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The Cloud Peak Wilderness isn't close enough to an urban area to see the types of impacts that occur in wilderness located closer to cities with millions of people. Yet even in wild areas located in sparsely populated Wyoming, visible evidence of heavy human impact is unavoidable.

Wilderness Areas Could Use Their Own Health Care Reform

Lindsay and I embarked on an overnighter on Labor Day weekend, the summit of Cloud Peak firmly in our sights. At 13,167 feet, Cloud Peak is the 21st tallest mountain in Wyoming and the highpoint of our backyard mountains, the Big Horn range. Located smack in the middle of spectacular country, Cloud Peak’s summit is about eight miles from the nearest trailhead in the heart of the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

To be honest, I wasn’t certain what kind of wilderness experience we were in for on Labor Day weekend. I enjoy solitude, but on a mission to scramble up the most popular summit in the area, I was prepared for company. I certainly wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was just about full when we rolled up at midday. The area we planned to camp is one of the most heavily visited in the entire wilderness, according to the forest’s district ranger. We filled out the mandatory registration form, which includes a list of regulations for wilderness victors.

A scenic and popular backcountry destination plus holiday weekend meant it didn’t take long before we encountered others on the trail. About a mile in, we arrived at a small creek crossing with no bridge. A quick inspection located a spot where hopping from rock to rock was possible, but further upstream a woman was wading across with her pants rolled up, cradling her shoes. A few seconds later, we heard a scream that was so loud and shrill my first instinct was that she was being attacked by a large animal. No such luck.

“Brian! My shoe! My shoe!” the woman wailed.

One of the sneakers our fellow hiker was carrying was now floating serenely down the creek towards Lindsay and I. Her companion, sporting soaked jeans and a wry smile, gamely wading into the creek to scoop up her sodden shoe. Suppressing giggles, we trudged on down the trail. We saw the same couple the following day midway up Cloud Peak.

The Mistymoon trail we followed was pretty beaten down in places from heavy usage, with lots of loose rocks, mud bogs and eroded spots. I wasn’t surprised that we were also dodging horse manure, but when we finally caught up to the horses, they were tied to a tree about 20 feet from the edge of Mistymoon lake. One of the strangest wilderness visions I’ve ever had didn’t come from the natural world. It was the guy in their group snorkeling near the lakeshore wearing a thick wetsuit (with headgear), whom I presume was spearfishing. We smiled and walked on, scanning for suitable campsites.

We climbed above Mistymoon Lake, setting up our tent near a large boulder that appeared to provide good protection from the wind. It was only when I wandered closer to the rock that something white on the ground caught my eye. The forest service guys call them “Charmin flowers” and they’re not native to the region.The boulder that appeared to be a perfect wind shelter was also deemed an ideal bathroom spot for previous visitors. Never assume that just because someone’s visiting a wilderness area that they understand “leave no trace” ethics.

The full moon was so bright that we could have hiked at night, but intermittent rain showers kept us mostly tentbound and we wanted to be well rested for the big day ahead. The following morning, we set out for the climb a little after 7 a.m. A straightforward scramble, the west ridge route up Cloud Peak begins as a dirt path and eventually just involves an endless scramble across a massive boulder field. Hopping from rock to rock, I tried to keep pace with Lindsay and we both strained to keep the dog in sight. Neve, we decided, was part mountain goat.

After more than three hours of scrambling, we reached the large, flat summit. The 360 degree views of the Big Horns and the rest of northern Wyoming were worth every sore muscle. After snapping photos, we made the long descent back to our camp and packed up to hike out to the car. We also cleaned up the residue from the rock toilet we stumbled upon, which we could fortunately tuck away in the doggie backpack. On our return hike, we encountered a wilderness ranger we’d met the previous day when he checked that we had registered. I asked him if he had written any tickets, and he said he had to write one to a group that had a fire (illegal above 9,200 feet) and to another group that had tied their horses too close to the water. It wasn’t clear if it was the same group I’d seen a day earlier.

The Cloud Peak Wilderness isn’t close enough to an urban area to see the types of impacts that occur in wilderness closer to cities with millions of people. Yet even in wild areas located in sparsely populated Wyoming, visible evidence of .heavy human impact is unavoidable Short of closing these areas to all human presence (not practical or desirable, in my opinion) you’re left with education and enforcement as management tools. Yet nothing on the little registration tag I was required to fill out explains to visitors the proper way to dispose of human waste.

