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America's Next National Park

There are more than just 59 beautiful wild lands in the States. But which areas have the best shot at earning coveted national park status?

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Mt. Hood, Oregon

Watching the sunset over the Columbia River Gorge should be enough to convince any policymaker that this icon deserves protection, but this initiative is still in its infancy. Currently under Forest Service jurisdiction, the area preserves the history of Northwestern logging, as well as nearly 800,000 acres of forested mountains, lakes, ski resorts, and trails, including a portion of the PCT. “This is an area of world-class scenic and geological significance, and it’s of a caliber that is easily comparable to the finest national parks in the country,” says Tom Kloster of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. If the campaign succeeds, it would include the addition of new trails, campsites, and picnic areas.

Try this 13.1-mile (one-way) Eagle Creek Trail past waterfalls to a riverside camp

Driftless Rivers, Great Lakes

Unscarred by glacial movement in the last Ice Age, this zone in the Upper Midwest boasts ancient waterways that flow through rugged limestone bluffs and past deep caverns. The proposed 375,000 acres—which stretch across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa—host diverse plant life like prickly pear cactus and threatened northern monkshood, while the riverways are a restoration area for brown and brook trout. “Great and beautiful as they are, most of our national parks are functionally out of reach for a vast number of Americans,” says the Driftless Rivers National Park Foundation. “[A park in] Driftless Rivers would bring the NPS experience to the heartland of America.”

Try this 11.5-mile Pikes Peak State Park trail (in Iowa) past limestone walls, waterfalls, and views of the Mississippi

Upper Bald River, Tennessee

Enveloped by soul-feeding solitude in the deep hardwoods, the Upper Bald River area in Cherokee National Forest is the perfect place to get lost. “You get this really primeval, primitive feel to the area,” says Bill Hodge, who founded the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. One of only a few remaining patches of old-growth forest left in the South, the hardwoods surrounding the Bald River are home to a number of species, including grouse and black bears. The tributaries boast more species of fish than the Columbia and Colorado Rivers combined and the greatest salamander diversity in the world. Yet, since it’s currently a Wilderness Study Area, the Upper Bald is only temporarily protected and faces possible logging.

Try this 17-mile Benton MacKaye-Kirkland Creek loop that traces the ridge between Tennessee and North Carolina

Maine Woods, Maine

“There is a reason this area provided so much inspiration to such notables as Henry David Thoreau and President Theodore Roosevelt,” says Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. There are the green foothills that seem to melt into the horizon, the vast hardwood forests, the important Native American history of the Penobscot tribe. In addition, Maine Woods would protect habitat for a number of species, including ruffed grouse, brook trout, and the threatened Canada lynx. The family who owns the proposed 87,500 acres has been pushing for NPS status for years, saying it would boost the local economy and allow for the creation and maintenance of trails for hikers (there are currently less than 50 miles of paths). With growing local support and the backing of the National Parks Conservation Association, the area is on the short-list to become a national monument—a good step toward national parkdom.

Try this 2.3-mile (one-way) Barnard Mountain Trail for views across the hardwoods to Katahdin (pro tip: go in late September for foliage)