Crowded Hikes: The Death of Solitude in the Outdoors. And Are They Beyond Leave No Trace?

It’s finally sunny in Portland again and that means everyone wants to hike in our nearby parks and forests.

Let me emphasize, everyone.

It’s like the city evacuates and piles into Willamette National Forest. My first few hikes of the season had me thinking about Leave No Trace, as I witnessed people who don’t know what’s up.

With the outdoors so accessible from Portland, combined with the drastic increase over the past decade of recreation in national parks and forests, thousands of people traipse into the woods seemingly without a clue about Leave No Trace.

Take the Columbia River Gorge, for example, splitting Oregon and Washington State. The Gorge hikes are abundant with water falls, streams, wildflower meadows, and rocky viewpoints that make them a top destination on TripAdvisor lists. Most within in hour of Portland off interstate 84, the trails face a beating from foot traffic alone, never-mind trash, dog poop, and mistreatment of campsites and water sources.

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Horsetail Falls in Columbia River Gorge

 

The crowds cause Taylor and me to seek less traveled hikes, often hiking deeper, sometimes on poorly marked or unkempt trails. I like to feel secluded in my hikes; the best ones are when in the middle I get that rush of nerves like, whoa, we are way out here. I look at my phone, no service. That’s when I know. So far from civilization, a difficult achievement in the Gorge where you almost always hear the hum of the highway.

The point of Leave No Trace is not only to protect our environment, but to preserve a sense of solitude, of wilderness, that no other human has been there before. This is why people crave nature, because its solitude brings a quietness to the mind that we rarely get in day to day life. Wilderness brings excitement and adventure, which we all need more of. With cities getting tighter and louder, and technology at the center of our world, we need that space even more. We need to not look at a screen for one day. And how backwards is it that because we need it more, people seek it more, and therefore it’s being destroyed. Either that, or we have to develop the area to accommodate the crowds, thus taking away that essential wildness.

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Escaping the crowds via Rock of Ages Loop

I wonder, then, if Leave No Trace is even applicable to areas as busy as the Columbia River Gorge. Some of the most popular destinations – Horsetail Falls, for example – is literally a place where you park and take pictures of a waterfall. In photos it appears like you are in the middle of nowhere, but turn around and there’s a full parking lot. Is this really what we’re after when we speak of solitude? Or for that matter, nature?

The thing is, for many it is. For those who rarely hike, this is the most outdoorsy they’ll ever get, and it’s plenty. I think in a way it comforts them, knowing others have been there before. They know it’s safe. I don’t think they care that the summits have apple cores and granola bar wrappers. I’ve actually had friends ask me, who cares? As in, who cares about apple cores? They’ll decompose eventually. And before I go into the problem of habituated animals or the fact that it’s not so much an environmental reason as an aesthetic one, (We’re trying to enjoy nature here, not stare at your waste) arguing doesn’t seem to have a point when they genuinely don’t mind. It begins to feel like my problem, which it shouldn’t.

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A rare viewpoint of the Gorge during Rock of Ages loop

 If I don’t mind going the extra mile to ditch crowds, and the average Joe hiker doesn’t mind the busy trails and apple cores, what’s the problem?

The problem for me is that as the accessible trails become too crowded, more average Joe hikers will attempt to go deeper into the woods without a clue about Leave No Trace. Enjoyment for the experienced will be increasingly harder to find.

We’ll need trash cans, public toilets, and other things that strip away the illusion of solitude and wilderness. This is already common, and it’s a healthy attempt to minimize impact – obviously we don’t want trash and poop on the ground. But I worry entire forests will turn into rustic civilizations.

True untouched nature will disappear because people want the refreshment of the outdoors without strain or discomfort. They want easy roads and hikes, water fountains, bathrooms, and cafes. That’s why our forests are full of people in flip flops taking pictures with their iPhones to post to Instagram, only to complain about the poor connection. I swear, if there comes a day when our national forests have WiFi, I’m out.

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