U.S. National Park rangers carry a lot of responsibility – it’s up to them to protect the USA’s most important national and historic places as well as the people who visit them.
With thousands of parks, refuges and historic sites to protect, a park ranger’s job is exciting and rewarding, but certainly no easy feat. While each U.S. National Park is unique, they do have some things in common. Al Nash, former chief of public affairs for Yellowstone National Park (which spreads across the northwest corner of Wyoming into southern Montana and southeastern Idaho) is no stranger to the ranger uniform. After more than 18 years with the U.S. National Park Service, Nash knows a thing or two about making the most of your park vacation and how to put a smile on a park ranger’s face. Here are his seven top tips for enjoying national parks in the USA.
1. Come Prepared …
Whether you’re planning an overnight camping trip or just a short hike, make sure you have everything you need for a safe and comfortable visit. “Sturdy shoes or boots are a must, as is a backpack with water, snacks, sunscreen and a small first aid kit,” Nash said. The first aid kit is particularly important, as help isn’t always nearby. “Cell phones don’t always work in the backcountry, and help can be a long time coming.” He also suggested dressing in layers, because the weather can be unpredictable, especially on mountain hikes.
Come to a park prepared with appropriate gear.
2. But Be Careful About What You Bring
Before you pack your bags, keep in mind that the items you bring into the park may harm the delicate balance of the environment, the wildlife and the people around you. One prime example is the drone. Although drones can help you take incredible bird's-eye photos of the majestic landscapes, they can cause damage to the parks if they’re not handled correctly. Not sure if you should leave an item at home? Nash said to think about how the items you bring to the parks could affect the environment and other visitors. And remember: Any items you bring into the parks should leave with you.
Backpacking in Big Bend National Park in Texas
3. Stick to the Trails
The U.S. National Parks all feature a variety of hiking trails tailored to novice and expert trekkers alike, and Nash stressed the importance of following designated routes in order to protect the environment and ensure your safety. “Keeping to the trail protects the park’s fragile areas and limits the chances of getting lost,” he explained. In parks that do not see much rain – like Arches National Park in Utah or Joshua Tree National Park in California – straying from the trail can leave a lasting impression on the landscape; it could take weeks, or even months, for your footprints to wash away.
Hiking mountain trails in Colorado
4. Don’t Feed the Animals
Spotting a bison or a bear in the U.S. National Parks is exciting, but it’s important to remember that these are wild animals, and park rangers would prefer to keep them that way. This is crucial to keep in mind if you’re planning on camping in the parks. If the animals learn to associate visitors with a free meal, they’ll be much more likely to approach people. Leaving food out at night could attract unwanted visitors to your campsite. “Keep food, trash and cooking utensils locked in a hard-sided vehicle or a ‘bear box’ when not actively in use, (and) don’t take any food with you inside a tent at night,” Nash advised. “Animals have a much better sense of smell than we do!”
A mother bear and her cubs
5. Check Out the Visitor Center
Many of the parks, refuges and monuments overseen by the U.S. National Park Service are home to visitor centers. They’re one-stop shops for everything you need to know about the destination. Before you head out into the park, visit a center to pick up a map and chat with the rangers, who can offer advice on everything from which trails to take to which animals you might spot.
A ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore in California
6. Douse the flames
If you’re camping in the parks, make sure you’re doing so safely. Before you call it a night and head to bed, it’s critical that you completely put out your campfire. “Sparks from untended campfires can lead to a wildfire, so it is important to douse any fire with water, stir the ashes and douse the fire again before retiring for the night,” Nash said.
Campers around a fire in Wyoming
7. Stay Longer
All too often, travelers try to cram a national park visit into just a few hours, but Nash said taking that approach will cause you to miss out on all the park has to offer. “Don’t expect to see everything in one visit,” he said. “Our national parks are amazing, wild, natural places. Bring a good camera and a pair of binoculars.” Nash also suggested tagging along on one of the guided walks offered by rangers in many of the parks. “You’ll have a great time and just might learn something!”
Taking in the view at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado