Everything is busy now. Too busy. National Parks are becoming overcrowded and many amazing destinations, such as The Wave, are barely accessible anymore. Even more alarming is what this influx of visitation is doing to our protected lands. And I’m kind of blaming social media on this. And now, the recent heartbreaking news that Big Bend has been forever vandalized gives me pause on whether I’m contributing to this influx.

The rise in visits are inevidable. My goal is to educate and promote respect and sustainability.

Let’s back up a bit. There was once a time when you could easily book a Thanksgiving holiday in Big Bend, walk up to the Starlight and get a Thanksgiving meal, and continue to enjoy the hikes the entire break. Around 2012, things started to change. Everything started getting busier. There were long waits at the park entrance, we had to wait hours to get into the Starlight, and by the time we were seated, Thanksgiving meals were sold out. A long-time tradition became increasingly difficult. The trails were inundated with entitled moms yelling at the top of their lungs for their kids to come eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And they are certain to leave Goldfish along the dusty trail, I see it too often.

I now find myself opting to go deep into the state park interior where you can still find plenty of solitude and isolation and solitude down a high-clearance (and even 4×4) road for Thanksgiving.

Starlight and Terlingua Porch Pre-2012

Cowboys at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua
Cowboys at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua

Starlight and Terlingua Porch Post-2012

Line at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua for Thanksgiving
Line at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua for Thanksgiving

I started my BigBendGuide.com website initially by sending a “cut and paste” email to friends and family who asked for recommendations. The email kept growing, I decided to just put it on a website and give people the URL. I also saw an opportunity to educate people on park etiquette, respect for the land, rangers, and locals. I see too many orange peels on the hiking trails and even thrown into the natural springs.

Orange peels take an average of 6 months to decompose and even years in dry desert conditions. Leave No Trace reports it’s the #1 most common litter.

an orange peel thrown into Mule Ears Spring

So how does this correlate to social media? Well, think about it. Instagram is probably the very best advertising tool for a destination. Your favorite influencer posts an extremely intriguing place to visit. Their 500,000 followers think that’s an amazing photo op and they want to get the same pic for their followers to see. These unique photo ops are sneaking into Big Bend. Case in point, my wife and I recently hiked Grapevine Hills. As we completed the hike, another couple got out of their car and asked us, “Did y’all see that famous rock?!!” …Balanced rock is famous now? …I said we did and then pleaded with them to bring water on the hike… because they weren’t going to. So,The Window is busy, Hot Springs is damn near inaccessible, and Lost Mine and Santa Elana parking are full.

tropic ditch falls frozen in the winter

A real issue is that the disrespect is growing with the crowds. During Christmas 2020, I was just outside Bryce Canyon on the Mossy Cave Trail. There is a side trail to Tropic Ditch Falls. During the winter, the waterfall freezes appearing stunningly trapped in time. As we were taking in the beauty of the frozen falls, a VSCO girl runs in front of us, makes her way up behind the falls, physically pokes out ALL the icicles in the center of the falls so she can peak her head through the middle and become InstaFamous. Her boyfriend takes the pic and they leave just as quickly. There was no appreciation or connection in that moment for them. It was cringingly obvious, this was all “for the gram.”

SLOW DOWN and keep an eye out! Unfortunately, a bear cub was hit by a car somewhat recently. The slow speed limits are to protect the wildlife. And the rangers WILL pull you over.

Allow me to apply some data science to this hypothesis. Notice in the graph below from 2001 to 2011, there was a relatively flat rate of attendance for an entire decade. The orange line shows the average.

big bend visitation chart pre 2012

In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion dollars. This was quite a shocking headline given most people either were not users of Instagram yet or haven’t even heard of it at all. We’ll consider 2012 the primary start time for Instagram since that’s when it started making headlines and usage began to grow. See graph Instagram User Growth graph and notice its exponential rise post-2012.

Instagram user growth chart

Now, to make the correlation, notice attendance for Big Bend post-2012 with the exception of 2020 where the park was closed for approximately 4 months of that year due to… yeah you know. Attendance has doubled since 2012 from ~300,000 to nearly 600,000.

big bend attendance growth chart since 2012

Big Bend is a place to get away and reconnect with nature, find solitude and feel the energy of the earth renew your soul. The power of nature is part of our creator’s gift. We are of nature, and to enjoy and feel this spiritual reconnection is what makes Big Bend so magical. We too easily lose the sense of connection to nature inside our cities and our homes. That is why we seek it out, embrace it, and love our parks. However, there are some that refuse to see the beauty and spiritual side of things and end up disrespecting the land, the park, the people, mostly because it is their entitled manifest-destiny right to do whatever the hell THEY want. Our true calling, what is right, is for the common good of our community. Can we bring back common decency?

And this leaves me with the question, “I am I hurting or helping with my Big Bend site?” The growth at this point is inevidable and the best thing we can do is educate as much as possible. Hopefully, we can all reach a collective awakening where our planet, respect for our parks, and people become priority again. I don’t know, maybe we can cause change by having the courage to confront the issue and work together to change minds. This is our one Earth. We will not get another and its beauty and habitat are quickly slipping away.

Am I 100% certain it’s all due to social media? Not really. I think there is a mix of things going on here:

  1. Insatiable need to be outdoors after lockdown
  2. The start of a mass conscious awakening to get off tech and into nature
  3. Sustained population growth compared to growth of public lands not keeping pace4 – And ultimately, it’s not the social platform but the person visiting

Let’s do what’s right. It’s all about respect. Respect the land, people, rules, and restore common decency.

Seriously not trying to be a nihilist here. There are always amazing options in Big Bend that aren’t always packed, and there are certainly times of the year that are less busy. It’s still a wonderful place to visit and my favorite place on Earth. Please enjoy with reciprocity and gratitude.

 -Adam Brower

Yeah, yeah yeah. Social buttons. But remember, I am going to use the platforms to educate the inevitable rise in visits.

empty porch in terlingua
tent at night in big bend
Thanksgiving dinner plate at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua

Here are a couple of videos I made…