The Best First Backpacking Trips in the US

The Best First Backpacking Trips in the US

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The beautiful thing about backpacking: You don’t need expensive classes or years of experience to do it well. Whether you’re into mountaintop views, starry nights, or heart-pumping ascents, all you need to enjoy the best that the backcountry has to offer is some gear, some basic fitness, and a single night.

These 15 one-night backpacking trips are suitable for beginners, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring. Each one is easy to follow and has established campsites, but also has the kind of scenery you’d expect from a long-distance path. We’ve ranked these trips by the fitness level you’ll need to do them—people new to the trail will have the best time with easy ones, while experienced dayhikers branching into backpacking will enjoy tackling the harder picks—along with camping regulations to keep in mind before you hit the trail.

Little Manatee River State Park Trail, Wimauma, Florida

Little Manatee River State Park (Photo: “File:Little Manatee River SP02.jpg” by Ebyabe is marked with CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Length: 6.14 miles

Elevation gain: 304 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Easy

Dip a toe into the world of backpacking with an easy overnight hike on Florida’s six-mile Little Manatee River State Park Trail. Start at the state park’s main entrance, and enjoy a mild, river-adjacent jaunt with potential wildlife sightings like alligators, turtles, otters, and even manatees. Fall asleep to wild Florida backcountry sounds at the park’s primitive campsite just over halfway on the trail (reservations required). 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Jordan Hot Springs, Gila National Forest, New Mexico

Jordan Hot Springs
Jordan Hot Springs (Photo: ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images)

Length: 6.8 miles

Elevation gain: 696 feet

Trail type: Out and back

Difficulty: Moderate

There’s backpacking, then there’s backpacking with a muscle-relaxing soak at the end, and the latter’s what you’ll get on a trip to Jordan Hot Springs in Gila National Forest. This expansive wilderness, located in southwest New Mexico, welcomes travelers with juniper and pinyon forests, and primitive camping spots near the springs (no permit required). The Jordan Hot Springs trek is no walk in the park: expect creek crossings, sometimes waist deep, and roughly 700 feet of elevation gain. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Hunter Mountain, Catskills, New York

Catskills Hiker
Catskills Hiker (Photo: MundusImages/E+ via Getty Images)

Length: 4.6 miles

Elevation gain: 2,206 feet

Trail type: Out and back

Difficulty: Moderate

The Catskill Mountains offer some of New York state’s best beginner backpacking trips. Hunter Mountain, the second tallest of the Catskills High Peaks, is a great place to start. This 4.6-mile one-way outing winds up 2,238 feet, with a forested trail and sneak peeks of the bucolic Catskills region along the way. If your legs are begging for a bit more trekking, Hunter’s also linked with the 24-mile Devil’s Path trail, one of the most challenging backpack trips in the state. Camping permits here are only required if trips are longer than three nights, or with 10 or more people.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Gunsight Pass to Gunsight Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

Mountain goats congregate atop Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park.
Mountain goats congregate atop Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. (Photo: The_Goat_Path/iStock via Getty Images)

Length: 6.37 miles

Elevation gain: 1,014 feet

Trail type: Out and back

Difficulty: Moderate

A backpacking trip to Gunsight Lake offers a taste of Glacier National Park’s sprawling beauty. The journey to the trailhead alone is worth the price of Glacier National Park’s admission; it starts just off Montana’s famed and mountainous Going-to-the-Sun Road. Park at the Gunsight Pass trailhead, then hike past a horizon of mountain peaks and multiple waterfall detours, including Florence Falls (mile four), before reaching the bright blue Gunsight Lake. Glacier National Park requires permits for backcountry campgrounds like Gunsight Lake. They’re available either online or first-come, first-served in person.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Miscowawbic Peak, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

Looking west towards Miscowawbic Peak and Lafayette Peak from the Big Carp River Trail
Looking west towards Miscowawbic Peak and Lafayette Peak from the Big Carp River Trail (Photo: “DSCN5693” by Curtis Abert is marked with CC BY 2.0.)

