Top Ten Backpacking Loops

There’s a reason serious hikers love taking on a loop—you never see the same thing twice, and you end where you started. Here are our top ten backpacking loops in the United States, from wildflower fields of the Maroon Bells to the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
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Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Utah
The striped sandstone layers of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Utah  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

We’re not going to knock trails that go out and back—or require the logistical acrobatics of a car shuttle. But there’s something satisfying about the loop hike: never taking the same step twice, seeing new vistas at every turn, completing what you start, and doing the whole thing knowing you have a few beers waiting for you in the trunk. So we’ve cobbled together a life list of routes around the country that combine beauty, challenge, and adventure—plus the particular gratification of coming full circle.

10. Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Utah
Okay, this is only a 20-mile half-loop, starting at Wire Pass trailhead and ending at White House—and it requires a shuttle. But Buckskin Gulch screams Utah: It’s one of the longest non-technical slot canyons in the world, with more than a dozen miles of red rock just five feet wide (and sometimes so narrow you have to remove your backpack). Open camping spots sit under box elder and maple trees. Warning: There are obstacles (including a cumbersome rock jam) in Buckskin, and it’s helpful to bring a 40-foot length of rope in case you need to lower your pack. But once you hit the confluence with the Paria River and start hiking upstream, the walls open up and smooth out—and the trail rises out of the depths.

9. Outer Mountain Loop, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend is one of the largest—and least-visited—parks in the Lower 48. This means you won’t have any trouble finding solitude among its mountains, arroyos, mesas, and piñon woodlands. Its signature multi-day trip is Outer Mountain, a remote 30-mile route that starts in Chisos Basin, passes through Juniper Canyon and Homer Wilson Ranch, and follows sandy washes. But it’s no cakewalk: The months of May through October are essentially off-limits because of heat, the hiking is rugged, and water is always a concern. (Pack all you can carry to start—a two-day supply, if possible—and cache more water at Juniper Canyon, Blue Creek, or both.) But the rewards—endless desert sunsets, perfect quietness, and star-filled nights—are worth some pebbles in your boots.

8. Grafton Loop Trail, Mahoosuc Mountains, Maine
Completed in 2007, this rolling 40-mile route, which encircles Grafton Notch, was the first major trail constructed by the Appalachian Mountain Club since 1976. And it’s a Northeast sampler: nine peaks, spruce forests, granite slabs, swimming holes, and a good shot at seeing a moose. A few of the miles follow the Appalachian Trail over West and East Baldpate (hang out in the Baldpate Shelter to catch thru-hikers), but the rest of the trail is lightly used. Aim for liftoff in September, when the bugs are long gone and the days are bright and crisp.

7. Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Loop, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
The Smokies is the country’s most-visited national park—with more than nine million people a year—but only 15 percent of visitors venture to the North Carolina side. Which makes this 57-mile loop all the sweeter: You’ll have the swimming holes, blackberries, and riot of fall colors (mostly) to yourself. And you’ll still see some of GSMNP’s highlights—you get to start at the park’s high point, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, then follow the Appalachian Trail before dropping toward the turquoise waters of Fontana Lake. The last days bring a stout climb up Forney Creek, with multiple chances to go for a cool dip or just sit on a giant slab of rock and watch the cascades go by.

6. North Circle Route, Glacier National Park, Montana
The eponymous glaciers of this spectacular park may be gone by 2030, all the more reason to hike here as soon as you can. And there’s no better way to take in Glacier’s greatest hits than the North Circle, established around 1915 to connect tourist camps and hotels operated by the Great Northern Railway. You start at Logan Pass and follow the Highline Trail under the Continental Divide (don’t miss the short detour to check out Grinnell Glacier), pass by an old stone chalet, cross over Fifty Mountain Pass (with just that many fins and pyramids), weave below blocky summits and grand cirques, and duck through Ptarmigan Tunnel, a 75-foot-long passageway straight through the Ptarmigan Wall.

Published: 27 Apr 2012 | Last Updated: 2 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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