Tent Flap With A View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites
By Michael Lanza
An unforgettable campsite can define a backcountry trip. Sometimes that perfect spot where you spend a night forges the memory that remains the most vivid long after you’ve gone home. A photo of that camp can send recollections of the entire adventure rushing back to you—it does for me. I’ve been very fortunate to have pitched a tent in many great backcountry campsites over more than two decades of backpacking and trekking all over the U.S. and the world. I’ve boiled the list of my favorite spots down to these 25.
I update this list every year, and each time, it becomes more difficult. This year, I’m adding two spots where I camped in the past year: below the East Face of Mount Whitney, and on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Below my top 25 list you’ll find a second list of campsites that were previously in my top 25.
In a few cases, the photos from these places show the view a few steps from our tent, rather than the site itself. I share a brief anecdote with each photo because, for me, each campsite isn’t merely a beautiful scene: it is a story and a memory. Because that’s what camping in the wilderness is all about.
Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park, WA
We slogged up Sahale Arm into a cold, wind-driven rain, unable to see more than a hundred feet in any direction. But as my friend David Ports and I reached Sahale Glacier Camp (see lead photo at top of story), the rain and wind abated and the clouds dropped below us, giving us a view of the earth falling away into a bottomless abyss a few steps from our tent door. A mountain goat strolled past our camp.
Perched at the top of Sahale Arm and the toe of the Sahale Glacier, at 7,686 feet, the highest designated campsite in North Cascades National Park overlooks what appears to be a boundless, wind-whipped sea of sharpened peaks smothered in snow and ice, among them Johannesburg, Baker, Shuksan, Glacier Peak, and in the far distance, Mt. Rainier. See my Ask Me post about backpacking in North Cascades National Park for more photos and information on how to take this trip.
Beside Royal Arch, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Backpacking the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop, the most remote and arguably the most rugged and lonely established South Rim hike in the Big Ditch, three friends and I put in a monster first day to reach the campsite beside Royal Arch—and was it ever worth the effort. We descended Royal Arch Canyon, which involves slow, strenuous, and exposed scrambling in spots—but is also lush with hanging gardens growing along its vibrant creek, which plunges through several crystal-clear pools—until we came into view of the arch, the Grand Canyon’s largest natural bridge (it’s water carved, so technically a bridge, not an arch).
We passed beneath the tall, thick arch (which provided ample shelter during dinnertime rain showers) and walked just beyond it to a flat ledge more than large enough for our two tents, directly beneath a towering sandstone pinnacle. Just steps beyond our ledge loomed a vertical, 200-foot pour-off dropping into the lower section of Royal Arch Canyon—a reminder not to wander far from the tents after dark. Come morning, dawn light would set the red walls of that lower canyon ablaze. For the four of us, all longtime backcountry explorers, this was an all-time best campsite.
See my feature story about backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop, with lots of photos, a video, and information on how to pull off this trip, and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, AK
For one of the trips for my book about taking our kids on wilderness adventures in national parks facing threats from climate change, we took a five-day sea kayaking trip in Glacier Bay, where cliffs shoot straight up out of the sea and razor peaks smothered in ice and snow rise thousands of feet overhead. We watched bald eagles and other birds flying overhead, harbor seals popping up out of the water near our boats, Stellar sea lions honking and carrying on while sprawled on the rocks of South Marble Island, and brown bears roaming rocky beaches looking for food.
We spent two nights at this campsite near the mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet. From there, we kayaked up the inlet to within about a quarter-mile of the mile-wide snout of the Johns Hopkins Glacier; a thousand or more seals occupied floating icebergs or swam around the inlet. Throughout the evenings and mornings in camp, we listened to that massive glacier calve another bus-size chunk of itself into the sea every 20 or 30 minutes, with an explosive sound the native Tlingits called “white thunder.”
See my story, more photos, and a video about sea kayaking in Glacier Bay for information on how to pull off this trip.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
The Narrows, Zion National Park, UT
It was one of the most glaring omissions in my resume as a backpacker: I had never hiked The Narrows of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. (I actually had a permit to do it in October 2013, when Congress shut down the federal government, closing all the national parks and temporarily crushing my hopes of finally ticking off that classic hike.) Then an unexpected opportunity arose: I had a window for a four-day trip in early November and saw an unusually good forecast for southern Utah. I broached the idea of backpacking The Narrows to my friend, David Gordon, he leapt at the chance, and we got a last-minute permit for a very popular trip at a time of year when there are far fewer people either competing for a permit or dayhiking from the bottom.
