By Michael Lanza
How was your 2021? I hope you stayed healthy and got outdoors as much as possible with the people you care about—and you enjoyed adventures that inspired you. Despite some obstacles, I was able to fit in several trips backpacking, floating for days down a wilderness river, and dayhiking—four of which were in new places for me. In the second year of the pandemic, on top of which I was recovering from some injuries (which I’ve thankfully healed from), I was reminded yet again just how important these experiences are to me.
The 14 photos in this story are favorite images from my 2021 trips, some of which you may want to take.
This story includes a backpacking trip in an iconic national park widely considered one of America’s best—Yosemite — but in an area I had overlooked on several previous multi-day hikes over the past 30 years there. I left convinced I’d found Yosemite’s best-kept secret. But this story also shares images from a few backpacking destinations far off the beaten path: the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park and Washington ’ s Pasayten Wilderness. You’ll also see photos below from family adventures floating the Desolation Canyon and Gray Canyon section of the Green River in southern Utah; a bit of rock climbing; backpacking in the Wind River Range with my son (a trip cut short by horrendous weather, yet which just got the two of us fired up to return), and hiking on the big island of Hawaii.
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 other the places described below.
And 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 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 2022—because these are the experiences that give meaning to our lives.
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Backpacking the Maze in Canyonlands
In the chilly first week of March, three friends and I took a five-day, approximately 46-mile backpacking trip through one of the greatest geological oddities in the National Park System—the Maze in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. From the breathtaking panorama at Maze Overlook (below and in lead photo at the top of this story), to the wildly circuitous and unobvious trail descending off Maze Overlook, which involved some serious scrambling and lowering of backpacks, and each day’s exploration through this labyrinth of sandstone fins, towers, and canyons that comprise the Maze, it proved a great adventure in every sense of the word.
Thanks to its very rugged character, remoteness from paved roads, and few water sources that can dry up seasonally, the Maze is no casual outing. That fact alone promises more solitude than one can realistically expect on many national park trails: We encountered just a handful of people over the course of five days (party because we arrived just ahead of the peak season).
But the adventurous character of its routes, jaw-dropping vistas and canyons, ancient pictographs, and deep solitude make it a holy grail for serious Southwest explorers.
See my story “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze” and my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
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Floating the Green River’s Desolation and Gray Canyons
Any trip that begins with a bush flight into a remote backcountry airstrip is already off to a really good start and flying just 2,000 feet above the canyon of the Green River is a spectacular beginning to an adventure. In June, our group of 16 family and friends took a six-day whitewater rafting and kayaking trip through Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green River—known among river people by the shorthand Deso-Gray—led by guides with Holiday River Expeditions.
In the late-spring heat of southern Utah, we spent hours each day happily floating lazy sections of the river, spinning in the current while gawking at canyon walls towering hundreds of feet above the river and watching the occasional great blue heron fly overhead; running thrilling rapids up to class III; taking side hikes to canyon overlooks, a natural bridge, and some of the best, most detailed and elaborate petroglyphs I’ve ever seen; and playing games or just sitting around a series of gorgeous beach campsites beneath one of the darkest and most star-riddled night skies in the country.
As river trips always do, this one gave us all not only a beautiful and fun adventure, but offered an opportunity to bring together a group of people of widely varying abilities and comfort levels in a situation that’s controlled, safe, and enjoyable for everyone.
Watch for my upcoming story at The Big Outside about our six-day river trip through Desolation and Gray canyons in southern Utah. In the meantime, learn more about that guided trip at bikeraft.com.
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking and hiking trips. Want my help with yours? Click here.
Backpacking the Wind River Range
In the first week of August—typically the prime season for backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and many Western mountain ranges—my 20-year-old son, Nate, and I started backpacking north from Big Sandy Trailhead in the Winds, planning to hike a four-day loop that would cross the Continental Divide twice, at passes just over and just under 11,000 feet and traverse a plateau that reaches nearly 12,000 feet. Our route would take us through one of the marquis areas of the Winds, the Cirque of the Towers.
We never got that far.
Our first day would prove to be the only dry one of the entire rain-plagued trip—and the ominously dark clouds clinging to the peaks that first day foreshadowed what lay ahead for us. The rain arrived with a vengeance that night and continued into day two as we optimistically proceeded with our planned route. But seeing that the weather was certainly not what we expected based on the forecast we’d seen right before we came, our suspicions were confirmed when we ran into another party of backpackers with a GPS transceiver that provided an updated forecast.
