Perfect 72-Hour Backcountry Adventures
All you need is a long weekend to get out, get lost, and find yourself again. From Asheville to Seattle, we’ve researched the best three-day wilderness trips within road-tripping distance from a city.
We’d all like to disappear deep into the backcountry for weeks. But life (and limited vacation time) has a way of preventing that. Enter the glorious three-day weekend, where 24 bonus hours can mean the difference between a quick car-camping trip and a full-on wilderness adventure. Here are nine itineraries that maximize fun in backcountry areas that feel light-years from the city grind but are still close enough to home to execute, thanks to that extra PTO day.
Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Jump Off From: Seattle, Washington
Just an hour east of the Emerald City, the 394,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness serves up some of the finest scenery in the Cascades—and that’s saying a lot. With a postcard-perfect landscape carved by glaciers, pockmarked by freshwater lakes, studded with granite peaks, and flush with wildflowers, you’ll get whiplash trying to take it all in. Head north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Snoqualmie Pass to make the 33.8-mile round-trip hike to Spectacle Lake (yes, it’s deserving of the name), traversing the exposed Kendall Katwalk and passing by a parade of subalpine meadows and lakeside campsites en route. Mountaineers will have a field day (or three) plugging pro and peak-bagging around the glacier-draped Enchantments, which can be accessed via a roughly 20-mile route between the Stuart Lake and Snow Lakes Trailheads; set up a car shuttle at one end, or stick out your thumb to travel the eight miles back to where you started. Anglers have their pick of trout-filled riches along the West Fork Foss Lakes Trail, including the piercing blue waters of Big Heart Lake, located roughly 7.3 miles in, which features good backcountry camping on its north shore.
Baxter State Park
Jump Off From: Bangor, Maine
Mingle with moose at Baxter State Park, a remote slice of lake-studded north-woods bliss located roughly 2.5 hours from the former timber hub of Bangor. Other than a handful of unpaved roads providing access to several campgrounds, ponds, and trailheads, most of the park’s magic—that is, its exceptional solitude—is accessible only to those willing to venture deep into its nearly 210,000 acres of pure wilderness. Summit seekers can depart from Roaring Brook Campground via the Chimney Pond Trail to tackle an 11-mile loop around the Mount Katahdin massif. It includes a trip to Maine’s high point, Baxter Peak (also the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail) and returns via the (in)famously exposed Knife Edge ridgeline. Stitch together the Wadleigh Brook, Freezeout, and Frost Pond Trails for a roughly 25-mile romp through the park’s extremely quiet northern section, making stops to camp at Hudson Pond and Frost Pond, where rental canoes await. Adventurous anglers will enjoy casting for brook trout, bullhead, and salmon during a multi-day paddling trip around 4,165-acre Grand Lake Matagamon, where lean-tos and tent sites dot the shoreline. All campsites can (and should) be reserved before your trip via the park’s website.
Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area
Jump Off From: Boise, Idaho
Four hours northeast of Boise, four national forests converge in the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous such area in the lower 48. Despite the popularity of its frothy centerpiece—the Salmon River—the Frank dishes out loads of seclusion in thick coniferous forests and lake-studded alpine basins that serve as the prime habitat for gray wolves, bighorn sheep, and black bears. Whitewater enthusiasts shouldn’t miss an opportunity to float the world-class Wild and Scenic Middle Fork of the Salmon River, whose 104 miles of Class III–IV rapids offer a heart-pounding challenge. Charter a flight to the river’s halfway point at Loon Creek to begin a three-day paddle to the take-out at Cache Bar. (Sign up with an outfitter like the nonprofit American River Touring Association, or log on to Recreation.gov beginning December 1 to enter the permit lottery for the following year.) Backpackers will feel spoiled for options in the Bighorn Crags area, a stunning granite playground that boasts dozens of sparkling lakes brimming with trout. From the trailhead at Crags Campground, it’s a 22-mile round trip to pitch your tent at the massive—and massively stunning—Ship Island Lake. Pack your fly rod and camping gear, and set off from the Big Creek Trailhead on a mission to hook cutthroat, bull trout, and Chinook salmon along any length of the 35-mile trail that follows its namesake waterway up to its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Salmon; dispersed backcountry campsites pepper the way.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Jump Off From: El Paso, Texas
Less than two hours east of El Paso, Guadalupe Mountains National Park may strike visitors as a surprising oasis in windswept West Texas. This roadless 86,000-acre landscape, one of the least frequented national parks, is a study in contrasts, shifting from the cactus-studded Chihuahuan Desert to its namesake pine-topped (and sometimes snowcapped) peaks, which technically act as the Rocky Mountains’ southernmost last hurrah. Backpackers can cover lots of ground in the park’s mountainous midsection, with a roughly 23-mile loop that links the Tejas, Bush Mountain, Bowl, and Bear Canyon Trails. Choose from five backcountry camping areas along the way, and soak in the views with side trips to Hunter Peak and Bush Mountain. Hikers should also beeline for 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, the state’s high point. While the route is only 8.5 miles round trip, you’ll gain a grueling 3,000 feet in elevation. Reward your hard work with a night under an impressively starry sky at one of five sites within the Guadalupe Peak Wilderness Campground, just a mile below the summit; secure a free wilderness permit beforehand at the Dog Canyon Ranger Station or Pine Springs Visitor Center up to a day in advance. Although more than half of the park’s trails are open to equestrians, you won’t find much competition for reservations at its corrals, located at both Dog Canyon Campground and Frijole Ranch. Use the latter as a launchpad for several day-long rides, including a roughly 16-mile round trip to view the striking limestone escarpment of El Capitan, a remnant of a massive fossil reef that once encircled the region.
King Range National Conservation Area
Jump Off From: San Francisco, California
From San Francisco it’s about 4.5 hours north to the King Range National Conservation Area, but this fog-shrouded slice of coastal heaven feels a world away from just about everything. Anchored by a wilderness so impenetrable that it stopped the northward march of famed Highway 1, this 68,000-acre paradise is hemmed in by its rugged namesake peaks on one side and the wild Pacific Ocean on the other. Hikers should secure a shuttle ride, consult a tide table—the trail traverses several beaches that are impassable during high tide—and grab a permit for the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail, a nearly 25-mile bucket-list journey that hugs the dramatic shoreline. Keep your eyes peeled along the way for tide pools, seals, whales, sea lions, and rogue waves. Surfers should bring their boards to enjoy several breaks along the way, including a classic located roughly nine miles from the southern trailhead at Shelter Cove. For a bit more variety and a big workout, backpackers can combine beach strolling with forest bathing on a 22-mile loop that links the Lost Coast with King Crest via the Buck Creek and Rattlesnake Ridge Trails. Don’t forget to stop at King Peak, the range’s high point. Experienced mountain bikers will relish the relatively new Paradise Royale trail system, whose 23 miles (and counting) are filled with steep climbs, ripping descents, and epic ocean views. Stay a night at the main loop’s Tolkan Campground ($8; spots are first-come, first served) and play at its namesake bike park, or extend your ride about two miles to slumber under the pines at the bare-bones (and fee-free) Horse Mountain Campground, on King Peak Road.
Ozark National Forest
Jump Off From: Fayetteville, Arkansas
It’s time to add northwest Arkansas to your adventure-destination bucket list. This 1.2-million-acre hardwood forest, less than an hour from Fayetteville, is home to lofty limestone bluffs and rolling hills that hide a dizzying collection of remote trails and impossibly aquamarine swimming holes. Saddle up to ride a trio of loops that comprise the 37.3-mile Huckleberry Mountain Horse Trail, which launches from Sorghum Hollow Horse Camp to trace a network of rocky bluffs and lush, creek-fed valleys. Chase waterfalls and summit White Rock Mountain along a gorgeous stretch of the 165-mile Ozark Highlands Trail, beginning from its western terminus at Lake Fort Smith and ending 35 miles later at Cherry Bend. Trad climbers and top ropers alike will enjoy choosing from more than 200 routes that streak one of Arkansas’s most classic crags, Sam’s Throne. Haul your overnight gear about a mile in from the trailhead to make a base camp at one of the many primitive sites scattered atop the scenic bluffs.
