Our National Parks are often—and justly—referred to as our nation’s most impressive public lands gems. They are simply amazing slices of our public lands.

But BLM’s National Conservation Lands are among the least heralded and most underappreciated protected landscapes in the country. Many even rival the national parks we love so much.

The newest system of protected public lands

BLM traditionally wasn’t known as a federal public lands manager with a strong commitment to conservation. But after the establishment of the National Landscape Conservation System—what we now call the National Conservation Lands—in 2001, that’s starting to change.

More than 36 million acres, or about 10% of BLM’s vast holdings, are now part of the system. That includes 27 national monuments and 22 national conservation areas (or similar designations), plus hundreds of BLM-managed wilderness and wilderness study areas. The system also includes the BLM-managed stretches of wild and scenic rivers and national scenic and historic trails. Needless to say, there’s something for everyone in the National Conservation Lands.

If you’re not familiar with the system, don’t worry. I’ll be writing about the National Conservation Lands here quite a bit.

A different kind of experience

Most areas in the National Conservation Lands offer a far different experience than the national parks. The vast majority have no visitor center in the unit, nor the regular ranger-led tours or programs. There aren’t many visitor services to be found, and often not much interpretation either.

This lack of development allows for a much different visitor experience. Instead of being led down the path, visitors are forced to rely on their own preparation. That means you get to interact with the lands in a more intimate way. Instead of staying on the gravel trail and behind the fence, you can walk right on up to the pueblo ruin. You can pick up (and put down!) the pottery sherds, inspect the rock art up close (but don’t touch it!), and generally experience the place on your own terms. Well, as long as you plan head at least.

Add these places to your bucket list

For now, you should immediately include these places in your to-visit list. Seriously, do it now. Right now.

As you travel the country in search of our nation’s most important natural and cultural resources, make sure that you include the National Conservation Lands.

If you’d like to support the National Conservation Lands, please check out the Conservation Lands Foundation, and as well as the local groups in their network. The Wilderness Society also plays an important role nationally in defending the system.