Tourism to Joshua Tree National Park in California’s High Desert has exploded — it has seen a natural growth over the decades, but in recent years, both social media and the pandemic have created a surge in visitors, some unfortunately only interested in getting the perfect Instagram shot or defacing the park’s beloved trees (Yucca brevifolia). Brad Rassler reports that visitation has nearly doubled since 2014, but the budget and resources set aside for the park has stayed the same.

What can be done to ensure the preservation of the park? It’s up to David Smith, Joshua Tree’s superintendent, to figure out solutions, whether it’s building more roads, establishing a reservation system, prohibiting cellphones, or instituting more visitor rules. Rassler’s piece for Alta is an informative story about the current state of Joshua Tree, but also a great profile of Smith — a nature-loving California native who, naturally, became a ranger for the U.S. National Park Service.

Visitors pilfer rolls of toilet paper from the vault toilets or toss them into the sewage below. They heist or hew entire Joshua trees or decorate them using spray paint and pocketknife; boulders and interpretive signs, too. They drive off-road, creating furrows that will persist for decades and shredding the bacteria-rich cryptobiotic crust. An Andy Goldsworthy wannabe, or perhaps a hyperactive 10-year-old, has erected about 100 small cairns out by the Hall of Horrors, carbuncles in an otherwise unblemished landscape. Why do people do these things? While nobody knows why, they’re by-products of the park’s newfound popularity.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.