September marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Does that dream of unspoiled nature still work in 2014? Sunset Magazine takes a hike to find out.

By Peter Fish, Deputy Editor, Sunset Magazine

Early morning on a trail in Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest. Cathedral beams of light filtering through pines, chirps of birds, a poky end-of-season creek flowing with just enough water to make a quiet burble.

I’m on the Vivian Creek Trail, in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. From its start at 6,400 feet, the trail winds 9.3 miles to the 11,502-foot summit of San Gorgonio Peak. Though it’s been a year since I’ve done anything resembling a serious hike, this is the trail I’m going to take today. Consider it my small part of an anniversary celebration. Fifty years ago, the peak and the mountains around it helped change the West, the nation, the world.

A law unlike any other

To understand why the Wilderness Act of 1964 was an epic achievement, you need to become, briefly, a public-lands nerd. There are different categories of federally owned land. The ones everybody loves are the national parks — those marquee destinations that crowd Facebook feeds (Look! It’s Uncle Kevin at Yosemite!) and Ken Burns documentaries (Look! It’s Teddy Roosevelt at Yosemite!). Then there are the less glamorous public lands, managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which comprise many more square miles than do the national parks. And they were always meant to be hardworking — set aside in part to be logged, drilled, mined, and grazed.

But, in the 1920s and ’30s, conservationists began to understand that many of these lesser-known lands were — in terms of scenery and the plant and animal species they sheltered — fully as precious as any national park. And they were often more unspoiled, unblemished by roads, hotels, visitor centers, or snack bars. For decades, conservationists pushed to establish a new class of public land: wilderness. In the fall of 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. It designated 55 wilderness areas, almost all in the West. Within them, there would be almost no mining, no drilling for oil, no roads. These would be places where we interfered with the planet as little as possible. The act was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Learning to love what isn’t there

Among 1964’s crop of wildernesses are places that have since become outdoor icons — the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California’s Sierra Nevada, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana. Others, like San Gorgonio, are mostly known within their region.

Which isn’t to say that San Gorgonio is an unimpressive piece of territory. The 147-square-mile wilderness centers on San Gorgonio Peak. Named for a minor martyred saint — Gorgonius of Nicomedia or of Rome, depending on what you read — Gorgonio is the highest mountain in Southern California. From its summit you can, on a clear day, see north to the Sierra Nevada and west to Catalina Island.

“Especially here in Southern California, there’s a need for solitude,” says Jarome Wilson, president of the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association, a private volunteer group that helps maintain the area. “You can be in parts of the wilderness and not see anybody for days.”

As for me, I’ve opted to hike one of the most popular trails in the wilderness — the 18.5-mile round-trip up the Vivian Creek Trail to San Gorgonio’s summit. The first thing you notice about hiking in a wilderness area is what isn’t there. No roads. No high-tension lines. No developed campgrounds. In this case, just the mountains you’re rising into.

The second thing you notice is that with the scenery and the absence of distractions, you start feeling happy. All the middle-age worries you began the hike with — the performance of your 401(k), the strange noise the car is making, your kids’ grades — drop off, one by one, in favor of creek, trees, a scattering of late-season wildflowers.

“Wheels are mechanical”

The idea of government-designated wilderness contains a contradiction — one that people who work with wilderness ponder a lot. It’s this: To keep these places untouched by humankind, humankind has to manage the hell out of them.

The week before my San Gorgonio hike, I traveled into the Sierra Nevada to attend a conference of U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers and managers. Think Comic-Con for outdoorsy types, with denim and Patagonia jackets replacing the X-Men and Avengers outfits.

One of the conference’s speakers was Christina Boston, who is in charge of all the Forest Service wilderness areas (64 of them) and wild and scenic rivers (21)in the Pacific Southwest Region. What was striking about the 1964 Wilderness Act, Boston told me, is how beautifully it was written. “Compared with a lot of legislation, it’s very poetic,” she said, as in the passage that defines wilderness as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. “But it doesn’t tell us how we take the beautiful language in the act,” Boston added, “and then apply it to the real world.”

In practice, that means that wilderness managers go to enormous lengths to tread lightly on these lands. Start with the near-complete prohibition against mechanical equipment. If rangers need to remove a tree that’s blocking a trail, they pair up and use a crosscut saw, not a chain saw. Supplies are packed in by mule, not by ATV nor even by cart. (“Wheels are mechanical,” Boston explained.)

At the same time, wildernesses are monitored with all the high-tech precision 21st-century science can attain. Air quality, water quality, encroachment of invasive plants are all measured, as are the effects of light pollution and noise pollution. Even that most intangible of wilderness qualities, solitude, is quantified — how many other people would an average camper see from his or her tent? And how many is too many?

Let It Go

Late morning. Still a fine hike, but I can tell it is going to be harder than I expected. I’m nearing the halfway point and feeling the 8,000-foot elevation. I stop for a rest.

The effort has been worth it, though. As a native Southern Californian, I’m often on the defensive about the region’s natural beauties. Too many people think it consists solely of crowded beaches and freeway on-ramps. But right now I’m looking out at grandeur: a steep canyon whose opposite wall is composed of sheer cliffs and ragged peaks that would do credit to the Sierra or the Rockies.

