8 Thanksgiving-flavored wild spots

White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire) contains the 36,000-acre Sandwich Range Wilderness.

Credit: Bob Nichols (USDA), flickr.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we give thanks for these holiday-themed public lands.

Thanksgiving is an ideal time to express gratitude for the good fortune in our lives as well as to stop and appreciate the incredible legacy of our wild public lands.

5 ways to show appreciation for wilderness on Thanksgiving

Please join us in reflecting on our natural heritage, and, for some light after-dinner reading, check out our list of Thanksgiving-themed public lands below.


Massasoit National Wildlife Refuge (Massachusetts)

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, part of the same complex of refuges as Massasoit. Credit: USFWS, flickr.

Just a few miles off of Cape Cod Bay in Plymouth, Massasoit National Wildlife Refuge is part of a large stretch of pitch pine scrub oak area that contains critical habitat for the northern red-bellied cooter, a small, colorful turtle. It is one of several protected areas within the larger Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The refuge’s namesakeand that of many other landmarks in the region, including Massasoit State Parkwas a leader of the indigenous Wampamoag people, the great emissary invited to the “first Thanksgiving” by William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony (though the Wampamoag contingent of warriors that accompanied him may actually have been investigating the pilgrims’ celebratory cannon fire). Whatever the reason, as the story goes, Massasoit and his crew stayed to feast with the newcomers for three days. Massasoit is credited with helping the fledgling Plymouth Colony establish itself early on, and signing the first treaty between a Native American tribe and American colonists (though that peace became strained in later years).


Lincoln National Forest (New Mexico)

Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. Credit: USDA, flickr.

Our country is filled with schools, parks and other institutions named after our 16th president—and there is no shortage of reasons to celebrate him. Sure enough, we have legitimate cause to include one of his namesake spots on this holiday-themed list, as well: Abraham Lincoln has been called the “father of Thanksgiving,” thanks to an official declaration in October 1863 of a “national day of Thanksgiving” in the wake of several major Union victories in the Civil War. While Thanksgiving celebrations had been enjoyed around the country in an unofficial capacity since about the mid-18th century, Lincoln’s “fourth Thursday in November” standard has been more or less the norm ever since.

Established in 1902 as the Lincoln Forest Reserve, this 1.1-million-acre protected area east of Alamogordo covers habitat types ranging from Chihuahuan desert to sub-alpine forest, including two federally-designated wilderness areas. It is best known as the former home of the original Smokey Bear, a young cub rescued from a fire by a U.S. Forest Service ranger in 1950.


Pilgrim Memorial State Park (Massachusetts)

The structure that shelters Plymouth Rock. Credit: Rina Pitucci, flickr.

Pilgrim Memorial State Park, a tree-dotted stretch of green that overlooks Plymouth Harbour, is among the smallest units in Massachusetts’ state forest and park system. So why is it also among the most visited? Because it contains what is considered to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in America, and one of the most historically significant: Plymouth Rock, remnant of the spot where Pilgrims supposedly first landed in New England in 1620.

Accounts of the Pilgrims’ settlement in the land we now call America are fraught with controversy, not the least because they didn’t really accomplish anything “new” (Native American tribes had already flourished here for a long, long time). Nonetheless, they laid the foundation for much of what we would recognize as modern society—and celebrated what is now known as the first Thanksgiving in 1621.


Turkey Hill Wilderness (Texas)

Angelina National Forest, near the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. Credit: Texas Forest Trail, flickr.

Explanations for the ubiquity of turkey during the winter holidaysespecially Thanksgivingvary, but one thing is for sure: Americans really like it, eating as much as 46 million of the big birds each Thanksgiving.

The only protected wilderness area with “turkey” in its name is a small chunk of hardwood forests that disappointingly contains few actual turkeys. However, this northeast chunk of the 153,179-acre Angelina National Forestone of two wilderness areas within the forestdoes provide habitat for deer, bald eagles and a wide variety of other wildlife. A few miles from the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a popular fishing and boating spot, the region is dominated by loblolly and shortleaf pine. It is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its protection in 2014.


Cranberry Wilderness (West Virginia)

Forest in Cranberry Wilderness. Credit: Geoff Gallice, flickr.

Whether you prefer ‘em in jellied cylinder form or au naturel, what Thanksgiving would be complete without cranberries? Though people at the “first Thanksgiving” almost certainly didn’t eat cranberry sauce as we know itsugar was a luxury, and there is no record of sweet boiled cranberries in the area until decades laterit was probably a common food for indigenous peoples, and it remains an autumn staple for many Americans today.

Containing the entire drainage of the Middle Fork of the Williams River and the North Fork of the Cranberry River, West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness is a popular spot for autumn foliage-watching and backpacking within the Monongahela National Forest. It is considered among the “wilder” and more untouched wildlands in the heavily-developed eastern U.S. and harbors black bears, bobcats, mink, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys in additional to beautiful scenery. The wilderness gets its name from the cranberry-suited acidic wetlands found in the area.


Pu'u Ualaka'a State Park (Hawaii)

The view from Pu'u Ualaka'a State Wayside, in the state park of the same name. Credit: Marty Gabel, flickr.

This seemingly ordinary wooded park is known for an overlook that offers breathtaking, panoramic views of Diamond Head, Waikiki, and downtown Honolulu (see photo above) while providing a refuge from the noise and crowds of nearby city life.

So why is it on this list? The park’s name is loosely translated as “hill of the rolling sweet potatoes,” supposedly because King Kamehameha I once ordered that staple crop to be planted in the area. When dug up, the grown tubers rolled down the hill to waiting packers, making the harvest process more efficient. Obviously, no Thanksgiving is complete without sweet potatoes...


Sandwich Range Wilderness (New Hampshire)

Sandwich Mountain, within the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Credit: Mary & Dan, flickr.

The Thanksgiving relevance of this wilderness area should be obvious to anyone who has ever rolled out of bed on a Friday morning in late November magically ready for another serving of everything from the previous night, shoved between two pieces of bread (so, technically, this would be a leftover-themed wilderness).

But Sandwich Range Wilderness is no afterthought. In fact it is the second-largest wilderness area in New England, nearly 36,000 acres of stunning land in the extremely popular White Mountain National Forest. Wildlife highlights in the area include moose and peregrine falcons. The wilderness itself contains about 57 miles of maintained hiking trails, some featuring steep angles or perilous scrambles over granite rock faces. Sounds like perfect post-holiday exercise...


Table Top Wilderness (Arizona)

Sonoran Desert National Monument, a portion of which is protected as wilderness. Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

In Thanksgiving terms, a table is more than just the piece of furniture that holds all the food. It’s also where we gather to reconnect with family and old friends, a place of warmth and conviviality where the time seems to fly by (aside from the occasional political argument).

The Table Top Mountain is the dominant features of this protected wilderness in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, just a couple of hours’ drive from Phoenix. The broader desert ecosystem of which the wilderness and monument are a part is thought to be  the most biologically diverse of all the North American deserts, containing giant saguaro cactus forests and a variety of other plant life. Resident wildlife includes bighorn sheep, javelina and many bird species.  The wilderness area itself is a popular stop for hikers, backpackers and nature-watchers in search of a little peace and quiet. For that, surely, a weary adventurer can always be thankful.

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