What I Learned at the Most Instagrammed Outdoor Places
Are social media and selfie culture killing the outdoors? Nah... but as a visit to some overshared spots reveals, they’re challenging our notions about whether there’s a right way to appreciate nature—and who gets to do it.
I'll begin with the story of YS Falls, a set of cascading drops and cool, clear pools set in a Jamaican rainforest. It’s in Saint Elizabeth parish, where for a few years now I’ve been taking my son on vacation. Saint Elizabeth is a beautiful part of the country, far off the beaten path; to reach it from Montego Bay or Kingston takes four or five hours on bad roads. There are few walled resorts here, no package tours of sunburned Americans and Europeans getting drunk at 10 A.M. The people are nice but not too nice; large stretches of the coasts remain undeveloped. I like it because it has yet to be ruined by people like me.
According to locals (and TripAdvisor), YS is one of the wonders of Saint Elizabeth. Last April, on what happened to be my son’s 15th birthday, I hired a taxi to take us there. Davey did not want to go; he wanted to “chill” and “sleep in.” But I wanted to “experience this natural wonder.” So my angry kid and I arrive at YS, which upon first impression is paradisiacal. We walk into the main building, where we must pay a fee (OK, fine), and we are assigned a guide. There is no other way to see YS; we can’t wander around on our own. The guide asks for Davey’s iPhone. I think he’s holding it to keep it safe and dry. But no. For the next hour, he herds us through the falls on a trip that is organized entirely around photo ops. We’re trapped in a conga line of tourists, each group with its own guide who’s holding their smartphones, taking Instagram-worthy shots. We are told to pose in front of one set of falls and—tap!—the guide gets the shot. We’re told to frolic in a pool and—tap!—we’re captured sheepishly frolicking. We are in a kind of hell.
We climb to the top of the tallest falls, where they’ve built a deck jutting out over a pool 25 feet below. The guide instructs Davey to jump; the point of this, of course, is the shot that will be produced of him flying in midair.
“I’m not gonna jump,” Davey says.
“Oh yes you are,” the guide says.
Davey narrows his eyes. “No, I’m not.”
Quickly, before I can object, the guide shoves him off the ledge and—tap!—gets the picture of my son arcing out over the falls. I run onto the deck to look for him below. Thank God, he’s swimming to the edge of the pool. The guide shows me the picture. I must admit, it’s an epic shot.
Davey won’t speak to me after that. Happy birthday! But when we’re back at our villa, I notice that he has posted the picture to his Instagram feed. He’s already up to 83 likes.
Fast-forward four months. It’s nearly sunset, and I’ve just arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the most touristed spots in the U.S. and a regular top-ten on lists of the most Instagrammed parks in the world. I’m on assignment for this magazine to write about the pernicious effects of social-media culture on how we experience the outdoors.
Arizona, with 24 national parks, monuments, and other federally protected areas, has its share of Instagram icons: the End of the World campsite in Coconino National Forest, the overlook at Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Devil’s Bridge in Sedona. These places, and YS Falls, too, are on my mind. A takedown should be easy.
I board the last shuttle bus to the Hopi Point vista and arrive in time to catch the sun going down. I am annoyed at what feels like extreme management by the park—you go everywhere by shuttle here. But the guy in the El Tovar gift shop said Hopi Point at sunset is worth checking out, and I’ve decided to trust him.
It’s hard to describe exactly what I see—a picture would be better—but I’ll try. There’s a bus stop, yes. But beyond the pavement lies cool, high desert with scrubby stands of piñon and juniper, and limestone cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet into the vastness of the canyon below, stretching out northwest to Havasupai Point. As the sun sinks, the canyon transforms into folds of burnt orange and red, then magenta, then purple. Towering cumulonimbus clouds gather in the northwest, threatening to obscure the sun but holding off just long enough for it to shoot its rays dramatically across the horizon at the moment it slides beyond the canyon rim. “Holy motherfucker,” I whisper to no one in particular.
