With hundreds of access points across 14 states, the historic Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continually marked footpaths in the world and one of the best for backpacking. Stretching 2,181 miles from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, the picturesque trail is rich with pastoral forests of maple and birch trees and panoramic mountainous views. Every year, it draws millions of people to walk portions of the trail or its entirety in a single season. Highlights along the Appalachian Trail include the Blue Ridge Parkway and McAfee Knob in Virginia, the town of Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s headquarters, Mount Washington in New Hampshire and the Hundred-Mile Wilderness – one of the most challenging portions of the trail with a marker sign warning hikers not to attempt this wilderness section unless bringing a minimum of 10 days of supplies and full equipment. According to the Conservancy, backpackers have two basic choices when backpacking overnight or longer – staying in one of more than 250 backcountry shelters or pitching a tent at designated campsites or where “dispersed camping” is allowed. However, there are many low-cost hostels, motels and organized campsites along the way for easier ventures.
Related: Best Historic Vacations In The U.S.
Also known as the Great Divide, the Continental Divide is an imaginary line dividing the western and eastern watersheds that empty into either the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, extending from Montana to New Mexico, was established in 1978, making it the third trail to earn that distinction. Along with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the three oldest National Scenic Trails comprise the Triple Crown of Hiking and as of 2013, just 196 hikers have completed the nearly 7,900-mile journey. Permits to hike along the Continental Divide Trail are only required in national parks, including Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Glacier. Backpackers are advised to contact the Bureau of Land Management, since camping on state land is only allowed with a permit and camping on private land is prohibited. One particularly family-friendly section of the trail is within Rocky Mountain National Park, with moderate-level hikes and designated campsites with permits available for purchase through the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, located one mile north of Grand Lake, the western gateway to the spectacular national park.
Although temperatures can be extreme in the inner canyon, the Grand Canyon is still among the best spots for a summer backpacking trip for its natural beauty and incredible geologic formations unsurpassed by anywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, necessary precautions must be taken to ensure the safety of everyone on the trip. Proper hydration and an adequate food supply are absolutely essential, most importantly for overnight backpackers. But this luxury allows visitors to not only explore less-traveled paths but to marvel at millions of stars sparkling at night and potentially crisp temperatures amid the peaceful silence of the wilderness. Reservations for camping at two of the three developed campgrounds can be made up to six months in advance. To camp elsewhere in the Grand Canyon, visitors must obtain a permit from the Backcountry Information Center. While some advanced backpackers might attempt the four-day Rim-to-Rim hike, there are other less challenging hiking options at the North Rim, such as the half-mile Bright Angel Point Trail and the 1.2-mile Bridle Trail.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Also part of the National Trails System of the U.S. is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, extending from the mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River to Wood River in Illinois. Extending some 3,700 miles across 10 states, the trail follows in the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on their 52-month trek from St. Louis, across the Continental Divide to the West Coast near present-day Astoria before arriving back in St. Louis in September 1806. Visitor centers and historic sites can be found in all of the 10 states with several family-friendly backpacking and camping options including the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area in South Dakota, Lewis and Clark Trail State Park in Washington and Lewis and Clark National Historic Park near the Columbia River in Oregon, featuring a replica of Fort Clatsop, the winter encampment of the expedition. Other highlights include Spirit Mound Historic Prairie near Vermillion, S.D. and Beaverhead Rock in Montana, where the young Shoshone woman Sacagawea located a familiar landmark that helped guide the expedition west across the Rocky Mountains.
Yosemite National Park
With a wealth of breathtaking natural wonders and hiking and camping options, Yosemite is arguably the best destination for a summer backpacking trip. Although the sometimes overwhelming crowds peak during the summer, the Mist Trail – a full-day hike from Yosemite Valley to the granite crested summit of Half Dome – rewards visitors with memories to last a lifetime. While the section with the near vertical ascent using the famous Half Dome cables isn’t for the weary, there are more than 800 miles of trails in Yosemite with plenty of options for day hikers. A far better alternative for casual hikers in relishing a closer view of Half Dome is at Glacier Point, about an hour’s drive from the valley floor. Among the best easy hikes from Yosemite Valley include the half-mile jaunt to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, the 20-minute hike to Mirror Lake and the wheelchair accessible trail to Yosemite Falls. Campgrounds will fill up during the summer so advanced reservations are a must. Also during the summer months, some campgrounds are available without a reservation, although it’s easier to find a campsite during the weekdays. Since nearly 95 percent of the Yosemite National Park is protected wilderness, advanced backpackers may wish to apply for a wilderness permit, available up to 168 days in advance.
Related: America’s Legendary Drives
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.