The Best Early-Season Backpacking Spots

The Best Early-Season Backpacking Spots

It's getting closer to backpacking season but many trails are still packed with snow -- especially in regions of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas. If you're looking to get a head start on backpacking before the big summer crowds, but don't know where to go, we've compiled a list of incredible backpacking destinations that will help you hit the trail sooner. Of course, wherever you go always check with the ranger station about trail updates prior to beginning your journey. 

The Rocky Mountains

Great Sand Dunes National Park

What's better than getting to sand board and and sand sled? Great Sand Dunes National Park is an absolute must-visit backpacking destination. Visiting earlier in adventure season welcomes weather in the mid-60's, making it a more pleasant trip compared to the dead of summer. The park offers seven designated sites along the Sand Ramp Trail and 20 non-designated sites in the Dunes Backcountry. *Be aware that backpacking in the Dunes backcountry should be for experts only. The harsh conditions and dry-camping make this a very challenging trek. 

Trip Recommendation: 

Backpack the Sand Ramp Trail to experience a variety of landscapes - with views of the dunes, amongst mixed conifer forests at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Be ready to see lots of beautiful wildflowers, and yes, endure some wind too. You'll also want to make time for sand boarding or sledding before or after your trek! For a list of campsite descriptions, the mileage and difficulty to each campsite and permit information click here

Lost Creek Wilderness 

The Lost Creek Wilderness is located in central Colorado in Jefferson and Park counties south of the town of Bailey. The snowline is generally below 10,000 feet by Memorial Day weekend, making it a great early-season backpacking destination!

Trip Recommendation:

The Lost Creek Wilderness Loop -- 28.3 Miles RT. This is a relatively difficult loop best for the experienced backpacker. Despite the challenging climb, this trek provides gorgeous views that are well-worth the haul. Most of the trail is through forests, but you'll experience a more-exposed regions such as between the Bison Peak and McCurdy Mountain. At the halfway point, you will need to navigate a river crossing with ropes over a log but on the last several miles on Wigwam, you'll enjoy mostly flat terrain, which your tired legs will be grateful about. 

*This area could still have snow-packed areas, so gaiters may need to be added to your supplies list. Check with the ranger station about conditions prior to hitting the trail. Wilderness permits are required. Learn more about permits here

The Dessert 

Canyonlands National Park

There are plenty of backpacking destinations in the Canyonlands and now is the perfect time to visit to avoid the blistering hot summer temperatures.  Canyonlands National Park is known for its dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River. It's unique landscape is why so many visitors are attracted to this area. Popular backpacking spots include:

  • The Island in the Sky, a flat-topped mesa with panoramic overlooks
  • The Needles, towering rock pinnacles
  • The Maze, remote canyons with Native American rock paintings in Horseshoe Canyon  

Trip Recommendation:

Druid Arch To Chesler Park Loop -- 16.6 Mi RT. This is a gem of a trail, as it's not heavily trafficked and is not too strenuous. Not to mention, this has one of the most spectacular views in the Needles. This trail makes for a solid overnighter if you want a quick weekend getaway. Be prepared to pack all of your water on your back, however, as water is very limited in the Needles. Permits are required.  Learn more about permit and more trail information here.

Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree

Known for it's distinct Yucca trees, phenomenal sunrise and sunsets, and stellar nigh-sky views, Joshua Tree National Park is an epic adventure spot. Though beautiful, it's worth noting that the desert environment can be harsh and unforgiving. That's why it's ideal to go early or later in the backpacking season. 

Trip Recommendation: 

California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT) -- 38 Mi RT, 2-3 days. If you want a mini thru-hike, then you'll love the CRHT. Journey through some of the most remote parts of Joshua Tree, surpassing the crowds, on gentle trails ideal for backpacking, with lots of wildflowers. Always check the weather prior to your trip. There is no water on the trail so you’ll have to carry it all or cache it along the way. It's recommended to do this hike from West to East. For more about the park and backpacking permits click here

The Sierra Nevadas

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

You can find some of the most incredible sites in the high country of the southern sierra. The Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park is home to open meadows, countless alpine lakes and red fir forests. Interested in High Sierra lake fishing? Then pack your fishing rod, as many of the lakes are home to small California golden and rainbow trout.

Trip Recommendation: 

Glacier Pass To Sawtooth Pass -- 27 Mi, 2-4 day trip that begins with an ascent through Groundhog Meadow and Monarch Creek. You'll experience old-growth red fir forest then break tree line as you continue towards Sawtooth Pass. The journey to Glacier pass can be a bit of a trek by the views are absolutely worthwhile. The final ascent of the loop takes you to Sawtooth Pass. Views of Lost Canyon, Big Arroyo, Kern Canyon and the west side of Mount Whitney (on a clear day) are enjoyed from here.

Yosemite National Park 


Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States of America. The wonder of beauty showcases a plethora of iconic scenery and mountains such as the magnificent Half Dome and El Capitan. While not all areas of the National Park are ready for backpacking in May, you can still experience some lovely backpacking with an abundance of alpine lakes, mountain streams, and wildlife.

Trip Recommendation:

Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley -- 28 Mi, 2-4 day trip with stretches on different trails in the park. Beginning along flat meadows with streams along the PCT, traveling through rocky alpine terrain in the High Sierra and finishing in the Yosemite Valley. April through October is the best time to enjoy this trail, which means it's perfect timing for those eager to get some early-season backpacking in. Permits and bear canisters are required. For more permit information click here

It's a great time to stock up on backpacking food. Backpacker's Pantry provides lightweight, backpacking food for outdoor enthusiasts of every level and background. Browse our convenient gourmet food for the trail here.


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