Best Hikes in Federal Wilderness Areas

November 1, 2008

In 1964, the U.S. Congress permanently protected some of the last wild places in America, as well as lands once tamed by human industry. The Wilderness Act established a National Wilderness Preservation System that now includes 704 areas in the U.S. The lands, unmarred by roads and left largely to nature’s whims, are places to reconnect with our more primitive selves. The following hikes traverse sections of wilderness and lead into the very heart of our natural surroundings.

Caribou-Speckled Wilderness
Evans Notch, Maine
The Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness is a 12,000-acre parcel of glacial-carved notches and forest-draped peaks. Follow the Bickford Brook and Blueberry Ledge trails to climb 2,906-foot Speckled Mountain. The route ends on an open-ledged summit with impressive views of the White Mountains. Worcester Chapter Hiking Chair Pat Lambert describes her hike here as one with “no ‘white noise,’ just nature speaking to us as we soaked in the view and marveled at the wonders of the natural world.”

Distance: 8.6-mile loop
Info: Maine Mountain Guide, 8th ed. (AMC Books); AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England (AMC Books)

Wild River Wilderness
Bean’s Purchase, N.H.
Worcester Chapter member Tom Zumwalt calls the 2-mile hike up the Basin Trail a “$10 view for a $2 climb.” Beginning at the Wild River Campground (located on a dirt road 5 miles from Route 113), the trail follows the scenic Blue Brook before reaching a junction with the Basin Rim Trail and a cliff-top overlook of the Basin, a steep, dramatic half-moon ravine. The trail is located in the 23,700-acre Wild River Wilderness, an area once razed by logging operations that is now verdant forest.

Distance: 4.4 miles round trip
Info: White Mountain Guide Online; White Mountain Guide, 28th ed. (AMC Books)

Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness
Pinkham Notch, N.H.
Standing at 4,003 feet, Mount Isolation is one of the Whites’ more remote peaks. Ruth Jamke, the New Hampshire Chapter’s past chair, recommends taking Glen Boulder Trail to Davis Path. Most of the elevation gain (3,681 feet) occurs on Glen Boulder, where, once above treeline, views of ravines, gullies, and peaks abound. The Davis Path leads to a spur trail up Isolation’s open summit. Jamke says the hike is long but not hard and “the views from the summit are 360 degrees and unbeatable.”

Distance: 12 miles round trip
White Mountain Guide Online; White Mountain Guide, 28th ed. (AMC Books)

Lye Brook Wilderness
Manchester, Vt.
Best done as a two-day backpack, this loop hike uses the Lye Brook, Branch Pond, and Long trails to penetrate the 18,000-acre Lye Brook Wilderness in the Green Mountains. Situated on a high plateau dotted with bogs and ponds, the trail network affords opportunities for bog hopping beneath canopies of red maple and yellow birch trees. The loop’s start, on Lye Brook Trail, is punctuated by 100-foot Lye Brook Falls. Near the terminus—on the Long Trail—Prospect Rock provides fine views of the Taconic Range.

Distance: 15.3-mile loop
Info: White Mountain Guide (AMC Books); The Long Trail Guide (Green Mountain Club)

Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness
Fire Island, N.Y.
In the true spirit of wilderness, visitors to Fire Island can choose their own paths through the undisturbed high dunes and scrub pine. The dunes rise like miniature sand mountains patchworked by seaside plants. Further inland, the scenery shifts to marshlands and pine groves, where an abandoned road runs the entire 7-mile length of the wilderness. Backcountrycamping is permissible, and late fall canbe the best time to visit. Ubiquitous populations of mosquitoes, ticks, and poison ivy plants have usually subsided.

Distance: 14 miles round trip
Info: The National Park Service

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Morris County, N.J.
Nearly turned into a jetport in 1959, the Great Swamp, and the 222 species of migratory birds that stop over there, was protected through grassroots efforts. Now, nearly half of the refuge’s 7,500 acres are designated wilderness. The swamp is an array of overlapping ecosystems: Red maple swamps lead to cattail-laced ponds and marshes that edge woodlands of hickory, beech, and oak. Trails leading from the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center traverse areas where mink, otter, and fox reside, as well as rare bog turtles and the endangered blue-spotted salamander.

Distance: 1.5 to 3 miles, depending on route
Info: Nature Walks in New Jersey, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hickory Creek Wilderness
Warren, Pa.
The only footpath in the area, the Hickory Creek Trail is an easy to moderate loop through the heart of the wilderness, gaining only 100 to 200 feet in elevation. Maintained to preserve the land’s wild character, the trail may be difficult to follow, as yellow blazes have been left to fade away and most trail obstructions remain untouched. This primitive tramp past creeks with native brook trout and into wildlands of black cherry, oak, and beech can be done as a long day hike or two-day backpacking trip.

11.1-mile loop
Info: Allegheny National Forest

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