8 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners

By Michael Lanza

So you’re a novice backpacker, or you’re planning your first backpacking trip in a big, Western national park, 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 national parks. No worries. These eight trips in Grand Teton, Zion, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, and two in Yosemite (photo above) 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 some three decades ago, and six (Zion, Grand Teton, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Olympic, and Rocky Mountain) were among my kids’ earliest trips, which we took when they ranged in age from six to 10. They are also among the nicest multi-day hikes I’ve taken over more than three decades (and counting) of carrying a backpack, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

Besides delivering on all you expect from a backpacking trip in a flagship national park, any of these outings will help prepare you for bigger, more ambitious adventures.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


I can help you plan any of them—or any trip you read about at this blog, including beginner-friendly backpacking trips not in national parks, avoiding the need to reserve a permit months in advance. See my Custom Trip Planning page.

You may also like my stories “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips” and “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip.”

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 try to respond to all comments.

A young boy hiking in the North Fork Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.
My son, Nate, hiking in the North Fork Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my expert e-guide to this trip.

Grand Teton’s Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop

Distance: 19.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking to Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park.

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 undoubtedly among the most scenic sub-20-mile, multi-day hikes in the National Park System. With nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, the loop crosses one of the highest points 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 expert e-guide to this beginner-friendly backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.

I can also personally help you plan this trip (or any trip you read about at my blog), from permit to daily hiking plan, in a custom trip-planning consult with me; click here to learn how—and to read comments from recipients of a custom trip consult with me, many of which were for backpacking in the Tetons.

See all of my stories about backpacking in Grand Teton National Park (some of which require a paid subscription to read in full), including “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail” about taking our kids at young ages on the TCT.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up now for my FREE email newsletter.

 

Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click photo for my e-guide to that trip.

The Best, First Trip in the Grand Canyon

Distance: 21 to 23.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

A hiker on the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail.
A hiker on the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail.

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.

 

A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.
A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

The Magnificent Heart of Yosemite

Distance: 37.2 miles (shorter options)
Difficulty: Moderate

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.

Vernal Fall, beside the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park.
Vernal Fall, beside the Mist Trail in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to get my help planning your Yosemite adventure.

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 “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. Click here for a menu of all downloadable e-guides I offer, including three trips in Yosemite.

And check out “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite,” “Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit,” and all of my stories about backpacking in Yosemite National Park.

Want to read any story linked here? Get full access to ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus a FREE e-guide. Join now!

 

Young kids hiking the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
My kids hiking the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

Glacier’s Glorious Gunsight Pass Trail

Distance: 14 miles
Difficulty: Easy

Mountain goat along Glacier National Park's Gunsight Pass Trail.
Mountain goat along Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail.

Much 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, 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 the park’s best scenery, including one of its largest rivers of ice, the Blackfoot Glacier, scores of waterfalls, and backcountry camps at Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson that rank among the prettiest in the park.

Spread it out over four days and add the optional, 6.6-mile, out-and-back side hike to Sperry Glacier—which involves more than 1,700 vertical feet of up and down and some steep sections, making it a fairly demanding side hike for many adults and children. That trail climbs over a barren, rocky, more recently deglaciated landscape, and passes through a narrow 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 not crowded with dayhikers. I’ve backpacked it twice—the second time with our kids when they were nine and seven, taking three days—and saw mountain goats near Gunsight Pass both times. 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; still, hike it east to west because in the other direction, the day one uphill from Lake McDonald would be a strenuous and long slog, much of it exposed to the hot sun.

See my story “Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in Glacier National Park,” “5 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park,” and all of my stories about backpacking in Glacier National Park.

Another relatively easy option in Glacier—though with more complicated transportation logistics—involves backpacking the just over 15 miles from Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Many Glacier, following the rolling Highline Trail 7.6 miles north to Granite Park (where there’s a backpackers campground and a backcountry chalet) and the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail east mostly downhill 7.6 miles to Many Glacier. I can suggest and help you plan that or another, beginner-friendly trip in Glacier. See my Custom Trip Planning page.

See my five-level difficulty rating system in “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

 

A hiker on the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
David Ports hiking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.

Zion’s Otherworldly West Rim Trail

Distance: 14 miles
Difficulty: Easy

A mother and young daughter backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
My wife, Penny, and our daughter, Alex, backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.

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.

