My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever
By Michael Lanza
You’ve had days like this. Maybe it was a dayhike, or a single, exceptional day on a backpacking trip or hut trek—one so gorgeous and inspirational that it forges a lasting memory as one of the best experiences you’ve ever had in the backcountry. From iconic national parks like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Glacier to some of the world’s great treks, like the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, and Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail, here’s a list of the 25 hands-down prettiest days I’ve ever spent walking dirt and rock footpaths. I think many of these places would make your top list, too.
The write-ups and photos below link to my complete stories about these adventures at The Big Outside, with more pictures and information to help you plan each trip.
The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
We breezed down the narrow crest of the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail as the first light of day fell on one of the planet’s most magnificent and unfathomable landscapes: a mile-deep chasm with twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers each standing thousands of feet tall. Three friends and I walked across the canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim, and back again—44.4 miles with 11,195 feet of up and down—all before the hour hand made one complete revolution. Wherever I hike for the rest of my life, I’m sure I’ll always consider this one of my greatest trail days ever.
See my story “April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Yosemite’s Clouds Rest and Half Dome
Traversing the slender summit ridge of 9,926-foot Clouds Rest (lead photo at top of story), we walked what felt like a high wire between sphincter-puckering abysses in the heart of Yosemite National Park. Below one elbow, a drop-off of several hundred feet; on the other side, 4,000 feet—that’s a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan. It’s arguably the best summit view in Yosemite and one of the best reached by a trail in all of California’s High Sierra. On the first day of a 151-mile grand tour of that flagship park, four of us walked from the granite-framed shores of Tenaya Lake over Clouds Rest and on to one of America’s most famous summits: Half Dome. And we weren’t even finished for the day after all that.
See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite and about California’s national parks.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Walking Across Zion
From the red-rock Kolob Canyons in the park’s northwest corner to the 2,000-foot, creamy white and blazing burgundy cliffs of Zion Canyon, Zion National Park harbors some of the most uniquely beautiful and beloved natural real estate in the entire National Park System. Hiking 50 miles across the entire park in a day, tagging highlights like Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail, seemed like the perfect way to experience a park without peer. That’s what several friends and I figured, anyway. Our adventure was proof that, even when events don’t proceed quite as planned, it can be a great day.
See my story “Mid-Life Crisis: Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion in a Day,” and all of my stories about Zion National Park.
The Alta Via 2 in the Pale di San Martino, Dolomite Mountains, Italy
Often described as “the world’s most beautiful trail,” the Alta Via 2 traces a roughly 112-mile (180k) path through northern Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, which thrust a dizzying array of spires and serrated peaks into the sky, gleaming like polished jewels in sunshine and virtually pulsing with the salmon hue of evening alpenglow. On my family’s hut-to-hut trek of a 39-mile (62k) section of the AV 2, jaw-dropping views became routine. But on the day we hiked from the Rosetta Hut, in the sub-range known as the Pale di San Martino, down to the small mountain town of San Martino di Castrozza, we walked below one sheer limestone tower after another on a path that clung to vertiginous mountainsides, sometimes chopped from the face of a cliff.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
Many Glacier to Logan Pass, Glacier National Park
In the cool hours of early morning, my hiking partner and I set out from the Many Glacier complex on the east side of the park, heading toward Swiftcurrent Pass and eventually Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traverse of 15.2 miles with about 2,000 feet of uphill. Neither of us had hiked these trails before, so we carried no expectations—and were amazed at every turn. We walked below towering cliffs spliced by ribbon waterfalls, climbed to a notch hundreds of feet above the Grinnell Glacier, and followed the Highline Trail, an alpine footpath with sweeping views of the Northern Rockies where sightings of mountain goats and bighorn sheep are common.
Hiking Mount St. Helens
The catastrophic eruption that decapitated Washington’s Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, removing almost 1,300 vertical feet of mountaintop, ironically created one of America’s most strikingly beautiful, fascinating, and coveted dayhikes. On a climb up the mountain’s standard Monitor Ridge route—10 miles and 4,500 vertical feet round-trip, most of it over a rugged and stark moonscape of loose rocks, pumice, and ash—you’ll soak up views of several Cascade Range volcanoes, and eventually stand atop the rim’s crumbling cliffs, gazing out over a vast hole 2,000 feet deep and nearly two miles across.
