Visiting a national park in 2019? Here’s how to not be a jerk

It might be common sense to most, but recent events have made this worth repeating

During my travels in 2018, I saw plenty of atrocious behavior in our national parks.

I saw a group of tourists hop over ropes and ignore signs to get better pictures, destroying a fragile bear habitat in the process. (Lucky for them, the bears weren’t around at that moment.)

I watched a teenager throw a stick at a bison to “try and get its attention.” I kicked him out of the area and got the one-finger salute from his father.

I saw countless cars and RVs park illegally and cause parking lot log jams and dangerous roadside obstacles. It was so bad over the 4th of July in Yellowstone I actually carried a notepad and left “friendly” little notes telling folks I was giving the rangers their license plate numbers. (Yes, I’m that guy.)

This was all with the national parks open and fully staffed.

Photo: Austin Coop

Now, with rangers returning to their posts after a month-long government shutdown, we’re realizing some people acted even more boorish without park officials out and about.

Joshua Tree National Park may be the saddest example we’ve heard so far. Without the oversight of park rangers, the Park Service reports that people carved out miles of off-road trails, built well over 100 illegal fire rings, and even cut down some of the park’s namesake Joshua trees. According to the Desert Sun, humans did damage to the park that can take up to 300 years to repair.

As National Park Service staff excitedly returned to their respective parks, they reported trash bins overflowing and general states of disrepair.

For those of us who treasure the national parks, it’s a bummer—but there’s hope. According to a new trend report by the team here at Roadtrippers, being conscious and responsible is in this year.

By and large, roadtrippers are more considerate of the environment and our human impact than we were just a few years ago. After all, it was only 40 years ago that parks like Yellowstone stopped using “Bear Lunch Counters,” where they’d use trash piles to lure bears to the side of the road, complete with bleachers for viewing. We’ve come a long way.

As we gear up for our 2019 road trips, let’s visit a few ways you and I can be considerate in nature.

Photo: Austin Coop

Park in designated spots and pull-outs

When you’re on the road in a national park, just pulling off at an undesignated spot can be extremely dangerous. Other travelers may be distracted as they take in the scenery, or your illegal pull-off could be on a blind hill or curve, so the odds of your vehicle being struck are much higher. Undesignated spots are also not necessarily equipped to handle the weight of a vehicle, so you could find yourself quickly stuck or, worse, sliding off the side of the road.

Look for pull-outs and obey signs, and you’ll keep your family and mine safe this year. Plus, when you pull off at unauthorized spots, you risk damaging the surrounding ground, which can affect everything from vegetation to runoff patterns.

When it comes to parking lots, park in the right type of spot. Ever wonder why some parking lots seem clogged with RVs and tour buses? Chances are there are cars parked in the oversized spots reserved for much bigger vehicles. When cars take up these extra wide spots, buses and RVs are forced to just circle around like a scene from “Maximum Overdrive.”

“Large coaches can’t just park anywhere. We need space to maneuver, and oversized parking takes that into consideration. When cars park illegally, it creates obstacles for us and delays for everyone behind us,” says motorcoach driver Allen McDonald.

Handle your trash

National parks do a phenomenal job of having trash and recycling bins all over the place, and they’re there to be used. Of course, sometimes they fill up. Putting your trash “near” the bin just doesn’t cut it. Animals of all types will pounce on it, scattering the inedible pieces, and potentially getting ill from the food you didn’t get in the bin. Large game, such as bears, may also get into a habit of checking these overflowing bins, increasing the likelihood of an attack. This can hurt both the human and the bear, since bears involved in attacks on humans are typically killed after caught.

If a trash bin is full, stow the garbage in your vehicle until you can dispose of it later. One little bag of trash in the car isn’t a big deal, but a bunch of litter that can cause lasting damage to parks is.

Photo: Austin Coop

Leave the wildlife alone

One hundred yards from bears, 25 yards from everything else; that’s the rule of thumb. Bison can jump several feet in the air and run at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Elk seem incredibly docile—until a protective mother kicks you, or the buck comes to defend his herd. It happens all the time. Just this summer, Yellowstone reported two elk attacks in a period of three days in June.

Give them space. Don’t bait them. Don’t taunt them. Just enjoy them from a distance.

Don’t screw with nature

I can’t believe I have to say this—but don’t cut down a Joshua Tree. Also, don’t pick wildflowers, sneak pine cones into your bag, or collect a bunch of rocks. What we touch, we change, and if you take some of these things back home, you can spread diseases and introduce all sorts of problems to your own habitat. The U.S. Forest Service warns that taking a piece of infected wood from a national park or forest could be all it takes to spread the Mountain Pine Beetle, and that’s just one of many possible issues.

Taking stuff from a national park can get you a nasty fine, too. Just get caught stealing a piece of wood from Petrified Forest National Park and you’ll be looking at a $325 fine, according to the NPS.

Photo: Austin Coop

Call out bad behavior

Ok, so no one likes a tattle-tale, but enough is enough. If you see someone doing something not-so-considerate, call them out. I start by striking up a friendly conversation and try to explain why said behavior isn’t so great. If that fails, I’m not above writing down a license plate number and turning it in to a ranger.

Most of all, remember we’re just guests at these places. Treat them with respect, and we’ll be able to enjoy them for years to come.