Between work, family commitments, and life tasks that add up to what seems like another full-time job, it can be hard to set aside time for extended backcountry exploration. Luckily, there are more incredible trails across the country than you can possibly hike in a lifetime, and plenty of them can be completed in just a few days.
Be sure to plan ahead, know the area, and research all backcountry travel permits. We recommend a pack with at least a 48-liter capacity, and a 60-liter pack is a safe choice should you head out for a longer trip. New to backpacking? Check out our tips for getting started here, and make sure you get your pack properly fitted.
Here are a few of our top picks for the best trails to explore, whether you have three days, five days, or a full week. All of these trails can be completed in the given number of days by hiking between 8-14 miles per day, and you can always pick up the pace to cover more distance, or slow down to spend extra time enjoying the journey.
1. Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley: Yosemite National Park, California
Distance: *28 miles, 9 miles per day *Difficulty: Moderate Type: End-to-end, shuttle Best Time to Hike: May-October Description: Get away from the Yosemite Valley crowds on this epic trek. You’ll see mule deer grazing in the meadows as you wind your way up the granite spine, stopping at vista after vista. This trail is stunning from one end to the other, and topping out at Clouds Rest will be a moment you never forget.
Wilderness permits are required, and it’s recommended you plan in advance due to the popularity of the region. YARTS is Yosemite’s public transit system, and it will be immensely helpful to shuttle around the valley.
2. Mount Sterling Loop: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Distance: 28 miles, 9 miles per day Difficulty: Moderate Type: Loop Best Time to Hike: Mid-April to late October Description: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country thanks to a lengthy season, easy access, and proximity to populated areas. That being said, the majority of these visitors rarely venture more than a few miles from the road, so the sweeping vistas, craggy outcroppings, and mossy woods will seem like a different world. The camping is plentiful and scenic, and while some sections are steep, most of the climbs and descents are switchbacked. You really can’t go wrong with timing—hike this trail in mid-to-late spring for wildflowers or mid-fall for foliage.
Wilderness permits are required, but are easier to obtain than other national park backcountry permits.
3. Eagle Rock Loop: Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas
Distance: 27 miles, 9 miles per day Difficulty: Strenuous Type: Loop Best Time to Hike: April, October Description: Not sure what Arkansas has to offer besides the Ozarks? This rugged loop will give you a taste of some serious backcountry terrain without the crowds. Hikers will climb steep, wooded hillsides and descend to clear streams and plentiful campsites. Wild bluffs and scenic overlooks are scattered throughout, offering perfect spots for breaks and camping.
Water crossings can be hazardous on this trail, so be sure to check the conditions before you go, and be prepared for a lot of wading.
4. Zion Traverse: Zion National Park, Utah
Distance: 50 miles, 10 miles per day Difficulty: Strenuous Type: End-to-end, shuttle Best Time to Hike: Late April-May, October Description: Zion National Park offers some of the most spectacular vistas in the U.S., and you’ll see them all during the Zion Traverse. This trek links together trails throughout the park, from one corner to the other. Due to the popularity of this region, you’ll need backcountry permits and campsite reservations. Planning is paramount, but your efforts will be rewarded.
Keep track of water sources and hang onto your itinerary and maps, as there will be trail intersections to follow. A sample itinerary can be found here, and the Zion NPS page has regulations and visitor info.
5. Timberline Trail: Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon
Distance: 40 miles, 8 miles per day Difficulty: Moderate Type: Loop Best Time to Hike: End of July-late September Description: Circle the iconic Mount Hood through old-growth forests, past glaciers, and all around the lush terrain of some of Oregon’s most incredible landscapes. This trail is simple to coordinate and easily accessible, which means it’s a popular destination that you’ll be sharing with plenty of hikers. The climbs can be steep, but the rewards are worth the quad pain.
Permits are required for overnights, but they are free and located at trailheads.
6. Greenstone Ridge Trail: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Distance: 40 miles, 8 miles per day Difficulty: Moderate Type: End-to-end, shuttle Best Time to Hike: Late June-August
Description: TheGreenstone Ridge Trailsplits this long, narrow island in half, following the top of the Greenstone Ridge and crossing Mount Desor, the highest point of Isle Royale. You’ll need a ferry or float plane to get here, but it’s worth the effort, especially since the tricky access makes this one of the quieter national parks. Isle Royale promises solitude, wildlife sightings, and plenty of blueberries to pick along the trail. This is a well-maintained, nicely graded trail with lush scenery.
7. Wonderland Trail: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Distance: 93 miles, 13 miles per day Difficulty: Strenuous Type: Loop Best Time to Hike: Late summer, early fall Description: This hike encircles Mt. Rainier, guaranteeing hikers a view of the inspiring peak mile after mile. You’ll climb from lowland forests to alpine zones, cross rivers, and have spectacular views of glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and wildlife. This area gets lots of rain, so keep track of water levels and weather before you head out.
Plan in advance—you’ll need permits and camping is only allowed at designated sites.
8. Gospel-Hump Loop Trail: Gospel-Hump Wilderness, Idaho
Distance: 68 miles, 10 miles per day Difficulty: Strenuous Type: Loop Best Time to Hike: September Description: While the Sawtooths and Bob Marshall Wilderness house the majority of Idaho’s wilderness-seeking visitors, don’t overlook the rugged and diverse Gospel-Hump Wilderness. On this trail you can camp along the Salmon River and live out your Sound of Music dreams hiking through wildflower-filled meadows. You’ll also enjoy solitude not found in the more easily accessible parts of the state. Get ready for steep climbs and descents, possible moose and elk sightings, and a lot of solitude.
9. 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson to Baxter State Park, Maine
Distance: 100 miles, 14 miles per day Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous Type: End-to-end, shuttle Best Time to Hike: July or August Description: Though hiking 100 miles in a week might seem impossible, this trail is a serene, wooded gem with a surprising amount of flat, fast sections. It is one of the best parts of the entire Appalachian Trail, passing by ponds, crossing wide creeks, and often breaking treeline to catch glimpses of Mt. Katahdin in the distance. You can carry enough food for the entire trip, but there are a few dirt roads for potential hitches, and local businesses offer food drops. Permits are not required, but you will need to register if you plan to camp in Baxter State Park. Read about how to hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness here.
Written by RootsRated for Gregory Mountain Products and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Aan Kasman