See my stories about a family backpacking trip on the West Rim Trail, a 50-mile dayhike across Zion that included the West Rim Trail, my e-guide to a two-day backpacking trip through Zion’s incomparable Narrows (another relatively beginner-friendly trip), and all of my stories about Zion at The Big Outside.

See also “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First,” and read this story about another easy, one- or two-night hike in Capitol Reef National Park’s Spring Canyon.

I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

A young boy backpacking the Olympic coast near Strawberry Point, Olympic National Park.
My son, Nate, backpacking the Olympic coast near Strawberry Point, Olympic National Park.

The Wild Olympic Coast

Distance: 17.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

A young girl hiking past a boulder covered in mussels on the Olympic coast.
My daughter, Alex, hiking past a boulder covered in mussels on the Olympic coast.

Along the 73 miles of seashore within Olympic National Park, you can’t buy fried seafood, ice cream, or a T-shirt. The longest strip of protected wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States, it’s one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view real estate in the Lower 48 that the explorer Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.

Backpacking the 17.5-mile southern stretch of the Olympic coast from the Hoh River north to La Push Road became one of my kids’ most memorable backpacking trips—mostly for the hours they spent playing in tide pools on the beach (they were nine and seven at the time). But it’s also a hike any adults would find gorgeous and fascinating.

You will walk surprisingly rugged and muddy overland trails in the deep shade of giant trees in one of Earth’s largest virgin temperature rainforests, and scale rope ladders dangling down eroding headlands. Along the beach, you will pass tide pools and boulders teeming with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones, with sometimes mist-shrouded views of scores of tall stone pinnacles, called sea stacks, rising out of the ocean, some close enough to walk to them at low tide. You may sight seals, sea otters, whales (and to my kids’ delight, lots of slugs).

A fun, beautiful, beginner- and family-friendly trip, especially with school-age kids, it’s also less crowded than the more popular northern stretch of the Olympic coast, an easier permit to obtain—and one of America’s most unique backpacking adventures.

See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”

See my “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

 

Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park

Distance: Multiple short options
Difficulty: Easy

Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ouzel Lake in Rocky’s Wild Basin.

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.

Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

 

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite. Click photo to read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

Yosemite Valley’s Quiet North Rim

Distance: 15 to 25 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

We don’t tend to think of Yosemite Valley as one of the park’s quiet corners—especially during the peak hiking season, when on any given day, you’ll encounter hundreds of hikers parading up and down the Mist Trail. But the Valley’s North Rim seems to lie a world apart from all that.

Not easily reached on a dayhike—but certainly within range for a moderate, two- to three-day backpacking trip—Indian Ridge, North Dome, and Yosemite Point, not to mention obscure spots along the rim, are among the finest overlooks of Yosemite Valley. Traversing the North Rim on a longer backpacking trip, a friend and I had a high camp all to ourselves a short walk from the top of an unnamed dome, where we watched, transfixed, a glorious sunset slowly unfurl.

The next morning, we hiked along the nearly treeless southern end of Indian Ridge and onto the broad summit of North Dome, some 3,000 feet above the Valley—stepping into a heart-stopping scene, with the sheer face of Half Dome looming enormous just across the deep chasm of Yosemite Valley. Our view spanned from Clouds Rest to Glacier Point, El Capitan, and beyond. And other than a few dayhikers, we had it to ourselves on a perfect, late-summer morning.

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. 
Join now for full access to ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

The dusk sky above Indian Ridge in Yosemite National Park.
The dusk sky above Indian Ridge in Yosemite National Park.

Trailhead access enables a variety of two- to four-day itineraries and the route’s highest elevations are around 8,500 feet, while much of it lies below 8,000 feet, elevations that don’t tend to affect many people and which become snow-free by early summer.

Read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

There are other relatively short, beginner-friendly trips possible in Yosemite that I can help you plan. See my Custom Trip Planning page as well as “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and all stories about backpacking in Yosemite National Park.

See menus of all of my stories about national park trips and family adventures at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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 at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

Previous

Review: Mountain Hardwear Phantom 0 Sleeping Bag

10 Adventures to Put on Your Bucket List Now

Next

Leave a Comment

13 thoughts on “8 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners”

  1. Hi Michael!

    I was recommended your site by my Google feed a couple months ago, and your superb articles just keep popping up in my feed! This one particularly so because I’m planning an August trip to both the Tetons and Glacier this year, plus a week in September to Washington.

