By Michael Lanza
Olympic, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Canyonlands, Sequoia, Great Smoky Mountains. To backpackers, these names read like a list of America’s greatest cathedrals in nature—and no surprise, because these parks harbor some of the most scenic wilderness trails in the country. Hike any of them and it will earn a spot on your personal top-10 list. Knock off every trip on this list and you will experience some of the finest landscapes not only in the nation, but on the planet.
Over the past three decades, many of those years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog, I’ve had the good fortune of backpacking dozens of trips in our national parks—and multiple trips in the most-beloved parks. Thousands of miles later, this list represents my picks for the very best multi-day hikes you will find in America’s national parks.
Ready to be blown away? Read on and discover your next unforgettable trip.
Remember that all of these parks have permit systems that often require applying for a reservation months in advance; find the smartest strategies for navigating that application process in my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Please share your thoughts on my list and offer your own suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments and answer any questions.
The Wild Olympic Coast
Distance: 17.5 miles, 2 to 3 days
Why It’s Unique: Sea stacks, giant trees, beach campsites, exciting rope ladders, abundant sea life.
Backpacking the 17.5-mile southern stretch of Olympic National Park’s 73-mile-long wilderness coastline, you will walk in the shadow of scores of sea stacks rising up to 200 feet out of the ocean and giant trees in one of Earth’s largest virgin temperature rainforests. You will see tide pools and boulders teeming with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones while hiking along the beach, traverse surprisingly rugged and muddy overland trails, and scale rope ladders dangling down eroding headlands.
You also just may spot seals, sea otters, and whales. A fun, beginner- and family-friendly trip, especially with school-age kids, it’s also less crowded than the more popular northern stretch of the Olympic coast and a relatively easier permit to obtain.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
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Grand Canyon Traverse
Distance: 21 to 23.5 miles, 2 to 3 days
Why It’s Unique: Incomparable canyon vistas, geology older than life on Earth, unforgettable campsites, desert oases and wildflowers.
Backpacking across the Grand Canyon via either of two possible routes on the three main “corridor” trails—the South Kaibab or Bright Angel with the North Kaibab—is truly a hike like no other in the world. From long vistas spanning the Grand Canyon’s staggering vastness of towering rock formations and almost 40 geologic layers, to immersion in tributary canyons with soaring walls and waterfalls, your perspective constantly changes. Every backpacker should take this trek or other multi-day hikes in the Big Ditch.
While there are no “easy” trips that descend into the Grand Canyon, this route is definitely the most amenable for beginner backpackers or first-timers there. My downloadable e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” lays out in detail everything you need to know to plan and take this trip.
But given the enormous demand for backcountry permits on those three trails, other options are easier to get a permit for. Experienced backpackers seeking a higher-level adventure may want to check out my stories “Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop,” “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” and my e-guide to the last one, also titled “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
See also a menu all of my stories about trips in Grand Canyon National Park—including others that are more first-timer-friendly—at The Big Outside’s All National Park Trips page.
Get my expert e-guides to “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” and an easier alternative, “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Yosemite South of Tuolumne Meadows
Distance: 65 miles, 5 to 8 days
Why It’s Unique: Famous landmarks like Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Lake, Nevada Fall, and Tuolumne Meadows, plus some of Yosemite’s most-remote wilderness.
This just may be the perfect Yosemite backpacking trip: You see iconic vistas like the view from atop the sheer, 2,000-foot Northwest Face of Half Dome, and enjoy the solitude and scenery of one of Yosemite’s largest chunks of wilderness, the remote Clark Range in the park’s southeast quadrant.
Besides Half Dome, this 65-mile hike’s highlights include another of the best summits in the park, Clouds Rest (1,000 feet higher than Half Dome); thunderous, 594-foot-tall Nevada Fall; the stunning granite domes of Tuolumne and Tenaya Lake and the peaks of the Vogelsang area; Red Peak Pass in the Clark Range; and the lakes and creeks at the headwaters of the Merced River.