Laugavegur Trail, Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Iceland
Some landscapes defy comprehension; as a photographer, I’ll look at them and think, “No one will believe this is real. They’ll think I doctored the picture.” I felt that way several times in Iceland, but never more powerfully than I did while hiking over a peak named Blahnukur and on the northernmost section of the 33.5-mile Laugavegur Trail. A hut-to-hut trek that begins with a long soak in the hot springs of Landmannalaugar, it crosses a barren land where mud pots bubble and burp and the colors of volcanic activity are everywhere—paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, brown, rust, and honey against a backdrop of purple pumice, electric-lime moss, and the black rhyolite of old, hardened lava flows.
The John Muir Trail from Evolution Basin to Mather Pass
The John Muir Trail, aka “America’s Most Beautiful Trail,” is a 211-mile journey through one of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the country—the High Sierra, which Ansel Adams dubbed “The Range of Light.” When a few friends and I knocked off the JMT in a week, we packed two or three normal days of hiking into each day. (The scenery was morphine for our aching feet.) But I have to give the edge to the day we ambulated from Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park all the way to the Upper Basin of the South Fork Kings River: past the glassy lakes of the Evolution Basin, over 11,955-foot Muir Pass, through LeConte Canyon with its soaring granite walls, and over 12,100-foot Mather Pass, which we crossed as the setting sun set puffy clouds overhead afire.
See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” and all of my stories about the High Sierra at The Big Outside.
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Death Canyon Shelf to South Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park
The day began auspiciously in the middle of the night, with a huge bull elk waking us by clomping around just outside our tents on Death Canyon Shelf. We did get back to sleep, and the next day, we backpacked the Teton Crest Trail over the shelf, across Alaska Basin, over Hurricane Pass, and down into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon—a day of early-morning moose sightings, uninterrupted views of these famously jagged mountains, and endless fields of wildflowers. I’ve had many top-shelf days in the Tetons since that first-ever backpacking trip there, but I still consider that stretch of the TCT its finest.
After the Teton Crest Trail, hike the other nine of “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
Hiking the Volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
I could create a separate list just of the most spectacular days I’ve spent in New Zealand. (It would include day two on the Kepler Track, at least one day on the Dusky Track, and sea kayaking in Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, all in Fiordland National Park, as well as days on the Cascade Saddle Route and the Whanganui River.) But not for nothing was Tongariro, on New Zealand’s North Island, this country’s first national park and the world’s fourth. Active volcanoes have birthed a virtually lifeless, yet Technicolor world of craters painted in vivid shades of burnt red, orange, brilliant white, gray, deep black, yellow, and brown. On a 12-mile hike over three of the park’s volcanoes and craters, a local guide and I walked through old lava flows of coal-black rocks and up to the 7,516-foot rim of the active volcano named Ngauruhoe. But you take your life in your hands hiking here: Tongariro has seen dozens of volcanic eruptions just in the past century.
The Narrows, Zion National Park
Tough call deciding whether the first or second day backpacking Zion’s Narrows deserves a spot on this list. But take this classic, two-day backpacking trip and you’ll get to decide for yourself. Walking down the mostly shallow North Fork of the Virgin River between close sandstone walls that rise up to a thousand feet overhead, with trees and lush hanging gardens contrasted against rock painted in a rainbow of colors, Zion’s Narrows only gets more spectacular the farther you hike.
Read my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Above the Gray Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
A rumble of thunder ripped through the air, audible over the persistent wind—but it wasn’t thunder. A few hundred feet below our rocky overlook in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a slowly widening ring of small bergs floated in the lake, shrapnel from a massive chunk of ice that had just calved off the snout of the Grey Glacier. We were ascending a trail over a mountainside scoured to bedrock by ancient ice, scaling hundred-foot-tall steel ladders anchored to the earthen walls of gorges, while looking out over a river of ice two miles across and 17 miles long. Part of the spectacular “W” trek in this park in Chile’s Patagonia region, it was a 19-mile day that ended when we walked up to the Paine Grande Lodge after dark, buzzing with excitement.
