Blog Post Jennifer Errick Sep 26, 2014

Wild American Beauty: 10 Wilderness Areas to Explore

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by exploring some of America’s wildest places, from remote windswept tundras to cactus-dotted mountains to serene rock-strewn beaches. Several spots are surprisingly close to major cities.

1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Without roads, trails, or formal campgrounds, Gates of the Arctic’s 8.5 million-acre wilderness covers vast terrain north of the Arctic Circle, including the rugged peaks of the Brooks Range, glacier-carved valleys, boreal forest, six Wild and Scenic Rivers, and arid stretches of polar desert. Visitors who lack the wilderness skills to explore the backcountry on their own can hire a guide for a camping, fishing, or rafting trip, or join a “flightseeing” tour with a local air-taxi service to experience one of America’s premier wilderness areas. Above: Dwarf birch and willow frame the jagged Arrigetch Peaks of the Brooks Range.

2. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Congress designated more than 32,000 acres of wilderness within Sleeping Bear Dunes in March 2014, a long-awaited move that will help protect the park’s fragile dunes and bluffs. Because the lakeshore preserves a long, narrow strip of land along the coast, this newest wilderness area is relatively accessible and easy to explore—literally a walk on the beach—though North and South Manitou Islands provide a more traditional and rustic backcountry experience for those looking to get away from it all.

3. Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The rock-strewn beaches at Point Reyes make up the West Coast’s only marine wilderness and provide a serene retreat from nearby San Francisco; further from the water’s edge, the park’s prairies are some of the most diverse native grasslands in the country. Despite its peaceful appearance, this picturesque coastal park was the site of a recent showdown between the National Park Service and a polluting industrial oyster farm that wanted an exemption from the area’s wilderness protections. Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the National Park Service can remove this commercial operation and restore Drakes Estero (shown here), the ecological heart of the seashore.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Just two hours south of Phoenix, Arizona, the Saguaro Wilderness protects fragile swaths of the Sonoran Desert in two separate mountain districts. The park’s seemingly endless hills and valleys feature cholla, ocotillo, mesquite, juniper, and various wildflowers, but rising above them is the king of them all—the park’s namesake cacti. A single saguaro can weigh six to 10 tons, live for up to 170 years, and hold a ton of water, making this towering southwestern icon the largest cactus in America.

5. Olympic National Park, Washington

The Olympic Wilderness at Olympic National Park is one of the most popular wilderness destinations in the country, covering some of the most diverse terrain. With old-growth forests, mountains, glaciers, rainforest, 600 miles of hiking trails, and 48 miles of beachfront, this northwestern paradise has something for everyone. Above: Lichen-covered rock and a cascading waterfall on the Sol Duc Falls Trail.

6. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

About one-quarter of Badlands National Park is a designated wilderness area. The buttes, pinnacles, and spires that define this region have been eroding for half a million years into their distinctive shapes (and continue to erode at a rate of about an inch per year!). Saber-toothed cats once roamed the area; now bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and prairie dogs make their homes in the park’s mixed-grass prairies. This wilderness area is an excellent place to see the night sky; on any given night, visitors may see up to 7,500 stars and a particularly clear view of the Milky Way.

7. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Outdoor lovers flock to Shenandoah and its tree-lined mountains, wooded hollows, and roaring waterfalls, just a couple of hours from Washington, D.C. Much of the area’s wilderness is accessible from Skyline Drive, the main road that winds through the park, offering spectacular vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the patchwork of farms and small towns in the valleys below. Above: Ascending the craggy peak of Old Rag is a favorite wilderness hike among locals.

8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Covering more than 13 million acres of land, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest single wilderness area in the United States. Its massive glaciers, twisting rivers, rugged mountains, and forested uplands are home to diverse wildlife, from grizzly bears and caribou to marmots and beavers. It’s also a land of extremes, with nine of North America’s 16 highest mountains, the continent’s largest subpolar ice field, and a glacier larger than the state of Delaware! Above: Chrystalline Hills are reflected in a tundra pond at the peak of fall.

9. Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park contains the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, named after the park’s most famous advocate, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. These expansive wetlands help filter drinking water for nearby communities and support a diversity of wildlife both underwater and above ground, from the roseate spoonbill to the manatee to the American alligator. Visitors can access this marshy wilderness in short hikes off of the main park road or explore the western coast of the park by canoeing or kayaking along the stunning 99-mile Wilderness Waterway Trail. Though they may feel like a world away, these 1.3 million acres are an easy drive from Miami.

10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

This wilderness area preserves the largest exposed fossil reef in the world, with remnants from an underwater world that existed 260 million years ago when this part of West Texas was covered by the sea. Visitors can also see one of the park’s most famous landmarks, El Capitan (shown here), the seventh-tallest mountain in Texas, and hike a stream bed through the winding limestone walls of McKittrick Canyon, where deciduous trees and other vegetation stand in vibrant contrast with the surrounding desert. Though the curious Salt Basin Dunes are outside the boundary of the wilderness area, it’s worth exploring the west side of the park where these rare gypsum deposits glitter in the sun.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.