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10 Wilderness Backpacking Trips

By Kristi Bray, Recreation.gov

A backpacker stops to take a break and enjoy the view in Yosemite National Park. (Hannah Epstein, Share the Experience)
A backpacker stops to take a break and enjoy the view in Yosemite National Park. (Hannah Epstein, Share the Experience)

There’s something about striking out from a trailhead with your food and overnight gear strapped to your back – nothing more. Traveling light, the anticipation of the hike is exciting and step-by-step, you slowly find yourself becoming part of the wilderness landscape around you.

Overnight backpacking is an activity that should be done by accomplished hikers, familiar with backpacking techniques and travel (PDF). From individual thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to a family adventure into Desolation Wilderness – with careful planning and some experience, the backpacking journey can be both enjoyable and rewarding.

In honor of these special places and landscapes, we’ve highlighted 10 one- to two-night backpacking trips into wilderness across the country.

Explore by State


California

Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness Backpacking
A summer afternoon thunderstorm approaches in Desolation Wilderness. (Sarah Gustafson, Share the Experience)

Nestled between Sacramento, California, and Reno, Nevada, Desolation Wilderness offers the epitome of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The name says it all, desolation – high mountain terrain with granite peaks, erratics and shallow alpine lakes. Try heading in at the Loon Lake trailhead from the Eldorado National Forest side of Desolation Wilderness. Rockbound Lake is located just inside the wilderness boundary and can be reached in just under seven miles (11 km), one way. Desolation does require permits for overnight and day use, and the quota season begins on May 23 with advance reservations available for overnight permits.

Colorado

Eagles Nest Wilderness

Eagles Nest Wilderness Backpacking
Eagles Nest Wilderness, White River National Forest (Will Burkett, Share the Experience)

Meadow Creek Trail #33, just outside of Frisco, Colorado, in the Eagles Nest Wilderness is easily accessed off Interstate 70. Head for Eccles Pass, elevation 11,900 feet (3,627 m), just over 4.5 miles (7.2 km) from the trailhead. This sometimes challenging backpacking trail (PDF) proves to be worth the effort as you climb through aspen and lodgepole pine trees on up to panoramic meadows. Backpackers should note, campfires must be at least 100 feet (30 m) from all streams or trails and are prohibited within 1/4 mile (.40 km) of all lakes and within 1/4 mile (.40 km) of the treeline. Campfires are prohibited above the treeline. Free, self-issue overnight permits are available at the trailhead.

Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness

Hiking through the tall grasses at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Kimberly Ciesla, Share the Experience)
Hiking through the tall grasses at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Kimberly Ciesla, Share the Experience)

Located along the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness, designated in March 2013. Part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the area is named for the dunes perched over this part of Lake Michigan’s shoreline. For a wilderness experience like no other, head offshore from the dunes to North Manitou Island. Access to the island is provided by Manitou Island Transit, an authorized park concessionaire providing passenger ferry service to the island out of Leland, Michigan. Reservations are recommended. Before heading to the island, backpackers will need to obtain a permit and pay a camping fee. Camping is allowed almost anywhere on the island except within 300 feet (91 m) of Lake Michigan’s high water mark, lakes, streams, ponds, springs, buildings, other camps or near the 27-acre (10 ha) area around the village located along the east side of the island. Check the online map for the many backpacking and hiking opportunities once on the island.

North Carolina

Birkhead Mountains Wilderness

Uwharrie National Forest Backpacking
Uwharrie National Forest (Holly Dwyer, Share the Experience)

Located in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina, Birkhead Mountains Wilderness hosts old-growth hardwood forests, an understory of shrubs, wildflowers and moss, as well as cool, clear mountain streams. The Birkhead family moved here in the late 1800s, leaving a mark on the land including remnants of homesteads, farms, old roads, gold-mining operations and timber harvesting. You may still see some of these historic features as you hike through the wilderness today. Begin an approximate seven-mile (11 km) loop hike at the Robbins Branch Trailhead off State Route 1107, Lassiter Mill Road. Hike the Robbins Branch Trail northeasterly towards the trail junction with the Birkhead Mountain Trail. Birkhead Mountain Trail then takes you south as you connect with Hannahs Creek Trail, heading west back to the trailhead. Backpackers should camp at least 200 feet (60 m) from all streams, creeks, roads and wildlife fields.

Hunting is allowed in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness. Wearing orange is not required of hikers, but is recommended from September through January.

