Is Social Media Ruining Yellowstone?

A rise in Instagram and TikTok posts of the park may be drawing more visitors, but it’s not a new thing.

Photo: Depositphotos

The stories are gruesome: death by boiling geyser, goring by bison, dissolving in a hot spring. The cause? Visitors to Yellowstone National Park seeking better photographs to post on social media. Some selfie-takers venture off-boardwalk knowingly, eager to get just a little closer. Other amateur photographers slip and fall while their attention is on their camera screen.

These violent ends to photo sessions are common enough that the National Park Service (NPS) offers official warnings. “Zoom with your lens, not with your feet,” is one recommendation to remind visitors to stay a safe distance away from wild animals. A second recommendation, “Stay on boardwalks and trails in thermal areas,” stresses that visitors shouldn’t risk their lives for a photograph near hot springs.

A woman watching a bison from a safe distance in Yellowstone
A woman watching a bison from a safe distance in Yellowstone (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The concern about rampant photography in Yellowstone isn’t limited to questions of safety alone. Rather, social media appears to be correlated with a massive increase in the number of visitors to parks across the country, all eager to get the perfect shot. Who hasn’t seen a beautiful photo of some far-off location on their feed and immediately started Googling it? There’s no doubt that social media has made it easier to share–and to visit–previously remote and unknown destinations. In the last decade, visitors and journalists alike have wrung their hands as they reflected on the new levels of popularity a photo of a waterfall or lake might bring. The advent of Instagram in 2010 has been linked to double digit percentage increases in visitation to NPS sites and the rise of TikTok has only contributed to more crowding. Social media has meant that certain places and views became Instafamous.

Despite the larger crowds, changes in technology and social media that promote carrying selfie sticks for TikToks and garnering Instagram likes, 21st century smartphone photography doesn’t mark a turning point in how visitors interact with Yellowstone National Park. In fact, photography–with all the dangers and promises of awe-inspiring shots of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or Grand Prismatic Spring–has long been central to how tourists experience the park. Contemporary concerns about visitors’ unsafe behavior in pursuit of the perfect image, and the notion that influencers are overcrowding popular sites in a fundamentally different way, are at odds with the history of Yellowstone. Beautiful shots from the park have indeed served to create more heavily trafficked spaces, but it’s not a new phenomenon. Photography has been drawing visitors to Yellowstone since before its inception.

A lone bison at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic
A lone bison at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic (Photo: Doug Palmer)

From its invention, photography has been a central way that visitors capture their experiences. Since the 19th century, travelers have used photos to affirm their presence, to check off seeing the “right” views, and as a way to engage with what they are seeing. Additionally, photography played a vital role in promoting Yellowstone and winning its official designation as our first national park. Important moments changed the trajectory of the park itself and show how we arrived in this moment of risky selfies and over-tagged Instagram locations.

How Photos Helped Shape Our First National Park

In 1871, an expedition organized by the U.S. Government set out for the geologic wonders of Wyoming Territory. Dr. Ferdinand Hayden led the expedition as the director of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories to explore the western landscape. Congress allocated $40,000 (more than $1 million in 2023) for the surveying journey. While the group was full of field scientists such as botanists and mineralogists, political patrons and a guide, perhaps the most important members of the survey ended up being the artists. Photographer William Henry Jackson, then working at a photography studio in Omaha, Nebraska, and landscape painter Thomas Moran, participated in the journey.

Mammoth Hot Springs with Langford on formation – Click to see more. (Photo: William H Jackson; 1872)

Both were hired to capture the beauty and wonder of the region so that the results could be taken back to Congress. Jackson photographed Yellowstone Lake, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River among many other views in his day’s black and white. His counterpart, Moran, was able to bring dramatic color to other park scenes with paintings that captured the deep blues and oranges of places such as the Upper Geyser Basin.

The pictures were central to the designation of Yellowstone as the first national park the following year. Jackson’s photographs offered proof of the grandeur of this little known western land. The images—both the photographs and the paintings—were placed on display in the Capitol building’s rotunda in Washington D.C., where members of Congress would often pass by on their way to vote. When legislation to make Yellowstone a national park arose, these were the images politicians used to imagine the far-off land. These artworks did not do the work of convincing Congress alone: the official reports from the expedition along with the influence of railroad executives eyeing the promise of tourism also had a hand. But historians agree that helping easterners visualize these new vistas for the first time was crucial in the vote to create our country’s first national park in 1872.

Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" presented to Congress
Thomas Moran’s “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” presented to Congress (Painting by Thomas Moran, Photo: Public Domain)

Park boosters’ goal was to avoid the commercialization that had happened in preceding decades at another one of our country’s natural wonders, Niagara Falls. There, the fame of the grand falls brought both crowds and industrial development. By the middle of the 19th century, visitors had begun to lament that commercialization prevented true enjoyment of this exceptional American landscape. In Yellowstone, with the help of images from Jackson to prompt protective legislation, such a fate might be avoided. As Hayden, the organizer of the 1872 expedition, explained, the goal was to work against the threat “to fence in these rare wonders so as to charge visitors a fee, as is now done at Niagara Falls, for the sight of which ought to be as free as the air or water.”

The scenes of what would become Yellowstone National Park became famous for the landscapes they captured rather than for a procession of human figures. There was no place in the burgeoning world of national park artistry for bison selfies. Nonetheless, the act of documenting these scenes sent a similar message to modern Instagram images. I was there, I witnessed, the photographs announce. And you, too, faraway viewer, can find similar scenes if you are lucky enough to visit. The long life of Jackson’s images went far beyond political messaging. They shaped what generations of tourists came to expect from their visits.

The Book That Inspired a New Generation of Yellowstone Visitors

In 1916, a curious book landed—free of charge—on the desks of 275,000 prominent politicians and business leaders around the United States. It was an expensive volume to produce, featuring hundreds of photographs. The very first chapter to grab readers’ attention was focused on the land of wonders itself, Yellowstone National Park. Alongside promotional text from the Secretary of the Interior, the book contained 31 views of the many personalities of this paradise from animals to anglers alike.

This book was the National Parks Portfolio, assembled by millionaire borax businessman and Sierra Club member Stephan Mather. Mather, who would go on to serve as the first National Park Service director from 1917-1929, was eager to promote American national parks to more visitors. To raise awareness both about the most famous parks, such as Yellowstone, and less-visited ones such as Crater Lake, Mather published and distributed the National Parks Portfolio.

Pages about Yellowstone, National Park Portfolio. Click to see Volume I. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of the Interior)

Publishing so many photographs was an expensive endeavor. It cost $48,000 ($1.4 million in 2023) to print all the images. Mather used $5,000 of his own money (more than $146,000 in 2023) and raised the rest from railroad companies that were once again eager to promote tourism. As a publicity machine, the book paid off. Mather used the National Parks Portfolio to advocate for a new federal agency that would protect and manage existing parks and expand the roster to create new ones. Later that year, an Act of Congress created the National Park Service.

Once again, photography played two important roles in shaping the history of Yellowstone and other national parks. First, the National Parks Portfolio images pushed politicians to establish the park service and charged the office with both conservation and providing for the “enjoyment of future generations.” Second, images that captured billowing clouds of water at Old Faithful or the great white hills of Mammoth Hot Springs informed readers of precisely the sights they ought to seek out themselves.

These same views of the park remain popular with amateur and professional photographers alike to this day. Popular shots, according to the National Park Service, will come as no surprise to Yellowstone fans: Grand Prismatic Spring, the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, and Old Faithful top the list.

Travel websites these days are even more didactic about why tourists ought to take pictures. Images serve to document the trip, to “cherish” the features long after you return home according to the Bozeman Convention and Visitors Bureau. And the best viewpoints, for anyone with a smartphone, don’t differ much from the images Jackson captured nearly 150 years ago. Yes, the images are crisper, and the springs appear in bright colors now, but the intent is similar. It matters little that millions of park visitors each year take in the very same views and bring home nearly identical photographs. Indeed, for many of the visitors who eagerly photograph sunrise from a famous overlook along with a crowd or pose for a family picture at a viewing area, the repetition and familiarity of the scene is what gives it power. The crowds all aiming for the same shot only confirm that visitors are doing what they are supposed to: enjoying timeless views of the landscape, affirmed by generations of photographers before them.

Author at the Lower Falls in Yellowstone
Author at the Lower Falls in Yellowstone (Photo: Rachel S. Gross)

A review of road trip photos from this author from 19 years ago confirms the consistency of the images throughout the decades. My best friend captured me posing in front of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in roughly the same spot that Jackson and the National Parks Portfolio photographer after him must have stood. It was the era of digital cameras but before social media platforms that encouraged sharing vacation photos, so I doubt that anyone besides our parents ever saw the photo. Though there must be millions of similar photos occupying physical and digital albums alike, I still delight in what that picture prompts for me: the food we ate, the book on tape we listened to, and above all the time we shared in a landscape like no other.

Viral photos and videos drawing visitors to the park aren’t anything new. If social media is ruining Yellowstone, it’s not the photos themselves that are doing the harm. Photography remains a way to engage with the landscape and animals of Yellowstone, hopefully without wandering off boardwalks or too close to bison’s horns. Each safely captured image can serve as reminder, as Jackson’s did: I was here, and this place I saw is worth preserving.

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