Happy National Public Lands Day! Here are some of our stories and experiences from the public lands we’ve been hanging out in most recently! We hope that you’ll help us celebrate this awesome day by getting outside to enjoy and support your neighborhood public land! These lands are our national treasures, and we are so proud to celebrate and support these places today and everyday! We also want to encourage you to contact your congress people and Secretary Zinke (855-747-9643) to let them know why public lands are important to you.
On Day 13 we arrived in Baker, NV, a small gateway community at the base of Great Basin National Park. The Park is located at the easternmost edge of Nevada. The park encompasses just one spectacular mountain range in the broader region called the Great Basin, including most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho and California. In 1922, Lehman Caves, a main attraction of the park, were protected as a 1 square mile national monument. Estimated to be 2.28-5 million years old, the limestone formations began forming after water levels rose and dropped, eroding the bedrock and carving out vast cavities underground.
Thanks to local support, the park now protects 120 square miles after it was expanded in 1986 to include the entire mountain range. The park is also known for a grove of ancient bristlecone pine trees, the oldest known organisms on Earth, living up to 5,000 years old. They grow in the subalpine ecosystem of Wheeler Peak between 9,000 and 11,000 ft and a couple other high mountain ranges of the Great Basin. Bristlecones have adapted to withstand extreme weather conditions and grow in isolation where other species cannot survive. These trees are unique because they are highly resistant to decay and instead of rotting, their trunks become polished by the elements.
We had the incredible opportunity to hike to the grove of bristlecones. They were easy to spot on the mountain side, with a surprisingly large number of trees standing out among the forest. It was emotional and humbling to stand in the presence of such resilient trees. Their bare and polished trunks with weathered and twisted branches seemed other worldly.
One of the main reasons we are doing this trip is to experience first hand the magic of parks and places like Great Basin National Park. After a spectacular tour of the Lehman Caves, we had the pleasure of meeting with Acting Superintendent Scott Burch.
Our meeting with him really hit home for us in terms of why we’re out here doing this trip and the importance of people being able to spend time outdoors. Burch is actually the Superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, an island 2,600 miles South of Hawaii and West of New Zealand, but happens to be filling in at Great Basin National Park during the current administration’s federal hiring freeze. Burch describes the outdoors as, “my whole life.” Most of his life was spent in the private outdoor sector as a raft guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and an avalanche forecaster in the Wasatch Mountains, until becoming a Superintendent for the National Park Service.
Something that really resonated with us during the meeting was the idea that protected, wild places have both tangible and intangible value. There are many components to the value of these places, but Burch believes that the only way to show people the intangible value of wild places is to take them outside and let them experience it for themselves. For Burch himself, he depends on wild places for solitude and to refocus on the priorities in his life. Even though he spends most of his life in the outdoors, he emphasized his personal need to take a solo wilderness trip each year to be alone and challenge himself mentally.
Burch says that, “every place is special to someone, but some places are special to everyone.” We are out here to experience both of these types of places and understand and feel the magic of why they are so special.
One of the more intangible threats facing Great Basin National Park and all federal lands is the ctdisconnect between people and their environment. Today, the average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. This trend is not only causing unhealthy humans, but a disconnect between humans and nature, causing a lack of empathy towards wild places. Burch also believes that we are on an unhealthy trend in which corporations, who are often only concerned with development and growth, are controlling a lot of current politics. A more tangible threat facing Great Basin National Park is the budget. Burch explains that running and maintaining a park has only become more expensive over the last ten years, while the budget for the park has gone down. Burch ended the conversation by saying he he believes he is lucky because, “not only is it my job to protect this place, but it is my passion.”
We feel so lucky to be out here enjoying wild places and feel that they are more than worth protecting for future generations. We wish we could bring everyone out here with us to experience firsthand the intangible value of each of these public lands. We believe it is more important than ever that people are spending time outside, sharing the joy with others, and paying attention to what is happening to America’s public lands.
On day 18 we started out from Cedar City, Utah. We took our sweet time leaving the city because according to the trip itinerary there were only a mere 40 miles to be biked that day. What our itinerary didn’t clearly show upon first glance was that we had a 10,000 foot pass to climb.
Dixie occupies almost 2 million acres and includes one of the largest high elevation plateaus in the US. Upon reaching the plateau, a plaque provided by the US Forest Service showed how the water had carved out the landscape below and the grand staircase of canyons within the layers of rocks.
For the following week we had devised a 200+ mile detour, a vacation of sorts from the route, that would take us through the Dixie National Forest, Zion National Park, and some other notable sites. We were following a route devised by Adventure Cycling called the Utah Cliffs Route. Our late start and daunting climb got us to the top of the plateau around 4 PM, fairly late in the day considering we had only biked 15 of our 40 miles. Once again our lack of foresight created a what could have been an avoidable problem. With the end of the day drawing near, we realized that the route directed us over 10 miles of dirt road that day.
