Unlike many tourist destinations around the world, there are no handrails to save visitors from themselves in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Craig Bromley)

We in Wyoming are on the receiving end of visitors from all over the world, and so even if you aren’t gallivanting off to explore the globe’s odd corners, you likely have an opinion about what travel these days has become.

I’ve been off gallivanting. I have some opinions.

First, the era of industrial tourism is obliterating the magic of the real world — the natural phenomena that occur in only one place and time, not always easily accessible. It seems to be no longer enough that the masses have Disneyland and other faux environments, sensationalized and served up in a cocoon of safety netting and ice cream. Now real places — like, say, the basalt pillars of Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway — are being paved for tour buses and bedecked with glitzy, pricey visitors centers, so they can be engulfed by selfie-clicking crowds, without exertion, insight or particularity.

Second, the era of constant connectivity is obliterating the magic of the real world — that is, the real world of foreign communities and cultures different from our own. McDonald’s fries are available just outside the ancient walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Mick Jagger struts in Havana, dancing on the graves, you might say, of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians, and their traditional Cuban music. You go to the Gaeltech (a last enclave of Irish speakers) and find Wifi, ice cream and the weed of English language cropping up everywhere.

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Third (and a little more down to earth), air travel in this era is a pain in the ass. “Deregulation” of the airline industry has in fact been just the opposite: a license to conspire among so-called “competing” airlines so that travelers have little choice but to squeeze into an undersized slot in a flying cattle car and pay extra for every extra inch of foot room and every stale pretzel.

Fourth (and a little more political, which is a downer right now), the places we value for unfettered wildness are increasingly regulated. Protective fencing along cliff edges; areas off-limits or stay-on-the-trail restricted; uniforms checking your equipment, your license, your sanity. There are various reasons for this: the increase of visitors everywhere due to population growth and expanding wealth; the risk of hooliganism by, well, hooligans; the fear of lawsuits. And, of course, the natural inclination of paid managers to…manage.

John Metcalfe navigate's his dory through Colorado River whitewater in the Grand Canyon, no handholding required. (Courtesy of Geoffrey O'Gara)
John Metcalfe navigate’s his dory through Colorado River whitewater in the Grand Canyon, no handholding required. (Photo by Jeff Streeter)

Managing natural wonders for the masses is not just a phenomena in the United States. I visited Ireland’s rugged north coast in the 1970s as a college student during “The Troubles,” when the Irish Republican Army was fighting ugly to drive the British out of Northern Ireland — nobody wanted to visit there then, and places like the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge were lonely do-it-yourself marvels for adventurous cliff-scalers. When I returned there earlier this month, it was a cast of thousands, many of them bused to the Causeway for a 50-yard hike to a selfie shot. Paid admission and safety netting now make the swinging footbridge as safe as a Disney ride. (Well, maybe safer — there are no alligators in the North Sea.)

The United States pioneered the idea of parks to preserve remote natural wonders. Though the original Yellowstone legislation called for a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” hardly any euro-americans had even been there in 1872, and there wouldn’t be a managing “Park Service” for another 40-plus years. Of course, the railroads jumped in quickly to make a buck and build some opulent hotels. But the nature worship of Emerson and Thoreau was there at the creation too.

Thus began a century long balancing act between unfettered nature and soft-serve ice cream cones. In Yellowstone, it sometimes seems, the ice cream is winning. In the Grand Canyon, my other gallivanting site this spring, I’d say nature is holding its own.

With a group of Wyoming boaters, I spent 18 days in the canyon, and it was an adventure without crowds, without litter, without ice cream and without NPS uniforms nagging us. (We did have beer, I should add.) This is not to suggest that the canyon is unregulated — a permit system keeps the crowds down, an unloved upstream dam keeps the flow cold and steady, and NPS officials give you strict instructions on how to behave, including gender specific peeing directions.

While highly managed boardwalks may see most of the traffic, the National Park Service still manages vast areas of "primitive" backcountry locations without any amenities, even toilets. (Courtesy Geoffrey O'Gara)
While highly managed boardwalks may see most of the traffic, the National Park Service still manages vast areas of “primitive” backcountry locations without any amenities, even toilets. (Photo by Tara Kuipers)

But you are very much on your own. If you swim in one of the giant rapids, and we did, you will have to pull yourself out. There are no picnic tables or raft repair shops or toilets — one of our boats was dubbed the “poop sloop” and its precious cargo grew more redolent by the day. No ranger stopped by to visit and check our campsites for discarded beer cans. (Though, in truth, the absence of uniforms this year is due to a sexual harassment scandal among park employees that led to suspension of the Grand Canyon river patrol. Nevertheless, the river travelers are maintaining an immaculately waste-free park. We can do this, NPS!)

