Archive for the ‘Wilderness Profiles’ Category

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord - Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Kayakers in the Nellie Juan-College Fjord – Courtesy of the Sierra Club

Alaska contains our two largest National Forests.  The Tongass is the largest and covers the ancient forests of Alaska’s Southeast.  The Chugach is the second largest, located in South Central Alaska, in and around the Kenai Peninsula.  There is an oddity about the Chugach in terms of our wilderness preservation system:  it is the only national forest in the entire United States without a single acre of designated federal wilderness!  That seems odd considering it is in the state of Alaska, the land of true wilderness.

It makes a bit more sense if we consider how different Alaska is than the rest of the country in terms of its land and size.  First of all, there are enormous national parks all around the Chugach National Forest, all of which are largely wilderness and managed as such.  You have Lake Clark and Katmai to the west.  You have Glacier Bay and the immense Wrangell-St. Elias to the East.  And, on the Kenai Peninsula itself, you have the Kenai Fjords National Park, the half-million acre Chugach State Park and the nearly as large Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.  Altogether, these areas total about 20 million acres of protected wilderness in the form of national or state parks.  There is less need for federal wilderness areas in an area with such enormous national parklands managed as wilderness outside of the juristiction of the national forest.

Second, wilderness in Alaska should be considered with a completely different perspective than wilderness in the Contiguous U.S.  In the lower 48 states wilderness areas are typically sanctuaries of wild surrounded by civilization and development.  That green blob on the map indicating a wilderness area depicts a zone of “untrammeled” land typically bordered on all sides by roads, farms, towns and cities.  To put it another way, the lower 48 States have pockets of wilderness within a sea of civilization.  In Alaska we need to reverse our perspective 180 degrees.  A designated wilderness in Alaska may be surrounded by an even larger area of true wilderness without specific designation.  Alaska, in other words IS wilderness.  In Alaska there are pockets of civilization in a sea of wilderness.  When you consider, for example, at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, you have to understand that, enormous as it is with its 8 million acres, it is but a relatively small piece of a wilderness mega-region that is Northern Alaska.  Sure there are a handful of native villages and a couple of dirt roads.  But, these are the pockets of civilization that dip into this immense wilderness that is Alaska.

A designated wilderness area in the Chugach National Forest would certainly add value to our wilderness heritage.  But, in an area with such substantial wilderness already, whether officially designated or not, to me this designation would be more important symbolically.  We should not have a national forest without a designated wilderness area. 

So what is this Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area?  The Fjord and surrounding wildland is on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula and on the western shorelines of Prince William Sound.  The Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is 2.1 million acres large, the size of Yellowstone.  The WSA was established in 1980 with the intention of congressional action to make it a full wilderness area, but for some reason it has languished in limbo.

It is a sea-to-sky wilderness with extensive sea-level shoreline and the steep mountains of the Chugach Range rising to great heights above the sound.  Glaciers fill some valleys, and verdent old forests grace others.  Here we find the northernmost temperate rainforest in the world.  Life in the sound and on land is abundant. 

The map below illustrates where this is.  It’s amazing that a 2 million acre area seems so insignificant on the scale of Alaska, but this really is just a relatively small chunk of the Prince William Sound area of Alaska.  This would be a fantastic real and symbolic addition to our wilderness preservation system.

For more information on this and other Alaskan wilderness efforts, visit The Alaska Wilderness League at  http://www.alaskawild.org/, also linked on the right side of the Home Page of this blog.

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord

Alaska with inset for Prince William Sound and the Fjord


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Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost.  Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Organ Mountains Area with a dusting of frost. Photo courtesy of The Wilderness Society

President Obama has, once again, leveraged the executive power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate another National Monument in New Mexico, and it’s a big one.  It’s a half-million acre (496,000 to be exact) designation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in Southern New Mexico.  It appears that the monument will be managed like wilderness (although that’s less clear with National Monuments than with Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas).

