10 Things You Should Know When Visiting National Parks

Yellowstone National Park

What Do National Parks Do For You?

A decade ago I set the goal of visiting all the U.S. national parks. The decision was predicated upon grief and loss: my best friend had just died in a terrorist attack and the only salve to the wound seemed to be trails. So I kept hiking them. It started in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was living at the time, and spread from park to park to park. Thus far I have been to 56 of the 63 national parks.

Over this past decade much has changed with the parks and the ways we enjoy them (for example, Instagram did not yet exist when I started), and, because of this, we as recreationalists need to keep learning and relearning how to be optimal land stewards to minimize impact and keep these places unimpaired for future generations. Now I’m no angel in this expertise, as I have made my fair share of outdoor mistakes, but luckily have learned from many of them. Therefore, here are my 10 suggestions for things you should know when visiting our national parks.

Yellowstone national park photo

How Do We Protect National Parks?

#1 Stewardship 101

I put this at the top of the list because it will play a factor in all subsequent suggestions and because it is a subject you will continue to expound upon the more you engage with the outdoors. Stewardship, by definition, is the role of taking care of something and since national parks are public lands, it is our collective responsibility to preserve them. This begins with education.

In a nutshell, stewardship boils down to how you should behave in a park. A good place to start is the Leave No Trace Seven Principals. Additionally, if you see posted rules by the National Parks Service (such as not feeding wildlife, staying on designated trails, or speed limits), please obey them—they were not created as mere suggestions. A good barometer to behavior would be to ask yourself, “If everyone else who visited did this action too (such as removing a piece of petrified wood from Petrified Forest National Park or carving your name in a redwood tree), would there be irreparable damage to the park?” If the answer is yes, you shouldn’t do it.

In short, the parks are here for one’s enjoyment, but not one’s abuse or privilege.

#2 Safety First

Well, more like safety second. After you first know how to protect the parks, it’s important then to protect yourself. As much as a national park can feel like a theme park (long lines, crowded parking lots, international travelers), these are still wild places and you are subject to their inherent dangers.

Preliminary research of a park is a great start, such as guidebooks (here’s a personal favorite) or park websites. These will inform you on weather conditions, wildlife advice, and active alerts. Again, signage in the parks will help too, so be sure to peruse the bulletin boards when at visitor centers—interpretive rangers are often around to answer questions as well. If a sign says not to climb on a rock formation, please don’t. If there are guard rails keeping you from the lip of a waterfall, don’t cross them.

As for out-of-the-car adventuring, our friends at The Mountaineers have devised a 10 Essentials list that will prepare you for emergencies—give it a look before you embark!

bike camping

Know About The National Park Before Arriving

#3 Not All Parks Are the Same

Parks require ample research because public lands have a long and tangled history of administration that can be confusing. For example, the National Forest Service, The Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service all have different laws and guidelines of usage that can vary drastically. The National Park Service alone is currently comprised of 423 units (which can include national monuments, national historic sites, national lakeshores, et al.), and of these units, 63 are national parks. Each separate National Park Service designation can have its own guidelines, too.

Therefore, it’s important to research each individual park before you go and not expect one park experience to be a baseline example for all. For example, some parks (like Denali and Zion) don’t allow private vehicles on certain roads during different times of the year and require you to acquire a bus ticket instead. Other places might have bad mosquitoes during different seasons (Congaree National Park) or require permits to participate (Half Dome in Yosemite). There is nothing worse than driving several hours to a park and not getting to enter or not enjoying the visit because you didn’t do your research.

#4 Timing is Everything

Similar to researching each individual park, it’s also important to know when to visit. Many parks are subject to inclement weather and experience seasonal closures—portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier, for example, are generally closed mid-October through late-June due to snow. As further examples, I wouldn’t visit Death Valley in the height of summer or Virgin Islands National Park during hurricane season. That said, having this knowledge can work in your favor. My favorite times to visit national parks are during these buffer seasons; visiting right before the roads close or right after they open can greatly reduce the number of people in the park.