There have to be 75 to 100 of us here, all with smartphones in hand, tapping away. One teenage girl positions herself in warrior one pose on a rock, her back to the sun, slender arms overhead, taking a selfie. Nearby there’s a group of French guys murmuring “C’est magnifique” as they take photos of themselves in the gloaming. I think about an article I’d read by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has studied the psychology of selfie culture. “A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment,” she wrote in The New York Times in 2013. “The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”
Following this logic, I should be judgmental of the yoga girl and the French boys, with their need to interrupt the experience in order to place themselves in the frame of all this magnificence. But these people seem to be getting something almost spiritual out of being on pause here. There’s a collective sense of reverie, of being undone, in a good way, by what we’ve all just seen.
Dangerously close to the edge of the rim, snapping sexy posed shots of one another, are three young women in Lululemon-ish garb. Aha! Maybe they will be the poster children I seek for the scourge of Instagramming the outdoors.
Possibly sensing my agenda, the women will only give me their first names and where they’re from. They went to college together and meet for vacation every year. “We are doing the Grand Canyon till tomorrow, then Sedona. We’re gonna do an energy reading there. It’s a true vortex,” says Allie, who lives in Syracuse, New York, and is 33. She’s getting some pics of Deanna, 33 (also from Syracuse), and Krystal, 30 (Boston). “I promised my boyfriend I’d post a story a day,” Allie says. Is she posting on Facebook, too?
She looks at me like I’m 100. “Facebook is about negativity. Instagram is about inspiration,” she says.
As darkness falls, all of us queue up quietly at the bus stop, waiting for the shuttles that will ferry us back to Grand Canyon Village. Everyone seems happily spent from the experience, and I feel much bonhomie for this group of strangers. Even for Allie, who declines my request to follow her on Instagram.
“No offense,” she says as we board the bus, “but my stories are for my family and friends.”
Without a doubt, social media and smartphones, with their connectivity and excellent cameras, have caused a massive surge in the number of people visiting national parks and other spectacular wildernesses. “Our visitation has increased pretty dramatically over the past five years,” said Vanessa Ceja Cervantes, a Grand Canyon park spokeswoman, when we spoke last fall. (Cervantes has since left the park service.) Tourist numbers there have risen from a steady four or five million annually, through 2014, to 5.5 million in 2015 and 6.4 million in 2018. Cervantes said it’s no coincidence that the uptick was concurrent with the explosion of Instagram. The platform was created in 2010; by 2015, it had 400 million active users. As of 2018, that number was one billion. Visitor totals in the park system as a whole spiked between 2015 and 2016 by 23.7 million.
Certain places are clearly at risk of ruin by the Instagram effect. Last March, at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Los Angeles County, two idiots, undoubtedly inspired by images they saw online, illegally landed a helicopter in the middle of a fragile field. On Instagram, an account called @publiclandshateyou shames people who abuse formerly pristine natural places for the ’Gram. One caption describes “an extremely photogenic alpine lake” that now has “over 50k highly filtered pictures geotagged on IG,” and where “parked cars were blocking the road & emergency access. Trash was being left behind. Trees were being cut down for campfires.”
Even when crowds aren’t destroying a place outright, the sight of countless people treating nature as the backdrop of their personal photo shoot is galling. It’s as if the Instagram tourists are performing the experience of being in nature rather than simply being in nature. Like those countless pictures of people jumping joyously in the wild: Why must they jump? Why can’t they let nature steal the show? Or the photo of a woman sitting in solitude at the edge of the cliff, when in reality she’s surrounded by throngs. That solitude and scenery used to be the purview of a club of outdoor purists. Now, it seems, any fool with a smartphone can have it for themselves.
Allie looks at me like I’m 100. “Facebook is about negativity. Instagram is about inspiration,” she says.
