The Wilderness Act

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act while fifteen men and two women stand behind him.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs 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 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by reflecting on what Wlderness 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 50 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 40 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.

A waterfall cascades down a short cliff on left onto a sandy beach as waves wash in from the right. Two hills rise in the background.
Wildcat Beach, Alamere Falls, and Double Point.

Wilderness at Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, where visitors can explore over 30,000 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 100 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 eight million San Francisco Bay area residents.

Logo for the Wilderness Act's 50th Anniversary Celebration. Text: "Wilderness 50 Years; 1964-2014; Yours to Enjoy and to Protect." The zero of number fifty appears as a moon with the silhouette of a wolf over an orange landscape.

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

The year 2014 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, making it the perfect time to have a wilderness experience. In celebration of the act's 50th 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 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by participating in one of the many activities offered.

Learn more about Wilderness Stewardship and Science in Park Science's Winter 2011–2012 issue.

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Wilderness FAQs

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—the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service—to manage Wilderness areas so as to preserve and, where possible, to restore their wilderness character.
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."
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.
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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Videos from NPSWilderness

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3 minutes, 38 seconds

See the natural rhythms of Point Reyes National Seashore's Phillip Burton Wilderness. Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast, one of the foggiest places in North America, and home to thirty-eight threatened or endangered species.

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2 minutes, 17 seconds

Point Reyes National Seashore, located just an hour north of San Francisco, is home to the Phillip Burton Wilderness. This wilderness area protects more than 26,000 acres of important habitat and serves as a place of inspiration for people near and far.

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3 minutes, 40 seconds

Join local photographers Kathleen Goodwin and Richard Blair on Kehoe Beach in the Phillip Burton Wilderness. Point Reyes National Seashore includes 80 miles of coastline, most of which is designated wilderness.

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2 minutes, 50 seconds

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System, a national network of more than 800 federally-designated wilderness areas. These wilderness areas are managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and US Forest Service.


Last updated: February 15, 2024

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1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956


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