This area had a long road of advocacy to this point and the designation appears to be supported by the majority of the local residents.  We see more of these designations being justified in economic terms and this one is no different.  The new National Monument is calculated to bring in over $7 million in tourism dollars to the area.  While that may sound impressive initially, it’s really a pretty meager number.  But, whatever works to garner local support…

The real benefit is priceless and immesurable.  And, that is precicely why I believe we need the independent executive authority to designate national monuments.  When Congress will not act in due time to protect certain areas from future exploitation and degradation, we need the executive authority available to do the job. Because once wilderness is developed and/or exploited it is rarely, if ever, recovered.  The executive authority provides a national long-term interest to counter the typically local short-term interests of exploitation.  Some think of it as a “land grab” but these lands are already under federal administration to begin with (usually BLM or National Forest).  I typically do not favor independent executive authority in government in matters not related to national security or foreign policy.  But, land conservation must have an independent executive path because of the generational and usually permanent and irreversable consequences of inaction.

I, for one, believe in balance.  I don’t believe that every single acre of remaining public land should be restricted as wilderness.  We need some of our public lands to be available for other uses including energy independence (including clean energy–you can’t put windfarms and solar arrays in wilderness either).  But, I also believe that the current mix of public lands designation still favors exploitation too heavily and wilderness preservation too little.  We need more wilderness designation to establish corridor linkages between wilderness hubs and to increase the diversity of wilderness ecosystems.

Back to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks–The area represents rugged mountainous Sonoran desert near Las Cruces, NM.  Aside from its stark beauty and wilderness recreational benefits, it harbors significant biodiversity including some plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It has significant archeological significance with hundreds of sites including petroglyphs and evidence of past dwellings dating back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.  It has historical significance as the hideouts of Billy the Kid and Geronimo.  It has cultural significance as the backdrop for Western movies.  And, above all, it has natural significance as a large desert wilderness in need of permanent protection.

Here is a short production from Pew Environmental on this area and its recent National Monument designation:


And here is a beautiful video from Amazing Places on our Planet demonstrating some of the outstanding scenery of the new National Monument:



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We drove south last fall through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, on our way to see the historic city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  As we crossed the state line into New Mexico, I had the feeling of traveling back into the old world of the Southwest.  New Mexico has a unique character–in its land and its people.  Towns are still called villages.  Native American settlements are Pueblos.  There is history there–long history.  Santa Fe’s recorded history reaches back into the 1500’s, older than Jamestown.  Unrecorded history much longer than that has unbroken generational ties.  Nearby Taos Pueblo, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.  Here I looked at adobe homes continuously inhabited for 1,000 years.  New Mexico is different.

As we drove south on Hwy 285, I didn’t realize it then, but we were traveling near part of the territory that would, in a few month’s time, become a great new National Monument.  In March 2013, President Obama leveraged the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the 240,000 acre Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.  The monument, now a protected land, encompasses the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge as well as the heights of surrounding highlands like 10,000-foot Ute Mountain.  It extends from the Colorado state line south well into north-central New Mexico.  It is a critical wildlife cooridor and a place with special meaning for many generations of local people, native and non-native.

Pew created a nice video production for this area:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vj7iHTMa4ac

For extensive background on this national treasure and the efforts to protect it, check out http://www.riograndedelnorte.org/

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument Map

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument Map

The Rio Grande Gorge in the monument

The Rio Grande Gorge in the monument


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1.)  Birkhead Mountains – North Carolina

It is easy to assume that a wilderness area in the great state of North Carolina would most likely be somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, especially one with the word “mountains” in its name.  To my surprise I found that the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness is far to the east of the Appalachians.  Northeast of Charlotte, in the hardwood forests of the Uwharrie National Forest, the wilderness area encompasses the northern end of the Uwharrie “Mountains.”

