Before hiking Mount Storm King, my wife, Kelsey, received a simple request: Please do not geotag your photos.
Kelsey heard about the trail from a work friend, who posted pictures on Instagram after summiting alongside several hiking influencers. These are the hiking influencers we are warned not to bother with, as the best practice for them is to post their photos or videos with no geographic specificity, just a label saying “State of Washington.”
The idea, we are told, is driven by the environment. “Virus hikes” can lead to overcrowding of trails and disruption in small towns. For example, the photo-worthy Rattlesnake Ledge trail in North Bend, just outside Seattle, now receives more than four times the number of expected annual visitors than expected when the trail was built some 20 years ago. which led the Washington Trail Association to undertake a major renovation earlier this year.
The vast majority of Washington’s foot traffic clogs the trails closest to Seattle, sometimes resulting in parking lots, overflowing dumpsters, and slow maneuvering around peaks and viewpoints.
Although it may be well-intentioned, the “no marking” rule bothers me right away. Since moving to Tacoma last summer, Kelsey and I have hiked almost every weekend. We covered most of the popular trails around Seattle and started driving further into more remote areas for more variety.
When my wife and I hit more popular trails, we leave before dawn to beat the crowds and usually have plenty of room to ourselves the whole way up. Going down is a different story, but I was never bothered by the influx of traffic going up as we descend. It’s nice to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, though part of me feels the selfish need for privacy and isolation, that privileged dream of being alone in the great unknown.
The geotagging no-no appears to stem from outdated and misunderstood social media guidelines by organizations like Leave No Trace, which once promoted the idea of “thoughtful tagging” in 2018.
Updated in September 2020, the new Leave No Trace guidelines emphasize that they are not anti-geolocation and discourage intimidation or shaming of those who discover nature. Either way, I imagine it’s hard to maintain exclusive status if a space becomes not only accessible to everyone, but also very crowded. After Kelsey was asked not to label our trip, my first thoughts turned to rights, wealth, and sponsorship dollars.
If nature is not meant to be for everyone, who decides who it is for?
Located in the north-central region of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Mount Storm King is an easily accessible trail nestled in a national park, but driving there takes time and skill. From our rental home in Tacoma, it’s an almost two hour hike, mostly on highways and back roads. We pass neon-lit casinos, gas stations and small restaurants. For Friday and Saturday, we are renting an Airbnb in nearby Sequim so our dog, Lucy, won’t be home alone for too long.
As usual, Kelsey and I aim to reach the trailhead early. We are one of the few cars in a nearly empty parking lot next to a ranger station. A few other hikers are walking around, but I’m surprised how serene it is given the previous warning we were given.
A few weeks before our trip, on Zoom, Washington Trail Association Impact Manager Jaime Loucky told me, “A fundamental part of the WTA’s job is to make the outdoors a place for everyone. It is a public space and it should be welcoming and inclusive.
In his mind, the influencer economy can be turned in a positive light. “You can see it as a challenge, but you can also see it as an opportunity. We’ve found that there are many ways people can get information on where to hang out and how to hang out.
The WTA prides itself on being one of the most comprehensive places to find this information. According to Loucky, the WTA knows that some trails are popular and Instagrammable, but that’s not the problem. The region’s population has been growing for a long time, but access to nature is not growing at the same rate.
The WTA offers detailed information on paywall-free trail conditions in hopes that giving more people the tools to enjoy nature will result in more investment from volunteers, politicians and businesses. . Sustainable hiking requires systemic change focused on equality and environmental protection, as well as education related to stewardship – not a reduction in the number of people. They work diligently to maintain and conserve trails, introduce more people to the joys of hiking, hire young people interested in the outdoors, and focus on sustainability.
Loucky tells me that the increase in people on the trails since the pandemic began has allowed the WTA to advocate for more state and federal funding. In the association’s vision, fair and sustainable hiking will require more environmentally friendly infrastructure, more trails, better access to affordable equipment and the education of a younger generation of hikers. “We see space to develop new approaches to trail stewardship, climate action and economic development. Connecting these three elements is one of the paths we need to take to create a more sustainable trail network and make Washington more resilient to climate change.
Our final ascent of Mount Storm King requires traversing a series of permanent ropes, which are tied to roots and tree trunks and cover steep sections of scree. I put on a pair of winter gloves to protect my hands. At the first rope, we wait for a man to descend. When it reaches us, it informs us that no one else is at the top but it is windy and cold. Once there, the view is spectacular. Overlooking the deep blue lake, half of our peripheral view is of verdant mountain peaks, the other half of Puget Sound and Canada.
I can’t help it: I take my iPhone out of my coat pocket to take a series of images and a quick video. Once we get to Kelsey, we take a series of selfies together, our faces reddened by the cold, unwavering gusts of wind.
As we descend we encounter large groups heading towards the summit. We digress for another young couple and one of them jokes, “Is there enough service to post on Instagram from up there?” It’s about 10:30 now, late enough in the day that the trail is busy. Trail etiquette on how to intersect while going in different directions still seems inconsistent. Sometimes we step aside and wave people through, others do the same for us. When we return to the ranger station, the parking lot is packed. Groups eat sandwiches and drink beer from coolers overflowing with open trunks. Given my conversation with Loucky, I absently wonder how this area could accommodate public transit, proper recycling and composting, and more people.
Later in the day, once the sun has warmed up, Kelsey and I take our dog to the patio of a bar in downtown Sequim. Snow-capped mountains jut into the sky in the background. Over a beer, a few older locals strike up a conversation with us and ask where we hiked that morning. Once they hear Mount Storm King, they immediately recommend Pyramid Peak, insisting that the view across Lake Crescent is superior.
As they prepare to leave, Kelsey has written half a dozen new hikes that are not on our list. Can’t help but laugh, because our DC experience so far has taught that there’s always a better hike, a higher peak, a better view, somewhere else. We say goodbye to the couple, grateful for their recommendations.
There’s too much ground to cover in less than a decade for a casual weekend hiker. I can’t imagine keeping it all to myself.