There seem to be four basic schools of thought concerning backpacking routes. We've done versions of all four (including a fifth variation we discuss below) and we are not sure that we have an outstanding favorite. After all, all of these routes get you up into the mountains, and that's what really important.
The Through-hike: Some of the most serious hikers swear by a through-hike, where you start at one trailhead and hike straight through to another. The grandest of these, like the Pacific Crest Trail, might run for more than 1,000 miles, and require numerous re-supply points along the way. The great thing about a through-hike is that you never pass the same way twice, and every day is a completely new adventure. And, of course, you can cover a lot of territory this way. The downside is that you need to arrange some kind of shuttle transportation to the two different trailheads, and that often means having to count on someone else to help you. Or you might need an extra day or two of driving as you shuttle cars from one end of the hike to the other. Since our hiking time is often limited by work schedules, we prefer to spend most of our days on the trail, not shuttling cars. But we have done some through hikes that were lovely, and we're planning another one this summer, 2013. That's a photo from Lassen National Park last summer, when we through-hiked from Bumpass Hell to the trailhead at the Mineral entrance station.
The Loop: If you don't want to worry about car shuttles, then the next best option for many people is the loop. These can be pretty extensive itineraries (we've done some that were eight days long and over fifty miles of trail) and they have all of the advantages of a through-hike in terms of sights: you really don't pass the same way twice, and the all the scenery is new. We know some hikers who refuse to consider any hike that is not a loop--but that seems a bit extreme to us. There are some parts of the Sierra that have only one way in and out, and that means you will never visit them on a loop trail. And because of their popularity, many loops have more traffic on them than on other parts of the Sierra. If your goal is to get away from people, loops are usually not your best choice. The photo above is just inside Yosemite National Park over Isberg Pass, which we reached via a loop trail out of the John Muir Wilderness.
The In-and-Out: No, this is not a hike to a local burger joint. You simply start at one trailhead, hike into a destination, and then hike back out again. No shuttles required, and these hikes do have one advantage: you don't have to guess about the conditions on the second half of the hike. While some people avoid these and claim that they are too repetitive, we find that we often see different things from a different point of view on the way out--and that the scenery often offers surprises. These also allow you to adjust your itinerary during the trip. If the hike is turning out to be harder than you thought (or easier) you can always turn back sooner, or extend the route. You can't do that very well on the other hikes. And let's face it--on a short weekend trip, this is often the only option available. Two of our favorite hikes of all time were in-and-outs, and we wouldn't hesitate to do another one to the right area. This photo is from a hike up Mono Creek in the John Muir Wilderness out of Lake Thomas Edison. The photo on our home page is also from an in-and-out to Boundary Lake in Yosemite.
The Base Camp: Frankly, these are more frequently done by horse-packing groups. The horses transport everyone to a base camp in a nice location, and then the group can spend the next two or more days exploring those areas at leisure on a series of day hikes. There are very popular with fishermen and climbers, who can spend days seeking new adventures in the surrounding areas. We don't usually do these, for two reasons. First of all, the ideal locations are often frequented by horse-packers, and that means that we meet more people, and have to use campsites that have been pummeled flat by that traffic. And the other reason is that we do like to keep moving and enjoying new campsites every night. But we have done a few of these, and they were wonderful. The photo at left is our base camp at Lyons Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, as we climbed the nearby ridge to explore the views. Our camp was in the trees on the far shore of the lake below.
The Lollipop: This one is obvious--you hike an in-and-our route until you can connect with a loop, and the final figure looks just like a lollipop, with a stem and a loop on top. These may be the best of both worlds, and we've got one of these planned for this summer as well. And most loops do require you to hike at least a short portion of the trail again, so they are often lollipops with shorter stems anyway. Our favorite lollipop of all time was the hike we took from Courtwright Reservoir up to the Red Mountain Basin in the John Muir Wilderness. This is Devil's Punchbowl, along the loop portion of the hike.
We don't really worry about the shape of the route we are going to hike--we focus more on what we want to see and do: spectacular scenery, pristine lakes, and occasion day of good fishing, quiet spots away from the crowds, and a lifetime of memories for us both.