backpacking

11 Best Beginner Backpacking Trips in the U.S.

If you’re new to backpacking, you may have a lot of questions, like what to pack, what to eat, and — most excitingly — where to go. In the US, you have dozens of beginner backpacking trips at your fingertips. Whether you want to plan an epic hiking vacation to your favorite national park or you want to hit the trails closer to home, you’ll have options.

When planning your first backpacking trip, you can either, 1) choose a trip within your comfort zone and go with family, friends, or a partner or 2) join a guided trip so you can learn new skills, develop friendships, and take on a more difficult challenge. Some people try to fit too much into their first backcountry trip and end up ditching the pack for good after their adventure is over. Or, they don’t set their sights high enough and end up underwhelmed, wondering why anyone would willingly lug 30 pounds of gear into the backcountry.

We know that if you’re backpacking, you want to escape the crowds, take in stunning views, and put in some effort. So, we want to help you plan a trip that will make you fall in love with the sport so that every time you dust off your backpack, a smile spreads across your face. If you’re looking for inspiration for your first backpacking trip (or your second, third, or seventieth), we’ve compiled a list of 11 beginner-friendly backpacking trips and trails across the United States that will immerse you in wild environments and challenge you just the right amount.

 

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how to choose an appropriate trail

While each new backpacker is entering into the sport with a different set of skills and fitness levels, we’ve crafted a list of trips with all beginner backpackers in mind. These trips fit a few criteria:

  1. You’ll hike relatively low-mileage for the length of the trip.
  2. The trails don’t have extreme elevation gain for the region.
  3. They travel on well-maintained trails and avoid tricky terrain like boulder fields. 
  4. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, whether in the form of peaks, alpine lakes, or lush meadows.

However, backpacking is never easy (or else we’d never do it!) — so,  if you want to maximize your fun, be sure to train for your backpacking trip.

1. Point of Arches, Olympic National Park

Mileage: 8 miles out-and-back  | Length: 2 – 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 200 feet

Point of Arches is a perfect beginner backpacking destination on the edge of Olympic National Park, accessed via the Makah Reservation. You can hike this trail as an overnight, but if you have a third day to spare, you won’t be disappointed by the abundance of tidepools to explore and wildlife to observe. The sea-stack studded coastline is complemented by lush forests, which are home to banana slugs, Roosevelt elk, and black bears. Each night, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and you fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves, you’ll start scheming up your next trip.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This relatively-flat trail gives you quick access to a stunning beach environment, without much hard hiking or elevation gain. In fact, we offer this as a family-friendly trip option. You’ll get the pay-off of a bigger backpacking trip, but without all the work. So, pack a chair and relax on the beach as seals play in the coastal waters and eagles fly along the bluffs hunting for fish.

Unlike many beach destinations, the campsite near Point of Arches sits along a creek, so you don’t have to pack in water for your whole trip — just a water filtration device.

logistics and permits

You’ll need to secure two permits to make this trip a reality. First, you’ll need to pick up a Makah Recreation Pass; it costs $10 and is good for an entire year. You can get one in Neah Bay at the marina, the general store, the mini-mart, and the tribal center, among other areas. Also, as this trail enters into Olympic National Park, you will need a Wilderness Camping Permit for any overnight stays in the park. Make sure you reserve this in advance. However, if you join a guided trip, we take care of all permits and reservations for you!

As of February 2021, this trail is closed due to COVID-19, as are many of the coastal areas of the park because they are on tribal lands. If you’re looking for an alternate route in Olympic National Park, the Seven Lakes Basin backpacking loop is a great — yet more difficult — alternative.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

2. Shining Rock Wilderness, North Carolina

shining rock wilderness

Mileage: 22 miles roundtrip | Length: 4 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,300 feet with backpacking packs (plus 1,700 ft with a day pack)

The Shining Rock Wilderness in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is one of the most spectacular East Coast backpacking destinations. The name comes from a unique geologic outcropping of quartzite rock that guards the summit of Shining Rock. Not only will these rocks dazzle you with their beauty, but they also provide a great perch to look out across the sweeping views of the surrounding peaks. On your trek, you’ll hike past cascading waterfalls and swimming holes that are perfect for a dip in the right season.

