks in disbelief over its staggering relief.
With a cumulative elevation gain and loss of over 44,000 feet, the trail regularly dishes up 2,000-foot and 3,000-foot ascents and descents. But there isn’t another multi-day hike quite like it.
Want to hike the Wonderland Trail? Get my expert e-guide
“The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”