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Backpacker Magazine – May 1998

A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

by: Jeff Rennicke


Frank Church--River Of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

Frank Church knew his way through the wilderness of Washington politics as well as any senator ever did. A renowned speaker on foreign relations, he also became a leader in wilderness legislation, acting as the floor leader for the 1964 Wilderness Act, writing the Wild And Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, and remaining a staunch advocate of many environmental issues until his retirement from the Senate in 1980. But even though most of his life centered around Washington's Beltway, he never forgot the value of sleeping under the stars. "I never knew a man who felt self-important in the morning after spending a night in the open on an Idaho mountainside." On April 7, 1984, just a few weeks before his death, Congress named the largest wilderness in the contiguous United States for the esteemed senator from Idaho, giving hikers 2.3 million acres of mountainside where they could hike, camp, and sleep under the stars.

On the trail: This wilderness is huge, containing parts of six national forests and more than 700 miles of maintained trails. The 43-mile (round-trip) Pistol Creek Trail will lead you through fields of wildflowers, past a succession of creeks (many bearing the names of guns such as Luger, Winchester, and Popgun), and to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the fabled "River of No Return." Deep snow and swollen-creek crossings can be a problem, so call for conditions. Because of the rugged terrain there are surprisingly few options for loop trips in this wilderness, although the Pistol Creek Trail can be linked with the trails up Indian Creek to create a 64-mile loop.

Contact: Challis National Forest, Middle Fork District, Box 750, Challis, ID 83226; (208) 879-4101.

Trail guide: Trails of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, by Margaret Fuller. Signpost Books, 8912 192nd St. SW, Edmonds, WA 98020; $14.95.

Aldo Leopold Wilderness, New Mexico

See accompanying story.

On the trail: On the same day that Aldo Leopold arrived in New Mexico's Gila National Forest, fires were rampaging over Curtis Canyon and Granite Peak. Although he called fire "the scourge of all living things," he held an affection for the natural process. Today, with the fire scars healed, the area makes a wonderful location for a hike through the southern section of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. There is a network of trails radiating off Hillsboro Mountain (stop and ask for a tour of the fire tower there). Either FS 117 down East Curtis Creek or FS 114 down Holden Prong, with its beautiful waterfalls, will take you into the "blessed country" Leopold loved so well.

Contact: Gila National Forest, Black Range Ranger District, 1804 Date St., Truth or Consequences, NM 87901; (505) 894-6677.

Trail guide: There are no guidebooks dealing specifically with trails in this area, but call the Black Range Ranger District (above) and ask for a free copy of Black Range Trails and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness map.

Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado

(One that should be named for the person who helped protect it, but isn't.) - His co-workers teasingly referred to him as the first "Beauty Engineer" in the U.S. Forest Service. But Arthur H. Carhart was quite serious. Almost 60 years before the passage of the Wilderness Act, he believed wild places should be preserved simply for their scenery. In June 1918, the young Carhart was sent to Trappers Lake in the Flat Top Mountains of Colorado to survey the area for summer homes. Instead, he recommended the area be preserved as "wild land," an idea that caught the attention of another young forester named Leopold. When the National Wilderness Preservation System was finally created in 1964, one of the first areas preserved was the 235,000-acre Flat Tops Wilderness, where the boundaries take in not only Trappers Lake but a whole lot of beauty.

On the trail: Although Trappers Lake gets all the attention, being one of the birthplaces of the wilderness idea, the Flat Tops has a lot of other great hikes. Try the East Fork Trail, a 14-mile, one-way trip along the East Fork of the Williams Fork River in the northern part of the wilderness area. There are great views from atop the 11,600-foot saddle separating the Williams Fork and Bear River drainages. The several river crossings also make pretty good fishing spots. Every time you stop to enjoy the scenery, thank Arthur Carhart, the "Beauty Engineer."

Contact: Routt National Forest, Yampa Ranger District, 300 Roselawn, P.O. Box 7, Yampa, CO 80483; (970) 638-4516.

Trail Guide: Hiking Colorado, by Caryn and Peter Boddie. Falcon Press, P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; (800) 582-2665; $15.95.

Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness, North Dakota

Teddy Roosevelt was a man as complex as the landscape of hoodoos, buttes, and windswept plains that now make up the national park named in his honor. Hunter, conservationist, adventurer, author, soldier, father, Roosevelt took much of his philosophy of nature from his days spent in the Dakota badlands as a buffalo hunter and cattle rancher. As U.S. president, he set aside nearly 230 million acres of public land including national wildlife refuges, national forests, and national parks. In 1948, this stretch of badlands was designated a national park in his honor. Today, 19,410 acres of the northern unit and 10,510 acres of the southern unit are designated as wilderness.

On the trail: The longest trail in the park is the 16-mile Achenbach Trail in the North Unit. But don't let the short mileage fool you. This park is well-suited to off-trail hiking with its wide-open horizons. You'll need to know how to navigate in wild country, carry or find water, and since the Little Missouri River flows through both units, you may have to wade a bit.

Contact: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, P.O. Box 7, Medora, ND 58645; (701) 623-4466.

Trail Guide: The Theodore Roosevelt National Park Map lists trail options and gives short descriptions.




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