By Michael Lanza
It is one of those unfortunate inevitabilities of life, like death and taxes: Occasionally on backpacking trips you will hike past one of the most sublime patches of wilderness real estate you have ever laid eyes on, a spot so idyllic you can already see your tent pitched there and you standing outside it, warm mug in your hands, watching a glorious sunset. But it’s early and your plan entails hiking farther before you stop for the day—not camping there. Or your permit isn’t for that site. Or even worse, you are looking for a campsite, but someone else has already occupied this little corner of Heaven.
Disappointment is an awfully large pill to swallow, especially if you know you may never get back to that place. Then again, you might make a note on your map and return there someday. Goals are a powerful motivator.
My story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” has photos and descriptions of the best spots in the wilderness where I’ve ever spent a night over the past three decades, including many years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog (and I recently updated that story). So it seems fitting to spotlight the best camps I never had but wish I did—all of them places potentially awaiting your tent.
Just make sure you get there before someone else grabs it.
The descriptions below include links to stories at The Big Outside about those trips, with more images and information about planning them. Please share anything you know about these campsites in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park, CA
Granted, it’s hard to find a bad campsite in the High Sierra. But some really do stand out even from the many extraordinary sites—in fact, two of our camps on this Sequoia trip made my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites. After a morning hike along a stretch of the High Sierra Trail that traverses hundreds of feet above the cliff-flanked canyon of the Middle Fork Kaweah River, we reached the largest of the Hamilton Lakes (lead photo at top of story), nestled in a bowl of granite at 8,235 feet, just in time for a long lunch break. Everyone took a swim in the invigorating water, but mostly we just soaked up the panorama of jagged peaks rising to over 12,000 feet that surround the lake.
See my story, with lots of photos and a video, about that 40-mile, family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park.
You deserve a better backpack. See my “Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs.”
The Narrows, Zion National Park
Rather than pick one of the campsites in Zion’s Narrows that a friend and I hiked past—we stayed in campsite one, which made my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites—I have to give all of the 11 other designated campsites in The Narrows a collective spot on this list.
On the second day of an overnight, top-to-bottom backpacking trip of The Narrows, we checked out campsites two through 12, and I eventually gave up on the idea of picking a favorite. Each one sits within sight and earshot of the burbling river, below sheer, multi-colored walls rising hundreds of feet to a ribbon of sky overhead. Some may have a little more space or some other appeal; but given the location, any one of them guarantees you an incomparable night.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Do this trip right using my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, ID
Returning to Imogene Lake again for the first time in some years, on a weekend backpacking trip with my then-11-year-old daughter, I was reminded just how gorgeous this sprawling water body is. On calm days—like we had on this recent visit—the water reflects an Impressionist painting-like panorama of pine forest and rocky peaks.
I was actually planning to finally atone for my sin of having hiked past Imogene on at least two or three previous occasions by setting up camp here with my daughter. But we got a late start on a Friday and rolled in to Hell Roaring Lake—four miles below Imogene—after dark. So we just dayhiked to Imogene. I’ll camp there yet—I swear. Meanwhile, Hell Roaring is a pretty nice spot, too, and close enough to visit Imogene on a morning hike.
See my story “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” about father-son and father-daughter backpacking trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths, and all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including stories about backpacking in the remote southern Sawtooth Wilderness and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?”
I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park, MT
I first included Elizabeth Lake on this list after backpacking Glacier’s magnificent Northern Loop, which I describe how to plan and hike in my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park.” But more recently, I returned to Glacier to make a comparably awe-inspiring, 90-mile, north-south traverse of the park, mostly following the Continental Divide Trail, but with some variations I built into the route to show friends who accompanied me what I consider some the finest scenery in Glacier (described in this e-guide).
And on our first night of that more-recent trip, we camped at Elizabeth Lake—and I got the photo above early the next morning, as the calm, chill air turned the lake into a mirror reflecting the surrounding, jagged peaks. So technically, I’ve now hiked past Elizabeth and camped there, but I decided it still belongs on this list so that you don’t risk passing up a chance to spend a night there.
See my stories about backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and Gunsight Pass Trail and about traversing the park mostly following the Continental Divide Trail.
