8 Once-in-a-Lifetime Backpacking Trips
From a trail in Isle Royale National Park with spectacular views to a hike that hits four 6,000-foot peaks in 30 miles, these are our favorite classic routes in the U.S.
Whether you’re a veteran backpacker who’s already checked off many long-distance treks or you’re brand new to the idea of carrying everything you need on your back into the wilderness for days, the point is: Backpacking can be for everyone. You just need to find the right trail for you. (Before you go, read up on backpacking basics and make sure you have the proper gear.) Maybe you’re bringing little kids and hiking one or two miles a day, or maybe you’re going fast and light and logging dozens of miles before sundown. It doesn’t matter. We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite classic backpacking routes around the U.S. Take on the whole thing or just a portion.
Art Loeb Trail, North Carolina
The Art Loeb Trail isn’t an easy trail—it climbs four 6,000-foot peaks—but at just 30 miles, it’s doable in a matter of days. Most hike it in two to five. Named after an activist from the Carolina Mountain Club, this trail is one of the more popular routes in Pisgah National Forest but still requires a bit of navigating on the lesser-marked sections of the trail. Hike it out and back for a shorter distance or add a connecting trail to make it a loop. Blue Ridge Hiking Company leads guided, four-day hikes on the Art Loeb Trail (from $705), or do it yourself and book a shuttle with Pura Vida Adventures (from $125).
Tahoe Rim Trail, California and Nevada
At 165 miles, the Tahoe Rim Trail is a gorgeous long-distance route around the ridgeline of the Lake Tahoe Basin that most hikers complete in 10 to 14 days. Or tackle just a stretch of it—the 32-mile section from Echo Lakes to Barker Pass, along the lake’s west shore, passes through the stunning Desolation Wilderness and makes for a great two- or three-day trip. (This is the only section of the trail that requires an overnight camping permit.) The best time of year to go is July through September. The Tahoe Rim Trail Association leads guided multi-day hikes (from $1,100).
Long Trail, Vermont
The Long Trail, the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S., follows the spine of the Green Mountains for over 272 miles, with 70 designated backcountry campsites. Plan on spending 20 to 30 days on the trail for a thru-hike or pick just a section: the 20-mile stretch from Mad Tom Notch Road in the Vermont town of Peru to Route 140 in Wallingford doesn’t see many crowds, has great views of Little Rock Pond and Griffith Lake, and can be done in a weekend. Early fall is the best time of year to avoid the summer’s crowds and catch colorful foliage. Not into sleeping in a tent every night? Inn to Inn arranges self-guided hikes that include overnight stays at boutique hotels close to the trail, or Wildland Trekking hosts guided hikes (from $2,690) in the fall, which includes stays at B&Bs.
Kalalau Trail, Kauai
The 22-mile round trip Kalalau Trail, within Kauai’s Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, is not for the inexperienced: It involves hundreds of feet of elevation gain on rugged trails with steep, precipitous cliffs above the ocean. Your reward is reaching Kalalau Beach, a secluded stretch of sand at the trail’s terminus, where you’ll camp in an oceanside forest neighboring a waterfall. Because of strong currents, swimming at the beach isn’t recommended, and be sure to check current trail, weather, stream, and ocean conditions before you go. Most people do this hike in two days, but you can add an extra day or two to hang out at Kalalau. If you’re hiking beyond a day trip out to Hanakapi’ai Valley, you’ll need an overnight permit—reservations for those are currently available 30 days in advance and book up quickly.
Greenstone Ridge Trail, Michigan
The longest trail in Isle Royale National Park, the 41-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail goes from the southwest tip of the island to the northeast corner and tops out on 1,394-foot Mount Desort, the highest point in this off-the-radar park. You’ll need a free-of-charge permit for all overnight backcountry stays within the park, but you don’t need to reserve ahead—you can pick it up when you get there. Speedy hikers can do the whole trail in three days or give yourself extra time to look for moose and enjoy the views of Lake Superior. The Sierra Club leads guided seven-day treks (from $1,425) on this trail most years.
Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming
This iconic backpacking route traverses through glaciated, granite peaks and high-alpine lakes in Grand Teton National Park, as well as Bridger Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests. It covers about 40 miles and is usually done in three to five days. You’ll need hard-to-snag backcountry permits to camp at any of the 11 designated campsites along the Teton Crest Trail. There are a handful of ways to access this trail and multiple options for starting and ending points. Many people start at the Phillips Trailhead and end in Paintbrush Canyon within the national park, or you can kick off your hike with a lift from the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which dumps you at the Granite Canyon trail that leads to the Teton Crest. Bear-resistant food canisters are required. Teton Backcountry Guides leads guided multi-day hikes (from $795) on shorter sections of this trail in the summer or full traverses of this trail on skis during the winter.
Three Sisters Loop, Oregon
The Three Sisters Loop is about 47 miles long and passes through alpine lakes and meadows filled with wildflowers and tops out on volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range. The Three Sisters themselves are among Oregon’s top-five tallest peaks. Crowds exist on popular day-hike sections of the trail at the peak of summer, but for most of the way, you’ll have the spectacular views to yourself. With a few variations of the loop, you can tweak the route based on your needs. The hike overlaps with parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and score great views of Mount Bachelor. Hike Oregon will plan a custom itinerary for you (from $75) that includes a detailed map and route, plus where to camp each night.
Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Hiking Rim to Rim on the Grand Canyon is a classic bucket list adventure. Start at the North Kaibab Trail, on the North Rim, and hike down a relentless 14 miles and 6,000 vertical feet to the bottom of the canyon and the shores of the Colorado River. From there, you’ll pitch a tent at Bright Angel Campground or Cottonwood Campground, which require a backcountry permit that gets released four months ahead of time. Or if plan way in advance spend a night in a cabin at Phantom Ranch (from $172), where bookings fill up a year out. From the bottom, it’s a long, steep nine-mile climb up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. Summer is hot here, so go in late spring or early fall. Unless you want to turn around and repeat what you’ve just done, schedule a ride with Trans Canyon Shuttle. Or let someone else handle the logistics and join O.A.R.S. for a guided, five-day Rim to Rim hike (from $2,699), that includes a stay at Phantom Ranch.