5 National Park Backcountry Trips to Put on Your Radar Right Now
By Michael Lanza
Your next national park backcountry adventure may seem far off your planning radar at this time of year—but this is precisely the time to start planning and looking into backcountry permits if you have your sights trained on the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Yosemite, Grand Teton, or the John Muir Trail. For all of them, the time to apply for a permit for a trip during the prime season next year is fast approaching. Here’s what you need to know and do.
To get a permit for a multi-day backcountry trip in popular areas of the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Yosemite (which includes the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail), and Grand Teton, the best strategy is to apply as early as possible—which means months in advance, and the dates are coming up soon at each of those parks, as I explain below. If you instead wait until shortly before your trip dates, you’ll typically find that all permits made available in advance are already reserved, leaving no option but to try for a walk-in permit—and there are usually more people waiting in line than there are permits available each day.
My “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” provides more detail on how and when to apply for permit reservations in popular parks, and the best strategies for success that I’ve learned over nearly three decades of backpacking frequently in many national parks while writing for this blog and working for many years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine.
It’s not too early to start laying the groundwork for a big adventure next year. The very first piece of advice in my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More” is: Plan trips weeks or months in advance. Getting a permit is a critical first step.
Backcountry campsites along the Grand Canyon’s corridor trails—the South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel—are among the most sought-after in the entire National Park System: Some 75 percent of people who apply for a permit for campsites along those trails are unsuccessful—and that includes one of the greatest trips in the National Park System, hiking across the Grand Canyon. Apply for a permit reservation beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April.
See all of my stories about trips in the Grand Canyon, including my many stories about backpacking trips beginning at the canyon’s South Rim.
If you like this story, check out my story “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands (lead photo at top of story) and a multi-day float trip on the Green River (one of my top 10 family adventures) are both uniquely beautiful as well as beginner- and family-friendly—and for those reasons, very popular. Apply for a permit up to four months in advance of your starting date, which means that December is the time to apply for a permit for a trip starting in April.
See my stories “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks” and “Still Waters Run Deep: Tackling America’s Best Multi-Day Float Trip on the Green River,” and all of my stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside.
Get good gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Yosemite issues backcountry permits based on a trailhead quota system, and permits for backpacking trips within the park’s core—that is, beginning at trailheads in Yosemite Valley and the Tuolumne Meadows area—are in greatest demand. That includes Happy Isles, the John Muir Trail, and Half Dome. Apply for one at the earliest possible date, up to 24 weeks (168 days) before the date you want to start hiking, which, for example, would be Jan. 15 for a trip beginning July 15.
See all of my stories about Yosemite National Park, including this Ask Me post offering a reader advice on where to backpack on a first trip in Yosemite, and my stories about long, more-remote backpacking trips south of Tuolumne Meadows and through northern Yosemite.
Protect your expensive gear when traveling. See my “Review: The Best Gear Duffles and Luggage.”
The Teton Crest Trail, step for step one of America’s classic backpacking trips (and one of my top 10 favorites), is increasingly popular, and advance reservations for permits can disappear soon after they become available on the first Wednesday in January (starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time). The 18-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop from String Lake is nearly as popular (and a great one for beginners or anyone with limited time—as well as a super dayhike). Mark your calendar to apply for a permit reservation right away in January.
See my story “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail,” my story about a family backpacking trip on the TCT, my several Ask Me posts about Grand Teton, and all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park and the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside.
After the Teton Crest Trail, hike the other nine of “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”
John Muir Trail
Meandering 211 miles through California’s High Sierra from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney (where you have another 11 miles of downhill hiking to finish the trip), with some of the longest stretches of roadless wilderness hiking in America, this footpath often described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” is on every serious backpacker’s to-do list—literally. JMT usage has skyrocketed in recent years. Yosemite saw a 100 percent leap in requests for permits to hike the JMT between 2011 and 2015, creating impacts on the trail as well as on non-JMT backpackers trying to get permits to hike elsewhere in the park, and prompting the imposition of a daily limit on the number of JMT hikers exiting the Yosemite Wilderness. This greatly magnifies the difficulty of scoring a JMT permit: For dates in July, August, and September, permits fly out the door as soon as they become available.
Start planning now for a two- to three-week thru-hike. Permits for hiking the JMT northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 15. To hike the JMT southbound (as I’d recommend), apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park exactly 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, on Feb. 20 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by applying for a range of start dates in Yosemite.
See all of my stories about the John Muir Trail, including “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” and “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-Day, Ultralight Plan.”
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking trips in all of these parks.
Want my help with yours? Click here.
If you strike out getting a permit for any of the above trips—or you want to instead find a less-popular multi-day hike—check out my stories “Big Wilderness, No Crowds: Top 5 Backpacking Trips For Scenery and Solitude,” and “Ask Me: What Are Your Top Picks for Long Backpacking Trips?”
See also a menu of all my stories at The Big Outside about trips in national parks on my All National Parks Trips page.
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