The Last Outbacks: Exploring Lower 48 Backcountries Where the American Frontier Held Out

The Everglades encompasses some of the most untamed landscapes in the country.
The Everglades encompasses some of the most untamed landscapes in the country. Adam Fagen
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From the North Cascades and Great Basin borderlands of Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho to the most obscure depths of the Greater Yellowstone and the boreal waterways of the Upper Midwest, plenty of sparsely populated and wild places remain in the contiguous United States. We’re lucky enough to still have headwater basins, desert canyons, and anonymous crags far enough from roads to rarely see a human visitor.

But lonesome and remote as much of it is, the backcountry of the Lower 48—even if it’s still surprising us now and again with previously undocumented waterfalls and other awesome discoveries—has been well mapped for a long time. Certain regions, however, succumbed to cartographic scrutiny less easily than others. A few remained spectacularly shrouded outbacks up to about the turn of the last century. Several of them are among the most celebrated centers of outdoor recreation and ecotourism in America, though they were some of the last large regions of the Lower 48 to be thoroughly mapped. Even today, edged and penetrated by roads and meticulously documented by contour lines, these historical blank spaces harbor plenty of lonesome, tough-to-access refuges only a relative handful of people reach.

The Greater Everglades

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The Everglades is an impressive expanse of raw tropical wilderness. Miguel Vieira

Shrunken and fundamentally altered as it is, there remains an impressive share of raw tropical wilderness to be experienced in South Florida—all the more remarkable given the horde of humanity that toe of the Sunshine State also (barely) accommodates. The heart of this wilderness is the Everglades, that enormous, one-of-a-kind sheetflow marsh stretching between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay. Hydrologically speaking, though, it involves a whole lot more country: stretching as far north as the Kissimmee watershed of central Florida, which can be roughly considered the headwaters of the ‘Glades.

As Michael Grunwald details in his essential history of the region, The Swamp, the Everglades resisted modern development like few other corners of the country. Back when this part of South Florida was Calusa and Tequesta territory, the Spaniards poked around the edges of the sawgrass wastes of the Everglades proper and the great mangrove swamps of the southwestern coast, but anti-colonizer indigenous belligerence and the harsh environment kept the European presence to a minimum for centuries. Those environmental deterrents included alligators and, along the coast, crocodiles, venomous snakes, quite the roster of nasty plants (slashing sawgrass and saw palmettos, abundant poison-ivy and poisonwood, the almost gratuitously toxic manchineel tree), tropic heat and humidity, and regular hurricanes.

Most important and unyielding of all, though, was the simple reality of an awful lot of water—particularly during the wet season, when much of the country became a medley of morasses: cattail slough, cypress strand, flooded sawgrass.

The United States didn’t really get around to exploring the Everglades until the Second Seminole War of the 1830s and ‘40s, a military boondoggle that saw the U.S. Army unsuccessfully try to force the Seminole—driven into South Florida by expanding Euro-American settlement—onto reservations. The miserable and ultimately inconclusive operations played out amid mosquito-choked mires and remote jungle hammocks. Grunwald quotes a U.S. Army general, Alexander Webb, who concluded, “This country should be preserved for the Indians […] if the fleas and other vermin do not destroy them they might be left to live. I could not wish them all in a worse place.”

Concerted efforts to dredge and drain the Everglades began in the mid-1880s, but for decades after, farming and developing the giant wetland were stymied by seasonal flooding. Even as much of the “Wild West” came to be settled and known, the South Florida outback resisted civilization. In his magnum opus Shadow Country, which explores the exploits of murderous pioneering sugarcane farmer Edgar Watson, novelist/naturalist Peter Matthiessen described the Everglades frontier of 1894 in Watson’s voice: “That professor [Frederick Jackson Turner] at last year’s World Fair in Chicago who told the country it had no more frontiers had sure as hell never heard about the Everglades: in all south Florida, there was no road nor even a rough track, only faint [American Indian] water trails across the swamps to the far hammocks.”

Gradually the eastern rim of the Everglades basin, the Atlantic Ridge and the Miami Rock Ridge, was mostly cleared of its pineyards and hammocks and became urbanized. But the vast sawgrass marshes and sloughs to the west—the heart of the ‘Glades—remained trackless. The Swamp quotes a soldier who visited Miami in the late 1890s, after ambitious developer Henry Flagler had turned this stretch of Florida’s Atlantic seaboard into the Gold Coast: “There was a most magnificent and gorgeously appointed hotel in the midst of a perfect paradise of tropical trees and bushes. But one had to walk scarce a quarter of a mile until one came to such a waste wilderness as can be conceived of only in rare nightmares.”

Major hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 that caused devastating (for people) overflows of Lake Okeechobee led to the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which effectively severed the lake from the Everglades.