Although we decided at that point to cut our trip short, camping one more night on yet another beautiful mountain lake in the Winds and backtracking to the trailhead the next day—a fortuitous choice because rain and cold wind hammered us for hours throughout those two days—we nonetheless spent three wonderful days together in the backcountry, time that’s irreplaceable (and we had ideal weather for testing this rain shell and this one plus this ultralight tent). Plus, we firmed up the conviction that we must return to the Winds again.
See all stories about backpacking the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
The right gear makes any trip go better. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
Backpacking Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness
In the second week of September, my wife, Penny, our friend Jeff Wilhelm and I set out to explore an area I have longed for years to spend more time in: Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness. Among the top 20 largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48, the Pasayten sprawls over a half-million acres of deep valleys and scores of craggy peaks rising over 7,500 feet, the highest over 9,000 feet, mostly within the Okanogan National Forest between the North Cascades Highway (WA 20) and the Canadian border.
We backpacked a five-day, 46.5-mile loop that commenced with two full days on the northernmost leg of the Pacific Crest Trail—where, predictably at that time of year, we encountered many thru-hikers nearing the end of their months-long journey. On the PCT, we followed a high ridge with long views to either side, with one campsite in a high meadow near one of the several passes we crossed, overlooking mountains in every direction.
After turning off the PCT, we looped back to our starting point by climbing up Buckskin Ridge, a long, rugged, up-and-down bit of hiking that featured a couple of pretty lakes, sweeping views of the North Cascades, some heinously steep trail, and a heaping serving of solitude.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about this backpacking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness at The Big Outside.
Start planning now to take one of “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
Backpacking ‘Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Trip’
On the bluebird second morning of a 45-mile, mid-September hike through an area of Yosemite National Park that I had seen little of before this trip, my friend Jeff and I descended the broad, granite ramp of an open ridge, with an enormous Half Dome looking almost close enough to hit with a rock and the rest of Yosemite Valley unfurled before us.
Over the past three decades, I have explored much of Yosemite National Park and enjoyed countless incredible vistas—including many from high above Yosemite Valley with Half Dome prominent in the frame, and I’ve usually been surrounded by other hikers, sometimes dozens of them. But we saw just a handful of other hikers that entire day and surprisingly few over the four days of this trip—surprising because of our route’s proximity to both Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
We also enjoyed three wonderful campsites on a ridge high above the Valley, beside a burbling creek, and on a hillside above a lake at nearly 9,000 feet, plus a gloriously technicolor sunset from an unnamed granite dome above Yosemite Valley.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
Hiking Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii
On our first full day on the big island of Hawaii in November, my wife, Penny, our 18-year-old daughter, Alex, and I got immediately down to business: setting out to dayhike 13,803-foot Mauna Kea.
On a day full of surprises, the first became immediately clear to us before we left the trailhead: We were among just a handful of people climbing the state’s high point on yet another glorious, sunny day in this island paradise. On our 12-mile, 4,500-foot, round-trip hike up and down the Humu’ula Trail, we passed fewer than 10 hikers all day.
I seriously wonder whether there’s another state high point in the country that sees so little hiker traffic. Every high point that I’ve hit draws hundreds of hikers on any day with good weather during the prime hiking season—and that includes two I’ve summitted in recent years that are nearly as high and at least as hard (if not harder) than Mauna Kea, Idaho’s 12,662-foot Borah Peak and Utah’s 13,528-foot Kings Peak.
But having a mountain almost entirely to ourselves has never bothered us. And Mauna Kea is quite a mountain: the highest on the Pacific Rim and the tallest mountain in the world, rising 33,000 feet above the ocean floor, it also harbors the highest lake on the Pacific Rim and the only alpine lake in Hawaii. The barren, stark, volcanic landscape seems to go on forever—we passed several cinder cones that we mistook for the true summit. The elevation and the wilting heat can dampen your energy and enthusiasm or worse. (Carry more water than you think you’ll need.)
And reaching the roof of Hawaii felt pretty great.
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Rock Climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks
No extraordinary adventure to write about here—just a weekend of camping and climbing with friends and my son, Nate, on yet another of our trips to our favorite cragging area, Idaho’s City of Rocks. I grabbed this shot of Nate making a successful ascent of Gemini (rated 5.12a).