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Volume 28
Number 3
Winter 2011-2012
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Trail in the Shenandoah Wilderness, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. State of Science
Wilderness visitor experiences
A selective review of 50 years of research
By David N. Cole
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
The nature of wilderness experiences
Influences on the nature and quality of wilderness experiences
Stewardship of visitor experiences
About the author
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Trail, Shenandoah Wilderness, Virginia.

NPS/Daniel Silva

Trails such as this one in the Shenandoah Wilderness, Virginia, provide access to many wilderness destinations and influence visitors' experiences of these places. When photographer Daniel Silva stopped to make this photo in the rain, all he could hear besides his own breathing was the sound of rain hitting the trees overhead. “It was a very serene experience,” he explains. The photo was a runner-up in the recent Park Science wilderness photo contest.

Wilderness preservation is a recent phenomenon. The first wilderness was designated in the United States in 1924 but wilderness legislation was not passed until 1964. The wilderness idea acknowledged a new relationship between people and land, both in how wilderness lands were to be managed and in the experiences people might have on wilderness visits. The history of research on wilderness experiences is a short one. The first study of wilderness visitors was conducted in 1956 and 1958 (Bultena and Taves 1961) in the Quetico-Superior region (now Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Park in Canada). Visitors to the same area were more comprehensively studied by Lucas (1964) starting in 1960. Also in 1960, visitor surveys were conducted in seven “wildernesses” under the auspices of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission: Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks (New York), Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee and North Carolina), Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Minnesota), Yellowstone-Teton (Wyoming), Bob Marshall (Montana), Gila (New Mexico), and High Sierra (California) (Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission 1962).

Reviewing these and other pioneering studies reveals motivations for studying wilderness visitors and provides initial glimpses of themes, perspectives, and methods still explored in 2011. Pioneering wilderness researchers believed there was something unique about a wilderness experience and were concerned that this experience was rare and at risk—that management was necessary to maintain high-quality wilderness experiences and that appropriate management required good research (Lucas 1964). Consequently, they and succeeding generations built a body of research to address (1) what visitors experience in wilderness, (2) influences on the nature or quality of these experiences, and (3) how managers can protect and enhance visitor experiences. This article reviews approaches to answering these questions, what has been learned, and what research results suggest regarding the stewardship of wilderness experiences. This selective review emphasizes experiential influences subject to managerial control and recent research of the author and his colleagues.

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This page updated:  6 February 2012

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