By Michael Lanza
So you didn’t plan far enough in advance to reserve a permit for backpacking this summer in Yosemite, Glacier, or another popular park, or on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, or John Muir Trail? Or the pandemic-triggered closures of national parks and other public lands have canceled your trip plans? Now what? Where can you go this summer? Here are nine trips you can take in 2020—according to current reopening plans in various national parks and states.
Six of them are in five-star national parks, and the other three are multi-day hikes with national park-caliber scenery. They all possess qualities that make them stand out in personal memory among the countless adventures I’ve enjoyed over the past three decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog.
Based on the progress toward reopening parks and lifting state travel restrictions, the trips described in this story are are all possible this summer. See this National Park Service page for the latest alerts on the status of park closures and reopening and check the websites of individual parks for the most current information. These news websites are maintaining state-by-state listings of the current status of reopening efforts in all 50 states: the New York Times, CNN, and NPR.
Yes, uncertainty remains due to the unpredictability of this pandemic—we don’t know what will happen with the coronavirus or travel restrictions in coming weeks and months. With social distancing certain to remain a strong recommendation for the foreseeable future, it seems wise to avoid crowded destinations (think: Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, Yosemite Valley’s most popular trails, the Grand Canyon’s South Rim overlooks) and pursue adventures in less-busy places—like a multi-day hike in the backcountry.
If you long to get back into the wilderness this year and feel comfortable about traveling, read through this list and start the gears turning to make one of these trips happen this year. You may be glad you did.
And I can help you plan any of them. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.
Please share your thoughts on any of these trips in the comments at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Backpack in Glacier National Park
On June 26, Glacier started issuing backcountry permits. In spring, Glacier National Park canceled all backcountry permit reservations made for 2020, including reservations already processed, and announced that the backcountry office will issue permits only on a first-come, walk-in basis. While that was disappointing for backpackers who held permit reservations, it does mean this: This summer will offer a rare opportunity to just show up at Glacier and obtain a permit to start backpacking the next day.
In a normal year, half of all available backcountry campsites can be reserved in advance when the permit-application process opens in March—and there’s high demand for permit reservations. This year, all campsites are available for walk-in permits (issued no more than a day in advance), greatly improving the chances of getting one, especially if you show up on a weekday or in late summer, particularly after Labor Day. Check Glacier’s status at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/statusupdate.htm.
See my stories about backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier (and my downloadable e-guide to that trip) and “the best backpacking trip in Glacier” (and my downloadable e-guide to that trip), and my story “5 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park.”
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Take One of Yosemite’s Best Backpacking Trips
Having backpacked numerous trips all over Yosemite, I can say this about one of America’s most iconic national parks for backpackers: Every hike you take here will be one of the most inspiring you will ever take. Yosemite’s backcountry harbors such an abundance of soaring granite peaks, waterfalls, and shimmering alpine lakes—plus, over 700,000 acres of designated wilderness and 750 miles of trails—that you can spend a lifetime exploring here and never get enough of it. I’m already planning my next trip.
Yosemite has modified its process for issuing wilderness permits for 2020: You can apply from 15 to nine days in advance of a trip’s start date and permits will be awarded using a rolling lottery system. While that makes it difficult to plan travel more than two weeks in advance, it does eliminate the prospect of showing up at the park hoping for a first-come permit and being disappointed.
I know Yosemite’s unique wilderness permit system very well, and I’ve helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in Yosemite—including helping some obtain a permit after they had failed applying on their own. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a trip in Yosemite this summer.
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Descend Into the Grand Canyon
I’ve taken multi-day hikes into the Big Ditch enough times to understand two fundamental truths about it: First, nowhere else compares, period—there’s only one Grand Canyon. And second, every trip there deserves five stars, each so scenic and special that it’s hard to imagine ever getting enough of this place.
Of course, many other backpackers share that view, so competition for backcountry permits is stiff, especially for the popular Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab trails.
