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National Forests

What Can You Do in Wilderness Areas?

Of all of the types of public land that the United States offers, I’d be hard-pressed to find a set of lands that offer more unique opportunities than Wilderness Areas.

What can you do in Wilderness Areas in the US? Wilderness Areas are a type of public land that is managed by four different U.S. agencies. Each agency will have their specific rules for Wilderness Areas, but no kinds of motorized equipment are allowed.

Keep reading to learn more about what you can and cannot do in the great Wilderness Areas of the United States. We’ll cover where you can find information on the websites of each agency, along with general trends you can expect from a Wilderness Area.

How to Find Information About a Specific Wilderness Area

Before we go over how to find information regarding the rules and regulations for specific Wilderness Areas, it’s helpful to give a general overview of how they are managed.

Wilderness Areas is a specific type of public land in the United States, but they are not not managed by a particular agency. Instead, a Wilderness Area might be managed by any of the following four agencies:

  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • National Park Service

The last three agencies on that list are under the Department of Interior, while the U.S. Forest Service is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As you can probably imagine, this means that it’s important to do your research before you head out to enjoy a Wilderness Area, as the rules and regulations that apply are not consistent.

A great website for learning more about Wilderness Areas is Wilderness Connect, which is a partnership between a variety of organizations that is dedicated to serving these wilderness areas.

They’ve put together a very helpful tool shows the different Wilderness Areas throughout the US. If you go to their home page and click on the below image, you’ll bring up a map of all the different locations:

It’s a neat tool that is well worth exploring, and they have information available for all of the different wilderness areas.

Wilderness Areas of the U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service provides a tool called the Interactive Visitor Map, which allows you to pull up a variety of different maps that display different data layers. They do technically have a Wilderness option on the ‘Layers’ menu on the left-hand side of the screen, but it only pulls up small labels. I didn’t find it to be very helpful, but it’s easy enough to spot Wilderness Areas when you zoom in on the map:

You can see that the Wilderness Areas are colored with a darker shade of green, and if you click anywhere on the shape you should get an info window like this:

If you go to the ‘Forest’ tab in the middle, you’ll see a link that is under the ‘WEBSITE’ section. If you click this link you should be taken to the website of the National Forest that this Wilderness Area belongs to. Once you’re on this website you’ll want to find the ‘Special Places’ menu item in the navigational menu on the left:

Not every National Forest website is organized in the same manner, but you should then be able to find a part of the page that either discusses the various associated wilderness areas, or it links to another page. In this case the Grande Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (say that five times fast) website has a dedicated page for wilderness areas, as seen below:

Clicking through to that page, you’ll find a list of associated wilderness areas, with separate pages for each. Once you get to the page associated with your specific wilderness area, you’ll find all of the restrictions and rules.

Wilderness Areas of the Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management covers such a diverse array of public land that it’s unsurprising that there isn’t a clear method to get information on a specific wilderness area. If you’re interested in finding wilderness areas that are managed by the BLM, you can find them on the map managed by the Wilderness Connect group. The BLM wilderness areas are shaded in yellow like such:

Wilderness Connect will sometimes have site-specific information in their Rules & Regulations section, but you can also look for local rules on the Bureau of Land Management website. Each stat will manage their wilderness areas differently, so your best bet is to select your state in the menu on the far-right of the navigational menu:

If you scroll down you should find a section called ‘Featured Topics’ and in that section you’ll best be served by looking for an icon that most closely aligns with your activity of interest. Exactly what options are available will vary by state, but it could be something like the following:

Wilderness Areas of Fish and Wildlife Service

The website of Fish and Wildlife Service does have a page dedicated to their Wilderness Areas, but I didn’t find any indication of their site containing site-specific rules. They do point people towards the Wilderness Connect group, so I believe that would be the best place to start.

If you go over to the map for Wilderness Connect, you’ll see that the Fish and Wildlife Service wilderness areas are shaded in an orange color, like so:

If you click on the shaded area you will be presented with an information window like the following:

Click on the ‘More >’ link and then you’ll be taken to the individual page for this specific wilderness on Wilderness Connect. There should be a group of icons below the introduction to the page; if you click the ‘Rules and Regulation’ icon you’ll be taken to a page that summarizes the regulations that apply for this site.

It appears that the first section of the rules page covers general rules, while the last section covers site-specific rules and regulations for this wilderness area.

Wilderness Areas for the National Park Service

The website for the National Park Service does have a section dedicated to wilderness areas, but I was unable to get their mapping application working. Much like the Fish and Wildlife Service, your best bet is to start with the Wilderness Connect mapping tool. The wilderness areas for the National Park Service are colored a dark pink in that map, like the following:

Using this map you can pull up the link to the page on Wilderness Connect. Like above, this page will have site-specific rules and regulations.

It’s also worth checking out the website for that specific national park. Using the Zion Wilderness section from the above screenshot as an example, you can head over to this link on the National Park Service website to pull up that specific site. Click the ‘None selected’ drop-down menu and then start typing your park in this search menu:

Once you find your park you can click on it and then you should be taken to the website for that park. There should now be two toolbars on your screen. The top toolbar is for the NPS as a whole, while the bottom toolbar is for your specific park. In the bottom toolbar you’ll be looking for something like ‘Learn About the Park’ –> ‘Management’ –> ‘Laws & Policies’ like so:

The exact name of the last link may vary a bit from park to park, but it should be something similar to that. Once that page loads you’ll be looking for something called the ‘Superintendent’s Compendium.’ This can be in a variety of formats (website, PDF, etc.), but you can expect this to be your best source for park-specific rules and regulations.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you learned something with this piece and got what you needed in order to start exploring the great Wilderness Areas of the United States. They’re truly an awesome opportunity to experience something that is so hard to find in today’s modern world.

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By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.