John Muir Wilderness (California)
Brent Winebrenner  /  Getty Images
The 650,734 acres of the John Muir Wilderness, in California's Inyo National Forest, is connected to the additional 1.38 million acres comprised of the Ansel Adams, Dinkey Lakes, Golden Trout, Monarch, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness areas, all of which wrap around Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. There are 590 miles of trails in the John Muir itself, passing along canyons, river valleys, and numerous snow-capped peaks over 10,000 feet.
updated 1/12/2010 6:21:33 PM ET 2010-01-12T23:21:33

True escape from city life doesn't have to mean a trip outside the U.S. Inside America's borders are some of the most remote, pristine spots on the planet.

The U.S. has more than 100 million acres of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), public lands that — since the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act — are protected from human influence and disruption. For the outdoorsy traveler looking for remoteness, solitude and a sense of nature, Wilderness areas offer all these things in abundance.

And getting there is half the fun: You can travel into and across a designated Wilderness area on foot or on horseback only, and any kind of mechanized or motorized equipment or transport is forbidden. While the John Muir Wilderness Area in the Inyo National Forest isn't far from Fresno, Calif., considerable time and expense will be involved getting to, say, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area on the Minnesota-Canada border. Minneapolis is a six-hour drive away from the Boundary Waters.

Generally speaking, a wilderness area is roadless, except in cases where roads were laid before Congress designated the land — but no vehicle can access such a road. Wilderness lands fall under the management of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Forest Service. Many are found within or bordering on National Forests. The wilderness designation is an extra level of Congress-mandated protection.

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The Forest Service has recommended an additional 4 million acres to Congress for classification in the NWPS. Not all of them may be approved but, even so, as more areas gain this extra level of protection, money for wilderness management doesn't always follow. The National Park Service, for example, has more wilderness acres than any of the other agencies (44 million), yet the NPS receives less than $500,000 in total federal money for them each year, according to an agency spokesperson.

Natural isolation
To highlight some of America's best wilderness areas, we generated a list based on two criteria: The wilderness areas had to be either among the most sizeable, acreage-wise, in their given region, or they had to offer something truly unique unto themselves.

"When we look at the characteristics of a given place under consideration as a wilderness area, we're looking for outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, and also special features specific to that landscape," explains Terry Knupp, wilderness program leader for the National Forest System.

Call of the wild: Best adventure trips

In all Wilderness areas, self-powered transport is the name of the game, but it needn’t all be on foot. The Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, in southern Alaska, and the aforementioned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in Superior National Forest, on the Minnesota-Canada border, both offer hardcore paddlers with ample opportunities for deep exploration (one can take a motorboat or seaplane into Misty Fjords, then continue the journey on foot once on land). Between the two, groups of kayakers and canoeists will find that Superior's network of portages and camps easily supports a mellow, more leisurely tour.

The serious trekker, climber and back-country campers seeking that special landscape of solitude should look to three of the greatest Wilderness areas in the Lower 48, named for major players in America's conservation history: the Bob Marshall (Montana), John Muir (California) and Frank Church (Idaho) Wilderness areas. Within these areas are some of the most grand, unchanged and classic Western landscapes. Plateaus, high rocky crags and endless river valleys are the norm. If there's any one drawback, it's the immense size of each area — it would take weeks if not months to explore just one of these places.

Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana
Heath Korvola  /  Getty Images
A combination of a few wildernesses, the Bob Marshall Complex is about 800 square miles larger than Rhode Island. You can hike its 60-mile length over 1,000 miles of trails skirting the Continental Divide. If you're ever going to see a grizzly bear in his unfenced backyard, it's here, in one of the country's most intact mountain systems with its original ecological continuity, from peak to valley.
But even a "smaller" Wilderness, such as the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness in White Mountain National Forest, in New Hampshire, can present more remote forest than most people could backpack in a week. Some of the major Western Wilderness areas, such as California's John Muir, will experience a good deal of human activity at trail heads and lower elevations in good weather. But the opportunity to get away extends for many miles.

Walk on the wild side
Along with it comes the chance to see animals one doesn't come across in everyday life. The Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia serves as a sanctuary for black bears. While there is no official refuge in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, an abundance of wildlife, including moose and black bear, are often seen by human visitors. The Cohutta Wilderness, in the Chattahoochie-Ocone National Forest in northern Georgia, offers some of the best trout fishing to be found that far south. (Hunting and fishing both are generally permitted in wilderness areas across the U.S.)

The key to enjoying these places? Good gear — especially boots. You're not going to get very close with a car or truck — maybe as far as a trailhead. But if you've got the willingness to put some distance between yourself and the parking lot, you're on your way.

© 2012

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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