By Michael Lanza
I often get asked the question, “What’s your favorite trip?” And I don’t have an answer. To pick just one from all the amazing adventures I’ve had the good fortune to take over the past three decades feels like an impossible task. Instead, I’ve just updated this list of my 10 all-time favorites (so far). It includes some of America’s best backpacking trips, from the Teton Crest Trail and John Muir Trail to Glacier National Park; hiking across the Grand Canyon; trekking in Iceland, Patagonia, Norway, and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains (photo above); and some places that might surprise you.
As you’re planning your next great adventures—as you should be doing at this time of year—consider that my picks are chosen from scores of backpacking, dayhiking, paddling, trekking, and other trips I’ve taken, domestically and internationally, over a period of time that includes the 10 years I spent as a writer for Backpacker magazine and other publications and even longer running this blog.
Some of the trips described below—each with a link to the full feature story about it at The Big Outside, which has my tips on planning it (and those require a paid subscription to read in full)—are classics you’ve heard or read about. But others are places you may not know of—because I feel a list like this should introduce you to someplace new. That’s what adventure is all about.
See also my picks for “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips” for more ideas; some of these trips could have made either list. See also my expert e-guides to some of America’s best backpacking trips and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at The Big Outside.
I’d love to hear what you think of this list and any suggestions for trips you think belong on it. Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Make it a very happy new year.
Sea Kayaking Alaska’s Glacier Bay
Few corners of the planet remain as pristine as this national park that’s the size of Connecticut, which sits at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness the size of Greece. On a multi-day sea kayaking trip here, you can see massive tidewater glaciers explosively calving bus-sized chunks of ice into the sea, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, mountain goats, seals, sea otters, brown bears, and a variety of birds and wildflowers. It feels like traveling back in time to the end of the last ice age.
See my story about my family’s five-day sea kayaking trip in Glacier Bay, “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
The Teton Crest Trail is, step for step, unquestionably one of the most gorgeous mountain walks in America, a true classic offering all the elements of an unforgettable backpacking trip: views of the incomparable skyline of the Tetons and deep, cliff-flanked, glacier-scoured canyons; wonderful campsites, wildflowers, mountain lakes and creeks; and a good chance of seeing moose, elk, marmots, pikas, mule deer, and black bears. I fell in love with the Tetons on my first visit, more than 20 years ago, and I’ve returned more than 20 times since to backpack, rock climb, dayhike, bag most of the major summits, canoe, and backcountry ski. I never grow tired of the sight of these peaks.
See my stories “A Wonderful Obsession: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” and “American Classic: Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail at The Big Outside.
Click here now to get my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail” and see this menu of all of my e-guides.
Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail
If hearing the JMT described as “America’s Most Beautiful Trail”—as it often is—seems to you like a hyperbolic claim, then you really must go see for yourself. For mile after jaw-dropping mile, you walk below incisor peaks of clean granite, past more waterfalls than anyone could name in a thousand lifetimes, along pristine wilderness lakes nestled in rocky basins, and over passes topping 12,000 and 13,000 feet with views that stretch a hundred miles. Whether or not you agree with that nickname “America’s Most Beautiful Trail,” it will be one of the most wonderful research projects you’ve ever done.
See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?”
Want my help planning your hike on the Teton Crest Trail, JMT, or another trip? Click here now for expert advice you won’t get elsewhere.
Trekking Patagonia: Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park
One of the most prized trekking destinations in the world, Torres del Paine National Park is a place of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, and some of the world’s largest glaciers pouring into emerald lakes. Of twisted lenga trees, raging whitewater rivers, and the most relentless winds you’ve ever encountered. Patagonia is a dream destination for backpackers all over the world. Read this story to learn how to do Patagonia right.
See my story “Patagonian Classic: Trekking Torres del Paine.”
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Exploring Deep into the Grand Canyon
Know this before you go to the Grand Canyon: This place will steal your heart. That has been my experience from numerous trips over the years, from rim-to-rim-to-rim dayhikes to multi-day hikes on some of the canyon’s most remote and rugged paths. Now, every return visit just fuels my hunger to go back yet again to explore another corner I haven’t seen yet.
Choose the dayhike or backpacking trip that looks most appealing and suits your skills and experience, and just go see this seemingly infinite complex of twisting side canyons, walls stacked in multi-colored layers, and an army of stone towers. If you’re like me, you will end up going back again and again.
