10 iconic wilderness areas and why Americans love them

View of Thousand Island Lake in California's Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Brandon Levinger, Flickr

All wilderness is special, which is why Congress chooses to bestow America’s most pristine landscapes with the highest form of legislative protection that exists. But in addition to being ecologically and historically important, some wilderness areas are also well-loved for their recreational, aesthetic and natural values.

As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, we chose 10 of these unique and iconic areas to highlight. Read on and learn why wilderness areas such as Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Cranberry Wilderness in West Virginia have lived on in America’s deep appreciation for natural, untarnished landscapes.

1. Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

Photo: Jerome Rondeau, Flickr

California's Ansel Adams Wilderness is dotted with sparkling lakes, glacially sculpted gorges, and imposing peaks. Both wilderness lovers and photography buffs appreciate the nature splendor of this rugged landscape that Adams fell in love with in the early 20th century. Given its outstanding scenery, the area is extremely popular with backpackers.

Originally established as the Minarets Wilderness in 1964, Ansel Adams Wilderness was one of our original wilderness areas, created by the Wilderness Act. It boasts a beautiful skyline of jagged peaks, or "minarets," considered to be the one of the most spectacular massifs in the Sierra. This range is shaped by an exposed roof pendant of metavolcanic rock that provides a stupendous skyline from both the east and west side of the Sierra. 

Renamed to honor renowned photographer (and former council member of The Wilderness Society) Ansel Adams in 1984, it spreads over 230,258 acres, ranging in altitude from about 7,000 feet to 14,000 feet. 

2. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

Photo: Sam Beebe, Flickr

Avid outdoorsmen and women, along with environmental history buffs and wildlife lovers, adore this Montana wilderness area that sits along both sides of the Continental Divide. Outdoor recreationists enjoy more than 1700 miles of trails that suit the needs of both amateur and expert hikers alike. History lovers get the chance to explore the landscape named after wilderness champion Bob Marshall, and witness his original vision of untrammeled natural beauty that deserves to be protected. And avid wildlife watchers have the opportunity to view the Crown of the Continent’s iconic species in their natural habitats.

Together with the adjacent Scapegoat and Great Bear Wildernesses, this area makes up 1.5 million acres the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex—the third largest in the lower 48 states.

Grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine, deer, elk, gray wolf, moose, black bear, mountain lion and mountain goat roam about these rugged ridge tops, gently sloping alpine meadows, thickly forested river bottoms.

3. Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, which shares a border with Cascades National Park, offers one of the nation’s most breathtaking skylines. This wilderness area is beloved for its unique landscape and world-class climbing opportunities. Glacier Peak, the highest summit in the area at 10,541 feet, is more remote than any of the state's other famous old volcanoes. Above the tree line, pristine meadows stretch out below the tattered ridges and the dozen or so summits draped with active glaciers, while below the tree line you will wander through dense forest cover. 

Other bodies of water include more than 200 lakes, many unnamed and tremendously difficult to access, in various cirques and hidden basins. 

As many as 100 trails make up approximately 450 miles of hikeable terrain, ranging from relatively easy strolls on maintained footpaths to treks along strenuous and seldom-used old animal trails. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) follows the crest through the area for about 60 miles, while the Suiattle River Trail acts as the main route from the west side.

4. Mingo Wilderness, Missouri

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mingo Wilderness in Missouri is abundant with a rich array of wildlife and native flora. As one of the most biologically rich areas in the Ozark Plateau, Mingo Wilderness is known as a popular spot to wildlife-watch and experience Missouri’s unique native swamplands. This ecologically important reserve was formed when the Mississippi River flowed through the area on its way to the Gulf of Mexico eighteen thousand years ago. Wildlife lovers and aficionados flock to this wilderness area to admire the diverse host of life that it supports.

In 1945, Congress authorized the purchase of the remnant forest lands to create the 21,592 acre Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. Today, Mingo Wilderness is a large fragment of this refuge. The wilderness provides critical food and shelter for bald eagles and migratory waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway. Giant cypress dominates the wilderness swamp offering nesting platforms for eagles and other birds. Visitors delight at the sight of otters and beaver, turkey and amphibians in their natural habitats. 

5. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, Arizona

Photo: Coconino National Forest

Arizona’s Sycamore Canyon Wilderness offers stunning views of the Colorado Plateau’s pine- and fir-forested rim, down through the Mogollon Rim to its desert mouth in the Verde Valley. Known for boasting some of the most beautiful and dramatic canyon views, Sycamore Canyon is a hot destination for nature photographers. This desert landscape holds a place in many wilderness lovers’ hearts because of its spectacular red rock scenery and remote beauty. Throughout the wilderness area, carved walls reveal layers of lovely red sandstone, spectacular white limestone and rugged brown lava.