And much worse, over the course of the entire loop over half the Utah Cliffs Loop was on such roads. We had biked gravel roads once before and the combination of skinny tires, loose gravel, road bikes, and 50 pounds of gear made for an uncomfortable experience, to put it mildly. Hard core as we may have felt fishtailing across the washboards, the sense that we were seconds away from a wipe out at all times left us reluctant for a repeat command performance. In that first instance of gravel road biking the promise of Hot Springs had made the discomfort of the road all worth it, but high in the mountains with the temperatures dropping we weren’t so sure this time around. However, the discovery of this unideal route so late in the day left us with few options. We decided to brave the 10 mile dirt road. Within the first five seconds the road delivered its first challenge. Four large and in-charge sheepherding dogs leapt out of the bush, teeth bared and snarling. Hannah desperately threw dog treats, but to no avail. Their loyalty could not be bought. Katie pointed out these dogs are bred to herd and that we needed to pass through them as a group. With this advice in mind we made it safely past the pack. We breathed a sigh of relief thinking that we had surely passed the worst of it. We were even so bold as to exclaim “this road isn’t so bad,” without even knocking on a single piece of wood. We four young women had much to learn. By now, the evening was growing late and the sun hung low in the sky.
We biked across a high, 10,000 foot plateau of aspens that had just begun their transition into fall. The sun cast dancing shadows as it gleamed through the golden leaves of the aspens, a beautiful mosaic of fall colors displayed for what felt like our eyes alone. If only for these breathtaking scenes, what was to come was more than worth it.
Hannah, on map duty, reported some key turns and navigations, including the map’s mention that “the road roughens and descends, you may want to walk your bike.” Nothing could have been more of an understatement. We soon arrived at what the map so mildly described as the rough descent. A boulder filled death hill would have been a more appropriate description. The idea that someone “may” want to walk his/her bike was laughable as this road so clearly offered no other option. How this route could ever be considered an option for touring road cyclists we had no idea, and decided the route had to have been designed for mountain bikers. We walked our bikes down, through, and between rocks, ruts, scree, and all types of unnavigable terrain.
Next we pushed our bikes up steep passes of more of the same. Up and down we went wondering what in the world we had gotten ourselves into. We sloshed and slipped through deep mud pits and the daylight slowly but surely faded as we made next to no progress. We finally passed through the impassable and we were faced with decision-making time: make camp with the last of the daylight and little water or push through to a creek approximately 5 miles away. With little to no water left, after having drank most of it on the difficult climb earlier in the day, we decided to push on. Doning headlamps and all the layers we could, we biked 5 miles of dirt roads in the pitch dark and the 20° night. Puffs of steam fogged our already limited vision with each breath. The road, which had been tough during the day, was only more daunting at night. The directions told us once we had crossed a third cattleguard we would be .1 miles from our creek. We were biking along in the cold and the dark when the first of us came to a sudden halt. Ahead floating orbs glowed in pairs. We were startled at first but quickly let out squeals of joy and relief. Cows! And where there are cows there are cattleguards! We had made it! We made camp and got water boiling in record time. Warmth and feeling slowly crept back into our fingers and toes and we got into the tent as quickly as we could. According to Snapchat (a very reliable source we’ve found), we were camped at 9500 feet. It was a brutally cold night and we woke to a beautiful frost filled meadow. The night’s events had been both emotionally and physically demanding, but we bonded over our shared struggle and left the experience feeling a heightened sense of community and interdependence.
Most parks have a PIO, sometimes under a different title, but no matter the name, PIOs are responsible for communicating with media and in John’s words “elevating the important conversations.” The day before our meeting with John, an article came out in the New York Times about a mounting problem facing Zion National Park: there are too many visitors. In 2016, Zion broke its record number of visitors for the third year in a row with 4.3 million people entering the park, 60 percent higher than what it was a decade ago.
That night, we read the article together around the picnic table while feasting on one of our usual dinners of cheesy pasta and chicken. After the afternoon we’d had, we were not surprised to read about this issue in such an esteemed news source. After having arrived at the park, we inquired about any open campsites for the evening, only to learn that Watchman Campground, which is reservation-only, is booked six months in advance, and the park’s first-come-first-serve campground had filled up early that morning. Thanks to some insight from a park ranger, we were able to set up camp in one of the park’s overflow camping sites, with the understanding that we may have to share it if anyone else came along.
Our day hikes in the park only solidified in our minds the seriousness of this issue facing Zion. The Narrows, one of Zion’s most famous attractions, is where the Virgin River begins to carve out a deep, narrow canyon. As you wade knee deep further upstream in the river, the canyon slowly gets more narrow where the water has eroded the sandstone. You can wade through The Narrows for miles as it bends between some of the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world. The entire hike is sixteen miles, but a permit is required to hike the entire river’s length from where it begins.
