11 most common mistakes made by national park visitors and how to avoid them

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Visitation to the United States National Park is at an all-time high.  Every year more and more people are heading to the National Parks to experience the wonder that is the National Parks.  More and more people are looking forward to hiking Yosemite’s Half-Done, see the eruption of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, or witness the sunset behind Delicate Arch in Arches.  With 417 national parks, you can visit a new park for a week, and it will take you eight years to see all the parks.  There is more park to see then there is time.  Learn how to optimize your trip without making common mistakes.

With over 150 national park service units under my belt, I have seen, heard, and made almost every mistake one can make in a national park.  For many visitors, a national park vacation is the trip of a lifetime. They should be making the most of the trip, yet many don’t.  Here are the 11 most common mistakes made by national park visitors.

Not planning ahead

National Park sites range from 13 million acres to 0.2 acres.  Every site is different, and a little bit of planning can help make the most of visit.  Some parks like Koduk Valley National Park has limited access. One has to charter a plane to visit Koduk. Other parks like Statue of Liberty require booking ferry tickets well in advance. Always research before visiting a park.

Fill-up your gas tank

If you are driving to a national park, fill-up before entering the parks.  Only a handful of parks sites have gas available within park boundaries.  The only ones I can think of is Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Yosemite.  It is a scary thought to get to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park and realize that you need gas.  Fill-up when you get off the interstate and head towards the park.  Fill-up a second time at a gas station near the park entrance, just to be safe.

Decide what souvenir you are going to collect

National parks offer a range of souvenirs.  If you are going to be visiting a lot of parks (and make it a goal to visit them all), decided what you are going to collect before you start.  It is awful to start collecting something and realize you are missing your first couple of parks.  Also, think about how you want to display them.

Some of the collection options include t-shirts, iron-on patches, shot glasses, coffee mugs, stickers, postcards, magnets, cancellation stamps, or junior ranger badges.  I collect the postcards, patches and cancellations stamps.  On average, I spend less than $10 on my collectibles.

Not reading the park newspaper or map

All National park service units have a guide map with a detailed map of the park. The major stops will be listed. On the back of the maps is a collection of information on the park.

For the larger units such as National Park, visitors will be handed a newspaper. The newspaper has important park information.  It will cover operation hours of visitor centers, the services offered in the park, animal and safety warnings, hiking trails, ranger lead program and any other important information to know.

Skipping the visitor center

Visitors will sometimes make their entire plan based without talking to the park rangers. The parks are a natural environment.  Mother nature can change things in a park in an instant. The visitor center will have the latest and greatest information on the park. On occasion trails and roads will close for a variety of reasons from flooding to construction to wildlife issues.  The park ranger have valuable insight into the park. If there is a particular animal you would like to see, they can advise on recent sightings.  For example, I am on a quest to see mountain lions, so I always stop and ask about recent sightings.

Be sure to double check with the rangers on all the trails you are planning to hike.  They can sometimes share interesting features that you would otherwise miss.

Don’t be so focused on the plan

National Parks are a time to get away from the busy scheduled of life.  They are about exploring the park and being in the moment. It is about taking 5-30 minutes to enjoy seeing the moose or changing plans because the avalanche lilies have bloomed along one of the trails.  It’s about snagging that Zion Subway permit, the people in front of you just handed back.  A plan is great, but the plan should be an outline.  Most of the parks aren’t going away where.  Except for the glaciers, they are moving downhill and melting.  I guess a few of the volcanic parks could drastically change if they were to erupt.  But for the most parks, the parks are not going anywhere and any activities not done today can be done on another visit.

If you are in a park that offers optional paid tours such as cave visits, then you do need to make it to the meet points on time but other no need to rush a park tour.

Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

Get up and get moving

A national park visit isn’t a time to sleep in. There are several reasons to get up early in the parks.

Many of the parks are world renowned for their sunrises – Bryce, Acadia, and Canyonlands to name a few.  Watching the sunrise in Bryce is quite a sight, but it can be a crowded sight.  Decided on your dawn watching spot during the day and then the next morning head straight there.  Sunrise watching is becoming quite popular so getting to your sport well before sunrise is a must.

