A backpacker on the Pitamakan Pass-Dawson Pass traverse in Glacier National Park.

America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips

In Backpacking, Family Adventures, National Park Adventures   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   13 Comments

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 mandatory. 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 10 are in national parks or wilderness areas.

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, selected from the many I’ve taken over more than a quarter-century (and counting) of carrying a backpack, both as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and creator of 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 challenge.

While I’ve numbered my top 10 hikes, 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 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. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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.

No. 1 A Grand Tour of Yosemite

Distance: 152 miles
Difficulty: 4

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 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.

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 nearly 87-mile second leg.

 

Get my expert e-guides to backpacking the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne and the 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite.

 

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.

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.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

No. 2 Two Hikes in Glacier National Park

Distance of each: about 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.

A backpacker in Glacier National Park.

Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the CDT to Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park.

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 “Photo Gallery: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier National Park” from the more recent trip, and watch for my upcoming feature story about the latter.

 

Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier.

 

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.

 

Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best thru-hiking packs.

 

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

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

No. 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.

 

Yearning to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons.

 

Close Runner-Up:

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.

 

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David Gordon backpacking The Narrows, Zion National Park.

David Gordon backpacking The Narrows, Zion National Park.

No. 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.”

 

Click here now to get my e-guide to 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 synthetic or down puffy to keep you warm. See my review of “The 10 Best Down Jackets.”

 

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.

No. 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.

 

 

Want to hike the Teton Crest Trail, JMT, or another trip? Click here for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.

 

A backpacker at a waterfall on The Patio, Deer Creek Trail, Grand Canyon.

Jeff Wilhelm on the Deer Creek Trail in the Grand Canyon.

No. 6 Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Grand Canyon

Distance: 25 miles
Difficulty: 5

To be honest, 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 of them all, the most unique, varied, and mystical may be this rugged and remote loop off the North Rim.

A hiker on the upper South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon.

David Ports on the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail.

Long on the radar of in-the-know backpackers and river-rafting parties taking side hikes, the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop has an unusual abundance of a rare element in the canyon: water. The two perennial creeks and one river (in addition to the Colorado River) pour over some of the Grand Canyon’s prettiest waterfalls, course through spectacular narrows, and nurture oases of trees and vegetation. Descending a vertical mile to the Colorado River and then climbing back up again, on often-rugged trails, this hike packs in all the majesty you go to the Big Ditch for.

See my feature story “Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop.”

 

Click here now for my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.

 

Close Runners-Up:

Almost any other trip in the Grand Canyon. See my story “5 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” and all of my Ask Me posts and stories about the Grand Canyon.

 

Hike all of my 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.

 

The view from Strawberry Point, Olympic coast, Washington.

The view from Strawberry Point, Olympic coast, Washington.

No. 7 The Southern Olympic Coast

Distance: 17.5 miles
Difficulty: 3

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.

 

Got an all-time favorite campsite? See Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites

 

Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

No. 8 Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Distance: 44 miles
Difficulty: 4

I fell in love with Washington’s North Cascades region, including the Glacier Peak Wilderness, on my first visit more than two decades ago, and numerous return trips have only solidified my impression of it as one of the wildest, loneliest, and most breathtaking mountain ranges in the country. When you’re ready to take your backpacking adventures up a notch, go for the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

In addition to some rugged on-trail hiking, its crux is an off-trail crossing of 7,100-foot Spider Gap, where you’ll ascend and descend fingers of perennial snow that can be treacherous when frozen solid—which happens even in mid-summer. One of the few backpacking trips I’ve done that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past, this hike also delivers views that will blow you away of snow- and ice-capped Glacier Peak towering above a sea of mountains.

See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop.”

Sahale Arm, North Cascades National Park.

Sahale Arm, North Cascades National Park.

Close Runners-Up:

The hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to Sahale Glacier Camp, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, delivers something of a condensed version of the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop, with comparable scenery—and a jaw-dropping campsite view—but no potentially dangerous snow slopes if you go in August or late summer.

Want a bigger adventure? See my story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades.” And see all of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.

