See 'sunset wars' pictures of national parks' amazing skies

To encourage a love of nature, two national parks started the internet’s most wholesome war.

It was an innocuous opening salvo: On May 5, an Instagram post boasted that Saguaro National Park has “the best sunsets in the world.” Taking offense, Joshua Tree National Park fired back. The #parksunsetwars had begun.

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The battle begins: Comments on the May 5 Saguaro National Park post show the initial rift.

Spontaneous banter between two parks’ social media teams turned into a week-long hashtag challenge, with other national parks—from Grand Canyon to Gettysburg—joining the fray. Initially drawing from their own stock of photos, the official accounts at Saguaro and Joshua Tree soon began reposting the sunset snaps shared by their enthusiastic followers. [Can you fly with a mummified head? Ask the TSA’s cheeky Instagram.]

“We were very happy to show Joshua Tree just how awesome the sunsets out here are,” says Sharlot Hart, acting lead interpreter at Saguaro, who’s had a hand in the campaign. (Her colleague, Lauren Nichols, was the one to make the fateful post; now on leave, “she probably doesn’t even know what she started,” Hart says.)

Saguaro National Park, whose two wings embrace Tucson, Arizona, isn’t one of the big-name parks. But its stunning sunsets more than hold their own against those in Joshua Tree, its bigger California cousin. No public consensus has yet been reached regarding which park does, in fact, have the superior sunsets.

“Just know that we’re right,” says Hart.

Not Just a Pretty Face

Nearby festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach draw extra visitors from the Instagramming crowd to Joshua Tree, and like many NPS officials, they’re trying to make the connection, using pretty pictures to communicate visiting information, fun facts, and safety tips.

“We’re like, ‘Please don’t touch the cholla cactus,’” laughs Kristi Rugg, media branch chief at Joshua Tree. “‘Please be careful when you’re hiking; it gets really hot.’”

A short trip from major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Diego, Joshua Tree has seen attendance triple over the last decade. Over three million people are expected to visit this year, Rugg says. But it’s also one of 17 big-name parks whose fees may soon double following a 2017 NPS proposal, intended to provide funds for overdue maintenance, that has raised concerns about accessibility.

National parks have been exhaustively hailed as America’s “best idea,” and modern science only adds another voice to the choir. While three days in nature can give a much-needed break to overstressed brains, even a little green time has health and cognition benefits. Scientists and NPS officials alike have argued in favor of keeping the parks open to all. [Learn how climate change will shape the parks of tomorrow.]

“It’s not all about [the rangers], or the people going into the backcountry,” Hart says. “We’re national parks. We’re the people’s parks. So getting people out to take their own sunset pictures, and have that pride in public lands, is awesome.”

The sunset wars are reaching a détente—“this is a war where everyone wins,” a recent Saguaro post graciously notes—but the rangers aren’t done yet. That post also asks followers to suggest the topic of the next battle.

My vote? #parkstarwars.