En español | Visiting a national park like Yellowstone or Yosemite is the highlight of the year for many Americans. Too often, though, careless tourists make a mark on treasured landscapes that lasts well beyond their quick trip. Some damage even lasts decades, such as wayward steps made on the biological soil crusts of Canyonlands, Arches and Capital Reef national parks. Recent years have seen a string of epically bad (even criminal) behavior: crashing a drone into Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park, illegal off-road driving in Death Valley National Park, spray-painting rocks and cacti in Joshua Tree National Park, tagging sandstone with blue dots as some sort of doltish “art project” in Zion National Park. The egregiousness of some of this conduct is stunning.
And yet it's not just boorish behaviors like these that damage the parks. Far too often, well-meaning visitors inadvertently cause harm. They trample rare flowers or 100-year-old moss while hiking to a better vantage point, carelessly let trash blow away from their backpacks, or relieve themselves in inappropriate areas. Even more common are tourists who get too close to elk, deer or bison in an effort to snag the perfect Instagram photo, causing the animals to scamper away. That may not seem much of a concern in the moment, but in northern national parks like Yellowstone, where elk need every calorie they can get to survive the harsh Montana winters, tourists chasing them away even two times a week can add up to enough wasted fat stores that they won't make it through the snow season.
Now, with many Americans desperate to get outside and explore, the national parks are seeing a surge in visitors — while at the same time struggling with staffing shortages, limited services and social-distancing concerns for both visitors and their staff. National Park Service (NPS) rangers have reported seeing a rise in masks lying along roadways, more feces at trailheads (because of closed bathroom facilities) and first-time visitors generally behaving poorly. And, unfortunately, much of this damage is concentrated in the most popular and scenic areas of each park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which saw a 40 percent decline in visitation from January through May, is finding a surge of visitors in popular areas such as Clingmans Dome and Cades Cove. “Our field staff are reporting busy roadways, congested parking areas and crowds at some of our most iconic destinations,” says park spokesperson Dana Soehn. “So while visitation is down overall, it does seem to be busier than usual in the primary locations.”
So how do you avoid the crowds and protect the environment at the same time? In many ways, the best advice comes down to using common sense and abiding by the rules that have long been in place. But there are a few smart principles beyond that, too.
1. Leave no trace.
This three-word phrase is the bedrock for ethical behavior in the parks, and has long been a staple in backcountry etiquette. But it's more important than ever, with many trash pickup and restroom facilities operating at limited capacities. If you pack it into a park, pack it out. This goes for whether you're backpacking through Zion or just taking a drive through Shenandoah National Park. The park service, particularly during the pandemic, is not set up to clear the trash of thousands of visitors per day. “Right now, we have far fewer volunteers that are on the job picking up trash,” Soehn says. “And we're really seeing the difference. We're seeing a lot more trash being left along the roadside.” Pack a small trash bag or use a paper grocery bag. Keep it in the car, add all the junk to it, and then toss it into an appropriate bin once you leave the park — again, after you leave the park. Do it at the hotel or a gas station. “Leave only footprints and take only photographs,” Soehn says. “That pretty much sums it up.”
2. Bring your own water.
Park visitors produce a lot of trash, but one of the most common items is disposable water bottles. Avoid them by bringing along at least one or two small reusable bottles per person. Then buy a reusable 3-gallon water jug. Fill everything up before you hit the road and then again each night at the hotel. You'll have plenty of water to refill the smaller water bottles all day long, and you won't ever need to purchase a disposable one at a convenience store — and throw it away later.
3. Stay on trails.
This seems obvious, and yet every year thousands of people fail to heed this advice. Many get lost or injured. But it also can be harmful to the environment. The NPS works hard to create and maintain these trails — installing berms, clearing trees, creating stone stairs — to keep a delicate balance between all of that natural beauty and the millions of people who experience it each year. Trails may look no different than the natural areas around them, but they're designed and built to take a beating — provided visitors stay on them. Sometimes a trail is widened by people cutting corners on switchbacks or bushwhacking through some trees to an undesignated promontory, for example; that constant trampling can easily add up in a rainstorm, and begin a process of soil erosion. Staying on paths is the simplest way to have little or no impact on the environment.
4. Avoid crowded trailheads.
Too often visitors flock to the same sights over and over again. This creates logjams on trails and puts more pressure on that area of the park. Before you go, make sure to pick some backup hikes or places to visit in case in the trailhead you want is crowded. Even in the most popular parks, there's almost always some place you can go to get away from other tourists. Avoiding crowds makes particularly good sense during the pandemic, of course: “If the trailhead or the parking area is crowded,” says Soehn, “it's a sure sign that it's going to be really difficult to have physical distancing from people once they get out of their car and start for the destination."
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5. Put rubber caps on your trekking poles.
Look closely on highly trafficked trails and you're bound to see the telltale scars of metal-tipped trekking poles. Scrapes, chips and scars are everywhere, like some diamond-taloned eagle has been sharpening its claws on the landscape. It's become a huge problem in many parks, especially in the East, which tend to see more traffic. Cap the trekking poles with rubber ends (you can buy them at REI and other outdoor outfitters). The traction will be better, you won't have to put up with that interminable clicking sound and you'll help protect the environment.
If you are camping in the backcountry, find your own spot. Don't use another area that's been trampled recently. Grasses can usually survive a night under a tent footprint but will have a hard time beyond that. By selecting a backcountry site that someone else has clearly used recently, you may be creating a giant bare patch without even realizing it — it can appear long after you're gone. Again, this is just for backcountry camping. In designated camp spots, pitch the tent where others have to limit the damage to one area.
7. Leave wildlife alone.
Any interaction you have with a wild animal is almost certainly harmful to the animal. This is not to say that you can't enjoy watching bison roam across the road in Yellowstone or a bear saunter along a ridgeline in Glacier National Park. Just do it from a distance — most parks ask visitors to stay at least 50 yards away — and don't approach them for photos. Attempting to stalk them like some National Geographic wildlife photographer for an up-close view is probably only going to end badly, for either you or the animal (or both). If you're serious about photography, get a telephoto lens, something above 250mm. Not looking to sell your images? Then stop shooting and get a great pair of binoculars instead. You can safely, comfortably view wildlife from a distance without the animals ever realizing you're there.