With an iconic selection of national parks, a number of challenging long-distance hiking trails, and vast tracts of remote wilderness, there is no better country on earth to go backpacking in than the United States of America. Whether you are looking for a classic hiking experience in the world-famous Yosemite National Park, or the chance to take on an epic hiking route like the rolling Appalachian Trail, America has you covered with its amazing backpacking trips.
This guide to America’s top backpacking trips will show you the best the country has to offer. This is so you can make the most of your next backpacking adventure.
The John Muir Trail, California
Starting amongst the iconic vistas of Yosemite National Park and running to the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, the John Muir Trail is 210 miles of thrilling backpacking. This park is named after the renowned naturalist John Muir who pressed for the creation of America’s first national parks in the 19th century. The trail cuts across the High Sierras and alongside Yosemite, encompassing King’s Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. These national parks are famed for their deep glacial valleys and towering redwoods. Most hikers take on this epic challenge during August and September. This is when the trails of the High Sierras are usually snow-free. Many can complete the trip in around three weeks.
Despite being one of America’s more popular long-distance backpacking routes, the trail is no tourist hotspot. There is little catered accommodation along the way so a good quality tent and extensive meal preparation is essential, although some small stores can be found in the various national parks to replenish your supplies.
The Hundred Mile Wilderness On The Appalachian Trail, Maine
Crossing fourteen states and running for nearly 2200 miles up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is known colloquially as the ‘granddaddy’ of America’s long-distance hiking routes. For most backpackers who have a day job, doing the entire trail in one go is a non-starter. So, the best option is to tackle it in stages. The most spectacular route is Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness.
Famous for its total isolation, this stretch of the Appalachian Trail is a bucket list trail if there was one. Starting in the village of Monson, the trail cuts across some of the Eastern Seaboard’s most breathtaking landscapes. It then culminates in an ascent of Katahdin Mountain; the state’s highest peak and the Appalachian Trail’s endpoint. Highlights of the Hundred Mile Wilderness include the vistas offered by Chairback Mountain and the spectacular Lower Wilson Falls. However, the best aspect of the trail is simply its unspoiled nature.
With no facilities located on the trail, backpackers will need to bring a sturdy tent and plenty of food supplies. The best time of year to tackle this route is between June and August. Throughout the rest of the year, Maine’s climate can be changeable and the trail may be closed due to high winds.
The Highline Trail, Utah
Snaking across 100 miles of high alpine scenery in the Uinta Mountains, Utah’s Highline Trail is one of America’s most underrated long-distance backpacking trails. Crossing eight passes that all exceed 11,200 feet, the Highline Trail is also one of America’s most consistently high-altitude trails. It is recommended that backpackers spend a day or two acclimatizing before starting their epic journey.
Running east to west, the trail begins at McKee Draw and ends at Hayden Pass. It then passes through some of Utah’s most impressive landscapes. While the trail does have some major draws, its main feature is its expansive alpine views.
Being one of the United States’ lesser tread hiking trails, the Highline Trail is less maintained than other routes. At many points, the route is marked by little more than cairns and is without a clearly defined path. As such, it is advised that only backpackers with good navigation skills attempt this route.
Kesugi Ridge Trail In Denali State Park, Alaska
With breathtaking views of Denali, otherwise known as Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, Kesugi Ridge Trail is one of the United States’ most impressive hiking trails. While this route only measures 60 miles, its isolation and astounding scenery make it a must for any backpacker.
Starting at Upper Troublesome Creek and ending at Little Coal Creek (both of which are accessible via the Alaska Highway), the trail encompasses a jaw-dropping assortment of natural wonders. This includes large erratic boulders and vistas of the Denali massif in the distance.
The best time of year to explore the Kesugi Ridge is in late summer (July, August, or September). By this time, the snow will have melted. Also, it is advisable to take bear spray with you as Denali State Park has one of North America’s largest populations of grizzlies.
The Grand Enchantment Trail, Arizona & New Mexico
Despite starting and finishing in two of the Southwest’s biggest cities, the Grand Enchantment Trail is one of America’s finest backpacking trails. Created in 2003 from existing footpaths, this trail totals more than 700 miles. Although it can be tackled in one go, it is also easy to break up into more manageable sections.
This can last anywhere between a couple of days and a week. While the isolated desert landscape may be what draws most backpackers to the Great Enchantment, it is equally famous for passing by the unforgettable Gila Cliff Dwellings. For example, you can explore a cave village constructed by the native Pueblo people in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The best time to take on the Great Enchantment is during spring. This is when the water levels are still relatively high and temperatures have not yet soared to their summer highs.
The Ozark Highlands Trail, Arkansas
The biggest backpacking secret in America is the Midwest, as the underrated Ozarks of Arkansas offers some of the most unforgettable scenery in the country. The best way to explore this often forgotten landscape is via the Ozark Highlands Trail. This amazing trail takes you on a 200-mile trip through crystalline lakes, karst mountains, and time-worn farmsteads.
Starting in Lake Fort Smith State Park, the trail leads you past some of Arkansas’ most breathtaking locations. This includes White Rock Mountain, Hare Mountain, and the Lower Buffalo Wilderness Area. Unlike many other trails, the Ozark Highland route can be attempted at any time of year. Also, there are plenty of campsites located at state parks along the way — some of which even have showering facilities.
The Lost Coast Trail, California
Free from luxury cliff-top mansions and congested beachside highways, the Lost Coast Trail showcases California’s glorious coastline. Although this trail clocks in at just over 30 miles long, it remains one of America’s most enchanting backpacking trips. The trail winds its way through fog-shrouded bays, windswept cliff tops and sand bars that are home to sea lions.
Starting at Mattole Beach and culminating at Shelter Cove, the Lost Coast Trail offers spectacular vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the seaside foothills of King Range. The Lost Coast Trail runs right beside the coast and is affected by high tides, so make sure to check the tide schedule before starting your trip.
The Tonto Trail In Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
There is no better way to experience the Grand Canyon than from the Tonto Trail. Starting at Garnet Canyon and ending at Red Canyon, the 70-mile long trail runs along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. It provides astonishing views into its depths.
For the best experience on the Tonto Trail, make sure to book campsites ahead of schedule, as they fill up quickly. Camping outside these sites is not permitted. It is also best to avoid trekking in the peak of summer. This is because during the summer, water is scarce and the temperatures can become dangerously high.
Wonderland Trail In Mount Rainer National Park, Washington
Encircling Mount Rainer, an active stratovolcano deep in the Washington wilderness, the Wonderland Trail is one of America’s toughest long-distance backpacking trips. While the trail may only be 93 miles long, it has an elevation gain of more than 22,000 feet. This makes it one of the steepest trails in the United States.
The main draw of the Wonderland Trail is the fantastic views it offers of the glacier-capped Mount Rainer and the variety of microclimates it passes through. Thanks to the constant changes in elevations, backpackers can find themselves hiking through temperate rain forests one day and alpine meadows the next. This makes for a long-distance backpacking trip that will never get repetitive. Camping is only allowed in the designated campsites that are interspersed along the route. These can book up well in advance so it is best to plan ahead.