Backpacking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail, Glacier National Park.

My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips

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By Michael Lanza

What makes a great backpacking trip? I’ve thought about that more than a mentally stable person probably should, having done many of America’s (and the world’s) most beautiful and beloved multi-day hikes over the years. Certainly top-shelf scenery is a mandatory qualification. An element of adventurousness enhances a hike, in my eyes. As I assembled this top 10 list, longer trips seemed to dominate it—there’s something special about a big walk in the wilderness—but two- and three-day hikes also made my list. Another factor that truly matters is a wilderness experience: All of my top 10 are in national parks or federal wilderness areas.

Some things, though, don’t require explanation; the validation comes in just doing it. So I give you here my admittedly personal and subjective list of the 10 best backpacking trips I’ve taken over more than a quarter-century (and counting) of humping a pack on trails all over the country, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and writing for this blog.

Acknowledging my Western bias—it’s where I spend most of my backcountry time—each hike here merits a 10 for scenery. But difficulty and distance vary greatly. So I’ve included the mileage of each—and the longest trips on this list can be chopped up into smaller portions—as well as a difficulty rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hardest in terms of strenuousness, and in some cases requiring specialized skills or equipment.

While I’ve numbered my top 10 hikes, that’s not intended as a quality ranking. If you do (or have done) all of them, let me know if you believe you can rank them. I think it’s impossible. And I know there are backpacking trips I haven’t done yet that arguably deserve a spot on this list. If you have a trip to suggest, please do tell me about it in the Comments section at the bottom of this story. I hope to get to them all. It’s a tough assignment, but I’m working on it.

Accompanying each hike in my top 10 are Close Runners-Up, trips that are exactly that. My advice: Just do every one of these top 10 and runner-up hikes that you can, when you can.

 

Todd Arndt in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

Todd Arndt in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

#1 A Grand Tour of Yosemite

Distance: 151 miles
Difficulty: 4

John Muir saw quite a few world-class wildernesses, and he focused much of his time and energy on exploring and protecting Yosemite. A lot of people would argue it’s the best national park for backpackers. After several trips there, I had thought I’d seen Yosemite’s finest corners, including many trails in the park’s core, its section of the John Muir Trail, and the summits of Half Dome and Clouds Rest.

Then, over a total of seven days, I backpacked 151 miles through the biggest patches of wilderness in the park, south and north of Tuolumne Meadows—and discovered Yosemite’s true soul, a vast reach of deep, granite-walled canyons, peaks rising to over 12,000 feet, and one gorgeous mountain lake after another dappling the landscape.

High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park.

High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park.

See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that grand tour of Yosemite, and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about the 86-mile second leg.

Close Runner-Up:

Read my “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about a 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.

 

 

Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

#2 Northern Glacier National Park

Distance: 90 miles
Difficulty: 3

With rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, deeply green forests, over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, megafauna like bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and grizzly and black bears, and over a million acres in Montana’s Northern Rockies, most of it wilderness, little wonder that Glacier is so popular with backpackers.

On this 90-mile hike, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, we saw all of those things—yes, including grizzly bears—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.

Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop.”

Close Runner-Up:

For much of its distance, the 34-mile Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, in the Canadian Rockies, passes below a long chain of sheer cliffs and mountains with thick tongues of glacial ice.

 

Death Canyon Shelf, on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.

Death Canyon Shelf, on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.

#3 Teton Crest Trail

Distance: 33-40 miles, multiple variations
Difficulty: 4

One of my first big, Western backpacking trips was on the Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and it so inspired me that I’ve returned almost 20 times since to backpack, dayhike, rock climb, backcountry ski, and paddle a canoe. I can’t imagine that jagged skyline ever failing to give me chills.

Running north-south through the heart of the national park and adjacent national forest lands, the Teton Crest Trail stays above treeline for much of its distance, with expansive views of the peaks, but also drops into the beautiful South Fork and North Fork of Cascade Canyon and the upper forks of Granite Canyon. Various trails access it, allowing for multiple route options, any of them making for one of America’s premier multi-day hikes.

Bill Mistretta above the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

See my stories “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and all of my Ask Me posts about Grand Teton National Park.

