I love wilderness areas—especially wilderness areas with a large W. In those federally protected areas I am assured that the land I will be hiking or camping in is protected from incompatible uses such as resource extraction, roads, and developments. It will remain untrammeled. No bikes, motorcycles, motorized equipment, drones and other modern day intrusions, too. Federally established Wilderness Areas are managed to protect the environment with very little human manipulation and impact. Even group size is restricted within them. But hike in any Wilderness Area close to a major metropolitan area or popular tourist getaway and you’ll quickly see that even when group size restrictions are adhered to and enforced—the entire concept becomes almost futile if there are hundreds or thousands of people crowded into a small area.
One of the biggest allures for me hiking in a Wilderness Area is to have a wilderness experience. And that certainly can’t be achieved on a crowded trail that more closely resembles a city park than a wild backcountry. Land use managers have long racked their brains on the crowd conundrum when it comes to managing wilderness areas. Restricting group size means little to adhering to wilderness principles if there is an endless stream of people crowding a certain area. This is especially evident on trails like Snow Lake or Colchuck Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. While one of the solutions (albeit a very unpopular one with many recreationists) is to implement day use quotas to thwart crowding—I have found a less onerous solution for having a wilderness experience.
I often shun Wilderness Areas for non-wilderness areas when I am seeking solitude. Because the non-wilderness areas lack the coveted big W title, they are often off of the radar for many hikers. When I worked for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire back in the 1980s there was much discord among the folks I worked with on whether we should include the off—the-radar Kilkenny Roadless Area as a Wilderness Area. It met all of the criteria to be added to the wilderness system. But it was overlooked by the masses of hikers who came from the Boston area. Those of us who knew the Kilkenny, loved that while its landscapes weren’t as dramatic as the ones found within the Great Gulf or Pemigewasset Wilderness areas—it provided us with a true wilderness experience. It was a place where we could travel in solitude and perhaps see some of the national forest’s megafauna like the Canada lynx. It was a true wilderness even though it wasn’t a federal Wilderness. Many of us feared that if Kilkenny became a Wilderness Area, crowding would follow and we would lose the solitude we loved about the place.
Here in Washington I have found the same story to be true for many of our national forest motorized roadless areas. The mere fact that these areas are motorized, meaning that motorcycles are allowed on many of their trails keeps many hikers away. The thought of having to listen to the whine of motors holds little appeal to many hikers. But here is the irony; I can’t count how many days I have hiked in the Sawtooth and Entiat motorized roadless areas and have encountered absolutely no one! Other days I have encountered just a couple of motorized users—almost all who have been incredibly cordial and welcoming. I’ll take a couple of encounters with friendly motorcyclists any day over having to endure a conga line of hundreds upon hundreds of hikers—many leaving litter behind, blasting music and doing other boorish things.
Of course there are boorish motorcyclists too—and some motorized areas resemble speedways and I have no interest in hiking them. But several of our backcountry areas that are open to motorized recreation remain remarkably quiet and wild. Legendary guidebook authors Harvey Manning and Ira Spring railed against motorized recreation and often denigrated the folks who partake in it. While I have no interest in dirt biking and I believe that many areas that are open to motorcycles should not be because of environmental degradation—I accept that folks who enjoy motorized recreation should have places to enjoy their pastime. And I have accepted that I can coexist with them on the trail in certain low use areas—especially when it means I will have a wilderness or near wilderness experience. To me—this is one of the greatest ironies in all my years as an outdoor writer, conservationist, and trails advocate. Thirty years ago I would have never imagined that the trail less traveled was imprinted with wheel tracks.
Looking for the Trail Less Traveled? Both my Day Hiking North Cascades and Day Hiking Central Cascades books contain detailed info on many—including trails within the Sawtooth and Entiat Roadless Areas.