Three northwest backpacking routes for families

Parents with young children: you absolutely can backpack with kids! Our family has found success by choosing backpacking routes that are short on distance but big on rewards, whether that be in the form of a fun lake or river to swim in, dramatic scenery, or both. The following three northwest backpacking routes for families deliver.

Before you read on, check out our tips for backpacking with kids!

northwest backpacking routes

Northern California’s Trinity Alps:

Just south of dramatic Mt. Shasta at the top of Northern California, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest offers some of the best backpacking for families. While word is now getting out, the Trinity Alps used to be very uncrowded, while still offering up vistas on par with the Sierra Nevada.

For families, we recommend the 5.2 mile route from Swift Creek Trailhead to Granite Lake. From the Swift Creek Trailhead of the Trinity Alps, families hike for one mile before crossing Swift Creek at a large bridge and taking the Granite Lake Trail. After that, it’s 4.2 miles of a pretty strenuous uphill hike. Take your time, knowing that you don’t have to hike too far but will be rewarded with one of the most stunning alpine lakes you could ask for.

Make a home base at Granite Lake, and spend an extra day day-hiking up above it (the terrain turns to sub-alpine granite with great views). If you want to make a full loop of it, you can continue to Horseshoe Lake, reconnecting with the original Swift Creek Trail to follow the creek back to the parking lot. We have always been content to simply play at Granite Lake, however.

How to get to the trailhead: Swift Creek Trailhead is at the end of Swift Creek Road, accessed from Highway 3. (From I-5, grab Highway 3 at Yreka.) You’ll pass a national forest ranger station near Fort Jones, where you can grab your backcountry permit.


On the Granite Lake Trail

Southern Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness:

The Sky Lakes are beloved to our family. They’re right in our backyard, so we’ve logged a lot of hours on trails here. The great thing about Sky Lakes is the flexibility; there are multiple options for making larger or shorter loops between its many small alpine lakes. The elevation is lower than many backpacking routes, so the nights will remain warmer (but you’ll also experience more mosquitoes, so aim to visit in August or September).

The Sky Lakes are generally split between Lower Sky Lakes Basin and Upper Sky Lakes Basin. You can see it all in a 12 to 14 miles loop, but we recommend staying on the Upper Sky Lakes Basin end to see Trapper Lake and Lake Margurette. You can camp at either, and experience the other in a day hike, should you wish. Start at Cold Springs Trailhead, and when the trail splits, follow the upper toward Natasha and Margurette lakes. The entire hike is only about 3.2 miles, and isn’t too steep. If you’re ambitious, you can also access the Pacific Crest Trail above Trapper, and walk along it for a while.

How to get to the trailhead: Cold Springs Trailhead is located off Highway 140. From Medford (and I-5), take Highway 62 to Highway 140. At mile marker 41, you’ll take gravel road FR 3651 at the Cold Spring Trailhead sign, and follow it 10 miles to the parking lot.

stuffing backpacking bags

Setting up camp

Central Oregon’s Jefferson Park:

Very few wilderness areas are as breathtakingly beautiful as Jefferson Park. And yes, it is indeed a veritable ‘park’ of alpine creeks, lakes, trickling waterfalls, and towering peaks. You have to earn it though: the route in from either side takes some time for families. We recommend the slightly shorter route from Whitewater Trailhead (the other option is Breitenbush Trailhead further north).

You’ll go about four miles before reaching Whitewater Creek, with stunning views of Mt. Jefferson all the while. After the creek, you’ll join the PCT temporarily as you enter the park. Once in, you’ll see many trail options leading a short distance to multiple small lakes. We suggest Russell Lake or Scout Lake. Take fishing poles, and the fish seem to really bite here. You can rejoin the PCT for a long day hike should you wish, or can simply set up camp and enjoy the lake. No matter which lake you pick in the park, the round-trip mileage will be about the same: 11 miles or so.

How to get to the trailhead: Take exit 253 off I-5 in Salem. Drive 60 miles east on North Santiam Highway 22. Between mileposts 60 and 61 (10 miles beyond Detroit), turn left on Whitewater Road 2243. This gravel road forks in about 100 yards, keep right. Follow this road 7.5 miles where it dead-ends at a large parking area.


Jefferson peak

I think it’s time for us to discover some shorter backpacking routes in Washington state next! While we have experience in this region, it’s for longer hikes for more experienced backpackers. If you know of great routes for families in Washington, please leave them in the comments. And always remember to call the local ranger station before your trip for weather and trail closure information, as well as any detailed driving directions you may need.

About the author

Pit Stops for Kids AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly at a number of travel publications, and contributes to OutdoorsNW magazine as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




  1. Very Superb Article.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this information..

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