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Adventure Travel

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.

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“Eyooww!” Jim bursts out of the waterfall’s spray with a screech like a mountain lion. “Man, that’s freezing!” It is 80°F; not yet noon. In the rising heat, the cool water of the falls along Holden Prong feels like pinpricks against our trail-sweaty bodies. He screams again and flails toward shore on the slippery rocks. The skin above the tan lines where his hiking shorts used to be is a rosy shade of pink.

I laugh out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Jim asks.

“Not your legs. OK, your legs too, but I was just imagining what ‘the Professor’ would think if he were watching from up on the trail.” Jim turns to look, half-expecting, I think, to find him standing there.

Serious-minded, bespectacled, stern, Aldo Leopold-known as “the Professor” to many of his students-was a brilliant man. He was a teacher, scientist, forester, co-founder of The Wilderness Society, and an author. His textbook on game management spawned an entire field of science. His book A Sand County Almanac has influenced the way generations of hikers and environmentalists look at the world. Almost single-handedly he pushed for the creation of the nation’s first designated wilderness area, sparking the movement toward today’s National Wilderness Preservation System. He was a man of thought and action, a man who left an indelible imprint on his time and the world around him. He was not a man given to splashing around in waterfalls.

Still, it is easy to imagine him on these trails. He spent 15 years in the Southwest with the Forest Service, later returning on hunting trips. On the surface, it seems exactly the kind of wild country Leopold loved-the peaks of the Black Range rolling through their shades of green and gray unbroken by roads, lights, smokestacks, or clearcuts. There are hints of box canyons, elk tracks in the mud, pine-robed summits shimmering with heat. When he wrote, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” he might have been thinking of this very place. In 1987, 100 years after his birth, this blank spot on the map of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest was named the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.

I have come here, along with Jim Gorman, Backpacker senior editor, on something of a pilgrimage. I’ve come to see if Aldo Leopold’s dreams have stood the test of time in the wilderness that bears his name. Fifty years after his death I’ve come to hike some of the same country that he did, to share the same vistas, to ponder the meaning of wilderness in its birthplace.

And I’ve come to do a little splashing in the pools of the waterfalls, that is if “the Professor” doesn’t mind too much.

The day before our trailside swim, FS trail 79 led us away from the parking lot at Emory Pass. It wound past a forest-green outhouse and along a dirt road skirting a helipad and fire fighting station. This part of the trail is hiked by tourists from the overlook and is littered with soda cans and cigarette butts. We stepped over a pile of spilled cheese curls. “Even the squirrels won’t eat those things,” Jim said.

Slowly, though, we left the roads, the refuse, and seemingly the rest of the world, behind. At a spot where we could no longer hear the highway, where the sunlight was pouring through the branches and the breeze was sweet with the vanilla scent of ponderosa pine, Jim stopped in the middle of the trail, closed his eyes, and smiled. “This smells like the West, right here.”

It is a smell, and a slant of light, that Aldo Leopold knew well. Even though he was born in Burlington, Iowa, and lived much of his later life in Wisconsin, the West was in his soul-the sharp scent of sage, the way the shadows seem almost purple on the cliffs at sunset, the unfenced distances. As soon as he graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909, he headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Southwest was still the Wild West then and Leopold jumped into it with both spurs, outfitting himself with a 10-gallon hat, batwing chaps, even a revolver. But underneath the getup he remained a man of science, able to quote Shakespeare or recite the Latin name of a wildflower faster than he could draw a six-shooter. Leopold was no ivory tower scientist, though. Once he buried himself in swamp mud up to his eyeballs so he could watch a muskrat undetected. Another time a fleeing quail defecated on his face. His journal notes say he “could identify blackberry skins in the droppings.”

He made long, meticulous surveys of the wildest reaches of the district. It was magnificent country. Grizzlies and wolves still roamed the pine-shadowed peaks. There were massive stands of uncut timber, clouds of waterfowl. “Every living thing sang, chirped, and burgeoned,” he wrote. “Massive pines and firs…soaked up sun in towering dignity.”

But to a keen-eyed observer like Leopold it was obvious that he was witnessing the end of an era. Deep, gullied creeks spoke of erosion caused by overgrazing. Fences began to wrap the land in barbed wire. New roads, increased logging, more tourists were all eating into the wild country he knew in those early years.

He was, by his own words, “young and full of trigger itch,” but not so young or so trigger happy that he didn’t sense something slipping away.