Preparation will require some forethought and adaptability—always have a backup plan in case there are surprises. You never know when a road might be closed for construction or when wildfires might make air quality unsafe (or, say, when a global pandemic might change the whole visitation paradigm).

#5 Think Outside the Box

We often get caught up in what a national park experience “should” be: driving every mile of roadway, visiting every popular destination, sleeping in the historic lodges. To be honest, this can be exhausting, stressful, and expensive. Sometimes it’s best to shift the expectation, especially for more popular parks, and find alternative adventures. Some suggestions include biking Yellowstone and Denali in the spring while the roads are closed to motorized vehicles or a full moon hike at White Sands National Park. Again, timing is everything—such opportunities can often fly under the radar and have a limited window of availability, so be sure to seek the advice of an in-the-know local when planning.

Old faithful national park photo

Know What To Expect When Adventuring In A National Park

#6 Set Realistic Expectations

This is an especially important point to consider: national parks are becoming more and more popular. This is largely due to social media’s influence and strategic marketing around the National Park Service’s 2016 centennial. Because of this, many parks are seeing a spike in visitation rates (here are some great visitation graphs regarding Arches). It’s important then to have realistic expectations for your visits, such as: long waits at entrance gates, traffic jams (often caused by wildlife sightings), lots of time in the car, full parking lots, limited cell service, and crowds at popular sites. This can be disorienting as we often want parks to be calming, peaceful, and a break from the humdrum of city life. My best advice would be to either approach these experiences knowing that national parks can be stressful, or altering your plans to visit less popular destinations (Canyonlands sees about half the visitors of Arches and they are basically across Highway 191 from each other).

#7 Use Social Media Responsibly

As you can see in the previous photo, social media has changed the ways we interact with public lands—and most of the time when people break park rules (and thus become bad stewards and compromising their own safety), it’s because they are trying to get a photo. Hence, if taking a picture requires you to compromise wildlife, destroy terrain, or risks your safety, please know it’s not worth it (and often illegal). Whatever precedent you set by posting an illegally derived photo on the Internet encourages others to try to get similar shots and can ruin the national park experience for everyone.

Instead, I encourage you to use social media for good, such as posting about stewardship, leave no trace, and safety. Here are some helpful suggestions from the NPS.

North Cascades National Park Photo

Support Local When Adventuring

#8 Support Local

Outdoor recreation in our national parks would be greatly diminished without the gateway towns that support the outdoor economy. Be mindful of this when traveling into someone else’s community and please be respectful (know the local environmental and social considerations). The best way to ensure these local resources continue is by spending your dollars: eat at independent cafes or breweries, gear up at mom-and-pop shops, use regional guides. This helps to keep national park experiences unique, fun, and enjoyable. It also creates a trickle down effect in the economy that sustains and generates jobs and services, brings more visitors to the region, and therefore generates more revenue for the national parks and helps them to fund their mission of maintaining the federal property.

#9 Share the Experience

Despite being public lands, not everyone has equal access to national parks and many things like entrance fees, transportation, and gear can act as barriers to involvement. Luckily, initiatives are being implemented, such as “Every Kid Outdoors” and “Ticket to Ride, ” that help to address these growing issues. Getting youth in the outdoors is of rising importance, as humans become more and more an urban species, because we must rear the next generation to be future land stewards and adventures.

The official fundraising partner of the National Park Service is the National Park Foundation, but many parks have their own “friends groups” too—research which group fits your philanthropic interests and think about donating.

#10 Seek Guidance!

What I love about GuideGap and why I’ve decided to support their platform is that they take everything I’ve discussed thus far and make it easy for you—they eliminate hours of searching the Internet, sifting through unorganized and overwhelming information, and give you a self-guided outdoor adventure based on your individual interests and needs. By doing this, GuideGap also supports local businesses, mitigates overcrowding and impact on the land, and fosters enjoyable trips for any age group or experience level. The service is highly affordable (and this comes from a guy who spent years living in a van and dumpster diving) and curated from professionals. I only wish I had such guidance ten years ago when I embarked on my mistake-laden national park journey!

Tyler Dunning

About The Author:  Tyler

Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Check out Tyler’s website at: Tyler Dunning

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