Tag Archives: backpacking

Point Reyes National Seashore

Overview

North of San Francisco, California, Point Reyes National Seashore is the only park so designated on the Pacific Coast of the U.S.  Be prepared to get wet as this piece of land located on the San Andreas Fault is frequently enveloped by a fog belt year round.  It might not be the best spot to sunbathe on the beach, but this unique seashore is a great place to watch wildlife.

Highlights

Point Reyes Lighthouse, beaches, Arch Rock, Historic Pierce Point Ranch, Tomales Bay

Must-Do Activity

The main attraction is the Point Reyes Lighthouse, where you can try to spot sea lions and gray whales on their winter migration.  It is 300 steps down to the historic lighthouse, then you have to turn around and climb back up.  Nearby Drakes Beach is off limits in the winter months when elephant seals gather there and you can watch (and listen to) them from an overlook.  The park is popular with road and mountain bikers, and well-protected Tomales Bay attracts kayakers.

Best Trail

An extensive trail system with backcountry campsites (including two near the beach) is best accessed from the Bear Valley Visitor Center.  Plus, you can always walk the 11-mile long Point Reyes Beach.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The park has a reintroduced herd of Tule elk near the Historic Pierce Point Ranch on Tomales Point.  If you visit in January, you might find a bull was waiting for his other antler to drop.

Peak Season

Summer, though the weather is pretty much the same year round.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved, except a few short ones that access trailheads.

Camping

There is no campground in Point Reyes National Seashore, but there are backcountry campsites that area available with a permit (reservations available).

Related Sites

Cabrillo National Monument (California)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (California)

Olympic National Park (Washington)

Explore More – How far did the entire Point Reyes Peninsula permanently shift during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake?

Voyageurs National Park

Overview

Water dominates Voyageurs National Park on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.  So much so that many of the land formations were never given names by the French fur traders (or “voyageurs”) that navigated these waters beginning in the late-1700s.  It was a hard life, paddling large birch bark canoes full of supplies up to sixteen hours per day.  Today the park is famous for its manmade destinations, including Kettle Falls Hotel, Hoist Bay Resort, and the unique sculptures at Ellsworth Rock Gardens. 

Highlights

Kettle Falls, Ellsworth Rock Gardens, Hoist Bay Resort, Kab-Ash Trail

Must-Do Activity

Be sure to get out on the water via a ranger-led tour or take your own boat to one of the shoreline campsites inaccessible by car (permit required).  Reservations can be made for the free ranger-guided North Canoe Voyage that lets passengers paddle a 26-foot canoe, just like the “voyageurs” of old.  For more information, check out our National Park guidebook, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Best Trail

There are several short trails that lead from the visitor centers at Rainy Lake and Ash River, in addition to the 28-mile long Kab-Ash Trail that allows backpacking. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

On Namakan Lake, you can explore the remains of Hoist Bay Resort, which was a logging camp before it became a vacation destination.  It feels haunted in the evening, exploring the empty ruins while listening to the eerie calls of common loons.

Peak Season

Summer, but be prepared for bugs.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/voya/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except for camping frees

Road Conditions

The major access roads to NPS visitor centers are paved, plus in the winter there is a designated 7-mile ice road over Rainy Lake.

Camping

There are 214 boat-in campsites available first-come, first-served with a NPS permit (reservations available).  There are several campgrounds located on the mainland just outside the park boundaries.

Related Sites

Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota)

Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

This design we created to celebrate Voyageurs National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – When did the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company operate at Hoist Bay on Namakan Lake?

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Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Overview

In 1964, Lake Mead became the first National Recreation Area administered by the National Park Service (NPS).  It actually encompasses two reservoirs on the Colorado River: Lake Mead formed by Boulder Dam in 1936 and (further south) Lake Mohave formed by Davis Dam in 1951.  Boulder Dam was later renamed Hoover Dam and is one big reason this is among the busiest NPS sites with about 7-million annual visitors (also partly due to its proximity to Las Vegas, Nevada).