Length: 16.3 miles

Elevation gain: 853 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Moderate 

With a smattering of waterfalls and striking maple, hemlock, and birch forests, the Porcupine Mountains, better known as The Porkies, are a top destination for any visitors to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. See the region’s lake-and-forest grandeur on a backpack trip up Miscowawbic Peak. The route follows the Lake Superior and Big Carp River trails, with backcountry camping sites dispersed throughout the trip. The 16-mile route has minimal elevation gain, and starts and ends at the Lake of the Clouds Scenic Overlook parking lot. Backpacking permits are required.  

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Harding Icefield
Harding Icefield (Photo: Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Moment via Getty Images)

Length: 4.1 miles

Elevation gain: 3,081 feet

Trail type: Out and back

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

A quick overnight hike on the Harding Icefield Trail proves why Alaska’s a prime backpacking destination. This rocky four-mile Kenai Fjords National Park trail climbs along cottonwood forests, verdant meadows, and strenuous switchbacks on its journey to the surreal, 700-square-mile Harding Icefield. More than 30 glaciers of varying sizes flow out from here, including Exit Glacier, which is visible from the trail. Kenai Fjords National Park allows camping on the Harding Icefield Trail; tents must be at least one-eighth of a mile from the path. No permit is required. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Surprise Creek Trail, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Surprise Lake
Surprise Lake (Photo: Ray Wise/Moment via Getty Images)

Length: 4.33 miles

Elevation gain: 2,652 feet

Trail type: Out and back

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Hike in the shadow of the towering Teton range on this backpacking trip to Surprise Creek Trail. The 4.3-mile journey may seem short, but it comes with a serious kick—think 2,652 feet of elevation gained. Your final stop, Surprise Lake, is a worthy reward, with shimmering clear water in the foreground and the Grand Teton not far behind. Set up camp (backcountry permits required) and take a leisurely jaunt from Surprise to Amphitheater Lake, just a quarter-mile further up the hill.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Huckleberry Trail, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

View from Spruce Knob, West Virginia.
View from Spruce Knob, West Virginia. (Photo: AppalachianViews/iStock via Getty Images)

Length: 15.5 miles

Elevation gain: 1,606 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Admire wild West Virginia on a backpacking trip to the Allegheny Mountains’ highest peak, Spruce Knob (4,863 feet). This mostly forested lollipop loop features waterfalls, meadows, and undulating-peak vistas across the Monongahela National Forest. Backcountry campsites abound across the trail, giving backpackers the flexibility to expand this trip into two or three nights if time allows. Snag the Monongahela forest’s most scenic campsite just a quarter-mile before reaching Judy Springs campground (mile 10). Backcountry permits are not required. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here

Eagle View via High Sierra Trail, Sequoia National Park, California

The High Sierra Trail at Eagle View
The High Sierra Trail at Eagle View (Photo: Michele D’Amico supersky77/Moment via Getty Images)

Length: 10.5 miles

Elevation gain: 1,202 feet

Trail type: Point to point

Difficulty: Strenuous

With colossal sequoias and vast mountain panoramas, this 10.5-mile backpacking trip along the High Sierra Trail is worth every second of sore quads. The trail is one of the most stunning stretches of the 72-mile High Sierra Trail. It includes 1,202 feet of elevation gain, and crosses meadows and mountains on its journey up and beyond Eagle View. Find scenic campsites at the trail turnaround point, Bearpaw Meadow. Wilderness permits are required for camping.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Devils Thumb To King Lake Loop, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

King Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness
King Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness (Photo: Copyright Lynn Cyrus, Denver, Colorado/Moment via Getty Images)

Length: 15.3 miles

Elevation gain: 3,018 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Strenuous

