10 Awe-Inspiring Wild Places in America’s West

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10 Awe-Inspiring Wild Places in America’s West

By Michael Lanza Over more than three decades of backpacking adventures throughout America’s West, I’ve been fortunate to explore deeply into

By Michael Lanza

Over more than three decades of backpacking adventures throughout America’s West, I’ve been fortunate to explore deeply into our most cherished national parks, wilderness areas, and protected backcountry. Many—indeed, all—are beautiful. But some places rise above the rest, inspiring a sense of awe that can motivate us to reorder our priorities and rearrange our lives—and they have that effect on us every time we return to them. This story spotlights those special places in the West and many trips that you can take in them.

From the High Sierra to the Wind River Range, the Cascades to the best of southern Utah, Glacier, the Tetons and Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon and more, the 10 places and more than 40 trips described below comprise a tick list of five-star adventures that will keep you busy for years. (They have done exactly that for me.)


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A backpacker at Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.
Todd Arndt at Park Creek Pass, North Cascades National Park.

All of these adventures possess unique qualities that make them feel extraordinary while you’re out there and stay with you for a long time afterward—and I say that from the perspective of having taken scores of backpacking trips all over the country for more than 30 years, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

The descriptions below all link to stories at The Big Outside with many more images and information. (Those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my expert tips on planning each trip.)

Please share your thoughts about my list or any suggestions you have for similarly awe-inspiring adventures in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

A backpacker hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Todd Arndt backpacking to Island Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

The Wind River Range

You could count on the fingers of one hand—without needing every finger—the number of Lower 48 mountain ranges where you can hike for days below rows of jagged 13,000-foot peaks, passing more of the prettiest alpine lakes you’ve ever seen than other people. And one of those places is Wyoming’s Wind River Range (lead photo at top of story).

Justin Glass at a small tarn on the Wind River High Route.

On a roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park, two friends and I spent a night in one of the most awe-inspiring spots in the West, Titcomb Basin, an alpine valley at over 10,000 feet where evening alpenglow painted a granite wall of 13,000-footers above us golden. Our route crossed three 12,000-foot passes, one via an adventurous, off-trail route over that led into a lovely hanging valley.

A couple of summers ago, three companions made 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 loved.

As I’ve learned on several multi-day trips into the Winds: Being there can make you believe that these are the most magnificent mountains you’ve ever seen. And you might be right about that. The Winds keep pulling me back: I just backpacked a new route (for me) last month; watch for my upcoming story about it.

See “5 Reasons You Must Backpack the Wind River Range,” “Best of the Wind River Range: Backpacking to Titcomb Basin,” “A Walk in the Winds: A One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and all stories about backpacking in the Winds at The Big Outside.

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A tarn near Helen Lake, along the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.
A tarn near Helen Lake, along the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.

The High Sierra

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite.
The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite.

Every time I return to explore another area of California’s High Sierra—as I did again this past summer, backpacking over 120 miles in nine days, mostly on the John Muir Trail through Kings Canyon National Park and the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses (watch for my upcoming story about that trip)—I’m reminded of just how magnificent and vast this mountain range is.

Spanning three iconic national parks—Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite—and several national forests and wilderness areas, with thousands of miles of trails and alpine lakes, the Sierra offers endless opportunities for backpacking trips of any length and enough adventures to fill multiple lifetimes.

Several backpacking trips and dayhikes in Yosemite, where the beauty never ends, even after you’ve hit all the best-known corners; hiking a 40-mile loop with my family in Sequoia, crossing passes up to 11,630 feet and marveling over a landscape the camera loved; climbing the Lower 48’s highest peak, Mount Whitney, with my son; thru-hiking the JMT and other trips have given me a good base of knowledge about the Sierra—and only whetted my appetite for more.

See “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” my stories about thru-hiking the JMT and climbing Mount Whitney, my expert e-guides to three stellar backpacking trips in Yosemite, plus all stories about backpacking the JMT and backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.

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A backpacker on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to backpacking the Wonderland Trail.

The Cascade Range

Stretching 700 miles from northern California through Oregon and Washington into southern British Columbia, the Cascade Range—with the notable exception of Mount Rainier—does not reach the heights of the Sierra. But the range is nearly twice as long and harbors some of the finest backpacking trails in the country, both famous and relatively obscure.

A backpacker on the Timberline Trail around Oregon's Mount Hood.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood.

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Washington’s 14,410-foot Mount Rainier belongs on any list of America’s best backpacking trips—for the countless, jarring views of the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48, some of the most beautiful wildflower meadows you will ever see, numerous waterfalls and cascades, raging rivers gray with “glacial flour,” and sightings of mountain goats, marmots, and black bears.

See my stories about my backpacking trip on what I consider the best sections of the Wonderland, “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” and my expert e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.”

Glacier Peak looming above Image Lake in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Glacier Peak looming above Image Lake in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The 41-mile Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood rivals the Wonderland for wildflowers, waterfalls, and scenery, including frequent views of 11,239-foot Mount Hood. The Timberline also serves up challenges like potentially edgy creek fords—and it requires less than half the time of hiking the entire Wonderland, with no permit complications. See my story “Full of Surprises: Backpacking Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.”