But the canyon to beat all canyons offers many multi-day hikes that would immediately vault onto your list of best-ever adventures. To offer just a few examples:
- On the rugged, 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim, we saw some of the canyon’s finest waterfalls while exploring a remote corner of it from the rim to the Colorado River.
- The 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead passes below the colorful, striated cliffs of the Supai and Redwall layers and the tall, slender rock spire and soaring burgundy cliffs at Monument Creek, and contours along a stretch of the Tonto Trail where prickly-pear cacti and other wildflowers bloom and the views span from the rims to the river.
- A 74-mile route that a longtime backcountry ranger in the canyon told me is “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon”—and I agreed—follows some of the canyon’s prettiest and most remote and adventurous footpaths and hits some of the best backcountry campsites you’ve ever spent a night in, including beaches on the Colorado.
As of June 20, the park began accepting requests for backcountry permits for trips starting in September through December, following a staggered application scheduled detailed here.
Apply on June 1 for a permit to take a backpacking trip in October, a prime month for hiking in the Grand Canyon.
See all of my numerous stories about the Grand Canyon, including “Backpacking the Grand Canyon’ Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop,” “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Get my expert e-guides to “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
See the Best of the Wind River Range
Besides the High Sierra, there may be no mountain range in the country with as many lovely alpine lakes and tarns as Wyoming’s Wind River Range—you will lose count of the lakes you hike past. But unlike much of the High Sierra, in the Winds, you just may see fewer people than lakes, and backcountry permits are not an issue.
On a roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park, two friends and I spent a night in Titcomb Basin, an alpine valley at over 10,000 feet below a granite wall of 13,000-foot peaks. Our route crossed three 12,000-foot passes, one via an adventurous, off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col that led into a mystical hanging valley. Start exploring the Winds and you may never want to stop.
Wyoming has seen relatively few cases of Covid-19 and is making progress toward reopening. National forests—including the two that encompass much of the Wind River Range, the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone—generally operate under fewer restrictions than national parks. The U.S. Forest Service has these updates on its response to the coronavirus.
For updates, see the Bridger-Teton home page and alerts page, and the Shoshone home page and alerts page. The central Winds east of the Continental Divide are under the management of the Wind River Reservation.
See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin” and “A Walk in the Winds: A One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Winds at The Big Outside.
Want my help planning any trip you read about at my blog? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Backpack Deep Into the North Cascades
Want to probe into the heart one of the most uncrowded, rugged, and wild national parks in the contiguous United States? On an 80-mile backpacking trip in North Cascades National Park and the adjacent Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, a friend and I crossed four mountain passes while going from one of America’s most primeval and ancient rainforests to sub-alpine views of the most heavily glaciated peaks in the Lower 48.
We saw waterfalls and thunderous whitewater creeks, swam in bracing and beautiful mountain lakes, and marveled at sunshine lighting up the larch trees turned golden with fall color in late September. How wild is this place? Scientists believe a remnant population of grizzly bears still inhabits the North Cascades. Get there as soon as you can: Researchers project that 70 percent of North Cascades glaciers will likely be gone by mid-century.
On June 12, the park reopened its campgrounds and Wilderness Information Center, where backcountry permits are issued, but trails don’t usually become sufficiently snow-free for backpacking until late July or early August—when wildflowers bloom and waterfalls roar—and the prime season often extends well into September. Check the status of North Cascades National Park Complex at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/condtions.htm.
See my feature story about that trip, “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades.” I can help you plan this trip or various shorter versions of it; see my Custom Trip Planning page.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
Discover Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Since moving to Idaho more than 20 years ago, I’ve gotten to know the Sawtooths pretty well, and every time I explore a new corner of that range, I think it may be the most beautiful spot I’ve seen there yet. That’s the impact the Sawtooths have on you.
The Sawtooths remind me in many ways of the High Sierra and the Wind River Range, for their jagged peaks and abundance of stunning alpine lakes. But the Sawtooths aren’t as busy as the Sierra, nor as high as either of those other two mountain ranges—which translates to less altitude-related issues and often calmer weather patterns. Having hiked much of the trail system and many off-trail routes and climbed several peaks, I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable trips there.
