9 mistakes you're making when visiting national parks, according to a former park ranger of 37 years

·8 min read
A former park ranger said visitors shouldn't assume they can purchase plastic water bottles at national parks and should stay away from wildlife.
A former park ranger said visitors shouldn't assume they can purchase plastic water bottles at national parks and should stay away from wildlife.Monica Humphries/Insider KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images/Boy_Anupong/Getty Images
  • Visitors make tons of avoidable mistakes when visiting national parks, a former ranger told Insider.

  • Tom Haraden spent 37 years protecting visitors and wildlife in nine national parks across the US.

  • From packing water to staying clear of animals, he shares how to avoid the worst mistakes he's seen.

Tom Haraden told Insider he's loved every minute of the decades he's worked in US national parks.

Tom Haraden shows off an old picture of himself working in the national parks.
Tom Haraden shows off an old picture of himself working in the national parks.Monica Humphries/Insider

Tom Haraden's self-described "magical" career in the National Park Service started in 1972 as a volunteer in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Since then, he's worked in nine US national parks.

"I loved every minute," Haraden said of his 37-year career.

Haraden said he's spoken to thousands of visitors during this time, and he's also seen people make plenty of mistakes.

His general advice to avoid them: "be smart."

"The park service's philosophy on safety is that your safety is your responsibility," he said.

Here are some of the most common mistakes Haraden said he saw in his four-decade career and how to avoid them.

1. Don't try to squeeze too much into a single trip. Instead, leisurely enjoying the views.

A person sits in silence at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
A person sits in silence at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

Haraden said he's seen people who will try to visit every single viewpoint in a national park in a single day. While this is one way to explore a national park, Haraden believes that if you go slower, it gives you the chance to really soak in the natural beauty of the parks.

"I think the biggest mistake I see people make is trying to be too fast," he said. "They go out to a viewpoint at the Grand Canyon and go, 'been there, done that.'''

Haraden said that's the wrong attitude and urges visitors to slow down. That might mean watching the sunrise, grabbing a book and sitting by a river, or slowing down your hiking pace.

"Don't try to do everything," he said. "Enjoy some things to the full depth you can."

2. Don't expect solitude unless you do your homework and hike farther out.

Crowds gather to watch the sunset at the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Crowds gather to watch the sunset at the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.Monica Humphries/Insider

Haraden said there are plenty of national parks without hoards of people, but it can take time and research to figure out which parks aren't packed or which areas inside parks are less crowded.

"Do your homework and stay flexible," he said. "Nowadays, doing your park homework involves knowing what's going to be crowded. If you go to a park like Arches in the middle of summer, it's going to be packed. So go to a place that's less visited, like Canyonlands."

But even then, you're still likely to run into people if you stick to the main viewpoints, Haraden said. The farther you get into the national park, the higher your chance of finding solitude.

3. Don't arrive without any sort of itinerary. No matter where you go, research the park to get a sense of what you want to do once you're there.

A map of Rocky Mountain National Park.
A map of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

Beyond looking at how crowded parks are, Haraden suggests researching every park you plan to visit beforehand. This will help you craft an itinerary that meets your wants and needs.

"Know what you want," he said. "Do you like to hike? If you like the hike, what kind of hikes do you like to do? Do you like flat ones? Do you like vigorous ones?"

Haraden's best advice for researching the national parks is to use the National Park Service's websites. Every national park has a detailed website, which tells visitors about the park, its crowds, and what to expect when visiting.

4. But don't be too rigid about following an itinerary.

A crowded hike at Arches National Park in Utah.
A crowded hike at Arches National Park in Utah.Monica Humphries/Insider

While Haraden said it's helpful to research and have some itinerary before arriving at a national park, he also advises visitors to be adaptable.

"Don't get locked into the mindset that 'I must do something,' because you might get there and it's too crowded to do it, or the parking lot is full," he said.