One of Arizona’s most dramatic canyon landscapes, Sycamore Canyon Wilderness winds along for more than 20 miles, offering views of towering pinnacles and colorful cliffs. Creeks that make their way along the canyon floor allow a rich habitat to flourish, including sycamores, walnuts and cottonwoods.

6. Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

Photo: Zachary Collier, Flickr

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is nearly unrivaled in size and magnitude. The second largest area in the National Wilderness Preservation System of the Lower 48, this area is a land of clear rivers, deep canyons, and rugged mountains. It is perhaps most loved by visitors for its two incredible white-water rivers, the Main Salmon River and its Middle Fork. Reaching 6,300 feet from the river bottom, the canyon carved by the Main Salmon is deeper than most of the earth's canyons—including the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River—thus earning it the name River of No Return.

This landscape offers a true wilderness experience, which attracts the multitude of avid outdoorsmen and women that visit its rugged terrain every year. A network of 296 maintained trails (approximately 2,616 miles in total) provides access to this seemingly endless area, crossing rivers and streams on 114 bridges.

7. Pemigewasset Wilderness, New Hampshire

Photo: Tim Sackton, Flickr

New Hampshire’s largest wilderness area, Pemigewasset Wilderness (affectionately called the “Pemi” by locals), offers some of New England’s best backpacking, hiking and cross-country skiing routes, in addition to incredible opportunities for solitude. Pemigewasset Wilderness is known for being one of the only places in the northeast that can boast such a flawless view across mountains and forests with little sign of human interference.

Moose, deer, fox and black bear all call this untrammeled wilderness area home, and many visitors flock to the region to catch a glimpse of wildlife roaming these dense hardwood forests. Loggers removed almost the entire forest cover between 1890 and 1940, but 55 years of regeneration have eliminated virtually all signs of that era.

8. Cranberry Wilderness, West Virginia

Photo: Geoff Gallice, Flickr

West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness sits on the Allegheny Plateau, and contains the entire drainage of the Middle Fork of the Williams River and the North Fork of the Cranberry River. Well-loved and recognized for the spectacular fall foliage colors ranging from oranges to reds and yellows, this wilderness is known for being one of the state’s prettiest areas the backpack.

Broad mountains are dissected by deep and narrow valleys with elevations ranging from 2,400 feet to more than 4,600 feet, the largest Forest Service Wilderness Area in the eastern United States. It’s easy to tell why this wilderness area is considered to be the crown jewel of the 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest.

Visitors and locals alike love this wilderness area for the lush forest trails and scenic waterways, such as the Williams River and the North Fork of the Cranberry River, it has to offer.

Here, nature-lovers will find primarily Appalachian hardwoods and stands of red spruce at the highest elevations. Cranberry Wilderness is contained within the Black Bear Sanctuary, appropriately named for the numerous black bear that range in this region. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, grouse, rabbits, mink, bobcats and foxes can also be found in this dense forest habitat.

9. Cohutta Wilderness, Georgia

Photo: Thomas Wolff, Flickr

Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia offers some of the best trout fishing that can be found that far south. The Conasauga and Jacks Rivers, two of the state's most prolific trout streams, drop through rocky gorges and flash flood the region during periods of heavy rain. While anglers try their luck hooking trout in Cohutta’s many streams, hunters train their sights on white-tailed deer and wild boars. Known for being the third largest mountain wilderness area in the East, Cohutta once hosted a prolific logging industry. When U.S. Forest Service acquired a large portion of the area in 1934 and 1935, the region was allowed to return to its original forested state.

Although loggers worked their way through 70 percent of the forest between 1915 and 1930, oak and pine have all but reclaimed the forest, and a rich growth of hardwoods now fills out the lower elevations: magnolia, maple, buckeye, hornbeam, sassafras, holly, silver bell dogwood, and chestnut, to name but a few.

In spring and summer, many visitors like to flock to Cohutta to enjoy a brilliant display of colorful blooms to many shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants, ranging from the brilliant orange of flame azalea to the pink and yellow of lady's slippers, the blue cohosh, and the scarlet cardinal flower.

10. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area, Minnesota-Canada border

Photo: manyhighways, Flickr

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique natural area located in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. This pristine wilderness area is beloved by many for being one of the only large lake land wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System that allows visitors to canoe, portage and camp in the spirit of historic French Voyageurs. Here, nature buffs can find freedom to those who wish to pursue an experience of expansive solitude, challenge and personal integration with nature. 

Rugged cliffs and crags, gentle hills, canyon walls, rocky shores and sandy beaches engulf approximately 1175 lakes varying in size from 10 to 10,000 acres and several hundred miles of streams.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has approximately 80 entry points with access to 1200 miles of canoe routes, 18 hiking trails and nearly 2,200 campsites.