1. Get a Classic Summit to Yourself
These iconic NPS peaks are no secret—but that doesn’t mean you have to share your alpine glory. Beat the crowds with these tricks.
Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain, CO: Go around.
The hordes head for Rocky Mountain National Park’s 14,259-foot crown via the Keyhole Route. You, on the other hand, can climb it via the scrambly, class 3 Clark’s Arrow Route. At Chasm Lake, veer left where everyone else goes right and make for the Loft, the saddle between Longs and Mt. Meeker. Scramble up Keplinger’s Couloir to meet the Homestretch, 350 feet from the top. Permit: None (for a dayhike) Contact
Half Dome, Yosemite, CA: Go early.
Make it a true alpine start and set out for the 14-mile round-trip from Happy Isles in Yosemite in the dead of night. It’s a heady, 4,800-foot climb, so start early to hit the cables, at the base of the final pitch, just before sunrise. The park shuttle doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so you’ll have to begin from the parking lot at Half Dome Village, .5 mile from Happy Isles trailhead. Permit: Required ($10 + $10/person); apply for one at recreation.gov. Contact
Angels Landing, Zion, UT: Go off-season.
Intrepid hikers with snow-travel skills can attempt this sandstone fin in winter, conditions permitting (the final stretch features 1,000-foot drops on both sides, so be conservative). Pack gloves for gripping the chains, and crampons for ice. Or hold out for perfect weather: Zion sometimes has mild winter days, so you might score a dry route and no company. Permit: None Contact
2. Hike the Narrows
I DRAG MY HAND along slick, varnished sandstone for balance as I probe the thigh-high water for stable footing. It’s been a mile of this—maybe less, maybe more. You lose track in the Narrows.
From its origin in southwestern Utah, the Virgin River sluices south into the heart of Zion National Park, where, over millennia, it carved out Zion Canyon. The 16-mile section between Chamberlain’s Ranch in Kane County and Zion’s Temple of Sinawava is its best: a cliff-pinched fantasyland of sky-high walls, squeezy chutes, freshwater springs, hanging gardens, and never-ending chasms. It’s the sort of landscape hikers’ dreams are made of—and yet, there are no trails. Trekkers simply follow the slow-moving river, wading through water as deep as their armpits and tiptoeing along sandy shoulders. The going is slow.
My group of six—including two first-time backpackers—inches our way down the river. Forced to slow down to Zion’s own walk-wade pace, we’re locked into the present even more than on a normal hike, and we notice more. We’re easily distracted by ribbons of water dribbling down the canyon walls and tangles of lacy ferns that spring from the rock, and we investigate every twisty side canyon. It’s nearly dark by the time we arrive at Campsite #5, an idyllic, cottonwood-wreathed platform midway down the route.
By the time we reach the Narrows’ marquee section the following day, we’re barely moving at all, as though the river’s languid pace has seeped into our souls. There, in the Wall Street corridor, Zion Canyon swallows us amid thousand-foot-tall walls of sandstone. It’s a moment out of time in the house that time built.
DO IT: Trailhead Chamberlain’s Ranch (37.3847, -112.8389); book a shuttle with Zion Adventure Company ($37/person). Season Year-round; summer is best, but beware flash floods. Permit Required for an overnight ($5); reserve in advance. Contact
3. Chase the Northern Lights in Denali
No debate: A night spent watching the sky swirl with cosmic greens, purples, reds, and blues deserves a spot on your life list, and no place in the park system is better for it than Denali. Alaska’s long winter nights make the perfect canvas for aurora-watching, so grab touring skis or snowshoes and plan to stay out for a few days. Target February and early March for the best combination of dark skies, enough daylight to cover some ground, and firm snow. Demand is usually low in winter (nights are punishingly cold), so you’ll likely have your pick of backcountry units. We like the Triple Lakes in Unit 1, which has easy navigation and great camping, but no matter where you pitch your tent, you’ll have a front-row seat to the show. Permit None (in winter) Contact
4. Glissade from Camp Muir at Mt. Rainier
Sure, climb the peak. But even if you don’t, a trip to Camp Muir is worth the effort. After gaining 4,600 feet over 9 miles, you can reward yourself with a snow slide back down the Muir Snowfield. Think of it as grown-up sledding.
