For Wilderness, what’s in a name?

Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. 

Credit: Josh Whitmore via Wilderness.net.

America’s hundreds of protected Wilderness areas have names as varied as their landscapes, with wide-ranging origin stories to boot.

Names matter. The word “wilderness” still wrongly carries connotations of danger, desolation, even abandonment (consider the way we use it in popular idioms). This was all the more true in 15th- through early-20th-century America. The Wilderness Act, 50 years old in 2014, was a monumental piece of legislation, but also a broadside against that misguided understanding; suddenly, the mightiest nation on earth was officially endorsing the idea that the “wild” could be valuable and restorative, and should therefore be preserved. Today, some form of this belief is self-evident to most Americans.

The individual Wilderness areas that sprung from that law have carried a truly diverse array of names, from Absaroka-Beartooth to Zion. Typically, the pieces of land encompassed by these designations are identified with beloved wilderness champions, indigenous legends, native animals or descriptions of the landscape itself. Sometimes, the name is something more obscure altogether, an ancient jumble of syllables or out-of-place adjective. Like wilderness itself, these titles beckon the curious and, once explored, often defy expectations.

Here are a few of the more unique names, along with their origin stories.

Superstition Wilderness (Arizona)

Weaver’s Needle. Credit: flickr, raelb.

Superstition Wilderness was named after the wary behavior that mid-19th century farmers witnessed in the indigenous Pima tribes, which tried to avoid the Superstition Mountains. This shrubby desert stretch of hills and rocky cliffs boasts spectacular landscapes, and one fascinating landmark: 1,000-foot mountain peak Weaver’s Needle, which, according to local legend, casts a shadow on the location of a storied “Dutchman’s” hidden gold mine at certain times. Adventurers still search for the Lost Dutchman Mine to this day, so far unsuccessfully.

Dolly Sods Wilderness (West Virginia)

Dolly Sods Wilderness. Credit: Steve Boutcher via Wilderness.net.

Part of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, Dolly Sods Wilderness is not titled after a person named “Dolly Sods” or a toy covered with readymade turf. Rather, it is a homophone-mutation derived from the “sods”--grazing fields--used by farmers just before the start of the 20th century. A pioneer family, the Dahles, was among them, and the sound--if not the spelling--of their German surname stuck. Hence: “Dolly Sods.” The high-elevation stretch of bogs and rocky plains contains 47 miles of hiking trails, making it extremely popular among tourists.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness (Michigan)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Credit: flickr, Rachel Kramer.

Newly protected by legislation in March 2014, this majestic stretch of forest and sand dunes rising hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan is is probably best known as “the most beautiful place in the country.” It has a fairly unique--and poignant--naming story, too: Local tribal legend has it that a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into the lake from the Wisconsin side and began swimming for shore. The cubs eventually succumbed to exhaustion and slipped beneath the waves, and the forlorn mother slumbered on the beach, waiting for them. The Great Spirit Manitou recognized her devotion and brought the cubs to the surface as islands, North and South Manitou. The mother, covered with sand, became a Sleeping Bear Dune.

Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness (California)

Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. Credit: Anna Fiorella (U.S. Forest Service).

Though this mostly wooded Wilderness may seem like it was named via random word generator, it is actually derived from a Wintun tribal term for “snow-covered high peak” and the middle fork of the nearly 200-mile Eel River. The nearly 181,000-acre area, which overlaps with Mendocino National Forest and Shasta-Trinity National Forest, has been under some type of formal protection for more than 80 years. It was among the first group of public lands to be recognized under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Devil’s Backbone Wilderness (Missouri)

Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. Credit: Kale Horton via Wilderness.net.

The second smallest of Missouri’s Wilderness areas takes its name from a long, thin ridge that roughly bisects it. About 13 miles of hiking trails follow the Backbone, making it a popular attraction in Mark Twain National Forest. The area’s heavy forests provide habitat for white-tailed deer, bobcats, raccoons, wild turkeys, bald eagles and other wildlife. It is unclear what, exactly, made the ridge so devilish.

Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness (Nevada)

Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness. Credit: Chris Barns via Wilderness.net.

The second half of this 6,000-acre Wilderness area’s name is fairly self-explanatory: a tremendous array of old-growth Joshua trees dominates the triangle of desert, regarded by some as “one of the most thrilling natural spectacles in all of Nevada.” The first half, like those of so many other Wildernesses, is derived from indigenous tradition. The colorful-sounding Wee Thump means "ancient ones" in the Paiute language, a reference to the slow-growing, thick-limbed plants that keep watch over this quiet, picturesque sanctuary.  

Old Woman Mountains Wilderness (California)

The "Old Woman Statue" in the distance. Credit: Wilderness.net.

What you picture when you hear the name “Old Woman Mountains” is probably pretty close to reality: this rocky Wilderness area is famous for a 5,000-foot chunk of granite that, from certain angles, resembles an old woman wearing a shawl (the “Old Woman Statue).” First spotted and named by Mojave passersby long ago, it and surrounding peaks make the area a unique experience for rock-climbers. One other claim to fame: these mountains were the discovery site of the Old Woman Meteorite in 1975, the second largest ever recovered in the United States. It was on display at the Smithsonian Institute from 1978 to 1980.

