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A First Timer’s Guide to Great American Backpacking Treks

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Trekking through America’s vast wilderness provides a chance to strip down to basics, cast off distractions and reconnect with nature and ourselves. If planning your first backpacking trek seems intimidating, read on as TPG Contributor Liz Song of wilderness backpacking site Snowqueen & Scout highlights five trails that will challenge, empower and fill you with awe — and offers tips for feeling both prepared and safe along the way. (Except as noted, all photos are by the author.)

Just another gorgeous view from Glacier’s Highline Loop.

Highline Loop in Glacier National Park — Montana

The Highline Trail gives passage into Glacier National Park’s deep backcountry, which is only accessible by foot. You’ll have sweeping, endless views of rivers, forests, hills, glaciers and enormous, snow-dusted mountains, and you’ll get to hike with fluffy, white mountain goats. Trekking here is guaranteed to awe you into silence.

Getting there: Fly into Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, which is served by Alaska/Horizon, Allegiant, Delta and United Express. Rent a car and drive into the National Park, then take a shuttle to Logan Pass to begin your backpacking trek through the famous Highline Trail. Be sure to check this site for up-to-the-minute road closures within the park.

Where to stay: If you want to rough it, reserve space at the Apgar or Sprague Creek campgrounds. If you prefer an indoor stay, know that the park is full of sprawling, historic lodges, but there are few points-redeeming opportunities near the park itself. A roughly 20-minute drive away via Route 2, Wyndham’s Super 8 Glacier Park/Columbia Falls starts at $96 or 15,000 points, while 67 miles from the Logan Pass trailhead you’ll find a Homewood Suites by Hilton, which starts at $129 or 30,000 HHonors points per night.

Some pine-tree and Columbia River action along Oregon’s Eagle Creek Trail.

Eagle Creek Trail — Oregon

The most popular trail in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, this gently graded, well-maintained, 26-mile round-trip trek winds through a quintessential Oregon forest of old-growth Douglas firs and soaring waterfalls. Those with a fear of heights should know that few of the sheer drop-offs have handrails, but those with any anxiety about being alone in the wilderness needn’t be worried here — it can be especially crowded during summer weekends. There are many camping options in the area, making this a great choice for beginners with varying abilities. 

Getting there: The nearest major airport is Portland (PDX), which is served by a handful of domestic carriers, including American, Alaska, Delta, United, JetBlue and Southwest. The start of the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland via I-84.

Where to stay: Nearby campgrounds include Eagle Creek and Herman Creek, but there are many other choices a bit further afield. Portland itself has a lot of hotel options that accept points — including the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Portland-NW Downtown, which starts at $152 or 30,000 points per night — but as the city is roughly 40 miles from the Eagle Creek trailhead, you might instead opt to stay about 2 miles away at the Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn in Cascade Locks, which starts at $108 or 24,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.

Be sure to stop for a soak in Sykes Hot Springs.
Be sure to stop for a soak in Big Sur’s Sykes Hot Springs.

Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs — California

Big Sur’s unparalleled coastal beauty is a huge draw for road trippers — but getting out of the car here is an even better idea. As you hike 10 miles through the oak and pine wilderness surrounding this winding ribbon of California coast, you’ll be enchanted by flanks of exposed mountainside and occasional glimpses of the Pacific. Nestled by the Big Sur River in the Ventana Wilderness, the three pools of the Sykes Hot Springs provide the perfect excuse to put down your pack and take a relaxing break.

Getting there: The closest major airports are San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) — each about two and a half hours away by car — but about 55 minutes north, the small Monterey Regional Airport is served by Alaska/Horizon, Allegiant Air, American Eagle (to/from L.A., only until September 8, 2015) and United Express.

Where to stay: Two area campgrounds with more views and fewer crowds are Barlow Flat and Vicente Flat, and just 0.8 miles from the trailhead, Big Sur Lodge has room rates starting at $274 per night. Hyatt Gold Passport members are in luck here; just a few miles away, the high-end Hyatt Carmel Highlands overlooks the ocean with room rates starting at $529 or 25,000 points a night, while about 30 miles from trailhead is the far cheaper Hyatt Regency, Monterey, where rates start at $139 or 15,000 points per night.

