Hiking with the crowds OR difficult solitude

Wilderness Hiking Beyond the Crowds is Challenging

Most people’s first wilderness experience is a well-known area like the High Sierras or the Sawtooth Wilderness where information is fair and trails are good but crowds, dusty trails, and limited campsites often hamper the wilderness experience.

Lesser-known wilderness areas offer incredible solitude—but often with difficult hiking due to poor information or poor trails. Planning a backpack to a “new” area can be daunting, not to mention unpleasant if you’re not fully aware of or prepared for new conditions. Widespread wildfire has wreaked havoc on many forest trails from post-fire flooding and continual tree fall for years after the fire. A few winter storms can leave more than 50 downed logs (snags) per mile on a trail cleared the previous summer! Because of extreme climate fluctuations, water is becoming problematic—either high waters on formerly easy crossings or water shortages from damaged or nonexistent but formerly reliable perennial springs and streams.

Since we started backpacking in the 1970s, wilderness trails have changed drastically—generally not for the better. In the past, a simple planimetric national forest map with no contours was often sufficient to plan a trip because all trails on map existed and were maintained. In western states, an extensive system of wilderness trails was based on Native American access routes enhanced and maintained by miners and ranchers, and later by federal agencies for their own field work and horseback patrols. Eastern wilderness trails are often former logging roads or railroad grades.

Since about 2000, climate change related megafires and their effects (downed logs, washed out creeks, altered springs, lost trail tread, eroded slopes, and brushy post-fire vegetation) have damaged and even removed trails. In Western wilderness, historic trail maintenance by stockmen and miners is long over. In Eastern wilderness, trails may be damaged by floods or obscured by pest-killed felled trees, thorny vegetation, or carpets of invasive plants. Federal agencies which used to have trail crews on every unit to keep trails open for their field work have fewer field workers and much more administrative work. Trails shown on a forest map may not even exist, may be difficult to follow or may be dangerous in sections.

Therefore, planning a trip to a new area may be difficult or nearly impossible.