Dos and Don’ts of Visiting National Parks

By Grant Sinclair General Travel, Park People, Travel Advice

Dos and Don't of Visiting National Parks

If last year is any indication, US National Parks are in for a banner year in terms of visitation. That means a lot of the places we love will be loved by a lot more folks than us… and that’s ok. We are happy to see new folks love our national parks. That’s one of the goals of our blog, but there is a lot visitors can do to make a visit to a national park better.  Here is our list of dos and don’ts for visiting the national parks:

DO: Check in with a Park Ranger

I can’t stress this enough. The first thing you do upon entering a national park, monument, etc. is check in with a ranger.

Rangers are most up-to-date on the conditions in the park and can tell you about any adverse conditions in the park. Want to hike that special hike? The ranger knows before you drive out there if it is closed due to bear activity.

View off the Great Island on Cape Cod
The hike out to Great Island in Cape Cod National Seashore was a bit rough due to the sand, but ranger-recommended hike hd some great views!

Rangers have the best tips for good hikes, amazing views and spotting wildlife. I always ask rangers for trail and wildlife viewing recommendations and have never been disappointed.

Indeed, rangers in Yellowstone have helped me see some amazing wildlife several times.

If you are heading into the backcountry, rangers can help you with backcountry permits and, in many places, will keep a record of those headed into the backcountry.

DON’T: Skip the Visitor Center

If it is your first time visiting a park, go to the visitor center. Not only will you find a park ranger to check in with, you will also often find very good exhibits about the park.

Bonnie and I almost always sit down to watch the video before exploring a park, mainly to give us back story on the park and inspire us to visit places we hadn’t thought about.

Agate Fossil Beds
There’s a lot more to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument than just fossils.

Also, I find I learn a lot about the “hidden” history of a site. At Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, the main attraction is the fossils. For me, however, the real attraction was the James H. Cook Collection, which tells the story of the relationship between Cook and the Oglala Lakota, including Red Cloud. The visitor center also  has significant artifacts from the Plains tribes.

DO: Plan Your Trip in Advance

Going to a national park requires a bit of planning. Check out the NPS web site before you go, especially in the winter!

We have learned this lesson the hard way a couple of times and it has worked out for us many other times.

Many park sites require guided tours to visit the preserved homes and, especially, the caves. Those tours must be booked in advance. Check with the park’s web site to see when the tours are offered, what they cost and what the requirements are.

Eleanor Roosevelt's dining room at Val-Kill Cottage
Getting to see the inside of Val-Kill Cottage required a bit of advance planning, since you have to take a guided tour.

Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument both offer cave tours and both require sturdy footwear, so be sure to check if there are clothing requirements for the tour you are looking to take.

Additionally, in the winter, many parks reduce hours and reduce access to the parks. Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, for example, national parks close large sections of road to cars due to snow. Some of the more isolated parks, like Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, have significantly reduced hours.

We were actually planning to visit both Sand Creek Massacre NHS and Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site on a winter road trip, only to find Sand Creek Massacre NHS was closed the day we were going to go. Fortunately, we figured it out before we drove out that way.

A house at the Tuskegee Institute NHS, and Alabama National Parks site
We were not able to tour “The Oaks,” the home of Booker T. Washington on the campus of Tuskegee University, because it was closed the day we were there.

We were not quite as lucky with Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, which was closed the day we were going through.

Additionally, pay attention to the guidebooks and sites. In some of the more popular parks, parking lots fill up early and stay filled. Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park and Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park both see significant visitors and, in order to visit them, you need to make them an early morning priority.

DON’T: Ignore the Warning Signs

Warning signs in National Parks are both something I take seriously and a source of amusement for me.

Yellowstone’s warning signs, in particular, should inspire caution. The geothermal features can seriously injure a careless hiker or thrill seeker and the fences around cliffs are there for good reason.

National Park Service Warning Sign
Some NPS warning signs are humorous. Others, like this one at Cape Cod National Seashore, not so much.

I rarely find a National Parks site which doesn’t warn about interacting with animals. Sometimes, like in Yellowstone or Cape Cod National Seashore, those signs are sobering. At Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, however, the warning against perils of the ground squirrels seems a bit much, especially by comparison.

DO: Give the Animals a Wide Berth

I may chuckle a bit at some of the animal warning signs, but they are there for a good reason.

There is no one who enjoys seeing beautiful animals more than I and no one who is more interested in getting a good picture of a wild animal, but don’t put yourself in a bad position in regard to the animal.

The three animals I worry about most are bison, bears and moose.

A moose chased me once. I was walking along the Sandy Stream Pond Trail in Baxter State Park, Maine, when I came upon a cow along the trail. It was a decent distance away, so I stopped and started taking pictures. I did not take a step closer and the moose appeared unbothered by my presence.

Bison on the road
We passed this guy heading over Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone NP. Believe it or not, he was following the rules of the road! You always have to be careful around bison.

Then I heard movement in the brush. I looked over and saw a calf that was going to put me between it and momma. The cow started towards me and I ran. It stopped chasing me after a bit and I settled down, but it was a bit scary.

Bears are an obvious fear and getting anywhere near a sow and her cubs or a mating pair is just asking for trouble. If you want to take pictures, make sure you have a good zoom lens and give the bears a lot of space.

