What is Wilderness?

Grand Canyon at sunrise close to park headquarters. The entire area below the Rim is designated wilderness, preserving this view in perpetuity.

As I enter the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, I think that it’s important to take a moment to discuss the concept of wilderness.

The 1964 Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, states “a wilderness in contrast with those areas where man and his own 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.“ It was signed on September 3rd, 1964 and gives Congress the authority to create wilderness areas within public lands where things that are associated with manmade civilization – such as mechanized transportation, developed campgrounds, etc. – are prohibited and the area is allowed to remain in as natural a state as possible. Currently, 757 areas encompassing 109.5 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico make up the National Wilderness Preservation System. (That may sound like a lot but it’s actually only about 5% of the total land area of the country.). 56% of national park land is designated wilderness; 18% of US Forest Service land; 22% of Fish and Wildlife Service land; and 2% of Bureau of Land Management land, including Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

I often get asked, what is the difference between wilderness and a national park, for example? Some assume that since wilderness areas can be managed by agencies other than the Park Service, it is a lesser degree of protection, since those agencies have multipurpose missions, unlike the Park Service, which is charged with providing access to but always putting the resource first.

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In reality, in many ways, a wilderness area is an even higher designation of protection than a park. Parks have developed visitor services areas, for example, or tour roads to allow access to them – “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the Yellowstone Act of 1872 famously stated. Wilderness areas have no such services, whether they are managed by the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, although they may be affected more by land management policies on the areas surrounding them when they are managed by one agency than another. For example, it’s not recommended to drink even filtered water from the Paría River most of the time because it flows off lands to the north in Utah that are open to grazing by livestock. That wouldn’t generally happen if the river was flowing off national park land. (There are a few exceptions but generally speaking grazing stock is prohibited in national parks.)

Visiting a wilderness area can be an incredible experience. Relatively few people venture into them due to the lack of services. This can mean incredible opportunities for solitude and introspection. It can mean incredible views and a much deeper connection to the resource.

Yet, the privilege also comes with great responsibility. It’s essential to practice Leave No Trace principles in such areas, as they are often particularly fragile and people’s experiences more easily impacted than they are in urban or more conventional public land settings due to the different expectations they have for the experience. And often oversights are much harder to correct in wilderness areas.

For those who don’t know, the 7 principles of LNT outdoor ethics are:

1. Plan ahead and prepare

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Many soils in the Southwest are cryptobiotic, for example, and walking across them off trail can kill them. Off trail travel also promotes erosion of the natural landscape.

3. Dispose of waste properly

4. Leave what you find – “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

5. Minimize campfire impacts

6. Respect wildlife

7. Be considerate of other visitors

These are all important in any outdoors setting, of course, but are particularly so in wilderness.

In wrapping up here, I’m curious, for those who have spent time in a wilderness area, or thought about doing so – what does the concept of wilderness mean to you? What was your experience in such an area? Which did you choose and why? How was it similar to or different from your expectations? And what was one thing you did to leave it better for those who came to visit after you?

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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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South Rim to Lee’s Ferry

I took the shuttle today from the South Rim of Grand Canyon to Marble Canyon and walked down to the campground at Lee’s Ferry. Still pretty warm during the day, in the mid-90s. Walking down to the campground from Marble Canyon, the road passes by towering red rock cliffs and giant boulders.

Lee’s Ferry Entrance sign on US-89A at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Marble Canyon where 89A crosses the Colorado River at the Navajo Bridge
Towering red rock Navajo Sandstone buttes loom above the road to Lee’s Ferry
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

This is one of my favorite sunset spots around, and I expect the next few days will be no different. It’s still pretty warm during the days here, getting into the mid-90s, and still feels like summer. But the night is cool, dipping into the 70s. Tomorrow I hope to take a brief wander down to the Colorado River in search of a remote Grand Canyon National Park entry sign that a friend who visited this summer brought to my attention, and stop by the ranger program apparently being held at Lonely Dell Ranch before heading up Paria Canyon into the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and taking my first steps out on this 850 or so mile journey to Mexico.

I may be out of data range through the next few days so don’t be surprised if posting is intermittent. I apologize in advance.

Giant red rock boulders sit beside the road in evening light
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

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Prologue: The Arizona Trail

I finally bit the bullet on a thruhike. Since I arrived at Grand Canyon National Park in March, I have been considering thruhiking the Arizona Trail across the state.

For those who don’t know, the Arizona Trail is an 800 mile long hiking trail across Arizona. It starts at the Utah state line, skirts Buckskin Mountain, climbs onto and crosses the Kaibab Plateau, crosses the Grand Canyon and Coconino Plateau. It skirts the mighty San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and the town itself, and then runs to the southeast past Mormon Lake to the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Dropping off and running beside the rim to the town of Pine, it passes within miles of the Fossil Creek Wilderness area before crossing several mesas and the East Verde River. It climbs into the rugged Mazatzal Mountains and traverses them to Roosevelt, then crosses the Superstitions and desert canyons to eventually reach the Sky Islands near Tucson. Climbing across Mount Lemmon and Santa Catalinas, it drops to Redington Pass before rising again through the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park. It again enters desert but soon climbs again into the Santa Rita Mountains, passing directly below 9400 ft Mt Wrightson. Crossing the Canelo Hills, it makes a final climb into the Huachuca Mountains and ultimately drops to its southern terminus at the US/Mexico border at Coronado National Memorial.

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“The Arizona Trail”
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The hallmark of the Arizona Trail is diversity. Many long distance trails simply follow mountain ranges and focus on views. The AZT, by contrast, focuses on crossing each of the state’s ecosystems, from deserts to ponderosa forests, Sky Islands to riparian areas.

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Of course, this means that the challenges vary greatly along the trail; depending on the area and recent conditions, terrain, elevation, water availability and access to resupplies may all be challenges.

Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Kaibab National Forest



On September 21st, I set off to conquer this trail, adding 45 miles at the start through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to access the northern trailhead.

I have chosen it for three reasons: I wanted one that was unique, that relatively few people successfully achieve. The diversity appealed to me, as it is a novel approach to a trail. And I wanted one that would give me the confidence that no matter what I follow it with, I could do it. And, I’m already in Arizona after wrapping up my season at Grand Canyon. I also hope to raise funds for the Arizona Trail Association and National Park Foundation.

So, I’m coming for you, Arizona. Let’s see just what we are both truly made of.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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