By Michael Lanza
What makes for a great backpacking trip? Certainly top-shelf scenery is mandatory. An element of adventurousness enhances a hike, in my eyes. While there’s definitely something inspirational about a big walk in the wild, half of the hikes on this freshly updated top-10 list are under 50 miles. Another factor that truly matters is a wilderness experience: All 10 are in national parks or wilderness areas.
I’ve probably thought about this more than a mentally stable person should, having done many of America’s (and the world’s) most beautiful multi-day hikes over three decades (and counting) of carrying a backpack, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and creating this blog. In the final analysis, though, the only criterion that matters is simple: that it’s a great trip. And that character shows itself over and over in my picks for the 10 best backpacking trips in the country.
Each hike here merits a 10 for scenery. The longest trips on this list can be chopped up into smaller portions. Each description below includes a difficulty rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hardest in terms of strenuousness and challenge. You might also like my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip.”
I’ve listed them in a random order that’s not intended as a quality ranking; I think that’s impossible. I regularly update this list as I take new trips that belong on it. If you have a trip to suggest, please 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: Do every one of these top 10 and runner-up hikes that you can, when you can. You won’t be disappointed.
A Grand Tour of Yosemite
Distance: 152 miles
John Muir saw more than a few world-class wildernesses, and he focused much of his time and energy on exploring and protecting Yosemite. A lot of people would legitimately 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 152 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.
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 nearly 87-mile second leg.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows and the 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite (which includes shorter options).
Want more of a less-committing, introductory backpacking trip in Yosemite? See my story “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.” The trip I suggest in that story is described in much greater detail in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.” That e-guide offers planning tips and suggested daily itineraries for a primary route and alternate itineraries for backpacking trips in the spectacular core of Yosemite, between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
Read my story “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.
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Two Hikes in Glacier National Park
Distance of each: 90-94 miles (shorter variations possible)
Difficulty of each: 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.
This top 10 list has long included a 90-mile hike I took in northern Glacier, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, on which we saw all of those things described above—including grizzly bears—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.
But in September 2018, three friends and I backpacked about 94 miles through Glacier, from Chief Mountain Trailhead at the Canadian border in the park’s northeast corner to Two Medicine, combining parts of the primary and alternate routes of the Continental Divide Trail, and adding the high, alpine trail from Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass above Two Medicine. Yet again, we saw bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, moose, and a griz, and heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening—not to mention vistas unlike anywhere else in America. An experience at least equal to the earlier 90-miler described above, that CDT hike through Glacier immediately vaulted onto this list.
See my story about the first, two-stage, 90-mile hike “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the more recent, 94-mile traverse through Glacier.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier.
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.
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight thru-hiking packs.
Teton Crest Trail
Distance: 33-40 miles, multiple variations
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 about 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.
See my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” “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 Grand Teton National Park.
Yearning to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons.
A two- or three-day hike linking any of the east-side canyons in Grand Teton National Park, such as the nearly 20-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.
Distance: 16 miles
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.
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.”
Click here now to get my e-guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
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John Muir Trail
Distance: 221 miles
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.
See any of my stories about backpacking in Yosemite and Sequoia (above) or my story about a remote, partly off-trail, 32-mile traverse of the John Muir Wilderness in California’s High Sierra.
Want my help planning your hike on the Teton Crest Trail, JMT, or another trip? Click here for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.
South Kaibab to Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Distance: 74 miles, with shorter alternatives
Every backpacking trip I’ve taken in the Grand Canyon deserves a spot on this list—the place possesses all the qualities of a great adventure, in a landscape like nowhere else on the planet. But when a longtime backcountry ranger in the park told me this 74-mile hike was “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon,” of course I had to check it out. After backpacking it, I decided: He’s right.
For starters, the South Kaibab is one of the best trails in the entire National Park System. Beyond that, this route follows one of the of the prettiest and most adventurous “trails” in the canyon, the Escalante Route, which involves some tricky route-finding and exposed scrambling. This hike also includes an outstanding section of the Tonto Trail, the beautiful and surprisingly rigorous Beamer Trail, and another lovely, rim-to-river footpath, the Tanner Trail, and you’ll enjoy some of the best backcountry campsites you’ve ever spent a night in, including beaches on the Colorado.
Get my expert e-guides to the trip described above, “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” and an easier alternative, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Hike all of the “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The Southern Olympic Coast
Distance: 17.5 miles
The 17.5-mile hike from the Hoh River north to La Push Road, on the southern coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park, is still one of my kids’ most memorable backpacking trips—mostly for the hours they spent playing in tide pools on the beach (they were nine and seven at the time).
