Where wilderness is found: evidence from 70,000 trip reports.

Published online
17 Apr 2024
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Derrien, M. M. & Winder, S. G. & Wood, S. A. & Miller, L. & Lia, E. H. & Cerveny, L. K. & Lange, S. & Kolstoe, S. H. & McGrady, G. & Roth, A.
Contact email(s)
monika.derrien@usda.gov & sgwinder@uw.edu

Publication language


Outdoor recreation is an essential way many people engage with nature. The provision of public spaces for recreation intersects with conservation practices motivated by intertwined social and ecological values, such as strict practices associated with the concept of 'wilderness'. Debates persist about how such concepts and management practices influence people's recreation experiences. Many US public land management agencies facilitate opportunities for outdoor recreation, relying on management frameworks and tools intended to foster specific experiential qualities. But these frameworks and tools assume simplistic relationships between settings and people's experiences, and managers rarely assess these relationships. This study uses a data set of nearly 70,000 crowdsourced trip reports from a hiking website to understand the qualities of visitors' experiences on trails. We study the geographic distribution of experiential qualities commonly associated with US wilderness areas: aesthetics, awe, challenge, pristineness, quietness, solitude and timelessness. Using analytical methods that rely on machine learning and natural language processing, we identify these experiential qualities in trip reports from hundreds of routes, and use generalized linear models to analyse relationships between the frequency of each experiential quality and the route's administrative, built, biophysical, geographic and social settings. We find that four of the seven experiential qualities (aesthetics, awe, challenge and solitude) are commonly described in trip reports, each appearing in 15%-55% of manually coded reports. The extent to which setting characteristics explained variability in experiences differed, ranging from 34% of the variability in the proportion of trip reports describing aesthetics to 55% for awe. The setting characteristics associated with each experiential quality also differed, with characteristics such as trail mileage and summit destinations having stronger influences on experiential qualities than characteristics such as wilderness designation. Synthesis and applications. Our findings suggest the need to consider more diverse variables in experience-setting relationships, develop more robust models to characterize those relationships and create new data sources to represent understudied variables. These advances would help empirically inform and improve frameworks and tools used for recreation and wilderness planning and monitoring, and potentially promote more responsive management to evolving social-ecological values.

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