Why is it great for a beginner?

Relatively short-mileage days lead to exciting destinations. And while many beginner-friendly backpacking trails are packed with crowds, you can find mountain solitude in the Shining Rock Wilderness. Plus, a two-night backcountry basecamp lowers the number of miles you need to hike with a full pack. One of the hardest parts of backpacking is fine-tuning your pack packing routine, so you’ll appreciate the layover day when you get to leave your tent set up.

logistics and permits

You don’t need to obtain a permit to backpack in Pisgah National Forest. However, due to the prevalence of black bears in the area, you must carry all your food and scented items in bear canisters.

This trail is in a wilderness area, so as with all backpacking trips, please leave no trace and minimize signs of human impact. We recommend first hiking in this area with a guiding company because the trails are not signed or blazed, unlike more popular destinations such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, if you do choose to backpack alone in this region, carry and map and compass so you can navigate the trails.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

3. Golden Cathedral, Grand-Staircase, Utah

Wide angle Horizontal composition Golden Cathedral Neon Canyon Escalante National Park Utah

Mileage: 10 miles roundtrip | Length: 3 – 4 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 1.100 feet

The Golden Cathedral is a stunning display of geologic processes set in Neon Canyon. On this trip, you set up a basecamp along the Escalante River so you get to enjoy both the lush desert oasis and impressive slickrock features, like the pothole arch pictured above. While camping is not permitted in Golden Cathedral to protect the fragile environment, you’ll enjoy your sandstone surroundings as you explore the labyrinth of canyons during the days. Plus, southern Utah is known for its endlessly dark night skies. So as you peer out of your tent at night, be sure to gaze up between the canyon walls to see a smattering of stars.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This low-mileage trip is doable as a day hike, but spending the night between the narrow canyon walls in red rock country is quite the experience. You’ll carry a pack on the first and last day of your trip, setting up basecamp once you arrive in the canyon. Then, on your layover days, you’ll have time to explore slot canyons and washes without the weight of your pack. Unlike some desert hikes, this destination has plenty of water, so while you’ll need to stay hydrated, you won’t weigh your pack down with a trip’s worth of H20.

logistics and permits

While this is a great first beginner backpacking trip with a guiding company, it can be a challenging trail to navigate on your own. However, if you plan to go solo, follow the cairns (piles of rocks) and keep your senses engaged so you don’t get lost. Don’t forget the map and compass!

Stop by a ranger station to obtain a free backcountry permit. Study up on desert leave no trace procedures, as this unique environment requires that you travel mindfully.

Also, check the forecast before you go because flash floods can be an incredible danger in canyon country. During certain times of the year, you may need to wade through thigh-deep water in the canyons. Bring along a pair of hiking sandals and trekking poles to make the journey more fun!

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

4. Tuolumne Meadows area, Yosemite

Mileage: 20 miles roundtrip | Length: 3 – 4 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,300 feet with a pack ( + 1,700 as a day hike)

The Tuolumne region of Yosemite National Park is defined by expansive green meadows, dome-shaped mountains, and the pinnacle spires of the Cathedral Range. Water flows freely through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, where you can witness cascades tumbling down silver slabs of granite. On our Yosemite Alpine Meadows and Waterfalls Trek, you can see some of the best that it has to offer on a moderate trip.

Why is it great for a beginner?

Unlike the Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows has high-elevation trailheads with relatively flat relief landscapes and far fewer crowds. Water is plentiful and the views are outstanding. Up in Tuolumne, wildlife is less accustomed to humans, so you’ll have fewer concerns about a hungry bear sneaking into camp.

