Which Backpacking Trip is the Best?

Weminuche WildernessThere is no one “best” backpacking trip. Each trek is unique, and for varying reasons they are all great! Whichever trip or trips you choose for your initial Big Wild Adventure(s), you’ll have such a great experience that you’ll be back for future treks. So relax, and realize that Big Wild owners Howie and Marilyn are the most experienced backpacking outfitters in the country, and their choice of trips reflects a knowledge of wildlands in the United States that is second to none (Howie is co-author of The Big Outside, the definitive inventory of our countrys’ remaining wilderness lands). In other words, each of our trips has its own unique combination of attractions. That’s why the “Which trip is best?” or “Which trips are your favorites?” questions must be answered with…..”It depends”!

It depends upon a number of factors.  Some folks can easily handle our tougher trips while others are best suited for the mellower treks. So consider our trip ratings, and realize that we can fine tune the difficulty of a trip as we proceed, based upon group needs. Also, some folks have a particular time slot and some get the same vacation time slot each year, which means they must choose from the same two or three treks. Well, don’t worry! Whichever trip you choose will be great. Plus, the wilderness is never the same from one year to the next (neither is group!), and on most of our trips, we can vary the route for repeaters. We have clients who’ve repeated trips many times, including one of our most loyal hikers who has been backpacking in Utah on our Escalante Canyons trip over a dozen times! It also depends upon the season. Each scheduled trip is run during an optimal time period for that particular route. For example, you won’t see our high alpine trips scheduled for May or June because there’s simply too much snow and water that time of year in the high Rockies. And, although some folks prefer particular kinds of landscapes to others — wide open versus heavily forested, for example — we encourage folks to be open to the unique beauty of all kinds of wild landscapes! Nonetheless, despite our somewhat nebulous “It depends” answer to the basic question of trip choice, we want to help you make that choice. So here is a somewhat subjective breakdown of information to help you choose your big and wild adventure:

Canyonlands View3 Happy Fisherman

HIGH ALPINE: With portions of their routes at high altitudes well above tree-line, the rugged sky scraping mountain topography is jaw-dropping on each of these treks. The Beartooth and Wind River Range trips also include lots of spectacular high lakes nestled among granite peaks. The Absarokas are known for sweeping expanses of alpine tundra rising above verdant wooded basins. The Grand Tetons are, well, the Tetons! Mother nature made just one Teton Mountain Range. And Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness includes sweeping expanses of lush tundra rising to 14,000 foot peaks in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. All of these “fairly strenuous” treks are somewhat challenging, but the “strenuous” Wind River Range trip is the toughest. Despite the emphasis on high altitude hiking, though, each of these treks also includes a big dose of beautiful forest and meadow, with meandering streams shadowed by sky-scraping peaks.

QUINTESSENTIAL YELLOWSTONE BACKPACKING: When most folks think of Yellowstone, they envision a high rolling plateau with deep woods, huge meadows, sparkling lakes and meandering streams, big waterfalls plus unique and fascinating thermal features, and lots of wildlife — especially “charismatic mega-fauna”. Well, have we got the trips for you! The Lamar Backcountry, off trail in Central Yellowstone, plus the Southwest Yellowstone (Bechler area) and Southern Yellowstone trips cannot be beat. Yet each trek is a very unique adventure; do not think that you’ve “seen Yellowstone” if you’ve been on just one of these wonderful treks. And none of these trips is terribly difficult, either.

YELLOWSTONE MOUNTAINS: The northwest chunk of Yellowstone includes the gorgeous Gallatin Range (moderate) and the Mellow Gallatin trek (moderately easy) in that same general area. In addition, the entire eastern boundary of the park is mountainous terrain and our Northeast Yellowstone trip is a beautiful but very mellow “moderately easy” walk through this lovely chunk of the northern Absarokas, contiguous with the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. These are usually good trips for seeing wildlife, too.

