Wilderness up close

"Most gemstones have three qualities that set them apart from common, run-of-the-mill minerals: beauty, durability, and some degree of rarity." - C. W. Chesterman, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals (1979)

Take a closer look at the richness and variety of wilderness. Wilderness is like a gemstone: it is beautiful, durable (thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964), and rare. Also like a gemstone, wilderness has many facets: reflections emanate from its surface; we may see its value from many perspectives; it reflects the values of those who established and those who manage it; and it holds values and resources within.

Also like a gemstone, wilderness is a natural object that has been fashioned by people, sometimes with vision, sometimes leaving flaws. Many Americans throughout time have worked for wilderness—carefully considering, discussing, debating, and compromising. In 1964 the Wilderness Act gave certain wildlands the strongest protection the U.S. government and its citizens can give to its public lands. Congress set a precedent for preserving the values and resources of wilderness for you and future generations. Today, many Americans are involved with continuing the legacy of wilderness preservation.

Wilderness holds glimmers of hope and richness yet to be explored and discovered. How does wilderness reflect in your mind? How will you fashion this gemstone? How will you pass this heirloom on to future generations?

Similar to the variety of gemstones—diamond, rhodochrosite, ruby, sapphire, topaz, and tourmaline—the variety of wilderness areas abounds! Some are familiar; others are rare gems waiting for your discovery. Be an adventurer and explore one (or more) of the 10 wilderness areas below or, if you would like to visit other wilderness areas, go on to the Wilderness.net website ( http://www.wilderness.net )


Badlands Wilderness Area


The Badlands Wilderness Area is the largest prairie wilderness in the United States. At first, a “prairie wilderness” might seem like an odd idea because most people imagine deep, dark forests or imposing mountains when they think of wilderness. But remember: prairies are wild and this vast grassland daunted even the hardiest of settlers of the American West.

Sharply eroded badlands formations and a seemingly endless expanse of mixed grass prairie make up the 64,144-acre (25,959-ha) Badlands Wilderness Area. Established on October 20, 1976, this wilderness area actually consists of two units: Sage Creek and Conata Basin. Extreme weather, lack of water, and unknown mysteries continue to challenge today’s pioneers—the land managers and visitors who are tasked with wilderness protection. [Link to map]

An abandoned railroad line sits about 2 miles (3 km) south of the Badlands Wilderness Area. In 1907 the line opened through the White River Valley, causing a rush of homesteaders to claim quarter sections (i.e., 640 acres) in southwestern South Dakota. However, the boom was short lived. The homesteaders found themselves with dry conditions and eroding soil, and the farms failed. Throughout the 1930s, the U.S. government bought land back from the homesteaders who had succumbed to drought, depression, and a plague of grasshoppers. Some of this land later became parts of the Badlands Wilderness Area, Badlands National Park, and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, which the USDA Forest Service administers.

"The government bets you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on this land five years." – unknown homesteader


"We need places like Sage Creek to restore our sense of purpose." – Visitor comment

Only a small percentage of people will ever visit the Badlands Wilderness Area, but for many simply knowing that such a place exists is important. The open, rolling plains with roaming bison is a distinct scene of the American West. However, this landscape is also a living community of both natural and cultural resources that offers researchers a chance to learn more about the past and plan for the future.

Approximately 75 species of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles live in the Badlands Wilderness, including bighorn sheep, bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and swift fox. In addition, the federally endangered black-footed ferret makes its home in Conata Basin, and numerous bird species inhabit prairie wetlands. The Badlands Wilderness Area provides opportunities for researching many prairie dwellers in their natural environment.

Buried beneath the surface is a story of ancient natural history. The impressive fossil record and geologic formations tell us about a time long before human habitation. According to the paleontologist at Badlands National Park, “The reason why fossils are important here at Badlands is they provide valuable clues to the evolution of the Earth and the evolution of animals through time. We get an important clue on how mammals changed through time, from 37 to about 25 million years ago.


You can enjoy the Badlands in many ways and for many reasons. With proper planning, a backpack may be just the adventure you need, or Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel road, runs near the north boundary of the wilderness area. You can gaze across the wilderness from several awe-inspiring overlooks. Also, you can camp at the primitive Sage Creek Campground, just a few feet from the wilderness boundary.

In addition to sightseeing and backpacking, you can enjoy the primitive qualities of the Badlands Wilderness through photography, hiking, wildlife watching, and horseback riding. No trails traverse the wilderness; you must chart your own cross-country route, so remember to be prepared! Before planning any overnight trips into the wilderness, you should talk to a ranger on duty at the visitor center.

"We enjoy the solitude of the area. It is a humbling place to be." – Visitor comment

"Badlands is special because it offers freedom; freedom to explore, freedom to get close to nature." – Visitor comment


Park staff at Badlands National Park is in the process of drafting a management plan for backcountry and wilderness. Currently, three separate park divisions manage the designated wilderness in the park. The resource management division oversees natural resources such as wildlife, vegetation, soil, water, and air in the wilderness. In addition, the park paleontologist works under this division and manages the large fossil record contained in the wilderness. The resource education division works to educate visitors about the Badlands Wilderness and is responsible for the cultural and archaeological resources (i.e., historic and prehistoric structures, cultural landscapes, and ethnographic resources) located within the wilderness. The resource protection division patrols in and around the wilderness to ensure the safety of park visitors, enforce rules, and safeguard resources. Also, the fee program is part of this division and collects visitor use fees that help fund important projects such as improving facilities and monitoring resources.

The Badlands Wilderness offers high quality visitor experiences. Due to the rough terrain and environment, few venture into the wilderness area. However, those visitors who do enter the wilderness by foot or by horseback are able to experience any level of solitude they desire. Visitors are surrounded by the sights and sounds of the natural environment and are rarely interrupted by others, especially during the off-season winter months. Also, the landscape and dry environment provides both physical and mental challenges, particularly for those brave enough to enter into the badlands formations.

When completed, the wilderness management plan will ensure that visitors have quality wilderness experiences in Badlands National Park. The plan, for the most part, will integrate all aspects of the wildness of the Badlands into a unified whole.

Gila Wilderness

Fast Facts

Important Dates
June 3, 1924 - the Gila was designated wilderness by the Forest Service at Aldo Leopold’s insistence.
1964 - Gila Wilderness became the first Congressionally designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act

Southwestern New Mexico

Managing Agency
USDA Forest Service

558,014 acres, all in New Mexico


Covering about half a million acres, the Gila Wilderness stretches roughly 27 miles from north to south and 39 miles east to west. Variety and complexity rule in the Gila and can be seen in climate, landscape, wildlife, and plant life. During the Gila winter, daytime temperatures are mild, but fall well below freezing at night. From December through February, the high elevations are covered in snow. Summer in the Gila is much hotter, with the highest temperatures in July and August. Frequent heavy rains can produce flash floods in the summer monsoon seasons.

Dramatic changes in elevation (from just under 5,000 feet to over 10,000 feet) factor into the complexity of the Gila’s ecology. With the elevation changes come changes in water availability. Water – both volume and distribution – is the major factor shaping the ecology of the Gila. On some high peaks, about 25 inches of precipitation fall as rain and snow throughout the year. In sharp contrast, seasonal droughts in the lower areas can be so severe that only the hardiest of plants, such as cacti, can survive.

The Gila is an ecological transition zone between the Rocky Mountains and the Chihuahuan desert. In a single hike, a visitor to the Gila can traverse through hot desert stands of mesquite to cooler shaded forests of douglas-fir. Rocky cliffs, high mountains, and flat mesas hide the deep river-cut canyons that host a rich riparian habitat hidden between canyon walls. Here in the Gila’s canyons, sycamore, walnut, maple, ash, cottonwood, alder and willow trees grow beside the waters of life that flow in the river. The native Gila trout swims in the river, along with brown and rainbow trout, catfish and bass. Beavers build dams in the river, and javelina and deer come for drinks. Heron, egrets, dippers, ducks and osprey also make frequent visits to the river.

Between the canyons and the high peaks are the uplands with their mesas and rolling hills. Here on the north-facing cooler slopes ponderosa pines grow in open forests. Mature trees can reach 100 feet into the air, while on the forest floor few seedlings can emerge and survive the layer of ponderosa pine needles. On the south-facing slopes, at lower elevations, pinon-juniper and oak woodlands occur. These woods once offered food such as pinon nuts, manzanita apples, yucca buds, acorns, and juniper berries to the Apache people. Now, black bear, coatimundi, squirrels, bobcats, badgers, raccoons, rabbits, and a wide array of rodents enjoy these foods. The upland region of the wilderness also hosts a checkerboard of grasslands. Here, white-tailed deer, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, and antelope graze.


In the Gila, past and present are undeniably connected. Some historians credit the Apache people with helping to preserve the wilderness. The Apache arrived in the area between 1200 and 1600 A.D. They spent time hunting and gathering, did some farming, and mined copper and turquoise. Fierce warriors, the Apache protected their land deep into the 19th century. Because of their fierce guardianship, southern New Mexico saw little development.

It was the wildness of this land that struck a young forester, named Aldo Leopold, when he made his first visit to the Gila in 1915. No roads marred the land, and Leopold dedicated the next decade of his life towards the Gila’s designation as wilderness by the United States Forest Service. In 1924, a portion of the Gila National Forest became the country’s first official wilderness area, a major step toward developing a national system for preserving wilderness. Later in 1964 when the Wilderness Act was passed, the Gila became the nation’s first Congressionally designated wilderness area.


Recreational opportunities abound in the Gila. A popular destination for backpackers and hikers, the Gila offers miles of trails through wilderness. For such a wild and rugged terrain, access to the Gila is remarkably easy. Paved roads lead to the edge of the wilderness where visitors can catch more than 50 trailheads. Short day hikes and longer hikes, tens of miles long, are available. Visitors can enjoy fishing, hunting, horseback riding, camping, and more. Adventurous visitors can soak in hot springs or explore ancient cliff dwellings. Like other wilderness areas, the goal is to keep the Gila as un-impacted as possible, so all visitors should be aware of the Leave No Trace Land Ethic and follow it’s seven principles when recreating in the wilderness.


Wilderness.net: http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=wildView&wid=205

USDA Forest Service: http://www2.srs.fs.fed.us/r3/gila/about/overview.shtml

Gila Wilderness Trunk: http://carhart.wilderness.net/docs/resources/gila_trunk.htm


Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area


One expects contrast in the New York metropolitan region—in the arts, the local ethnic cultures, the way people dress, the specialty cuisines offered by restaurants with brightly colored signs and lights at night. The high contrast between tall buildings and city parks is pleasant, but it pales when compared to the contrast between the metropolis and the wilderness that exists only 26 miles (42 km) from Times Square, in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area.

Where more than 40 million people live within a day’s drive, in the middle of northern New Jersey, a wilderness was created where an airport might have been. Today, standing within the Great Swamp’s borders, the only evidence of civilization you might encounter is the sound of an airplane high above blending with the wind, the song of insects, and the whistles, warbles, and toots of the avian community. Being in this place is rejuvenating in an entirely different way from sitting on a city park bench: with a bit of imagination you can be transported back to a time when wilderness, rather than civilization, ruled.

Interview with Tom McFadden, Outdoor Recreational Planner, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Hi. I’m Tom McFadden. I’m the Outdoor Recreation Planner at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge located in Morris County, New Jersey… I’ve attended wilderness courses out West and all over, and whenever I go there they want me to give them a program on the wilderness area here. I see people that have just been exposed to western wilderness sit there with their mouth open when I'm showing them slides and telling them what its like back here, back east, because its such, its such a different thing … it’s a much smaller wilderness area. I tell people its 3,660 acres, where out in the west we have wilderness areas that are a million acres. So size is a big difference. Plus the fact that I tell them that its surrounded by urbanization, people’s backyards, roadways and all that, they have a hard time believing that because most of the areas out west that are wilderness areas, well, once you get to the boundary its still wild on the other side.


Formed 25,000 years ago by the Wisconsin Glacier, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area is what remains of a large lake, formed by the scouring action of glacial ice, and ultimately drained by a river outlet once the glacier had receded. The bed of the lowland area was surrounded by small hills; as the low point in the watershed, it was fed by brooks and tributaries that brought silt. The silt filled portions of the basin, creating firmer, drier areas; over thousands of years a region of mixed swamps, grassy hummocks, and wooded areas was formed. The Great Swamp is still the source of the river, now called the Passaic, and is home to more than 244 species of birds, 39 species of reptiles and amphibians, 29 species of fish, 33 species of mammals, and more than 600 species of plants.