Close Runner-Up:

A two- or three-day hike linking any of the east-side canyons in Grand Teton National Park, such as the roughly 18-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop (the most popular in the park), or either of two loops from Death Canyon Trailhead: about 23 miles linking Death Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Mount Hunt Divide; or roughly 24 miles linking Death Canyon, Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, and Static Peak.

 

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

 

David Gordon backpacking The Narrows, Zion National Park.

David Gordon backpacking The Narrows, Zion National Park.

#4 Zion’s Narrows

Distance: 16 miles
Difficulty: 3

The North Fork of the Virgin River carves out a uniquely deep, slender, and awe-inspiring redrock canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park, with walls up to 1,000 feet tall that close in to just 20 feet apart in places. Springs gush from cracks in the walls, nourishing lush hanging gardens. In the low-water levels when backpackers typically make the two-day descent of The Narrows, you’re walking in water from ankle- to waist-deep most of the time, over a cobblestone riverbed that makes for slow progress.

Paria Canyon, Utah-Arizona.

Paria Canyon, Utah-Arizona.

But you’ll feel no desire to rush through one of the most enchanting hikes in the National Park System (especially since the lower end is often crowded with dayhikers, while the trip’s first day and second morning are much quieter).

See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”

Close Runners-Up:

Paria Canyon, Utah-Arizona
North-South Traverse of Zion
Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Beehive Traverse and Spring Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park

 

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.”

 

Hiking to Silver Pass on the John Muir Trail in California's John Muir Wilderness.

Hiking to Silver Pass on the John Muir Trail in California’s John Muir Wilderness.

#5 John Muir Trail

Distance: 221 miles
Difficulty: 4

The John Muir Trail’s 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to the highest summit in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park, has often been described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail”—and hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s hard to argue against that lofty claim.

The two- to three-week journey through California’s High Sierra (totaling 221 miles, including the 10-mile descent off Whitney, not actually part of the JMT) stays mostly above 9,000 feet as it traverses mile after jaw-dropping mile of a landscape of incisor peaks, too many waterfalls to name, and countless, pristine wilderness lakes nestled in granite basins. You climb over numerous passes between 11,000 and over 13,000 feet, with views that stretch a hundred miles. Although not a place for solitude during the peak season (mid-July to mid-September), the JMT may be the one hike on this list that every serious backpacker should get to.

Jason Kauffman in Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness.

Granite Park, John Muir Wilderness.

See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?

Close Runner-Up:

See my story about a remote, partly off-trail, 32-mile traverse of the John Muir Wilderness in California’s High Sierra.

 

The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsors Backcountry.com and Visit North Carolina, who support the stories you read at this blog. Find out more about them and how to sponsor my blog at my sponsors page at The Big Outside. Click on the backcountry.com ad below for the best prices on great gear.

 

 

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6 Responses to My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips

  1. Kara   |  February 5, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    I am definitely adding some of these trips to my adventure bucket list! I did the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite this past October for my Birthday and it was beyond amazing! I wrote about all my strenuous ascents and freezing nights here: http://www.fuel4play.com/2017/02/yosemite-birthday-backpacking-grand.html
    Keep on hiking and I will keep on reading!

    • MichaelALanza   |  February 5, 2017 at 5:55 pm

      Hi Kara, thanks for reading my blog. Good luck with working on your bucket list.

  2. michaellanza   |  March 4, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Hey JZ, I’d heard about Image Lake for years before I went there, and it lives up to the hype and then some. Beautiful spot, and the trail to it is just as gorgeous.

  3. JZ @ Living EZ   |  March 4, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    I love that photo from Image Lake! If I keep reading your site, I just might quit my job and take family for a series of long walks. 😉 I really need to finish this 4 hour work week book.

  4. michaellanza   |  March 1, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Hi Leigh, thanks, and yes, Isle Royale has actually been on my list for a while. I hope to get there someday.

  5. leigh423   |  March 1, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    What a great list! If you ever end up in the Midwest, Isle Royale National Park has some great backpacking as well. Maybe no alpine views, but well worth the trip!

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