America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips

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, some of the finest trips in the country can be done in a few days and half of the hikes on this 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 more than three decades (and counting) of carrying a backpack, including my 10 years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. In the final analysis, though, the criterion that matters most is more simple and intuitive: that it’s undeniably a great trip. And that character shows itself over and over in my picks for the 10 best backpacking trips in the country.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Click photo for my complete e-book to backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

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. 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.

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—many of the top 10 are harder to get a permit for than the runners-up, so the latter group provide good backup plans. You won’t be disappointed with any of them.

A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about this trip.

The descriptions and photos below link to stories at The Big Outside that have more images and information about these trips (most of which require a paid subscription to read in full)—including detailed tips on planning each one yourself and when to apply for a backcountry permit, which is generally months in advance of a spring or fall trip.

See my affordable, expert e-books to several of the trips described below and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these classic adventures, variations of them, or any trip you read about at The Big Outside. You might also like my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tipsand “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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 on it.

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A backpacker in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite. Click photo to see all of my expert e-books to backpacking in Yosemite and other parks.

A Grand Tour of Yosemite

Distance: 152 miles, with shorter variations
Difficulty: 4

A backpacker hiking at dawn above the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton hiking at dawn above the Lyell Fork of the Merced River in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

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, in two trips totaling seven days spread over two years, 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. And in September 2021, I returned again to backpack a 45-mile hike that I subsequently dubbed “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

See my stories “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that 152-mile grand tour of Yosemite, “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about the nearly 87-mile second leg, “Backpacking Yosemite: What You Need to Know,” and all stories about backpacking in Yosemite at The Big Outside.

Get my expert e-books to backpacking the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows and the 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite (which includes shorter options).

A young girl at Precipice Lake in Sequoia National Park.
My daughter, Alex, at Precipice Lake in Sequoia National Park.

Want more of a less-committing, introductory backpacking trip in Yosemite? See my story “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.” The trip I suggest in that story is described in much greater detail in my e-book “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.” That e-book 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 Runners-Up:

See “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about a 40-mile family backpacking trip that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past, plus all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.

A backpacker hiking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail above Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail above Elizabeth Lake in Glacier. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your Glacier trip.

Two Hikes in Glacier National Park

Distance of each: 90-94 miles, with shorter variations
Difficulty of each: 3

Backpackers hiking the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers hiking the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-books to backpacking in Glacier and other parks.

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, elk, 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.

Two big hikes of over 90 miles—both of which have multiple possible shorter variations—deservedly grace this top 10 list. On both, my companions and I saw all of those sights and large beasts described above—yes, including grizzlies—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.

One, a 90-miler through northern Glacier, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, was a variation of a hike known as the Northern Loop, following a route I customized to hit some of Glacier’s best scenery, including the entire Highline Trail, the Many Glacier area, Piegan Pass and Stoney Indian Pass, the Ptarmigan Wall and Tunnel, and some of the park’s finest lakes and most-remote wilderness.

On the second hike, 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 (lead photo at top of story). Yet again, we saw bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, moose, and a griz, and heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening (because it was September)—not to mention vistas unlike anywhere else in America.

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

A backpacker on the Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.
My wife, Penny, backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, Canada.

See all stories about backpacking in Glacier at The Big Outside, including my story about the two-stage, 90-mile hike “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the 94-mile hike, and “Déjà vu All Over Again: Backpacking in Glacier National Park,” about my most recent, weeklong hike in Glacier on a variation of the CDT route.

Close Runners-Up:

Think of the Canadian Rockies this way: They resemble Glacier but with more and bigger glaciers and covering a much vaster area. For much of its distance, the 34-mile Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park passes below a long chain of sheer cliffs and mountains that conjure images of numerous El Capitans lined up in a row, but with thick tongues of glacial ice pouring off them. And the 27-mile Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park remains above treeline for more than half its distance, with nearly constant panoramas of massive walls of rock and a sea of mountains in every direction.

