The 12 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest

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 12 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


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 also “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First,” my expert e-books 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.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.

A backpacker standing at Ooh-Ah Point on the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail.
Todd Arndt standing at Ooh-Ah Point on the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail. Click photo for my e-guide to “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

Rim to Rim Across the Grand Canyon

Bright Angel Creek along the Grand Canyon's North Kaibab Trail.
Bright Angel Creek along the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail.

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-book to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-book to dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim.

A backpacker on day two in The Narrows of Zion National Park.
David Gordon backpacking on day two in The Narrows, Zion National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
A backpacker in the upper section of Zion's Narrows.
David Gordon backpacking on day one in Zion’s Narrows.

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-book “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”

Backpackers in Squaw Canyon, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.
Backpackers in Squaw Canyon, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.
Along the Chesler Park Trail.
My son, Nate, on the Chesler Park Trail.

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.

See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.”

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Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.
Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.

Paria Canyon

The Paria Canyon narrows.
The Paria Canyon narrows.

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.”

Want my help planning any trip on this list?
Click here for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.

A backpacker above Crack-in-the-Wall, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.
A backpacker above Crack-in-the-Wall, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

A waterfall in Coyote Gulch.
A waterfall in Coyote Gulch.

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.

See my story “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon.”

Coyote Gulch is one of “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”

A backpacker on the Tonto Trail above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton on the Tonto Trail above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Click on the photo to get my e-guide to this trip.

The Grand Canyon’s ‘Best Backpacking Trip’

Wildflowers along the Grand Canyon's Escalante Route.
Wildflowers along the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route.

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?

Click here now for my expert e-book to the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.

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).

See my story “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and all all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.

Score a popular permit using my
10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

Backpackers in Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona.
Backpackers in Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona.

Aravaipa Canyon

A backpacker hiking into Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon.
Todd Arndt backpacking into Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon from the West Trailhead.

Just 12 miles long from its west trailhead to its east one, southern Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon captures enough water flowing out of the Galiuro Mountains to sustain a vibrant, perennial stream and an oddity in the Grand Canyon state: a desert oasis, where cottonwood trees taller and more abundant than you’ll see in most Southwest canyons line both creek banks.

The lush greenery contrasts starkly against redrock walls that rise as much as 700 feet above the creek. But high up the canyon walls and the often-dry side canyons, the environment shifts abruptly to that of the surrounding, vast Sonoran Desert, with saguaro occupying the numerous cliff ledges like thousands of spectators in a strangely steep-sided, long, narrow, and winding stadium.

With no maintained trail in the canyon, backpackers follow whatever user trails get beaten into the sandy ground—or, more often than not hike directly in Aravaipa Creek, splashing through water that ranges from not too cold to chilly and rarely up to calf-deep. The max stay permitted is two nights and most backpackers set up a base camp and dayhike to explore this unique and truly lovely canyon.

See my story “Backpacking the Desert Oasis of Aravaipa Canyon.”

On the same Southwest trip that we backpacked in Aravaipa Canyon in early April, three of us from that group also backpacked one of the finest three-day sections of the Arizona Trail, Passage 16, during a wildflower superbloom. See my story about that surprisingly beautiful hike.

Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips
and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

 

A family backpacking Chimney Rock Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.
My family backpacking Chimney Rock Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

Spring Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park

My daughter, Alex, in Spring Canyon.
My daughter, Alex, in Spring Canyon.

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

Plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-books.
Click here now to learn more.

A hiker on the West Rim Trail above Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.
David Ports hiking the West Rim Trail above Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

Traversing Zion National Park

La Verkin Creek in Zion National Park.
La Verkin Creek in 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.

See all of my stories about Zion National Park, including “Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery” and “Mid-Life Crisis: Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion in a Day.”

The right backpack makes all of your trips easier.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight packs.

A backpacker along the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon's Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking along the Colorado River on the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop.

Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, Grand Canyon

Deer Creek Falls in the Grand Canyon.
Deer Creek Falls in the 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.”

