Most Remote Spots in USA Wilderness Complexes
18.76 miles. You can drive this distance in 15 minutes on a freeway.
But it is also the furthest away you can get in the "Lower 48" US states from roads,
machines, and motors. The Wilderness Act of 1964 sets aside areas of federal land, mostly in the
mountains, where nature reigns supreme and no powered travel is permitted. The largest of these
areas are the best places to "get away from it all" and experience a pre-civilization world.
The table below lists the 50 or so largest chunks of wilderness in the contiguous United States,
together with the most remote central point for each one. These points are the most isolated, wild,
and hard-to-reach in the USA without venturing to Alaska.
To make this list, all the officially designated wilderness in the USA—federal , quasi-federal, state, and
tribal—was grouped into large contiguous “complexes” of wild land.
Then, the largest possible inscribed circle was calculated for each area, and the center of this
circle is then the most remote spot for each wilderness complex. The radius in miles shows how large
a circle can be fit into each area, and how remote each point is.
Clicking on the name of each wilderness complex will show a map of the complex boundaries, the inscribed circle of pure wilderness, and the most remote spot.
For more information about the methodology for this project and notes about the results, scroll to below the table.
Four categories of Wilderness area were considered for this analysis:
- Federal Wilderness Areas, designated by the 1964 Wilderness Act and subsequent congressional action. These are by far
the best known and most numerous of the wilderness areas in the USA—there are about
750 of them, preserving federal land managed by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
- “De-facto” Wilderness Areas in National Parks: In most large National Parks
(e.g. Olympic, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain),
the bulk of the park’s backcountry has been officially designated as wilderness area. However, three large parks—Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier—have large undeveloped tracts that are managed by park staff as wilderness despite lack of official designation. For this analysis, the large primitive areas of these parks have been included, since park regulations in these areas are essentially the same as in officially-designated areas.
- State Wilderness Areas: In New York state (Adirondacks and Catskills) and Maine (Baxter State Park on Katahdin), large wilderness areas are managed by the State government. Large parts of these parks have been designated as official state wilderness areas and are managed in a similar fashion to federal wilderness.
- Tribal Wilderness: Finally, a handful of large Indian Reservations have designated large areas as Tribal wilderness. Perhaps the two most notable are adjacent to federal wilderness in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the Mission Mountains of Montana. These are included in the overall wilderness areas.
For all these areas, polygons corresponding to their geographic area were assembled. Then,
Wilderness Areas composed of separate chunks of land were disaggregated into single
polygons—for example, the Death Valley wilderness area is made up of over 40 separate areas
separated by roads. Next, adjacent Wilderness Areas were combined into larger polygons,
eliminating administrative boundaries. Each aggregated polygon is considered a “Wilderness Complex”. For example, the Bridger, Fitzpatrick, and Popo Agie wildernesses in Wyoming, plus the Wind River Tribal Wilderness, together form one large contiguous unit, termed the “Wind River Wilderness Complex”.
Once this was done, the complexes were sorted by area, yielding about 50 Wilderness Complexes of
over 300 square miles. For each of these, the largest possible inscribed circle was calculated. Each inscribed circle is defined by three points on the wilderness complex boundary, and the center of the circle is the most remote place from civilization, machines, and motors within that polygon. The radius of the circle is the minimum distance that must be travelled by human power to reach one of these spots.
A big thank you to mathematician Edward Earl, who wrote an efficient algorithm for finding inscribed circles in complex polygons. This was a big help for this project.
- The Thorofare region of Wyoming is well-documented in several places as the area of the contiguous
USA furthest from roads. The most remote point shown here, based on wilderness boundaries,
considers all motorized travel, including the legal use of motorboats on portions of Yellowstone
Lake. So the remote Thorofare location and radius shown here will not match values calculated purely from the road network.
- The Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho has many small private inholdings, many with
airstrips. So two entries for this area are shown—one for the wilderness area with
the inholdings constraining the inscribed circle, and one based only on the
external boundaries of the area, ignoring the inholdings. For the first case,
the inholding that constrains the circle is the Root Ranch and airstrip.
- Note that the Thorofare area, with the largest radius, is only the third largest
wilderness complex by area. But its shape is more rounded, allowing a larger
inscribed circle. The huge Sierra Nevada Complex, running from Tioga Pass to south of Mount Whitney,
is the largest by area but has a smaller radius (ranked 7th) due to its linear shape.
- Alaska is excluded from this analysis, since the scale and character of wilderness
there is simply very different than in the “Lower 48”. If Alaska wilderness areas were part of this project, the most remote spot would be in the middle of the Mollie Beattie Wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern Brooks Range, with an inscribed circle radius of 42.75 miles. Ironically, however, rules for wilderness in Alaska are different, and airplane landings are permitted in most areas. So in some ways you are more remote in the Thorfare area of Wyoming.
- There are certainly a few wilderness complexes of less than 300 square miles and an inscribed radius of more than 4 miles, so note that this list does not necessarily show the top 50 complexes by biggest radius. The top 30-40, though, are very likely present in this list.
- The High Peaks State Wilderness Area in New York’s Adirondacks is the largest
wilderness area in the Northeast. However, due to its convoluted shape,
the most remote spot in the Northeast is in Baxter State Park in Maine. So even
though Baxter is below the 300 square mile total threshold, it is included here so that the table shows the most remote wilderness spot in the Appalachians.
- The Center Location shows a nearby feature, such as a brook, peak, or lake. Most of these center points are literally in "the middle of nowhere" with no named feature nearby, so these location should be considered just a very general guide only.
- Wilderness areas in Canada are not taken into account. There is no Canadian national wilderness designation program like there in the USA, and determining the boundaries of land with wilderness character in the various parks would be difficult. Three US wilderness complexes have inscribed circles constrained by the border with Canada, and a glance at aerial maps for the areas north of the Mount Baker and Pasyaten wilderness areas show what looks like roads and clear-cuts over the border. However, the Boundary Waters wilderness is next to the vast Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, which appears to be mostly primeval. So the radius for Boundary Waters could be as high as 13.6 miles if allowed to go over the border.
Definition of Wilderness Complexes
The Wilderness Complexes that are made up of more than a single component area are listed below,
with their constituent parts (all adjacent):
|Absaroka-Beartooth||Absaroka-Beartooth, North Yellowstone NP|
|Bob Marshall||Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Scapegoat|
|Glacier Peak||Glacier Peak, Lake Chelan-Sawtooth, Stephen Mather/North Cascades (south section), Henry Jackson, Wild Sky (portion)|
|Grand Teton-Jed Smith||Grand Teton NP, Jedediah Smith|
|Mount Baker||Stephen Mather/North Cascades (north section), Mount Baker, Noisy-Diobsud|
|Mount Rainier||Mount Rainer NP, Clearwater, Glacier View|
|North Absaroka||Northeast Yellowsone NP, North Absaroka|
|North Yosemite||Yosemite NP (north section)|
|Olympic||Olympic NP, Buckhorn, Brothers, Mount Skokomish, Wonder Mountain, Colonel Bob|
|Rocky Mtn NP-Indian Peaks||Rocky Mountain NP (south section), Indian Peaks|
|Thorofare||Southeast Yellowstone NP, Teton, Washakie, Two Ocean Lake|
|Three Sisters||Three Sisters, Waldo Lake|
|Sierra Nevada||Yosemite NP (south section), Ansel Adams, Owens River Headwaters, John Muir, Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP, Monarch, Jennie Lakes, Golden Trout, South Sierra, John Krebs|
|Wind River||Bridger, Fitzpatrick, Popo Agie, Wind River Roadess Area (tribal)|