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my Teton Crest Trail e-book.

Teton Crest Trail

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

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon on the Teton Crest Trail in the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

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 more than 20 times since to backpack, dayhike, rock climb, backcountry ski, and paddle a canoe in the Tetons. 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, Paintbrush Canyon, and the upper forks of Granite Canyon, and crosses Paintbrush Divide at 10,720 feet.

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,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail,” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all stories about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside.

I’ve helped countless readers plan a perfect, personally customized itinerary on the Teton Crest Trail. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

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

Close Runners-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). See “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park.” Or virtually any backpacking trip in the Wind River Range (see below).

A backpacker on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my Wonderland Trail e-book.

The Wonderland Trail

Backpackers in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm and Todd Arndt in Moraine Park on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.

Distance: 93 miles, with shorter variations
Difficulty: 4

No multi-day hike in the contiguous United States compares with the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier—because there’s no mountain in the Lower 48 like glacier-clad, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier.

Backpacking the Wonderland Trail, one repeatedly sees Rainier fill the horizon at a seemingly unbelievable scale, a sight always thrilling and inspiring. This trail features some of the most beautiful wildflower meadows you will ever see, countless waterfalls and cascades, crystalline creeks and raging rivers gray with “glacial flour,” and likely sightings of mountain goats, marmots, deer, and possibly black bears.

Accessed from several trailheads, it can be thru-hiked in its entirety—commonly done over nine to 10 days—or you can backpack shorter trips of varying lengths on sections of the Wonderland. The full loop is a strenuous trip, with over 44,000 cumulative vertical feet of elevation gain and loss, and choices you make like which direction to hike the loop, where to begin it, and whether to take a popular detour onto the higher and more-scenic Spray Park Trail, all affect the trip’s overall difficulty—which I spell out in detail in my expert e-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”

This much I will guarantee: The Wonderland Trail is the kind of adventure that stays with you long afterward.

A backpacker on the Timberline Trail around Oregon's Mount Hood.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood.

See my stories “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” “How to Get a Permit to Backpack Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and “An American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” about a 77-mile hike on what I consider the WT’s best sections (a route described as one of the alternate itineraries in my e-guide).

Close Runner-Up:

See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail” about a trip very similar in character to the Wonderland Trail—but much shorter and requiring no permit reservation—the 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood.

Want to hike the Wonderland Trail? Get my expert e-book
The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”

A backpacker in The Narrows in Zion National Park.
David Gordon backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.

Zion’s Narrows

Distance: 16 miles
Difficulty: 2

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. On clear nights, a black sky riddled with stars fills the narrow strip visible between the rock walls soaring overhead.

Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.
Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.

In the low-water levels when backpackers typically make the two-day descent of The Narrows, you’re walking most of the time in water from ankle-deep (most commonly) to, occasionally, waist-deep, over a cobblestone riverbed that makes for slow progress.

Click here now for my e-book to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.

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
North-South Traverse of Zion National Park
The Needles District and Maze District of Canyonlands National Park
Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Death Hollow Loop, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona

Time for a better backpack? See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best ultralight backpacks.

A backpacker passing Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.
Todd Arndt passing Wanda Lake, in the Evolution Basin along the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.

John Muir Trail

A backpacker hiking the John Muir Trail above Marie Lake in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.
Marco Garofalo backpacking the John Muir Trail above Marie Lake in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.

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 probably aspires to accomplish.

The hardest part may be what comes long before you lace up your boots: getting a JMT permit, which necessarily requires figuring out your itinerary and how many days you will spend on the trail.

A backpacker hiking through Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra, California.
Jason Kauffman backpacking through Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness.

See all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail at The Big Outside, including “How to Get a John Muir Trail Wilderness Permit,” “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” an “Ultimate, 10-Day, Ultralight Plan” for a JMT thru-hike, and “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?

Close Runners-Up:

See “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes,” “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” my story about a remote, partly off-trail, 32-mile traverse of the John Muir Wilderness, and all stories about High Sierra backpacking trips at The Big Outside.

