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
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(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
In a word, the Grayson Highlands of Virginia(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
Presidential Traverse | New Hampshire
Craving a hut-to-hut trip(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
Physical difficulty? Difficult. Logistical difficulty? Difficult. Difficulty saying no to this world-class backpacking trip? VERY difficult. Colorado’s Four Pass Loop(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
Made famous by freakish ultra-athletes who complete this 44+ mile route in one (ridiculously demanding) day, the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
For 35-45 miles (depending on your route), this slender singletrack(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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
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(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) 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