By Michael Lanza
You want to explore the best backpacking in America’s desert Southwest, but you’re not sure where to begin, or how some of these trips you’ve read about compare for scenery and difficulty. You’ve heard about the need to carry huge loads of water, and environmental challenges like dangerous heat, rugged terrain, flash floods and even (gulp) quicksand. Or maybe you’ve taken one or two backpacking trips there and now you’re hungry for another one and seeking ideas for where to go next.
Well, I gotcha covered. The five trips described in this story comprise what might be called a Southwest Backpacking Starter Package. They are all beginner- and family-friendly in terms of trail or route quality, access, and navigability, and some have good water availability. But most importantly, regardless of their relative ease logistically, they all deliver the goods on the kind of adventure and scenery you go to the Southwest hoping to find.
I draw this list from more than three decades of backpacking throughout the Southwest, including the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. I present these five trips in no particular order of priority; in reality, competition for a backcountry permit will dictate when you’re able to take the most-popular ones, such as those in the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Canyonlands—and those are trips you need to plan up to four or five months in advance to get a permit reservation for the prime seasons of spring and fall. Learn more in my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
See my affordable, expert e-guides to several classic backpacking trips, including “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Narrows in Zion National Park” and “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these adventures or any trip you read about at The Big Outside.
Please share your comments, questions, or tips about any of these trips or another you believe belongs on this list in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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The Grand Canyon’s Corridor Trails
So many writers (including me) and other people have written and said so much about the Grand Canyon that it’s hard to find words that sound unique and inspiring to describe it. You won’t encounter that problem when actually going there, though—every hike is unique and inspiring.
But the very aspects of the GC that make it such a unique place—its severe topography and aridity—also ramp up the difficulty of any multi-day hike into the canyon.
That’s precisely why the park manages its “corridor” trails—the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab trails—to accommodate backpackers (and dayhikers) will little to no experience hiking there.
Those well-maintained trails have established campgrounds and relatively frequent, reliable water sources, and offer a variety of route options, ranging from backpacking rim-to-river-to-rim from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up to a full, rim-to-rim traverse of the canyon.
See all of my stories about hiking across the Grand Canyon and and backpacking in the Grand Canyon, including “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon,” plus my story about another relatively beginner-friendly GC hike, the 25-miler from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead.
Click here now for my expert e-guide to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim
or my expert e-guide to dayhiking rim to rim.
Zion’s Kolob Canyons and West Rim Trail
Zion may lack the extensive trail network found in parks like Grand Canyon, Glacier, or Yosemite, but it does harbor a classic backpacking trip widely recognized as one of America’s best—The Narrows (described below)—and other trails that compete with it for I-can’t-believe-my-eyes panoramas.
Sheer red walls towering above the vibrant, green forest, plus easy hiking and the perennial La Verkin Creek made the Kolob Canyons an enjoyable overnight hike for my family when our kids were nine and six.
Our overnight on the West Rim Trail on the same trip was a bit harder—and we (the parents) had to carry extra water—but within our kids’ abilities; and the views from the West Rim of Zion Canyon and the maze of canyons and white-walled mesas dicing up the Zion backcountry look like something from another planet.
Road access to both areas of Zion, and local shuttle services, allow for short overnight hikes or longer outings that are ideal for beginners.
The more ambitious can make a north-south traverse from the Lee Pass Trailhead in the Kolob Canyons to either Zion Canyon or, when all trails are open, across Zion to the East Entrance Trailhead—the distance ranging from roughly 40 to 50 miles, depending on how many side hikes one takes (such as the incomparable Zion must-do, Angels Landing).
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”
“Insider Tips: The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park”
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The Needles District in Canyonlands
Multi-colored candlesticks of Cedar sandstone stand 300 feet tall, appearing ready to topple over with bulbous crowns wider than their base. Waves of rock ripple into the distance, looking like a petrified, burnt-red ocean. Stratified cliffs stretch for miles.
The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park holds the kind of geological formations that fascinate both kids and adults. It also has over 60 miles of trails zigzagging over a high plateau spliced by canyons.
But unlike big, deep canyons, most trails here don’t involve much elevation gain and loss. While water is scarce, you don’t have to hike great distances to reach backcountry campsites and explore. And established trails to Chesler Park, Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost canyons, and the Peekaboo Trail are easy to follow.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside.
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
On a three-day, roughly 15-mile backpacking trip through southern Utah’s Coyote Gulch, my family and another hiked across ancient dunes hardened to rock; squeezed through a claustrophobically tight, 100-foot-long slot called Crack-in-the-Wall (not as hard as it sounds and quite fun); and stood atop a cliff overlooking a vast 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.
With its short distance, perennial stream, and lack of flash-flood hazard, Coyote Gulch ranks as one of the Southwest’s most beginner-and family-friendly backpacking trips.
But that description, while true, almost diminishes the raw beauty of a hike that features a natural bridge, two of the region’s most distinctive natural arches—and one deeply overhung cliff with amazing echo acoustics.
In many ways, Coyote delivers a complete canyon-hiking experience—without the common hardships and hazards.
See my story “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon.”
Hike all of “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The Narrows in Zion
No surprise 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, the Narrows of the North Fork of the Virgin River in Zion squeezes down to just 20 to 30 feet across in places.
On this 16-mile, two-day hike, you’ll walk in the river most of the time—with the water coming up to thighs and hips in places—marveling at the constantly changing, towering walls, and oddities like a waterfall pouring from solid rock, creating an oasis of greenery clinging to a cliff.
I don’t want to understate the challenge—and it may not be a good choice for complete novices or young kids. Despite it being a very gradual descent for its entire distance, the Narrows can feel surprisingly strenuous because you’re walking much of the time on riverbed cobbles and in water.
The water and air temperature vary seasonally, and it can feel cool or downright cold, which saps energy over several hours. And there’s certainly flash-flood danger—don’t go without a forecast for sunny skies. But the park also closes the Narrows at times of flood hazard.
Still, this is one classic hike to get to whenever you can.
Click here to get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.”
Click here now to see all of my expert e-guides.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows” (which includes tips on planning this trip, though not nearly as much detail as my e-guide, linked above), and all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah.
Like this story? Check out “10 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners.”
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.”
3 thoughts on “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First”
For someone from the Great White North discovering the myriad hiking and backpacking opportunities in the Southwest is like stumbling into a really high quality chocolate shop. My wife and four friends recently spent six days backpacking in the Grand Canyon including South Kaibab, Clear Creek and Bright Angel. Except for our group leader it was our first time. To begin knowing and truly appreciating the Canyon requires spending time in the Canyon. But I fear too many people will love it to death.
Over the past three years my wife and I have also explored Bryce, Cedar Breaks, Zion, Coyote Gulch and a few other parts of Grand Staircase Escalante, Canyonlands, and experienced a sublime five day raft trip on the Yampa River.
I love the many hiking and backpacking opportunities we enjoy in British Columbia especially but for most years by mid-October through June the conditions are not the most conducive and enjoyable for backpacking. The US Southwest extends our backpacking opportunities and there is so much to enjoy.
But we must all do everything in our power to protect and preserve these special areas for our children and grandchildren.
I’ve hiked in all of these locations except Coyote Gulch and can attest to their immense beauty, ruggedness and solitude. My very first backpacking trip was in the Grand Canyon, and nearly everything that could go wrong, did, but it was a pivotal point in my life. My love for wild places was largely inspired by that Canyon trip. Thanks for sharing these amazing trips!
Thanks, Bret. I know you’ve explored all over the Southwest. Now you’ll have to put Coyote Gulch on your to-do list.