Want to hike the Teton Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, or another trip on this list?
Click here for expert custom trip planning you won’t get elsewhere.

A backpacker on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Gbookrand Canyon. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

South Kaibab to Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Distance: 74 miles, with shorter variations
Difficulty: 5

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.

Backpackers and wildflowers along the Grand Canyon's Escalante Route.
Backpackers and wildflowers along the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route. Click photo to read about “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

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.

Plus, you’ll enjoy some of the best backcountry campsites you’ve ever spent a night in, including beaches on the Colorado River, and the kind of solitude that’s rare in many national parks.

See “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

Get my expert e-books to “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon
and an easier alternative, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

A hiker on the upper South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon.
David Ports on the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail.

I’ve helped many readers plan a perfect, personally customized backpacking itinerary in the Grand Canyon—a place where trip planning is complicated by seasonal temperature extremes and road access, scarce water sources, high competition for backcountry permits, and significant differences in character and difficulty between trails and routes.

See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your Big Ditch backpacking trip.

Close Runners-Up:

Almost any other trip in the Grand Canyon. See “8 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon,” and all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.

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

For a more beginner-friendly trip, see “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”

A young boy backpacking the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park.
My son, Nate, backpacking the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park.

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). But it’s also one that backpackers of all ages find gorgeous and fascinating.

A backpacker descending a rope ladder on the coast of Olympic National Park.
My wife, Penny, descending a rope ladder on the coast of Olympic National Park.

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 terrain—including cliffs.

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.”

A backpacker at Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.
Todd Arndt at Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.

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; this 80-mile hike (and shorter variations of it) in the North Cascades; the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness; and certainly, Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.

See all stories about Olympic National Park and stories about the North Cascades at The Big Outside.

See Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

A backpacker hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Todd Arndt backpacking to Island Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

The Wind River Range

Distance: multiple routes and distances
Difficulty: 3 to 5

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. Rank U.S. mountain ranges according to the best scenery and 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.

I’ve taken several trips into the Winds over the past three decades, backpacking, climbing, and one really long dayhike—all of them outstanding, but a few places stand out.

A backpacker just north of Jackass Pass in the Cirque of the Towers. in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Chip Roser just north of Jackass Pass in the Cirque of the Towers. in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

One was a camp in Titcomb Basin—where granite peaks rise to over 13,000 feet from lakes at over 10,000 feet—on a 41-mile loop where two friends and I hiked past a constellation of beautiful lakes and took a spicy off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col.

On long stretches of a lonely, 43-mile loop in a less-visited area of the Winds, we enjoyed one of the best backcountry campsites I’ve ever had, crossed four high passes, and walked one stunning trail after another past numerous alpine lakes, including two of the prettiest backcountry lakes I’ve hiked past without camping at.

I’ve climbed in and hiked through the Cirque of the Towers on multiple epic adventures, including a 27-mile, east-west dayhike across the Winds and a 96-mile, mostly off-trail, south-north traverse of the Wind River High Route. But most recently, a friend and I hiked across the Cirque to cap off a four-day loop from Big Sandy that crosses four passes and features camps by beautiful lakes—a route I consider the best multi-day hike in the Winds.

The Winds can seriously make you wonder: “Why don’t I just come here all the time?”

Don’t forget anything important! See “An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”

A backpacker at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.
Justin Glass at a small tarn in the upper valley of Middle Fork Lake on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.

See “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Wind River Range,” “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Wind River Range? Yup,” “Backpacking Through a Lonely Corner of the Wind River Range,” “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “A Walk in the Winds: Hiking a One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route,” and all stories about the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.

Close Runner-Up:

See my story about another high, rugged, and lonely mountain range “Tall and Lonely: Backpacking Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.”

Ready to hike one of the world’s great treks?
Click here now for my e-book “The Perfect, Flexible Plan for Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.”

