Remote yet Accessible: 6 Easy-To-Reach Wilderness Areas

Photo: Grant Ordelheide/Tandemstock

When we think of wilderness, we think remote: untouched, rugged, natural.

A step above your local town park, a real wilderness leaves roads, buildings, and other infrastructure at the gate. In a lot of ways, it’s the pinnacle of adventure. And in the U.S., we’ve codified that idea through wilderness areas with a capital W. These are specific lands where that undisturbed quality has actually become law. Within their boundaries, your only modes of transportation are human- or animal-powered. There’s no real modern infrastructure, and even trail builders are often not allowed to use mechanized tools like chainsaws to create footpaths, sticking instead to axes and saws.

An adventure in one of these designated areas is about as close as you can get to feeling like a 19th-century explorer wandering off the edge of the map. And here’s the best part: A wilderness experience is a whole lot more accessible than you might realize. Once you’ve arrived, you can feel the solitude. But the act of simply getting to the trailhead doesn’t have to be an expedition in itself. Here are some of the best wilderness areas across the country that might still be right out your back door. 

1. Alpine Lakes Wilderness

(1-hour drive from Seattle)

You don’t have to hike too far from the top of Snoqualmie Pass to understand where Alpine Lakes gets its name. Snow, Gem, Wildcat, Mason, Olallie, and a lot more lakes seem almost like they’re hanging above the interstate, within reach of even beginner day-hikers willing to climb the steep trails up to them. But this more-than-400,000-acre expanse of the central Cascade Mountains is rife with hiking and backpacking options surrounding countless rocky, glacier-clad peaks and the icy blue tarns that speckle the fir and hemlock trees between them.

Top trips: Check out Tuck and Robin lakes for an incredible (if longer) 16-mile day-hike above the treeline and into spectacular wildflowers. Or pick up a backpack to complete the ultra-classic (for a reason) Enchantment Traverse near Leavenworth (you’ll have an easier time day-hiking it than trying to snag an overnight permit). 

2. Lost Creek Wilderness

(1 hour from Denver) 

Something keeps the Lost Creek Wilderness—tucked southeast of 14,265-foot Mount Evans—off the radar of Colorado Front Range hikers. Maybe it’s the lack of peakbagging-eligible 14ers and 13ers in a state full of high mountains. Maybe the state’s national parks hog all the attention. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not the area’s proximity to civilization—or its beauty. Like a mix between the Rocky Mountain and Joshua Tree national park’s bouldery geology, the Lost Creek Wilderness is a Dr. Seuss cartoon of jumbled rocks, near-alpine views, and waterways disappearing underground (hence the name).

Top trips: Follow the Goose Creek Trail (less than 10 miles out and back) looking for the remains of failed plans to dam the creek (like abandoned cabins and metal equipment), campsites along the trout-filled waters, and boulder fields where the creek disappears into the abyss. Or day-hike from the same trailhead up to beautiful, open Lake Park.

3. Mount Rose Wilderness

(30 minutes from Reno, Nev.)

The Mount Rose Wilderness sits directly between Reno and the northern edge of Lake Tahoe, making it one of the more picturesque starting points to explore the basin. Alpine views looking down to the lake and open pine forests dotted with wildflowers complete this classic Sierra mountainscape. 

Top trips: The exposed summit of 10,785-foot Mount Rose itself is a popular 10-mile hike—keep your eyes peeled for wildflowers early in the summer and enjoy the views south to the massive blue pearl that is Lake Tahoe (you’re not too far from a quick swim after a hot hike, too). This wilderness is also a common access point to the larger Tahoe Rim Trail: a 165-mile thru-hike completely encircling the lake. 

4. Shenandoah Wilderness

(2 hours from Washington, D.C.)

Shenandoah Wilderness is uniquely accessible from the top down. Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park rides the crest of forested Appalachian ridges and makes a convenient access point to descend into the wilderness split in two on either side of the road.

Top trips: The 9-mile loop hike up to the bouldery summit of Old Rag Mountain is a regional classic and one of the most accessible hikes from the capital. Or there’s the array of dark, forested creek beds to explore and or to pitch a camp—check out the 11-mile Nicholson Hollow Trail for rambling waterfalls, old homesteads, and plenty of places to soak your tired feet.

5. Glastenbury Wilderness

(1 hour from Albany, N.Y.)

While the selection of wilderness areas in the Northeast is substantially less than you might find out West, they’re no less rugged. In some cases, they might feel even more off the beaten path. The Glastenbury Wilderness, in the Green Mountains of Southern Vermont, is one of the more forgotten patches in an otherwise popular region.

Top trips: A section of trail up Glastenbury Mountain contains both the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail for a reason. Climb along a broad ridgeline from the south with bountiful lookouts through the trees toward Vermont’s lakes and ski hills, as well as the southern Adirondack Mountains to the west. A primitive shelter just below Glastenbury’s summit makes it easy to spend a night comfortably in the trees, allowing you to wake early and head to the summit for sunrise. The whole out-and-back rounds out at over 22 miles. 

6. Superstition Wilderness

(1 hour from Phoenix)

If you look at a map of the Superstition Wilderness, you’ll see just how close these desert mountains come to the edge of the Phoenix suburbs. But just on the other side of the 5,000-foot peaks forming the wilderness’s edge, rocky spires like Weaver’s Needle pierce the sagebrush and cacti dotting this arid range. 

Top trips: Hike to Fremont Saddle (4.3 miles round-trip) for a good view of the epic peak, or take backpacking gear and approach shoes (with a rope, if you’re so inclined) to climb Weaver’s Needle itself (8.4 miles total). Elsewhere, petroglyphs, dry washes and canyons, and even legends of buried treasure make the exploration here limitless. Just bring enough water—temperatures in the Superstitions during the summer can climb past 115 degrees.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.