Forty-five years after the Wilderness Act was passed, the political debate over how best to protect ecologically sensitive lands continues. The idea of conserving for future generations “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” is truly a pipe dream in popular wilderness areas. It seems to get tougher, year after year, to pass bills intended to protect our public lands. But after seeing the obvious impacts of humans on a lone wilderness spot in rural northern Wyoming, it appears the overall health of the National Wilderness Preservation System isn’t as good as supporters wish it was.

About Michael Pearlman

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  1. Thanks for this good article. I have had some similar experiences in other wilderness areas. With the overall increase in human population in the West, it takes a combination of good planning and some luck to find true solitude in wilderness areas, especially those that are closer to communities or main highways.

    However, my “favorite” wilderness experience was not in the West. It was in the Otis Pike High Dunes Wilderness Area located in the National Park Service’s Fire Island National Seashore off Long Island NY. The wilderness is a long, narrow strip of primary and secondary sand dunes and associated low vegetation on a skinny barrier island, with an Atlantic beach on one side and tidal marsh on the inland, bay side. In some places, the wilderness is only about a quarter-mile wide. When I was there, you had airplanes and helicopters constantly flying low overhead, with loud power boats on the ocean side and jet skis racing on the bay side. The wilderness is also a popular rendezvous site for casual sexual encounters, and so used condoms are commonplace as litter. In my view, truth in advertising would necessitate renaming this the “Helen Keller Wilderness Area”, since you need to be both blind and deaf to enjoy “solitude” there! This is New York’s only federal wilderness area, and it is still preferable to hike in this wilderness rather than the many developed communities on Fire Island.

  2. You know Mike…there is a very good reason people like you and I like to backcountry ski so much. And that is because the winter season keeps the majority of people out of these so called “wilderness areas”, providing a much different experience than in the summer months. PLUS…those “charmin flowers” get all covered up by the deep snow.

  3. I share the distaste for toilet paper; but am nonplussed at our continuing failure to recognize that human waste is every bit as biodegradable as the waste of every other species.
    The baggies you used to transport your predescessors’ turds are a far greater insult to nature than were the turds themselves.
    It is all about cultural perspective, folks.

  4. The reality is that far too many citizens are devoid of “kindergarden ethics”. The reality is that there are far too many “slobs” who want others to dispose of their trash. Even in Oregon where there is a deposit on containers, I can make a dollar or two picking up cans along the roads on a daily basis.

    I live close to a NF wilderness area that I hike weekly–a low use area–and for the most part the trails are clean. The only human evidence that I encounter are fire rings that I always remove.

    It is impossible to catch “litterbugs” in the act and the only way this “crime” will be mitigated will be to teach a basic human ethics course in grade school. I doubt that very few schools even mention this topic. It’s called civility!

  5. If solitude is the point, wilderness is a rotten place to get it. When I was in Colorado, I went for an overnighter in the Mt. Zirkel. Primus stove and all the no-impact stuff, right?
    Two things struck me immediately. Anywhere there was water, the trees for 500 yards were slicked off of any burnable branch. Which is why we brought the Primus.
    Another was, there were lots of people. The trailhead was packed with Denver plates (not too many WZ or XA) and we caught many and met many.
    I expected both, but not to the degree I saw.
    So we hiked for a little elevation, ended up above a nice basin where I suspected the sunrise would be nice. Sun goes down, and there were more stars in the basin than in the sky. Wow. No wonder. And what’s that smell?
    Soon after, the Sarvis Creek wilderness was designated. Before it had been pretty much underutilized, the private secret of mountain bikers and rock stars in Routt County. After 1993, I never went back. It was jammed with “wilderness checklist” yuppies from Denver. Would have been better off left alone and managed for multiple use.

  6. I’ve got to agree with you about Colorado, Dave. It’s almost not worth it to visit designated Wilderness in Colorado. The designation is a magnet. I found more solitude on the motorized use trails near Buena Vista than I did in the Collegiate Peaks or almost any other wilderness I visited in Colorado. I guess I didn’t see a soul in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but what a view of the highway 🙂 I can’t imagine why folks don’t use that trail much!

    Wilderness does end up in the middle of quite a conundrum. You need folks to visit wilderness in order to value it and advocate for it, but the more folks who visit wilderness the less wild it is. I guess the best tool we have is education.