Sunrise from top of a mountain in Acadia National Park

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National Park Etiquette — Do’s And Don’t While Visiting

So it might seem as though I’m a serial complainer…and that might be true. Yeah, I know for a fact it’s true. But I am constantly amazed at how people in crowded places don’t seem to realize they are behaving badly. I was recently on a hike in a park and realized that almost every person I encountered on a very narrow trail ignored the basics of trail etiquette (or just common courtesy). This experience led me to think about how to act in a National Park. I’m not the only one with these thoughts. In fact, my Beach Etiquette post of a few months ago struck a nerve. It’s the most visited page on this site. Daily it is searched and clicked on by dozens of people all around the world. So obviously, we all want each other to behave better in public. Let’s extend that to our National Parks.

National Parks across the United States are seeing a surge in popularity. The National Park System reported 311,985,998 visits in 2022. That is nearing levels not seen since 2019. An even more stunning statistic is of the 423 sites in the system (63 designated national parks), eight sites accounted for 26% of those visits. The most visited parks include; Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the number one most visited park Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That means the eight most popular sites received nearly 82 million visitors last year, which means lots of people doing a whole lot of stupid things that could have been avoided if they practiced some simple national park etiquette. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts to remember when visiting these national treasures and the great outdoors.

Do – Plan Ahead

With so many park visitors, planning is more critical than ever when visiting a national park. Have your hotel reservations lined up, especially if you plan on staying inside the national park. Some lodges at the most popular sites require you to reserve nearly a year in advance. The best way to prepare for your visit is to check out the park’s website well in advance.

Some top parks require a timed entry during peak times. Tickets/times open up about 2-3 months in advance; it varies depending on the park. Usually, a limited number are available the day before, but don’t count on that. Currently, the parks that require timed entry for at least a portion of the year (usually the summer months) include:

  • Arches National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Acadia National Park (Cadillac Summit Road)
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Haleakala National Park (during sunrise)
  • Shenandoah National Park (Old Rag Mountain)
  • Zion National Park (Angel’s Landing Trail)

It’s also essential to plan for your activities. Having the right gear, YES hiking in flip-flops is just plain stupid. You should also stay hydrated; bring water bottles. And pick up a paper map, cell service is often spotty in parks, and trail apps only sometimes work.

Ranger standing in Arches National Park
Arches National Park Photo by Frances Gunn from Unsplash
Do – Visit the Visitor Center

Any good visit is sure to start with information and knowledge. Stopping by the visitor’s center before exploring is always a good idea. Not only will you find out what the park’s highlights are, but you will also find out what is open or closed on any particular day. You might have your heart set on one specific area or trail only to find out it’s closed on that day due to conditions or hazards. It’s better to find that out before traveling to a remote area of the park. Also, the park rangers are a precious resource for first-time visitors and seasoned explorers. They can direct you to the best places, tell you the best times to explore that area, and inform you of national park rules.

Don’t – Leave A Trace

This concept is more than the “Pack It In, Pack It Out” slogan. However, that is a big part of it. If you bring it into a national park, be prepared to carry it out. Often trash cans and other conveniences are unavailable in the wilderness, so be ready to take the trash and other waste with you when you leave.

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles are the foundation of this entire list. They include the following:

  • Plan Ahead -Know the regulations before you visit and prepare for the conditions.
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces– This means staying on designated trails and campsites, don’t make your own.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly – It’s more than pack it in, pack it out. Follow guidelines for waste disposal and water usage.
  • Leave What You Find – Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts – Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings and keep the fire small.
  • Respect Wild Life – Observe from a distance.
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors – Respect other visitors and ensure the quality of their visit as well as your own.
Bison crossing the road with a couple in a motorcycle in the front
Photo by Dan Meyers from Unsplash
Do – Let Nature’s Sounds Prevail

Nature has its own soundtrack; birds, rushing water, and wind. It doesn’t need your music. Put some earbuds in if you want to listen to your soundtrack. And save the video chat and phone calls for time spent after your visit. No one wants to hear your recitation of your entire trip on a speakerphone. (That last rule applies to all public places!) Awareness of your noise levels is essential; most campgrounds have quiet hours.

Don’t – Monopolize Popular Spots/Sites

Everyone wants that perfect shot from the amazing overlook, not just you. When you reach the front of the line or climb to the top of the mountain, take your photo and move out of the way. Everyone behind you is waiting patiently, and it’s the courteous thing to do. This is especially important during peak season.

Don’t – Move Or Build Your Own Cairns

The cairns on a trail are not a tribute to meditation and mindfulness, they are directional, and if you aren’t a park ranger, you should not be building or altering them yourself. Please resist the urge to create or touch; it should not be a thing to make a cairn wherever and whenever you want.

Hiking trail with a cairn
Photo by Casey Schakow from Unsplash
Do – Practice Trail Etiquette

On a narrow trail, hike single file. Hikers on the ascent (going uphill) have the right of way. So, move aside and let them continue the climb. Also, if you know, you are slower or stop frequently for photos and awe-inspiring views (which you should absolutely do), be aware and move aside for other hikers.

