Visiting a national park is a great way to take in fresh air and amazing views, and with over 400 national park sites in the U.S. alone, it’s not hard to reach and enjoy a park, wherever home may be.
Of course, as a visitor, it’s important to have an appreciation for the role national parks play in preserving nature’s beauty -- and to comprehend just how essential it is that we protect the parks and ourselves during our visits.
As much as we love national parks, people come extremely close to endangering themselves and the environment when visiting national parks far more often than you’d think. As of 2019, there are approximately six fatalities per week in the national park system, which rounds out to nearly 312 deaths a year. From harming wildlife to coming too close to the edge (literally), people traveling within the national park system need to remember that safety and respect for their surroundings is a must.
We were curious to know about fatal, near-fatal, and dangerous incidences in the parks, and what we can learn from them. These tips and stories from former park rangers, national park tour guides, and vets are both a warning and inspiration for keeping ourselves and our environments safe for years to come.
Curious to know some of the don’ts of national park safety? Read on for firsthand stories and to learn about some of the most warned-against behavior these professionals have witnessed in parks, and what to do instead.
1. Thinking Every Place Is Fit For A Photo Op
Jake Case, a bearded, flannel-loving, tree-hugging writer, photographer, and editor at territorysupply.com -- who’s worked as a tour guide at Grand Canyon National Park South Rim and a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Recreation Area -- describes a time that he witnessed a woman coming too close to the edge when trying to get the perfect picture.
“I had a 50-something-year-old woman in a tour group who didn't have good balance while standing or walking. But she still repeatedly insisted on walking very close to the canyon's edge to have her 20-year-old son take her photo, despite multiple warnings from myself. On one occasion she tripped and nearly fell just a foot away from a 500-foot cliff, and proceeded to do the same routine at the next stop. The other guests and I were terrified, but she wouldn't listen.”
2. Throwing Trash Away Mindlessly
Throwing trash away seems straightforward enough, but it’s something that’s often done mindlessly. Andy Demetriou of Advantage Grand Canyon Adventure Rafting Trips and Tours offered a friendly reminder to national park visitors: “Another risk which is very common, especially during camping or hiking, is not disposing of your trash properly. This isn't only a matter of environmental and wildlife protection but also of your personal safety. How come? The scent of leftover food can attract wild animals, which will put everybody in danger.”
He went on to say, “Also, about animal safety, we know that you love animals as much as we do but feeding animals is not doing them any good and it's actually prohibited.”
3. Allowing Fido To Roam Freely
Our dogs are our best friends and, just like best friends, we want them to go almost everywhere with us. Your upcoming trip to a national park may not be the best for your pup, however. Sara Ochoa, vet and veterinary consultant for Dog Lab, warns you to keep your dogs on a tight leash if you do take them along.
“Some of the main problems I see from dogs going to national parks is that they may pick up parasites. There is an abundance of animal feces on trails in national parks. Dogs can be very gross sometimes and eat these fecal droppings. Most of the wild animals in parks carry some type of parasite as they do not have regular veterinary checkups. When your dog eats the poop they also are infected with the parasites.”
4. Underestimating Trail Mileage
Hiking national park trails is a great way to see the lovely views while also getting some exercise in, but it’s imperative to not overdo it. Steve Silberberg of Fitpacking Weight Loss Backpacking Adventures recommends that people hitting the trails should properly calculate what they can really handle and be sure the trails are feasible for them.
“I've found that national park visitors almost always underestimate trail mileage. Example: It's only 7.5 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Phantom Ranch. How hard could that be? Your neighbor probably runs seven miles before work every day. But descending -- or ascending -- over 4,800 vertical feet is brutal on the legs. Plus you'll be carrying a pack that should have at a minimum 1 gallon, or [nearly] 4 liters, -- [that’s] 8 to 9 pounds -- of water. It's even more pronounced if you're carrying a full pack. And then there's the weather. Temperatures can be below freezing when you start out and over 100 degrees at the Colorado River.”
5. Inviting Unsafe Wildlife Encounters
Of course you’ll probably see wildlife as you maneuver through a national park, but do be careful of what wildlife it is. Veterinarian and travel writer Nicole Lewis of Wandering with a Dromomaniac shared a time that she had a surprise run-in with a bear while out walking around.
“You are hiking along a trail and suddenly there is a bear between you and your hiking partner. This has happened to me, and trust me it is extremely hard to keep cool and follow the rules when this happens. I’m not going to lie, I kind of ran away. Luckily for me, the bear didn’t give one iota for us and just went on his merry way. Don’t do what I did. Never run from a bear.”
Lewis said she got lucky that the bear didn’t look at her like she was lunch on the run. “Walk away slowly and confidently,” she advised. “Of course, your best bet is to not have this happen at all. In order to avoid such encounters, make sure to make noise along the trail to let any wildlife know that you are there. That’s why I always recommend singing, periodically clapping your hands, tapping your hiking poles together, or tying bells to your daypack. Anything to alert nearby wildlife that you are there.”
These are just a few instances where national park visitors have come close to endangering themselves and their surroundings. On your next visit to one of the many national parks across the States, keep these incidents and park safety tips in mind!
Want to read more on park safety (and consequences)? These four times tourists risked their lives for a selfie are sobering, as is the arrest of a national park tourist who harassed a bison. Want to get out and enjoy the parks responsibly and at a discount? Here’s how to get a National Parks Senior Pass.