The United States of America boasts a wild multitude of natural wonders. Home to an array of biomes, from desert to tundra, the variety of landscapes is only outnumbered by the sheer quantity of areas in which to enjoy them. The states all hold backpackers’ dreams. Trails that traverse canyons, circumnavigate mountains, and skirt coastlines are just a few experiences that await backpackers. With over 50 national parks, more than ten thousand state parks, and millions of acres of public land, there is no lack of America to explore. Rather, the difficult task is trying to decide what trails to do. Although highly subjective, here is a look at a “bucket-list” of the top 10 backpacking trails in the United States. Care has been taken to curate a diverse list, but the task of winnowing down thousands of trails into the ten best is more arduous than actually completing the hikes themselves!
Pacific Crest Trail, Western United States
International borders are the points of terminus for this trail. From Mexico to Canada, the interstate path is approximately 2600 miles long, and has a large share of elevation change along the way. The bulk of the path is in California, with notable passages through or near the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Ranges. Oregon has Mount hood and Washington boasts Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainer along the way. All told, the trek will take hikers through over 20 national forests and 7 national parks. Typically hikers load up on supplies in towns along the way. As the path has become more famous, guidebooks and websites will share exactly where to go to resupply. Another common way to reload food stores is by mail. Many through-hikers mail themselves packages of vittles and gear then pick them up at the predetermined post offices along the way.
Appalachian Trail, Eastern United States
Stretching from Georgia to Maine, this 2000 plus mile trail is a daydream for backpackers from around the world. Forests, mountains, waterfalls, seascapes, and rain are all guarantees on this epic adventure. The trail is dotted with shelters that offer protection from inclement weather, and many towns have businesses that regularly resupply hikers. Doing the whole trail all at once is possible, but will take months to complete. Many backpackers opt to do the hike in chunks, completing one section at a time and going back at a later time to complete the next section. The trail, created in the 1930s, has gained increasing popularity, and is undoubtedly a life changing experience for those that partake in it.
Continental Divide, Midwestern United States
Another Trans-American trail makes the list, and as it winds from Mexico to Canada it traverses five different states. Longer than the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail, the total distance clocks in at just above 3000 miles. Expect many hills throughout, as the total elevation change is over 900,000 feet. The sections in the south can be downright hot for many months of the year, and are very dry. Water sources can be very scarce for these sections. Compared to its “brother trails”, the Continental Divide Trail has far less towns and places by which to resupply at. For those that do take on the challenge of the CDT, they are rewarded by experiencing numerous mountain ranges as well as diverse rocky landscapes in the south.
Bright Angel/North Kaibab- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Leading off the list is a treacherous trek down into the heart of one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The north and south rims of the canyon are situated at above 6800 feet. The trail then takes you down thousands of feet to the canyon’s bottom, crossing the Colorado River. A popular method of travelling these trails is what is known as the “Rim to Rim”. As you can imagine, you start at one rim and travel to the other side. While only 23 miles or so, the real challenge is the downhill and uphill, which make up most of the hike. Along the way there are several campsites, all of which require backcountry permits to stay at. The campsites have running water, and the trail has several other stations for hydration along the way. Temperatures in the bottom of the canyon can be dangerously hot late spring through early fall, so plan accordingly.
Cloud’s Rest, Yosemite National Park, California
You would imagine clouds have a pretty good view of things from way up high, and if you complete the cloud’s rest hike you will have an equally amazing vista, overlooking the infamous “valley” of Yosemite. At only 14 miles roundtrip, this backpacking trail hardly wins any awards for length. There are long stretches of strenuous switchbacks that account for almost all of the 2000 or so foot elevation gain. The hike could feasibly be done in one day, but it has made our backpacking bucketlis because camping is the best way to enjoy the views from the top. A backcountry permit will be required,(for the area of Sunrise Lakes), but once in hand, you can set up camp anywhere, as long as it is more than 100 feet from the trail. The sunrise and sunset illuminating the famous Half-Dome and El Capitan are absolutely worth the overnight’s stay. Make sure to bring a camera, but be prepared for the photos to not do the scene one bit of justice.
Grand Loop, Colorado
The Grand Loop’s name is specific, but also sells itself short. While it is a loop, 45 miles in length, “grand” doesn’t seem to adequately describe this hike. Mirror-like lakes, snowcapped mountains, wildflowers and rushing brooks are all waiting to be discovered in this trek. While you think you may be tired of seeing the rocky mountains, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. The views of the majestic peaks seem to elicit new feelings as they are seen from every angle.
Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming
The awe inspiring jagged peaks of the Tetons are always in view on this classic trail. While only 40 miles long, every single step offers a chance to see the unparalleled beauty of the Tetons, and a good chance to see some local wildlife. Moose, elk, bear, wolves, sheep, and many other animals roam the same land and are a common sight. Transportation to and from the hike is relatively easy as there are shuttles and parking spots along the route. The permit process, however, is not always easy, as many people apply for it.
Kalalau Trail, Hawaii
Ocean views, waterfalls, jagged cliffs, and lush rainforests await those who venture on the Kalalau trail. Found on the island of Kauai, this 22 mile round trip hike is a tropical paradise for backpackers. Although this hike is currently closed due to massive flooding, it is a must for any avid backpacker. The first several miles are heavily trafficked, but after that a permit is required. Along the way, perils and adventure come hand in hand. Treacherous paths with narrow and unforgiving footing can be found where erosion has taken its toll, but crashing waterfalls and cinematic scenery are worth the risk for many. Access to beaches in solitude is another perk of this island get-away. Make sure to bring a rain jacket and the bug-spray, both will be much used!
The Lost Coast Trail, California
This trail literally disappears throughout the day, making it both challenging and incredibly scenic. Found in Southern California, the backpacking trek along the Lost Coast Trail will provide many photo opportunities as well as a chance to test your pathfinding skills. The path follows what used to be the site of the pacific coast highway, or highway 1. Coastal erosion threatened the roadway so much that it was moved further inland. What is left is The Lost Coast Trail, which can be completely submerged during high-tide. The trail starts at Mattole and continues for 25 miles, ending at the Black Sands Beach. Dense forests, vanishing paths, remote plains, and of course, amazing views of the Pacific Ocean are all attractions along the way. Hikers are guaranteed to see historical lighthouses, sea lions, and most likely an annoying amount of ocean birds. Make certain to check the tides as some parts of the trail may not be passable depending on the season.
Kesugi Ridge & Mount Eielson Loop, Denali National Park
The list is not complete without a trail on the “Last Frontier.” With sheer vastness of trails, closeness to wildlife, and towering views, Alaska is a top backpacking destination. One of many parks stands out from the rest, Denali. Denali is composed of the “park” as well as the “preserve” totaling in to over 6 million acres. A unique aspect of this outdoor mecca is that there is not a strict “on trail” policy. In fact, many backpackers explore Denali National Park with a bushwhacking, off trail approach. Of course, with the thriving wildlife in the park, it is generally a good idea to stay on a marked trail. Mount Eielson is a 14.6 mile loop that travels over streams, along ridges, and offers incredible views of Mount Eielson along the way. Another option is the 27 mile trail on the boarder of Denali State Park, Kesugi Ridge. Kesugi Ridge is a well marked and maintained trail which will still offer immaculate views of Alaskan landscapes. Keep an eye out for the namesake mountain of this area, which is rarely ever seen in totality due to constantly looming clouds.
The Hardest Part
Now, the hardest part is to decide which of these ten to do first. No matter which trail you choose from this list, it is certain to be an experience of a lifetime, and will come with a host of memories, stories, and photos.