Wild destinations: 11 must-see wild places

The number of great fall and spring outdoor adventure destinations is endless. Allow us to help narrow your search with some of The Wilderness Society’s favorite must-see wild places on and off the beaten track. Visit these lands and see some of the great places The Wilderness Society is working to protect. And don’t forget to leave no trace while there!

Southwestern United States

Nevada: Gold Butte

Gold Butte, Nevada. Photo by David Bly.If the dramatic sandstone formations and intense red rock cliffs don't catapult Gold Butte onto your must-visit list, surely the thousands of Native American petroglyphs and prehistoric sites should. Just a couple hours northeast of Las Vegas, Gold Butte offers excellent opportunities to explore narrow canyons and prehistoric sites dating back over 4,000 years. This is a great stop for travelers headed from Las Vegas to St. George, Utah, and the Zion region. The unique landscape consists of Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Colorado Plateau desert life zones and is home to the only pocket of Arizona cypress in Nevada as well as the threatened Desert Tortoise and Desert Bighorn Sheep. In recent years, off-roading recreation has skyrocketed at Gold Butte, causing environmental damage. Vandalism of cultural sites has also increased, which is why we support a bill to protect more of the area.

Utah: Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Red Cliffs in Utah. Courtesy BLM.Just 15 miles north of St. George Utah, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is one of southwestern Utah’s magical landscapes marked by colorful red rock formations. At the intersection of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, Red Cliffs is home to plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. Hiking trails take visitors through beautifully rugged terrain and narrow pool-filled canyons, while local history from early Mormon settlements and remnants from American Indian culture add fascination. Within the conservation area, you’ll find Utah’s new Red Mountain and Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness areas as well as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, where some of the northernmost populations of Mojave Desert Tortoises and Gila monsters live. Camping, hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking on designated trails is popular. A nice stop after Gold Butte on your way from Las Vegas. The area can be toasty in the summer so consider a trip in the fall. More information here.

New Mexico: Volcano Hill-Petaca Pinta Area

Mount Taylor in the background of El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico. Photo by jimmywayne, Flickr.While hardly remote, Volcano Hill-Petaca Pinta Area remains one of New Mexico’s wildest landscapes and potential playgrounds. Just 60 miles west of Albuquerque, this emphatically rugged red-rock country is largely undiscovered, but well worth a trip. Filled with volcanic plugs, juniper-studded mesas, dramatic red-rock cliffs and a 1,000 foot escarpment that reveals millions of years of geologic history, Petaca Pinta (a wilderness study area) is a perfect day trip for anyone interested in geology or with a nagging desire to be surrounded by a great untamed landscape. Visitors can spot views of Mount Taylor and trek up Volcano Hill (also proposed for wilderness protection), an important watering spot for wildlife, or enjoy spotting for raptors, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls. Pronghorn, mountain lion and other animal tracks are not uncommon to find.

California: The California Desert

Joshua Tree in California. Photo by Doug Steakley.Home to Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley, The Mojave Preserve, the Kelso Dunes portions of the historic Route 66, and so much more, the California Desert offers incredible opportunities to explore otherworldly landscapes and a bit of American history, too. Visit the lowest point in the United States at Death Valley, scramble on rock jumbles at Joshua National Park, hike through a real desert oasis at Surprise Canyon or just relax at any of the Mojave’s wide-open vistas of Sahara-like sand dunes and pastel-colored buttes. Many special places within the California Desert are yet to be protected, but the Wilderness Society is committed to helping pass the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, which will preserve nearly 1.5 million acres of spectacular federal lands in the California Desert.

Rocky Mountain States

Montana: Glacier National Park and the Crown of the Continent

Hiker enjoying a waterfall in Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by Jeff L. Fox.If it’s extreme visual drama you want, Glacier National Park is the place. Millions of years ago, glacial movements sculpted the peaks of this larger-than-life terrain, leaving massive mountain walls towering above the valleys and turquoise lakes below. With more than 700 miles of hiking trails, Glacier National Park is one of the best parks for hiking. Glacier is also part of the Crown of the Continent, a rich mountain ecosystem that stretches from Montana to Canada and includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Canada’s Waterton International Peace Park. The Crown of the Continent ecosystem is one of only 12 ecosystems in the hemisphere to escape post-industrial extinction of species. But climate change and mining around the park’s borders could jeopardize that. Scientists report the park’s intriguing glaciers are disappearing rapidly as a result of climate change. Of the estimated 150 glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in 1850, only 25 still remain. Click here for the Park Service’s vacation planner.

Idaho: Boulder-White Clouds Mountains

Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho. Photo by thejesse, Flickr.Visitors often neglect the Boulder-White Clouds in favor of Idaho’s showy Sawtooth Mountains, but the Boulder-White Clouds offer some of the best scenery and recreation in the state — with less traffic. What’s most unusual about the Boulder-White Clouds is the pale, almost whitish color of its mountain peaks. Home to the largest unprotected tract of unroaded forest in the lower 48 states, these dramatic mountains offer great solitude, and an abundance of hiking trails through gorgeous, lake-strewn mountain terrain. Scrambling, wildlife viewing, fishing and other recreation opportunities abound. And soon, the region may offer the first-ever wheelchair access in a designated Wilderness area, if Congress passes legislation to permanently protect the Boulder-White Clouds as Wilderness. The Boulder-White Clouds Council offers extensive information for visitors.

