Top 7 Bucket List Backpacking Trails

For avid hikers the trail possibilities in the U.S. and around the world are nearly endless. As you hike more,  some of these iconic trails might end up on your Bucket List. But don’t worry, if you’re short on time, we’ve got you covered with alternative day hikes along these trails.

1. The Continental Divide Trail

The CDT runs for 3,100 miles, stretching all the way from Mexico to Canada. Among the U.S. National Scenic Trails, the CDT stands alone as the highest, most difficult, and most remote. The CDT ranks as one of the greatest long-distance trails in the world. Backpacking along the trail, it’s possible to see diverse wildlife from the desert to the tundra. Though only 76% of the trail is complete, it’s possible to hike through from Mexico to Canada following the Continental Divide. Of course, it’s not necessary to embark on a 5-month thru-hike to enjoy the CDT’s beauty. You can backpack along sections of the CDT in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Alternative Day Hike: Twin Lakes Pike

This family-friendly 4 mile loop is a great way to enjoy the famous Continental Divide Trail without committing to a multi-day backpacking trip. Twin Lakes is a National Historic Site. The south side of Twin Lakes once attracted the rich and famous from all over the U.S. back in the 1800s. Today you can enjoy this gorgeous spot which also happens to be were Colorado’s largest glacial lakes are found.

2. The Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the most famous National Scenic Trails in the U.S.

You’re probably familiar with the 2,650 mile National Scenic Trail known as the Pacific Crest Trail from Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, or the movie version starring Reese Witherspoon. The PCT winds through California, Oregon, and Washington. This trail is by far the most popular in the country with thru-hikers. Thru-hikers generally take about 5 months to finish the trail. There are of course many beautiful sections along the trail that can be backpacked in a week or less.

Alternative Day Hike: Sonora Pass

Arguably one of the best day hikes along the PCT is the Sonora Pass. This 8.9 mile section of the PCT takes you high up into the Sierra Mountains. Due to the high elevation, it’s a challenging day hike. However, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the Sierras, alpine lakes, and wildflowers.

3. The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is popular with thru-hikers, but you can also enjoy sections in Smokey Mountain National Park.

Another famous National Scenic Trail, the Appalachian Trail is the most famous trail in the eastern United States. The 2,180 mile trail traverses the Appalachian Mountains through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail is popular with hikers attempting their first thru-hikes or long distance hikes. The AT is also known for having hostels for hikers in nearby towns along the way.

Alternative Day Hike: Anthony’s Nose (NY)

For a short hike along the AT that can be done in as little as an afternoon, try this 2.2 mile loop. Though short it is a steep climb! You can add on a 3.7 mile hike by hiking Camp Smith Trail. Camp Smith Trail is known for some panoramic views including the NYC skyline far off in the distance. Take it in knowing you’re leaving the hectic bustle of the city behind for the day.

4. The John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail takes you from Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney.

The John Muir Trail is actually a well-known and well-loved section of the Pacific Crest Trail. This trail is 215 miles long, begins in Yosemite National Park, and ends at Mt. Whitney. Mount Whitney is the highest point in the continental U.S. at 14,496 feet! The trail traverses through 2 more National Parks: Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park. It also winds through the Ansel Adams Wilderness. You can try hiking the whole trail in sections or at once.

Alternative Day Hike: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

The Half Dome hike in Yosemite National Park is a challenging day hike. It’s definitely recommended to leave early as the hike can take 10 to 12 hours. The most famous part of the hike is the 400 foot cable-assisted scramble up to the top. The hike is an out and back hike, requiring a permit. Some people like mixing it up by hiking up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir Trail. Pack plenty of water and snacks and be sure to bring gloves for the cables.

5. The Narrows at Zion National Park

The Narrows is an iconic hike at Zion National Park.

The Narrows is one of the most famous hikes at Zion National Park. At Zion National Park you’ll travel through the Zion Canyon by road aboard the Zion Canyon Shuttle (unless you visit during winter when you can drive through in your own vehicle). The Shuttle’s last stop is the Temple of Sinawava where the road ends. Here, Zion Canyon narrows at the North Fork of the Virgin River. This section is known as “The Narrows”.

With a permit you can complete a 2-day backpacking trip “Top-Down” from the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch (you’ll need to drive there as the shuttle does not go there). The hike is 16 miles long and you can stay at a designated campsite you choose when you pick up your permit.

Alternative Day Hike: Day Hike “Bottom Up” from the Temple of Sinawava

If you’re visiting Zion National Park in season (beginning early March) you’ll recognize the Temple of Sinawava as the Zion Shuttle’s last stop. From here it’s possible to day hike the best parts of the Narrows. No wilderness permit is needed. You also have a great degree of control as you’ll hike in as far as you’d like and then simply turn around and hike back out the way you came.

6. The Inca Trail in Peru

Whether you choose the 4-day backpacking option or the 1-day hike, the Inca Trail leads you to majestic Machu Picchu.

If you enjoy backpacking here at home, you might want to try backpacking during your next international trip. The Inca Trail is Peru’s most famous trail and one of the most famous trails in the world. It’s a 26-mile hike that winds you through lush cloud forest and subtropical jungle before dropping you off at Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Lost City of the Incas. The Inca Trail is usually a 4 day hike. The biggest concern for backpackers is the high altitude. You may want to acclimate to the high altitude before setting of on the Inca Trail.

Alternative Day Hike: 1 Day Hike to Machu Picchu

It’s possible to still hike to Machu Picchu without doing the complete 4-day, 26 mile hike. This day hike will often be called a 2-day hike because you spend one day hiking, spend the night at Aguas Calientes, and then spend the second day at Machu Picchu. This is a great alternative if you’re short on time, yet still want to squeeze in a backpacking adventure.

7. Tongariro Northern Circuit in New Zealand

Dramatic volcanic alpine vistas greet you along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most popular sections of the Tongariro Circuit.

If you remember the Lord of the Rings movies, you might actually be familiar with New Zealand’s Tonagariro Northern Circuit. Home of Lord of the Ring’s “Mt. Doom”, this backpacking trail is actually one of the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand. This trail includes New Zealand’s most popular day hike and winds you through the glacial valleys, alpine lakes, volcano craters, and forests of Tongariro National Park.

Alternative Day Hike: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a part of the longer Tongariro Northern Circuit. It’s the perfect way to catch some of the stunning views even if you have less time or don’t wish to do a multi-day hike. Breathtaking views of volcanic peaks and emerald-blue lakes make this day hike one of the most popular in New Zealand. Be sure to layer up and pack plenty of food and snacks!

Which of these backpacking trails are on your Bucket List? Did we miss any of your favorites?

7 top bucket list backpacking trails

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