10 U.S. Wilderness Areas You Should Know

Mountain sunrise reflected on lake
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Steve Whiston - Fallen Log Photography / Getty Images

Wilderness areas are public lands with the highest level of protection in the U.S. These valued conservation spaces are managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management.

The 803 wilderness areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) encompass diverse ecosystems across the country. They protect native flora and fauna, geologic features, and places of cultural importance. Some wilderness areas, however, are so popular that they’re at risk of being “loved to death” and losing the wild character that makes them special.

Explore 10 of the most beloved and magnificent wilderness areas in the United States.

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Boundary Waters Wilderness, Minnesota

Sled Dog and Cedar Branches
Layne Kennedy / Getty Images

With nearly 1,200 lakes, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the most visited wilderness in the U.S., hosting over 250,000 visitors each year. Paddlers can travel for miles through unpolluted water and encounter bald eagles, loons, peregrine falcons, and other wildlife. At night, Boundary Waters offers breathtaking views of the night sky—in fact, it was designated the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2020.

Despite its undeniable uniqueness, this wilderness is threatened by sulfide mining just outside the wilderness boundary. Experts and advocates fear that mining runoff will spoil its pristine waters.

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Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, Alaska

Colorado scenics
Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Alaska’s Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness is characterized by vastness and grandeur. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest wilderness in the country, covering nearly 9.5 million acres of breathtaking glaciers, rugged mountains, and vast forests. 

Wrangell-Saint Elias is home to North America’s largest subpolar icefield, Bagley Icefield. Nine of North America’s 16 highest mountains fall within this wilderness, including Mt. St. Elias, which towers at over 18,000 feet.

Wrangell-Saint Elias is a haven for wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, and sea otters. Because of the danger that climate change poses for this icy wilderness, monitoring and research are critical to its conservation.

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Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

Kennicott River in Wrangell St Elias National Park,McCarthy,Alaska.
brytta / Getty Images

Named for two of its iconic peaks, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado is the adventurous backpacker’s dream. Nine of Colorado’s fourteeners are in this wilderness, each offering spectacular views of the forests and meadows below. “Fourteeners” is the mountaineering term for peaks with elevations above 14,000 feet.

The Conundrum Hot Springs, natural hot springs in the wilderness, offer respite for weary legs and add beauty to the landscape. During the summer, native wildflowers blanket once-snowy mountain slopes. Furtive pika and noble bighorn sheep are among some of the wildlife that call the Maroon Bells home. Rising levels of visitor traffic in Maroon Bells are making it increasingly difficult to find solitude and raising concerns over the future wildness of the wilderness.

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High Uintas Wilderness, Utah

Cool Running Stream
Jason Cameron / Getty Images

The High Uintas Wilderness encompasses the middle of the spectacular Uintas Mountains in northern Utah. This rugged wilderness offers endless opportunities for exploration, recreation, and solitude with a 545-mile trail network. Ecosystems in the High Uintas change with the varied elevation, from 7,000 feet to over 13,500 feet at Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah. 

Around 75% of all bird species in the state can be found in the High Uintas Wilderness, including the dusky grouse and American three-toed woodpecker. Waterways host brook trout and cutthroat trout—favorites of sport and flyfishers.

Out of the wilderness flow the streams that feed into many of Utah’s major rivers, making the High Uintas a key water source for thousands of people.

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Shenandoah Wilderness, Virginia

Scenic view of mountains against sky during autumn,Shenandoah National Park,Virginia,United States,USA

Zack Frank / Getty Images

Nestled in Shenandoah National Park, the Shenandoah Wilderness encompasses ridges and valleys in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. This area that is now wilderness was once almost completely deforested. Today, the lush forest landscape illustrates the resilience of the ecosystem. 

The Appalachian Trail cuts through the wilderness for 175 miles, bringing with it thousands of thru-hikers each year. Black bears, wild turkeys, and squirrels are among the abundant wildlife protected in the wilderness. Shenandoah Wilderness also hosts remarkably diverse plant life, with over 300 species of trees, shrubs, and vines. One important tree, the eastern hemlock, is under threat by the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid and may soon disappear from the forest altogether.

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Desolation Wilderness, California

Pond, Desolation Wilderness, CA
stevedunleavy.com / Getty Images

Situated just west of Lake Tahoe in El Dorado National Forest, the Desolation Wilderness represents the quintessential California wilderness. Alpine and subalpine forests blanket the rocky soils of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that run north to south through the wilderness. Yellow-bellied marmots, sooty grouse, and long-toed salamanders are just three of the many species protected.

The Pacific Crest Trail is one of several trails that pass through Desolation Wilderness, offering sweeping views from granite outcrops. High levels of visitor traffic from surrounding metropolitan areas are a major threat to the solitude and natural character of the wilderness.

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Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness, Hawaii

Camping tent near lava flow at dusk
Tyler Hulett / Getty Images

Inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness. This otherworldly wilderness consists of four separate areas around the national park, connected by the park’s 150 miles of trails. 

Elevation in Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness ranges from sea level at the coast to over 13,500 feet at the summit of Mauna Loa. Across this gradient, ecosystems shift from coastal beaches to lush tropical forests, to barren lava flows. A total of 54 plant and animal species in the wilderness are federally listed as threatened or endangered, including the Hawaiian goose and the Mauna Loa silversword. Invasive species like wild boar are one of the biggest threats to the native flora and fauna.

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Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington

Hikers walking across valley, Enchantments, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington, USA
Kacey Klonsky / Getty Images

One of the crown jewels of the North Cascades in Washington is Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Aptly named for its more than 700 lakes, Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a dramatic, glacier-carved landscape with stunning sawtooth ridges.

Pronounced differences in elevation and precipitation create distinct vegetation communities—from temperate rainforests dominated by Douglas and western fir on low western slopes to eastern high-elevation slopes with silver fir, noble fir, mountain hemlock, and vine maple. Patches of old-growth forest are protected in the wilderness and provide critical habitats for at-risk fauna including lynx, spotted owls, and western spotted frogs. 

This popular wilderness is treasured by hikers, backpackers, fishers, and climbers; however, the high volume of visitors has made it necessary to put a permit system in place.

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Gila Wilderness, New Mexico

Gila National Forest Sunrise
Teresa Kopec / Getty Images

Designated in 1924 before the passing of the Wilderness Act, Gila was the first wilderness in the U.S. Perhaps the most notable feature in the wilderness is the Gila River, which is flanked by steep canyon walls and provides an oasis for Arizona sycamore, cottonwood, ash, and willow. 

The wilderness also protects the land around the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument—caves that were used by the Mogollon people in the late 13th century. Climate change is a looming threat to the wilderness and its inhabitants as cooler ecosystems at higher elevations warm and they are forced northward and up the mountains.

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El Toro Wilderness, Puerto Rico

El Yunque Rainforest
SondraP / Getty Images

El Toro Wilderness in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, is the only tropical wilderness overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. Named for the highest peak in the Luquillo Mountains, El Toro Peak, this swath 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 elfin woods warbler, Desmarest’s red fig-eating bat, and five species of coqui frogs. 

In 2017, Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s forests, including El Toro Wilderness, killing an estimated 20% of the trees. Today, the forest is rebounding, but it will take time to see if El Toro Wilderness ever returns to its pre-hurricane state.