There are No "Secret Spots"

Nevada’s 1.2 million acre Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon- Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.
Nevada’s 1.2 million acre Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon- Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Bob Wick, BLM
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Here at RootsRated, we receive a lot of feedback from readers. The vast majority of it, as one might expect, is positive. We hear from people who’ve successfully used our resources to find a great hike or climb in a city they’ve visited, people who are excited to add a new adventure to their bucket list, and people who found an article particularly informative or inspiring.

We also field helpful, neutral input with suggested corrections or additional information–for example, when a new trail opens or an old trail closes, when a popular recreation area changes their policy about pets or starts charging an entrance fee.

But we also see our fair share of negative feedback, and this negative feedback almost exclusively falls into one of two categories. I shall, for the sake of this discussion, paraphrase:

  • "This place you wrote about is super crowded now and it’s your fault. You’re ruining my outdoor experience by sharing info about it. Stop talking about my favorite places."

  • "You guys are idiots, I can’t believe you think those are the best hikes near my city. Obviously, you’re not from here or you’d know better. Thanks for not spilling our secrets."

The former, especially, tends to come laced with a particular vitriol. Wait, why are we paraphrasing when we could be quoting directly? Here are some of my favorite, real-life examples.

  • "Everything in America is for sale, one way or another. These ‘last secret places’ articles are depressing."

  • "BOOOOOOOO! This should not be public information, you a--holes! These posts have ruined this place."

  • "Stay the f--k out of our woods you city slicker f--ks; I hope you all burn in hell you pieces of s--t. P.S. F--k you!"

See that? We’ve literally ruined the outdoors, apparently. For the record: the first comment was on an article about a place which is hardly a secret (the Enchantments). The second lamented the fact that information about a public place (Conundrum Hot Springs) would be "public information," although even the crowding at Conundrum isn’t a secret, as a recent NPR story attests. That last guy is commenting on a list of fall adventures in Alabama and perhaps maybe just wants people to stop coming to Alabama altogether.

Now, these two types of feedback are relatively dissimilar. In one case, the reader is upset that we know what we’re talking about and in the other they’re convinced that we don’t (and are thrilled about it). There’s a common thread in these seeming opposites, though: the idea of "secret spots" in the outdoors.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to state our position on the matter of secret spots.

1. Public Land is for the Public

Enjoying a day hike through Colorado's Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area.
Enjoying a day hike through Colorado's Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area. Bob Wick, BLM California

With few exceptions, we don’t write about private land. In fact, on more than a couple of occasions we’ve removed articles from after realizing that an access trail crossed into private property or hearing from private landowners impacted by overflow parking. We don’t encourage trespassing under any circumstances.

What that means, of course, is that we’re almost exclusively talking about public land—and public land, by the very definition, is for the public. In lieu of heavy visitation at your favorite Forest Service or BLM campsite, you might be able to pretend it’s your very own private spot, but that doesn’t make it private.

We believe public land is for public recreation and make no apologies for writing about it. In many cases, the public agency responsible for that land or the city/state’s board of tourism has commissioned us to write the article!

Let’s go back to the second comment in my list up top. Shouldn’t public places have public information about them? What’s the alternative: buying it with tax dollars, then somehow obscuring the fact that it exists?

2. We Need More Information About Outdoor Recreation, Not Less

Group hiking through New Mexico's Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.
Group hiking through New Mexico's Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Bob Wick, BLM California

Outdoor recreation is becoming more and more popular and with that increase in participation comes an increased risk for overuse at the most popular outdoor destinations.

Nobody wants to see trash all over their favorite crag or the vegetation stomped to death at the prettiest waterfall around. Leave No Trace runs an excellent Hot Spots program that works with communities to help restore overused areas and provide education about how to tread lightly on sensitive terrain.

We believe the best way to fight overuse at these hot spots is to make information about alternatives as accessible as possible. A lack of beta for all but the most popular hike, lake, or peak in a given area creates a real barrier to entry for those looking for outdoor recreation in that area. If good info is only available for a couple of trails in your town, those trails will be impacted as more people seek outdoor experiences.

A good example here is in southern Utah, where the combination of Utah’s "Mighty Five" marketing campaign and the NPS “Find Your Park” marketing campaign has created a real overcrowding issue–especially in Zion National Park, where public comments are being sought on quota systems and other ideas to ease congestion. RootsRated worked with Visit Utah to create articles about hundreds of alternate destinations in the region worth visiting, in order to help disperse visitation throughout the region.

Yes, everyone on the planet wants to hike and camp at the Enchantment Lakes, as our first commenter points out. Yes, we’ve written about it. Right next door, though, North Cascades National Park is one of the least-visited parks in the contiguous U.S. and there are dozens of spectacular hikes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Helping spread the word about these worthy alternatives helps distribute users who might otherwise only know about the Enchantments—or who might simply stay home.

