By Michael Lanza
Are you looking for great trip ideas for your bucket list? Well, you’ve clicked to the right place. This freshly updated story spotlights seven of the best wildlands in the U.S., including Glacier, Yosemite, North Cascades (photo above), Sequoia and three wilderness areas, plus three international adventures that may not be on your radar—all of them worthy of your bucket list.
All of them are also trips that you must start planning now to take them this year—including rapidly approaching backcountry permit-application dates for those four parks.
The 10 trips described below all stand out in personal memory among the countless trips I’ve enjoyed over the past three decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog. They all have links to stories at The Big Outside with many more images and info, including my expert tips on planning and taking each trip. (Those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full.)
I update this list regularly to feed you fresh and timely ideas—and to help make your bucket list, like mine, continually get longer rather than shorter.
I can help you plan any of these trips—see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you and to read scores of comments from people like you whom I’ve helped plan an unforgettable adventure. See also my E-Guides page for my downloadable, expert e-guides to many of America’s best backpacking trips.
I’d love to read any thoughts, personal experiences, or suggestions you want to share in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Table of Contents
Get Lost in the North Cascades
Somehow, not many people know about the North Cascades: It’s one of America’s least-visited national parks. For backpackers who prefer to have a beautiful wild place almost to themselves, that’s a good thing.
North Cascades, a sprawling swath of glacier-clad mountains and thickly forested valleys, has long been one of my favorite parks—it has one of the prettiest backcountry campsites I’ve ever slept in. On my most-recent trip there, a friend and walked 80 miles through the heart of the North Cascades National Park Complex just as the huckleberries ripened and the larch trees blazed yellow with fall color in the last week of September. Our grand tour from Easy Pass Trailhead to Bridge Creek Trailhead took us through virgin forests of giant cedars, hemlocks, and Douglas firs, and over four passes, including Park Creek Pass, where waterfalls and glaciers pour off cliffs and jagged, snowy peaks.
North Cascades National Park accepts permit reservations during both an Early-Access lottery from March 3 through March 15—enter especially if you’re seeking any high-demand areas in the park—and general reservations reopen April 26.
See my story “Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades,” which has my tips on how to plan and take this trip, including shorter variations of the route, and all of my stories about North Cascades National Park.
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Backpack Incomparable Glacier National Park
Glacier ranks among the favorite national parks of backpackers, and little wonder: No place in the Lower 48 really compares with it. From its rivers of ice pouring off craggy mountains and sheer cliffs that soar high above lushly green valleys, and over 760 lakes offering mirror reflections of it all, to megafauna like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and grizzly and black bears, these million acres in the rugged Northern Rockies simply deliver an experience you can’t find in any park outside Alaska.
I’ve backpacked multiple times all over Glacier, most recently when three friends and I hiked 94 miles mostly on the Continental Divide Trail through the park—unquestionably one of the entire CDT’s best sections. The park’s more than 700 miles of trails enable trips of varying distances, from beginner-friendly to serious, remote adventures in deep wilderness.
My e-guides to two long and magnificent treks through Glacier, “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” detail all you need to know to plan and execute those trips safely. They also describe shorter variations on those routes.
Reserve a permit starting March 15 for groups of one to eight people and March 1 for groups of nine to 12. And, of course, I can give you a customized plan for a backpacking trip of any length in Glacier; click here to learn how.
See my stories “Wildness
All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,”
the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,”
Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,”
and all of my
stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Want my help planning any trip on this list?
Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Trek through These Little-Known Peaks in Spain
From minutes into our hike up the Cares Gorge in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park, walking through a herd of chamois in a gorge that looks like an impressionist painting with its soaring, white and gray limestone cliffs dappled with greenery, we were enchanted by these mountains that resemble a smaller replica of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains—and I was flabbergasted that I had only first heard of this place months earlier.
And the adventure seemed to only get better and prettier with each day.
My family hiked a 52-mile (84k) loop over five days through the highest and most rugged and vertiginous peaks of the Picos de Europa. At every turn, we gaped at enormous limestone cliffs and jagged peaks. Like other European treks, it had a civilized flavor, as we walked valleys with tiny, quiet villages and grazing sheep and cows and spent our nights in mountain huts or inns. But like the best international treks I’ve taken, the Picos have an element of stark, rugged beauty, which we saw hiking through alpine terrain where we went hours without seeing other hikers.
See my story “The Best 5-Day Hike in Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains.”
Read any story linked here and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!
Take Yosemite’s Best Dayhikes and Backpacking Trips
Half Dome, the John Muir Trail, Tenaya Lake, Mount Hoffmann, the Mist Trail, Upper Yosemite Falls, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Cathedral Range and Cathedral Lakes—these names are nearly as famous as the park that harbors them: Yosemite.
But in numerous trips backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing there over the years, I’ve discovered that other corners of Yosemite are equally spectacular if not as well known, including the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Clouds Rest, Red Peak Pass, Matterhorn Peak and Matterhorn Canyon, Burro Pass, Mule Pass, Benson Lake, and Dewey Point, among many.
This flagship park’s finest backpacking trips and dayhikes offer a variety of experiences that will awe you no matter how much time you have or how many times you’ve been there. For backpacking, plan to apply for a wilderness permit 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the week you want to start hiking—which for prime summer dates is rapidly approaching.
See my stories about backpacking trips through Yosemite’s two biggest chunks of wilderness: a 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows and an 87-mile hike north of Tuolumne (both of which have shorter options), and my story about my most-recent trip there in September 2021, “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.” See also “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
I know Yosemite’s unique wilderness permit system very well, and I’ve helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in Yosemite—including helping some obtain a permit after they had failed applying on their own. Go to my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can do that for you.
You want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Explore the Wind River Range
Come up with a list of the best backpacking trips in America that do not require you to reserve a permit months in advance, and rank them in order of scenic magnificence, and Wyoming’s Wind River Range would have to reside near or at the top of that list. The Winds are also one of the few mountain ranges in the contiguous United States where—if you put in the effort to get beyond the small number of popular trailheads—you can hike for days below 13,000-foot peaks and count more alpine lakes than people.
Among the several trips I’ve made to the Winds, two friends and I backpacked a 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park to Titcomb Basin, where we camped between two alpine lakes at over 10,500 feet, below granite walls rising 3,000 feet above us to summits nearing 14,000 feet. We also followed an off-trail route (optional on this trip) over a 12,000-foot pass above Titcomb Basin—one of three passes that high on this trip—and passed dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes.
Most recently, I joined three companions for a very rugged, seven-day, 96-mile south-to-north traverse of the Wind River High Route, two-thirds of which is off-trail—one of the most difficult and stunning adventures I’ve ever been on.
See my stories “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “Adventure and Adversity on the Wind River High Route,” and “A Walk in the Winds: A One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and all stories about backpacking in the Wind River Range at The Big Outside.
Get the right gear for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
Backpack a Canadian Rockies Gem: the Rockwall Trail
The Rockwall Trail in Canada’s Kootenay National Park may not be on your radar—but put it there. This 34-mile (55k) hike, done in four to five days, features a long line of skyscraping stone monoliths, stunning Floe Lake, creeks gray with glacial till, and one of the tallest waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains, 1,154-foot (352m) Helmet Falls.
For more than 18 miles (30k), the trail follows the base of a nearly unbroken, massive limestone escarpment in the Vermilion Range, plastered with glaciers and towering in some locations about 3,000 feet (900m) above the trail—they look like a chain of El Capitans standing shoulder to shoulder. The trail crosses four passes between about 7,100 and 7,700 feet.
We saw mountain goats, but none of the grizzly bears that live in abundance in the Rockies of our northern neighbor. Unlike other international trips, getting there is relatively easy and inexpensive. Well known among Canadian backpackers but less so among Americans and international trekkers, the Rockwall arguably deserves a place on any list of the world’s prettiest trails. Backcountry permit reservations are accepted beginning Jan. 28 for the entire year and walk-in permits are available at Parks Canada visitor centers.
See my story “Best of the Canadian Rockies: Backpacking the Rockwall Trail.”
