By Michael Lanza
We all want our wilderness backpacking trips to have two sometimes conflicting qualities: mind-blowing scenery, but also few other people around. A high degree of solitude somehow makes the backcountry feel bigger and wilder and the views more breathtaking. However unrealistic the notion may be, we like to believe we have some stunning corner of nature to ourselves. But in the real world, if you head out into popular mountains in July or August or in canyon country in spring or fall, you’ll probably have company—maybe more than you prefer.
Not on these trips, though.
From a lonely corner of the majestic High Sierra to the North Cascades region, Utah’s High Uintas, the Wind River Range, and Idaho’s beloved Sawtooths to the Eagle Cap Wilderness and a rugged adventure in the Grand Canyon, here are seven multi-day hikes where you’re guaranteed to enjoy a degree of solitude—at least on long stretches of the trip—that’s equal to the scenery. All of these trips meet several of my “12 Expert Tips For Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”
They also happen to be some favorite trips among countless wilderness walks I’ve taken over more than three decades (and counting) of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Please tell me what you think of these trips—or add your own suggestions—in the comments at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
And I can help you plan any of them (or any trip you read about at this blog). See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.
Table of Contents
Glacier Peak Wilderness
The five-day, 44-mile Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass loop in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness has earned a reputation for spiciness—which keeps the crowds down. The reason is the off-trail route over 7,100-foot Spider Gap, which holds snow all summer and can be hazardous, depending on the firmness of the snow.
But for backpackers with the skills to manage that pass—which isn’t terribly steep or dangerous when done in soft-snow conditions, as my family did when our kids were 12 and 10—the rewards include five-star views of Glacier Peak and the sea of lower, jagged mountains surrounding it, some of the best backcountry campsites you’ll ever have (or perhaps hike past), and unforgettable wildflower displays and panoramas like you get from Liberty Cap, a short side hike from Buck Creek Pass (photo above).
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John Muir Wilderness
On a 32-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, hardest, and most achingly gorgeous strips of California’s High Sierra—in the John Muir Wilderness (lead photo at top of story), from North Lake, outside Bishop, to Mosquito Flat—a friend and I linked up trails with long stretches of cross-country hiking to explore lake-studded alpine basins and cross six passes between 11,150 and 13,040 feet.
The payoff for our labors and the route’s difficulty was seeing corners of the Sierra rarely visited by people. If you’re up for a multi-day hike that some searching for safe, non-technical routes through cliff bands, descending steep, loose scree, and scrambling over big talus blocks—as well as enjoying some of the most picturesque backcountry and campsites you’ve ever seen—this one is for you.
See my story “In the Footsteps of John Muir: Finding Solitude in the High Sierra,” and all of my stories about the High Sierra and backpacking trips in California at The Big Outside.
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High Uintas Wilderness
The first hint at the solitude we’d enjoy on this 57-mile loop hike in northeastern Utah’s High Uintas (including an optional 11-mile dayhike of Kings Peak, highest in Utah) came at the trailhead, where there were two cars. We didn’t see another person until the second evening in camp, on a mountain lake we had to ourselves, when two hikers passed by and one remarked, “Well, there are other people out here!” Our third day passed without encountering another human and we had a campsite for two nights in an 11,000-foot basin ringed by 13,000-foot peaks with no one in sight. And we passed four or five other backpackers on the trip’s last two days. This was in the third week of July, with most of the snow melted out of the Uintas.
Southern Sawtooth Mountains
I’ve dayhiked, backpacked, and climbed numerous times in Idaho’s glorious Sawtooths, peaks that look to me like a love child of the High Sierra and the Tetons (if somewhat smaller); and with the exception of a few popular spots, I wouldn’t describe them as crowded. But for solitude and scenery that justifies my “love child” claim, I recommend diving deep into the range’s interior.
On a 57-mile trip from the Queens River Trailhead, penetrating an area that’s a solid two days’ walk from the nearest roads, a friend and I saw some of the prettiest and loneliest mountain lakes of the dozens that grace the Sawtooths, and lonely valleys framed by endless rows of jagged peaks.
See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and all of my stories about the Sawtooths.
Get the best gear for your trips. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 7 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Wind River Range
Wyoming’s Winds aren’t exactly unknown, but this range that extends for over 100 miles possesses the essential qualities that keep the numbers of people low: serious remoteness from major population centers and airports; abundant wilderness and enough gorgeous lakes to disperse human visitors; and relatively high elevations and rugged terrain that impose significant demands of time and effort to explore.
Example: Even though the Elkhart Park trailhead parking lot outside Pinedale, Wyoming, was nearly full when two friends and I set out on a 41-mile loop during a spell of perfect mid-September weather, we saw only a handful of other backpacker parties on a trip that took in lovely Island Lake (and dozens of other lakes), Titcomb Basin’s views of 13,000-foot peaks rising 3,000 feet above our tents, an off-trail crossing of a 12,000-foot pass, and the stunning canyon of Pine Creek. And that has commonly been my experience over several trips into the Winds.
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: Dayhiking 27 Miles Across the Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Winds at The Big Outside.
I can help you plan one of these trips or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon
Even in a park where just about any hike would make just about anyone’s top 10 list, the Grand Canyon’s infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop stands out. Starting from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim, the route makes a top-to-bottom-and-back-up circuit of the canyon—going from a words-can’t-do-it-justice panorama at the rim to dipping your toes in the Colorado River. It features lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another—and a high solitude quotient. That’s because of its very rugged character, with miles of off-trail hiking and one (short) rappel. But it’s “grand” enough to have at one time ranked among my top 10 favorite backpacking trips ever and earned a spot on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.
See my story “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop,” and all of my stories about Grand Canyon National Park at The Big Outside.
Eagle Cap Wilderness
I’ll preface this recommendation with a caveat (of the sort you won’t read in any outdoor magazine): Don’t expect solitude in the Lakes Basin, the most popular corner of northeastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, on a nice weekend in August.
That said, much of the 40-mile loop from the East Eagle Trailhead travels valleys and passes that are as lonely as they are pretty, dotted with wildflowers and mountain lakes ringed by granite peaks. Keep an eye out for elk, black bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, and don’t pass up the three-mile, round-trip side hike to the 9,572-foot summit of Eagle Cap, with its cliff-top view overlooking the Lakes Basin and a huge swath of the rocky Wallowa Mountains.
Tell me what you think.
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