The campsite along this route (where you’ll stay for two nights) has treated water and solar-powered outhouses for ultimate backcountry comfort. Plus, unlike many areas in Yosemite National Park, you’ll have access to bear boxes at camp, so you won’t have to carry bear canisters which are heavy and inconvenient.

logistics and permits

You’ll need to obtain a permit to stay overnight in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. We recommend you reserve a permit in advance, however, some first-come-first-served permits are available if you visit the ranger station the morning before your intended trip. If you’re traveling during the weekends or holidays, don’t expect to get a last-minute permit.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

5. Indian Garden, Grand Canyon

bright angel trail in the grand canyon

Mileage: 15 miles roundtrip | Length: 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,000 feet with a pack ( + 1.500 ft as a day hike)

Okay, no backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon is exact beginner-friendly because of the nature of the terrain. However, if you’re set on hiking the Grand Canyon for your first backpacking trip, the Indian Garden backpacking trip is a solid choice. Instead of backpacking to the bottom of the canyon, you’ll hike down the iconic Bright Angel Trail and stay at Indian Garden (a lush oasis with plenty of shade). The next day, you’ll hike down to the Colorado River without a big pack on your back. This three-day excursion allows you to experience the canyon beyond the rim — something not a lot of visitors can say. And as you enjoy dinner and panoramic views at Plateau Point, you’ll feel glad you put in the effort.

Why is it great for a beginner?

Indian Garden is a bit of an oasis, offering hikers more shade and water than other areas along the canyon. Potable water is available year-round to hikers. These qualities are important because heat and dehydration are two of the most dangerous factors for visitors. Additionally, this trail has less elevation gain and loss than other Grand Canyon trips. You’ll still get the expansive views and magic feelings that come along with an overnight stay in the Grand Canyon, without the knee-pounding descent to the bottom. Plus, this campground has toilets, so you don’t have to worry about properly burying or packing out your waste. 

logistics and permits

You must reserve and obtain a permit to backpack in Grand Canyon National Park. Because of the popularity of this park, these permits can go quickly! A few permits for Corridor campgrounds (including Indian Garden) are available for walk-ups at the Backcountry Information Center in the park.

Just because the Indian Garden Campground is more accessible than many backcountry campsites doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously. Anytime you’re hiking below the canyon rim, you need to carefully consider the conditions, your water capacity, and your fitness level. In the hot seasons, start early to avoid mid-day heat; this is an unforgiving climate and many hikers have died by setting out unprepared. Hiking with a guide can ensure that you have the tools you need to successfully backpack in the Grand Canyon.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

6. White Mountain Hut to Hut, New Hampshire

A vista of the White Mountains of New Hampshire from the summit of Mount Washington, the hut at Lake of the Clouds on the ridge.

Mileage: 15 miles point-to-point | Length: 3 – 4 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,600 feet

Traversing an alpine ridgeline and staying at high mountain huts — you expect that in Europe, but not in the U.S., right? But in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you can enjoy the luxury of backcountry accommodations with the adventure of the alpine. Similar to the popular Presidential Peaks Traverse but less daunting, the High Peaks of the Pemigewasset Hut to Hut Trek offers the same appeal for a fraction of the difficulty. Staying along the Appalachian Trail (AT), you’ll bag peaks during the day and settle into cozy mountain huts at night. These trails offer a sense of camaraderie that is often hard to find when backpacking. As travelers from all over the world stay at the mountain huts, you’ll be able to chat about your hike over dinner.

Why is it great for a beginner?

On a hut-t0-hut trek, you’ll get to leave the tent and sleeping pad behind, shedding some of the heavy weight required for backpacking trips. If you’ve always wanted to spend the night in the backcountry, but aren’t ready to give up the luxuries of a bed, toilets, and running water, this will be a great introductory trip.

Also, you’re hiking above treeline for most of your trek, so the views per mile are exceptional. But, the terrain is a bit rougher than some of the other trails on this list.

logistics and permits

Because this trek takes place primarily above the treeline, you should check the forecast, have good decision-making skills, and stay aware of thunderstorm conditions. The White Mountains are notorious for their erratic weather, so make sure to be prepared for some wild winds and weather.