Mosquito Creek to Toleak Point, Southern Olympic Coast
You won’t find much on the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States, the shore of Washington’s Olympic National Park—just seals, sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, many species of seabirds and whales, and trees 10 to 15 feet in diameter and growing over 200 feet tall. On the middle day of a three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip, hiking from Mosquito Creek to Toleak Point, my family explored tide pools and boulders coated with mussels, sea stars, and sea anemones, looked out on scores of stone pinnacles rising out of the ocean, and camped on a wilderness beach. I’m not sure who had more fun, the kids or the adults.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast,” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
The Paria Canyon Narrows
By our second day backpacking Paria Canyon, in southern Utah and northern Arizona, our kids had become so inured to the frequent, shallow puddles of quicksand that it became a game for them to stomp around in them, laughing and shrieking, and see if anyone could get stuck. We were deep in Paria’s narrows, hiking in the shade of canyon walls that make humans look tiny. At every bend and twist in the canyon, we’d look up at another sheer, multi-colored wall or huge, arch-like formations eroding into a cliff, and come upon the occasional hanging garden of moss and greenery where a spring gushed from cracks in solid rock. The desert Southwest harbors many lovely canyons, but few compare with Paria Canyon for length, variety, and sustained beauty.
See my story “The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon,” and all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah.
After Paria Canyon, hike the other nine of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The High Sierra Trail, Sequoia National Park
We weren’t far into a nearly 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia before I realized it promised to be one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever hiked. Part of one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48, it’s home to many of the highest mountains outside Alaska, lonely backcountry groves of giant sequoias, and crystal-clear alpine lakes. On our third day, hiking the High Sierra Trail from Bearpaw Meadow toward 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap, we traversed a cliff face hundreds of feet above the deep Middle Fork Kaweah River. We stopped for lunch and a swim at the Hamilton Lakes, which are almost completely enclosed by towering cliffs and pinnacles. By late afternoon, we found campsites at Precipice Lake at 10,400 feet, its glassy, green and blue waters reflecting white and golden cliffs (one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites).
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park.”
Crossing the Wind River Range
From the first light of early morning turning a sliver of clouds on the eastern horizon blood red, until we finished our long day near dusk, the 27-mile, east-west traverse that some friends and I made of the southern Wind River Range felt like a stroll through mountain paradise. We spent much of our hike above 11,000 feet, drinking up expansive vistas of soaring granite cliffs and peaks rising above 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide. We scrambled to the 12,250-foot summit of Mount Chauvenet and strolled across the Lizard Head Plateau gaping at stone temples and thick glaciers. Then we put an exclamation point on our adventure by walking across the Cirque of the Towers, a mind-boggling horseshoe of sheer-walled, granite peaks scratching at the clouds.
Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon’s very rugged and infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop stands out even in a park where just about any hike would make just about anyone’s personal list of top 10 backpacking trips. But our second day of hiking featured just about everything that makes backpacking in the Grand Canyon unique: sweeping views, a sandy beach beside the Colorado River, an intimate side canyon with lush hanging gardens, a high solitude quotient—and what must be one of the best campsites in the entire Big Ditch, below Royal Arch (one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites). As a bonus, we even got some spicy scrambling and a fun rappel off a cliff.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
The Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canadian Rockies
Our second day on the 34-mile (54k) Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park was long and hard—12 miles over two 7,000-foot passes—but we had the most effective painkiller: views that even impressed our 14- and 12-year-old kids. One of Canada’s most popular and stunningly scenic hikes—and really deserving a spot on the list of the world’s finest treks—it follows the base of an almost unbroken limestone cliff up to 3,000 feet (900m) tall. We started that day below 1,154-foot (352m) Helmet Falls, one of the tallest in the Canadian Rockies, and hiked to Numa Creek, crossing meadows carpeted in wildflowers below hanging glaciers, and sighting four mountain goats at Tumbling Pass.
See my story about backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park.
