Tourists Make Mistakes in National Parks
Two of the most significant effects of the pandemic have been the increased interest in outdoor activities and the focus on domestic tourism. Combine these two factors and you get a new appreciation for America’s stunning national parks.
The National Parks System recorded nearly 300 million recreational visits across all properties in 2021. 44 parks also set new visitor records. These high numbers include many first-time parkgoers, who don’t always know how to take advantage of all these stunning destinations have to offer. In fact, many seasoned national park travelers don’t hesitate to point out some of the faux pas they’ve observed from their fellow visitors.
Experts were asked to share their top mistakes that travelers make when visiting national parks. You’ll find 11 examples of these mistakes and some tips to avoid them.
Do not plan in advance
“A lot of travelers get caught up in the romanticism of spontaneity,” said Heather Gyselman, a product manager for adventure travel at REI. “I get it, who doesn’t want to hit the road without a care in the world? However, when visiting a national park today it’s important that you’ve invested time in planning and organizing your trip.”
If you don’t do any advance planing, you might find yourself scrambling as you encounter daily capacity limits, trail and road closures, limited parking and fully booked campgrounds and lodgings. Visit the official website for the national park that you are interested in visiting. This will allow you to find all the relevant information and stay informed about any changes. Prepare a basic itinerary.
“The No. 1 rule is to have a plan,” said Dan Austin, founder and director of special projects at Austin Adventures. “While you can always adjust on the fly, it’s a good idea to plan out the key places you want to see. After you have a list, go over the park’s layout and road system. It can take a lot of time to travel through many parks. You can make it difficult if you add traffic. Having a plan and mapping out everything you want to see can really help with those challenges.”
Only Visit The Most Crowded Attractions
“Don’t limit yourself to the popular or ‘Instagrammable’ spots,” advised Alan Fyall, the Visit Orlando endowed chair of tourism management and associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “Explore the park. Ask a ranger or campground host what they recommend that could be outside the heavily trafficked areas.”
There are countless scenic spots that aren’t packed with photo-snapping crowds. It is possible to miss some amazing national parks experiences by only focusing on the most popular attractions.
“Most people don’t get far enough away from the parking lots,” said writer and naturalist Janisse Ray. “They do the canned version of our parks, which means they see iconic sights like Old Faithful blowing in a kind of drive-by viewing, but they don’t experience the sense of place or the incredible, life-altering, deeply meaningful spectacles that occur at smaller scales and slower paces.”
She encouraged parkgoers to take long, strenuous walks in the wilderness to get to know the surroundings.
“Stay a while,” Ray said. “Spend some nights. Prepare for your heart to burst open in a way it can’t if you don’t leave your vehicle.”
Do not hesitate to stay over night in the park
“If you’re looking for lodging inside the parks, book early as reservation space is at a premium ― this includes campgrounds,” Austin said.
In-park lodging is not always the best option. These accommodations can be more costly than hotels and short-term rentals in nearby areas.
“Sure, staying overnight at campgrounds or lodges inside the park is cool. Nature is right outside your tent, RV or hotel room,” said Joe Yogerst, author of “50 States, 500 Campgrounds: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do.”
“But many parks are surrounded by national and state parks with great campgrounds and small communities with outstanding accommodation,” he added. “That means making day trips into the park, but I find that a small inconvenience compared to not going at all.”
To Sleep In
“In addition to having a plan, I recommend starting very early in the morning,” Austin said. “You’ll beat the traffic and crowds, and it’s prime time for grabbing photographs and spotting wildlife.”
National parks can be accessed 24 hours a week, so don’t miss out on this opportunity. If you traveled out West from the East Coast for your outdoor adventures, don’t let your internal clock adjust to the time change and wake up early instead.
“The early bird gets the solitude,” said Andrea Lankford, author of “Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks.” “Set the alarm and enjoy the serene hours between sunrise and 10:30 a.m.”
“National parks are amazing but wild places, so it is essential to practice basic safety while visiting them,” said Will Pattiz, co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “Every year, people die while vacationing in national parks. This is easily avoided by sticking to trails, checking the weather before going out on a hike, maintaining a safe distance from wildlife and avoiding ledges with steep drop-offs.”
Lankford cautioned against what she calls “high-altitude selfies,” pointing to the rise in photography-related deaths over the past decade.
“Stay back from the cliff edge, put the phone down, and be here now,” she said.
As beautiful as the views may be, be careful and mindful of wildlife, pedestrians and bikers.
“Pay attention when in your car,” said Michael Childers, an associate history professor at Colorado State University specializing in the modern American West and the environment. “It is easy to watch a bison frolic and miss that camper stopped in front of you.”
Too Many Things in a Short Time
“Resist the temptation to do a lot in a short time frame,” Fyall said. “Doing the ‘Mighty 5’ [in Utah]People often ask about the Grand Canyon and its visit in one week. You are doing yourself and the parks a disservice in trying to ‘park hop.’”
