The 27 Nicest Backcountry Campsites I’ve Hiked Past

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 recently updated 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-plus decades, including many years running this blog and previously as a field editor for Backpacker magazine for 10 years. 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


This list grows every year—an inevitable outcome of backpacking frequently—giving you more ideas for trips to take. The descriptions below include links to stories at The Big Outside about those trips, with more images and information about planning them. Most of those stories about trips, and other stories at my blog, require a paid subscription to read in full, although you don’t need a subscription to purchase any of my e-books or my Custom Trip Planning.

Please share your questions or suggestions about these campsites or others in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

A mother and young daughter backpacking the High Sierra Trail above Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park.
My wife, Penny, and daughter, Alex, backpacking the High Sierra Trail above Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park.

Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park

Granted, there are a lot of great campsites 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, 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 about that 40-mile, family backpacking trip, “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” with lots of photos and a video, and all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.

Get the right pack for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
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A campsite in Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.
A campsite in Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail.

Alaska Basin, Teton Crest Trail

A campsite in Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.
A campsite in Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail.

There’s hardly a bad place to pitch a tent (legally) in all of Grand Teton National Park—and certainly not even a mediocre spot along the Teton Crest Trail. In fact, my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites includes two along the TCT. But simply because I’ve always been successful at getting my desired campsites on my backcountry permit, I have always hiked through the one area along the TCT that lies outside the national park and doesn’t require a permit for camping: Alaska Basin.

But I’ve hiked through it enough times to realize what I’m missing. The two campsites shown in these photos happen to be perfect perches we passed that lie just off the TCT in the basin. Both have broad, flat areas of clean granite with amazing 360-degree panoramas of the mountains and cliffs surrounding Alaska Basin. That’s why I’ve recommended Alaska Basin as a campsite depending on the type of hiking itinerary people are seeking when I provide custom trip planning for the TCT.

See my story about my most-recent trip on the TCT, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.”

Get my Teton Crest Trail e-book or my custom trip planning for the TCT.

A backpacker in Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Death Hollow, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

I’d read on some websites that viable campsites were non-existent in Death Hollow, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And looking at the contour lines of this deep and generally narrow cleavage in the slickrock plateau, it did seem like a bad bet to assume one would find good camps in there. Turned out, that was wrong.

On the middle day of a three-day hike on the 22-mile Death Hollow Loop, two friends and I backpacked down the dramatic canyon of Death Hollow, frequently walking in the creek amid small cascades and weaving our way around deep, calm pools and other obstacles and hazards—and bushwhacking through thickets of poison ivy that stood taller than us. And we passed a handful of camps where we’d have been happy to spend a night on one of the best backpacking trips in the Southwest, where each of our three days presented different terrain and scenery, a sort of three-in-one wilderness adventure in landscapes that repeatedly made me to pause and just gape.

See my story “Backpacking Utah’s Mind-Blowing Death Hollow Loop” at The Big Outside.

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A backpacker passing Liberty Lake on the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.
My wife, Penny, hiking past Liberty Lake on the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.

Liberty Lake, Ruby Crest Trail

On the last afternoon of my family’s backpacking trip on Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail, a steady uphill climb deposited us at the edge of Liberty Lake, a cobalt eye tucked tightly within a shoreline of granite slabs, patches of evergreen forest, and a talus mountainside. We followed the trail around and above the lake, where we stood on a ledge overlooking the lake and the long chain of the Ruby Mountains stretching into the distance (lead photo at top of story). Although camping there didn’t fit neatly into our four-day itinerary, it was easy to see why other backpackers had set up camp nearby.

Liberty Lake was not the only highlight of an approximately 36-mile, south-to-north traverse of the Ruby Crest Trail. We enjoyed a campsite on another beautiful alpine lake, wildflowers in bloom, relatively few other backpackers, and long stretches of hiking above 10,000 feet, traversing an almost treeless alpine zone for miles.

See my story about my family’s trip, “Backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail—A Diamond in the Rough,” at The Big Outside.