He watched government trappers rid the mountains of grizzlies and wondered “who wrote the rules for progress.” He saw “the green fire die” in the eyes of a wolf he himself had shot and wondered what else was dying with that animal. “We are crushing the last remnants of something that ought to be preserved for the spiritual and physical welfare of future Americans,” he lamented. The land was losing its very wildness and no one, it seemed, was counting the cost.

We set up our tents in a lovely green meadow beneath the outline of Hillsboro Peak. We are moving rather slowly, stiff from our first day on the trail and from carrying 16 pounds of water apiece into this dry country. There is a breeze in the trees that sounds like running water.

“Do you think the environmental movement was inevitable?” I ask Jim while we are cooking.

“I think it was inevitable that humans realize that we can’t keep trashing the planet, that we have to reach some kind of workable, sustainable relationship with the natural world. Certain people understood that earlier than others and helped it along,” he says. Aldo Leopold was one of those.

Leopold was, among other things, a brilliantly observant man. What he saw on the land concerned him as a scientist and pained him as a sensitive soul. “One of the penalties of an ecological education,” he wrote, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

As one means of healing those wounds, he began thinking about the concept of wilderness as a management tool as early as 1913. Throughout his life he would sharpen and redefine his thinking on the subject, spelling out the importance of wilderness for science, for recreation, for preserving far-ranging species like wolves and grizzlies, and struggling to put into words his belief that wilderness was vital to us as a culture. “Raw wilderness,” he would write, “gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.”

In 1921 came “Leopold’s trumpet call,” as one contemporary called it. It came in the form of an essay published in the Journal of Forestry, in which Leopold urged that “representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.” In that one article he defined wilderness (“a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man”); he set limits on the extent of such a system (“only a small fraction of the total National Forest area-probably not to exceed one in each State”); he even gave an example: the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico.

“I expect some opposition,” he later said of his proposal, which he knew would be “rank heresy” to some. Yet, there was surprisingly little. Leopold was, by then, a respected forester, a maverick for sure, but a “responsible maverick” as biographer Curt Meine called him. And he was an insider with the Forest Service. As fit his nature, Leopold had done his homework, laying out his proposal in detail, combating every possible argument with the combined force of fact and eloquence.

Leopold was not the first, or the only, person to raise the idea of saving the wilderness. But, he was the right man in the right place to make it a reality. All that remained, Leopold said, was “for the Government to draw a line around each one and say, ‘This is wilderness, and wilderness it shall remain.'”

On June 3, 1924, they did exactly that. The nation’s first designated wilderness, the Gila Primitive Area, was born.

I am thinking of something else-Leopold, wilderness, breakfast, anything but wild turkeys-when there it is, all flapping and feathers and gobbling. As my heart finally slows down, I realize I have startled a wild turkey and its two chicks. I move off behind a fallen tree to watch them.

We are up early, breaking camp before sunrise, before breakfast, to take advantage of the cool hours to hike. But the morning is just too beautiful along Las Animas Creek for fast hiking. We have broken from the lush green tunnel of trees to where the horizon runs up against a series of sheer-walled cliffs. The land looks turned up on edge-spires, hoodoos, rocks sticking up orange as the fins of salmon in the early light. And there is water.

Freed from the burden of having to carry so much water, we decide to linger most of the day along the creek. With our packs stashed near the mouth of East Curtis Canyon, we disappear into the country, off-trail, off-time, “like the river, we were free to wander.”

In the quiet hours of wandering, I ponder what Leopold would think of his wilderness today. “It will be much easier to keep wilderness areas than to create them,” he wrote. But it hasn’t been very easy to keep them either.

The original boundaries of the Gila Primitive Area took in 755,000 acres. In 1931, it was bisected by a road so hunters could get to the “excess” deer. The larger section to the west became the Gila Wilderness while the smaller piece to the east, the section that would become the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, was renamed the Black Range Primitive Area. In 1944, the boundary of the Gila Wilderness was again redrawn, this time to allow a fluorite mine in its southwest corner. More recently, there have been rumblings of slicing off yet another corner to allow development of the Hummingbird Ski Area. With each cut or threat of a cut, the “big stretch of wild country” Leopold envisioned gets a little smaller. “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.”

Yet it is not just bites off its boundaries that are making wilderness shrink. It is also being eaten, one bite at a time, from within. Although Leopold saw a place for limited grazing in wilderness, he railed against overgrazing as early as 1924. Almost 75 years later, his wilderness has become the poster child for overgrazing and the focal point in the controversy over wilderness grazing rights throughout the West.