GET READY. Take off crampons and harnesses; put on waterproof pants (if you have them) and gloves. Make sure you can see the bottom of your intended slide and that the snow is soft enough to dig into with your ice axe.
GET SET. Sit up with knees bent and toes up. Hold your ice axe at your side, one hand gripping under the blade (adze pointing back) and the other at your hip. The spike should be in the snow like a rudder.
GO! Push off and slide, controlling speed and direction by pressing your heels and the spike into the snow. Too fast? Roll onto your stomach (away from the spike) and dig your pick into the snow.
5. Peek into Prehistory
There’s marveling at relics in a museum, and then there’s searching for them in the wild. We won’t tell you exactly where the backcountry rock art is—half the fun is in the discovery—but we’ll point you in the right direction.
CLUE: Nearby water, shelter, and shade
The ancient cultures that made rock art had the same basic needs we do. Check under ledges and alcoves, and keep in mind that today’s dry wash might have been yesterday’s stream. “Places that are nice to sit at and eat lunch or look at a beautiful view could have attracted the eye 1,000 years ago, too,” says Karen Garthwait, interpretive specialist for Arches and Canyonlands.
CLUE: Desert varnish
Petroglyphs (symbols scratched or pecked into rock) are often found on rock walls covered with this red, dark brown, or black mineral coating. Don’t forget to look on horizontal as well as vertical surfaces.
CLUE: Canyon mouth
The entrances to side canyons, especially those leading to water sources, were often well-traveled by prehistoric people.
WHERE TO LOOK:
Utah: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Dinosaur National Monument
Arizona: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest
6. Beat the Crowds
Hundreds of millions of people visit the national parks every year. Lucky for backpackers, you just have to know where they go to avoid them. Get the low-down with our map to the least- and most-crowded national parks.
7. Stargaze the Darkest Night Skies
At these spots, all designated International Dark Sky Parks, minimal light pollution + clean air + low humidity = a mind-blowing celestial show. Pick a moonless night, lean back, and lose yourself in the cosmos.
GREAT BASIN, NV: Tackle the 13.1-mile Baker Lake-Johnson Lake Loop as an overnight—the 11,200-foot saddle between the two lakes is like a box seat to the heavens. Contact
You already know at least part of this one—the Big Dipper makes up the tail and body of the “great bear.” Fun fact: Draw an imaginary line through the Big Dipper’s two outermost stars (on the cup side), and they will point toward Polaris, the North Star.
The five stars forming the “queen” look like an M (summer) or a W (winter and spring). Spot her in the northern sky during the winter months (year-round if you live at or above New York City’s latitude). This constellation sits directly opposite the Big Dipper, on the other side of Polaris.
This bright cluster of stars (also called the Seven Sisters) is one of the closest constellations to Earth. Spot it in winter by drawing an imaginary line through Orion’s belt extending up and to the right. Follow it through the V-shaped face of the Taurus bull to the cluster of stars beyond.
8. Behold Texas’s Heavens
Want to see more stars? Get more sky. Larry Henderson, who was Guadalupe Mountains National Park superintendent for 10 years, recommends taking in the cosmos from Texas’s high point: 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak. From there, you can see more than 100 miles southwest to Mexico on a good day. On a good night, you’ll see more than 11,000 stars and the Milky Way.
