Too Many People are Going Outside
Here’s a lie: American outdoor recreation is doing better than ever. And here are some statistics that back up that lie. These are annual National Park Service visitor figures in the US since 2000.
The number’s going up and to the right, the good way—more Americans than ever are visiting national park sites. Take the NPS’ historic and recreation sites out of this data, and just focus on the 63 nature-focused national parks, and the trend’s even stronger, the number of visitors is going up and up and up. Along with attendance, spending is rising, too. With $20.5 billion spent in the parks and gateway communities surrounding them, 2021 saw a return to the all-time highs that defined the late 2010s. Jobs in the parks and jobs created by the parks also bounced back from COVID-stricken 2020 and returned to near record numbers, too.
In visitors, spending, and employment, the National Park Service—the single institution that most clearly embodies the alignment of Americans and nature—has never looked so strong. Furthering the lie, this trend of Americans pouring outdoors is bigger than the parks. 2021 was a massive year for the American outdoor industry as a whole—it generated $862 billion, it accounted for 1.9% of America’s GDP, it employed 3% of working Americans, and the sector’s growth rate tripled the pace of the rest of the American economy. Whether it’s in national parks, state parks, city parks, Forest Service land, Bureau of Land Management land, or not land at all but rivers and shorelines, Americans are visiting the outdoors, spending money on the outdoors, and working in the outdoors more than ever. The problem is, it’s crushing the outdoors.
Here’s the bit of nuance that these numbers miss: the people going into nature in such massive numbers are increasingly aggregating in an incredibly limited number of sites. In fact, flip how you interpret those national park numbers, and they point to a real problem—more and more, everyone is going to the same place. Perhaps then, it's not a great celebration of the American outdoors that Yellowstone nearly hit 5 million visitors in 2021, or that Great Smoky surpassed 14 million, or that four of Utah’s heavily-marketed Mighty Five national parks—Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion—all hit visitation records in 2021. Perhaps, it’s a tragic lack of creativity that in a country with more than a quarter of its area designated as public lands, hundreds of millions are flowing into the exact same handful of places.
Just down highway 191 from the turnoffs to two of Utah’s most celebrated natural areas—Canyonlands and Arches—is the 5,000-person town of Moab. Four hours from Salt Lake, more than five from Denver, and 6-plus from Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, Moab is far from anywhere. Yet, this tiny town, and its world-class climbing, its year-round camping, its endless slick rock bike trails and off-roading routes, along with its awe-inspiring parks, pulls some 3 to 5 million visitors a year from the world over. And while business has broadly been good in the past two decades as the outdoor industry has taken off, the always rising numbers are now pushing the town to the brink. The unexpected consequences start with the parks. A decade ago, Utah launched an international marketing blitz to show the world it was more than brown dirt and salt lakes.
The ads, billboards, and commercials that spread around the world worked, and Moab, in turn, became the gateway to southern Utah’s natural beauty—the town where you’d base your visit out of, where you’d have breakfast before going into the parks, grab snacks for your planned hikes, and eat dinner after a long day out. It felt like a win-win-win, more dollars spent in the state, further economic growth for the former uranium town, and more visitors exploring the outdoors. But then visitor numbers just kept growing. Recently, Arches has been doing something it nearly never did—it’s been closing its gates on account of crowding.
This has happened before only on the busiest of holidays but in 2020 it became the norm. In September of that year, the park told visitors at the gate to come back later on 16 separate days. It was a record for closures in a month, but a record that didn’t stand for long as the park then closed its gates every day for the first 17 days of October. Arches, a park of nearly 80,000 acres, was simply overflowing.
In the surge’s wake, the park has experimented with advanced ticketing during peak season and has worked to communicate the benefits of showing up either early or late. But the park doesn’t have any easy answers—it’s expanded the infrastructure where it can, it’s added parking, but it can’t build another Delicate Arch. Visitors, for their part, have found alternatives.
They’ve gone over to Canyonlands. They’ve gone to Dead Horse State Park, which now itself has reached over a million annual visitors. They now are turned back at the gate and search directions for the once unknown swimming hole on the edge of town.
They miss out on camping reservations in the park so the overnight crowd spills into the Bureau of Land Management campgrounds here, or the Forest Service lands here. The spillover is causing chaos. Moab has traffic now, its restaurants are short-staffed, and its employees are getting squeezed out because long-term rentals are being converted to short-term ones. For residents, it's too much—they’re tired of losing out on housing and listening all day and all night to noisy off-roaders driving through town to their next trailhead.
