Wildest Places in North America and the Wilderness Act of 1964

What does wilderness mean? In 1964, the United States Congress passed a law known as the Wilderness Act, which created a National Wilderness Preservation System to provide an “enduring resource of wilderness” and protect America’s Wildest Places for future generations.

Wilderness, according to the Wilderness Act is….

…in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

So…. Let’s take a look at the Top 10!

10Sequoia National Park Wildest Places in North America

Established on September 25th, 1890, the Sequoia National Park is the land of giants. Home to the enormous Sequoia Tree after which the park is named, you can actually find the world’s largest living tree, General Sherman, within the confines of this reserve.

This national park is located in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range close to the Western edge of the USA and straddling the centre of California. The park covers 631 square miles and it makes our list because it can accurately be described as a perfect preservation of the landscape as it was before the ‘oops there goes the environment’  European settlement.

The park is dominated by the beautiful Sequoia trees and other coniferous species, interspersed with lush meadows, open forest, lakes and just a smidgeon of granite rock. Visitors may be lucky enough to see coyote, black bear, woodpeckers, turtles, snakes, wolverine, beavers or muskrats, not to mention the bighorn sheep and yellow legged frog, both of which are the focus of ongoing conservation efforts.

For more info and to visit check out Visit Sequoia

9The Wrangells Wildest Places in North Americaest Places in North America

For utter isolation you can’t beat Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve; located in south central Alaska and dominated by a landscape of soaring peaks and majestically desolate glaciers, this national park really puts the BIG in ‘Alaska… is big’.

And that shouldn’t be surprising; at 9,078, 657 acres this national park forms the largest single national park in the United States of America. Just to put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to six times the size of Yellowstone, which is why this particular area of outstanding natural wilderness makes our Top 10.

But this wilderness isn’t unique just by its sheer size and scale; its also utterly isolated. The Wrangells, as the area is known, includes four major mountain ranges in the USA, which themselves include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the entire country. The mountains, which are volcanic in origin, though dormant now (the last major eruption occurred in 1900) are only matched in their desolate beauty by the gargantuan glaciers that snare their way through this desolately beautiful landscape. America’s largest sub-polar ice-field, Bagley Ice-field, sits near the coast spawning the glaciers of the Tana, Miles, Hubbard, and Guyot.

And what kind of wildlife can you spy here? Well that depends on the time of year. During spring the snow melt allows vegetation to sprout high up the mountain sides. This draws wildlife out of the valleys and up the mountains.

Moose, black and grizzly bears, mountain goats, caribou and bison can all be found within the confines of the park. Smaller mammals include snowshoe hares, arctic ground squirrels, beaver, porcupine, trumpeter swans, and foxes. Bird species are hugely varied, with major migratory routes straddling the park, and include nesting geese, trumpeter swans, ducks and other waterfowl. Longtime residents of the park include ptarmigan, grouse, ravens and a variety of owls and raptors such as golden and bald eagles.

For more information check out the the Wrangell – St Elias National Parks site.

8Joshua Tree Wildest Places in North America

Joshua Tree is an area of natural wilderness like no other because in this area two deserts collide; the higher elevated Mojave Desert meets the lower elevated Colorado Desert.

The Mojave desert is home to the Joshua Tree, after which this national park is named and which dominate this landscape. Further in into the rockier interiors are piñon pine, California juniper (Juniperus californica), Quercus turbinella (desert scrub oak), Quercus john-tuckeri (Tucker’s oak), and Quercus cornelius-mulleri (Muller’s oak).

But these delicate dry ecosystems are under threat as climate change brings wetter seasons and new invasive plant species that are not originally natives to the parl.

The Colorado Desert, which is land lower than 3,000 feet and on the Eastern side of the park is a habitate for creosote bushes, the spidery ocotillo, and the “jumping” cholla cactus.

Oasis water springs provide smaller ecosystems through-out the park and are home to California’s only native palm tree species.

You’ll also notice that because Joshua Tree is a desert wilderness the animals you might see here have adapted to cope with the extremes of heat and cold. This means you are more likely to see birds, lizards and ground squirrels during the day, whilst the animals that you might see at night include snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and black-tailed jackrabbits.

For more info and to plan your visit the US National Parks Joshua Tree site.

7Rocky Mountain National Park Wildest Places in North America

Written into popular culture and immortalised in classic films such as Cliffhanger, The Shining and…wait for it… Dumb and Dumber, the Rockies is a mountain range nestled in the very heart of the USA. This wilderness is an area covering a section of the Rockies Mountain range, also known as the backbone of North America. And the Rocky Mountain National Park has an international reputation as a world leader in wilderness protection, management and training.

So why is this national park so special? Well it is an officially designated wilderness which means that under the National Wilderness Preservation System areas designated as such must be managed in a way that seeks to preserve them in their natural condition as closely as possible.

And the reason for this designation? The geography of the Rocky Mountain National Park is so diverse that it is actually categorised into five different and distinct regions, which is why it makes our Top 10.