Wildlife is more active in mornings, and it can be a great time to see the wildlife.

The last reason to get up early is parking in most national parks is somewhat limited.  Once the lot is full, its full and no more parking is found nearby. If planning to hike a favorite trail, the lot can be packed very early in the morning.

Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

Going to bed

The absolute worst thing one can do in a national park when the skies are clear is going to bed.  So many people live in cities where seeing a handful of stars in the norm. Nothing can compare to seeing the Milky way fill the sky.  Almost all the national park are far enough from cities that light pollution is minimal.  Astro-viewing can be unbelievable in many parks.  If you are fortunate and in a northern park, it is possible to see the northern lights as well.  I once saw terrific stars and the northern lights in Badlands National Park.

Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

Not stopping and asking

The best way to spot wildlife is to look for vehicles pulled over.  If you see someone pulled over, pull over as well.  Make sure your vehicle is all the way off the roadway.  Get out of your car quietly and walk over and ask what they are looking at.  Don’t be afraid to stop and ask.  99% of the people are willing to show you what they are looking at.  If they are using a spotting scope, they will probably let you look thru it.  I  have never had anyone not share what they are looking at.

Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

Look up from the camera

Photos are a fantastic way to remember your national park visit but take a moment and look up from the camera.  The national parks are natural wonders and historic sites.  Look around and take the view in.  Stand there and say wow, I am looking at Half-dome over the Yosemite Valley or I am watching the Alaskan Brown Bears fish for salmon.  Picture are tremendous but standing there and enjoying the moment without fooling with a camera is better.

Interact with the Wildlife

There is a reason the wildlife is called WILDlife. They are wild animals.  In the national parks, they need to stay wild.  This means that no matter what they need to be left alone.  There is absolutely no reason on this planet that you should feed them, offer them a drink of water, or try to pet them.  Think of wildlife like toddlers.  Once they learn a bad habit, it is near impossible to break them of this habit.  It is not good for the squirrels, chipmunks, and other cute furry creatures to be feed (in particular salted sunflower seeds).  All that sodium makes for fat animals that are easy prey for something bigger.   Plus those cute little animals can be disease vectors for rabies, hanta, and plague.

The bigger animals (like bears) become a danger to human after being fed.  A fed bear can start approaching humans and get aggressive once they know humans mean food.  As park service says “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Every year, a handful of people learn the hard way why you don’t mess with the large herbivores in the park system.  Any and all of the animals can be dangerous.  Bison have been known to chase and gore people.  The elk regularly kick people (Mammoth Hot Spring in Yellowstone is a common place for this).  Stay at least 25 yards from these animals and odds are in your favor that nothing will happen to you.

Have you made any of the common mistakes?  What other mistakes have you made?

Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors. Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

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Learn how to avoid making the most common mistakes made by national park visitors.  Avoiding these mistakes will increase your enjoyment of the visit.

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Jennifer Melroy

Jennifer has been obsessed with national parks as a child.  This Tennessee native spent her childhood exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveling with her parents to National Parks and around the Caribbean.  She is always planning her next adventure and is ready to see the world while trying to visit all 59 National Park (*She is ignoring the hunk of concrete that just became a national park).

24 thoughts on “11 most common mistakes made by national park visitors and how to avoid them

  • 7 Jul 2018 at 8:11 am
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    Leave the wildlife alone guys! Big fan of sitting back from a respectful distance to let wild animals behave like….wild animals. Some tourists are a little too curious and others complete morons LOL.

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  • 8 Jul 2018 at 2:34 am
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    Such great tips!! I’m currently planning a big national parks trip and the key word there is planning. 🙂 But equally it’s great to be able to be spontaneous while you’re there. I always collect postcards and usually keep maps and things too, so maybe I’ll put together a map collage at the end. 🙂 Can I ask what cancellation stamps are?

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    • 11 Jul 2018 at 1:23 am
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      Cancellation stamps are small stamp at every NPS site that has the park name, state, and date you visited on it.

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  • 22 Jul 2018 at 1:36 am
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    There are some good tips here, Jennifer. I enjoy exploring national parks. You certainly feel uplifted while surrounded by nature and fortunately, there are still many national parks in the world to explore.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:20 pm
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      There are about 3,000 parks around the world to explore.