They’ve come to a conclusion that would’ve been unimaginable two decades ago: they believe the booming outdoor industry that’s enveloped their town is now hurting it and the landscape more than it’s helping. In a 2022 survey, 59% of Moab-area residents polled said that quality of life had declined on account of tourism, while more than half of respondents believed that the negatives of tourism were now outweighing the positives… and this was a survey group where nearly half of the respondents said that their income relied on tourism. It’s not just the town that’s at its wits end, either. National park staff are stretched thin educating first-time visitors on how to move through parks without damaging the cryptobiotic soil while also trying to keep up with all the trash and waste these visitors create. The task is even taller for Bureau of Land Management staff, who, based out of this single building are expected to inspect, manage, and look after all this BLM land and the Forest Service rangers based out of this even smaller renovated house, who are responsible for this impossibly large amount of territory that’s becoming ever more popular with the outdoor crowd. Fundamentally, Moab has changed.
What was once the spot to get off the beaten trail, to explore red rock desert, to meander, to get away, has become the spot to sit in line. And yet, people are still sitting in line in unmatched numbers. And it’s all for this: to watch the sunrise over Delicate Arch, to watch the light fill up the valley through Mesa Arch, to cool off from the desert heat in Mill Creek. People wait and wait, and elbow their way into position to do these things, and more importantly, to take pictures of them doing these things. Today, an increasing number of people are going outside not to get lost or to explore, but to be seen. Tourists jockey for camera position in Arches and Canyonlands to show their instagram followers they’ve been there.
They do the same at Horseshoe Bend, which now charges parking fees at its massive lot that was just a dirt pull off 20 years ago. Not far away, they do the same at Antelope Canyon, waiting their turn to throw sand in the air and hope the light catches it right. They sit in endless lines at Zion National Park too, waiting for hours to climb—and document the climb—up Angels Landing.
In a culture where experience increasingly conveys value, the long waits are worth the payoff: the picture, the geotag, the proof that you too have been to America’s most iconic viewpoints. For the national parks, this sudden virality of a few specific spots is a massive headache, as seemingly overnight, they need more toilets, more parking, more resources expended towards specific corners of their parks. For areas more remote and more difficult to access, like Idaho’s Kirkham Hot Springs, Oregon’s Opal Creek, or Colorado’s Conundrum Hot Springs, the job of managing these viral areas—keeping them litter free, and providing proper parking and bathroom facilities at the trailhead so the landscape doesn’t get ruined is becoming nearly impossible as visitor numbers rise and location names spread like wildfire online. How, for instance, can a forest service employee possibly keep an eye on Conundrum Hot Springs when it’s a nine-mile or 14-kilometer hike climbing 3,000 feet or 900 meters of gain just to get to the springs in the first place? The social media craze of documenting experiences in the outdoors has spread beyond Instagram and Twitter too.
There’s Strava, where users can track and map their activities, post them for all to see, and compete with the rest of the community to see who can bike, hike, and run through segments of trail the fastest. There’s Alltrails that provides maps and directions along with user photos and reviews of practically any hike out there. There’s a similar product for mountain bikers called MTB Project and a similar product for trail runners called Trail Run Project. There’s an app for every outdoor pursuit that puts maps and critical information in a user’s pocket, and provides incentive to go out, hit the trail, and size oneself up against everyone else out there doing the same thing. Whether competing for times, likes, kudos, or clout, social media has reimagined the outdoors, it’s made the busy spots busier, and it's forcing land managers to do what no land manager wants to do: place restrictions on access. Each and every time any barrier to outdoor access is implemented, a different version of the same debate plays out: who’s to blame, will it work, is it fair, and does any of that even matter.
This is Maine’s Baxter State Park. Confusingly, it is not, in fact, a Maine State Park. Rather it operates as a trust, a legal arrangement that ensures usage of an asset as the trustee, in this case Governor Percival Proctor Baxter, intended. He wrote, “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin, in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”
Katahdin—the towering 5,269 foot, 1,606 meter peak in the center of the park—stretches higher than any other mountain in the state, but unfurling 2,198.4 miles or 3,538 kilometers to its south is the Appalachian Trail—perhaps the most legendary long-distance hiking trail in the world. In this context, though, legendary status is not necessarily a good thing.