Those regions, each containing species adapted to their particular, unique characteristics are:

  1. Region one: Moose and big meadows
  2. Region two: Alpine region
  3. Region three: Wilderness
  4. Region four: Heart of the park
  5. Region five: Waterfalls and back-country

And, as we could expect to imagine, such a varied landscape of natural habitats provides homes to a huge range of diverse species all year round.

Although Gray Wolves and Grizzly bears were eliminated from the US portion of the Rocky Mountain range, they are slowly and carefully being reintroduced. Other species range from large mammals such as bison, to a huge number of species of smaller mammals, aquatic invertebrates fish and birds that make of the Ecology of the Rocky Mountains.

6Yellowstone Wildest Places in North America

Yellowstone National Park deserves a special mention within this list because it acts as a fascinating microcosm; a world within a world that marches to the beat of its own drum.

Established as the first National Park in the USA, and widely believed to be the first National Park in the world, Yellowstone is a very special place indeed.

Not only its it an area of outstanding natural beauty but it is also an area with its own weather systems, climate and environment. This is because of its elevated bowl like geography, unique characteristics a very different wilderness has been created because of a symbiosis between weather, ecosystems, landscape and wildlife.

So let’s start with the landscape and why this area of so different to other areas of wilderness.

Yellowstone is very high: most of the park consists of broad volcanic plateaus with an average elevation of 2,400 metres.  The volcanic activity beneath the surface of the park draws large numbers of tourists each year and Yellowstone has a whopping number of geysers, unbelievably up to half of the world’s total.  It sits within a horseshoe shaped valley surrounded by three mountain ranges, which means the winters in Yellowstone are spectacularly ferocious.

Animals and entire ecosystems have adapted to this unique environment accordingly.

One of the park’s apex predators, the wolf, was hunted to extinction in Yellowstone with the last Wolf in Yellowstone being killed in 1926; a lonely end to a species’s existence there for millions of years.

Wildest Places in North AmericaHowever, the wolf has in recent decades been reintroduced, with the first introductions occurring in 1995. The carefully managed reintroduction has proved a massively successful endeavour, with scientists discovery links to the wider ecosystem that no won could have ever thought possible and providing the world with a case study on the direct impacts that apex predators can have on ecosystem, providing scientists with a massive opportunity to study the direct impacts of species reintroduction.

So what have been the broad findings? Well there has been an avalanche of change that has occured in the short time since wolves were reintroduced.  

The presence of the wolves has had a direct impact on the behaviour of the Yellowstone Elk. For decades these large grazing mammals grazed on willow by the riversides of Yellowstone, reducing their growth. This overgrazing meant that willow, a primary source of food and building materials for beaver populations, was not available in the quantities that beavers needed to create their habitats.

Now that Elk are threatened by the reintroduced wolves, they no longer overgraze the willow and willow, and beaver, populations have rebounded.  The avalanche of change that has followed has also been a direct result of increased beaver activity. New dams and ponds are created all across Yellowstone, changing both the hydrology of the landscape and the course and movement of water through it.

New ecosystems have been created as a result of the increased beaver activity resulting in new habitats for fish, newts, frogs, insects and the birds that hunt them. The increased willow growth also helps nesting bird populations recover.

Beyond even the physical changes that the landscape architect beavers create there are other impacts. Animals, such as ravens, raptors and grizzlies, that traditionally scavenge in the harsher winter months, also find that there is an abundance of carrion left over from wolf hunts. And so in the interconnected web of life scientists and researchers are discovering, year by year, new and unexpected changes taking place as result of the reintroduction of the wolf to its native Yellowstone home.

This makes Yellowstone an absolute must for anyone seeking to visit one of America’s great wildernesses.

5The Yukon Wildest Places in North America

Ok, so if you want to go somewhere remote, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere more remote than the Yukon; its probably in the top three most remote places on this list and thats because its way up in the top left, North West corner of Canada.

The Yukon is a vast mountainous region that is home to Canada’s highest mountain (and the second highest across the whole of North America). At 5,959 metres Mount Logan is pretty huge!

This age old landscape is characterised by soaring peaks and deep valleys and the mighty Yukon river, which gives the region its name, as it threads its way through the heart of this wild country.

Granted the Yukon is a difficult place to get to and travel around, but this reflects its isolation from its neighbours to the south, and the rewards are there for those who visit.

Much of this vast territory will be way out of our cell phone reach. Peace, solitude, surrealism, wilderness and desolation only hint at the kind of wilderness this wild, untamed region will provide.

The Yukon is a rare place in the USA where traditional lifestyles coexist alongside nature and hunting is done for survival and not sport.

You can get a glimpse of this kind of the kind of outdoor experience over at Outside Online but please be warned there are images of butchery that you may not find pleasant.

4Southern Appalachian Mountains Wildest Places in North America

The Southern Appalachian Mountains can be found in several states across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States of America. At the centre you can find the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which takes the title as the most visited National Park in the US… and for this reasons makes our Top 10.

