Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

Ask Me: My Top Picks For Long Backpacking Trips

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Hi Michael,

I’m looking for a backpacking loop, out and back, or shuttle that allows me about 20 miles a day for about five days. I’ve done a ton of multi-day backpacking and lots of long-distance trails. I’m an elementary-school teacher, and I usually take a solo trip the first week of my summer vacation. It can be tricky as it’s the second week of June and there is usually too much snow to attempt certain trails. I saw your piece on the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood in Oregon, which is an option, but I’m looking for more like 75 to 125 miles in total. Ideas would be sooo appreciated.

I stumbled upon the Ruby Crest Trail in Nevada. It looks pretty amazing; the only drawback is it’s an out and back as I really don’t have $300 to pay the only shuttle that runs. I looked long and hard at the Mah Dah Hey Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the 22-hour drive each way is a bit daunting. I’ve been looking at trying to find a closer alternative. I’ve got lots on my bucket list, but so much is just too far to drive.

Adam
Sacramento, CA

A campsite below Mount Hood on the Timberline Trail.

A campsite below Mount Hood on the Timberline Trail.

Hi Adam,

Your question is a tough one because, as you know, in the second week in June, the mountains within a day’s drive of you are still buried in snow. I’ll address your specific question of seasonally appropriate trips, but I’ll also suggest my favorite, longer backpacking trips that are ideal during the peak summer season.

It’s not impossible to backpack trails in higher mountains in mid-June—Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers go through the High Sierra snows in June—but it’s obviously less than ideal, given that the snow can range from icy and treacherous to so soft that you’re post-holing with every step.

The Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, a great hike that compares with another you might consider, the Wonderland Trail (although it’s less than half the Wonderland’s length), also doesn’t become mostly snow-free until late July or August. Same with the Ruby Crest Trail, although it may melt out a little sooner than comparable elevations in the Sierra or Cascades. (I haven’t actually hiked the Ruby Crest Trail yet.)

As you probably know, trails in the Southwest are baking hot by then, too. I’d like to backpack the entire Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon in one shot (I’ve done sections of it), it’s about 95 miles, but I’d want to do it in April, May, late September or October, not in summer.

 

Big trips go better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”

 

Backpacking the John Muir Trail past Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

The John Muir Trail, Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness.

It’s hard to anticipate when high-country trails will become mostly snow-free, although snowpack depth and its percentage of average by mid-spring is a pretty good indicator. If it’s well below average, as it was in 2015, high-elevation trails could become passable by mid-June. If so, I would look at knocking off a big chunk of the John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, like hiking from The Minarets area of the Ansel Adams Wilderness north to Yosemite National Park (requiring a shuttle).

Other possibilities are a pair of hikes I did in Yosemite. From Tuolumne Meadows, I hiked an 86-mile route in northern Yosemite that was almost a loop, and the free park shuttle bus provides transportation between the trailheads. From Tuolumne, we hiked to Glen Aulin, Matterhorn Canyon, over Burro Pass and Mule Pass, to Kerrick Canyon, Benson Lake, down Rodgers Canyon (long stretch with no water), up the glorious Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River (lead photo at top of story; lots of nice campsites), past Glen Aulin again over to May Lake and the side trip up Mount Hoffman—often described as the best summit view in Yosemite—then finishing at Tenaya Lake. Leave your car at the finish and grab the shuttle bus to the start. See my story about that trip, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.”

 

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite, Glacier, or Grand Teton using my expert e-guides.

 

Also from the Tuolumne area, we hiked 65 miles from Tenaya Lake over Clouds Rest (another amazing summit) and Half Dome (side trip), past Nevada Fall, up Illilouette Canyon, over Red Peak Pass, past the Merced River headwaters to the high trail that parallels the upper Merced River on its northeast side, over Vogelsang Pass, then down to Tuolumne. See my story about that trip, “Best of Yosemite Backpacking, Part 1: South of Tuolumne Meadows.”

Both of those Yosemite loops are marvelous, and you’ll see there are various combinations of trails possible to shorten or lengthen either, or combine parts of both, because of the availability of the free park shuttle bus in the Tuolumne Meadows area. According to the park’s website, the shuttle operates June through mid-September, with the dates varying yearly, so check on when it begins operating in June.

