What Is a Wilderness Area? Definition and Examples

Hiking at The Wave in Arizona
Paria Canyon Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Kanab, Arizona. wanderluster / Getty Images

A federally designated wilderness is a natural area with the highest level of protection in the United States. Wilderness areas encompass diverse landscapes and can be found in almost every state—from the icy Glacier Bay in Alaska to the arid Black Rock Desert in Nevada, to the humid Pelican Islands in Florida. Each of the 803 wilderness areas in the U.S. has unique characteristics that make it special and worthy of protecting now and for future generations. 

The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, founded the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). To become part of the NWPS, federal lands have to be designated through an act of Congress. Within the NWPS are wilderness areas managed by four federal agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management.

map of wilderness areas in the United States
Wilderness areas in the United States.

National Wilderness Preservation System / USGS

The idea of wilderness existed long before the Wilderness Act or the NWPS. In everyday conversation, wilderness might be an area described as “vast,” “wild,” or “uninhabited.” Elsewhere, wilderness has a similar definition to U.S. wilderness. For example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines wilderness as, “Protected areas that are usually large, unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.” Regardless of similarities to other wilderness definitions, a U.S. wilderness is unique in that it takes an act of Congress to make an area a wilderness. 

Despite their high level of protection, many wilderness areas are threatened by human activities including climate change, sound and light pollution, invasive species, and overuse. 

Wilderness Definition and Designation

Federally designated wilderness areas are valued ecosystems that have been granted the highest level of wildlands protection by Congress. Once designated, a wilderness must be managed to uphold wilderness character, as laid out by the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Wilderness areas are chosen based on four critical wilderness qualities: natural, untrammeled, undeveloped, and opportunities for solitude and recreation. Once an area is officially chosen to be wilderness it legally must be managed in a way that maintains or improves upon its nature. 

Wilderness Character Traits

Wilderness areas are chosen for their special tangible and intangible values. The 1964 Wilderness Act outlines four wilderness character traits that should be managed to maintain or improve. 

  1. Untrammeled. Wilderness should be without significant human influence and natural processes should be allowed to play out without interference. 
  2. Natural. Wilderness should have native flora and fauna.
  3. Undeveloped. Wilderness should have as few human-made structures, like signs and developed campsites, as possible.
  4. Opportunities for Solitude or Recreation. Wilderness should allow people to spend time in nature alone. People should be able to hike, camp, fish, hunt, or do whatever wilderness appropriate activity they chose.

How Are Wilderness Areas Selected and Designated?

Black Canyon of the Gunnison seen from Green Mountain, Crawford, CO
Black Canyon of the Gunnison seen from Green Mountain, Crawford, Colorado. Cavan Images / Getty Images

Adding a new wilderness to the preservation system is a multistep process. Potential new wilderness areas are identified based on their existing wilderness character. For example, land managers may identify a large roadless patch of old-growth forest in a national forest that would benefit from wilderness designation. 

Once identified, the agency that manages the potential wilderness creates an environmental impact statement, assessing the pros and cons of designating the wilderness. The public may also voice their opinion during a 90-day public comment period. 

The wilderness designation adds a legal layer of protection onto existing federal land, making it different from a national park, forest, or wildlife refuge. For example, unlike other federal lands, wildernesses cannot have roads or other infrastructure like paved trails. Wilderness areas also cannot be used for resource extraction.

A wilderness can be found in a national park, like the Shenandoah Wilderness in Shenandoah National Park, or in a national forest, like the John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest. A wilderness inside of other federally managed lands may prohibit certain activities to preserve wilderness character. For example, while a national forest may allow mountain biking, it would be restricted in the wilderness.

What Is Allowed in Wilderness Areas?

Like all federal lands, wilderness areas are for the use and enjoyment of the people. This may, however, involve restricting certain activities, like the use of motorized and mechanized vehicles, to ensure the preservation of geologic features, sensitive watersheds, or endangered species. 

One of the primary goals of wilderness is to provide public spaces for recreation. The Wilderness Act specifies “primitive and unconfined recreation,” meaning that there are as few restrictions as possible on wilderness activities as long as they do not threaten wilderness character. 

All wilderness visitors are encouraged to practice the seven Leave No Trace principles to ensure a safe and low-impact visit: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.

How Many Wilderness Areas Are There in the United States?

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, West Virginia. Dennis Govoni / Getty Images

Today, there are 803 wilderness areas across the U.S. encompassing 111,687,302 acres. These range in size from the vast Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska, which covers over 9 million acres, to the isolated Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida, which is a mere 5 acres.

Wilderness areas are not uniformly distributed across the country, but rather are concentrated in Alaska and the Western U.S. Alaska, in fact, is home to nearly a third of all wilderness. Six states—Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island—do not have any wilderness areas. 

In 2019, there were 37 new additions to the NWPS in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah. With these, the NWPS protects only about 5% of the U.S. territory—less than 3% if we exclude Alaska.

View Article Sources
  1. "Category lb: Wilderness Area." International Union for Conservation of Nature.

  2. "Fast Facts: the Beginnings of the National Wilderness Preservation System." Wilderness Connect.

  3. "Alaska's Wilderness." National Park Service.