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Timberline Lodge to Cooper Spur, Timberline Trail, Mount Hood
On our first day backpacking the 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s 11,239-foot Mount Hood, a friend and I waded through innumerable meadows bursting with lupine, fireweed, and other wildflowers, always with Hood’s snowy and icy face looming above. By afternoon, we popped out of the forest on Gnarl Ridge to a moonscape of rocks and dirt and busted pinnacles. Hood towered nearly 4,000 feet above us, a constant backdrop as we traversed a vast, stark plateau. We stopped at a campsite on Cooper Spur with a 360-degree panorama of Hood, surrounding forests and mountains, and Mounts Adams and St. Helens in the distance. Although the Timberline has long lived in the shadow of Mount Rainier’s 93-mile Wonderland Trail, it competes with the Wonderland for scenery—and probably has an edge in adventure: On the Timberline, you will look at some creeks and wonder whether you even want to try to ford them.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
The Europe Trail in the Swiss Alps
Near the tail end of a six-day, hut-to-hut trek through the Pennine Alps of southern Switzerland, my wife, Penny, and I, joined by our German friend, Guido, hiked the Europaweg, or Europe Trail, toward the resort town of Zermatt. Largely contouring well above treeline, we had constant views across a bottomless, vibrantly green valley of peaks taller than the Colorado Rockies, with the jagged profile of the Tetons or High Sierra, the waterfalls of the Cascades, and glaciers like Mount Rainier’s. We ended that glorious day drinking beers on the outdoor deck at the Europahutte, or Europe Hut, gazing out at the 14,780-foot (4506m) Weisshorn and its glaciers, and the Matterhorn farther up the valley.
I’ll write about that hut trek through Switzerland’s Pennine Alps in a future story at The Big Outside.
Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Deep in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, we ascended Trail 785 through quiet forest before emerging in a sprawling mountainside meadow crazy with marmot burrows and blooming wildflowers. Our sweeping vista to the south revealed the deep, green valleys of Miners Creek and the Suiattle River. Beyond it, 10,541-foot Glacier Peak wore a heavy cloak of snow and ice, towering above a sea of mountains. It was the third day of five my family and three friends spent backpacking the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop. That day had begun at our previous campsite, below the glacier and emerald alpine lakes of the Upper Lyman Lakes basin (one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites), and still ahead of us lay one of the most beautiful backcountry tarns I’ve ever come across, Image Lake.
See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop,” and all of my stories about the North Cascades region.
Climbing Norway’s Highest Peak
Under a brilliantly blue morning sky in the highest mountains in northern Europe, my wife, Penny, our friend, Jeff, and I started a 5,000-foot climb of the highest peak in Norway, 8,100-foot Galdhøpiggen. It was the final day of a 60-mile trek in Jotunheimen National Park, and we could have lounged in our last hut—but were glad we didn’t. Ascending a treeless mountainside, we gained increasingly longer views of a rugged, Arctic-looking landscape vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, and wildflowers, where cliffs and mountains look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe. At the chilly, windblown summit, we stood above a sea of mountains and glaciers. And, of course, it being Europe, there was a hut at the summit where we could buy hot cocoas.
The Crown of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
We started hiking in a cool, morning fog that hung thickly over the Sawtooth Valley, headed for a very small and airy block of stone that lay beyond sight about 6.5 horizontal miles and 4,200 vertical feet in the distance: the 10,751-foot summit of Thompson Peak, the highest in Idaho’s Sawtooths. Four-and-a-half hours later, we had the crown of the Sawtooths to ourselves on that July day, with a view of the entire Sawtooth Range and the White Cloud Mountains across the valley. That was the most recent of my several trips up Thompson, a rugged, partly off-trail hike that starts out nice and then knocks your socks off long before you reach the summit.
Crossing the Thorung La on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit
With a faint predawn light touching the distant snowcap of Gangapurna, my wife, Penny, and I took our first, ponderous steps in the freezing darkness on a 3,000-foot climb to the high pass on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, the Thorung La at 17,769 feet. As dawn approached, we got our first views of a starkly beautiful landscape of rocks, snow, and massive peaks. More than four hours later, we walked up to a pile of stones where prayer flags flapped in the wind like handkerchiefs drying on a clothesline: the Thorung La. We had walked 11 days to reach that spot more than three miles into the troposphere—as fine a place as any to celebrate her 32nd birthday.
See my story “Himalayan Shangri-La: Trekking Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit.”
Traversing the Sierra de Aitana in Southern Spain
Dwelling anonymously in the shadows of the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, and other European mountain ranges, the diminutive Aitana Mountains are hidden pearls towering over bucolic valleys a short drive from southern Spain’s Mediterranean coast. On the third day of a five-day, 60-mile trek from one medieval village to the next, I traversed the range’s highest peak, 5,128-foot Sierra de Aitana, past miles of multi-colored limestone cliffs and craggy peaks carpeted with wildflowers. But that trip wasn’t all suffering on the trail: I capped each full day of hiking with Spanish delicacies like stuffed aubergines, paella, and olleta de blat (a stew containing various pig parts from ribs to hooves), and enough vino to float a Spanish galleon.
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