Alice Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Alice Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

Distance: 36 miles, with longer and shorter variations
Difficulty: 2

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 more and more backpackers are exploring the few popular areas of 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.

Dawn light on Baron Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Dawn light on Baron Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

Requiring a short shuttle that can be arranged locally—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.

See my story “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit.” My expert e-book “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.

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains.
Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains.

Close Runners-Up:

See my stories “Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths—A Photo Gallery,” “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 nearly 300-mile, long-distance trail I helped conceive that passes through the Sawtooths, and all 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.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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68 thoughts on “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”

  1. I just completed my first backpack trip in the Tetons last summer. We started in Death Canyon, went along the shelf over to hurricane pass, down south cascade, up north cascade and I got to paintbrush pass before having to turn around for someone in the group (we were supposed to finish at String Lake I believe). We finished up by going down cascade canyon due to the person in our group not being able to continue. After reading this post, I would say we share a similar sentiment for the Tetons. I had never experienced anything like that backpacking trip. It changed my outlook on life and led me to pursuing a new career only a few weeks after doing it.

    So, where I was going with this is what trip on this list would you take if you were to go back and do it again after the Tetons the first time and why? I have been highly considering Glacier but am worried I am not ready due to the fact I have only done one trip, the Tetons. My parents went there, and I was extremely jealous of what they got to see (they just day hiked, no backpacking). FYI I am located in the front range of Colorado, and would probably drive to these hikes given my current financial situation. Any input/opinion on this is highly appreciated! I loved reading this post and learning more about the best places to backpack in the US. Thanks!

    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for the nice compliment about this story and congratulations on completing your first backpacking trip, and in the Tetons, of all places.

      You ask a fair question and one I would encourage all new backpackers to contemplate. I didn’t really think much along those lines when I was taking my first backpacking trips as a young man; three of my earliest were in Yosemite, on the Teton Crest Trail (following the same itinerary you hiked), and Denali. I made some classic newbie mistakes on those trips—none of them, fortunately, more consequential than losing some of our food to a black bear in Yosemite and having wet and cold feet every day in Denali—and they were transformative experiences for me in ways similar to what you’ve described: I decided not long after those three trips that I needed to leave my job as a newspaper editor and write about the outdoors full-time.

      Fortunately, that consequential choice turned out well.

      The truth is that I have gone back to every place and most of the trails described in this story multiple times—partly because that’s what I do for a living—and I tell you that to communicate that all of them are that special: You will want to visit them all more than once.

      Honestly, there are trips in Glacier that are beginner-friendly, with the right preparation. There are trips on this list that are best tackled once you’ve acquired more experience, including many in the Grand Canyon and Wind River Range, but also trails even in those rugged places where beginners often backpack and develop their skills.

      I’d like to recommend you read a few stories at The Big Outside that I think you’ll find helpful:

      How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking

      How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

      5 Questions to Ask Before Trying That New Outdoors Adventure

      I can also give you a personalized trip plan for any trip you read about at The Big Outside. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.

      I hope you sign up for my free email newsletter and decide to Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And check out my e-books.

      I hope some of this is helpful to you. Good luck and keep in touch.

  2. Hi, Michael;
    Thank you for putting together this list. I’m particularly interested in the suggestions around the Grand Canyon, as I’m less familiar with the desert Southwest than I am with other parts of the country. All of these places look beautiful and I can certainly vouch for the trails that I have personally hiked.
    With that being said, I had two notes. First of all, you said there isn’t a good alternative recommendation for that hike in the southern Olympics, and I respectfully disagree — I think the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island is a natural counterpart. Even more wild, and lesser known, is Vancouver Island’s North Coast Trail.
    Second note: I’m surprised to hear you say that the Sawtooths are underappreciated. The Sawtooth Wilderness is still the single most crowded deignated Wilderness area I have ever been in. I have not spent any time in Yosemite or the desert south of the Utah border, but I have spent time in wilderness around Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood, in the Winds and the Tetons, across Utah, and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington (including Goat Rocks). I have yet to set foot in designated wilderness as busy as the Sawtooth wilderness was this past summer.
    Anyway, thank you for your great writing and equally great eye for a good trail.

