There’s a small bend on the Colorado River in northern Arizona that's struggling from its new celebrity status. Horseshoe Bend is just seven miles upstream from the Grand Canyon, but that’s far enough to feel rugged and remote in comparison to the groomed paths and railings along the Grand Canyon’s rim. Here, it’s just the hard, desert rock and a river having a hell of a time cutting through it. The ground has twisted the Colorado, bending it 180º around some particularly stubborn stone, forming a canyon 1000 ft deep. Yet amazingly, the view fits perfectly in frame on an iPhone. Which you’ll realize as the massive crowd around you tries to get the same shot.
Five years ago, Horseshoe Bend saw only a thousand visitors in a year. But this year, over 4,000 people a day have come to see the bend, take selfies at the rim, and dangle their feet over the exposed edge. All this traffic has put a lot of strain on the attraction, or at least its parking lot. So on November 6, construction began on new parking amenities and a platform at the canyon’s edge complete with railing and signs to safely handle all the new visitors. Once complete, the bend will be a perfect tourist attraction with great parking, water, and shade. But the wild beauty that brought so many here in the first place will be gone.
Social media gets blamed for everything — but this time, it really is Instagram’s fault. Horseshoe Bend’s home, Glen Canyon Natural Recreation Area, also has the nation’s second tallest dam, boating paradise Lake Powell, and the world’s tallest natural bridge, Rainbow Bridge. It’s also littered with dinosaur fossils. But it is Horseshoe Bend that has captured the tourist hivemind. On IG, #glencanyon has only been used about 26,000 times, whereas #horseshoebend has 226,000 posts. Its geotag had over 200 posts in the last 24 hours as of this writing, while only one person geotagged Glen Canyon. The geotag for Rainbow Bridge hasn’t been used since Halloween.
Even if natural attractions aren’t suffering from social media fame, they still have to watch out for the social media famous. Graffiti artist Casey Nocket found the wrong kind of fame after graffiting seven national parks for her art series. YouTubers took a destructive road trip, driving through the flooded, off-limits Bonneville Salt Flats for a wakeboarding stunt, then trampling over the fragile Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Adventure bro Trev Lee broke into Yosemite National Park during the 2013 government shut down and illegally built huge campfires on top of popular mountains, all while a fire ban was in place by the park as it fought to contain the third largest wildfire in California’s history. Ironically, all of these people were caught only after posting photos of their crimes.
These problems aren’t new. Increasing tourism and vandalism are why the U.S. started protecting its natural attractions. The Department of the Interior’s mission, written in 1916, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” is itself a conundrum. Is paving a parking lot or building a viewing platform at edge of a canyon an unimpaired way of conserving that scenery and natural object? Is building a fire for Instagram merely “enjoyment” by a generation 101 years in the future? (Probably not, but you get the idea.)
Sadly, the outdoors and conservation worlds don’t have time for this. 2017 is the year the U.S. transitioned from a government that protected more land than any administration before to one obsessed with removing all protections for resource extraction. The National Park’s maintenance backlog now requires $11 billion it doesn’t have. Also, you may have noticed that everything everywhere is on fire. On top of these issues, the outdoor world is finally coming to terms with a long-standing cultural problem: our parks are hella white. Park attendance, leadership, and staffing are largely not inclusive of people of color.
Yet, back online, the Instagram nature niche seems stuck. Popular users are moving away from geotagging specific spots in order to head off the stampede. They hope their audience will be inspired to go find their own nature, somewhere else preferably. (Instagram is plagued by copycat photographers, so withholding locations might really be self-preservation.) Then there’s shame, an evergreen approach, tactfully used by accounts like @youdidnotsleepthere to showcase the staged, illogical, and illegal places photographers pitch tents for the sake of a cliché photo. And yes, the National Parks are all on IG, educating their followers between sunset pics. But who’s going to pause from scrolling their timeline to read about how they should bury their poop?
At Conundrum Hot Springs, another Instagram-famous spot in Colorado, poop was enough of a problem to shut down the location last year while forest rangers with shovels worked to clean up the sudden logging threat. Vance Creek Bridge, an ancient-looking wooden bridge amid the tops of evergreens in Washington, might be nature Instagram’s most famous place. In 2012, its location was given away and the resulting flood of visitors prompted the property owner to put up a fence and excavate the entrance. Unfortunately, after several accidental fires, what should be a protected landmark will now be demolished.
I first dangled my feet over Horseshoe Bend years ago. I wasn’t afraid I’d fall. I didn’t worry the dozens of people around me would ruin the place. I just felt like I was a part of the landscape, briefly untethered from pesky civilization. To adventure seekers, the railings will dull the rush of standing at the canyon’s rocky edge. “In an attempt to limit the amount of visitors getting uncomfortably close to the edge, a new accessible rim viewing area will be designed,” wrote Lake Powell Life. “The safe, accessible, flat viewing platform will accommodate 50 people and be completely integrated into the landscape.” To conservationists, that integration is a slippery slope to bigger facilities whose construction can disturb the surrounding desert ecosystems. All thanks to Instagram, which sends its firehose of nature lovers to trample over the same spots, over and over.