A Wilderness Bucket List

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12 must-visit places, courtesy of Sierra Club members and Outings leaders

If you could visit only one wilderness area before you kicked the bucket, where would go? After all, there are more than 110 million acres of federally designated wilderness in the United States—an area larger than the state of California—so choosing isn’t easy. The question is made more difficult by the fact that the U.S. wilderness system is an embarrassment of riches: Arctic tundra, rugged mountain peaks and peaceful alpine meadows, otherworldly deserts, mysterious swamps, and vast stretches of forest. And don’t just think of the backcountry of our national parks. Some of most rugged and epic wilderness areas (and often the ones most conducive to experiencing solitude) are managed by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

To compile this wilderness bucket list, we here at Sierra reached out to some of the most wilderness-literate folks we know: Sierra Club Outings leaders and participants. Here are their recommendations, plus reasons why you should make the trek to these places. If you don’t start plotting your next getaway by the time you finish reading, you’re doing the bucket list thing wrong.

Nathan Chan of Millbrae, California, who attends Outings through the San Francisco Bay Chapter, says his favorite place is the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, located due south of Yosemite National Park: “It’s my second favorite part on the John Muir Trail, outside of Kings Canyon. I actually did that section of the trail twice, and both times I accidentally ended up at the same lookout point, looking toward the Minarets from just south of Garnet Lake. Here’s my photo of the Minarets.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATHAN CHAN

Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter member and Buffalo, New York resident Marion Buckleyrecommends that everyone spend time paddling the Wilderness Waterway (officially, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness) in Florida’s Everglades National Park at least once in their lives: “I went for a week-long college course, and the rest of my life was transformed for the better. From the moment you enter, you are transported to an entirely different world. There are so many diverse ecosystems; the plants and the animals leave an impression you can’t forget. The hardwood hammocks were my favorite ecosystem—I felt like I had walked into prehistoric Earth. Amazing orchids, diverse birds, mangrove trees, manatees, peace and tranquility, adventure, and excitement are just a few of the things you’ll experience when you visit the Florida Everglades.”

 

PHOTO BY KLIKK/ISTOCK 

Buckley also vouched for the bucket list-worthiness of the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic Wildernessof Washington State’s Olympic National ParkI spent my honeymoon in Washington State. “While my husband and I were only in Hoh for a day, we had an amazing hike and picnic near the Staircase campground. It was not a far drive from the nearby cities, so I think it makes a great weekend getaway. We hiked the Wagonwheel Lake Trail, which was a good challenge and has a beautiful view, especially at the top of the mountain!”

PHOTO BY TASHKA/ISTOCK

The Loma Prieta Chapter’s Virginia Smedberg, of Palo Alto, California, who’s also with the National Outings Service Committee, cast her vote for the Yosemite Wilderness of Yosemite National Park: “If you could only ever see one place, that’s my choice. I’d preferably visit mid-week, with fewer crowds, or sometime other than summer (it’s open all year), but however and whenever, that’s IT! … My grandfather was in the army group that mapped the park, so there is a Smedberg Lake. Yosemite was my very first more-than-one-night backpack trip—it was nine days and eight nights, 24 miles from any trailhead. My brother took me, when I was around age 65. An experienced backpacker, he’d been a few times; he planned the whole trip. As I told him later, all I had to do (besides training with bricks in my pack for some months before!) was put one foot in front of the other. And it was BEAUTIFUL. The Sierra has always been my go-to place, but this was huge icing on the cake. 9,000 foot elevation meadows. Snow packs. Tiny streams to hop over. Large rivers to ford or figure out how else to cross (logs? daring leaps across chasms?!) and also to dunk in (cold, VERY refreshing). Trees. Flowers—it’s high spring up there in July and August! Granite. Clear air (except for forest fire haze)!  STARS!”

Photo courtesy of Virginia Smedberg

Virginia Sierra Club member Merritt Draney of Hampton, Virginia, also vouched for Yosemite: “I spent a wonderful night at Cathedral Lake in Yosemite under the stars in awe of the reflections of the peak off the lake at the end of a weeklong backpacking trip. Plus, John Muir was the first to summit. It was a good way to end the trip.”

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF MERRITT DRANEY

However, Draney’s top can’t-miss federal land would be Grand Canyon National Park; specifically, Yuma Point on the South Rim: “The best way to get there is to hike down from the South Rim and spend a night with a gorgeous view and the sunrise and sunset. If you go and have to see only one park, it would have to be this one. Because there are mountains around most places, but there is only one Grand Canyon.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF MERRITT DRANEY

Susan McLean of Wheaton, Illinois, a life member of the Sierra Club’s River Group, would also use her last wish to re-visit the Grand Canyon: “Photos simply don’t do justice to the scale of the area. One of my fondest outdoor experiences has to be the year we hiked down the South Kaibab Trail and enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at the bottom of the canyon. Freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini, I believe. Part of the memory is that our campsite was visited not just by ring-tailed cats, but also Kathy, a resident wild turkey.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MCLEAN

Same with Rutherford, New Jersey’s Sharon Clancy, of the New Jersey Chapter: “I’d still point to the remote Native American Havasu tribal grounds in the Grand Canyon as one of favorite destinations of all times. I even took my nine-year-old daughter on that 12-mile trek once, several years ago, and we still talk about it!”

