10 American wilderness areas you should know
Wilderness Areas are public lands with the highest level of protection in the United States. These valuable conservation spaces are managed by the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management.
The 803 wilderness areas of National nature conservation system (NWPS) encompasses various ecosystems across the country. They protect native flora and fauna, geological features and places of cultural significance. Some areas of wilderness, however, are so popular that they risk being “loved to death” and lose the wildness that makes them special.
Explore 10 of America’s most loved and beautiful wilderness areas.
Boundary Waters Wilderness, Minnesota
With nearly 1,200 lakes, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Zone is the most visited wilderness area in the United States, welcoming more than 250,000 visitors each year. Paddlers can travel for miles in unpolluted waters and encounter bald eagles, loons, peregrine falcons and other wildlife. At night, Boundary Waters offers stunning views of the night sky – in fact, it has been designated as the largest international dark sky sanctuary in 2020.
Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, Alaska
The wilderness of Wrangell-Saint Elias Alaska is characterized by vastness and grandeur. This Unesco World Heritage is the country’s largest wilderness, covering nearly 9.5 million acres of breathtaking glaciers, rugged mountains and vast forests.
Wrangell-Saint Elias is home to the largest subpolar ice field in North America, the Bagley Icefield. Nine of the 16 tallest mountains in North America are found in this wilderness, including Mount. Saint Elijah, which rises to over 18,000 feet.
Wrangell-Saint Elias is a haven for wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose and sea otters. Due to the danger of climate change for this frozen wilderness, monitoring and research is essential to its conservation.
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado
Named for two of its iconic peaks, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado is an adventurous backpacker’s dream. Nine of Colorado’s fourteen are in this wilderness, each offering spectacular views of the forests and grasslands below. “Fourteeners” is the mountaineering term for peaks with elevations above 14,000 feet.
Conundrum Hot Springs, natural hot springs in nature, provide respite for tired legs and add beauty to the landscape. During the summer, native wildflowers cover the slopes of the once snow-capped mountains. The stealthy pika and the noble bighorn sheep are part of the fauna that inhabit the Maroon Bells. Increased visitor traffic in Maroon Bells, it is increasingly difficult to find solitude and concerns about the future nature of the wilderness.
High Uintas Wilderness, Utah
the Uintas High Desert encompasses the midst of the spectacular Uintas Mountains in northern Utah. This rugged wilderness offers endless possibilities for exploration, recreation, and seclusion with a 545 mile trail system. The ecosystems of the High Uintas change with varying elevation, from 7,000 feet to over 13,500 feet at Kings Peak, Utah’s highest point.
About 75% of all bird species in the state are found in the Upper Uintas wilderness, including the dusky grouse and the American three-toed woodpecker. The rivers are home to brook trout and cutthroat trout—Favorites of sport and fly fishermen.
Out of nature flow the streams that feed many of Utah’s major rivers, making the High Uintas a key water source for thousands of people.
Shenandoah Wilderness, Virginia
Nestled in Shenandoah National Park, the Shenandoah Desert encompasses the ridges and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. This area which is now wild was once almost completely deforested. Today, the lush forest landscape illustrates the resilience of the ecosystem.
The Appalachian Trail traverses the wilderness for 175 miles, bringing with it thousands of hikers each year. Black bears, wild turkeys and squirrels are among the abundant wildlife protected in nature. Shenandoah Wilderness is also home to a remarkably diverse plant life, with over 300 species of trees, shrubs, and vines. One important tree, the eastern hemlock, is threatened by the invasive hemlock woolly aphid and may soon disappear completely from the forest.
Desolation Wilderness, California
Located just west of Lake Tahoe in the El Dorado National Forest, the Desolation Wilderness represents California’s quintessential wilderness. Alpine and subalpine forests cover the rocky soils of the Sierra Nevada Mountains which stretch north to south through nature. Yellow-bellied marmots, sooty grouse, and long-toed salamanders are just three of the many protected species.
The Pacific Crest Trail is one of many trails that cut through Desolation Wilderness, offering stunning views from the granite outcrops. High levels of visitor traffic from surrounding metropolitan areas pose a major threat to the loneliness and naturalness of nature.
Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness, Hawaii
Inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big East Island Wilderness of Hawaii volcanoes. This otherworldly wilderness consists of four distinct areas around the national park, connected by the park’s 150 miles of trails.
The elevation of the Hawaiian Volcanoes Wilderness ranges from sea level on the coast to over 13,500 feet atop Mauna Loa. Through this gradient, ecosystems pass from coastal beaches to lush tropical forests, to barren lava flows. A total of 54 plant and animal species in the wilderness are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered, including the Hawaiian goose and Mauna Loa’s silver sword. Invasive species like wild boar are one of the greatest threats to native flora and fauna.
Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington State
One of the crown jewels of the North Cascades in Washington is Wild nature of alpine lakes. Appropriately named for its more than 700 lakes, Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a spectacular glacier-carved landscape with stunning jagged ridges.
Pronounced differences in elevation and precipitation create distinct plant communities – from temperate rainforests dominated by Douglas-fir and western fir on the low western slopes to high-elevation eastern slopes with silver fir, noble fir, mountain hemlock and vine maple. Patches of old-growth forest are protected in nature and provide critical habitat for endangered wildlife, including lynx, spotted owl, and western spotted frog.
This popular wilderness area is cherished by hikers, backpackers, fishermen and climbers; however, the high number of visitors made it necessary to set up a permit system.
Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Designated in 1924 before the passage of the Wilderness Act, Gila was the first desert in the United States Perhaps the most notable feature of the wilderness is the Gila River, which is flanked by sheer canyon walls and is an oasis for sycamore, poplar, ash, and Arizona willow.
The desert also protects the land around the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument—Caves used by the Mogollons at the end of the 13th century. Climate change is an imminent threat to the wilderness and its inhabitants as the cooler ecosystems at higher elevations heat up and they are forced north and into the mountains.
El Toro Wilderness, Puerto Rico
El Toro Wilderness in the El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, is the only tropical wilderness area overseen by the US Forest Service. Named after the highest peak in the Luquillo Mountains, El Toro Peak, this strip of protected forest consists of lush tropical vegetation and clear mountain streams. Many of the animals in El Toro Wilderness are endangered, including the Puerto Rican boa, the elven wood warbler, the Desmarest red fig-eating bat, and five species of shell frogs.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria decimated the forests of Puerto Rico, including El Toro Wilderness, killing around 20% of trees. Today the forest is bouncing back, but it will take time to see if El Toro Wilderness ever returns to its pre-hurricane state.