7 ways to be a responsible traveler at U.S. National Parks

National Parks are some of America's most popular destinations, welcoming millions of people every year. In 2018, there were more than 318 million guests at the parks; Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone received 11.4 million visitors, making it the busiest park in the nation. While this means Americans are appreciating the natural wonders available to them, it can also strain the systems in place to protect these wild lands. A stark example occurred during the 2019 partial government shutdown when many National Parks were overwhelmed with sewage and garbage. With most park rangers absent, some guests also broke the rules by littering, vandalizing, and off-trail hiking and driving; vandals even cut down some of Joshua Tree National Park's iconic trees.

In light of these events, many travelers have wondered what steps they can take to avoid harming these beautiful places. Dr. Martha Honey co-founded the Center for Responsible Travel in 2003 to promote travel that "maximizes the benefits to local communities; minimizes negative social and environmental impacts; and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats." AAA spoke with Dr. Honey about how travelers can make sure their visits are beneficial for the National Parks and their caretakers as well as themselves.

1. Follow all rules and posted signs

An easy way to respect the pristine ecosystems at National Parks is to know and follow the rules—even if there are no park rangers around. Some of the rules are common sense: Don't litter, don't start fires outside of designated areas, and don't go off the marked trails. "You do not feed the animals, and you try not to leave garbage that the animals will get into," Honey says. "It makes them come closer to the campsites and causes conflict between the wildlife and humans." Collecting plants, rocks, or wood as souvenirs is also against the rules in almost all cases.

A trail sign in Yellowstone National Park

Staying on designated trails helps protect sensitive areas from the effects of millions of footsteps.

Other rules may not be as obvious. For example, while leashed dogs are generally allowed in developed areas at National Parks, many parks prohibit them on trails and in other sensitive areas to protect wildlife. These and other rules can vary by park; make sure you know beforehand. Information about individual National Parks can be found at the National Park Service's website.

2. See something? Say something

Even if you're following the rules perfectly, you might come across someone who isn't. If they vandalize or otherwise damage the park, it may not be discovered for a long time. "Report it to the authorities so it doesn't just get overlooked," Honey says. 

3. Reduce the amount of packaging you bring

Even if visiting campers are properly disposing of their garbage, hauling it all away is one of the biggest logistical issues the National Parks face. During the 2019 government shutdown, trash quickly overwhelmed the available garbage cans and dumpsters. To ease the burden, Honey recommends removing excess packaging ahead of time. "Try to prepare as much in advance the food that you're taking in so that you don't come in with lots of cellophane and Saran wrap around things," she says. "Have the food that you want in reusable containers that you'll take out with you." 

A family roasts marshmallows over a campfire

Bringing marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate for s'mores in reusable containers instead of their original cellophane packing reduces the amount of trash you leave behind.

You can still have a campfire and cook on it—just do the prep at home so that more of the garbage is left in your local garbage bin instead of the National Parks.

4. Limit your driving impact

During the peak season and especially at the most popular destinations, the number of visitors getting around by car inside the parks often leads to traffic congestion (not to mention air pollution). Many parks offer free shuttles and bus services as an alternative, and some even offer shuttles that bring guests in from nearby towns. 

5. Make National Park reservations online

Parks are increasingly controlling access to tours and campsites by offering reservations online. Booking ahead of time helps parks manage crowds, and that's not the only benefit, according to Honey: "Many people appreciate the booking system because they can then plan their trip, know that they'll be able to get in, and know that they'll have a quality time because it won't be overcrowded," she says. Check the park you'll be visiting to see if reservations are available or required.

6. Visit in a quieter season

"It's better to go in a shoulder season or an off season if you can," Honey says. Just like amusement parks, National Parks are usually most crowded during spring and summer breaks and on the weekends, though this varies from park to park. Do your research on peak season beforehand, and consider visiting another time to experience fewer crowds and ease the strain on the park. And, depending on what park you visit, you may see a unique side of it, such as a floral superbloom in spring or the leaves changing color in autumn.

Acadia National Park in autumn

You'll see fewer crowds if you visit Acadia National Park in the autumn shoulder season, with the added benefit of seeing the colorful fall foliage.

7. Consider state and other parks, too

National Parks are home to unique sights and experiences, but so are many lesser-known parks. "We know that Acadia, Zion National Park, Yosemite, and so on can get really crowded," Honey says. "But there are an awful lot of parks that don't see a lot of visitors. Oftentimes our city and state and regional parks are underutilized, and some of them are magnificent." Visiting lesser-known destinations during heavy travel seasons can help spread out your impact.

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See how you can be a responsible traveler wherever you go
Dr. Martha Honey and the Center for Responsible Travel have lots of advice for travelers heading almost anywhere, not just to National Parks. See how the hotels you choose, your method of travel, and the things you do can help or harm the local environment and people.