My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips
By Michael Lanza
What makes a great backpacking trip? I’ve thought about that more than a mentally stable person probably should, having done many of America’s (and the world’s) most beautiful and beloved multi-day hikes over the years. Certainly top-shelf scenery is a mandatory qualification. An element of adventurousness enhances a hike, in my eyes. As I assembled this top 10 list, longer trips seemed to dominate it—there’s something special about a big walk in the wilderness—but two- and three-day hikes also made my list. Another factor that truly matters is a wilderness experience: All of my top 10 are in national parks or federal wilderness areas.
Some things, though, don’t require explanation; the validation comes in just doing it. So I give you here my admittedly personal and subjective list of the 10 best backpacking trips I’ve taken over a quarter-century (and counting) of humping a pack on trails all over the country, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and writing for this blog.
Acknowledging my Western bias—it’s where I spend most of my backcountry time—each hike here merits a 10 for scenery. But difficulty and distance vary greatly. So I’ve included the mileage of each—and the longest trips on this list can be chopped up into smaller portions—as well as a difficulty rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hardest in terms of strenuousness, and in some cases requiring specialized skills or equipment.
While I’ve numbered my top 10 hikes, that’s not intended as a quality ranking. If you do (or have done) all of them, let me know if you believe you can rank them. I think it’s impossible. And I know there are backpacking trips I haven’t done yet that arguably deserve a spot on this list. If you have a trip to suggest, please do tell me about it in the Comments section at the bottom of this story. I hope to get to them all. It’s a tough assignment, but I’m working on it.
Accompanying each hike in my top 10 are Close Runners-Up, trips that are exactly that. My advice: Just do every one of these top 10 and runner-up hikes that you can, when you can.
#1 A Grand Tour of Yosemite
Distance: 151 miles
John Muir saw quite a few world-class wildernesses, and he focused much of his time and energy on exploring and protecting Yosemite. A lot of people would argue it’s the best national park for backpackers. After several trips there, I had thought I’d seen Yosemite’s finest corners, including many trails in the park’s core, its section of the John Muir Trail, and the summits of Half Dome and Clouds Rest.
Then, over a total of seven days, I backpacked 151 miles through the biggest patches of wilderness in the park, south and north of Tuolumne Meadows—and discovered Yosemite’s true soul, a vast reach of deep, granite-walled canyons, peaks rising to over 12,000 feet, and one gorgeous mountain lake after another dappling the landscape.
See my story “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that grand tour of Yosemite, and watch for my story about the 86-mile second leg, which I’ll post later this year at The Big Outside.
Read my “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about a 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.
#2 Northern Glacier National Park
Distance: 90 miles
With rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, deeply green forests, over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, megafauna like bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and grizzly and black bears, and over a million acres in Montana’s Northern Rockies, most of it wilderness, little wonder that Glacier is so popular with backpackers.
On this 90-mile hike, split into 65- and 25-mile legs, we saw all of those things—yes, including grizzly bears—and enjoyed a surprising degree of solitude even while hitting many of the park’s highlights.
#3 Teton Crest Trail
Distance: 33-40 miles, multiple variations
One of my first big, Western backpacking trips was on the Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and it so inspired me that I’ve returned almost 20 times since to backpack, dayhike, rock climb, backcountry ski, and paddle a canoe. I can’t imagine that jagged skyline ever failing to give me chills.
Running north-south through the heart of the national park and adjacent national forest lands, the Teton Crest Trail stays above treeline for much of its distance, with expansive views of the peaks, but also drops into the beautiful South Fork and North Fork of Cascade Canyon and the upper forks of Granite Canyon. Various trails access it, allowing for multiple route options, any of them making for one of America’s premier multi-day hikes.
See my stories “American Classic: The Teton Crest Trail” and “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” plus all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and all of my Ask Me posts about Grand Teton National Park.
