Top Ten Backpacking Loops - Page 2

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Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area in Colorado
A rainbow over the foliage of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area in Colorado  (Design Pics/Thinkstock)

5. Four Pass Loop, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado
According to the U.S. Forest Service, these pyramidal mountains are the most photographed in the country—and, lucky for us, there’s a 26-mile route that leads all the way around them, knocking off a quartet of 12,400-plus-foot passes along the way (West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin). The scenery is classic Colorado: steep valleys, carpets of flowers, striated red rock laced with snow, and plenty of craggy places above tree line. If you’re coming from sea level, finishing the loop (and its 8,000 feet of cumulative gain) in two days is a stiff but doable challenge. Take three if you want a more relaxed pace—or an extra day to lounge on the shores of gorgeous Snowmass Lake.

4. Paintbrush Canyon/Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Tetons are the youngest, most jagged peaks in the Rockies, a severe standing wave of granite and gneiss that towers over Jackson Hole, the Snake River, and the valley floor. Of course, most people only manage to look at them from far away. On this 19-mile route, you get up close and personal with pink Lewis monkeyflowers, lodgepole pines, and maybe even bears or moose—but the real stars are the craggy mountains and killer views of the Grand Teton itself. A highpoint, literally and figuratively? The 360-degree vista at 10,700-foot Paintbrush Divide, at the top of an eight-mile climb. The traditional direction is counterclockwise—up Paintbrush, down Cascade—which makes for a more gentle descent back to the String Lake trailhead.

3. Three Sisters Loop, Three Sisters Wilderness Area, Oregon
The sisters in question are the third-, fourth-, and fifth-largest peaks in the state (at just over 10,000 feet), but they’re not the only family you’ll see on this 40-odd-mile circuit. Yes, there’s The Husband, The Wife, and Little Brother, too—not to mention countless lakes and alpine meadows. But what’s truly unique about the trail is its volcanic features: cinder cones, glassy obsidian, jumbled lava flows, and pumice flats. Unlike Washington’s Wonderland Trail, the Three Sisters Loop has relatively small elevation changes (6,000-plus feet), making it slightly easier on the knees (and attracting a small number of people who complete it in a single day).

2. Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon National Park, California
Some say that Rae Lakes is the most popular backpacking trip in the entire Sierra—and with competition like Yosemite, the Minarets, and Tahoe, that’s saying something. The 46-mile route starts at 5,035 feet at Road’s End and hits 11,978 at Glen Pass. Along the way, it’s a slideshow of classic California: granite domes, trout-filled lakes, bristlecone pines (some as old as 5,000 years), valleys scooped out by glaciers, and impossibly blue skies. Plan on four days, plus an extra if you want to explore Sixty Lake Basin and get a closer look at iconic Fin Dome.

1. Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
If there’s one big loop you should do in your life, it’s the Wonderland: Over the course of 93 miles, the trail yo-yos some 21,000 feet up and 21,000 feet down, passing by 18 beautiful campsites, high-alpine wildflower meadows, glacial runoff, scree fields, deep dark forests, and gossamer waterfalls. The massive centerpiece, of course, is what Northwesterners call The Mountain. Established way back in 1915, the route is immaculately maintained and easy to navigate, with several options for caching resupplies of food along the way. And resupply you should: Thanks to the countless climbs and descents, most hikers take at least ten days to complete the trail, and many require as many as 14. Not up for the big kahuna? Tackle it in segments—the Wonderland is accessible from nine trailheads.

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