Last Monday, my mom and I stood behind a fence at Arches National Park and took a couple photos of Landscape Arch, the longest sandstone arch in the world. She turned to two ladies sitting on a rock munching sandwiches and said, “You sure picked a great spot for lunch.” One of the ladies said,
“It’d be a lot better if there weren’t so many people here.” One of us said something like, Yeah, I guess it is pretty popular, and then we made our way down the trail.
Sometimes when people say things about there being “so many people” at a place, I’m not sure if they’re referring to me, like “please stop taking photos so we can enjoy our lunch,” or if they’re just making a general comment about the number of people they’ve seen on the same trail. And sometimes I just want to say, “You mean people like you?”
The lady was right. The view of Landscape Arch would be great with no people in it, like you see in photos. But against Edward Abbey’s warnings and maybe thanks to a $4.6 million ad campaign, Utah’s national parks are now increasingly popular.
The previous day, my mom and I had hiked out to Delicate Arch at sunset and found that we were only two of about 100 people who’d had that idea. Mom had never seen Delicate Arch before, but I had done the same hike 11 years ago on a May afternoon and hadn’t seen another person. I told her that, not complaining, and I asked if she’d ever read Desert Solitaire, in which Ed Abbey rants against the building of a road that will bring more people into Arches National Park (at that time it was only Arches National Monument). She said she hadn’t.
I don’t live in Moab, and my first visit there was in 2005, which is pretty late in the grand scheme of things. I’m not a local, but like anyone who’s been going to a place for a decade or so, I can remember when there was a little more solitude and a little fewer restaurants and hotels. What do I think? Not that it matters, but I usually think the same thing whenever I get nostalgic for “back when it wasn’t so crowded.” I don’t know where I first heard it, but I’ve heard a few different iterations of:
“This place started going to shit 15 minutes after I got here.”
Which I think applies to all of us who get a little jaded with nostalgia, because we all have to remember that we weren’t the first ones here, by a longshot. Ed Abbey was writing about the hordes that would visit this place 48 years ago, if you want to go back to the first jaded local saying the place was going to shit—back in 1968. Whether it’s the desert, a mountain bike trail or climbing crag, your favorite ski town, your hometown, or a new restaurant that you feel like you discovered first before there was an hour wait for a table, it’s going to get found out someday, and it’s not going to be the same as the first time you saw it.
There’s another saying, often utilized by bike commuters:
“Hate traffic? You are traffic.”
Yes, your route to work would be less stressful if it weren’t for all these other damn cars on the road. Except guess what, you’re one of those cars on the road too, just trying to get to where you’re going—exactly like all those other people.
We can argue all day about what causes crowds, or how it should be harder to get to certain wild places, but I think it’s worth pointing out that if you’re complaining about a crowd when you’re in one, you’re part of the crowd. If you look around and find yourself surrounded by “tourists,” you might ask yourself if you’re a tourist too—and if it’s really that bad of a label.
Did you know Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 sandstone arches? I managed to get a photo of one with no people in it, at high noon, just a few minutes’ walk from where those ladies were eating lunch.
I’ve been to plenty of places in the desert where there’s only a slim chance of seeing another human being, and I love those places. But I don’t want to stay away from some of the iconic places just because other people might be there. My mom had never seen Delicate Arch, or Landscape Arch, or Little Wild Horse Canyon—but was I going to say, “Nah, Mom, you’d hate it, there’s too many people there; we should go somewhere else”?
Our second-to-last day of our desert road trip, Mom and I hiked the Fisher Towers trail, and I noticed some changes since the last time I’d been out there to climb Ancient Art: Instead of the trail simply being marked with the occasional cairn, there were now lines of rocks along the route, more signs, and even some wooden markers to keep people from getting lost. We hiked out to the end of the trail, made some coffee, and had a wonderful time, even though there were a few dozen other people out there doing the same thing.
As we drove back into Moab along River Road, I pointed out a group of rafts in the Colorado River to mom. She said, “It’s so nice to see people utilizing the outdoors.” And I thought, shit yeah, Mom, it is. I grew up in Iowa, and my mom still lives there, and we didn’t have an incredible red rock desert nearby to explore, let alone complain about how many other people were out in it with us. It’s a pretty privileged position, I think, to be in a place this beautiful, even if we have to share it.
In Moab, which had a few more cars and a few more people than on my first visit, Mom and I went into Back of Beyond and I bought her her first copy of Desert Solitaire—because even though some places have changed since he wrote the book and there are more people here, the desert is still a magical place.
