Justin & I wrapped up a week’s worth of Leave No Trace work in northern Arizona/southern Utah (and are now in the mountains for back-to-back Winterfest events). The Arizona trip had multiple purposes. We were shadowing another Traveling Trainer team to learn some of the ropes, like video-making, but also for outreach in a heavily loved area.
Here are a few things we learned on this trip:
- Northern Arizona and Southern Utah are not at all warm in the winter.
- We haven’t been to that little neck of the country (specifically Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Bryce Canyon National Park) in 16 years and boy things have changed, thanks to some viral impacts.
- Making educational Leave No Trace videos is fun!! Watch our first debut here!!
To the first point, we were planning to camp through our training and outreach with the other team the whole week. We camped 2 nights. Then the National Park Service ranger with whom we were working with offered us seasonal indoor housing (plumbing & electricity included!) for the remainder of our time. While shivering, we said Giddyup! Because trying to work on laptops when it’s 30 degrees and windy out is challenging, to say the least.
Now onto my rant about the impact of our digital age on nature’s playground …
So yeah. Let’s start with the backstory. When Justin & I first met while living in Phoenix, we took a trip to northern Arizona/southern Utah in January 2003. It was with a few people from the “Take A Hike” club where we met and they planned it all. We really had no idea where we were going; we just went with their plans.
We ended up going to some epic places. Bryce Canyon National Park. Zion National Park. The Wave. Horseshoe Bend. I’m willing to bet most of you have heard of these epic places. But I’m also willing to be you hadn’t 16 years ago when we went.
Here’s the kicker. During our 2003 trip, we saw just about ZERO people, besides our small group.
While I am so grateful to have experienced these places before the massive crowds, it was interesting to revisit them and see how they’ve changed for the worse.
Here’s what we will remember most about our 2019 trip to Horseshoe Bend this time around. We picked up nearly 8 pounds of trash. Doesn’t sound like a lot to you? This was 8 pounds of toilet paper, cigarette butts, chewed gum and bottle caps. These things alone each weigh less than an ounce, so you it is maddening that they added up to 8 pounds.
We are torn. We are ecstatic to see more and more people getting out to enjoy America’s beautiful natural spaces, but many people are irresponsible. Sometimes it’s not their fault. A tissue falls out of a pocket. There isn’t a bathroom close and they just have to go. But with so many people, there’s a detrimental cumulative impact.
Most of this can be blamed on our digital age. The Wave is not pictured because we did not revisit on this trip and the pictures I have from 2003 are not digital, instead printed up and in a storage unit. But anyway, it was made popular in 2009 when Microsoft’s operating system Windows 7 featured it as the desktop wallpaper. I don’t blame people stuck in a cubicle for drooling over the picture, then wanting to go see it in person! It truly is a mind-blowing landscape.
Horseshoe Bend (pictured above with the trash) exploded thanks to Instagram and geotagging. People started to post images of this unique 270-degree curve in the Colorado River and canyon. Instagram has a “geotagging” feature, attaching location data to the picture. Hence the droves of people. Here’s a fantastic video that goes into way more detail about viral impacts to natural places, if you are interested! In response to growing social media influence, Leave No Trace put out social media guidelines to help people think before they post. Not saying you can’t share your beautiful pictures on the interwebs, just that there’s a way to do it in an environmentally responsible way.
Horseshoe Bend used to be an unmarked location on the map that very few people could find is now very public. Everyone wants the iconic photo. The year we visited, there were probably a few thousand in a year. Now, there’s 1000s per HOUR. Their visitation is expected to reach 2 million this year. We were there during the “off season.”
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the city of Page, Arizona manage Horseshoe Bend, but it didn’t have the infrastructure in place. It shares so quick & gets out there so fast, there’s no way anyone could have predicted the crowds and been prepared. There wasn’t even a parking lot. No bathrooms. No trails. Now, there are building all of these things, but some of the damage is unfortunately already done.
Leave No Trace has partnered with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area rangers to help mitigate the crowds. Brice and Erin, or another Traveling Trainer Team, will return 2 more times and help the Park Service staff with strategies. I really hope we don’t love these natural places to death!
So, the trip was eye-opening for many reasons. We always feel rewarded by our work with Leave No Trace, and this trip was no different.
Oh, and we did revisit Bryce Canyon National Park on our way out of the area. Not as crowded as it can be because the trails were closed due to heavy snow and avalanche risk, but still surreal to be back and see the changes. And for funsies, let’s compare the 2019 photo of us at Bryce with the 2003 photo of us at Bryce (which I had scanned in and saved on my computer!). Please assure me we look the same!!!