Yes. Trails and nature areas are getting popular, but there is a reason. Guess what though, it isn’t the social media or hiking websites. More and more individuals and families are heading out into the beautiful wonderland of the Pacific Northwest, hoping to discover the soul nourishing power of nature. They flock to Paradise, Hurricane Ridge, the Hoh and Rialto Beach, hoping to experience the power of wilderness. They want to experience what many of us have been lucky enough to enjoy our whole lives, yet many in the hiking community appear to loathe them. They blame new hikers for “ruining areas” and “loving our trails to death.” Frankly, I am tired of this narrative. It sounds just like those who scream out “fake news” any time they read something they disagree with.
TL:DR Summary: New hikers need to be shown new trails. Keeping areas a secret leads to overcrowding. New hikers will support the protection of public lands. We need to help educate those new to the trails.
Sure, popular trails are getting crowded and even some of the once emptier regions are seeing more cars at the trailheads, but there is a good reason for it. People are sticking to one or two trails around the PNW because all the other trails are kept a secret, quietly discussed with covered mouths so even lip readers won’t known. When people (writers, hikers or just community members) start suggesting other trails and regions to new hikers, the loudest voices in the hiking community scorn them. Hypocritical at best, the old guard of the hiking community is the definition of Pacific Northwest exceptionalism: My trail, my favorite area, my view.
I have been trying, over the last seven years, to get people out on more trails around the Olympic Peninsula and the Pacific Northwest. I have been hoping to help the more curious hikers discover the beauty of the region, but also to help raise awareness of public lands, and give people a nudge to hike other trails than the one that is popular on Instagram or Facebook this week. For these efforts, all I got from many in the established hiking community is a deafening roar, telling me that I am sharing secrets and ruining nature. These people talk as if being born in an area makes them, and only them, entitled to hike the local trail. You can’t have it both ways. Either we have crowded trails in a few locations, or you might see a few dozen or more people on your favorite, “secret” day trail. I respond to them by letting them know that they could also hike more miles or branch out themselves.
The issue of “overcrowded trails” is less about hikers and more about the realization that we actually have to share. We actually have to talk to others and encourage appropriate use. We have to be responsible as stewards of the land instead of passive adventurers who enjoy it. Many of us know there is a fundamental flaw in the hiking community’s attitude toward inclusion, but that has to stop. People wanting to hike aren’t to blame. They are, as hard as it might be to comprehend, the solution to our problems.
Blaming these people for wanting to explore wilderness is wrong, uncalled for, and quite simply irresponsible. We should be celebrating the fact that millions of Americans are spending their time and money reconnecting with wilderness and nature that was once raped in the name of Manifest Destiny. We should be rejoicing that trails are getting popular and be downright gleeful that people are starting to see the need for fully funded public lands. We should be encouraging hikers to connect even more with their backyards, ecstatic that they are willing to go out and explore the regions currently under attack from the new administration. The more people that love nature and hike in an area, the more likely they are to help protect and elect people who will continue to work to fund our public lands.
Enjoying nature all comes down to funding, sadly. In an ideal world, nature would always be protected and available, but that is not the reality in which we live. Without funding, the areas will become run down, uncared for and eventually drift back into the hands of the private sector. By keeping areas secret or looking at new hikers who don’t fit in as the problem, less people will care about nature. They won’t sign petitions or vote for leaders who understand the value of our public lands. Last election is a prime example of exactly this. People are voting against the environment for a handful of social issues, or voting against conservation because of a letter after a name on the ballot.
To the hiking community leaders who constantly complain that areas are over-crowded, I have a few questions:
Where are the volunteer groups (or places to join a volunteer group) at the trail head to hand out garbage bags, teach about staying on the trail and encouraging others to leave no impact?
If you are really passionate about reducing the pressure on trails, where were your posts about redirecting people to five other hiking options near those crowded areas?
Why does it feel that the more crowded a trail gets, the angrier and more bitter many “seasoned” hikers get at people wanting to experience the same level of nature we hike in our free time?
Nobody is special in nature, we are all just lucky enough to be able to enjoy it. We are lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and with that residency comes great responsibility. Instead of blaming everyone, why not get excited that we have an entire generation of hikers who want to know how to use the land appropriately, but have never been told what that looks like? We are all stewards of the land, and we are all needed to ensure that protected lands stay respected, well-funded and accessible to all, not just those lucky enough to have discovered them first. Keeping trails secret is one step closer toward privatization. This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me.
We, the hiking community, need to sober up from our wanderlust and understand that it is time to take some responsibility. We could continue to let a handful of hikers, dead-set on keeping their areas secret, decide what trails the masses are allowed to hike, or we can truly share the Trails of the Pacific Northwest, letting the new hikers in the region discover areas otherwise unknown. This will lower the crowds on the popular trails and help restore a balance toward exploration. It is time to stop being secretive about nature and fully embrace wilderness and tourism.
We will have to help remind those new to trails about carrying the right gear, staying away from wildlife, picking up garbage and being conscientious to other people, but that is what being part of society is all about. if we sit back and only complain, we will eventually lose everything. I, for one, am not going to let that happen. I will continue to help educate and inspire, motivate and connect new generations of explorers to nature. You can keep complaining if you want, but I will call you out for it. I am, after all, a rabble-rouser. #SorryNotSorry
I see the over-crowding issue on trails as a welcome challenge and hopefully we will be able to get more families out on trails. If the outdoor leaders work together, we can inspire those heading out to a trail for the first time to be good stewards of the land, focusing on restoration, protection and conservation. We can ensure that these principles are being passed down to future generations and that they will continue to fight for public lands long after we are gone.
Or we can keep complaining about crowds and get nowhere.