Most analyses of remoteness in the lower 48 are misleading. They ignore on the ground factors, though for the understandable reason of accessible numbers to crunch. There is the famous claim that the place furthest from any road in the lower 48 is a bit east of the Thorofare valley in Yellowstone. However, 19/20s of this hike is on fast, flat, easy to follow horse trails. Apparently Hinsdale County, Colorado has the fewest roads per capita. Those roads get a ton of peak bagger and 4×4 traffic. Other examples could be discussed.

Then there is the following map, which color codes distance from “major roads.”  I like it, and it’s a good discussion point, but has a few shortcomings.  As the creators discuss in the original post, northern Maine would be much bluer if roads in Canada were included.  That big red section of central Idaho (the Selway and Frank Church complex) is cut in half by the Magruder road.  Most seriously, the roadways which are reservoirs and rivers are not taken into account.  The Fort Peck reservoir cuts that big yellow patch in eastern Montana into shreds, and the Powell/Floyd Dominy reservoir does the same to the spidery yellow patch in south-central Utah.  Both are extensively trafficked by power boats, at least 9 months out of the year.  The Grand Canyon, that big red patch in NW Arizona, suffers the same fate, with close to a quarter million user days on the river each year.

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I’ve long been interested in some coherent formula which would account for functional remoteness; how far a given place is according to the effort required to get there under human power.  A good amount of first hand knowledge and spitballing would be required.  Ideally, the roughness of dirt roads and their frequency of use would be taken into account.  For instance, the Magruder road does prevent the Selway-Frank from being the largest contiguous roadless area in the lower 48, but the central reaches are only driveable (or bikeable) for 3.5 months a year, or less.  A separate set of calculations for winter, taking into account snowmachine access, would also be a great project.

It’s hard to think of places in the northern rockies which are more than a strong 1.3 days hike from the road in the summer, thanks to all the horse trails.  The Selway-Frank suffers similarly, as well as from having several very over-loved rivers.  Because of this, I suspect the most functionally remote places in the lower 48 will be those protected by terrain.  The bushwacking of the Cascades, for example, as well as the wrinkled hide of the Colorado Plateau.  Nonetheless, I would guess you’d be hard pressed to find any places more than 2 days travel from the road, when a sufficiently practical array of routes are allowed.  I find this sad.

The remedy is obvious: drain a few reservoirs, bulldoze and gate a few roads.  Powell, Fort Peck, and Flaming Gorge are high on the first list.  Lee’s Ferry, Magruder, the Salmon River road, Whitney Portal and Benchmark are on the second.  Say no to permits, and yes to longer walks.