Rangers Reveal: 10 Tips to Visit Parks Like a Pro

Osprey Falls Trailhead at Yellowstone National Park by Jacob W. Frank, NPS

Park rangers are the smiling, friendly, informative folks in uniform we see at the visitor’s center or on the trails of our favorite public lands. They interact with the public on a daily basis and occasionally must deal with people breaking rules or being disrespectful. Let’s give them a hand. Read on to learn how to be a better guest at parks - directly from SCA veteran rangers.

1. Pick-up Dog Poop and Litter

Litter – both fecal and non – is, far and away, the number-one ranger pet peeve. And some kinds of litter combine two uncouth practices in one!

“I find a lot of dog droppings that have been bagged and then left on-trail,” says Michelle Clark, a ranger at Death Valley National Park. “Leaving the plastic baggies is just littering. And then the bags break open and get washed into waterways. While it would be best to pack out your dog’s droppings, bagging the feces and then leaving it is worse than doing nothing at all.”

2. Pay Attention to Signs

Signs in parks aren’t meant to cramp your style! “Signs are there for a reason,” says Harvey. “Usually because someone has harmed themselves, others, property, or the scenery by doing exactly what the sign now tells you not to do.”

Or as Sarah Spragg, park ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in Marina, California puts it: “Closed areas are closed for a reason.” That could be for maintenance, weather, safety or ecology-related concerns such as nesting or breeding areas. Ignoring signs, says Nancy Rogers, a former park ranger from the Bureau of Land Management and current director of the non-profit Corps Foundation says, “could lead to injuries, death, or – on the other end – doing serious harm to a national resource.”

3. Respect the Park’s History

Some parks are designed for play and recreation; others, however are national monuments and spaces for education and remembrance. “A Civil War battlefield park, where thousands of soldiers died and where many are still buried today, is not the appropriate place to fly kites, play soccer, or picnic,” says Clark, who was once a seasonal interpretative ranger at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. “Sometimes I felt like the ‘fun police’ when I had to tell people to stop playing, but if you understand what happened on a given battlefield, it makes sense to treat it like a cemetery rather than another open space.”

4. Don’t Vandalize

Did you ever feel the urge to carve your and your partner’s initials into a tree, cabin, or shelter? However romantic it might have felt in the moment, it harms the environment and spoils the area for other park-goers. “We, as park rangers, are here to protect the resource for everyone – forever,” says Eric Runkle, a ranger at the Montgomery Bell State Park in Tennessee. “As we find this damage we have to clean up what we can, but some hangs around and encourages others to participate as well.” This is how one act of vandalism can lead to another, and another, and…

5. Keep Dogs and Wildlife Safe

Our canine friends make a second appearance on the list. Bottom line? Off-leash dogs in the park are a big pain for rangers, even if pet and owner are en route to a leash-free area.

In addition to the standard complaints of dogs chasing wildlife and disrupting campsites, there can be other consequences that are less expected. “Since large predators can be found in our park, walking with a dog is a safety hazard,” explains Daniel Agudelo, a seasonal interpretative ranger at the Everglades National Park. The Everglades are known for its gators, and dogs can be targets for alligator attacks, as pet owners in both Florida and North Carolina found out the hard way.

Don’t make the ranger be the bad guy. “Rangers love furry critters just as much, if not more, than most people, but making sure you know the rules and regulations of a site before going with your pet is crucial,” adds Ian Harvey, interpretative ranger at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. “Many times people will be asked to turn around on a trail because they brought their dog with them, and it can ruin a trip.”

6. Do Your Homework

A quick read of the park’s website regarding things to do helps you be informed before you go on a day trip. Once you’ve arrived, keep an eye out for maps, pamphlets, or signs for visitors. This can answer many of your questions. You can take a photo of the large posted map and information to take with you on your hike.

As Jason Cangelosi, the volunteer program manager at the National Mall and Memorial Parks, points out: “Some trip planning always helps. I’m happy to help with the monuments and make suggestions, but I might not know where the food trucks are today.”

7. Be Prepared – and Safe

Being prepared is not just a Boy Scout slogan – it applies to all park-goers! For more extensive visits in our national parks, planning is absolutely essential. As Harvey explains: “Many search-and-rescue operations occur in parks because people are just unprepared for what is ahead of them. You cannot hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with flip-flops and no water and expect to make it out alive. Even on less extreme hikes, it is still important to bring plenty of water, food, warm and dry gear, and whatever else may be needed for that particular region.” For a great list of tips to know before you go hiking, check out our related blog post here.

8. Not All Rangers Are Law Enforcement

“Sometimes people call us ‘officer,’ but remember: not all rangers are law enforcement,” says Jason Cangelosi. Sometimes this is taken to the extreme. “Some parents tell their kids ‘don’t do that or the ranger will arrest you!’” says Ian Harvey. “All this does is create a larger fear of authority and ultimately does more harm than a kid picking up a pinecone. All rangers have a passion for what they do and would much rather educate rather than yell and punish. Many times, I will respectfully correct a parent who says something like that and by the end of the conversation, I’ll be the kid’s newest best friend.”

9. Respect Park Programs 

Getting children involved in national parks and conservation activities at an early age is wonderful; parks are not, however, substitute daycare. “We love sharing information about the resources we protect to children of all ages,” says Eric Runkle. “We also enjoy the educational activities that grow out of that. However, we are not here for parents who want a free babysitter. Dumping children in a program where they are not really there to learn anything is just not cool.”

10. Keep The Noise To a Minimum

“Parks should be a vacation from noise,” says Nancy Rogers. And new advances are making it even easier to keep quiet. “With new solar technology, generators in campsites should be a thing of the past. Music that bleeds sound to other sites or areas is a drag too. Sound really carries in a park.” Instead of bringing our own sounds into parks – electronic or otherwise – parks offer a rare opportunity to reconnect with nature and tune our ears to the wind, birds, and wildlife around us. Leave the Bluetooth speakers at home!

Our parks are treasures, and they’re also shared spaces where our behaviors affect others – for good or for bad. So the next time you pay a visit to a park, remember that some basic good practices and trail etiquette go a long way. You’ll be making everyone’s day better – especially your friendly park ranger’s!