Functional remoteness

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.


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.


16 responses to “Functional remoteness”

  1. I once plotted the remotest area in mainland Scotland. About 9 miles. Thats from any road-head or habitation. Most places are at best 4 miles walk to touch a road, or find a warm bed. 2 days walking would be bliss and for me wilderness. For others who skills and experience are vast I expect the northern regions of Alaska and the Yukon give a weeks walk to a road head let alone village. This is a interesting idea to explore Dave as I expect you’ll want to go there and see. Enjoy.

    1. It was rather eye-opening back in 2011 during the Wilderness Classic, when we were pinned down by weather very far from anything. A totally different scale.

  2. Looking at this, remoteness is an impossibility here in Georgia. I knew this already from experience, but sheesh that is blue!
    I remember Jeff Randall saying during a navigation challenge that getting dangerously lost in the US should be almost impossible. His point was that if you could pick, and keep, a heading, you will hit a road, and with the population density here and now, as you said – “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.”

    1. “Follow water downhill till you hit a road.”

      One the few useful pieces of advice I got from my father.

  3. This is very interesting. Do you think that terrain or climate (or both) is the main factor in the abundance of remote areas in Alaska?

    1. Climate would be the first factor, as harsh/long winters kept human habitation from becoming especially dense beyond the southern coast. Permafrost also plays hell on paved roads. There is lots of gnarly terrain in Alaska (look up the Cordova-McCarthy railroad), but also many places where roads could easily have been built should the impetus have ever existed.

      1. I lived in Alaska for a long time and I saw the effects of permafrost on roads… and still I liked road biking in Fairbanks… something might be wrong with my head.

  4. We should have a contest. Readers nominate and vote on the toughest spots to get to, then Dave has 2 days to get there.

    1. I nominate Gates of the Arctic, northeast Alaska. Hopefully someday soon the Classic will return to that neighborhood. Lots of caribou trails, not much in the way of roads, however.

      1. I think it’s a strong candidate for 2015. I’d be easier to talk myself into the travel expenses for good walking, as opposed to the Wrangells bushwack.

      2. That would be awesome to have the Classic there. I’d love to make it up some year.

  5. Very interesting post, Dave! And a sad state of things.

    Just as a side-note: Here is a similar map of Finland (concidered to be quite wild place among many Europeans):
    – the base colour is 0-5km from any road
    – each step darker adds 10km up to 50km from the closest road

    The furthest here is around 42km from road (with a road on the Norwegian side 46km aways) and another point, in place mroe difficult to travel, is abou 38km from roads and little closer to the Russian border but there’s no going to that direction (also also no roads available there). Two days of strong hiking with light pack should take a care of that either, which is sad. And if takign into accoutn rivers and lakes accessible with motorized boats, the distances shrink even further.

    We don’t have permit system but freedom to roam/every man’s right instead so I haven’t really seen much discussion of making remote places more remtoe or harder to access. It’s always the opposite: easier access, mroe services, etc. Which is sad. I’d welcome a proper big wilderness area.

  6. I climbed Mount Whitney in 1966, back when only a few a year made it up there. Now a couple hundred a day make it when the season is open for a climb there. I roamed around the San Jacintos when you could walk from the trailhead up above Idlewild and hike over the Jacintos to the tram down to Palm Springs and never see another person on the 20 or so miles to get there. There were huge sprawling pastures of wild flowers and skunk cabbage to day nap in. But before I left California in 1973, you needed a permit for the Whitney Portal and the San Jacintos too. The place became quite crowded. I also would roam around the Anza Berego Desert for days and only see a dozen people and they were on the main trials to the oasis, etc.. So, once I got free of the shock of coming back to Indiana where there was nothing at all so magnificent as the Sierras, or the desert, I found the Hoosier National Forest. And now, I can roam around there for days (in the summer, even) and not see more than a few people, and it winter I see no ones. I know secret places where there are no trails leading to them and enjoy the place immensely. Not only is it not crowded, it’s not dangerous in terms of bears and snakes etc.. Sort of sounds like a lame place, but I love it, yet you are rarely more than 5 miles from a road.

  7. I sure enjoy your blog but was pretty annoyed to see that you fall in to the class of “My means of recreation is cool but other peoples needs to be shut down” There are thousands of disabled people who will never get to enjoy the outdoors the way you do when gates are erected and so forth. Public should be just that, for the public to enjoy by whichever means they are capable.

    1. Public rhetoric has many thinking otherwise, but I’m not in that camp.

      I do firmly believe that a diversity of opportunity needs to be preserved, and with an eye on maintaining those opportunities for centuries to come. With that in mind, the assertion that maintaining a democracy of opportunity via some fairly minor road closings will categorically rob certain people of recreational opportunities is laughable. There are lifetimes upon lifetimes upon lifetimes of very scenic places you can drive to, and achieve solitude in, even with a passenger car. It will take a massive shift in popular will and a draconian change in public policy to make a noticeable dent in those particular resources.

      To be concrete, I am in favor of making Mount Whitney harder to hike. I am not in favor of making it harder to hike via a permit lottery. If adding to the approach puts it outside the physical reach of some, so be it. Most will have the choice to get in better shape and/or take more vacation, and suddenly it will be within their reach. The young can wait a few years. If someone is irreparably too old to do so, it is their bad they didn’t do it decades before. If they are permanently disabled through no fault of their own, then they are simply out of luck, and I do not think I’m being ableist when I say that. Democracy of opportunity means (almost) everyone having a chance, not everyone having the same chance right now in whatever state they might be in at the time.

      Simply put, in a country of 300 million where serious roadlessness is a rare thing, elitism applied universally and without prejudice is an ethical imperative. The pendulum of easy access for all has been so far to one side for so long that a certain amount of myopia is foregiveable, but that does not mean it is correct.

  8. […] account of just how much this area changed between 1940 and 1970.  Take a look back at Functional Remoteness and the map I highlighted.  The large, red centered blob in east-central Idaho is the Selway-Frank […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s