3. You Don't Have an Exclusive Right to the Outdoors

Exploring Colorado's Red Cloud Peak Wilderness Study Area.
Exploring Colorado's Red Cloud Peak Wilderness Study Area. Bob Wick, BLM California

Speaking of which, that’s not what you want, is it? That people who could be enjoying the outdoors right now simply stay home instead? Not us. We believe that outdoor recreation is for everyone.

We hope that the articles we post legitimately inspire wanderlust in the people who read them and we hope those readers then follow through to retrieve the appropriate beta (on our site or elsewhere) and take action on it. As covered above, if a lack of information about a specific destination or the activities in a particular region is a "barrier to entry" that keeps someone on the couch, then helping people find Where to Go Outdoors means helping people actually get outdoors. We think that’s a good thing.

I have noticed an interesting trend lately. People I’ve spoken with openly wish that more of their family, friends, and co-workers would get outside on a regular basis but the same people complain about encountering trail users on their hike or camping trip.

You can’t have it both ways! Either you’re willing to share public outdoor spaces, or you’re not. If it’s the latter, well, see #1 on this list. Hate crowds? As the excellent Semi-Rad blog notes, you are crowds.

Beyond that, we are facing a serious population health crisis in the United States. We think inspiring people to get outdoors and hike or run or ride a bike can have a real effect. Time spent in the outdoors is beneficial to physical and mental well-being. Why post an angry comment telling us to stop mentioning your favorite place, when you could be sharing the same post and telling your friends about the great places you’ve been?

4.Want Solitude? Be Willing to Work For It

Bob Wick, BLM

We believe solitude in the outdoors is still readily available. How to put this lightly? If you’re expecting your favorite roadside waterfall, with its dedicated parking area and its 0.1-mile access trail to the photo spot everyone can’t wait to post on Instagram, to be your very own secluded getaway… keep dreaming.

Want the outdoors to yourself? Go farther. Lace up a good pair of boots and hike away from the trailhead until you’re not sharing the trail with anyone. Drive past the National Park frontcountry and straight to the backcountry permit office. Skip the popular route up that mountain in the distance, the one with a dozen guided trips per day, and pick one of the alternate routes.

It’s, honestly, not very difficult to find outdoor experiences away from the crowds, but you may have to actually work for it. You may have to go in the off-season, and you might have to pick the third-most-popular destination instead of the one you saw on instagram. Sorry.

Here's one statistic: Year-to-date, Grand Canyon National Park reports 4,888,927 visitors but 243,850 overnight backcountry permits. Spend a night in this incredibly-popular park’s backcountry, then, and you’ll leave 95% (literally) of your fellow visitors behind.

If you were hoping that a lack of information about outdoor destinations would prevent other people from joining you on your hike, that ship has sailed.

5. Participation Equals Conservation

Bob Wick, BLM California

We can all agree that having more land set aside for outdoor recreation would be a good thing, right? We want more trails and more places to pursue our love of the outdoors; we want more forests and coastlines to be preserved so that future generations can enjoy them as they are.

While it’s easy to complain about crowds and overuse, it’s important to remember public lands require a level of public stewardship. Sure, you can grumble and curse the crowds—or you can sign up for trail work or volunteer to find ways to alleviate the human impact in high-traffic areas. Even stopping to pick up a candy wrapper along the trail—yes, even if it’s not yours—helps. Having a personal investment in a trail or wilderness area is a great way to give back. The more people who contribute to conservation efforts and feel real ownership in the land, the better.

If we want to conserve public lands, we need more people to be passionate about the outdoors. Why? Here are a few of the reasons:

More outdoor enthusiasts means more people to vote in favor of outdoor recreation. Lawmakers don’t set aside public land or fund trail projects for the fun of it. They do so because they’re able to identify a need and because their constituents express that need—either in grassroots fashion or at the voting booth.

When more people travel to a region in order to take advantage of the outdoor recreation available there, local economies see a positive impact. This impact often leads to expansion of those opportunities, as well, as local and state governments divert funds to continue growing those often-rural economies.

More users equal more trails. There are plenty of public lands with room for trails, or even existing plans for them, but someone has to organize volunteers and build them. Here in Chattanooga, our local SORBA chapter has worked with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the City of Chattanooga, the Lula Lake Land Trust and Tennessee State Parks to build and maintain trails in a variety of locations. Without users to support these efforts and contribute time or money, none of those trails would exist.

Whether you want more land set aside as wilderness or more trails in the city park down the street, we need more people recreating outdoors to make those things happen.

In summary , we reject the concept of the "secret spot" that should be kept quiet so a small number of outdoor enthusiasts can have it to themselves. We reject the idea that places on public land shouldn’t be public information. We disagree with the notion that, since you lived in your state first, the rest of us should just stay home.

We want to inspire people get outdoors and we think sharing information about where to go makes the outdoors more accessible for everyone. Have a problem with that? Keep it clean, but feel free to comment below.

Originally written for RootsRated Media.

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