By Jerry Ginsberg
Thanks to COVID, travel these days has become a bit unusual. While U.S. domestic travel has largely returned to full bore freedom, masks notwithstanding, (non-emergency) journeying to many other countries is still almost non-existent. I have been itching to go to the Swiss Alps and Argentine Patagonia for going on two years now with no significant apparent loosening of restrictions in sight.
This has resulted in a real dichotomy here in America. With everyone pretty much confined within our great nation, as big as it is, many popular destinations are very noticeably overcrowded.
With demand suddenly outstripping supply, the travel industry finds itself hard pressed to accommodate the surge in visitors to vacation high spots in all fifty states. This has resulted in both hotel/motel and especially rental car rates skyrocketing into the stratosphere.
Wyoming in Autumn
Not to be deterred, I returned to Jackson, Wyoming again this year in the hope of good light and color in fabulous Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.* Over many years, I have had good luck chasing the fall color in these parks in September. Although no two years are completely alike, Yellowstone, being considerably higher, generally peaks in mid-September while Grand Teton, a bit lower in elevation and just north of the very trendy tourist town of Jackson, tends to see the peak color on its legendary ‘quaking’ aspens in the last week to ten days of the month.
Happily, I was not disappointed.
Being very fortunate to be greeted with almost uniformly good weather, great autumn color and pretty decent light, I was off to the races. Some of my favorite images made during this trip are in this article. I leave it to you, the reader, to be the judge.
That said, another glaringly obvious part of this trip was the crowds. In my many trips to these parks at the same time in previous years, I have never seen these wonderful places nearly so busy. My first warning of what was in store came months in advance of the trip when I began making reservations.
The lodging properties within the two parks were either completely sold out or asking rates that were three, four, and as much as five times as much as I had paid in the recent past. Uncharacteristically for me, I grudgingly settled for lodgings outside the park boundaries. Even those – the few with availability – were priced at unabashedly high prices. For example, the Jackson unit of a very popular nationwide chain offering basic accommodations at budget prices, perfect for an intense photo trip, was asking almost $300 per night for just one person. Costs such as these do not provide a favorable ROI for a freelance photographer in the age of declining revenue for publishing and print sales of nature images. My solution was finding Air BnB and similar properties further from the parks. This required more driving while burning more gas at about $4.00 per gallon. Not to mention the need to set the alarm for 4 hours before sunrise in order to be at my chosen location in time for the best light.
That brings us to vehicle rental rates. Only one word will do – astronomical! Anyone who has looked into these costs recently can probably relate to this. Tiny little midget cars are going for $100 and more per day. With few exceptions, a real SUV is priced out of sight. Luckily, I reserved several months in advance. This allowed me to secure a beefy SUV with genuine 4WD for a cost less than most folks were paying for the very smallest cramped cars.
We can only hope that once the car rental companies have been able to replenish their fleets, this situation will return to norman and not become the new normal.
This filled-to-capacity perception was confirmed when I arrived in Yellowstone and the Tetons. The parking lots and facilities were exceptionally crowded and every motel regardless of size or level of ambiance, or lack thereof, conspicuously posted ‘No Vacancy’ signs, even in mid-week.
All of this concentration of so many visitors in a few places inevitably brings us to the mantra that surfaces about every ten years or so: “Are we loving our parks to death?”
On one hand, I am thrilled that so many of our countrymen and women recognize the great benefits of these national treasures. However, many of our National Parks simply cannot cope with this crush of humanity tramping around facilities and places that are very fragile. Many of these irreplaceable gems have required tens and hundreds of thousands and even millions of years to evolve to their present state, but can be irreparably marred in just an instant.
One buffer to protect these resources is greater funding. The rub here is that the parks are chronically short of money. The $6.5 Billion allocated by the federal government last year to begin to address the roughly $13 Billion worth of “deferred maintenance” projects will do little, if anything, to begin to address the additional pressures brought about by this latest onslaught of visitors.
Many national parks and other NPS units are now so filled with this crush of visitors that most out of the way and hidden little spots once known mostly to serious hikers and photographers are now overrun with casual tourists trudging around and snapping away with their smartphones.
As I write this, I am sitting in the pre-dawn chill alongside the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park. When I first came to this spot under the guidance of a far more experienced and very accomplished nature photographer fully three decades ago, there were perhaps six people here in anticipation of a glorious sunrise. Those six were all serious photographers as evidenced by their heavy duty tripods and industrious demeanor.
Since I parked my vehicle here about a half hour ago, I have counted well over seventy folks walk down to the river bank. At least 80-90% of those folks were toting smart phones rather than tripods. Ah, the power of social media. Surely, this is a daily occurrence. Fragile places such as this simply cannot withstand such a crush of humanity.
Save It – Or Lose It
Don’t get me wrong: our national parks are there for everyone to enjoy. That’s a big part of the very concept of this conservation.
However, great care must be taken to preserve these irreplaceable gems “for our children and our children’s children.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
With so many other hands clamoring for federal dollars, it is not likely that the National Park Service will be receiving another sizable traunch of funding any time soon.
So in their efforts to forge some kind of solution, at least for the short term, if not permanently, the folks of the Park Service have instituted an online reservation system for timed entry to some of the most heavily trafficked spots. These include famed Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and Cadillac Mountain in Acadia.
Perhaps charging the very nominal fees now in effect will help to both lessen the volume of vehicles somewhat and provide a little extra revenue to the parks.
Only time will tell on that score.
A quote that I read, but failed to record (so please forgive my failure to be verbatim), in the Tetons opined to the effect that it is great to appreciate nature, but that is not enough. “Nature must be fought for and defended every day.”
We all need to be mindful of that.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.