 (And, yes, we here at Sierra know that Grand Canyon National Park—like, for that matter, Yellowstone National Park—has no federally designated wilderness … but once you get into the gorge and past the crowds on the rim, the place is wild enough.)

 

PHOTO BY DGHAYES/ISTOCK

Given a chance to visit one spot, and one spot only, Austin’s Linda Kernahan of Sierra Club Austin, would set north, to Glacier National Park: “It’s a wonderful place for hiking. They offer ranger-led hikes, or you could take a great drive across the famous To the Sun Road, and sample the best huckleberry ice cream. You will see bears! So never hike alone; always in groups.”


PHOTO BY DON FINK/ISTOCK

Larry Bodine of Tucson, Arizona, a member of the Sierra Club Rincon Group, would follow his bucket list westward: “My favorite park is Sequoia National Park, which I visited when my son was 10. We went walking among the giant trees every day, following paths and getting lost (but always finding our way back), seeing bears, and looking down from tall rock outcroppings. It’s such a magical place that exists only in a special climate—one cool and damp, with occasional fires to help the giant trees release their seeds.”

PHOTO BY FOTOGUY22/ISTOCK

New Jerseyite and longtime Jersey West Chapter Harry Hudson, Jr., would also head west—to the backcountry of Utah’s first national park, Zion: “[It] is so beautiful it’s almost surreal. Sunsets are phenomenal, as the different color striation in rocks are brought out. Peaceful and serene—like waking up in a natural cathedral, and having myself feel all is right again.”

 PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRY HUDSON, JR.

Several Sierra Club members swore by Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the wildest places in the United States and home of the 7 million-acre (yes, you read that right) Mollie Beattie Wilderness. Lifetime Sierra Club member Karen Fields, who splits her time between San Diego and Seattle, contributed this article’s cover photo: “I have traveled the seven continents and have had some wonderful adventures. I feel the world is in crisis due to human overpopulation, so finding wilderness experiences takes some doing. My most awesome and pristine wilderness experience was a rafting trip down the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I only saw eight people, two rafts, and lots of open space. My soul expanded on that trip.”

Michael Gardner of the San Diego Chapter provided another emphatic recommendation for this area: “Hands down, having camped in locations that only 1 percent of the 1 percent of hikers and campers ever get to, I would go tundra napping north of the Arctic Circle. It’s like walking and sleeping on a huge soft sofa or waterbed. This is a photo I took while camping north of the Brooks Range in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, July 2013.”

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL GARDNER

Berkeley, California’s Lina Nilsson loves the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so much she leads trips with the Club´s National Outings Alaska Subcommittee: “Starting on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in northwest Alaska, the Refuge sweeps south over flat tundra landscapes, reaching far into the mountains of the Brooks Range. The vast landscape is dotted with the alien markings of permafrost: pingos, frost boils, tundra polygons. Under the amber light of the midnight sun, I have here watched—and been watched by—wolves, grizzlies, and caribou. Here, the few trails you come across are not from humans, but are more likely to lead to the steep slopes of the Dall sheep. Yearly, some 200,000 caribou migrate between the mountains and the calving grounds on the coastal plain. There is nature’s continuity, and also, its transformation. But the Refuge is not vacant of people—it is the ancestral and cultural home of Alaska Natives including the Gwich’in and the Unupiat Eskimo. More recently, a human focus of a different kind has also emerged in our nation’s largest wildlife refuge. Over the last 40 years, the land has increasingly become a political lightning rod, with ongoing battles over oil and gas drilling.  Today, there are reinvigorated efforts to open up the the Refuge for commercial exploitation. Meanwhile, the fragile arctic is also a ‘canary for climate change,’ burdened with some of the most immediate effects of a changing climate. For instance, the small brook from last year is this year a raging muddy river, fed by melting glaciers. ‘The Last Frontier,’ indeed.”

 PHOTO COURTESY OF LINA NILSSON

Jeffrey Schimpff of Madison, Wisconsin—and a member of the John Muir Chapter’s Four Lakes Group—says the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Wyoming and Montana tops his personal bucket list: “I first traveled over the Beartooth as a hitchhiker in 1971, and have backpacked and hiked there four times: solo in 1985, in 1997 with my wife and our seven- and nine-year-old sons, in 2002 on a fishing hike into the Absaroka end of the wilderness, and in 2012, with my wife and our adventurous small dog. The area’s astounding mix of volcanic peaks and sky-high granitic plateau borders Yellowstone National Park on the north, so a trip to the Beartooth calls out for a stop in Red Lodge to fuel up at a cafe and ice cream shop, and for a visit—on either end of your trip—to Yellowstone.

