5 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners
By Michael Lanza
So you’re a novice backpacker, or you’re backpacking in a big, Western national park for the first time, 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 (photo above), Zion, Grand Canyon, 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, Grand Canyon, 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 Best, First Trip in the Grand Canyon
Distance: 21 to 23.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
While this is the most strenuous trip on this list, for beginner backpackers or families with good stamina who are up for a somewhat bigger challenge, crossing the Grand Canyon from rim to rim constitutes one of the most scenically astonishing experiences in the entire National Park System. Beginning at either the South or North Rim, you will descend through a constantly changing environment and multiple layers of geology, from vistas encompassing a huge swath of the canyon to intimate side canyons with rushing creeks and waterfalls.
The distance ranges from 21 to 23.5 miles depending on whether you combine the South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel Trail with the North Kaibab Trail, and the cumulative elevation gain and loss is well over 10,000 feet. Many backpackers spread it over three days. Still, water sources are regular and you’re hiking the best-constructed trails in the entire canyon.
Want a shorter Grand Canyon sampler? Hike 16.5 miles rim to river to rim: down the South Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail over two or three days, with one night at Bright Angel Campground on the Colorado River and a possible second night at Indian Garden Campground along the Bright Angel Trail to break up the long climb back up from the river.
See my story “Fit to Be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day” for photos from this trip and my tale of dayhiking rim to rim, and “5 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do.”
Click here now for my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
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 it is, in many ways, just as enchanting as The Narrows. 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.
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.
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