10 Awesome Fall Backpacking Trips
By Michael Lanza
The imminent end of summer always feels a little melancholy. After all, it marks the close of the prime season for getting into the mountains. But it also signals the beginning of a time of year when many mountain ranges become less crowded just as they’re hitting a sweet zone in terms of temperatures, the lack of bugs, and fall foliage color. Autumn also stands out as an ideal season for many canyon hikes, with moderate temperatures and even some stunning color.
From Zion and Yosemite to the White Mountains, Grand Canyon, Mount Hood, and more, here are 10 of my favorite backpacking trips that are best served up in fall.
#1 & #2 Zion National Park
Here’s what I’ve discovered about Zion in numerous visits since my first one more than two decades ago: The more time you spend there, the more you discover there is to do—so you need to keep coming back. But exploring Zion faces seasonal limitations, especially for its two premier backpacking trips. The nearly 50-mile, north-south traverse of the park—which can be done in shorter sections—crosses high plateaus that often remain snow-covered into May, with one creek crossing that can be challenging in the high water of spring.
The North Fork of the Virgin River often runs too high in spring to make the overnight descent of The Narrows; and while much of it is shaded and cool even on summer’s hottest days, the top and bottom are exposed to the broiling sun. September and October offer prime conditions for these hikes—and the cottonwood trees turn golden in October.
See my stories “Pilgrimage Across Zion: Traversing a Land of Otherworldly Scenery,” “Photo Gallery: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” and “Ask Me: What’s Your Favorite Backpacking Trip in Zion National Park?” And watch for my upcoming feature story about backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
#3 Yosemite National Park
Want to know the hardest thing about backpacking in Yosemite? Getting the permit. Well, okay, the hiking itself can be tough at times. But the competition for backcountry permits in this flagship park is stiff—that’s why backpackers in the know go after Labor Day. While early-season snowstorms occasionally slam into the High Sierra in autumn, nice weather can stick around through September and well into October. The park issues permits based on trailhead quotas, making it hard to get one for popular trailheads in and around Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
With that population pressure eased up in autumn, you could score a hall pass for a five-star hike like a 65-mile loop south of Tuolumne, hitting incomparable Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and remoter areas, including Red Peak Pass, the highest pass reached by trail in Yosemite. Then the only hard aspect of the hike will be… yea, the hike.
See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Ask Me: Where Can I Hike in Yosemite in Late Fall?” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park and California national parks at The Big Outside.
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#4 & #5 White Mountains
New Hampshire’s rocky and steep White Mountains are where I wore out my first several pairs of hiking boots, and I still return every year for their awe-inspiring brand of suffering. While the fall colors that usually peak in early October are beautiful throughout the Whites, my top two picks for fall backpacking trips are a 32-mile loop around the Pemigewasset Wilderness and the 24-mile traverse from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch, mostly on the Appalachian Trail.
The so-called Pemi Loop from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) crosses eight official 4,000-foot summits, including the alpine traverse of Franconia Ridge—with its constant 360 encompassing most of the Whites—and a walk along the rocky crest of remote Bondcliff, in the heart of the Pemigewasset. Crawford to Franconia overlaps some of the Pemi Loop’s highlights, while adding killer views of Crawford and Zealand notches. (Tip: Definitely take the short side trip to the overlook at Zeacliff.) And you can add on the summits of Bond, Bondcliff, and West Bond by tacking on an out-and-back side trip that adds several miles.
See my stories “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains,” “3-Minute Read: Dayhiking the Pemi Loop in the White Mountains,” and “Ask Me: What Are Your Favorite New England Hikes?” And watch for my upcoming feature story about dayhiking the Pemi Loop.
#6 Timberline Trail, Mount Hood
A multi-day hike with views around almost every bend of a towering volcano draped in snow and ice, where you pass through forests of ancient, big trees—sounds like the classic Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, right? Actually, it’s the 41-mile Timberline Trail looping Oregon’s 11,239-foot Mount Hood, and it competes with the better-known Wonderland for scenic splendor, waterfalls, and wildflower meadows, while delivering a higher degree of excitement and challenge with its full-value creek crossings. Although the wildflowers are obviously past bloom in fall, the creek crossings become reassuringly easier, the crowds thinner, the air crisper, and the views no less stunning.
