Oldest Protected Areas in the United States

10 Oldest Protected Areas in the United States

Protected areas or conservation areas locations which receive protection because of their recognized natural, ecological, or cultural values. Since the United States is a physically massive country, protected areas cover 2,607,131 km2 (1,006,619 sq mi), or 27.08 percent of the land area of the country. This is also one-tenth of the protected land area of the world.

Because there are thousands of protected areas in the U.S., compiling a list of the oldest was daunting as there is not a database containing readily available information regarding the establishment of these areas. For the purposes of this list, we chose to focus on wilderness areas, as we have already covered the Oldest National Parks in the U.S. and the areas on this list are far older than the National Conservation Lands, National Trails Systems, and National Heritage Areas.

As of October 2020, the information on this list is as accurate as possible and will be updated as needed.

10. Superstition Wilderness Area

Year Established: 1939
Location: Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Area: 160,200 acres (64,831 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Superstition Wilderness Area is the second oldest protected wild area in Arizona. It was established as a Primitive Area in 1939 and expanded to its present size of 160,200 acres (64,831 ha) in 1984. Although it is a very rugged area, the Superstition Wilderness area has numerous well-developed trails and is a popular recreation area for the residents of Phoenix. Superstition Wilderness is also home to the Superstition Mountain range.

Did You Know?

Weavers Needle, a prominent landmark and rock climbing destination, is a tall eroded volcanic remnant in the Superstition Wilderness and plays a significant role in the enduring legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine.

9. Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

Year Established: 1935
Location: Kootenai and Kaniksu National Forests, Montana
Area: 94,272 acres (38,151 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: Wikimedia Commons via Kataiklaeya

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness became a protected Primitive Area in 1935 and has been described as, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…”

In the past, the Kootenai Indians hunted big game throughout the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Then in the 1880s, European-American explorers began mining in the area. Mineralization was discovered in the southeast part of the wilderness and since has become known as the Snowshoe Fault. Today, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is one the least visited yet most beautiful wild areas in the U.S.

Did You Know?

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness gets its name from early French explorers who thought that the rock formations along the Clark Fork river looked like boxes or cabinets.

8. Galiuro Wilderness

Year Established: 1932
Location: Coronado National Forest, Arizona
Area: 76,317 acres (30,884 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

Galiuro Wildernessphoto source: U.S. Forest Service

The Galiuro Wilderness encompasses most of the Galiuro Mountains and has been a protected area since 1932. This little-known wilderness area has a storied history and is believed to have been originally inhabited by the Jacome Indians, a relatively unknown group possibly related to the Apaches.  Although the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled through what is now the Galiuro Wilderness, the area was largely ignored by other European explorers and colonizers for several centuries. Eventually, people began settling in the near the Galiuro Mountains and mined nearby.

Did You Know?

The most famous settlers in the Galiuro Wilderness, before it became protected in 1931, was the Power Family. The family’s cabin, where the infamous Powers Brothers Shootout took place, is a preserved landmark in the Galiuro Wilderness.

7. Caribou Wilderness

Year Established: 1932
Location: Lassen National Forest, California
Area: 20,546 acres (8,315 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service and United States Department of Agriculture

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Caribou Wilderness is a relatively small wilderness area (compared to the others on this list) in Lassen National Forest, California. It is located next to the east side of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Despite its name, there are no caribou in the Caribou wilderness, but there are plenty of black bears. Black-tailed deer, rainbow trout, pine marten, bald eagles, and osprey are just some of the other animals that also call the Caribou wilderness home.

Did You Know?

One of the best features of the Caribou Wilderness are its water areas; there are 23 named lakes, innumerable unnamed ponds and tarns, cinder cones and volcanic buttes within the wilderness.

6. San Pedro Parks Wilderness

Year Established: 1931
Location: Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
Area: 41,132 acres (16,646 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: santafenewmexican.com

The San Pedro Parks Wilderness is located in the Santa Fe National Forest and began as a Primitive Area, established by the Chief of the Forest Service in 1931. A decade later, the area was re-designated as Wild Area by the Secretary of Agriculture and was expanded to 41,132 acres (16,646 ha).

Although the San Pedro Parks Wilderness has an average elevation over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), vast green forests stretch across the region. There are several valleys dispersed throughout these forests, which are the “parks” from the wilderness area’s name.

