10 of the Best Weekend Backpacking Trips in America

This country is positively loaded with world-class backpacking destinations. From the dragon-back spines of the Rockies to the withered yet wise hills of the Appalachians, America is blessed by geography. And backpackers reap the rewards.

By no means an exhaustive list—how could it be?—here are 10 of the best weekend backpacking trips in America. Organized from East to West, with no trail distance longer than 50 miles (aka, a long weekend’s worth), here are some downright legendary trips and why they belong on your backpacking bucket list.

Roan Mountain Highlands | Tennessee

A landscape view of grassy mountains with trails strewn about(Opens in a new window) The grassy balds of Roan Mountain Highlands. Photo by Leslie Cross(Opens in a new window)

Ask any Southeastern backpacker what the best overnight trek in the region is, and the many will tell you: the 14-mile traverse of East Tennessee’s Roan Mountain Highlands(Opens in a new window) via the Appalachian Trail. Not only is it home to one of the most unique shelters on the entire A.T. (the Overmountain Shelter, better known as "the Barn" because it’s, well, a two-story barn), but it also offers up some of the best grassy “bald” hiking in North America. Think of it almost like the Southeast’s version of ridgeline hiking: You’re above the trees, surrounded by a sea of billowing grasses in the foreground and a sea of bluish-gray mountains sprawling into every direction in the background, with nothing in the way to obstruct these views. The only downside? Cameras rarely do Roan justice.

Grayson Highlands | Virginia

Two wild ponies grazing in a field(Opens in a new window) The wild ponies of Grayson Highlands are legendary. Photo by Zach Camp(Opens in a new window)

In a word, the Grayson Highlands of Virginia(Opens in a new window) are breathtaking. In 19 words, they are an almost make-believe land of high mountain meadows, 5,000-foot peaks, thick rhododendron tunnels, and mystical wild ponies. Like most state parks, there’s a large variety of activities to pick from (camping, bouldering, fishing, and horseback riding), but arguably the best way to get a comprehensive taste of the park’s character in one condensed snapshot is to hike the 8.5-mile out-and-back to the summit of Virginia’s highest point: Mount Rogers. The route starts out from the Massie Gap parking area along the Rhododendron Trail. It links with the Appalachian Trail, traveling through grassy pastures sprinkled with boulder outcroppings, and then eventually connects to the Mount Rogers Spur Trail, which twists through a lush, mossy forest to the summit.

The Smokies | Tennessee & North Carolina

A trail leading through a forest(Opens in a new window) Backpacking through the Smokies is truly otherworldly. Photo by Kirk Thornton

For Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the 72 miles of A.T. within the Smokies represents one of the most revered sections of the entire 2,200 mile route. For weekend (and weeklong) warriors, this stretch represents one of the most efficient and spectacular ways to get an intimate taste of America’s most visited national park. Whichever way you slice it, the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies is a spectacular hiking experience teeming with old-growth forests, incredible biodiversity, challenging climbs, sprawling mountain vistas, and a booming population of fearless and curious black bears. You can’t go wrong with any section you choose along this route, but the 32-mile stretch from Fontana Dam to Clingman’s Dome(Opens in a new window), in particular, is a showstopper on every level. Overnight permits are required, so make sure you plan in advance.

Presidential Traverse | New Hampshire

Craving a hut-to-hut trip(Opens in a new window) of monumental proportions? The 24-mile Presidential Traverse is the crown jewel of New England backpacking. Stretching north-south, and stringing together seven peaks named after US presidents, this is ridgeline backpacking at its very best. The terrain is rocky and technical. The weather is often foreboding with sideways winds. The 4-6,000 foot peaks are towering. And the 10,000 feet of elevation gain is daunting. But the trip in sum? Downright legendary. Especially when you take advantage of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s glorious hut system in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Four Pass Loop | Colorado

A colorful landscape view of grassy fields in the foreground and snowy mountains in the background(Opens in a new window) The Maroon Bells in all their stunning glory. Photo by Rich Martello(Opens in a new window)

Physical difficulty? Difficult. Logistical difficulty? Difficult. Difficulty saying no to this world-class backpacking trip? VERY difficult. Colorado’s Four Pass Loop(Opens in a new window) is a 25-mile stunner through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The route gets its name from the four 12,000 foot mountain passes it traverses. Featuring meadows painted with wildflowers, lush forests doused in evergreen, alpine lakes reflecting like mirrored glass, exposed rocky passes, and more, this loop is  one of the most breathtaking hikes in North America. Between the big exposure, high elevation, shuttle logistics, and the narrow window with afternoon thunderstorms, completing this trek isn’t easy. But damn, it’s worth it.

