Six of the Most Epic Untamed Wildernesses

The beau­ty of pris­tine wilder­ness is its own reward and is only increased by the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing you worked hard to get there. Whether by hike or climb, these large­ly unspoiled places are acces­si­ble only to those will­ing to take the path less traveled.

The Cirque of the Unclimbables, CanadaThe Cirque of the Unclimbables, Canada
The name alone beck­ons, and the des­ti­na­tion does not dis­ap­point. The breath­tak­ing, majes­tic Cirque of the Unclimbables, locat­ed in the Ragged Range of the Nahan­ni Nation­al Park Pre­serve, is a world-class climb­ing destination—the one ring of per­fect gran­ite to rule them all. From the famed Lotus Flower Tow­er to the Fairy Mead­ow with its house-like boul­ders, the Cirque has some­thing to tan­ta­lize every type of climber, although it offers these temp­ta­tions to only a few will­ing to make the jour­ney. To become one of the two dozen vis­i­tors to the Cirque per year, aspir­ing alpin­ists must char­ter a float­plane to near­by Glac­i­er Lake, then spend a gru­el­ing sev­en to ten hours switch­back­ing up an unfor­giv­ing talus slope below Mount Har­ri­son-Smith, huck­ing an expedition’s worth of gear.

Gates of the Arctic, Alaska, USAGates of the Arc­tic, Alas­ka, USA
Alaska’s ulti­mate wilder­ness, the Gates of the Arc­tic Nation­al Park, fea­tures 8.4 mil­lion acres of com­plete­ly stun­ning nat­ur­al beau­ty. No roads or even trails tra­verse this tru­ly wild land­scape, leav­ing vis­i­tors pre­pared for the trip of a life­time to make their own way through chal­leng­ing arc­tic ter­rain. Air taxis and float­planes may car­ry vis­i­tors in, but once land­ed, all over­land trav­el must be done by foot or, in the right con­di­tions, dog sled. And the right con­di­tions are few and far between: winter’s below-zero tem­per­a­tures dom­i­nate from Novem­ber through March, and the six rivers that cross the park only begin los­ing their ice in mid-June to make way for kayak­ers and oth­er riv­er run­ners. Hik­ers seek­ing an unpar­al­leled expe­ri­ence in nat­ur­al soli­tude would feel at home in than this ultra-remote land at the top of the world.

©istockphoto/Lynn_BystromYel­low­stone Nation­al Park, Wyoming, USA
Although Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park is itself one of the most pop­u­lar nation­al parks, right up there with Yosemite and Glac­i­er, it’s also home to the most remote place in the con­tigu­ous Unit­ed States. Twen­ty miles as the crow flies from the near­est road, eighty miles deep into the heart of griz­zly ter­ri­to­ry, lies a pock­et of wilder­ness acces­si­ble only by extra­or­di­nar­i­ly ded­i­cat­ed hik­ers and horse­back rid­ers: a land of sky and for­est, birds and pine martens and insects and, some­where in the dis­tance, wolf­song. The clos­est help—the Tho­ro­fare Ranger station—sees few­er than one hun­dred vis­i­tors each year.

Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaSimien Nation­al Park, Ethiopia
This UNESCO World Her­itage Site is some­times called “the roof of Africa,” an appro­pri­ate­ly poet­ic title for the mas­sive mas­sif of the Simien Moun­tains that tow­ers some 4500m over North­ern Ethiopia. The crown­ing peak, Ras Dejen, sits a cool 4550m above sea lev­el, sur­round­ed by a spec­tac­u­lar land­scape of toothy peaks, deep, mist-strewn val­leys, primeval forests, and unfor­giv­ing precipices that are home to a num­ber of rare and endan­gered plants and ani­mals, includ­ing the Walia ibex (found in no oth­er part of the world), the Simien fox, and the Gela­da baboon. And though human set­tle­ment in the area means grav­el roads wind their way through the land­scape, the wildest encoun­ters are reserved for trekkers will­ing to mud­dy their boots and spend a few days on the trail.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, VietnamPhong Nha-Kẻ Bàng Nation­al Park, Vietnam
An unspoiled trop­i­cal jun­gle rid­dled with under­ground rivers, grot­toes, and some of the world’s most awe-inspir­ing cave sys­tems, Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng Nation­al Park is grow­ing as a tourist des­ti­na­tion for good rea­son. It is home to a num­ber of nat­ur­al attrac­tions acces­si­ble only by foot or by boat, includ­ing the now-famous Hang Sơn Đoòng, con­firmed to be the world’s largest cave sys­tem in 2009. Seri­ous spe­lunk­ers on a guid­ed, per­mit­ted tour may spend as many as three days trekking through the dense jun­gle just to reach the cave’s entrance and then must rap­pel down a fur­ther 260 feet to reach the cave’s floor. The rewards are well worth all the effort, though, as fur­ther explo­ration into Hang Sơn Đoòng reveals rush­ing rivers, still lakes, and remark­able rainforests—made pos­si­ble by huge col­lapsed por­tions of the ceil­ing through which sun­light pours like water—opportunities only offered to some five hun­dred vis­i­tors each year.

Kakadu National Park
Kakadu Nation­al Park, Australia
Kakadu Nation­al Park is Australia’s largest ter­res­tri­al park, span­ning near­ly 20,000 square kilo­me­ters of coast and estu­ar­ies to the north through bill­abongs and low­lands to the rocky ridges and stone coun­try of the south. It’s dot­ted with rugged escarp­ments, lush rain­forests, and rock art gal­leries that date back some 50,000 years. Due to its size, over­land trav­el often means four-wheel dri­ve vehi­cles, although depend­ing on the sea­son, you may also be in for a canoe trip along flood­ed plains. Walk­ing trails of vary­ing dif­fi­cul­ties abound, offer­ing view­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for every­thing from tow­er­ing sand­stone pil­lars to roar­ing water­falls, riotous­ly col­or­ful birdlife to hid­den gorges and sparkling waterholes.