Colorado: Dolores River Canyon

Paddler in the Dolores River, Colorado. Courtesy BLM.You haven’t seen all of Colorado’s great places until you’ve explored Colorado’s canyon country and the incredible Dolores River Canyon in the southwestern part of the states. The Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River, is known as one of the best and longest river trips in the West, if not the entire United States. The river cuts through endless miles of colorful, sandstone canyon walls, rising 500-700 feet above. Hikers can explore the Dolores Canyon’s tributary canyons and trails and the many Native American petroglyphs in the region. The Wilderness Society is working with local groups to protect the wildest segment of the Dolores River through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Learn more here.

Pacific Northwest

Washington: North Cascades

Family kayaking in the North Cascades. Photo by Damon Parrish, Courtesy REI.Jagged mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls, plentiful lakes, hundreds of glaciers and endless opportunities to explore Wilderness make this charismatic land a must-see. Included among the North Cascades’ highlights are: Pasayten Wilderness, home to some of the largest lynx population in the lower 48; The Stephen Mather Wilderness, which comprises 93 percent of the North Cascades National Park and is one of the absolute best choices for wilderness and alpine climbing in the lower 48, and; Alpine Lakes Wilderness, one of the most visited wilderness areas in the nation, replete with more than 700 lakes and mountain ponds. The Pacific Crest Trail goes through all three wilderness areas. We are working to have additions made to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Check out our North Cascades website, and click here for trail information.

Oregon: Devil’s Staircase

Devil's Staircase in Oregon. Photo by Dave Tvedt.Perfect for the adventurous explorer, The Devil’s Staircase, is a remote chunk of wild, old-growth forest hidden deep within Oregon’s coastal rainforest, near Reedsport, Ore. The forest is so remote that it escaped much of the coastal logging of past decades. Today this dense cedar, fir and hemlock-filled forst holds some of the last remaining old-growth stands in the coastal range. The truly adventurous will enjoy trying to find the rarely seen waterfall that the area is named after. The Devil’s Staircase, which looks like a staircase of cascading pools is hidden deep with the heart of Wassen Creek and takes more than a day’s trek to reach. The Wilderness Society is supporting a wilderness bill to permanently protect the Devil’s Staircase area. Our partner group Oregon Wild offers excellent information for those who wish to learn more.

Eastern Forests

Maine and New Hampshire: Western lakes and mountain region

Harpers Meadow in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, New Hampshire. Photo by Ian Drew, Courtesy USFWS.For superlative fishing, birding, canoeing and leaf peeping, head to Maine and New Hampshire’s western lakes and mountains region. The enchanting area is a favorite of anglers fond of the Rangeley Lakes, and the Androscoggin & Rapid Rivers. Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge offers outstanding canoeing and kayaking as well as glimpses of some of the largest osprey and common loon populations in New Hampshire. (Rent your kayaks and canoes at the Umbagog Lake State Park Campground.) Umbagog refuge is also home of the historic winter home of Louise Dickenson Rich, author of the classic book “We took to the Woods.” The nonprofit group Friends of Forest Lodge offers tours. Hiking the region's many mountains (including one of the toughest sections of the Appalachian Trail) and sightseeing along the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway and the Mahoosuc Touring Loop in the Mahoosuc Mountains are also popular.

North Carolina: Bartram Trail

Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Courtesy homeintennessee, Flickr.A less trafficked alternative to the Appalachian Trail, the Bartram Trail crosses through similarly dazzling terrain in western North Carolina. The only noise to interrupt the solitude of these dense hardwood forests may be the sound of a cascading waterfall or a rushing river. The route begins in Georgia then heads into North Carolina and through the Nantahala National Forest for some of the best mountain scenery in the state, including the vista from Cheoah Bald ridge and spectacular views of the surrounding Blue Ridge and Nantahala mountains. The Bartram also passes through the proposed Bob Zahner Wilderness area (near the town of Highlands), which The Wilderness Society is working to permanently protect. The trail follows the approximate route of William Bartram who explored the area in the 1770s. Maps and trail information available through the North Carolina Bartram Trail Society.

Gold Butte in Nevada. Photo by David Bly.
Red Cliffs in Utah. Courtesy BLM.
Mount Taylor in the background of El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico. Photo by jimmywayne, Flickr.
Joshua Tree in California. Photo by Doug Steakley.
Hiker enjoying a waterfall in Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by Jeff L. Fox.
Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho. Photo by thejesse, Flickr.
Paddler in the Dolores River, Colorado. Courtesy BLM.
Family kayaking in the North Cascades. Photo by Damon Parrish, Courtesy REI.
Devil's Staircase in Oregon. Photo by Dave Tvedt.
Harpers Meadow in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, New Hampshire. Photo by Ian Drew, Courtesy USFWS.
Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. Courtesy homeintennessee, Flickr.