“Most of Southern California has a view of San Gorgonio,” Wilson says. “But they don’t know what’s up here.” Wilson and the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association are key to keeping the area visitor-friendly. Management policies are set by government agencies. But in an era of tight federal budgets, much of the on-the-ground work gets done by volunteers like the SGWA. They build and maintain trails, they clean up graffiti. They give campfire talks that introduce the San Gorgonio to Southern Californians who are not necessarily outdoors-savvy.

“We get people showing up on trails in their flip-flops,” Wilson says. “People worry about being eaten by bears.” (Not likely, though black bears do live in the wilderness.) “And I had someone ask if all the rocks on the trail will be removed.”

Mostly, Wilson says, the volunteers push the idea that wilderness is important. “This is an area where we’re not in charge,” he notes. “We’re the dominant species on the planet. But here we decide we don’t need to be dominant. We can take the backseat.”

By 1 p.m., I’m feeling in the backseat, as if the Vivian Creek Trail had kicked me there. I’m thinking that maybe it kicked me out of the car entirely.

The thing about a trail up an 11,000-foot mountain is that it never stops climbing for long. Almost every step is up. For a brief spell when the path dawdles across a flat meadow, I entertain myself by devising a spin-off of the TV series Dawson’s Creek. I conjure up Vivian Creek, in which Michelle Williams and James Van Der Beek leave Capeside and take a long, long hike up a mountain and worry that they haven’t brought enough water.

Then the trail abandons the meadow and begins switchbacking up a long slope of broken boulders that sparkle harshly in the sun. I see another hiker descending. He’s in his 60s, white hair and white beard, carrying a walking stick, one of those stork-thin guys with zero percent body fat. In my experience, all these guys are retired aerospace engineers who after their hike go home and chart the day’s mileage and elapsed time on an old Kaypro computer.

“How is it at the top?” I ask.

“Beautiful. As always.”

“Is it hard?”

“Not if you know what you’re doing.”

He bounds off with his walking stick and superior stride.

Things don’t get better after that. The mountains start doing that annoying thing mountains do on tough hikes — moving around each other. You glimpse a high peak ahead of you and think, That must be San Gorgonio, I’m almost there. The trail turns, and another, higher peak rises behind it. Then another.

There’s a second annoying thing that happens to me in moments of physical duress: I get a song stuck in my head. In this case, it is “Let It Go” from Frozen. As I trudge on, Idina Menzel ricochets between my ears: “Let it go, let it go, I am one with the wind and sky.” Let go of what? I think. My day pack? The whole idea of hiking to the top of this mountain? I remember that Frozen is a Disney movie and that, in the early 1960s, Disney had considered building a ski resort on the slopes of this very mountain. If that had happened, I’d be gliding up to the peak in a chairlift, not dragging my boots on a dusty trail.

Let it go, let it go, let it go.

“It’s easy to destroy what you don’t understand”

Today, 50 years after the Wilderness Act became law, there are 758 wilderness areas in the United States, totaling roughly 109 million acres. Most are on national park and U.S. Forest Service lands, but there are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM wilderness areas as well. The act has aided in the protection of endangered species like the gray wolf, woodland caribou, and California condor.

But despite these successes, the people who love and work with wilderness can’t help feeling uneasy about the future. Part of it is maintaining a constituency for wilderness in an increasingly distracted culture. “The biggest danger is apathy,” Wilson says, “people not knowing what’s out there. If you don’t know a place, it’s easy to say, sure, let them build a road through it. It’s easy to destroy what you don’t understand.”

There is a more global threat, one that is oddly echoed in Frozen, in the line that says, “I am one with the wind and sky.” Wildernesses are indeed at one with those things. As they change — as the planet’s entire climate warms — wilderness managers are by no means sure what to do.

“How do we manage wilderness in an era of climate change?” Boston asks. What happens if warming temperatures, say, cause an animal species to dwindle in the southern Sierra? “Do we start moving them north?” she asks. We could work as hard as we can to maintain the purity of our wilderness areas, and they could still disappear.

View from the top

The last mile and a half up San Gorgonio Peak is a killer. I’m thirsty, headachy, and halting every 500 yards. At one stop, I meet up with a guy who’s descending the mountain. Sweaty and disheveled and leaning on two walking poles — “both my knees are shot,” he informs me — he’s not in good shape either. On the other hand, he’s going down the mountain. How far to the summit? I ask. Maybe a mile, he says. Up that ridge, across a saddle, and up to the top.

I go. By this point I’m not thinking about song lyrics, or the place of wilderness on a changing Earth. I’m putting one foot in front of the other. Then I’m at the top. There’s a view — too hazy to include Catalina but a broad swath of Southern California. I’m too exhausted to appreciate it. There’s a metal box and one of those notebooks hikers sign at the top of peaks. I’m too tired to sign it.

The sense of triumph comes later. Not on the hike down, which isn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but hours later when I’m chugging gallons of celebratory iced tea at a Starbucks in San Bernardino. I look back at the mountains and the whole hike sweeps before me — trees, creek, canyons, cliffs, mountaintop, the moments of tedium, pain, and beauty. If anybody asked whether it was worth protecting the planet to protect places like this, I’d say yes. If anybody asked, I’d say it was the best hike of my life.

Seeing San Gorgonio

The San Gorgonio Wilderness lies just east of San Bernardino, California and about 70 miles east of Los Angeles. Access requires a permit, available from the San Bernardino National Forest’s Mill Creek Ranger Station: 909–382–2882.

Two good sources for trail directions are the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association website (sgwa.org) and John W. Robinson and David Money Harris’s San Bernardino Mountain Trails (Wilderness Press, 2006).

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