By Michael Lanza
I often get asked the question, “What’s your favorite trip?” And I don’t have an answer. To pick just one from all the amazing adventures I’ve had the good fortune to take over the past two-plus decades feels like an impossible task. Instead, I’ve just updated this list of my 10 all-time favorites (so far). It includes some of America’s best backpacking trips, from the Teton Crest Trail and John Muir Trail to Glacier National Park; hiking across the Grand Canyon; trekking in Iceland, Patagonia, Norway, and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains (photo above); and some places that might surprise you.
As you’re planning your next great adventures—as you should be doing at this time of year—consider that my picks are chosen from scores of backpacking, dayhiking, paddling, trekking, and other trips I’ve taken, domestically and internationally, over more than two decades as a writer for Backpacker magazine and other publications and running this blog. See also “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips” for more ideas; some of these trips could have made either list.
I’d love to hear what you think of this list and any suggestions for trips you think belong on it. Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Make it a very happy new year.
The Teton Crest Trail is, step for step, unquestionably one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable backpacking trip: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, cliff-flanked, glacier-scoured canyons; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears. I fell in love with the Tetons on my first visit, more than 20 years ago, backpacking from Death Canyon Trailhead to String Lake Trailhead, and I’ve returned about 20 times since then to rock climb, dayhike, bag most of the major summits, canoe, backcountry ski, and backpack. I never grow tired of the sight of these peaks.
See my story “American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside.
Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.
Few corners of the planet remain as pristine as this national park that’s the size of Connecticut, which sits at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness the size of Greece. On a multi-day sea kayaking trip here, you can see massive tidewater glaciers explosively calving bus-sized chunks of ice into the sea, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, mountain goats, seals, sea otters, brown bears, and a variety of birds and wildflowers. It feels like traveling back in time to the end of the last ice age.
See my story about my family’s five-day sea kayaking trip in Glacier Bay, “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
If hearing the JMT described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail”—as it often is—seems to you like a hyperbolic claim, then you really must go see for yourself. For mile after jaw-dropping mile, you walk below incisor peaks of clean granite, past more waterfalls than anyone could name in a thousand lifetimes, along pristine wilderness lakes nestled in rocky basins, and over passes topping 12,000 and 13,000 feet with views that stretch a hundred miles. Whether or not you agree with that nickname “America’s Most Beautiful Trail,” it will be one of the most wonderful research projects you’ve ever done.
Want to hike the Teton Crest Trail, JMT, or another trip? Click here for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.
One of the most prized trekking destinations in the world, Torres del Paine National Park is a place of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, and some of the world’s largest glaciers pouring into emerald lakes. Of twisted lenga trees, raging whitewater rivers, and the most relentless winds you’ve ever encountered. Patagonia is a dream destination for backpackers all over the world. Read this story to learn how to do Patagonia right.
See my story “Patagonian Classic: Trekking Torres del Paine.”
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Know this before you go to the Grand Canyon: This place will steal your heart. That has been my experience from numerous dayhikes and backpacking trips over the years, from rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhikes to multi-day hikes on some of the canyon’s most remote and rugged paths. Now, every return visit just fuels my hunger to go back yet again to explore another corner I haven’t seen yet. When I first published this story, I focused this entry on dayhiking from the South Rim across to the North Rim and back (known as r2r2r) in a day—more than 42 miles and 11,000 cumulative vertical feet of elevation gain and loss.
But really, you should choose the dayhike or backpacking trip that looks most appealing and suits your skills and experience, and just go see this seemingly infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers. If you’re like me, you will end up going back again and again.
See my numerous stories about Grand Canyon National Park, including this photo gallery about hiking rim to rim to rim over two days, and this feature story about dayhiking rim to rim to rim; my feature stories about backpacking with my family from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab, and the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop and Royal Arch Loop. Or just scroll down to Grand Canyon on my All National Park Trips page at The Big Outside.
Do this trip smartly and safely. Get my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
The Alta Via 2, or “The Way of the Legends,” a roughly 112-mile (180k) alpine footpath through one of the world’s most spectacular and storied mountain ranges, Italy’s Dolomites, is famous for many attributes, including comfortable mountain huts with excellent food; a reputation for being the most remote and difficult of the several multi-day alte vie (plural for alta via), or “high paths,” that crisscross the Dolomites; and scenery that puts it in legitimate contention for the title of the most beautiful trail in the world.
Read about my family’s weeklong, hut-to-hut trek on a 39-mile (62k) section of the AV 2 in my story “’The World’s Most Beautiful Trail:’ Trekking the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomites.”
See which section of the Alta Via 2 made my “25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”
Click here to learn how I can help you plan this incomparable trek.
Think of Glacier National Park and you think of mountain scenery that justifies a badly abused adjective: awesome. You think of wildlife sightings that are possible in few places in the Lower 48: bighorn sheep, so many mountain goats you may lose count, and black bears and grizzly bears.