So just why are the Southern Appalachian Mountains one of the most visited wildernesses in North America? Well they are within a days drive of over a third of the entire population of the United States. And the Great Smoky’s deserves special mention because, as one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, it has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a programme established in 1971 by UNESCO, which aims to explore a scientific remit for improving the relationship between people and the natural environments it covers.

The park is also designated a World Heritage Site classifying it as a site of unique natural importance.

The Appalachian’s has a long history of Native American’s arriving in the region as much as 16,000 years ago with the European Settlers arriving in the 18th Century.

And although logging has decimated whole areas of this region, unbelievably it still remains one of the largest and more diverse areas of old growth forest in the Eastern United States, consisting of three types of forest: cove and northern hardwood and spruce.

The diversity of tree species has resulted in an extremely diverse bird population, including predatory birds such as bald and golden eagles. The bobcat is the region’s main predatory cat, through sighting of cougar have been reported. And the Smokies are also the home of one of the World’s most diverse salamander population, with five out of the world’s nine populations of salamander inhabiting the region (and four of these species being unique to the Appalachians).

There are serious threats to the Smokies. The proximity of this natural wilderness to a hugely urbanised part of the States mean that smog and air pollution affect the quality of the environment. The UNESCO designations highlight the regions importance as a unique home to a variety of flora and fauna, which is why this park makes our Top 10 and which is why we should also seek to protect it at all costs.

3Banff National Park Wildest Places in North America

We’ve already covered the largest park in the North America, but what about the oldest? Designated a National Park in 1885, Banff National Park is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most scenic.

Characterised by peaks, mountains and waterfalls, Banff also happens to contain the Rockies largest glacial mass in the Rockies, the Columbian Ice-field. Banff has a subarctic climate with cold, snowy winters and mild summers. The park spans three ecoregion, montane, subalpine and alpine and contains 56 recorded mammal species, including grizzly and black bear and hundreds more bird species.

Human impact in the region has been damaging to local wildlife, however strategies are being developed to mitigate this. For instance wildlife crossings have been implemented across highways in Banff to allow Wildlife to cross unimpeded. This has reduced fatality in species of large mammels by up to 80% in the areas where they have been constructed.

The introductions of non-native species, such as Elk, and various species of fish (mainly trout) has also caused imbalance to the local ecosystems. Further conservation work is needed to address these imbalances.

Owing to its spectacular scenery Banff is also subjected to a number of development proposals and controversial development plans for a variety of tourist focussed resorts have been ongoing since the 1990s.

2Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland Wildest Places in North America

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gros Morne is spectacular for reasons that cannot be found in any of the other wilderness locations on this list.

Way up in the North East of North America; it has a surprisingly unique geology and is one of the few places in the world where you can see a visual example of continental drift; where deep ocean crust and the earth’s mantle have been pushed up to the surface and lie exposed.

Here you can see the very lifeblood of the earth, in action. Though it’s pretty slow and you might have to wait a long time to see it move.

This creates, in the park, a spectacular range of scenic trails making it the perfect location for geologist fans to explore the hidden wonders of the world beneath our feet

1Great Bear Rainforest Wildest Places in North America

And finally to round off the Top 10: No list of North America’s great wildernesses would be complete without including the Great Bear Rainforest.

And the reason why? Because this is a treasure that is not only unique in America, but special within the entire world. The region was described by JF Kennedy as:

The planet’s last large expanse of coastal temperate rain forest.

And yet amazingly, permanent protection was only announced by the Government of British Colombia in Feb 2016, with the forest being added to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy in September of the same year, freeing it from logging and protecting the area forever.

JFK was right, it is part of the largest coastal, temperate rainforest in the world. And what does temperate rainforest mean exactly? Well definitions vary from country to country or region to region, but similar characteristics that they share include extreme precipitation (a lot of rain) and up to two thirds and more of the sky being covered by tree canopy.

Temperate rainforests occur in moist oceanic, coastal areas around the world and ecologically speaking, can be some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and this particular 21 million square acre rainforest if sometimes referred to as the Amazon of the North. Only that would be a inaccurate comparison because this temperate rainforest has a wider range of species.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to a number of species, including, not surprisingly a variety of bears. The unique sub-species, the Kermode, or Spirit, bear is a rare white sub-species of the black bear and considered sacred by local indigenous communities.

Gray wolves, grizzly bears, Sitka deer, cougars, mountain goats, orca, salmon, sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales are the other longtime residents of the region and they have lived here for millions of years.

In this unique ecosystem where the sea, meets the land the huge, ancient, 1000 year old cedar trees provide a visual clue to the interconnectedness of the web of life. Part of the reason why the forest here are so rich in flora and fauna is down to the yearly salmon run. The countless numbers of bears who have, over a millenia, gotten fat off the salmon run, have in turn dispersed their nutrients over the region. Turns out that bear poo makes great tree food!

The long campaign for protection of this wilderness, beginning in the 1990s, will ensure that they remain protected.

Which brings us to the end of our Top 10 North American Wildernesses. This is just a small snapshot of the wildernesses we need to protect.

If you’ve explored any of the great wildernesses on this list, or rate any that aren’t, let us know your favourite wilderness and why….