The Do’s and Don’ts of National Parks, According to Park Rangers

From picking up after yourself to staying on the trail, here are rangers’ top tips for exploring the country’s natural treasures.

Jessica Militare
Jul 1, 2019 · 6 min read

Illustration by Laura Bagnato

The National Park System saw 1.5 billion total visits in the last five years, and increasing crowds bring new challenges. David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, said “99 percent of people come to national parks because they love them,” but noted that first-timers might not know proper etiquette. Some visitors have risked their lives for a perfect photo, and others have damaged centuries-old trees, illegally camped, and created new roads where they weren’t supposed to (the latter two happened at Joshua Tree during the recent government shutdown). I talked to several park rangers across the United States who shared their dos and don’ts when visiting these national treasures.

The National Park Service adopts seven Leave No Trace Principles, including disposing of your waste properly. “Scraps and garbage are unsightly,” said Dana Soehn, a public affairs specialist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a ranger there for 30 years. She added that they also “attract bears and other wildlife closer to roadways, [and] into campgrounds, picnic areas, and places people are recreating.”

At Joshua Tree National Park, Smith says garbage attracts ravens, which are “able to peck through the shells of juvenile tortoises,” a threatened species there: “We actively try to protect [the tortoises] by not having garbage available.” Clean up after yourself by inspecting campsites for trash or spillage, storing leftover food and litter, and using biodegradable soap to wash yourself or your dishes, and if trash sites are full — take your trash with you.

Everything takes longer in a national park when you have to deal with summer crowds, traffic congestion, or hilly terrain. In Yosemite Valley, which is home to Yosemite National Park’s iconic formations like El Capitan, the Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls, there can be traffic delays up to three hours at the entrance. Arriving before 9 a.m. is advised if you’re coming by car. There is also a shuttle bus available to get around within the park, as well as local public transportation via the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System, and from further away by Greyhound or Amtrak.

“Take some time to know your itinerary, what you really want to accomplish, and figure out how long it takes you to get here, because time can be rather deceptive around Yosemite and other mountainous areas,” said Jamie Richards, a ranger and public affairs officer at Yosemite National Park.

That said, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan and consider less visited spots. “Look for hidden opportunities,” Richards said. “Very few visitors take a stagecoach ride or rent horses, and it’s an absolutely spectacular way to spend part of the day.” At Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, “which is a very busy place, there’s a lot of trails [nearby] that are not as well used,” she added. “McGurk Meadow is one of my favorite trails along Glacier Point Road, and you hike out to some spectacular meadows, particularly in the middle of summer.” Even if there’s a delay in your day, be it “a water crossing in a trail, snow or ice on a trail, or even heavy traffic,” she suggests you should “be flexible and willing to look for something else, because national parks are full of amazing adventures.”

Early spring and late fall visits to desert parks are ideal temperature-wise, but if a desert park is in your summer plans, avoid doing anything in the middle of the afternoon. “Get up before sunrise and put in a two-or-three-hour hike, and plan on getting out by 8 or 9 in the morning before it gets too hot,” advises Smith of Joshua Tree National Park. Wearing large sun hats, SPF 30-plus sunscreen, and carrying ample water are musts, he adds.

Nighttime is also a sweet spot during hotter months. “Summertime is ideal for night sky viewing” at Joshua Tree, said Smith. “To see the Milky Way gliding through the sky in the middle of the night where there’s no light pollution is an extraordinary experience.”

Whether it’s an hours-long hike in 90-something-degree weather or a steep climb with dropoff on both sides, use your best judgement before you take off on a journey that doesn’t feel comfortable to you, even if your travel partners are egging you on. “Slips, trips, and falls happen when you get tired, when you’re not paying attention to your footing, when you’re not able to focus on the trail,” said Richards. Know your limits, and don’t be afraid to tell your friends and family you can’t keep up with them; simply find another activity and arrange to meet up later.

There are environmental effects to wandering in a park’s prohibited areas. Richards said rangers at Yosemite are working to revitalize the wetland habitat in Ahwahnee Meadow that has been damaged from decades of visitors forging social trails, lying, and sitting in the off-limits area. “It may not cause a huge impact one time, but when thousands of people do it, your green, lush meadow that’s a great habitat for monarch butterflies and milkweed and other plants is not going to be there,” she said.

Prohibitory signs in the parks aren’t just bureaucratic. Yellowstone National Park’s Norris Geyser Basin is one of the hottest and most acidic hydrothermal areas in the park, and getting too close to the water can result in serious burns and even death. “In the thermal areas there are regulations to stay on the boardwalk, and the reasons those exist is in several places you can’t tell the depth of that crust,” said ranger Michael Rodriguez. “It may look like solid ground, but it’s something you can easily break through and go into scalding acidic water.”

It seems intuitive to stay away from dangerous wildlife or steer clear of a cliff overhang, but selfie deaths in riskier travel destinations are becoming commonplace. Soehn said one of the most popular reasons people visit the Smokies is to see a bear in its natural habitat. When visitors ask her how to capture a selfie with one, she says don’t.

“We have a regulation in place that requires people to remain at least 50 yards away from bears and elk, but we’re seeing more people taking risks to get a selfie,” she said. If you’re wondering, 50 yards is three school buses long.

Soehn said if she sees visitors getting too close to a bear, she’ll make it a teachable moment. “The bear no longer feels safe to come down or forage undisturbed,” she said. “So I ask visitors to help that bear stay wild and invite them to back up and make noise together to scare it away. I make sure everybody’s captured the pictures they want, and usually, my experience has been when you invite visitors to take part in it, they’re a lot more receptive to seeing that bear taking off.”

The phrase “Live in the moment,” albeit hokey, couldn’t be more fitting to adopt when you’re at a national park. “If we could encourage people to do anything,” Soehn adds, “I would like to see people immerse themselves in the experience and not be so obsessed with trying to capture it.”

About the author: Jessica Militare is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and American Way. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their terrier mix, Stevie (after rock goddess Nicks). You can find her on Twitter.

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Jessica Militare

Written by

Jessica Militare is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and American Way.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Jessica Militare

Written by

Jessica Militare is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and American Way.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

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