It’s easy at first. Like most things. The trail flat, the air cool. The lake feels closer than it ever will because the trail is still flat and the air is still cool and you are only five minutes into a hike believing in something that, until today, was but a constructed image drawn up by the array of images you’ve seen plastered across the web of this place.
The images? Vivid. Color-graded and photoshopped but the place is real because you are here, sweating and searching, setting foot on the ground that is to take you to the place that you’ve only seen through filters, and all of it feels so easy.
But it’s not. The first five minutes? They’ll pass. Soon, you’ll feel the subtle gain in elevation. Your legs will begin to burn, breathing will become a hassle, the lake that you swore you saw just around the bend begins to feel miles and miles away.
The reality of the hike begins to set in. The difficulties that didn’t even cross your mind until this moment set in. And the only thing that you have left to hang onto is the intent you had from the beginning.
So you have to ask yourself, is it still worth it?
The reality of Hanging Lake and an increasing number of national parks is just that. And I’m not talking about the literal hikes.
I’m talking about the hundreds of national parks that in recent years have been monetized and systemized, restricted and contained, caged off and marked up in the name of preservation. I’m talking about the restrictions enacted placed on public lands for the sake of their own survival. I’m talking about hiking—something that has become increasingly complicated, something that was easy at first, something that paradoxically has lost its meaning.
In 2019, the US Forest Service will begin enforcing a permit system for those hoping to visit Hanging Lake.
The Hanging Lake Area Management Plan released by the US Department of Agriculture at the beginning of 2018 states that the goal is this: “Institute or utilize a year-round fee-based reservation and/or permit system which would be used to manage and allocate the defined daily capacity for those wanting to hike in the Hanging Lake Area.”
Don’t get me wrong, the USFS is justified in its efforts to limit access to the park given the fact that visitation has spiked in recent years causing threat to the lake’s rare and natural features.
“With annual visitation doubling over the last five years and now reaching 150,000 visitors, the area is experiencing potential irreversible impacts to both natural and historic resources,” says the Hanging Lake Management Plan.
If regulating the amount of people hiking the trail will help preserve the lake for the rest of us to enjoy for generations to come, then so be it. (I’m not arguing against this intention, but I am pointing out a paradox within it.)
This isn’t new. The USFS has been working on the preservation of public lands and national parks for quite some time—since 1964 to be exact. That’s the year that president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act to “establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes.”
Over the years, we’ve regulated the visitation rates at places like Hanging Lake. We’ve enforced permits and fees to access them. We’ve worked to maintain the land and furthermore make it more accessible and safer for tourist access.
We have done all of this in the name of preservation.
To be clear, I am not disagreeing with the intentions of the Wilderness Act—I do believe that there’s a need to take action and make the necessary efforts for the sake of our wilderness’ survival.
However, I’m not sure if what we have accomplished as a result of 54 years’ worth of wilderness regulation is the preservation of nature or, rather, the maintenance of land for experiential purposes.
Let me explain. The modern day result of the Wilderness Act is what we are seeing at Hanging Lake: the heavily marked trail; rails and fencing to protect the land and act as a guide for hikers; a wooden bridge lining the outer edges of the lake for tourists to spectate; permits and fees granting access to the area which furthermore regulate the amount of traffic on the trail. Yes, all of which serve their intended purpose: they protect the land from the gradual harm of overpopulated trails and inevitable wear and tear.
What we are not acknowledging, though, is that in this process of preservation with the best intentions in mind, we are inadvertently robbing the wilderness of its wild and organic nature. We are turning nature into some kind of zoo, commodifying the wilderness through fees and permits in order to limit the number of travelers on the trail, while creating and maintaining smooth, paved paths for those willing to buy into it all.
That being said, can we not say that we are transforming the wilderness into a sort of business, furthermore altering it and controlling it for the sake of mankind’s experience rather than the preservation of the land itself?
The Hanging Lake Area Management Plan is clear in such intentions, stating that the goal is to “provide enhanced visitor services … giv[ing] visitors opportunities for a high-quality experience. Visitors can make a reservation and know what day and time they can hike and how to access the site.”
On the surface, this sounds great—but when did hiking become a drawn-out trip to the amusement park? When did adventure lose its spontaneity? It seems that in our desire to preserve and maintain modern-day adventure, we’ve ultimately sacrificed everything that makes “adventure.”
It’s tricky. I’m not saying that we don’t have the right to see these places or explore these lands, nor am I saying that the Wilderness Acts’ preservationist intentions are wrong, but I am saying that our mission of preservation has grown increasingly subjective.
The rhetoric of the Wilderness Act seems pretty explicit in its priorities, stating that the focus is on “the permanent good of the whole people.” So, tell me, are we preserving the land or subjecting it?
Like the literal act of hiking itself, all of this was easy at first. The idea: simple. Enforce regulations and permits for the sake of preservation. It makes sense. The intent is good.
Like the photoshopped and colorful images of places like Hanging Lake that boast beauty while hiding harsh realities, rhetoric and words like “preservation” ultimately mask the commodification of modern adventuring.
After some time passes, the initial ease wears off. The idea that was so centered on the benefit of the wilderness becomes blurred by the reality of commodified adventuring with all of its bells and whistles, regulations and permits.
So we find ourselves in a tough spot faced with a tough question:
When the trail is paved and the woods are fenced off, when the permit has been paid and the adventure is predetermined, when the natural wonder has been plotted out by man – is the hike an adventure or a commodity?