Herpes simplex viruses (HSV) cause chronic infection in humans that are characterized by periodic episodes of mucosal shedding and ulcerative disease. HSV causes millions of infections world-wide, with lifelong bouts of viral reactivation from latency in neuronal ganglia. Infected individuals experience different levels of disease severity and frequency of reactivation. There are two distantly related HSV species, with HSV-1 infections historically found most often in the oral niche and HSV-2 infections in the genital niche. Over the last two decades, HSV-1 has emerged as the leading cause of first-episode genital herpes in multiple countries. While HSV-1 has the highest level of genetic diversity among human alpha-herpesviruses, it is not yet known how quickly the HSV-1 viral population in a human host adapts over time, or if there are population bottlenecks associated with viral reactivation and/or transmission. It is also unknown how the ecological environments in which HSV infections occur influence their evolutionary trajectory, or that of co-occurring viruses and microbes. In this review, we explore how HSV accrues genetic diversity within each new infection, and yet maintains its ability to successfully infect most of the human population. A holistic examination of the ecological context of natural human infections can expand our awareness of how HSV adapts as it moves within and between human hosts, and reveal the complexity of these lifelong human-virus interactions. These insights may in turn suggest new areas of exploration for other chronic pathogens that successfully evolve and persist among their hosts.