Arizona's Wilderness Areas
This State Has A Variety Of Terrains And Habitats - Something For Everyone
May 1, 2017
There are 90 wilderness areas in our state - a total of 4,512,120 acres. That's a lot of country! But what exactly is a wilderness area, what can you do there, and how does a place become a wilderness area?
A wilderness area is a place where the lands are designated for preservation and protection in their natural state and where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by men (from the Wilderness Act of 1964).
These lands remain undeveloped and no permanent improvement or human habitation is allowed. They are devoted to public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historic use (Wilderness Act).
No Motors Involved
Wilderness areas are set aside for the enjoyment of the people, and any outdoor activity you can think of is permissible, as long as it doesn't use mechanical transport or motorized equipment. So you can hike, boat, kayak, ski, swim, fish, hunt, bird, etc. - anything you want as long as there are no motors involved.
The National Wilderness Preservation System has 109,127,689 acres, which is just 4.8 percent of the land in the United States. But 52 percent of that is in Alaska, so in the mainland United States just 2.75 percent is set aside as wilderness. This is to protect some of the most beautiful and wild places.
Four Agencies Share Management
There are four agencies that share the managing of the wilderness areas: Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. They share the responsibility of protecting the wilderness areas from human influence, and they have to take into account things like grazing, access to private lands, mining, fish and wildlife, cultural sites, fire, and even insects and disease.
Some wilderness areas have restrictions on group size, campsite location, or length of stay, and some of the more popular ones even require permits. All of this is to protect the wilderness from people, but also to ensure that the people who use the areas get some solitude.
In some places, dogs may be prohibited or only allowed on leashes, and sometimes parts may be closed to protect sensitive habitats or to protect people. Only ten wilderness areas are completely closed to people and they are all island wildernesses.
What's It Like To Visit?
So what's it like to visit a wilderness area in Arizona? We recently visited the Hummingbird Springs Wilderness Area near Tonopah, which is off I-10 west of Phoenix. First of all, it was a bit difficult to find the right road, since on our maps the roads were not numbered, and my favorite mapping app, Trimble, no longer works. But, we did find the road in spite of having no interactive map.
Hummingbird Springs is a bit different - there is a road that goes right along next to it, and that road divides Hummingbird Springs Wilderness from the Big Horn Mountains Wilderness Area. Hummingbird Springs Wilderness Area is 31,200 acres and includes eight miles of the Big Horn Mountains.
Tonopah Desert Is Gorgeous In Spring
The Tonopah desert is gorgeous in the spring, and there were wildflowers everywhere - the cacti were in bloom and so were the palo verde trees, and there were even tiny flowers about a quarter inch across all over the ground. Bright yellow brittle bush blossoms were massed everywhere.
We saw a deer, many beautiful birds, lizards, ground squirrels, and not a single other human being. The road is rough - it took us over two hours to go 14 miles, which is probably one reason why we never saw any other people.
Hummingbird Springs, Sugarloaf Mountain
Once you get to the end of the road, a fence bars you from using your vehicle to enter the wilderness area. There is a go-through for walking, and the road is now a hiking trail. It's just over a mile to Hummingbird Springs from the fence. The spring is abandoned and the fins have fallen off the windmill, but the old cachement tanks are there, looking like the foundations of a house.
There are several ruins around, and walking in to the spring is the only way to get a complete view of Sugarloaf Mountain, which is a pretty spectacular place. The base of the windmill is down in a ravine, and there is a hole beneath it with some water in it, so there are lots of animal tracks around. We thoroughly enjoyed our little hike and the drive in.
West Clear Creek
Another fantastic wilderness area to visit is the West Clear Creek Wilderness Area. It consists of a canyon that is only about a ½ mile to two miles wide, but it's gorgeous and allows you to be by yourself in some of the most gorgeous country in Arizona. There is water down there and if you want to hike the whole canyon, you're going to get your feet wet.
This isn't a trip you want to do during monsoon season - flash floods are a definite danger. You can even fish for trout in the creek. Start at Bull Pen Ranch for a pretty easy trail that follows the creek for six miles then goes up the northern slope and out of the canyon. It's just east of Camp Verde and you can find maps and information online.
Miller Peak Wilderness Area
We have also visited Miller Peak Wilderness Area near Sierra Vista in the Huachuca Mountains. This place is gorgeous and includes Miller Peak, which is 9,466 feet high. We took the grandkids up there last summer. The road to the top is one of those narrow, twisting gravel roads that are so much fun to drive. At the end of the road is Ramsey Vista Campground and that's where you can find trailheads to take you into the wilderness.
To get to Ramsey Vista, take highway 92 past Sierra Vista about 8 miles. Turn west onto Carr Canyon Road. It's 7 miles to the campground, and it's all forest up there. Beautiful! You can hike to the top of Miller Peak if you're feeling ambitious. There are toilets and picnic tables at the campground, and there is a small day use fee and camping fee. There are eight campsites.
From here you can access a whole network of trails, and you can even end up in Ramsey Canyon if you want. We loved it here, and so did the girls. There are a couple of other roads to the trails, but the one we did was Carr Canyon and it was fun. Beautiful views from the road, too.
There Is An Area For You
The world wouldn't be nearly as wonderful if there weren't wilderness areas. I think they are great, and I'm glad that there are places set aside where you can hike without seeing and hearing off road vehicles tearing up the countryside. Wilderness areas are places to get away and relax and enjoy some solitude.
Many are so out of the way that you probably won't see another soul the whole time you're there. Arizona is particularly lucky because we have such a variety of terrains and habitats. Whether you want to see the desert in bloom, hike through a pristine forest, or adventure through a canyon, you can find a wilderness area that will satisfy your heart's desire.