Get a full wilderness experience. See “12 Expert Tips For Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”

 

A young girl hiker at Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
My daughter, Alex, at Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness

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 that 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 stories about backpacking in the Sawtooths, including in the remote southern Sawtooth Wilderness and “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”

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A backpacker hiking past Elbow Lake on the Highline Trail in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
My wife, Penny, backpacking past Elbow Lake on the Highline Trail in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Elbow Lake, Wind River Range

In the week before Labor Day 2022, a prime time to be in the mountains, my wife, Penny, our friend, Chip, and I backpacked a five-day, roughly 43-mile loop from the New Fork/Doubletop Mountain Trailhead at New Fork Lakes, mostly exploring an area of the Winds I had not seen before. But we also walked a stretch of the Highline Trail (part of the Continental Divide Trail) which I had hiked previously (on this trip), reminding me not only how nice that trail is but that I’ve now hiked past Elbow Lake twice without laying out my sleeping bag there.

I rank that day among the prettiest I’ve ever hiked in the Winds—and that’s saying a lot. We started out from one of the best backcountry campsites I’ve ever had, overlooking the lower of the Twin Lakes, 12,119-foot Sky Pilot Peak, and 12,224-foot Mount Oeneis, following the Highline Trail past several alpine lakes and tarns to sprawling Elbow Lake—embraced by granite slabs and grassy earth where you can’t help but picture your tent pitched. From there, we continued to a pair of high passes and more spectacular lakes.

And as happened throughout that trip, we passed fewer than 10 people all day.

See “Backpacking Through a Lonely Corner of the Wind River Range” all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside. National forest and wilderness managers require camping at least 200 feet from any lake or trail in the Winds.

Do you love backcountry lakes?
Check out these photos of the most gorgeous wilderness lakes I’ve ever seen.

A backpacker hiking to Iceberg Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra.
David Ports backpacking to Iceberg Lake, below the Minarets in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra.

Iceberg Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Two companions and I walked one of the finest sections of the John Muir Trail on a nine-day, north-south trek of nearly 130 miles through the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses and Kings Canyon National Park, exploring high lakes basins and crossing passes at 11,000 to 12,000 feet. But one highlight came early in that trip, when we detoured off the JMT to hike below the row of jagged spires called the Minarets in the Ansel Adams.

On the steep uphill hike from Ediza Lake—itself a nice spot to pitch a tent—we reached Iceberg Lake, tucked into a compact bowl at 9,774 feet right at the foot of sheer rock walls that rise to sharp points. Not far from the lakeshore, we saw some perfect little patches of dirt for tents. The Minarets can be visited on a weekend or three- to four-day hike that will give you a great sampler of the central High Sierra.

See photos and read about this area in my story “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and check out “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes” and all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

Second morning in The Narrows, Zion National Park.
Second morning in Zion’s Narrows.

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-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite.

Indian Ridge, Yosemite National Park

On our first night in the backcountry during a four-day, 45-mile hike in Yosemite, a friend and I carried water up onto Indian Ridge, on Yosemite Valley’s North Rim, and found a great campsite a short walk from an unnamed dome overlooking a panorama that took in Half Dome and distant mountains to the south. We watched a sunset linger until the final light of day dripped from the sky.

But not long after hitting the trail the next morning, we saw where we wished we had camped. A little farther down Indian Ridge, the terrain opens up and flat spots abound just off the trail—where we saw no other backpackers. We had a much closer and more spectacular view looking directly at the huge Northwest Face of Half Dome just across the deep gulf of the Valley. Park regulations require camping at least a half-mile from the North Rim of Yosemite Valley—which is easy to achieve and have plenty of spots to choose from on Indian Ridge—and more significantly, you have to carry water up there.

But I don’t know of another spot in the backcountry where you can camp with that kind of view of Yosemite Valley.

See my feature story about that trip, “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

Get the right shelter for your trips. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents
and “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You.”

Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.
Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.

Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park

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-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park.” But since then, I’ve 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-book).

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 (twice, actually) 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, and my most recent hike in Glacier, a weeklong traverse mostly on the CDT with an itinerary and camps that varied from the first CDT trip.

Glacier ranks among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

A campsite beneath a huge undercut near Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Utah.
A campsite beneath a huge undercut near Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Utah.

Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch

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 “The 12 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

A backpacker on the Shannon Pass Trail above Peak Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Mark Fenton backpacking past Peak Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Island Lake and Peak Lake, Wind River Range

Island Lake, in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Island Lake in the Wind River Range.

Take a long walk in the Winds and you can hardly swing an extended tent pole without hitting a lake or tarn. When two friends and I backpacked a roughly 41-mile loop in the Winds, I deliberately planned a route that included a night in Titcomb Basin, where lakes shimmer below the soaring granite walls of 13,000-foot peaks. But we inevitably hiked past countless, pretty lakes that presented alluring campsites.

