The World's Most Pristine Forests
Forests face an age-old problem: they’re worth more dead than alive. For thousands of years humans have slashed and burned their way through millions of acres of wilderness, turning it into farmland, houses, cooking fuel, ships, and paper. It’s a wonder a single sapling remains standing.
But pristine forests do exist—and you might be surprised to learn where they’re found.
In scientific circles, pristine—or “intact”—forests are regions not marked by straight lines like roads, power lines, or seismic surveys for an area of at least 50,000 acres. When visiting their innermost parts, “you get kind of a shiver,” says Alex Boursier, the regional manager for Canada at Rainforest Alliance. “You’ve traveled so deep into the wilderness and can only see a few feet ahead. It may well be that you’re the only human to see these trees for 100 years. Maybe ever.”
The key to preserving intact forests is to pinpoint what makes a region unique or essential, says David Seaborg, founder and president of the World Rainforest Fund. A particular spot might be crucial to a singular species like the Sumatran orangutan—or it might present the possibility of discovering a thousand new species. Preserving a wetland could encourage fish breeding or maintain a watershed to filter our drinking water. These qualities give a focus for conservation and tourism alike.
To visit such areas, you don’t have to venture to the ends of the earth (though it often helps). But you do need a spirit of adventure. Eco-conscious operators like Abercrombie & Kent, Intrepid Travel, and Asia Transpacific, a tour company often used by the American Museum of Natural History and the World Wildlife Fund, are equipped to provide enriching itineraries. Under the shade of 1,000-year-old trees you’ll find weird and wonderful creatures, like the pygmy elephants in the wilds of Indonesia. Or plants like the black bat flower (a foot-wide Gothic bloom with two-foot-long tendrils) and the titan arum (otherwise known as corpse flower for its disgusting stench).
Russia’s boreal reserves are so vast and remote that conservationists today still struggle to accurately survey them. But the presence of humans in other locales did nothing to exclude some of them from our list. The rubber tappers of Brazil (who live in extractive reserves) are considered guardians of the Amazon. Even heavily trafficked (and rigorously monitored) parks like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California were hailed by our experts as examples of harmonious pristine ecosystems. One controversial Amazonian forest we included is home not only to top predators (a primary indicator of forest health) but also to more than 25 million people.
If we treat the trees with respect, humans can pay Mother Nature’s most pristine forests a visit and leave them intact. Just don’t forget to buy the carbon offset credits when you go.
Clayoquot Sound, Canada
Coastal temperate rainforest is one of the rarest varieties of forest (covering less that 0.2 percent of the earth’s land area) but is found in abundance in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia, managed by the First Nations people. A moderate climate and high rainfall (up to 29.5 feet in record years) encourage trees to grow to heights of more than 400 feet.
How to Go: Open from mid-May until the end of September, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is a super-luxurious tented base camp for adventure-lovers who like horseback riding, kayaking, rock climbing, and surfing, with only the occasional grizzly for company.
Kayan Mentarang National Park, Indonesia
Kayan Mentarang, on the verdant island of Borneo, is one of the last remaining homes to the rhinoceros hornbill and strange primates like proboscis and leaf monkeys. The big draws for tourists (and poachers) are the adorably petite Sumatran rhino and the Borneo pygmy elephant.
How to Go: Asia Transpacific suggests a six-day itinerary beginning at the village of Long Layu. Local Dayak tribes still live in communal dwellings and guests do, too, as there is no accommodation in the park.
Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil
The Upper Paraná originally measured 182,000 square miles, but with only 7.4 percent of pristine area remaining, it’s now one of the most endangered rainforests on earth. More than 90 percent of amphibians and 50 percent of plants found there are unique to the area, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, it’s an outstanding ecoregion that represents a complete range of the planet’s freshwater and saltwater habitats. But it’s also home to more than 25 million people, making it one of the most accessible—and threatened—intact forests.
Denali National Park and Beyond, Alaska and Canada
The northern boreal forests occupy great swaths of land from Alaska’s dramatic Denali National Park all the way to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada (at 17,000 square miles, it’s the largest national park in the country).
How to Go: Country Walkers’ six-day trek aims to give visitors an experience from every angle: from the ground (hiking), from the air, and from a train. Bed down at North Face Lodge with spectacular views of six major peaks of the Alaska Range.
Daintree National Park, Australia
At 160 million years old, this UNESCO World Heritage–listed spot in Oz’s far northeast region is one of the oldest undisturbed forest ecosystems on earth. It’s also a birder’s paradise—more than 430 avian species live in the forest, including 13 found nowhere else on Earth. And it’s home to the weird and wonderful peppermint stick insect: colored like candy, the creature creates a peppermint aroma to ward off predators. The Maardja Boardwalk (an easy stroll even for a lethargic walker) displays the transition from freshwater rainforest to saltwater mangroves.
Primorsky Kray, Russia
These cool-climate boreal forests, stretching from Finland in the west to the maritime province of Primorsky Kray (bordering the Japan Sea) in the east, hold the title as the largest ecosystem on earth. The bucolic Primorsky Kray is the most intact region accessible to tourists; more than 80 percent of the forest remains.
How to Go: Local outfit Mirabel Tours conducts adventure and birding trips to see the lily-strewn lakes of Khankaisky State Nature Reserve and the mink population of the Far Eastern Marine Reserve, an archipelago that has the honor of being Russia’s only marine reserve.
The rugged canyons and peaks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, centered around the Sierra Nevada of eastern California, harbor a vast array of ecosystems. Mount Whitney’s 14,491-foot peak is the highest in the lower 48. The namesake giant trees are the star attractions, but the cave system is equally important: the park contains half of all the significant caves in California.
Ulu Segama-Malua Reserve, Malaysia
They’re home to 3,000 orangutans, but the pristine forests of Ulu Segama-Malua are under intense pressure. Ironically, much of the land is being cleared to farm palm oil, a key ingredient in biofuel.
How to Go: Visitors can explore this challenging region on an Abercrombie & Kent custom itinerary; don’t miss a suggested side trip into Sepilok Forest Reserve to see the feeding of orphaned orangutans at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
Central Amazon, Brazil and Peru
At the heart of the vast Amazon basin is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that’s considered to contain the greatest diversity of animals on earth; one in 10 known species on earth live here. This ecological Eden, covering 1.7 billion acres, is home to 30-foot-long green anacondas, freshwater dolphins, and catfish that live on land and breathe air.
How to Go: Head deep into the Pacaya Samiria Reserve on a five-day Travcoa custom itinerary, part of it spent aboard the m/v Aqua, the first true luxury ship to cruise the northern Amazon. Activities include seeking out giant river otters and fishing for piranha.
Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserves, Costa Rica
After scientist George Powell’s initial purchase of 810 acres in 1972, this protected area now covers almost 30,000 acres. Here, it’s cloud mist, rather than rain, that creates the moist climate. You’ll find more than 30 varieties of hummingbird, as well as the exotically named (and outrageously plumed) resplendent quetzal.