Variables like weather and crowds can impact how you experience a park, so Haraden said he recommends coming with an open plan with backup options in case one of those activities doesn't work out.

5. Don't forget to pack enough water or assume that bottled water is readily available because it's often not.

A visitor in Arches National Park carriers water in their backpack.
A visitor in Arches National Park carries water in their backpack.Monica Humphries/Insider

"Running out of water is probably one of the worst mistakes you can make," Haraden said.

The National Park Service warns visitors that there's a higher risk of heat-related illness, especially during the summer months. Part of being prepared is ensuring you pack enough water or a water-filtration system.

In June, the Interior Department announced it would phase out the sales of single-use plastic bottles in its parks, The New York Times reported.

Many national parks like Zion, for instance, have already stopped selling plastic water bottles.

Instead, the National Park Service encourages visitors to bring their own reusable water bottles to cut down on waste. So while there are water fountains available across national parks to refill your bottle, visitors won't find many places to purchase a bottle of water.

6. Don't forget other supplies for the hikes and activities you're embarking on, like a windbreaker or bear mace.

The author with a backpack of supplies in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
The author with a backpack of supplies in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

If you do your research, you'll likely know what to expect and what you'll need for a national park trip, Haraden said.

That might mean packing a windbreaker or extra jacket for trails with high elevation or making sure you have bear spray if you're exploring a park like Yellowstone or Grand Teton, which are populated by bears.

"Even if you don't use it, you're ready in case you do need it," Haraden said.

7. Never make the mistake of getting too close to wildlife. You could get seriously hurt, and you might get the animal euthanized, too.

A bison walks past people who just watched the eruption of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park
A bison walks past a crowd of people at Yellowstone National Park.George Frey/Getty Images

Haraden stressed that visitors shouldn't approach wildlife in national parks, regardless of animal size.

He said he'd heard stories of people trying to feed bears or placing their children on the backs of bison.

Those stories often make headlines, and every year, national park visitors are injured or die due to getting too close to wild animals.

Haraden added that it's a lose-lose scenario since the animals involved sometimes must be euthanized.

8. Don't assume staying in the national park will be more expensive than hotels and cabins outside the park. But be prepared to book accommodations far in advance.

The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park in California.
The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park in California.Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Whether it's a campsite, cabin, or hotel, national parks across the country offer a wide range of accommodations for visitors.

And according to Haraden, many of the accommodations are reasonably priced. For instance, a room at the Lake Crescent Lodge in Olympic National Park in Washington starts at $108, according to the lodge's website.

"Everyone thinks they're more expensive than lodging outside of the park, but that's not necessarily true," he said. "The park service wants to make them available to everybody, but you do have to reserve them way in advance."

For example, during peak season, The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite can fill up months and even years in advance, Haraden said. It's one of the National Park Service's more expensive hotels, with rooms starting at $518, according to the hotel's website.

9. Don't make the mistake of not asking for help or advice from park rangers.

A park ranger at Yellowstone National Park in California.
A park ranger at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.George Frey/Getty Images

Across any national park, you'll find park rangers who are there to answer questions and help create a positive experience inside each national park.

"The park rangers have all the information you need to make decisions," he said.

They can help point visitors to the good hikes and have knowledge of weather and other important information that might be handy to know. Haraden said visitors should never be hesitant to approach a park ranger with questions.

Haraden's best general advice is to consider the visitors who want to explore and discover the parks after you.

Tom Haraden worked in the National Park Services for 37 years.
Tom Haraden worked in the National Park Services for 37 years.Monica Humphries/Insider

Haraden doesn't just mean the people entering the parks tomorrow or next year. He's referencing the future generations of visitors exploring the otherworldly Arches National Park and the geyser-filled wonderland of Yellowstone.

He said he hopes national park visitors are doing their part to be stewards of the land, which means modeling behavior like picking up trash, giving animals distance, and not packing disposable plastic water bottles.

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