Get there on a 4-miler from the Pine Springs trailhead, timing your climb for sunset, when the light paints the salt flats pink. Then enjoy the show as a dome of constellations creeps across the sky. In late summer, look south to spot the Teapot, which points its spout toward the center of our galaxy. “It’s an overwhelming experience that makes you think about your place and how small we are in the universe,” Henderson says. Head back the way you came (don’t forget a headlamp), or stay awhile: There are five backcountry sites near mile 3 (free permit required; walk-ins only). Contact
9. Float the Alatna
I KNOW NATIONAL PARKS are for everyone, but this trip is definitely not for everyone. That’s what I tell myself halfway into our 60-mile, “beginner-friendly” packraft trip through Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park when it starts pelting raindrops the size of marbles, the mercury drops into the 30s, and a headwind blows me back up the river. At least the rain hides my tears.
A few days earlier, a bush plane dropped my team of five on a shallow lake under sunny skies. It took us the better part of a day to bushwhack half a mile (par for the course in Alaska), but we eventually arrived on the banks of the Alatna River, where the Brooks Range unfurls on either side of the aquamarine water. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of adventures for me: I was in Alaska.
But I didn’t stay starry-eyed for long. I had planned the trip for late summer, when the whitewater tends to be less surly. This was the best and worst idea I had: The river was fall-asleep calm, but there was no current to boost our meager muscle power. Due to low water, we often ended up beached on hidden sandbars.
But Gates of the Arctic’s larger-than-life scenery has a way of making even your biggest problems feel small. Between Circle Lake and the Malamute Fork, the Alatna oxbows a dozen times across the valley, each bend yielding something new: the spires of the crumbly Arrigetch Peaks, beachy oases perfect for pitching a tent, and curious wildlife like moose, eagles, wolves, and even a grizzly that sprinted through the middle of our camp.
On the last day, the rains clear, and the emergent sun paints rainbows between the peaks. My story about day three’s headwind may inflate each time I tell it, but it’s this Alaska skyline I’ll never forget—and it needs no hyperbole. –William M. Rochfort, Jr.
10. Give back
Those trails you love don’t maintain themselves—and increasingly, budget cuts mean that officials have a hard time keeping up. One solution: you, on an American Hiking Society Volunteer Vacation. Sign up, ship out, and spend a week sweating over a Pulaski with a crew of like-minded folks. Options range from easy walk-ins to strenuous backpacking trips. Spend your nights in dorm-style accommodations, car campgrounds, or backcountry sites. One of our favorite upcoming trips: hurricane recovery in Virgin Islands National Park this November. Contact
11. Tour Utah’s Canyon Country
There’s no substitute for Utah’s steep red rock canyons. Take a page from our writer Ted Alvarez, who hit all of the state’s national parks with his mother in one gigantic road trip.
12. Test Your Mettle at Glacier
See the best of Glacier National Park in one glorious (long) day that hugs both sides of the Continental Divide. Start at 6,646-foot Logan Pass and follow a 15.2-mile high-country route to Many Glacier via the iconic Highline and Swiftcurrent Pass Trails.
The track starts out gently, contouring above the McDonald Valley and under the lush Garden Wall cliff to the Granite Park Chalet. From there, climb to 7,185-foot Swiftcurrent Pass for a preview of the rest of the day’s route between finely etched peaks into Swiftcurrent Valley. (Extra credit: Bang out the 2.6-mile out-and-back spur to the lookout on top of Swiftcurrent Mountain.) Then drop 2,285 feet over the next 7.6 miles, passing Bullhead, Redrock, and Fishercap Lakes before hitting Many Glacier. Treat yourself to a night at the picture-perfect Many Glacier Hotel—or grab the Many Glacier Hiker’s Shuttle to St. Mary ($10) and hop the free park bus back to Logan Pass. Season July to mid-September (when the shuttles run) Permit None Contacts National Park Service; Glacier National Park Lodges
13. Go Treasure Hunting at Redwoods.
The world’s tallest tree, a 379-foot-plus titan nicknamed Hyperion, quietly grows somewhere in Redwoods National Park. Its exact location is a sworn secret (to protect it from vandalism and careless tourists), and it’s guarded by very rugged, off-trail terrain. But if you’re a superlative seeker, a few clues have slipped out since its discovery in 2006.
