Even before the National Parks System’s (NPS) social media profiles “went rogue” earlier this year, NPS was already more popular than it’s ever been. In 2016 alone, 330 million people visited its 410 sites, up from 307 million the year before. Unfortunately, the rise in popularity in our National Parks coincides with a new feeling where the environment and, in particular, our National Parks, are under increasing pressure from WIIFM, or "What's in it for me?".
With so many people walking through these beautiful parks every day, there’s bound to be a number of them that are ill-prepared and put the vegetation, animals, and themselves, in danger. One of the most saddening such incidents was last year when a group of tourists in Yellowstone loaded a bison calf into their SUV. Their goal was to get it to a park ranger; the end result was that the calf had to be euthanized after it was later rejected by its herd and appeared to have been habituated to humans. While much of what we’re about to write may seem like common sense to many, clearly a detailed guide of what to do ...and more importantly, what not to do next time you visit Yosemite, Glacier, or any other national park, is clearly needed.
01 Your first backpacking trip shouldn’t be to a National Park
A lot of the following rules all comes back to this: the National Parks should be taken seriously. Back in 2009, a group decided to make their first backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. They called emergency responders first because they believed they had run out of water. After finding a water source, they then called again alarmed that the water they had found tasted “too salty”. Finally, after calling for a third time, a helicopter was dispatched to lift them out of the canyon.
02 Don’t touch the animals
While one of the benefits of the National Parks is the ability to view wildlife in their natural habitat, it’s important that this is done from a safe distance with the aid of binoculars, spotting scopes, or telephoto lenses. You should never, ever get so close to an animal that you alter their behavior. It’s not only dangerous for you, but it also provokes animals and may cause them to react defensively. And it’s illegal according to federal law.
As mentioned earlier, the tourists at Yellowstone tourists spotted an abandoned bison calf by the road and decided they could help it by getting it to a park ranger. While their heart may have been in the right place, their lack of knowledge made the situation much worse. Not only did the baby bison have to be put down after coming into contact with humans at such a young age, but they also put themselves at risk. More people are harmed from bison each year in Yellowstone than any other animal. In 2015, two people were headbutted by a bison while attempting to take a “selfie”.
03 Bring water with you into the desert
While the allure of an adventure out into the middle of America’s deserts can be appealing, the other-worldly experience can turn deadly for the unprepared. Last summer, a family hike in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument turned tragic when a mother and father apparently died of heat exhaustion while attempting to keep their 9-year-old son hydrated with only two bottles of water (the child survived).
04 Don’t take things
While some of the rules we’ve listed have been accompanied by pretty severe warnings, here’s a softer story: last year, a child found out that it’s against the rules to carry seeds out of the parks. He had visited the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and took with him a single pinecone from underneath General Grant, the world’s second largest tree. When the kid realized that wasn’t allowed, the cone was returned with an apologetic letter.
This incident may not seem like a big deal, but more often than pinecones, visitors take plants, minerals, fossils, and even animals. All are federally protected. Leave them in the park.
05 Stick to the path
Yes, the view is stunning, but if you’re behind the wheel, pull over before taking it in. In 2014 alone, the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park saw over 300 car accidents! In Yellowstone, a man died when he walked off the boardwalk and fell into a hot spring. And at Acadia, while trying to photograph a sunset, one man fell off a cliff to his death.
06 Check the weather before heading into the wilderness
Weather, especially in wild areas, is often unpredictable at best. Extreme temperatures can make hiking uncomfortable at best, and dangerous for those who are unprepared. When a group of canyoneers left to belay down Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park, the current weather reports showed only a slight chance for flash flooding. By the time that warning went up to probable, the canyoneers were out of cell phone range and had no way of preparing for the change. The entire group was later found dead from drowning.
07 Don’t light campfires (unless the Park Service says you can)
Even when fires are permitted, use a fuel stove if possible. If you absolutely must light a fire, remove the top layer of soil before making the fire. Keep the fire small and ensure you put the fire out thoroughly, scatter the ashes, and replace the top layer of soil. Remember the devastating 2013 Rim Fire around Yosemite National Park? Investigators tracked the origin to a hunter’s illegal campfire, which led to four hundred square miles of National Parks being burned, adding up to $127 million in damage.
08 Don’t graffiti on rocks or trees
Parks like Joshua Tree and and Arches boast stunning rock formations that make for some of the best rock climbing in the world. But these rocks aren’t substitutes for canvas for a budding “artist”. In 2014, one young lady went on a month-long spree where she used hard-to-remove acrylic paint in seven National Parks. She was quickly caught as she had tagged her paintings with her Instagram handle, Creepytings, and after Modern Hiker published screenshots of these accounts, knowledge of the vandalism spread far and wide. “This case illustrates the important role that the public can play in identifying and sharing evidence of illegal behavior in parks,” Charles Cuvelier, the head of law enforcement for the National Park Service, said in an online statement.
09 Leave no trace (especially around sensitive habitats)
One of the most amazing aspects of our National Parks is the safe haven it provides for so many endangered species of life and vegetation. One such creature is the critically endangered Devils Hole pupfish, whose species is only found in a single pool in Death Valley National Park. Unfortunately, after leaving behind vomit and floating underwear, three intoxicated men can be blamed for that species dying.
10 Don’t fly your drone into geysers or near wildlife
Seriously. This last rule makes me angry to even have to include, however, after one person’s drone ended up at the bottom of a 121-foot deep Yellowstone hot spring in 2014, The NPS has had to issue a ban on recreational drones in National Parks. Even still, a quick glance on Instagram and you’ll find enough aerial images of parks to let you know how many people aren’t following this rule.