The Diamond Bar Ranch, until recently, held the largest grazing allotment in New Mexico: over 145,000 acres, 85 percent of it in the Gila and Leopold Wilderness areas. As many as 1,200 head of cattle roamed the allotment, devastating the landscape, increasing erosion, altering natural fire patterns, and threatening species such as the Gila trout with extinction.

“It was ecologically horrible what was happening in there,” says Susan Schock, director of Gila Watch, a local conservation group that challenged the grazing in court. “Aldo Leopold would be absolutely appalled if he came back today.” Leopold’s own son, Luna, himself a respected scientist, agrees. “My father was a very keen observer of the status of the ecological system,” he said after a 1995 tour of the overgrazed areas. “He would be shocked.”

Yet, Leopold also understood the land’s ability to heal, if given the chance. His wilderness may now have that chance. Recently, after a six year battle, Gila Watch won a decision that reduced the number of cattle allowed to graze in the wilderness. Already the land shows signs of healing. “You can see new growth along some of the creek beds,” Schock says. “The land is greening up.” The decision affects not only the Aldo Leopold Wilderness but sets a precedent for wilderness grazing. “This decision will affect as much as 18 million acres of designated wilderness West-wide,” says Schock. “It’s nice that such a precedent was set on a wilderness named for Aldo Leopold.”

Despite all the threats, all the problems, on a sunny day hiking along Las Animas Creek, it is still possible to recapture that sense of boundlessness that wilderness should have. We wander all day, stopping to watch a rattlesnake coiled in the shade. We sit along the creek in silence so pure that we can hear the rustle in the wings of a hawk when it swoops in to land on a branch.

Nor hiked it in June. On what is left of old FS Trail 117-just a few ancient blaze marks and a guess-we are making our way up and out of East Curtis Canyon, back into the high country, and right into the teeth of an afternoon charged with thunderstorms.

What bits of old trail we can find lead us up over knife ridges of exposed rock where the air seems to shimmer with electricity. On every ridge there are charred remains of trees cracked by lightning, snapped off with slivers flung 150 feet in all directions. There are others still seeping from the tell-tale spiraled wounds where bolts of lightning clawed them like huge cats. We walk in silence through a boneyard of trees.

“If I had to design a bad place to be in a lightning storm,” I say to Jim finally, “this would be it.” But luck is with us. We seem to be playing tag with the storms, huddling down in lower protected saddles when the worst of them smack the ridgelines, then making runs over the exposed sections beneath a cap of blue sky while boiling cauldrons of clouds brew up another storm just behind us. It is a nerve-wracking way to travel but we make good time.

In a moment of rain-washed sunlight, we step into a glade of aspen trees so beautiful we both stop in our tracks. Maybe it is the relief from the fear we’ve been hiking with, but the place seems to shine with an uncommon beauty. I think of Leopold: “And if you have come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once.” The light is perfect, a liquid green sifting through the leaves. In the wind, still restlessly whipping the ridges, the trunk of each tree sways slightly as if in a dance.

For all of his efforts at articulating the reasons for preserving wilderness-recreation, preservation of species, laboratories for science-there has always been something in moments like this beyond the reach of words, even for him. At one point, he resorts to calling it “numenom,” a philosophical term for an imponderable essence. But later admits his inability to put it down on paper. “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty,” he wrote. “It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

This moment, in this aspen grove, with the trees bathed in this light, is one of those times.

After what appears to be the storm’s final volley, the trail tops out again near the summit of Hillsboro Peak. Our five-day circle is closed. We set up our final camp beneath the last tatters of clouds, watching the slow light of sunset spread across the distance, tingeing the hills a deep blue.

Aldo Leopold’s accomplishments go beyond the preservation of this small stretch of wilderness. His writings on the “Land Ethic” and his theories on the human place in the complex web of nature, have been the foundation for much of the ecological movement. It is likely that, if he were alive, he would not care to revisit his old haunts. “It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness,” he wrote, “for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.”

There is no doubt that the Aldo Leopold Wilderness has been “gilded.” Still, the ideas born here have changed the course of wilderness history. The National Wilderness Preservation System is over 100 million acres protecting in perpetuity some of the most magnificent landscapes on the continent-for wildlife, for science, for pack trips, and for our souls. We have embraced Leopold’s “crazy idea” more tightly than even Leopold himself could ever have imagined.