    In Glacier I’m going to be applying for a couple iternaries, including the North Loop through Ptarmigan tunnel from Many Glacier, Highline from Loop Trailhead to Fifty Mtn and back to Logan Pass, and one in the two medicine area.

    In Teton, I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to do the Crest, but I know registration opened a couple weeks ago, so I’m keeping my options open. I also may just relax and find photography spots out in the plains.

    In Washington, I’m thinking backcountry in Olympic somewhere.

    Reply
    • Hi Nick,

      I’m delighted to hear The Big Outside keeps popping up in your searches!

      You’re planning trips to three of my favorite places: Glacier (I’m also applying for a permit there this year), the Tetons, and Washington state (where I’ve spent many backcountry days, most recently in the Pasayten Wilderness last September; watch for my upcoming story about that trip). I’m also considering an Olympic Mountains trip this summer.

      Those are all wonderful places, of course. I’ll note that Grand Teton NP, two-thirds of permits are issued first-come no more than a day before starting your trip. You could show up and have a good chance of getting one, although you may have to settle for whatever itinerary is available.

      Since you keep happening upon my blog, I hope you sign up for my free email newsletter and decide to Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

      Please keep in touch!

      Reply
      • Thanks Michael,

        I did sign up for the newsletter! I did see that about GTNP, and I am super flexible so I may just try to get anything they have available while I’m there. Otherwise I’ll just be loitering taking pictures, hiking, and camping. I saw that Glacier is moving to 70/30 reserve/first-come so I’m definitely planning on getting that in as soon as it opens.

        Again, I think you have the best trip articles, so I keep coming back. May subscribe in the future as I get more off the beaten path and checking off the more well-known places.

        Reply
  2. Thanks for a great article. I’m hoping to take my wife and four kids backpacking along the southern Olympic coast this summer, something I’ve wanted to do for several years since reading your book. My youngest one will only be 6.5 years old then but I think we she will be able to make it OK. She has done longer days hikes and her brother managed to backpack across the Grand Canyon (in the fall) when he was 7.5—the Olympic coast sounds easier than that. I hope she likes it as much as your daughter appeared to in the videos I have seen of your trip. I’d love to take them on the Teton Crest trail too, but I couldn’t get the rest of the family to commit to a time in early January when we would have needed to apply for permits.

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      You’re welcome and thank you for the nice words about this story and for reading my book. The southern Olympic coast is certainly much easier than the Grand Canyon and being on the beach much of the trip, especially having campsites on or just off the beach, makes it more fun for kids. Mine spent hours playing in tidepools at our two camps.

      I imagine you’ll make that Teton Crest Trail hike happen with your family. Keep in mind that two-thirds of permits are issued first-come no more than a day before starting your trip. You could show up and have a good chance of getting one, although you may have to settle for whatever itinerary is available.

      Have fun on the Olympic coast.

      Reply
  3. Hi there, I am planning a backpacking trip with another friend for next June. We have backpacked before, but never by ourselves. Ideally, we would like to be on the trails for 5-7 days. What park and trails would you recommend? We would preferably like to travel somewhere out west but aren’t sure where to start. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Sianna,

      June is a transitional month for seasons in the Western mountains and in the desert Southwest, so it depends in part on when in June you’re considering. I think with a question as general as yours, I’d invite you to scroll through my All Trips List as a place to start looking for ideas. And if you’d prefer getting my in-depth help, click here to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

      Best of luck to you.

      Reply
  4. Hi Michael- I’m planning a trip with three buddies from college and just so happened to type in backpack trips for beginners and found this! Very helpful, you made our decision much easier. Love the site, thanks!

    Reply
  5. My husband and I really want to do the Rim to Rim hike at the Grand Canyon. Our problem is that the month of July is the only time we can do it. We are regular hiker/backpackers in the GSMNP. Do you think this is doable. I really enjoyed your article.

    Reply
    • Hi Constance, thanks for the compliment about my article. You ask a very good question, and my strong advice is no, you shouldn’t try to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim in July, or June or August, for that matter (unless you see an unusually cooler forecast in early June). In summer, it’s blazing hot in the inner canyon, where there’s also little shade as temps regularly get into the 90s and top 100 F. That’s dangerously hot down there. The only truly safe times of day to hike, which would still be hot but without much direct sun, would be very early morning and evenings, and that requires disciplined early rising. It also means spending many hours during the day trying to stay cool and find shade. I don’t recommend it. Wait until you get an opportunity to do the hike in spring or fall. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply