By Michael Lanza
So you didn’t plan months in advance to reserve a permit for backpacking this summer in Glacier, Yosemite, on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, or John Muir Trail or in another popular national park? Or you applied for a permit but got rejected? Now what? Where can you still go this year?
You’re in luck. This story describes 15 backpacking trips you can still plan and take this year—either because they don’t require a permit reservation or, in the case of Yosemite, North Cascades, and Olympic national parks, you can still obtain a backcountry permit reservation for many summer dates and trails, where one is required.
Six of them are in top-tier national parks, and the others are all multi-day wilderness 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-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
If you don’t want to miss your opportunity to get into the wilderness this year, scroll through this list and start the gears turning to make one of these trips happen. You know that you’ll be glad you did.
Each trip described below includes a link to my full story about it, which has extensive tips on planning each one (and those stories require a paid subscription to read in full).
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.
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.
The park accepts backcountry permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675322 for up to 60 percent of backcountry campsites, for trips from May 19 through Oct. 7—and there are summer dates and campsites still available. Plus, permits for the other 40 percent of backcountry campsites are issued only on a walk-in/first-come basis no more than one day in advance.
See my story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades.” I can help you plan this trip or shorter versions of it and other trips in the North Cascades. See my Custom Trip Planning page.
Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.
The Ruby Crest Trail
Nevada’s not on your list of much-see backpacking destinations? Time to edit your list.
Having eyed the Ruby Crest Trail for several years, I decided the coronavirus-impacted summer of 2020 seemed like the perfect time to finally explore a trail that requires no permit reservation in a wilderness that sees relatively few backpackers and dayhikers compared to marquis parks and mountain ranges around the West.
My family backpacked a four-day, approximately 36-mile traverse of the Ruby Crest Trail in mid-July, a nice time of year for it, with wildflowers blooming, moderate daytime temperatures and comfortably cool nights, and relatively few bugs at a time of year when you’d see clouds of mosquitoes in many mountain ranges.
The Ruby Crest Trail goes from a high-desert landscape speckled with granite monoliths to aspen and conifer forests and barren, alpine terrain spotted with stunning mountain lakes. Much of the traverse remains high above treeline, with sweeping views of craggy peaks.
Read my feature story “Backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail—A Diamond in the Rough.”
Want to read any story linked here?
Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide and gear discounts!
The High Uintas Wilderness
This first sign that this was going to be the sort of trip we desperately needed in July 2020 appeared as we pulled into the dirt parking lot at the Uinta River Trailhead in northeastern Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness: There were just two other vehicles parked there. For most of the six-day, roughly 59-mile loop we backpacked, that degree of loneliness prevailed. And even the one day that we shared the trail with other hikers—hiking Utah’s highest peak—never felt overly crowded.
That hike took us to alpine lakes well above 10,000 feet—we camped by one of them—and our highest campsite in sprawling Painter Basin at 11,000 feet, at the foot of Utah’s high point, 13,528-foot Kings Peak. We spent two nights in Painter Basin and dayhiked Kings, a strenuous ascent with a summit ridge that involves scrambling and some route-finding, but a fun adventure that delivers the payoff of scenery worthy of the effort.
We also enjoyed brilliant sunsets and inky night skies streaked with the luminescence of the Milky Way. Our trip concluded with two days of hiking through forest down the Uinta River Trail, descending a pretty canyon, often hiking along the tops of cliffs that plunged to the whitewater river’s edge. And the High Uintas Wilderness requires no permit reservation.
See my story “Tall and Lonely: Backpacking Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness” and all of my stories about backpacking in Utah at The Big Outside.
Want my help planning your Ruby Crest Trail or High Uintas hike or any trip on this list?
See my Custom Trip Planning page.
Having backpacked numerous trips all over Yosemite, I can say this about one of America’s most iconic national parks: Every hike you take here will be one of the most inspiring you’ve ever taken—and you can spend a lifetime exploring it and never get enough.
Here’s the thing about Yosemite: You can apply for a wilderness permit up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of your trip’s start date and popular trailheads get booked up that far in advance.
But there are plenty of lower-demand trailheads that still have availability for summer dates—especially after Labor Day, an ideal time to hike in Yosemite—and this is Yosemite, so you’re certain to enjoy a beautiful trip anywhere in the park. Plus, 40 percent of wilderness permits are available on a first-come basis at recreation.gov up to seven days in advance.