Don’t – Expect Everyone To Stop For Your Photoshoot

Yes, you want the perfect photo. No, everyone won’t and should not have to stop while you carry out an entire photo shoot. Yes, stopping when someone takes a picture is polite, but you can only expect them to wait for a short while. Be aware of your surroundings.

Do – Stay On The Trails

It’s always great to forge your own path in life, but it’s never great to forge your own path in a national park. Stay on the trails. Don’t make shortcuts or climb or step where you shouldn’t. It’s all part of not impacting the natural habitat of our national park system. It is also for safety reasons.

Sign in the wilderness warning of grizzly bears
Photo by Felicia Montenegro from Unsplash
Do – Keep A Safe Distance

It seems like common sense, but it bears repeating (yes the pun was intended). Keep a safe distance from wildlife. A park is not a petting zoo; these animals are in the wild. So, no selfie with a bear or bison is worth an injury or your life.

Also, respect the boundaries. Avoid climbing over railings or going past lines marking the safe edge of the viewpoint. They are there for a reason. Your safety in the parks depends more on your decisions during your visit than anything else.

Don’t – Go Off Designated Roads

The ecosystem at the parks is fragile, and the park’s goal is to preserve nature. So don’t decide an off-road adventure would be fun. This is not the place to do that. Also, if parking lots are full, don’t make your own lot. Not only does it impact nature, it might land you a ticket.

Do – Follow Posted Speed Limits

Some parks are in vast open areas, but that doesn’t mean you can drive as fast as you want. Follow the rules of the road. Be aware of bikers and hikers when on the road. Pull over when you want to check out a sight or a viewpoint. And be patient; you’re in a national park, and life should move slower there.

Colorful sky behind a Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree Photo by James Lee from Unsplash
Don’t – Fill Your Pockets Or Pack With Souvenirs

The flowers are not for you to pick and take home. The rocks and shells should stay where you find them, not end up in your garden. Want a souvenir? Head to the gift shop. Leave everything where you see it. The goal should be to have minimal impact on the natural environment.

Don’t – Feed The Wildlife

Not feeding the wildlife means both intentionally and by accident. Never approach a wild animal and try to provide it with human food; it’s not only bad for the animal, it might be terrible for you. Also, if you are camping, plan on proper food storage. Animals, such as black bears and grizzly bears, will smell your food, and they will come for you, so plan ahead. The food storage guidelines also apply in picnic areas; store your food properly.

Do – Leave The Drone At Home

In 2014 the National Park Service banned drone operation within national parks without a Special Use Permit. These permits are hard to come by, so leave the drone at home if you don’t have one.

Campsite with hammock and coolers and kayak
Photo by Makenzie Cooper from Unsplash
Do – Pay Your Fees

Most parks have an entry fee. A park ranger may not staff the booth at the entrance early in the morning, but that doesn’t mean your whole day-long visit is free. You should pay your entrance fee; they are an essential part of the upkeep and maintenance of the parks.

And a big DO is to get an America The Beautiful Pass; it’s an annual pass that gets you into every national park for $80. If you plan on visiting several parks on a trip, it’s a must-have. And the real bargain is the senior pass (anyone over 62 years old) can get a LIFETIME pass for $80. This pass is good for up to 4 people in the same car, even under 62!

Don’t – Only Visit The Popular Overlooks

There is so much more to a national park beyond the crowds. I know sometimes your time is very limited, or your abilities differ from person to person, but if you can, get beyond the crowds. Explore beyond the main overlooks or viewpoints. If you walk a few hundred feet down the trail, the crowd will thin out considerably, and you will experience a completely different park.

Do – Use Your Brain

Common sense is really what this all comes down to. You are not the only person on earth, so realize it and act like it. Respect others, be polite, and share the park.

I’m often amazed at how many people disregard others around them. They stop in the middle of a trail or walkway and don’t move out of the way of others using the same path. They walk side by side even when there isn’t enough room for someone to pass by. Common courtesy would make the world and crowded parks function so much better. Follow the golden rule: treat others as you hope to be treated, and we will all be good.

Get Out And Enjoy The Park

The real DO in this is to get out and enjoy the unique and diverse National Park System, from the big and famous parks to the small and less-known sites across the country. This natural resource is available to everyone and opens up a world that many may never experience.

Please get out and enjoy, but when you do, be kind, respectful, and aware; everyone will enjoy their visit. And I won’t have anything to complain about!

Below are links and resources to help you plan The perfect trip

Travel Resources

  • HOTELS
    Booking.com and Expedia.com are great resources for accommodations around the world. Book almost any hotel directly from these links.
  • TOURS
    The best places to book tours and activities are Viator or Get Your Guide . From great food tours to guided hiking adventures to local walking tours, you will find great experiences to add to your travels here.
  • FOOD EXPERIENCES
    EatWith is a great resource for authentic culinary experiences with passionate locals worldwide. Connecting travelers with hosts in over 130 countries, providing unique, intimate, and immersive experiences in private homes and exclusive venues.
  • TRAINS
    Trainline is Europe’s leading train and coach app. They work with over 210 rail and coach companies to help their customers travel to thousands of destinations across 45 countries. 

The links above contain product affiliate links. We may receive a commission at no additional cost to you if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links. But your support of Fork & Wander is greatly appreciated!

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