What NOT TO DO in National Parks

What are 10 things you really should NOT DO in a National Park? Here are the rules and regulations that protect wildlife, plants, and visitors.

National Parks are a treasured part of the American landscape offering visitors the chance to explore some of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring natural environments. It’s no wonder that millions of people flock to these parks every year. 

However, as with any public space, there are rules and regulations in place to protect the park’s natural resources and ensure the safety of visitors.

Whether you’re a seasoned park-goer or planning your first visit, it’s important to be aware of these rules to help preserve these amazing spaces for future generations. 

The following national park rules and regulations are in place for everyone’s safety. That includes people, plants, and wildlife. They should be respected and not bent for your convenience. The importance of these parks is more significant than you and me.

Bighorn sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Do NOT feed the wildlife

The first item on the list is NOT feeding the wildlife. Feeding a cute little chipmunk some of your lunch can be tempting. However, human food can make wild animals extraordinarily ill or even kill them. 

In addition, feeding wild creatures can endanger humans and themselves. Wild animals may hurt a human to get their food if they are used to getting fed. 

In addition, they may be braver to approaching humans and inadvertently get hurt. Most animals are skittish for a reason. That hyper-awareness protects against predators.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Do NOT interact with wildlife

I know this goes along the same lines as not feeding wildlife. But you should NOT interact with wildlife at all. 

Two women were seriously injured in separate bison attacks while visiting national parks in just a few days. At Theodore Roosevelt National in western North Dakota, a woman suffered injuries to her stomach area and foot when a bison charged at her. Then, a bison gored a woman in Wyoming. Both were sent to hospitals for treatment.

When it comes to encounters with wild animals, park officials have issued timeworn advice: give them space. Visitors should stay at least 25 yards away from large animals which include bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes, the park said; they should stay more than 100 yards away from bears and wolves. Mid-July to mid-August is mating season, resulting in aggressive and unpredictable bison.

In June 2022, a bull bison gored a 34-year-old man after he moved “too close,” park officials said. Weeks earlier, a bison had flung a 25-year-old woman 10 feet into the air after she came within 10 feet of the animal. In 2019, a 9-year-old girl was sent airborne from a bison’s head butt which was captured on video and shared on social media. The girl was part of a group that stood within 5 to 10 feet of the bison for at least 20 minutes, officials said.

Pronghorn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are several reasons why interacting with wildlife is not recommended:

  • Safety: Wild animals are unpredictable and can become aggressive if they feel threatened or cornered. Approaching or touching a wild animal can endanger you and the animal.
  • Disease: Wildlife can carry diseases that can harm humans such as rabies, Lyme disease, and hantavirus. Interacting with wild animals can increase your risk of exposure to these diseases.
  • Disruption of natural behavior: Interacting with wildlife can disrupt their natural behavior and cause them to become dependent on humans for food or other resources. This can lead to problems for animals and humans as it can cause animals to become aggressive or reliant on human handouts.
  • Protection of the environment: Many wildlife species are protected by law and interacting with them can be illegal. Additionally, disturbing or harming wildlife can harm the environment and the ecosystem as a whole.

Overall, respecting the natural boundaries between humans and wildlife is essential to ensure their safety and well-being. If you encounter wild animals, it’s best to observe them from a safe distance and avoid any actions that could harm or disturb them is best.

Hiking the trails © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. You should NOT veer off trails

Staying on trails when hiking or exploring natural areas is essential for several reasons:

  • Safety: Trails are typically designed and maintained to be safe for visitors. Staying on the trail can avoid hazards such as unstable terrain, steep drop-offs, or poisonous plants.
  • Preservation of natural areas: Trails direct human traffic to minimize environmental impact. By staying on the trail, you can help prevent damage to fragile ecosystems and minimize disturbance to wildlife habitats.
  • Navigation: Trails can serve as a guide and help visitors navigate through unfamiliar terrain. You can avoid getting lost or wandering into unsafe or restricted areas by staying on the trail.
  • Respect for private property: Trails are often established with permission from private landowners or government agencies. You can respect their property and avoid legal or ethical issues by staying on the trail.

Stay on designated paths to help protect yourself and the natural areas you visit.

Animals in national parks are protected by law © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. You CANNOT hunt or trap

Hunting and trapping are generally prohibited in national parks. National parks are designated as protected areas to preserve and protect natural ecosystems, biodiversity, and wildlife populations. Hunting and trapping can disrupt these ecosystems and wildlife populations and are, therefore, not permitted in most national parks.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, some national parks allow limited hunting for specific species to manage their populations or control invasive species. Additionally, some national parks allow certain traditional or ceremonial hunting types by indigenous communities with historical ties to the area.

It’s important to note that national park regulations can vary by location and season. If you plan to visit a national park and have questions about hunting or trapping, check with park officials or consult the park’s website for specific rules and regulations.

