Gallery: 10 unusual wilderness areas

America has more than 750 designated wilderness areas. These places are some of America's most wild places left representing an incredible range of terrain, from Alaska's Mollie Beattie Wilderness to Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, each has its own unique characteristics that make it special. 

All of these wilderness areas are wondrous and special, and some are truly unusual. We know visiting wilderness areas improves our lives, and one of the ways it does is by inspiring deep wonder. Unique rock formations, colorful labyrinths, unsolved mysteries, and exquisite biodiversity are some of the curiosities that the places listed below feature.

Get an overview of 10 unusual wilderness areas in this Story Map and see a photo gallery with more details below.

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1. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness

There's one word that describes this New Mexican wilderness area best: haunting. This place is filled with rocks in various strange forms including hoodoos, eggs and mazes. Its nearly-lifeless desert landscape is remarkably silent as well, even for a remote wilderness area. It's certainly one of the top wilderness areas to put on your bucket list.

photo: Flickr, BLM New Mexico


2. Mecca Hills Wilderness

Geology at California's Mecca Hills is unlike anywhere in the world. Layers of 600-million-year-old rock have been exposed by the San Andreas Fault, creating a natural labyrinth of steep canyons. In its heart lies Painted Canyon, colored with minerals of rose, pink, red, purple and green. The area also hosts caves - prime places for unique adventures.

photo: Flickr, BLM


3. Chiricahua National Monument Wilderness

Known to the Chiricahua Apache Indians as "Land of the Standing-Up Rocks," this place in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains is truly a wonderland of stone. Columns of balanced rocks are met with dramatic monsoon thunderstorms in summer. It is also a unique crossroads of four ecosystems: the Sonoran and Chiricahuan Deserts as well as the Rocky and Sierra Madre Mountains.

photo: Flickr, Denny Armstrong


4. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

Curved walls streaked with red rocks fill serpentine canyons in this picturesque Arizonan landscape. Sandstone arches and sculptures feature hanging orchids near the multicolored, massive Vermilion Cliffs. Its unique character is popular for both backpacking and photography, but only 20 visitors are permitted to enter daily, making it an even more unusual experience. It's one of the wilderness areas to put on your bucket list for sure!

photo: Flickr, Mark Doliner


5. Petrified Forest Wilderness

Once-towering trees have been transformed by time in Arizona's Petrified Forest. About 225 million years has created colorful, quartz-ringed sculptures and unearthed them in the Painted Desert. Stranger still, there's a long history of cases of bad luck for those who've ignored "Leave No Trace" principles and taken any of its gorgeous rocks. The area also boasts petroglyphs, 2,000-year old houses built of stone, and one of the most diverse collections of prehistoric pottery fragments in the Southwest.

photo: NPS


6. Death Valley Wilderness

California's Death Valley is an undoubtedly one of the top wilderness areas to see in your lifetime as it is North America's driest, lowest and hottest - the highest temperature recorded on the planet was 134 degrees Fahrenheit here on July 10, 1913. Death Valley's deserts also surprisingly host colorful wildflowers in spring. But there's something else unusual here: mysteriously moving rocks. The Racetrack playa features tracks left by large rocks traveling as far as 1,500 feet. Several theories have attempted to explain this phenomena over the past several decades, and a recent study finally has shown that it's the result of an incredibly unlikely culprit: ice.

photo: Flickr, Howard Ignatius


7. Great Sand Dunes Wilderness

A beach in the middle of the continent - that's one of the unlikely treasures found at Colorado's Great Sand Dunes. The tallest dunes in North America lie, surprisingly, at the base of the snowy Sangre Mountains. The area has remarkable diversity, including grasslands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, tundra and even wetlands. I suppose it's no wonder then that the Great Sand Dunes are in one of the most biologically diverse national parks in the country. Great Sand Dunes is also one of only a handful of places where you can board or sled all year. For those looking for unusual things to do, sandboarding is a special adventure.

photo: Flickr, Giant Ginkgo


8. Ojito Wilderness

Ojito's colorful hoodoos are its most obvious peculiarities, but there are other one-of-a-kind stories that make this New Mexican location uncommon. Among its plethora of fossils, one of the largest dinosaur skeletons ever discovered (a Seismasaurus) was found here. Despite its arid climate, several human cultures have attempted to live near here, including Ancestral Puebloans, Navajos, and Hispanics.

photo: Flickr, John Fowler


9. Cebolla Wilderness

Cebolla contains the remarkable La Ventana Natural Arch in its sandstone cliffs, sculpted by the forces of wind and water. Among its many prehistoric petroglyphs and historical sites, the Dittert site is particularly well known. It tells a curious story about a community that may have reoccupied and remodeled buildings the Anasazi had abandoned 100 years earlier. It is suspected that explosive population growth and drought drove this community to leave, although the intact rooms and furnishings indicate that they may have intended to return.

photo: Flickr, BLM (Bob Wick, BLM California)


10. Olympic Wilderness

It's no wonder Washington's Olympic Wilderness is one of America's most popular. It is unusual in part because it has everything a wilderness lover could hope for: snow-packed mountain peaks, rainforests bursting with lush greens, breathtaking beaches stacked with driftwood, and offshore seastacks brimming with wildlife. Its shores are home to brightly colored sea anemones and sea stars, and are also an unlikely spot for camping in summer.

photo: Flickr, daveynin

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