You should book your stays in the AMC huts in advance. If you plan a point-to-point traverse, check out the shuttle system to ensure you can get back to your car at the end of your journey. The Appalachian Mountain Club strongly recommends reserving your shuttle; walk-ons are only accepted when space is available.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

7. Lake Blanche, Wasatch Range, Salt Lake City

lake blanche in big cottonwood salt lake city

Mileage: 7 miles out-and-back | Length: 2 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,700 feet

Lake Blanche is a popular day hiking destination in Big Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. Those that pack a bag to spend the night near the lakeshore (well, 200 feet from the water’s edge) will be rewarded by dwindling crowds and dazzling alpenglow on Sundial Peak. As you approach the photogenic basin, keep an eye out for moose grazing on aspens. Once you’ve set up camp, hike the spur trail to explore Lake Florence and Lake Lillan.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This backpacking trip can be completed as a quick overnight, as it is incredibly accessible from Salt Lake City, Utah. While the trail has a fair amount of elevation gain, the low mileage (3.5 one-way) makes this trip achievable for most first-time backpackers. Once you set up camp, you’ll have access to water. Also, while solitude can be desirable, you probably won’t be alone if you camp near Lake Blanche. Some first-time backpackers may feel reassured at the presence of other humans.

logistics and permits

You do not need any permits for this backpacking trip. Check out the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest backcountry regulations before you go.

However, no swimming or campfires are allowed. Respect the watershed and don’t wash your dishes in the lake.

 

All-inclusive Backpacking Adventures

 

8. Heart Lake and Mount Sheridan, Yellowstone

Mileage: 23 miles roundtrip | Length: 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 900 feet (+ 1,800 as day hike from camp)

This remote region of Yellowstone is teeming with wildlife, rolling meadows, expansive lakes, and geothermal features. So what more could you ask for? Well, when you backpack to the shores of Heart Lake, you won’t want to miss Mount Sheridan. Adding on a summit attempt to an already fantastic hiking trail really elevates this itinerary. This area is so classically Yellowstone that you’ll fall in love with the subtleties, like a pine marten running through the trees, the feeling of the wind as you approach the ridgeline, and the rising steam of the hot springs along Witch Creek.

The Heart Lake Trailhead in Yellowstone National Park is a great jumping-off point for many backpacking trips, including our Heart Lake and Mount Sheridan and Heart Lake/Snake River trips. While they are both great options for a new backpacker, the Heart Lake/Mount Sheridan trip doesn’t require a shuttle, making it easier to execute for non-guided hiking parties.

Why is it great for a beginner?

You’ll set up a basecamp for two days near Heart Lake. There, you’ll get to relax along the lakeshore in the evenings. On your layover day, you’ll hike into the alpine during your summit attempt of Mount Sheridan. If you make it to the top (and even if you don’t), you’ll get sweeping views of the Absaroka Range, the Tetons, and Yellowstone Lake.

The rewards are big for a relatively flat 8-mile hike in to camp. This itinerary gives you plenty of downtime to enjoy the leisurely pleasures of backpacking, while also ensuring you work hard to get a well-rounded experience in Yellowstone.

logistics and permits

When it comes to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Yellowstone, into the Tetons and beyond), you’ll have one big safety consideration when backpacking. Grizzly bears. This not-so-small detail is one of the only reasons this isn’t an ideal beginner trip. However, the elevation gain and mileage are very achievable by most beginners. So, if you like the idea of this trip but aren’t keen on hiking in grizzly country, join us on a guided trip and we’ll help you build the skills you need to travel with confidence.

If you do decide to hike in grizzly country without a guide, be sure to read up on safety protocol, hike smart, carry bear spray, and keep a bear-safe camp. You’ll also need to be prepared to hang all of your food at the designated bear hangs in the Park. We’ve written all about in this blog post.

If you want to stay overnight in Yellowstone National Park, you’ll need to obtain a permit. Heart Lake is one of the more popular backpacking destinations in the park, so you should make an advanced reservation. However, permits are also available for walk-ups up to two days before your trip date. If you do decide to chance your trip with a last-minute permit, you should have a backup itinerary in place in case you can’t secure your ideal campsite.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers this trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation and more all included! Click here to learn more!

9. Ancient Lakes, Eastern Washington

ancient lakes eastern washington

Mileage: 4 miles out-and-back | Length: 2  days | Elevation Gain/Loss: minimal

If you’re searching for the perfect early-season overnighter, look no further than Ancient Lakes near Quincy, Washington. This desert oasis is close enough to Seattle that you can squeeze in a quick weekend trip even if you only have Saturday and Sunday to play. As you wander among the columnar basalt rocks, you’ll watch waterfalls splash over the edges and create green streaks of life on the walls. Once you arrive at the lake, you’ll find many paths to explore the area. And nearly every campsite you can find has great views of the dark night sky.