Water diversions and pollution, land lost to full-throttle development, the threat of rising sea level in this exceptionally low-lying country, and other already-underway impacts of climate change: The ‘Glades today are far from their primal state, though one of the world’s most ambitious ecological-restoration initiatives is trying to resurrect as much of its old rhythms as possible. The Greater Everglades Ecosystem is a fragile place knitted together by intricate seasonal cycles and pathways of water, and humans have done a homerun job throwing it out of whack. Some amazing places have been completely lost, such as the jungly pond-apple swamp—strung with airplants and moonflower vines, cut by confusing, fading-out flows called the “Dead Rivers”—which once made Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern shores an intimidating backwater.

But even though the ‘Glades have been reduced in size and ecological integrity, big wilderness remains in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Hiking Long Pine Key’s rocklands or the Old Ingraham Highway’s lonely sawgrass track, paddling the Ten Thousand Islands or elsewhere along the maze-like mangrove coast or the shallow flats of Florida Bay, glimpsing the scat of a Florida panther or finding yourself face-to-face with an eastern diamondback or a bull gator, you can very much get a taste for the untamed side of South Florida: This place still feels like a frontier, and definitely unlike any other corner of the continent.

The Olympic Mountains

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The name of the Olympic Mountains was inspired Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods. Nick Mealey

Composing the rugged, rain- and snow-drenched heart of the Olympic Peninsula at the northwestern extremity of the Lower 48, the Olympic Mountains remained surprisingly little-known even while forming a prominent part of the skyline of a burgeoning American city (Seattle). In 1788, the British mariner Captain John Meares admired the gleaming maritime range from the Pacific and apparently claimed, “If that be not the home where dwell the gods, it is certainly beautiful enough to be, and I therefore will call it Mt. Olympus”—a name bestowed upon the compact range’s 7,965-foot high point. But long after the Puget Sound lowlands were settled, the glacially raked depths of the Olympic Mountains were still mostly uncharted—through the 1880s, basically. (Euro-American settlement on the rain-soaked west coast of the Olympic Peninsula was also limited until the late 19th century.)

The first foray to comprehensively document the Olympic interior came via the famous 1889-1890 expedition organized by the Seattle Press, rather crazily initiated in the depths of winter. U.S. Army Lieutenant Joseph O’Neil was even more instrumental in recording the lay of the land of these far-flung coastal mountains, having scouted their northern flanks on an 1885 reconnaissance and then more thoroughly than ever before on an 1890 exploration of the Skokomish, Humptulips, Wynoochee, Satsop, Wishkah, Dosewallips, Duckabush, Quinault, and Queets drainages. (The Olympic Peninsula has some of the best river names anywhere.)

O’Neil was among the early advocates for a national park on the Olympic Peninsula, which ultimately was declared in 1938. Olympic National Park ranks among the most popular in the United States (3.4 million visitors in 2016), but the fact that its interior remains entirely roadless (as do long reaches of its Pacific coast) and large swaths of it remain trail-less mean it’s not hard to plunge into raw Pacific Northwest solitude. Exceptionally steep mountainsides, gnarly thickets of slide alder and devil’s club, and a wet, often stormy climate mean the Olympics retain plenty of their outback qualities.

Southeastern Utah

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The desert landscapes of Southern Utah are stunningly beautiful—and dangerously inhospitable. Murray Foubister

Southern Utah’s share of the Colorado Plateau isn’t only one of the corners of the country last to be set down on the map: It’s also one of the its most rugged parts—and easily one of the most spellbindingly beautiful places on the planet. It’s a masterpiece of naked rock: of twisty canyons, eternally faraway sky-island mesas and plateaus, and a tough-edged climate seesawing between frigid blizzardy winters and searing summers. No wonder it took so long to iron down its geography.

The Escalante River, which drains such enigmatic highlands as the Aquarius Plateau, Escalante Mountains, Kaiparowits Plateau, and Waterpocket Fold, nests itself in a glorious canyon network en route to its mouth at the Colorado River in drowned Glen Canyon. This was the last major river in the Lower 48 to be mapped, and its basin—much of it within the currently under-attack Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—still claims some epic slickrock outback.

Not far away rises the volcanic laccolith dome of the Henry Mountains, generally regarded as the last significant mountain range in the conterminous United States to be named and charted. Marooned amid riddled canyons and high desert, the Henrys—called Dzil Bizhi’ Adini, the “Mountains Whose Name is Missing,” by the Navajo—reach 11,522 feet at the summit of Mount Ellen and, in addition to their scenic and wilderness superlatives, are home to one of the only truly free-roaming and pureblood herds of American bison on the continent.

The Escalante canyonlands and Henry Mountains were mostly terra incognito until the 1870s, when famed one-armed soldier/explorer/cartographer John Wesley Powell and his brother-in-law Almon Thompson surveyed this ultimate Southwestern backland.

East of the Henry Mountains and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, meanwhile, Canyonlands National Park constitutes one of the all-around roughest tracts of countryside in America, and its southwestern portion, back of the holy confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, remains a mythic wilderness: the Maze. The Park Service has called this redrock redoubt—celebrated so memorably toward the close of Edward Abbey’s seminal Desert Solitaire—a “30-square-mile puzzle in sandstone,” overlooked by the corrugated crests of the Fins and the ethereal pinnacles of the Land of Standing Rocks.

Written by Ethan Shaw for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

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