You might be able to see many of the most beautiful national parks from one trip. However, attempting to do so will only make the experience more stressful.
Fyall recommended that you limit the number of parks to just one or two per vacation. This will allow you to devote enough time to each park and make your itinerary less crowded.
“Get a feel of the park,” he said. “Go to the same vistas at different times of day, you’d be surprised at the different experiences you could have. The same can be said for trying to do too much in a day.”
It’s also better to be flexible at national parks, which is hard if you have a full and stringent itinerary.
“If something catches your eye, go check it out,” Fyall said. “If a trailhead is busy or closed, ask a ranger what else you could do or try that trail a different day or time of day.”
Only during the Summer
“Try visiting the most popular parks in the off-season rather than summer,” Yogerst said. “I actually think Yosemite is more gorgeous in winter snow and my best-ever visit to the Grand Canyon was in October.”
He recommended that you visit less-visited national parks such as Pinnacles in California, Dry Tortugas, Florida, Canyonlands, Utah, Big Bend, Texas, and all of Alaska’s parks if you must travel to the national parks during summer.
You can make a huge difference in the day of your week. When possible, avoid busy weekends.
“See if you can visit on slower days,” Childers said. “Many of our larger parks are being overrun, so if you can go midweek or in the off season to alleviate the pressure and have a much more enjoyable visit.”
“One of the biggest mistakes visitors to national parks make is arriving unprepared,” said Riley Mahoney, creator of the website The Parks Expert. “Not bringing enough water, expecting restaurants or other services, or not wearing appropriate shoes are things I notice often on my travels. I’ve seen visitors at parks like Sequoia or Yosemite in December planning to hike or sled but show up wearing sneakers, or sometimes even flip-flops, when there is a foot of snow on the ground.”
She also noted that not all parks have water stations so visitors should bring plenty. Joshua Tree is an example of a park that doesn’t have gas or food outlets.
“Visitors should plan to be self-sufficient and pack their patience,” Mahoney noted.
Layer up to be able to adapt to changes in temperature. Pay attention to the weather forecast. You should be prepared for drops in cell phone service and make sure you have a backup map.
“Bring water if you are going on a hike,” Childers added. “And check the map before you get too far from the trailhead and find out it is beyond your abilities. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen.”
Disturbing the Land and Wildlife
“National parks are not petting zoos,” Lankford said. “Give park wildlife some personal space, for your sake and theirs.”
Visitors are responsible for respecting the land and wildlife that inhabit it. Be responsible for your pets’ welfare and take care of them.
“I love man’s best friend as much as the next guy, but our furry companions are actually not allowed on many national park trails,” said Jim Pattiz, the other co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “This is because, of course, they can have an extremely detrimental effect on native plants and wildlife. The short of it is your Siberian husky should not be chasing lizards in a federally protected area like Saguaro National Park.”
The rule of thumb is that dogs shouldn’t go where cars allow them to. Pattiz noted that drones are not allowed in national parks.
“They disturb visitors as well as the wildlife, and can damage the fragile ecosystems our national parks safeguard for us and future generations to enjoy,” he said.
Consult with Experts
You don’t have to figure out your whole park adventure on your own. There are many experts available to offer advice at national park visitor centers.
“Park staff are incredibly helpful and have great suggestions on things to see, park programs and ideas for how to avoid crowds,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation.
Talk to a ranger, volunteer or campground host about the trails you’re interested in hiking and your ability level. They can share a lot of their knowledge. For more information about the park’s history, geography and culture, visit the visitor center.
“Be adventurous!” Gyselman urged. “Ask a ranger what their favorite hike is or where you can get away from the crowds. Most of the time these areas require a little more effort, but the payoffs are huge.”
She also suggested checking out the many Instagram and Facebook groups that share tips and ideas about national parks.
“Many National Parks also have designated social media pages managed by rangers or park administration,” Gyselman explained. “The posts they create are informative but so are the chats that fellow park lovers start in the comments section. I’ve found all sorts of helpful nuggets in those conversations.”
Skipping Nearby National Forests And Sites
“Don’t limit yourself to just the national park,” Fyall said. “Adjacent and adjoining wilderness areas, monuments, national forests and other designations that fall under the National Park Service are often less crowded, and have equally stunning vistas, making for a fantastic experience.”
You can find a refuge from the crowds by driving to a nearby national forest or another site during outdoor adventures.
“There are 155 national forests in America, many of which are equally as beautiful as the national parks they neighbor and only see a fraction of the visitors,” Will Pattiz said. “For example, try the Flathead National Forest next to Glacier National Park, the Bridger-Teton next to Grand Teton, and the Dixie which borders nearly all of the Utah National Parks.”