Tour The Wildest Parts Of Classic Parks
Don’t have 2 weeks’s vacation to backpack America’s parks? See the country’s best backpacking in a day.
Wyoming: Paintbrush/Cascade Canyons, Grand Teton National Park The first time I hiked the trail through Paintbrush Divide, high amid the rocky skyline of the Teton Range, I carried a heavy backpack. That burden didn’t diminish my awe of jagged peaks tearing at the belly of the sky, but the climb seemed to last a lifetime. The second time I hoofed up to the pass, I carried a daypack and felt like my feet had wings. I can honestly report that not feeling physically beaten, and enjoying pizza and beers that evening, did nothing to diminish my appreciation for the views. I saw the best of this national park, sights usually reserved for multiday hikers.
The loop hike linking Paintbrush and Cascade canyons in Grand Teton National Park is arguably the park’s premier long dayhike or single-night backpacking trip. The canyons complement one another like works of art in different media–Paintbrush, a canvas of brilliant geologic color arrayed in bands across towering rock walls; Cascade, a sculpture of stone and water with great cliffs split by waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet. Between the two lies the hike’s crux, 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide, where you’re rewarded with a panorama of peaks. Tucked into an amphitheater of tall cliffs at the head of Cascade Canyon’s north fork, Lake Solitude invites you to an icy bath. The Paintbrush-Cascade loop covers nearly 20 miles, all on good trail, and climbs nearly 4,000 feet. Start at the String Lake trailhead off Teton Park Road, just north of Jenny Lake. Cascade Canyon provides a more gentle descent than Paintbrush, so the recommended direction of travel is going up Paintbrush.
Guides: Free hiking maps and brochures are available through the park visitor center and online. Teton Trails, by Katy Duffy and Darwin Wile (Grand Teton Natural History Association, 307-739-3606; www.grandtetonpark.org; $6.95).
Contact: Grand Teton National Park, (307) 739-3300; www.nps.gov/grte.
Maine: Acadia National Park Traverse
If you’ve passed on hiking Acadia because there’s no backcountry camping, you’ve missed some of the finest seacoast views in the country from surprisingly rugged, glacier-sculpted "peaks" that rise 1,500 feet above the Atlantic. On this 13.5-mile traverse, you’ll bag the park’s six highest summits, hike above the trees, and earn your views. From the Park Loop Road in the east to ME 198 in the west, link these trails: Bear Brook, Beechcroft, Dorr Mountain East Face, Dorr Mountain, Dorr Mountain Notch, Cadillac Mountain South Ridge, Cadillac Mountain West Face, Pemetic Mountain, Pemetic West Cliff, Pond, Penobscot Mountain, Sargent Pond, Sargent Mountain South Ridge, Grandgent, and Parkman Mountain.
Contact: Acadia National Park, (207) 288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad.
Wyoming/Montana: Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park
The best time to knock off this 18- to 22-mile hike is during the shoulder seasons, when snow locks up the high country and wildlife lingers in the valleys. You’ll likely start and end in the dark, but daylight will reward you with classic Yellowstone views and close encounters with bison herds. The path follows the river’s spectacular lower gorges, passing by dark canyon walls with the river booming around corners and over Knowles Falls. Most of the hike is downhill or level, punctuated with a couple of moderate uphill climbs. The biggest challenge is the often-hazardous crossing of Hellroaring Creek, at mile 2.2. When I went, in November, the water was partially frozen. I wasted an hour finding a way across at some risk; instead, I could have spent the time walking the extra 1.7 miles upstream to a bridge. Schedule an hour for a car shuttle, dropping a car in Gardiner, MT, at the trailhead just north of the Yellowstone River bridge. Drive back to the Hellroaring trailhead, near Tower Junction on Tower-Mammoth Road, to start.
Contact: Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell.
California: Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
The 16.4-mile round-trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome is an exercise in confronting the unbelievable. First-time hikers gaze doubtfully at the twin lines of steel cable handrails ascending a 45-degree granite slab. But the tasty views before the cables are but an appetizer for the satisfying meal waiting on top: a panorama encompassing Yosemite Valley and a sweep of the High Sierra. From the Happy Isles trailhead, take the John Muir Trail, the Mist Trail alternate route, then rejoin the John Muir to the Half Dome Trail.
Contact: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose.