November 16, 2018 8 min read

Purple Lizard Maps added a new designation to its mapping repertoire in 2018: US Wilderness Area. In typical Lizard fashion, we didn't add this phrase to our maps for just any old wilderness. No, we went full on and tackled some of the most serious (and seriously popular) wilderness areas in West Virginia: Dolly Sods Wilderness, Laurel Fork North Wilderness, Laurel Fork South Wilderness, Otter Creek Wilderness, and Roaring Plains West Wilderness.

Why? The answer to that lies in the nature of a wilderness area itself. Below, we provide a sample taste of what each of the wildness areas we mapped this year has to offer for our fellow adventurers.

What is a Wilderness Area, Really?

The term "wilderness" or "wilderness area" is an American creation. Wilderness is as much a feeling or emotion, as it is a designated portion of land. Essentially, wilderness is a large area that invokes the feelings of remote, wild, and natural spaces. This alone makes the term so hard to define, yet so easy to use as the subject in a witty quote (a simple google search provides plenty of them).

The term "wilderness" has a technical meaning in the land management arena as well. In 1924 the US Forest Service designated its first wilderness area, Gila Wilderness, in New Mexico at the urging of a former forester. Later, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed, establishing a guideline for the creation and management of protected wilderness areas on federal lands throughout the country. Today, there are 765 wilderness areas throughout the US - most of these areas are on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management lands. 

The purpose of establishing wilderness areas under this Act was to establish protected areas that will be managed and kept to be as primitive as possible. As the US Forest Service describes them, "These are special places where nature still calls the shots."

Why we love mapping wilderness

Otter Creek Wilderness WV

We love wild places. We know explorers use our maps to access that same difficult to define "wild" feeling and the solitude and adventure it entails. Like many of you, we seek that reconnection with the natural world and its beauty in places that feel natural and undisturbed. We know that many crave an experience in the natural world away from the trappings of human intervention and infrastructure; the adventure and self-reliance inherent in being deep in the woods in special places. That, and for so many other reasons is why we love mapping wilderness areas.

The Balancing Act: Humans in a Wild Area

So, the inherent nature of a wilderness area is that it is to be untouched by humans yet also enjoyed and appreciated by these same humans. This leads to a delicate balancing of what kind and how much human recreation will be permitted in order to preserve the wild nature of the land. Generally, adventurers are welcome to walk and sometimes hunt on these federal public lands. Primitive overnight camping is usually permitted. Horseback riding is oftentimes allowed, but not always. Human powered watercraft is also usually permitted. Most other human recreation is currently prohibited.     

The task of preserving the character of a wilderness while also providing recreational opportunities for humans is a tough balancing act for the US Forest Service. Because of this, no one wilderness is exactly like the other. Interpretations differ. Some high use areas, such as Breadloaf Wilderness in Vermont, include well maintained, blazed trails, with trail signs and shelters for overnight hikers. Other areas, such as Otter Creek Wilderness in West Virginia, have nearly zero amenities for humans besides a few old roadways that have become single track paths. In fact, the two shelters that existed within the lands of Otter Creek Wilderness were disassembled after the wilderness designation was passed. Yes, the US Forest Service takes the wilderness area designation very seriously in Otter Creek Wilderness!

Some general rules, regulations, and laws though, do seem to hold true throughout wilderness areas in the United States:

First, it's very unlikely to see a road within a wilderness area. Laurel Fork Wilderness Area, highlighted on our Elkins-Otter Creek Lizard Map, is actually two distinct wilderness areas (North and South). This is a direct result of a dirt road that runs east-west through the area to reach a formal National Forest campground. If this road and campground did not exist, it would be one continuous wilderness. Explorers also won't see other infrastructure such as pipelines or power lines. Furthermore, in addition to machines, mechanical devices are not allowed within these areas. This means no emergency helicopter landing zones, chainsaws, bicycles, or wheeled carts for portaging watercraft. Only walking here. And horseback riding, oftentimes.

Otter Creek Wilderness WV

Although wilderness areas are designated as such in an effort to preserve natural environments, not all wilderness areas are necessarily ancient products of the natural environment. Dolly Sods Wilderness, highlighted on our Dolly Sods-Seneca Rocks Lizard Map, was first used for farming and later used for bombing training for WWII. Munitions are still being found in this wilderness area every year. Otter Creek Wilderness was famous for its logging; vintage railroad equipment, shown above, can still be found in this section of forest. The goal for wilderness designation seems to be to allow the area to mature naturally while still permitting humans to recreate on these lands.

It can surely be strange to walk or run down a wilderness path that is still as wide as the road or railway that it used to be. But again, wilderness is meant to be a feeling or emotion that is captured only in seemingly wild lands. Most folks don't need to go bushwhacking through rhododendron thickets to get the 'wilderness feeling' that they're looking for.

Otter Creek Wilderness WV 

On the other hand, since no tools other than hand-powered tools are allowed in these areas, the trails sure can get rough. As shown above, the Otter Creek Trail in Otter Creek Wilderness can become quite overgrown in summer. Yes, the above image is a trail. Oftentimes trails will actually be rerouted around obstacles when obstacles prove too formidable to be cleared by hand tools alone.  