    • Hi Maxwell,

      You should also see my story “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

      While I have not yet backpacked either the West Coast Trail or North Coast Trail on Canada’s Vancouver Island, I’m familiar with them (and their reputation for difficult terrain and wet weather). This story is about the best backpacking trips in the U.S.

      Well, the Sawtooths have seen an exponential leap in popularity since the summer of 2020 and that may have abated somewhat but backpacker use has not returned to pre-pandemic levels and probably never will. Still, there are areas of the Sawtooths, as with virtually every popular mountain range and national park, that see far fewer backpackers; much of the traffic is concentrated in a few most-accessible areas of the Sawtooths on August weekends, although August weekdays are getting busier in those same popular areas.

      Thanks for the nice words. Good to hear from you again.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I appreciate your excellent article and summary! If I can ask a quick question? I will be backpacking with my buddy in mid May this year. We are happy to travel anywhere in the continental US. We are both in good backpacking shape and fairly experienced so we are up for a challenge. We have done the JMT, Grand Canyon, Zion but not the rest on your list. What else would you suggest during that time of year? I’m worried about hitting snow during mid May in the more northern areas.
    I appreciate your help!

    • Thanks for the nice words, David. Snow will cover the mountains throughout the West in mid-May and probably into mid-July, given the winter snowpack that’s been building up everywhere this year. In mid-May, you should head for to the Southwest or perhaps the Northeast mountains.

      Good luck and thanks for the question.

    • Thanks, Jeff, that’s a very legit suggestion. I backpacked the Four Passes Loop some years back, it’s beautiful. The best time, I think, is early August, when the profuse meadows of wildflowers bloom. I hear it’s become very popular and would try to avoid it on weekends.

  4. Hey Michael!

    Great article. I am enthralled with the Southern Olympic Coast Trail. I am intrigued that you didn’t put any hikes from the Appalachia area. Any particular reason, or are the ones out West truly that much better?

    Sending good vibes from Alabama!

    • Thanks for the comment and good vibes, Walker. I have backpacked throughout the Northeast Appalachian Mountains and in parts of the Southeast Appalachians, including the Great Smokies. I agree there’s much about the East’s mountains that I enjoy. But I do think the landscapes of the West are simply more majestic that the East. But if you can point me to a backpacking trip in the East that you strongly believe belongs on this list, please let me know!

      Get in touch anytime. Thanks again.

    • Hi Roxanne,

      Thanks for that question. June is tricky because it’s already hot in the Southwest but often still too snowy in mountains like the Tetons.

      But the southern Olympic coast, while just 18 miles, is a great three-day hike and should have good weather, certainly mild temps and no snow. Zion’s Narrows would probably be a good one then, too, but it’s likely too late for you to reserve a backcountry permit for June. You’ll see on a map of Yosemite that there are middle-elevation areas, such as north and northwest of Yosemite Valley, where trails can be snow-free or mostly so by late June. Lastly, I have backpacked in the Sawtooths in late June, but you would definitely encounter snow above around 8,000 feet.

      I know of specific routes in Yosemite that would likely work for you then; see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

      Good luck!

  5. Hey Michael,

    What was the second 25-mile leg you referred to that made up the rest of your first 90ish mile trip in Glacier NP?


    • Hi Chris,

      Our 90-mile hike began with the 65-mile route known as Glacier’s Northern Loop, a horseshoe-shaped circuit from near Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Many Glacier, Ptarmigan Tunnel, Stoney Indian Pass, the Highline Trail, and finishing at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. That was followed immediately by a roughly 25-mile overnight on the Gunsight Pass Trail, including an optional side trip to the Sperry Glacier, one of the park’s largest.

      I write about the entire trip in this story.

