This year the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th birthday. Over the past century, the agency has protected and managed a system that has grown to now include 59 parks in 27 states and ranges from famed summer-vacation destination icons like Yellowstone and Yosemite to the remote 8.4 million wild acres of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic and tropical paradises like Florida’s Dry Tortugas. Of course, the parks can be popular, but don’t let that scare you away this summer. The best way to truly immerse yourself in these wild landscapes is to get away from the gawking roadside crowds and spend days exploring their deep, primal secrets by foot. To that end, and to celebrate a hundred years of the NPS, we offer up these best ten backpacking trips in the parks. —Doug Schnitzspahn
Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier
Photograph by Cliff Leight
Location: Washington State
Length: 93-mile loop
Days on the Trail: 7 to 14
All the attention at Mount Rainier National Park is on the 14,410-foot summit. For good reason: The active (though slumbering) volcano rises like an island in the sky above the rain clouds and evergreens of the surrounding Cascades, and routes to the top range from the standard slog up Disappointment Cleaver to more difficult alpine ascents up Liberty Ridge. But the park encompasses more than the peak, and the nearly hundred-mile-long Wonderland Trail circles the mountain and makes for what just might be the best life-list backpacking trip in the national parks.
Along the way, the route explores a wilderness far different than the snowfields and crevasses high above. Down here you’ll be immersed in a world of green and meadows rife with wild flowers, as well as foraging herds of elk and the occasional black bear. But that iconic peak is always towering above it all, a massive sentinel of snow and rock that dominates the skyline.
Dive Deeper: There are 20 designated campsites that the park maintains along the route. Be sure to stay at the serene Golden Lakes site, named for the chain of lakes here that catch the glow of sunset.
Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley in Yosemite
Photograph by Cliff Leight
Length: 28 miles one-way
Days on the Trail: 2 to 5
Sure, Yosemite is world-famous for its big-wall climbing scene, especially on the iconic granite faces of El Capitan and Half Dome. And the culture of climbing has become integrated into the fabric of the park itself. But this place is home to a lot more than extreme sports and hippies with haul bags.
Centered on the cliffs of the Yosemite Valley, the park also protects vast tracts of the moody and secluded Sierra. This backpacking trip begins at Tuolumne Meadows and climbs up onto the granite backbone of the range, stopping at lakes and wandering through giant stands of pine before heading back down to the iconic valley. The trail serves up some stunning views of Half Dome and at night hikers can even spot the tiny pinpricks of the headlamps of climbers camping in portaledges thousands of feet above the valley floor.
Dive Deeper: Spend a night at the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, a historic institution on the blue waters of Lake Merced. This area was explored by wilderness sage John Muir, who said of the national parks: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
The Thorofare in Yellowstone
Photograph by Tom Murphy
Location: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Length: 68 miles one-way via Nine Mile Trailhead through Thorofare Patrol Cabin to South Boundary Trailhead
Days on the Trail: 7 to 14
The Thorofare is a general term for the most remote region of massive Yellowstone National Park, and in its depths is the point in the continental U.S. that is farthest from any road, dirt or paved. So it’s no surprise that this last corner of what was once the vast American wildness is chock-full of wildlife.
True to its name, this area where the Yellowstone River bursts down from the high Absaroka Range and then mellows into a marshy complex of meanders before draining into Yellowstone Lake is an important migration corridor for the park’s wildlife—especially its most charismatic megafauna, the grizzly bear. Spend time back here and you are sure to see herds of elk and maybe even the area’s resident wolf pack on the prowl. That proximity to the primeval makes this the crown jewel of backpacking adventures in the national parks.
Dive Deeper: The historic Thorofare Patrol Cabin, which park rangers still use, sits midway through the trip (32 miles from the trailhead), a little oasis of civilization and the farthest human habitation from a road in the lower 48.
North Coast Route in Olympic
Photograph by Ethan Welty
Location: Washington State
Length: 20 miles from Lake Ozette to Rialto Beach
Days on the Trail: 2 to 4
Alone in a dream-state of rain forests at the far northwest corner of Washington, Olympic National Park takes in an incredible range of ecosystems, starting at the edge of the Pacific and rising all the way up to the high alpine glaciers of 7,980-foot Mount Olympus. It’s also the setting of the best beach backpacking trip in the continental United States.
But this is no spot for sunbathing. It’s a primordial place where massive driftwood tree trunks pile up on the rocky shore and breakers pound against sea stacks that look like ghostly shipwrecks just off the beach. Tide pools here are natural aquariums, offering up-close views of anemones, brittle stars, and crabs that thrive in this border zone. All that makes the North Coast Route an ideal trip for kids and adults alike.
Dive Deeper: Don’t be fooled by the easy beach walking. The tides here come in quick and can close off sections of the route and leave hapless hikers scrambling on wet rocks and headlands. Be sure to carry a tide table and plan to cross trouble sections, where hikers can get caught between the rising sea and the cliffs, when the sea is out.
Mount Sterling Loop in Great Smoky
Photograph by Justin Bailie
Location: North Carolina and Tennessee
Length: 28-mile loop
Days on the Trail: 4
The most visited property in the National Park System, Great Smoky Mountains National Park follows the backbone of that ancient mountain range along the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s a paradise of hidden valleys and mountaintops with wide panoramas, including 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Volunteer State and third highest east of the Mississippi. The park is also transected by the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail; this backpacking trip hops aboard that most famous of long distance thru-hikes.
It also takes in the diverse range of microclimates within the park that made it worthy for distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage site, starting in the choked, dark stream of Big Creek and climbing up to high windswept ridges. (Note: The park offers up countless options for backpacking loops; this specific itinerary is offered as a guided jaunt with the Wildland Trekking Company.)
