Under the Radar Wild Places To Add To Your Bucket List

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Local treasures recommended by Sierra Club members and Outings leaders



There are the Yellowstones and Yosemites and Grand Canyons of the world—justly famous, but also often infamously crowded. Then there are those special spots where the views may be just as special, but the trails far less trodden. Such overlooked places can provide an experience that is far wilder than those bold-faced names of wilderness.

Because we’ve got such a soft spot for state parks, unheralded national forests, out-of-the-way wildlife refuges, and other hyperlocal manifestations of the great outdoors, we asked Sierra Club Outings veterans to share the off-the-beaten-path wild places topping their bucket lists. You may be surprised to find treasures right in your backyard, or near a spot you’ll be visiting this summer. In any case, get ready to mix up that wilderness bucket list.

Jerome Collins of Austin, Texas, pointed to Canyon of the Eagles Nature Park in the hill country of Burnet, Texas: “Several years ago, the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club Executive Committee chose Canyon of the Eagles in the Texas Hill Country for ‘Sierra Celebration,’ an outing organized by the Chapter on Columbus Day weekend, so children could join us. After setting up camp, cooking, singing, and storytelling, we retreated to our sleeping quarters… mine being a hammock hung in a huge live oak tree. My ‘revelation’ came about 2 a.m. when I woke, got out of the hammock, and realized I could see clearly without a light source other than the stars on that moonless night. I looked up to see the most brilliant display of the Milky Way I have seen since childhood. I wandered around the campsite in awe of the starlight and the clarity of grass and dirt and tracks under my feet. I was so excited that I wanted to share with someone, but something told me it might be a hard sell, that time of the night. So I climbed back into the hammock looking at the Milky Way through the oak canopy, and went back to sleep.”



 Elke Hermann of Otterndof, Germany, has been on many Sierra Club outings. Her favorite memory? Exploring Boynton Canyon Trail in Sedona, Arizona: “We stayed outside Sedona in a gorgeous group of cabins on a small creek, taking our very specially prepared breakfasts to tables along that creek … where we enjoyed every bite.”



The Sierra Club Illinois Chapter’s Rollin Hansen, of Roselle, Illinois, calls White Pines State Park a favorite: “It has beautiful short hikes along a really fun creek to cross. Getting to the campground in the park involves driving through a shallow part of the creek—fun!


Howard Strauss, a member of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter and resident of Culver City, California, says his all-time favorite place is West Canyon on the Rainbow Plateau in Utah: “I like it so much that I went on two backpacking trips in the area. Spectacular scenery, amazing slot canyons, and a great adventure to boot. There’s nothing like using your backpack as a raft as you swim through slot canyons with narrow sides and towering walls. Not a place to go it you have a fear of closed in places! There are also ancient ruins, old Navajo dwellings and sweat lodges, and  a preserved Navajo home.”


Millbrae, California’s Nathan Chan, a member of the San Francisco Bay Chapter, says Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is his favorite: “It’s so easy to feel small among redwoods that rise as high as Manhattan skyscrapers.”



Marion Buckley, of Buffalo, New York and the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, recommends Adirondack State Park: “It is a must for camping, hiking or backpacking. I grew up camping every year on the park’s Stillwater Reservoir. Camping there is primitive, the water is pristine, and the sunrise and sunset may be the most serene moments in your life you will ever have.”



Texan Linda Kernahan, of Austin Sierra Club Outings, recommends that Kauai-bound wilderness lovers check out the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park: “It offers the best hiking, great camping, advanced kayaking, and some amazing snorkeling, right from the beach. There is some good overnight backpacking for advanced backpackers, too.”



Virginia Sierra Club Chapter member Merritt Draney, of Hampton, Virginia, loves Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, an under-the-radar area within the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests: “It has one of the few old-growth forests in Virginia, and contains Eastern hemlock, which are under assault, sadly, by an invasive species called woolly adelgid. There are some defenses now and a few trees left, but it might be too late for this area. It has a beautiful trout-filled stream to fish, and a ridgeline trail offering nice views of this rugged mountainous area.”



Another favorite of Draney’s is Grayson Highlands State Park: “It’s one of few areas above tree line in in the remote southwestern part of Virginia. Plus, it has wild ponies (well, wild as long as you don’t have food, that is). Just gorgeous. You can see well south into North Carolina from up there. The Appalachian Trail passes through, so it’s nice to root on the thru-hikers along the way or maybe act as a trail angel. It is adjacent to Mt. Rogers, which is the highest point in Virginia, and it’s a nice area for hiking, backpacking, and camping. I have been twice, the last time during Hurricane Matthew. To say the least, it was windy up there and the storm didn’t turn out to sea, as was forecasted. But the rest of the weekend was gorgeous.”