Idaho has seen relatively few cases of Covid-19 and is steadily reopening, according to a plan dictated by the governor. The prime backpacking season in the Sawtooths begins around mid-July and extends well into September. See the Sawtooth National Forest National alerts page for information on any restrictions, which so far have just been on groups larger than 10 people.
See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including this photo gallery of some of the many gorgeous mountain lakes in the Sawtooths, my feature stories about a 57-mile hike in the southern Sawtooths and backpacking to three of the range’s most accessible and prettiest lakes, and the best dayhikes and backpacking trips there.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
Explore Capitol Reef
Even during “normal” times, you can just show up in Capitol Reef, get a free backcountry permit sans reservation, and hit the trail in a park whose scenery compares with any park in Utah’s canyon country—but where you’ll see few other backpackers. On this two- to three-day, relatively easy hike into Chimney Rock Canyon and Spring Canyon, you will explore broad canyons with burnt red and orange walls that rise several hundred feet tall, and hike past slender spires and a narrow gorge with curved walls sculpted by flood waters.
It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead on UT 24 to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where you have to ford the Fremont River. While it can be hiked in a day, spend a night camped near the natural springs below Spring Canyon’s soaring walls, looking up at a sky riddled with stars. To avoid the river ford, which can be dangerously fast and deep in spring and early summer but often not difficult in fall, hike out-and-back from Chimney Rock Trailhead, exploring farther down canyon from your camp in Spring Canyon.
Capitol Reef has already opened trails to backpacking and dayhiking. Plan this trip for spring—pleasant temperatures can persist into June—or late summer into fall (July and August are hot). Check Capitol Reef’s status at nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.
See my story “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon,” and my story about another, expert-level, mostly off-trail backpacking traverse in the park, “The Most Beautiful Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: Crossing Utah’s Capitol Reef.”
Bonus Trip: With Bryce Canyon also reopening, see “The Best Hike in Bryce Canyon National Park.”
Trips go better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 7 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Circumambulate Mount Hood
While backpackers clamor for a popular permit to backpack the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, the 41-mile Timberline Trail around 11,239-foot Mount Hood offers comparable scenery just about every step of the way—without requiring a permit reservation. As on the Wonderland, you will hike through vast meadows of wildflowers in riot in mid-summer, and past waterfalls in abundance and blow-you-away views of Hood around every bend. But the Timberline also presents some bigger challenges, including a few serious creek crossings.
Hiked in three to five days, the Timberline typically sheds most of its snow cover by late July or early August and its season can last well into September and sometimes into October.
The Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service is working on a plan to reopen national forests, including Mount Hood; trails are open but developed areas like trailheads remain closed. With no permit reservation required and the seeming likelihood of full access for backpackers by the time the prime season for it arrives, the Timberline Trail looks like a safe destination plan for later this summer.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
After the Timberline Trail, take all of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
Backpack in the Great Smokies
On a multi-day hike in the Great Smokies, you can drink heartily from the mug of the Southern Appalachian Mountains experience, going from bracing swims in low-elevation streams that tumble through one cascade after another, to classic views of an ocean of blue ridges. The Great Smokies have 1,600 species of flowering plants, including 100 native tree species, with over 300 species of native vascular plants considered rare.
Backpacking a solo, 34-mile loop on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I went from lower elevations near Fontana Lake up to a stretch of the Appalachian Trail over 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome and the park’s highest bald, 5,920-foot Andrews Bald.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has reopened trails and backcountry shelters with reduced capacities. See nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/conditions.htm for updates. Good news for procrastinators: GSMNP only accepts permit reservations up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip. Put one on your calendar for early summer, when streams and waterfalls are full, or in mid-autumn, when fall foliage reaches peak color.
See my feature story “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains” at The Big Outside.
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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.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of both stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can 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.