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 in 2021—either because they don’t require a permit reservation or, in the case of Yosemite, North Cascades, Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Olympic national parks, there are ways to still obtain a permit, even at this late date.
Eight 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 decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
If you long more than ever to get back 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.
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.
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.
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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 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 perfect 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.”
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Utah’s 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 58-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 sustained 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.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about backpacking the High Uintas Wilderness.
Want my help planning your trip on the Ruby Crest Trail, in the High Uintas, 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. I know: I have my next trip planned for later this summer.
But here’s the thing: In Yosemite, you normally need to apply for a wilderness permit up to 169 days in advance of your trip dates or you’d have little option but to show up at the park and hope to get a first-come permit no more than one day before your hike begins.
However, as a response to the pandemic, for 2021, first-come permits are only available online two weeks (up to 15 days) in advance. This page lists the earliest date to apply for a Yosemite permit based on the date you want to begin.
That means you could still get a permit reservation two weeks in advance to backpack in Yosemite this year.
See my story “The 5 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 many lovely alpine lakes and tarns as Wyoming’s Wind River Range—you will lose count of the lakes you regret not camping beside.
But unlike much of the High Sierra, in the Winds, you just might hike past more lakes than other people and backcountry permits are not an issue.
I’ve explored a fair bit of the Winds over the course of several backpacking trips, most recently backpacking the 96-mile Wind River High Route in August 2020.
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 over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col that led into a mystical hanging valley.
Start exploring the Winds and you may never want to stop. In fact, I’m scheming to get back there again this summer.
See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route,” and “A Walk in the Winds: Dayhiking 27 Miles Across the Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Winds 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 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.
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).
And the date to apply for a November permit is 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.”
Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Since moving to Idaho more than 20 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).
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.
See my stories “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit,” my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and my story describing several of “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths, Winds, 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 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 my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 7 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon
If any national park or U.S. wildland surprises at every turn, it’s our first one, Yellowstone. And the park’s best backpacking trip remains consistent with that character. On a multi-day hike through Bechler Canyon, you’ll walk for miles along (and could fish) a five-star trout stream that varies from calm and quiet to whitewater, with several high-volume, spectacular waterfalls on it—including Colonnade Falls, where the Bechler River plunges 35 feet over an upper falls and another 67 feet over a second drop, and 45-foot Iris Falls.
From bracing river fords—which are generally either slow or shallow, with low hazard—to long, warm soaks in a natural hot springs-fed pool called Mr. Bubble; the prospect of seeing wildlife like bears and bison; and a hike through Yellowstone’s largest backcountry geyser basin near the shore of one of the park’s largest backcountry lakes, Bechler Canyon delivers a genuine and quite varied wilderness adventure.
The best months for backpacking Bechler Canyon are September and October, after most of the notoriously thick swarms of mosquitoes have dissipated and trails that often flood in summer dry out. While Bechler Canyon is popular—especially campsites close to Mr. Bubble—there’s still availability for sites on the Bechler River Trail to reserve a backcountry permit now.
See my story “In Hot (and Cold) Water: Backpacking Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon” and all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.
Show up and hike. See my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Sequoia National Park
With some of the highest mountains in the contiguous United States and scores of beautiful backcountry lakes—not to mention consistently sunny days in summer—California’s southern High Sierra unequivocally belongs on any list of top backpacking destinations in America.
On a six-day, 40-mile loop hike from the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park, my family hiked through a quiet, backcountry grove of giant Sequoias, over 10,000-foot and 11,000-foot passes at the foot of 12,000-foot, granite peaks, and camped at two lakes that earned spots on my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites. I still consider it one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever hiked.
And while permit quotas for popular trailheads in Sequoia like the High Sierra Trail get booked months in advance, there are still dates available this summer for backpacking that loop as well as other trips in Sequoia.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about my family’s six-day, 40-mile loop hike there.
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.
See my story “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about the White Mountains at The Big Outside.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
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 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: Visit Bryce Canyon, not far from Capitol Reef, to take “The Best Hike in Bryce Canyon National Park.”
Want my help planning any trip you read about at my blog? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
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.
See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop,” and all of my stories about Washington’s North Cascades region.
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my downloadable, 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, 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.
I also enjoyed a surprising amount of solitude during the busy fall foliage season—even on the AT (by hitting it in early morning 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 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.
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 while the park’s pandemic-response plan requires reserving all wilderness permits in advance, the southern Olympic coast still has plenty of availability for summer and early fall.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast,” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
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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.