Travel to Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and you’ll discover a place so beautiful that its charm feels almost otherworldly.
The site has been revered by the local community for generations, but it’s no longer a secret. Thanks to Instagram, Devil’s Bathtub has “blown up.”
Local officials are perplexed by the consistent flood of cars that make their way to this once-undisclosed spot every weekend. Its swimming holes are overrun, and State Road 619 — the town’s main artery — is clogged with vehicles bearing the plates of neighboring states. Because the pools can only be accessed by a difficult seven-mile trek, the number of trail rescues has increased exponentially over the last few years. For local law enforcement and the community that once enjoyed the quiet sanctity of the forest, it’s a nightmare.
But Devil’s Bathtub isn’t an anomaly; it’s a new standard.
Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend is another natural landmark that enjoyed shades of anonymity for decades, despite lying only seven miles from the oft-visited Grand Canyon. Now, thanks to the overzealous geotagging of snap-happy visitors, attendance to the site has skyrocketed. Just five years ago, this now-famous bend received only 1,000 visitors annually; now, it sees at least 4,000 Instagrammers per day.
The site’s parking lot has expanded. There are railings, signs, and other features to complement visitors’ experiences and amplify the site’s safety factor. What was once a wild place is now a destination — a telling tale of the times.
And other natural sites have followed suit, some becoming casualties in the process.
The iconic pedestal rock at Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda was felled in September of 2016 after becoming an Instagram hot spot. Washington State’s Vance Creek Bridge — the United States’ second-tallest — achieved viral social fame in 2012. Since then, the 300-foot-tall wooden structure has received plenty of attention. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have geotagged photos at this landmark and wreaked havoc on the aging structure in the process. Now, after a series of mishaps, fires, and other troubling events, the privately owned bridge is slated for destruction.
This evolution of wild and hidden places into overrun public domains is one that has garnered a variety of reactions across the outdoor and photography communities — reactions that, at times, are polar opposites.
Some argue for the protection of these natural places, refusing to geotag or reveal the coordinates of their favorite spots. Photographers I work with often divulge where their beloved sites lie but request that I omit them from published pieces — not out of fear that others will copy their photographs, but rather because they want the place to retain a feeling and spirit of wildness. While Instagram culture may view this reluctance to share as unnecessary fuel to the fire of competition, I see it as a commendable act in defense of special places.
Equally understandable are those outdoor photographers who doggedly geotag their photographs in an attempt to raise awareness about the endangered places they love.
Case in point: Bears Ears National Monument. The beloved and sacred site recently entered the public eye after it was shrunk by the Department of the Interior. The action angered outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, and native peoples alike, who vowed that this attack on public lands would not happen again. For these photographers and activists, geotagging is an essential act of preservation, one that raises awareness, promotes consciousness, and encourages a feeling of responsibility toward the lands endowed to us.
But, if we know anything about history, it’s that it repeats itself.
And just as Devil’s Hole, Horseshoe Bend, Pedestal Rock, and Vance Creek Bridge have succumbed to the pressure of the Instagram-crazed public, so will other sites.
Striking a balance between protecting the lands we love through outspoken activism and guarding the secret spaces we hold dear is our new challenge. Toeing the line between awareness and sanctity is our new prerogative.
After all, these lands are at our mercy.
Header image by Lauren Ashley