See my story about that trip, “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” which provides details on planning it (and requires a subscription to read in full), and my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” which gets into much greater detail about planning and taking that trip. See also my story about a comparably remote and gorgeous, 87-mile hike, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and my expert e-guide to that trip, “Backpacking Wild, Uncrowded Northern Yosemite.”
Backpackers hitting Yosemite for the first time, or with less overall experience, may prefer to check out my story “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite” and my expert and very popular e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”
You want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Glacier’s Northern Loop
Distance: 65 miles, 5 to 8 days
Why It’s Unique: Megafauna like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and grizzly and black bears, breathtaking mountain scenery, primal wilderness.
Few places in the continental United States harbor the breadth of megafauna found in Glacier. You will likely see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, and moose—and quite possibly black and grizzly bears. Neck-craning cliffs slash into Montana’s big sky, and glaciers pour down mountainsides.
The 65-mile Northern Loop is arguably the best multi-day hike in Glacier, featuring the entire Highline Trail, the Many Glacier area, Piegan Pass and Stoney Indian Pass, the Ptarmigan Wall and Ptarmigan Tunnel, and some of the park’s finest lakes and most-remote wilderness. Have a sense of urgency about this trip: The park’s glaciers are on the fast track to extinction.
See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park,” which covers all the details on planning that trip, including my tips on the best way to do it and best campsites.
A traverse through Glacier on the Continental Divide Trail offers a similarly complete Glacier experience, overlapping part of the Northern Loop while taking in other areas that rank among the prettiest corners of the park. See my story about that trip, “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” and my e-guide “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.”
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the Continenal Divide Trail through Glacier.
Distance: 16 miles, 2 days
Why It’s Unique: A narrow canyon with towering, multi-hued walls, hanging gardens, and pools to wade.
Little wonder that Zion’s Narrows is one of the most sought-after backcountry permits in the National Park System. With sandstone walls that rise up to a thousand feet tall and close in to just 20 to 30 feet apart, the Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River has few, if any rivals among the canyons of the Southwest.
Hiking in shallow water for much of the route’s 16 miles, you’ll gradually descend deeper and deeper as the canyon scenery evolves, marveling at the sight of water pouring from solid rock and enjoying one of your most unusual nights of backcountry camping. Backpacking The Narrows from top to bottom delivers a far superior experience to dayhiking it partway up from the bottom, with real solitude and some of the trip’s best scenery and tightest narrows in the upper canyon, which bottom-up dayhikers never see.
Read my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Do this trip right using my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
The Teton Crest Trail
Distance: 27-39 miles, multiple variations, 3 to 5 days
Why It’s Unique: Big views for much of its distance, beautiful wildflowers and campsites, and that incomparable, mind-boggling Tetons skyline.
Unquestionably one of America’s premier multi-day treks, the Teton Crest Trail stays above treeline for much of its traverse through the range, with nearly constant, long views of the peaks. Certain spots along the TCT have entered the place-name vocabularies of Tetons aficionados: Death Canyon Shelf, Hurricane Pass, the South and North Forks of Cascade Canyon, Lake Solitude, and Paintbrush Divide, one of the highest points reached by trail in the park, at nearly 11,000 feet.
After some 20 trips in the Tetons backpacking, climbing, and dayhiking—and most recently backpacking the Teton Crest Trail again in August 2019, with three friends who’d never been on the TCT and loved it every step of the way—I have learned that you can return repeatedly and never fail to be awed by these peaks.
I have also learned the ins and outs of every aspect of this trek, from successfully getting one of the most sought-after backcountry permits in the entire National Park System, to the pros and cons of the various possible hiking itineraries. I share my expert tips in my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”
Itching to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and the best short backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.
I can also personally help you plan this trip (or any trip you read about at my blog), from permit to daily hiking plan, in a custom trip-planning consult with me; click here to learn how—and to read comments from recipients of a custom trip consult with me, many of which were for the Teton Crest Trail.