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim | Arizona

A landscape view of the Grand Canyon's red rocks(Opens in a new window) Talk about a burly adventure. Photo by Laura Colquitt(Opens in a new window)

Made famous by freakish ultra-athletes who complete this 44+ mile route in one (ridiculously demanding) day, the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim(Opens in a new window) is a truly grand adventure. Traveling from one rim of the Grand Canyon, into the belly of the abyss, then up the opposite rim and back, this route is know for two things: 1) Extreme elevation gain & loss and 2) Major exposure. In other words, you’re gonna need to be physically prepared—on multiple fronts. But the reward of venturing off the (more than beaten) path of the rim, deep into one of the world’s seven natural wonders is truly unforgettable.

Teton Crest Trail | Wyoming

A backpacker navigating on trail along the Teton Crest, with hazy mountains in the background Reaching the top of Paintbrush Divide along the Teton Crest. Photo by Ry Glover

For 35-45 miles (depending on your route), this slender singletrack(Opens in a new window) path cuts a dwarfed, serpentine figure as it slices through the heart of one of America’s most stunning mountain ranges, linking together its very best features along the way. Over the course of two to five days, hikers will pass through wildflower-filled meadows, over airy mountain passes, past glacially-fed tarns, and across expansive basins that swallow up hikers and spit them out as tiny, inconsequential specks against the jagged backdrop of the Tetons. In short, this trail will skew your perception of what constitutes a bucket-list worthy hike. Pro tip: Permits are hard to come by, but because the trail weaves in and out of national parklands and national forestlands, if you camp in national forest designated areas, obtaining a permit isn’t necessary.

Timberline Trail | Oregon

Circumnavigating Mt. Hood over 40-miles, the Timberline Trail(Opens in a new window) near Government Camp, Oregon is drop-dead stunning. With 10,340 feet of elevation gain, this loop takes about 2-4 days (10-20 miles per day) to complete. Along the way, expect sweet-smelling old-growth forests, sprawling meadows, exposed rocky sections, a 10-mile overlap section with the world-famous PCT, and up-close-and-personal views of the craggy cliff faces and glaciers that make up Oregon’s most iconic mountain. Afterwards, swing by Timberline Lodge for, hands down, the best buffet meal you could ever imagine for after a backpacking trip.

The Enchantments | Washington

The Enchantments are a backpacker’s dream. It's one of the best routes in the nation. Situated in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness, bounded by the Stuart Mountain Range, this is a land of blue-green lakes, jagged peaks, cascading waterfalls, sprawling mountain basins, and jarring natural beauty. The 18-mile Enchantment Lakes Traverse is the best way to experience it all. While obtaining a permit requires a lottery and isn’t easy, ambitious hikers can thru-hike the Enchantments without a permit(Opens in a new window) if completed in a day. Just beware: they don’t call the day-hiking version the “Death March” for nothing.

Cloud’s Rest Trail | California

A canyon of gray rocks with trees atop the canyons(Opens in a new window) Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley from Cloud’s Rest. Photo by Tim Oldenkamp(Opens in a new window)

It’s almost unfair how much outdoor goodness is on offer in California: 9 national parks, 20 national forests, 279 state parks, roughly 15 million wilderness acres, the list goes on. Arguably the best backpacking trip out of all of this? The Cloud’s Rest Trail(Opens in a new window) in the Yosemite National Park. There’s a 14-mile option to the summit for day hikers from Tenaya Lake. But for multi-day backpackers, the 20-mile out-and-back trek starting from Yosemite Valley is the big ticket item. It packs in some of Yosemite’s most iconic sites: Vernal Falls, Little Yosemite Valley, Mist Trail, and views of Half Dome even if not from it. And unlike Half Dome, there’s no lottery for this hike (though there is a permit if camping). With 6,302 feet in elevation gain, the climbs are largely gradual. And the scenery is second to none: granite cathedrals, building-sized sequoias, and vistas that sprawl on an intergalactic scale. In short, Cloud’s Rest is incredible.

Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Ry Glover