      I did that trip before the park instituted a rule against including any road transportation within a single backcountry permit itinerary. So we were able to finish the first five-day portion of the trip at Logan Pass and catch the shuttle bus to Jackson Glacier Overlook on the Sun Road to start the Gunsight Pass Trail. Now the park won’t issue a permit for an itinerary with that shuttle bus ride mid-trip, so you have to alter your route to link up both legs of that trip using the Continental Divide Trail, which makes it a longer hike, too.

      Good luck planning your trip. Thanks for the good question.

  6. Hi Michael,

    I will be going to California this summer, and I am planning on visiting Yosemite. But I am afraid this hike might be too difficult for me. Do you have any recommendations for a hike, that is not a 4 but rather a 2 regarding the level of difficulty?

    Thank you in advance.

  7. I would add the west coast trail to the list. The WCT is a 50-mile trek on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. It is a spectacular trek.

      • The WCT is known internationally, and half the people you’ll see on the trail will be europeans, so it is indeed a very highly regarded trail. In fact one couple we met from Germany was on their second WCT trip. It is an interesting trail, known for being rugged and difficult, with a relatively high percentage of people needing to be evacuated from the trail due to injury, something like 1 in 100 people. I passed at least two that needed rescue. Its basically an old route for shipwrecked sailors to get back to civilization. It hugs the coast line, periodically wandering along the beach or in the woods above the beach, with many river crossings. There are many ladders constructed to ascend/descend cliffs, suspension bridges and even a handcart on a zip line, all to avoid deep rivers running out to the ocean.

        It is challenging due to much of it not being a simple well worn trail. It is up, down, around, over, under rocks, trees, roots, cliffs, etc.. My friend said it reminded him of Yoda’s homeland, and it was a pretty dead on image for some of that trail. It can also often be very slippery and muddy. It all makes it challenging and fun, that is if you like that kind of fun.

        And although I did enjoy it, there were times it was miserable due to wet/muddy conditions, and even more so, it does not offer the spectacular views I personally like when you are in the mountains.

        My top three favorite backpacking trips so far are also Yosemite, Tetons and Glacier NP (MT). I really loved my route at Yosemite, starting at May Lake, summitting Mt Hoffmann, then crossing the ridge of Clouds Rest, then summitting Half Dome, then down to the valley.

        I also had a fantastic route at the Tetons, starting near Phelps Lake, working towards Death Canyon Shelf, across it and down to Sunset Lake, up the cliff above it to overlook Snowdrift Lake (spectacular!), out towards the South Fork Cascade trail, and then out at Jenny Lake.

        Glacier NP is difficult to plan a loop route that covers the highlights, so its best to cobble together a couple of short in-and-outs or day hikes.

        Yoho is epic too, but much of it can be seen basecamping with day hikes, but you can backpack it too.

        The Grand Canyon is definitely beautiful in its own way. Did it once in August and once in late November. August was too hot, November was too cold, had to bail early due to a blizzard hitting and we barely made it out in time only to get to our car, buried under a couple feet of snow, in the dark, and the highways were closed! Worth doing, but carefully choose the time of year!

        I hope to do some of the others in your list, like Rainier and Rockwall! Thanks for posting about your trips, I’m always on the lookout for the next epic adventure.

  8. Great list Michael! I haven’t done the Southern Olympic Coast trail but hope to. What about the Last Coast trail as a runner up for that one? I hiked it May 2021 and it was amazing. The permit system keeps the traffic low and there is nothing like hugging the rugged Pacific coast for three days.

    • Thanks, Micah. I’ve backpacked the Lost Coast Trail in northern California (though I haven’t written about it at The Big Outside) and it’s nice, and you’re right, it’s quiet and secluded. We saw some wildlife, too. But I consider the southern Olympic coast much more spectacular and without comparison in the Lower 48. Check it out.