22 replies on “Hate Crowds? You Are Crowds.“
Pretty much summed up what I’ve been thinking about lately. I remember my first spring break escaping the clouds and mud of Iowa City – by driving to Moab in 1987. Things have changed since then. And continue to change when I return each year – more hotels, more fun parks, a new hospital (could have used one of those a few times), more Razers and less Jeeps, new bike trails, no good camping on the river. But it’s still Moab, and you can have a hell of a time by yourself by spending 10 minutes hiking or riding off the road. Pretty good tradeoff compared to Pella, Iowa.
Yes, I’m thinking the same… enjoy the the grand wonders with the crowds (or visit during off seasons or hours… how about those arches at 3am, moonlight sky, backlit with unfathomable stars). And if solitude is critical, just go off established trails a quarter mile and often less to find scads I’d solitude and time of day or season.
Beautifully said. I used to be one of those grumpy old men (I was in my thirties at the time!) railing against crowds, much of it influenced by the writings of Abbey (who remains near and dear to my heart). Now, I still appreciate the issues of impact, but also am pleased to see people outdoors. Period. If a slice of these folks gain a level of appreciation for these extraordinary places, they can potentially become ardent supporters of protectors down the road. Plus it’s fun to share passion for a place.
And on a micro level, it’s hugely good for one’s health and spirit just to get outside—that can have massive ripple effects for how we conduct ourselves in our families, local communities, workplaces, and beyond.
Ok, I need to shut up before I get even more pious. 🙂 One of the things I loved about Abbey was his ability to recognize that he was becoming full of shit and not take himself overly seriously!
Desert Solitaire is an all time classic. Read it bif you haven’t already!
This makes me laugh. Who are we talking to when we say crowds should go away? Who shouldn’t be there? The 60 year old man who has done this hike every year? The 7 year old girl who can’t believe that rock is 50 million years old? The Boy Scouts? (Well, maybe the Boy Scouts.) If you don’t want crowds, walk farther, climb higher, go earlier (or later). There are fewer people willing to do that, so the crowds are naturally less.
Another fellow Iowan here. Spot on article!
Matt in Pgh
You have a great attitude, Brendan, and we shouldn’t forget that there is always a way to find outdoor destinations and have them to ourselves. We just have to go the extra mile. For example, after exploring with the crowds in Zion and Bryce Canyon, my wife and I moved on and explored Escalante National Monument a few years ago. We found spectacular riverside campsites at every turn of our hike through the Escalante River canyon. Each one was available for the taking and just as beautiful as it would be to camp along the Virgin River at the foot of the Patriarchs, something that is completely forbidden in Zion.
It’s not just out west, either. Even those of us in densely populated areas like the mid-Atlantic have true gems available to *only me* in the outdoors. But as you suggest, the destinations often must be earned with a journey after only a few hours in the car. I betcha there are some great places to explore in Iowa!
Another benefit to the popular places is that they provide us a way to avoid the crowds. You’ve tipped me off to avoid Arches in early October, and inspired me to dig up my copy of Desert Solitaire and read it again. Thanks!
I too was in Moab last week (part of the crowd) after having recently enjoying the book Desert Solitaire and looking at the crowds from his perspective. We had a hard time getting camp sites and bemoaned how different it was from the 1990s when we were more frequent visitors. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time and even cycled, with kids in tow, to the site of our 2005 wedding at double arch in Arches NP!
Next trip we may try to go when the weather is a little less perfect and the crowds less obvious. Outsmarting the crowds is a fun part of the adventure.
This sums up what I’ve been thinking for a while now too; I am the tourist, I am the person standing there staring at the awe of Delicate Arch. I am the one partially clogging up the roads in Moab. I’ve always thought to myself that there’s too many people here and it’d be better, but then I’d realize I was being hypocritical. We’re all there to enjoy nature, the wonder that the Moab area (and all the beautiful spots Utah has to offer!). You can use this argument for a lot of things, but when you really think about it, we make fun of people that have never gotten away form their technology and busyness of urban life yet we hate being in the crowds when we’re enjoying nature. We have to realize that the more people are there to enjoy these special places, the more people there are to advocate to keep them safe, to return time and again.