Bison are probably my biggest fear. We like to hike, especially in Yellowstone, and you will find bison wallows and tracks everywhere. Bison are erratic. Most of the time, bison don’t get excited about people, but other times, they just decide to gore the bejeezus out of someone nearby.

Recently, Yellowstone has had a rash of bison selfies with predictable results for those getting too close to the bison. Don’t. Just don’t.

DO: Pay Attention to Bear Restriction in Campgrounds

While bear restrictions may seem onerous, do follow them. Bears can smell food for miles and will come into a campground looking for food if they feel they can get to it. That encourages human-bear interactions, which leads to bad things for both the humans and the bears.

Grizzly Bear
A grizzly bear poking around for something to eat.

While camping in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we had a water bottle and mosquito candle confiscated by the folks at the campground due to bear restrictions. At first, we were a bit aggravated, but the reality is the folks who live and work in the park know better than we do what will attract a bear and what won’t.

DON’T: Gripe About the Admission or Tour Fees

The national parks are treasures for all of us. Yes, tax dollars support our national parks. Yes, there are some national parks which are free to enter, like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mainly due to deed restrictions when the park was created.

The National Park Service estimates there is a $12 billion (yes, that’s billion with a b) maintenance backlog. Essentially, Congress has been underfunding the parks for years despite year after year of record-breaking attendance.

Road closed sign in Yellowstone National Park
The Park Service closed Blacktail Deer Plateau Road on our first trip to Yellowstone. Parks need a lot more money to keep up with the maintenance demands. On our second summer trip, we got to drive the road and saw a black bear.

The fees you pay go directly to supporting the national parks, but they don’t come close to paying for the “cost” of your visit. Other countries charge significantly more for access to their national parks. For example, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia charges $27 per person for a one day admission. Yellowstone National Park, by contrast, charges $30 for a seven-day pass for everyone in a vehicle.

DO: Get Out of Your Car and Go for a Hike

The views from the roads in many of the national parks are simply amazing. Indeed, the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park is nothing short of amazing.

To really experience a park, however, get out of the car and get on the trail. Most parks will have a variety of trails, from simple 30 minute walks to multi-day hikes. Check in with a ranger for recommendations on a hike that suits your ability level and available time.

Grant hiking in Badlands National Park
Hiking in Badlands National Park

One of the best experiences we have ever had was hiking in Wind Cave National Park. It was like walking through an episode of “Wild America.” 

Even in the most crowded parks, all you need to do is get a 1/4 mile away from the road and you will find a lot more peace and quiet.

DON’T: Hike Without Proper Supplies

When you do go into the woods on a trail, carry what you need with you. REI has a great list of 10 Essentials to take with you when you go in the woods and you should carry most, if not all, of those items every time you go for anything more than a mile.

My big thing is learn how to use a map and compass. Most folks have become so reliant on their phones for navigation, they don’t know how to use a map to get from point a to point b. I am guilty of it, too, but I can do map and compass navigation and I always take a compass with me into the woods.

Bonnie on the Trail
Bonnie hiking through the Tallgrass National Preserve

Water is another thing I see folks not carrying enough of. Most of the recommendations I see are to carry one liter of water for every hour you plan on hiking in the hot sun. We typically take a three liter CamelBak with us on most hikes.

I have seen plenty of folks on long hikes (nine to 10 miles) taking only a small water bottle with them. I cringe whenever I see that.

Don’t be the person who goes into the woods completely unprepared. I suggest you have a good daypack with all of the essentials packed in and ready to go.

DO: Pay Attention to Those Around You

This is more of an etiquette thing than anything else. This is a problem I see in people in general and that is being unaware there are other people around.

As a photographer, I do not have exclusive rights to a particular shot. I am more than happy to patiently wait for other folks to take their pictures and move on. I will do my best to get the captures I am looking for quickly and then move on.

What I don’t like are folks who don’t pay attention and walk into a shot completely uncaring. Yes, I am here. Yes, I am taking a picture. That’s why I am pointing the lens that way. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Grant at work at dawn in the Badlands
Setting up to take a picture before dawn is a good way to make sure you get in position for a good shot.

Also, please don’t stop in the middle of the trail, sidewalk, road, etc. That’s the way people get by.

Also, one last gripe: If it’s early in the morning, don’t be loud. I was at Arches National Park a couple years ago to take pictures at dawn. There was a large number of tourists there at the same time. Cool. No worries. It’s really pretty and I am happy to share.

But they were loud… so very loud… and moving all over the place. Seriously, it was like there was a pack of corgis wandering around… Really cool, but so loud and so distracting.

DON’T: Leave Anything Behind in the National Parks

As the saying goes: take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints. That goes especially for national parks. I know there are trash cans, but take your trash with you if you are just there for the day.

It is one more way you can contribute to our national park by making the “cost” of your visit as small as possible.

Visiting National Parks are a summer tradition for many folks. Before you head into a park, be sure to read these dos and don'ts to make you visit better.
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Grant Sinclair
Grant Sinclair

A native of Georgia, Grant has decided to put his love for travel and nature photography, coupled with years of experience in print journalism, to good use and start Our Wander-Filled Life with his wife, Bonnie.

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