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, 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, 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.
Yellowstone 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 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, 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, 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.