Be aware of fire safety when camping in national park and elsewhere © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. NO fires in an ubdesignated area or during a fire ban

Wildfires are a significant threat to national parks. Not only can they cause years of devastation to parks but they can kill many humans and animals in their wake. 

Many national parks allow fires in designated fire pits or grills. However, it’s essential to check with park officials or consult the park’s website to determine if fires are permitted in the area where you plan to visit. Follow any guidelines or restrictions that are in place to ensure the safety of everyone in the park.

If a fire ban exists, the fire danger is too high to light a fire. During fire bans, you are NOT allowed to have a fire, even in designated areas. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. NO drone flying

The NPS banned drone flying in national parks in 2014 according to Policy Memorandum 14–05. This policy applies to any “unmanned aircraft” that drones are classified as.

To fly a drone in a national park, you must obtain a Special Use Permit but these aren’t given out easily. These permits are only for special use cases such as search and rescue, research, and fire safety.

If you fly a drone without a permit, NPS rangers have the authority to confiscate your gear, fine you, and even put you in jail. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

NPS has these strict guidelines for a reason, as explained in an article on their website:

“…their use has resulted in noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, park visitor safety concerns, and one documented incident in which park wildlife were harassed. Small drones have crashed in geysers in Yellowstone National Park, attempted to land on the features of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, been lost over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and been stopped from flying in Prohibited Airspace over the Mall in Washington DC.“

Don’t pick the wildflowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Can you pick wildflowers at a national park?

This one is a big NO! Not only are you not allowed to pick flowers or other plants in national parks but it is also illegal under federal law. That is because the NPS has regulations to protect national park areas’ natural beauty and resources of national park areas. 

The Plant Protection Act, the federal law governing the protection of plants, prohibits the unauthorized removal or destruction of plants from federal lands including national parks.

Visitors to national parks are encouraged to enjoy the beauty of the natural environment without disturbing it. Taking photographs or simply admiring the wildflowers in their natural habitat is a great way to appreciate these areas’ beauty while protecting them for future generations.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Do NOT make excessive noise

You should not make excessive noise when visiting a national park. Playing music or speaking louder than a normal speaking tone can disrupt wildlife.

As I’ve already covered, we should disrupt wildlife as little as possible during visits. Loud noises can scare animals and cause them to act differently than they normally would. By disrupting their behavior you can impact their feeding, mating, and other vital habits.

Plus, excessive noise interferes with other visitors’ enjoyment. So, do not yell, scream, or play music for all to hear. It’s not fair to the wildlife or your fellow visitors.

BY THE WAY, if your solution to not playing music for all to hear is to wear headphones, be mindful of the volume level. For your safety, you need to still be able to hear your surroundings including nearby animal noises and shouts of warnings.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. DO NOT leave painted rocks

There is a well-meaning trend where people paint rocks and leave them for others to find. They often paint a happy design or write encouraging words earning them the name kindness rocks.

This trend spawned from a national campaign called The Kindness Rocks Project. It’s meant to inject a little joy or inspire those who find them. And it certainly does in non-public, landscaped settings.

However, as part of the Leave No Trace policy, you should never leave painted rocks in a national park. Nor should you remove any rocks from the national park to paint later!

Even if you use environmentally safe paint on the rocks, the colors and designs can disrupt an ecosystem. Birds and fish in particular can be thrown off by foreign objects disrupting their eating, nesting, and mating behavior.

The painted rocks also pose a serious risk to hikers. People have mistaken painted rocks for trail markers causing them to unwittingly go off trail. And as we learned in Gone Without a Trace: Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks, hikers in national parks go missing more often than you might think.

Be careful and obey all warning signs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. DO NOT ignore warning signs

I know this seems obvious but most incidents, injuries, and fatalities in national parks occur because people ignore the warning signs. As we saw in the above article signs are there for good reason.

The same goes for wandering off the trails and boardwalks. Not to mention touching things you’re warned against! Yet SO MANY PEOPLE ignore these warnings and pay the consequence.

The latest such story is a woman who actually dipped her hand into a steaming hot spring at Yellowstone and then jumped back, yelling, “It’s hot!” To do this, the woman and a man beside her chose to get off the boardwalk, walk to the edge of the hot spring, kneel, and place her hand in it. The whole thing was recorded by onlookers and spread over social media.

Yellowstone has rules prohibiting people from touching, swimming, or soaking in the hot springs because they are so hot they have KILLED people. The spring where this woman did this, Silex Spring, has an average temperature of 174.7 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Last year it was reported that a shoe with a partly disintegrated human foot was found in a hot spring. We’re not sure if the foot was ever identified.

The point is, do NOT think the warning signs don’t apply to you. They are there to keep you, other visitors, and the ecosystem safe.

Here are a few links that may help you prepare for your next RV trip to a national park:

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome