Editor's note: Earlier this spring we offered you a story on how to snag a spot in a national park campground. Well, this story by Michael Lanza, the Northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine and author of The Big Outside blog, offers his insights into some of the best campsites in the world that he's enjoyed. We hope you enjoy it!
An unforgettable campsite can define a backcountry trip. Sometimes that perfect spot where you spent a night forges the memory that remains the most vivid long after you’ve gone home. A photo of that camp can send recollections of the entire adventure rushing back to you.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many, many great backcountry campsites over the past couple decades of backpacking and trekking all over the U.S. and the world. I’ve boiled the list of my favorite spots down to 25. In a few cases, the photos of these places show the view a few steps from our tent, rather than the tentsite itself. I share a brief anecdote with each photo because, for me, each campsite isn’t merely a beautiful scene: it conjures a wonderful memory. That’s what it’s all about.
Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park, WA
We slogged up Sahale Arm into a cold, wind-driven rain, unable to see more than a hundred feet in any direction. But as my friend David Ports and I reached Sahale Glacier Camp (see lead photo, above), the rain and wind abated and the clouds dropped below us, giving us a view of the earth falling away into a bottomless abyss a few steps from our tent door. A mountain goat strolled past our camp.
Perched at the top of Sahale Arm and the toe of the Sahale Glacier, at 7,686 feet, the highest designated campsite in North Cascades National Park overlooks what appears to be a boundless, wind-whipped sea of sharpened peaks smothered in snow and ice, among them Johannesburg, Baker, Shuksan, Glacier Peak, and in the far distance, Mt. Rainier.
Getting There From Marblemount on WA 20, turn onto Cascade River Road and drive 23 miles to its end. Hike 3.7 miles and 1,800 feet up to Cascade Pass, then follow the trail up Sahale Arm another 2.2 miles and 2,300 feet to the camp.
Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, AK
For one of the trips for my book about taking our kids on wilderness adventures in national parks facing threats from climate change, we took a five-day sea kayaking trip in Glacier Bay, where cliffs shoot straight up out of the sea and razor peaks smothered in ice and snow rise thousands of feet overhead. We watched bald eagles and other birds flying overhead, harbor seals popping up out of the water near our boats, Stellar sea lions honking and carrying on while sprawled on the rocks of South Marble Island, and brown bears roaming rocky beaches looking for food.
We spent two nights at this campsite near the mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet. From there, we kayaked up the inlet to within about a quarter-mile of the mile-wide snout of the Johns Hopkins Glacier; a thousand or more seals occupied floating icebergs or swam around the inlet. Throughout the evenings and mornings in camp, we listened to that massive glacier calve another bus-size chunk of itself into the sea every 20 or 30 minutes, with an explosive sound the native Tlingits called “white thunder.”
Granite Park, John Muir Wilderness, CA
On the second night of a three-day, 32-mile, partly cross-country traverse of the John Muir Wilderness from North Lake Trailhead to Mosquito Flat Trailhead, we pitched our tents in Granite Park, an aptly named high valley speckled with scores of alpine lakes and tarns and encircled by an arc of 12,000- and 13,000-foot spires of barren, golden stone. In the evening, the sinking sun painted the peaks, lakes, and granitic landscape in a shifting, vivid light that was absolutely captivating. We couldn’t tear our eyes from the light show that went on for a few hours. When the last alpenglow faded away, night brought a sky riddled with stars.
In the morning, we set out early and I got the above shot of my friend Jason Kauffman passing a lake minutes from our campsite.
Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park, WY
I could rattle off a list of gorgeous campsites in the Tetons, a park I’ve visited somewhere between 15 and 20 times and never get tired of. But I decided to include just the two camping zones I consider the best places to bed down in the Tetons backcountry, that can be reached by trail: Death Canyon Shelf (above) and the North Fork of Cascade Canyon (below).
I’ve camped a few times in different spots on Death Canyon Shelf, a broad, three-mile-long bench at about 9,500 feet. With the earth dropping away abruptly into Death Canyon on one side, cliffs rising some 500 feet on the other side, and views across the jagged peaks and canyons of the Tetons—reaching all the way to the Grand Teton—there are few spots with such sweeping and dramatic panoramas. I’ve watched moose in Death Canyon through binoculars from the cliff tops and was awakened one night by a bull elk outside our tent. On my most recent night here, with my family and a couple of friends, we watched one spectacular sunset followed by an equally glorious sunrise.
Tiger Key, Everglades National Park, FL
Songbirds chattered and flitted among the trees along the shore. Cormorants and brown pelicans skimmed the water’s surface. Egrets glided overhead. In one secluded cove in Tiger Key, an outermost island of the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades, we sat in our canoes and watched 10 brilliantly pink roseate spoonbills perched in a tree, watching us. In a small bay, we sat rapt while a dolphin swam wide circles around our canoe for about 20 minutes. Every evening, we stood in the warm beach sand watching the blazing red orb of the sun slowly sink into the Gulf of Mexico.
Another of the trips I took my family on for my book, paddling the Everglades was one of the most magical for all of us—for the scenery, the exotic birds, and the unique experience of having a wilderness beach all to ourselves.
For insights into Michael's 20 other favorite campsites, and for stories behind his visits to these beautiful places, visit The Big Outside.