The Birkhead Mountains Wilderness was established in 1984 and is 5,025 acres–tiny by wilderness area standards.  What it lacks in size it makes up for in unique characteristics.  The Uwharrie Mountains are geologically the oldest mountains in North America.  The human history is also long.  Evidence of native inhabitance in this area goes back 12,000 years.  The wilderness was named after the Birkhead Family who settled the area in the 1850s.  A member of the family grew the “plantation” to a size of several thousand acres consisting of many small tenant farms.

To a wilderness philosopher the human history of this area presents an interesting situation.  Here was an area that lost its wilderness characteristics long before we, as a society, gained a wilderness ethos.  Before Thoreau, before Muir, before Leopold, this land was settled and farmed, and the wilderness area itself is now named after those who “tamed” it.  The implication of this is that we often say that, once wilderness is lost, it is lost forever.  In other words, once wilderness is developed or settled, we cannot make into wilderness again.  If we consider the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness to be real wilderness, then this may not always be true.  Perhaps this wilderness area represents an example of how areas currently said to lack wilderness qualities may one day be “reclaimed” as “wilderness” if certain circumstances and/or policies permit it (and the land recovers to a wilderness quality condition).

This wilderness area is characterized by forested ridges with small clear streams flowing through a thick ground cover–about what you would expect from a low elevation hilly wilderness area in North Carolina.  I can imagine the barking of the frogs at night as I write this.

Ice on the trees in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Uwharrie Farm.


2.)  Cougar Canyon Wilderness – Utah

Cougar Canyon Wilderness may be small, at just 10,648 acres, but it sits in big country and is part of a much larger wildland complex that encompasses much of the south Utah-Nevadah border region.  This wilderness is contiguous with two other wilderness areas and significant undeveloped (and unprotected) roadless areas.  The entire contiguous wildland complex is many times larger than the part of it that is named Cougar Canyon.

The Cougar Canyon Wilderness, administered by the BLM, is one of our newest designated wilderness areas, established in 2009 as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

A dry country of pinon and juniper it nevertheless contains a couple of perennial streams even containing wild trout.  The landscape is hilly and its location is very remote.  I’m sure solitude is the norm here and I can just imagine the vividness of the starry sky here at night as coyotes yip in the distance.

The vivid landscape of Cougar Canyon Wilderness in SW Utah. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Land Trust.

3.)  Kalmiopsis Wilderness – Oregon

In 2002 a 500,000 acre lightning-caused fire (The Biscuit Fire) swept over the entire 180,095 acres of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.  The fire burned with varying intensity leaving a huge case study for wildland fire and forest ecology experts.

The Kalmiopsis is named after an endemic shrub, and indeed the area is well known specifically for its botanical diversity and uniqueness.  The area is also geologically complex, being part of the Klamath Mountains of SW Oregon and NW California.

Recreationally, the Kalmiopsis offers a wilderness mecca of rugged mountains and forest with deep valleys and canyons cut by several major wild waterways.  I’ve heard that some of the clearest flowing water in the world can be found in this part of the country and the photo below seems to support that reputation.

The clear Chetco River. Photo courtesy of Wilderness.net

4.)  Russian Wilderness – California

The small 12,000 acre Russian Wilderness, established in 1984, is often overlooked primarily because it is sandwiched by the huge Trinity Alps Wilderness to the south and the significant Marble Mountain Wilderness to the north.  But, it shouldn’t be overlooked.  The small mountainous area contains 22 lakes and is served by a good trail system including a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Russian Wilderness contains 17 different species of conifers, which Wilderness.net says may be a world record for “conifer diversity.” The wilderness is also known for its dense bear population.

A lake in the Russian Wilderness of California. Phoso courtesy of Zandona’ Outdoors.


5.)  Platte River Wilderness – Wyoming

Fly fishing, river rafting and kayaking are what bring most visitors to this area.  The 23,492 acre wilderness is located in southern Wyoming and a small 743 acre piece of it extends into northern Colorado.  The North Platte River flows north out of Colorado into Wyoming through North Gate Canyon.  A trail follows much of the river as well as a tributary, Douglas Creek, which also reportedly has great fishing.

