Long before the sun’s rays had licked the face of the mountain, cars dotted every available parking spot and roadside niche. The line to the bathroom snaked to the highway, and the lycra-clad crowds mingled like those at an amusement park.
We were no different.
My brother, our spouses and young daughters wanted to climb to the top of Mt. Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s famous, and relatively accessible, 14,000-foot peaks (known to outdoor enthusiasts as 14ers). So we joined the endless line of people leapfrogging each other up the mountainside.
Somewhere between my 9-month old starting to cry and a group decision to turn around, I asked myself why, exactly, were we on this particular trail. Why did we decide to join hundreds of our closest strangers to the get to the top? Why didn’t we go somewhere else?
The answer is nuanced like most, but if I was being truly honest with myself, it came down partially to a desire for the picture.
And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
Social media, and photo sharing sites like Instagram in particular, are exponentially increasing the number of people at some of the world’s most famous outdoor sites – a kind of photo trophy hunt, if you will. Over-visitation is becoming enough of a problem it’s forcing some places to build additional accommodations and inspiring photographers to refuse to disclose locations of particularly stunning shots.
But what if instead of shutting down your Instagram account and returning to your inner Luddite, you use your desire to share as a way to inspire people to explore the un-explored, both near and far?
Let me explain.
Each year another story or example emerges of how smart phones and a wave of social media postings are changing how people interact with the outdoors.
Officials with Yellowstone National Park, after receiving more than 4 million visitors in 2015, decided to try and combat it directly by creating the Yellowstone Pledge. It asks people, among other things, to “practice safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture” and to “stay on boardwalks in thermal areas.”
Visitors “want that perfect picture, so they’re driven to get closer and closer to the point they’re risking their own safety,” a park spokesperson told the Associated Press last year.
A groups of Canadians were banned from federal lands for five years in 2017 after they walked on the Grand Prismatic Spring. The year before, a man from Oregon died after leaving the boardwalk and falling into an acidic thermal pool.
And the trophy-hunting photo craze isn’t limited to the U.S.
National Geographic Traveler wrote in 2017 about the surge in tourism to Trolltunga, a cliff on a mountain in Norway.
“Between 2009 and 2014, visitors to Trolltunga increased from 500 to 4,000 in what many consider a wave of social media-fueled tourism,” the story read.
The iconic image captured from the spot shows a person alone in the world – carefully editing out the string of people waiting for the same “unique photo” (or stories of the ones who tried to capture the photo and fell to their deaths).
Not only could some special places benefit from a reprieve from visitors, most of us would agree it’s nicer to be where there aren’t hundreds (or thousands) of strangers.
The answer isn’t to simply stay indoors, though, or not share an image of your beautiful mountain top or desert stream.
Some popular outdoor Instagrammers simply won’t disclose the location of their photos even when asked. They instead encourage viewers to open up maps and start scanning for their own special places.
And maybe they’re onto something. Instead of using social media to fuel your desire to see that very location, use it as inspiration to find your own unique spot.
Use it to remind people they don’t need to spend hours with thousands of others just to try and capture that perfect outdoor image of no one.
Going somewhere less traveled was the call we ended up making last summer on the face of Mt. Bierstadt. It wasn’t because we came to the collective epiphany that jostling crowds wasn’t how we wanted to spend our Saturday morning in the wild. The babies made the decision. Tears streaming down their faces because of cold, hunger and who knows what else, we turned around and fought against the flow of humans back to the bottom.
Instead of leaving after a snack and diaper change, we headed the opposite direction, to a nearby 13er. We saw only a handful of people, and didn’t make it to the top. But the trip was perhaps more memorable than it would have been otherwise, and the lack of crowds meant we could actually have the experience we imagined when we’d originally thought of Bierstadt.
None of this means you should stay away from popular places like the Himalayas, the Grand Canyon or the Galapagos.
It is just a reminder to think of some of the spots less traveled, the ones that aren’t already Instagram-famous.
Show your followers how the snow looks on the back of two horses you pass on your weekend jog. Take pictures of those spring wildflowers that sprouted near the path on your evening walk.
Share images of your kid playing in the field near your house or your dog splashing in a creek.
Open a map with your friends or family and drive somewhere new and unexplored for the weekend, then show people what you found.
Share the little moments, the quiet moments, the ones we all experience and often take for granted. Ultimately it may inspire someone else to check out the national forest or state park nearest them that they often overlook. It will also remind you of the beauty of nature that’s so much closer than you think. And in the process, it could help protect those places with international renown and those ones of equal importance that are right out your back door.