10 Best Backpacking Trails in the USA

Backpacking is more than just an outdoor activity; it is a way to connect with nature and challenge yourself. United States is home to some of the most breathtaking and diverse landscapes in the world, making it a prime destination for backpackers. From the rugged coastlines to the towering mountain ranges, the country's trails offer something for everyone. Whether you are a seasoned hiker or a beginner, exploring these trails will provide unforgettable experiences.

Best Backpacking Trails in the USA

Let us dive into the ten best backpacking trails in the USA that every outdoor enthusiast should explore. Pack your gear and get ready for an adventure!

1. Appalachian Trail, East Coast

The Appalachian Trail, spanning approximately 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, is a classic for any backpacker. It is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, crossing through 14 states. Hikers on this trail experience diverse ecosystems, from the dense forests of the South to the rocky crags of the Northeast.

The trail is well-marked and offers a variety of shelters and campsites, making it accessible for both long-distance and section hikers. One of the most iconic sections is the White Mountains in New Hampshire, known for its challenging terrain and stunning views. The sense of community among hikers on the Appalachian Trail is unparalleled, making it a unique journey.

2. Pacific Crest Trail, West Coast

Stretching from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) covers about 2,650 miles. This trail traverses through California, Oregon, and Washington, offering a diverse range of landscapes. Hikers will pass through desert terrain, lush forests, and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains.

The PCT is less crowded than the Appalachian Trail, providing a more solitary experience with nature. One of the highlights is the John Muir Trail section, which overlaps with the PCT for 211 miles and showcases the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. Completing the PCT is a monumental achievement, requiring months of preparation and perseverance.

3. Continental Divide Trail, Rockies

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is considered one of the most challenging long-distance trails in the United States. Stretching 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, it follows the Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains. The CDT offers remote and rugged terrain, perfect for those seeking solitude and adventure.

Backpackers will encounter high mountain passes, expansive meadows, and dramatic cliffs. The trail passes through five states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. However, it is rather difficult and filled with remote sections. For these reasons, CDT sees fewer hikers than the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, offering a true wilderness experience.

4. John Muir Trail, California

One of the most exciting backpacking trails in the USA must be the John Muir trail in California. The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 211-mile trek from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Named after the famous naturalist John Muir, the trail traverses some of the most stunning scenery in the Sierra Nevada.

Hikers on the JMT will experience towering granite cliffs, alpine meadows, and pristine lakes. The trail is well-maintained and offers numerous opportunities for camping and resupplying. The downside of this popularity is the required permits. So, planning is essential to secure a spot. The JMT is perfect for those seeking a shorter but equally rewarding backpacking adventure.

5. Wonderland Trail, Washington

Encircling the majestic Mount Rainier, the Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile loop that offers an immersive experience in the Pacific Northwest’s lush landscapes. The trail features a mix of dense forests, alpine meadows, and glacial rivers. Hikers will encounter stunning views of Mount Rainier from various angles and diverse wildlife, such as black bears and elk.

The trail's elevation gain of over 22,000 feet makes it a challenging yet rewarding trek. And since it is a loop, hikers can start and finish at the same point, making logistics simpler. Permits are required and can be competitive, so advance planning is crucial.

6. The Enchantments, Washington

Located in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington, The Enchantments offer a mystical and breathtaking backpacking experience. The core Enchantment Zone is only about 18 miles long, but its challenging terrain and elevation gain make it a strenuous hike. Hikers are rewarded with stunning alpine lakes, granite peaks, and vibrant wildflower meadows.

Due to its popularity, a permit lottery system is in place to preserve the fragile environment. Backpackers often split the trek into multiple days to fully appreciate the area's beauty. The Enchantments are a must-see for any avid backpacker seeking a shorter yet incredibly scenic trail. The Enchantments offer a mystical and breathtaking backpacking experience.

7. Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming

The Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming is a 40-mile journey through the heart of the Teton Range. Starting at the Granite Canyon Trailhead and ending at String Lake, the trail offers breathtaking views of the iconic Grand Teton. Hikers will traverse high mountain passes, lush valleys, and scenic ridges.

The trail’s moderate length and accessible campsites make it suitable for a multi-day adventure. Wildlife sightings are common, with moose, elk, and black bears frequently spotted along the trail. The Teton Crest Trail is an unforgettable way to experience the rugged beauty of Grand Teton National Park.

8. Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho

For those seeking solitude and striking landscapes, the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho is a hidden gem. Located near Boise, the Sawtooth Wilderness encompasses over 217,000 acres of pristine wilderness. The area boasts more than 700 miles of trails, offering endless opportunities for backpacking. Hikers can explore alpine lakes, jagged peaks, and lush meadows filled with wildflowers.

The Alice-Toxaway Loop is a popular 18-mile trek showcasing some of the region's best scenery. The relative remoteness of the Sawtooth Wilderness ensures a peaceful and uncrowded backpacking and living experience. Many hikers begin considering relocating to Boise after experiencing the charm of the wilderness in Idaho. That said, if you decide to relocate to Boise, all you have to do is team up with long-distance movers, find your dream house, and let the exploration begin. 

9. Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota

The Superior Hiking Trail stretches for 310 miles along the rugged coastline of Lake Superior in Minnesota. This trail offers a unique blend of dense forests, rocky ridges, and stunning lake views. Hikers will traverse through state parks, cascading waterfalls, and scenic overlooks. The trail is well-marked with numerous campsites, making it accessible for backpackers of all skill levels.

Fall is a particularly beautiful time to hike, with the changing leaves creating a vibrant tapestry of colors. The Superior Hiking Trail is a fantastic option for those looking to explore the beauty of the Midwest.

10. Zion Narrows, Utah

The Zion Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah, is one of the most unique backpacking experiences in the USA. This 16-mile trek through the Virgin River takes hikers through towering slot canyons with walls reaching up to 1,000 feet high. Unlike traditional trails, much of the hike involves wading and sometimes swimming through the river. The stunning rock formations and serene water create a truly magical atmosphere. A permit is required for the top-down hike, which typically takes one to two days. The Zion Narrows is an unforgettable adventure for those looking to experience something different.

Conclusion: Backpacking Trails in the USA

There is an incredible array of backpacking trails in the USA, each with unique charm and challenges. From the extensive Appalachian Trail to the shorter but equally stunning Zion Narrows, there’s a trail for every type of adventurer. These trails not only provide a physical challenge but also an opportunity to connect deeply with nature. As you plan your next backpacking trip, consider exploring one of these top ten trails for an experience of a lifetime. Remember to prepare adequately, respect the environment, and leave no trace. Happy hiking!

Kalyan Panja