The United States is legendary for its breathtaking scenery, fascinating wildlife, and sheer variety of opportunities. America’s national parks and protected lands offer chances for exploration unlike any other. This can be your guide to choose the ultimate adventure for your next backpacking trip. From the landmark Grand Canyon, to more off-the-beaten-path locations, the US is a wonderland for travel, hiking, biking and all kinds of adventure to add to your bucket list.
1. Grand Canyon National Park
There’s no adventure more iconic than hiking the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Trail at Grand Canyon National Park. This hike is serious business, and less than one percent of the park’s visitors actually descend into the canyon. The strenuous path takes you 6,000 feet down into the canyon, up the other side, and back again.
What makes the experience even more special is backcountry camping at the bottom of the canyon. You’ll just have the company of the night sky, the Colorado River, and the two-billion-year-old massif around you. It’s one of the best ways to see every vantage point of America’s iconic canyon.
2. Acadia National Park
The first park east of the Mississippi, Acadia is well-known for its beautiful scenery and high-society vibe. The park doesn’t have many multi-day hiking trails, but the real joy in Acadia is the sheer variety in experiences available.
There are dozens of day hiking trails, from oceanside to mountainside, like the adrenaline-pumping Precipice Trail, which hangs off the side of Champlain Mountain. There’s also opportunities for biking, horseback riding, and kayaking. The best way to experience Acadia is to camp overnight and take advantage of as much as possible.
3. Zion National Park
No other national park can quite match the otherworldly landscape of Zion. Crowned by Zion Canyon, the park branches out into rocky cliffs, desert vistas, and mountain-lined alleyways. The best activity for adventure-seekers is traversing The Narrows.
This 16-mile gorge squeezes a flowing river between its walls, and though at times the trek can get claustrophobic, it’s always exciting. Most visitors hike bottom-up, but experienced hikers can get a permit to trek top-down. Hikers can also take advantage of Angels Landing, one of the country’s best day hikes.
4. Glacier National Park
Once advertised as “America’s Switzerland”, Glacier National Park is mainly known for its scenic drives, but it’s also an excellent backpacking spot. The park’s extensive back country camping is divided in two halves by the Continental Divide.
The west side is more forested and therefore isolated, but the east side is known for its mountain vistas. Some of the best backpacking journeys are the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, for its panoramic views, and the trail up to Goat Haunt, which continues into Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.
5. Denali National Park
Denali is one of America’s legendary backpacking spots. Popular activities include biking the Park Rd, 92 miles of tundra, mountains, and meadows, bringing you all the best scenery of the park, or hiking the Kesugi Ridge to Mt. Denali.
The real joy, however, is wandering off-the-beaten path, literally, with the park’s trail-less hiking. The park maintains quotas for backcountry camping, ensuring that Denali’s pristine isolation remains. Keep an eye out for the park’s incredible wildlife: foxes, moose, wolves, and grizzlies are all residents.
6. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is surely already on every backpacker’s bucket list. The legendary California landmark has been a mainstay for wilderness-seekers since settlers went out West. Most visitors head to Yosemite Valley, where you’ll find El Capitan and the Half Dome. These are absolute musts, but most of these areas are no-camping zones. Backpackers instead should head up to Clouds Rest. This trail gives panoramic views of the entire park, including the entire Yosemite Valley.
7. Yellowstone National Park
While most travel to Yellowstone for its geysers, there’s another star in the park: the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is a 20-mile-long canyon topped by a majestic waterfall. Go backcountry camping at one of the sites along the Yellowstone River, and make a journey of the different day hikes in the area.
After conquering the Grand Canyon, head to the less-visited Black Canyon. From the Yellowstone River Trail or Hellroaring Creek Trail, you can merge onto the Blacktail Creek Trailhead, and transfer your tent here. It’s well worth it to see an untouched side of the park.
8. Redwoods National Park
Redwoods National Park isn’t just home to some of the tallest trees on earth; it also features some gorgeous coastline. One of the best full-day hikes is the Fern Canyon Loop, which takes you through the forest, and out to the sea. Once you’ve been acquainted, pick one of the park’s backcountry sites and set up camp.
The only real multi-day hike in the park is the Coastal Trail; you can set down this path, or take up one of the many bike paths. After exploring here, branch out to the park’s surroundings. Redwoods National Park is also shared with nine different state parks, among the best of which are Humboldt and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks.
9. Arches National Park
Arches is a unique backpacking experience. The terrain is decidedly inhospitable, with many trail-less sections, and no sources of freshwater. Backpackers here need to be experienced and plan well ahead. However, that shouldn’t discourage you, because backpacking here is an unforgettable experience.
Take a sunrise hike on the Devil’s Garden Trail, which is a veritable showcase of the park’s best arches. Another can’t miss is the Delicate Arch Trail, home to the park’s most photogenic structure. Along the way, you’ll also see ancient Native American petroglyphs, a fascinating shot of history into your adventure.
10. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Even as the most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains still has plenty to discover. Visitors flock to the park in autumn to see the incredible changing leaves, and that’s the time to make the most of your trip. Some of the best multi-day hikes are on the Newfound and Davenport Gaps. The former leads up to the Chimney Tops, a viewpoint accessible to any hiker.
The latter, however, is the longer and more challenging journey. It’s part of the Appalachian Trail, so it is great if you’d like to add sections of it to your backpacking resume. On the way, you’ll not only see mountain vistas, but historic homesteads, one of the most charming aspects of the park.