Until this year, we’ve never really felt compelled to write about etiquette in a national park.
We just assume that everyone deserves to enjoy the national parks in their way and that, in general, people do the right thing. But after a summer full of unnecessary injuries, rescue operations, and repeated public displays of poor national park etiquette, we are speaking up.
It’s time we all had some reminders about the do’s and don’ts when visiting a national park.
Truth is, 99% of the social norms and expectations that fall into ‘national park etiquette’ are really just mean to keep you, the wildlife, and the environment safe. That’s it. But when more than 300 million people visit our sacred and protected places, bad behavior becomes a big problem.
The rules we follow in public spaces are there to help everyone have a good time.
So today we’re posting our guide to 25 do’s and don’ts when visiting a national park. We encourage you to share it with your friends and family members before you depart on your next #parkchasing trip. And share it on social media so more people get the hint that their bad behavior won’t be tolerated.
Did we miss some do’s and don’ts? Add them to the comments and we’ll keep updating the list!
National Park Etiquette: 25 Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting A National Park
The Do’s and Don’ts of Watching Wildlife
1. Talk with a ranger when you arrive at a park for the best places to view wildlife.
The ranger can give you the best recommendations about where wildlife was last seen, any alerts or closures, and give you SAFE places to watch wildlife away from the road or mating areas.
2. Follow the rules about safe viewing distances.
The National Park Service posts guidelines for each park about the minimum wildlife viewing distances. Each park is different, so review the rules when you arrive.
3. Take plenty of photos.
Invest or rent
No selfie sticks allowed!
4. Watch the body language of wildlife.
Even if you’re a safe distance away or in your vehicle, wildlife may not be comfortable with your presence. If the animals respond to you (grunting, pinning ears, startle, flying away, you’re too close.
5. For goodness sakes, people. Don’t get so close!
Many of the wildlife encounters and injuries we’ve seen this season are directly related to people not following the rules. If you see someone too close, give them a friendly but firm reminder that they’re putting everyone at risk.
6. Don’t allow pets and wildlife to mix.
The National Park Service has specific guidelines about pets for each park. Become a BARK Ranger and know the regulations to avoid your pet and the wildlife from sharing food, diseases, or a dangerous encounter.
The Do’s and Don’ts On the Road
7. Follow the posted speed limit.
This is one of Greg’s biggest pet peeves when we’re traveling in a national park. He’ll be attempting to safely follow the posted speed limit only to have an anxious traveler tailgating or pass in a
8. Pull aside to let traffic behind you pass.
That being said, if you know you’re traveling slower in order to take extra pictures or pulling a camper, use the designated pull outs. Any more than three vehicles behind you, and you should move over to allow the traffic to pass.
9. Leave road rage at home.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. If you get cut off, if a driver is moving slow, if someone sneaks in a parking space before you, let it go. Your summer vacation is NOT the time to get in an argument, even if the other person was at fault.
10. Don’t ‘dust’ hikers and bikers on the road.
Thankfully our close calls with vehicles when we’ve been hiking and biking on national park roads have been few and far between. More often, we find ourselves coughing up a mouthful of dust from vehicles whizzing past us. In Denali National Park, even the park buses are required to slow down enough not to kick up dust on pedestrians using the park road. It’s good etiquette to follow everywhere!
11. Don’t drive off designated roads or parking areas.
Yes, you and your giant SUV that just pulled off the side of an already full parking area to ‘squeeze in’ a space that’s not really a parking space.
Well, now your giant SUV tires are squashing native and protected plant species. If the sign says “NO PARKING” there’s a reason for it!
And don’t get us started on the people who decided to joy ride through Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown… there’s not enough room in the blogging world for what we have to say about that!
The Do’s and Don’ts On the Trail
12. “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
Sometimes we think it should be a requirement to recite the Leave No Trace principles at the entrance gate. The parks belong to each of us, and it’s our responsibility to take care of them. Learn the rules and then follow them.
13. Stay on designated trails.
See #11. Your feet and an SUV tire are not that different when it comes to endangered habitat.