Check out these three other very worthy Cascades backpacking trips:

• The stunning and adventurous, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.
• A 44-mile loop in the sprawling Pasayten Wilderness, combining the Pacific Crest Trail and more-remote and lonely trails with equally great scenery.
• And an 80-mile hike, with shorter variations, that delivers a grand tour of North Cascades National Park.

I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

A backpacker descending the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking the trail off Maze Overlook in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

Southern Utah

Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.
Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.

The national parks and other wildlands of southern Utah protect some of the best dayhikes and backpacking trips in America—period. But among all the multi-day hikes at the bottom of Utah, four stand head and shoulders above the rest: the Needles and Maze districts of Canyonlands National Park, Paria Canyon, and Zion’s Narrows.

In the more user-friendly Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, stratified cliffs stretch for miles and trails zigzag across waves of slickrock slabs below multi-colored sandstone candlesticks rising 300 feet tall. Across the Green River, in the Maze District, trails lead from overlooks of a vast, chaotic sweep of sandstone fins, towers, and canyons to circuitous routes through canyons that could only be called the Maze. With very rugged hiking through a hard-to-reach corner of the Southwest where water sources often dry up seasonally, the Maze is unquestionably hard—and a holy grail for serious Southwest backpackers.

Famous among backpackers for its towering walls of orange-red sandstone painted wildly with desert varnish and illuminated by reflected sunlight, hanging gardens where springs pour from rock, and campsites on sandy benches shaded by cottonwood trees, Paria Canyon is a must-do adventure amplified by pockets of quicksand. Hike it top to bottom or combined with its 15-mile-long tributary slot canyon, Buckskin Gulch—which gets so tight that you must take off your pack and squeeze through sideways.

A backpacker in The Narrows in Zion National Park.
David Gordon backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.

The Narrows of Zion National Park certainly ranks among America’s top 10 backpacking trips and the best in the Southwest. Much of the magic lies in seeing it change as you literally walk deeper into the earth, splashing down the river through dark, tight passages and seeing springs gush from solid rock, creating lush desert oases. Backpack the 14-mile route from top to bottom, spending a night in the canyon to savor the solitude of an evening below walls that soar 1,000 feet tall and a slice of black sky bursting with stars.

See my stories “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze,” “The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon,” and “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows” and my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Narrows in Zion National Park.”

Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks”
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

 

A hiker at Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park.
Todd Arndt at Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park

Few wild lands inspire feelings of awe as often and as intensely as Glacier. Besides almost constant views of mountains unlike any in America, on many multi-day hikes in Glacier you will see rivers of ice pouring off of craggy mountains and cliffs, some of the more than 760 lakes, and often mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose—possibly even a few grizzly and black bears: I’ve seen bears on every backpacking trip I’ve taken there.

Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park.
Early morning at Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your Glacier trip.

Those hikes have included what I consider the best backpacking trip in Glacier as well as a 94-mile, north-to-south traverse of the park, combining the primary Continental Divide Trail route through Glacier and my hand-picked variations off it to hit what I believe comprise the park’s finest areas.

See my stories “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” and “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the two longer hikes referenced above, and my stories “Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats: A 3-Day Hike on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail” about a family backpacking trip when our kids were young and “The 7 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park.”

Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Glacier, Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.

Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park.
Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon

If you’re on a quest for sheer thrills, five-star scenery, immersion in a vast wilderness, beautiful campsites, repeated episodes of children and adults shrieking with joy, world-class trout fishing, and an experience you’re guaranteed to want to repeat, few trips my family has taken compare to rafting and kayaking Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Flowing like an artery through the heart of the second-largest federal wilderness in the continental United States, the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is widely considered second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in terms of raw beauty. My family might argue it’s better—and we’re eagerly looking forward to our next Middle Fork trip (which, yes, is already booked).

See my stories about my family’s two trips on the Middle Fork, “Reunions of the Heart on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River” and “Big Water, Big Wilderness: Rafting Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River,” both of them—and our next scheduled trip—with Middle Fork Rapid Transmit.

If every American should visit Yellowstone National Park—and every American should—those who long to explore its unique and rich backcountry should embark on the park’s best backpacking trip, through Bechler Canyon. Hiking for miles along the Bechler River Trail, beside a five-star trout stream, you’ll pass several thunderous waterfalls—including 45-foot Iris Falls and Colonnade Falls, where the Bechler River plunges 35 feet over an upper falls and another 67 feet over a second drop.

The trip features bracing river fords—which pose little risk beyond chattering teeth (a friend and I made our trip’s last ford in strong, frigid wind and wet snow falling in late September)—possible sightings of bison, bears and other wildlife; the opportunity to explore Yellowstone’s largest backcountry geyser basin near the shore of one of the park’s biggest backcountry lakes; and the icing on the cake: soaking in a natural hot springs-fed pool called Mr. Bubble.

See my story “In Hot (and Cold) Water: Backpacking Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon” and all stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside.

