Expansive views, towering cliffs and glistening lakes all await on these scenic trails. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite backpacking trips in the western side of the United States, but I’m sure there are some missing. What would you add to the list?

1. Buckskin Gulch, Utah

4 Most Scenic Backpacking Trips in the American West

PHOTO: Will Rochfort

Located in southern Utah, Buckskin Gulch is breathtakingly beautiful. As one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world, it is over 13 miles long and rarely wider than 20 feet. The canyon is so deep that sun barely reaches the bottom, resulting in darkly patterned walls and flood-swirled etchings.

Water poses another adventure for intrepid hikers as muddy pools frequently collect on the floor of the canyon. Depending on the season, these “puddles” can be up to three feet deep, causing a sporting detour for backpackers. Don’t let the extra work detour you though; this canyon is worth the sweat equity!

Beauty aside, Buckskin can be dangerous if you are caught in the canyon during a flash flood. With very few—if any—escape routes offered on the steep sandstone walls, be cautious and triple check the weather before entering the canyon.

Trip Details: ~25 miles roundtrip; point-to-point hike. There are a handful of trailheads but Wire Pass and Buckskin Trailhead are the most popular. A permit is required for both day use and overnight trips, and can be acquired through the Bureau of Land Management.

 2. Chicago Basin, Colorado

4 Most Scenic Backpacking Trips in the American West

PHOTO: Will Rochfort

If you are interested in peak bagging during your next backpacking trip, look no further than Chicago Basin. Nestled in the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado, Chicago Basin is a gem. It’s not much of a secret though, and its popularity continues to grow each year. A word to the wise: avoid this trip in July and August to avoid the crowds.

Chicago Basin is a classic due to its proximity to three towering fourteeners (peaks above 14,000 feet): Sunlight Peak, Mount Eolus and Windom Peak. Hikers can choose to hike the entire way into the basin, beginning at the Purgatory trailhead and then hooking up with the Needleton train stop. This is a 15-mile approach. However, most backpackers choose to take the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Train to the Needleton train stop, and then hike the remaining six miles into the basin.

Regardless of which route you choose, Chicago Basin is a beauty. Mountain goats are frequent visitors and the San Juan mountain range is truly special.

Trip Details: 12 miles/30 miles roundtrip, depending on how you handle the approach. There is 3,000 feet of elevation gain from the Needleton train stop to the basin, so it is not an easy hike. The basin itself is situated at 11,200 feet so hikers should use caution with the high altitude.

3. Thousand Island Lake, California

4 Most Scenic Backpacking Trips in the American West

PHOTO: Will Rochfort

To many, the most beautiful part of the Pacific Crest Trail is Thousand Island Lake. Maybe you can guess why?

For those that don’t want to hike the entire PCT, it’s still possible to spend an enjoyable night or two at Thousand Island Lake. Located in the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Sierra National Forest, Thousand Island is as picturesque as a postcard. Small islands speckle the surface of the water and the 13,000 foot Banner Peak towers in the background. Sunrise can be a treat as the mountains are perfectly reflected in the glassy water. In a word, it’s gorgeous.

Trip Details: Backpackers heading to the lake can take the High Trail or the River Trail. The High Trail begins after Agnew Meadows and is a 7-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail. The River Trail also begins after Agnew Meadows, but is only 6 miles and is not part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Permits are required.

4. Havasu Falls, Arizona

4 Most Scenic Backpacking Trips in the American West

PHOTO: Will Rochfort

If you can image a lush, green oasis in the middle of the desert, you’ve already got a good idea as to what Havasu Falls looks like!

As one of the most known waterfalls in the world, Havasu Falls is located in the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The trek into the canyon is long, hot and dusty, but backpackers are rewarded with aqua-colored water that is so vibrant that you’re sure to think you are suffering from heat stroke. Pro tip: Don’t forget your swimsuit. Soaking in the cool, blue water of the falls is especially indulgent after a hot and sweaty day on the trail.

Trip Details: 20 miles roundtrip. The descent is easier for most hikers, but remember the old adage: what goes up has to come down! With 2,000 feet of elevation gain in the final mile of the return trip, trekkers need to be prepared. Carry plenty of water as there isn’t any on the trail. Permits are required.


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Sub-Categories Camp & Hike / Climb / liftopia / North America / Outdoors / Summer / Travel

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