See my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail,” about my most-recent trip, “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail” about taking our kids at young ages on the TCT.
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Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail
Distance: 93 miles, 8 to 11 days
Why It’s Unique: Roaring, glaciated rivers, lush rainforest, incomparable wildflowers, and ever-changing views of ice- and snow-cloaked Mount Rainier.
One of America’s best multi-day hikes—especially of more than a week—the Wonderland Trail makes a 93-mile, up-and-down circuit of the peak widely considered the queen of the Pacific Northwest, if not of the entire Lower 48: 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.
The Mountain boggles the mind. Seeing it appear as you round a bend can stop you in your tracks in disbelief over its staggering relief. The Wonderland Trail features innumerable waterfalls and views of Rainier, and some of the best wildflower meadows you will ever walk through.
Don’t underestimate this trip’s strenuousness: With a cumulative elevation gain and loss of about 23,000 feet, the trail regularly dishes up 3,000-foot ascents and descents. But there isn’t another loop hike quite like it.
See my story “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs at Mount Rainier,” about a three-day, 22-mile family backpacking trip from Mowich Lake to Sunrise in the park, and this story describing my favorite dayhikes at Rainier.
Get my help planning any trip you read about at my blog. Click here for expert advice you won’t find anywhere else.
The Needles District of Canyonlands
Distance: 7 to 20+ miles, 2 to 3 days
Why It’s Unique: 300-foot-tall, candlestick-like pinnacles, natural arches, narrow slot canyons.
Waves of rippling rock look like a petrified ocean on a red planet. Sandstone spires rise up to 300 feet tall, with giant heads bigger around than the column on which they sit. Stratified cliffs stretch for miles.
With fascinating geology that provides something of a Southwest canyons highlights tour, the Needles District doesn’t have the severe, strenuous elevation gain and loss endemic to backpacking in the Grand Canyon and some other Southwest canyons. Scarce water sources pose the biggest challenge, but the distances between them aren’t too great to prevent inexperienced backpackers from exploring Chesler Park and Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost canyons, as well as the Peekaboo Trail.
This relatively easy hike, with a variety of route options, explores a landscape that’s different in many ways from other favorite corners of the Southwest canyon country.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See my stories “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks” and
“The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Sequoia’s Mineral King Area
Distance: 40 miles, 4 to 6 days
Why It’s Unique: Beautiful lakes and campsites, jagged granite peaks, passes over 11,000 feet, and backcountry groves of giant sequoias.
This 40-mile loop from Sequoia’s Mineral King area delivers a full-value High Sierra experience, including passes up to 11,630 feet high with sweeping views of the majestic southern High Sierra (lead photo at top of story), and tranquil backcountry groves of giant sequoias that you may have all to yourselves.
I found the scenery photogenic around every turn, with row upon row of huge, granite spires looming thousands of feet above deep canyons, and campsites beside crystalline mountain lakes reflecting cliffs and razor-sharp peaks—and two of our campsites on this trip grace my list of the 25 best spots I’ve ever slept in the backcountry.
While the John Muir Trail and popular paths in Yosemite do not typically offer much solitude, this trip shows the quieter side of the High Sierra without compromising on natural beauty.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park.”
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Bottom to Top in the Great Smoky Mountains
Distance: 34 miles, 3 to 4 days
Why It’s Unique: Unparalleled forest diversity, long views from the Appalachian Trail, and lovely streams and cascades.
While the Great Smokies may appear out of place on a list of Western national parks, there are good reasons why these forested mountains are beloved by backpackers.
I discovered their magic on a 34-mile loop from near Fontana Lake up to a stretch of the Appalachian Trail along the park’s crest. That grand tour of this half-million-acre park included rocky streams tumbling through cascades; some of the 1,600 species of flowering plants (76 listed as threatened or endangered); and gazing out over an ocean of blue ridges from 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome and the park’s highest bald, 5,920-foot Andrews Bald. I also found a surprising degree of solitude, even during the fall foliage season.
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