12 Things NOT to do in the National Parks

12 things not to do in the National Parks

Our National Parks are a travel destination for people from all over the world.  They are home to some of the most amazing and unique natural environments our country has to offer.  They are a national showcase and we should be proud to show them off.  But they are also wild, untamed places that deserve our attention, our respect and just a little common sense.  I asked on Twitter “give me examples of what NOT to do at a National Park” and here are the top 12 responses.


12 Things NOT to do in a National Park


Litter in the National Parks is a huge problem and keeping the parks clean is a monumental task.  A 2010 article from OurNationalParks.US illustrates just how expensive the litter issue is:

Acadia National Park‘s Chief of Maintenance, Jim Vesaki, estimates the annual cost of trash removal in the park to be $120,000. The cost would be much higher without the many volunteers who give their time. “

“The Grand Canyon, one of the country’s largest parks with more than 1,217,000 acres and four million annual visitors…spends approximately $820,000 on maintenance personnel, contracted haul-off and dump charges, and its recycling program each year.”

“Volunteers in Great Smokey Mountain National Park spent 3,410 hours exclusively on litter patrol…another 4,518 hours cleaning up our backcountry trails and campsites and then another 3,352 hours on special patrols in the backcountry where we had to recover large amounts of litter left behind by unprepared hikers…” said Dana Soehn, volunteer coordinator for GSMNP.

Many of the National Parks have extensive recycling programs to limit their impact on the environment.  More and more of the parks have added water filling stations and have stopped selling single-use water bottles in the park in an attempt to reduce litter.  The impact in these natural areas is huge, even small parks like Sleeping Bear Dunes in Lake Michigan collects as much as 69 tons of litter every year.  KeepAmericaBeautiful.ORG has a great page that discusses litter, the costs, environmental effects and how we can effect change.  Existing litter is commonly sited as the biggest reason why people think it’s OK to litter, so we can do our part to reduce littering by simply cleaning up existing trash.  Before leaving your campsite or picnic area, take a look around and pick up any trash you can find…even if it’s not yours.  A little personal responsibility goes a long way.


Saguaro NPS - graffiti cleanup

Photo by Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star

Earlier this year, Saguaro National Park saw a rash of vandalism in the park.  Signs, rocks and saguaro cacti were tagged with spray paint and some were destroyed.  Some of the cacti damaged were 100-150 years old.  Also earlier this year, Joshua Tree National Park saw at least 17 sites defaced by spray paint, some of which covered ancient petroglyphs. A 30 square-foot section of a popular rock climbing route in Rocky Mountain National Park was covered in graffiti last Summer prompting a federal investigation.

Some blame social media for the recent rise in vandalism in some of the parks.  According to the National Parks Foundation there were close to 2,000 reported incidents of vandalism in National Parks in 2012.  The fact is, vandalism isn’t new and some people simply have no respect for the parks, nature or others.  Some people don’t understand the amount of time it takes for natural resources like rocks and plants to recover from such senseless acts.  Incidents like these will only lead to tighter restrictions and reduced access within the parks in an attempt to keep the parks safe.

Concerning the Rocky Mountain National Park incident, Chief Ranger Mark Magnuson made the park’s stance clear, “Understand and appreciate that these national parks are special places set aside for the enjoyment of everyone, we need to maintain park resources in a natural and pristine condition.”

Taking artifacts, rocks, etc from natural sites

Just last year a set of 3,500 year old petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tablelands area outside Bishop, California were cut from the volcanic rock face and stolen.  A newspaper article from July,2000 sites “visitors seeking souvenirs” as the main source of theft in National Parks stating, “nearly 20,000 known violations” in 1999, up 46% from 1998.  An estimated 12 tons of petrified wood is stolen from Petrified Forest National Park every year by visitors taking “souvenirs” from the park.