It features giant trees in one of Earth’s largest virgin temperature rainforests; frequently mist-shrouded views of scores of sea stacks rising up to 200 feet out of the ocean; boulders wallpapered with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones; rugged and very muddy hiking on overland trails around impassable headlands; sightings of seals, sea otters, whales, and to my kids’ delight, lots of slugs; and rope ladders to climb and descend very steep, sometimes cliff-like terrain. Consequently, while just as scenic, it’s less crowded than the more popular northern stretch of the Olympic coast. The 73-mile-long finger of the park on the Pacific Ocean protects the longest stretch of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States, and one of America’s most unique backpacking adventures.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
Close Runner-Up: Honestly, nothing.
But for classic wilderness trips in the Pacific Northwest, I suggest the hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to Sahale Glacier Camp, in North Cascades National Park, with a jaw-dropping campsite view, and the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Want a bigger adventure? See my story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades.”
See all of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
The Wind River Range
Distance: about 41 miles (variations possible)
Difficulty: 3 to 5 (5 if you take the off-trail route over Knapsack Col)
The Winds can’t honestly be described as “undiscovered,” by any stretch. Still, as popular as a few corners are, much of this Wyoming range offers a rare combination of periods of solitude amid some of the most dramatic peaks and beautiful mountain lakes in the country—lots of lakes, in fact. Rank U.S. mountain ranges according to the best scenery and best lakes, and I think the top two are the Winds and the High Sierra—and you could argue which is number one for as many years as it would take to visit every lake in the Winds.
After several previous trips into the Winds, climbing, backpacking, and taking one really long dayhike, I finally visited Titcomb Basin for the first time on my most-recent trip, 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park with two friends. Beyond the fact that Titcomb is one of the most scenically awe-inspiring spots anywhere in the West—with granite peaks rising to over 13,000 feet from lakes at over 10,000 feet—we hiked past a constellation of beautiful lakes on this loop hike, and took an established but spicy off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col. The Winds can seriously make you wonder: “Why don’t I just come here all the time?”
See my story “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin.”
Almost any other trip in the Wind River Range. See my stories “A Walk in the Winds: Hiking a One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range” and “Ask Me: What Backpacking Trip Do You Suggest in the Wind River Range?”
Ready to hike one of the world’s great treks?
Click here now for my e-guide “The Perfect, Flexible Plan for Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.”
Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Distance: 36 miles
The Sawtooths are one of the West’s most under-appreciated mountain ranges, with national park-caliber scenery, but nowhere near the numbers of hikers found in the most popular parks (although I do hear from more and more readers eager to explore the Sawtooths). Having backpacked and climbed through most of the range since settling in Idaho more than 20 years ago, the multi-day hike I’d recommend there is a five-day, roughly 36-mile route from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake, including an out-and-back side trip to one of the finest lakes basins in the entire range.
Requiring a short shuttle—the Sawtooth trails aren’t conducive to creating long loop hikes—this trip crosses four passes over 9,000 feet and features campsites on some of the Sawtooths’ best mountain lakes, below endless jagged ridgelines.
My downloadable e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” tells you all you need to know to plan and pull off this trip and includes three alternate itineraries that allow you to shorten the hike to four days or extend it to six or seven days.
See my “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths” and my stories “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths” and “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” about a 57-mile hike in the more remote southern Sawtooths.
See also my story about the Idaho Wilderness Trail, a long-distance trail I helped conceive that passes through the Sawtooths, and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooths and neighboring White Cloud Mountains at The Big Outside; plus my story about another under-appreciated mountain range dappled with gorgeous lakes, northeastern Oregon’s Wallowas, “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.”
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
Timberline Trail, Mount Hood
Distance: 41 miles
The 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s 11,239-foot Mount Hood lives in the shadow of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail (of which I’ve hiked sections) around Hood’s taller and more-famous stratovolcano sibling, Mount Rainier. But the Timberline can go toe-to-toe with the Wonderland for scenery—including waterfalls, wildflowers, and views of Hood’s glaciated flanks around every corner—and probably has an edge in adventure quotient, largely because of several spicy creek fords.
Like the Wonderland, the Timberline meanders from barren volcanic moonscapes to breezy meadows to dense temperature rainforest. But unlike the Wonderland, you don’t have to compete for one of the most sought-after backcountry permits in America.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
See my story “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs and Mount Rainier,” about a 22-mile backpacking trip, mostly on the Wonderland Trail, from Mowich Lake to Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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