Interview with Tom McFadden, Outdoor Recreational Planner, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

40, 000 years ago, geologists estimate, the Wisconsin Glacier reached its furthest southern point, which was the Great Swamp. As it retreated, it created and gouged out what’s now the Great Swamp, which was an ancient lake. 10,000 years ago, they tell me that the lake began to drain out. Geologists call that lake the Ancient Lake Passaic. Ancient Lake Passaic was approximately 240 to 260 foot in depth and was about 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. As the glacier retreated, outlets formed, and one of them was the Passaic River, which drained the swamp. And that’s how Great Swamp came about.


As the first designated wilderness area in 1968, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area is currently under the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the preceding years to its designation, a torrent of activity and passion involving thousands of people and millions of dollars resulted in 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) being purchased and donated in a successful attempt to block the construction of a fourth major regional airport by the New York Port Authority. Over time, most of the roads in the wilderness area were dismantled or abandoned, and all of the old farms and residences were razed. Additionally, landfills and industrial sites were reclaimed. Now only hiking trails and paths, which once were old roadbeds, remain.

Interview with Tom McFadden, Outdoor Recreational Planner, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

When the refuge was being created back in the ‘60s, the New York Port Authority wanted to build a fourth jet port in this area… The people in the area did not want to have that, so they formed what was known back then as the New Jersey, well, as now, as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation along with the Great Swamp committee. People from all over the country donated money, and that was the beginning of the Great Swamp. They donated 3,000 acres of land to the Department of the Interior, which decided to make it a National Wildlife Refuge. However, they still wanted more protection against the New York Port Authority … There were old farms in the area, paved roads etcetera, and they had all that taken out until they created a 3,660 acre area of land with no structures at all. Congress then designated it as a National wilderness area in 1968, thus making it the first wilderness area east of the Mississippi in the Department of Interior.

Today, 3,660 acres (1,481 ha) of the approximately 7,600-acre (3,076-ha) refuge in Morris County, New Jersey, is protected as designated wilderness. In a few virgin areas referred to as knolls, which were not originally swampy, one can still find large old oak and beech trees. The areas that had previously been developed are characterized by relatively new growth, but have had sufficient time to revert to thriving, wild ecosystems, where the effects of local development have minimal impact on wildlife. Water coming into the swamp from local tributaries and runoff from the surrounding developed land contains both natural and synthetic impurities and pollutants. However, water flowing out of the swamp and into the Passaic River is clean. This metamorphosis speaks for the purifying effect of earth systems preserved in wilderness areas. Vigilant testing by a network of sampling and monitoring stations shows that the water flowing out of the swamp is relatively free of impurities and pollutants.

Some indigenous species, namely the blue-spotted salamander and the bog turtle, are also indicators of water quality. That the populations of both the blue-spotted salamander (a threatened species) and the bog turtle (a federally endangered species) are either stable or recovering in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area is an indication that the land’s regenerative power is not overwhelmed by surrounding developments.

Interview with Craig Bitler - Wildlife Biologist, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

We are doing habitat management, we’re just starting habitat management for the bog turtle. We had more bog turtles historically and then the vegetation of red maples grew up and shaded out these areas that they like, so we have to go in now this winter on the ice when the turtles are hibernating and we’re going to cut these red maples and drag them out of the areas that have historically been used by the bog turtles, and that will bring in more bog turtles and the ones that are here will breed more readily then, you know, if the habitat is suitable.


In some places, the wilderness must be managed to protect the indigenous threatened or endangered species. Volunteers cut red maples to limit shade in areas inhabited by the bog turtle, to satisfy its preference for socializing in the sun. In other areas, habitat is left undisturbed, but local animal populations are monitored. Every winter, a team of volunteers is lead out on foot over the frozen swamp to service the 300 wood duck boxes maintained by the refuge. The swamp is a stopping point for about 250 migrating species of birds: the World Series of Birders has held competitions in the swamp on account of the variety of species.

Interview with Craig Bitler - Wildlife Biologist, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

We have the usual for this area, of course, whitetail deer, turkeys, we have quite a bit of water foul because of the wetlands. We have the mallards, and pin tails, and wigeon, gadwall, quite a variety, passerines and migratory birds. It’s a very hot spot for birds, we have about 250 / 240 species of migratory birds that come through. And of course we have the usual, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, river otter, things like that, mink…. We do have one endangered species, the bog turtle, B-O-G turtle. It’s a small turtle, and its federally listed. We were out surveying this year, we found four of them, but that was a lot of survey work to catch for, and we caught, and marked and released them. So that’s the only endangered - federally endangered - species we have. We have a number of state endangered species, uh great blue heron, red shouldered hawk, I don’t have them all memorized but they’re state endangered.

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area is subject to both plant and animal invasive species. Successful strategies for dealing with some invasive plant species exist, such as the long-term study that resulted in the cultivation and introduction of the Galerucella beetle from Europe, which eats only purple loosestrife, a ubiquitous invasive weed. While investigators look for new biological controls for other invasive plant species, some species must be controlled immediately with spot spraying. Of invasive animals, one could say that Homo sapiens is perhaps the most difficult to manage. Refuge officials patrolling the borders of the wilderness often find human impacts and encroachments, such as dumping, tree cutting, construction, or other unauthorized uses.

The wilderness area in the Great Swamp is surrounded by private residences to the north, east, and south, and runs right up to a two-lane road that divides it from the refuge to the west. Many area residents appreciate the existence and proximity of such a beautiful wilderness respite, including a volunteer organization called Friends of the Great Swamp. Created in 1999, Friends of the Great Swamp has more than 300 members. The group coordinates events to raise local public awareness of this wilderness treasure, helps with trail cleanup and maintenance, and raises money for such enhancements as educational kiosks at the wilderness trail entrances. On September 11, 2004, Friends of the Great Swamp held a “Walk for Wilderness” at the Great Swamp to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Interview with Laurel Gould - Volunteer, Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

My name is Laurel Gould and I am the treasurer with the Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge here in northern New Jersey. Our Friends group is about five years old, established in 1999, entirely made up of volunteers and our main mission is to support the Great Swamp National Swamp Wildlife Refuge in any way that they can use our services. Some of the things that we’ve done include raising money for some viewing scopes at our heron rookery so that the public can have a good, close-up look at the great blue herons. We’ve also done a number of clean-ups, including some in the wilderness area where we pick up manmade debris and take it out so the area goes back to wild. We also do trail maintenance in the wilderness area. We use hand tools, clippers, hammers to put the blazes back up but we try and maintain the character of the wilderness by not using any chainsaws or other automated tools. We also do a number of educational events. We do group tours for schools and scouts, and we also have a number of programs during the year, both in conjunction with the refuge and independent - to help raise public awareness about this incredible resource that is 26 miles from Time Square, is what we say, but a wilderness and a refuge in the middle of an urban area.

As quiet as it is in the center of the wilderness area, one would not guess the amount of energy that personnel put into managing and restoring the area and developing opportunities for its access and appreciation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel work diligently on many projects: superfund site restoration, land acquisition, trail building, boardwalk construction, invasive species control, indigenous species restoration, and restoration of wetland and upland habitats and vernal pools. As if that were not enough, the refuge has just acquired a property on which they will build their new visitor facility.


Wilderness areas in the eastern United States typically do not rival those of the West, in terms of size and grandeur. In contrast to wild, western backcountry, whose borders blend seamlessly into the surrounding privately owned land, the Great Swamp is an island refuge floating between urbanity and suburbia. If it were not for the Great Swamp refuge and wilderness, urban and suburban dwellers from a very densely populated area would not have access to a first-hand understanding of the natural ecosystem. Small as it is, which makes it even more precious, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area provides a stark transition, for so many people, between raw nature and the beautiful, highly manicured and intensely managed surroundings of suburbia and the metropolis. Here, wilderness meets the road.


Mount Logan Wilderness Area

Just north of the Colorado River on the periphery of the Grand Canyon, the 14,680-acre (5,941-ha) Mount Logan Wilderness Area sits in the midst of the Uinkaret Mountains in Arizona, part of the Colorado Plateau Physiographic Province. An area of volcanic origin, Mount Logan (named by John Wesley Powell) contains basalt ledges, ponderosa pine forests, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and a large, colorful, naturally eroded amphitheater known as Hell’s Hole. In the Southwest, Mount Logan and other volcanic mountains are known as “ Islands in the Sky” because they are at a relatively high elevation and rise above the surrounding area. The coolness of the locale and the availability of water provide an important habitat for migrating wildlife, especially neo-tropical migratory birds and a variety of other wildlife species.

The remote location and barriers created by topography and vegetation combine to provide outstanding opportunities for solitude. Rugged and secluded, this area is surrounded by one of the largest, un-fragmented stretches of sparsely developed lands in the contiguous United States. To experience an area this remote takes time - at least 2½ hours on a rough dirt road just to get to the wilderness boundary. Lack of services, need for a high clearance vehicle, and the requisite time it takes to prepare for a safe trip limits visitation but provides excellent opportunities for hiking, primitive camping, hunting, and photographing unobstructed views of interesting landforms and sweeping vistas.

The lands found within and surrounding Mount Logan Wilderness constitute much of the central mass of the Uinkaret Mountains, a chain of dormant cinder cones, lava flows, and basalt-capped mesas displaying five different periods of volcanism. The older basalt flows lay atop foundational remnants of the Moenkopi Formation and small traces of the Chinle Formation. Hell’s Hole best displays not only the colorful nature of the Moenkopi, but also its vulnerability to erosion when not protected by its basalt cap. The resulting topography is one of high relief, rounded cones, steep slopes, abrupt rims, and several small areas of gentle, sloping terrain atop the basalt flows.

Generally, sagebrush and grasses dominate the lower elevations, with nearly pure stands of pinyon and juniper growing on slopes. At higher elevations in pockets where greater moisture accumulates, small stands of aspen, shrub oak, and locust flourish. The gently sloped summit of Mount Logan supports a ponderosa pine forest.

The various vegetative zones provide wildlife habitat to many permanent and seasonal species. Notable but nonnative residents include the bushy tailed, tassel-eared Kaibab squirrel, and the wily Merriam’s turkey. Native species include mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, golden eagles, various hawks, and even occasionally black bear.

Evidence of prehistoric and historic human use and habitation contribute a different perspective to the wilderness area’s values. The mountains of the Uinkaret Plateau have been exposed to thousands of years of human activity, all of which were dependent on the diverse natural resources the mountain offered: game, wild plants, water, fertile soil, timber, minerals, and grass. As early as 2600 B.C., humans occupied the region leaving only split twig figurines in dry rock shelters to acknowledge their presence. About A.D. 1, horticulture appeared. Over the centuries, this group known as the Ancestral Puebloeans left abundant evidence of their occupation of these mountains in the form of small and large habitation sites, agricultural features, campsites, and rock art. The initial date for the Southern Paiute occupation is not known with certainty, but ethnographic evidence confirms their presence during John Wesley Powell’s first Colorado River expedition in 1870. Subsistence patterns show dependence on hunting, gathering, and horticulture. The Southern Paiute are still at home in northwestern Arizona . The first recorded Euro-exploration of the Uinkaret Mountains was the Powell expedition; Mormon Indian missionary Jacob Hamblin and a party of whites and Kaibab Paiutes accompanied the group. Members of the second Powell expedition of 1871–1872 further explored and mapped the region. Mormon pioneers began to enter the area at the same time to exploit the grass for livestock and timber for buildings. Human activities changed the Uinkaret Mountains during and following the timber harvests. After the commercial sawmill operations closed, livestock grazing remained the predominant activity. Recreation - deer hunting, undeveloped camping, sightseeing - began to emerge as a more significant activity in the 1950s.

For decades, lighting-caused fires caused ponderosa pine vegetation communities to evolve. The resulting stand structure was one of large, scattered, old trees (30–50 trees per acre), scattered pockets of young trees, and an understory of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Late in the 19th century, the pioneers began logging the large old trees at Mount Logan to build the Latter-day Saints Temple in Saint George. They continued to harvest large trees for about 30 years to build the city of Saint George . Livestock grazing, both cattle and sheep, followed at the turn of the 20th century, and continues to date. Because of so many animals, the grasses, forbs, and shrubs were heavily grazed. However, the new pine seedlings were not grazed and because fires were suppressed, the seedlings were able to grow and become the dense forest we know today (400–500 trees per acre). Past management activities of harvesting large trees, heavy grazing, and fire suppression have left a forest—an important habitat—and a wilderness at considerable risk of loss to catastrophic fire.

The Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 recognized the social and ecological value of these islands in the sky, and set them aside to protect the wilderness characteristics that include a high degree of naturalness, outstanding opportunities for solitude, and opportunity for primitive recreation. Although livestock grazing, fire suppression, and wildlife management continue, management emphasizes protection of wilderness characteristics as a priority over other uses. Designation of Mount Logan Wilderness will help assure these values are retained for future generations.