Reality check: Even if you do stumble across Hyperion, you wouldn’t be able to recognize its stature from the ground. But any hike among these giants is a winner. Stroll the 8-mile Redwood Creek Trail to Tall Trees Grove, then camp on the gravel bars along Redwood Creek. Permit Required (free); walk-in only Contact
14. Traverse Alpine Heaven at Grand Teton
Hike the Teton Crest Trail for 40 miles of high-country bliss. The route cruises at or above 8,000 feet for most of its length, delivering wildflower meadows, pristine lakes, and the best mountain views in the park (sorry, Grand Teton summit). Here’s a peek at what’s in store:
Mile 0: The trail officially kicks off here off WY 22, but you can save some time and 2,500 feet of elevation gain by catching the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram and starting at Rendezvous Mountain (starting at $31). Hike northbound for the best view.
Miles 14.5-17.5, Death Canyon Shelf: This 3-mile-long backcountry zone serves up some of the trail’s premium camping, with cliffside sites peering over the rocky edge to the canyon floor a thousand feet below.
Miles 18.5-21.5, Alaska Basin: Summer blossoms, lakes, and views of Mt. Meek, Buck Mountain, and Battleship Mountain await in this 9,500-plus-foot zone. Tip: If you struck out on early permits and have the legs for it, beeline it here for night one. Since the TCT dips out of the park and into national forest land here, you don’t need paperwork to pitch a tent.
Mile 22.6, Hurricane Pass: Many consider this 10,338-foot pass the best view of the trip: From here, get a reach-out-and-touch-’em peek at the Tetons, plus little Schoolroom Glacier and the cobalt pool at its toe.
Miles 23.8-29.5, South and North Forks of Cascade Canyon: The backside of the Grand Teton is front and center throughout these two camping zones—perfectly positioned for a killer alpenglow shot.
Mile 29.8: Lake Solitude: This peaceful lake and 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide just above it mark the TCT’s departure from the high elevations. The last 10.3 miles descend through bear- and moose-friendly Paintbrush Canyon.
Mile 40: End at String Lake trailhead.
Permit Required for overnighting ($35); try for a walk-in, or pay an additional $10 to reserve in advance. Contact
15. See North America’s Big 5
Africa may have lions, elephants, and rhinos, but our park system has its own big-ticket megafauna. Here’s where and how to spot America’s marquee wildlife.
Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC
See One: Some 1,500 bruins live in this park. They often forage where meadows meet forests, especially at dawn and dusk. Try the Cataloochee Valley or Abrams Falls Trail in Cades Cove.
Campfire Fact: Unlike most other black bears, which den up for the winter in stumps and caves, the Smokies’ bruins prefer to snooze up high in standing hollow trees. Contact
See One: Head to Lamar Valley just before sunrise and look for the park’s wolf-watchers (they usually have spotting scopes) at pullouts. If they’re not observing a wolf already, they probably have ideas where the pack is hanging out.
Campfire Fact: Inside the park, wolves die of natural causes 77 percent of the time. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, though, most deaths are human-related (i.e., hunting, car collisions). Contact
See One: The .8-mile Anhinga Trail follows a boardwalk through a sawgrass marsh that’s popular with gators. Visit in winter, when lower water levels concentrate wildlife in the remaining wet zones.
Campfire Fact: South Florida is the only place on the planet where alligators and crocodiles coexist. Contact
Isle Royale, MI
See One: The largest member of the deer family loves water, so scope out lakes, bogs, and creeks along the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
Campfire Fact: With only two wolves left on the island, the moose population has exploded—good for ungulate-watchers, but bad for the ecosystem’s health. The park may reintroduce 20 to 30 wolves over the next three years.
See One: Scan open meadows (along St. Mary Lake), berry patches (Swiftcurrent Pass Trail), and talus fields (Mt. Siyeh) at dawn and dusk. Note: Always carry bear spray, hike in groups, and make noise near thickets, loud streams, and blind corners.
