From Montana’s Livingston Range to the Lechuguilla Desert of southern Arizona, the U.S. region known as the Mountain West is brimming with top-caliber hiking destinations. Narrowing down a list of 10 standouts is no small feat, but we took a stab at it anyway, choosing from the eight states that make up the U.S. Census Bureau’s Mountain West zone.
Take note: These aren’t the 10 best hidden hikes in the Mountain West; none of these routes are particularly obscure. In fact, several rank among the most celebrated trails in the country—and for good reason. A journey into the maw of one of the world’s most sublime canyons, backcountry skylines gloriously rock-torn, adventures in wide-open heights and close-hemmed halls of stone: These destinations highlight the scenic punch and variety characteristic of this outdoor playground and its seemingly infinite opportunities for adventure.
1. The Chinese Wall, Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana
As you might expect from a mighty watershed frontier, the Continental Divide in North America comes mantled in some pretty heady scenery along most of its length. And one of its most dramatic expressions comes in the heart of one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex of northwestern Montana. Deep within the "Bob"—named for an early champion of the federal wilderness area and a hardcore long-distance hiker—about a dozen miles of the Divide between Larch Hill Pass and Haystack Mountain separates the Flathead and Sun basins in the guise of a slanted, east-facing limestone ledge 1,000 feet high: the famous Chinese Wall.
Hike in the lee of this great pale escarpment via the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail from the Benchmark Trailhead, or climb to its spine at Haystack Mountain. Whichever way you go, be sure to keep an eye out for grizzly bears, a suitably majestic beast to go along with the big terrain.
2. The Thorofare, Greater Yellowstone, Wyoming
You’ll also be walking in the shadow of the grizzly on this legendary backpacking route into the roadless wilds of far southeastern Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining Teton Wilderness. You’ll tramp down the eastern shores of Yellowstone Lake—the largest above 7,000 feet in the U.S.—to its southeast arm and the willow-clad delta of the Yellowstone River, then upstream along the meandering channel between the Two Ocean Plateau and the Absaroka Range. Somewhere on the National Forest land beyond the park’s southeastern boundary is the anonymous chunk of turf farthest from a road in the Lower 48 states. But the entire high-elevation valley is deliciously remote and charged with the presence of the silvertip bear, equally cantankerous moose, and those aforementioned grizzlies.
3. Big Sandy Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming
This heavily used trail to the iconic Cirque of the Towers in the southern Wind Rivers serves as a classic gateway to Wyoming’s vast uncrowded high-country wilderness. Like the similarly breathtaking Titcomb Basin to the north, the gray battlements of the Cirque—one of the emblematic mountain vistas in the West—are worth seeing even if you’ll likely have company.
Reached by a long-slog blacktop-to-dirt drive from U.S. 191 near Pinedale, the Big Sandy Trail, an old American Indian route, follows the Big Sandy River to Big Sandy Lake, then on a steepening track past North and Arrowhead lakes to 10,800-foot Jackass Pass. Here you’ll gain your introductory prospect of the Cirque of the Towers, which cradles Lonesome Lake (which is not particularly lonesome in summer and fall) in its hard granite embrace. These prongs, spires, and prows—which include Warbonnet, Wolf’s Head, Pylon Peak, Warrior, Shark’s Nose, Lizard Head (at 12,842 feet, the high point of the Cirque of the Towers), and gloriously standoffish Pingora—create some of the most esteemed climbing walls in the Rockies.
Keep soaking in the granite garden by trekking farther to Shadow Lake on the "back side" of the Cirque of the Towers.
4. Alice Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho
The jags, towers, and cliffy brows of the Sawtooths represent a pinnacle (so to speak) of Idaho’s prodigious mountain scenery, and Alice Lake—one of 300-plus tarns chiseled by glaciers into this snarled-up range—makes a fabulous introduction. Set at about 8,600 feet, Alice Lake reflects the west face of 9,902-foot El Capitan and a ripsaw rampart southward.
Reach this rockery tarn via the Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake. The trail muscles some 5.5 miles upslope through mixed conifer woods and high glades, making multiple stream crossings en route. Alice Lake is a popular day hiking or overnighter destination, but can also serve as a springboard for longer adventures in the southeastern Sawtooth high country. You can undertake a memorable 19-mile loop by journeying on to Twin Lakes, up and over a high pass, and dropping down to big Toxaway Lake.
5. Highline Trail, Uinta Mountains, Utah
The Uintas are geographic trivia—one of the only west-east-trending mountain ranges in the Western Hemisphere—and also one of the country’s conterminous grandest alpine expanses, rivaling Colorado’s San Juans, the burliest range in the Southern Rockies, for sheer extent of alpine territory. The Highline Trail shows off the storm-licked splendor of the High Uintas Wilderness on a week-plus, nearly 100-mile trek between Hayden Pass and U.S. Route 191, much of it above the 10,000-foot contour.
Lonesome tarns, rusty Precambrian pyramids and fins, windswept tundra passes, staggered canyons—oh, and did we mention the thunderstorms? This is a Rocky Mountain roof-of-the-world traverse of the highest order.