WILDLIFE VIEWING: Keep in mind that the following treks also include gorgeous scenery, but because they trek through some of the best wildlife habitat in the country and we run these trips in June – before most hoofed animals have spread out across the high summer ranges – the beautiful Gros Ventre Range and Northern Yellowstone trips stand out for watching wild animals! Both trips are “moderate” and the Gros Ventre also includes some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the West! Of course, most of our trips provide opportunities to view native wildlife, and our guides are experts in spotting critters and knowing where to look. Actually, any Yellowstone backpacking adventure is likely to produce wildlife sightings, and the Beartooth, Absaroka, Wind River and Rocky Mountain Front treks usually also produce big mammals. In addition, our Missouri River Canoe adventure is always a great choice for seeing an unbelievable variety of bird life plus most years some large mammals, too.

BIG TREES & BIG MOUNTAINS: Both the Selway-Bitterroot and Olympic National Park are “fairly strenuous” trips that fit this category. The Bitterroot Range is equal to Glacier National Park for rugged mountain scenery, with granite peaks rising to 10,000 feet above densely forested valleys with huge trees. The Bitterroots also are known for their crystal clear subalpine lakes nestled among the rugged peaks. The Olympics (think black bears and huckleberries) include true coastal rainforest and glacier-draped peaks. They are both amazing places.

GLACIER PARK’S WILDER NEIGHBOR: Just south of Glacier National Park is the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, one of the biggest chunks of wild country in the lower 48 states. Our Rocky Mountain Front trek is within this vast wildland, in spectacular mountain country that rises abruptly above the northern Great Plains. We often see wildlife in this land of dense forest and rugged limestone peaks which rise above lush mountain valleys. “The Front” lies just south of Glacier, but is in many ways considerably wilder.

REMOTENESS: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska is one of the wildest and most remote landscapes remaining on Earth! Plus, the scenery is breathtaking, and you will see animals. In many ways, this is the ultimate wilderness adventure!

SOUTHWESTERN HIGH COUNTRY: The Gila Wilderness is the largest chunk of wild forested mountain country in the far Southwest. You will experience mountains, mesas and rugged river canyons clothed in a majestic forest of huge widely-spaced ponderosa pines and other tree species. If you are looking for a unique springtime trek into some beautiful wooded high country, before the snows have melted in the Rockies to the north, this trip is wonderful!

DESERT: Backpacking in Utah’s red rock canyon country is unlike any other place on Earth! Our Canyonlands National Park (moderately easy), Escalante Canyons (moderate) and Grand Staircase (fairly strenuous) trips are all adventures you’ll never forget! These treks are in the same bio-region as the Grand Canyon. But with fewer hikers and less regulation, we feel that these areas offer a much better wilderness experience.

WILDFLOWER VIEWING: You can’t beat the Tetons, the Gallatins and the Wind Rivers for summer wildflowers. Northern Yellowstone is great for spring blooms and the Beartooths have perhaps the greatest variety of alpine wildflowers in the entire country. Really, though, any mountain trip from June until mid to late August (depending upon weather) will have great displays of native wildflowers.

SOLITUDE/FEW HUMANS: The quantity of other people we run into along the trail varies not just by area, but from year to year. So it is unpredictable. But solitude is important, and our route choices reflect our policy to get our clients into remote country, away from the most heavily-used areas (although other hikers might be more numerous near the trailhead for the first mile or so — another great reason for longer multi-day trips!). As a generalization, the trips where we see the fewest number of other humans are the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Gros Ventre, Rocky Mountain Front and Absaroka trips. Utah backpacking is also great for solitude. Backcountry use is well-controlled by the Park Service in Yellowstone, and most clients are pleasantly surprised by Yellowstone backcountry solitude. You might see a few more hikers in Southwest Yellowstone than on other park routes, but the amazing beauty and diversity of this landscape is worth it! Again, though, there will be plenty of wilderness solitude on ALL of our treks, or we would not choose to explore these areas. Even in the very popular Wind River Range, for example, we visit an area with difficult trailhead road access, so few other hikers are present.

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Capitan Lake - photo from one of our backpacking treks

List prices include our complete gear package and there is a $300 discount if you bring your own (see our Canoeing List, Backpacking List, and/or Questionnaire for details – found here). Also, we offer a $300 discount for the second trip in a calendar year. Scheduled trips are for persons ages 14 and over. Exceptions to the age requirement will be made by us on a case-by-case basis.

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