Two of the most memorable were Island Lake, where we stopped for lunch en route to Titcomb, and Peak Lake, which nestles in a tiny bowl below peaks that resemble incisors, and which we reached after hiking cross-country from Titcomb over Knapsack Col and down a lonely valley to reach the Shannon Pass Trail. On a trip where a shocking number of lakes feel like one of the prettiest spots on the planet, these two have burned lasting images in memory.

See my story about that trip, “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin” all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.

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A campsite in trees on the beach beside Hance Rapids in the Grand Canyon.
A campsite in trees on the beach beside Hance Rapids in the Grand Canyon.

By the Colorado River at Hance Rapids, Grand Canyon

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-books to “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” and a trip easier for first-timers, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

A backpacker hiking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail, John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.
Marco Garofalo backpacking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail, John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.

Marie Lake, John Muir Trail

Marie Lake, John Muir Trail.
Marie Lake, John Muir Trail.

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.

This was one of the most painful times I’ve hiked past a beautiful backcountry camp.

And in August 2022, I did it again when two companions and I backpacked past Marie Lake—although only after enjoying a nice swim and lunch there—on a nine-day trek of nearly 130 miles through the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses and Kings Canyon National Park.

See my stories “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes,” and “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.

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. 

Score a popular permit using my
10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

A backpacker enjoying the dawn light at a campsite by Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser enjoying the dawn light at our campsite by Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Pyramid Lake, Wind River Range

A backpacker above Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Chip Roser backpacking above Pyramid Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.

It sure seems like I keep walking past really nice campsites in the Winds—maybe I just need to spend more time there. On an August trip with my son a few summers back, we aborted a planned four-day loop crossing the Continental Divide twice and finishing through the Cirque of the Towers—because the weather was so bad, with almost continuous rain and virtually no views of the mountains and no sign it would improve. But we did hike from one camp to visit Pyramid Lake and saw enough of its surroundings to know I wanted to return.

Now I’m happy to call this a success story because I did get back to this part of the Winds in August 2023, on a four-day, nearly 41-mile hike crossing four high passes, when a friend and I spent our first backcountry night a short walk from the shore of Pyramid Lake. At nearly 10,600 feet, the lake nestles in a rocky basin at the foot of 11,978-foot Pyramid Peak (which we scrambled up on that trip), 12,454-foot Mount Hooker, and 12,185-foot Tower Peak. (The lake is also a short, cross-country hike from the valley of the East Fork River on the Wind River High Route, which I write about in this story about the Wind River High Route).

See my story about that August 2023 trip, “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Wind River Range? Yup” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.

Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips
and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

A waterfall and swimming hole in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park

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: 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-books.

Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.
Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness

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 stories about the Sawtooths at The Big Outside, including “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit,” “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths,” and “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

Campsite at Toltec Beach on the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon.
Campsite at Toltec Beach on the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon.

Toltec Beach, Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon

As with the Tetons, there’s not likely a bad campsite in the GC—or at least none that I’ve found. But when three friends and I reached Toltec Beach, beside the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon’s very rugged, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop, around lunchtime on our second day, we all made a vow to return there. The river offered an area to cool ourselves in the water, there was a tree casting nice shade onto the sand, and the views, of course, were epic.

The Royal Arch Loop makes a top-to-bottom-and-back-up circuit of the canyon—going from a words-can’t-do-it-justice panorama at the rim to dipping your toes in the Colorado. It delivers a highlights reel of just about every type of physical feature that makes backpacking in the Grand Canyon unique: sweeping views, an intimate side canyon with lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, a high solitude quotient, and one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another.

See my story about that trip “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.”

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A hiker passing Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
David Ports hiking past Snowdrift Lake during a 20-mile dayhike through the Tetons.

Snowdrift Lake, Grand Teton National Park

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 story that describes how to hike to Snowdrift Lake in Avalanche Canyon.

Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-books to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.

A campsite in Phelps Basin, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.
A campsite in Phelps Basin, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Phelps Basin and Spider Gap route, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Above Spider Meadow, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Above Spider Meadow, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

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.

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Arrowhead Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

Arrowhead Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness

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 my story “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”

Which puffy should you buy? See my review of “The 12 Best Down Jackets” and
How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”

A backpacker in the East Fork River Valley on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.
Kristian Blaich backpacking up the East Fork River Valley on the Wind River High Route, Wyoming.