Any trip goes better with the right gear. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 10 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”

Backpackers on the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton and Todd Arndt backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

The Grand Canyon

What can be said about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? What words can measure up to the scale and majesty of this place—its infinite vistas, the deceptive immensity of the canyon walls and stone towers, the intimate side canyons where waterfalls pour through green gardens in the desert?

A backpacker on the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon.
David Ports backpacking the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon.

In this landscape of incomparable scenery, multi-day hikes vary from beginner-friendly to notoriously strenuous and challenging. Having ticked off some of the canyon’s best multi-day hikes—South Kaibab to Lipan Point, including the Escalante Route and Beamer Trail, Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, Grandview Point to South Kaibab Trailhead, the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, the New Hance Trail to Grandview Point, the Royal Arch Loop, the Utah Flats Route and Clear Creek Trail—and hiked and run rim-to-rim-to-rim multiple times in a day, I’m still scheming my next trip there.

The canyon has no peers. Every backpacker should go there.

See my stories “7 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do,” “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon,” and all stories about Grand Canyon backpacking trips at The Big Outside.

Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”

A hiker above the Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Lisa Fenton hiking the Middle Fork Salmon River Trail, part of the Idaho Wilderness Trail, in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The Idaho Wilderness

Anyone following my blog for very long knows my affection for Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains—my backyard wilderness. But central Idaho harbors nearly four million more acres of almost-contiguous wilderness beyond the 217,000 acres in the Sawtooths: the 1.3-million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which is larger than many national parks, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Glacier; and the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (“the Frank”), largest in the Lower 48 and bigger than Yellowstone.

If this vast realm of mountains and canyons—divided by just one rural highway and two remote dirt roads—were contained within one national park, it would be America’s third-largest.

Several years ago, I asked the Idaho Conservation League to help me create a long-distance backpacking trail through the state’s three signature wilderness areas. The result is the 296-mile-long Idaho Wilderness Trail, which crosses mountain passes over 9,000 feet and meanders below dramatic spires from the Bighorn Crags in the Frank to the Sawtooths. It follows three designated wild and scenic rivers, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, Main Salmon, and the Selway, and traces the shores of innumerable alpine lakes.

Morning light at Middle Cramer Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Morning light at Middle Cramer Lake, along the Idaho Wilderness Trail in Idaho’s Sawtooths. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

It also traverses pristine lands that are home to mountain goats and bighorn sheep, elk and moose, black bears, a population of wolves estimated to be at least seven times larger than that in Yellowstone—and that protect some of the nation’s best remaining habitat in the Lower 48 for restoring wild salmon.

Perhaps most uniquely, the IWT offers the kind of solitude you simply cannot find on most long-distance trails. In fact, many backpackers have never even heard of the wilderness areas the trail traverses.

See my stories “America’s Newest Long Trail: The Idaho Wilderness Trail” and “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and all stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside.

Which puffy should you buy? See “The 10 Best Down Jackets”
and “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”

 

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail, Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo for my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.”

The Tetons

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in the North Fork Cascade Canyon.

This list would not feel complete with Wyoming’s iconic Teton Range. Fairly beginner-friendly in terms of difficulty and navigation, a place where you may come upon a marmot, moose, elk, or black or grizzly bear, and so constantly picturesque from the campsites to the high passes and vast fields of wildflowers that it almost shocks the senses, these razor peaks never fail to dazzle.

I’ve returned to the Tetons more than 20 times over the past three-plus decades, most recently in August 2019, backpacking—again—my favorite variation of the Teton Crest Trail, universally considered one of the best backpacking trips in America. Two of my all-time favorite backcountry campsites lie along the TCT.

While the Teton Crest Trail captures the imagination of most backpackers, any multi-day hike in the Tetons will rank among the best hikes you’ve ever done. (Check out “The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park.”)

See “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Grand Teton National Park,” “10 Great, Big Dayhikes in the Tetons,” all stories about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside, and my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park,” which tells you everything you need to know to plan and pull off that trip—including how to get one of the most coveted and difficult-to-reserve backcountry permits in the National Park System.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

 

Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Ouzel Lake in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Rocky Mountain National Park

The Colorado Rockies, with 58 peaks that rise higher than 14,000 feet and another whopping 637 that stand between 13,000 and 13,999 feet, have drawn hikers and mountain climbers like mice to peanut butter for decades. But for many, the Colorado Rockies reach their scenic apex in Rocky Mountain National Park.

While not nearly as large as other Western parks like Glacier or Yosemite, Rocky nonetheless offers some excellent and relatively beginner-friendly options for multi-day hikes. I’ve backpacked there on both sides of the Continental Divide, including taking my kids when they were young on a short, three-day hike in Wild Basin, in the park’s southeast corner, south of the park’s tallest and most famous mountain, 14,259-foot Longs Peak.

We camped our first night beside a small creek where the kids played for hours, and our second night a short walk from the shore of lovely Ouzel Lake, nestled in ponderosa pine forest at just over 10,000 feet, below a striking wall of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks.

See my story about backpacking with my young kids in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Scroll through the All Trips List for a menu of stories at The Big Outside.

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