Campfire Fact: A griz’s diet changes with the seasons: plants and winter-killed carcasses in spring; roots, grubs, and berries in summer; and nuts and moths in fall. Contact
16. Howl with Wolves
No park showcases the Upper Midwest’s finest—pristine waters, lakeside cliffs, deep woods home to moose and timber wolves—quite like this waterway-riddled preserve brushing shoulders with Canada. Best way to see it: Paddle the Chain of Lakes on the Kabetogama Peninsula, where motorboats are forbidden and each lake’s single campsite guarantees solitude. “It gives you a chance to get away and enjoy the silence of the park,” says Chuck Remus, a former park ranger of 26 years. “Quiet” is relative, though, because in late summer the wolves are active. (Remus recommends testing out your own howl—if it’s good, nearby packs will howl back.) Hop a water taxi to the Locator Lake trailhead, then hike 2 miles to the shore and pick up your rental canoe (personal boats are prohibited to prevent the spread of invasive species). Paddle from Locator to War Club, Quill, and Loiten Lakes (short portages required for the final two) and back for an 8-miler. Contact
17. Hop the 10,000 Islands
Landing on your own deserted island isn’t the hard part about visiting Everglades National Park’s archipelago. All you have to do is line up your boat, give it a few hard paddles, and let the waves deliver you onto a sugar-sand beach, where palm trees, birdsong, and a shady spot amid the island’s grasses await your tent.
Staying isn’t the hard part either, not with warm Gulf waters lapping your toes, and a soft breeze whooshing through the leafy understory. Not when the sun dunks below the watery horizon to the west and the mangroves to the east release the moon like a paper lantern. And especially not when the stars poke through the darkness and the air cools to the exact same temperature as your skin, making you lose track of where you end and the wilderness begins.
And when the receding tide reveals a long spit of sand that invites an evening promenade, and the world around is cast in the darkest shades of blue and green? That’s not the hard part, either.
No, the hard part is leaving each small key on this four-night, 50-mile cruise through the Florida Caribbean. It’s not just what’s behind you, but what’s ahead. Those same waves on which you glided to these shores now want to hold you there. And so you dig into your paddle, line up your boat, and prepare to take the first few waves in the face. They aren’t big (usually). Just enough to let you know you aren’t dreaming. And here, in this 55-square-mile expanse that is the Ten Thousand Islands, it’s not always easy to tell.
DO IT: Start a loop at Chokoloskee, camping at Rabbit Key (pictured), Pavillion Key, the Watson Place, and the Lopez River Chickee. Season November to April Permit $15 + $2/person per day; walk-ins only. Rentals Everglades Kayak Company Contact
18. Hike to Backcountry Geysers
Yeah, you could say Old Faithful draws a crowd. What doesn’t: Shoshone Geyser Basin, buried deep in the Yellowstone backcountry on the northwest shore of Shoshone Lake. The .5-mile-long basin bubbles with perpetual spurters, hot springs, and steaming fumaroles (plus, you’ll pass 45-foot Lone Star Geyser on the hike in). “Every time I’ve been back there, I’ve seen something erupting,” says backcountry ranger Ivan Kowski.
Hike 8.5 miles on the Shoshone Lake Trail over Grants Pass, dropping along Shoshone Creek to the basin (stick to the trail here—the ground is thin, and the groundwater boiling hot). Nab backcountry site 8R5, which has both lake and basin views. Permit Required: ($25 + $3/person per night); apply online.
Season July to September Contact
19. Make Huckleberry Cobbler in North Cascades
When the little purple flavor bombs are in season, there are only two things to do. (1) Eat ’em by the handful. (2) When you’re full, pick a few more for dessert. Head out to North Cascades National Park this August to indulge. You’ll find huckleberries in open meadows throughout the park, but for a solid bet, tackle the 10-mile Goode Ridge out-and-back. Contact
Cascades Huckleberry Cobbler
4 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 pinch nutmeg
½ cup almond slivers or chopped walnuts
1 cup granola
2 cups fresh berries
AT HOME ➞ Pack sugar, cornstarch, and nutmeg in a baggie. Pack nuts in a second bag and granola in a third.
