A Travel Writer Reflects on Her Profession, Overcrowding, and Hate Mail

“Do you silly writers realize the damage you’re causing?” the email read. “Write about and ruin your own home.” A guy named Jim was responding to a story I’d written for Outside about the Million Dollar Highway, a high-altitude roadway that connects the Colorado towns of Silverton and Ouray.

“You wrote an article about Highway 550 and the Ouray area, but what you probably can’t understand is that enough fools have already done the same thing these past few years and now this area is so freaking busy, that all the folks who live here are asking, ‘What happened?’ ‘How did we get so busy’ that it’s completely RUINED,” Jim continued. “People who have lived in the Ouray area for generations are moving away because the whole area is being overrun.”

If you’re looking for someone to blame, apparently it’s my fault that the once-quiet corner of southwest Colorado is now swarmed with people. But here’s the deal: sharing information about unique places in the outdoors is literally my job as a correspondent for Outside, and what if I have an opportunity to inspire people to visit a new place that will alter their view of themselves and the world around them? What if they fall in love with that place and then work to protect it? Wouldn’t you want to share that? Don’t you want others to know the beauty of the place you love so much? Well, sorry, but I do.

Travel writing—an archaic job that’s now mostly been replaced by influencers and YouTubers—sounds glamorous, but it really isn’t. Nowadays, it takes deciphering which places are under-the-radar gems that could benefit from a tourism boost and which spots are so overvisited that you’ll sit in gridlock just getting through town.

I like to inspire people to get outside. In fact, that’s Outside’s core mission. I also know that many U.S. towns that rely on tourism were hit hard during the pandemic with less income as a result of fewer travelers, and outfitters, stores, and restaurants went out of business. Now that people are traveling again, I also consider that many of these towns are getting more tourists than ever before and business owners are still struggling to find the staff to accommodate them.

“You have to ask yourself, is your writing about a place contributing to or taking away from the place?” veteran travel writer and longtime Outside contributor Stephanie Pearson, author of the new book 100 Great American Parks, told me. “You have to take responsibility. If you participate in this, how are you making it better?”

I had called Pearson to ask for some advice. How do I deal with the fact that, as a travel writer, I’m possibly contributing to our current overcrowding problem? In other words, what if Jim is right?

“The party line is that yes, more people will go there, but they will love and respect those places, so they won’t be destroyed,” Pearson said. “But in some areas like Moab, where tourists have trashed campsites, started fires, and dumped RV sewage, some residents believe that disrespectful visitors can be almost as destructive as the extractive industries that tourism was supposed to replace.”

On the story on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, someone commented: “Nooooooo!!! Tourists are dangerous on this road!!!!!! … STAY AWAY!!!!!!!” 

Pearson said she’s of the philosophy that everyone should be given access to these places, but we all need to take responsibility as well. She told me she’s become even more thoughtful about the places she writes about. The first question she asks local sources when she’s writing about a new place: Do you want me to write about this? Sometimes, the hotel clerk or the dive shop employee will say, no, we have enough crowds. Or sometimes they’ll say, August is very busy, but tell people to come in September instead. “I think we are hard wired as humans to want to wander, and people are always going to travel, but there’s always a more responsible way to do it. If you feel like a place shouldn’t be written about, don’t write about it,” she said.

When I was writing about ski towns to live in, the PR person from a well-known western ski resort told me, kindly: please don’t write about us. “The town has seen an influx of homebuyers from out of state, resulting in a shortage of affordable housing and a lot of resentment among the workers who call this place home,” he wrote. “I know this story isn’t unique, but right now, the resort and our local visitor bureaus are focused on promoting stewardship and sustainable tourism, rather than contributing to the population boom.”

So, I didn’t write about that town. I don’t want to add to the problem; ideally, I’d like to help solve it, by writing about issues like responsible tourism, best practices, and how you can give back to a community you’re visiting. But again, my job is to write about great places to travel to, so I’ve got to try to find spots where the locals won’t hate me for mentioning their hometown.

Jim’s note was hardly the first hate mail I’d received. On the story on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, someone commented: “Nooooooo!!! Tourists are dangerous on this road!!!!!! I’ve seen too many crazy things because tourists don’t know how to drive mountain roads … STAY AWAY!!!!!!!”

When I wrote about underrated beach towns, I got comments like, “Way to blow up the spots.” A piece on best free campsites in all 50 states—which, for the record, included responsible dispersed camping practices and didn’t divulge any spot that’s all that unknown—warranted an onslaught of angry responses along the lines of: “And now they’re all ruined. Keep the best places private!”