Dive Deeper: The loop climbs to the top of 5,842-foot Mount Sterling, one of the best spots to survey the wide expanse of the Smoky Mountains below. If you want to get even higher, climb up the 60-foot fire tower, which was built in 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, at the summit.
The Maze in Canyonlands
Photograph by Whit Richardson
Length: 20- to 80-plus-mile loops
Days on the Trail: 3 to 12-plus
Canyonlands National Park is a place to wander a bit, test your navigation skills, and leave the easy marked trails behind. This is no hike for the fainthearted: The chaotic labyrinth of red-rock canyons is extremely difficult to navigate. It’s hard to find water here. There’s a good chance hikers will run into dead ends at steep cliff faces, or at least have to negotiate slickrock with nauseating exposure, and a length of rope is pretty much mandatory. Even the trailheads into the maze, many of them down 4x4 roads, are tough to reach. And all those problems are exactly why a trip to its deep secrets is a must-do for lovers of wilderness and adventure.
Dive Deeper: The Colorado River runs along the border of the Maze. One of the best ways for backpackers to start a trip here is to book a motorboat shuttle to Spanish Bottom from Moab. More intrepid travelers can make use of pack rafts.
Cottonwood/Marble Canyon Loop in Death Valley
Photograph by Rachid Dahnoun
Length: 32-mile loop
Days on the Trail: 3 to 5
North America’s vast desert regions often get short shrift. Except, that is, for this famed, inhospitable 3.4-million-acre preserve of the Mojave that contains the lowest elevation point in the continent, 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. This trip explores remote canyons—which sometimes hold water—and shifts from narrow slots to sweeping vistas. It’s best done in the winter, when that water is more prevalent, but the nighttime temperature can drop to surprisingly frigid lows.
The canyons hold secrets, too: ancient rock art and herds of wild horses as well as shade in tall cottonwoods in the sandy bottoms. As a recently created desert park, Death Valley represents a new attitude toward a landscape that was once not thought worth saving. A few nights in these canyons confirm that deserts should be saved as parks.
Dive Deeper: This trip requires navigation and GPS skills, since it is more of a desert ramble than a route on developed trails. If hikers get off route, they will understand why the park has its name. (In other words, the hike is serious. Be prepared and pay careful attention to route finding.)
Brown Pass in Glacier
Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft
Length: 39 miles one-way from Kintla Lake to Bowman Lake
Days on the Trail: 3
The elegant mountains here were—no surprise—carved out by glaciers receding after the last ice age, and those melting ice sheets also left deep, serene lakes in their wake. This hike takes in both peaks and lakeshore. Tucked away in the northwest section of the park, the backpacking trip joins Kintla Lake, located far from the west entrance via a 40-mile drive down dirt roads, with Bowman Lake, which is only slightly closer to civilization.
Along the way, it traverses the quiet shores of each and links the two via the high wilds of Brown Pass deep in a park where the wildlife still runs the show. (Carry bear spray; Glacier’s grizzlies don’t see many humans here.) But the untrammeled alpine here is well worth the hike: Stroll through the riot of wild flowers in the meadows, and don’t miss the 800-foot Hole in the Wall waterfall.
Dive Deeper: Sad truth: Glacier’s glaciers are disappearing. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 25 of the 150 glaciers larger than 25 acres remain in the park, and models predict all of those will be gone by 2030. See them while they remain.
The Grand Loop in Rocky Mountain
Photograph by Richard T. Nowitz
Length: 45-mile loop
Days on the Trail: 3 to 7
It's tough to choose just one classic backpacking trip in this ever popular park, which straddles the Continental Divide and preserves the heart of the lower 48’s longest mountain range. But this trip gets into the heart of the place, starting and ending in popular tourist spots but soon losing the crowds as it climbs into silent nooks and wide-open expanses of high country.
Beginning at Bear Lake on the east side of the divide, the trail climbs up to the exposed reaches of Flattop Mountain, where bighorn sheep roam and deadly lightning storms can whip up in minutes (get off the peak before noon to avoid afternoon squalls). It then dives into remote regions of the park before stopping at Grand Lake, where the luxury-minded can stop for an espresso or even a soft bed, before once again returning to the wilds and topping back over the divide to the start. That voyage takes in everything the park has to offer, from quiet alpine lakes to meadows with herds of elk to soaring granite cliffs.
Dive Deeper: Carry a fly rod along and you will have a chance to catch a true Colorado native, the lovely greenback cutthroat trout. It is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and was once thought to be extinct until it was discovered here in the park in the 1950s. Conservation efforts have ramped up its presence here, but be sure to practice catch and release.
Alatna River to Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic
Photograph by Patrick J. Endres
Length: 30 miles one-way; air shuttle required
Days on the Trail: 7
Want truly wild lands? Deep in the Brooks Range in the land of midnight sun (and winter darkness), the 8.4-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park has no roads and no real trails to speak of. This place truly belongs to the wildlife: Brown bears scavenge the tundra for food, packs of wolves hunt down big and small game, Dall sheep haunt the highlands, and herds of caribou thunder across the park in their great, romantic migrations.
Backpacking trips are only limited by time and wilderness experience, but one of the most popular routes traverses the high, remote (150 miles from the nearest village) headwaters of the Alatna and Noatak Rivers. Up here among the wide-open slopes and the odd, sedimentary formations of the mountains, backpackers can immerse themselves in the deep timelessness of the planet and are more or less guaranteed to witness the comings and goings of Alaska’s wildlife. (Note: This particular trip is offered by hiking guides Arctic Wild, a good option since floatplane logistics and keeping wildlife at bay can be difficult.)
Dive Deeper: The most magical time to visit Gates of the Arctic is during the caribou migrations of the fall, when the roughly 230,000 animals of the western Arctic herd get on the move in one flowing river of life.