The Wind River High Route

Michael Lanza of The Big Outside in the Alpine Lakes Valley on the Wind River High Route.
Me in the Alpine Lakes Valley on the Wind River High Route.

When three friends and I set out on a seven-day, 96-mile traverse of the Wind River High Route—65 miles of which is off-trail, including nine of 10 named alpine passes between roughly 11,000 and 13,000 feet—we expected to be dazzled by one of the very best wilderness treks any of us had ever taken. And it exceeded expectations.

Inevitably, we hiked past many spots we’d love to have set up camp for the night. But two spots, in particular, stood out for me. One was in the valley of the East Fork River, where we hiked below a long chain of towering cliffs and soaked in frigid pools between cascades that tumbled over granite slabs in the shallow river. The second spot was in the long valley of the Alpine Lakes—one of the most starkly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. High above one of those lakes, we crossed a wide, grassy shelf sprinkled with rocks that looked like a little piece of the Scottish Highlands transported to the Wyoming mountains. It pained me to not stop there.

Read my story about that trip, “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route.”

Backpackers relaxing in the shaded campsite at Hance Creek in the Grand Canyon.
Relaxing in the shaded campsite at Hance Creek in the Grand Canyon.

Hance Creek, Grand Canyon

This is another success story. The camping area on Hance Creek, on the east side of Horseshoe Mesa, earned a spot on this list when I backpacked past it with my then-10-year-old daughter on this three-day hike. That’s my justification for keeping it on this list—even though I’m happy to report that I’ve since returned and spent a night there (photo above) on a six-day trip that I’ve described as “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.”

Not to be confused with the beach at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River—which is several trail miles from and a couple thousand feet below the camping area at Hance Creek—the camping zone at Hance Creek is flanked by sheer, vibrantly red walls that by late afternoon cast a long, blessed shadow to give us relief from the sun.

See my story “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” which includes a potential night at Hance Rapids.

Click here now for my expert e-book to the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.

A hiker above Scoop Lake in the Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.
Scott White hiking above Scoop Lake in the Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.

Upper Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains

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.

That White Clouds hike is featured in “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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9 thoughts on “The 27 Nicest Backcountry Campsites I’ve Hiked Past”

  1. Great read. Especially liked Indian Ridge. I surprisingly found a lot of solitude hiking the the North Rim (eastbound), with SO many great vistas (El Cap, Eagle Peak, Yosemite Pt) but most are too close to the rim to camp as you mention. The section between North Dome and Indian Rock is a fantastic choice as long as you still have enough water. I passed through midday before having to take the (brutal) switchbacks of Snow Creek Trail down to the valley floor. Next time.

    Reply
    • Agreed, Eric, Indian Ridge is spectacular but you gotta carry water up there. And those endless switchbacks up the Snow Creek Trail, plus the distance of North Dome and Indian Ridge from any trailheads, explain why that’s such a relatively quite area so close to the Valley. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  2. Wow! totally saving this article. Hance rapids was magical- did you see the flowing sand on the dunes?
    Unfortunately, I don’t want to share this with anyone 😉
    but I will…….

    Reply
    • Glad you like this story, Mary. Hance Rapids in the Grand Canyon is an awesome place. I’m sure we did see the sand blowing at times on the beach. Enjoy the new places you discover.

      Reply
  3. I’m very surprised you’ve never actually camped at Imogene Lake! On my first visit to Idaho 5 years ago my friend and I stayed the night at Imogene on the east side close to where you first meet the lake coming from Hell Roaring. Actually it wasn’t far at all from your picture location. When we got there we could hear/see campsites across the lake and figured they got all the primo locations. Fortunately our small camp on the east side allowed amazing views of sunset/sunrise of the light hitting Mt. Cramer and Payette. I can’t imagine the view from the west side was even close. Even better, the second night we were planning on camping at Toxaway Lake but once we spied a beautiful small lake from Sand Mountain Pass we made that our goal. It had no name, just elevation marker, but Google Maps now calls it Rendezvous Lake. The sunset hitting the walls around Sand Mountain and Payette were awesome. Idaho is truly special, I enjoyed the article.

    Reply
  4. I have camped at Hamilton Lake, and agreed, it is a gorgeous spot. The only down side is, that it tends to be pretty crowded, since it’s not that far from Crescent Meadow. Last time we were there, there were a couple of large groups, and the camp area was pretty overrun.

    Reply