National Parks preserve our wild spaces and bring awe to those that travel to them. They’re one of the reasons that we started to RV! In just one long weekend at Grand Canyon National Park, we were startled by elk, saw multiple perspectives by hiking below the rim, and experienced the landscape transformed through snowfall. It was in those moments that we began to connect with the National Park mission to preserve these wonderful spaces in hopes that this, and future generations, will continue to come for enjoyment, education, and inspiration.
In this past year, we’ve hiked Angels Landing in Zion, danced among Joshua Trees, tasted salt in Death Valley, stargazed at Mount Rainier, and biked through the Everglades. As we explore more national parks, we also become aware of the ways that visitors unknowingly impact them over time. It leads us to ask this very important question: How do we enjoy these spaces without changing them?
Here are some helpful tips we’ve learned along the way:
1. Pack in and pack out
When going into a national park, it’s good practice to pack snacks and water for your activities. However, you’ll want to be sure to securely store or throw away food and leave with everything that you bring in.
This is especially important because of wildlife. For example, say a bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets used to humans leaving food in certain areas. Over time, it will change its natural habit of going into the back-country to hunt, and instead, start seeking food from humans. While many visitors get excited at the thought of witnessing a bear in the wild, it’s best to see them at a distance, not approaching you or ransacking your vehicle for food.
2. Leave it better than you found it
Packing out is bigger than leaving with your own bottles and wrappers; If you see that trash has been left behind by someone else, take a moment to pick it up. This could mean pulling over during a scenic drive or pausing during a hike, knowing that you’ll have to carry someone else’s garbage with you. Whether they left it by mistake or were just being careless, we all know when we see something that doesn’t belong in these natural places.
Think of it this way: it is everyone’s responsibility to clean up – not just the Park Services. If we all treat these spaces as if they’re our own, and leave them better than we found them, then our national parks will better serve their purpose of preserving wild spaces.
3. Keep nature wild
When spending time in a national park, it’s not a matter of if you will see wildlife, but a matter of when. Animals like bison, bear, fox, wolves, panthers, sheep, deer, and many more call our national parks home every day of the year. As explorers, we have to understand that nature is their home, and we’re just visitors. We have to respectfully enjoy wild animals at a distance and resist the urge to feed, pet, or treat them like domesticated animals in any way.
While hiking in Mount Rainier, we were surprised to see so many signs that said, “don’t feed the squirrels.” Halfway through our hike, we stumbled upon a squirrel eating what we thought was a berry. As we got closer on the trail it became obvious that the “berry” was a gummy bear! Later, when we reached the vista of our hike and paused to eat our packed lunch, squirrels began creeping towards us in hope of scraps. This is why it’s so important to observe and not interact with wildlife.
For some, it may be their first experience in a park and they may not know better, but if you come across someone behaving inappropriately, don’t be afraid to politely speak up and help them understand the impact they could have.
4. Stay on trail
Whether hiking, biking, or driving, be sure to use the designated trails, roadways, and viewpoints. It’s also important to respect barriers. Fences, ropes, and gates are there to protect you as well as the park. Behind the chain you’re considering stepping over could be a steep incline or habitat restoration in progress.
Some areas in the national parks are home to more than just wildlife, the ground is teeming with lush vegetation and even bacteria that can take decades to develop. Help to keep these ecological areas preserved by staying on trial.
So often we believe that getting closer will result in a better experience or even a better photo, but a subtle footstep can result in a much larger effect. And while you may think it’s “just you” taking the step, it’s likely that others are doing it elsewhere and you can lead by example.
5. Enjoy, don’t destroy
Take in the scenery, but don’t take it with you! Leave wildflowers rooted to the earth and rocks where they lay. Stacking rocks along a trail or creek may seem like a fun way to pass time while taking a break on a long hike, but it can disrupt water ecosystems and confuse hikers.
In Acadia National Park, they use rock structures called cairns to help label trails in areas where trees or other landmarks may not be available. A cairn tells a hiker that they are still on the trail and where to go next. Imagine getting lost on your hike because someone took the time to stack a pile of rocks where they weren’t supposed to … oops.
Whether you’re visiting for the day or an extended trip, remember to enjoy your surroundings, but be respectful of them as well. If you are interested in other ways to help outside of being a good steward, contact or connect with the National Park Service and ask if there are ways to volunteer.