Has the internet ruined hot springs?
There’s a long line of cars and nowhere to park. Groups of people walk by wearing sandals and towels, heading towards the same hot springs. In the distance, a thumping, rhythmic base pounds against a stranger’s speakers. Signs with warnings not to bring glass doesn’t deter the crowds, who sip on bottles of beer amid tents, cell phones, parents shouting the names of their children, trash, and heavily-branded swimwear—a nightmare for anyone who sees the wilderness as a refuge from the ills of being an American in 2018. The wilderness is where we go to escape the choas, not recreate it.
There is no shortage of articles right now on the overcrowding of our most beautiful public spaces due to the internet, and in particular, Instagram. Much like blogs ruined journalism, instagram is ruining art and photography and marriages.
A recent article on ModernHiker, "Its Time for Digital Leave No Trace Principles", argues that hikers should consider abandoning geotags in favor of elusive posts that reveal neither the trail name nor the exact location of the photo. A Facebook group, “Hikers for an 8th Leave No Trace Principle”, say that the group has “become increasingly concerned about the negative impacts that the publicity afforded by social media brings to some of our beloved—and vulnerable—natural places.” They hope to add an additional line to the 7 Leave-No-Trace Principles that asks nature-goers to refrain from posting their exact locations on social media.
I remember when you could pull off to the side of the road in Ojai and walk the equivalent of half a block to a steaming hot spring. Twenty years ago, in the early stages of AOL, I did exactly that with my parents. My chatroom name was Orbitzzzzz and I had never heard of hashtags or geotags. Those few hot springs of the 90s were never a secret, but they are gone now. After too many years of exposure to parties, broken beer bottles, and trash, they are now either inactive, fenced in, or private property.
Is it elitist to try to prevent that from happening again? Many of us who post photos of our trips on instagram would be relieved to have an 8th Principle that supports our inclination to keep our favorite places protected and hidden, especially a hot springs, where there is only room for so many and the ecosystems are fragile, if not fleeting. One can easily be labeled a snob for ignoring comments from followers that ask, “Where is this?”, but an 8th principle would justify the secret, even encourage it: "Sorry, I can’t answer—I’m just following 'the rules.'”
Advocates of an 8th Leave-No-Trace Principle argue that guidebooks and local intel informed the right kind of people—dedicated hikers and environmentalists—about special spots for decades until instagram came along, which now attracts the wrong kind of person, and too many of them. But asking people to withhold the locations of their photos is an unrealistic proposition at best. If maintaining the secrecy of a trail or hot springs is so important, why post an image at all? Perhaps we don't deserve the ego-boost we receive from social media if we refuse to "give back" in the form of sharing information.
Privileging the rights of those who discovered a trail in a guidebook over those who discovered it on instagram favors older generations. I don't think its a coincidence that, of the articles I've read and podcasts I've listened to that discuss this issue, I hear very little about the actual damage being inflicted on public lands. What I hear about most of the time is run-of-the-mill millennial bashing: complaints about selfies, yoga poses, and young people in groups. You have a right to be old and bitter, no doubt, but perhaps that energy could be better directed towards the Trump administration for taking away our public lands, or taking away the funds to manage our public lands. That funding could pay for a permit system, trash cleanup, sustainability, and education.
When pondering the harm that Zinke, Pruitt, and the Koke brothers have inflicted on the American wilderness, let alone the world, it’s easy to misdirect that anger towards the teenagers hiking closely behind you. But don't be ageist. The internet is how young people navigate the world today. If you allow them to spend enough time exploring the same places you enjoy, perhaps they will grow into people who want to take care of that land. Trying to convince them to abide by a code of silence on social media will be done in vain.
Maybe its also time to look into other trails. Reading these articles, you would think that every hot spring and trail is overrun with people in 2018, but that hasn't been my experience. Its easy to long for the 1960s—a time when I wasn't alive but when I imagine a couple of lone wanderers could stumble across a steaming pool of geothermal water in the mountains with no one else around. Those places still exist—you just have to work harder for them now.
I am repeatedly surprised by how few people I encounter on my backpacking trips, perhaps because I don't always choose the most popular trails. I have no desire to climb Mount Whitney, for example, or do the John Muir Trail, and I have been daunted by Yosemite's quotas that fill up 6 months in advance. Looking back, I'm grateful for the times I didn't get the permit I wanted because it forced me to go elsewhere: The Hoover Wilderness, The Kaiser Wilderness, and other overlooked parts of the Sierra Nevada, for example. When I'm backpacking, I'm usually relieved to stumble across another human because I'm more afraid of dying alone than being trampled by a herd of teenagers. And we usually smile and converse with each other because the wilderness makes us better people.
Although I can't guarantee total solitude, here are some tips for finding a beautiful hot springs in the age of instagram.
1. Drive long distances. Its never a good sign when you read about a hot spring that is "less than 2 hours from LA" like Deep Creek. The closer the hot springs is to a major city, the easier it is to organize a Bachelorette party where no one has to request time off of work. Avoid the pre-wedding celebrations and prepare to drive at least 3 hours if you live in a major metropolitan area. Going somewhere remote is worth the extra effort.
2. Hike long distances. It's rare if not impossible to find an uncrowded hot springs just off the side of a road in 2018. Long, strenuous hikes filter out the undetermined and will reward you with hot pools to soak your tired muscles. Guidebooks are a great place to find hike-in hot springs, as is that app you hate, Instagram.
3. Go when its snowing. This may seem counterintuitive, given that the best time to get into a jacuzzi is when its freezing outside, but according to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Center, summer nights are a popular time to visit hot springs. Cold, snowy days deter the party crowds.
4. Limit your group size. Go alone or go with a friend or two, but keep your group size to under what would comfortably fit in a sedan. Most hot spring pools are the size of jacuzzis.
5. Practice the 7 leave-no-trace principles. Practice leave-no-trace principles. Bring cans of beer rather than bottles. If you want to be an angel, carry out a piece of someone else's trash should you encounter garbage. You will be rewarded in the next lifetime.