When people talk about wilderness, they can mean a lot of things. The outdoors, forests, deserts, and mountains can all be described as wilderness in some circles.
There’s a special kind of wilderness, though, a place where the forces of nature are allowed to dominate the landscape in perpetuity, and where people and their influence on the environment are substantially unnoticed. Sometimes referred to as “big W wilderness,” this special kind of Wilderness is federal land that is protected as congressionally designated Wilderness.
Wilderness is a uniquely American idea
In the 1930s, the United States began to realize our potential to alter every square inch of our country through our ingenuity and technology. In 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, protecting 9.1 million acres of federal land as Wilderness.
Now, through subsequent legislation, the National Wilderness Preservation System protects over 110 million acres of land.
Wilderness in the Southeast
The Appalachian Mountain range in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia are regarded as the Southern Appalachians. In the Southern Appalachians, around 450,000 acres of federal land is designated as Wilderness. This designation protects land in its most natural state for the American people: there are no roads or buildings, and in some places, the only method of travel is by foot or by horseback.
In and around the Southeast, Wilderness protects some of the cleanest headwater streams, and it preserves the great biodiversity of the Southern Appalachians. It also provides people a much-needed escape from the hustle and bustle of modern convenience, and an opportunity to commune with nature.
Georgia and North Carolina are home to a number of Wilderness areas.
On the remote, moss-covered stretches of Georgia’s Cumberland Island, nearly 10,000 acres of maritime forest and marsh are designated the Cumberland Island Wilderness. In the North Georgia mountains, the vast Cohutta Wilderness is renowned for its crystal-clear flowing rivers that are home to a staggering variety of freshwater fish species, and a venue for some of Georgia’s best backpacking adventures on the Jacks River Trail and Conasauga River Trail. Georgia’s Raven Cliffs Wilderness spans over 9,000 acres, and includes the mossy, rocky, wildflower-filled stretches of forest surrounding one of Georgia’s most beautiful and unique waterfalls, Raven Cliff Falls, where a tumbling trout stream splits an enormous, towering cliff in two. And the Tray Mountain Wilderness is home to an ultra-scenic stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, including the rocky summit of Tray Mountain.
The Shining Rock Wilderness is North Carolina’s largest, and includes a scenic stretch of the Art Loeb Trail, which summits the towering Cold Mountain and climbs the brilliant, white-quartz capped summit of Shining Rock Mountain. North Carolina’s third-largest Wilderness area is the Linville Gorge Wilderness, which includes many of western North Carolina’s most popular trails, including the view-packed climb to the summit of Table Rock Mountain and the gorge’s southern end at Shortoff Mountain.
The forest in these Wilderness areas will never be logged, and the land’s minerals will never be mined. It’s a place where we can find opportunities for solitude, exercise humility, and meet nature on its own terms. And it exists for the benefit of all Americans, whether we never step foot in it or if we choose to explore its vastness.
It’s special, and it’s important that you know it exists for you and for every generation that comes after you.
Learn more and get involved
SAWS is a conservation nonprofit organization dedicated to educating, cultivating and empowering an engaged public for the stewardship of protected public lands. We are a proud partner of the United States Forest Service. We focus our efforts in the Cherokee, Nantahala-Pisgah, Chattahoochee, Sumter and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. If you’d like to learn more about SAWS and make a difference for your wild public lands in Southern Appalachia, visit wildernessstewards.org.
Written by Eric Giebelstein. Photos by Eric Champlin.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.