My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips
By Michael Lanza
What makes a great backpacking trip? I’ve thought about that more than a mentally stable person probably should, having done many of America’s (and the world’s) most beautiful and beloved multi-day hikes over the years. Certainly top-shelf scenery is a mandatory qualification. An element of adventurousness enhances a hike, in my eyes. As I assembled this top 10 list, longer trips seemed to dominate it—there’s something special about a big walk in the wilderness—but two- and three-day hikes also made my list. Another factor that truly matters is a wilderness experience: All of my top 10 are in national parks or federal wilderness areas.
Some things, though, don’t require explanation; the validation comes in just doing it. So I give you here my admittedly personal and subjective list of the 10 best backpacking trips I’ve taken over more than a quarter-century (and counting) of humping a pack on trails all over the country, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and writing for this blog.
Acknowledging my Western bias—it’s where I spend most of my backcountry time—each hike here merits a 10 for scenery. But difficulty and distance vary greatly. So I’ve included the mileage of each—and the longest trips on this list can be chopped up into smaller portions—as well as a difficulty rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hardest in terms of strenuousness, and in some cases requiring specialized skills or equipment.
While I’ve numbered my top 10 hikes, that’s not intended as a quality ranking. If you do (or have done) all of them, let me know if you believe you can rank them. I think it’s impossible. And I know there are backpacking trips I haven’t done yet that arguably deserve a spot on this list. If you have a trip to suggest, please do tell me about it in the Comments section at the bottom of this story. I hope to get to them all. It’s a tough assignment, but I’m working on it.
Accompanying each hike in my top 10 are Close Runners-Up, trips that are exactly that. My advice: Just do every one of these top 10 and runner-up hikes that you can, when you can.
#1 A Grand Tour of Yosemite
Distance: 151 miles
John Muir saw quite a few world-class wildernesses, and he focused much of his time and energy on exploring and protecting Yosemite. A lot of people would argue it’s the best national park for backpackers. After several trips there, I had thought I’d seen Yosemite’s finest corners, including many trails in the park’s core, its section of the John Muir Trail, and the summits of Half Dome and Clouds Rest.
Then, over a total of seven days, I backpacked 151 miles through the biggest patches of wilderness in the park, south and north of Tuolumne Meadows—and discovered Yosemite’s true soul, a vast reach of deep, granite-walled canyons, peaks rising to over 12,000 feet, and one gorgeous mountain lake after another dappling the landscape.
See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that grand tour of Yosemite, and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about the 86-mile second leg.
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.
#2 Northern Glacier National Park
Distance: 90 miles
With rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, deeply green forests, over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, megafauna like bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and grizzly and black bears, and over a million acres in Montana’s Northern Rockies, most of it wilderness, little wonder that Glacier is so popular with backpackers.
On this 90-mile hike, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, we saw all of those things—yes, including grizzly bears—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.
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.
#3 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.
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 roughly 18-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop (the most popular in the park), or either of two loops from Death Canyon Trailhead: about 23 miles linking Death Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Mount Hunt Divide; or roughly 24 miles linking Death Canyon, Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, and Static Peak.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
#4 Zion’s Narrows
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.”
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
#5 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.
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