The first selecting factor for a trip out west must be the season. Major western mountain ranges and high altitude plateaus are the water sinks of the continent, and to serve this end snow lingers well into summer. The dry-dirt walking season in these places is short, limited, and often well populated. There are very compelling reasons why the three month stretch from late June to late September is and will remain so popular. Fortunately for the sake of variety and year-round exercise, many areas in the southwestern deserts are ideal other times of the year. As seen in the chart below, the mountain areas are ideal in summer and early fall, while the desert areas work best in spring and the heart of autumn. These desert areas are also doable in the depth of winter, though short days and cold temperatures make them less than ideal, just as lingering snow, bugs, and flooding rivers and creeks make early summer in the mountains a bit tough.
G= good, M= marginal, x= don't go
I highly recommend visiting these places during the "Good" times of year, as both the pleasantness and range of possibilities will be maximized. For example, the northern valleys of Yellowstone are often melted out and quite backpackable in May, but the intimidatingly high stream crossings, bear management area closures, and snow in high places combine to seriously limit options. Going in July, August, or September addresses these issues quite nicely. Simply put, based on the average year (snow and temperatures) some months just aren't good for backpacking out west. November, December, January, and June, with few exceptions, just don't fit any destination all that well, and should be avoided if possible.
- What season?
- Planning and permits
- Narrowing things down
- Permit in the summer
- Permit in the spring or autumn
- No permit in the summer
- No permit, out of high summer
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