Four week backpacking extravaganza--proving difficult to book!
April 5, 2016 12:15 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I are planning a cross-country trip from Austin, TX to Seattle, WA, during which we want to have several days-long backpacking trips. We originally wanted to do Zion, Black Canyon of Gunnison, Grand Tetons and Glacier, but aside from Black Canyon booking the other places seems difficult to impossible. Looking for advice on the likelihood of getting to do it in those parks in May, as well as alternate backpacking possibilities should these fail.

Dates of our trip: May-7-June-1st approximately. We were hoping to stop and do three or four multi-day backpacking trips along the way. We would be starting in Austin and heading to Zion area first at the beginning of the trip and working our way North up to Glacier in the 4th week.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison says we'll have no problem getting walk-in sites for may, so we're good there. But the applications for Grand Tetons and Glacier Nat'l Parks are byzantine and require knowledge of the specific camp areas in order to reserve nights for backpacking. Zion just seems full up. What are the chances of landing walk in reservations in May? If it's best to just do the applications, how can I figure out a route and what sites to reserve?

If I may add another part to the question: If the big-ticket Nat'l parks don't work out, I would also ask about any State Parks or Nat'l Forests or other places where there is good backpacking and easier availability on our way, assuming a general movement northward through Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, then west to Seattle. We appreciate beauty, rugged and difficult hiking, relative solitude. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

This is our last hurrah before a new job and long-term hectic schedule starts, so we are looking to pack in some awesome multi-day outdoor adventures to help sustain our souls!
posted by TheRedArmy to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
With the exception of Zion and possibly Black Canyon, I'd be a more concerned about trail conditions in some of those areas at that time of year. I attempted a relatively easy backpack in the Never Summer Range in Colorado one year in mid-June, but I had to turn back at a Continental Divide crossing point on the trail because there was a huge cornice of snow that I couldn't safely navigate on the ridge. I'm mostly familiar with Colorado where the elevations are a little higher, but snow pack is no joke. During spring runoff, the trails are not so much trails as they are small streams, and stream crossings can become dangerous or impassible. The only thing I can suggest is try calling the rangers at each park who would have a better idea of when trails might be clear and how realistic it would be to get walk-in sites.

If trails were passible, the Wind River range in Wyoming, specifically hiking out of the Pinedale area, is spectacular. You've probably already looked into this, but my guess is that Grand Canyon reservations are already booked.
posted by shornco at 12:33 PM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I never had luck getting deep into the grand tetons, I've only done day trips there. but it's pretty! so kind of worth it anyways. May is still relatively early, so you may get lucky.

Alternate hikes:

Towards the end of your trip, I would highly recommend showing up to the Enchantment's daily lottery at 7am on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and try for a pass. We gambled on it last August, and got lucky since we didn't feel the need to go for the core area (we just went for the snow lake camp sites, and they were fine; a tough 13mile hike in, but once you're in, easy access to the core ridiculous bits). It was hands down one of the most spectacular hikes I've ever done in my life, and I would love to return there to spend more than 3 days in the backcountry.

A bit out of the way, but less insane with the trying to book permits, I'd recommend Hurricane Ridge & Noh Rain Forest in the Olympic National Forest- it doesn't require pre-booking a permit, and is gorgeous.

Both hikes I recommended are challenging, and not for beginner hikers . Snow may be a problem this early in the season. you probably want to carry hiking poles and thermals at the very least. Also, you could do the first flat bit of Hurricane ridge easily but once you start heading up to elk lake it gets hard, and it ends in a glacier, so you know... cold. but the payoff is 100% worth the effort. I'd recommend trying to get your pack weight under 25lb for either hike, keeping in mind that both are along water the whole way, so you don't need to carry as much water weight.
posted by larthegreat at 12:34 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

That is super early for GT and Glacier. As someone said - that's early for the Colorado high country, which is quite a bit south. I guess the biggest question is how prepared are you for snow? Because at that time of year, it's entirely possible the backcountry will be snow covered, particularly near the passes, and depending on the route you choose in GTNP the rangers will grill you heavily about having an ice axe and knowing how to use it. Also, if you do any stream crossings - do you know how to cross snowmelt fed streams?

As for the campsites in Teton, many of the number zones are specifically for climbers - sites at Lower Saddle, Lupine Meadows, and Garnet Canyon are for those attempting to climb various peaks. Here is a map, with mileages. The areas you want are the Northern Canyons (Owl, Berry Creek, Webb - basically the routes around Survey Peak and Moose Mountain); the trails that go up to Marion Lake in the South (Granite and Open Canyons); routes up from the Death Canyon TH; Cascade Canyon; and Paintbrush Canyon. Surprise Lake might be open at that time of year - it's a hell of a trek. Teton hiking trails has some very good pictures of the various trails for you to look at.

That said, that early if I were you, I would get a site around Leigh Lake/Bearpaw Lake and then use that as a backup if you get there and find out a) there's too much snow and b) you can't get a walk-in. It is a good time of year to get a walk-up permit if you get there super early. You can then talk to the rangers and find out what's open and accessible. While not up in the mountains, it's gorgeous, and you can use it as a "base camp" for day hikes in Paintbrush and Cascade Canyons. If you need to cancel it, you'll be out 35, but that's better than getting there and finding out that your site up Death Canyon is blocked by 3 feet of snow.

Also, I really recommend you stay at Jenny Lake Campground for your first night/last night if you can get a spot! It's beautiful. It's first come first served.

In both parks you will also be required to carry an approved bear canister. I don't know about Glacier but I do know Teton has them available at the ranger station at Jenny Lake.
posted by barchan at 12:58 PM on April 5, 2016

The Cascades check all of your boxes, and also Mt. Rainier National Park. Are you equipped to travel or camp on snow? If so, I can narrow down recommendations.
posted by halogen at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2016

May would be fine for parks in Utah, and there are many, so perhaps you could extend your time that far south. Capital Reef, Canyonlands, Grand Staircase are all fantastic. Also, Great Basin NP in Nevada is remote, uncrowded and an easy fit into your route. Southern Sierra might also be open.
Spring will begin later and later as you move north, but i wouldn't expect access to high country in washington, idaho or montana until july.
My friends and i have done this several times, and the best bet is to look for camping in the national forests or BLM land around the NP's, rather than trying to book into crowded campgrounds within the parks proper.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:59 PM on April 5, 2016

Yeah, 100% look for camping around the parks. For example, I went to Arches this weekend in Utah, and found a sweet campsite that is walk-in distance from the national park on BLM land.
posted by Marinara at 9:16 AM on April 6, 2016

Page five of this pdf shows where all the confusing acronyms for backcountry campsites in Glacier are, as well as how many of the campsites at those locations are reservable in advance (for a $30 fee and $5 per person) and how many are kept as 'walk-in sites' that you reserve the day before you take off on your hike out there (for no fee except the per-person charge). And non-backcountry sites can be reserved here and you can check the status of the campsites and when they open here.
posted by Theiform at 9:51 AM on April 6, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks all! We are rearranging plans and with your great suggestions we will find fun a little further South, including a 7 day canoe trip on the Green River in Utah.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:49 AM on April 12, 2016

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