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 base this list on my nearly three decades of backpacking throughout the Southwest, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and creating 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.”)
If you’ve done any of these and have comments or advice to offer, or if you take one of them after reading this story, or simply have an opinion about my list or another trip you believe should be on it, please share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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, including a loop from the South Rim to the Colorado River and a full traverse of the canyon.
See my story about hiking across the Grand Canyon and this photo gallery from dayhiking rim to rim, this Ask Me post about hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, and my story about another more 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.
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 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 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,” and “Ask Me: What’s Your Favorite Backpacking Trip 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; and 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.
I can help you plan any other 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.
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.