But for as long people have been going into nature and documenting themselves doing so, tension has existed between the outdoors and the story we wish to tell about the journey. Our photos have always been edited, even deceptive, when it comes to acknowledging our civilizing tendencies. Ansel Adams, whose career spanned from the late 1920s until his death in 1984, was known to retouch his photos or shoot around evidence of man—logging roads, parking lots—for his primordial hero shots of Yosemite Valley. As art professor and landscape photographer Mark Klett said to writer Rebecca Solnit in a 2003 New York Times piece, it’s like the only legit take in an Adams photo is, “This is nature. And it’s beautiful because you’re not there.”
Klett identifies our messy paradox, the human desire to lose ourselves in the wild and also to extract, despoil, and package it. The critic Susan Sontag, in her famous 1977 book On Photography, also got at this when she wrote: “Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”
If we saw 75 people greedily clicking 35mm cameras at Hopi Point at sunset, would we judge them harshly? Probably not. It isn’t the photographing that bugs us. Photography has always been an art, and intimate. What’s changed is the pausing, posturing, and posting for likes—at scale. It’s the intrusion of sheer numbers of people who don’t follow the rules of how to be reverent in nature.
Sontag also wrote: “That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption—the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed—seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.”
Thirty years before the iPhone was invented, she was describing our current conundrum.
After a glorious early-morning hike on Bright Angel Trail—I know to finish before 11 A.M., when temperatures will become dangerously high—I drive to Horseshoe Bend, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There I figure I’ll witness the impact of Instagram in the extreme.
I’m not wrong. Even at 111 degrees, the giant parking lot is full of cars. I join the ant trail of humans marching up a sand dune to take in the vista 1,000 feet below of the Colorado River as it follows its 270-degree course around a sandstone escarpment, known charmingly and geologically as an “entrenched meander.” The water, always about 45 to 50 degrees because of its flow from the bottom of nearby Glen Canyon Dam, is a vivid green-blue. The rock here is in a constant state of erosion from water and wind, and some of the formations host small, dark, iron spheres—known as shaman stones or Moqui marbles—that, as the sandstone wears away, can break off and fall to the ground, often gathering in clusters. It’s illegal to walk off with these objects, which can be anywhere from 6 million to 25 million years old.
According to a report by ABC News, before 2015 the average annual number of visitors at Horseshoe Bend was about 4,000. But with Instagram to promote it, the place is now being mobbed by an estimated 2.2 million people per year. That’s a 55,000 percent increase. The Park Service had to install railings to protect people from falling while they gawk and photograph; rangers respond to emergency calls in summer, largely for unprepared visitors suffering heat stroke. (I grimace when I see two pale, blond parents pushing a stroller containing their extremely pink newborn up the hill, no umbrellas or sun hats protecting any of them.) Tour buses can no longer park in the lot; they must disgorge their passengers at the site and pick them up later. There are rows of Porta-Potties to handle the overflow. I’ve heard tales of human waste and trash being a problem, though I don’t see anything like that today.
Nearly everyone I interview at Horseshoe Bend repeats some version of “I saw it on Instagram, I had to come.” Two young women, Marta Tomasik and Ada Drazkiewicz, traveled from Poland to witness—and, naturally, photograph—the place. I find them with a collection of other folks in the shade of a giant red rock, waiting for their tour buses to come back and get them.
Drazkiewicz, 23, makes a point of saying that she’d only posted three images of Horseshoe Bend, as if limiting her posting is a show of respect for the place. Her friend Tomasik, 20, says, “I did an extended geography course at university in Warsaw, and I studied Horseshoe Bend. I remembered the iron in the rocks”—those Moqui marbles!—“and I always wanted to see it.”
As at Hopi Point, the vibe under the rock is very mellow—I’d even describe it as meditative. I look hard, but nobody is acting like a jerk.
When I got back home to New York, I called a University of Chicago professor named Marc G. Berman, who researches the cognitive benefits of nature. As the director of the university’s Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory, Berman conducts studies on attention-restoration theory, which underpins the idea that modern ailments caused by too much screen exposure—mental fatigue, diminished memory and concentration—can be improved by time spent in or even looking at pictures of nature.
