Public Lands Hate You
Thoughts on Havasupai - The Impact of Social Media and Visitors Taking the Easy Way Out
At this point if you haven’t seen a picture of Havasupai or Mooney Falls somewhere on social media you’ve probably been living under a rock. The contrast between the turquoise water and orange cliffs creates photographs that are the subject of many photographers (and influencers) wet dreams. Located on land belonging the Havasupai Tribe, this area is incredibly unique and undeniably beautiful. I’ve wanted to see it in person for over a decade and finally got an opportunity to do just that last year. It was an incredible experience, but I left with a terrible taste in my mouth. I’ve traveled extensively around the USA and the world and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so conflicted about a place.
First some background for those who aren’t in the know. These falls, along with Beaver Falls and Navajo Falls, are located on Havasu Creek which flows through tribal land in Arizona. Anyone who visits is a guest of the tribe and is subject to their rules. A limited number of permits (about 100 per day) are given out and they are HIGHLY coveted and hard to get. It has been estimated that only 2% of people who apply for a permit successfully obtain one. Permits cost either $100 or $125 (depending on the day) per person per night with a 3-night minimum. The hike down to Havasupai Village (Population 208 in 2010) is eight miles with an additional two miles to reach the campground. There is a total of 2,400 feet of elevation change. Many people opt for a mule to carry their bags at a cost of $50 per bag each way ($400 per mule round trip, maximum of 4 bags per mule). Some people also opt for a helicopter ride to/from Havasupai Village which costs $85 each way.
Like many visually pleasing locations such as Arches NP, Zion NP, and Grand Canyon NP, visitation to Havasupai has skyrocketed in the past five years due to the proliferation of highly edited pictures on social media. It seems that everyone wants to visit and get the same great shots that they have seen online, and from my experience, many of these people have no idea what they are getting themselves into. I have never seen such a high concentration of people who are so out of their element. I chatted with someone who thought it was funny he ruined his friends brand new Jet Boil (camping stove) by wrapping steak in tin foil and putting it in the canister used for boiling water, sans water. A couple had the mules pack down a 6-person Coleman tent complete with attached cooking vestibule which weighs 32 lbs. Some groups had full size coolers for perishable food. My campsite neighbors didn’t bring matches/lighter/flint to light their stove. I saw one couple with an inflatable PVC air mattress complete with battery powered inflator. I saw countless people in jeans. Remember, this is ten miles from the nearest trailhead.
I realize the end of that paragraph makes me sound like an elitist prick, but if you don’t have the physical ability to haul your own gear or the knowledge to know how to use it, you probably should be thinking twice about taking a trip that required a certain level of fitness or knowledge. I get that not everyone is in good enough shape to hike ten miles in a day with everything they need for three nights on their back. I get that not everyone has enough experience to know that what might be acceptable gear for car camping isn’t the best choice for camping ten miles from the nearest road. A small amount of research and a few trial runs would have been advantageous to many of the folks I saw visiting Havasupai. Relying on abused animals and the kindness of strangers shouldn’t be the primary survival strategy.
The mules that are used to haul gear that no sane human would put on their back for ten miles have a history of being abused, as Havasupai Horses has extensively covered in gruesome detail. Multiple mules have died on the trail. Most are chaffed down to the skin from being made to literally run up and down the canyon with heavy loads. Many are malnourished. Some have open wounds and inflections. They are worked to the breaking point hauling gear up and down the canyon day in and day out.
And for what? So that people don’t have to experience the slightest amount of discomfort that is typically associated with a location ten miles from the trailhead? So they don’t have to eat noodles or freeze dried food for a few days? So they can get a perfect 8-hours of REM sleep on a 10-inch thick mattress like they do back home? If people want to experience a beautiful place like Havasupai they should be willing to make a few minor sacrifices instead of taking the easy way out.
I believe people having the ability to take the easy way out will be the demise of Havasupai. Anywhere else that is ten miles from a trailhead is generally visited by people who have an intimate understanding of the Leave No Trace principles. They stick to the trail. They pack it in a pack it out. They understand where its acceptable to camp and where it’s not. They are considerate of other people they meet on the trail. At Havasupai the mule and helicopter options make access possible for almost anyone regardless of if they know how to treat the place with respect or not. The results are staggering. Vegetation is non-exist around the falls leading to accelerated erosion. Social trails abound anywhere near the campground or waterfalls. Tents are erected on top of what limited vegetation remains even when there is bare ground five feet away. Hammocks are hung from adolescent trees without tree protectors. For someone like me who understands the impact of these actions, it’s a truly depressing to see this special place being trashed right before my eyes.
What I’ve seen at Havasupai makes me question why the vast majority of people visit this place. Are they there to truly enjoy and immerse themselves in this incredible place? Or are they there so they can share their “adventure” with their social media following in a new age keeping up with the Jones’ rat race to create content and post the most aesthetically pleasing pictures? I strongly argue that the latter applies to most visitors to Havasupai. People interested in enjoying this special place wouldn’t be using abused animals to haul down inflatable flamingoes and unicorns, boomboxes, and professional lighting equipment.
There are a whole other host of topics that I have strong feelings about in regard to Havasupai such as indigenous land rights, inequality, rural poverty, and sustainability. That’s not what this post is about. It’s about people doing whatever it takes to get that coveted shot, even if it’s at the expense of everything around them. If gets in the way of creating content, it gets cast aside. Animal rights? Out the window. Growing plants? Step on them. Leave No Trace Principles? Those are for everyone else. The results of people’s inability to consider the impacts of their actions are highly concentrated at Havasupai and therefore extremely visible, but we are starting to see the impacts show up elsewhere. The only way to slow and eventually reverse this behavior is to encourage people to make good choices, and if they aren’t, let them know how you feel about it. If you see someone doing something or sharing something that is harmful or damaging to the environment, let them know. We need to start making these actions socially unacceptable. That’s the only way to change the course of this toxic behavior.
Do know someone who is thinking about traveling to Havasupai? Send them this blog post. Give them an opportunity to know before they go and think about the impacts of their choices. Knowledge is the first step in the right direction.