Eight of My Favorite Wilderness Areas in California

Vance Russell Photo

Vance Russell is the NFF’s California Director and has lived in the state for 15 years.

Travel in California and you will experience diverse Wilderness areas spanning coast to alpine and desert to montane. T here are 149 wilderness areas in California ranging in size from six acres to 3.1 million. They cover nearly 15 million acres—roughly 15 percent of the state.

It was hard to limit this list to eight. I skipped a few places I love such as the Yolla-Bolly-Middle Eel (how can you not like a place with that name) spanning the central valley to north coast and the Mokelumne, Carson-Iceberg and Emigrant Wildernesses in the Sierra. Even the virtually unknown Sanhedrin and Yuki in the Mendocino National Forest are well worth a visit.

You’ll notice the Wilderness areas on my list do not include those on National Parks or Bureau of Land Management Land. While they are too beautiful and unique places, I chose to focus this list on National Forest Wilderness areas. 

Although I’ve enjoyed visiting every single wilderness in California, here’s a list of my favorites:

John Muir Wilderness (Sierra and Inyo National Forests) —Dominated by multiple ragged and soaring granite peaks, including Mt. Whitney the highest in the continental US, this Wilderness encompasses everything John Muir stood for and loved in the Sierra Nevada: wildness, climbing, glaciers, wildlife and solitude. I t’s my number 1 because I got engaged on one of the peaks just north of Whitney. What’s not to like about that?

John Muir Wilderness
Photo by George Wuerthner


White Mountains Wilderness (Inyo National Forest) —The White Mountains are one of the largest and highest desert mountain ranges in the country. The Wilderness is home to the world’s oldest living tree, the bristlecone pine, but habitat ranges from desert scrub to alpine. This is a place to seek solitude, escape crowds, and stargaze to the heavens.

White Mountains Wilderness
Photo by Peter Druschke



Mt. Shasta Wilderness (Shasta-Trinity National Forest) —Mt. Shasta dominates the skyline for hundreds of miles in northern California. Below the multiple glaciers on the mountain are volcanic activity and massive fir and pine forests. Many come here to climb the peak but others come to simply enjoy the view.

Mt. Shasta Wilderess
Photo by George Wuerthner



Ventana Wilderness (Los Padres National Forest) —ranging from the spectacular Big Sur Coast in the west to oak woodlands on the east side, the Wilderness is tremendously biodiverse . Steep and rugged beauty feature the coast mountains and include many large redwoods, the tallest tree on earth.

Ventana Wilderness
Photo by Patrick Bailey



Trinity Alps Wilderness (Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forest) —Trinity Alps is the first place I saw a bear in California and one of the first California Wilderness areas I visited.  Uncrowded and with dozens of lakes , the Trinity Alps feature the Salmon and Trinity Rivers, a superb place to fish, camp and never see another soul.

Trinity Alps Wilderness
Photo by Ken Hallock



Desolation Wilderness (Eldorado National Forest) —Desolation is where I go when I want to be in Sierra Granite and high alpine lakes in a hurry . The quickest access is only 90 minutes from my home. Close to Tahoe and many urban areas, it can be crowded. It is the nation’s most visited wilderness but a permit system has greatly helped with visitorship. Looking for a permit for your next public lands activity? Visit recreation.gov

Desolation Wilderness
Photo by George Wuerthner


San Gabriel Wilderness (Angeles National Forest) —Where else can you be drinking champagne and eating caviar with fabulous stars in Los Angeles one moment, and then walking near a herd of bighorn sheep in sparse conifer forest the next? Surprisingly uncrowded, this wilderness offers dramatic scenery and a diverse wildlife close to the Angeles urban wilderness.

Friends of the Angeles


Siskiyou Wilderness (Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest) —Sasquatch lives here. Or so they say. What more could you want in a Wilderness? Siskiyou’s lush forest in the farthest reaches of wet northwestern California harbors special species. On your next visit, see the world’s largest concentration of lily species, the rare and cool Brewer’s spruce and highest diversity of conifers on the planet.

Siskiyou Wilderness
Photo by Lee Webb


Click here to help ensure California's Wilderness Areas and those across the nation stay healthy for generations to come.


A Treasured Spring in Florida

Silver Glen Springs is truly a gem.

Bounded on the north by the Ocala National Forest, the “run” is a 0.6 mile stretch of crystal-clear water, fed from a first-magnitude springs. Not only is Silver Glen Springs a warm-water refuge for manatees, but it is also home to crocodiles, and many different fish and birds.

Silver Glen Springs 2_USFS.jpg

People travel from Orlando, Gainesville, Daytona and beyond to enjoy swimming, fishing, boating and camping in this special place.

Silver Glen Springs is governed by many different local, state and federal agencies and is a source of controversy due to its popularity.

