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.
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 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 “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” and “Backpacking Wild, Uncrowded 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.
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.
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 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.
Yearning to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons.
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.
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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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 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.
Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Grand Canyon
Distance: 25 miles
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.
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.
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: ~50 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 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.”
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.
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.
Anyone contemplating any trips on this list, especially the longer ones, should read my story “Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun.”