That hike through Glacier is one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch, UT
I had fully intended for our group of two families to spend our second night backpacking Coyote Gulch right beneath Jacob Hamblin Arch; I remembered, from a trip there years earlier, that it’s a magical spot to layover and watch the light shift.
But when our group reached Coyote Natural Bridge that afternoon, the kids were ready to call it a day; and it being about an hour (at a family pace) downstream from Jacob Hamblin, and not a bad place at all to pitch tents on the broad, sandy beach below the bridge (it was formerly on my top 25 best backcountry campsites list), I quickly gave up on the idea of reaching the arch. I also knew the arch is a popular spot, so all available sites could be snapped up by the time we got there. It turned out they weren’t, and a prime campsite, on the upstream side looking right up at the arch, was actually empty when we got there the next morning. Oh, well.
See my story about backpacking Coyote Gulch and dayhiking slot canyons and trails in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and neighboring Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks for more photos, videos, and detailed trip-planning information.
After Coyote Gulch, hike the rest of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park, CA
On day three of a four-day, 87-mile, backpacking trip in the remote, northern reaches of Yosemite with my friend Todd, we reached one of that trek’s scenic highlights: the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. With granite walls soaring hundreds of feet above a crystal-clear river that tumbles over innumerable waterfalls, massive boulders, and a beautiful bed of cobblestones, the canyon bears a striking resemblance to the park’s iconic feature, Yosemite Valley—except that it’s twice as long and has no roads or buildings and few people.
Todd and I actually spent a pleasant night in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, initially sleeping under the stars on a big granite slab by the river, then quickly pitching our tarp in the woods when rain started falling after dark. But we didn’t score one of the several primo campsites we saw in the canyon, either because we walked past them before we were ready to stop for the night, or someone else already occupied them. To grab one of the campsites that sit near any of the waterfalls and great swimming holes, I suggest trying to reach the mid-canyon stretch by early afternoon, before most other backpackers.
See many more images, a video, and trip-planning trips in my story about that backpacking trip in northern Yosemite, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite at The Big Outside, including “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about a 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
By the Colorado River at Hance Rapids, Grand Canyon, AZ
While I have camped on the beach at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River (it’s on my top 25 best backcountry campsites list), more recently, I backpacked past that beach on a six-day trip that I concluded—after several trips in the Big Ditch—is “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.” As we left that beach, we walked past a spacious (and empty!) campsite fully enclosed by trees that cast substantial shade.
Anyone who’s hiked in the canyon understands the value of shade—especially in a campsite. We had many miles to go that day, so we didn’t stop. But the beach at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River has long been on my radar (since I took this three-day hike) as a spot to plan spending a night when hiking through this corner of the canyon. This shady site will be the first place I check for occupants the next time I plan to bed down on that beach.
See my story “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” which includes a potential night at Hance Rapids.
Get my expert e-guides to “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” and an alternative friendlier to first-timers there, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness, ID
As we hiked past the second-highest of a string of five lakes that sit above 8,000 feet on the east side of the Sawtooths, the glassy waters of a calm early morning offered a perfect reflection of the incisor summit ridge of Mount Heyburn high above us. It was early on a long day my friend Chip Roser and I would spend climbing Heyburn, and would ultimately be one of the day’s finest moments. A rough, sometimes-obscure use trail leads to the Bench Lakes from Trail 101 above Redfish Lake. The highest of the Bench Lakes, at over 8,600 feet, is the most alpine of them and has campsites right at the foot of Heyburn.
See all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including my stories about a late-summer climb of Mount Heyburn, backpacking in the remote southern Sawtooth Wilderness, and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?”
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Marie Lake, John Muir Trail, CA
It was the fourth morning of our seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail through California’s High Sierra, from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney. Three friends and I were climbing toward Selden Pass in the John Muir Wilderness and not even thinking about taking a break yet; we wouldn’t stop for the night until hours later.
Below us, Marie Lake lay still in a bowl of granite ledges with trees dotting the landscape, rocky islands in the lake, and an infinite selection of places around the lake to temporarily call home.