I shot this photo and video of David at our campsite, Narrows no. 1, in early evening; the slot on the left side of the photo is The Narrows—we had emerged from that slot, hiking downstream, just an hour or so earlier.
Read my story about backpacking The Narrows of Zion National Park, with many more photos, a video of the trip, and tips on pulling it off yourself.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park, CA
It almost seems unfair to compare other places to mountain ranges like the Tetons, High Sierra, and North Cascades, or to the Grand Canyon; those four destinations dominate this list in part because I keep returning to them, but I think the photos speak for themselves. On a six-day, family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park, we camped at two alpine lakes that deserve placement on this list: Precipice Lake and Columbine Lake (below).
Precipice wasn’t even part of the planned itinerary; we intended to go beyond it, over Kaweah Gap, to camp in the Nine Lake basin. But when we reached Precipice in late afternoon on our third day, we decided within minutes to stop for the night. Cliffs of clean, white granite with black streaks ring much of the compact lake’s shoreline. The mouth of the outlet creek provides an excellent pool for a chilling dip. Granite ledges above the lake have flat areas for tents or to just lay out bags and sleep under the stars (as my 12-year-old son and I did). The evening alpenglow on the cliffs reflected in the lake, and on 12,040-foot Eagle Scout Peak towering above Precipice, put the icing on the cake.
Columbine Lake, Sequoia National Park, CA
Whichever direction you approach this lake from, you will pay for the privilege of a night here with significant toil. Filling a stone basin at nearly 11,000 feet, below the distinctive spire of Sawtooth Peak and an arc of snaggletoothed mountains, Columbine is reached either via a 600-foot hump up through dozens of switchbacks from Lost Canyon; or a much harder 1,200-foot scramble, sans a maintained trail, up a steep mountainside of sliding scree from Monarch Lakes to 11,630-foot Sawtooth Gap, where a primitive but better path leads down to Columbine. (We took the former and descended from Sawtooth Gap to Monarch Lakes, and were glad we were not carrying backpacks up that route.)
Once there, though, your effort is (mostly) forgotten. We explored the granite ledges on the north shore of the lake, where crevices and small bowls in the granite hold tiny pockets of water and you sometimes have to scramble on all fours over short, vertical walls. Alpenglow painted the peaks a salmon hue in the evening–of course–and sunrise cast an unbelievable pallet of orange, yellow, and reds onto a curlicue sculpture of clouds hovering just above one jagged ridge nearby. While not easy on the legs, Columbine Lake is very easy on the eyes.
See my story about this six-day backpacking trip, which included Precipice and Columbine lakes, with many more photos, a video, and information for planning this trip yourself.
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Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park, WY
I could rattle off a list of gorgeous campsites in the Tetons, a park I’ve visited somewhere between 15 and 20 times and never get tired of. But I decided to include just the two camping zones I consider the best places to bed down in the Tetons backcountry, that can be reached by trail: Death Canyon Shelf (above) and the North Fork of Cascade Canyon (below).
I’ve camped a few times in different spots on Death Canyon Shelf, a broad, three-mile-long bench at about 9,500 feet. With the earth dropping away abruptly into Death Canyon on one side, cliffs rising some 500 feet on the other side, and views across the jagged peaks and canyons of the Tetons—reaching all the way to the Grand Teton—there are few spots with such sweeping and dramatic panoramas. I’ve watched moose in Death Canyon through binoculars from the cliff tops and was awakened one night by a bull elk outside our tent. On my most recent night here, with my family and a couple of friends, we watched one spectacular sunset followed by an equally glorious sunrise.
After the Teton Crest Trail, hike the other nine of “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”
North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, WY
We backpacked over Paintbrush Divide, at about 10,700 feet, and descended through switchbacks into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, gaping at the view of the sheer north face of the Grand Teton rising several thousand feet above the deep, green trough of the canyon. I’ve hiked all over the Tetons, including over this pass a couple times before. This spot gives one of the best views on a trail in all of the Tetons.
Passing Lake Solitude, ringed by a horseshoe of cliffs, we hiked down into the North Fork camping zone and grabbed the first available campsite. The shot above is of the creek flowing a short distance from our tent, looking down canyon at the Grand. In the morning, we continued down the canyon, passing several more established campsites in the North Fork camping zone that would have easily made this list as well.
See my story about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, with more photos, for information on how to pull off this trip.
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