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9 Ways to Be a Good Guest at National and State Parks
This Summer

Planning a trip to a national or state park this summer? You’ll have plenty of company: In the United States alone, 318 million people visited national parks in 2018. The good news is that it’s still easy to find solitude among Earth’s most breathtaking landscapes. A little planning and an appropriate sense of adventure are all you need to escape the crowds.

The bad news is that some visitors are trashing, trampling and even accidentally setting fire to our parks — usually because they’re unprepared for their trip or unaware of their impact. Many parks around the world are reporting an uptick of visitors excitedly following Instagram geotags to photogenic hotspots. While social media can be a great tool for raising awareness of nature’s wonders, in many areas the foot traffic on these “selfie trails” is eroding vegetation and disturbing wildlife habitats.

Why Public Parks Matter

National and state parks protect wildlands and wildlife habitats from development in perpetuity. Many parks, such as Australia’s Barrington Tops National Park and Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, are home to important conservation initiatives by organizations like Global Wildlife Conservation and our partners. Tourism helps support the parks and their local economies, and deepening our personal connection to nature reminds us of the incredible value of our wild world—and why efforts to conserve it are critical.

Preparing for a trip to the parks, looking at a map

1. PLAN AHEAD

When planning your trip, visit the park’s website to review its rules, especially those related to camping, pets and campfires. Familiarize yourself with designated camping areas and trails. Before you leave, call the park to check for any burn bans or closures. And stop at the visitor center or ranger station when you arrive to make sure your plans jive with current weather conditions.

Hikers staying on a path

2. STAY ON THE PATH

Grab a park map and stick to marked roads, trails and camping areas. Going off trail disturbs the protective cover of leaves and soil that prevents the erosion of land from wind and rainfall. Over time, these trips down the road less traveled can cause irreparable damage to fragile soils, vegetation and wildlife.

Leave no trace at the parks

3. PICK UP AFTER YOURSELF

Make it your goal to leave the park better than when you arrived. Don’t litter. Not only does it spoil the view, but trash like plastic bottles and cigarette butts can pollute the soil and make its way into waterways. Pack some trash bags and clean up absolutely everything from your camp. That includes food scraps, which can entice and harm animals. For extra credit, pick up any litter you find during your hikes.

You’ll also need to properly dispose of human waste, which can pollute waterways and spread disease, as well as any soapy water from bathing or dishwashing. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has detailed instructions for waste and wastewater disposal.

a campfire

4. TAKE CARE WITH CAMPFIRES

Again, consult the park’s rules and current conditions. Consider using a camp stove instead of a campfire to minimize your impact. If you do build a fire, consult Leave No Trace’s guide for reducing its negative effects.

Respecting plants and animals while hiking at the parks
(Photo by Robin Moore)

5. RESPECT THE ANIMALS—AND PLANTS

Don’t feed or approach any wild animals you encounter – for your safety and theirs. And keep your food in animal-proof containers, out of reach. When animals lose their healthy fear of humans and seek us out as a food source, they often end up getting hit by cars or wandering out of the park and into hunting territory. They may even get aggressive if they don’t find the handout they’re looking for.

Enjoy the flowers while hiking but please don't pick them

6. DON'T PICK THE FLOWERS

Don’t remove anything you didn’t bring to the park. Appreciate the beauty of plants and rocks, but leave them where they belong.

respect the parks curfew
(Photo by Robin Moore)

7. WATCH YOUR VOLUME

Respect the park’s curfews and nighttime noise ordinances. During the day, keep any campsite music low and mellow to avoid disturbing animals or neighbors. Use your earbuds or headphones when you’re out on the trail.

if the parks allow dogs, keep them on a leash

8. MIND YOUR POOCH

If the park allows dogs, keep yours on a leash. Pick up his poop, and tote your baggie until you can find a trash can. Keep his food away from other animals. And if your dog is aggressive or barks excessively, leave him at home.

beautiful trail at the parks

9. THINK BEFORE YOU SNAP & SHARE

The mantra, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a good one, within reason. Stay on trails or other designated areas when taking photos, and be careful not to block traffic. Watch out for ledges and loose rocks so you don’t slip and fall. If you want to share your shot on social media, leave the geotag off or keep it general – use the park name rather than the exact landmark. This can help prevent the area from getting overcrowded and eroded.

Bonus Tips for Solitude-Seekers

The urge to explore uncharted territory is understandable. Hiking in the early morning is a great way to get some alone time while staying on the trail.

Another idea is to consider visiting a less popular park. For example, if you’re in the Seattle area, why not check out the stunning North Cascades National Park instead of Olympic National Park? North Cascades only had 30,000 visitors in 2018, compared to Olympic’s 3.1 million.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas is one of the least-visited national parks, yet this desert playground is less than 2 hours from El Paso. And you can make it a two-for-one trip: Carlsbad Caverns National Park is just 30 minutes north, across the New Mexico border.

South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world, and this lesser-known park is an easy drive from southeastern cities including Atlanta, Charleston and Charlotte.

For more tips on visiting parks and honing your outdoor skills, visit the National Park Service site or State Parks Directory, review the Leave No Trace Seven Principles or look for classes at your local park or outdoor equipment store.