Photo Gallery: 10 Awe-Inspiring Wild Places
By Michael Lanza
Over many years of taking wilderness trips of all kinds, I have grown pickier about my backpacking and other backcountry adventures. The best-known trails, peaks, and wilderness waters are usually beautiful; but sometimes, for various reasons, they just don’t do it for me. More and more, I seek out the places and multi-day adventures that inspire a powerful sense of awe. It often requires getting farther from civilization, onto paths less traveled, and occasionally entails greater physical, navigational, or technical challenges. But those adventures feel wilder. And that’s what I’m after.
For this story, I’ve picked out 10 places I’ve been that still remain wild.
If you feel the same way I do about what you’re looking for in a backcountry experience—or even if your sense of that is just beginning to evolve—I think you’ll find yourself drawn to the trips on this list.
I’d love to read your thoughts about my list or any suggestions you have for similarly awe-inspiring adventures. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Deep in the Backcountry of Sequoia National Park
Backpacking a 40-mile with my family from Sequoia’s Mineral King area, we crossed passes up to 11,630 feet with sweeping views of the majestic southern High Sierra, had groves of giant sequoias to ourselves, and camped beside crystalline mountain lakes reflecting the cliffs and clean, granite peaks embracing them. The trip showed us a side of the High Sierra that can prove elusive in the popular areas of this range. And beyond its wild qualities, this trip was incredibly photogenic.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park” and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks.
Make your next backpacking trip better with my “Top 5 Tips for Better Ultralight Backpacking.”
Backpacking Zion’s Narrows Top to Bottom
Few would disagree that The Narrows of Zion National Park ranks among America’s top 10 backpacking trips, and certainly among the best in the Southwest. But I’ll go a step further and argue that you should backpack this 14-mile route from top to bottom, spending a night in the canyon, rather than dayhiking from the bottom partway up it, or hiking its length in a (long) day, as some people do. Much of the magic lies in seeing it change as you literally walk deeper into the earth, wading the river through dark, tight passages, seeing springs gush from solid red rock, creating lush oases in the desert—and taking your time to do it, as well as enjoying the solitude of an evening below walls that soar up to 1,000 feet tall, and a slice of black sky bursting with skies.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” and all of my stories about Zion National Park at The Big Outside.
Exploring the Remote Southern Sawtooth Mountains
Anyone following my blog for very long knows my affection for Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains—my backyard wilderness. But after having explored them for years, I took a 57-mile hike with a friend in the southern end of the range, getting about as far as is possible from roads in the Sawtooths. We visited numerous, stunning lakes arranged like a twisting string of jewels amid peaks that seem to me like the child of the Tetons and High Sierra. Any one of these lakes would rank among your favorite backcountry campsites.
See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooths.
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Hiking into northern Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone gets a bad rap for traffic jams and crowds at popular attractions like Old Faithful—certainly true in summer. But even in its peak season, all that’s required to escape the masses is to hike a few miles into the backcountry. And you can get a good taste for one of the loneliest and wildest corners of this sprawling original park on a dayhike down the Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, east of Mammoth Hot Springs, to the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River. I saw a herd of bison, elk, and no other people, truly wondered whether I could run into a bear or mountain lion—and had a powerful sense that this place has not changed since before Columbus arrived in America.
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Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop
In a landscape of incomparable scenery and notoriously challenging multi-day hikes, the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop stands out as a premier adventure that pushes the limits of the most-experienced backpackers—and exceeds all expectations. It includes long stretches that lack a discernible trail, difficult and exposed scrambling, and a 20-foot rappel. But the payoff ranges from vast panoramas to slot-canyon oases, campsites anyone would list among their best ever (including one, below Royal Arch, that’s on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites)—and, not surprisingly, nearly complete solitude.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park.
Any trip goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Sea Kayaking Alaska’s Pristine Glacier Bay
Merely listing the wildlife my family saw while sea kayaking for five days in the upper West Arm of Glacier Bay National Park, a park the size of Connecticut, speaks volumes about its wildness: sea otters, seals, sea lions, mountain goats, bald eagles, puffins, and countless other birds, and a brown bear wandering the beach (as well as bear scat that convinced us to choose another campsite one afternoon). We also listened to the concussive explosions of enormous chunks of ice calving from giant glaciers into the sea, and gazed up at ice-cloaked mountains rising thousands of feet above the sea. This wilderness resembles what the planet looked like right after the last Ice Age. Go there and learn what awe is.
See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
Which puffy should you buy? Read my post “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail
The 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood may not rival the renown (or distance) of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, but it does rival the Wonderland for wildflower displays in mid-summer, waterfalls, and views of the rocky and icy flanks of a big volcano, 11,239-foot Mount Hood. And the Timberline probably has the edge in wildness, mostly for being a bit less civilized: On the Wonderland, many creeks have log bridges, whereas on the Timberline, you will get wet in frigid water numerous times.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
Accessorize wisely. See my “Review: 21 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
Hiking Into the Wilderness Heart of the White Mountains
The so-called Pemi Loop, a 32-mile hike following high ridges in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, crosses nine summits and long stretches above treeline with 360-degree panoramas of the wildest and most rugged mountains in the Northeast, while amassing some 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss on extremely rocky trails. But its highlight is arguably not even one of its highest points. The summit ridge of 4,265-foot Bondcliff—the last peak when hiking the loop clockwise—raises a long band of cliffs above the dense forest, with views for miles in every direction virtually devoid of any sign of civilization. In a region where it can be difficult to escape crowds, Bondcliff remains one of the loneliest, most enchanting, and hardest summits to reach—but worth the effort.
See my story “Being Stupid With Friends: A 32-Mile Dayhike in the White Mountains,” and all of my stories about hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
For many of these trips, you want one of my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
High in the Olympic Mountains
I have some unfinished business in the Olympic Mountains: completing a north-south traverse of them. But twice I’ve backpacked off-trail in the northern Bailey Range, a very rugged alpine crest of craggy peaks, wildflowers, mountain goats, black bears, views across the deep, lushly green valley of the Hoh River to the snowy, icy heights of Mount Olympus—and virtually no other people. When I finally finish that traverse—and I will—you’ll read about it in this blog and perhaps understand better just how uniquely special those mountains are.
Meanwhile, see all of my stories about Olympic National Park at The Big Outside.
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Traversing Off-Trail Across Capitol Reef National Park
This one you won’t likely be able to pull off without a guide. But take my word for it, exploring the labyrinthine slots, sandstone towers, and twisting canyons of Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold is well worth the cost. A mostly off-trail hike from Grand Wash to Capitol Gorge, it zigzags a circuitous 17 miles through canyons, up and down steep scree and slickrock, and over passes—a no-man’s land of topography so violently tortured and wildly convoluted it boggles the mind. Steve Howe of Redrock Adventure Guides (a friend and former field editor colleague of mine at Backpacker magazine) told me before I did it that it’s “just as nice as the John Muir Trail.” That seemed like an impossibly high bar—until I did the hike. Now I don’t think I could disagree.
Tell me what you think.
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