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Celebrate the National Parks by Preserving the National Parks

This year a record number of people are visiting the national parks. While it is great people are getting out and experiencing the beauty our country has to offer we need to make sure we are treating the parks with the respect they deserve!

By: Sonja Saxe + Save to a List

Wallace Stegner once famously called the national parks "the best idea we ever had", a sentiment that has been echoed time and time again around the country since he spoke the words in 1983. I would have to agree with Stegner and in the past year it would seem a record number of others also agree. In 2015 a record number 305 million visitors explored the national parks and the park service estimates that they will beat that record this year. One reason for the uptick in park visitors is the park service’s centennial. The 100th anniversary of the park service has given the parks more exposure and inspired more people to get out and explore them. While I am happy the park service is getting the recognition it deserves and more people are experiencing the beauty our country offers we, as park goers, shoulder a huge responsibility when we visit the parks. These are public lands and everyone has a right to experience and celebrate 100 years, but it is up to us to keep these places in a pristine state for future generations. We all play a role in this so whether you are visiting the parks for the first time or you are a seasoned America the Beautiful Pass holder, don’t shirk the obligation of maintaining the parks. Here are ways you can celebrate the parks by preserving the parks: 

Stay on the trail

Don’t take shortcuts and don't venture off trail. The trails are there to both protect you and the ecosystems. Venturing off trail can not only be dangerous for you if you get lost, but also for future hikers who might follow your trail and end up in terrain they are unprepared for. Millions of people visit the park system and if every one of them decided to blaze their own trail it would wreak havoc on the wilderness. The parks provide miles of trails that already offer the best views in the park, jumping a fence to get a slightly different angle isn't worth the risk to you or the environment and if you post those photos on social media it sets a bad example. 

Camp in designated sites only

This one piggy-backs off the first tip. I know the urge to find the most Instagram-worthy camping spot is strong but do not plop your tent down just anywhere to get it. Different parks have different rules about backcountry camping. Some have designated sites and if this is the case then camp in those sites, don't break the rules and create your own spot. Some parks have designated backcountry camping areas where you must stay in one zone. If you plan on spending a night in the backcountry, make sure to abide by the regulations discussed with the ranger. The above photo shows three groups properly following the backcountry rules in Glacier.

Stay away from wildlife

This seems to be one of the most difficult rules for people to follow, especially in Yellowstone. I’m sure you know by now, but cold baby bison do not need rescuing. Always maintain a safe distance from animals; Yellowstone designates this as 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from all other animals including elk, bison, sheep, deer, and moose. Additionally, if an animal approaches you, you are expected to move away from it until you are a proper minimum distance away. Also, do not feed the wildlife. Besides being illegal, the last thing the parks need are animals getting habituated to humans and our food. Each year bears need to be put down because they started to seek out human food after getting exposed to its taste. 

Read park regulations before entering

Each park will hand you a brochure and newsletter when you pay your entrance fee. Read these! These brochures contain important information and thoroughly cover rules that are unique to that park. Do not make the mistake of assuming the rules are the same in each park. Some parks, such as Arches, have very fragile ecosystems and their entry brochure explains the cryptobiotic soil that covers the park and how a single step on it can be detrimental to the entire ecosystem. Do not be the person who doesn’t read the park brochure and is unaware of this and walks all over the soil and destroys it. Staying informed will help prevent these types of situations.

Leave No Trace

This is the most important rule for maintaining a clean park and a sense of wilderness. Nothing kills the mood of a hike more than walking along and seeing a person’s trash or used toilet paper in the middle of the trail because they were too lazy to pack everything out. Be prepared to carry out all your trash, and hey, if you are feeling extra caring maybe you can carry out other people’s trash, too! Once I carried out a not-quite-empty bottle of vodka from a trail in Mt. Hood because someone decided they didn't want to carry it back to the trailhead less than a quarter mile away. When it comes to toilet paper some people say that you can burn it and bury the ashes but that can become dangerous in high-risk fire areas and honestly it’s easier to just shove it in a plastic bag wrapped in duct tape and carry it out. Do NOT bury your toilet paper; animals will dig it out trying to get at the nutrients in your waste and carry it around and that creates extremely unpleasant experiences for people who stumble upon it later. 

Take No Trace

This one is usually a case of someone wanting to take sand or a pretty stone from a national park as a memento to put on a bookshelf. Don't do this. Typically the line of thought is, "it's just one stone", but then everyone has that mentality and suddenly all the pretty stones are gone. Just as an example, in the 90's in Petrified Forest National Park people began taking little pieces of petrified wood, some people weren't taking much, perhaps just a rock the size of a paperweight, but as a whole the forest was shrinking at an estimated rate of 12 tons per year, 12 tons. Leave nature where it is and allow others to enjoy it just as you were able to. Take a photo of that piece of wood and frame that and put it on your mantel! 

Say something

If you see someone breaking the rules, say something to them. It doesn’t have to be a mean or condescending comment, just state the facts. There is a huge number of people who visit the parks who have never been to a national park before and might simply not know how to act in one. Inform them! Of course, they may know the rules and choose to ignore them, in which case alert the park rangers. 


If you have the time to spare and care about bettering the national parks, consider taking it a step further and getting involved with the parks! There is always something that can be done. There are opportunities from one-time volunteering gigs to extended recurring jobs. More information about volunteering can be found here.  

Don’t have the “it’s only me” mentality

I see people use this type of excuse all the time: “It’s just me, who cares if I cut the trail”; “What harm can I do if I camp one night here?”; "I'm just taking one rock". But what those people don’t see are the people who cut the trail and take a rock 10 minutes before them, and the people who cut the trail and take some more rocks again 5 minutes after them, and then another 10 minutes later. In fact, 50 people cut that trail just today and 100 stones are in the pockets of hikers! Suddenly those steps they took are compounding on countless others and the trail is eroding and the beach is shrinking. Don't think your actions won't have an impact on the park.

George B. Hartzog, Jr. once said "The national park idea has been nurtured by each succeeding generation of Americans. Today, across our land, the National Park System represents America at its best. Each park contributes to a deeper understanding of the history of the United States and our way of life; of the natural processes which have given form to our land, and to the enrichment of the environment in which we live." Let's not be the generation that lets our successors down. Let's rise to the occasion and make the national parks last as they are for generations to come.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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