Thousands of protected fossils, Native American pottery and arrowheads, Civil War relics as well as countless plants and animals are removed illegally from the National Parks every year.  In some cases it is a true form of theft from poachers and artifact collectors, but often times it’s the senseless collection of keepsakes from casual park visitors that does the most damage.  People think, “It’s just one small rock/stick/potsherd…what harm could it do?”  Well, when the over 3 million visitors all think that way, it can cause irreparable damage.

If only we could all be as conscientious as little Evie, the girl who wrote to the rangers at Yosemite apologizing for accidentally taking a couple of twigs home after her family’s visit.  Evie wrote,


I think Evie provides a great example to all of us.

Feeding/Disrespecting Wildlife

Stupid Tourists-1In 2010, Donald and Cathy Hayes were charged by a Buffalo at Yellowstone National Park after wondering too close the animal to get a “closer-shot”.  In 2011 Photographer Ben Chase observed visitors walking within 50 feet of a brown bear in Grand Teton National Park.  When the bear got spooked and attempted to retreat, the ridiculous tourists yelled, “It’s leaving, go get it!” and gave chase.  Yosemite National Park has a long history of visitors getting close enough to let bears take food from their hands, one older story actually tells of a clueless tourist holding bacon in his mouth and encouraging the bear to take it.

At Grand Canyon National Park, several deer are put down every year because they have consumed plastic wrappers that interfere with their ability to digest food.  Deer and other animals like coyote, Ground Squirrel and Bighorn Sheep have have learned that these wrappers sometimes have food.  Visitors feeding animals chips, crackers and junk food have developed some dangerous habits among the wildlife.  Animals expecting hand outs can be aggressive and violent often kicking and biting visitors who get too close.

The National Parks are protected wild places.  Don’t let the visitor’s centers, tour buses and crowds of people convince you that it is anything less.  Treating the wildlife like characters in an theme park is dangerous, disrespectful and deadly.  Though these animals live in close proximity to a place frequented by humans, they are still wild animals and are dangerous and unpredictable.  Rodents like squirrels, chipmunks and mice are notorious scavengers and can carry diseases.  Feeding these animals just encourages them to be more aggressive around humans.  Use discretion and good sense when engaging with wildlife, keep safe and enjoy the scene from a distance.

Unauthorized Fires

fire restrictions

As I write this, over 50 major bush fires blaze across the western states including The Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park.  Forest fires are a natural phenomenon and part of the ecology.  Afternoon lightning storms passing through forested regions during the dry months of Summer can ignite natural fires cleansing the forest of an overabundance of dry and dead debris.

Out of the nearly 75,000 wildfires reported each year 90% of those are caused by people.  Human caused fires are not usually in areas that would naturally burn.  These fires are also typically much close to higher traffic areas and habitation than natural fires, making them especially dangerous putting lives and property in danger.  Unlawful fires and negligence in the National Parks can carry stiff penalties including fines and potential jail time.

Basic Campfire Rules

  1. Never leave a campfire unattended, and be sure it is “dead out” before leaving the area.
  2. Have a bucket and shovel handy when having a campfire.
  3. Cigarette smokers should smoke on bare ground or soil (not in or near vegetation) and pack out their cigarette butts.
  4. Fireworks are prohibited in all national forests, national parks, state lands, and all private land the state identifies as classified forest land.


Hunting within most National Parks is prohibited.  Even in those areas where hunting is allowed, it is very strictly regulated.  This is all in the name of resource management, the primary duty of the National Parks Service.  Managing the wildlife and their habitat is a huge part of what they do.  In many cases the Parks Service is managing and protecting threatened or endangered species like the Bald Eagle, Grizzly Bear and the California Condor.

“Protection of our park’s resources remains our first priority. It is our duty as stewards of the National Park Service to protect our natural resources for all Americans, and this includes our wildlife,” Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher said in relation to a 2010 poaching case. “The National Park Service will prosecute all poachers to the furthest extent possible.”

