7 Best Backpacking Accommodation Experiences in US National Parks
The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, came up with the idea of luring newcomers to the backcountry for their first wilderness experience – offering them a destination with a roof over their heads, even a prepared meal and a comfy bed. It is the desert, but a little less wild.
The National Park Service has worked to develop Mather’s dream in a few places and developed it in a few others.
After the initial wave of backcountry accommodation options created at the start of the parks, today by and large they are rather scarce. They range from sleeping on plywood to a surprising degree of luxury.
I am a retired ranger, having spent a career working in parks across the country. I’ve put together a list of backcountry accommodations in national parks that, to varying degrees, fulfill Mather’s purpose – or at least provide shelter on a rainy night.
These places are not easily accessible. They are special because of that.
For just about everyone, reservations are required – months in advance, and some by lottery. You may need to get a backcountry permit from the NPS before you go. The establishment’s website will remind you of this. And if you’re not used to nature travel, you’ll want to check the park’s website for proper safety precautions and trail-free hiking measures.
And, of course, the changing COVID-19 situation has resulted in some facilities being temporarily closed or restricted in operation. The reopening will affect demand and availability.
Whenever you plan to travel to the backcountry, you’ll want to plan your accommodation the night before your backcountry trip and the night you go out. These generally shouldn’t be long travel days.
Now let’s move on to the hinterland.
1. High Sierra Camps, Yosemite National Park
The High Sierra camps in Yosemite were the direct implementation of Steven Mather’s vision. It is a series of five camps, 7-10 miles apart: Glen Aulin, Vogelsang, Merced Lake, Sunrise and May Lake. The spacing is arranged so that travelers can walk from one to the other with only a backpack, not a heavy backpack, on a 50 mile loop.
They are also individually accessible without looping on shorter hikes from Tioga Road. And they can be visited as part of a guided horseback tour. (If you’ve never ridden 7 miles on horseback, now is probably not the time to get this experience.)
Accommodation is in tents – large canvas structures with doors and windows on solid ground – the same style of accommodation you’ll find in the Curry Village of Yosemite Valley.
Bedding, towels, family-style breakfast and sit-down dinner are provided. Packed lunches are available. There are hot showers, laundry facilities, and the toilets have either flush or composting toilets.
It is the high country of Yosemite. Elevations vary from just over 7,000 to 10,000 feet, so you need to be in good shape, have good footwear, and bring appropriate clothing for the season. Due to the altitude, the operating season is from June to September.
Each camp has a distinctive feature or two nearby, perfect for an excursion from the camp. For this reason, I love May Lake. It offers a detour via Mount Hoffmann. Hoffmann is pretty much right in the center of Yosemite, and the views from its 10,855-foot peak are unforgettable.
2. Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
Bearpaw is the Sequoia-Kings Canyon version of Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps. Built in the 1930s, the camp was based on the Yosemite experience and envisioned by the park manager as a way to attract visitors to the high country and away from the Giant Forest region.
And like its Yosemite cousins, Bearpaw offers tent cabins, bedding, towels, meals, showers, and restrooms.
Bearpaw High Sierra Camp is an 11.5 mile hike and is at 7,800 feet, so the same caveats apply as with Yosemite regarding the need to be in good physical condition, to have good footwear. and the need for appropriate clothing for the season. It has the same limited operating season, from June to September.
There is always more to learn about Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
3. Ghost Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park
So Sierra hikes are not enough for you. Hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and stay at the Phantom Ranch. It’s not the more than 7 mile hike that’s a factor in keeping Phantom Ranch its own world apart, it’s the nearly 5,000-foot elevation change. (There are a few hiking options. One is to go down the Kaibab Trail and then take the longer, less steep Bright Angel Trail.)
Phantom Ranch dates back to the 1920s and is the only accommodation in the park below the rim. It’s on the north side of the river, near the start of the Bright Angel trailhead.
Phantom Ranch is available for hikers and those visiting by mule or raft.
