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 don’t always do it for me. More and more, I seek out the places and multi-day adventures that inspire a powerful sense of awe. It certainly begins with exceptional natural beauty, but often also requires getting farther from civilization, onto paths less traveled, and occasionally entails greater physical and other challenges. But those adventures feel wilder. And that’s what I’m after.
The 10 places shown in the photos below are exactly that: still wild.
All of these adventures possess unique qualities that make the experience of them feel extraordinary while you’re in it and stay with you for a long time afterward—and I say that from the perspective of having enjoyed scores of beautiful places over the past three decades (and counting), including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog.
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.
The short descriptions below all link to stories at The Big Outside with many more images and info, including my expert tips on planning and taking each trip. (Those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full.)
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. I try to respond to all comments.
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.
I returned to the Winds again this summer, joining three companions for a very rugged, seven-day, 96-mile south-to-north traverse of the Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail—one of the most difficult and stunning adventures I’ve ever had. Watch for my upcoming feature story about that trip.
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. And you might even be right about that.
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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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 Wonderland Trail
The 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Washington’s Mount Rainier belongs on any list of America’s best backpacking trips—most conspicuously for the countless views of the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, a sight that inspires beyond all expectations.
But it also dazzles with some of the most beautiful wildflower meadows you will ever see, countless waterfalls and cascades, crystalline creeks and raging rivers gray with “glacial flour,” and likely sightings of mountain goats, marmots, deer, and possibly black bears.
With over 44,000 cumulative vertical feet of elevation gain and loss, it’s a strenuous trip, and choices you make like which direction to hike the loop, where to begin it, and whether to take a popular detour onto the higher and more-scenic Spray Park Trail, all affect the difficulty—which I spell out in detail in my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”
See my story “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and my feature story “An American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” about my most recent, 77-mile backpacking trip on what I consider the best sections of the Wonderland Trail (a route described as one of the alternate itineraries in my e-guide).
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Glacier National Park
Few wild lands inspire feelings of awe as frequently and as intensely as Glacier. Besides almost constant vistas of mountains unlike any others in America, on virtually any multi-day hike in Glacier you will see rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, some of the more than 760 lakes, and often mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose—possibly even a few grizzly and black bears, which I’ve seen on every backpacking trip I’ve taken in this park.
Those hikes have included what I (and others) consider the best backpacking trip in Glacier as well as a 94-mile, north-to-south traverse of the park, mostly following the primary Continental Divide Trail route through Glacier and my hand-picked variations off it to hit what I believe comprise the park’s finest areas.
See my stories “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” and “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the two longer hikes referenced above, and my stories “Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats: A 3-Day Hike on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail” about a family backpacking trip when our kids were in grade school and “The 6 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park.”
Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Glacier, Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.
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.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park” and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks.
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Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River
If you’re on a quest for sheer thrills, five-star scenery, immersion in a vast wilderness, beautiful campsites, repeated episodes of children and adults shrieking with joy, world-class trout fishing, and an experience you’re guaranteed to want to repeat, few trips my family has taken compare to rafting and kayaking Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Flowing like an artery through the heart of the second-largest federal wilderness in the continental United States, the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is widely considered second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in terms of raw beauty. My family might argue it’s better—and we’re eagerly looking forward to our next Middle Fork trip (which, yes, is already booked).
See my stories about my family’s two trips on the Middle Fork, “Reunions of the Heart on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River” and “Big Water, Big Wilderness: Rafting Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River,” both of them—and our next scheduled trip—with Middle Fork Rapid Transmit.
Any trip goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
The Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop
Even 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.
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 remarkably pretty and intimate slot-canyon oases in the desert, 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?”
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.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
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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