By Michael Lanza
Over many years of taking wilderness trips of all kinds, I’ve gotten 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.
The 10 places shown in the photos below are exactly that: They 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. Each short description has a link to a feature story about that trip at The Big Outside, and those stories include many more photos and details on the itinerary and how to plan each trip yourself.
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.
The Wind River Range
You could count on the fingers of one hand—without needing every finger—the number of Lower 48 mountain ranges where you can hike for days below rows of jagged 13,000-foot peaks, seeing more of the prettiest alpine lakes you’ve ever seen than other people. And one of those places is Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
On a roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park, two friends and I spent a night in one of the most awe-inspiring spots in the West, Titcomb Basin, an alpine valley at over 10,000 feet where evening alpenglow painted a granite wall of 13,000-footers above us golden. Our route crossed three 12,000-foot passes, one via an adventurous, off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col that led into a mystical hanging valley.
As I’ve learned on several trips into the Winds: Being there can make you believe that those are the most magnificent mountains you’ve ever seen.
See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin” and “A Walk in the Winds: A One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Winds at The Big Outside.
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Sequoia National Park
Backpacking a 40-mile loop 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—hyper scenic, certainly, but also often with few other backpackers around. And beyond its wild qualities, this trip was incredibly photogenic, with many spots like Precipice Lake (photo above) and the High Sierra Trail (lead photo at top of story).
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park” and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks.
The Glacier Peak Wilderness
The most remote volcano in the Cascade Range lords over this sprawling wilderness in Washington’s North Cascades region, serving as both powerful visual image and a powerful metaphor for the hiking that’s stunning as often as it is rugged and lonely. My family and three friends discovered its wild heart while backpacking the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop—a route with a reputation as adventurous, which helps keep the crowds down, for the off-trail crossing of Spider Gap at 7,100 feet.
The scenery blows you away every day, from views of Glacier Peak floating above a sea of jagged mountains to moments of pure magic. Alpenglow lighting up the cliffs and spires ringing the cirque of Phelps Basin. Mountain meadows riotous with flowers, including on a sunset hike up Liberty Cap above Buck Creek Pass. Glacier Peak hovering above the glassy waters of Image Lake.
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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.
Click here now to get my e-guide The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
The 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 love child of the Tetons and High Sierra. Many of these lakes might rank among your favorite backcountry campsites. And this area of the Sawtooths lies far enough from the few relatively popular trailheads to get little backpacker traffic.
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.
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 (from fixed anchors—you’ll need a short rope, harness, and rappel device). 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, hours of solitude every day.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park.
Make your next backpacking trip better with my “Top 5 Tips for Better Ultralight Backpacking.”
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 bus-sized chunks of ice calving from giant glaciers into the sea, and gazed up at ice-cloaked mountains rising thousands of feet above the water. Our beach campsites ranked among the wildest and prettiest I’ve ever enjoyed. This wilderness resembles what the planet looked like right after the last Ice Age. Go there and really learn what awe is.
See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
Stay warm in cold places. See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
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 several times. For its challenge, incredible views, campsites, and periods of solitude, the Timberline stands out as a far better trip than many backpackers appreciate.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
Any trip goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
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.”
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.
See my story “The Most Beautiful Hike You’ve Never Heard Of: Crossing Utah’s Capitol Reef” and all of my stories about Capitol Reef National Park and hiking and backpacking in southern Utah at The Big Outside.
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