Did You Know?

The San Pedro Parks Wilderness receives about 35 inches (89 cm) of precipitation annually, making it one of the wettest areas of New Mexico

5. Hoover Wilderness

Year Established: 1931
Location: Inyo and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, California
Area: 128,221 acres (51,889 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

Hoover Wildernessphoto source: Wikimedia Commons


The Hoover Wilderness is another protected area that was designated as a Primitive Area in 1931. Like all of the protected areas on this list, the Hoover Wilderness became a wilderness area in 1964 as a result of the Wilderness Act. This wilderness area is managed by both the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests. In 2009, the Hoover Wilderness was significantly expanded to its current size of 128,221 acres (51,889 ha). Although there aren’t that many forested areas in the Hoover Wilderness, it is home to scattered groves of hemlock, pine, aspen, and cottonwood.

Did You Know?

The Hoover Wilderness was the setting of Camping Adventure, a children’s book published in 1976 by the National Geographic Society as part of its “Books for Young Explorers” series.

4. Marble Mountain Wilderness

Year Established: April 1931
Location: Klamath National Forest, California
Area: 241,744 acres (97,830 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Marble Mountain Wilderness is one of California’s oldest formally designated wilderness areas. In April 1931, 234,957 acres (95,084 ha) was set aside as the Marble Mountain Primitive Area. The area’s name comes from the distinctive coloration caused by light-colored limestone along with black metamorphic rock on some peaks, which gives the mountains a marbled appearance. With more than 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of vertical relief, soils from several rock types, and abundant rain and snowfall, the diversity of ecosystems in the Marble Mountain Wilderness is unequaled anywhere else in the U.S.

Did You Know?

Several rare wildflowers, such as crested potentilla, Siskiyou fireweed, and McDonald’s rock cress are adapted to the serpentine soil (an uncommon soil type produced by weathered ultramafic rock such as peridotite and its metamorphic derivatives such as serpentinite) of the Marble Mountain Wilderness and surrounding area.

3. Goat Rocks Wilderness

Year Established: February 13, 1931
Location: Okanagan–Wenatchee National Forest and Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
Area: 108,096 (43,745 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

Goat Rocks Wildernessphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Goat Rocks Wilderness was one of the wild areas designated as a Primitive Area in 1931, with limited protections. That year approximately 44,500 acres (18,009 ha) was set aside for preservation by the U.S. Forest Service. As the area’s name suggests, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is home to numerous mountain goats. In 1940, the area was increased to 82,680 acres (33,459 ha) by the Chief of the Forest Service. Goat Rocks Wilderness reached its current size in 1984 when more area was added by Congress.

Did You Know?

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), stretching from Canada to Mexico, passes through the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

2. Eagle Cap Wilderness

Year Established: 1930
Location: Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Oregon
Area: 361,446 acres (146,272 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1930, Eagle Cap Wilderness was established as a Primitive Area (precursor to the Wilderness Act), which meant that it received some protections. A decade later, Eagle Cap was designated a wilderness and once the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed, it received full protected area status. A boundary revision in 1972 added 73,000 acres (30,000 ha) to Eagle Cap and the Wilderness Act of 1984 added 66,100 acres (26,700 ha) giving a current total of 361,446 acres (146,272 ha). Eagle Cap is Oregon’s largest wilderness area by a very large margin.

Did You Know?

Eagle Cap Wilderness is named after a peak in the Wallowa Mountains, which were once called the Eagle Mountains.

1. Gila Wilderness

Year Established: June 3, 1924
Location: Gila National Forest, New Mexico
Area: 558,014 acres (225,820 ha)
Governing Body: United States Forest Service

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Gila Wilderness was established on June 3, 1924 and is not only the oldest protected area in the United States, but it is also the world’s first protected wilderness area. Aldo Leopold, a pioneering American environmentalist is responsible for convincing the United States Forest Service to designate more than 500,000-acres of mountains, rivers, and desert surrounding the Gila River as the Gila Wilderness. Along with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and Blue Range Wilderness – which were established after the Wilderness Act of 1964 – the Gila Wilderness is part of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

Did You Know?

The critically endangered Mexican Wolf was reintroduced to the Gila Wilderness in 1988 and although most of them did not survive, more wolves were released in the area and there are now four packs of Mexican Wolves roam the Gila Wilderness.



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