The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest
By Michael Lanza
Everyone remembers his or her first visit to the desert Southwest. The bizarre, vividly colored geology of southern Utah and Arizona ignites wildfires of the imagination that burn permanent impressions. I recall staring at rock formations sculpted in ways I’d never observed before and thinking, “How can this be?” And you’ll find very worthy dayhikes and roadside eye candy in classic parks like Grand Canyon, Zion, and Canyonlands. But leaving civilization for days to probe more deeply into those parks—and other canyon-country gems you may not know much about—opens invisible doors to experiences that amplify the feelings inspired by these mystical landscapes.
After a quarter-century of chasing the best backpacking trips in southern Utah and the Grand Canyon area, I’ve put together this list of what I submit are the 10 best.
The descriptions and photos below all link to stories at The Big Outside that have more images and information about these trips—including when to apply for a backcountry permit, which is coming up soon for many of them.
I’d love to read your thoughts about my list—and your suggestions for trips that belong on it. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
Hiking Across the Grand Canyon
Most multi-day hikes, including some of the best, feature stretches of hours at a time that are ordinary. Not the Grand Canyon. With huge physical relief and so little vegetation to obstruct views in this desert environment—except for forest at the South and North rims—there’s never a dull moment as you traverse a cross-section of a chasm stretching 277 miles long and averaging a mile deep and 10 miles across (as the crow flies—hiking distances on winding trails are much greater). It’s undoubtedly one of the most unique and spectacular treks in the world.
Although most trails here are quite rugged, the three so-called “corridor” trails, while strenuous, have better footing and moderate grades. The typically three-day hike south to north (one-way, can be done in either direction) via the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails is 21 miles with 4,780 feet of descent and 5,761 feet of ascent; via the Bright Angel and North Kaibab, it’s 23.5 miles with 4,380 feet of descent and 5,761 feet of ascent.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
The Narrows, Zion National Park
One of the most uniquely magnificent and coveted hikes in the National Park System, The Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion squeezes down to just 20 to 30 feet across in places, with sandstone walls that rise as much as a thousand feet tall. On this 16-mile, top-to-bottom hike—typically done in two days—you’ll walk in the shallow river most of the time, and marvel at the constantly changing canyon, and natural oddities like a waterfall pouring from cracks in the canyon’s sandstone wall, creating an oasis of greenery clinging to a redrock cliff.
Not surprisingly, this unrivaled adventure is among “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” and “My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever,” and our campsite in The Narrows graces my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
The Needles District, Canyonlands National Park
Stratified cliffs stretch for miles. Stone towers, with bulbous crowns bigger around than the column on which they sit, seem ever at the verge of toppling over. Multi-colored towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone looming 300 feet tall form a castle-like rampart at the entrance to Chesler Park. Erosional forces working over unfathomable gulfs of time formed this arid and tortured landscape; but it looks more like the work of giant children squeezing mud from their fists.
The Needles District of Canyonlands encompasses a high plateau split by canyons. A network of trails creates multiple options for short, relatively easy, but strikingly scenic backpacking trips (and long dayhikes) through The Needles.
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For much of the first three days of this five-day descent, you pass through the twisting narrows of Paria Canyon, where walls of searing, orange-red sandstone shoot up for hundreds of feet, so close together at times that a person can cross from one side to the other in a dozen strides. Sunshine often ignites the upper walls and reflects warm light downward, painting every wave of rock in a subtly different hue. You’re often walking in the shallow river, and pockets of quicksand add an adventurous element to this trek.
The 38-mile hike down Paria Canyon has become famous among backpackers for its towering walls painted wildly with desert varnish, massive red rock amphitheaters and arches, hanging gardens where the few springs in the canyon gush from rock, and sandy benches for camping, shaded by cottonwood trees. It’s done alone or combined with its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch—which gets so tight that you have to take off your pack and squeeze through sideways.
See my story “The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon.”
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Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
On a two-family, roughly 15-mile backpacking trip through Coyote Gulch, we hiked across ancient, petrified dunes; squeezed through a less-than-shoulder-width, 100-foot-long slot called Crack-in-the-Wall (which was fun and not as hard as it sounds); and stood at a cliff top overlooking a desert landscape of redrock towers and cliffs, including Stevens Arch, measuring some 220 feet across and 160 feet tall. And that was just in the first hour.
One of the Southwest’s easier backpacking trips—because of its short distance, lack of a narrows creating flash-flood potential, and the presence of a perennial stream (read: you don’t have to carry several pounds of water), Coyote Gulch features a natural bridge, two of the region’s most distinctive natural arches, and one deeply overhanging wall some 200 feet tall with amazing echo acoustics. Coyote’s sheer walls at times loom close and you walk in the creek; elsewhere, the upper canyon walls spread a quarter-mile apart and rise up to 900 feet overhead. In a sense, Coyote delivers a complete—and beginner-friendly—canyon-hiking experience.
The right backpack makes all of your trips easier. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best thru-hiking packs.
