Discover Wilderness Areas

Your guide to the highest level of protection–wilderness–that federal land can get

In 1924 a young Forest Service employee named Aldo Leopold heard of plans to build roads through the Gila National Forest, a vast swath of canyons, rivers, mesas, and rugged mountains in southern New Mexico. To Leopold, and other preservationists at the time, there was a growing concern that the country’s wild places were changing for the worse. They noticed that the number of trees and plants and animals was becoming fewer. Leopold was outspoken about his opposition to the idea of development in landscapes like the Gila, knowing it would completely alter the nature of the place.

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” Leopold said. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” With the support of the community, Leopold was able to convince the Forest Service to protect over 750,000 acres of the Gila as wilderness––it would be the country’s first ever designated wilderness area. No roads would cut through this unique slice of land home to elk herds, wolf packs, hot springs, and the craggy peaks of the Mogollon Range. Over the years the size of the Gila Wilderness would be whittled down to around 550,000 acres, but the land is much the same now as it was 100 years ago. 

The Gila laid the foundation for the wilderness movement, which culminated in 1964 when Congress passed the Wilderness Act. It was a massive victory for conservationists, protecting the country’s wildest places from future development of any kind. The act preserves land “for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.”  

When signing the Wilderness Act President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

Today there are more than 800 wilderness areas covering about 5% of the country. They exist in all but six states, protecting an array of landscapes, from Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the 1,100 lakes of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the otherworldly hoodoos at New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. Big and small, they offer a chance to experience raw nature, and appreciate the foresight of Aldo Leopold and all those who worked to pass the Wilderness Act.   

Below you’ll find a guide to America’s federal Wilderness Areas. Elsewhere on this site you can learn more about how to explore our public lands, what gear to bring, and the skills you need for recreating safely. At Public Lands we know that visiting natural spaces can be life changing. Our mission is to help educate more people about our country’s 840 million acres of public land and help them to explore it and protect it. 

HISTORY OF THE WILDERNESS ACT

In 1955, tired of piecemeal preservation efforts, the former executive director of the Wilderness Society, Howard Zahniser, started work on a sweeping piece of preservation legislation. 

“Let us be done with a wilderness preservation program made up of a sequence of overlapping emergencies, threats, and defense campaigns,” Zahniser said. He spent the next eight years crafting some 66 drafts of the act as it went through 18 hearings. 

Zahniser died a few months before President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act but his work created lasting change. When the act was signed, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness, and since then more than 100 million more acres were given the same designation.

HOW DO WE DEFINE WILDERNESS?

The Wilderness Act defined the landmark protection in this way: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 

This definition helps us determine why a landscape should be preserved and which areas may be worthy of receiving this high level of protection, but it also skips over the fact that Indigenous people were already living on that so-called “untrammeled” land, and had been long before there was any desire to draw up boundaries or consider designations of any kind. 

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame,” wrote Oglala Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear in 1933. He added that the Lakota “was a true naturist––a lover of Nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth.”

When visiting our public lands today it’s important to keep it’s long, and present-day, history in mind.

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE WILDERNESS

Wilderness is the highest level of protection given to public land, but what exactly does it mean? How is wilderness different from land protected within a national park or national forest? 

Wilderness areas all actually exist within our national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and BLM land and are managed by four federal land management agencies (the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management). Designated wilderness areas are distinguished by the prohibition on development and the type of activities and recreation that are allowed. Our other federal public lands allow for activities that range from mountain biking to mining to off-roading depending on where you are, but wilderness areas allow only human-powered recreation. 

While you can expect to find paved roads and visitor’s centers when visiting a national park, you’ll find none of that in a wilderness area. There’s nowhere to buy a burger or ice cream or pick up a souvenir hoodie. There are no roads in wilderness areas and visitors can only travel by foot or horseback––no bikes allowed. There’s no development, no lodging, no commercial activity, no mining, and no motorized vehicles. Unlike national parks though, wilderness areas do allow regulated hunting.

Wilderness areas can only be designated by Congress, and can only be selected from the country’s existing federal public lands. It can take decades to pass wilderness legislation. It’s not just about convincing lawmakers or the general public that an area should receive a designation, the land itself must be studied in order to determine whether it’s a suitable candidate to begin with. 

A potential wilderness area must be larger than 5,000 acres (though there are exceptions) and can’t have any roads. It must also be natural and undisturbed by humans, provide opportunities for recreation and solitude, and contain features of historical, geological, ecological, scientific, or educational value. 

 

Photo: Ethan Welty/TandemStock

FIND A WILDERNESS AREA

Wilderness in the United States is widespread. Three of the country’s most iconic National Scenic Trails––the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail––together pass through nearly 100 wilderness areas. Start exploring at https://wilderness.net/default.php

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.