By Michael Lanza
We all want our wilderness backpacking trips to have two sometimes conflicting qualities: mind-blowing scenery, but also few other people around. A high degree of solitude somehow makes the backcountry feel bigger and wilder and the views more breathtaking. However unrealistic the notion may be, we like to believe we have some stunning corner of nature to ourselves. But in the real world, if you head out into popular mountains in July or August or in canyon country in spring or fall, you’ll probably have company—maybe more than you prefer.
Not on these trips, though.
From lonely corners of the majestic High Sierra (including, believe it or not, Yosemite), the North Cascades region, and Utah’s High Uintas and Maze District of Canyonlands, to the Wind River Range, Idaho’s beloved Sawtooths, the Eagle Cap Wilderness and a rugged adventure in the Grand Canyon, here are 10 multi-day hikes where you’re guaranteed to enjoy a degree of solitude—at least on long stretches of the trip—that’s equal to the scenery. All of these trips meet several of my “12 Expert Tips For Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”
They also happen to be some favorite trips among countless wilderness walks I’ve taken over more than three decades (and counting) of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Please tell me what you think of these trips—or add your own suggestions—in the comments at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
And I can help you plan any of them (or any trip you read about at this blog). See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.
Glacier Peak Wilderness
The five-day, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness has earned a reputation for spiciness—which keeps the crowds down. The reason is the off-trail route over 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which holds snow all summer and can be hazardous, depending on the firmness of the snow.
But for backpackers with the skills to manage that pass—which isn’t terribly steep or dangerous when done in soft-snow conditions, as my family did when our kids were 12 and 10—the rewards include five-star views of Glacier Peak and the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, some of the best backcountry campsites you’ll ever have (or perhaps hike past), and unforgettable wildflower displays and panoramas like you get from Liberty Cap, a short side hike from Buck Creek Pass (photo above).
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The Maze District, Canyonlands
Not for nothing did three friends and I encounter only a handful of people in five days backpacking through the Canyonlands Maze. For starters, the trailhead lies hours from anywhere at the end of a long dirt road. We went in the first week of March, when we had warm sunshine and nights below freezing—and critically, we found water in a place where the few sources can go dry by late spring.
Plus, the Maze entails rugged hiking along circuitous trails weaving up and down canyons; several times, we passed our packs to scramble over ledges, through tight crevices, and down a ladder of footsteps chiseled into a short cliff. But the payoff was a trip more adventurous and scenic than expected, the brilliant streak of the Milky Way across ink-black night skies—and nearly incomparable solitude.
See my story “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze” and all stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside.
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John Muir Wilderness
On a 32-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, hardest, and most achingly gorgeous strips of California’s High Sierra—in the John Muir Wilderness (lead photo at top of story), from North Lake, outside Bishop, to Mosquito Flat—a friend and I linked up trails with long stretches of cross-country hiking to explore lake-studded alpine basins and cross six passes between 11,150 and 13,040 feet.
The payoff for our labors and the route’s difficulty was seeing corners of the Sierra rarely visited by people. If you’re up for a multi-day hike that some searching for safe, non-technical routes through cliff bands, descending steep, loose scree, and scrambling over big talus blocks—as well as enjoying some of the most picturesque backcountry and campsites you’ve ever seen—this one is for you.
See my story “In the Footsteps of John Muir: Finding Solitude in the High Sierra,” and all of my stories about the High Sierra and backpacking trips in California at The Big Outside.
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High Uintas Wilderness
The first hint at the solitude we’d enjoy on this 57-mile loop hike in northeastern Utah’s High Uintas (including an optional 11-mile dayhike of Kings Peak, highest in Utah) came at the trailhead, where there were two cars. We didn’t see another person until the second evening in camp, on a mountain lake we had to ourselves, when two hikers passed by and one remarked, “Well, there are other people out here!”
Our third day passed without encountering another human and we had a campsite for two nights in an 11,000-foot basin ringed by 13,000-foot peaks with no one in sight. And we passed four or five other backpackers on the trip’s last two days. This was in the third week of July, with most of the snow melted out of the Uintas.
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.