Management History

For nearly 50 years, the USDA Forest Service managed lands in the Mount Logan area as part of a detached unit of the Kaibab National Forest, primarily for small timber sales, wildlife, and undeveloped recreation. In 1974 the area transferred to the Arizona Strip Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to improve administration efficiency. Mount Logan was included in the National Wilderness Preservation System on August 28, 1984, by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 after six years of inventory and study.

On January 11, 2000, Mount Logan Wilderness became part of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (Parashant), an area of more than 1 million acres (404,700 ha) set aside by President Clinton to protect the array of scientific and historic objects, and the remote, scenic qualities of the area. The proclamation placed the monument under joint management by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These two agencies are tasked with administering the monument cooperatively - consistent with applicable laws, and whatever resources are necessary to properly manage the land. Thus, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management collaboratively manage both BLM designated wilderness and NPS proposed wilderness on the monument, incorporating the best management practices of each agency. The National Park Service continues to have primary management authority over 212,372 acres (85,947 ha) within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area–portion of the monument and the Bureau of Land Management continues to have primary management authority over 807,241acres (32,669 ha) of BLM lands. Contiguous to Mount Logan Wilderness Area are proposed wilderness areas on the NPS portion of the monument and proposed and designated wilderness areas of other NPS and BLM units totaling 1,555,811 acres (629,637 ha) - an impressive area to explore.

Since wilderness designation, this area is managed primarily to maintain and preserve wilderness characteristics. Mount Logan Wilderness is managed using three visitor use classes, referred to as “Recreation Opportunity Spectrum.” Each class has its own narrative description that expresses the objectives to achieve, maintain, or enhance the qualities of each area:

Class I (3,530 acres [1,429 ha])—areas virtually untouched by humans with few visitors
Class II (9,053 acres [3.664 ha])—highly natural areas where future primitive recreation is encouraged
Class III (2,025 acres [820 ha])—areas where past human influences on the land are still present and where the majority of visitor use occurs

The strategy for establishing opportunity classes involves “limits of acceptable change.” By focusing on desired conditions, the limits of acceptable change direct how much human-induced change will be allowed and where and what management action may be needed for control.

With the designation of Mount Logan Wilderness Area came acknowledgment that portions of the Uinkaret Mountains possessed wilderness values. This value list is extensive and sundry, and means many things to many people. For some it is a place where they can escape—an opportunity for solitary experiences and a variety of primitive types of recreation, or perhaps it is a place to go for a secluded picnic. For others it is an outdoor laboratory where they as scientists can obtain natural and cultural resource information. In addition, students can experience firsthand the wonders of nature and understand the importance of preserving wild areas. Regardless of the perspective, the intangible, tangible, and economic values of protected areas like Mount Logan Wilderness are clear; they are the centerpiece of conservation and preservation of biodiversity and environmental quality.


Olympic Wilderness
Forest Service and National Park Service Wilderness


The Olympic Peninsula in western Washington is a region of spectacular beauty and rare natural wonders; it contains a remarkable range of landscapes—from the Olympic Mountains with peaks rising above 7,900 feet (2,408 m), to the rugged Pacific coastline at sea level. Within the wildernesses of the Olympic Peninsula you can find glacier-draped mountains, alpine meadows, moss-covered temperate rain forests, canyons carved by powerful rivers, lowland forests in the mountains’ rain shadow, and coastal areas where tide pools and sea stacks dominate the landscape.

The National Park Service manages Olympic National Park ( www.nps.gov/olym) and the USDA Forest Service manages Olympic National Forest ( www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic), which constitutes all of the designated wildernesses on the Olympic Peninsula. When considered together, the wilderness areas in the Olympic Mountains form the largest roadless and un-fragmented wilderness in the lower 48 states.

The landscapes of the Olympic Peninsula are unlike any other in the United States . Three large bodies of water surround three sides of the Olympic Peninsula. To the west lie the Pacific Ocean and the coastal strip of wilderness. The Strait of Juan de Fuca lies to the north and Puget Sound lies to the east. The waters of Puget Sound separate the Olympic Peninsula geographically from the rest of Washington State .

In the 1800s when industry and towns started developing in Washington , Puget Sound formed a water barrier between the Olympic Peninsula and growing port cities such as Seattle and Tacoma . The relative isolation of the Olympic Peninsula slowed the pace of development in the region. The steep mountains and dense forests of the peninsula remained largely undisturbed into the early 1900s. The remoteness and rugged landscape left vast areas of untouched wilderness in the Olympics.

Natural Features of Olympic Wilderness Areas

Wilderness trails lead through the high mountains among glaciers and alpine meadows. They also lead through deep moss-strewn rain forests along the Hoh River and follow the rocky western coastal strip. Additionally, trails lead into remote old-growth cedar and hemlock forests on the eastern slopes.

Take a virtual hike and discover the wilderness.

Alpine wilderness

Mount Olympus is the highest peak in the Olympic Mountains , reaching an elevation of 7,965 feet (2,428 m) above sea level. Many nearby peaks reach elevations above 6,000 feet (1,819 m). The Olympic Mountains receive about 250 inches (635 cm) of precipitation per year (more than 100 feet [30 m] of snow!). Mount Olympus has the third largest glacial system in the conterminous United States , after Mount Rainier and Mount Baker , also in Washington State .

The alpine forests are characterized by silver fir, Alaska yellow cedar, and western hemlock. Many of the trees on exposed ridges are twisted and dwarfed by the biting cold and deep snows of winter. This dwarfed tree habitat, called krummholz, is a surreal landscape. When protected, these strange, low-growing trees can become well established and live for thousands of years.

Early summer is a wonderful time to explore the alpine wilderness, as this is when the alpine meadows explode with wildflowers. The endemic Olympic marmot and Olympic ermine can be seen among rock strewn slopes. As wildlife begins to emerge from their long winter’s sleep the sounds of animals seem to be everywhere in the alpine terrain.

 Temperate rain forest wilderness

The temperate rain forests on the western flank of the mountains are a complex mosaic of moss, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar. These forests shelter a phenomenal array of plant and animal species. The lushness of the terrain is largely due to the climate. This region receives 140 to 180 inches (356 to 457 cm) of precipitation annually. The Hoh River valley is renowned for its lush, moss-draped forests and giant old-growth trees. The Hoh Forest trail offers a firsthand experience of the majesty of this ancient grove.

The Pacific coast

The coastal strip of Olympic National Park protects one of the most pristine coastal habitats in North America . This wilderness runs 48 miles (77 km) down the coast and can be accessed by a boardwalk trail near Ozette Lake or a short trail to Rialto Beach near the town of La Push . Coast highlights include tide pools filled with colorful sea life, views of humpback whales, old shipwrecks, and Native American petroglyphs.

Lowland forests of northern and eastern slopes

The temperate forest environments that lay to the north and east of the mountains are greatly affected by the rain shadow that the high mountain peaks create. Winds that blow in from the ocean drench the western slopes with abundant rainfall and fog. By comparison, the eastern slopes remain relatively dry. The northern slopes receive much less snow and rain than the western slopes (between 20 and 80 inches [51 and 203 cm] per year). The Sol Duc, Elwha, and Gray Wolf Rivers are prominent features on the northern slopes of the Olympics. The Sol Duc River is renowned for its hot springs and many alpine lakes that lie near the headwaters of the river. The Elwha River is renowned for its beautiful and easily accessible waterfalls.


The mountains in the Olympics were shaped by a number of geologic processes and a series of geologic events over the past 200 million years. The Olympics were formed by volcanic and tectonic forces. Recognition that Earth’s surface is composed of a dozen or so major plates that move either away from, toward, or laterally past an adjacent plate provides an explanation for the mechanical forces needed to create mountains and other tectonic features like those in the Olympic region. Like a giant conveyor belt, an oceanic plate delivers material to a subduction zone [Link to Glossary] where it is welded onto the edge of the North American plate. Additionally, a group of Hawaii-like seamounts formed as plate movement slowed. The slices of rock called terranes or melanges have been jammed under one another forming a package of sedimentary and volcanic rocks. More recently, four ice-age periods have built up massive glaciers in the Olympics and dramatically sculpted the landscape. At times these glaciers extended all the way down to the coast and completely filled the lowland valleys. Warming periods that followed each ice age caused the glaciers to retreat up the valleys. Meltwater flowing out from the glaciers, along with heavy precipitation, carved the steep river canyons that we see in the Olympics today.

Olympic wilderness history

In America in the early 1900s a sentiment was growing that places of extraordinary beauty and historical importance should be protected and managed for the benefit of all people. The National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage such places, which Americans viewed as national treasures. Early in the 1900s the value of the Olympic landscape was recognized by the U.S. government.

The Olympic Peninsula was largely undeveloped in the early 1900s. When Olympic National Park was created in 1938, vast areas of land in the Olympics were still natural and untouched wilderness. Today, the National Park Service and USDA Forest Service protect and manage much of the land in the Olympics.

To see a timeline detailing the history of wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula, go to the “Olympic wilderness history timeline.”

Olympic wilderness history timeline

1897—President Grover Cleveland establishes the Olympic Forest Reserve under the management of the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Forestry. The reserve is created to protect the vast timber resources on the Olympic Peninsula and covers 2 million acres (809,400 ha) of forest and mountain terrain—more than half of the peninsula.

1901—Olympic Forest Reserve is reduced by 1,076,960 acres (435,846 ha) and returned to the public domain. Soon timber companies purchase large portions of land and homesteaders settle a small percentage of land.

1905—Congress transfers the forest reserves from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The Bureau of Forestry becomes known as the Forest Service, the first of many federal bureaus to adopt the designation of “Service.”

1907—Throughout the country “forest reserves” are renamed “national forests;” Olympic Forest Reserve becomes known as Olympic National Forest.

1909—President Theodore Roosevelt designates a large part of Olympic National Forest as the Mount Olympus National Monument to create a sanctuary for the Roosevelt elk herds.

1930—Olympic Primitive Area is established by the Forest Service to protect 134,240 acres (54,327 ha) of roadless wilderness.

1933—President Franklin D. Roosevelt transfers management of the Mount Olympus National Monument to the National Park Service. The monument consists primarily of high mountain terrain.

1938—Olympic National Park is established to manage 634,000 acres (25,658 ha) of forest and high mountain terrain in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula and to protect diminishing herds of Roosevelt elk, disappearing old-growth forests, and the spectacular beauty of the Olympic Mountains.

1953—A coastal strip, 50-mile (80-km) stretch of land along the Pacific coast, is added to Olympic National Park.

1984—Congress passes the Washington State Wilderness Act of 1984 creating five wildernesses on the Olympic National Forest with a total of 91,515 acres (37,036 ha).

1987—Boundary adjustment between Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park converts 3,250 acres (1,315 ha) of forest wilderness to Olympic National Park. The adjustment changes total acreage of forest wilderness from 91,515 acres (37,036 ha) to 88,265 acres (35,721 ha).

1988—Congress passes Public Law 100-668, designating 876,669 acres (354,788 ha)—96% of Olympic National Park—as the Olympic Wilderness. This acreage includes 48 miles (77 km) of the coastal strip added in 1953.

2004—Olympic National Park manages a total of 901,888 acres (364,994 ha), and the USDA Forest Service manages a total of 632,324 acres (255,902 ha) of the Olympic Peninsula. Designated wilderness within Olympic National Forest covers 88,265 acres (35,721 ha)—approximately 15% of Olympic National Forest. The wilderness areas contained in the Olympic National Forest are generally located on high-elevation mountainous and forested slopes that border the boundaries of the Olympic Wilderness managed by the National Park Service. The two agencies together manage one of the largest contiguous forest ecosystems in the United States .

Cooperative management of Olympic wilderness

Olympic wilderness provides a superior example of how the USDA Forest Service and the National Park Service have come together to share information and strategies for better management of wilderness areas. Wilderness management in the Olympics has been a growing relationship between these two bureaus. By sharing environmental research, modern forestry principles, information gathered on plants and wildlife, and “on-the-ground” management experiences, the two bureaus have been able to learn from each other and improve the way that wilderness areas in the Olympics are managed.

Differences occur, however, in how the wilderness areas in the Olympics are managed on the ground. The mission and guiding policies of each bureau vary, and their wilderness management plans were developed independently. However, although an inherent tension exists in finding a balance between protecting and providing access to the natural wonders of the wilderness, both the Forest Service and Park Service have developed strategies for balancing public access to the wilderness, recreation opportunities, and resource use with protection of historic sites, plants, and wildlife. Over the years, both the USDA Forest Service and the National Park Service have learned from each other and developed more effective ways of managing the wilderness areas under their jurisdiction.