This is rugged forested river canyon country.  No lakes.  No high alpine peaks dappled with snowfields.  Just a beautiful forest and canyon land with a wild river and that unmistakable western feel in the air that you get in this type of environment.

Stream and meadow in the Platte River Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Kifaru.





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The more one studies wilderness the more illusive the topic becomes.  What seems at first to be a straightforward concept is, after further inspection, a labyrinth of conceptual and perceptual nuances.  We have a legal definition of wilderness from the 1964 Wilderness Act, and through actions of government we put the “wilderness” label on lands that more or less meet that legal prerequisite.  But, there are roadless lands without legal wilderness protection that are more wild in nature than many designated wilderness areas.

Some would argue that there really is no true wilderness left in the Lower 48.  At the same time some would argue that a 200 acre island of forest somewhere in Iowa is great wilderness.  Some would also argue that wilderness is a state of mind as much as a physical characteristic of the land.

Regardless of the philosophical complexities of the idea of wilderness, some of the administrative labeling of designated wilderness areas have not helped simplify matters.  For example, Death Valley is officially the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, over 3 million acres.  But, a map of its boundaries looks like a shattered windshield.  This vast desert landscape is certainly wild, but it is not a continuous piece of land unbroken by civilization.  It is, instead, a web of primitive roads the margins between which are designated wilderness.  This particular case does a disservice to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, officially the second largest in the Lower 48.  The Frank Church, unlike Death Valley, is a contiguous block of 2.3 million acres of uninterrupted wilderness.  Only the primitive Magruder Corridor Road separates the Frank Church from the 1.3 million acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.  We could have easily given these two large areas the same administrative name and then called it the largest “wilderness area” in the Lower 48 at more than 3.5 million acres, and then Death Valley would have to settle for second place.

To me, a wilderness area is not the name that we have attached to its land, but the character of it.  “Wilderness area” is a singular term and, therefore, should represent a single continuous expanse of land that consists of a common wild and uncivilized character.  Often our administrative labels have the opposite effect of Death Valley’s spider web effect.  We assign multiple names to a single contiguous wild area.  This occurs in several areas around the country–I call them wilderness complexes.  To say that the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming is 428,087 acres in size does a disservice to our understanding of the true expanse of the Wind River Wilderness system, which represents a contiguous expanse of land that is over 725,000 acres not including a vast wild area of the Wind River Indian Reservation that likely makes it over a million acres.

To grasp the character of our national wilderness layout we need to understand, not wilderness labels, but wilderness lands.  In the interest of that effort, I have compiled a list of ten of what I consider to be our most significant Wilderness Complexes:

1.)  North Cascades Complex – Approximately 966,194 acres

The North Cascades, in my view, represent possibly the finest mountain wildlands in the country outside of Alaska.  That’s a bold statement, but I have seen parts of all of our major mountain ranges.  The North Cascades are phenomenal, under-appreciated, under-rated, largely undeveloped, and extensively protected.  There are more than 2 million acres of designated wilderness in the North Cascades of Washington, bisected only by the North Cascades Highway.  This makes for two significant wilderness complexes–what I call the North Cascades and Glacier Peak Wilderness Complexes.

  • The northern half of the Steven Mather Wilderness (which is itself a combination of the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area) – Approximately 300,000 acres.
  • Mount Baker Wilderness – 119,989 acres
  • Pasayten Wilderness – 531,539 acres
  • Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness – 14,666 acres

2.  Glacier Peak Complex – 1,227,972 acres

South of the brief interruption of the North Cascades Highway, the wilderness expanse of this spectacular area continues.  It includes the south half of the Steven Mather Wilderness (primarily the south half of North Cascades National Park) and several other sizable named wilderness areas that share a continuous uninterrupted wild land:

  • Steven Mather Wilderness (South Half):  Approximately 300,000 acres
  • Glacier Peak Wilderness:  566,057 acres
  • Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness:  153,057 acres
  • Henry M. Jackson Wilderness:  103,297 acres
  • Wild Sky Wilderness:  105,561 acres