Even here, in the wilderness that bears his name, there is still wildness to be found. It is not as large as he would remember it. He might complain about all the trails and wince at the signs of overgrazing, but it is still here-in the views from Hillsboro Peak, in a day spent wandering nameless canyons, in one small aspen grove, even in time spent splashing in a waterfall. The Professor would have to smile at that, at least a little.

Just as I am thinking this, the first hikers we’ve seen in five days appear on the trail.

“We saw a mountain lion in the middle of the trail back there,” one of them tells us, still shaking with excitement.

Jim and I move quickly, hoping for a glimpse of the cat. It is gone, but there in the trail are huge, star-like tracks. “Just knowing there is a mountain lion somewhere in those trees makes this place seem wilder somehow, doesn’t it?” Jim asks.

I crouch down to trace one of the tracks with my fingers and think again of Aldo Leopold’s words: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.” Me, too, I think to myself, following the tracks of the mountain lion into the shadows. Me, too.

Following In The Footsteps

Nine hikes as big as the hearts of their namesake wilderness visionaries.

Aldo Leopold was just one of the wilderness pioneers who helped blaze the way in the name of conservation. Here are a few places where you can follow the bootprints of other conservation heroes deep into the wildlands that bear their names.

William O. Douglas Wilderness, Washington

Freedom is a right Justice William O. Douglas held close to heart. Even the freedom to nearly meet your death in the wilds. In his book Of Men and Mountains, he writes, “We had accomplished the impossible…survived terrible ordeals…faced death down; and because of our encounter with it, we had come to value life more.” Born in 1898 in Minnesota, Douglas received a law degree from Columbia University and taught at Yale before being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt. From the bench, and in the many books he would write, he continued to stand on the side of freedom and the freedom wild places represent. “Roadless areas are one pledge to freedom,” he wrote in My Wilderness. That pledge is kept today in the 168,000-acre William O. Douglas Wilderness.

On the trail: “Discovery is adventure,” Douglas wrote, and you will find a lot to discover on the 26.7-mile, one-way hike along the American Ridge. Despite its somewhat short length, it is a good, four- to five-day trip with enough elevation gain and loss to, as the guidebook says, “make your legs feel like canned hams.” All of that up and down does have its advantages, such as the view from the lookout atop 6,473-foot Goat Peak. If your “hams” have enough left in them, you can piece together longer loop hikes by combining this trail with others that share nearby trailheads.

Contact: Wenatchee National Forest, Naches Ranger District, 10061 Highway 12, Naches, WA 98937; (509) 653-2205.

Trail guide: Pacific Northwest Hiking, by Ron C. Judd and Dan Nelson. Foghorn Press, 340 Bodega Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952; (800) 364-4676; $20.95.

Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

John Muir called the Sierra the “Range of Light,” but it was photographer Ansel Adams who captured that light on film. Adams caught all the drama and exquisite beauty of wild places as far flung as Alaska’s Denali, Acadia National Park in Maine, the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and the sand dunes of Death Valley, California. But as with all artists, his best work would spring from his soul and his soul was in the Sierra. His photos were not only works of art but a powerful weapon in the fight for environmental causes. Articulate, energetic, passionate, Adams worked closely with the Sierra Club, lobbied politicians with the power of his words and photographs, and brought the beauty of nature into homes all over the world though his books and prints. His work and life was the inspiration for many of the finest photographers working today. With every click of their shutters, Ansel Adams is remembered.

On the trail: Flower-filled meadows with blossoms dancing in the breeze, high mountain passes layered in late-afternoon sun, diamonds of light splashing in rushing streams-this 230,000-acre wilderness area captures many of the magical qualities that attracted the lens of Ansel Adams. Try the 23.7-mile, one-way Koip Peak Pass Traverse. It includes four mountain passes, five alpine lakes, and enough flower-filled meadows to use up all of your film. Be prepared for lingering snowfields, cold stream crossings, mountain weather, and magic light.

Contact: Inyo National Forest, Mono Lake Ranger District, P.O. Box 429, Lee Vining, CA 93541; (760) 647-3000.

Trail Guide: 100 Hikes in California’s Central Sierra and Coast Range, by Vicky Spring. The Mountaineers Books, 1001 S.W. Klickitat Way, Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98134; (800) 553-4453; $12.95.