There are two types of accommodation: the dormitory (two for men, two for women) and cabins. Both are heated in winter and cooled in summer.
Bedding and towels are provided (cabins have cold water and there is a central shower nearby with hot water).
Food is also available and the facilities are being renovated.
And if you want to travel light, there is a service to carry your gym bag up and down, for a fee.
The Grand Canyon is a park of seasons. The north shore is closed in winter, and the trails on the south shore may have snow and ice in places. The summer heat can be extreme. But a well-planned, well-planned trip for those in good shape can leave you with memories that will last forever and burning thighs that will improve after a nice hot bath.
4. Wild cabins, Haleakala National Park
While most visit Hawaii for the beaches, consider a trip to Haleakala for an unforgettable hiking and sleeping experience in the cool, wilderness atop a volcano.
Three primitive cabins – Kapalaoa, Hōlua, and Palikū – built in the 1930s, are available by reservation in the summit crater of Haleakala volcano in Maui.
Let me stress the word “primitive”. During your visit, you will need to bring your own food and bedding. It’s a good idea to bring a stove if you don’t want to rely on the propane stove in the cabin. Mattresses are provided. There is usually firewood available in a locker. It is forbidden to collect wood.
The cabins are located above the 6,000 foot level. Depending on the cabin, the hike ranges from 4 to 10 miles.
The weather varies from perfect to perfectly miserable. The peaks do not go much above the 70s and the nights are cool (50s) to downright cold (30s). It can be rainy, windy, foggy, even snowy. Be prepared for the changing weather.
The environment is unique and particularly fragile. Follow the advice of the park to protect it.
5. Backcountry Cabins, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Reserve
Speaking of primitive, let’s talk about the 14 backcountry cabins in Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska.
This is not Stephen Mather’s vision of an easily accessible wilderness experience.
Bring your own everything including toilet paper. Are you afraid of mice? Pity. The cabins are unmanned, unsupplied and unmaintained. It is the wilderness of Alaska. The cabins were built by hunters, trappers and miners before the land became a park.
Let’s talk about remoteness. Access to most cabins is by plane.
So how do you plan to get there? The park’s website has a list of licensed guide services that will take you, take you, and plan a trip based on your interests, from fishing to hiking.
Guides can help you choose the right places to visit, the right time to travel, and make planning a trip to a remote and remote wilderness surprisingly easy.
Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park. If you’re going to see Alaska, it’s about as authentic as it gets.
6. Cabins for public use, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Reserve
If you don’t like the word “rustic”, let’s try “primitive”. The seven public use cabins on the Yukon River provide a pristine accommodation experience for those traveling downstream.
Check the park’s website for a list of licensed guide services in the park. They will take you on a 100 mile river trip along the Yukon River. It’s almost time travel. Whether you are camping or spending the night in one of the park’s backcountry cabins, it will be amazing.
If you’re looking to escape the crowded national parks that seem to make the news almost every day, this is the way to go. Moose will outnumber people.
7. Sheldon Cabin, Denali National Park
OK, enough of that rustic, primitive stuff. Let’s end this with a first class, expense-free trip of a lifetime.
The Sheldon Chalet is located on a private island of land surrounded by Denali National Park, perched on a ridge surrounded by glaciers and just 10 miles from Denali Summit.
Access by helicopter. Upon your arrival, the staff will welcome you with a champagne reception.
Your hosts will equip you for glacier exploration, snow caves and even ice climbing. Or just watch Denali from the sauna.
Packed lunches? No. More refined cuisine than what you experience in your favorite restaurant, with local ingredients fresh from nature and an unmatched ambiance? Yes.
Technically, it’s not on land owned by NPS, so it’s not in the park, just surrounded by it. But technically it’s one of the most amazing 5-star adventures in the world.
Director Mather probably wouldn’t endorse Sheldon Chalet as the fulfillment of his vision. But he would probably be the first on the helicopter to visit.
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