Most of us don’t pretend to be irresponsible visitors to national parks. We adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) and view marked off sections as no go zones – not barriers between us and the perfect photo shoot.
But then we bend the rules with a quick off-trail shortcut between our crowded trail and the less traveled one. Or nature calls at the most inopportune moment, the rare day when we forgot bags to pack used toilet paper. “Just this once,” we tell ourselves, confident that we are following LNT 99% of the time.
But with larger crowds and first-time visitors modeling the behaviors of other travelers, even small choices for once can add up. “Are there more people behaving badly? Probably not. Most of our visitors behave well. They do the right thing,” says Kyle Patterson, public affairs officer for Rocky Mountain National Park. “It’s just that we have more people.”
To help you simultaneously enjoy and protect America’s beloved outdoor spaces, we’ve rounded up important reminders from rangers and travel outfitters who see these park issues firsthand. Here’s how they suggest visiting national parks responsibly.
Don’t skimp on the preparation
With more and more parks requiring permits and reservations, it’s getting harder and harder to visit spontaneously — and according to Patterson, that’s not so bad. She says research and park preparation are essential; without them, you put yourself in danger (and potentially monopolize search and rescue resources).
“You may be a really fit person, but fitness really doesn’t matter when it comes to feeling the ill effects of higher elevations,” says Patterson, recommending visitors to lower elevations to give their bodies time to adjust to the RMNP, which varies with altitude. from 7,860 to 14,259 feet. (This type of adjustment usually takes a day or two, according to the Cleveland Clinic.)
Planning also involves checking the weather forecast. In some parts of the country, spring means sunshine and blooming flowers, but “we get most of our snow in March and April,” says Patterson, noting that visitors often show up without gear suitable for the elements.
Being prepared for all conditions – from a rapid change in weather to the adverse effects of altitude – does more than keep you comfortable while exploring. This helps preserve NPS search and rescue resources, which are depleted. Beyond physical condition, altitude, and weather preparation, take extra precautions like carrying a satellite phone and paper map, and let a responsible friend or family member know your route, especially if you are hiking in the backcountry.
Adjust your expectations or visit out of season
National parks are crowded, and that won’t change any time soon. Sure, timed entries can ease the burden, but “if you plan to go [to a national park] between Memorial Day and mid-October, in the middle of the day, you should expect a good number of people,” says Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, one of many parks that have struggled with overcrowding during the pandemic.
Jenkins suggests visiting out of season or outside of opening hours. “You can have a fabulous time visiting these places in the evening, at night and early in the morning when you will have these places mostly to yourself.”
If you are visiting during peak times, be kind to other travellers. And remember you, too, are part of the crowd. “National parks belong to all of us,” says Patterson. “Visitors who have been coming for years and first-time visitors are all important because they are the ones who will be the stewards of this place.”
Don’t DIY a parking spot
Unprecedented crowds mean limited parking spaces. Patterson says she’s seen an increasing number of drivers create their own spots so they can get out and enjoy the park sooner, a move that damages native flora.
“Don’t create parking spots where there aren’t any,” she says, acknowledging that it may mean waiting longer in your car to find a spot. “Park in designated spaces, on asphalt and gravel, not on grass, meadows, bushes or alpine tundra.”
It’s not about how close you can get to a wild animal, like a bobcat, coyote or bear, says Patterson. You should ask yourself the reverse: “How far back should I stay?”
And yes, that applies to animals that look cute and cuddly, or ones that would make for a great photo. “What people do is they keep coming and going until the wildlife starts to react to their presence,” says Patterson. But in an instant, that encounter with wildlife can turn tragic, like the 2019 bison attack, seen in a viral video, which required airlifting a young girl out of Yellowstone National Park.
In Yellowstone, where wildlife encounters happen almost daily, rangers ask visitors to keep a distance of at least 25 meters from bison and elk and 100 meters from bears and wolves, according to Wyoming Public Radio .
Follow local campfire rules
Given the ever-increasing risk of wildfires, especially in the west, rangers urge visitors to learn and follow all campfire guidelines. “Rocky has always had fire restrictions in place,” says Patterson, noting that RMNP restricts campfires except in designated campfire circles at picnic areas and campgrounds across the country. foreland.
Whether it is an RMNP picnic area or any outdoor area that allows campfires, it is important to follow the Leave No Trace guidelines, including the use of water (not dirt) to put out a fire and pack up all the campfire waste.
Learn local Aboriginal history
Scenic vistas and snow-capped mountains can be dazzling, but many US national parks have deep Indigenous history. Understanding a park’s past and learning more about local Indigenous experiences are key to becoming a responsible national park traveler.
“We love researching community perspectives and learning how history is seen through different lenses,” says Matt Berna, managing director of Intrepid Travel, a certified B Corp tour operator that has been running national park tours for over 20 years old. Intrepid coordinates trips to the reservations with Indigenous guides to “showcase the original keepers of the land and respect their history by learning their stories.”
You can coordinate your own cultural trips with a little planning and research. “Many reserves have cultural tourism. The Wind River Preserve, one of the closest to Grand Teton, offers a wide range of recommendations and ideas for visitors,” says Jenkins. “That’s true all over the country, from Florida, the Dakotas and Washington State to California and Texas.”
Be wise in the bathroom
A less than pleasant byproduct of increased crowds in national parks: increased human litter. “Everyday, [trail crews] go and move a rock, and there’s human waste,” Patterson says. “Or they’re going to move something else, and there’s toilet paper strewn everywhere.”
When you can, use established restrooms, Patterson says. And if you’re hiking and can’t hold back, know that Intrepid’s LNT-certified guides teach their guests two important practices: “Keep at least 100 yards from waterways for stops to the toilet,” Berna says, “and bury the waste at least six inches below the surface.
Respect pet restrictions
We all love our track dogs, but parents of even the best trained puppies need to follow the rules. “We keep seeing people who come here with dogs walk past signs that say no dogs allowed,” says Patterson.
“It’s extremely unfortunate because dogs are predators, they can transmit diseases to wildlife and fall prey to wildlife,” she says. “Other visitors should be able to enjoy native wildlife in their natural environment, undisturbed by other visitors’ pets.” At RMNP, leashed dogs are only permitted in campgrounds or frontcountry roads, not on trails.
Stay on the trail
Of course, some destinations, like Denali National Park, allow off-trail hiking, but you should only go off-trail if the park explicitly allows it. Patterson says sticking to marked trails is one of the best ways to protect these national parks for the future.
“The increase in social pathways [informal trails created by foot traffic] damages park resources,” she says. ” Born [take a] shortcut; don’t widen the trail on the way down. It’s something that’s obviously been happening for decades, but when you have more and more people doing it, you’re going to see more impacts.