If you’re looking for a backcountry campsite with an amazing view, you can’t beat America’s National Parks. While you can certainly find plenty of beautiful wilderness along the beaten path, some of the most spectacular sights are found along backcountry trails. Spending time with nature on backcountry trails is like nothing else. Backcountry camping trips can be both a physical challenge and a spiritual journey. Here is a sample of five of the best backcountry camping in National Parks.
Note: When looking to go backcountry camping at a National Park, make sure you have the right equipment and permits before you head out.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Opens after July 1st
Heart Lake trail can be found in southern Yellowstone, near the east side of Mount Sheridan. It is an 8 mile trip from the trailhead to Heart Lake, most of it fairly flat. This trail leads through what is considered the most pristine areas of the park.
Heart Lake hosts a little under half of the backcountry trips, but don’t worry that you’ll find the wilderness just as crowded as Old Faithful. There’s a log cabin ranger station and a small set of primitive camping grounds along this network of trails, that’s it. This trip offers a great opportunity to see your own private show from the Rustic Geyser. There are also several hot springs nearby. Heart Lake’s drainage also offers some very good fishing that attracts a lot of the hikers who make the trip.
Lake Ellen Wilson
Glacier National Park, Montana
Open year round
Lake Ellen Wilson lies along Gunsight Pass trail. This is a very challenging journey, over 20 miles long with an elevation change of 7,000 feet in total. The trailhead is located at the Jackson Glacier Turnout. Your best bet is to park at Lake McDonald Lodge and then take two shuttles to the Turnout. This is a point-to-point trail, not a loop, so the shuttle is really a necessity.
Gunsight Pass leads you through many of the diverse and beautiful landscapes that Glacier National Park is so well known for. The lakes you can find along the trail, including Lake Ellen Wilson, are a beautiful turquoise. The boulders around Lake Ellen Wilsons provide great windbreaks and useful surfaces for food prep. The trail continues some ways past Lake Ellen Wilson, and you’ll find Sperry Chalet, further along, a rustic hotel and dining hall. This trip can be worth several nights, with stops at some the equally striking campsites along the way.
Yosemite National Park, California
Open June through October (as long as the road is open)
The trailhead to Clouds Rest starts off Tioga Road at the west end of Tenaya Lake. The hike is 7 miles long with an elevation gain if 1,775 feet. It’s not for the faint of heart, as there are a series of steep switchbacks a mile and a half into the hike. You can pitch your tent at an established campsite.
Much of this trail is through the woods of Yosemite. It offers some great long distance views, but the true payoff of this hike is at the summit, Clouds Rest. Here you can see one of the most spectacular views of Yosemite Valley in the park, including an amazing look at titanic Half Dome. While the hike is steep, it isn’t long, and planning to camp overnight means you can bask in the beauty of Yosemite at your leisure.
Zion National Park, Utah
Open year round
Cottonwood Camp lies along La Verkin Creek Trail, which starts at Lee Pass along Kolob Canyons Road. It’s regarded as a ‘secret’ of Zion National Park. The trail is 14 miles long with an elevation ascent of 1,843 feet.
Cottonwood Camp and La Verkin Creek Trail both have great views of Kolob Arch, one of the longest natural arches in the world. The entire trail is a beautiful trip, much of it sticking alongside La Verkin Creek. The campsite is lovely, shaded by ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. You can make several side trips from this area to see some beautiful canyons, waterfalls, and more views of Kolob Arch.
Mt. Collins Shelter
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Open depending on weather; check this link for current availability
The hike to this campground starts at US 441 at Newfound Gap. It is a 4-mile hike to the shelter, with a rise of about 2,000 feet. It’s a fairly uncrowded hike.
The Shelter itself is much unlike many other campsites on this list. It consists of three-sided lean-tos made of stacked stone. These shelters fireplace and bunks. There are some tables and benches under a roof, as well. There’s a composting outhouse provided, as well as bear bagging poles. All in all, it’s much more civilized than most backcountry camping sites. You can, of course, still tent camp in some of the grassy areas outside these amenities, if you’d like.
From this little bit of backcountry camping luxury, you can hike an 8-mile loop to Clingman’s Dome, a towering 6,643 feet, with an observation tower at the top. The hike to the Shelter is a beautiful walk through the typical landscapes of the Great Smoky Mountains wilderness. It also lies along the Appalachian Trail, and you can expect to see hikers making that trek on the road and at the campsite.