Enjoy the peak-dotted Rocky Mountain backdrops of the popular Indian Peaks Wilderness via a backpacking trip on the Devils Thumb to King Lake Loop. This mostly forested trek follows a portion of the Continental Divide Trail, with scenery oscillating from alpine lakes to cinquefoil-freckled meadows. Backcountry camping is allowed in this portion of Indian Peaks Wilderness; permits are required from June to September. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Glastenbury Mountain Loop, Glastenbury Wilderness, Vermont

Grout Pond and Glastenbury Mountain
Grout Pond and Glastenbury Mountain (Photo: “Grout Pond and Glastenbury Mountain” by andyarthur is marked with CC BY 2.0.)

Length: 20.4 miles

Elevation gain: 4,574 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Strenuous

Even on a quick trip, you can log miles on two of the most famed long-distance trails in the country: the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail, which join together on this loop around Glastenbury Mountain. The 20-mile hike in Vermont’s Glastenbury Wilderness, one of eight wilderness areas in Green Mountain National Forest, includes an ascent of Bald Mountain and dense hardwood forest. Backcountry camping is allowed, with no permit required. Long-distance hiking shelters are also available on the Appalachian/ Long Trail. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park (Photo: jmichaelmedia/E+ via Getty Images)

Length: 14.5 miles

Elevation gain: 3,173 feet

Trail type: Point to point

Difficulty: Strenuous

The West Rim Trail is about as otherworldly as backpacking in the U.S. gets. The 14.5-mile point-to-point route travels by Zion National Park’s best-loved landscapes, including Zion Canyon, Scout’s Lookout, and the legendary Angels Landing.  Start at the West Rim trailhead and travel south; campsites abound along the route (permits required). The Zion Canyon Shuttle, which runs from March through November, picks up at The Grotto, located steps beyond the West Rim Trail’s southern terminus.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Marufo Vega Trail Loop, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Looking Down From the Marufo Vega Trail Toward Mexico in Big Bend National Park
Looking Down From the Marufo Vega Trail Toward Mexico in Big Bend National Park (Photo: kellyvandellen/iStock via Getty Images)

Length: 13.4 miles

Elevation gain: 1,030 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Strenuous

Journey through vast Chihuahuan Desert landscapes on the Marufo Vega Trail. The 13.4-mile loop climbs up a panoramic high plateau, down by the Rio Grande and back up again for unobstructed mountain views with a total elevation gain of 1,030 feet. Backpacking this trail takes preparation; there’s no shade, water, or cell service in the area. Camping requires a backcountry permit, available during business hours at the park visitor centers.

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Mount Katahdin Loop, Baxter State Park, Maine

This image has a man standing on a mountain looking off in the distance while climbing Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine.
Mt. Katahdin (Photo: Rebecca Smith/Moment via Getty Images)

Length: 10.7 miles

Elevation gain: 3,753 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Strenuous

Tackle the backpacking world’s legendary summit at the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus, Mount Katahdin, on this 10.7-mile hike in Baxter State Park. This bucket-list lollipop loop is not for the faint of heart. It boasts a strenuous 3,753 feet of elevation gain on its journey up, down, and beyond Mount Katahdin. The tranquil and mountain-flanked Chimney Pond campground (reservation required) is a welcome respite after a long day’s climb. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.

Mount Sterling Loop, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

View from Mount Sterling
View from Mount Sterling (Photo: Eifel Kreutz/iStock via Getty Images)

Length: 16.7 miles

Elevation gain: 4,094 feet

Trail type: Loop

Difficulty: Strenuous

One backpacking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains will show you why this southern getaway is America’s most-visited national park. The challenging 16.7-mile Mount Sterling Loop promises orchids and asters, waterfalls, potential black bear sightings, and Smoky Mountain views out to the horizon. Start at Big Creek Campground, and complete the hike in one night with a roughly half-way stop at Lower Walnut Bottom campsite; permits are required here for any backcountry trips. 

Find the route on Gaia GPS here.



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