The difference in management strategies between the USDA Forest Service and the National Park Service is due in large part to the percentage of total land that has been designated as wilderness within each bureau. Olympic National Park is 96% designated wilderness, while Olympic National Forest is 15% designated wilderness. The park wilderness receives heavy visitation, particularly on certain alpine and coastal trails. Hence, the National Park Service has to balance their obligation of maintaining trails and opportunities for visitors to explore the wilderness while ensuring the health and wild qualities of the wilderness. For this reason their management of the wilderness is more “hands-on” than many national forest wilderness areas. Within Olympic National Forest, the wilderness areas are in high mountains surrounded by thousands of acres of forest land that is managed for a combination of logging, recreation, and forest research. The wilderness areas in the national forest are buffered from external impacts because of their remote locations, and they generally receive much less visitation than the national park wilderness. Many national forest wilderness areas have few trails, for example, the remote Wonder Mountain Wilderness has no trails at all, and the trails that are present are not maintained to the same degree as the park wilderness trails.

The Olympic Peninsula is considered one of the great jewels of North America . The Olympic ecosystem has been recognized as both a World Heritage Site (in 1972) and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (in 1979) because of rare and unique natural environments, rich diversity of plant and animal life, and the cultural heritage of the region. Only eight areas in the United States are recognized as both a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Just offshore the Olympic coast lie Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge and Quillayute National Wildlife Refuge, both of which are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Farther to the west lies the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These intertidal and ocean habitats have not been designated as wilderness, but are certainly part of the same ecosystem. Because the ecosystem crosses boundaries, concerted efforts among the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA have proven vital to protecting the coastal ecosystem. Cooperation among these federal agencies has developed over the years.

USDA Forest Service wilderness areas

The USDA Forest Service manages five designated wildernesses on the Olympic Peninsula: Buckhorn, Mount Skokomish , The Brothers, Wonder Mountain , and Colonel Bob. All of these wildernesses, totaling 88,265acres (35,721 ha) of designated wilderness, are part of Olympic National Forest, which receives more than 1.2 million visitors each year. Many visitors stay in one of the 19 national forest campgrounds, which all lie outside designated wilderness areas. However, many of these campgrounds provide easy access to trails leading into wilderness. Olympic National Forest has more than 260 miles (418 km) of trails, with an estimated 88 miles (142 km) of trails within these five wilderness areas. The Wonder Mountain Wilderness is the only wilderness area in the Olympics that has no trails; visitors access Wonder Mountain Wilderness by cross-country hiking only. Forest maps, Northwest Forest Passes, wilderness information, and local information can be obtained at Forest Service offices in Quilcene, Quinault, Forks, and Olympia . Information, permits, and maps about Olympic National Park can be obtained in Port Angeles , Quinault, and Forks.

The following list shows the number of acres (hectares) included in each wilderness:

National Park Service wilderness area

The Olympic Wilderness, managed by the National Park Service, is Washington 's largest wilderness area. This wilderness covers 876,669 acres (354,788 ha)—96% of Olympic National Park. Olympic National Park includes a coastal strip along the Pacific coastline that is approximately 50 miles (80 km) long by 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and about 35,000 acres (354,788 ha). In 1988, 48 miles (77 km) of this coastal stretch was designated as part of the Olympic Wilderness.

The Olympic Wilderness is one of the most popular wilderness destinations in North America . In 2003, more than 60,000 visitors camped overnight in the wilderness. Thousands more visited the wilderness in day hike excursions. Many things draw people into the Olympic Wilderness: to hike to spectacular views, to see wildlife and giant old-growth trees, to camp in remote areas, and to enjoy quiet solitude.

Olympic National Park has about 600 miles (965 km) of trails, which range from short and easy hikes that lead to waterfalls and scenic overlooks, to extremely difficult trails that lead into high alpine terrain and the glacier fields. Trail maps and general park information can be obtained at the main park visitor center in Port Angeles , or at the Hurricane Ridge or Hoh Rain Forest visitor centers.

Wilderness camping permits are required for all overnight hikes and reservations are required for some areas. Contact the park’s Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles at 360-565-3100 for more information or for permits and reservations.

Your role

You play an important role in protecting America ’s wilderness areas. When you enter wilderness within Olympic National Park or Olympic National Forest, you will find endless opportunities to explore the many wonders that this landscape has to offer. Hike along the mountain trails and observe the explosion of spring wildflowers or fall mushrooms. Listen for the calls of Olympic marmots, northern spotted owls, or Roosevelt elk. Look for the tracks of wild animals that have crossed the same path as you. When you explore the coast, hear the sounds of rolling waves and watch for whales, seals, and intertidal animals that make this place their home.

Wilderness areas shelter many plants and animals that have been driven from more developed lands, and these habitats are vital to the survival of many threatened and endangered species. Wilderness is a refuge for both humans and wildlife. Wilderness areas, such as those found on the Olympic Peninsula, ensure the legacy of natural beauty that makes America such a special place.


Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness Area

You stand as straight as an arrow, as close as you can against a tall finger of a saguaro cactus. It is the only shade around, barely covering the width of your shoulders, and the air temperature is at least 107°F (42°C). The Sun is scorching and not a single cloud is in the sky. You stand on the bajada, contemplating the fastest way back to air conditioning, and you take in the view. You are acutely aware of the hazards that separate you from civilization: the thorns, the snakes, the scorpions, the heat, and the razor sharp rocks that you swear are melting the bottoms of your boots. You cling to your only water bottle with its precious and life-sustaining fluid.

You start to walk, looking down to negotiate your way through the boulders and you see a line of ants crossing your path. Each ant is carrying a leaf to some certain destination with determination. Wondering where the ants may be going, you carefully step over the miniature convoy. You walk a little further and notice a tiny cactus with a wreath of flowers seemingly perched on its head, smartly camouflaged by the branches of a low-growing bursage. Next to the bursage, you see an agave. Your eyes follow the agave up to the giant stalk hanging over your head and see a cluster of brilliant yellow flowers that must weigh 10 pounds (4.5 kg). You think, “if only it provided a little more shade” and keep moving. A deep throated croak of a call catches your attention as you pass a chainfruit cholla. As you focus on the sound looking for its source, you find a mass of tangled spines perched in the branches of the cactus. Closer inspection confirms your suspicions about this nest, three peeping cactus wren chicks with mouths open wide are waiting for mom or dad to return with lunch. You back away, so as not to disturb.

In front of you, small lizards race away on their toes, keeping their bodies off the hot rocks as they move. Behind you, in the canyons, you hear the unforgettable song from the canyon wren, its notes cascading in succession. Above you black silhouettes of turkey vultures are hovering. These vultures are typecast as ominous, yet to you they appear to be enjoying the flight as they circle, dip, and glide on the heat rising from the Earth. Down slope on the brown landscape you see a line of green - an arroyo, a dry river - that runs parallel to the Ajo Mountains and you head in that direction. Palo verde and mesquite trees find life there. You are surrounded by the sensual delight of nature without having seen nor heard any sign of any other human.

As you descend the slope, the ground changes. The rocks are smaller, less likely to break your ankle, and for this you are thankful. The walking is easier past more saguaro with white blossoms as big as your hand, past organ pipe cactus with tight flower buds that will open for a one-night show, between creosote bushes with their fragrant greenish-yellow waxy leaves. Only moments from true shade, on a black boulder, you see something surprising: a sign or symbol carved into the desert varnish by human hands long gone. It is a petroglyph, the first evidence that you are not the first to cross this way. It is somehow comforting and still lonely. You stop to inspect it and burn your fingers on the dark rock. You are quickly reminded that one of the keys to survival in the desert is to get out of the Sun.

You head to the shade of an ironwood tree, so called because its hard wood is so dense it will sink in water. It is an old tree, a grandmother tree. It has been here next to this wash for hundreds of years, soaking in the monsoon rains and taking nitrogen from the air. This tree is a legume. It has learned the tricks of the green beans and can take care of itself. You look for a place to sit under the tree to take a break and discover that you have to compete with young cactus for a spot in the shade. Saguaros and organ pipe cactus have learned that the grandmother can take care of them as well.

You realize these plants, ants, wrens, reptiles, and vultures do not simply survive here, they thrive like thousands of previous generations. The petroglyph tells you that people too have been choosing to make this place their home, or at least a route of travel. Remembering stories of the Hohokam, the O’odham, and the cowboy ranchers that were here when this place was still a part of Mexico, you make your way down the arroyo towards the road. As you move you are struck by the idea that this is wilderness. People from another time were here, but now little evidence of their passing remains. Nature seems to rule all, unconcerned that these people have come and gone. You too have come, and soon you will go, leaving no trace of your travel because you are only a visitor to this wild place.

You emerge onto the road heading into Alamo Canyon , where you left your salvation. Inserting the key, starting the engine, and kicking the AC on full blast, you make your way back to your own world, aware that you are only a part of something bigger that is happening here. Forces of nature are out of your hands and you can only appreciate the struggles and successes of the life that is found in the Sonoran Desert, on the bajada slopes of wilderness, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.


Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, Point Reyes National Seashore


Imagine a natural landscape historically manipulated by human activities and then restored to a system dominated by natural processes. Welcome to the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, located within Point Reyes National Seashore. Over 100 years of farming and ranching occurred here before it was officially designated a wilderness area in 1976. Those years left a human imprint on the landscape, creating a complex suite of management issues for the National Park Service (NPS).

The official designation of the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area came about through intense local community involvement. In the mid 1970s, the local communities were afraid the recreational aspects of Point Reyes National Seashore would be over-developed, so they lobbied for the wilderness designation. The original proposal then developed by NPS was for the protection of 8,000 acres, but after public meetings and Congress’ decision, the acreage was increased to 32,000 acres of wilderness. The wilderness area was named for Congressman Phillip Burton of California who championed wilderness and protection of parks throughout his life and career.

Importance of this wilderness area

Solitude. Contemplation. Wildness. These are all important reasons to create and preserve wilderness areas and the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area is no exception. Over a hundred miles of trails wind their way through this wilderness, allowing visitors to experience the beaches, forests, ridges, and streams. The trails range from steep, backcountry trails miles from civilization to Bear Valley Trail, a gentle trail starting at the visitor center and cutting through douglas-fir and grassland ecosystems on its way to the coast.

While human impacts are visible in this wilderness area, wildness still abounds. Thirty-two federally-listed threatened or endangered species and another fifty species of concern make their home within the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area. With these and many other species of plants, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area hosts astounding biodiversity.

Not only does the wilderness area have an incredible amount of biodiversity, but it also is highly-accessible to millions of people. The metropolitan centers surrounding the San Francisco Bay are home to around seven million people. For these seven million people, wilderness is only an hour’s drive away, meaning the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area is one of the most accessible wilderness areas in America .

Interview with Dave Schirokauer - Biologist, Point Reyes National Seashore

Here we have a place where 7 million people have easy access to the wilderness. We actually have public transportation running here, so you can go from any of the Bay Area cities, get on a train and a bus, and be at a trailhead of our wilderness area within an hour or two. So this is a place that people initially get to understand what wilderness is all about and experience it on much easier terms than it would be to take a trip up to Alaska . I really feel that’s one of the most significant aspects of our wilderness: it’s very accessible, it’s easy to get to, it’s very user-friendly, and introduces people to that concept of wilderness, yet it’s in their own backyard.

Enjoying wilderness

Wilderness can be enjoyed on many different levels, and in a variety of ways. That’s the beauty of wilderness; the meaning is unique to each person who visits it. Learn how some of the staff at Point Reyes National Seashore view wilderness.

Interview with Shawn Maloney - Trails Leader, Point Reyes National Seashore

I don’t have a favorite part of the wilderness, but the wilderness is my favorite part of the park because it has all of the edges: the coastal edge and the chaparral edge and the forest edge, and that’s where we find the wildlife and that’s where when I go out to do work on the trail I’m bound to find some spectacular wildlife.

Interview with Don Neubacher - Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore

One of my most favorite trails, and it’s an easy hike, and you go from basically a very thick douglas-fir forest to open grassland and to the ocean, is Bear Valley trail, and you kind of do a transect through the park and it’s spectacular. There’s a lot of great sounds, you’re near two creeks, I mean it’s a spectacular walk and everyone should do it. My second favorite hike is going from the Palomarin trailhead, along Inverness Ridge, and back to Bear Valley here at Park Headquarters, and you really should do it.

Wilderness management

Managing this wilderness area presents some unique challenges due to the interactions that humans have with the landscape. Historical structures affect natural hydrologic processes, which in turn affect species dependent on the streams. Invasive species have made their mark on this landscape, where 3 out of every 10 plants are exotic. Noise pollution from aircraft overflights enroute to the San Francisco Bay Area is another impact on the wilderness area and one that people may not notice until they get away from the symphony of other human-made sounds. Fire is a natural process that is being reintroduced to this area. Protecting threatened and endangered species are compounded by these other management issues.

