5 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners
By Michael Lanza
So you’re a notice backpacker, or you have kids you want to take on a relatively easy backpacking trip—and you want to sample the best scenery, trails, and backcountry campsites that experienced backpackers get to enjoy in our flagship national parks. No worries. These five trips in Grand Teton, Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain are ideal for beginners and families, with easy to moderately difficult days and simple logistics, while delivering the spectacular vistas that each of these parks is famous for.
In fact, two of them (Yosemite and Grand Teton) were among the very first multi-day hikes I took as a novice backpacker almost three decades ago, and four (Zion, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain) were among my kids’ first trips, which we took when they ranged in age from six to 10.
Please tell me what you think of these trip ideas, or offer your own in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I’d appreciate that.
Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop, Grand Teton National Park
Distance: 19.7 miles
The 19.7-mile loop linking up Paintbrush and Cascade canyons from String Lake offers something of a highlights reel of Grand Teton National Park, and is probably among the most scenic sub-20-mile hikes in the National Park System. With nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, the loop crosses the highest point reached via trail in the park, 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, where the panorama takes in a jagged skyline featuring some of the highest summits in the Tetons. It also passes by beloved Lake Solitude, nestled in a cirque of cliffs, and below the striped cliffs of Paintbrush Canyon and waterfalls and soaring peaks of Cascade Canyon.
We backpacked this popular loop over three days with our kids when they were young, camping at Upper Paintbrush the first night and North Fork Cascade the second, and seeing moose in Cascade Canyon; I’ve also dayhiked it. It can be hiked in either direction—and the Paintbrush side is steeper and more strenuous whether going up or down it. But by going counter-clockwise, you enjoy a steady view of the Grand Teton looming high above the North Fork of Cascade Canyon; and you finish down Cascade Canyon, where most of the group can avoid the final slog through the woods and take the boat shuttle across Jenny Lake—with in-your-face views of the peaks—while someone hikes the last 45 minutes to retrieve the car at String Lake.
Click here now to get my e-guide to this beginner-friendly backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.
The Heart of Yosemite National Park
Distance: 37.2 miles (shorter options)
Anyone looking for a five-star introduction to backpacking in Yosemite that hits marquis highlights and is beginner-friendly need look no further than this 37.2-mile loop from Yosemite Valley. From the popular Happy Isles Trailhead at the east end of The Valley, it winds through the core of the park, starting with ascending the Mist Trail past 317-foot Vernal Fall—which rains a heavy mist on hikers—and thunderous, 594-foot Nevada Fall. The distance includes the optional, out-and-back climb of the steep and exposed cable route up Half Dome, where the summit view of Yosemite Valley is arguably only outdone by the view you’ll get later on the hike from a thousand feet higher on the knife-edge summit ridge of Clouds Rest.
From a campsite on the edge of the alpine meadows at Sunrise, you’ll get a sweeping view of the granite castles of the Cathedral Range. And the hike, spread over four to five days, follows a couple stretches of the world-famous John Muir Trail, descending it on the last day past a calendar-photo vista of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall. Apply early for this permit reservation, especially if you want to spend more than one night camping at Little Yosemite Valley.
See my story “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite” for a description of this route, and a more-detailed description with complete trip-planning guidance in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” which also covers alternate multi-day hiking itineraries beginning and ending at various trailheads ringing this core area of the park, including routes from Tuolumne Meadows and stunning Tenaya Lake.
See also my story “Ask Me: Expert Tips for Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park.
Yearning to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
West Rim Trail, Zion National Park
Distance: 14 miles
Only in a national park that features The Narrows—which, admittedly, ranks hands-down as one of the best backpacking trips in America and certainly one of the best in the Southwest—could the West Rim Trail be overshadowed. More than a few longtime Zion backcountry denizens have told me the West Rim is their favorite trail in the park—and having dayhiked and backpacked it, I’d say the same. From the plateau on the trail’s upper sections, you overlook a labyrinth of white-walled canyons and green-topped mesas. Then the trail drops about 2,500 feet in 4.7 miles, zigzagging down a cliff face and through a landscape of towering beehive rock formations and walls streaked in vivid burgundy and salmon hues.
The approximately 14-mile, one-way, north-to-south, mostly downhill hike from Lava Point on Kolob Terrace Road to the Grotto Trailhead in Zion Canyon—requiring a shuttle (available in Springdale)—can be done in one day by fit hikers. But an overnight at one of the campsites along the West Rim Trail lets you see this incomparable scenery in the glorious light after dawn and at sunset, and makes it a more feasible objective for families and novice backpackers. Add just over a half-mile for the side hike up Angels Landing, one of the most spectacular and iconic summits in the National Park System.
Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventure trips. Get full access to ALL stories. Subscribe now!
Gunsight Pass Trail, Glacier National Park
Distance: 20 miles
Most of the more than 700 miles of trails in one-million-acre Glacier National Park traverse remote wilderness, requiring a commitment of multiple days backpacking in northern mountains thick with grizzly bears, where weather can shift. But the 20-mile traverse of the Gunsight Pass Trail (lead photo at top of story), from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge, is one of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park. Both trailheads are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus. Most of all, though, the hike takes in some of Glacier’s best scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice, the Blackfoot Glacier, scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.
Spread it out over four days and add the optional, 7.4-mile, out-and-back side hike to Sperry Glacier. That trail climbs over a barren, rocky landscape more recently deglaciated, and passes through a tight notch in the cliffs at Comeau Pass, to reach an overlook of the Sperry Glacier. Unlike trails around Logan Pass and Many Glacier, this route is also not crowded with dayhikers. I’ve backpacked it twice and both times seen mountain goats near Gunsight Pass. The moderately graded trail never gets terribly steep, so it feels easier than the distances suggest, although the long descent to Lake McDonald is a thigh-pounder; but east to west is still the better direction to hike it, because in the other direction, the day one uphill from Lake McDonald would be a strenuous and long slog. Use poles.
See my story “Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park.
Backpacking trips go much better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: Multiple options
In the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, east of the Continental Divide and south of the park’s tallest and most famous mountain, 14,259-foot Longs Peak, Wild Basin holds a small constellation of mountain lakes rippling below a wall of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks. In the forest of ponderosa pine with copses of aspen trees that turn golden in fall, trails reach like the fingers on a hand up creek valleys to access several of the lakes on relatively easy hikes, presenting a variety of route options.
From the Wild Basin Trailhead at 8,500 feet, it’s just a few miles gently uphill to creekside campsites like Siskin, on a small creek where my kids played on a family backpacking trip. Six miles in lies Thunder Lake, in a bowl at over 10,500 feet, beneath the rampart of the Divide. The best camp we had was the lone site at Ouzel Lake, a jewel at about 10,000 feet ringed by pine forest below more soaring peaks. From there, our hike out consisted of an easy 4.7 miles downhill. While parts of Wild Basin get significant dayhiker traffic, Ouzel Lake and Thunder Lake both lie far enough from the trailhead to see fewer dayhikers, and you’ll enjoy quiet evenings and mornings of glassy water to yourself.
See my story about backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin with my kids.
Tell me what you think.
I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.
Use my blog to plan your next adventure. Subscribe to The Big Outside now!
Get My Free Email Newsletter
Enter your email address for updates about new stories, gear reviews, and expert tips!