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There are, of course, intrusions from the modern world. The big engine-powered commercial rafts growl by with their huddled masses, but they are few and far between, and only run downstream. There is a helicopter landing site about halfway down the canyon — but that’s a 50 yard stretch of whomp-whomp in a 230-mile float. It used to be worse, and up on the South Rim it’s still a crass mess, but we might hope that the balancing act down in the Grand Canyon itself continues to tilt toward the wild.

Yellowstone, on the other hand, is having a tough time. The millions of visitors — the summer invasion of packed buses and luxurious RVs — is not sequestered on a rim, it rumbles right into the heart of the plateau on a paved figure-8 aorta. Industrial tourism plonked in the midst of our best wild habitat. Jerks take video of their trespasses on delicate hot springs crusts, bison calves get kidnapped in vehicles, and the relatives of people who slip and die call a lawyer to sue the theme park owners. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell bemoaned the crowded, commercialized parks and called for “innovating to respect these landscapes,” which is about like saying “let’s innovate to stop shooting each other” after the Orlando tragedy.

Could we have some actual suggestions?

Okay, let’s go back to my four gallivanting observations at the start of this column.

1 — If a “nature” park is absurdly, unhealthily crowded, and the demand for ice cream is greater than demand for a backcountry waterfall, shut the shops and close the roads. Limit the number of visitors. They can get ice cream in the “gateway” communities. This may seem like an un-populist exclusion of the infirm, the aged, the disabled, and the folks in a modern-times hurry. So it is.

2 — Stop putting up cell towers. Leave a few emergency satellite phones scattered about (many boaters take them in the Grand Canyon, where cell phones get no service), but it’s not our job to help some electronic obsessive flash a picture of Prismatic Spring instantly back to Berlin.

4 — Manage less. Educate more. Let visitors know the risks, and let them take them. On Rathlin Island off the Northern Ireland coast, there’s an amazing bird rookery that you can view from an old lighthouse. You could also fall off the cliff. Visitors are few. The staff doesn’t issue warnings or citations; they issue field glasses and interesting information about puffins and lighthouse keepers.

3 — This comes out of order because it has nothing to do with parks, but please join me in detesting United Airlines, with their cramped seating, their charges for checked bags, and their arrogant confidence that you won’t get anything better on another airline.

So, enough gallivanting. Even Yellowstone is off the calendar until late next fall, when the tourists flee the first snowflakes and the bears are restlessly packing on pounds. That’s when we go. And we spend a night or two in those railroad hotels I was snarking at earlier in this column. It’s a balancing act.

The author and Mark Bruscino do their best to compensate for a lack of park-provided entertainment programming. (Courtesy of Geoffrey O'Gara)
The author and Mark Bruscino do their best to compensate for a lack of park-provided entertainment programming. (Photo by Mark Bruscino)

Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC and serves on WyoFile's board of directors. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote...

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  1. Thank you, Angus. Have just returned (depressed) from Zion and Bryce. Parking lots at Zion were worse than Denver International Airport; Bryce had one ranger to respond to a waiting line of 30 people with questions. These are two parks who actually have implemented shuttle busses to reduce pollution and congestion. But the problem is just too many people want to see the place, and not all of us, Keith B. Have the option of exploring the other side of the lake. Someone needs to begin the journey of reservations being required JUST TO VISIT the parks….not just for hotels or to float the river…but just to visit. If the idea is to experience (not just see) the magnificence, there needs to be enough people free space to have those moments.

    Thank you for writing this. I am very sad that we have gone this long with conversations about it but very little bold action. You are in the spot to shine the light. On the problem and on the solutions.

  2. Keith Benefiel is absolutely right. The backcountry in Yellowstone gets little traffic. (Though you now must make reservations, which wasn’t true the first time we trekked in to Bechler Falls…or if it was, we broke the rules.) But the roads carved through the center of the plateau, in some of the finest wildlife habitat, are not in the “mountains without handrails” spirit. Some will argue that this is how we build broader public support for a park system, including the undeveloped wild lands. That’s politically reasonable, but why be reasonable?

  3. Good article. I agree with much of it, though I cringed at the reference to “nagging” park rangers. As a park ranger for many years, including in the two NPs you write about, the bulk of my work was educating visitors and letting them know about the risks – which is exactly what you advocate for toward the end of your article. I guess the fences and signs are there because the miniscule number of nagging park rangers can’t possibly educate the vast numbers of visitors. I don’t know what the solution is, especially when the parks need to continue operating within the confines of the congressionally mandated NPS mission, but I hope your article (as well as all the crazy stories already this summer) get people thinking and making their own suggestions.

  4. Only a tiny percentage of Yellowstone is developed in any way. Check out Yellowstone Lake from the East shore, for instance. Inspect Shoshone geyser basin instead of Midway. Go wild arching in Arches. Visit the Maze in Canyonlands. Walk around Mount Moran in the Tetons. What is destroying the parks is not the visitors, it’s their private motor vehicles. Go where they cannot. Cheers