      • I was glad to see this comment. I have been considering whether to hike the Lost Coast Trail. I have done both the Olympic coast north hike and the Olympic Coast south hike (twice). I was curious whether I should do the Lost Coast Trail or do the Olympic North coast again. Your comments above confirm what I was thinking; the photos I see of the Lost Coast Trail don’t seem to compare to what I experienced on the Olympic Coast. As an aside, I have backpacked a lot of places, and one of my most spectacular campsites was on the Olympic north coast (a beautiful grass bluff a foot above the shore, huge evergreen trees; river mouth to the left, seals, whales spouting offshore, , etc.). Also, Michael if your hiking plans include doing (likely again) the Olympic North Coast, I have a home on the Olympic Peninsula about 30 mins away from the Shi Shi Beach TH; you are welcome to spend a night.

  9. This is a great article! I have bookmarked it to use as a resource and plan on reading more of your great stories… Keep writing!

    • Hi Richard,

      Yes, this story is clearly focused on trips in the West. I’m originally from New England and I’ve hiked and backpacked throughout the East; I authored a hiking guidebook to New England for about 10 years before moving to the West. I like the hiking in Northeast, particularly, and get back there to hike almost every year. But I don’t see a trip on this list that I’d replace with another from a different part of the country, to be honest.

      Ultimately, of course, any list of best hikes is the product of the writer’s opinions and I can say that mine are formed by about four decades of hiking all over the country. But I welcome your suggestions here for top backpacking trips that are not on this list. Thanks for the comment.

    • There’s a reason I fly from the East Coast out West every year in search of awe-inspiring hikes. As special as the Roan or Grayson Highlands or Dolly Sods are, my most memorable hikes are all out West.

  10. Thanks for the great list. I’ve hit at least half of these so far. My favorites are the Winds, High Sierra, Escalante. A couple of other favorites are in the Trinity Alps in NorCal, South San Juan’s in CO and while not in the US, the Kananaskis in the Canadian Rockies along the Continental Divide. The Timberline trail looks fun, as does Paria Canyon. Thx for sharing. Happy trails.

    • Thanks for the comment and suggestions, Steve. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Trinity Alps from a friend (and former editor of Backpacker), and I have spent some time in the San Juans of southwest Colorado and would like to return.

      Funny you mention the Kananaskis area of the Canadian Rockies: I have scrambled some peaks there and love that country, and I actually have plans to do some backpacking (and dayhiking and peak-bagging) in the Canadian Rockies this summer. Watch for stories from that trip. I hope you also saw my story about backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park.

      Yes, Paria Canyon is one of the best multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest, no question. You should also check out my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

      Thanks for writing, keep in touch.

      • That trip in the Sawtooths is a great one as well. Pettit to Redfish. I did that one with my son a few years ago and we had a blast. It was a little smoky from fires, though.

  11. Great article – thank you for taking the time to pull this together. These are definitely some lesser known hikes and I added most of them to my list of trips to take. I also shared this on the Homemade Wanderlust group on Facebook.

  12. WOW! You managed to hit quite a few lovely hikes that aren’t prominently mentioned elsewhere, plus a few that I have at least partially experienced (Glacier, Olympic, Zion). Great list. Think many of these will go on my “bucket list” and serve as inspiration to go and live a dream!

  13. Loved the list and few photos but strongly wished for more info within the article and fewer links to have to click on. Thanks for sharing this tho 🙂

    • Thanks, glad you like the story, Wmckee. It would be much too long and cluttered to include all of the information and the photos in each of the 10 full stories about these trips. Giving you one click for deeper information about each trip is a simple and more organized way of providing that information to readers.

      As you probably saw, accessing those complete stories about each trip also requires joining The Big Outside, which gives you access to all stories at my blog, and which is clearly also the business model that supports my work on this blog. I give you this story and some others for free, to let you see at no cost what deeper information is available at my blog, and if you want to read those other stories, you can support my work by joining! I hope you will consider doing so.

      Thanks for the comment and giving me the opportunity to explain that.

  14. 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.

    • 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!

  15. 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?

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

  18. 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!