Ask Me: What Are Your Top Picks For Long Backpacking Trips?
I usually take a solo trip the first week of my summer vacation. I’m an elementary-school teacher, and I’ve done a ton of multi-day backpacking and lots of long-distance trails. It can be tricky as it’s the second week of June and there is usually too much snow to attempt certain trails. I’m looking for a loop, out and back, or shuttle that allows me about 20 miles a day for about five days. I looked long and hard at the Mah Dah Hey Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the 22-hour drive each way is a bit daunting. I’ve been looking at trying to find a closer alternative.
I stumbled upon the Ruby Crest Trail in Nevada. It looks pretty amazing; the only drawback is it’s an out and back as I really don’t have $300 to pay the only shuttle that runs. I saw your piece on the Timberline Trail, which is an option, but I’m looking for more like 75 to 125 miles in total. I’ve got lots on my bucket list, but so much is just too far to drive. Ideas would be sooo appreciated.
Your question is a tough one because, as you know, in the second week in June, the mountains within a day’s drive of you are still buried in snow. It’s not impossible to backpack those trails—Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers go through the High Sierra snows in June—but it’s obviously less than ideal, given that the snow can range from icy and treacherous to so soft that you’re post-holing with every step. The Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, a great hike that compares with another you might consider, the Wonderland Trail (although it’s less than half the Wonderland’s length), also doesn’t become mostly snow-free until late July or August. Same with the Ruby Crest Trail, although it may melt out a little sooner than comparable elevations in the Sierra or Cascades. (I haven’t actually hiked the Ruby Crest Trail yet.)
But those mountain national parks and wilderness areas are where you’ll find multi-day hikes of the length you’re looking for.
As you probably know, trails in the Southwest are baking hot by then, too. I’d like to backpack the entire Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon sometime, it’s about 95 miles, but I’d want to do it in April, May, late September or October, not in summer.
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It’s hard to anticipate when high-country trails will become mostly snow-free, although snowpack depth and its percentage of average by mid-spring is a pretty good indicator. If it’s well below average, as it was in 2015, high-elevation trails could become passable by mid-June. If so, I would look at knocking off a big chunk of the John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, like hiking from The Minarets area of the Ansel Adams Wilderness north to Yosemite National Park (requiring a shuttle).
Other possibilities are a pair of hikes I did in Yosemite. From Tuolumne Meadows, I hiked an 86-mile route in northern Yosemite that was almost a loop, and the free park shuttle bus provides transportation between the trailheads. From Tuolumne, we hiked to Glen Aulin, Matterhorn Canyon, over Burro Pass and Mule Pass, to Kerrick Canyon, Benson Lake, down Rodgers Canyon (long stretch with no water), up the glorious Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River (lead photo at top of story; lots of nice campsites), past Glen Aulin again over to May Lake and the side trip up Mount Hoffman—often described as the best summit view in Yosemite—then finishing at Tenaya Lake. Leave your car at the finish and grab the shuttle bus to the start. See my story about that trip, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.”
Also from the Tuolumne area, we hiked 65 miles from Tenaya Lake over Clouds Rest (another amazing summit) and Half Dome (side trip), past Nevada Fall, up Illilouette Canyon, over Red Peak Pass, past the Merced River headwaters to the high trail that parallels the upper Merced River on its northeast side, over Vogelsang Pass, then down to Tuolumne. See my story about that trip, “Best of Yosemite Backpacking, Part 1: South of Tuolumne Meadows.”
Both of those Yosemite loops are marvelous, and you’ll see there are various combinations of trails possible to shorten or lengthen either, or combine parts of both, because of the availability of the free park shuttle bus in the Tuolumne Meadows area. According to the park’s website, the shuttle operates June through mid-September, with the dates varying yearly, so check on when it begins operating in June.
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Usually, snowpack in the Cascades persists into late July or August, so I think it’s likely you’ll find snow covering higher trails there in mid-June. But in the event of a very unusual year, I would look at possible loops in the North Cascades National Park complex and the Glacier Peak Wilderness, two of my favorite areas.
One potential, 80-mile route in North Cascades National Park, beginning and ending at trailheads about five miles apart on the highway (you may be able to catch a ride from other hikers), is to start at Easy Pass Trailhead, go over Easy Pass (I’ve dayhiked it, very nice), down Fisher Creek, up Thunder Creek, over Park Creek Pass, and down Park Creek Trail. Walk 2.6 miles along Stehekin Valley Road, up Bridge Creek Trail and North Fork Park Creek Trail, double back and continue up Bridge Creek Trail. Incorporate the loop around Rainbow and McAlester lakes (south of Bridge Creek), which friends told me has great scenery. Finish at Rainy Pass.
To the north of those areas is the Pasayten Wilderness, which I have yet to explore but hope to get to soon.
Lastly, if by some highly unusual set of circumstances the trails in Glacier National Park are mostly snow-free by mid-June—or you can go later in the summer some year—I highly recommend a 90-mile circuit in northern Glacier that I backpacked with friends.
I can’t thank you enough for the time and effort that you put into this reply. It was more than I could have hoped for.
Now it’s my turn to spend the time diving deep into your ideas to find the trips that match what will be best for me, and watching this year’s snowpack in the mountains.
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