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 hold some of the most scenic, adventurous, and coveted backpacking trips in the country. Hike any of them and it will earn a spot on your personal top-10 list. Knock off all 10 trips on this list and you will experience some of the finest landscapes not only in the nation, but on the planet.
Ready to be blown away? Scroll through this list and find 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.
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 trip with school-age kids, it’s less crowded than the more popular northern stretch of the Olympic coast.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast,” and all of my stories about Olympic National Park.
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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 make this trek or another in the Big Ditch—and given the high demand for backcountry permits on those three trails, other options (see below) are often easier to pull off.
See all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park, including:
“Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day”
“April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim”
“Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop”
“Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail”
“A Matter of Perspective: A Father-Daughter Hike in the Grand Canyon”
“One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon”
“Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop”
Do this trip smartly and safely. 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.
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,” my story about a comparably remote and gorgeous, 87-mile hike, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park.
Do this trip right using my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”
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 goats, bighorns, elk, and moose—and 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 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 all of my stories about Glacier National Park.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT 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.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows” and all of my stories about Zion National Park.
Click here now to get 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, unobstructed views for much of its distance, beautiful wildflowers and campsites, and that 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 along the spine of the range, with nearly constant, long views of the peaks. Certain spots along the TCT have entered the place-name vocabularies of veteran Tetons backpackers: 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, I promise that you can return repeatedly and never fail to be awed by these peaks.
See my stories “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and all of my Ask Me posts about 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.
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.
Certainly one of America’s best hikes of a week or more, the Wonderland Trail makes an 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 features innumerable waterfalls, views of Rainier, and some of the best wildflower meadows you’ll ever see. Don’t underestimate its 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 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, this Ask Me post describing my favorite dayhikes at Rainier, and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.
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.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks” and all of my stories about Canyonlands and Arches.
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 giant sequoia groves.
This 40-mile loop from Sequoia’s Mineral King area (lead photo at top of story) delivers a full-value High Sierra experience, including passes up to 11,630 feet high with sweeping views of the majestic southern High Sierra, and tranquil backcountry groves of giant sequoias that you may have to yourselves. I found the scenery photogenic around every bend, 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. While the John Muir Trail and popular paths in Yosemite may not offer much solitude, this trip shows the quieter side of the High Sierra without compromising on natural beauty.
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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.
Want more? See “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
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