While no one would mistake New Hampshire’s White Mountains for the North Cascades, there are parallels between the Glacier Peak Wilderness and the Appalachian Trail’s traverse of the Whites, in their shared character of ruggedness and a blend of high, alpine views and quiet forest. One of my earliest multi-day hikes was a hut-to-hut Presidential Range traverse, and I’ve gone back many times. See all of my stories about the Presidential Range and the White Mountains, and my favorite hikes in New England.

 

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.”

 

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

No. 9 Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

Distance: ~50 miles
Difficulty: 3

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 almost 20 years ago, the multi-day hike I’d recommend there is a roughly 50-mile route from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake via Cramer Pass and Toxaway and Alice lakes, including out-and-back side trips to the Baron Lakes and Imogene Lake.

It hits many of the Sawtooths’ premier areas, including five-star camping at backcountry lakes. Baron and Imogene each add basically a day of hiking, but are two of the most magnificent lakes in the Sawtooths; camp at both. This route can be hiked in either direction, depending on whether you want to catch the boat shuttle from Redfish Lake Lodge across Redfish Lake at the beginning or end of your trip; missing it adds about five miles of hiking.

See my blog post “Ask Me: The Best Long Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains.

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains.

Close Runners-Up:

See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” about a 57-mile hike in the more remote southern Sawtooths, this Ask Me post describing my favorite hikes and backpacking trips in the Sawtooths, and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and neighboring White Cloud Mountains; 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.

 

Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Timberline Trail, Mount Hood, Oregon.

Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Timberline Trail, Mount Hood, Oregon.

No. 10 Timberline Trail, Mount Hood

Distance: 41 miles
Difficulty: 3

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.”

My kids backpacking below Mount Rainier.

My kids backpacking below Mount Rainier.

Close Runner-Up:

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.

Anyone contemplating any trips on this list, especially the longer ones, should read my story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun.”

 

Tell me what you think.

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See all of my stories offering tips on outdoor skills and my All Trips page and Family Adventures page at The Big Outside.

 

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13 Responses to America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips

  1. Emily Hansen   |  November 19, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Oh, great! Thank you so much for these suggestions Michael. Best of luck for me and my cousin. I’m pretty sure it will be so much fun!

  2. Emily Hansen   |  November 12, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Great list, Michael!

    I can’t wait to explore some of these locations. They all have some awesome views. I just want to know which one is the best for first-time backpackers? I’m planning to invite my cousin for an adventure. It will be her first ever experience.

    • MichaelALanza   |  November 12, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      Great question, Emily, thanks for asking. I’d have to suggest that the Olympic coast, Zion’s Narrows, and maybe the Teton Crest Trail are the most beginner-friendly, even though the TCT has a couple of rigorous days (unless you break up those days). The Sawtooths would be close, too, but longer trips are by nature harder because of cumulative fatigue. The route in northern Glacier isn’t terribly strenuous, but it’s long and complicated by the skills required for hiking in grizzly country. The others on the list are longer, demand some advanced skills, and/or more strenuous.

      Good luck! Let me know when you’ve ticked them all off!

  3. Ned   |  October 17, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Awesome list. Great inspiration for a ‘best of the US’ hiking trip I am planning for next year. Wondering if you have either completed or heard much about Canada’s Great Divide Trail? I would love to get your opinion on that.

    Also have you ever completed a full thru hike of the SHR? What is your take on that?

  4. Meg   |  October 10, 2017 at 10:52 am

    This is a great list! Very inspiring. My friend and I are planning a 7 day backpacking trip the week after Thanksgiving. Do you have any recommendations for colder weather trails?

    • MichaelALanza   |  October 10, 2017 at 11:00 am

      Thanks, Meg. From this list, I’d only suggest the Royal Arch Loop or other hikes in the Grand Canyon for that late in the season, and even there, you could see snow fly at the canyon rim. Visit my All Trips Listed By State page (https://thebigoutside.com/all-trips-by-state/) and scroll down to Utah. I’d also be happy to help you with ideas and planning; see my Ask Me page for details on that (https://thebigoutside.com/ask-me/).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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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