7 Wild and Beautiful Places That Should Be National Parks

In February, President Obama designated Colorado’s Browns Canyon a national monument, granting the pristine stretch of rock-walled whitewater the protected status long demanded by rafters, anglers, and environmentalists. Just a month before, Nevada’s Tule Springs Fossil Beds, a twisted moonscape strewn with Pleistocene-era relics, including mammoth tusks, gained long-sought monument status.

So, Why Should You Care?

These are just two in a long list of wilderness areas urgently in need of the resources that come with national park or monument status in the United States. Most are in the West, which makes sense given that Western and Plains states have the largest swaths of undeveloped land. But wilderness enthusiasts prioritize some places because they’re in densely populated regions of the Northeast and Midwest, where people have fewer unspoiled retreats. Here are seven spectacular natural wonders we’d like to see forever protected.

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Green River Lakes and Squaretop Mountain, Wind River Range, Wyoming (credit: G. Thomas/Wikipedia)

Wind River Range, Wyoming

Top on most national park system watchers’ lists is the Wind River Range, home to many of the Northern Rocky Mountains’ tallest peaks — 40 of them top 13,000 feet. Like Glacier National Park to the north, the Wind River Range provides a refuge for grizzlies and the country’s largest remaining herd of bighorn sheep, which roams the Whiskey Mountain area.

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There are dozens of glaciers here too, albeit shrinking, as are glaciers everywhere. Most of these are in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness surrounding Gannett Peak, at 13,804 feet the highest in Wyoming (yes, higher than the Grand Tetons.) The range, which runs roughly 100 miles north to south and includes the headwaters of the Green River, is mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service, much of it as part of the Wind River Ranger District.

Boundary Waters, Minnesota

Laced by rivers, streams, and more than 1,000 lakes strung along northern Minnesota’s border with Canada, Boundary Waters is a primitive paradise for boaters, fishers, and anyone looking to get about as far away from it all as you can get. Officially designated as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, it encompasses more than a million rugged and densely forested acres in Superior National Forest.

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This isn’t an easy area to navigate; it has more than 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes, 12 major trails, and 2,000 campsites. Guides and outfitters provide maps and equipment and trip planning, or you can plan your own with the help of the area’s supportive community.

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Mesas, buttes, and canyons in the east-central area of the San Rafael Swell, Emery County, Utah. (image: Tom Chidsey/Utah Geological Survey)

San Rafael Swell, Utah

Chances are, you’re familiar with the otherworldly landscape of southern Utah’s San Rafael Swell thanks to the viral fame of Goblin Valley. The region’s surreal rock towers, known as hoodoos, were immortalized on video when vandals (former Boy Scout Leaders, no less) toppled one of the formations, filming themselves gleefully as they did so.

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Rock art is another draw: Barrier Canyon is home to images that experts believe may date to as early as 7430 B.C. The 80-by-30-mile San Rafael Swell is also beloved by geologists for its exposed stripes of 60-million-year-old strata, many with names you might recognize from a trip to the Grand Canyon, such as the Moenkopi and Chinle Formations, Coconino Sandstone, Kaibab Limestone, Kayenta, and Navajo Sandstones.

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The Sawtooth Range is part of the Rocky Mountains, encompassing an area of 678 square miles. (image: U.S. Forest Service)

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

You might be forgiven for thinking the Sawtooth Mountains were already a national park, thanks to Idaho Sen. Frank Church’s public campaign in the 1960s to permanently protect the range. Protection didn’t happen, though, and while the flamboyantly beautiful 756,000-acre tract has come up for consideration many times since, it remains a recreation area. What’s the difference? There are many, but a big one is that hunting, while allowed in many recreation areas, is prohibited in national parks. The Sawtooth Society campaigns actively for stronger preservation and particularly for the designation of Boulder White Clouds as a protected wilderness area.

Backpackers, climbers, mountain bikers, and fly fishers love the Sawtooth Mountains for their sheer emptiness. The area’s 300 lakes are a big draw, as are the many 10,000-foot-plus peaks, and rafters prize the Wild and Scenic Salmon River. In winter, the area is a favorite with backcountry skiers and skate skiers. The region is also a hotbed of wolf conservation efforts.

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Allagash Wilderness Waterway State Park is completely surrounded by the North Maine Woods (image: National Park Service)

North Woods, Maine

Backpackers, climbers, mountain bikers, and fly fishers love the Sawtooth Mountains for their sheer emptiness. The area’s 300 lakes are a big draw, as are the many 10,000-foot-plus peaks, and rafters prize the Wild and Scenic Salmon River. In winter, the area is a favorite with backcountry skiers and skate skiers. The region is also a hotbed of wolf conservation efforts.

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This is another area prominent on many park watchers’ radar, thanks largely to its location in New England, an area lacking in protected wilderness. Park advocates have not one but two websites, which note the area’s key role in habitat protection for the endangered Eastern timber wolf and Canada lynx, as well as moose, Atlantic salmon, and many songbirds.  

Long a favorite of canoeists, kayakers, and fall color road-trippers, the 3.2 million-acre proposed park encompasses hardwood forests threatened by logging and development.

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Sandhills in Hooker County, seen from Nebraska Highway 97 south of the Dismal River (image: Ammodramus, Wikipedia)

Sandhills, Nebraska

The Nebraska Sandhills cover more than a quarter of the state, making such a vast region difficult to protect. But given the Sandhills’ ecological importance as one of the only areas of the Western prairie that remains almost entirely in its natural state, many feel it deserves protection. The World Wildlife Fund designated the area, which is 85 percent intact, as a unique eco-region owing to its biodiversity.

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In 1984 the Sandhills were designated a National Natural Landmark, but wilderness enthusiasts argue this status confers little in terms of visitor access. For instance, many national landmarks have no public access at all. Organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have taken steps to protect parts of the Sandhills. The Niobrara Valley Preserve is one of the Nature Conservancy’s largest protected areas and in turn shelters one of the West’s biggest herds of bison. But that’s only the beginning: Red foxes, coyotes, badgers, mule deer, and white-tailed deer make their home in the Sandhills. To date, biologists have counted 213 bird species, 25 fish species, 17 reptile species, and 70 butterfly species in the preserve.

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The grass valleys of the caldera appear groomed due to heavy browsing by elk and cattle, as well as frequent grass fires of human and natural origin. Through the Valles Caldera National Preserve limited grazing program the grasslands feed hundreds of cattle in the summer and thousands more of elk during most of the year. (image: Larry Lamsa/Flickr CC)

Valles Caldera, New Mexico

Northern New Mexico’s Valles Caldera has long been one of environmentalists’ prime candidates for national park status because of its unique ecosystem, which is centered on one of North America’s few super volcanoes (now extinct). In January, the National Park Service began to assume management of the Valles Caldera preserve. This is fairly fast progress considering that the land was in private hands as a working cattle ranch 15 years ago, when the government purchased the land.

The effort to open Valles Caldera as a park is not without major controversy, however. The nearby Jemez Pueblo claims the land as part of its homeland. Last week an appeals court ruled that the pueblo’s case has merit and that the district court must decide whether the 1860 land grant that took the land from the pueblo takes precedence over the tribe’s rights to it.

Located in the Jemez Mountains, Valles Caldera is beloved by hikers and by viewers of golden eagles and the enormous herd of elk that roams the grasslands.

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