 

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A backpacker in Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.

Todd Arndt crossing Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.

Usually, snowpack in the Cascades persists into late July or August, so it’s very likely you’ll find snow covering higher trails there in mid-June. But in the event of a very unusual year, or for anyone planning a trip in August or the first half of September, I have two suggestions:

My story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades,” describes a trip I took starting at Easy Pass Trailhead, going over Easy Pass, down Fisher Creek, up Thunder Creek, over Park Creek Pass, down the Park Creek Trail, following the Stehekin Valley Road, turning up the Bridge Creek Trail and hiking out-and-back up the North Fork Park Creek Trail, and then continuing up the Bridge Creek Trail, making the loop over Rainbow Pass and McAlester Pass, and finishing at the Bridge Creek Trailhead.

I also consider the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

To the north of those areas is the Pasayten Wilderness, which has a long stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail and opportunities for long loops and point-to-point traverses. I have yet to explore that place, but hope to get there soon.

 

Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

 

Along the trail to Spider Gap, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Along the trail to Spider Gap, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

If by some highly unusual set of circumstances the trails in Glacier National Park are mostly snow-free by mid-June—or you can go later in the summer some year—I highly recommend a 90-mile circuit in northern Glacier that I backpacked with friends. See my e-guide to backpacking Glacier’s 65-mile Northern Loop and a menu of all of my e-guides at The Big Outside.

I also have two mostly off-trail, long backpacking trips on my to-do list: the Sierra High Route and Wyoming’s Wind River High Route. Watch for my upcoming story about a recent, 39-mile backpacking trip to Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Range on which friends and I hiked a section of the Wind River High Route over spectacular Knapsack Col (see photo below).

Although these lists include short trips as well as long ones, you should check out my stories “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

Good luck.

Best,
Michael

 

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.

Got a question about hiking, backpacking, planning a family adventure, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Email it to me at michael@thebigoutside.com. For $60, I’ll answer your questions via email or in a phone call to help ensure your trip is a success. Write to me and I will tell you whether I can answer your question (I usually can). You may find helpful information in stories on my Ask Me page and All Trips page, and in my skills stories and gear reviews.

—Michael Lanza

 

Backpacking into Titcomb Basin in Wyoming's Wind River Range.

Backpacking into Titcomb Basin in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Michael,

I can’t thank you enough for the time and effort that you put into this reply. It was more than I could have hoped for.

Now it’s my turn to spend the time diving deep into your ideas to find the trips that match what will be best for me, and watching this year’s snowpack in the mountains.

Adam

 

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4 Responses to Ask Me: My Top Picks For Long Backpacking Trips

  1. Michael   |  April 21, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    How about starting at one of the trailheads near Mammoth Lakes and hiking to Bishop Pass? Based on the reports I’m seeing that should be doable in June this year. It’s just under 100 miles (depending on which trailhead you start from) and should provide some mighty nice scenery. It was my back up plan for this year if I didn’t get a JMT permit. You will need to hitch a ride from Parchers Meadow Resort to Bishop, but you can then catch the Crest bus back up to Mammoth. Just check the Crest bus schedule and plan accordingly, as it doesn’t run 7 days per week.

    • michaellanza   |  April 21, 2015 at 6:31 pm

      Great suggestion, Michael, thanks!

  2. Paul   |  April 21, 2015 at 6:28 am

    Adam, Last year I was in a similar situation to you in that I wanted to hike in the mountains of Yosemite in early June (3rd – 10th). We ended up settling on a straightforward point to point from Tuolumne to Yosemite valley via Cathedral Lakes, Clouds Rest, Half dome side trip, and down the Mist trail. The only snow we encountered was very minimal on the ascent exiting Sunrise HSC. We also dayhiked around Glacier Point and the Mount Whitney Portal and found those snow free as well. Shuttling around Yosemite seemed straightforward, and there were a number of options, including a YARTS bus that travels between the Valley and TM. Good Luck! Great trips listed above, I’m jealous!

    • michaellanza   |  April 21, 2015 at 7:06 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Paul. I think last year had low snowpack, too, but this year is even lower, so Adam should have plenty of possibilities in the Sierra.

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