Some human impacts on the landscape come in the form of structures that were constructed with heavy machinery, such as roads, dams, and stream crossings. To properly and efficiently restore the natural hydrologic and biologic processes in the area, sometimes these structures need to be deconstructed. Deconstruction is essentially using the same techniques and tools that were used to construct a structure, but instead to remove the structure from the landscape. Generally, heavy machinery is not considered appropriate for managing wilderness sites. In some cases though, it is necessary for the completion of a restoration project, as deemed by the evaluation of the minimum tool needed. These decisions are made on a case by case basis at the wilderness area.

All restoration projects in the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area aim at returning the landscape to a state where the natural processes can persist. Once these processes are re-established successfully, further restoration efforts are unnecessary.

The Coastal Watershed Restoration Project is a line-item construction project that is focused on road-stream interfaces. The project proposes the removal or replacement of those facilities that would meet fish passage goals and requirements.

Interview with Brannon Ketcham - Hydrologist, Point Reyes National Seashore

In trying to address road crossings within the wilderness, what we’re looking at is trying to remove the facility within the stream channel and surrounding areas, and restore hydrologic connectivity. So we kind of look at that from a fish’s perspective, so if you’re a fish swimming upstream, do you have to jump 1 foot, do you have to jump 10 feet, to get upstream. There are some facilities in the wilderness that we’ve identified as being barriers to fish passage and are not necessarily compatible to wilderness management goals or objectives that we have.

I think one of the major challenges with restoring natural hydrologic process to the wilderness, is doing it in a manner that you treat it once and you’re done with it and in the long-term it will no longer require us to go out and do constant maintenance to keep the facility functioning. We’ll give the system back to the stream or hydrologic process and let those systems prevail.

Horse Trail is a popular horseback-riding trail into the wilderness area that actually follows an old roadbed. Erosion is a major issue with this trail, so wilderness managers are working on a project to remove the old roadbed and return the natural topography to its original form. Deconstruction with heavy equipment will be used to remove the old roadbed. This is a one-time impact, and the single use of machinery will be more effective and less impacting than bringing in hand crews multiple times. The hand crews will be used to create a sustainable train that is outsloped and follows the contours to encourage natural runoff after the road is removed. A patch of invasive grass was also found along the trail, creating another management issue.

Interview with Shawn Maloney - Trails Leader, Point Reyes National Seashore

During the project review process we worked with all of the science staff here at Point Reyes. Everyone from our hydrologist to our biologists and our plant specialists. We spent a lot of time communicating before the project happens in order to make sure we’re covering all the bases.

Interview with Shawn Maloney - Trails Leader, Point Reyes National Seashore

During the project review process we discovered that we had an invasive species here, and we asked for Kim’s help to figure out how to solve that issue.

Interview with Kim Cooper - Biological Technician, Point Reyes National Seashore

The problem is we have this highly invasive grass that is somewhat common in Point Reyes, but there’s very little of it on this trail and we’re concerned that if we have heavy equipment move through it, it will be distributed completely along the trail. So, we’re trying to do some early prevention.

Abbotts Lagoon is a part of the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area where invasive species have a large impact. European beachgrass was introduced here to stabilize the dunes, and it’s very effective. Unfortunately, the natural processes of the coast rely on the shifting of the dunes and their natural sand supply. This means the stabilized dunes are no longer suitable habitat to native species like the endangered snowy plover.

Interview with Kim Cooper - Biological Technician, Point Reyes National Seashore

Hi, I’m Kim Cooper and I work for Point Reyes National Seashore in Vegetation Management. We’re here at Abbotts Lagoon where we have a pretty large coastal restoration project to protect some very rare dune habitat. We are concentrating mostly on European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria), which changes Dune structure to the detriment to the plants and animals here. With invasive plant management we have to prioritize, and we have a lot of European beachgrass and iceplant in the park. It’s not necessarily feasible to remove it all, so we started by mapping it with all the shoreline, which is about 20 miles of shoreline in the Seashore, and we discovered repeatedly that the Abbotts Lagoon area has the largest concentration of pretty intact habitat remaining in the seashore. So, we’re working from the center of that habitat outward and expanding it, and making it larger, for the plants and animals that live here.

A project is underway to remove the European beachgrass, which is one of the more difficult invasive plants to deal with.

Interview with Sarah Allen - Science Advisor, Point Reyes Natinal Seashore

By taking the beachgrass out, you open up the backdune to the plovers where they can retreat to when the chicks hatch. This process includes large equipment coming and digging out this beachgrass. The beachgrass roots can be 4, 5, 6 feet tall. It’s a major effort to remove it, but we’ve had tremendous success just in the first two years of that effort. We cleared about 5 acres and we had 2 nesting snowy plovers the next year in that habitat. It’s not just one species, the western snowy plover, that’s benefiting it’s all the rare dune plants that have also been identified in this coastal strand, which is highly significant. There’s not a lot of places in the United States where there is a native coastal strand remaining. Point Reyes has one of the best examples in the United States, so restoring that habitat, not just a single species, is one of our high priority issues. Coincidentally, this occurs in a wilderness area, so you have heavy equipment coming into wilderness and people are a little horrified, but when you realize you have a short-term effect for a long-term benefit it is highly worthwhile to have this going on. We educate the public. They know that this is a wilderness area. It’s one of the reasons why they hike out there. It’s wild, it’s very wild. We explain why we’re doing this and they’re very supportive of this process.

The fact the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area is coastal wilderness presents another management issue with respect to oil spills. Point Reyes National Seashore sticks out into the Pacific Ocean and acts like a big hook, capturing boats and oil. When an oil spill occurs, the clean up strategy needs to take into account the wilderness regulations.

Interview with Sarah Allen - Science Advisor, Point Reyes Natinal Seashore

Most of the coastal strand in Point Reyes is in wilderness, and that’s unusual. One of the conflicts we run into is that people don’t realize (not just the general public, but a lot of agencies) this is wilderness and when we have oil spills they want to throw in all of the equipment to clean up for a spill. We do want to have these beaches cleaned up, but it has to be done in a measured way with a specific strategy, so that we’re not harming more than we’re helping. We certainly found this out with the Exxon Valdez where the methods used for clean-up, in some cases, caused more damage than the oil itself. We have a long history of oil spills, and we’re working in concert with state agencies and federal agencies on oil spill response and recovery. This is one of the key issues: how to take care of oil spills in wilderness areas. It’s a challenge that I don’t know if other national parks suffer, but we do here quite a bit.

Monitoring the health of the wilderness area

Point Reyes has an extensive long-term monitoring program. Spotted owls, vegetation plots, human impacts, ecological integrity, and public enjoyment are just some of the programs currently in place to monitor the health of the wilderness area and the success of various management techniques. Twenty years of data typically is needed to determine long-term trends. Data has been collected for the past 5 to 10 years, so these long-term tends are starting to surface.

Interview with Don Neubacher - Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore

So we have programs to monitor spotted owls, we have vegetation long-term monitoring plots, we’ve got monitoring systems in place for looking at humans and what impacts they’re having on the wilderness area. So, what we’re try to do comprehensively is look at the long-term trend of the ecological system, but also the aspect of humans: how good is their experience in the wilderness?


Rocky Mountain Proposed Wilderness
Rocky Mountain National Park


What if the mountains could talk? If they could whisper to you on the breeze the amazing things they have witnessed through the millennia? Towering granite peaks were scraped and deep valleys carved by surging rivers of ice. Rushing winds and raging waters further round and chisel the land as time passes. Trickling streams, fed by melting snow, create the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River . Tranquil lakes, deep and filled with icy cold water, reflect the clouds passing overhead. Towering forests grow and the pines stretch tall to greet the warmth of the sun. Pikas and marmots scurry across the summer tundra, storing food for winter. Bighorn sheep climb gracefully on craggy slopes while bull elk bugle in the fall amid stands golden aspens. Birds sing across fields of wildflowers from perches above the meadows.

The mountains may not speak, but in Rocky Mountain National Park your senses will be awakened by the wilderness. Explore the varied environments, along with their geography, plant life and wildlife. Learn about the people who care for the wilderness, and about being a visitor to wilderness. Follow the links below to see Rocky Mountain wilderness up close.

Fast Facts

Important dates
January 26, 1925 Rocky Mountain National Park is established
June 13, 1974 President Nixon introduced an official recommendation to designate much of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness

Globally Important Bird Area - 2000
Trail Ridge Road : All-American Road , National Scenic Byway - September 19, 1996
Biosphere Reserve - October 26, 1976

Between 8,000 feet in montane valleys to 14,259 feet at the top of Long’s Peak
60 peaks above 12,000ft
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the US at 12,183 feet!

The park contained 265,828 acres as of 2003
93% of the park’s acreage, 248,464 acres, is recommended wilderness
Approximately 2,917 acres of the park is designated wilderness

359 miles of trails, mostly in recommended wilderness


A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park will lead an inquisitive visitor through steep terrain and to many scenic vistas renowned throughout the world. Ninety five percent of the park is either designated or recommended wilderness, and most of the park’s 359 miles of trail are in wilderness. The steep topography creates three very different ecosystems in the park, each determined mainly by elevation. Other factors such as aspect, moisture availability, wind exposure, and soil also cause variation in vegetation and wildlife communities through the park. The experience of traveling through these ecological zones would be similar to the changes that would be seen in plant and wildlife communities on a long drive from Denver to northern Alaska .

Rocky Mountain National Park is considered to be a place of extremes, especially when it comes to weather and climate. Moderate conditions are common at elevations below 9,400 feet, but at higher points like Trail Ridge Road or Longs Peak , snow is possible year-round. In the mountains, summer temperatures can reach into the 70s or 80s (degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, but dip into the 40s at night. The Continental Divide runs northwest to southeast through the center of the park atop the high peaks, causing two distinct climate patterns in the park. West of the Divide ( Grand Lake ) air masses move east over the mountains and cool, causing precipitation. About 19.9” of annual moisture in the form of rain and snow fall in Grand Lake . Once the air masses reach the east side of the Continental Divide, they contain less water. As a result, the east side of the divide, Estes Park , receives only about 13 inches of annual precipitation. This difference of precipitation on opposite sides of a mountain range is called the rain shadow effect.

Seasonal weather patterns are very obvious in Rocky Mountain National Park . In the winter months (December through March) the lower elevations receive snow, though usually it is not deep. Higher elevations experience arctic conditions with blizzards, high winds, deep snowpack, and drifts. April and May bring spring to the montane environments between 8,000 and 9,500 feet. Don’t be surprised to see snow, even in late April. Weather this time of year is unpredictable and can alternate quickly between warm and cold, wet and dry. When venturing into the park at this time of year, it is best to dress in layers to be comfortable in a wide array of weather conditions. With the melting of snow and increased sunlight, wildflowers begin blooming. Many trails still hold some snow, and Trail Ridge Road opens in late May. Spring reaches the subalpine elevations between 9,500 and 11,500 feet in June. In the summer months of June, July, and August, wildflowers bloom on the alpine tundra between 11,500 and 13,000 feet. Afternoon thunderstorms are very common, and visitors should be below treeline by noon , for safety from lightning. Temperature drops of 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit can happen frequently at these high elevations. September, October, and November mark the fall season in the park. These months bring clear, crisp air to the park with blue skies and dry weather. Early snowstorms are always a possibility. Aspen leaves trade summer greens for autumn golds in mid-September, and the Elk rut (mating season) spans most of September and October. Winter conditions move into the alpine country, and by mid-October, Trail Ridge Road closes for the rest of the season.

Read below to learn more about the ecosystems of Rocky Mountain National Park .

Montane meadow
Elevation: 5.600 to 9,500 feet

Take a deep breath of cool, clean, crisp mountain air, and smell the hints of earth and pine that ride the current of every breeze. As the sun warms the bark of the ponderosa pines, you can pick up the sweet scent of vanilla in the air. Close your eyes and hear the chattering squirrels, a trickling stream carrying melted snow from high peaks, the cheerful chirps of birds, the creak and sway of branches to rhythms in the wind. Allow your gaze to drift across the landscape before you. Marvel at towering granite peaks, capped with snow and shrouded in mysterious clouds. Watch wildflowers dance in the breeze as they turn their faces towards the morning sun. Bees gather nectar from blooms at your feet, and you glimpse a herd of mule deer as they enjoy a feast of fresh flowers and grasses beyond a nearby stand of aspen.

Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)
Ponderosa pines grow tall in Rocky Mountain National Park . These trees grow in large, open stands on the dry, south-facing slopes where the sunlight is plentiful, but soil moisture is not abundant. Grasses, herbs and shrubs grow between the widely spaced trees. Young trees have a gray-brown bark, and as they age, it becomes cinnamon-red and smells sweet when warmed by the sun. The ponderosa pine has long, green needles that attach to the branches in fascicles, or bundles, of two or three. On the north-facing slopes, the ground is shaded from most of the sun’s drying rays, so soil moisture is more abundant. The trees on these slopes grow much closer together and are more slender than their relatives on the south-facing slopes. Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce also grow on these north-facing slopes.

