Leave No Trace is Pretty Self Explanatory

How to become a become a better outdoor steward through education appreciation and most importantly: picking it up, and packing it out.

A morel mushroom that was discovered as the photographer, Patton, reached to pick up a discarded can. Skyla Patton, 2022

By Skyla Patton

Apr. 29, 2022

Independent wilderness guide and lifelong Oregon resident Larry Stevens spends his days in the lush woods and rivers near his home in eastern part of the state. Stevens witnessed a change take place throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as travelers, weary of being indoors, flooded popular nearby destinations like the Ochocos and Malheurs national forests.

“When I see someone out packing up and there’s a huge sack of trash and it’s sitting by the firepit as they’re getting in their car to leave, I will stop and say, ‘hey, you are most definitely forgetting something,’” said Stevens. “And almost all the time they just say: ‘oh, that’s just trash,’ and I’m like, you’re goddamn right it’s trash. Pick it up.”

Federal data from the National Park Service show attendance increases of up to 40% from 2020 to late 2021, with Oregon national parks and recreation areas logging thousands of visitors in January 2022; Crater Lake National Park recorded over 35,000 recreation hours from visitors in Feb. 2022 alone. This influx of traveling populations can help stimulate local economies, but can also take a serious toll on preserved natural spaces.

“I’m close to the John Day river, and there’s a lot of nice campsites down there. My first summer here, maybe half of each site would be occupied,” said Stevens. Today, Stevens said he can’t find an available spot unless it’s the dead of winter, and sometimes, not even then.

“It’s totally overrun now. Everywhere is always full of people, and when it’s not full of people, it’s full of trash. I can’t stop them, I’m not law enforcement. The locals around here love this place, so they put a lot of energy into keeping it nice,” said Stevens. “We all know what happens when it’s not taken care of: a gate will go up, and it will be gone. Folks just have to learn to pack it out and leave it better than you found it.”

Fishing, hiking, backpacking, foraging; the list goes on and on when it comes to outdoor recreation options for Stevens on his 1,800 acre property on the edge of thousands of acres of national forest and BLM land. Offering independent workshops to friends and locals in the area, Stevens helps guide folks who are new to exploring outdoors to acclimate in a safe, maintained space while they learn and practice key skills such as trail navigation, basic mountaineering and wild food foraging.

Stevens hopes by helping people become more educated and appreciative of their experience outdoors, it can alleviate more congested areas by encouraging exploration of new places, like the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.

It’s difficult to find a more off-the-beaten-path experience than climbing 15,000 feet into the earth, where the mouth of the caves gape at visitors who brave the cold winds and lightless caverns below.

Located just 20 miles from Cave Junction, the caves awe and educate both local school children and visiting tourists alike with towering caverns, twinkling streams snaking through the marble and ominous stalactites reaching down from the ceiling.

While most travel guides—including the Oregon Caves website, managed by the National Park Service—highlight the experience of caving itself, there is another wealth of beauty and nature that often goes unnoticed: 4,554 protected acres of wilderness preserve and national forest.

When COVID-19 reached Oregon, tours of the caves were forced to shut down, but surrounding hiking trails remained open, serving as a reminder to old and new explorers alike to consider taking the path less traveled. Greg Walters, a Southern Oregon historian of the last 30 years and avid hiker, describes the real magic of the national park as this area around the caves, rather than the “hole in the ground” itself.

“The thing that’s so fascinating to me is not so much the caves themselves but the rest of the region there,” said Walters, who spends most of his time in the area exploring its early pack trails, tracing the park boundary and learning the many other regional hiking routes. “Though visitation to the caves had been built up over time, the area remained pretty remote until logging roads opened the general area, changing the character ecology of this pristine forest landscape.”

Limestone bluffs, crystalline creeks fed by snowmelt and the widest known Douglas fir in Oregon—towering in at 41 feet around the base—are just a few of the nearby ventures within walking distance of the visitor’s center. Walters estimates over twenty years of living in the valley, he’s completed roughly 300 assorted hikes in the area around the caves.

While the surrounding area is gorgeous and ripe for channeling your inner explorer, Walters reminds folks that park boundaries and other off-path trails are often unmaintained, and therefore potentially dangerous.

“There could be innumerable trees down, swift moving water, cliffs, brushfields, angry yellowjackets and more,” said Walters, emphasizing the importance of situational awareness and wilderness safety. “You have to demand respect and responsibility when it comes to going off trail. It’s your responsibility as the hiker to stay safe and conduct yourself in a no-trace manner.”

Being prepared for outdoor adventures is key to having an enjoyable, safe and full-length experience, especially if you’re still breaking in your hiking boots. Mike Craig, owner of Blue Mountain Outfitters in La Grande helps bridge the gap between beginners and professionals venturing into the great outdoors by providing tools and training needed for all skill levels.

“Being a smaller independent store, we service people from your first time user to all the way to seasoned outdoors people,” said Craig. “We’re trying to comfortably turn those people from a first time user to a lifelong user.”

Wilderness guides, outfitters and educators alike put countless hours of energy and time into providing resources for newcomers, and cleaning up after travelers who have yet to realize the destructive power of leaving things behind. Stewards of the great outdoors such as Stevens need help protecting those natural spaces so generations to come are able to appreciate the awe of Oregon’s natural beauty.

“‘Leave no trace' seems pretty self explanatory, right?” said Stevens. “We have to learn to self-police and stand up for what is the right way to do things on an individual basis. You have to be the example sometimes, even if no one is around to see it.”