Hunting without a permit anywhere is a pretty grievous offense and can get you in pretty hot water.  Poaching within the National Parks is taken very seriously.  A 2 year investigation in Yosemite resulted in one man’s citation including “five years of supervised probation and a $52,368 fine.”  He is also “prohibited from hunting within the United States for five years, prohibited from being in the presence of other hunters, and is not allowed to possess a bow and arrow. He is not allowed in Yosemite for the duration of his probation.”

Poaching is not limited to game animals.  In many parks, poachers collect endangered or protected plants and minerals as well.  Smoky Mountains National Park in particular has had major issues with ginseng poachers.  If you witness, or discover evidence of poaching in the National Parks you should report your findings to a Park Ranger immediately.

Loud Music

Let’s just be real here…blasting loud music in camp is obnoxious, annoying and disrespectful to the other campers.  Most developed camping areas, including those at the National Parks, have “Quiet Hours” from dusk until dawn (often 8PM to 8AM).  Ignoring Parks regulations can result in fines and potential ejection from the campground.

Really though, blasting loud music at camp is a simple matter of disrespect and a lack of common courtesy.  Somehow your good time is more important than everyone else’s and you want to crank that volume UP with no thought of how your camp neighbors feel about it.  It’s noise pollution, audio-vandalism, and it has no place in the National Parks.  There are plenty of unregulated recreation areas where beer-swilling party animals can have a rowdy night in the woods.  The National Parks are far too crowded for that kind of activity.

If you are unfortunate enough to be the victim of a noisy camp neighbor, the easiest thing to do is simply ask them nicely to turn it down to a reasonable level.  In some cases, it really is just a matter of not realizing how loud they are being.  If they resist or become belligerent it’s best to report them to a ranger or camp host.  In most cases, the camp host will walk around the campground at the start of the Quiet Hours anyway to make sure music is low and generators are turned off.

Disrespecting Rangers

National Park RangerNational Parks Service Rangers are those keen and patient men and women in uniform that are charged with the protection and preservation of our National Parks.  These fine individuals not only work to keep countless Parks visitors safe and informed, but they also responsible with enforcing compliance with the statutes and regulations of the Parks.  So not only do they manage the park’s resources but they also serve as law enforcement within the park.

Disrespecting authority is nothing new.  But there seems to be a different level of disrespect shown to Park Rangers.  There is often confusion as to what their authority is within the Parks and many dismiss them as glorified trail hosts.  A 2004 study names Park Rangers and the most dangerous federal law enforcement service siting that rangers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault thank FBI agents.  This has a lot to do with simple numbers, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2005 that “the department’s law enforcement staff is already spread thin … averaging one law enforcement officer for about every 110,000 visitors and 118,000 acres of land.”

And while the number of Parks Rangers decreases the number of people visiting national parks is at record highs.  This imbalance is continuing to create tension between visitors and rangers.  Threats and assaults on U.S. Park Police, rangers and wildlife agency staff increased by more than a third in 2012 inlcuding the New Years shooting death of a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, threats of arson at a visitor’s center in Texas and shots fired at a ranger driving in a Federal Recreation area in Arizona.

The attitude toward Parks Rangers has gone way beyond disrespect.  Visitors need to bear in mind the monumental tasks these Rangers face in their duty to protect and preserve the parks.  Without them, the National Parks would not be what they are today.

Disobeying speed limits

Wildlife Photographer Mike Cavoroc recalled a recent trip to Grand Teton National Park, “wildlife crosses the road frequently, and especially at night. This past winter alone, there were six moose killed because of speeders in just a two-mile span of a highway just east of Jackson. Summertime totals are even more sobering. Migrating wildlife frequently cross roads, as do bears and moose in search of food.”

Speed limits exist for your safety and the safety of everyone else on the road.  In the case of the National Parks it’s also about protecting wildlife.  Most developed Park roads have a 45MPH or less limit and can seem pretty slow to visitors cruising in from long stretches of 70 MPH highways.  In 2011 a three vehicle accident injured 8 people and temporarily closed the South Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.  Already this year, 13 bears have been hit by speeding motorists according to the Yosemite National Park website.  Yellowstone National Park reports over 100 large animal deaths related to traffic incidents per year.  Most of those happen at night, in poor weather or involve vehicles exceeding the speed limits.