The number of thru-hikers—those walking the entire length from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine—has steadily grown since the trail’s inception; accelerated in growth through the 21st century as word of the trek spread through forums, videos, and social media; then accelerated once again in 2015 with the release of the movie, “A Walk in the Woods”—an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book about his AT thru-hike. Now, the Appalachian Trail has never been a lightly-used trail—it snakes its way through the most densely populated region of America, starting just 75 minutes from Atlanta, passing an hour away from DC, even boasting a direct train connection to NYC. Therefore, across the trail, the couple thousand annual thru-hikers have always been vastly outnumbered by hoards of day and section hikers—with one major exception. Maine is the least densely populated state on the east coast and in the final weeks and days of their trips, thru hikers start to pass through true wilderness—no towns, no cell service, hardly even road crossings. In fact, the last paved road they’ll cross is the first one they’ll have seen in a week and sits right on the border of Baxter State Park—by far the strictest one on the entire trail’s stretch. After months crossing heavily-used and loosely-regulated land, Baxter is an anomaly.
Inside, infrastructure is limited—no electricity, no running water, no paved roads—and the rules are endless—no pets, no motorcycles, no outside firewood, no soap, no groups of more than twelve, no vehicles longer than twenty-two feet, no children under six above the treeline: it’s about as close to true wilderness one can get in a managed park, and the park’s authority works hard to keep it that way. Therefore, Baxter strictly regulates visitor numbers—requiring elusive reservations for parking at most trailheads and sleeping in all campgrounds, with one notable exception. Reflecting the unpredictability of their arrival date, the park long allowed some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to enter unrestricted—granting the first twelve each day the right to pay $10 to camp at the base of Mount Katahdin before the final miles of their months-long treks.
After all, across all those months leading up to this moment, no matter which park the AT passed through, not a single trailside campground would’ve required reservations, meaning while this was an exception to the Baxter’s system, it was the norm for the AT’s. In fact, this very norm—the boundless, uninhibited ability to simply point north, walk as far as possible, sleep, then do it again—was considered central to the allure of the trail. But, according to Baxter State Park, that allure, or at least the knowledge of that allure, had grown too strong. The public rhetoric escalated: Baxter alleged that, among myriad other concerns, AT hikers most flagrantly violated the park’s group size limits and alcohol ban. After months on the same trail, hikers typically operated as one big nomadic social circle by the finish, leading many to want to finish together and celebrate at Katahdin’s summit, leading to a party-like atmosphere that the park authority considered incompatible with its conservation-first goals.
Ultimately, the straw that broke the camel’s back appeared to be the incident in 2015 when legendary ultramarathoner Scott Jurek completed a monumental feat: he had run the length of the trail in just 46 days—a new record that broke down to nearly two marathon’s distance per day. Given the scale of the feat, a hoard of media followed him to the summit where he celebrated his achievement by spraying and drinking champagne. In acknowledgment of this the park rewarded him with three legal summons—one for alcohol consumption, against the park’s rules; one for littering, for the champagne that had been spilled; and one for a group size violation, since the media that followed totaled above the park’s cap of twelve.
Inevitably, furious debate followed on whether some spilled champagne constituted littering; whether media following a soon-to-be record holder constituted a true “group” that Jurek was responsible for; and most of all on whether it was even right to cite the man for a short celebration of an all-time record. Jurek, on principle, took this to court where the group size and littering citations were dismissed, but this only escalated the larger conversation. Was the Appalachian Trail even compatible with Baxter’s legally-enshrined conservation-focused mission, and were Baxter’s strict rules even justified by their conservation-mission in the first place? The Baxter State Park Authority clearly wasn’t waiting to answer, though: they abruptly announced that, after nearly a century of limitless access along the entire stretch of the trail, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers would now be capped. As of 2017, only 3,150 would be allowed to complete their trek atop Mount Katahdin.
Inevitably, this sparked uproar in the AT community—hikers were near-paranoid over the prospect of walking over 2,000 miles from Georgia and getting turned away in the final fifteen. They argued that the couple thousand annual thru-hikers couldn’t possibly have a notable impact compared to the tens of thousands of car-based visitors each summer. They argued that, despite their legal right, Baxter State Park was simply just wrong to throw a near-century of precedent out the window. The park came back with a simple argument: Percival Baxter very clearly indicated in his trust documents that the park’s primary purpose was conservation, yet left no instructions as to the Appalachian Trail—therefore, both in practice and in law, conservation came first. Ultimately, there was nothing AT hikers or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy could do.