It’s already been said, but if you want to enjoy nature without the crowds, 90% of the time you’ll find what you’re looking for 10 minutes off the beaten path in the backcountry rather than the main attractions. And the off hours (before 9am and after 6pm, give or take during certain seasons) are often the best times to go see most features and attractions without the crowds.
Great article that all Front Range “Natives” should read and think about before applying another “Your state wants you back” bumper stickers.
Great thoughts! Just get outside and explore, other people will be there too.
Heck, if Abbey’d had his way, to this day you couldn’t have gotten further than the gate without hiking or riding a horse.
I like this take. Thank you.
My only worry about crowds is the destruction crowds can cause to the natural landscape. When I moved to UT 8 years ago I hardly saw younger people out hiking (except very popular/easy trails), but now I do all the time. Over the last few years it’s definitely become a “trendy” thing for young people to be more outdoorsy, and that’s totally awesome! Not awesome though are the massive or braided trails that start popping up everywhere unnecessarily.
More crowds definitely equals a need for more education. Just look at the number of rescues in the the Wasatch this last summer compared to prior years… The real question is not how to get rid of the crowds, but how to make sure the crowds take responsibility for preserving these natural wonders.
Absolutely, with inclusion of new people in the outdoors, there also needs to be education. Just look at the increasing frequency of dusty snowstorms in Colorado/Wy/NM from trampled crypto in the Moab area. These storms can be awful for runoff patterns and cause shorter and more intense runoff seasons. A few donuts in an ATV can contribute to flooding someone’s house in the next state over… That’s a tenuous balance that should be retained.
Ed can blame my grandfather as he was selling real estate in Moab during the 60’s and 70’s when you could count the number of homes without wheels on your hands and feet. My father and his brothers spent their summers exploring Arches, hiking in places and over things that today could possibly get you thrown in the slammer or at the least a serious rash of ass chewing from the park service.
Despite the expansion of Moab, the development, masses and the countless “no parking” and “don’t tread here” signs of Arches, we still love to go and have taken the next generation to see these same spots that grandpa explored, places that for us feels like part of our family heritage. The point is we go and the experience is rich, even if we get to share it with 98 of our lesser known friends.
I bought a copy of Desert Solitaire for my friend at the Canyonlands visitor center on a rainy (and snowy) morning that sent us fleeing from Indian Creek for a rest day. The NPS gentleman that took my money at the register said–with earnesty–“One permit for the white rim, and one hippie book. Anything else today?”
I make this comment quite a bit, but it’s more a criticism of myself lacking the forethought to avoid the crowds, whether in a traffic jam or on top of a popular mountain. That’s why I’ve been starting to really enjoy night hiking and rainy days outdoors.
I’ve been reading semi rad for a few years now and without fail, no matter how annoyed, tired, uninspired, ultra psyched or perfectly content I am feeling your writing always makes me smile and lifts my mood and outlook on life. Thank you Brendan 🙂
Chris @ Mindful Explorer
When I visited it was a cool week in late November last year, as a silly Canuck it was tropical and beautiful to me but kept most at bay. I nearly had the place to my self and rarely ran into anyone. It was a joy compared to the stories of the hordes in peak season but yes, I was indeed a tourist and was grateful to visit such a place. It’s tough when we promote to others to find these connections outdoors but at the same time don’t want to loose that quiet & raw natural place we may have personally fallen in love with. All we can do is remain optimistic for the future
Always just figured there must be a dam good reason so many people wanted to visit these places.
if you want solitude, walk 100 yards down a trail or come early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Come on a weekday. It seems like most people like the closest/easiest time/spot. Most visitors stay with 100 feet of their cars! If you want pristine photos without people, Photoshop’s clone stamp work great!
This is so beautifully spot on. I’ve been going to Moab about once a month for the past three years. Sometimes I take the time to go into Arches and Canyonlands and see the famous formations like Delicate or Mesa Arch. Hell even Corona Arch and Negra Bill Canyon are just as crowded now. I go to those spots that I enjoy knowing I will likely see many other people. When I want to feel more solitude in the desert I head to my own lesser known spots. Crowds are good for the town and the economy… even if I don’t particularly like them all the time. Also I love Desert Solitaire and listen to a chapter or two on tape every time I head to the desert. – Heather @ explorewithheather.com
A few summers back we were in Moab and it was a full moon, I decided to hike up to Delicate Arch around midnight expecting to see other folks there. We were surprised when we got to the parking lot and not a car there, no one showed up all night, couldn’t believe it.
Full moon is always the way to go!
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