RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you've ever spent time at Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park or the rim of the Grand Canyon, you've no doubt seen a bunch of people jockeying for position to capture the perfect selfie for that perfect Instagram moment. Nate Hegyi of the Mountain West News Bureau explores how social media is changing the way that we experience wild places.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: It's 5:30 in the morning at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. The predawn sky is just beginning to show color. Jonathan Zhang is frantically setting up his professional-looking camera and tripod. He wants to get the perfect shot of the sun rising over deep canyons and rock spires, all framed by a glowing, orange arch.
JONATHAN ZHANG: Once the sun comes up, the color of the arch is really incredible.
HEGYI: Zhang says it's a stunning view and one you've probably seen before.
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HEGYI: See. A few years ago, Microsoft used a picture of the Sunrise at Mesa Arch as one of its backgrounds for Windows 7. The landmark has since blown up on social media, making this once-hidden gem Instagram famous. Today, Zhang has to squeeze between dozens of other people all vying to get the same shot. Zhang says this busy scene was not how it looked when he first visited Mesa Arch a decade ago.
ZHANG: There were only maybe two or three guys. But now, you know, it's like every morning, it's crowded.
HEGYI: I watch as a couple of tourists pose for selfies near the edge of the cliff before a nearby photographer waves them away. And that points to another side effect of all this obsession with documenting your life on social media. People sometimes do stupid things to get cool shots. They climb arches, hang off the edge of cliff sides or stand right next to a bison at Yellowstone. Now, no one has fallen off the steep cliff near Mesa Arch yet, but hiker Renee Gardner says the growing popularity is a double-edged sword.
RENEE GARDNER: Parks need money and contributions. But it's also when you come to, like, view something like this, and there's a million people taking pictures, and you can't really enjoy the view.
HEGYI: Across the Mountain West, visitation to national parks has increased by more than a third since Instagram was founded in 2010. But is social media - people tagging their exact location and sharing the photos - really to blame for all the new crowds? The evidence is anecdotal. Gas prices and a strong U.S. economy may play a bigger role. Ashley D'Antonio is a recreation ecologist at Oregon State University. She argues that sharing locations on social media can actually be a good thing for our national parks.
ASHLEY D'ANTONIO: So most of the visitors to our parks and protected areas are kind of upper-middle class, white, slightly older. But there's been a lot of groups that use social media to kind of get more people of color or people that aren't traditionally seen in our protected areas out recreating and promoting that this is a space for you, too.
HEGYI: Still, bigger crowds are leading to tensions between smartphone-wielding tourists and serious photographers who used to have these places more to themselves. Photographer Drew Armstrong and a couple of his buddies watch as a young woman strikes a yoga pose in front of the arch.
DREW ARMSTRONG: It's frustrating when they want to get a shot in their Lululemon pants because they're wearing Lululemon pants. I want them to be here and say, you know, this is important. This is - this needs to be protected.
HEGYI: Armstrong and his two buddies believe that in the rush to take selfies and post them to the Internet, people are missing out on what makes the parks and public lands so amazing in the first place.
NEALE ZINGLE: Solitude, peaceful moments, nature.
HEGYI: That's Armstrong's buddy Neale Zingle. But as the sun rises above Mesa Arch, the big crowds begin to dwindle. And eventually, they're all gone. And that's what I'm left with - my own Instagram moment, alone and peaceful. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi at Canyonlands National Park.
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MARTIN: That story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau.
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