It’s a little after 7 a.m. at Horseshoe Bend, and even from a distance down the road, visitors can see that the parking lot of the Arizona tourist destination is getting full. Tour buses are piling up and there’s already a line at the entrance.
After paying $10 to get in, an entry fee the City of Page implemented in April after Horseshoe Bend exploded in popularity, the admission staff wave vehicle after vehicle into the busy parking lot. Visitors in personal cars hurry to beat the giant buses unloading dozens of tourists, but it’s an exercise in futility. Already the space is filled with people from across the country and globe, sunglasses on and phones in hand.
The trail to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook is littered with people (and even some litter). Groups of tourists stop to take photos and clog the pathway. A few hikers mumble complaints about having to sidestep a pile of dog waste that was left on the trail.
When visitors arrive at the landmark, they are met with a breathtaking view of the Colorado River. It’s enough to keep one grounded in the moment as they take in how lucky they are to be there – that is, until, like everyone else there, they try to take a photo. There are people in the way and they have to wait their turn in an unofficial line to get a shot of the view. The trip feels more like a photo shoot than a breath of fresh air.
Summer has arrived in the Southwest, and so have the crowds.
FOMO The chaos is just part of the deal if you want to visit Instagram-famous destinations like Horseshoe Bend.
Once a local favorite for picnics and relaxing views, the site is now one of the most Instagrammed outdoor sites in the country. Nearly 2 million people visited Horseshoe Bend last year, and about 2,800 tourists visit the site every day, according to the National Park Service.
While there hasn’t been a study directly linking the rise of social media platforms like Instagram to the steady rise of visitors to public lands, one can draw inferences. Instagram launched in 2010, and since then visits to national parks have increased 37 percent across NPS’s intermountain region that covers eight states in the time since, according to NPR.
While each social media platform serves its own unique purpose, Instagram, in particular, focuses on optics. Scrolling through an Instagram feed, it’s easy to find plenty of snapshots of picture-perfect vacations, delicious food, and impossibly flawless influencers (established social media users with large followings, usually with a weight loss shake in hand that they’re advertising for). It seems the perfect recipe to inspire serious cases of FOMO – fear of missing out – in its users. After all, who doesn’t want to be that hot model, legs dangling over the cliff, with a jaw-dropping view before them.
It’s normal, and perhaps even good, for people to be inspired by influencers to visit our nation’s beautiful public lands, but the problem more so lies in that people are now using those sites as a backdrop for their vanity (and even to sell products) while disrespecting the space. They’re walking off the designated trails and trampling flora and fauna to pose for photos. They’re messing with, feeding, and touching wildlife. They’re climbing, touching, and standing on things they shouldn’t.
A particular level of danger to the protected land stems from influencers with massive followings like musician and actor Miley Cyrus who, with a current following of 94.2 million people, posted photos of herself sitting in a Joshua tree, a delicate tree with shallow roots that is easily uprooted and destroyed when climbed, sat on, or used as a prop. Joshua trees are protected in Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
“Joshua trees are a unique part of our natural heritage and they don’t grow anywhere else on Earth,” Madena Asbell, Mojave Desert Land Trust Director of Plant Conservation Programs, told the Desert Sun newspaper. “They are part of the rich, yet fragile, biological diversity of our desert and they’re an important part of the ecosystem. They are also one of the reasons people come here from all over the country and the world. They deserve our respect and they need our protection.”
After a roar of public outcry over the photos, the comments were disabled and then, days later, the photos were deleted. Still, one could argue the damage was already done. In less than 24 hours, Cyrus’s two posts received 1.6 million likes. More than a million people gave their stamp of validation, and likely many of them were inspired to someday get their own Joshua tree “monkey bizzzzznassssss” pics, as one of Cyrus’s captions read.
Vanity is the name of the game and Instagram is merely the conduit of our sin. In exchange, our public lands are paying the price.
Keeping up with the KrowdsFrom about 2012 to 2015, the scene at Hanging Lake was grim.
Aaron Mayville, district ranger for White River National Forest, described traffic jams that extended all the way out to the interstate, fights between visitors over parking spaces, and graffiti at the Glenwood Canyon destination in Colorado’s White River National Forest.
Hanging Lake, a designated National Natural Landmark, was once a hidden western Colorado gem with a beautiful lake, gorgeous views, and a waterfall.
Once the site began to spike in popularity, though, more people began to visit the lake, and their first impression was stress and chaos, Mayville said.
And it isn’t any wonder.
The problems got so bad, in fact, that in 2017, after a particularly bad graffiti incident, officials considered temporarily closing the park until patrols were set in place.
Starting May 1 of this year, the agency implemented an entry fee and shuttle system for those visiting during the area’s busiest time. During the peak season, from May 1 to October 31, personal vehicles aren’t allowed at the trailhead and visitors must pay $12 a person, which covers the reservation service, shuttle operations, visitor information, and conservation services.