The citation for speeding in a National Park is a Federal Ticket and can include Federal Charges if not handled properly.  Points are not applied against your record for Federal Tickets, but they could land you in Federal Court.

Exploring off-trail

In 2010, Rocky Mountain National Park had a series of challenges keeping people from cutting new trails in the wilderness.  Hatchet marked trees and plants torn out or crushed caused concern among park rangers.  Not only was there permanent damage to the resources they strive to protect, but these new trails were luring unsuspecting hikers into unknown territory.  Backcountry hikers can get lost and find themselves in terrain they were not prepared for by following non-established trails in the wilderness.

Even experienced hikers can get themselves in over their heads chasing game trails or bushwhacking.  There have been several rescues just this month in Olympic National Park involving experienced hikers who got themselves in bad situations off-trail.  There are countless stories of injury, rescue and death in Grand Canyon National Park due to visitors straying off the established trails.

Aside from the personal risks there are long term environmental issues with allowing off-trail hiking in National Parks.  The sensitive ecosystems of the Parks would not be able to sustain the over 3 million annual visitors all blazing their own trails through the wilderness.  The damage would be devastating.

Spend the whole time at the visitor’s center

This one came as a suggestion from the National Parks Service on twitter.

The National Parks have some outstanding Visitor’s Centers.  Some of the most visited National Parks like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion have built huge visitor’s centers and museums full of information, activities and exhibits to help you understand the park.  Some even have movie theaters!  As amazing as these visitor’s centers are, they are not meant to be the main attraction.  The visitor’s center is a great place to start your visit, grab a map, learn about the trails, wildlife and geology.  Once you’ve had your orientation, it’s time to get out and explore!

The real attraction at the National Parks is nature and the best way to experience it is in person, not through videos and photographs at a visitor’s center.  You must get out and witness the geysers in Yellowstone, feel the rough sandstone cliffs at Grand Canyon and gaze in awe at the massive granite cliffs in Yosemite Valley.  Our Parks are a study in contrasts from the white sands of Dry Tortugas National Park to the black lava crust at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, from the lowest point at Death Valley to the highest point on Mount McKinley in Denali.

The National Parks represent some of the most amazing and unique landscapes our country has to offer.  It would be a shame to limit your visit to a few maps and exhibits.

Underestimate hiking trails

In Fall of 2009, a group of hikers in Grand Canyon National Park hit the emergency button on their SPOT device 3 times in two days.  They refused rescue each time claiming they just needed water and were worried about dehydration.  On the third call, rescue operatives gave them no choice and extracted them from the canyon (they were given citations).  In April, 2010 two young men died in Zion National Park while trying to float the Virgin River in a hand-made log raft with no experience and no supplies.  The National Parks have countless stories of rescues or deaths from people hiking arduous backcountry trails with no maps, sunscreen, food or water.

There is a bizarre complacency with tourists in National Parks.  They seem to forget that they are in a rugged wilderness area that can be very unforgiving.  Rescue operations can cost the National Parks Service hundreds of thousands of dollars per incident.  The search for two lost skiers in Grand Teton National Park in 2009 cost the park $115,000 including $33,000 for the use of the rescue helicopter alone.  Aside from the financial costs, every rescue operation is inherently dangerous to the rescuers.  Your poor decision making or inability to be prepared before you hike puts lives in danger.  Do your research, check the visitor’s center and ask the rangers about what you will need to safely hike the Park’s trails.

With a little knowledge, preparation and awareness you can explore the parks safely and comfortably.  Do your research.


  1. Not pay your fees. A number of campsites are self-serve, honor system. Don’t skip paying the few bucks it costs to stay. It is also not difficult to sneak into some parks after hours without paying the entrance fee. Do the right thing to support our struggling parks.