Why is it great for a beginner?

Low-mileage and minimal elevation gain make this a great trip for beginners, kids, and the pup. While you do need to pack in all your water, you shouldn’t be deterred because you only have a 2-mile hike to the lake.

logistics and permits’

Pack in all the water you’ll need for your overnight trip! Even though you are hiking to lakes, all of the water is irrigation water from nearby farmlands. Agricultural runoff pollutes these water sources, so you’re better off bringing potable water from home. Also, you may want to avoid this one during the hot summer season. If you do backpack in this area during the summer, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.

You do not need a permit to camp overnight in the Quincy Wildlife Recreation Area. However, you’ll need a Discover Pass to park at the trailhead.

10. Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota

Mileage: varies (10+ mile one-way)  | Length: varies (2+ days) | Elevation Gain/Loss: varies

We’re not recommending that you hike all 310 miles of this thru-hike for your first backpacking trip (not that we’d stop you…), but the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in Minnesota has many trail sections that you can complete in a weekend or on a three-to-four-day trip. Weave in and out of deciduous forests as you follow the shore of Lake Superior. You’ll cross deep gorges, pass fairytale-esque waterfalls, and even find your fair share of swimming spots. In the autumn, you’ll hike to vistas to see a sea of reds, oranges, and yellows. While the entire trail is stunning, some standout sections are from Caribou Falls State Wayside to Lutsen and from Two Harbors to Silver Bay.

Why is it great for a beginner?

The SHT hiker’s shuttle makes it easy to customize your route for your timeline and hiking ability, without having to do an out-and-back hike. Just choose one of 50 different trailheads and hike north or south! Most hikers travel from south to north. The trails are well-marked with a blue blaze.

When you’re on the trail, you encounter designated campsites very frequently. So, you never have to hike far to find a place to rest your head (unless you want to pack in the miles!) Additionally, some sections of the trail pass through towns. If you’re considering your first thru-hike or week-long trip, restocking supplies is incredibly easy.

logistics and permits

No permits or reservations are required to hike and camp along the SHT. During busy weekends, you may have to share campsites with other hiking parties.

The trail does pass through state parks. In these areas, you can only camp with a reservation and fee. If you don’t want to make reservations, plan your itinerary so you camp in the other numerous campgrounds.

11. Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park

©Brendan Bombaci (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Mileage: 10 miles roundtrip | Length: 2 – 3 days| Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,700 feet

If you don’t mind the company of other hikers, Glacier Gorge is a fantastic destination for a first backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s hard to snag a backcountry permit for this coveted area, but if you do, you’ll stay in one of two designated campsites — either in the Glacier Gorge Valley or along Andrews Creek. If you’re staying at Andrews Creek, establish your basecamp and set out on a hike to Sky Pond, a sparkling alpine lake nestled beneath Taylor and Powell Peaks. Spend an extra day exploring the area and head up to Andrews Glacier. If you’re at the Glacier Gorge site, bring a fishing rod and test the waters at Jewel Lake. Or, hike up to Black Lake and Ribbon Falls.

Why is it great for a beginner?

The campsites are relatively close to the trailhead. Once you set up camp, you’ll have opportunities to explore stunning high mountain lake basins without the weight of a heavy pack. Starting from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, you don’t have to gain much elevation to get some pretty impressive views.

logistics and permits

You’ll need to reserve a wilderness camping permit if you plan to spend the night in Rocky Mountain National Park. As there are only two designated campsites in this area, the spots fill up quickly. If you plan to fish, you’ll need a valid Colorado fishing license.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, you must carry and store all your food and scented items in a bear canister. This is the only food storage method permitted in this park.

 

About Hannah Singleton

Hannah is a content strategist, writer, and guide for Wildland Trekking Company. She was born and raised on the East Coast but currently resides in Salt Lake City, UT where she spends her time exploring the wonders of the Rocky Mountain West. You can check out more of her freelance writing at www.hannah-singleton.com.

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