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
Soils that contain high amounts of moisture can support groves of quaking aspen. The sound of the wind in the leaves of this tree is like water tumbling over rocks in a brook. Aspens have a whitish to yellow-green bark and smooth trunk. In the fall, their leaves turn vibrant shades of gold, drawing visitors to see the display. Aspens provide habitat for birds and insects and hiding places for young deer and elk. In the winter aspen bark becomes food for deer and elk that can’t forage on grasses and shrubs. The aspens also provide shade for conifers that grow beneath them, someday to replace the aspen stand.

Subalpine Meadow
Elevation: 9,000 to 11,000 feet

Gaze up through thick stands of ponderosa pine and watch the tall trunks dancing gracefully as the wind guides their branches. Listen to the flow of life in the stream waters rushing and coursing through the meadow to find their place in the Colorado River . Twigs and needles crunch beneath your feet and the moist scent of fresh soil rises to your nose as you walk through a stand of fir and spruce trees. Stop at a fallen log to watch as insects scurry across the decaying bark and colorful fungi grow in the dark places. Watch squirrels frolic in the trees, and gaze at some scratches on a tree, pondering the presence of bear and mountain lion. Journey higher into the subalpine, and feel the temperature drop and winds pick up. Look at the strange shapes of the trees here. The constant wind has ravaged them and twisted them into ghoulish poses.

Treeline is the elevation at which trees no longer grow. In Rocky Mountain National Park , treeline occurs between 11,000 and 11,500 feet. Just below treeline, the cold winds shape the limber pine into grotesque formations. Seedlings may germinate in thin soil where large rocks provide wind protection. As these trees begin to grow, the powerful winds contort them, and they grow to one side, rather than upward. These strange, low-growing trees are called krummholz. Any growth reaching into the path of the whipping winds is destroyed. Well-established and protected krummholz trees can be several hundred, even a thousand, years old! Between the krummholz and the subalpine forests, the winds are still cold and harsh, but the trees are able to grow upward. Though the trunks of the pine, spruce and fir continue to grow tall, the harsh winds destroy new growth on the windward side and leave branches only on the lee side. Because the branches extend in only one direction from the trunk, these trees are called banner trees or flag trees.

Alpine Tundra
Elevation: 11,000 to 11,500 feet and above

Here, the air is thinner and the winds blow harsh and cold, even with bright sun. Feel the chill on your skin, and the wind rushing past you, unhindered by trees. Here, you are the tallest thing around, save the high mountain peaks. Thin soils host a myriad of tiny wildflowers, and ground hugging plants. Mosses and lichens decorate once-bare soil and rock surfaces. Marvel at the adaptations of these tiny plants as they survive brutally drying winds and frigid temperatures. Clouds appear to rush by above you, and the blue sky seems to be within an arm’s reach. Tiny pikas scurry across the tundra, storing up food for the coming winter. Mighty bighorn sheep forage on craggy slopes as their feet find purchase in surprising places. Elk bugle in the distance, filling the cold air with an eerie sound.

Alpine plants
Tundra plants have adaptations that allow them to survive in this extreme environment of brutal cold and rushing winds. No trees grow at these elevations. Most of the alpine plants are perennials, meaning they live for several years. They are dormant during winters, protected by thick snow, then awaken in spring to bloom and spread seeds. Many of these plants are dwarfed, and they hug the ground to avoid the harsh winds. Some have long tap roots extending deep into rocky soil to hold them in place. Others are colored with vibrant red pigments to convert light from the sun to heat or have dense hairs on their stems and leaves to provide protection from wind. Though these adaptations make the tundra plants seem hardy, the alpine tundra is a fragile environment. Repeated footsteps can destroy tundra plants, leaving thin soil bare and vulnerable to being blown away. Recovery of damaged tundra can take hundreds of years. When hiking across tundra, try to step only on rocks, to avoid damaging the fragile plants. Also, if traveling in a group, spread out and walk in sporadic paths, rather than single-file lines.

Bighorn sheep
After surviving a past of hunting, habitat change, and near extinction, the bighorn sheep are again thriving in Rocky Mountain National Park . As of 2004, as many as 600 of these animals inhabit the park. Like the tundra plants, bighorn sheep have developed adaptations that allow them to survive in the harsh tundra environment. Their keen senses of hearing, smell, and sight allow them to detect distant dangers. Their hooves are specialized – hard on the outside, but soft and flexible on the inside, to help them navigate steep and rocky terrain with ease and grace. In the bitter cold of winter, sheep grow double-layered coats of tan hair that are shed in the spring when temperatures are warmer. Both males and females grow horns, which are retained throughout the animal’s life. The size and shape of the horns can help determine the sex and age of the animal. Females’ horns grow to a point, eight to ten inches long. Males have horns that grow throughout their lives, making a full curl by the age of eight. Males use their horns to demonstrate strength in competition for females in mating season. The males charge one another at speeds of 40 mph, and the clash of their horns can be heard a mile away!

Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to view bighorn sheep, but this species is sensitive to human disturbance. The park asks for your help to protect the sheep by doing the following when you visit:

  • Drive slowly and cautiously on Highway 34 along the north side of Horseshoe Park .
  • Do not enter the "Bighorn Crossing Zone" by vehicle or on foot when sheep are present. Allow the sheep ample space to cross the road.
  • Stay by the roadside when sheep are on the hill or in the meadow at Sheep Lakes.
  • Obey all signs and closures.
  • Do not attempt to approach sheep or make loud noises in their presence.


Though the inspiring vistas and natural landscapes of Rocky Mountain National Park are startling images of wilderness, only 2,917 acres of the park’s 265,770 acres are officially designated as wilderness by Congress. A recommendation to include most of the park’s acreage as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964 was introduced to Congress by President Nixon in 1974. This recommendation included more than 248,000 acres of pristine peaks and valleys, tundra and meadows, forests and streams. Though these vast acres are not designated wilderness, the National Park Service is dedicated to managing the acres as if they were. Ever hopeful, park managers care for these lands to keep them in the most pristine and untrammeled condition, so that when Congress addresses the recommendation, the lands will still embody all of the characteristics and values of wilderness.

Interview with Tim Devine - Wilderness Program Specialist, Rocky Mountain National Park

Currently, at Rocky Mountain National Park, approximately 93% of the park is in the recommendation classification. Our recommendation was forwarded by President Nixon in 1974 to Congress, and it hasn’t been acted on yet. We also have approximately 3000 acres of designated wilderness within the park. That came into the park from a boundary adjustment that we did with the U.S. Forest Service. On our southern boundary is Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. We went from a straight-line, legal, boundary in 1980 to a ridgeline boundary.

People come from all corners of the world to take in the breathtaking views of the Rockies and the Continental Divide. Rocky Mountain National Park stands alone as a place where 60 mountain peaks tower above 12,000 feet and Trail Ridge Road carries visitors to high elevations where they can experience the cold dry alpine tundra. Wilderness extends away from developed areas of the park, and begins less than a quarter-mile from roads. The park encourages visitation to these wilderness areas, and strives to educate visitors about the conditions they will face in the wilderness, and also the land ethic that applies to these areas.

Come. Experience the Rocky Mountain wilderness.


Research is a vital part of Rocky Mountain National Park . With so many natural and cultural resources, research projects help managers make decisions about how to best protect these treasures. For decades, Rocky Mountain National Park has attracted researchers of all ages – curious children, hobbyists, and professionals in fields such as forestry, biology, geology, hydrology, and more. The information that comes out of these studies has become an integral tool to managers, as new challenges and pressures from human impacts and changing environment have arisen. Located near Colorado ’s front range developments including Denver , Boulder , and Fort Collins , managers of Rocky Mountain National Park are facing issues related to air and water quality, which are becoming evident through research that has continued for 20 years. Nitrogen deposition, growing elk populations, and the protection of fragile ecosystems are hot topics for research and management.

Interview with Terry Terrell - Science Officer, Rocky Mountain National Park

Every single research permit project that goes on in this park is measured against a certain set of standards, and people do not get permits unless they meet those standards. One of those standards is that the impact on the park’s resources will be negligible. In other words, they might collect some butterflies, or they might collect some plant leaves, but that will have no long-term impact on the park’s resources. Another standard against which each project is measured is that it meets wilderness protocols. In other words, if people are going to sample fish and they use an electric shocker, we evaluate whether they can use one that’s powered by a gas generator or if they have to use batteries. In the situation of a battery-powered electro-fisher, it takes a lot of batteries. If people are going very far into the backcountry, it may be that more people carrying batteries back there are doing more damage to our trails than a short period of a gas generator running. So we do a minimum tool analysis to try to determine what is the absolute minimum tool that can be used for any particular job, and that includes research activities.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established to protect the wide array of cultural and natural resources found there. Research gives managers the best information possible to allow them to make informed decisions as to keeping the park in its most pristine condition. They want the natural splendor of this special place to persist through not only this generation, but future ones as well.

In the spirit of science and education, the National Park Serviceestablished the Continental Divide Research Learning Center in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2001. The center is part of a National Park Service effort to improve science-based management of parks and to increase public awareness of the value of research in parks. Research learning centers are not buildings, but people who partner with others in the education and scientific communities to advance science and education, in this case in Rocky Mountain ecosystems. Publications and projects of the center reach out to both researchers and the general public, connecting them by a shared concern for resources of this alpine area. The Continental Divide Research Learning Center supports research not only in Rocky Mountain National Park but two other national parks in Colorado-Great Sand Dunes National Park and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument . Interested citizens can volunteer their time and skills as research assistants.

Learn more about the Continental Divide Research Learning Center online at http://www.nps.gov/romo/education/CDRLC/index.html

Interview with Terry Terrell - Science Officer, Rocky Mountain National Park

… this is a wonderfully vibrant research program in Rocky Mountain National Park and the contributions that I think the program has made to properly managing wilderness I think have been excellent... There are unlimited opportunities for research. There are always questions. We ask one question, get the answer, and that generates three more questions. Why do people want to do this? How is a better way to do this? How do we better protect our bighorn sheep population? How do we better do restoration so that when people come into our park, come into wilderness, when we have removed a building or a toilet or a road, hoe do we put it back so that in 5 years, 10 years, 50 years, no one will be able to discern the difference between it and a part of the park that has never been impacted by humans.


Management of Rocky Mountain National Park relies on the expertise and help of many people. Some of these are rangers and resource managers who work in the field. Others are writers or administrators who work behind the scenes to enhance resource protection and visitor enjoyment. Still others, such as rangers and interpreters, work with visitors to help them understand the wonders of the park and have a safe visit. Select an interview to hear from some of the people who work in Rocky Mountain National Park .

Interview with Katy Sykes - Assistant to the Superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park

I feel very privileged to be a steward of part of what is the nation’s treasures. I feel that that’s an honor that I can help to maintain what the Wilderness is. I may not be outside working physically in it, but still there’re things that I do, every day I hope, that help protect it in the big scheme of things.  

Interview with Dale Kosewick - Back Country Office Seasonal Manager, Rocky Mountain National Park

My trip may not be their trip. And we have leading questions that we ask them… Do you prefer to stand at the bottom of a mountain looking up? Or the top of a mountain looking down? Do you prefer waterfalls or lakes? Give us an idea of how many miles you’re used to doing at home, where it’s flat, so we can cut that in half at this elevation. Do you want a base camp and day hike from there, or do you want to move every night? We start then leaning into a trip that will suit them…Then we’ll come up with two or three different recommended trips, because we never want it to be our trip. It belongs to them.

Interview with Larry Frederick - Chief of Education and Interpretation, Rocky Mountain National Park

Well, as a park interpreter, I sometimes get asked the question, “What language do you speak?” This comes from the standpoint that the visitor thinks of an interpreter as somebody who speaks a foreign language. What I usually refer to is that I as a Chief Interpreter and my staff of park interpreters speak the language of the park. In other words, we know and understand the park resources, the landscape, the cultural history, the background on the natural history, the wildlife. While park visitors come here and think they understand what’s going on in the park, often times they need a little help in understanding what they’re looking at. They may not understand what is going on during the elk rut, but a park interpreter, or materials prepared by park interpreters, might help explain that better. Park visitors may look at a landscape in the park and they may not understand the geological processes that occurred to make the landscape look the way it does today. Our job is to connect people to the park by helping them to understand what they’re looking at.  

Interview with Peter Allen - Park Publications, Rocky Mountain National Park

I mostly am involved with that which we provide in writing for the public, whether that’s brochures or exhibits or any of those other sorts of things…To me the essence of everything we do is we preserve these wild areas for the general public, for everyone, for their future. So wilderness is at the core of that which is provided for the general public to enjoy.