6. The Maroon Bells, Elk Mountains, Colorado
Geographically speaking, the Elk Mountains lie close to the heart of the Southern Rockies, and two of their half-dozen fourteeners—the Maroon Bells—form arguably that skyscraping region’s scenic culmination. Given the paired loom of 14,156-foot Maroon Peak and 14,014-foot North Maroon, plus the eye-catching red of their capping Maroon Formation sedimentary layers, and it’s no surprise they’re said to be the most photographed summits in Colorado.
They’re also plenty well-loved, so don’t come here seeking solitude; treat it as a pilgrimage to one of the great landmarks of the American Rockies. The hike to Crater Lake puts you at the very foot of the Maroon Bells, but the views just keep expanding if you trek up to Buckskin Pass, which can also be strung together with West Maroon, Frigid Air, and Trailrides passes in a roughly 30-mile backpacking loop.
7. Wheeler Peak, Snake Range, Nevada
The crown of relatively little-visited Great Basin National Park, of the Snake Range and essentially of Nevada (though Boundary Peak in the White Mountains on the California line modestly outranks it), 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak is a special mountain. The Snakes are their own sky-island range, loftiest in the eastern Great Basin, and rising from the sagebrush sea of that cold desert to subalpine aspen forests and wizened bristlecone-pine groves. (In 1964, a bristlecone 4,844 years old was chopped down on a Wheeler Peak moraine.) Wheeler Peak is also known for its small glacier, one of the southernmost in the U.S.
An 8.6-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead above Wheeler Peak Campground takes you to the rubbled summit with its head-spinning Basin-and-Range panorama. It’s not a demanding hike, but well worth doing.
8. The Narrows, Zion Canyon, Utah
North Fork Virgin River’s world-famous gorge and its domeland surrounds are so knock-you-over-the-head scenic that any trail in Zion National Park verges on the unreal. Two, though, attract the lion’s share of attention: Angel’s Rest—the up-top, vista-rich one (strictly for non-acrophobes)—and the Narrows, the shadowy, amphibious, down-low one through the twisty, high-walled slot forming the head of Zion Canyon.
You can join the masses wading upstream into the Narrows from the end of the popular Riverside Trail at the Temple of Sinawava, or drop down from Chamberlain’s Ranch on a more adventurous 16-mile trek. The latter requires a permit; from the Temple of Sinawava, you don’t need one as far upstream as Big Spring.
There are countless quieter slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau, but the Narrows is legitimately wondrous, and if you combine it with remoter adventures (including those farther up its course), you might even enjoy the oohing-and-aahing camaraderie of it all. It’s a communal National Park experience on par with watching Old Faithful erupt or staggering all scenery-drunk around Yosemite Valley.
Accessible and well-visited though the lower portion of the Narrows may be, it’s also dangerous given the potential for flash floods. Check in at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for the most up-to-date forecast and flood hazard rating, and don’t play the odds.
9. North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Hike from montane woods to hot desert in one 14.2-mile swoop on the North Kaibab Trail, the only maintained route connecting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. It’s popular but not as much as its South Rim counterparts (the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails), and given the "Big Ditch’s" one-of-a-kind topographical breadth, it serves up mega-scale scenery not many hiking trails can match.
The North Kaibab Trail drops from the Kaibab Plateau’s conifers at 8,241 feet to the Colorado nearly 6,000 feet below. From Coconino Overlook less than a mile down-trail, it descends southeastward to Supai Tunnel and Redwall Bridge in Roaring Springs Canyon—named for a weeping limestone cliff reachable by a 0.3-mile spur—then cants southwestward into Bright Angel Canyon (Cottonwood Campground, 6.5 miles and 4,200 feet down from the trailhead, offers a good first-night stopover). A mile past that, a side trail leads to Ribbon Falls. Near its end, the North Kaibab Trail traverses the tight Vishnu Schist confines of the Box before attaining Phantom Ranch and the bridge to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon.
After a night or three down here, you can retrace your steps back to the North Rim or add a "Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim" feather to your cap by climbing the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.
10. Bull Pasture/Estes Canyon Loop, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
Braving grizzlies at the Chinese Wall, you’re within easy reach of the Canadian border. On the very opposite side of the country, this short but mesmerizing walkabout in the heart of the Sonoran Desert shows off rugged scenery that is, ecologically speaking, more Mexico than the U.S. Remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument lies in an awesome, sparsely settled expanse of the Sonoran that also includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Mexico’s desolate Pinacate backlands.
This 3.5-mile loop links the Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon trails on the western flanks of the Ajo Mountains. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to admire the eccentric namesake cactus, which barely makes it north of the border, as well as the Sonoran Desert’s defining species, the monolithic saguaro, plus a whole slew of other desert plants. The impressive stature of both the organ pipe and saguaro cacti complements the burliness of the Ajos’ craggy bosses. And the views from the Bull Pasture leg unfurl far south across the Sonoyta Valley into Sonora, Mexico.
Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated.
Featured image provided by John Strother