Joshua Tree National Park, CA
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Bighorn sheep may be your only trail companions in the wilderness of J-Tree’s northeast section. This 15-mile walk brings you into the ecological transition zone where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet. Park on Highway 62 and walk 4.5 miles along a wash as you make your way into a canyon of boulders and pour-offs, and from there it’s a scramble into the peaks of the Coxcomb Mountains. You’ll need a map, compass, and backcountry skills to find your way to the summit of 4,416-foot Aqua Peak, but the panoramic views make it worthwhile.
Pecos Wilderness, NM
The Pecos, with its deep, narrow canyons, 13,000-foot peaks, alpine lakes, and open meadows surrendered to wildflowers, is ideal for aimless ambling. And with 223,000 acres, there’s plenty of space to roam this southernmost stretch of the Rockies. Take a week to backpack the 30-mile north–south traverse starting at Santa Barbara campground, near Peñasco, detouring east to the exposed Truchas peaks, then straight south to the South Jack trailhead, passing through nap-worthy glades and gin-clear streams.
North Country Trail, MI
Only about half of this 4,600-mile trail, from New York to North Dakota, has been completed, but some of the best walks are to be found in the 400 miles along Michigan’s rugged UP. From Craig Lake State Park, where you’ll hear the call of loons, traipse through a hilly forest of mixed hardwoods that’s home to moose and wolves, and pass waterfalls and otherworldly boulders that look like they were dropped from the sky.
Silvio O. Conte NFWR, VT
You’ll find the path less traveled in the north tip of this 26,300-acre refuge. From Brunswick, take the 12-mile dirt road to Lewis Pond overlook and start hiking north on the old skid road until you reach the refuge boundary sign. All trails end here, but with a map and compass, it’s an easy ramble up to a wide, grassy plateau that’s home to moose, barred owls, and beavers. Hike up the steep incline to the highest point in the refuge, where stunted balsam fir and yellow birch trees abound. From here you’re two miles back to the car, or you can continue on into the wilderness before a peaceful night’s rest at the 142-year-old Clyde River Hotel (doubles from $65; clyderiverhotel.com), in Island Pond.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Teddy Roosevelt described the broken landscape of the less-visited Badlands of North Dakota as a “grim fairyland.” On the 96-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail (nps.gov/archive/thro), from the south unit of his namesake park to the north unit, you’ll understand why. It’s a moonscape of pinnacles, mounds, and crumbling cliffs. Pass within yards of buffalo and yelping prairie dogs, and sleep at any of the trail’s three remote campgrounds.