See my numerous stories about Grand Canyon National Park at The Big Outside, including this photo gallery about hiking rim to rim to rim over two days, and all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Trekking the Alta Via 2 Through Italy’s Dolomite Mountains
The Alta Via 2, or “The Way of the Legends,” a roughly 112-mile (180k) alpine footpath through one of the world’s most spectacular and storied mountain ranges, Italy’s Dolomites, is famous for many attributes, including comfortable mountain huts with excellent food; a reputation for being the most remote and difficult of the several multi-day alte vie (plural for alta via), or “high paths,” that crisscross the Dolomites; and scenery that puts it in legitimate contention for the title of the most beautiful trail in the world.
Read about my family’s weeklong, hut-to-hut trek on a 39-mile (62k) section of the AV 2 in my story “’The World’s Most Beautiful Trail:’ Trekking the Alta Via 2 in Italy’s Dolomites.”
See which section of the Alta Via 2 made my “25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”
Click here to learn how I can help you plan this incomparable trek.
Backpacking in Glacier National Park
Think of Glacier National Park and you think of mountain scenery that truly justifies a severely overused adjective: awesome. You think of wildlife sightings that are possible in few places in the Lower 48: bighorn sheep, moose, elk, so many mountain goats you may lose count, and black bears and grizzly bears.
There are two 90-mile hikes in Glacier that make my list of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips:” The first is a tour of northern Glacier, broken up into two hikes, a 65-miler and a 25-miler, and simplified logistically by the park’s free shuttle buses. The second is a north-south traverse through Glacier mostly on the Continental Divide Trail, from Chief Mountain Trailhead at the Canadian border to Two Medicine. Both trips deliver everything that makes Glacier a favorite of backpackers: sightings of bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, moose, and maybe even grizzlies. Go in September and you’ll probably hear elk bugling almost every morning and evening.
See my story about the first, two-stage, 90-mile hike, “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” about the 94-mile traverse through Glacier. And see all stories about backpacking in Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier, which also describe shorter itinerary options.
Adventuring in Iceland
Do you believe in elves? Icelanders do, or at least enough to route highways around places considered the abodes of elves and trolls. This belief may draw inspiration from a landscape of raw beauty that has shaped the values of its people. Smaller than Kentucky, the country has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. While exploring rugged trails through old lava flows, thermal features spewing steam into the sky, and mind-boggling waterfalls and glaciers, I began to think of Iceland as like a first crush, a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to fall in love with, hard to leave. You will feel the same way.
Read my story “Earth, Wind, and Fire: A Journey to the Planet’s Beginnings in Iceland.”
Take the world’s best trips. See all stories about international adventures at The Big Outside.
Traversing Utah’s Capitol Reef
You probably didn’t expect to see Capitol Reef on this list, did you? Well, I’ve long considered it one of our most underappreciated national parks (and I’ve visited numerous times and posted stories about other trips there at The Big Outside). But when my friend Steve Howe, a local guide and longtime explorer of Capitol Reef’s backcountry, told me that a mostly off-trail, three-day, 17-mile traverse he’d mapped out—crossing canyons, steep scree and slickrock, and passes among the towering cliffs and domes of Capitol Reef’s signature geologic formation, the Waterpocket Fold—is as scenic as the John Muir Trail, I had to see for myself. He wasn’t exaggerating.
See my story “The Most Beautiful Hike You’ve Never Heard of: Crossing Utah’s Capitol Reef.”
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Trekking Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park
Hike every day through a starkly beautiful, Arctic-like landscape of mountains plastered with snow and ice, and valleys bisected by rushing streams or filled with iceberg-choked lakes. Then spend every night in the most comfortable mountain huts you have ever encountered, eating meals fit for a four-star restaurant—that’s trekking Jotunheimen. From the multi-cultural experience to exciting stream fords and the opportunity for more challenging, optional side hikes—like the steep scramble up a peak named Kirkja and the all-day hike to Norway’s highest summit, Galdhøpiggen—this adventure was a home run for everyone in our group, age nine to 75.
See my story “Walking Among Giants: A Three-Generation Hut Trek in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park.”
See also my story describing my top 10 family adventures, and a menu of every story about outdoor adventures at my Trips page at The Big Outside.