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February 21, 2008 9:58 PM   Subscribe

The best week long backpacking trip in the United States?

So I raised the possibility to a few of my friends of going on a backpacking trip this summer, and was immediately encouraged and promoted to trip planner. As we live spread out among both coasts and traveling is inevitable, location is quite flexible. While I have done extended trips both solo and in groups, including multiple 14'ers, at least one or two of the people going will have very limited backcountry experience. The people however are young and adventurous, and in decent shape although not super-fit. Gear and preparation is an entirely different problem, hopefully not confused with my question.

I am looking for something doable in ~5 days covering 8-12 miles a day assuming moderate elevation changes. Extra points for lush scenery, lakes, wildlife, minimal crowds, easy campsites, nearby peaks, etc. Some cross-country route finding may be fun, but preferably limited. My digging so far has suggested the John Muir Trail, High Sierra Trail, Wind River Mountain Range, or some other part of the PCT or CDT. I'm looking for great experiences, other recommendations, or scathing reviews. Thanks!
posted by sophist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I recommend the Wind Rivers. It's a bit of a longer approach to the high peaks in general compared to the Sierras, but you'll have lots of options. The Mt. Bonneville area in the south and the Klondike peak area in the north are both quite accessible and beautiful. The central peaks around Gannett Peak & Cirque of the Towers will be too far for a 5 day trip & too crowded. Western approaches are easier 'cuz you don't have to deal with access across the Indian reservation. Great fishing if you are into that. Bring your mosquito repellent if you go before August.
posted by TDIpod at 10:21 PM on February 21, 2008

Take the narrow-gauge train from Durango toward Silverton, get off halfway and hike up to Chicago Basin. Three 14ers and all the backcountry you could want.

Or head to Canyonlands in SE Utah, head to the Needles district of the park and hike down the Lower Red Lake Canyon trail to the Colorado River (9-10 miles). Paddle across the river (careful, major rapids just downstream) on an inflatable raft, and suddenly you're deep in the heart of the Maze, which you can explore for a few lifetimes. Major pristine desert canyon country. Very few people make it out here because the normal approach involves days of 4WD driving over horrendous roads.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:26 PM on February 21, 2008

One hike that I have done part of and always wanted to do more of is the Appalachian Trail. It runs from Maine to Georgia so you can chose any part along that route. Ive mainly done the train in New Hampshire and its pretty easy hiking the mountains in New Hampshire are not all that big but you still feel like you accomplish something. All along the trail are shelters or huts that are set up for people to stay in. Here is a list of all of the huts and shelters. Some of them cost money and fill up quick so you might want to make sure you have enough bunks booked.
posted by lilkeith07 at 10:27 PM on February 21, 2008

Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington State- one of my favorites!
posted by arnicae at 10:53 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I loved the AT in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. A little crowded but beautiful.
My number one recommendation would be Isle Royale. Unspoiled wilderness, lots of moose, few people, mountains, lakes... It's wonderful. It does book up quickly though, so I imagine you'll want to get reservations pretty quickly. Stick to Superior for most of your camping, although there are certainly inland sites worth seeing.
The UP of Michigan, where you'll have to go to catch the IR fairy, has lots of other places as well, like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Porcupine Mountains.
Have fun!
posted by PhatLobley at 10:59 PM on February 21, 2008

The piedra stock trail and surroundings near Pagosa Springs Colorado described. (divide lake has trout as big as your arm)
posted by hortense at 10:59 PM on February 21, 2008

Isle Royale is awesome and probably not too intimidating for the less experienced.

Remote, great scenery, lots of wildlife (moose everywhere!). Crowds are minimal because all but a tiny area of the island is undeveloped. The island is about 45 miles long and it's easy to plan a 40-60 mile loop (you would have a few choices of trails with different difficulty levels).

The best guidebook is here.
posted by sergent at 11:12 PM on February 21, 2008

The Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier is a beautiful hike. From their website:
"Today's hikers find the 93 mile Wonderland to be one of the best ways to explore Mount Rainier National Park. The trail passes through major life-zones of the park, from lowland forests to subalpine meadows of wildflowers. Passing swift rivers, the trail leads to commanding views of Mount Rainier cloaked in icy glaciers. As the trail circles the mountain, hikers witness the varied faces of Mount Rainier, carved by 25 named glaciers."
Good thing to put on your "list of things to do before I die".
posted by Acacia at 12:07 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can strongly recommend a route that incorporates portions of both the JMT and PCT just north of Kings Canyon Nat'l Park. My wife and I did this with a friend, and it remains one of our wilderness highlights:

Florence Lake Trailhead > JMT> Piute Creek > French Canyon meadow > Merriam Lake > Feather Pass (cross country) This pic does NOT do justice to this area, but best I can find at the moment > Vee Lake > Bear Creek drainage/meadows > PCT > Marie Lake/Selden Pass > Sally Keyes Lake > JMT > Florence Lake Trailhead.

There are more pictures of this area here (NOT our trip or exact route, but considerable overlap.)

Highlights: stunning scenery,not overly crowded, some cross country above Merriam Lake > Feather Pass (~12,500') > Vee Lake, great fishing throughout, including fishing for golden trout.

The whole loop is around 50 miles, and if done in the direction outlined above you have sufficient time to acclimate before you go above tree-line. Nearest airport is Fresno, and the trailhead is ~2.5 hour drive from Fresno.

