You can have an amazing time in the extraordinary national parks of the United States without setting foot on a hiking trail, let alone spending a night (or seven) in the backcountry. But there’s no question that these expressions of “America’s best idea” offer some of the very finest backpacking opportunities anywhere.
Backpacking may be your only choice to truly explore large portions of big, remote parks. It can also allow you to shed the crowds in some of the most popular ones, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains, and discover solitude and deep quiet. And backpacking can make a relatively small, well-roaded park such as Shenandoah or Cuyahoga Valley seem expansive and primal.
We love the fact that countless Mountain House feasts have sustained both front-country and backcountry campers in these sacred spaces for decades. Here’s a general overview of backpacking national parks in the U.S.!
First-class backpacking awaits in national parks all across the country; which parks are “best” depends on what kind of backpacking you want to do and what your goals are—seeing wildlife, ditching crowds, getting a variety-pack overview for a given park’s scenery, etc. Here's a decidedly non-exhaustive highlight reel of only some of the most popular among backpackers.
Two extraordinary Appalachian parks, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, offer a great range of backcountry routes, from short and easy overnight eras to longer and more elevationally demanding multinight itineraries—not to mention the enshrined Appalachian Trail.
The wilderness island of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior is one of the Midwest’s great backpacking destinations, with footpaths tracing the long forested ridges and offering plenty of opportunities for spotting moose and other Northwoods critters.
The Rocky Mountain parks—Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain—are all truly outstanding backpacking destinations (heads up: in the first three, you’ll be sharing the woods, meadows, and alpine tundra with grizzly bears). So are the outrageously beautiful parks of the American Southwest, from Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Zion on the Colorado Plateau to the “hot deserts” of Saguaro and Joshua Tree and the Texas wilds of the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend national parks.
The national-park-rich Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada also include some of the richest backpacking possibilities in the country, from the steep (like, way steep) slopes of North Cascades to the granite wonderlands of Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon. And then there are the coastal, rainforested wildlands of Olympic and Redwood National and State Parks.
Alaska is your go-to for ultimate wilderness backpacking, with remote treks through parks such as Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali, and Gates of the Arctic—requiring wilderness navigation/route-finding skills and plenty of bear savvy. And don't forget the Pacific Island adventures on hand in Hawaii’s Volcanoes and Haleakala national parks.
There are too many iconic backpacking treks in U.S. national parks to provide any kind of comprehensive list here (and of course there’s plenty of subjectivity that goes into such a roundup). But here are a few definite classics!
Backpacking regulations vary from national park to national park, and it’s important to take the time to understand them clearly so you’re abiding by the rules—and protecting the landscape. Those rules are designed to safeguard natural resources while providing an enjoyable backcountry experience for as many people as possible. Backpacking regulations dictate where you can camp, how long you can camp there, whether you can have a campfire, how to handle food, garbage, and waste, and other fundamentals. (Many of these mandates align perfectly with a responsible, aware outdoorsperson’s general Leave No Trace ethics.)
The good news is that the National Park Service provides clear and detailed information for backpackers on its park websites as well as multiple ways to contact rangers who can walk you through the process. Many parks maintain dedicated Backcountry of Wilderness Information Offices to manage backpacking.