By Michael Lanza
How was your 2023? I hope you got outdoors as much as possible with the people you care about—and you enjoyed adventures that inspired you. I’m sharing in this story photos from the seven backpacking trips I took this year (in addition to the usual dayhiking, climbing, skiing, etc.). In early April, I went on a pair of three-day hikes in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon and on a section of the Arizona Trail that was in the midst of a wildly colorful wildflower bloom. On a two-family trip to the Canadian Rockies in late July and early August, we backpacked two amazing routes, the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park and a piece of the Great Divide Trail into the White Goat Wilderness.
Later in August, I returned yet again to the Wind River Range for a roughly 41-mile hike that I am prepared to boldly call the best multi-day hike in the Winds (and that’s saying an awful lot). September featured a much-anticipated return to Glacier National Park for a seven-day hike complicated by an ever-present possibility in Glacier—”bear activity”—following trails I have walked before but which I think could never fail to inspire a sense of awe. And finally, in early October, two friends and I backpacked a three-day loop in southern Utah’s Escalante region that exceeded even my high expectations for it.
Yea, 2023 felt like a great year for me. And picking back through my photos it year only reinforces that feeling. As always, these experiences reminded me of what’s most important in my life.
The photos in this story are favorite images from those trips. Whether you want to learn more about any of them to take them yourself or just want to find some inspiration for your adventures, I think you’ll enjoy this little escape.
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 places described below. Click photos to learn more about any trip.
And I can help you plan any of these trips or any others 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.
Enjoy my pictures and start now planning your adventures for 2024.
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The Arizona Trail Along the Gila River
In early April, the Arizona Trail’s passage (or section) 16 through the Gila River canyons proved to be everything one would expect in the extremely arid Sonoran Desert—and much more than expected. On a three-day, out-and-back hike to a base camp with a dayhike from it on the middle day, two friends and I walked for hours each day beneath a relentlessly nuclear sun—a shock to people coming directly from a prolonged, cold winter (of epic skiing)—along a route with one reliable water source: a spring emerging from the dry ground and trickling no more than three inches deep. We were not five minutes into our trip when a sound all too familiar to all of us startled us: a sustained, scratchy rattling noise from a snake displeased by these large intruders.
But we also enjoyed very pleasant evening and morning temperatures in camp and on the trail (until the heat unfailingly set in by around late morning). We followed a winding trail over rolling desert hills where life sprang with enthusiastic defiance from an environment that we humans see as uninhabitable and deadly.
Saguaro rose as much as 40 feet tall and inhabited the land like giant sculptures in an outdoor museum. The needle-dense clusters of cholla cacti seemed to glow in the blinding sunshine, while barrel cacti and other thorny flora covered the ground densely. One our dayhike from camp, climbing into hills topped by small, rocky little peaklets and broken cliffs, we came upon a Sonoran desert tortoise, bigger than a dinner plate, miles from any apparent water source.
But most surprisingly and fortuitously, we stumbled into the peak of a shockingly colorful wildflower super bloom. Flowers carpeted the ground so densely that professional landscapers might feel humbled. The spectacle of color rolled up and down brown hillsides dominated by towering saguaro, each new scene around every bend in the trail striking a stark contrast against a sky intensely blue in the dry air and painted with the ghostly white streaks of mare’s tail clouds.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about this trip. Meanwhile, see all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon—unsurprisingly considered the best part of the Arizona Trail—at The Big Outside.
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Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon
Right after finishing that AZT hike, joined by two more friends, five of us backpacked into one of the most unique micro-environments existing anywhere in the desert Southwest: Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon. We spent three days in the canyon (the maximum permitted), hiking in a few hours to set up a base camp in the shade of tall cottonwood trees along Aravaipa Creek and dayhiking nearly to the other end of this lush, 12-mile-long defile between redrock walls that reach up to 600 feet tall.
Although tiny compared to many more-famous public lands, the 19,410-acre Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, in southeast Arizona, stands out as an anomalous oasis in the hyper-arid Sonoran Desert. Aravaipa Creek flows strongly year-round, nurturing cottonwood, sycamore, ash, and willow trees in the canyon bottom, while saguaro cacti grow in giant armies on the rims overhead.
With easy, nearly flat hiking often in the shallow river, no water scarcity typical of Southwest backpacking trips, abundant shade, and the low elevation and southern Arizona climate, Aravaipa offers a relatively casual and beautiful adventure in spring and fall—and fall paints the canyon in brilliant hues of red and gold.
Read my feature story about this trip, “Backpacking the Desert Oasis of Aravaipa Canyon” at The Big Outside.
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The Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park
On a two-family trip from late July into August in the Canadian Rockies, we started out with a Canadian Rockies classic: backpacking Jasper’s Skyline Trail, a three-day, 27.3-mile, south-north traverse of the Maligne Range just southeast of the town of Jasper. Remaining above treeline for more than 15 miles, the Skyline serves up nearly constant panoramas of massive walls of rock and a sea of mountains in every direction.
For backpackers who like trails that stay high in the mountains for long distances with big views, the Skyline feels like the crown of the magnificent Canadian Rockies. And it’s not very hard at all. At a total distance and elevation gain and loss that many backpackers can complete in three days, and crossing three only moderately difficult passes, the highest reaching just 8,238 feet, the trip does not place great demands on your time or stamina. Backcountry camping is all in designated campgrounds with food-storage lockers, making food management easy, eliminating one of the biggest concerns about bear safety.
The Skyline can also deliver some wild weather: We hiked through a thunderstorm on our first day and strong winds on our second, traversing the trail’s highest stretch. Go there with a good layering system and shells and your A game for managing warmth and moisture. But it certainly merits ranking among the top multi-day hikes in the Canadian Rockies and mention on any serious list of the world’s top treks.
