Over the last few years we have definitely seen more and more discussion regarding the increased traffic at many locations frequented by photographers and other adventure seekers. I know we have covered this to some extent on our Photo Cascadia blog in prior posts. I don’t see this slowing down any time soon. Locations will continue to have limits and or restrictions imposed for the betterment of the landscape as traffic has skyrocketed to numbers we would have thought rather unlikely only 10 years ago. From popular National Parks to local wilderness areas the impact is being felt far and wide. I can personally attest to the National Park side making the mistake of trying to go too late in the morning to visit Arches National Park this year on a family roadtrip. The park decided to let cars in for free to keep everything moving. Fast forward to an article I read this week that interviewed a couple that left to come back another day because the entrance for that same park was closed due to excessive visitor traffic!
What brings this to the forefront of my mind? Simply put it’s one of our nation’s largest efforts to conserve land by limiting access to both overnight and day use. In the state of Oregon starting next year ~450,000 acres of land in three iconic wilderness areas will have a lottery based permit plan in place from late May (Memorial Day weekend) to the end of September, prime hiking and backpacking season for alpine country. The number of permits allowed each day will be drastically lower than traffic today on many trails. The wilderness areas include Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington. The first two being a couple of my favorite locations to visit in the Northwest. Obviously, I am not the only one that enjoys visiting them.
One of the areas impacted I have been going to for over a decade, and the other close to two decades. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to take all the trips I did to these areas before they became too popular for their own good. They truly impacted me in a profound way. The very first being a trip to the top of South Sister to camp at the summit 18 years ago this month. only a few days before 9/11/01. I remember it well because I was picked up at the airport coming home on a redeye flight from a week long Alaska vacation, only to drive straight down to Central Oregon to hike up a mountain. It was one of several trips that ended up having a meaningful influence on my lifestyle and interests that matter to me today. Of course I can’t forget a later trip sleeping on the same summit with my future wife only to wake up in the middle of night not being able to see anything as the tent rolled on it’s side and we were getting banged up against the rock tent shelter from strong wind gusts. I ripped the tent open to get out of it. Then we laughed as we lied out on top of a broken tent looking at the stars above. I say this all because until now I have had the luxury to plan many of these trips when it works for me. Some of the trips were only decided the day before. Poor weather? No problem, just change the date. Personal conflict came up? No problem, just change the date. Flowers not peaking yet? No problem, just change the date. I will greatly miss this flexibility yet the needs of these amazing locations needs to come before mine.
So why are outdoor locations booming in popularity? I think it’s a two part answer. The first part is social media and the internet in general, which is likely no surprise to anyone reading this. Our ability to find information has never been easier and faster. While it’s been touted as an advantage it has it has downsides. If it didn’t I wouldn’t even being writing this article. We all contribute to this crowd sourcing of information. I have to own up to it since there are posts from many years ago on this blog that I wrote about these very locations, not having any idea what would come years later. Sharing responsibly is how we look it now which doesn’t mean don’t share anything but rather think if it makes to share a location and or how much about it. I feel fine sharing these photos now given traffic will be limited. This is opposite to the days of relying on one or two hiking or backpacking guide books you need to pick up in a store that at best may show mediocre photos and leave more to the imagination. I used one of these books recently that I bought almost 20 years ago with washed out black and white photos doing little visual justice to the area. Generally speaking those days are mostly behind us. Back then it was up to you to get out and explore to really determine what the potential was. Before the internet told, and showed, all we want to know. Now that we are aware of our impact I notice myself, and other photographers, doing less sharing of exact locations and or directions for spots that are still lesser known.
The other part of the increased usage of these areas is the black mirrors we use to find about these locations in the first place. They are also precisely the reason why we want to escape to the trails and cabins in the middle of nowhere. The need to get off the grid has never been greater in our always on connected world and declining ability to simply be bored or just think aimlessly. Around the clock stimulation is becoming the norm for many people today. I recently went to the Jefferson Park Wilderness where I was unable to be reached. I was thankful it was close to 1.5 hrs of driving outside of cell range, in sometimes rugged terrain, just to get to the trailhead. Even during the backpack trip we had no cell reception which seems to be less of a given these days. Being unplugged for a couple days was a great feeling. I don’t need cell reception to take photos. I couldn’t check any email, social or make a call if I wanted to. Of course that has it’s downside if you have an emergency but there are other devices for that purpose if you want that. A recent Wall Street Journal article talked about the lengths and cost people are going to in order to be disconnected from the online world to re-connect with the offline world. Being in a location now that is disconnected from technology is almost seen as a luxury. I have to agree with this.
One tactic to try and deter visitors that is likely more funny than actually helpful is that I found one of these popular wilderness locations that has 2.5/5.0 rating on Google. Not that I have ever relied on a Google rating for my hiking or backpacking adventure yet was curious as to why such a wonderful outdoor paradise would have such a low rating. I read some of the reviews and saw why. Maybe someone from outside of the area might not catch on but as a resident of Oregon it only gave me a good laugh. Certainly less visited places still exist to imagine the possibilities for our creative pallets and these are seeing an increase to get away from the crowds and allow taking photos that might be less pre-conceived than more popular places. I have always believed in balancing both worlds from getting to see popular locations when I am in the right mind set to setting out to less traveled spots. Erin’s recent blog article on the difference of focusing on landscapes vs locations is good advice as we try to pivot away from always going to the most popular locations since those locations sadly may end up being off limits, limited access or over run. The locations I mention in this article being a good example of that. I heeded that by not visiting the locations I mentioned here for more than several years, until late this summer to get a couple trips in before the limited permits come into play.
While I can think of a several places in the Northwest that I have visited over the years that have permits in place to greatly limit visitors, and how it’s a bummer because I can’t go whenever I please, I am thankful for the process to be in place to serve it’s needed purpose. It’s unfortunate we continue to see places get restricted like this as it does take our freedom away but as with all things in life the only constant is change, and this change I am onboard with. I want my kids and their kids to enjoy places I get the opportunity to be in awe of today. It’s also up to us as humans to not completely wreck these places. When the ranger on a recent trip stopped me on the trail and asked me where we camped and the location followed the rules yet he also asked if we saw any tents along the lake. I said “Yeah, a half dozen”. This is because they changed the rules to not allow camping next to the lake due to the increased smell and presence of human waste (I will let your imagination do the rest here). We have no one to blame but ourselves for losing the freedom to roam when we please.
After taking my youngest on a recent backpacking trip I wrote the following with one of the images I posted online. I thought I would share this as a closing comment.
Dear Three Sisters Wilderness,
After many amazing adventures you provided me starting almost 20 years ago I had not been in some time. I recently took my daughter backpacking on your wondrous terrain to show her why I love everything you have to offer from meadows filled with wildflowers to snow capped mountains with ice cold fresh flowing water. Unfortunately, I realized with this adventure the boom of visitors in the last few years was not exaggerated in all that I heard and read. You cannot handle this volume and you deserve a break. I also take responsibility for sharing my photos, stories and saying how awesome you are over the years even if it likely had little influence, as mass influencer I am not. It’s unfortunate that my ability to plan a summer trip on a moment’s notice in your vast beautiful landscape will go away, yet it will certainly be best for you. It also ensures the rest of us the ability to enjoy all you have to offer well into the future. Starting next year any summer trip to see you will feel more like the early adventures I remember. Something we both will be thankful for.
Location: Portland, OR
Adrian Klein has a passion for the outdoors and landscape photography that is endless. He has traveled the parks, shorelines and wilderness capturing images that represent each area through his own artistic eye from the curbs to the far off trails.