All of this means you could still get a permit reservation to backpack in Yosemite this year.
See “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit,” “The 8 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite,” my e-guides describing three great backpacking trips in the park, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help plan your trip there.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite and other parks using my expert e-guides.
The Wind River Range
Besides the High Sierra, there may be no mountain range in the country with as much sprawling wilderness or as many towering, jagged peaks and lovely alpine lakes and tarns as Wyoming’s Wind River Range—at the least, you will lose count of the lakes you regret not camping beside.
But unlike many popular areas of the High Sierra, in much of the Winds, you just might hike past more lakes than other people—and advance backcountry permit reservations are not needed.
I’ve explored a fair bit of the Winds on several trips over the past three decades.
On a roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park a few years ago, 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 that led into a lovely and lonely hanging valley.
A few years later, three friends and I backpacked the 96-mile Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail. We crossed 10 named alpine passes ranging from nearly 11,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet and passed scores of alpine lakes in one amazing valley after another. For its entire length, the route rarely comes within a day’s hike of a road.
Most recently, in late summer 2022, three of us backpacked a 43-mile loop in an area I had mostly never seen before, from a less-busy trailhead I’d never visited before, and—not surprisingly—walked through inspiring scenery every day while encountering few other backpackers.
Start exploring the Winds and you may never want to stop. In fact, I’m already scheming my next trip there.
See “Backpacking Through a Lonely Corner of the Wind River Range,” “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin” and “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route,” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
After the Wind River Range, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
The Grand Canyon
I’ve taken enough multi-day hikes in the Big Ditch—most recently this one in April 2022—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 unique that it’s hard to imagine ever getting enough of this place.
Backpackers with the impression that any multi-day hike into the canyon will basically resemble any other learn through returning again and again (as I have) that the differences far outnumber the similarities—from hidden side canyons with oases of greenery and waterfalls plunging from great heights or bursting explosively from a cliff face to carpets of wildflowers extending as far as you can see and idyllic campsites where at night you gaze up at an inky sky riddled with stars.
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 most backpackers apply for permits in the peak months of April, May, and October, while weather remains good often well into November, when competition for permits tapers (a bit).
Apply for an October trip backcountry permit by June 1 and a November permit by July 1.
Get my expert e-guides to “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,”
and an easier alternative, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
The Sawtooth Mountains
Since moving to Idaho 25 years ago, I’ve gotten to know the Sawtooths quite 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 two mountain ranges, which translates to less altitude-related challenges and often calmer weather patterns—not to mention avoiding the highly competitive permit systems throughout the High Sierra that often require making a reservation months in advance: In the Sawtooths, like most national forests, you need no permit reservation.
The prime backpacking season in the Sawtooths begins around mid-July and extends well into September. 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.
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking trips in the Sawtooths and elsewhere.
Want my help with yours? Click here now.
Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail
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 (lead photo at top of story) 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. The Timberline also presents some challenges, most notably a few creek crossings that can be high and fast—though easier by late summer. But for backpackers comfortable with that sort of excitement, it’s an exceptional adventure.
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.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
Trips go better with the right gear.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”
The Pasayten Wilderness
On a trip that commenced by following a 20-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail along a high ridgeline dappled with meadows and rich in North Cascades panoramas of jagged ridges stretching to far horizons, then left the PCT to trace a less-traveled trail up a long, rugged ridge where the servings of solitude matched the big vistas and, at times, the steepness, our nearly 45-mile loop north from Harts Pass illustrated how the Pasayten’s vast wilderness possesses many qualities that create solitude.
We backpacked the Pasayten in the first week of September—a glorious time to walk through the Cascade Range—meeting several PCT thru-hikers wrapping up their months-long journey by tagging the Canadian border. Worth noting: We had three of our four campsites entirely to ourselves, with no other parties within sight or earshot.
See my story “Backpacking the Pasayten Wilderness—On and Off the Beaten Track” at The Big Outside.
Want to save time and grab a permit right away?