There are two 90-mile hikes in Glacier that make my list of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips:” The first is a tour of northern Glacier, broken up into two hikes, a 65-miler and a 25-miler, and simplified logistically by the park’s free shuttle buses. The second is a north-south traverse through Glacier mostly on the Continental Divide Trail, from Chief Mountain Trailhead at the Canadian border to Two Medicine. On that hike last September, three friends and I saw numerous bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, one moose, and a griz, and heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening. Both trips deliver everything that makes Glacier a favorite of backpackers.
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 94-mile traverse through Glacier. And see all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier.
Do you believe in elves? Icelanders do, or at least enough to route highways around places considered the abodes of elves and trolls. Credit a landscape of raw beauty that has shaped the values of its hardy people. Smaller than Kentucky, the country has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. While exploring rugged trails through old lava flows, thermal features spewing steam into the sky, and mind-boggling waterfalls and glaciers, I began to think of Iceland as like a first crush, a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to fall in love with, hard to leave. You will feel the same way.
Take the world’s best adventures. See all my stories about international adventures at The Big Outside.
You probably didn’t expect to see Capitol Reef on this list, did you? Well, I’ve long considered it one of our most underappreciated national parks (and I’ve visited numerous times and posted stories about other trips there at The Big Outside). But when my friend Steve Howe, a local guide and longtime explorer of Capitol Reef’s backcountry, told me that a mostly off-trail, three-day, 17-mile traverse he’d mapped out—crossing canyons, steep scree and slickrock, and passes among the towering cliffs and domes of Capitol Reef’s signature geologic formation, the Waterpocket Fold—is as scenic as the John Muir Trail, I had to see for myself. He wasn’t exaggerating.
For my hard-earned advice on scoring a backcountry permit in popular parks like Grand Canyon and Grand Teton, see my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Hike every day through a starkly beautiful, Arctic-like landscape of mountains plastered with snow and ice, and valleys bisected by rushing streams or filled with iceberg-choked lakes. Then spend every night in the most comfortable mountain huts you have ever encountered, eating meals fit for a four-star restaurant—that’s trekking Jotunheimen. From the multi-cultural experience to exciting stream fords and the opportunity for more challenging, optional side hikes—like the steep scramble up a peak named Kirkja and the all-day hike to Norway’s highest summit, Galdhøpiggen—this adventure was a home run for everyone in our group, age nine to 75.
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Past Top 10 Adventures
I update the above list every year, and sometimes one or two trips get bumped for one I’ve taken more recently and like better. But that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Also, in some years, there have been trips that would have made this list if it were my Top 11 instead of Top 10, so I mention them here because I think you’ll enjoy reading about them—and perhaps expanding your own adventure to-do list. I will maintain this list of runners-up favorite all-time adventures—to give you a longer list of dream trips.
Having hiked through the eastern side of America’s second national park, Sequoia, on the John Muir Trail, I was eager to backpack with my family in this park that’s home to many of the highest mountains and one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48. We walked a nearly 40-mile loop from the park’s Mineral King area, through a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book laying open on the lake bottom.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park.”
With more than 40 summits rising above 13,000 feet along the Continental Divide, the Wind River Range delivers killer mountain views, a constellation of the most gorgeous mountain lakes to be found anywhere, and serious wilderness adventure; it belongs on every backpacker’s and climber’s list, as you’ll see in my story about a 41-mile trip to Titcomb Basin that included three 12,000-foot passes, one of them reached via a spicy, off-trail route.
But how about biting off a big piece of the Winds in one day? Read my story about a one-day, 27-mile, east-west crossing of the southern Winds, from the Bears Ears Trailhead in Dickinson Park to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead. On an alpine traverse that kept us above 11,000 feet for many hours, we drank up expansive vistas of soaring granite cliffs and peaks.
One of the least-visited rivers in the contiguous U.S., the upper Owyhee River carves narrow canyons of sheer rhyolite and basalt walls, densely populated with spires, into the sagebrush and grassland high desert sprawling over southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. On an eight-day, 82-mile, class III-IV kayaking descent, we saw not another person until our final evening, camped within two miles of the takeout. Not for the faint of heart—besides technical whitewater, there are long, strenuous portages, and water levels are only high enough in spring, when cold rain, snow, and high winds are de rigueur—kayaking the achingly beautiful upper Owyhee ranks among the most remote and wild adventures in the Lower 48.
See my story “The Wildest River: Kayaking the Upper Owyhee.”
Although just spitting distance from the world-famous Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. And it has it all: intensely green forest of moss-draped, twisted beech trees, huts perched in spectacular locations, and inspirational views of mountains cloaked in snow and glaciers in Mount Aspiring National Park.
If you’re surprised to see this trip on my list, all the more reason to read about it. Every morning, I ran nine to 12 miles of trails across hills with breathtaking views of cliffs plunging into the Pacific, or through groves of towering Redwood trees. (You can hike it instead, of course.) Every evening, I stayed in a delightful inn while enjoying five-star meals and excellent beer or wine. I also learned to “embrace the hills” on this wonderful adventure—a great getaway for an active couple of any age.
See my story “Trail Running Across Marin: Four Days, 42 Miles, Inn-to-Inn.”