By Michael Lanza
We all love the majesty of mountains. But the vividly colored, sometimes bizarre, occasionally incomprehensible geology of the Southwest canyon country enchants and inspires us in ways that words can only begin to describe. And while you will find very worthy dayhikes and even roadside eye candy in classic parks like Grand Canyon, Zion, and Canyonlands, you really have to put on a backpack and probe more deeply into those parks—and other canyon-country gems you may not know much about—to get a full sense of the scale, details, and hidden mysteries of these mystical landscapes.
Drawing from three decades of chasing the best backpacking trips in the Southwest—including 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—I’ve put together this list of my picks for the 10 very best multi-day hikes in canyon country, from its acknowledged gems to trips you may not have heard of. While I’ve numbered the trips in a specific order, I don’t intend that as a quality ranking. They all deserve five stars.
The descriptions and photos below all link to stories at The Big Outside that have more images and information about these trips (most of which require a paid subscription to read in full)—including detailed tips on planning each one yourself and when to apply for a backcountry permit, which is generally months in advance of a spring or fall trip.
See my expert e-guides to some of the trips described below and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these adventures, variations of them, or any trip you read about at The Big Outside.
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. I try to respond to all comments.
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Rim to Rim 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 brief stretches of 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—and some routes on the map are not even maintained—the three so-called “corridor” trails, while strenuous, are maintained, don’t present the kind of scary exposure or difficult scrambling found on other trails, and have more frequent water availability. The typically three-day hike crossing from rim to rim (one-way, can be done in either direction) via the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails is 21 miles with over 10,600 feet of cumulative ascent and descent; via the Bright Angel and North Kaibab, it’s 23.5 miles with over 10,100 feet of cumulative ascent and descent.
See my stories “Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day,” “A Grand Ambition, or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all stories about South Rim backpacking trips at The Big Outside.
Do this trip smartly. Get my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
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 squeeze down to the width of a hobbit’s living room in places, with walls of golden, crimson, and cream-colored sandstone 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 see very little direct sunlight, marveling at the constantly changing canyon and natural oddities like a waterfall pouring from cracks in solid rock, creating a hanging garden.
Enormously popular, the lower end of the Narrows teems with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dayhikers on hot days of late spring through early fall, when the river is warm and low. Many of those people don’t walk more than a mile or two upriver, while some go as far as Big Spring, at mile five, the farthest point dayhikers can venture without a wilderness permit. The hauntingly quiet upper Narrows can feel remarkably lonely.
Not surprisingly, this unrivaled adventure ranks among “America’s Top 10 Best 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.”
Click here now to get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to 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 candlesticks of Cedar Mesa sandstone, in more hues than Crayola has yet replicated, loom 300 feet tall, forming castle-like ramparts.
Trails marked by zigzagging lines of stone cairns lead across waves of slickrock slabs, up narrow water runnels and calf-pumping ramps. In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, trails ignore the axiom of Euclidian geometry that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Hikers there navigate a maze without walls.
The Needles District encompasses a high plateau split by canyons. 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. That network of trails creates multiple options for short, relatively easy, but strikingly scenic backpacking trips and 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.”
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
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.
Check out another Southwest canyon hike very similar to Coyote Gulch in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon.
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The Grand Canyon’s ‘Best Backpacking Trip’
Whoa, you’re thinking—the “best backpacking trip in the entire Grand Canyon??” That was my initial reaction when a longtime backcountry ranger in the canyon whom I know, who’s hiked every mile of trail in the park, described this 74-mile route from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Lipan Point to me using those words. I mean, every hike in this place is amazing, right?
Then I backpacked it and found myself agreeing with him.
Besides the fact that the South Kaibab is one of the absolute best hikes in the entire National Park System, this route—which has shorter alternatives—follows one of the of the prettiest and most adventurous “trails” (if it can be called that) in the canyon, the Escalante Route, and incorporates the little-traveled and beautiful Beamer Trail, as well as another rim-to-river footpath, the Tanner Trail.
There’s some tricky route-finding and exposed scrambling, and water sources are sporadic—this high-level adventure is better for experienced and fit backpackers, ideally with a previous GC or other Southwest backpacking trips under their belts.
But you’ll enjoy some of the best backcountry campsites you’ve ever spent a night in, including beaches on the Colorado River (with the prospect of mooching real food from a river party).
Click here now for my expert e-guide to the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.
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.
See my story “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef,” and all stories about Capitol Reef National Park at The Big Outside
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Traversing Zion National Park
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.
The right backpack makes all of your trips easier.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight packs.
Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Grand Canyon
Yes, this top-10 list has three hikes in the Big Ditch—and it could justifiably have more. There is no place like the Grand Canyon, period. But of all the backpacking trips I have taken there, the most unique, varied, and magical just may be this rugged and remote, 25-mile loop off the North Rim.
Long on the radar of in-the-know backpackers and river-rafting parties taking side hikes, the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop has an unusual abundance of a rare element in much of the canyon: water.
The two perennial creeks and one river (not counting the Colorado River, which this hike follows for a few miles) pour over some of the Grand Canyon’s loveliest waterfalls (see lead photo at top of story), course through sculpted narrows, and nurture oases of trees and vegetation.
Descending a vertical mile to the Colorado River and then climbing back up again, on often-rugged trails, with seasons limited by road access and heat often challenging to put it mildly, this hike is no walk in the park—which is why many backpackers take four days or more to complete it. But it packs in all the qualities you go to the Grand Canyon for.
See my feature story “Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop,” “8 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” and all all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
The Maze District, Canyonlands National Park
Descending the trail off Maze Overlook, we followed a wildly circuitous trail across slickrock, marked by cairns but otherwise unobvious and not visible on the ground, winding below redrock cliffs and towers, past mounds of shattered boulders resembling ancient ruins, and along the sloping rims of giant bowls of rippled stone. In several spots, we removed and lowered our packs to scramble through tight crevices or downclimb a ladder of shallow footsteps chiseled into a sandstone cliff face.
That was on the second morning of our five-day backpacking trip into the Maze—and it came after we had lingered long over the panorama at the brink of the white cliffs of Maze Overlook, above the vast, chaotic sweep of sandstone fins, towers, and canyons that could only be called the Maze. A very rugged, remote, and hard-to-reach corner of the Southwest, with few water sources that can dry up seasonally, the Maze is undoubtedly one of the hardest trips on this list—for many reasons.
But the adventurous character of its routes, jaw-dropping vistas and canyons, ancient pictographs, and deep solitude make it a holy grail for serious Southwest explorers.
See my story “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze.”.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”