“The Hanging Lake permit and shuttle system is in place to protect the fragile ecosystem and provide visitors with high-quality experiences through education and interpretation,” the Glenwood Springs website states.
Until recently, Hanging Lake was receiving about 1,200 visitors a day during its busy season. The new shuttle and permit system will slice that number in half, limiting the number of visitors to 600 a day.
If you search the location of Hanging Lake on Instagram, there are mostly photos of people enjoying the site respectfully, but it doesn’t take long to come across photos of visitors violating the camp’s rules, and doing things like touching the water, feeding wildlife, and walking on a log that extends across the lake.
“It’s a fragile log,” Mayville said. “One day that log is going to break off from the shoreline and we don’t want that to happen.”
Each person’s actions when visiting public land has an impact. A singular person’s actions are never isolated unto themselves. The effects ripple, and they’re never the only person to climb that tree, touch the water, or feed that chipmunk. Mayville explained, using the example of people throwing rocks into the lake, that “one rock might not impact it, but over time 1,000 rocks will.”
The amount of abuse the lake has suffered is also creating a biological impact.
“Algae has bloomed at the lake,” Mayville said. “We haven’t exactly put our finger on why yet, but we think it might be oils from human skin that might be causing it.”
At Black Canyon in the Gunnison National Park, staff is dealing with similar issues.
“We’re concerned about backcountry visitors in particular,” Sandra Snell-Dobert – chief of interpretation, education, and technology, and the public information officer for the park – said of the many new visitors to the park. “It (the hike) is harder than it looks and it looks pretty hard. The vertical of it is just amazing and coming back can really take a toll on you.”
People want to get photos with Gunnison’s infamous chain in particular, which hikers hang on to in order to get down from steep parts of the trail. The more people who come to use the chain, the more wear and tear there will be.
“Our bigger message to people is that if you’re below the rim, you’re in the wilderness,” said Snell-Dobert. “Leave no trace is important. We have people bring stuff and then don’t want to take it back with them so our rangers have to pack a lot of stuff out. We see people come and not be prepared, like not bringing enough water. We see a lot of toilet paper strung about.”
Fighting backFor all its pitfalls, social media as a collective is fighting back. In their own brand of vigilante justice, accounts like Public Lands Hate You and You Did Not Sleep There are trying to hold Instagram users accountable for posting photos of themselves mistreating public lands, accidentally or not.
In one post, Public Lands Hate You shared a photo from a disgruntled Instagram user who found human tracks in the snow leading onto a log at Hanging Lake. In full view of the damning footprints is a sign bluntly stating, “Please keep off the log.”
The caption of the angry account, tc_photo, reads, “You had one job! It’s a little more obvious with the snow tracks in the winter when people ignore signs. That’s why this place is starting to change.”
The anonymous user who runs Public Lands Hate You went into detail in a post as to why behavior like this is so damaging.
“Unsurprisingly many people visiting the lake disregard the rules and do whatever it takes to get a perfect photo. ... With more and more people visiting our public lands, the importance of knowing and following the rules cannot be understated. Hanging Lake is a perfect example of what can happen when people ignore the rules and abuse a beautiful location. Going off trail, ignoring posted signs, vandalism, and graffiti were all issues that led to the newly restricted access at Hanging Lake,” the post stated. “A number of people have said that I’m making people feel bad by calling them out. Good. They should feel bad for jeopardizing these incredible places. And they should do what it takes to make it right, be it removing the post, apologizing, educating others about their mistake, or donating time/money to their local public land management agencies. It’s ok to make mistakes, but it’s not ok to be purposefully ignorant about the impacts of your actions.”
While public shaming of Instagram influencers by accounts like Public Lands Hate You and the former Joshua Trees Hate You have been criticized as being unnecessarily vicious (to be fair, these accounts tend to publicly shame influencers who do not heed their initial pleas via comments to take down their offending posts), the movement to protect public lands and hold influencers accountable seems to have picked up.
Public Lands Hate You now has a following of 53.5K followers and carries clout when calling out influencers. According to an article by The Guardian, in a post that appears to be no longer up, Public Lands Hate You published a screenshot of messages from companies that partner with social media influencers to sell their wares, including perfume company Skylar, footwear brand Blundstone, and phone case creator Hitcase.
“We do not condone that behavior,” a message apparently from the Skylar account stated. “We are very disappointed and will not be partnering with her on any campaigns in the future.”
As for those who run the public parks and recreation areas, they leave the shaming to social media. Instead, they rely on connecting with and educating visitors while coming up with plans to better manage the ever-growing crowds. And, to their credit, in some areas, it seems to be working.
“There’s a new era of management at Hanging Lake,” Mayville said. “Hanging Lake will be here for generations to come. I couldn’t say that as confidently five years ago.”