3.)  Olympic Complex – 934,449 acres

The Olympic Peninsula is Washington State’s other under-appreciated wilderness expanse.  It holds some of the largest trees in the world.  It’s climate and topography are exceptionally variable.  The long river valleys and jagged peaks above misty clouds is the classic image of Great Northwest wilderness.  The vast majority of this complex consists of Olympic National Park.  But, several other smaller wilderness areas have been designated around the perimeter of the Olympic behemoth, making the wildland of the Olympic larger than the number usually depicts:

  • Olympic Wilderness:  Approximately 846,447 acres (Olympic wilderness is actually 876,447 acres, but approximately 30,000 acres is coastal and not contiguous with the Olympic complex)
  • Buckhorn Wilderness:  44,319 acres
  • The Brothers Wilderness:  16,337 acres
  • Mount Skokomish Wilderness:  13,291 acres
  • Wonder Mountain Wilderness:  2,200 acres
  • Colonal Bob Wilderness:  11,855 acres

4.)  North Yosemite Complex – 586,745 acres

No other region of the Lower 48 States has such an extensive array of different names for wilderness “areas” that have no civilized feature separating them.  In fact, fourteen named wilderness areas actually make up just two large contiguous wilderness regions.  The two regions are bisected only by the paved road cutting through the middle of Yosemite National Park.  I call the northern, and smaller, half the North Yosemite Wilderness Complex:

  • Yosemite:  Approximately 350,000 acres (this is the northern half of the park which is designated wilderness)
  • Emigrant Wilderness:  112,277 acres
  • Hoover Wilderness:  124,468 acres

5.)  South Sierra Complex – 2,504,734 acres

It is understandable that there be two different names for this vast area for Yosemite was our second national park and pre-dated any designated wilderness areas by many decades.  But, the numerous different names applied to the surrounding contiguous wildland diminishes the perception of the area’s true size and character.  When one reads, for example, that the South Sierra Wilderness is 60,084 acres, the perception created is that of a relatively small wilderness area.  There are, in fact, 165 other wilderness areas in the Lower 48 States that are larger than South Sierra.  But, the South Sierra Wilderness Area shares an invisible boundary line with the 303,511 acre Golden Trout Wilderness to the north.  The Golden Trout Wilderness, in turn, shares a boundary only on the map with other wilderness areas to its north.  In all, there are eleven different named wilderness areas here that are all just a part of one substantial chunk of wilderness more than 2.5 million acres large.  It will never happen, but I say give it all one name so those less obsessed with wilderness stats than I am will grasp the true importance of this national gem:

  • Yosemite:  approximately 350,000 acres (this is south half of Yosemite)
  • Ansel Adams Wilderness:  231,279 acres
  • Owens River Headwaters Wilderness:  14,721 acres
  • John Muir Wilderness:  651,992 acres
  • Dinkey Lakes Wilderness:  30,000 acres
  • Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness:  768,222 acres
  • Monarch Wilderness:  44,896 acres
  • Jennie Lakes Wilderness:  10,289 acres
  • Golden Trout Wilderness:  303,511 acres
  • South Sierra Wilderness:  60,084 acres
  • John Krebs Wilderness:  39,740 acres

6.)  The Frank-Gospel Complex – 2,572,623 acres

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, unlike the South Sierra region, has one name for its impressive 2+ million acres and hence it is often understood to at least be one of our largest wilderness areas.  But, there is another 200,000 + acres attached to this large expanse, an appendage to its northwest called the Gospel Hump.  Nothing separates these areas on the ground.  The Gospel Hump acreage allows this area to just edge out the South Sierra Complex as our nation’s largest contiguous wilderness complex outside of Alaska:

  • Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness:  2,366,827 acres
  • Gospel Hump Wilderness:  205,796 acres

7.)  Bob Marshall Complex – 1,535,992 acres

In Montana, they call it “The Bob” and when they call it “The Bob” they are often referring to the three named wilderness areas that make up the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.  This is one area, unlike some of the others, that is perceived, at least by locals, as being a single contiguous wildland.  So, why give it three different names?