IN CAMP ➞ Toast the nuts in a pot over medium heat until browned; set aside. Place berries and the contents of the first baggie in the pot with 1/3 cup water. Mix well and bring to a boil, then simmer until compote thickens to a batter-like consistency (about 10 minutes). Split between two bowls; top with granola and toasted nuts.
20. Navigate the Achenbach Loop
North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park is big on terrain but low on trails, meaning you have to find your own way to the good stuff. And few spots are better than the seldom-visited North Unit, according to Ranger Laura Thomas. Her favorite trip—the 20-mile Achenbach Loop—snakes through bison-filled prairies and past striped, Suessical badlands along the Little Missouri River. To do it, set out from Oxbow Overlook with map and compass and loop counterclockwise through Cedar Canyon. Ford the river (usually knee-deep in summer) and head west through meadows of yucca, standing milkvetch, and purple coneflower, which bloom in midsummer (find a campsite overlooking the river on a mud bench). Next day, close the loop through the prairie. By the end, you’ll have sampled the variety of landscapes that mark the transition from East to West. For Thomas, that’s the best thing about this loop: “You’ll see the badlands from top to bottom.” Contact
21. Greet the Sun at Acadia
Want to be the very first in the U.S. to glimpse the rising sun? Get thee to Acadia National Park, which takes the prize thanks to a combination of elevation and location. But skip the mob scene atop drive-up Cadillac Mountain and hike 1.3 miles on the Beachcroft Path to 1,058-foot Champlain Mountain. You’ll swing around Huguenot Head on massive plates of granite between stunted pines to the waterfront peak (actually farther east than Cadillac) to meet the light. Contact
22. Go Rim to River in Grand Canyon
With all due respect to the hordes on the corridor trails, there’s a better, lonelier way to descend into Arizona’s belly and back again. The North Bass Trail, one of the park’s most remote and difficult routes, dips 13.5 miles and 5,300 vertical feet from the North Rim, passing hoodoos and cascades—with a few bushwhacks and creek crossings for good measure—before landing at the historic Bass Camp on the Colorado River. Expect iconic canyon sunsets and sunrises; don’t expect company (except at Bass Camp, a popular rafting stopover where you can explore old mining artifacts). Make it a four-nighter, camping along the Redwall rim (BYO water), at Bass Camp, along Shinumo Creek (top off here), and the base of the Redwall. Permit Required ($10 + $8/person per night); apply online. Contact
23. Wander the Painted Desert
For most visitors, Petrified Forest National Park is a drive through: Pull off of I-40, head to the Rainbow Forest museum, and hike one of the short trails. But you aren’t “most visitors.” Instead, head off-trail in the park’s Painted Desert Wilderness, camping amid multicolored petrified wood, sand valleys, and badlands galore.
Start at the Painted Desert Inn and follow Lithodendron Wash 2 miles to Onyx Bridge, a fossilized, 30-foot-long conifer log from the Triassic period. From there, strike out west and plan for absolute solitude. Hardly any visitors explore this trailless wilderness, according to Chief of Interpretation Richard Ullmann. Pack all your water, pitch your tent anywhere, and wake up early to catch the sunrise over the rolling red desert. Bonus: Ambitious hikers can explore as far as 6,234-foot Pilot Rock, or wander in search of the area’s ancient petroglyphs.
Season November to April Permit Required (free); walk-ins only Contact
24. Visit the Newest Park
Pinnacles National Park in central California turned five this year. Celebrate by exploring its russet canyons, skyscraping spires, and non-technical caves on the 8-mile High Peaks Loop, where California condors float overhead. Contact
25. Do It Again
The national parks are full of once-in-a-lifetime adventures. But some trips are so good, that once just isn’t enough. Editor in Chief Dennis Lewon ruminates on the experiences that keep us coming back again and again.