Oregon

Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness

Umpqua National Forest Backpacking
Umpqua National Forest (John Dale, Share the Experience)

West of Crater Lake National Park, amongst the old growth forest, is the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness and Fish Lake. Accessible by several routes, hike to Fish Lake using the Skimmerhorn Trailhead following Lakes Trail #1578 heading east from the trailhead. At the junction with Indian Trail #1573, head north to Fish Lake for a one-way hike of just under two miles (3 km). Certain regulations apply to the party size (including livestock) into the wilderness.

Pennsylvania

Hickory Creek Wilderness

Hickory Creek Wilderness Backpacking
Hickory Creek Wilderness, Allegheny National Forest (David Schmude, Share the Experience)

Located in north central Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest Hickory Creek Wilderness is densely forested with northern hardwoods and hemlock and a lush understory of ferns, moss and flowers. The only trail into the wilderness is the Hickory Creek Trail located about 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Warren, Pennsylvania. Beginning just north of the Hearts Content Recreation Area, the Hickory Creek Trail weaves in and out of valleys on a moderate loop trail of 12 miles (19 km). Bring your fishing pole and enjoy the solitude of this backpacking hike as the trail ebbs and flows past creeks and meadows. Use established campsites whenever possible and remove all traces of human presence when breaking camp.

Utah

High Uintas Wilderness

High Uintas Wilderness Backpacking
Reflections in the High Uintas Wilderness. (Ian Ruginski, Share the Experience)

Often when we think of Utah, red rocks and natural arches spring to mind. In northeastern Utah, visitors will experience high altitudes, thick forests and even tundra communities above the tree line – welcome to the High Uintas Wilderness. Home to the Uinta Mountains, these mountains are the most prominent east-west running range in the lower 48 states. Consider starting a hike from the west side of the wilderness at the Swift Creek Trailhead.

Head north for approximately 5.5 miles (8.8 km) as you ascend towards Deer Lake (PDF) and beyond. At just over 10,000 feet (3,048 m) in elevation, the Deer Lake area promises a hearty hike, but one well worth accomplishing. The numerous lakes in the basin provide for fishing opportunities and photographers will enjoy the surrounding peaks and alpine landscapes. As with many wilderness areas, certain restrictions are in place in the High Uintas Wilderness to help protect this unique alpine ecosystem.

Washington

Olympic Wilderness

Olympic National Park Backpacking
Lake Angeles, Olympic National Park (NPS)

Olympic Wilderness is Washington’s largest wilderness, boasting temperate rainforests, spectacular views, abundant wildlife and solitude. Wilderness camping permits are required for all overnight hikes into Olympic National Park’s wilderness and reservations are required for some areas. The trail to Lake Angeles does not require a reservation but does require a wilderness camping permit available at the Wilderness Information Center. Passing through densely wooded forest and near rushing streams, this 3.5-mile (5.6 km) trail, one-way, is a moderate hike best accomplished in early July through October. Several campsites are located within the glacially carved cirque – home to Lake Angeles. Among the diverse wildlife, bears frequent the area and so bear canisters and other bear safety precautions are strongly advised.

West Virginia

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness Backpacking
Backpacking into Dolly Sods Wilderness. (Cindy Bethel, Share the Experience

The Monongahela National Forest's Dolly Sods Wilderness is known for its upland bogs, rocky plains and expansive vistas – not to mention azaleas, rhododendron and blueberries! Heading south from Petersburg, start at Fisher Springs Trailhead. From the trailhead, plan for a loop hike (PDF) encompassing Fisher Spring, Rohrbaugh and Wildlife trails, returning to the trailhead on Forest Road 75. Although many loop trails (PDF) are available in Dolly Sods, this combination is a beautiful one-night backpacking excursioner – taking you through lush canopies as you hike approximately 5.5 miles (8.8 km) total. Trails in Dolly Sods can often be wet and muddy – be prepared for wet feet. Wilderness restrictions in Dolly Sods include a group size of 10 or fewer.

Wyoming

Cloud Peak Wilderness

Cloud Peak Wilderness
Cloud Peak Wilderness, Bighorn National Forest (Dave Stoetzel, Share the Experience)

In just over 5 miles (8 km), hikers can enjoy the pristine backcountry while hiking to Geddes Lake in the Bighorn National Forest outside of Sheridan, Wyoming. Once carved by glaciers, the area is known for its surrounding summits, beautiful lakes and miles of streams, towering rock faces and wide open meadows. Located in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Geddes Lake Trail #023 is a moderate hike with light use and winds through spruce and fir forest, guiding hikers to Geddes Lake around 9,300 feet (2,834 m) in elevation. Spring brings wildflowers to the meadows and wildlife, including moose, have been known to frequent the area. Those hiking into Cloud Peak Wilderness are asked to register with the Bighorn National Forest to ensure visitors are informed about special regulations in the area and to track visitation.

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