Hamilton Lakes, High Sierra Trail, Sequoia National Park.

Photo Gallery: 15 Nicest Backcountry Campsites I’ve Hiked Past

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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 you don’t have a permit 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 two-plus decades (and I recently updated it with new campsites). So it seems fitting to spotlight the best camps I never had but wish I did—all places highly worthy of hosting your tent.

Just make sure you get there before someone else grabs it.

 

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 our six-day, family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park.

 

You deserve a better backpack. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”

 

Second morning in The Narrows, Zion National Park.

Second morning in Zion’s Narrows.

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 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 11, 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,” and find descriptions of all 12 backcountry campsites in The Narrows at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/narrowscampsites.htm.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.

 

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, ID

Returning to Imogene Lake again for the first time in some years, on a weekend backpacking trip with my 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—late at night. 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 Imogene to visit 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.

 

Lake Elizabeth, Glacier National Park.

Lake Elizabeth, Glacier National Park.

Lake Elizabeth, Glacier National Park, MT

We set out from Many Glacier in early morning on our second day in Glacier, having backpacked the day before over Piegan Pass, with its sharp peaks, soaring cliffs of the Garden Wall, impossibly blue-green alpine tarns, and Morning Eagle Falls pouring into its creek. We hiked that second morning below the cleaver of Mount Wilbur chopping at the clouds; past Ptarmigan Lake, where we saw mountain goats traversing cliffs; and through the marvel that is Ptarmigan Tunnel, emerging onto a stretch of trail incredibly constructed on cliffs high above the Belly River Valley. We might be excused it we’d grown a bit jaded at that point. But when we reached Lake Elizabeth that afternoon, its shores partly enclosed by forest with cross-lake views of a valley flanked by jagged peaks, a short nap on the sun-warmed stones of the beach seemed in order.

See my story about a seven-day, 90-mile trek in northern Glacier National Park for more photos, a video, and detailed trip-planning information.

 

That 90-mile hike through Glacier is among “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”

 

Below huge undercut near Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch.

Below huge undercut near Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch.

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.”

 

Yet another waterfall and swimming hole in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

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

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park, CA

On day three of a four-day, 86-mile, ultralight backpacking trip in the remote, northern reaches of Yosemite with my friend Todd Arndt, 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 Meadows.

 

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

 

Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

Bench Lakes, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

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 Wildernessbackcountry skiing in the Heyburn and Bench Lakes area, and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?

 

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Marie Lake, John Muir Trail.

Marie Lake, John Muir Trail.

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 about thru-hiking the John Muir Trail for more photos, a video, and detailed trip-planning information.
 

 

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Snowdrift Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

Snowdrift Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

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 Ask Me 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, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Phelps Basin, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

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

Above Spider Meadow, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Above Spider Meadow, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

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.

 

Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”

 

Arrowhead Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

Arrowhead Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

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 all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including my stories about a late-summer climb of Mount Heyburn, backpacking in the remote southern Sawtooth Wildernessbackcountry skiing in the Heyburn and Bench Lakes area, and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?

 

Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

 

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range.

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range.

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, WY

My first two visits to the Cirque were to make some long alpine rock climbs of two of the several granite monoliths rising over 12,000 feet that form a wall of granite spires enclosing the headwaters of the North Fork Popo Agie River. Both times, we actually camped at one of the small, alpine tarns immediately south of Jackass Pass, the gateway to the Cirque, instead of in the Cirque (as most climbers do). More recently, several friends and I made a 27-mile dayhike across the southern Winds, including a crossing of the Cirque. We stopped for a break on the shore of Lonesome Lake, which sits at the toe of Pingora Peak, a pedestal of rock rising hundreds of feet above the lake. While camping is prohibited within a quarter-mile of the lake, there are plum sites farther uphill, overlooking the lake and the peaks.

Read my story about that 27-mile dayhike across the Winds, with more photos and trip-planning info.

 

Our Winds traverse is featured in my story “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

 

Hance Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon

Hance Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon.

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.

 

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Upper Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.

Upper Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.

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.

 

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4 Responses to Photo Gallery: 15 Nicest Backcountry Campsites I’ve Hiked Past

  1. Rod Benson   |  April 24, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Wow! Those are some nice ones. It’s not really a backcountry site (only accessible by canoe), but here is my favorite campsite – Eagle Creek Campsite along the Missouri River in central Montana in October. https://bigskywalker.com/2017/03/26/white-cliffs-canoe-adventure-scenes-of-visionary-enchantment/

  2. zgr322   |  May 31, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    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.

    • MichaelALanza   |  April 17, 2018 at 6:54 am

      Good tips, thanks. I think I know that unnamed lake near Sand Mountain Pass; I’m going to try to camp there. Yup, Idaho and the Sawtooths are pretty special.

  3. sierracanon   |  May 30, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    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.

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