Pisgah National Forest
Jump Off From: Asheville, North Carolina
This 500,000-acre playground, split into two sections cradling the state’s well-known adventure hub, sees a lot of action. But it’s also exceptionally easy to find solitude here within the spiderweb of creeks and river gorges and amid the thick pine and hardwood forests that drape much of this mountainous region. Strap on your backpack and set up a car shuttle before tackling the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail, which winds along a lofty string of view-soaked balds between Davidson River Campground and the Shining Rock Wilderness Cold Mountain Trailhead. Climbers can rack up for a weekend at the 13-mile-long Linville Gorge, where striking quartzite walls guard the canyon’s namesake waterway. Hike two miles from the Wolf Pit Trailhead to reach a trad-climbing paradise (and dispersed camping) at Shortoff Mountain, then follow the Mountains-to-Sea Trail north another five miles for more of both at popular Table Rock. Whitewater enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the opportunity to paddle the legendary French Broad River; the 16-mile segment between the Barnard Park and Paint Rock access points includes Class II–IV rapids and the opportunity to overnight midriver on Huff Island. There are also over 300 miles of singletrack in the area—ranging from raw, ripping descents to smooth family-friendly trails—which will keep mountain bikers happy for many long weekends. Set up base camp at one of the ten first-come, first-served dispersed sites situated along Avery Creek Road near small-town Brevard for proximity to some of the best rides, including area classics like the 12.2-mile Black Mountain Loop, a mix of gravel climbs and technical downhill.
Superior National Forest
Jump Off From: Duluth, Minnesota
Heed the haunting call of the state’s famed loons in this nearly four-million-acre semi-boreal forest, which presses against the Canadian border only an hour north of Duluth. Famed as a paddler’s paradise for its pristine streams and lakes, hikers are just as lucky to traverse the same understory as hundreds of gray wolves along more than 400 miles of footpaths. Quietude abounds in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where you can paddle a serene 23-mile loop with only three portages—a minor miracle for this area—that connects Moose Lake, Wind Lake, and Basswood Lake. For a different kind of workout, grab your stand-up paddleboard and knock out the leisurely 1.5 miles (with a short portage interlude) from Sawmill to Alton Lake, where 16 campsites ring the shore. Pack a rod to (maybe) snag some walleye for dinner here or at several other lakes linked to the north. Enjoy one of the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail’s most scenic segments by hopping on at the Lutsen Mountains Recreation Area Trailhead, then trekking 35.2 miles to Grand Marais, passing placid lakes and roaring waterfalls while earning views to the Great Lake that inspired this route’s name. If you’ve arranged things ahead with Superior Shuttle Service, this can be one-way trip.
Tonto National Forest
Jump Off From: Phoenix, Arizona
City slickers don’t have to venture far to escape the Phoenix heat, since this 2.9-million-acre recreation hot spot borders the metropolis to its east. At lower elevations, javelinas and roadrunners streak across the saguaro-speckled Sonoran Desert, which is gradually replaced by a mountainous interior that ascends to the ponderosa pine–bedecked Mogollon Rim. Admire the views of Weaves Needle, a striking volcanic fin that’s part of a 19-mile backpacking loop in the Superstition Wilderness that links the Dutchman and Peralta Canyon Trails; hike it counterclockwise to bed down at the camping area near LaBarge Spring, located at the 7.8-mile mark. Paddlers should try to snag one of three first-come, first-served boat-in campsites available at the Point, a quiet perch three miles from the marina at the cliff-ringed Canyon Lake. If that fails, here’s hoping you have better luck at one of the ten sites scattered at Bagley Flat, also a boat-in site, located on the eastern side of neighboring Saguaro Lake. For a more adventurous water excursion, spend several days running a series of Class III–IV rapids along the Upper Salt River, putting in at First Campground, located just off State Route 77, with a final take-out 52.3 heart-pounding miles downstream at Highway 288. Sign up for a trip with Arizona Rafting or try your hand at the permit lottery, which accepts submissions between the beginning of December and end of January each year.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.