Highlights

Hoover Dam, Northshore Road, Redstone Trail, Arizona Hot Springs, boating

Must-Do Activity

The most fantastic destination in Lake Mead National Recreation Area is Arizona Hot Springs, where pools are formed by sandbags in a narrow canyon.  It is accessible from Liberty Bell Trailhead by a 6.5-mile roundtrip hike through a beautiful canyon down to the Colorado River.  The trail is closed during the hot summer months, but you can still access it by canoe or kayak from Willow Beach Marina or just downstream from the Hoover Dam (with a special permit). Downriver in Black Canyon, stop at Emerald Cove for incredible photographs.

Best Trail

Redstone Trail is a short loop hike through a fantastic red rock area found just off North Shore Drive.  It is similar to the photogenic Valley of Fire State Park located to the north.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The area around the Hoover Dam can get very crowded, as can the outstanding overlook on the 1,900-foot long Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010 to route Highway 93 traffic off the dam).  Standing 890-feet above the river below, it ranks as the second highest bridge in the United States behind Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge.  Be prepared to pass through a security screening if you park at the bridge or Hoover Dam.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/lake/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass to access Willow Beach Marina or Lake Mead itself.  At Hoover Dam there is free parking on the Arizona side, but fees for the museum and tours.

Road Conditions

All major roads are paved, including the steep drive down to Willow Beach Marina, which also has a fish hatchery open to visitors.

Camping

There are multiple NPS campgrounds around the perimeter of Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.  Backcountry camping is allowed without a permit at Arizona Hot Springs, which is even more spectacular after dark.

Related Sites

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-Utah)

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada)

Explore More – Lake Mead is not often filled to capacity, so when was the last time its spillways were needed during a big snowmelt year?

Top 10 National Parks with Designated Backcountry Campsites

We love backpacking and America’s National Parks are some of the most scenic places for it.  We previously posted our Top 10 National Park Service units that allow dispersed backpack camping, so this is our corollary list.  These are some of our favorite spots to spend a night in the backcountry.  They nearly all require permits (some take reservations), so check the regulations before you go.  Remember to practice Leave No Trace principles, as not all of these backcountry campsites offer toilets.

10. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

Campsites are mostly in the forest and not very scenic, but there is a great trail system connecting them.

9. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Backcountry permits are expensive and hard to get in the lottery, which indicates they are worth it.

8. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)

Backpacking is the main attraction to this large island surrounded by Lake Superior; come prepared for bugs.

7. Big Bend National Park (Texas)

There are multiple ecosystems to explore from the Rio Grande and the Chihuahuan Desert all the way up to the pine forest.

6. North Cascades National Park (Washington)

Expect to gain (and lose) elevation on the trails in this mountainous wilderness park.

5. White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

With no campground, this is the only way to spend the night in America’s newest National Park.

4. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

A sea kayak is recommended to access the island campsites dispersed in Lake Superior.

3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

While the campgrounds are full all summer, you can typically get a walk-in permit to backpack.

2. Everglades National Park (Florida)

Paddle your way to spend the night atop a chickee and you will never forget the experience.

…and finally our #1 park with designated backcountry campsites!

1. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (Alaska)

Climbing the Golden Stairs up the Chilkoot Trail is a bucket list-worthy endeavor.

Honorable Mentions

Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

There are many boat-in campsites on the lakes and also the 28-mile Kab-Ash Trail on the mainland.

Glacier National Park (Montana)

Most trails gain significant elevation, but that is not a problem if you camp on the shores of Lake McDonald.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

The steep hike up to Guadalupe Peak is popular, but much of this park is not as well-traveled.

Update to Our Guidebook: A Park to Yourself

Since White Sands National Monument was upgraded to the 62nd National Park on December 20, 2019, we decided to update our guidebook to the parks.  If you already bought your copy on Amazon, please find the new page 308 posted below.  White Sands is one of our favorite of the many National Park Service units in New Mexico.  You can read more about the park on this blog

White Sands

New Mexico

148,558 acres

Established 2019

603,008 visitors in 2018

Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially when the sand is wet.  Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin.  Follow markers on the five-mile roundtrip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes and provides views of the San Andres Mountains.  Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot bleached earless lizards that evolved to camouflage in the gypsum.  The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you attend the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll or backpack camp.  There is no campground and only ten backcountry campsites, and their availability is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight, so call ahead or check the schedule online.  Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground in a beautiful setting south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

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