Best West Coast Mountain Backpacking Trips

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There are so many awesome hikes in the Cascades and Sierras, it's very hard to narrow them down to a reasonable list. From a few fairly leisurely days in the woods to climbing Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., our top ten hikes along the west coast mountains offer something for backpackers of all skill levels. Happy trails!

Featured Photo: The Sierra Snow (Photo by wongaboo)


Thousand Island Loop

Thousand Island Lake Loop

If you're looking for a relatively short and easy, but scenic backpacking trip in the eastern Sierras of California, the popular Thousand Island Lake Loop may be just the thing. This 21-mile, 3-day loop hike is an alpine lake lover's dream, passing by several on the way in, including Ediza Lake and Emerald Lake, before reaching the main highlight: Thousand Island Lake. The views don't stop there, though, with Mt.Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Minarets providing breathtaking backdrops along the way. Read our full write-up for more details on this trail.

Salmon la Sac to Venus and Spade Lakes

For something a little less daunting than some of the hikes in the popular Olympic National Forest, pack your bags for a (mostly) moderate 28-mile out-and-back hike in the infamous Alpine Lakes Wilderness. This trail is great for beginning to mid-level backpackers as it is easy to follow on the way up and there are many established campsites around Spade Lake. Take your time exploring all of the lakes along the trail before settling down for the night watching the sunset in the crystal clear waters of Lake Spade.

Three Sisters Loop

This 43-mile loop trail is arguably on the cusp between moderate and difficult, but it is well worth the journey. Noted as one of the best backpacking trails in the entire state of Oregon, you'll pass by glaciers, waterfalls, numerous lakes and streams, and a plethora of unique rock formations along the way. If 4 days on the trail isn't enough, there are plenty of side trails to explore as well. Though a fairly lengthy hike, the terrain along this trail is fairly forgiving with many switchbacks on the inclines. Your biggest concern will be the unpredictable (read: rainy) weather, so don't forget that rain gear! For more details on the Three Sisters Loop, head over to our full blog post.


The Enchantment Traverse

The Enchantments Traverse

Though only 20 miles in length, this point-to-point trail in central Washington can be a doozy if you're unaccustomed to hiking in the mountains with its precipitous elevation gains. However, one quick internet search of images from the trail and you'll be packing your bags in no time to see the snowy peaks and pristine alpine lakes yourself. You had better be ready for a killer leg workout to deserve the amazing views along this trail as you ascend and descend many passes along the route. Head over to the Hiking Project to see even more awesome pictures from the trail.

Rae Lakes Loop

Rae Lakes Loop

Don't have the time to commit to the well-loved John Muir Trail? The Rae Lakes Loop in California's equally famous Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks may be just the ticket to get a taste of the JMT. You can expect to find numerous alpine lakes framed by craggy backdrops, plunging waterfalls, and valleys carved over thousands of years by ancient glaciers. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this trail is its biodiversity. Plus, at 42 miles it's attainable for many more hikers than the 100+ mile John Muir Trail.

Timberline Trail

There is no shortage of challenging and scenic trails around Mt.Hood in Oregon, but the Timberline Trail is arguably one of the most popular. (And one of the most scenic in the state.) Not only does this 40-mile loop afford you unbeatable views of Mt.Hood, but other nearby volcanoes as well, including Mt.St.Helens and Mt.Rainier. As if that's not enough, you can even see as far as the desert to the east, the Columbia River to the north, and Ramona Falls is one of the prettiest waterfalls around. Although areas of this trail see a lot of traffic, make sure you're prepared for the 9,000ft of elevation gain along the way!

Very Difficult

Half Dome

Ah, the infamous Half Dome hike at Yosemite. Known nationwide by avid hikers and probably worldwide too, the trail to the top is usually completed in one long, strenuous 17-mile day by day-hikers. However, you will need to obtain a Half Dome permit regardless of what type of hiking you're doing, so you may as well save your energy and make it into an overnight trip! The Outbound has a great layout listed, starting at the Happy Isles trailhead and heading to the campground at Little Yosemite Valley for the night before embarking to the “main event” the next day, enjoying the magnificent views from the top of one of our national parks' system most iconic spots. Be sure to check the NPS website before your visit to obtain passes and ensure that the cables are up on Half Dome.

Mt. Whitney

Onion Valley to Mt.Whitney

Have you ever wanted to climb to the highest point in the continental U.S.? For a hike that's as challenging as it is rewarding, the hike up Mt.Whitney will quench your thirst for adventure. This 44-mile point-to-point trek takes you past a couple of tranquil ponds (with Tyndall Frog Pond being especially nice to relax in after a long day of hiking), mount Forrester Pass, the highest along the Pacific Crest Trail, before finally summiting Mt.Whitney (14,505ft) on this 4-day trip in the high Sierras of California. Check out our full article for more details. 

Hoh River to Sol Duc

Looking for an extended backpacking trip in the majestic forests of Washington? This 6-day, 51-mile trip through Olympic National Park will take you through an awe-inspiring range of terrain hard to find elsewhere. This route runs the gambit between montane forest, alpine meadows, and old-growth forest. Meander along the river before reaching the portal to climb Mt.Olympus, if you are adequately prepared and experienced in mountaineering, or just spend the night at the nearby campsite before continuing your journey past waterfalls, lakes aplenty, and more before ending your trek at Sol Duc Hot Springs, where you can take some much-needed relaxation before heading home.

John Muir Trail

No western mountain backpacking trip list would be complete without including the infamous John Muir Trail. Coming in last on our list due to its sheer length, the JMT is well-known amongst the U.S. backpacking community. This beloved trail, located in California's, you guessed it, John Muir Wilderness, extends 211 miles along the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Plenty of hikers choose to tackle it in sections. We have two blog posts covering half of the trail (108 miles) if you'd like to get an idea of where to start and what you're getting yourself into. In a nutshell, the JMT offers some of the finest and diverse scenery the Golden State has to offer, from spanning valleys to arduous mountain climbs.

Have you completed any of the trails on our list? Which is your favorite or what one would you add? We'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

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