The Atlantic Chapter’s Christopher Manza, of Cornwall, New York, names his local John Boyd Thacher State Park as a favorite: “In September 2015, I got to visit this place on my way back home one weekend after I did a Spartan Race in Killington, Vermont. On a clear, sunny day, I could see as far into the Taconics, the Green Mountains, and the Adirondack region.”


But Manza’s all-time favorite place is Schunnemunk State Park: “This is my top place to go hiking, trail running, or to train for any kind of race. I once spent New Years’ Day hiking the entire length of the mountain for seven hours. It was a great way to kick off the year.”



Novia Campbell of Lineboro, Maryland and the Sierra Club Catoctin Group, recommends Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware—especially for drivers of electric cars: “We really enjoyed making the trip in our fully-electric Kia Soul. One of the things that we liked was being able to take advantage of the strategically placed 480 charging stations that we found along the way. At Bombay Hook, we were impressed by the wide variety of waterfowl, nesting eagles, and ground animals like foxes, numerous painted turtles, and a huge, mischievous raccoon that raced along the edge of a pond, scaring the turtles into the water (very funny). The ranger staff there are very helpful and nice to talk with, and the Refuge has a nice mix of walking and driving, so that people of all physical abilities can enjoy.”


Green Country Sierra Club member Dave Zucconi, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, highly recommends the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas: “It’s one of my favorites because of the wonderful mix of forest, bluffs and waterfalls along its 165-mile course.”



Zucconi’s other favorite is Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas: “It’s prime Chihuahuan Desert, and far less crowded than its next-door neighbor, Big Bend National Park.”



Kit Johnston, of Reva, Virginia, and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, adores the Gore Range, nestled among the Rockies in Colorado: “My dad was a reporter for the Denver Post and a stringer for Newsweek. When, in the course of his assignments he learned that the Bureau of Land Management was selling land parcels above what was to become Lake Dillon reservoir in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, he bid, and before I knew it, I was, at age 15 or so, helping him build a modest A-frame in a vertical field of western sage and aspen, very close to the Gore Range entry point. When our work was done for the day, I would wander, climbing the steep hill behind us to where the aspen groves thickened, marking the trail to the Gore Range. One fall, when the aspen leaves had turned gold and were shedding their coins on the trail, I entered that trail and felt a strong urge to climb higher into that dark and high range.

I was not equipped with anything but my desire. And some water and a day pack. As I climbed I realized that I was alone, that I had not told my father where I was going, and that storm clouds were moving in. As I climbed, I saw the promise and danger of moving into rock faces, tinged with cobalt blue. Suddenly, I felt a tingling in the back of my neck. Lightning, for which the Gore Range is famously dangerous, was nearby and could strike me. I lowered myself to the ground, where I stayed until the danger passed. Slowly, I made my way back down the hill, determined that someday, I would find a way to hike the Gore, fully equipped and with friends.

I have yet to make good on that promise to myself. Some 25 years ago, Dad sold the Ptarmigan Hill cabin. They still live there, in the shadow of the Gore. We know, because we visited them last summer. Three sons, all of whom know the Gore like the backs of their hands. How I envy them. Below them, the Dillon Reservoir and Silverthorne and other once tiny frontier mining communities bordering the Blue River are now a mess of traffic and fast food restaurants, all the way to Breckenridge, for the most part. But up the hill, the entry point to the Gore still remains, as it was when I was young. One day, I will enter it again and go all the way, this time.  For as much as I love the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains where I settled, I still want that wanton and crazy and slightly dangerous wilderness of the Colorado Gore.”



Springfield, Illinois’s John Williams, of the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club, insists that Cirque of the Towers, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, is a must: “As you bust your ass to get over Jack Ass Pass, your jaw will drop and maybe you’ll drop to your knees and maybe even tear up at the hard-to-rival beauty of a hard-to-get-to piece of heaven on Earth. Once you’re on valley floor, you’ll find yourself acting like whirling dervish mesmerized by the mind-blowing, 360-degree view you can’t get enough of, and endlessly babbling Hosanna in the Highest.”



We’re not going to argue with these endorsements. Onto the bucket list all these places go.

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