Wherever you choose, I hope you have fun!
posted by mosk at 12:19 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

The South Cumberland State Recreation Area in South Central Tennessee has numerous fantastic hike/camp sites, that include great swimming holes and caves to explore. Most areas are virtually empty and you will likely see few if any people once you get more than a day hikes distance from the parking lots. The largest section is called Savage Gulf.

Be sure you stop off at Sewanee for a somewhat surreal experience of a chunk of ivy covered, stuffy "old school" university halls plopped down deep in in hillbilly country. Also not to be missed are the biscuits and gravy at Pop's Happyland truckstop across from the weekend swap-meet down by the Interstate on-ramp in Monteagle.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:08 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's probably due to the ease of location when I lived in GA, but I've always loved the Appalachian Trail. If you look at this map, we've often done loops around the Newfound Gap area. Launching from the base site offers a number of loops of varying difficulty and length. I can't find more useful maps online, but I'm sure a call to the area rangers would yield some good results.
We rarely saw hikers and maybe a few people at the camp sites. Once you get on the ridgeline, there's a lot of beautiful sights, though no lakes. A google search of newfound gap could probably tell you via pictures if it's what you're looking for in terms of scenery. It's also about an hour's drive from Knoxville or 3 from Atlanta, I think
posted by jmd82 at 6:18 AM on February 22, 2008

Thirding Isle Royale. I did a four-day solo backpacking loop there a couple of summers ago which was one of the great experiences of my life.

One caveat: from just about anywhere in the US it will take you two days to get there. Unless you're wealthy enough to book the seaplane, you're taking a 4 to 7-hour boat ride from the mainland just to enter the park, and it leaves first thing in the morning. So you have to get to Houghton, MI or Grand Portage, MN the day before. (Houghton has a few flights on Northwest through Minneapolis or Detroit.)

With all that said, it was totally worth the trouble for the solitude and the unspoiled beauty of the least-visited NP in the lower 48. I would go back in a nanosecond.

Also in the region, and offering much of what you're looking for:

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (western Upper Michigan) (on preview, I see this was mentioned above)

Lake Superior Provincial Park (northwestern Ontario)

Let us know where you end up going! I'm green with envy; career + family = no backpacking for gazole lately.
posted by gazole at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2008

Go with the John Muir trail. The eastern Sierras from Yosemite to Whitney are stunning, like living in an Ansel Adams photograph. I particularly like the contrast to the desert below. Seek out the less crowded trails and campsites.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:27 AM on February 22, 2008

Eagle Cap Wilderness in eastern Oregon would be my first choice. Gorgeous, turquoise blue, alpine lakes, not crowded, high passes with amazing views. Best time of year is late August.

More generally, can't go wrong with the Rockies.
posted by SampleSize at 7:59 AM on February 22, 2008

It's a little more difficult travelwise, but I'll throw in the Chilkoot Trail. I have not hiked it, despite growing up in Alaska, in a community not far from the trail, but I have many many friends and family members that have done it and loved it. At 33 miles, it's easily doable in your time frame, and might leave some time to check out a little more of Southeast Alaska, which is a stunning place. Depending on how much flexibility you have in your travel time, there would really be a lot of amazing hikes and camping to be done up there. Feel free to me-mail if you want more details about how you could get there, nearby hikes, etc.
posted by otolith at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2008

The High Sierra Loop in Yosemite might fit the bill for a number of your requirements, but may come up a little short on the isolation factor. You start at Tuolumne Meadows and then hike a 49-mile loop to established tent campsites within the park that are basically tent hotels (similar to Curry Village or Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, if you're familiar with those), but also have backpacker campsites at the same locations. This guy did the loop in three days, skipping a couple camps, which are generally 6-9 miles apart. As far being isolated, I can't really say how much solitude there is once you're out on the trail--when I did it, there was a large forest fire going on in the southwest corner of the park and they weren't letting people in unless they had reservations at the camps, so there was hardly anybody there.
posted by LionIndex at 8:25 AM on February 22, 2008

Best answer: My favorite backpacking trip so far has been in the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming's Bighorn national forest. We're talking GIANT scenery, mountain lakes, very few people, lots of waterfalls and mountains and meadows... I just loved it. I did a 5-day loop on the southwest side of the area, near Lake Solitude, during the first week of July. There was still a fair bit of snow at the higher altitudes, so I'd recommend an early-August trip - not so much because of the occasional snow drift, but because the streams will be easier to cross. I've sent other friends since then to the Bighorns and they've all come back amazed.
posted by vytae at 8:31 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

North Cascades, Washington State. Take the ferry up the lake to Stehekin (landlocked town, population 70ish) then a shuttle to the Bridge Creek trailhead. Hike a dozen miles south along the PCT through the magnificent old growth trees. Hike up over Cloudy Pass and (if I remember right) Rainy Pass, two of the really beautiful passes in the Cascades. Come down into Holden Village, another tiny town where you can use the sauna if you ask nice. Hike or take the bus from there back down to the lake and catch the boat back to Chelan. 5-6 days would be about right.
posted by LarryC at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've heard a lot of good things about the Rae Lakes Loop from my friends in Sierra Club and on the internets. (more here and here). Although your "minimal crowds" might not apply here, depending on what time you want to hike it. It's one of the hikes i really want to do someday.
posted by escher at 4:43 PM on February 22, 2008

I found some pictures of the Weminuche Wilderness in SW Colorado
posted by hortense at 11:56 PM on February 22, 2008

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