John Muir Wilderness, California

For more than a century, the voice of John Muir has rung like a bell through the conservation movement. As the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir and his words were a call to action. In his books of inspired prose, he made us stop and consider the beauty of nature and its effects on the soul. Some captured the wilderness in photographs, others in paintings. For Muir, his life was the work of art that most reflected his love of wild places–walking 1,000 miles through the Sierra with little more than a pocketful of rice, swinging from tall trees during storms, clinging to the edge of roaring waterfalls, all to experience nature firsthand, directly, and in all its raw beauty. He died in 1914, his heart broken over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, but his spirit, his words, and the example he set still ring through the mountains he loved and in the hearts of all who love them still.

On the trail: When John Muir was asked in 1868 where he would like to go, he replied, “Anyplace wild.” Today, a good choice would be any of the trails within his 580,000-acre namesake wilderness. One particularly good place to look for his bootprints is the South Lake to Whitney Portal, a 92-mile, one-way hike that leads along the very crest of what Muir called “The Range of Light” and to the summit of 14,410-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Although some sections of the trail get a lot of use, icy stream crossings, high mountain weather, and rocky summits give the hike a wildness that even Muir himself would appreciate.

Contact: Inyo National Forest, White Mountain Ranger Station, 798 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93545; (760) 873-2500.

Trail guide: 100 Hikes in California’s Central Sierra and Coast Range, by Vicky Spring. The Mountaineers Books, 1001 S.W. Klickitat Way, Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98134; (800) 553-4453; $12.95.

Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

He could hike 40 miles at a stretch, bag 14 Adirondack peaks in a single day, and talk the ear off any politician who’d listen to his wilderness ideas. Bob Marshall packed a lifetime of living into just 38 years. Born in 1901, he wrote books, explored Alaska’s Brooks Range, co-founded The Wilderness Society, and became a tireless voice for wilderness, all before his death in 1939. Marshall liked his wilderness big, and he sought places where a hiker could “spend at least a week or two of travel…without crossing his own tracks.” Today, the 1-million-acre wilderness affectionately known as “The Bob” pays tribute to the short but full life of Robert Marshall.

On the trail: If Bob Marshall could come back for a hike in the wilderness named for him, you can bet that trek would be a long one-perhaps along the remote and beautiful North Wall, a sheer 10-mile-long cliff of limestone and shale deep in the heart of “The Bob.” The well-maintained trail that winds along the base of the cliff can be hiked for about 9 miles, or make it part of a longer North Wall Loop hike that covers more than 50 miles, beginning and ending along the South Fork of the Teton River.

Contact: Lewis and Clark National Forest, Rocky Mountain Ranger District, 1101 Main Ave. NW, Box 340, Choteau, MT 59422; (406) 466-5341.

Trail guide: The Trail Guide to Bob Marshall Country, by Erik Molvar. Falcon Press, P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; (800) 582-2665; $19.95.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Montana

Lee Metcalf was known to his friends as a shy, gentle, sensitive man. But to those who upset him, he was a man with a voice like the “bellowing of an enraged bull.” In 17 years as a U.S. senator from Montana, he used that voice many times against the myriad of abuses he saw on public land. Overgrazing, air pollution, dam-building, migratory bird protection, wilderness protection-nearly every environmental issue considered by Congress in the 1960s and ’70s had Metcalf’s stamp on it. But nowhere was his voice heard more loudly than on the issue of logging versus wilderness. “I do not subscribe to the oft-stated notion that somehow timber exploitation represents ‘multiple use’ management but wilderness does not,” he said. Two Montana wilderness bills, passed just after Metcalf died, established the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the Great Bear Wilderness, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. True to his legacy, Metcalf had worked hard on both bills right up until his death in 1978. Five years later four units of wilderness were combined and renamed the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in his honor.

On the trail: The four units in the Madison Range that make up the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area include some of the best hiking trails in Montana. One of particular note is the 26-mile loop hike through the 78,000-acre Spanish Peaks unit. The hike takes you along the South Fork of Spanish Creek, through the shadows of many 10,000-foot peaks, and within striking distance of a whole collection of high-country lakes, if you don’t mind going off trail. For a different experience, try the 7-mile jaunt through the Bear Trap Canyon unit, the nation’s first Bureau of Land Management wilderness. Don’t forget your fishing pole since the trail follows the Madison River, an internationally known trout stream.

Contact: Gallatin National Forest, Bozeman Ranger District, 3710 Fallon St., Suite C, Bozeman, MT 59718; (406) 587-6920.

Trail guide: Hiking Montana, by Bill Schneider. Falcon Press, P.O. Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624; (800) 582-2665; $14.95.

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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