Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness, Tennessee
THE PITCH Adjacent to the Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness, 62 miles north of Chattanooga, this privately owned but open-to-the-public swath of the South Cumberland Plateau is a verdant 317-acre wonderland of rolling ridgelines, caves, creeks, rock shelves, and misty waterfalls. Camp is a short, varied trek along the eight-mile, lasso-shaped Virgin Falls Trail: Hop streams, boulders, and python-thick roots as you pass through an embarrassment of rhododendrons, then climb to the top of a stone shelf and feast your eyes on the hawk-dotted vista of the Caney Fork River Valley. Now descend a boulder-strewn path to reach Big Laurel Falls, your home for the night (or longer), and shelter in the mouth of Big Laurel Cave, the enormous, sandy amphitheater behind the cascading water. Come morning, it's a moderate two miles past another cavernSheep Caveand over a ridge to 110-foot Virgin Falls, the gem of the trip, which escapes a cave only to reenter the earth at the bottom of a fern-carpeted sink.
BETA From Sparta, take Highway 70 east for 11 miles, to Eastland Road in Derosset. Go 5.9 miles south to Scott Gulf Road. Head south for two miles to the trailhead, on the right, 150 yards past the Polly Branch Falls trailhead on the left. No permit required.
PRIME TIME April
RESOURCES For info: Bowater Inc. (which owns the VFPW), 423-336-7205; or www.centennialwilderness.com/vfpw.htm.
Baxter State Park, Maine
THE PITCH Bypass Baxter's main attraction, 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin, and head for the less-trammeled reaches of one of Thoreau's old stompin' grounds. Twenty-seven miles north of Millinocket in the North Woods is the 19-mile Russell Pond/Davis Pond/Chimney Pond Loop, where all three watering holes offer top-notch camping. When not catching peekaboo views of Big K, keep an eye out for ospreys, owls, foxes, and minks. Not pooped by the end of the loop? Try the side trip up 4,751-foot Hamlin Peak.
RESOURCES Baxter State Park, 207-723-5140, www.baxterstateparkauthority.com. Maine Trails Guide Service, 207-353-7394, www.metrails.com.
Modoc National Forest, California
THE PITCH In NoCal's spectacular Shasta Cascade region, dominated by 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, the 1.6-million-acre Modoc is home to bald eagles, wild horses, and petroglyphs. Did we mention the obsidian cliffs, up which you can scramble to survey your own wild kingdom? Hoof it from icy Skull Cave, 16 miles south of Tulelake, down the Lyons Trail through once-molten Lava Beds National Monument, traversing volcanic highlands at 4,700 feet and exploring 30,000-year-old lava-tube caves. At day's end, put up your feet and your tent at the base of Juniper Butte.
RESOURCES Lava Beds National Monument, 530-667-2284, www.nps.gov/labe. Roe Outfitters, 877-943-5700, www.roeoutfitters.com.
Going light doesn't require skimping out, and at 4,800 cubic inches, Lowe Alpine's four-pound, 12-ounce warp pack ($199; 303-465-0522, www.lowealpine.com) can haul all your featherweight freight. Unlike other packs of its size, the warp has a big shovel pouch, front pockets, and zipper access to the main compartment.