This year the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 101st 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 eight backpacking trips in the parks.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 4×4 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.
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.)
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.