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.
And nothing beats taking a swim in a gorgeous backcountry lake.
I’ve come across quite a few wonderful backcountry lakes over more than three decades of exploring wilderness—including about 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. 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. Much of this story is free for anyone to read, but reading the entire story requires a paid subscription. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a trip to any of these lakes.
If you know some gorgeous lakes that are not on my list, please suggest them in the comments section below this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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 stories “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” and “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” plus my e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.”
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Helen Lake, John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park
In the wake of a violent thunderstorm, we crossed 11,955-foot Muir Pass on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park in early evening on the eighth day of a nine-day, 130-mile hike through the High Sierra. Finding what seemed the only two patches of rock-free ground, we pitched our tents above Helen Lake, at around 11,600 feet. The next morning, the rising sun ignited the peaks across Helen Lake, the scene captured in razor-sharp reflections in the lake and a tiny tarn near our camp—burning that almost accidental camp above Helen Lake into memory for all three of us.
See my story about that trip, “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes.”
Tarn Along the Highline Trail, Wind River Range
Searching for a suitable campsite along the Highline Trail late one afternoon on a five-day, roughly 43-mile loop hike in the Winds, my wife, a friend, and I reached an unnamed, small tarn—and the view stopped us in our tracks. From our camp a few hundred feet off-trail beyond the tarn, we overlooked grassy meadows littered with glacial-erratic boulders that sloped down to another lake. Beyond that, 12,119-foot Sky Pilot Peak and 12,224-foot Mount Oeneis towered over the valley. I shot this photo as we hit the trail the next morning.
See “Backpacking Through a Lonely Corner of the Wind River Range” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
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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 (also shown in lead photo at top of story) 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 “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit,” “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” and “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths,” and my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” which describes a route that includes Alice Lake.
After the Sawtooths, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
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.
Lake Solitude, Grand Teton National Park
Hiking in the chilly, early-morning shade of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, we looked up to see a huge bull moose sauntering through a meadow speckled with wildflowers, maybe a hundred yards from us. Minutes later, thanks to our early departure from camp, we reached the rocky shoreline of at Lake Solitude—the first people there that morning, enjoying a true period of “solitude” at this spot that’s enormously popular with dayhikers. In the calm morning air, the lake lay absolutely still, mirroring in sharp detail a cirque of cliffs, rocky mountainsides, and lingering patches of old snow.
See my story about my most recent trip in the Tetons, “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” my stories “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail” and “American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park.
Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and
the best short backpacking trip there.
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.
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Overland Lake, Ruby Crest Trail
Near the end of my family’s second day of a four-day, approximately 36-mile traverse of Nevada’s underappreciated Ruby Crest Trail, a nearly 2,000-foot uphill slog landed us at a pass at about 10,200 feet. Almost 1,000 feet below us, a stone bowl held Overland Lake like a pair of cupped hands. Beyond it, the backbone of the Ruby Mountains stretched for many miles—exciting us over the alpine walk that awaited us. We descended into that bowl to make camp on a rock ledge jutting into one corner of the lake, at around 9,400 feet. The Ruby Crest Trail cuts a snaking route along the spine of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, a north-south range of granite-rimmed lake basins and arid valleys carved by ancient glaciers. Overlooking this hike would be your loss.
See my story “Backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail—A Diamond in the Rough.”
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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.
Ready for a better backpack? See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight backpacks.
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 backpacking the John Muir Trail.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? I have 25.
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
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,” and “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite” (including May Lake and Mount Hoffmann) at The Big Outside.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
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.
Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips”
and this menu of all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside.
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 “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents”
and my expert tips in “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You.”
Minaret Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The relentlessly steep trail brought us to stunning Iceberg Lake at almost 9,800 feet and continued, even more strenuously, upward over talus and scree to Cecile Lake, at 10,260 feet at the feet of the 11,000- and 12,000-foot High Sierra spires known as the Minarets, lined up like chipped and broken bowling pins. With the “trail” terminating there, we found our way across more talus and down a steep gully to Minaret Lake—arguably the prettiest among several lakes we’d already seen that day. We found a spot for our tents amid conifer trees a short walk from the lakeshore and enjoyed a sunset and sunrise that ranked among the best of several great ones on that trip.
See my story about that trip, “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes.”
Start out right. See “8 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners”
and “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”
Ouzel Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Tucked into the ponderosa pine forest at around 10,000 feet, in the park’s Wild Basin area, Ouzel is reached on a moderate hike of less than five miles and 1,500 vertical from the Wild Basin Trailhead. Although it gets some dayhikers, you can have a protected campsite in the trees there all to yourself, as my family did on a three-day, early-September backpacking trip. My kids, then 10 and seven, played and fished for hours in the shallow waters near our camp and the lake’s outlet creek.
Don’t let red tape foil your plans.
See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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.
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Peak Lake, Wind River Range
As I’ve written elsewhere at this blog, take a long walk in the Winds and you can hardly swing an extended tent pole without hitting a lake or tarn. I have now backpacked past Peak Lake on separate 41-mile and 43-mile loop hikes in the Winds (which overlapped by just several miles of trail that did not grow dull on the return visit). Shimmering at the bottom of a tiny bowl, surrounded by peaks resembling giant incisors, Peak Lake can be reached from a few different directions—none of them short walks, which helps keep this jaw-dropping little basin in the Winds relatively quiet. Both times I’ve walked past it, the only company I had was my two companions.
See my stories “Backpacking Through a Lonely Corner of the Wind River Range” and “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
Thousand Island Lake, John Muir Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Thru-hiking southbound on the John Muir Trail, among the first of many moments that signal how this trek seems to keep getting better and better is when you descend toward Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Yosemite—a pretty impressive place in its own right—now lies miles behind you. Banner Peak, scraping the sky at nearly 13,000 feet, has been in sight for some miles and looming ever larger. Then you catch your first glimpse of the lake, speckled with islets, and it takes your breath away.
Remind yourself that much more of this kind of stuff still awaits you.
See my stories “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes.”
And see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your JMT thru-hike—as I’ve helped numerous other readers.
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