Through our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation campaign, the National Forest Foundation has pulled together the boating community, conservation interests and governmental stakeholders in the first-ever collaborative effort focused on Silver Glen Springs.

The Working Group is nearing completion of a management plan that expresses the shared vision of the group, and a Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies to show their commitment to the joint plan.

Silver Glen Springs_USFS.jpg

The National Forest Foundation is grateful to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and Florida Gas Transmission for supporting the NFF’s facilitation of the Working Group.

If you would like to support further collaboration and restoration efforts on the Ocala National Forest, click here.

7 Reasons Why Fish Need Wood

On the Idaho-Panhandle National Forest , Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Tongass National Forest Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences campaign sites, we have been working with hydrologists, biologists and ecologists to enhance fish habitat by restoring an important in-stream element: wood!

TNC Twelvemile 2013_5.jpg
photo by Erika Nortemann

While it may seem counterintuitive, adding large woody material (LWM) , including whole trees, limbed logs and rootwads, to forest streams can provide many benefits to fish.

In an undisturbed forest ecosystem, wood is naturally “recruited” to streams in various ways. Riparian trees growing along the channel fall into the channel when they are undercut by the stream, toppled by beavers, burned by fire or blown down during storms. Upslope trees can be transported into the channel by events such as avalanches or landslides . Flooding can wash trees into the channel and during highwater they may be pushed downstream.

wood in stream.jpg

In-stream woody debris has been drastically reduced in some streams by historical forest management practices. Logging near rivers and streams limited the number of trees that could fall into streams. Road building that channeled streams through culverts prevented downstream wood recruitment. “Stream cleaning” was sometimes conducted to remove fallen trees from streams, for beautification, to prevent damage to infrastructure downstream, or in a misguided attempt to assist fish migration.

Scientists have now come to understand that in-stream LWM is ecologically important for a number of reasons:

  1. LWM can help spawning gravels accumulate , by stopping the gravel from moving downstream;
  2. Pools can form behind LWM, which provide important juvenile rearing habitat, as well as habitat for all fish during periods of low-flows;
  3. LWM can help slow stream speed , which helps adult fish as they move upstream and shelters rearing juveniles from using too much energy fighting currents;
  4. LWM provide shade , offering pockets of cooler water, and can help to lower the temperature of an entire stream;
  5. LWM provides fish with refuge from predators ;
  6. LWM can help to stabilize banks, prevent erosion and decrease sediment movement that can harm downstream fish habitat;
  7. LWM is important to the aquatic food chain, because it traps organic matter and provides habitat for insects and invertebrates, which are both food for fish.
wood in streams 2

All of these elements add “complexity” to a stream. When it comes to fish habitat, complexity is a good thing. And one of the best ways to make a stream complex is to simply add wood.

To support these projects, please contact Dayle at dwallien@nationalforests.org or 206-832-8280.

Morels: A Treasured Forest Delicacy

Sweaty, sunburned and covered in soot. That was my condition as I stood on a ridge in Western Montana on a National Forest. I surveyed the burned landscape beneath me to identify the prime areas for harvesting a culinary delicacy – the morel (Morchella elata) mushroom .


The morel mushroom occurs in late spring on forested landscapes that were recently burned by wildfire . Although we don’t know a lot about these much sought-after mushrooms, these delicacies often occur in massive quantities.

Key indicators for locating morel mushrooms include: 

  • soil moisture, 
  • precipitation patterns,
  • forest canopy cover, and
  • fire intensity.

It’s not unheard of for seasoned mushroom hunters to harvest nearly 50 pounds in a single day.

But that does not mean it’s easy work. A day spent walking around a burned area in search of morels can leave your legs quivering the next day. On this particular day, I biked in four miles on a forest road, hiked 1400 vertical feet up to the top of the ridge system, and then spent five hours hiking up and down a steep slope to locate the prime areas. But it was 100 percent worth it .


I found morels fruiting in the holes created by burned out tree roots. I found morels beneath the canopy of a dying trees. I found morels growing solitarily and in clusters. In some spots, I couldn’t walk more than five paces without locating another “honey-hole” where there were five or more morels growing close to each other.

Tired from sun exposure and realizing the energy associated with kneeling down to pick each mushroom, I restored to crawling in especially good spots. As the sun sank in the western horizon, I shouldered my backpack- laden with ten pounds of fresh morels - and began the hike/bike out so that I could get back to town (and ice cream) before dark.

Those interested in harvesting their own mushrooms from their nearby public lands should contact their nearest National Forest Supervisors office . They can provide you with information on the location of previous year’s wildfires, access and rules and regulations (regulations vary from National Forest to National Forest).


Be sure to pack lots of water and prepare for sudden changes of weather. And remember, it can take years of exploring burned area before you harvest your first significant haul of morels. But as you walk, take note of the unexpected beauty that burned areas offer and soon enough, you’ll be graced with the presence of the beautiful and delicious morel mushroom.