  • Bob Marshall Wilderness:  1,009,356 acres
  • Great Bear Wilderness:  286,700 acres
  • Scapegoat Wilderness:  239,936 acres

8.)  Northeast Yellowstone Complex – 800,488 acres

Yellowstone National Park, unfortunately, does not yet have any designated wilderness land.  I think this has something to do with a tradition of allowing snowmobiles in the park in winter.  Regardless, it is perceived by many as a large wilderness park and this is an accurate perception.  Because its borders are surrounded by designated wilderness areas there is clearly an interpretation within our administrative circles as well that Yellowstone is essentially mostly wilderness and should be managed that way.  So, I’m making an exception here to my rule of only including designated wilderness areas in my wilderness complex list.  The list just wouldn’t be complete without including these areas.

Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres.  That’s pretty big, but its contiguous roadless land is actually divided into eight distinct segments by the looping highways that cross the landscape.  Acreage for the Yellowstone portions of the next two wilderness complexes were estimated based on this segmentation:

  • Northeast Segment of Yellowstone:  Approximately 450,000 acres
  • North Absoroka Wilderness:  350,488 acres

9.)  Yellowstone Trinity Complex – 1,839,512 acres

I have heard that the most remote point on the map in the Lower 48 states is in here somewhere, judged by the linear distance to the nearest road.  It’s an area full of grizzlies and wolves, geysers and springs, rivers and lakeshores.  A big chunk of Yellowstone is bear-hugged by two huge wilderness areas:  The Teton and the Washakie:

  • Southeast Yellowstone Segment:  Approximately 550,000 acres
  • Teton Wilderness:  585,238 acres
  • Washakie Wilderness:  704,274 acres

10.)  The Winds Complex – 728,482 acres

Southeast of the Yellowstone area is a glorious mountain range with 4,000 lakes.  They call them the Wind River Mountains.  A long spine of impressive granitic peaks extends into west-central Wyoming.  This is Wyoming’s rooftop with mountains approaching 14,000 feet and the most extensive glacier system in the Rockies south of Canada.  Three wilderness areas and a remote region of an indian reservation combine to form one contiguous protected wilderness land.  the 728,482 combined acres of the three wilderness areas does not include the wild side of the Wind River Indian Reservation.  The actual contiguous wilderness-quality area here is probably over a million acres when considering the reservation lands:

  • Bridger Wilderness:  428,087 acres
  • Fitzpatrick Wilderness:  198,525 acres
  • Popo Agie Wilderness:  101,870 acres

Honorable Mentions:

There are, of course, other large wilderness lands not mentioned here, like the Gila in New Mexico or the Cabeza Prieta in Arizona.  But, these are singular areas where the acreage listed is a more accurate representation of the actual size of the wild land that the administrative name encompasses.

Besides Yellowstone, mentioned above, there are other expanses of wilderness-quality land not included because they have yet to receive official wilderness protection.  The Grand Canyon and its surrounding wild land is one area that probably approaches 1.5 million acres.  The Grand Staircase Escallante National Monument is largely wilderness-quality land.  The Utah Wilderness Coalition is recommending 1.6 million acres here for wilderness designation.  Large areas of Northern Nevada, Southwest Idaho and Southeast Oregon are quite remote with little to no human settlement.  Some of these areas are grazed and contain large ranches.  A large wilderness complex could be conceived in this area near or around the Steens mountain or Owyhee River Canyons areas.  Colorado, in my view, has too many roads to consider any combination of its many wonderful wilderness areas to be wilderness complexes on the scale of what I’ve written about here.  The High Uintas range in Utah is home to one large wilderness area of almost a half-million acres and what seems to be some significant un-protected national forest lands around it.  One could make an argument for considering that area a wildland complex large enough to be noted.