A two- or three-day hike linking any of the east-side canyons in Grand Teton National Park, such as the roughly 18-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop (the most popular in the park), or either of two loops from Death Canyon Trailhead: about 23 miles linking Death Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Mount Hunt Divide; or roughly 24 miles linking Death Canyon, Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, and Static Peak.
#4 Zion’s Narrows
Distance: 16 miles
The North Fork of the Virgin River carves out a uniquely deep, slender, and awe-inspiring redrock canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park, with walls up to 1,000 feet tall that close in to just 20 feet apart in places. Springs gush from cracks in the walls, nourishing lush hanging gardens. In the low-water levels when backpackers typically make the two-day descent of The Narrows, you’re walking in water from ankle- to waist-deep most of the time, over a cobblestone riverbed that makes for slow progress.
But you’ll feel no desire to rush through one of the most enchanting hikes in the National Park System (especially since the lower end is often crowded with dayhikers, while the trip’s first day and second morning are much quieter).
Watch for my story about backpacking Zion’s Narrows, which I’ll post later this year at The Big Outside.
#5 John Muir Trail
Distance: 221 miles
The John Muir Trail’s 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to the highest summit in the Lower 48, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park, has often been described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail”—and hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s hard to argue against that lofty claim.
The two- to three-week journey through California’s High Sierra (totaling 221 miles, including the 10-mile descent off Whitney, not actually part of the JMT) stays mostly above 9,000 feet as it traverses mile after jaw-dropping mile of a landscape of incisor peaks, too many waterfalls to name, and countless, pristine wilderness lakes nestled in granite basins. You climb over numerous passes between 11,000 and over 13,000 feet, with views that stretch a hundred miles. Although not a place for solitude during the peak season (mid-July to mid-September), the JMT may be the one hike on this list that every serious backpacker should get to.
See my story about a remote, partly off-trail, 32-mile traverse of the John Muir Wilderness in California’s High Sierra.
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#6 Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon
Distance: 34.5 miles
For me, there’s an irresistible allure to a hike that the Grand Canyon National Park website describes as “considered by many to be the most difficult” established South Rim hike, and “significantly more hazardous than other canyon trails” due to one required rappel and the lack of reliable water on the Tonto Trail. But it also calls the Royal Arch Loop “a top drawer canyon adventure, replete with more natural beauty than humans can absorb.”
Purple prose aside, when three friends and I backpacked it, we discovered extremely rugged hiking, a rappel that definitely demands the skills and gear to do it safely, one of the most spectacular campsites any of us had ever bedded down in (beside Royal Arch), and scenery to match or exceed any hike I’ve done in the Grand Canyon—which exists on a scale of its own in that regard, anyway. Not to be taken lightly, the Royal Arch Loop was one of the most adventurous multi-day hikes I’ve ever done.
Watch for my story about backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop, which I’ll post this spring at The Big Outside.
Almost any other trip in the Grand Canyon. See my stories “Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A 4-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail” and “A Matter of Perspective: A Father-Daughter Hike in the Grand Canyon,” my stories about dayhiking the canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim and a 25-mile dayhike from Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead, and all of my Ask Me posts and stories about the Grand Canyon.
#7 The Southern Olympic Coast
Distance: 17.5 miles
The 17.5-mile hike from the Hoh River north to La Push Road, on the southern coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park, is still one of my kids’ most memorable backpacking trips—mostly for the hours they spent playing in tide pools on the beach (they were nine and seven at the time).
It features giant trees in one of Earth’s largest virgin temperature rainforests; frequently mist-shrouded views of scores of sea stacks rising up to 200 feet out of the ocean; boulders wallpapered with sea stars, mussels, and sea anemones; rugged and very muddy hiking on overland trails around impassable headlands; sightings of seals, sea otters, whales, and to my kids’ delight, lots of slugs; and rope ladders to climb and descend very steep, sometimes cliff-like terrain. Consequently, while just as scenic, it’s less crowded than the more popular northern stretch of the Olympic coast. The 73-mile-long finger of the park on the Pacific Ocean protects the longest stretch of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States, and one of America’s most unique backpacking adventures.