Concealing our secret spots just makes us gatekeepers to public lands that never belonged to us in the first place.

We now live in a world where Leave No Trace principles apply to not leaving trash on your next hike and also to social media guidelines on how to post about your favorite places and whether or not to geotag them. “The pushback against geotagging involves ordinary people deputizing themselves and asserting authority they don’t actually have to keep the outdoors ‘pure’ or ‘wild,’ ‘pristine,’ or simply, the way they remembered it from childhood by excluding people they view as dirty, loud, offensive, or simply not sharing their values,” Danielle Williams, founder of DiversifyOutdoors.com, writes on her blog.

Williams’ point is loud and clear. If we want to make the outdoors a place where everyone feels welcome, then we need to share information—as well as education. Concealing our secret spots just makes us gatekeepers to public lands that never belonged to us in the first place. “The so-called United States is Native Land and even the places you think of as ‘the middle of nowhere’ are the beloved homelands of Native people,” Jolie Varela, founder of a community called Indigenous Women Hike, writes in an Instagram post. “National Parks or so-called public lands are stolen Native lands, not your playgrounds or your backyard.”

There’s a sliding scale between thinking a secret spot is yours to own and keep private versus the trampling effect of overtourism. Ideally, we can live somewhere in the middle, sharing places to make them more accessible to a wider array of people but also protecting spots that risk being overrun. And it’s on all of us—writers, influencers, tourists, state and local governments—to find a sustainable way forward.

Not everyone is angry, of course. Occasionally, people will tell me they visited a place I recommended in a story and they were grateful for the insight. My editor at Outside was on a hike recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a fellow hiker told her that he wouldn’t have known about that trail if it weren’t for Outside and that he appreciated the tip.

“The recipe for preserving nature is not to have less people experience it; it’s to have more people experience it,” photographer Chris Burkard says.

Most travel writers—myself included—recognize the hypocrisy of what we do: revealing other people’s secluded stashes but sometimes hoarding our own. “We have a campground close to where we live in New Jersey that I’ve really kept secret over the years, because selfishly, I want to be able to get a site there,” says Jeremy Puglisi, author of the guidebook, Where Should We Camp Next? “Call me a hypocrite, but I don’t want that place to get overwhelmed. But if some other writer or influencer shows up and blows the place up, I’m not going to get angry with them. Are there really any secrets anymore? With the internet and how easy it is to find information, it’s very hard to call any place a real secret anymore.”

Puglisi told me he considers if a campground can handle crowds before he covers it—does it have two campsites or 200?—and also that it’s becoming increasingly harder to find places that are truly undiscovered. “If we show up to a great spot, and there are other people there, I don’t find the experience ruined because someone else is there,” he says. “I don’t have to be totally alone to enjoy nature. I’m never going to complain about a crowd somewhere, because I’m there, so I’m part of the crowd.”

There’s a weird little corner of the internet where people post videos and locations of free, dispersed campsites on public lands, like a guy who goes by Dispersed Camper Man on YouTube, or RoaminRazz. They mainly shoot low-budget phone videos of beautiful, remote campsites, sharing so the rest of the world can find and enjoy. Nobody hates on them. Instead, they get comments like: “Thanks for the specific directions and coordinates.”

Photographer Chris Burkard, who has 3.9 million followers on Instagram and travels the world taking stunning photos of places that most of us will never see, says he’s careful about giving away specific instructions to the places he photographs. Not to serve as a gatekeeper, but to preserve people’s experiences in exploring their own path. “If you’re giving someone a road map to a place, that can be a bit of a bummer. The greatest joy comes from finding a place, or researching a place,” he told me. “We need to give people a chance. We need to understand that nature can provide a way.”

According to him, we don’t need outdoor places that are limited to the lucky few. We just need those who visit those places to be respectful. “The recipe for preserving nature is not to have less people experience it; it’s to have more people experience it,” Burkard says. “But if you’re going to unlock the gate to a place, there better be some instructions on that gate. I share places with the hope that other people experience them, but I hope they experience those places with a sense of respect and care.”

I hung up the phone with Burkard and made a resolution to myself. If I show up at your swimming hole or ski mountain, I’m warning you now, I may write about it. Sorry in advance. I think everyone should be able to experience beautiful places. But I promise you this: I’ll do my absolute best to remind readers to learn about the history, pick up their trash, tip their guides, and be kind to the locals and the land.

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