Wilderness Character

Bear Creek in the Hain Wilderness.
Bear Creek runs unimpeded through the Hain Wilderness in Pinnacles National Park, demonstrating its Natural, Untrammeled, and Undeveloped Qualities of wilderness character.

Photo Credit: NPS/Gavin Emmons

The term "wilderness character" was first referenced in the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Act states that federal agencies, like the NPS, are responsible for preserving the wilderness character of wilderness areas.

Wilderness character is a holistic concept based on the interaction of (1) biophysical environments primarily free from modern human manipulation and impact, (2) personal experiences in natural environments relatively free from the encumbrances and signs of modern society, and (3) symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence that inspire human connection with nature.

This includes intangible qualities like developing a connection with nature, inspiration, relaxation, or a sense of adventure. Wilderness character also includes five tangible qualities associated with the biophysical environment:

Sandhill Cranes gather in shallow water.
Great Sand Dunes Wilderness

Photo Credit: NPS/Patrick Myers

Natural Quality

Ecological systems are substantially free from the effects of modern civilization.

This quality recognizes the importance of healthy, intact ecosystems and challenges us to limit our negative effects on the functionality of these systems.

View of the wilderness as the clouds roll in.
Haleakala Wilderness

Photo Credit: Ken Simpson

Untrammeled Quality

Wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from the intentional actions of modern human control or manipulation.

This quality recognizes the importance of people co-existing with our planet, where people practice humility and are very selective and thoughtful about actions we take that might interfere with the rest of the natural world.

Visitor looks at a waterfall in the wilderness.
Shenandoah Wilderness

Photo Credit: NPS/Katy Cain

Undeveloped Quality

Wilderness is essentially without permanent improvements or the sights and sounds of modern human occupation.

This quality recognizes that while developments, like structures or use of motorized equipment, are very important and appropriate in many places, wilderness gives us a chance to consider more traditional ways of interacting with the rest of the natural world.

Kayak on beach.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness in Everglades National Park

NPS Photo

Opportunities for Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation Quality

Wilderness provides opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

This quality recognizes many recreational activities are appropriate and compatible with wilderness, especially those that rely on human power and give us a chance to 'unplug.'

Petroglyphs displayed on rocks in the mountains.
Bridge Canyon Wilderness in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Photo Credit: Peter Landres

Other Features of Value Quality

Wilderness may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

This quality recognizes the centuries-old and rich cultural traditions of indigenous people and other residents to lands now managed as wilderness. These important cultural and historical connections can be explored in this quality, along with the values we place on things like scenery, science, and education.

Last updated: October 10, 2023