 

A backpacker hiking above Death Hollow on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Todd Arndt backpacking above Death Hollow on the Boulder Mail Trail in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Death Hollow Loop, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Backpackers hiking down Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
David Gordon and Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

From crossing a high, sand and slickrock plateau on the Boulder Mail Trail, to descending the sometimes narrow and always dramatic canyon of Death Hollow, and finally ascending the upper canyon of the Escalante River between soaring, overhanging walls of red, brown, and cream-colored rock painted with desert varnish, the 22-mile Death Hollow Loop northeast of the town of Escalante delivers a primer on the rugged and adventurous character of a host of desert Southwest landscapes.

The Boulder Mail Trail’s circuitous route over waves of rippling Navajo Sandstone repeatedly rises and falls steeply—but nothing compares to the overlook of Death Hollow just before the trail plunges into it. Death Hollow poses flash-flood risk and, in the best conditions, involves walking in cold water ranging from below the ankles to mid-thigh or deeper—when you successfully skirt the deepest pools—with challenging obstacles and possibly wind blowing up or down the canyon to compound the water’s chill. Then there’s the poison ivy, which is, well, hard to exaggerate about.

But hit this route in good weather and safe water levels and you will be blown away by it.

See my story “Backpacking Utah’s Mind-Blowing Death Hollow Loop.”

I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking and hiking trips.
Want my help with yours? Click here now.

 

A backpacker at the Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm at the Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

The Maze District, Canyonlands National Park

Hikers on the Pete's Mesa Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm hiking the Pete’s Mesa Route in 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.”.

See all stories about hiking and backpacking in Southern Utah and national park adventures at The Big Outside.

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.”

Don’t miss any stories at The Big Outside. Join now and get a free e-book!

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47 thoughts on “The 12 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest”

  1. Hello
    Thanks so much for these awesome pics and insight. What State is all of this in?

    I want to see some or all of this but am presently only average fitness. I will be in West Virginia and can fly to another state to pick up the guided tour. Do you have a 2-5 day hike tour?

    I am not used to camping but I could spend a nite or two in a lodge between seeing waterfalls and wide expanse.

    Travelling into WV in mid August. I want to see waterfalls. Never seen them before.

    How can you help me plan?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Sheila,

      Read the short overviews of each trip and click on the links to the full stories about each one, but all of these trips are in either Utah or Arizona.

      To clarify, I don’t offer guide services or hiking tours but I do offer Custom Trip Planning, where I’ll help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. You can email me at michael@thebigoutside.com with any questions you have about that.

      Thanks.

      Reply
  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for this wonderful article! A shot in the dark that you will respond prior to us leaving, but my partner and I are looking into a 2 or 3 night backpack trip in SE UTAH. We’re driving from Taos and will be having a dog with us. I am a little overwhelmed with all of the options in Utah, and with some requiring permits! Do you have any (last minute) dog on a leash friendly backpack trips in mind for late May?

    Katie

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the enjoyable reads about the special places outside. I have been fortunate enough to visit a few of the serene southwestern places you talk about, mostly in my younger years. There are obviously too many to mention in one article, but your list is wonderful. The countless number off the beaten path provide a special beauty and solitude. One of my favorites from years ago with a friend was a 3-nighter from Bullet Canyon to Kane Gulch in the Grand Gulch Primitive Area.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the best Southwest backpacking trips, James. I also backpacked Bullet Canyon to Kane Gulch some years ago and would like to return to it to get a fresh experience and photos so I can write about it. As you know but to inform other readers, those canyons are tributaries of Grand Gulch in southeastern Utah’s Cedar Mesa region, known for its remoteness and abundance of ancient rock art and ruins.

      Reply
  4. While I am not doing much backpacking anymore. I turned 65 this year… And the ground had gotten very hard and low… This is a great list of hikes. I have done all three in the canyon and you are right… Nothing like it. I am hoping to do some hiking in southern Utah soon. Thanks for the adventures!