See my story “The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast.”
Close Runner-Up: Honestly, nothing.
#8 Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop, Glacier Peak Wilderness
Distance: 44 miles
I fell in love with Washington’s North Cascades region, including the Glacier Peak Wilderness, on my first visit more than two decades ago, and numerous return trips have only solidified my impression of it as one of the wildest, loneliest, and most breathtaking mountain ranges in the country. When you’re ready to take your backpacking adventures up a notch, go for the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
In addition to some rugged on-trail hiking, its crux is an off-trail crossing of 7,100-foot Spider Gap, where you’ll ascend and descend fingers of perennial snow that can be treacherous when frozen solid—which happens even in mid-summer. One of the few backpacking trips I’ve done that featured campsites that made both my top 25 all-time favorites and my list of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past, this hike also delivers views that will blow you away of snow- and ice-capped Glacier Peak towering above a sea of mountains.
The hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to Sahale Glacier Camp, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, delivers something of a condensed version of the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop, with comparable scenery—and a jaw-dropping campsite view—but no potentially dangerous snow slopes if you go in August or late summer. See all of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
While no one would mistake New Hampshire’s White Mountains for the North Cascades, there are parallels between the Glacier Peak Wilderness and the Appalachian Trail’s traverse of the Whites, in their shared character of ruggedness and a blend of high, alpine views and quiet forest. One of my earliest multi-day hikes was a hut-to-hut Presidential Range traverse, and I’ve gone back many times. See all of my stories about the Presidential Range and the White Mountains, and my favorite hikes in New England.
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#9 Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Distance: ~50 miles
The Sawtooths are one of the West’s most under-appreciated mountain ranges, with national park-caliber scenery, but nowhere near the numbers of hikers found in the most popular parks (although I do hear from more and more readers eager to explore the Sawtooths). Having backpacked and climbed through most of the range since settling in Idaho almost 20 years ago, the multi-day hike I’d recommend there is a roughly 50-mile route from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake via Cramer Pass and Toxaway and Alice lakes, including out-and-back side trips to the Baron Lakes and Imogene Lake.
It hits many of the Sawtooths’ premier areas, including five-star camping at backcountry lakes. Baron and Imogene each add basically a day of hiking, but are two of the most magnificent lakes in the Sawtooths; camp at both. This route can be hiked in either direction, depending on whether you want to catch the boat shuttle from Redfish Lake Lodge across Redfish Lake at the beginning or end of your trip; missing it adds about five miles of hiking.
See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” about a 57-mile hike in the more remote southern Sawtooths, this Ask Me post describing my favorite hikes and backpacking trips in the Sawtooths, and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and neighboring White Cloud Mountains; plus my story about another under-appreciated mountain range dappled with gorgeous lakes, northeastern Oregon’s Wallowas: “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.”
#10 Timberline Trail, Mount Hood
Distance: 41 miles
The 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s 11,239-foot Mount Hood lives in the shadow of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail (of which I’ve hiked sections) around Hood’s taller and more-famous stratovolcano sibling, Mount Rainier. But the Timberline can go toe-to-toe with the Wonderland for scenery—including waterfalls, wildflowers, and views of Hood’s glaciated flanks around every corner—and probably has an edge in adventure quotient, largely because of several spicy creek fords.
Like the Wonderland, the Timberline meanders from barren volcanic moonscapes to breezy meadows to dense temperature rainforest. But unlike the Wonderland, you don’t have to compete for one of the most sought-after backcountry permits in America.
See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”
See my story “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs and Mount Rainier,” about a 22-mile backpacking trip, mostly on the Wonderland Trail, from Mowich Lake to Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park.
Anyone contemplating any trips on this list, especially the longer ones, should read my story “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” as well as these stories:
“Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
“10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”
“10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”
“7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
“Video: How to Load a Backpack”
“10 Tips For Getting Outside More”
“Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself”
Did you enjoy this story? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, and I appreciate connecting with my readers. I invite you to subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box at the top of the left sidebar or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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