Interview with Brian Gilbert - Backcountry Park Ranger, Rocky Mountain National Park

I put on my flat hat, or a ball cap, I put on some jeans, put on my uniform shirt, my badge, and my nameplate and head out into the backcountry with a radio. The ecstatic look I see from visitors who a) have never really seen a ranger in the field before, or b) are just plain happy to see another human being is just great … And it’s just a joy meeting so many people from diverse backgrounds that can all come to Rocky Mountain National Park for the same purpose – to enjoy the backcountry that myself and my coworkers at the backcountry office take so much pride in protecting every single day.

Interview with Terry Terrell - Science Officer, Rocky Mountain National Park

I have the great pleasure of managing the research program here in Rocky Mountain National Park. All I can say is that this is a wonderfully vibrant research program in Rocky Mountain National Park and the contributions that I think the program has made to properly managing wilderness I think have been excellent. There are lots of opportunities in the future to make those kinds of contributions and it is a real pleasure to be involved in it.

Though only 2,917 acres of the park are designated wilderness by Congress, Rocky Mountain National Park is managed as if 95% of the park was wilderness. To ensure the preservation of wilderness characteristics and values the National Park Service employs the policy that wilderness of any classification is managed as designated wilderness. This means that every management decision requires careful analysis and study before any decisions are made.

Interview with Barry Sweet - Backcountry Office Manager, Rocky Mountain National Park

We make decisions that are intentional … and made through a process of decision making that is set in place. In other words, if we hear that there is a log down across a trail, our first question is “What’s the diameter of that log? Is it huge or small?” If its within reason, then we’ll take a cross-cut saw so that we can saw the chunk out of that section of the trail so that people can still pass, because otherwise they have to go around and that causes trail braiding and erosion. Or we decide that if it’s big enough, we might have to use a chainsaw. Well a chainsaw is invasive in wilderness. … In order to dissuade fast decision making, people just rushing in to fix a problem, we have a component of a system in place that allows us to evaluate using what we call minimum tool, which is a wilderness ethic. Minimum tool means use the least invasive tool to get the job done. So that’s one tiny example of what we would do when it comes to managing a wilderness and making decisions intentionally.

Below are two examples of projects that took place in areas that were recommended or potential wilderness. Can you see how much though went into the decisions that were made? Would you have come to the same conclusions?

Interview with Tim Devine - Wilderness Program Specialist, Rocky Mountain National Park

Some trails up on our high alpine tundra area were evaluated and some trail work needed to be done because there was a lot of erosion going on and a lot of damage going on to the tundra. It was decided that the action needed to be taken to work on the trail system up there … With the amount of damage that had occurred over time with no action being taken, we needed to bring in a lot of fill dirt to bring it up to grade and repair the trail tread. Of course on the high alpine tundra, up above 12,000 feet, there’re not a lot of places to get extra dirt or fill material, so we needed to transport it in … We can’t access it in the wintertime, and its very difficult in the spring and fall shoulder seasons because of unpredictable weather. So really there is only a couple of month time frame … We looked at the minimum requirement analysis to help us try to determine what was the best way to get that in there with the least amount of impact. First we looked at getting local materials, and it just wasn’t there … Another alternative we looked at was packing in fill dirt on horseback, a primitive means, and horses have a long history of use in wilderness. Though when it was evaluated out of the distance of trail we needed to repair and the amount of fill dirt that we needed to take there, it would have taken several years to get that fill dirt up there with pack strings going a couple of times a day throughout the summer season … causing impacts not only to visitors who are using that popular trail, but also just the physical impacts to the trail that the horses would be going on all the time up and back for several years. The other option was to look at using a helicopter. To get that amount of fill dirt up there, it was calculated that with a helicopter it would only take about 10 days to do the same amount of work … So, looking at the situation, the action, in totality, it was determined that the minimum requirement, the minimum tool, to do the job so that there’s least impact overall was to use the helicopter to get the fill dirt up there. A lot of the work, basic trail tread work, was all done throughout the beginning of the summer getting it prepared for when the fill dirt would come up. They actually brought the fill dirt up and dumped it right in the trail tread as they were going from the helicopter, so they didn’t have to stockpile it on the tundra and cause impacts from that. So it really worked very well. There was the use of a helicopter, and there was that intrusion for about 10 days up there, but we did it in the fall of that year when visitation was low. It took a lot of different things into consideration. So the minimum tool requirement processes are taken very seriously and looked at very hard.

 Interview with Tim Devine - Wilderness Program Specialist, Rocky Mountain National Park

There was a ski area that was developed within the park, a downhill ski area, and it operated for many years … It was never really economically viable, and resource wise, it was very damaging. A lot of the valley was a very narrow valley. The stream, the Hidden Valley Creek that came through there was actually covered up with boards for the ski runs to go over. Water was drawn out of it for snowmaking … the ski area was closed and it was decided to let the area go back to nature and reclaim itself. But it needed some help because of all of the heavy-hand that we had done over the years to make it a ski area … We’re doing some revegetation work, re-contouring the slopes, opening up the stream. The actual ski lodge was build over the stream, and that building was taken out last year. The lower area, the parking lot, is being turned into a day-use area for both summer and winter – summer picnicking and winter snowplay. It’s a popular sledding area. It’s a place where people can come and be at the doorstep of Wilderness … if that ski area wasn’t there that area did have characteristics and value as wilderness. So it was determined to identify that area as a potential wilderness addition … Areas that have a non-conforming use at the time that the Congress may want to designate the bigger area as wilderness but has the potential to have that character restored is designated that way – as a potential wilderness addition.

Shenandoah Wilderness Area

Shenandoah Wilderness Area is located in Virginia approximately 90 miles (145 km) west of Washington, D.C., and is accessible by people from many roads. Referred to as a “mosaic” of wilderness, Shenandoah Wilderness Area consists of 11 units totaling 79,579 acres (32,206 ha). Although a small part of the total National Wilderness Preservation System, Shenandoah is one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States . Wilderness comprises 40% of the park.

Waterfalls, black bears, colorful fall foliage—these sights draw people to Shenandoah National Park . Yet Shenandoah is more than wildlife and beautiful scenery: Shenandoah’s wilderness is a story of inspiration and hope for the future of wild places.

A look into Shenandoah provides insight into dreams of the past and future. In 1935 Shenandoah National Park was established out of more than 1,000 privately owned tracts of land. Its ridges and hollows had been home to many people and its resources had been used to support farms and industry. The establishment of the national park represented a conscious change in land use from agricultural and industrial activities to the preservation of natural processes. Since much of the land within the park had been altered by human use, park managers began the task of “building” a park by re-creating a natural landscape. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era relief program, replanted and landscaped to create a national park experience in the eastern United States . With the wild and pristine lands of the West as its template, National Park Service management guided Shenandoah National Park through decades of regeneration. In the resilient environment of the Appalachian Mountains , reforestation occurred quickly. Visitors flocked to the new ridge top road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Skyline Drive , for expansive views of this new national park.

Considering Shenandoah’s history, does it fit your idea of wilderness? With roads, apple orchards, iron furnaces, and resorts as part of its past, it may be difficult to think of Shenandoah as wilderness. Yet in the decades following establishment, natural processes continued the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, allowing the land to reclaim most evidence of its previous uses. After passage of the Wilderness Act, Ernie Dickerman of The Wilderness Society convinced lawmakers that the National Wilderness Preservation System should include these regenerated areas. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, an organization partnering with the park, stated, “The Wilderness Act does not require that a land area be clothed with virgin forest to qualify as wilderness. It was not the intent … to exclude from preservation … areas which may at one time have suffered in some degree from man’s use.” One supporter called Shenandoah “the great promise of the Wilderness Act.”

Though not part of the Wilderness Act signed in 1964, Shenandoah was included in the first draft of the bill in 1956 for wilderness consideration. Twenty years later, in October 1976, Congress designated Shenandoah Wilderness Area, ensuring an “enduring resource of wilderness for present and future generations.”

Today you can experience the promise of Shenandoah’s wilderness in many ways. The mountain wilderness serves as a landmark and backdrop for the daily activities of residents in surrounding communities. Streams of healthy water from Shenandoah’s watersheds flow into local reservoirs. People still flock to Skyline Drive, pausing at overlooks for glimpses of undeveloped ridges and hollows. Many immerse themselves in the wilderness trails - on foot or on horseback - seeking solitude, challenge, renewal, and a glimpse of wilderness’ ongoing story.

Read why Shenandoah’s wilderness is important to people:

Interview with John Buchheit - Wilderness Biology Technician, Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah’s wilderness is important again because it’s a point along a continuum. When many people think of wilderness they think of much more remote places that may never go to. Places like Alaska , places really remote in the Sierra, or in the Rockies . Shenandoah’s wilderness is important because it provides a wilderness close to where the population centers are. Its an accessible wilderness in a way, and even though people can sometimes appreciate and admire remote wildernesses, wilderness that they will likely never visit in their lives, they can appreciate and admire that there is places in Alaska, there is places in the Sierras or in the Rockies but Shenandoah’s wilderness provides a place where they can begin to understand and to develop a personal connection with wilderness. It’s wilderness in their backyards that almost, where people can come from the major metropolitan centers throughout the mid-Atlantic and spend time in wilderness. And there is many times they don’t even know they are in wilderness. But again, if we do a job, if we do an effective job in wilderness education, they’ll understand that they are spending time in wilderness, part of the same wilderness system that sets aside wild lands in Alaska, Montana, California, and Oregon. And it’s a place for them to develop a personal connection and have personal experiences ... Part of the wilderness character, part of the wilderness story here at Shenandoah, is that people have lived here and that people have used the land. And later on some people decided to set the land aside to allow the land to regenerate and restore. And, so it’s, Shenandoah’s wilderness I think teaches everyone that humans have a role in wilderness, humans have a role in actively deciding to protect wilderness and to set aside wilderness so that the human story, the wilderness story are intertwined. I think those are the things why Shenandoah’s wilderness is particularly significant.

Interview with Kelly Hartsell - Park Ranger, Shenandoah National Park

The Wilderness Act was signed in 1964 and a lot of folks asked why, why was there a need for the Wilderness Act, we had the national parks, we had national forests, we had refuges, we had public land. But wilderness took a step further down the road of preservation. It said that this is an area that we are going to set aside and let Nature’s course prevail. In national parks, and Shenandoah National Park is a great example, we have a large area of land, we put a road right down through the middle of it, we built visitor centers and amenities, we built campgrounds. The national park here preserved a scenic area and a lot of national parks across the country preserve specific features for example the geysers at Yellowstone , the Grand Canyon of Grand Canyon National Park. Wilderness took it a step further in the preservation ethic in that it preserved an experience, it preserved natural processes, and the need for wilderness – why do we need wilderness – is that in these placed that we protected as national parks they were becoming over-developed. So wilderness was an answer to setting aside national parks and forest areas and as unmanaged and unhindered places as we could as we could keep them.

Many people carry the promise of wilderness into the future. Scientists, researchers, educators, managers, students, and volunteers all ensure a continuing wilderness legacy in Shenandoah. Read below to learn about the wilderness work of Shenandoah National Park employees.

Interview with Steve Bair - Backcountry Wilderness and Trails Manager, Shenandoah National Park

My name is Steve Bair, and I’m Shenandoah National Park’s backcountry wilderness and trails manager, a position I’ve held now for about 5 years. ...I’m designated as wilderness manager for the park, so therefore I really deal with any aspect of wilderness management, any wilderness issues within the park at some level ... For an area to be designated as wilderness is something really very special. The National Park Service, even though we tend to manage a lot of our lands as wilderness, ... the federal wilderness designation gives us yet another layer of protection, which is really very important for our backcountry areas. It does enforce the minimizing of development, even the minimizing of numbers and types of trails that are put in backcountry areas, it encourages us to exercise restraint.

Interview with Doug Morris - Superintendent, Shenandoah National Park

I am Doug Morris. I am the superintendent of Shenandoah National Park . I’ve been here about 7 years and before that I worked in many parks: Sequoia and Kings, Point Reyes , and other sites with wilderness including Alaska. I’ve been involved in many respects over the years, I’m of course superintendent of the park with wilderness and that gives me a general stewardship of wilderness. In the past I’ve been involved with policy, national wilderness policy, and long ago with field activities in wilderness. I think wilderness inspires me in two ways. One is that it’s a place to recharge your batteries. Anyone who is at a desk like mine, whether it be a superintendent, a division chief, even if it be a district supervisor, you are sometimes pressured and just way down by bureaucracy. And I think that returning to wilderness is a chance to recharge your batteries and answer the question again, why you are doing what you are doing. I have a second reason though, however, that wilderness inspires me. And that is that it gives me a chance to meet the people who are inspired by wilderness, and they are by themselves a chance to recharge their batteries. Their enthusiasm, their passion and their dedication, sometimes in the face of great odds and poor pay, are by themselves very inspirational.