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
See the Glorious Southern Sierra in Sequoia National Park
With some of the highest mountains in the Lower 48 and a constellation of backcountry lakes, California’s southern High Sierra rank among the prettiest backpacking destinations in America. And Sequoia National Park hosts one of the biggest chunks of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48—a pristine and incredibly photogenic land of razor peaks and alpine lakes so clear you could stand on the shore and read a book lying open on the lake bottom.
On a six-day, 40-mile backpacking trip in Sequoia, my family hiked through a quiet backcountry grove of giant Sequoias and over 10,000-foot and 11,000-foot passes at the foot of 12,000-foot, granite peaks. We camped at two lakes that earned spots on my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites.
While many backpackers heading for the High Sierra point their compass at Yosemite and the John Muir Trail—creating enormous demand for those backcountry permits—far fewer set their sights on areas of Sequoia like where my family backpacked. That means it’s an easier permit to get, and the scenery rivals anywhere in the Sierra.
Apply for a permit up to six months in advance for a trip during the park’s quota period of late May through mid-September.
See my story “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” about my family’s six-day, 40-mile loop hike there, and all of my stories about Sequoia National Park at The Big Outside.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking or hiking trip.
Want my help with yours? Click here to learn more.
Wander Deep Into Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
I had been hiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooths—the wilderness in my back yard (or pretty close)—for years, when I finally got around to exploring the deep interior of the southern Sawtooths, one of the most remote and least-visited areas of these mountains. A friend and I backpacked a four-day, 57-mile route, visiting numerous, incredibly picturesque alpine lakes—some of which undoubtedly see few visitors.
I’ve long thought that the Sawtooths look like they could be the love child of the High Sierra and the Tetons, and that 57-mile hike takes you into the deepest corners of Idaho’s premier mountain range. Read my story about that trip, “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”
Looking for a Sawtooths adventure that’s shorter and more accessible? The multi-day hike I’d recommend is a four- to five-day, roughly 36-mile route from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake, including one side trip to one of the finest lake basins in the entire range.
See my story “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit” and my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” which tells you all you need to know to plan and pull off that trip and includes three alternate itineraries that allow you to shorten the hike to four days or extend it to six or seven days. And see a menu of all stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooths at The Big Outside.
I’ve helped many readers plan a wonderful backpacking trip, ideal for them, in the Sawtooths. See my Custom Trip Planning page to see comments from many readers and learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog.
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-guides.
Trek Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park
Picture this: an Arctic-looking landscape vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, wildflowers, and lichen blanketing glacial-erratic boulders. Cliffs and mountains that look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe. Thick, crack-riddled glaciers pouring like pancake batter that needs more water off starkly barren peaks rising to more than 8,000 feet. Braided rivers meandering down mostly treeless valleys, and reindeer roaming wild. Summit views of a sea of snowy, glacier-clad peaks rolling away to far horizons.
That describes my family’s weeklong, roughly 60-mile, hut-to-hut trek through Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park—whose name means the “Home of the Giants.”
Our adventure combined pristine wilderness with the most luxurious huts I’ve ever stayed in—many featuring private rooms, hot showers, and restaurant-caliber meals—a trail network that allows for flexibility in route options, and optional side hikes to summits with mind-blowing views of mountains buried in snow and ice, including the highest peak in Norway. Some of us also hiked a spectacular ridge traverse known as “the most famous hike in Norway,” which I’d normally receive as a warning sign, but in this case, it’s a rigorous hike that I’d return to in a second.
Read “Walking Among Giants: A Three-Generation Hut Trek in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park.”
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See the Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness
When you’re ready for a backpacking trip with challenge to match its scenery, then take on the 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. You’ll enjoy five-star views of Glacier Peak, the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, and incredible mountain lakes.
To give you some perspective on how big a fan I am of this near-loop, this trip produced one campsite (the Upper Lyman Lakes basin) that made my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites, two camps (Phelps Basin and Spider Gap) that grace my list of the nicest campsites I’ve hiked past, and it harbors one of my favorite backcountry lakes (Image Lake).
Plus, this hike has a little spice: the off-trail route over 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which holds snow all summer and can be challenging, depending on the firmness of the snow and the skill level of the backpackers.
See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop,” and all of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
Find more ideas and inspiration in my All Trips List, which has a menu of all stories at this blog, and in “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.