Some complained, others sympathized with Baxter's position—understanding that the park had a different mission than the trail and, as their host, Baxter had every right to implement any rule or restriction they wanted. The showdown in Baxter was, in many ways, an accentuated microcosm of the debates happening more widely in the outdoors. It’s a unique case in which one of the most heavily-trafficked trails in the world, hosting at least three million people on a portion each year, interacts with one of the most strictly regulated parks in the world, made possible uniquely by its independent funding and management. Not all the debates happen in such stark terms, where the ultimate threat throughout has been the expulsion of the trail from the park, but it is the same debate: what sort of access should humans have to nature? How much is too much? There is essentially zero unmanaged nature left on earth—with limited exception there just isn’t empty public land operating without any regulatory body.
Each and every one of these regulatory bodies picks somewhere between no access—pristine wilderness restricting all human access, which itself is not even the natural state—and unlimited access—another near-impossible construct since infrastructure naturally caps access. There appears no perfect answer. You see, eliminating human access to nature has consequences. There is a seemingly endless body of academic research linking exposure to nature with positive effects on mental health, and it all seems to loosely link back to the biophilia theory—the idea that humans have some innate affinity to proximity to nature.
There is an evolutionary explanation for this—after all, our ancestors were more likely to survive in resource-rich environments with lots of other forms of life. But perhaps stronger evidence is found in today’s world where the average human lives in an urban area, cut off from easy access to nature. Why do people spend time and money to raise pets? Why do people prefer live houseplants to less-expensive artificial versions even when indistinguishable? Why do people drive for hours to walk in the woods when they could just walk down the sidewalk? The questions about nature’s curious draw could go on and on, but on the flip side there are studies linking time in nature to higher levels of creativity; lower levels of stress; improved mood; and above all higher self-reported personal well-being. And then, beyond the personal, nature connectedness is linked to higher concern for nature’s well-being which, in a world threatened by the continual destruction of wilderness, at least theoretically implies humans with better access to nature will do more to save it. But unlimited access has its issues too.
To start, many of those psychological benefits are linked to isolation—linked to the downstream effects of self-sufficiency in a wild space. Hiking angel’s landing with back to back traffic is absolutely a different experience with a lesser benefit than hiking it alone. Therefore, while impossible to quantify, there is absolutely a point where the marginal benefit that one additional person gains from being allowed on the trail is outweighed by the sum of the marginal detriment everyone else encounters due to a busier trail. But then there are the more practical concerns.
Nature can be a dangerous environment where risks need to be properly mitigated, but the rise of the outdoors as a lifestyle trait or social media backdrop has perhaps masked this truth. Baxter State Park, for example, justifies much of its heavy-handedness with its need to keep visitors safe. Katahdin is a well-known yet high-risk mountain in a region of America with relatively tamer nature—a hiker from Boston, for example, is likely not accustomed to the level of isolation or exposure that Katahdin presents because there just aren’t that many mountains with the same risk-factor in the region. The reservations-only system means no one can make the spontaneous decision to hike Baxter without planning—they’ll spend days or weeks researching before even getting to parking reservations. Upon arrival, Baxter rangers are trained to essentially triage hikers at Katahdin trailheads, checking whether they have adequate footwear, clothing, supplies, and asking questions that, according to the park’s director, are designed to subtly spook them—get them in the mindset that what they’re about to do has risk and isn’t just a walk in the park.
Then, as a final filter, this foreboding sign is placed a half-mile up the trail to be read once the initial excitement of the day has worn off, and a more rational brain perhaps takes over. Despite these precautions, roughly one in every two thousand Baxter visitors requires medical or search and rescue resources—far above the nationwide average—and more than sixty people have died while climbing Maine’s tallest peak. Now, the question of how high the barrier to entry should be is a tricky one as the outdoors is a domain dominated by a core demographic—it’s primarily used by people who are wealthier, white, and male. This is something that the outdoor recreation industry especially is working to counter since it makes it tougher to generate political support and limits their potential customer-base. But it’s no wonder why the outdoors has unintentionally been exclusionary: essentially, outdoorsy people created outdoorsy people.