How to Enjoy a Wilderness Area

Leave the modern trail world, with its bridges, signposts, and blazes, behind and enter the primitive world known as America's Wilderness Areas. Grab a reliable, sturdy map and go out to explore! Lace up your boots, trail runners, five fingers, or whatever you use to travel by foot, grab your gear, and strap in for some self-reliant real adventure!

Dolly Sods

Dolly Sods Wilderness West Virginia 

Dolly Sods Wilderness features outstanding Allegheny Front vistas, and a remarkably wet plateau. An extensive network of muddy trails criss-cross this wilderness area. Some trailheads and intersections include signposts, but trail blazes are still absent from this area. Dolly Sods is extremely popular - Forest Service Road 75, which skirts the eastern border of this wilderness, is often packed with cars. Even with such crowds, experienced backpackers with excellent navigation skills are able to follow the trails to find remote and somewhat hidden pockets within this otherwise heavily trafficked area.

Laurel Fork

Laurel Fork North Wilderness Area

Laurel Fork North Wilderness offers a few trails through the heart of the Laurel Fork of Cheat River and its watershed. The trails are often overgrown and a challenge for experienced hikers. Crossing Laurel Fork can be difficult when the water levels are up or when beaver dams impede the outflow of water. On the other hand, when the water levels are low walking Laurel Fork itself may be easier then pushing through overgrown meadows along the banks of the river. Read more about this area here: Laurel River Trail #306.

Laurel Fork South Wilderness West Virginia

Laurel Fork South Wilderness offers more trails than its neighbor to the north. Most of these trail intersections include old sign posts as well (see above). Several trails and primitive campsites in this area can be combined to created sufficient loops for hiking, backpacking, and exploring in general. Read more about this area here:Laurel River Trail #306.

Otter Creek

Otter Creek Wilderness WV

Otter Creek Wilderness. No signs. No blazes. No shelters. Real wilderness = real adventure. Get out there, be prepared, and don't get lost. Read more about this area here: Otter Creek Wilderness.

Roaring Plains West

Roaring Plains West Wilderness on our Dolly Sods-Seneca Rocks Lizard Map is another example of the balancing act between ecocentric and anthropocentric values in the American Wilderness. Access to this area is restricted to foot trails or gated roads from the north, while power lines, pipelines, or private property surround the area on all four sides. A few official hiking-only trails exist, but a plethora of excellent off trail destinations can be found for those with superb navigation skills. Reference our map to see Purple Lizard Spots scattered throughout this area. This remote and wild area is part of the highest elevation plateau in the eastern US, yet it also includes an emergency helicopter landing zone (helipad). Closer inspection though, shows the helipad specifically on a parcel of land surrounded by, but not affiliated with the wilderness. This is because infrastructure is not allowed within a wilderness area.

Balancing the Balancing Act

US Wilderness Areas are beautiful places packed with adventure. The balance between recreation and wilderness is a tricky one: Create and secure a wild, natural, and remote area free of human intervention...which humans will then enjoy for recreation purposes. Interested in learning more about wilderness? Start with this scholarly book on the subject: Wilderness And The American Mind by Roderick Frazier Nash.

Luckily, our purpose over here at Purple Lizard Maps is not to solve the problem of balancing the two purposes of wildness ares, but rather to simply provide a beautiful cartographic representation of formal trails and recreation opportunities permitted within public lands. With that in mind, we'd like to close this discussion with a few notes of how we chose to depict wilderness areas on our maps of Monongahela National Forest.

Lizard Field Work: What Goes On The Map and What Does Not

We take a lot of notes while scouting for our maps, but not everything that we find makes it onto the final product. Specific to wilderness areas in the Monongahela National Forest: you will find trails on the ground that are not on this map. We worked closely with the foresters in 'the Mon' to determine which trails should be included and which should not. As a wilderness area, there are often no signposts and no blazes. You are welcome to explore off-trail (although in Dolly Sods be aware of the unexploded ordnance concern), but this forest is famous for areas of impenetrable vegetation. We mapped, for the most part, only officially recognized National Forest trails that have a name and a number and are part of the current trail inventory. When a trail is decommissioned, it comes off the list, and usually off our maps. In some cases there is a middle ground - the trail remains maintained by local volunteers on the ground, and it stays on our maps, but the National Forest decommissions it as a formal trail. 

We chose not to include every specific backcountry and roadside campsite in the wilderness areas. The reason for this is simple: we feel there are too many and we we believe some knowledge of special places should be earned. We ask that visitors please use existing campsites and fire rings. What about those random little lizards? A Lizard cult favorite, we put tiny purple lizards at places we think are worth seeing. Sometimes these are in locations with no trail—but with a little research and recon you may be able to figure out how to get to them. There are places out there worth finding that take considerable effort and skill to reach. Some lizard spots are not easily accessible, yet others you can drive to!

The goal of every Lizard Map is to encourage everyone to get outside and explore their public lands and the communities that surround them. The fabric of rural America is a fascinating tapestry of culture and history. We hope you can get off the main roads and travel the back roads on your way to finding some great trails. When you really want to go off the grid and back in time, find a wilderness area and go for a walk in it. Look at the wild ecosystem happening along the way and listen to the sounds of the forest. It wasn't that long ago that our whole planet was like this, yet today we realize how rare it is to find a place like this. 

The words of Aristotle, who lived in 4th Century BC, still resonate well: "In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous." 

Make Your Own Adventure In West Virginia!