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1.  Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness

Lake in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Panoramio

This 35,701 acre wilderness area in Southwest Oregon covers the divide between the upper reaches of the Rogue and Umpqua Rivers.  On the “wet” side of the Cascades, this area is only ten miles west of Crater Lake National Park.  It includes an extensive (for its size) 100 mile network of trails, several mountain lakes, old growth forest and alpine tundra.

2. Norse Peak

Fife's Peak in Norse Peak Wilderness. Photo courtesy of JMZ2007 via Panoramio

Twenty-seven miles of the Pacific Crest Trail traverses this rugged Washington State wilderness area.  Its relatively small 52,315 acres is deceptive because the wilderness is bordered by the larger William O. Douglas Wilderness and its 169,000 acres to the south.  Only Hwy 410 separates Norse Peak from the 228,000 wilderness acres of Mount Rainier National Park.  Norse Peak stradles the Cascade Crest and, as a result, offers the lush big forests of the west side as well as the dryer pines of the eastern slope.  The scenery here is rugged and sublime.

3. Eagles Nest

It's hard to imagine a more sublime visual of alpine beauty than what is captured in this photo in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Photo courtesy of http://www.wildernesslandtrust.org.

The classic alpine wonderland of the Eagles Nest is a special place, and in this case, I write from personal experience.  This wilderness area and its 133,471 acres, is in my backyard, two hours from my home in Denver, Colorado.

The Eagles Nest Wilderness is pretty close to ground-zero for the enormous lodgepole pine beetle kill going on right now.  While the higher elevations are still draped in the deep green of spruce and fir framed by the classic ruggedness of the Gore Range peaks, the lower slopes have now turned to the color of rust.  Hundreds of millions of lodgepole pines in the mid-elevation slopes are dead.  But, as they say, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  In decades to come, these trees will become the austere ghost forests of tomorrow with new life growing up from below.  I just hope the cataclysmic wildfire that many are expecting  never comes to pass. 

Until then, we’ll continue to get up high in the Eagles Nest, above the dead forest, to visit its many blue shimmering lakes, its clear wandering mountain streams, and those rugged summits of the Colorado Rockies.

4. Lee Metcalf

Lee metcalf Wilderness. Photo courtesy of dougroanephotography.com

The Lee Metcalf Wilderness is an oddity because it is actually not one wilderness area, but four different non-contiguous wilderness areas that happen to have been given the same name.  Located in Southwest Montana, the 254,635 acres of the wilderness is divided into three separate Forest Service areas (141,000, 76,000, 33,000 acres) and one BLM area (6,000 acres).  Often, we see the opposite:  Where a large wilderness region is given several different wilderness area labels, as in the Southern Sierra where no less than 11 uniquely named wilderness areas are only separated by an imaginary line on a map.

Nevertheless, the Lee Metcalf Wildernes AREAS offer some fine wilderness in the Northern Rockies.  Located just north of Yellowstone, the area is home to grizzlies among many other species.  And, it is home to soaring peaks and sparkling lakes typical of Montana’s great big sky scenery.

5. Sequoia Kings Canyon

A grand view in Sequoia Kings Canyon. Photo courtesy of Wilderness.net

People probably think of giant trees when they think of the Sequoia Kings Canyon Wilderness (part of Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park).  They would be correct, but at more than three quarters of a million acres in California’s Sierra Range it is much more than big trees.

In fact, Sequoia Kings Canyon is an example of the opposite administrative effect of that described above for the Lee Metcalf.  See, Sequoia Kings Cayon is contiguous with the John Muir Wilderness, Monarch Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness, and John Krebs Wilderness.  The John Muir Wilderness is contiguous with Ansel Adams, and Dinkey Lakes.  Ansel Adams is contiguous with Yosemite, which is contiguous with Emigrant and Hoover.  And the Golden Trout is contigous with the South Sierra.