Spring Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park
For most of the trips in this article, competition for a backcountry permit is stiff. But not in Capitol Reef. In fact, the park doesn’t accept permit reservations; you just show up, get a free permit, and set out in a park with few backpackers and where the scenery compares with any other park in Utah’s canyon country. On a two- to three-day, relatively easy hike into Spring Canyon via Chimney Rock Canyon, you hike a fairly broad canyon where burnt red and orange walls rise several hundred feet tall, passing slender spires and a narrow gorge with walls sculpted in dramatic, smooth curves.
It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where it meets the Fremont River. While some hikers knock it off in a day, get the full experience by spending a night below Spring’s walls, looking up at a sky riddled with stars. At the canyon’s mouth, you have to ford the river to reach UT 24 and the trailhead parking lot, and it can be too fast and deep to ford safely. Alternatively, hike out-and-back from Chimney Rock Trailhead, camping somewhere near the spring in Spring Canyon, and exploring farther down canyon from your camp.
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The Grand Canyon’s Tonto Plateau
As I wrote above, backpacking the corridor trails across the Grand Canyon ranks among the world’s great treks; grab a permit for it whenever you can, because those campsites are in high demand. But you may fail to snare that permit—some three-fourths of applicants are denied. For a Plan B, I recommend either of two hikes that—while not as diverse as the trans-GC hike—partly overlap it, deliver comparable scenery, and aren’t as hard: the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, or the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead. (Look at a map and you’ll see you can combine them or partly overlap the two.)
Both feature sublime campsites, stretches of flatter hiking along the Tonto Trail with views reaching from the Colorado River to the South and North rims, and crossings of deep side canyons with flaming-red walls shooting straight up hundreds of feet. Both also have some reliable water sources—a bonus in the Grand Canyon. And they don’t entail as much elevation gain and loss because you don’t have to drop all the way to the river.
See my stories “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail,” and “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” and all of my stories about South Rim backpacking trips and Ask Me posts about the Grand Canyon.
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Other Southwestern parks have natural arches, spires, and ancient cliff dwellings, but none really matches Zion’s grandeur: the giant walls of white and blood-red rock, with striations rippling across vast spans of sandstone. While the park is best known for the 2,000-foot-tall cliffs of Zion Canyon and the justifiably popular dayhike up Angels Landing (which I consider one of the best dayhikes in the entire National Park System), backpacking a nearly 50-mile, north-south traverse takes you on a grand tour of this flagship park. And it can be broken into sections for shorter, beginner-friendly trips.
From Lee Pass Trailhead in the Kolob Canyons, where burgundy cliffs rise above verdantly green stream bottoms, you’ll pass between the black-streaked, red walls of Hop Valley, and follow the West Rim Trail—considered by some Zion aficionados the park’s best—high above a maze of deep, white-walled canyons. After descending a sidewalk-wide footpath blasted out of cliffs, the traverse passes Angels Landing—a must-do side trip—before crossing Zion Canyon and taking the East Rim Trail past Weeping Rock, through Echo Canyon, and past the white beehive cliffs of the park’s east side.
See all of my stories about Zion National Park, including “Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery,” “Mid-Life Crisis: Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion in a Day,” and “Ask Me: What’s Your Favorite Backpacking Trip in Zion National Park?”
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Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon’s very rugged and infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop stands out even in a park where just about any hike would make just about anyone’s top 10 list. Going from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up, it has just about every characteristic 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—including what must be one of the best in the entire Big Ditch, below Royal Arch itself (one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites).
But this hike isn’t for backpackers whose image of their own skills, experience, and nerve doesn’t sync with reality. The park’s website says it is “considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side hikes” and it “offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon”—including difficult, off-trail scrambling and one mandatory, 20-foot rappel. That said, if you’re ready for this caliber of adventure, I think you’ll consider it one of your best backpacking trips ever (as it is one of mine).
Accessorize wisely. See my “Review: 21 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
The Beehive Traverse, Capitol Reef
This one you won’t likely be able to pull off without a guide—unless you have the time to spend a couple of decades exploring the labyrinthine slots, sandstone towers, and twisting canyons of Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold. That’s what my friend, Steve Howe, of Redrock Adventure Guides (and a former field editor colleague of mine at Backpacker magazine) did in creating what he calls the Beehive Traverse. A mostly off-trail hike from Grand Wash to Capitol Gorge, it zigzags a very circuitous 17 miles through canyons, up and down steep scree and slickrock, and over passes—a no-man’s land of topography so violently tortured and wildly convoluted it boggles the mind.
Steve calls it the Beehive Traverse, for the towers of rippled sandstone that populate this landscape. When a friend and I trekked it (using Steve’s GPS coordinates), within our first hour out there, we had taken our first wrong turn, seen our first bighorn sheep, and I had nearly killed my friend by dislodging a loose boulder. (We were briefly off-route at the time.) Steve told me right before I did it that it’s “just as nice as the John Muir Trail”—the 211-mile footpath through the High Sierra often called “America’s most beautiful trail.” I don’t think I could disagree.
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