USA’s Wildest National Parks – 21 of America’s Finest Wild Spaces

18. Carlsbad Cavernscarlsbad-caverns

State: New Mexico

Area: 189 sq km

Created: 1930

Best for… spelunking, bat tours

Why go? Carlsbad Caverns is a wet wilderness hidden deep beneath the desert. Made up of 119 prehistoric caves, it was forged around the Ice Age when sulphuric acid sizzled through the limestone, creating sculptural stalactites, stalagmites and seemingly impossible rock formations. It also just happened to create the perfect ecosystem for thousands of cave crickets and 17 species of bat. Visit at dusk to see (and feel) a bat exodus, as they emerge en mass from their dark hiding places to feed.

Three caves are open to the public. Slaughter Canyon and Spider Cave are both relatively underdeveloped and not nearly as nightmare-inducing as their names suggest. Visitors can hike along the wet and muddy trails into the caves or take a lift, while the more adventurous can pothole past transparent pools and cave pearls, or rappel through minuscule gaps. And for those who really fancy a deep thrill, there’s a selection of wild cave tours with no trails or lights.

When to go: Open year-round. Desert wildflowers bloom March-April and October-November. The best bat flights are in July and August.

Plan your trip: Fly in to Albuquerque for a two-week driving tour of this diverse state. Head to the Chihuahuan Desert for the world’s largest field of blinding-white sand dunes and to supernatural Roswell for a UFO tour. New Mexico is renowned for its clear skies too, so expect super stargazing.

19. Kobuk Valleykobuk-valley

State: Alaska

Area: 7,085 sq km

Created: 1980

Best for… getting utterly off-grid, river trips, caribou

Why go? No giftshops, no campsites, no roads, no trails: Kobuk Valley, which nudges inside the Arctic Circle, is proper wild-man backcountry. Here, you have to make – and survive – your own adventure; it is not for the unprepared.

Getting in is tricky: planes are often the only ways to access villages such as Kobuk, Shungnak or Ambler – all good points to start a self-sufficient river journey. The easiest way to get an overview is a day’s flightseeing tour; you might even pass over the 500,000 caribou that migrate across the park (north in spring, south in autumn). Small planes can also land right on the 50m-high glacially formed Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, a good spot for hiking and camping.

When to go: Open year-round. Mid-August to mid-October has bright skies, fall colours and fewer mosquitoes than the warmer summer months. July-early September is the best time to float the Kobuk River.

Plan your trip: Park HQ is in Kotzebue, which is served by flights from Anchorage. From Anchorage it’s easy to access all other areas in Alaska; for instance, you could take the historic railroad to Denali’s mountains.

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