Interview with John Buchheit - Wilderness Biology Technician, Shenandoah National Park

I am John Buchheit, I am a backcountry of wilderness biology technician in Shenandoah National Park. ... In Shenandoah, 40% of the park is federally designated wilderness, we have over 525 miles of trails throughout the park and I help maintain some of the signage for the trails, and also monitor the backcountry camping grounds for those trails and issue backcountry park camping permits for people who are cooking overnight, backpacking over night and camping in and on those trails. Part of my job here at Shenandoah is try to promote the principles of the Leave No Trace Program, which is really an effort to educate people to have the skills so they can experience these places and they can go out and enjoy these places with having as little impact as possible. It’s a technique to accommodate the fact that wilderness is part of public lands, is part of the lands that we all collectively have. But I acknowledge that we collectively have them, we have the right to visit them, we can also damage them, but we also play a role in preserving them ... Rewards of working with wilderness, some of the rewards are actually the same thing as the challenges. There is physical challenges and physical rewards from having to meet the wilderness on its own terms. By having to carry things in, by having to walk in many miles to tend to things that need to be done in wilderness areas. And in terms of public awareness, one of the rewards for me is when I am able to explain what a wilderness area is to somebody, and the light bulb goes off and they realize, “Oh, that’s kind of a neat idea.” That’s very rewarding. That’s very rewarding to see that. I think the rewards I experience in working with wilderness are the same rewards I’d experience recreating in wilderness. It’s opportunities for solitude, the opportunities to spend time in a relatively undisturbed environment. Those are all rewards.

Interview with Wendy Cass - Botanist, Shenandoah National Park

I’m Wendy Cass, and I’m the botanist at Shenandoah National Park and I work on various vegetation monitoring projects many of which include some work in the wilderness in the park... I guess the main thing that I’ve learned from working in wilderness is to be very cognizant of the decisions that we make and designing our research projects. Cause when your working in wilderness or taking wilderness as a special consideration in the design of the project it causes you to ask more questions about, specifically marking, how we are going to monument a plot so that you can locate it in the future and then it also just factors into your whole, how do you describe, your daily activity so when your out with a crew in an area that you know if wilderness, you’re more careful, if you take that into account then you are more careful about impacts that you might be leaving... It’s hard for me to describe the way wilderness inspires me, its just more of a feeling, knowing that there is a larger system but also knowing that your in an area that is receiving the highest level of protection that we can give it because there is so little protective land in this country that , ah just for me it gives me a special appreciation to be in an area that I know that we are doing all that we can to protect it.

Interview with Kelly Hartsell - Park Ranger, Shenandoah National Park

My name is Kelly Hartsell and I work as a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park . I manage the park’s education program and I currently coordinate the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace Program. Here in Shenadoah National Park my job relates to wilderness in several facets. I manage the education program here and Shenandoah National Park has a very healthy wilderness education program. So while my staff isn’t necessarily on the ground working in wilderness doing trail work or trail maintenance or rehab or repair to some of the sites we do do the education – the public outreach to teach people about wilderness and wilderness values. In my work here in Shenandoah National Park one thing that has amazed me is that very few people actually know that there is wilderness. So one of the things that I think is most important is to educate and to inform people that there is such a thing as wilderness. That it has a specific definition that is land that is managed a little differently and it’s land that belongs to the people here in the United States . It’s uh it’s Federal land, it is a part of all of us, so my real goal in wilderness my role in wilderness management is to let people know it exists. And I think people have a conception in their head about what wilderness is..they, they think of these snow-capped peaks and wild animals and vast open spaces. But it has a very specific definition when you look at some of the Congressional legislation that’s gone through on wilderness. I think when people realize that the Government has set aside certain areas of this country to remain wild – it’s very very interesting I think people are excited to hear and learn about that ... I think the most important thing about wilderness is that people know that we’ve got it. And that it’s something that belongs to them and it’s something that’s really an American invention ... so wilderness areas are places in parks and forests that we’ve consciously made a decision to manage differently and we manage them to preserve tangible values: animals, water, scenic vistas but also intangible things like solitude, an experience of recreation and these values and these experiences are preserved forever because we have protected them by the Wilderness Act.

Interview with James Akerson - Forest Ecologist, Shenandoah National Park

My name is James Akerson, I am a forest ecologist at Shenandoah National Park and I organize and manage a traveling team of invasive vegetation experts to assist 12 parks in the mid-Atlantic region ... Working in wilderness areas is indeed different than working in other federal ground. There’s mandate by the congress to use minimum tools, not to use power equipment unless there’s authority or authority given to do that. There are cases where power equipment is authorized ... ...for instance how we might go about prioritizing and working with wilderness and non-native vegetation control is that at least at the Shenandoah Park we’ve come to a conclusion that we cannot use motorized equipment so no weed whackers or chainsaws while doing the jobs we have. And that you know it is certainly a challenge for working on vines or trees using hand tools it adds a little bit of work. We also have to consider pretty strongly whether we’ll have to use herbicides in the control, or vines such as oriental bittersweet mile a minute weed and others and that is really on a case by case basis and is often up to the local discretion of wilderness leaders and the Superintendents. Were are currently working under an idea that hand-pulling is the preferred method and avoid herbicides at this time. We may come to a point of having to use herbicides and that will be controversial. The question might come down to having to weigh the whether the use of herbicides is warranted when were dealing with a human caused impact of non-natives these plants were brought in by humans and they are invading a wilderness area.

Interview with Gary Somers - Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources, Shenandoah National Park

I’m Gary Somers. I’m the chief of Natural and Cultural Resources at Shenandoah National Park . I’m involved in Wilderness in two ways; the management of wilderness comes within my division in this park and I’m also the Cultural Resource Representative on the Agencies National Wilderness Steering Committee. I think there’s two things that everybody has to understand, and that is that legally only Congress can designate wilderness, so it cannot be designated by executive order, it cannot be designated by secretarial order – it’s only an act of Congress that can designated it, so it has a level of designation that is the highest level we can give protection in the country. And the way I like to look at the Wilderness Act in the light of all the other environmental and historic preservation acts – it’s the only one that actually changes the status of the land. All the others are dealing with specific resources, what’s happening to those resources, but it doesn’t change the status of the land, where the Wilderness Act changes the status of the land and changes how we have to behave completely in how we interact with that land regardless of what we’re doing on it. Wilderness is important because we can’t allow everything to be developed. We can’t allow everything to be mined, fished, harvested, built on. There is a long, long relationship between humans and wilderness. Now that relationship has changed through time tremendously from a wilderness as something to be feared into being down to becoming what it is today, as it’s a small portion of what’s left of the natural world that needs to remain that way for a whole variety of reasons. They may be some of our last refuges of biodiversity. They may be some of the last areas where even types of cultural resources are adequately protected in their totality, even though people don’t tend to think that way. Even if I never set foot in the heart of a large wilderness, knowing that it’s there, and knowing that it’s providing a level of protection, a level of inspiration, a level of opportunity to go back to a time when humans didn’t dominate everything. It’s just very important.

To learn about Shenandoah National Park, continue reading, or visit the park's website at: http://www.nps.gov/shen/home.htm

Skyline Drive

When this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains was considered for national park status, President Herbert Hoover stated, “These mountains were just made for a highway.” Many roads already existed through the mountains, mostly cross-mountain roads built to transport agricultural products and other goods from the Shenandoah Valley to the developing urban areas on the East Coast. Most of these roads were abandoned and reclaimed by natural processes. A new road constructed along the mountain ridge by the Civilian Conservation Corps, called Skyline Drive, became the main feature of Shenandoah National Park, allowing car access to the heights of the mountains.

Before the era of skyscrapers, Skyline Drive afforded expansive views of continuing mountain ridges to the west and the gently rolling piedmont to the east. Ninety miles (145 km) to the east, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., could be seen from viewpoints along Skyline Drive. Nearby views showed the regenerating forces of nature reclaiming a land once used for industry and agriculture. Today the viewpoints along Skyline Drive (called “overlooks”) give insight into the story of Shenandoah’s wilderness. Many of the overlooks view wilderness, and forested ridges offer contrast to the developed valleys and farmland below. The carpet of trees shelter dreams of the past and a vision of wilderness returning to the Appalachian Mountains.


Stepping into Shenandoah’s wilderness, you become immersed in its story. Along these trails you see evidence of the past - overgrown road beds, meandering stone walls, old cars, and solitary standing chimneys. A springtime flowering daffodil indicates the garden of a former home site. A cluster of apple trees, now scratched by bear claws, tell of past industry. Some of the trails follow old road beds, and some follow the footsteps of former residents. As you walk, you discover evidence of current residents - the tracks of deer, bear, and wild turkey that repopulated the mountains as their habitat returned.

You can choose from many trails: 40% of the 500 miles (805 km) of trails in Shenandoah travel through wilderness. Many trails lead to outstanding views, while some follow cascading streams. One hundred miles (161 km) of The Appalachian Trail passes through Shenandoah National Park .

Many employees and volunteers continue to maintain the trails to protect the surrounding resources. In wilderness, trail crews use traditional hand tools, such as saws and axes, in order to minimize the intrusion of the unnatural sounds of motorized equipment and preserve the wilderness character of the land. Learn more about trail maintenance in wilderness through the Shenandoah trail crew.

Interview with Steve Bair - Backcountry Wilderness and Trails Manager, Shenandoah National Park

...for the most part we do try to address any wilderness issues particularly on trails and in campsites by using traditional hand tools and by using the traditional methods that once should use to preserve wilderness values, but we’ve had some other emergencies. We’ve had a couple of hurricanes, which have caused some very serious damage to trail conditions, and again our concern is about preserving and protecting natural and cultural resources along the trails, and our motivation to use a power tool, a chainsaw, on a trail in wilderness at any time, is out of concern for protecting the resource. It is our thinking that perhaps a short-term use of a chainsaw to clear a trail very much outweighs the potential resource damage that occurred to that trail if we don’t clear these blow-downs, if we don’t prevent people from walking all over the place trying to find their way back to the trails, people are going around a lot of tree falls.

Appalachian Trail

“The Appalachian Trail is a wilderness way through civilization, not a civilized way through wilderness.”
- Benton MacKaye

Benton MacKaye (pronounced “Ma-Kye,” rhyming with “sky”) envisioned a natural corridor amidst growing cities, a trail offering an opportunity for people to escape their increasingly mechanized lives. This dream became reality in the Appalachian Trail, a footpath stretching along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. MacKaye gathered a tremendous cadre of volunteers in the East who embraced his vision of a ribbon of protected land. When building Skyline Drive paved parts of the newly blazed trail, pushing the trail so the side, MacKaye’s ideals were also sidestepped. MacKaye turned away from the trail community, leaving the trail’s completion to practical trail builders willing to compromise.

MacKaye turned his energy to preserving wildlands in other ways. In 1935 MacKaye became one of the founding members of The Wilderness Society (a group initially gathering to protest a ridgeline drive in the southern Appalachian Mountains). During MacKaye’s presidency, the board of The Wilderness Society met at Shenandoah. A photograph was taken of the gathering at the foot of a popular hiking destination, Old Rag Mountain, now part of the park’s wilderness. This meeting brought together many wilderness visionaries who dedicated their lives to preserving wilderness areas: Aldo Leopold, Harvey Broome, Olaus Murie, and Howard Zahniser.

The Wilderness Act carries MacKaye’s influence: a national system of wilderness areas reflects MacKaye’s vision of a national system of trails. The Wilderness Act expresses McKaye’s view that humans need wilderness for psychological well-being in an increasingly urbanized culture. In the words of MacKaye: “[Wilderness] is a fund of knowledge and a spring of influence. It is the ultimate source of health - terrestrial and human.”

Today the thousands of people who hike the portion of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park experience firsthand MacKaye’s ideals of wilderness preservation. Hundreds of “thru-hikers”—people who walk the entire Appalachian Trail - pass through Shenandoah on their 2,000-mile (3,218-km) journey between Georgia and Maine. One of the 21 wilderness areas through which the Appalachian Trail passes, the Shenandoah Wilderness Area connects past and future visions of wilderness, providing an enduring resource of wilderness for present and future generations.

To learn more about the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, visit the Appalachian Trail Conference website at http://www.appalachiantrail.org.



Introductory Video Text

Introduction to wilderness

What is wilderness?

Where is wilderness?

Why did U.S. citizens feel the need to legally protect wilderness?

How is wilderness managed?

Who is involved with wilderness today?

Wilderness up close

How can you help?



Wilderness Index

Return to Views