    Reply
  5. Good afternoon

    I’m looking for two superb dayhikes anywhere in the Southwest for the last week in April. I’m about spoiled from the Grand Canyon type of hike but I’m hoping that there are other options as well.

    Any suggestions?!

    Thank you so much!

    Reply
  6. Beautiful descriptions, are any of these hikes safe to hike this Thursday or Friday? We’ve had a quick change of plans. Thank you for you time, we’re headed there shortly and are from out of country, experienced hikers with our gear 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Lianna,

      Well, that’s a broad question, but I’d say you could at least consider any of these hikes that don’t involve hiking in water and that are accessible by road at this time of year, such as hikes off the Grand Canyon’s South Rim or in Canyonlands Needles District. But those parks require permits so you’ll be trying for a first-come permit, which can be hard to get. Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef is a beautiful hike that’s easy to get a permit for: Show up at the visitor center and you’ll walk out with a permit.

      Good luck.

      Reply
  7. Wow.

    This is Mother Nature: at it’s finest.

    This is beautiful stuff.

    It’s wonderful family time together:

    Exploring, discovering, experiencing the natural terrain, the natural environment: of our beautiful planet earth.

    Thanks for sharing: your incredible stories.

    Ellie

    Reply
    • And actually the Kanab Creek hike in Kanab Canyon was spectacular and perhaps deserves a place as well. :). Having done both Kanab Creek and Paria Canyon, I would rate Kanab Creek as a little better overall.

      Reply
  8. Hi Michael, your insight is fantastic and very helpful. I am looking for a 2 to 3 night backpacking hike for two relatively experienced hikers a few hours’ drive from Las Vegas in MID-MARCH. I know it isn’t the best time of the year, but any suggestions?

    Many thanks,
    Ron

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ron. Mid-March is still winter in much of the Southwest. Still, while you could have sub-freezing temps at night, many trails will be snow-free and you’d probably have moderate daytime temps.

      Two shorter trips that can be made into two-night hikes and don’t require a permit reservation are Coyote Gulch and Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park, both of which I’ve backpacked in late March, when it was quite comfortable. You’d have to be prepared for hiking in shallow, very cold water in Coyote Gulch.

      You’re late to apply for a permit for the trips on this list that require one, but if you’re lucky—and some permits are still available because it’s so early in the season—I have backpacked The Maze District in Canyonlands in early March, when we had freezing nights, pleasant days, and dry trails. I’ve also hiked in The Needles District of Canyonlands in late March, when it was quite comfortable.

      There are certainly three- to four-day trips off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that are accessible in mid-March. Although you would have to be prepared for cold weather and likely snow and ice at the rim, trails will likely be dry in the middle and inner canyon. There may not be permits available to reserve, but again, given the lower demand in mid-March, you could get lucky.

      See my my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

      Thanks for the question and good luck!

      Reply
  9. So glad I found your site. The hike descriptions have me dreaming. I’m in the great PNW, we’ve got some good ones, too.

    I’ll be signing up.

    Olyrich

    Reply
  10. Hi Michael – this site is amazing. Thank you! One of the commenters below asked about December trips and I have a similar question. A friend and I are looking to meet in Arizona and do a 3-4 day trip over the Dec 17-18 weekend. Do you have any recommendations? I saw you recommended Aravaipa canyon but the permits are all taken for that period… Would love any wisdom you have as we’re not from there and it’s hard to get good intel that’s season-specific! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Justin,

      Thanks for that question and your nice words about my blog. Yes, popular permits like Aravaipa Canyon are hard to get without applying as early as they accept them for specific dates, especially for trips where you can expect good weather. Given the normal temps and possible wet weather or snow and short days of December, I would avoid any Southwest canyons that are particularly narrow, where you might be walking in cold water and get no sun.

      The first place that comes to mind is the Grand Canyon, where demand for permits drops dramatically from December through February, so it’s not hard to reserve one last-minute. It will be cold and possibly snowy at the South Rim—and you won’t be able to access trailheads at the North Rim—but you’ll probably find moderate temps once down in the canyon. You’d still have to prepare for chilly nights and very short days.

