We were standing in the raw, wind-whipped, wave-slapped wilds of Monomoy. The water was sparkling clear, dotted with thousands of acres of sandbars and channel banks. Seals slipped off jagged ledges as seabirds flew overhead. It was just after daybreak and the pristine watery wilderness was stunningly beautiful. This barrier beach-island complex is one of only 17 designated wilderness areas in New England, protected under the national Wilderness Act.
This year, the Wilderness Act, designed to protect the nation’s most natural and untouched landscapes, celebrates its 50th anniversary. When the act was passed in 1964 in a nearly unanimous vote by Congress, 54 areas covering 9.1 million acres in 13 states were designated as wilderness and parts of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today, there are 758 areas, covering 109,511,038 acres, in 44 states and Puerto Rico. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only about 5 percent of the United States, and Alaska has more than half of it. (Connecticut and Rhode Island have none.) Call us biased, but we think the rest of New England has some of the best. Here are six of our favorites.
BIG BRANCH WILDERNESS, Vermont
Stand on the rocky, open ledges at the top of Baker Peak and you’ll have some of the finest views in the East, including sweeping vistas of the Otter Creek Valley, Dorset Mountain, and the Taconic Mountain Range. In fall, it’s particularly stunning, when the forests of hardwoods are ablaze. Baker Peak is one of the highlights of the Big Branch Wilderness, located in the Green Mountain National Forest, in southern Vermont. The designated wilderness is a 6,725-acre chunk of dense forest, deep valleys, and rolling peaks, sliced with trout-filled streams and dotted by lakes and swampy ponds. Turkeys, moose, beavers, and black bear love it here. So will you. There are several hiking trails in the wilderness, including approximately 5 miles of the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail. Don’t miss the Baker Peak Trail or the Lake Trail leading to Griffith Lake, a popular spot for swimming and camping. “There is also a magnificent suspension bridge over the river just south of the Big Branch Shelter,” says Matt Kreps, with the Green Mountain Club. The cool river pools under the bridge are great swimming holes, and the perfect destination on a hot, summer day.
LYE BROOK WILDERNESS, Vermont
“This place is so cool,” says Jennifer Lamphere Roberts, author of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont.’’ “Once you get onto the high plateau, you can explore all day across a rolling landscape of ponds, bogs, meadows, and woods. You can camp on the edge of a pond, swim in clear waters, and feel like you have the whole corner of Vermont to yourself.”
The 18,122-acre wilderness near Manchester is densely wooded and includes about four and a half miles of the Appalachian and Long trails. One of the highlights is a hike to Lye Brook Falls, a steep waterfall that tumbles down the mountain slopes in a hurry. Each season brings something special to this preserved oasis. In spring, “the short bloom of ephemeral wildflowers and the long views through the leafless forest are well worth the wet feet,” says Roberts. In summer, you can jump in ponds and streams. Cross-country skiing is popular in winter, and in fall, the forest is a riot of color. Best way to explore the area? “Take your tent and head to Bourn Pond for a few days,” suggests Roberts. “From a base camp on those beautiful shores, you can take a day pack and explore the wider area.”
PEMIGEWASSET WILDERNESS, New Hampshire
The “Pemi,” a 46,018-acre swath of wilderness flanked by the Franconia and Twin Mountain ranges, is the largest in New Hampshire. It was once an active logging site and nearly clear cut; today the vast, road-less area is characterized by dense forests marked with waterfalls, mountain ponds, and craggy peaks. “It is a wonderful story of the possibility of revival and redemption for a wild and beautiful place,” says Sally Manikian, AMC’s backcountry resource conservation manager.
The popular, nearly flat Lincoln Woods Trail, off the Kancamagus Highway, crosses the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, leading to a set of pretty waterfalls. Turn east to enter the Wilderness and follow the Wilderness Trail, upstream along the East Branch. There are several connecting trails leading to fine vistas and idyllic swimming holes (check out the pools around 13 Falls Tentsite). If you have the stamina, consider the scramble up to the open ledges of Bondcliff for lofty, wild, 360-degree views.
GREAT GULF WILDERNESS, New Hampshire
“Nowhere else in New England can you stare upward at more elevation gain,” Matt Heid, author of the AMC’s “Best Backpacking in New England,” says of the Great Gulf Wilderness. “More than 3,500 feet of steep and radical topography soar skyward from the bottom of the Great Gulf to the summits of the Presidential Mountain Range. The trails that climb the sheer mountain flanks out of the Great Gulf offer some of the wildest, most radical and most rewarding hiking in New England.”
The 5,658-acre wilderness covers the slopes of Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Madison and the lush Great Gulf, the largest cirque in the White Mountains. Heid suggests hiking the Great Gulf Trail to Spaulding Lake (6.5 miles one way) at the head of the gulf. “Nestled in an amphitheater of soaring mountain peaks, it offers perhaps the best view and deepest wilderness experience in the Great Gulf.” For a less strenuous adventure, hike the Great Gulf Trail 2.6 miles one way, pass pretty Boulder Falls, to The Bluff, a backcountry campsite with excellent views.
CARIBOU-SPECKLED MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS, Maine
Getting to this 11,233-acre protected region in western Maine, the largest designated wilderness in the state, is half the joy. Route 113 provides access to the trails that crisscross the forests and up the area’s namesake peaks: Caribou and Speckled mountains.
One of the more popular hikes is a trek on the Caribou Trail. The route follows Morrison Brook for much of the way, zigzagging across the river in several spots, with plenty of opportunity to splash around in the cool running waters. You’ll pass several cascades before reaching beautiful Kees Falls, a frothy torrent of water spilling into a narrow, moss-lined gorge. “I hiked this trail with my four sons when they were 6 to 12 years old,” says Robin Zinchuk, a member of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce and avid hiker. “They were constantly drawn to the water of the brooks and falls. They all were soaked, but they had so much fun!” Continue on the trail to Mud Brook Trail and then to the summit of Caribou Mountain, where you’ll have a panoramic view of dense forest and mountain peaks. “It’s wilderness for as far as the eye can see,” says Zinchuk.
MONOMOY WILDERNESS, Massachusetts
This ever-shifting barrier beach landscape includes 3,244 acres, encompassing most of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off the elbow of Cape Cod. It’s well-known among birders as a premier wildlife observation site, providing important habitat to a variety of threatened and rare species, including 12 percent of Massachusetts’ piping plover population, one of the largest common tern nesting colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, the largest laughing gull nesting colony in Massachusetts, and gray and harbor seals.
Stop in first at the Visitors Center on Morris Island to view exhibits and get information about the area, where you can also walk a self-guided interpretive trail. The Monomoy Island Ferry offers seal watching boat trips and naturalist-guided walking tours on South Monomoy Island, which includes a visit to the historic Monomoy Point Lighthouse.
For more information on Wilderness Areas in New England and across the United States, visit www.wilderness.net.