In one study, Berman and his researchers asked participants to hand over their phones, then had them take a solo walk in a local park. “We didn’t want them texting or chitchatting,” Berman said. “If you want to get the most bang for your buck from that nature experience, you want to be doing it where you can maximally take in the environment.”
Shortly afterward, researchers tested the participants. From a 50-minute stroll, most experienced a 15 to 20 percent improvement in memory function. Even more interesting was that the walk didn’t have to be enjoyable; the benefit is the same, Berman said, whether you’re ambling on a sunny afternoon in June, or freezing your butt off on a bitterly cold January morning.
How about milling about with several hundred others atop a sandstone dune on a sweltering day in August? Sure, Berman said, you should get the benefit there, too.
Berman had never seen Horseshoe Bend. “Maybe its popularity has to do with the color palette,” he mused as he googled it, “or the curved-edge density.”
Berman explained that, while he and his colleagues don’t yet know why, a curved edge in nature—a winding river, the shoreline of a harbor, the rim of a canyon—registers with people as somehow more “natural” compared with built environments. One brain-imaging study revealed that when subjects looked at curved edges, a part of their brains that processes emotion showed heightened activity.
In another study, Berman and his team visited parks in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, where journals were left at benches for people to write their thoughts. The researchers analyzed the entries. “We found that if the parks had more curved lines to them—curved-edge density—people wrote more about spirituality,” he said.
When Horseshoe Bend appeared on Berman’s computer screen, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s pretty! That’s got a lot of curve structure, for sure. It has a lot of symmetry, too. People really like symmetry.”
In Berman’s study, participants who got the benefits of being in nature didn’t have their phones along. Could the cognitive upside that the contemplative hordes were enjoying at Horseshoe Bend outweigh the negative of being distracted by taking photos? Like any good social scientist, Berman said he’d have to study it before he could say.
After talking to him, my anecdotal take from Horseshoe Bend was that we attach the phrase awe inspiring to certain wild spots for good reason. Not even the technological trappings of our modern era can undo their impact on us. Most of us there wanted to hold on to the feeling the scenery evoked. I myself took photos at the overlook; it actually seemed wrong not to. Its natural beauty compelled us to turn our phones into a visual amanuensis.
I drive away from the Grand Canyon–proximate wildernesses toward the remote northeastern corner of the state. Along Arizona Highway 191, I see signs for the Hopi Reservation and the Navajo Nation, for Monument Valley, and, at the Burger King in Kayenta, for a World War II Navajo code-talkers exhibit. There’s just one radio signal, broadcasting a mix of eighties classic rock and Native American songs, occasionally punctuated by a recording of a child’s voice: “Hello, you’re listening to KUYI 88.1 Hopi Radio, streaming online.”
I’m heading to Chinle, Arizona, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument—the “other canyon,” the anti–Grand Canyon. The canyon where you think twice about taking pictures on your smartphone. The Navajo, who co-manage the canyon with the National Park Service, don’t allow photos of residents or their homes unless you ask first. The tribe has a cultural aversion to being photographed. Some of this has to do with a belief that a photograph can steal an essence from a person’s soul. Some of it is historical and political. The Navajo, who value their privacy, don’t want to be treated like scenery.
Canyon de Chelly receives less than one-tenth of the visitor traffic that the Grand Canyon gets every year. (“Chelly” was the Spaniards’ bastardization of the Navajo word for canyon, tseyi, pronounced “tsay-ih,” which means “within the rocks.”) With the exception of one trail, tourists need a Navajo or NPS guide to descend into the 131 square miles of twisting canyons and washes. There, ancient Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings abut Navajo family homes with solar panels on the roofs.
I hire a young guide named Jarvin Yazzie, who also works as an assistant manager at the Chinle Holiday Inn, to take me there in a Jeep. He grew up in Chinle—Yazzie is a common Navajo family name—in a family full of canyon guides.
