Is Through-hiking Killing the Wilderness?


One observation from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) with llamas was just how many people are on that trail (a separate observation was just how many of those backpackers are baby-boomers–seems like about a third if not more). Does this represent a big increase in Wilderness use, or is it misleading?

If you try and hike the Muir Trail, you quickly learn it is very popular.  Yosemite has a quota of 45 on permits leaving the park over Donahue Pass; this was instituted after the number of JMT hikers jumped from about 1000/year 14 years ago to 3500/year more recently. Similarly, the Forest Service has a quota of 25 people/day for exiting at Whitney Portal (there is also a quota for entering there).  The result of these has been to push hikers to other trailheads; the quota for entering at Cottonwood Pass, for instance, was met for most days in July this year. We met a lot of folks who started there.


JMT trail use, from Yosemite National Park website.

Is this a blip on the radar?  Is it an increase in popularity?  It is hard to tell…

So far GG has not been able to turn up the numbers on Wilderness usage in any easy form, but some clues are out there.  Yosemite has seen something over 50,000 backcountry hikers each year for awhile, with the average stay in the park of about 3 nights. Of these, about 3500 are John Muir Trail hikers heading south from the park, so under 10% of the total (though the numbers were far less a few years back).

A similar number of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers appear to be out there, with the PCTA website reporting something like 4500 permits for long-distance hikes being issued in 2015. This represents a vast increase over a few hundred a few years ago. Now presumably a lot of these never reach the Sierra, but conversely those folks doing the PCT in chunks are not being counted.

So it seems reasonable to guess that there are something like 6000 JMT through hikers (adding in the northbound crowd) and perhaps 4000 PCT long-distance hikers out there this year, so 10,000 people attacking the same stretch of trail in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. This is still only 20% or so of the backcountry visitors in Yosemite–but this 20% is concentrated on about 5% of the total trail mileage in the park.  And, of course, there are other users on those stretches of trail (for instance, parts of the John Muir Trail are used by visitors to the High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite backcountry). So it seems plausible that a quarter of the backcountry hiking in Yosemite is on the short stretch of the JMT from Tuolumne Meadows out to Donahue Pass, this despite other attractive options in the park.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon lists about the same trail mileage (760 miles to “over 800 miles” in different parts of their website).  From 2010-2012 the park estimated there were 23,000 Wilderness visitors per year averaging about 4.5 nights in the backcountry. If there really are 10,000 through-hikers now marching through the park, then half to a third of the wilderness use is on the JMT/PCT.  This is on about 10-15% of the parks’ trails, so the density of use on the JMT is far higher (100 thru-hikers/year/mile of JMT vs. ~20 hikers/year/mile elsewhere).  When you realize that much of the non-through hiking use is on the same trail (e.g., large numbers on the Rae Lakes Loop hit the Muir Trail, as do all the Mt. Whitney climbers coming in from Kearsarge or Cottonwood Passes or even the High Sierra Trail), odds are that the ratio is even higher.

Talking with the rangers along the way, their perception is that the backcountry off the JMT is nearly empty. Look at certain camping areas and it is clear that the JMT gets pounded.  One ranger said that when the peak of the PCT through-hikers passes through, it is chaos as available camping spots are overwhelmed.  Certain areas look beaten down (there was a stretch of campsites near the LeConte Ranger Station that just looked more like Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite than anything you’d expect to see in the backcountry).

So while there is a definite boom in through-hiking, it is far less clear if this is adding to existing use or replacing it (we’d need some additional data). What is clear is that the increase is stressing the JMT corridor; this will also bias the parks’ allocation of resources.  Presumably resources will be diverted from less popular trails, which will be abandoned (as many already have been) or left in poor condition as crews focus on keeping the prestige trails in good condition.  Over time, this means there will be a shift from the kind of Wilderness travel originally envisioned by Wilderness advocates (one where solitude was a primary component) to an oddly social Wilderness experience.  This parallels what has been true for many years in the Grand Canyon, where the Kaibab/Bright Angel trail system is in essence a front country experience while the remainder of the park’s backcountry trail system is little used and less well maintained.

Perhaps we are seeing another split in the use of public lands, with the Wilderness/multiple use division becoming solitude Wilderness/social Wilderness/multiple use.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Finally, it is worth recognizing that backcountry use seems to be cyclic.  There was a big peak in the early 20th century that faded into the Depression (remnants of that peak can be found scattered through the San Gabriel Mountains); a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s accompanied the appearance of lightweight foods and camping gear, an upturn which faded in the 1980s before turning back up in the 1990s. For instance, Yosemite reported more than 200,000 backcountry visitor nights in 1975, which remains higher than recent years. Through-hiking, though, was not a focus in the 1970s, so that use was probably distributed more evenly across the park than recent use.  It could be that through-hiking will fade going forward.  But in essence, Wilderness usage today is far more focused than it was 40 years ago, pounding the charismatic trails while leaving the bulk of the Wilderness unvisited. How Park managers (and Forest managers, too) deal with this will affect the opportunities for Wilderness recreation for many years to come.


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