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.