Every time I go there, I wonder whether there’s a mountain range in the Lower 48 that really compares with the Canadian Rockies.
Read my feature story about this trip, “Backpacking the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park,” and see more photos in this blog post about hiking and backpacking in the Canadian Rockies and all stories about backpacking in the Canadian Rockies at The Big Outside.
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The White Goat Wilderness in the Canadian Rockies
After the Skyline Trail, we spent another three days backpacking the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route, which begins by crossing through remote corners of both Banff and Jasper national parks to reach the cirque that forms the headwaters of Cataract Creek in the White Goat Wilderness, where we set up a base camp for two nights.
On this out-and-back hike of just over 18 miles round-trip—not including the short side hike some of us took on our middle day to Cline Pass at over 8,800 feet—we backpacked up and down the valley of Nigel Creek to cross Nigel Pass, at 7,200 feet, and the upper valley of the Brazeau River, which flows milky and a vivid emerald color from glacial till, flanked by skyscraping cliffs, to cross Cataract Pass at 8,200 feet below a hanging glacier.
At a camp a short walk from the clear waters of Cataract Creek, we gazed at tall, craggy peaks enwrapping the cirque, with another hanging glacier pouring off the peak directly above our camp. Having known little about the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route before coming here, we were kind of blown away by it. Not surprisingly, the route is part of the Great Divide Trail, a 698-mile/1123-kilometer long-distance trail stretching from Waterton Lakes National Park on the U.S.-Canada border—where it abuts America’s Glacier National Park—to Kakwa Provincial Park.
The easy part: No permit is required for camping in the White Goat Wilderness.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about this trip. Meanwhile, see more photos in this blog post about hiking and backpacking in the Canadian Rockies.
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Just Maybe the Best Backpacking Trip in the Wind River Range
In the middle of August, my friend Chip and I returned to Wyoming’s Wind River Range—the second year in a row for Chip and fourth straight for me (preceded by other Winds trips going back 30 years)—backpacking a four-day, roughly 41-mile loop from Big Sandy. While I fully understand how much uproar this could antagonize, having seen quite a bit of Winds real estate over the years, I believe this route may constitute the best backpacking trip in those incredible mountains.
Following some trails that I’ve walked before and many miles of trails that were new to me even after numerous trips in the Winds, we crossed terrain mostly above 10,000 feet, camped by glorious alpine lakes that reflected sunset and early-morning light on razor peaks, and crossed four passes, three over 11,000 feet that I had not crossed before and the fourth just under that mark.
Not atypical of these mountains that straddle the Continental Divide for about 100 miles and reach over 13,000 feet, we hiked through relentlessly strong winds that caused us to stagger at times and had to hunker down in our tents when a violent thunderstorm followed by hours of rain and wind pounded us.
After four years in a row exploring the Winds, I’m still ready to go back yet again—that’s how much awaits you in the Wind River Range. As I’ve written before at this blog, the Winds can make you ask yourself: Why would I go anywhere else?
Watch for my upcoming feature story about this trip. Meanwhile, see all stories about backpacking the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
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Glacier National Park—As Inspiring As Ever
I had a permit reservation for a seven-day variation I’d customized of Glacier’s popular Northern Loop—a hike that I (and plenty of other people) consider the best backpacking trip in Glacier, and one I’d taken before but was more than happy to repeat—when two friends and I arrived at the backcountry office in Apgar on a cool Sunday morning in September. Little did we know that our plans had already been rendered impossible due to closures of two of our six camps because of bear activity.
But working with a ranger eager to help us preserve a weeklong itinerary, we came up with an excellent alternative plan that kept my original itinerary’s first two days intact and added five new days, backpacking nearly 84 miles mostly on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from the park’s northeast corner south to Two Medicine.
We camped four of our six nights by beautiful lakes, hit highlights like the Ptarmigan Tunnel, Many Glacier, and the mind-blowing alpine traverse on the Dawson Pass Trail, crossed four passes with 360-degree panoramas of Glacier’s incomparable mountains—and enjoyed chilly nights and mornings and mostly sunny, dry days that are common in much of the West in September.
The takeaway: Almost any multi-day hike in Glacier will knock your socks off. (Bring extra pairs.)
See my feature story about this trip, “Déjà vu All Over Again: Backpacking in Glacier National Park,” and all stories about backpacking in Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
The Boulder Mail Trail-Death Hollow-Escalante River Loop
Two friends and I embarked on this three-day hike with little idea of what to expect beyond all of us having had plenty of experience hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, including in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
What we found took the nearly blank canvas in our minds and gave us back a masterpiece of canyon country.
This roughly 22-mile loop links up the Boulder Mail Trail (lead photo at top of story) with a descent of the spellbinding and at times exciting, watery canyon of Death Hollow and then hiking up the upper canyon of the Escalante River, where the red walls rise tall and sheer and the river amounts to little more than a trickle that occasionally dries up.
This compact adventure delivers one of the best samplers I’ve seen of the Escalante region, from miles of walking up and down over slickrock slabs through canyons and across plateau country on the Boulder Mail Trail; to the descent of Death Hollow, where you’ll walk below soaring walls, frequently in water reaching sometimes over your knees (and that was in fall, suggesting that spring runoff may rise to deep and fast to hike this safely), with a new surprise around each bend; and concluding with easy strolling up the very upper end of the Escalante River canyon, which almost seems to require no introduction.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about this trip. Meanwhile, see all stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah at The Big Outside.
As you plan your trips for next year, see “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips,” “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes,” my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites, and my Trips page at The Big Outside.