In wildlife management areas, hikers can glimpse animals in their natural, pristine habitat while getting off the beaten path.
In my younger years, I frequented the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area (WMA), deep within Louisiana’s 1 million–acre Atchafalaya River Basin, to hunt migrating waterfowl or whitetail deer in fall and winter. In summer, I always returned to hike and camp and was usually the only soul on the maze of trails or in the bayous, making the region a far cry from the crowded state parks nearby. The property became a place of solace, where I knew I could trek for miles in the backcountry, sharing it only with bears and alligators.
These WMAs exist in most states and are maintained for wildlife habitat. They make for fantastic hiking trails and pristine forests after hunters pack up for the season. With our national parks growing ever more crowded, we rounded up seven of the best WMAs around the country for those who want to avoid the masses.
Catoosa WMA, Tennessee
Perched on the Cumberland Plateau, just west of the Smoky Mountains, Catoosa is known for its rugged mountains and wild rivers. The area is home to a section of the Cumberland Trail, and while the young footpath is still under construction, when completed it will stretch more than 300 miles northeast through Tennessee. Then there’s the Devil’s Breakfast Table, a 14.1-mile trail ending near a horizontal rock formation, the path’s namesake. For backpackers, there are designated camping spots scattered throughout the forest. Several free-flowing creeks with Class III and IV rapids run through the management area, including the Obed Wild and Scenic River, which boasts 500-foot-deep gorges and some of the best rafting in the region.
Snow Peak WMA, Idaho
There’s a short window to enjoy the steep canyons and mountains at Snow Peak between July, when snowpack melts, and when winter returns in September, says Laura Wolf, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There are about 50 miles of trails, but nearly half are overgrown—although Wolf says staff is chipping away at that. The Snow Peak Trail is an easy nine-mile round-trip hike to an old fire tower with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains and the occasional mountain goat. “Most higher-elevation ridgelines have ripening huckleberries in summer,” Wolf says. An easier trek is the Scribner Falls Creek Trail, which is just eight miles over mostly flat ground.
Connecticut Hill WMA, New York
Connecticut Hill is only a short drive from Ithaca and is New York’s largest management area. As a part of the Appalachian Highlands, this area features 2,000-foot bluffs that offer views among mature maple, hemlock, and American beech forests. In warmer months, hikers can trek along a section of the Finger Lakes Trail, a 580-mile footpath that stretches across the state. In winter, the area is perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the property, so hikers can expect a feeling of seclusion even on a day hike. While state officials don’t allow camping on the WMA, there are a handful of nearby state forests that do.
Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA, Florida
Everglades National Park gets all the attention in southern Florida, but the adjacent Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA has enough gators and swampland to go around. The interior of the property can be accessed only by boat. If you can reach it, you’ll have access to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail—numerous canals and waterways that crisscross the swamp to offer glimpses of migrating birds. Hiking is restricted to levees, the only dry ground available, which snake around the exterior of the management area. The most popular paths are L-67 and L-35, including a 12-mile bike ride on a path through through sawgrass fields. Camping is allowed along the L-5 and Miami Canal levees, which offer spectacular bayou views. Both are currently closed due to hunting seasons and will reopen on November 16 (Friday through Sunday only).
Edward Sargent Wildlife Area, New Mexico
Edward Sargent is tucked along New Mexico’s border with Colorado, consisting of high aspen meadows and ponderosa pine that provide habitat for elk and cougars. “Trails are currently not named or specifically marked,” says Ryan Darr, a land manager with the state’s Department of Game and Fish, but you can follow creeks to access the interior of the management area—like a 14-mile out-and-back on Chamita Creek. You can also explore old logging roads or horse paths to features like Nabor Lake, home to a healthy population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. There are established primitive camping areas near the property’s entrance. As for the crowds, elk easily outnumber humans in this part of the Rockies.
G. Richard Thompson WMA, Virginia
Situated on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, G. Richard Thompson has all the beauty of Shenandoah National Park but without the crowds. At its highest point of 2,200 feet, hikers can trek along seven miles of the Appalachian Trail. You’ll get vistas of the pastoral Shenandoah Valley, along the way spotting wildflowers like trillium in summer. In October, you’ll be surrounded by the brilliant colors of fall foliage. In any season, the 9.2-mile G. Richard Thompson Loop is a great way to take in the sights. Remember a map—there are no blazes marking the path.
Thief Lake WMA, Minnesota
Thief Lake, in Minnesota’s wild north country, has plenty of solitude. Wildlife manager Kyle Arola says the property is managed as a wildlife sanctuary, providing habitat for gray wolves, moose, elk, and thousands of waterfowl. “Outside of hunting season, it feels like I have the place to myself,” he says. Walking trails for hunters aren’t maintained during summer, but for intrepid hikers, the paths offer access to the interior of the property and outer banks of the lake. In early summer, the forest is overrun with chokecherries, juneberries and raspberries; in fall, stands of aspen glow bright yellow. Designated campgrounds south of Thief Lake offer primitive camping with boat ramp access. Whenever you go, be sure to pack a GPS.