Granted, the year’s first snowfall can certainly happen at Hood in September or October. That said, autumn delivers many days of glorious weather in the Pacific Northwest, and the Timberline is less than half the distance of the Wonderland, making it easier to knock off with a decent weather window. (Plus, unlike the Wonderland, the Timberline involves no permit hoops to jump through.) If the forecast promises a string of three to five reasonably nice days, aim your compass for the Timberline Trail.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
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#7 Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Not many natural features produce their own kind of music. But that’s exactly what happens when you walk along the crest of giant sand dunes—which are often as narrow as the peak of a roof, or barely the width of your boot: Sand cascades down the dune’s very steep sides, creating squeaking and booming sounds described as “singing.” If that’s not magical enough, the night sky riddled with stars and the vivid colors of the dunes—exaggerated in morning light—make this one of the most unique backpacking trips in the country.
Too hot throughout summer—and absolutely waterless, meaning you have to carry all you’ll for an overnight exploration—Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is best in spring or fall. November brings quite pleasant days and often a frost that sparkles on the frozen sand in early morning.
See my story “Exploring America’s Big Sandbox: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes.”
Are you happy with your backpack? See all of my reviews of backpacks I like and my “Gear Review: The 8 Best Packs For Backpacking,” plus my Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of all of my reviews at The Big Outside.
#8 & #9 Grand Canyon National Park
You already know that spring and fall are the prime seasons for backpacking in the Grand Canyon. But while weather can be unstable in either season, in spring you’re aiming for a window between when snow and ice melt off the rims in April and when the scorching temps hit the inner canyon in May. In fall, though, you’ll enjoy dry trails, a surprising amount of color in the sparse desert vegetation, and pleasant temperatures often lasting into November (which was when I backpacked there with my daughter).
Backpacking permits for the corridor trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—are in high demand. Sure, grab those campsites if available; but if not, I recommend the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead and the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead—or even combining both or partly overlapping the two. Both feature sublime campsites, stretches of flatter hiking along the Tonto Trail with views reaching from the Colorado River to the South and North rims, and crossings of deep side canyons with flaming-red walls shooting straight up hundreds of feet.
See my stories “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail,” and “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon” (photo above and lead photo at top of story), and all of my stories about South Rim backpacking trips.
For hard-earned advice on scoring a backcountry permit in popular parks like Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and others, see my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
#10 Hells Canyon
The deepest gorge in North America—deeper than the Grand Canyon by more than half a mile—Hells Canyon is a place defined by extremes of scale, solitude, and grandeur. It extends for 70 miles along the Idaho-Oregon border, and 8,000 vertical feet separate the Snake River from the highest summits of the Seven Devils Mountains on the Idaho side. (I know it pretty well: I’ve hiked from the river to the summit of the He Devil.) I’ve seen summer-like days hiking in March, a snowstorm on the Fourth of July, and weather typical of all four seasons—from fresh snow to shorts-and-T-shirt sunshine—over the course of a four-day hike.
Nowhere have I seen herds of elk as large as here, and you might also spot bighorn sheep, bald eagles, black bears, and rattlesnakes. You’ll hike past the ruins of cabins and ranches of early-20th century settlers who tried to carve out a life in this harsh and very remote canyon—and run into more ghosts than people. It amazes me that a place so beautiful and wild attracts so few backcountry travelers.
See my story “Hell Hath No Fury: The Stark Beauty, Solitude, and Surprises of Hells Canyon,” about a 56-mile, rim-to-river-to-rim hike on the Oregon side of the canyon. On the Idaho side, check out the Idaho Snake River National Scenic Trail, which runs for about 28 miles through the bottom of the canyon from Granite Creek to Pittsburgh Landing.
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