    • Great addition and I would second that. I mean, an expensive campground is $18-$20. The financial stress for the parks is already tough enough to handle.

    • Barb Sheeley says:

      I know a family that drives into Yellowstone from the North Entrance in Gardner In the middle of the night on any random week night, never on weekends, drives up the road to the campground at Mammoth , turns off their headlights, looks for empty camping spots and sets up camp at say 3 am!!! They have done this for years! Taking vacations and never paying a thing to camp, they have all sorts of stories about how they short the parks out of their fees. It infuriates me every time! They complain that the California National Parks are almost always manned ranger entrances 24/7, so they won’t go back out there, they can’t sneak in in the middle of the night! They got caught a couple years ago at Grand Canyon, they snuck in , found a campsite and in the morning the rangers were there asking for their entrance pass, it seems that their campground neighbor was an off duty park ranger and his young family!!!! Heard them come in! It was funny to me, served them right! All they had to do was pay their entrance fee and campground fees, didn’t get thrown out or a fine or anything! GRRRRR

  2. Bruce Roberts says:

    Just a remark on the 4th item (Disrespecting Wildlife)… We were at Yellowstone a while back watching some elk, and a woman told her two young kids to go up & pet the bull so she could take a photo! Unbelievable! I got all over that woman and she was still clueless, probably thinking I was a madman or something…

    • It’s truly hard to believe that a parent wouldn’t feel at least a little concerned with that sort of thing. Elk are massive.

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      Wow, Bruce! Yeah, sounds about like the experience photographed above from Grand Canyon National Park. People don’t get it…but they sure want something done when those animals act out against them…

  3. I think you have this one covered Dave, but I really get fired up when I see someone throw an orange peel, sunflower seeds, or apple cores on the ground. Usually, it’s on the trail and not in the open of the Park but it kills me.

    The squirrels won’t likely consume those items like the last person I confronted tried to argue. I will see it, and it will piss me off more than most things, so pack it out like you should.

    As I said, I think you have this covered under “littering” and “don’t feed the animals”. But I saw it happen today in the school parking lot. A mom was chucking sunflower seeds as she inched her way through the parking lot traffic. Drives me nuts.

    • Pizza Steve says:

      You do realize everything you just listed decomposes? This entire post is stupid. Common’ OP, step up your troll game.

      • David Creech says:

        Hey there Pizza Steve,

        A lot of times this stuff DOESN’T decompose. It just dries up and sticks around as litter. And it IS still litter. Imagine a popular trail like Delicate Arch in Arches National Park that sees thousands of visitors a day if they all dumped orange peels along the trail…what would that look like? Besides, how hard is it to pack it out? It’s not. And not packing it out is lazy, irresponsible, ignorant and rude.

  4. Is it a federal offence for picking sticks up off the ground to make a fire?

    • David Creech says:

      It can be if that particular park has restrictions on fire and/or collecting wood for fire. Just pay attention to the notices and rules. Especially in National Parks. National Forests have different rules and are generally much less strict.

  5. I’m an outdoor enthusiast and what attracts me the most about my local state park is exploring the vast wilderness and being “in” and traversing the beautiful mountains I see from a far. If staying “on the trail” is an absolute rule or even just urged, where CAN one explore freely and really immerse themselves in the wilderness. I know there are risks, even for the most experienced bushman but I’m sure everyone would agree that applies whether you’re off or on trail?

    • David Creech says:

      Big difference between National Parks, National Forests and Wilderness Areas. National Parks are very restrictive because of the nature and level of their protection as a resource. If you want to go off trail to explore the wilderness, our recommendation would be to look for National Forests or BLM land which is usually pretty open.

  6. Danielle says:

    In my 30+ years coming by to Yosemite NP – I have never seen so much litter. On a 20 min stroll with the dogs we had pockets full and another dogs litter as well. Also rude people that party loud until the last drop of 9;59pm.

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