      See my e-guides to backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon and otrher parks. And I can help you plan a last-minute trip, suggesting a route that would be ideal for what you want at that time of year. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.

      Thanks for the comment and keep in touch.

      Reply
  11. What a fantastic list! I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a one or two night backpacking trip from Chimney Rock and down into Spring Canyon. Would I be able to filter the water in there or would I need to carry all my water? I’ve done some of this as a day hike and want to explore more.

    Reply
  12. Hey Michael,

    Awesome article, thanks! Do you have suggestions for which of the above and/or any other trips offer favorable weather conditions this time of year? My wife and I have extended time off over the holidays and a 3-7 day backpacking trip would be perfect!

    Could also be a great idea for a future article as well…maybe Top 10 Winter Backpacking Trips or something similar. I know I feel cooped up this time of year and some guidance from a pro would be appreciated.

    Thanks for your help!

    Reply
    • Thanks Michael, and always good to hear from you. December is a difficult time of year to backpack in much of the Southwest, because many places, including many in this article, are at high elevations and getting wintry weather. The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is accessible, but upper sections of trail are often snow-covered at this time of year, requiring traction devices. In fact, the South Rim just received over 1.5 feet of snow, shutting down roads for a while. Narrow canyons like Paria and Zion’s Narrows would be very cold, even if water levels were low enough and there wasn’t a threat of flash flood, which is possible during and right after a storm.

      The short days only compound the challenges of storms and freezing temps. For many of the trips highlighted in this article, I’d recommend waiting until February or early spring.

      But you could try farther south in Arizona, where it’ll usually be a bit warmer. I will tell you that I recently heard from a friend about a place I’ve added to my own bucket list, the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in southern Arizona, between Tucson and Phoenix. It looks beautiful in photos, and a friend who recently backpacked there said it’s fabulous and was warm in early November. I know it’s under BLM management, a permit reservation is needed, and they permit only 20 people/day. There are no designated trails, campsites, signs, or facilities within the wilderness. You’re often hiking in shallow water, on sand, gravel, and cobblestones. It’s just 12 miles long but there are apparently many side canyons to explore, so I believe many people base camp and dayhike. I hope to get there eventually.

      Good luck in your plans. Keep in touch.

      Reply
  13. Hi! I’m really interested in doing the 50-mile, north-south traverse of Zion. When are the best times of year to do this backpacking trip? Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Hi Lily, thanks for asking a good question. The prime seasons for all of these trips are spring and fall. That said, sections of some of these hikes, including parts of the Zion traverse, are at higher elevations that may not be safe to attempt in spring until snow and ice melt out in May. Water also tends to be more abundant on some of these hikes in spring than in fall. Check out the stories linked in each trip description above for much more detail on planning each of them.

      Reply
  14. We love your site– found it full of great tips when we planned our trip to Kings Canyon/Sequoia last summer. We’re aiming for the desert southwest this fall, and I’m so glad to see your entries — lots of reading ahead for me this weekend. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences & expertise.

    Reply
    • Hey Mitch,

      That’s a great list. I’ve had Deer-Kanab and Nankoweap on my to-do list for a while, gotta get over there. I hadn’t heard of the Galiuro Mountains, so you’ve added something to my list! Thanks for the ideas.

      Reply
  15. Great suggestion, Mitch. That hike has been on my to-do list for a while. It’s a good fall hike, of course, because North Rim trailheads aren’t accessible until late spring, when the inner canyon is getting too hot for backpacking. I hope to be writing about that hike before long.

    Reply
  16. Great list Michael! I suggest Grand Canyon’s Deer Creek/Kanab Creek loop, one of my all-time favorite backpacks. You start out descending the Bill Hall Trail to Upper Tapeats Campground and Thunder River. Then swing over to the Patio and Deer Falls along the Colorado River by way of Surprise Valley. 7 grueling miles ensue along the Colorado to Kanab Creek, before hiking up this drainage with its many wonders to the rim via the Sowats Trail.

    Reply