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Our 7 Favorite Fall Backpacking Trips

Avoid the crowds and catch a meteor shower or monarch butterfly migration on these perfect autumnal treks

The North Cascades in Washington is one of the seven brilliant spots we've picked to go backpacking this fall. (Courtesy Scott Kranz)

Avoid the crowds and catch a meteor shower or monarch butterfly migration on these perfect autumnal treks

If you tend to put away your camping gear for the long haul as fall rolls around, you’re missing out on one of the best backpacking seasons. Why? Because in autumn, the heat, mosquitos, wildfires, and vacation crowds have all died down, and you stand a chance at having fall foliage, butterfly migrations, and meteor showers all to yourself.

Grand Gulch Primitive Area, Utah

(Four Season Guides)

Southern Utah is notoriously crowded and hot midsummer. But by early fall, the national parks and slots canyons empty out, the temperatures settle down to a tolerable level, and the cottonwoods light up yellow, making it the perfect time for a multiday journey through the high desert. Grand Gulch, the largest canyon on the Cedar Mesa plateau, has more than 50 miles of trails, stunning slickrock, and ancestral Puebloan ruins to explore. You’ll need a permit from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station for day hikes and overnights, or sign up for Four Season Guides’ four-day, 25-mile backpacking trip in late October, and they’ll take care of logistics, food, and gear ($1,100).

Trinity Alps, California

(Courtesy Wendy Ewing)

The Trinity Alps, between the Coast Range and the Cascades in Northern California, is a haven for backpackers, thanks to its 525,000 acres of rugged wilderness and some 550 miles of trails, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. In fall, you’ll avoid the pesky mosquitos that swarm the region in midsummer. If you’d like a guide, Wild Beginnings Adventure Co. leads a 15-mile, two-night trip ($375) from the Boulder Lakes trailhead in early October and will provide meals and camping gear.

Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin

(Joshua Mayer/Creative Commons)

You’ll find just ten miles of hiking trails around Lake Michigan’s Rock Island, 90 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, but all of the island’s 40 designated campsites ($20) require a quick hike in, so it’s a great spot for a shorter haul. To get there, you’ll ride two ferries, starting from Northport, on the tip of the Door County peninsula. The island is packed in summer, and ferry service ends in October, so September through early October is the perfect time to visit. Hike the circumference of the island on the 5.2-mile Thordarson Loop Trail for a visit to a historic lighthouse.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

(Michael Rivera/Wikimedia Commons)

From September to November, monarch butterflies make their mass migration south for the winter, and they often follow the same routes each year, meaning it’s easy to plant yourself right in their path. The Florida Panhandle in late October and early November is a good bet, and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is known for its monarch sightings. The refuge is also home to nearly 50 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, so you can spend a few days backpacking in search of fluttering orange wings. Campsites must be reserved, but you can score a permit at the visitor’s center.

Linville Gorge Wilderness, North Carolina

(Ken Thomas/Wikimedia Commons)

The Orionid meteor shower will peak on October 21, with up to 20 meteors per hour. The best place to catch it? Somewhere dark, like North Carolina’s Linville Gorge Wilderness, in the Pisgah National Forest. The 11,651-acre reserve has waterfalls, caves, and deep ravines, and Hikemore Adventures offers custom backpacking trips on the area’s 34-mile Linville Gorge Loop Trail (from $225). Guides will cook breakfast and dinner and equip you with lightweight backpacking gear. They also offer stargazing night hikes with a local astronomy expert.

North Cascades, Washington

(Courtesy Stephen Matera)

The larch tree is a common sight in the Pacific Northwest, but the conifer really comes alive in fall when its signature short needles turn a golden yellow. Landscape photographers Stephen Matera and Scott Kranz are teaming up in early October to lead a three-day workshop on the east slope of the North Cascades to teach budding photographers how to capture the larch in its prime ($1,299). You’ll spend one night backpacking into the Cascades and another at local lodging in eastern Washington’s Methow Valley.

Mount Greylock State Reservation, Massachusetts

(Doug Kerr/Creative Commons)

Leaf peepers love the drive to the top of 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. It’s easy to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in some of New England’s finest fall foliage if you’re willing to hike a few miles. The only way to reach Mount Greylock’s lone campground (from $8) is on foot via a 1.3-mile hike. The park also has more than 70 miles of designated trails for day hiking.

Filed To: Camping / Gear / Florida / Washington / Adventure / California / Utah
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.


(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.

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