When climbing a mountain, for example, there’s a lot of information worth knowing beyond where the trail starts: has the snow melted, does the approach road require a high clearance vehicle, what’s a safe turnaround time, what sort of equipment is warranted, how does the weather behave, what sort of experience is needed? In the past, this information flowed through old-school, person to person social networks: as in, climbers would disseminate information one on one to other climbers which created an informal vetting system—essentially, more experienced climbers would only give the information to those that they thought were ready for the climb. Today, all that information and more is available on the internet allowing anyone of any experience level the ability to get the information necessary to attempt a climb. In one way this is good: it counters the unintentionally exclusionary nature of nature allowing those without access to those person to person social networks the ability to engage in outdoor recreation, but it also means that that informal vetting process of the past has broken down. Information flows freely, even to those that don’t have the experience to use it wisely. This is coupled with the increasing availability of communication in the backcountry: in recent years, relatively low-cost satellite messaging devices have hit the market that allow the injured and lost to call for help regardless of cell service, and now the iPhone 14 includes a similar feature as well.
While this has saved countless lives, it’s also viewed as a contributing factor in the rise of search and rescue calls for those that are simply exhausted or unprepared. It essentially lowers individual consequences by forcing volunteer search and rescue personnel into the field, in potentially hazardous conditions, more often. In fact, in 2016, a majority of search and rescue calls in national parks were for these reasons. Therefore, too low of a barrier to entry is a risk considering the outdoors is an environment where people routinely underestimate risk—where people prepare for the best case scenario, rather than the worst. Too high of a barrier to entry is also a risk since it deprives access to those that want to gain its benefits and leaves more questioning whether outdoor recreation has value worth protecting. This is why these areas require such careful management—the outdoors is a scarce resource that must be protected in perpetuity.
Even under the most recreation-first mindset, the mission is to allow access to the most number of people possible but some of those people have not even been born yet—the outdoors is considered in a timescale of forever. It’s a game of finding the line of non-consumptive use. Accurately finding that line is near-impossible in the best of times, but what makes it ever more difficult is a massive influx of people attempting to push that line. The outdoors is not an environment compatible with the surges that an information-rich society cultivates.
It’s essentially a situation without a solution: one remedied only by an overworked army of land managers tasked with the impossible feat of keeping a sum intact while allowing millions to subtract from it, one step at a time. One fascinating fact about the outdoors in the US is that there is no nationwide search and rescue system. When you push that SOS button who comes and saves you is pretty much down to what county you’re in. Sometimes it’s just going to be a sheriff’s deputy with zero search and rescue training, but more often it’s a group of completely-volunteer rescuers.
But these rescuers know what they’re doing—they’re doctors, nurses, and EMTs; highly skilled trail-runners and climbers and kayakers; all individuals who have donated their time to learn the time-tested techniques behind finding someone, stabilizing their condition, and extracting them from the most remote and dangerous environments on earth. We wanted to learn more about this so we made a whole episode of our Nebula-Original series Logistics of X about this exact subject. It was really fascinating—we did a deep-dive into how real rescues on Mount Hood worked using stunning 3d graphics and some really phenomenal footage. I found it so fascinating because there’s so much technique and purpose into what might seem like the straightforward task of just finding someone and getting them out of the wilderness. And this is only one episode of the series: the first one was about the logistics of ski resorts which is another thing that is way more complicated than it initially seems, and we’re already well into production for future episodes.
And this is also only one series out of a whole catalog of others on Nebula made by creators that you probably already watch and enjoy. The idea behind Nebula is simple: these are creators that know how to make really good content on a tight budget that millions of people enjoy, so it only makes sense that if you give them a little more budget they can make even better content. I couldn’t possibly go over it all but some of my favorites are Under Exposure, by Neo; Modern Conflicts, by Real Life Lore; and Tip of the Spear, by Mustard. Of course, on top of all the Originals every single one of these creators uploads their videos ad and sponsorship free on Nebula so you have a better viewing experience for normal content, exclusive additional content, and all of this is made possible by a business model that is more sustainable for creators themselves. Over fifty-thousand Wendover viewers have signed up to date and the majority are still subscribed, meaning they clearly liked it, so if you want to watch the Logistics of X, get the best viewing experience of our videos, and help support the channel, head to nebula.tv/Wendover
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