Menagerie Wilderness (Oregon)

Rooster Rock. Credit: flickr, BLMOregon.

Menagerie Wilderness is a climber’s mecca, all thanks to the “animals” in its ranks: craggy rock formations with names like Rooster Rock,  Roosters Tail, Chicken Rock, Hen Rock, Turkey Monster and North and South Rabbit Ears. Though this name was not necessarily intended to cover the area’s flora and fauna, Menagerie’s woodland, lush with Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar, does contain some bird habitat.

Never Summer Wilderness (Colorado)

Never Summer Wilderness. Credit: Jon Myers via Wilderness.net.

On the western border of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Never Summer Wilderness, and the mountain range in which it resides, comes by its name for obvious reasons. Huge amounts of snow hit the region with regularity, and low temperatures linger in the single digits during the winter months. While it is chilly, the area is not inhospitable. Ponds and bogs in the northern part of the protected area provide habitat for wood frogs, pygmy shrews, wolverines and reintroduced moose.

Trilobite Wilderness (California)

Trilobite Wilderness. Credit: Bureau of Land Management.

Paleontology buffs will instantly recognize the provenance of this rolling 20-year-old Wilderness in the Mojave Desert. The group of ancient oceangoing arthropods that provides its name features the most iconic invertebrates in the fossil record, thousands of species that have been unearthed and academically scrutinized since the late 17th century. Trilobite Wilderness was so named because it contains the famed Marble Mountains fossil quarry, a prime site for well-preserved specimens.

Garden of the Gods Wilderness (Illinois)

Garden of the Gods Wilderness. Credit: flickr, christina rutz.

Comprising a small part of the Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods is a prime example of an oddly-named wilderness area whose basis is clear after the first visit. Bulbous sandstone formations dominate its landscape, with some columns given nicknames to match their individual shapes. Not to be confused with Colorado Springs’ similarly-named landmark, this 320-million-year-old array of bizarre natural statuary could easily be taken as the result of ancient, divine experimentation.

Mark Trail Wilderness (Georgia)

Horsetrough falls, which lies within the Mark Trail Wilderness. Credit: Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons.

This wooded 16,400-acre expanse of northern Georgia is named after, well, Mark Trail, a nearly 70-year-old comic strip still in syndication. The strip centers on the adventures of a rough-and-tumble outdoor writer who constantly foils crimes against conservation, stopping each Sunday to host straightforward lessons about wildlife and natural history. The Wilderness was designated in 1991 and named in honor of cartoonist Ed Dodd, a native Georgian, who died that same year.

Needle’s Eye Wilderness (Arizona)

To the east of Phoenix, the Gila River winds through a section of canyon so tightly that the only appropriate comparison is to the eye of a needle. Backpacking, hiking and photography are permitted in this limestone-studded pocket of solitude, though accessing the area is challenging due to its remoteness.

Sanhedrin Wilderness (California)

Sanhedrin Wilderness. Credit: Sarah Wilson via Wilderness.net.

One of the most obscurely-named of all Wilderness areas, California’s Sanhedrin Wilderness refers to the ancient Jewish courts convened to settle religious debates until sometime after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in about 70 AD. That the protected area’s eponymous mountain ridge was considered imposing enough to warrant such a title is telling. Among species that can be seen in this Wilderness are northern spotted owls, goshawks, black bears, deer and mountain lions. The area also provides habitat for at least five rare plant species.

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (Idaho)

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Credit: flickr, oteromesa.

Sen. Frank Church was a champion of the original Wilderness Act, and his name was added to this expansive stretch of forests, mountains and roaring rivers in 1984. The foreboding-sounding “River of No Return” is the quick-flowing Main Salmon River, whose mighty currents made it prohibitively difficult for non-motorized boats to get back upstream. That same river was portrayed in the aptly-titled 1954 film River of No Return, starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, and was an obvious choice to headline the Wilderness upon its founding in 1980.

Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness (California)

Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness. Credit: flickr, Michael Dorausch.

The Chuckwalla Mountains, just to the south of Joshua Tree National Park, may have a silly-sounding name, but it comes from one of the American southwest’s signature species, the common chuckwalla, a lizard that loves high temperatures and rocky habitat. Though one of the larger lizards found in North America--growing to about 16 inches in length--the chuckwalla is herbivorous and shies away from humans. Other wildlife in this Wilderness include desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, deer and coyotes.

Craters of the Moon National Wilderness (Idaho)

Craters of the Moon Wilderness. Credit: flickr, Grant Bishop.

Craters of the Moon resembles a pockmarked lunar landscape because ancient volcanic eruptions blanketed the area in lava, now hardened and scattered with cinder cones and sagebrush. Though it appears barren, this geologically volatile 43,000-acre tract is anything but: hundreds of varieties of plant life can be found here, along with marmots, elk, mule deer and a wide range of birds. Still, it is a fairly convincing space simulacrum; Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Joe Engle, and Eugene Cernan visited the area in 1969, boning up on geology prior to their journey to the real thing.

Read about amazing people whose names are shared by Wilderness areas.

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