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Southern Sawtooth Mountains
I’ve dayhiked, backpacked, and climbed numerous times in Idaho’s glorious Sawtooths, peaks that look to me like a love child of the High Sierra and the Tetons (if somewhat smaller); and with the exception of a few popular spots, I wouldn’t describe them as crowded. But for solitude and scenery that justifies my “love child” claim, I recommend diving deep into the range’s interior.
On a 57-mile trip from the Queens River Trailhead, penetrating an area that’s a solid two days’ walk from the nearest roads, a friend and I saw some of the prettiest and loneliest mountain lakes of the dozens that grace the Sawtooths, and lonely valleys framed by endless rows of jagged peaks.
See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and all stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooths at The Big Outside.
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The Pasayten Wilderness
On a five-day, nearly 45-mile loop north from Harts Pass, we saw two faces of northern Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness. First, we followed a 20-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail along a high ridgeline, crossing meadows with classic North Cascades vistas of jagged ridges as far as we could see. This was the first week of September, so we saw perhaps 20 PCT thru-hikers completing their months-long journey over our first two days, a backpacker population density unlikely in mid-summer, especially on weekdays.
But that changed after we left the PCT, dropping into a valley and ascending a long, rugged ridge where the solitude matched the big views and strenuousness. We had three of our trip’s four campsites to ourselves—illustrating how the Pasayten’s vastness, remoteness, and some degree of anonymity ensures solitude.
See my story “Backpacking the Pasayten Wilderness—On and Off the Beaten Track.”
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Yosemite exceeds expectations in many ways, including that its reputation for crowds simply doesn’t square with the reality of backpacking throughout most of the park. On an 87-mile trek through northern Yosemite (shorter trips are possible), a friend and I crossed three remote, 10,000-foot passes; wandered through rock gardens in canyons beneath 12,000-foot peaks; camped on a lake’s sandy beach that looked like it was transplanted from southern California; hiked up a canyon resembling Yosemite Valley but twice as long and lacking the roads, buildings, and crowds; and stood on a summit known for “the best 360 in Yosemite.”
And every day, we walked for hours without seeing another person. When you’re ready to explore as deeply into the Yosemite backcountry as a person can wander, head north of Tuolumne Meadows into the park’s biggest, loneliest wilderness.
See my story “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” my e-guide to that trip, “The Prettiest, Uncrowded Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit,” and all stories about backpacking in Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
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Wind River Range
Wyoming’s Winds aren’t exactly unknown, but this range that extends for over 100 miles possesses the essential qualities that keep the numbers of people low: serious remoteness from major population centers and airports; abundant wilderness and enough gorgeous lakes to disperse human visitors; and relatively high elevations and rugged terrain that impose significant demands of time and effort to explore.
Example: Even though the Elkhart Park trailhead parking lot outside Pinedale, Wyoming, was nearly full when two friends and I set out on a 41-mile loop during a spell of perfect mid-September weather, we saw only a handful of other backpacker parties on a trip that took in lovely Island Lake (and dozens of other lakes), Titcomb Basin’s views of 13,000-foot peaks rising 3,000 feet above our tents, an off-trail crossing of a 12,000-foot pass, and the stunning canyon of Pine Creek. And that has commonly been my experience over several trips into the Winds.
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.
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Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon
Even in a park where just about any hike would make just about anyone’s top 10 list, the Grand Canyon’s infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop stands out.
Starting from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim, the route makes a top-to-bottom-and-back-up circuit of the canyon—going from a words-can’t-do-it-justice panorama at the rim to dipping your toes in the Colorado River.
It features lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another—and a high solitude quotient. That’s because of its very rugged character, with miles of off-trail hiking and one (short) rappel. But it’s “grand” enough to have at one time ranked among my top 10 favorite backpacking trips ever and earned a spot on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.
See my story about this trip, “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” “7 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” and all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
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Eagle Cap Wilderness
I’ll preface this recommendation with a caveat (of the sort you won’t read in any outdoor magazine): Don’t expect solitude in the Lakes Basin, the most popular corner of northeastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, on a nice weekend in August.
That said, much of the 40-mile loop from the East Eagle Trailhead travels valleys and passes that are as lonely as they are pretty, dotted with wildflowers and mountain lakes ringed by granite peaks. Keep an eye out for elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, and 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 rocky Wallowa Mountains.
See my story “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness,” and all of my stories about backpacking in Oregon at The Big Outside.
See all stories about backpacking at The Big Outside, including “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”