In the four hours that we spent in The Narrows, we waded only about 3 miles upstream and then back downstream again. During our hike, The Narrows were crawling with park visitors. Even into the furthest reaches of the canyon that we ventured, the four of us were never alone and never more than half a bend away from other hikers.
Within the first mile alone, we pushed on at a snail’s pace, shuffling around other hikers, stepping aside and gripping the canyon wall to let others pass, and stealing chances to zip around slow-moving families and visitors ahead of us. We were incredulous as to how much “micro”-trash (small bits of trash) we picked up on our way out of The Narrows, and were absolutely horrified to smell human urine and feces when passing a few areas with grass and bushes to the side of the river.
During our second full day in the park, we visited Zion’s other most awe inspiring feature, Angel’s Landing, a 1,488-foot-tall rock formation. The hike from the valley up to the top is a mere 2.5 miles, but consists of a series of steep switchbacks and a strenuous, narrow climb along a ridge lined with sharp drop-offs. Steel chains anchored intermittently along the ridge provide folks with something sturdy with which to pull themselves up.
Again, our hike to the top of Angel’s Landing, and back down again, was painfully slow. People were backed up along the ridge like cars during rush hour, and with nothing but a straight drop into the canyon below on either side of us, there was no getting around the slow-pokes.
Overcrowding in parks does more than soil a good hike for a visitor looking for some peace and quiet in the wilderness. It strains the park’s resources, brings about unnatural changes to the natural environment, and challenges the mission of the National Park Service itself. The National Park Service’s mission is “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” As John puts it, this translates into two mandates: preserve the resource (the park) in perpetuity and give visitors a safe, accessible, and enjoyable park experience. These are almost two contradictory goals, and it can be a real balancing act to try and fulfill both.
With increased visitors, park employees are finding it harder and harder to protect the park from the effects of overcrowding and high foot traffic. Park rangers, who are supposed to be available to answer people’s questions about how the canyon was formed or what kind of wildlife live in the canyon, are instead cleaning bathrooms, handing out maps, and picking up trash from trails. Hikers who get frustrated with an overcrowded, backed-up trail will wander off the designated trail to find a way around, trampling on plants and undergrowth. Others then follow their lead. These social trails are detrimental to the soil and cause erosion. Wild squirrels and chipmunks no longer have to find food on their own and have become habituated to humans feeding them. With more and more visitors and not enough parking both in and outside the park to support them all, there have been talks of paving the grassy outcropping behind the park’s museum below the towering, red cliffs called Towers of the Virgin.
Overcrowding also has an adverse effect on the NPS’s goal of providing an enjoyable experience for its visitors. John painted us this picture: excited to witness the incredible spectacle, park visitors drive many miles to the park, only to wait in a line of cars at the entrance for an hour. They then find out all the campsites are full, so they turn around and head back to the town of Springdale just outside the park to find a place to camp. From there, they take the park’s shuttle service back into the park, along with hundreds of others. They ride a packed shuttle through the park to an equally packed visitors center or hiking trail. They snap some pictures of themselves in front of the incredible vistas, and share the photo on social media. Amazed at the splendor and majesty of such a place, most people ultimately leave happy, having seen something so beautiful, but perhaps do not have fond memories of what it took to get there.
Zion is only 150,000 acres, and is one of the top 5 most visited parks in the country. Compared to the other most popular parks, though, Zion is tiny. Yellowstone is 2 million acres. Yosemite is 750,000 acres. Olympic NP is 925,000 acres. Zion has seen a huge rise in visitors in the last few years. Why is this? Five years ago, the Utah Office of Tourism launched a campaign called the Mighty 5. Commercials, billboards, busses, and more advertised the beauty and splendor of Utah’s five major national parks: Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. The campaign was launched in major cities around not just the US, but the world. Busses in San Francisco to London to Paris and beyond were plastered with pictures of Utah’s brilliant red rock cliffs and arches. And it worked. The campaign contributed to 6.3 million visits in a single year. And the effects of this campaign are still seen today. Take a hike in Zion and you’ll hear folks speaking German, French, Dutch, Chinese, and more. And much like what we heard from Superintendent Burch, John explained that as visitation and the cost of Park operation have been steadily rising, the budget the parks are given by Congress has remained stagnant and even began to drop in recent years.
So what is to be done in Zion about supporting all these people, providing them with a safe & enjoyable experience, all while protecting the park from these very visitors? Zion is launching a 4 year visitor use management plan. They will be conducting studies, gathering data, and talking to affected parties (local home and business owner, etc) about what course of action should be taken. Ideas that have been offered are permitting the most popular sites (Angel’s Landing, the Narrows, etc), creating a reservation system to even enter the park, or doing nothing. This is going to be a tough decision, but it is also an exciting opportunity to creatively solve the problem of how to get more people out and sustainably enjoying these incredible wild places we all love so much.