Backcountry Camping Guide For 10 U.S. National Parks

Ditch the crowds and see the parks like they were meant to be seen.

By: The Outbound Collective
February 18, 2016

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The National Parks are America’s best idea and everybody knows it. So much so that a day spent in the most popular parks can feel more like a day at Disneyland if you stick to the attractions close to the main roads. The solution, of course, is to hit the backcountry. It can be tough to even know where to begin when planning your first backpacking trip in a national park, so we’ve made this list with some of our favorite backpacking trips plus helpful links to navigate the permit process. Sometimes you have to reserve your backcountry permit months in advance, so if you want to explore any of these parks and get away from the hoards of tourists this summer, start making your plans now!

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hike the Little River Trail to Backcountry Campsite #30 | Photo: Adam Welch

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country - over 10 million people visited in 2014! So yeah, you’re going to want to get into the backcountry if you plan on exploring the Smokies in any kind of solitude. You can even thru-hike the famous Appalachian Trail. Backpacking Permits | Appalachian Trail

2. Yosemite National Park

Backpack to Little Yosemite Valley and Hike Half Dome | Photo: Eddie Jo

If you stick the the Valley - especially in the summer - you’re going to be surrounded by cars and people. There are endless trails throughout the park and some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. You can day hike the notorious Half Dome (permit required), but backpacking into Little Yosemite Valley beforehand is sure to be the better trip. Backpacking Permits | Half Dome Overnight

3. Grand Canyon National Park

Backpacking the Grand Canyon: Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim | Photo: Rob Witt

Perhaps the most famous natural feature in America, the Grand Canyon gets plenty of tourists and if you’ve got what it takes, backpacking rim-to-rim-to-rim is a great escape from the crowds that swarm the short hikes and lookout points. Backpacking Permits | Group Permits for Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim

4. Yellowstone National Park

Backpack to Dunanda Falls | Photo: Cole Buckhart

If you want to check out Old Faithful just to knock it off the bucket list, then definitely do it, but know that it will probably be absolutely packed (unless you go in the winter). Parts of Yellowstone are incredibly secluded, all you have to do is hike a few miles into the backcountry. Backpacking Permit Application | Backcountry Resources

5. Rocky Mountain National Park

Backpack to Lake Verna | Photo: Ian Glass

The glassy lakes and towering Rocky Mountains just aren’t as amazing when you’re sharing the views with dozens of people. Rocky is full of beautiful alpine lakes to backpack to or you can spend a day tackling Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in the park at 14,259 feet. Backpacking Permits | Backcountry Overview

6. Olympic National Park

Backpack the High Divide and Seven Lakes Basin | Photo: Nick Lake

With old growth forests, abundant wildlife, and stunning waterfalls you can only find in the Pacific Northwest, it’s no wonder Olympic National Park is so popular. The essence of this lush mountain oasis is something that needs to be experienced in solitude. Some spots require only permits, while there are many that require a reservation. Backpacking Permits | Backpacking Reservations

7. Zion National Park

Explore the Zion Narrows | Photo: Stephen Marshall

Zion is world famous for its staggering vermillion cliffs and unique rock formations. The Narrows and the Subway are two super popular day hikes when done bottom-up, but they can be done top-down as well, which requires permits (Narrows, Subway) and will yield a more secluded experience. That said, don’t expect to be alone. If you want to really get away from the crowds, head out for a night on the West Rim Trail and make one last stop with the tourists to Angels Landing on the way out. Backpacking Permits | Backpacking Reservations

8. Grand Teton National Park

Backpack Paintbrush Canyon | Photo: Rob Witt

The Tetons are about as epic as mountains come and it’s well worth the hike into the backcountry to get an up close and personal view of them. Not to mention rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and excellent fishing opportunities. Backpacking Permits & Reservations | Backpacking Guide

9. Glacier National Park

Backpack from Glacier NP to Waterton Lakes | Photo: Kathleen Morton

Wildflower meadows, epic mountains, glaciers, and amazing wildlife bring millions of people to Montana’s Glacier National Park every year, but as soon as you hit the backcountry, it feels like you could be the only person for miles and miles. Be sure you’re familiar with bear safety before hitting the backcountry in Glacier. Backpacking Permits | Reservations

10. Shenandoah National Park

Backpack Rocky Mount Trail in Shenandoah National Park | Photo: Christin Healey

What Shenandoah lacks in staggering mountains, it more than makes up for with rollings hills, fall foliage, and incredible 360 degree views. There are many amazing day hikes but for those of you looking to find the trails less hiked, heading into the backcountry - and maybe even tackling the Appalachian Trail - is for you. Backpacking Permits | Appalachian Trail

Cover photo: Ian Glass

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.