The Wilderness Act

Wilderness Act signing ceremony. NPS / Abbie Rowe.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Wilderness Act.

The U.S. Congress passed and President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964, to provide the highest level of protection for some of America's iconic, wild landscapes. Twelve years later, in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed legislation (Public Law 94-544), which President Ford signed, creating the Point Reyes Wilderness. In 1985, the US Congress passed Public Law 99-68, which, with President Reagan's signature, renamed the designated wilderness area of Point Reyes National Seashore as the "Phillip Burton Wilderness."

Wilderness areas are public lands. This means wilderness belongs to everyone. Wilderness areas provide intact habitat for wildlife, clean drinking water for cities, recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, sources of inspiration for artists, and much more. In 2014, the NPS invited the public to join in recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act by reflecting on what wilderness means to you—is it a place of inspiration? Adventure? Or maybe even a place you have not visited but still appreciate?

The National Park Service manages fifty parks with designated wilderness that provide opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, enjoyment of the natural night sky, and spiritual replenishment. These areas are diverse and include forested mountains, deserts, alpine meadows, tundra, lava beds, coasts, and even swamps. Over forty million acres of lands are designated as wilderness across the national parks system because they have outstanding opportunities for solitude that people enjoy through recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.

Wildcat Beach, Alamere Falls, and Double Point.
Wildcat Beach, Alamere Falls, and Double Point.

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, where visitors can explore 33,373 acres of forested ridges, coastal grasslands, sand dunes, and rugged shoreline. Visitors can enjoy a quiet evening on a secluded beach watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, or experience the power of a winter storm or the spring winds generating massive waves on the Point Reyes Beach. Over one-hundred miles of trails wind their way through the park's Wilderness, inviting visitors to leave the stress of today's mechanical/electronic world behind for an hour or a day. Wildlife also thrives throughout the park's Wilderness. Visitors may observe tule elk on Tomales Point, harbor seals, waterfowl, and shorebirds in the Estero de Limantour, and a multitude of marine invertebrates in tidepools. All of this within a couple-hours travel time for over 8 million San Francisco Bay area residents.

Logo for the Wilderness Act's 50th Anniversary Celebration. "Wilderness 50 Years; 1964-2014; Yours to Enjoy and to Protect."

The year 2014 marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, making it the perfect time to have a wilderness experience. In celebration of the act's Fiftieth anniversary, visitors from around the world hiked wilderness trails, explored wilderness areas online, and further strengthened their connection to these special American places. We can all be stewards of these special places and ensure their protection for another fifty years. To learn more about how you can be a wilderness steward, visit

National parks across the country recognized this important anniversary in ways as diverse as the landscapes they honored—wilderness walks, art exhibits, trail maintenance projects, guest speakers, etc. The public was invited to join your national parks to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act by participating in one of the many activities offered. Visit to find out about activities that happened near you.

To learn more about the fiftieth anniversary of America's wilderness and upcoming events, visit

Videos from NPSWilderness:
Wilderness Calling: Point Reyes
Wilderness Motion: Point Reyes
Wilderness Visions: Point Reyes
America's Wilderness

Learn more about Wilderness Stewardship and Science in the Winter 2011–2012 issue of Park Science (html or 19.0 MB PDF).

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Wilderness FAQs

How is wilderness different from other federal public lands?
Designated wilderness is the highest level of conservation protection for federal lands. Only Congress may designate wilderness or change the status of wilderness areas. Wilderness areas are designated within existing federal public land. Congress has directed four federal land management agencies—National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service—to manage wilderness areas so as to preserve and, where possible, to restore their wilderness character.

The Wilderness Act prohibits permanent roads and commercial enterprises, except commercial services that may provide for recreational or other purposes of the Wilderness Act. Wilderness areas generally do not allow motorized equipment, motor vehicles, mechanical transport, temporary roads, permanent structures, or installations (with exceptions in Alaska). Wilderness areas are to be primarily affected by the forces of nature, though the Wilderness Act does acknowledge the need to provide for human health and safety, protect private property, control insect infestations, and fight fires within the area. Wilderness areas are managed under the direction of the Wilderness Act, subsequent legislation (such as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), and agency policy.

Is designated wilderness necessary in a national park?
The wild, undeveloped areas of national parks (often called "backcountry") are subject to development, road building, and off-road mechanized vehicular use. National park backcountry is protected only by administrative regulations that agency officials can change. The Wilderness Act protects designated wilderness areas by law "for the permanent good of the whole people." With the Wilderness Act, Congress secures "for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."

What is the significance of wilderness?
Through the Wilderness Act, Congress recognized the intrinsic value of wild lands. Some of the tangible and intangible values mentioned in the Wilderness Act include "solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation," as well as "ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value." Wilderness areas provide habitat for wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species.

Wilderness protects open space, watersheds, natural soundscapes, diverse ecosystems, and biodiversity. The literature of wilderness experience frequently cites the inspirational and spiritual values of wilderness, including opportunities to reflect on the community of life and the human place on Earth. Wilderness provides a sense of wildness, which can be valuable to people whether or not those individuals actually visit wilderness. Just knowing that wilderness exists can produce a sense of curiosity, inspiration, renewal, and hope.

How does wilderness designation in a park affect visitors?
Wilderness areas are places where humility and respect play a role in both individual and management activities. People can recreate in wilderness, though in most places individuals do so without mechanical transport. Visitors may hike, fish, camp, watch wildlife, photograph, or hunt (where legally authorized). Most park visitors will probably never enter into a wilderness area, yet they enjoy wilderness as a scenic backdrop to developed park areas.

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Last updated: February 27, 2019

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Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956


(415) 464-5100
This number will initially be answered by an automated attendant, from which one can opt to access a name directory, listen to recorded information about the park (i.e., directions to the park; visitor center hours of operation; weather forecast; fire danger information; shuttle bus system status; wildlife updates; ranger-led programs; seasonal events; etc.), or speak with a ranger. Please note that if you are calling between 4:30 pm and 10 am, park staff may not be available to answer your call.

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