National Forest Foundation

Eight of My Favorite Wilderness Areas in California

Hiking and Backpacking, Wilderness


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. There 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?

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.

Photo by Peter Druschke

Mount Shasta Wilderness (Shasta-Trinity National Forest)

Mount 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Photo by Lee Webb

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