Keeping your favorite “secret” hike a secret might just kill it. Here’s why sharing the love is the right thing to do
First, let me say I’m sorry. In my years of writing about the outdoors for Desert Companion, I’ve spilled the beans about lesser-known destinations in issue after issue — Beaver Dam State Park, Big Falls, Gass Peak, and so on. Some of them, perhaps, were your favorite secret spots. While I’m sorry to have exposed them (as I’ve exposed my own), it had to be done for the greater good. Here’s why.
If you’ve been inside the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Scenic Loop lately, you know that it’s overrun with visitors. On a recent hike to Lost Creek, my wife and I encountered so many other hikers it was actually difficult to move at times. Parking lots within the loop, even those newly expanded, are literally overflowing with folks eager to get out and enjoy some natural beauty. At popular trailheads such as Ice Box Canyon, cars have to parallel park so far down the road it’s almost a second hike just to get back to the parking lot.
The land managers at Red Rock have their own plans in place to manage the overflowing visitors to the area. Primary among them: a massive price increase at the fee booth, with rates climbing anywhere from 60 percent (pedestrian access) to 500 percent (motorcycle access). It’s a harsh solution, one that hurts poor working families for whom a day outdoors has always been an affordable entertainment option.
But if visitation could be shifted a bit, if people could be steered to trails and parking lots already in place that are a little less crowded, then the Bureau of Land Management might not need such drastic measures. A few more people showing up at your secluded overlook means less traffic and impact on the most popular areas — and that means more families might be able to afford a drive around the Red Rock Scenic Loop.
On days when the entrance to the Scenic Loop has a line of cars a half-mile long, I’ve gone just across the street, to the Cowboy Trail Rides trailhead on the public portion of Blue Diamond Hill, and hiked eight miles, sharing the trail with nary a soul. My preferred loop, from Fossil Ridge to Las Vegas Overlook, has phenomenal panoramic views of Red Rock and Las Vegas, and there are amazing fossils underfoot nearly the entire hike.
The trails on Blue Diamond Hill could easily handle hundreds of hikers per day, but rarely do they see more than a few dozen. This is the very hill that is under threat of development by Jim Rhodes, much to the dismay of the activists at Save Red Rock, a conservation group aiming to “keep Red Rock rural.”
On Blue Diamond Hill, we have a case study for why I think sharing these destinations is worthwhile. More people hiking on Blue Diamond Hill means fewer people hiking inside the Scenic Loop. That means the demands on the land and the infrastructure inside the loop are eased, lessening the need for new construction, closures, and fee increases. And most importantly, it means more people falling in love with the unique attractions found on Blue Diamond Hill. That love, at least hypothetically, leads to stewardship and activism, which helps to ensure the continued protection of our public lands.
I’m not going to pretend that increased visitation is strictly positive. Every month, I host an adopt-a-trail at some of the most popular hiking spots in Southern Nevada. The things we put in our trash bags are truly disheartening: food wrappers, cigarette butts, dog poop bags, beer cans … the list is endless. But I’ve noticed something over the years: Almost all the trash is around the parking lot. Our volunteers pick up more trash within 100 feet of the parking lot than we pick up on an entire three-mile trail. Once on the trail, the volume of litter drops significantly with each passing step, down to almost nothing.
Fortunately, the people who are lazy and apathetic enough to trash the outdoors are also generally too lazy and apathetic to trudge up switchbacks mile after mile. So, if your secret spot is hard to get to in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably safe for now. At least, it’s probably safe from vandals.
Keeping it safe from the government, and from private landholders, is another problem altogether. To understand what happens when we lose our public lands, we need look no further than Anniversary Narrows at Lake Mead, a hike I detailed in the December 2012 issue of Desert Companion. Don’t bother hiking to it now. Robert Ford, the current owner of the Anniversary Mine, and the land through which the eponymous narrows are reached, has put up a fence, blocking access to the once-popular destination. The reasons for the fence are complicated, but ultimately they come down to a dispute between Ford and the National Park Service about improvement of the access road and liability for visitor safety. The NPS asked Ford to jump through hoops to keep Anniversary Narrows accessible, and the easier solution for Ford was to put up the fence. I can’t help but think that if more people had visited the Narrows, had understood their value, public pressure could have led to an equitable agreement that included the public’s interest. Instead, the unique, ever-changing, dramatic walls of Anniversary Narrows may as well be erased from the map.
In the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and in Gold Butte National Monument, we still have a fighting chance against the fences. Both areas are under threat of considerable shrinkage at the discretion of the federal government: Gold Butte in favor of water infrastructure, and the wildlife refuge for an expansion of the Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range. In Gold Butte, it’s easy to imagine a scenario playing out in which lands that are currently protected lose their status. Once reverted, they can be sold by the BLM to, say, a cantankerous rancher who wants a place to graze his cattle. Fences go up, gates get locked, and your favorite wash is now private property, never to be hiked again. I like to think a broad groundswell of public outrage might prevent such a scenario — but that public has to know it, hike it, and love it, first.
The lands we have left, we need to hold on to with all the hands we can get. And that means we have to let people know about our favorite, secret spots, so they can fall in love with them, too. Unless enough of us stand up to preserve our public lands, they’ll be lost forever.
Alan Gegax is the organizer of the
VegasHikers Meetup group.