Etiquette Essentials for National Parks

By definition, responsibly enjoying and caring for public lands is a shared undertaking. If you’re planning a visit, here’s what you need to know before you go.

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

I could write endlessly about my obsession with and personal experiences on public lands, as well as their broad significance in our society, our national history and our environment. Public lands are managed for our collective benefit, rather than for private interests. Public lands are held in trust for all of us, and it is our responsibility to care for, maintain and advocate for them.

In the United States, public lands covering 610 million acres are managed for a number of purposes. Depending on the designation, prescribed activities include recreation, resource extraction (including mining) and cattle grazing. The National Park Service is responsible for managing 417 sites encompassing 84 million acres, with the mission of providing recreational opportunities while simultaneously protecting wildlife and natural and cultural landscapes.

Yellowstone National Park

There are 60 units designated as national parks. If you’re considering a visit, April is a perfect time. National Parks Week is April 21-29, with free admission on the 21st. Within the parks, the emphasis is on preservation, and the rules are tighter than on other public lands, such as national forests. So here are some tips to keep in mind during your trip to avoid irking rangers, fellow visitors and resident bears.

  1. Attend to your dog: I love having my four-legged friend along on as many adventures as possible, so I understand the appeal of taking a dog to a national park. But be aware that this may limit your recreational opportunities. Although there are exceptions, the general rule of thumb is that dogs are allowed on paved roads, sidewalks and drive-up campsites – but not on hiking trails, in the backcountry or walk-up campsites. Some parks, such as Yosemite, have day-use kennels (with limited availability). Dogs must be leashed and supervised at all times. Any waste must be picked up and food stored properly. National parks make up a relatively small component of all public lands – if you want more opportunities to go hiking with your dog, national forests are a great alternative offering fewer restrictions and covering much more total land area.
  2. Leave no trace: Don’t leave refuse behind on trails or in campsites. Bring along a bag to store trash while out hiking, or better yet, avoid snacks with packaging altogether. Some parks do not provide trash or recycling services, so be prepared ahead of time to pack out what you bring in.
  3. Stay on the trail: Respect sensitive habitats and prevent soil and trail erosion by sticking to defined routes.

    An elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
  4. Respect wildlife: Give animals the best shot at survival by not feeding them, even unintentionally (make sure to follow food-storage regulations). Keep a respectful distance from wildlife you encounter – 100 yards is a good rule of thumb for large animals like bears, wolves, moose and elk. For their protection and yours, obey speed limits when driving. Vehicle collisions are a leading cause of black bear mortality in Yosemite National Park.
  5. Don’t be a vandal: Vandalism isn’t just graffiti. It also includes things like tree and rock carvings and false cairns. Carvings can permanently damage important cultural sites and create eyesores that are contrary to the preservation mission of parks. In cases where vandalism can be removed, clean-up efforts cost parks in both time and money.
  6. Be a considerate guest: Particularly on trails and in the backcountry, maintain the wilderness experience by observing trail etiquette. No phone calls or music via speakers, please. If you must take a call or listen to music, pack a pair of headphones. Popular parks and attractions can be crowded during peak season and certain times of day. Be patient, or if crowds aren’t your thing, visit early in the day or discover somewhere off the beaten path.
  7. Be prepared: Know where you’re going (bring a trail map), bring proper clothing and appropriate amounts of food and water – better yet, pack extra. Pay attention to restrictions on campfires, swimming and camping, and note seasonal trail or road closures. Each park has a dedicated website detailing regulations and notices.
  8. Make your voice heard: If you have an awesome time at a national park and decide that you, too, are stoked about public lands, then show up where it counts – at the polls or by writing and calling representatives about relevant legislation.

    Death Valley National Park

Author’s note: Our system of public lands may be, at its core, “America’s best idea.” But the system also requires improvements, and there is work to be done in bringing the execution up to the standards of the sentiment. Historically, public lands were created following the displacement of indigenous peoples and the rural poor. Today, myriad issues persist based on a lack of diversity and representation in public lands. Check out programs like Every Kid in a Park and the NPS Academy for examples of current efforts to address these issues. If creating and maintaining public lands that are accessible to all is important to you, consider donating to the Trust for Public Lands or local organizations committed to fostering outdoor experiences for youth from underserved areas and/or underrepresented backgrounds.