See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” for more photos, a video, and detailed trip-planning information.
Want my help planning your JMT thru-hike? I’ve helped many readers plan all the details of this classic trip, including getting a very hard-to-get permit, figuring out how many days to take, and finding the best campsites. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you.
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Snowdrift Lake, Grand Teton National Park, WY
I’ve had the pleasure of gazing upon the emerald waters of this alpine lake four times now—and I actually did once pitch a tent on a slope above the lake, but never in the site at the lake’s eastern end. A long, oval, often wind-battered gem parked at the head of Avalanche Canyon, just a few hundred feet below 10,680-foot Avalanche Divide and the long cliff band named The Wall, Snowdrift is not reached by any official park trail. But there is an unofficial, unmarked, rough, and strenuous user trail that climbs up Avalanche Canyon; it branches west off the Valley Trail just north of Taggart Lake. It’s a hard trail to carry a pack up, and not much easier to carry a pack down (and finding the easy, safe way through the cliffs below Snowdrift Lake is trickier going downhill than uphill; I’ve done it in both directions). The easiest access to Snowdrift is hiking the good trail from South Fork Cascade Canyon up to Avalanche Divide, then hiking cross-country, over easy terrain, down to the east end of Snowdrift. The campsite is exposed, so don’t go if it’s windy or in bad weather.
See all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park, including this post that describes how to hike to Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon, and my stories about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and a family backpacking trip from Death Canyon Trailhead to Jenny Lake, all of which include many photos and trip-planning tips.
Phelps Basin and Spider Gap route, Glacier Peak Wilderness, WA
On the first afternoon of a spectacular, five-day family hike of the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop through Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness—among my favorite wild lands—we camped in a spacious, established site in the woods above Spider Meadow and minutes below Phelps Basin. Two other parties had already grabbed the available sites
in Phelps Basin (photo above), as I discovered, to my dismay, when we took an evening stroll up there. The next morning, we carried our packs up the trail to Spider Gap, passing more campers perched on the bench atop a steep wall of earth high above Spider Meadow (photo at right). Whenever I get back there again, it will be exceedingly difficult to choose between these two spots.
See my story, with lots of images, about our five-day, family-backpacking trip in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Arrowhead Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, ID
Since my first of now many trips into Idaho’s Sawtooths, I’ve often marveled at how these toothy, granite peaks remind me of the High Sierra—without the crowds of hikers found in parts of the Sierra. My friend Jeff Wilhelm and I hiked past Arrowhead Lake on the second morning of a four-day trip and immediately agreed we needed to return with fishing poles and stay longer. I snapped this photo when Jeff walked out onto the granite spit jutting into the lake.
See my story about that backpacking in the remote southern Sawtooth Wilderness and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?”
Which puffy should you buy? See my review of “The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
Hance Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon, AZ
As I write in my story listing my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites—which, like this story, also features two spots in this flagship national park—you could make a list of best campsites just in the Grand Canyon. On a three-day backpacking trip from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, with my 10-year-old daughter and two other families, we crossed upper Hance Creek en route from our first camp by the Colorado River at Hance Rapids (see the photo in my 25 favorite backcountry campsites story) to our second campsite atop Horseshoe Mesa. The narrow canyon at Hance Creek is one of those rare oases in the Grand Canyon—shaded most of the day by huge walls on both sides, with trees lining the shallow creek beneath vibrantly red walls.
See my story from this backpacking trip, with more images, a video, and tips on planning it yourself.
Upper Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, ID
On a 28-mile, one-day loop hike through the heart of one of the most scenic Western mountain ranges that most hikers have never heard of, Idaho’s White Clouds, two friends and I scrambled off-trail up a very steep headwall, passed through a notch in a row of pinnacles, then picked up a trail and descended into the valley of a string of pearls known as the Boulder Chain Lakes. While we would run into backpackers camped at the lower lakes, we saw no one at three of the highest and most remote of the chain, Headwall Lake, Scoop Lake, and Hummock Lake, perched amid copses of conifers beneath peaks of unbelievably white rock that give these mountains their name.
Read my story about a 28-mile dayhike through Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, with more photos and trip-planning info.