Whew, now that’s a puzzle.  But, what it all adds up to is just basically one giant single wilderness area with multiple names that adds up to an amazing 3 million acres plus.  This entire area is cut by highway only once–through the middle of Yosemite.

The Range of Light (Sierras) is the central backbone with endless forests of those trees, big and little, hundreds of lakes, miles and miles of clear-flowing streams and wildlife aplenty.  This is what it’s all about.

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I built a nice little Excel spreadsheet of all the Wilderness Areas in the West with the aid of www.wilderness.net, a great resource.  I also used the BLM’s excellent web resource to build a similar spreadsheet of all the BLM Wilderness Study Areas.  It’s fun to randomly select one of the hundreds of wilderness areas and then delve into some research to learn about it.

Extending the concept to this blog, I have selected five completely random wilderness areas from my list for a brief wilderness profile of each.

1.  Box – Death Hollow

A Forest Service wilderness area with a BLM-like name, this relatively small wilderness is located right in the middle of South-Central Utah.  It is a remote 25,751 acres of pinion and juniper canyon country.  There are a number of canyon-carving streams in this wild flash flood-prone wilderness.  Pine and Sand Creeks even hold brown and rainbow trout.  The canyon rims are of Navajo sandstone.  The grizly name of the area refers to the deaths of some livestock attempting to cross the rugged canyons years ago.

An ominous sign in Box - Death Hollow Wilderness in Utah. * Image courtesy of http://www.telegraph.co.uk *

2.  Cummins Creek

This tiny wilderness area (9,443 acres) is distinctive because it is the only wilderness area in Oregon that contains old growth Sitka Spruce, some reaching nine feet in diameter.  The rainforest wilderness reaches almost to the Pacific Ocean and its two streams, Cummins and Bob Creeks, flow directly into the Pacific.  Only one trail exists in the wilderness, the 6.5 mile Cummins Ridge Trail.

The rainforests of Cummins Creek Wilderness in Oregon. *Image couresy of Wilderness.net"

3.  Gros Ventre

A random pick from a list of over 500 western wilderness areas will have a high likelihood of resulting in some pretty small and obscure gems, like Cummins Ridge above.  But, for my third pick I landed on the very significant Gros Ventre (pronounced GroVONT) in West Central Wyoming.

The name is French for “big belly.” This is indeed big country.  Part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the area is renowned for big wildlife and big scenery.  As tourists gaze west from Jackson to the Tetons, their backs are guarded by the wild Gros Ventre to their east, a large 317,874 acre wilderness that provides a vital ecosystem connection between the Teton region and the Wind River Mountains farther south and east.

The big alpine country of the Gros Ventre. Photo courtesy of bigwildadventures.com

4. Munds Mountain

Near Sedona and easily accessed from Flagstaff, the 24,411 acre Munds Mountain Wilderness is classic red-rock Arizona.  Munds Mountain rises to 6,825 feet on the Mogollon Rim (pronounced Muggyon).  Although this is a Forest Service wilderness, the area is relatively dry.  The forest is pinion and juniper and the rocks a blazing red.

The blazing red sandstone of Munds Mountain Wilderness in Arizona. Photo courtesy of azwild.org. Photo by Mark Miller.

5.  Sespe Wilderness

This 219,700 acre Forest Service wilderness is located in the dry inland coastal region of Southern California north of Los Angeles.  One reason I like doing these random wilderness profiles is because I learn some things I never would have known.  Apparently, the Sespe is located in the fourth largest roadless region in the Lower 48.  I tend to know my geography, but I would never have guessed that the fourth largest roadless region in the U.S. would be in Southern California north of LA, south of San Francisco, and west of Interstate 5.

The area is apparently heavily used–not surprising since there are about 12 million people within less than a half-day drive.  Still, it offers its share of wildness, like 31 miles of the last undamned river in Southern California, Sespe Creek (currently recommended for National Wild and Scenic River status).  And, the 53,000 acre Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

That looks refreshing and fun. Sespe Wilderness, Southern California. Photo courtesy of Superstock.




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