See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help plan your trip there.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains
Admittedly, I have a personal bias for New Hampshire’s White Mountains: I first started hiking there (a long, long time ago in a faraway universe). I’ve hiked more miles there than I could estimate—I even authored a hiking guidebook to New England for several years—and I return almost every year.
Like jumping into an icy lake, the constant high-stepping and relentlessly arduous nature of trails in the Whites shocks me every time I return. But the rugged beauty of these little peaks, and especially the views from their rocky alpine crowns, keep me coming back.
The Appalachian Trail arguably reaches its full glory traversing the Whites. With a few road crossings along the way, you can plan trips of anywhere from a weekend to a week of backpacking or hiking hut-to-hut.
In my opinion, these mountains should be a destination for hikers and backpackers from outside the Northeast, too, especially during the fall foliage season. While some trails in the Whites remain enduringly popular, no permit reservation is required and you can find quieter areas to hike.
See my stories “The Best Hikes in the White Mountains” and “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all stories about the White Mountains at The Big Outside.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? I have 25 of them.
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Eagle Cap Wilderness
While these rugged mountains in northeastern Oregon may not be on the radar of many backpackers, many in the Pacific Northwest know them well for their rocky summits and beautiful lakes basins. Just don’t to the Lakes Basin, the most popular corner of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, on a nice weekend in August expecting to discover solitude. You will be disappointed.
That said, much of the 40-mile loop that my family backpacked traverses valleys and passes dappled with wildflowers and passes mountain lakes ringed by granite peaks—much of the terrain as lonely as it is pretty. You just might spot elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Want to stand on one of those summits? Don’t pass up the three-mile, round-trip side hike to the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, with its cliff-top view overlooking the Lakes Basin and a huge swath of the Wallowa Mountains. And no permit reservation required.
See my story “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness,” and all stories about backpacking in Oregon at The Big Outside.
Capitol Reef National Park
Unlike most wilderness national parks, in Capitol Reef, you can just show up, get a free backcountry permit sans reservation, and immediately 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 a 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.
Peak seasons are spring and fall. 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.
See my stories “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon,” and “The Most Beautiful Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: Crossing Utah’s Capitol Reef.”
Bonus Trip: Visit Bryce Canyon, not far from Capitol Reef, to take “The Best Hike in Bryce Canyon National Park.”
Show up and hike. See “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
The Glacier Peak Wilderness
My family and three adult friends set out to backpack the five-day, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass route in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness knowing its reputation for five-star mountain scenery and a more adventurous flavor, due to the off-trail stretch, on snow, over 7,100-foot Spider Gap.
Our kids, at age 12 and 10 already experienced backcountry hikers, had no problem getting over that pass—and we discovered that this almost-loop hike (the trailheads are a 15-minute drive apart) features stunning mountain cirques and alpine lake basins, plus jaw-dropping panoramas of Glacier Peak and the sea of jagged mountains surrounding. This hike exceeded even our high expectations.
As a bonus, this route’s reputation helps keep the crowds down. And as with other national forest hikes in this story, no permit reservation is needed.
See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop,” and all stories about Washington’s North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-guides.
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, from bracing dips 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.
I also enjoyed a surprising amount of solitude during the busy fall foliage season—even on the AT (by hitting it early for beautiful morning light).
Good news for procrastinators: Great Smoky Mountains National Park 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 better yet in mid-autumn, when fall foliage reaches peak color.
See my story “In the Garden of Eden: Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains” 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.
The Wild Olympic Coast
Hiking along the coast of Olympic National Park, you may spot seals, sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, tufted puffins, and many seabirds, and humpback, gray, minke, or blue whales. You will walk past scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—that rise as much as 200 feet out of the ocean and walk through one of Earth’s largest virgin temperate rainforests, where Sitka spruce and western red cedar grow up to 15 feet in diameter, and Douglas fir and western hemlock stand over 200 feet tall.
On a three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip on the southern Olympic coast, my family explored tide pools and boulders coated with mussels, sea stars, and sea anemones. We camped on or just above the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States.
It’s a relatively beginner-friendly hike—though one with the challenge of scaling and descending rope ladders—that will awe seasoned backpackers and one of my top 10 family adventures and top 10 backpacking trips. And the park’s southern coast has no quotas on wilderness permits.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast,” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
See this menu of all stories offering expert backpacking tips 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.” 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.