By Michael Lanza
Water makes up about 60 percent of our bodies—and, I suspect, 100 percent of our hearts. We crave it not only physically, for survival, but emotionally, for spiritual rejuvenation. We love playing in it for hours as children and we paddle and swim in it as adults. We’re drawn by the calming effects of sitting beside a stream or lake in a beautiful natural setting, an experience that possesses a certain je ne sais quoi—a quality difficult to describe, but that we can all feel in our heart.
I’ve come across quite a few wonderful backcountry lakes over the years. I’ve just updated and expanded this list of my favorites to give you some eye candy as well as ideas for future adventures—and perhaps compare against your list of favorite backcountry lakes. Click on the links to my stories in these brief writeups to learn more about each of these trips. If you know some good ones that are not on my list, please suggest them in the comments section below this story.
Here’s to your next peaceful moment beside a gorgeous lake deep in the mountains somewhere.
Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park
Early on the second morning of a six-day, 94-mile traverse of Glacier National Park, mostly on the Continental Divide Trail, three friends and I set out from the backcountry campground at the head of Elizabeth Lake, hiking along the sandy shore. An elk bugled from somewhere in the forest nearby. The glassy water reflected a razor-sharp, upside-down reflection of the jagged mountains flanking it. Among many lovely backcountry lakes in Glacier, Elizabeth Lake is one of the finest.
See my story about that trip, “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier.”
Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park
Precipice wasn’t even our intended campsite on the third day of a six-day, 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia, in California’s southern High Sierra. We planned to push maybe a mile farther, to camp on the other side of 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap. But when we reached Precipice Lake at 10,400 feet, and saw its glassy, green and blue waters reflecting white and golden cliffs, and took a bracing swim, it wasn’t a hard sell when I suggested we spend the night there. It became one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.
Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains
Idaho’s Sawtooths must be in contention for the title of American mountain range with the most beautiful lakes—maybe eclipsed only by the High Sierra and Wind River Range. Like the Sierra and Winds, backpacking in the Sawtooths brings you to the shores of multiple lakes every day, shimmering in sunlight, rippled by wind, or offering a mirror reflection of jagged peaks on calm mornings and evenings. Alice is one of the larger and prettier of them, a spot I’ve visited several times without getting tired of the view across it to a row of sharp-edged peaks.
See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths,” and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?”
After the Sawtooths, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
Rainbow Lake, North Cascades National Park Complex
After a relentless, seven-mile-long, 3,500-foot uphill slog to Rainbow Pass in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, a friend and I descended to a wonderful, wooded campsite on the shore of Rainbow Lake. We stuffed fistfuls of huckleberries into our mouths, then walked down to the lakeshore, where the setting sun was setting larch trees—their needles turned golden in late September—afire. It seemed a fitting final night of an 80-mile trek through the heart of the North Cascades National Park Complex.
See my story about that trip, “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades,” and all of my stories about the North Cascades.
Want a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight backpacks.
Island Lake, Wind River Range
As I mentioned above, few mountain ranges in America are as blessed with gorgeous backcountry lakes as Wyoming’s Winds. That makes it hard to pick out just one or two as favorites, but Island Lake deserves a shout out as much as any and more than most. Two friends and I hiked past it on a three-day, 41-mile loop from the Elkhart Park Trailhead to Titcomb Basin and over Knapsack Col in the Winds—and if we didn’t already have our hearts set on spending that night in Titcomb, we could have easily pitched our tents by Island for the night.
Read my feature story about that 41-mile hike, “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” and check out all of my stories about the Winds at The Big Outside.
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Wanda Lake, John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park
The seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail that I made with some friends featured many unforgettable moments and a lifetime’s worth of stunning scenery—and aching feet—but few moments as quietly lovely as the early morning that we hiked along the shore of Wanda Lake. We were climbing toward 11,955-foot Muir Pass when we reached this uppermost lake in the Evolution Basin, a high valley scoured from granite by long-ago glaciers and studded with lakes. As my friend Todd walked along the lakeshore, I captured perhaps my best image from that entire trip.
See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” See also all of my stories about the John Muir Trail and about outdoor adventures in California.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Star Lake, Presidential Range
A shallow, tiny tarn high in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, nestled in the treeless saddle between two of the tallest mountains in the Northeast, 5,366-foot Mount Madison and 5,799-foot Mount Adams, Star Lake hardly merits the descriptor “lake.” But its frequently wind-rippled waters, studded with ancient, granite rocks, with the boulder heaps of Madison or Adams rising behind, will quickly make you forget your tired legs and feet. Reaching it during or at the end of a rugged hike will feel more like the culmination of a pilgrimage. Treat yourself to a night at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Spring Hut, a five-minute walk from Star Lake.
See my story “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range,” and all of my stories about New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and White Mountains.
Sue Lake, Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is known for majestic peaks that look like kitchen cutlery pointed at the sky, abundant megafauna like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears—and, of course, its glaciers. But it also has some pretty darn nice lakes. I haven’t hit them all yet (working on that), but I have hiked to several, including the ledges overlooking this backcountry gem. Perched high above treeline, the view of ocean-blue Sue Lake floating in a sea of mountains is worthy of the short detour off the Highline Trail.
See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park.
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Baron Lake, Sawtooth Mountains
Of the numerous water jewels tucked into mountain cirques in Idaho’s Sawtooths, Baron Lake surely ranks among the prettiest. Cradled by forest on one shore and rocky slopes rising to the pinnacles and spires of Monte Verita Peak and Warbonnet Peak, Baron—which is the middle (and largest) of three alpine lakes in this basin—presents a breathtaking view from any angle, including campsites on its shore and from various points above the lake, such as overlooks by upper Baron Lake.
May Lake, Yosemite National Park
A friend and I reached May Lake on the last afternoon of one of my top 10 best-ever backpacking trips, a weeklong, 151-mile tour of the most remote areas of Yosemite. We arrived as the sun dipped toward the western horizon, casting beautiful, low-angle light across the lake, which sits at the base of craggy, 10,845-foot Mount Hoffman. But you can visit May on an easy dayhike of 2.5 miles round-trip. Bonus: There’s a High Sierra Camp on May’s shore that’s a good base camp for hiking the area, including the steep jaunt up Hoffman, which has arguably the nicest summit view in Yosemite.
See more photos, a video, and trip-planning tips in my story about the 87-mile second leg of that 151-tour of Yosemite, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and my story about the 65-mile first leg of that adventure, “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” plus my story “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite” (including May Lake and Mount Hoffmann), and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park and California national parks at The Big Outside.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Mirror Lake, Eagle Cap Wilderness
Early on the clear and calm, third morning of a 40-mile family backpacking trip in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, I left our campsite and walked down to the shore of this lake, anticipating the scene I’d capture in pixels. Mirror Lake, in the popular Lakes Basin, earns its moniker, offering up a flawless reflection of its conifer- and granite-rimmed shore and the cliffs of 9,572-foot Eagle Cap Peak high above it. Our hike made a long loop through some less-visited areas of the wilderness, but you can reach Mirror Lake on weekend-length hikes, too.
See my story “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness,” and all of my stories about backpacking in Oregon at The Big Outside.
Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Deep in one of my favorite wild lands, Washington’s sprawling and magnificent Glacier Peak Wilderness, Image Lake (also shown in lead photo at top of story) fully compensates a backpacker for the considerable effort required to reach it. Conifer trees and grassy wildflower meadows ring this lake tucked into a bowl high up a mountainside, giving it the appearance of being perched at the edge of the earth, with the icy and snowy slopes of Glacier Peak as its backdrop. Reached on the third evening of a five-day, 44-mile family backpacking trip, it’s one of the most surreal and unforgettable scenes I’ve ever come upon.
Quiet Lake, White Cloud Mountains
A longtime backcountry ranger in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) got my attention when he told me that Quiet Lake was his favorite in the White Clouds, which are part of both the SNRA and one of America’s newest wilderness areas. He wasn’t overhyping it. When I backpacked to Quiet Lake with my son, following a partly off-trail route that was moderately strenuous and not too difficult to navigate, we hit the summit of a nearly 11,000-foot peak with an amazing panorama of the White Clouds, traversed a barren, rocky basin with four alpine lakes, and pitched our tent by the shore of Quiet, below the soaring north face of 11,815-foot Castle Peak, highest in the White Clouds. And we didn’t see another person the entire time. If you need a bit of peace and quiet—not to mention breathtaking natural beauty—go here.
Get the right shelter for your trips. See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents”
and my expert tips in “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You.”
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