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  • 22 Jul 2018 at 10:02 am
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    I completely agree, not only in context of national parks but in general, about the souvenirs. I realised I didn’t collect any on my first few international trips and thereafter I began collecting fridge magnets, only to realise I was missing few for the first couple of countries I visited. Luckily, I found friends going to those countries later and asked them to bring for me. Related to National Parks, I agree about visiting the Visitor centre first, there is so much info available there, especially detailed maps, which I feel shoudl definitely be referred to. I can see you have a good amount of experience visiting National Parks, you have given some great tips here!

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:47 pm
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      Yep that is my issue. I am missing about 10 patches and stamps from those 10 early parks.

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  • 23 Jul 2018 at 9:50 pm
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    Great tips. My personal favorite is star gazing and simply reveling in the beauty of the night sky. I had never thought about deciding on souvenirs or memorabilia ahead of time. Makes sense to keep a cohesive collection of momentos. I look forward to visiting more national parks including Bryce…and I will certainly keep these tips in mind.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:22 pm
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      I like to decide first because I have about a dozen parks I have visited and yet I don’t have patches from them.

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  • 24 Jul 2018 at 1:39 am
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    I am guilty of “looking on the camera” and “focus on the plan” haha! As a blogger, we always want to make perfect pictures and share it with others but sometimes we missed “being” there. As a parent, I always “focus on the plan” with the kids but tI agree with you, we can’t always stick with it. In the end, all of us are disappointed because of being torn in between – not following the rules and not enjoying as we expect it. National Parks are always fun-filled, nature-focus and informative, teaching us not to rush life. Thanks for this!

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:20 pm
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      Yep and sometime even bloggers need to step back and just enjoy.

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  • 24 Jul 2018 at 10:31 am
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    This is such a wonderful post. Actually one should really take care of these pointers. The most important ones I say, is to fuel up your car tank, research before heading and talk at the visitor center. The roads or trails may be closed for one or some other reason. And yes don’t sleep, take time to roam around and milky ways are best in National parks.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:16 pm
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      Most of the parks don’t have fuel in them so filling up is important.

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  • 24 Jul 2018 at 12:28 pm
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    This is a really great article – there are so many good tips on here for visiting National Parks. We visited 4 this year, and noticed a lot of people ignoring these things – especially staying away from the wildlife! Planning your visit by using the NP newspapers and ensuring you know the entry points and busy times is a great tip too.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:15 pm
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      It is frustrating how many people ignore the signs and end up damaging something.

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  • 24 Jul 2018 at 3:42 pm
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    I love the tips of getting up early and look up from the camera! So important. If I could add one – respect wildlife. When I was in Yosemite National Park there were signs everywhere telling visitors to stay on the boardwalks to protect the meadows. Sure enough, several people would be frolicking in the meadows for a photo opp. You are the visitors, people!

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 4:00 pm
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      Yep the parks are being damaged by people looking for photos ops.

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  • 25 Jul 2018 at 12:56 am
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    I realize these are mistakes not to be made. Especially the one of not looking up from camera. I am often so obsessed with capturing everything in camera I fail to observe in real. Animals shouldn’t be fed, I wish everyone followed this.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 3:59 pm
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      Yea, I am tired of the animals being fed. It isn’t helping them.

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  • 25 Jul 2018 at 3:30 am
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    Im guilty of the camera, I tend to stop and capture every angle of the National park when ever i see a beautiful scenery. But i still make sure to stop and enjoy the nature- fresh air, wild life etc.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 3:58 pm
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      There is nothing wrong with taking pictures but that needs to be balanced with enjoying the site.

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  • 25 Jul 2018 at 8:09 pm
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    Really good advice and tips. The one that says, “Look up from the camera” is so true. You miss so much if you just focus on getting that perfect shot. It has happened many times. Imagine you visit Yellowstone park and you didn’t get to really see all the amazing features of it.

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    • 27 Jul 2018 at 3:57 pm
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      Yep. To many people just look thru the camera and never stop to realised where they are standing.

      Reply

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