What is Wilderness?

What is wilderness? Most often we hear the term in the news as a place in dispute. One user group wanting to protect an area of land from another group, another user group saying it should be open to them as well. Some accuse hikers of being selfish, wanting only a place of exclusivity. Other more intrusive entities want in too, promising not to make a mess with their all-new, hi-tech industrial machinery. Hikers, mountain bikers, ranchers, loggers, land developers, mining companies, oil drillers…we all want a piece.

Twenty Lakes Basin

In the last couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in several wilderness areas and national parks.  Hiking, camping, swimming, and snowshoeing.  Sweating, freezing, relaxing, and suffering.  It has certainly given me a new perspective of what wilderness means to me, and what types of activity should be allowed there.  It’s one of the only places left where you can go for solitude, to shut out the outside world, to heal and detox your mind, and to remind yourself of what’s really important in life.

Hike to Round Top

I recently read a book with an excellent description of wilderness, an explanation that really hit the nail on the head for me. Here’s an excerpt from Edward Abbey’s 1968 autobiographical work, Desert Solitaire:

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.

Wilderness, wilderness . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.”

Capitol Reef

“Why such allure in the very word? What does it really mean? Can wilderness be defined in the words of government officialdom as simple as “A minimum of not less than 5000 contiguous acres of roadless area”? This much may be essential in attempting a definition but it is not sufficient; something more is involved.”

Capitol Reef

“Suppose we say that wilderness invokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit, Romance–but not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.”

Leavitt Meadows

“But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need–if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us–if only we were worthy of it.”


“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”


Any human activity makes an impact in the wilderness, but it’s important that we visit it. More people need to know what clean water tastes like.  What it’s like to breathe fresh mountain air.  What “quiet” sounds like.  To stand under a giant tree that’s older than this country.  The exhilaration of diving into a cold mountain lake.   The more people experience wilderness, the more they’ll realize what’s at stake and want to protect it.  They may even bring some of that wilderness back with them, and feel stronger about protecting their own community as well.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV

So what type of activities should be allowed in wilderness and other protected areas that express our loyalty to the earth?  The Leave No Trace Principals are a good place to start, guidelines to be followed that minimize our impact in sensitive areas and protect our remaining wild places.

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

Some activities are definitely more gentler than others though. Hiking in on foot is the primary way we access wilderness these days. It’s quiet, gentle on the earth, and you can’t carry much with you.  It’s not easy, and you have to earn your way in. Riding in on horseback is the other generally accepted method of non-mechanized travel. There is much discussion as to whether mountain bikes should be allowed into wilderness areas. I’m on the fence with this one. As a mountain biker myself, I don’t think they do any more damage than a horse. They’re also quiet, and would probably be compatible in some areas. Most of the wilderness I’ve visited though, it’s the rugged terrain and overgrown trails that would keep the bikes out, not the law.  Still, some areas might benefit from mountain bike use, as there is much interest in building quality trails among this group.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass

But can activities that require roads, make loud noise, dig big holes, spill toxic substances, exploit the land, and build permanent structures be compatible with wilderness?  I don’t think so.  At least with very few exceptions.  Not without changing the definition of wilderness.  It’s a destruction of paradise, and a betrayal to future generations for short term gain.


2 thoughts on “What is Wilderness?

  1. I want to hear nothing but the wind, the wildlife, and the fish. Motorized vehicles or watercraft should stay out. We go kayak fishing in the inshore waters of Florida and nothing is more disturbing than a loud boat engine plowing thru the shallow water seagrass and pushing the fish into deeper water.

  2. “It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit,”
    Thank you for this marvellous definition of wilderness. We all have this intimate feeling, I suppose. Cécile

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