14. Abide all posted signs and barriers.
It’s incredibly hard for us to read the stories of injuries and deaths from people not following warnings and posted signs on hiking trails. Even worse, it’s when accidents happen for something as foolish as wanting a selfie or a better Instagram photo. But not only are these individuals risking their own safety, they also risk the safety of first responders and the rescue operations for anyone who has to deal with the consequences of poor choices.
15. Pack it in. Pack it out.
Each year, the National Park Service has to deal with more than 6,500 tons of trash in Yosemite National Park alone. And that’s what found it’s way into a trash can. Spend a few days in the backcountry and you’ll be shocked at what you find left on the side of the trail.
People, please. Just put the trash back in your vehicle or your backpack. If you are hiking and nature calls, you had better have a plan to manage it. The same goes for your CLIF bar wrapper and the receipt from the t-shirt you bought in the gift shop.
16. Don’t mess with the cairns or stack your own.
National parks like Acadia rely on the existing cairn system to help hikers navigate. Trust us. You’re not doing anyone a favor when you decide to topple every cairn on your hike to get rid of anything ‘manmade.’ You’re also not doing anyone a favor if you stack your own cairn and start diverting traffic off the designated trail.
17. Don’t talk on your phone or video-chat with someone back home.
This one is Amy’s biggest pet peeves. If you want to quickly push her buttons, then walk past her on the trail shouting into your cell phone. “What was that? I can’t hear you out here!” Imagine that—you’re in the middle of a national park and your cell phone doesn’t work. The rest of us can hear you and are ready to launch your phone off the mountain. Better yet, block the middle of the trail to hold up your video chat and show the view to someone thousands of miles away on a tiny, blurry screen who has no idea where you are anyway. [Insert facepalm]
18. Don’t fill your pockets with souvenirs.
While we won’t name any names, we have some friends and family members that occasionally need reminders about putting rocks, flowers, and other ‘souvenirs’ in their pockets to take home. If each one of the 300+ million people that visit a national park each year stuffed something in their suitcase, in a short time there’d be nothing left to see.
The Do’s and Don’ts in the Campground
19. Make a campground reservation well-in-advance.
Once, when we were in Denali National Park in 2017, we witnessed a woman screaming at a park staff member because she’d driven all the way to the campground only to find there wasn’t a place to camp. While we think this was probably an exception to the normal human behavior rule, we regularly see people posting frustrations online about not finding anywhere to stay just a few weeks ahead of a trip. With more than 300 million visitors, etiquette says it’s time to start making reservations.
20. Follow food storage rules.
National park campgrounds have strict guidelines about foot storage. We know you know this, but wildlife that become accustomed to human food pose a significant risk, both to park visitors and to themselves. Know how to follow safe food storage guidelines and follow them every time.
21. Respect the noise level–even when it’s not quiet hours.
Again, we know that everyone has the right to enjoy a national park in their own personal way. But, is there any way that it could not involve a thumping stereo, fireworks, or foul language? Be respectful that even though quiet hours might not be until 10 pm, no one wants to be near the rowdy, ‘party’ campers. Especially if you have small children or thin tent walls.
22. Don’t leave trash behind in your campsite.
See Etiquette Rule #15. The same applies
23. Don’t wash dishes the bathrooms.
We never know what to say to the person standing at the sink washing dishes directly below a posted sign that says “No washing dishes in the sink.” Wash dishes in the designated washing area or in your campsite. If the park has bear restrictions, dispose of your gray water in the designated area as well.
24. Don’t set up camp in non-designated places.
National parks have strict guidelines about where you can and cannot camp in both front country and backcountry areas. If you’re camping in an organized campground, set your tent or RV up in the designated space (and avoid trampling the vegetation on the perimeter of the site). In the backcountry, follow the rules contained on your permit.
Wow. You made it through our entire list of do’s and don’ts for visiting a national park. We’ve got one final piece of national park
25. Follow the Golden Rule.
There’s one final rule we want to share about national park ettiquette. When you’re camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, or otherwise enjoying a national park, always follow The Golden Rule. Treat other visitors, rangers, and park staff how you would want to be treated—with respect. Treat wildlife, plants, and the scenery of how you would want someone to behave in your own home—with respect.
If you happen to see someone NOT following the Golden Rule, give them a gentle reminder: The national parks belong to all of us.