On my solo trip, after seeing a cow moose near the trail, two low ridges ahead, and despite playing riffs on a lightweight mesquite flute I carried to alert bears to my presence, I crested the final ridge to see the moose still standing where I had first seen it—about 40 yards to the east of the trail. I wondered why it had not moved away in response to my noisy flute playing. It was then that I noticed a slight movement next to the cow—to my shock and horror, there was a small calf standing on the far side of its mother! The cow cranked her ears back, let out a snorting grunt, and charged straight at me. Fortunately, I had packed to travel light, so I sprinted as fast as I could for the nearest tree. As the carry bar atop my external frame pack caught on a low spruce limb to stop my flight, I expected to feel hot moose breath on my neck as the cow plowed into me—but when I looked back, the moose was glaring at me from the spot on the trail 50 yards away, where I had stood seconds before. That was the only time I’ve ever felt threatened by any animal, including scores of days hiking and camping in grizzly bear country.

Several factors aside from having great solo and family adventures there make this my favorite designated wilderness. First, while a good network of maintained trails leads to a number of pristine lakes among the hundreds of lakes in the area, the plateau is sparsely forested. Amid low, slow-growing pines there are copious open grassy areas that make off-trail travel to other lakes fairly easy. A good map will show you which small streams will lead to these lakes. This flexibility in route planning, coupled with the fact that you can experience rain, snow, hail, lightning, and thunder, bear or moose encounters; or any combination of those events, encourages wilderness travelers to prepare for any eventuality. It provides a chance to fully consider and participate in our relationship with the natural environment. There are at least two glaciers (see them while you can!) where you can get a view of grasshoppers that became frozen into the ice – presumably caught in a fierce mountain blizzard long, long ago! The below photo is Theresa Stabo, my wife, gazing out across Pretty Lake toward the crest of the Beartooth Plateau in the Beartooth Wilderness, Custer National Forest.”

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFREY SCHIMPFF

 Jason Mark of Oakland, California, who is the editor in chief of Sierra and the author of a book all about wilderness in the 21st century titled Satellites in the High Country, says that while the Sierra Nevada, the Hoh Rainforest, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Grand Canyon are also high on his favorites list, nothing beats New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness for sheer solitude: “The Gila was the United State’s first legal wilderness, established in 1924 as a Forest Service “Primitive Area” 40 years before the passage of the Wilderness Act. The Gila served as Aldo Leopold’s model for a modern wilderness, an area “big enough to absorb a two-week pack trip.” The Apache warrior Geronimo (né Goyathlay, or “One Who Yawns”) was raised on the Gila River, and before the Apache the region was the center of the Mogollon culture.

Sometimes referred to as “the Yellowstone of the Southwest,” the big, mostly uninterrupted space is an ideal wildlife haven. Thousands of elk and deer graze the mix of high desert piñon/juniper grasslands and groves of ponderosa. There are javelin, fox, coati, wolves, and bighorn sheep. Beaver are still found along the Gila River, where needlelike spires rise above sycamore stands. After the sun dips past the last ridges, the canyon tree frogs begin their all-night trilling and a flawless firmament appears. I’ve never seen such stars: the night so pure that sky has its own texture, and stars appear hung in three dimensions, crystal dropped into a net of dark matter.

During one November solo trip to the Gila I got a taste of the place’s wildness. As I hiked northward from the Gila National Monument Cliff Dwellings toward the river, a cold rain began, which turned into sleet, which then settled into snow. Luckily, in addition to my tent I had a tarp with me, and I was able to construct a shelter on the riverbanks. With the shelter and a fire and a large supply of tea, I passed the afternoon and evening watching the snow gather. The next morning I woke up to a good five inches of powder on the ground. I suppose I could have kept going or stayed another night, but I worried that another snowfall would make it impossible to find the trail, so I headed back. I hadn’t gone more than a quarter of a mile when I began to spot a track of hour-glass like impressions in the snow—seemingly a man’s boot prints. This made no sense: there was no one else around, and I had come down the trail when it was still sleeting. I followed the track, curious. After a while, the tracks became clearer as the walker had continued on while the storm had petered out. Then the marks were obvious: One big pad, five small pads, five claw marks. The print of a black bear, stamped into the pure white. Mystery resolved into wonder.”

PHOTO BY SWINSIDER/ISTOCK

Finally, Howell, Michigan’s Michael Carter of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, reminds us that the United States is hardly the only country with national parks and wild preserves. Topping his bucket list is Mexico’s Loreto National Marine Park: “My favorite wilderness area is the Sea of Cortez, the surrounding islands, and Cabo San Lucas. Go in February, when the grey whales are calving. The mom would approach our boat and allow us to touch her; she would then seem to encourage her baby to do the same. We also stopped at islands and hiked the wilderness… One note: it’s very helpful to have water shoes instead of sandals, which collect tiny rocks, making it hard to walk in the loose stones. In Cabo, we hiked to many ponds containing many different kinds of birds, and just off-shore, we would swim and snorkel with the seals… a magical place indeed! Below please find a photo of a mother grey whale with her calf. They will allow you to pet them, and feel their baleen (which feels like a toothbrush) and their tongue, which is as soft as velvet…  An awesome experience!”

PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL CARTER

We don’t know about you, but our wilderness bucket list just got much longer.

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