The fourth-largest country in the world when it comes to land mass, the United States also ranks high for the number of people treading across all that space -- the US is the third most populous country on a planet positively brimming with human beings. Still, when it comes to getting off the beaten path and into some serious wilderness right here on the home front, there's a surprising amount of lonely US territory waiting to be explored.
From the glaciated peaks of Alaska to the wilds of the Everglades, America is criss-crossed with wide swaths of wild terrain that rank among the most pristine natural environments on the planet.
Remember that old scouting adage -- take only photos and leave only footprints -- and follow our light-footed lead to 3 of America's most beautiful and remote destinations.
Ten Thousand Islands, Florida
Like a fistful of emeralds and diamonds tossed off the coast of southwest Florida, the Ten Thousand Islands are a chain of sandy islands and mangrove islets woven into a watery labyrinth that is accessed primarily by intrepid canoeists and kayakers (and once-upon-a-time drug runners and alligator hunters -- but that was back in Florida's wild yesteryears).
While some of the southernmost islands are part of Everglades National Park, most of the islands here make up the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which begins about 20 miles southeast of Naples, FL.
Wondering why you haven't heard of the Ten Thousand Islands before? That's probably because most of the islands are uninhabitable -- either too small or too tangled with mangroves to make pulling ashore an option (the park is part of one of the largest mangrove estuaries in North America).
That said, there are possibilities for endless adventures here that combine canoeing/kayaking with overnight camping trips. Adirondack Exposure organizes 5-day trips to the sandy outer islands where camping under a traceable strip of the Milky Way gives you a feel for how wild Florida must have greeted its first human inhabitants. Paddling the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico between islands, you're likely to spot manatees and dolphins. And the birdlife in these parts is equally impressive. Make Everglades City your base for planning excursions and renting equipment. And heed this very important bit of advice: don't even think of visiting the region during the summer months, when the mosquitoes will make every attempt to eat you alive. December through March are the best months for planning an excursion to the Ten Thousand Islands.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
On the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park is 1 of the most jaw-dropping destinations in a state riddled with superlatives. The time to visit is May through September when wildflowers soften the rugged landscape with a profusion of pastels, porpoises and whales frolic near calving glaciers and mountain streams teem with spawning trout. Most visitors arrive in the seaside town of Seward either aboard cruise ships that pull into the deep harbor here or via highway or air from Anchorage.
The easiest way to see the park's major sites -- Exit Glacier and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, home to sea lions, sea otters, whales and dolphins -- is aboard a day cruise. And the 6-hour foray offered by Kenai Fjords Tours is a comfortable and interesting way to check off the sites. For something more adventuresome (and definitely more athletic), consider a hiking and kayaking tour with Boundless Journeys. You'll hike to a viewpoint that takes in the enormous Harding ice field, where some 300 square miles are covered with an otherworldly ice-age terrain that's the birthing ground for more than 40 glaciers that are ever creeping toward the sea. Itineraries also include kayaking in Kachemak Bay, one of the richest bays in the world for marine life, where you'll paddle in tidal channels shadowed by massive sea cliffs and visit a bird rookery home to 10,000 birds.
There's no shortage of operators in Seward organizing exhibitions by foot and boat, but if you want to go it alone (and you're suitably experienced), you can consider exploring the area by kayak, canoe or, in the winter months, snowmobile. With good maps and ample provisions at the ready, make your way to the ultimate off-the-beaten-path lodging -- the national park service's public-use cabins in Kenai.
Willow Cabin, accessible by snowmobile, is only open for reservations once Exit Glacier Road is suitably covered by 18 inches of snow. And during the summer months (late May through mid September), 3 cabins -- Aialik, Holgate and North Arm -- situated in remote areas along the fjord coast can be reached by coastal plane or private boat charter, or a very laborious paddle.
The Great North Woods, Maine
First-time visitors to Maine are often surprised by just how wild and West-Coast-like the terrain is in New England's northernmost reaches -- particularly in the region of the state closest to the Canadian border.
Mirror-like lakes, over 1,000 hiking trails and wildlife in abundance year-round (particularly moose) make Maine's many parks a paradise for outdoors enthusiasts. But when it comes to getting off the beaten path of the Appalachian Trail -- the 2,175-mile walking track that stretches from Maine to Georgia -- you'll find the most isolated section of the AT in north-central Maine. Called the 100 Mile Wilderness, it's the longest stretch of uninterrupted wilderness on the entire Appalachian Trail. You can hike independently, or join a tour company such as Northwoods Outfitters to conquer certain segments, including the ascent of White Cap (3,644 feet) -- the highest peak in the 100 Mile Wilderness section of the trail.
Though clear-cutting by loggers and the building of roads have left their marks on the wilderness here, it's still a very remote and rugged region. There are no services along the trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness, which winds over craggy peaks, past secluded ponds and through thick forests. Some of New England's oldest forests are found here, and walking the trail gives you the truest taste of the pristine Maine that made Henry David Thoreau dream and rhapsodize in his book, "The Maine Woods." And remember, if 2 paths diverge in the woods, the choice is easy -- take the road less traveled by, it will make all the difference.