Big Wilderness, No Crowds: Top 5 Backpacking Trips For Scenery and Solitude
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 more wild—makes 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, you’ll probably have company—maybe more than you prefer.
Not on these five trips, though. From California’s High Sierra to the Cascades, and Idaho’s beloved Sawtooths to the peerless majesty of the Grand Canyon, here are five 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.
John Muir Wilderness
On a 32-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, harshest, 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 entails weaving 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.
Trips like these go better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
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 into an area that’s a solid two days’ walk from the nearest roads, a friend and I saw some of the prettiest 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,” and all of my stories about the Sawtooths.
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 dangerous, depending on the firmness of the snow. But the payoff for backpackers with the skills to manage that pass is five-star views of Glacier Peak and the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, some of the best backcountry campsites you’ll ever see (or hike past), and unforgettable wildflower displays and panoramas like you get from Liberty Cap, a side hike from Buck Creek Pass (photo above).
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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 rank among my top 10 favorite backpacking trips ever and earn a spot on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park 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 traverses 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 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.
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