We have rapidly evolved into creatures who communicate and share our thoughts and stories, our hopes, fears, and triumphs, through a small handheld device.
We encounter maybe 20 people during our trip along the canyon floor. We rumble through stands of invasive Russian olive trees (planted by white people in the 1930s) and native cottonwoods, and past a fenced-in homestead with a big satellite dish and a “No Photos” sign in the yard. Rising above it is an Ancestral Puebloan ruin, 150 feet up the wall of a cliff, nearly a thousand years old. The doors and windows are tiny; Yazzie says that the Puebloans who lived there were probably three or four feet tall. The centuries-long connection between the canyon, and the people who used those dwellings, and the family in the house with the satellite dish, does not include Anglo New Yorker me.
If I’m being honest, this place makes me feel like a trespasser. If I’m being honest, I feel lonely here. At a wash about a mile into the canyon, there’s a Kokopelli symbol painted on the rock, which Yazzie says we may photograph. I pull out my phone a little too gratefully. It’s my connection to the world I inhabit and understand. I miss my ability to text a picture of what I’m seeing in real time to my son in New York, to read his reactions in the messages pinging right back. It’ll never get old for me, this ability we now have to bridge worlds in seconds.
Yazzie admires my iPhone 11, which does have a cool camera. A lady from Wisconsin standing with us at the ruins asks him if his “people” have smartphones. He holds up his iPhone 7: “Do you want an iPhone 11? So do we. Whatever a kid wants in Phoenix, a kid wants here. We’re part of America.” At the end of the tour, he invites us to follow him on Instagram and leave a review on TripAdvisor.
Forty years after Sontag published her book, we are living in an “environment we recognize as modern,” an environment that mashes up technology and nature and culture in even the most far-flung places. We have rapidly evolved into creatures who communicate and share our thoughts and stories, our hopes, fears, and triumphs, through a small handheld device.
How ironic, then, that Instagramming may ultimately bring more of us into a close relationship with the natural world. The NPS, in spite of the headaches that come with bigger crowds, is using social media to attract more diverse groups of visitors. The en masse arrival of all types of people in the outdoors has reminded us that our public lands are our birthright as Americans.
It’s also a reminder that we’re a hopelessly destructive species, and that we must protect the wild from ourselves. The ways we do this aren’t necessarily democratic. The Wave, a delicate formation of undulating Navajo sandstone along the Arizona-Utah border, currently allows only 20 visitors a day, selected by lottery. Canyon de Chelly controls crowds by requiring guides, mandating that visitors experience the place on the tribe’s terms. Other destinations, including those in foreign countries, levy fees—Bhutan, for example, limits traffic by requiring visitors to purchase guiding and lodging packages that cost between $200 and $300 per day.
Reader, I sense and share your despair over our current state of affairs. The ill-prepared selfie acquisitors don’t know what we know, what I learned in my twenties when I was a young editor at Outside: stay on the trail, pack out what you packed in, bury poop at least 200 feet from the stream, tread lightly. Nobody taught these newcomers to tread lightly. At their point of entry to the natural world—where they went for the picture that shows they were there—they don’t yet see it for the vulnerable temple it is.
Maybe it’s on us to teach them, not berate them. Once, I was just as clueless. Then I hiked into the backcountry, loved it, and went again and again: with my boyfriend to Acadia National Park, with another boyfriend to Big Bend. I winter-camped with friends in Death Valley, hiked on a bachelorette party to Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks, and watched from a tent on an island, with my husband and our toddler son, as an electrical storm sent lightning bolts dancing all around us in the Hudson River. And it became part of my life to want to protect it all.
One day recently, as my editor and I were batting this story back and forth, she sent me this e-mail: “The word ‘share’ has been co-opted by social media, but in fact isn’t it a deeply human desire to share our most profound experiences with others? Is Instagram just the way that looks today?”
For now, yes, I think it is.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.