Big Sur has many luxury properties, but the Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn & Spa offer some special incentives for travelers with certain credit cards. Both properties are Visa Signature Hotels, offering perks including room upgrades and property credits to guests with Visa Signature cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier, the Southwest Premier and Capital One Venture. The Post Ranch Inn is also listed on American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, which offers similar benefits to The Platinum Card from American Express cardholders.

The gorgeous blue-green falls at Havasupai.
Some of the gorgeous blue-green falls at Arizona’s Havasupai.

Trail to Havasupai — Arizona

Within the Grand Canyon’s Havasupai Reservation — where “the people of the blue-green water” have lived for more than 1,000 years — you’ll find an eight-mile rocky trail that winds past a series of spectacular waterfalls, including the 100-foot-tall Havasu Falls. The riverbed here is lined with limestone, reflecting sunlight and giving Havasu Creek its unique turquoise color, stunning in contrast to the rich red soil and green leaves surrounding it. Keep an eye out for big horn sheep, beavers, lizards, rattlesnakes, cardinals, ravens, hummingbirds, dogs, horses, burros and mules. 

Getting there: The closest major airport is Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), which is served by most major domestic carriers, including American, Delta and United, as well as Southwest, Alaska and Frontier. The most direct route to the trail is via Route 66 and Indian Route 18; park at the Hilltop parking lot.

Where to stay: The largest and closest campgrounds are Kingman KOA and the Grand Canyon Caverns RV Park and Campground. If you prefer to sleep indoors, check out the reservations’s own Havasupai Lodge, which has double beds, air-conditioning, private baths and nightly rates starting at $145 for up to four people. The nearest points-redemption opportunity, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Grand Canyon, is about 40 miles away, though just one mile from the South Rim entrance. Rooms starts at $234 or 35,000 IHG Rewards per night.

The view from the tops of Wyoming's Teton Crest Trail are mighty fine.
The views from the upper reaches of Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail are mighty fine.

Teton Crest Trail — Wyoming

This dramatic, 37-mile trail will take you through absolutely gorgeous wilderness (covered in wildflowers in early summer). The east side of the Teton Range lacks the common foothills that naturally flow from mountains, making Grand Teton, Mount Owen and Teewinot look like they’ve come out of nowhere. In the deep valleys below, the expansive terrain changes from forested areas to great big open meadows, to glaciers, untouched alpine lakes and huge granite boulders that’ll make you feel tiny in comparison. Start at Teton Village, and if you want to tackle the whole trail, trek to Leigh Lake and take a shuttle back to your car. (For more details on this trip, see my full itinerary.)

Getting there: Set within Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is seasonally served by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Skywest Airlines and United Airlines, and the mountain views upon landing and takeoff are almost as spectacular as the trek itself. Note that several roads within Grand Teton are closed between November 1 and April 30 each year.

Where to stay: The two most popular campgrounds are Gros Ventre and Jenny Lake, and the Lodge at Jenny Lake offers wide-open public areas with stunning lake views, as well as cozy cabins. About half a mile from the trailhead in Teton Village, The Hostel has rooms starting at $79 per night and the boutique chalet/resort Alpenhof has rooms starting at $169 a night, while the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole starts at a whopping $698.

How Should You Prepare for Your Backpacking Trip?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Check to see if you need a permit. You might need a pass for your car, yourself and/or your tent, so be sure to check the links above to learn how and where to obtain any necessary permits. If you plan to stay in a campground, a good rule of thumb is to reserve a space about three months in advance.

Pick out your gear. Think about your gear in these categories: backpack and essentials, sleep system, cook system, hygiene, clothes and food. Get a checklist here, and be sure to see our Top 8 Sites for Discounted Travel Gear.

Practice. Go on hikes with all your gear and see how your pack fits and how the weight feels on your body. Be sure to actually use your gear and see how it feels before you go out trekking for the first time.

Call your ranger station ahead of your trip. Determine which ranger station you need to call for information about the weather, what animals may be afoot, how to properly store food and any trail conditions to keep in mind. They’re an awesome resource!

Ever taken one of these backpacking trips — or planning one this summer? Let us know your tips or plans in the comments below.