I made a stupid mistake over Thanksgiving. I climbed Angels Landing in Zion National Park.
My mistake had nothing to do with the aesthetics of the hike. For anyone who hasn’t done it, Angels Landing is the classic Zion excursion that ends with an exposed scramble out a narrow fin of sandstone to a perch 1,500 feet above the canyon floor. It’s a semi-technical hike where you have to use your hands and feet to move upward, making it exciting and challenging, and, of course, the view from the top is amazing.
For all those reasons it’s extremely popular and can get dangerously crowded, but I’d convinced myself that the Tuesday before Thanksgiving couldn’t be too bad.
I was wrong. We were forced to stand in line repeatedly while we waited for space so we could move up or down along the chains that protect the route. In one place we were trapped at a bottleneck for at least 15 minutes, waiting for a break in the stream of climbers heading up in order for us to make our way down.
Finally, a woman near us yelled down the route, asking the people coming up to stop so we could clear out of the area and give them room. It felt like we were dangerously close to gridlock on an exposed piece of rock, where one wrong move could be fatal. It was unpleasant and a little scary, not only because I haven’t been around that many people since March, but also because not everyone had the skills required to move safely over the rock, and their tentative movements made me anxious. I did not want to be knocked off because of someone else’s clumsiness.
Needless to say, we made it down, but I vowed I will never do that hike again unless something is done to control the crowds. Interestingly enough, Zion is trying to limit visitation in the park. Since the pandemic broke out, visitors have been required to reserve tickets for the shuttle that gives you access to the main canyon. I thought that requirement would keep people out, especially because it turned out it wasn’t easy to secure a ticket. We tried to get one, and had no luck, so instead we rode our bikes to the trailhead.
I assumed that inconvenience would dissuade people from making the trek, but obviously I was wrong. A ranger told me that the shuttle tickets go online each morning at 9 and are typically sold out by 9:01. Biking has filled in the transportation gap, especially with e-bikes to rent in Springdale that make any ride into the park pain-free. In some ways this is great, but in others it’s a nightmare in terms of numbers.
We all are well aware of the fact that COVID-19 has sent everyone into the outdoors. People are camping, hiking, visiting national parks and forests, riding bikes and heading into the backcountry to ski or backpack in record numbers.
We’ve seen evidence of this here in the Tetons, and I’ve written about it at length. But my experience over Thanksgiving has convinced me that simply stating that we have a problem doesn’t do anything to address it. The concern that we are loving places to death has been around for a long time, but suddenly it seems as if the problem has become very real and immediate. If we don’t take drastic measures, we really will regret the havoc our passion wreaks on the lands we love.
The problem is: How do we control people? Especially in freedom-loving America?
There are a number of examples of popular destinations around the world that have put caps on tourist numbers to protect the resource. These include the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, the Seychelles, Bhutan and Antarctica.
The trick with these destinations is that you have to get into them, so there’s a figurative gate that can close when the number allowed is reached. For instance, you have to take a boat to travel to the Galapagos, and there are only two ways to enter Machu Picchu. Those pinch points make it easy to manage who comes and goes. It’s a system we could use in some places in the United States, but it’s not going to be popular.
For example, we could limit visitors to our national parks. All parks are protected by entrance gates, so managers could close off access when the numbers max out. Visitors could be required to make reservations to visit a park, or we could use lotteries to decide who gets to go to a popular destination in the same way we use lotteries to dole out permits for most Western rivers.
It’s trickier when there is no central entrance point, however. For instance, how can we manage numbers in the Bridger-Teton National Forest when people aren’t required to let you know they are planning to come for a visit? When a full campground doesn’t drive people away but just sends them off to find a dispersed site somewhere else?
There are things that could be done, but none of them will be popular, and all have the potential to favor the rich and privileged. For example, parking permits could be required for Teton Pass, dispersed camping could be outlawed altogether, and permits could be required for popular hikes and climbs to keep numbers down. A ranger could be stationed at trailheads turning people away when the area has reached its carrying capacity. Maybe visitors would be required to hire a guide to do certain climbs, while locals could be regulated by a system allowing access on odd-even days based on license plates. Many of these ideas could work, but are we willing to accept them? And who is going to enforce compliance?
I came of age on the front end of the outdoor recreation boom. When I first started climbing you knew most of the people you bumped into at the crag. I can’t recall ever having to worry about finding a free campsite around Moab, Utah, even during spring break, and the notion that you might have to wait in line to climb a particular route, or that you wouldn’t be able to find parking at the top of Teton Pass at 8 a.m. on a weekday, was preposterous. It just wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t realize what a precious resource untracked powder was nor did it occur to me that I was part of a growing problem.
Outdoor recreation numbers have crept up slowly over the years, and I have played a small, but not insignificant role in that creep. As I waited to pass through a section of trail on my way up Angels Landing, I made a rough calculation of how many people I personally introduced to the outdoors.
I have a little over 200 weeks working for NOLS. If you figure on average a course is three weeks long, that means I worked about 66 courses during my tenure at the school. Courses have approximately 15 students, so that comes out to just under 1,000 people who I taught.
Let’s say most of those people continued to enjoy the outdoors, introducing their friends to camping, skiing and climbing along the way so that they, too, have buddies for their adventures. Around here I bet there are lots of people who could easily say they have influenced tens of thousands of people during their outdoor careers.
It’s easy to see how quickly the numbers escalate. Total up all the NOLS instructors, guides and camp counselors out there, not to mention social media and advertising, and you see how easy it is to create millions of people who all want the same thing: freedom to enjoy our public lands without any restrictions.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we should expect or even demand “no restrictions” any more. It’s just not tenable. We have to figure out how to be responsible outdoors people, and unfortunately, like it or not, I think that means we have to be willing to rein ourselves in and understand that full means full, whether we are talking about a camping area, a parking lot, or the top of Angels Landing.
This version of the column has been edited to clarify there are two ways in and out of Machu Picchu. — Ed.