The Fourth Season: Winter Backpacking Destinations

big bend national park

As the crisp days of fall roll into the dark­er, cold­er win­ter ones, for many, the itch to trek does­n’t dis­si­pate eas­i­ly. For­tu­nate­ly, there’s no short­age of win­ter back­pack­ing adven­tures if you’re will­ing to trav­el or live where back­coun­try trails are acces­si­ble year round. Try out these win­ter back­pack­ing destinations.

Dominguez Escalante Loop — Dominguez Canyon Wilder­ness, Colorado

From pinyons to ancient pet­ro­glyphs, this 35-mile loop takes you through spec­tac­u­lar canyon scenery. Depart the Bridge­port park­ing area and head across the Gun­ni­son Riv­er mak­ing your way to the Big Dominguez Trail and its red rock canyon walls. Mean­der along the Big Dominguez Creek for 6 miles until the trail heads away from the creek. At this point, make sure you have enough water for poten­tial­ly 8 miles, depend­ing on the flow of sea­son­al streams and your desired camp. At Dominguez Camp­ground, load up on water again and break out your nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment, because cross­ing the Uncom­pah­gre Nation­al For­est to Black Point is a maze of jeep roads, trails, and some off-trail sec­tions. The final 17 miles fol­lows Lit­tle Dominguez Creek through a more rugged and beau­ti­ful canyon terrain.

Ozark High­lands Trail — Arkansas

Want to lev­el up your win­ter train­ing for a sum­mer through hike? The orig­i­nal 165-mile sec­tion of the Ozark Moun­tain Trail from Lake Fort Smith to Rich­land Creek will build quads, tough­ness, and men­tal for­ti­tude. As you trek through forests of oak, hick­o­ry, and pine, this trail visu­al­ly has it all from water­falls, views from rocky plateaus, creek carved rock for­ma­tions, and stone struc­tures from a time long gone. Creek cross­ings are com­mon, but so is wood for camp­fires. Pack camp shoes so you can dry out your boots at the end of your days, and maybe some s’mores fix­ings to warm your insides too.

Out­er Moun­tain Loop — Big Bend Nation­al Park, Texas

Thir­ty miles might not seem like an expe­di­tion length trip, but due to the stren­u­ous­ness and lack of water of Big Bend’s Out­er Moun­tain Loop, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice only rec­om­mends doing this between Novem­ber and April. Def­i­nite­ly cache water before start­ing your adven­ture at the Chisos Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. Begin by hik­ing the Pin­na­cles Trail, head­ing clock­wise up through the sparse, shrub­by desert. The route climbs up and down through shad­ed pine forests and sun-exposed sandy wash­es, con­nect­ing numer­ous trails. A bruis­ing climb up the Blue Creek Canyon Trail crests at the top of the South Rim, fol­lowed by a mel­low descent. The forest­ed ter­rain of the final leg is punc­tu­at­ed with a gor­geous mead­ow to relax in.

Ohlone Wilder­ness Trail — Ohlone Region­al Wilder­ness, California

The Ohlone Wilder­ness Trail, named after Native Amer­i­cans who live in the area, ris­es and falls with Rose and Mis­sion Peaks. Trek through pas­toral mead­ows jux­ta­posed with wind dis­tort­ed trees and sand­stone for­ma­tions. Don’t let the smooth path lull you into autopi­lot though—its 30 miles con­tain 7500 feet of climb­ing. Shoot for a clear win­ter week­end for sub­lime views of Mount Tam, Mount Dia­blo, and the rolling countryside.

Flori­da Trail  — Ocala Nation­al For­est, Florida

The entire Flori­da Trail is 1,100 miles long, but Ocala Nation­al For­est is its birth­place and arguably its best sec­tion. Start this 72 mile stretch at Clear­wa­ter Lake after deer hunt­ing sea­son ends in ear­ly Jan­u­ary. The trail rolls through lon­gleaf pine for­est and marshy prairies to the Big Scrub, the world’s largest scrub for­est nick­named “Flori­da’s desert.” Sand pines dom­i­nate the Big Scrub, but the under­sto­ry is dense with a vari­ety of shrubs. The entire trail is packed with scenery—sinkholes, nat­ur­al springs, ponds, lakes, and islands. It’s also packed with Flori­da black bears, so keep an eye out for tracks, scat, and scratch­es on trees. Also bring para­cord and a good throw­ing arm, as bear hang­ing your food is required.