It’s no secret that over-crowding is becoming an increasingly common concern at a number of our National Parks. Summer peak travel season has probably always been busy at Yosemite Valley, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc… but there seems to be less distinction between what is peak, shoulder and non-peak season these days. With that said, with more people comes more problems.
I recently went on a 11-day family vacation to Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks. This would still be considered shoulder season (a travel industry term for the period before peak travel season) yet Yellowstone seemed very crowded to me at least compared to my previous two visits (late spring and early fall). Grand Teton on the other hand didn’t seem all that crowded.
At Yellowstone, the parking lots for most of the attractions were packed and people had to park on the road half a mile or more away. Interestingly enough, the ever-popular Upper Geyser Basin / Old Faithful area had plenty of space available. On some days while driving in from West Yellowstone, we sat in traffic for an hour or two just to drive the 14 miles to Madison Junction; the cause? Cars stopping on the road to photograph bison. The road signs and rangers make it clear that is against the rules mind you.
I’ve had my fair share of encounters with tourists and photographers at popular scenic lookouts before but I had never been physically shoved by anyone until my recent visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. (Sadly, this was not my first incident at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone). I was standing at the Artist Point lookout minding my own business when a Chinese tour bus group shows up and one of the guests decides his selfie is more important than respecting my personal space so he comes over to my side, faces me then puts his hand on my chest to shove me out of the way. I took the high road and went somewhere else but as soon as I did that, I saw something similar happen to a European couple. Another Chinese tour guest butted his way in front of the couple’s face so his family could shoot his picture. I kept hearing the European couple talk about how rude that guy was and shook their heads while the Chinese tourist stood there forever while posing for his picture. Photographers can sometimes earn a reputation for being “trophy hunters” but these Chinese tourists are really something else. I don’t see them actually looking at the scenic view, they are more fixated on getting their damn selfies then running off to the next spot a few minutes later. I’ve seen these types of tourists over the years at other locations too such as the Canadian Rockies, Monterey and the Grand Canyon. It’s fine to be a tourist, just act in a respectful manner.
Check out Michael Russell’s blog post about Iconic Locations and Iconic Misbehavior.
In other situations, I saw international tourists stepping off the boardwalks in geothermal areas to pose for pictures. Again, the signs warn people to not do that as it’s health hazard and also destroys the geothermal features that attracted the people to Yellowstone to begin with. Regardless if there is a language-barrier or cultural differences, I feel that tour groups need to do a much better job at educating their guests on what is considered acceptable behavior in National Parks. They also need to self-police as well since it’s impossible to have enough rangers staffed at every location. A good tour company puts an emphasis on educating their guests on local customs and etiquette. I find it unacceptable when the visitor experience is ruined by large tour groups. I believe the National Parks System should stop being run as a cash register and start vetting their permit system. I wouldn’t mind seeing much less large tour groups in national parks or revoked all together since the parks are not lacking in visitation.
In case it’s not clear what can happen when you step off the boardwalks, read this article: A Brief History of Deaths in Yellowstone’s Hot Springs
Stepping out of bounds is not an issue limited to international tourists. I’ve seen many people step off the trail and climb all over the redwood trees at Muir Woods National Monument and Redwood National Park despite signs telling people not to do that. Is that picture of your face worth damaging the landscape for everyone else?
Another common issue I’ve witnessed at Yellowstone during previous visits is tourists getting too close to bison. Some people even try posing for pictures right next to bison. Others just stand too close in general thinking they are docile creatures. Bison are larger than most cars so it really wouldn’t take much to seriously injure someone not to mention that it’s illegal to get closer than 25 feet.
We stayed in Mammoth Hot Springs for our last night of the trip and that area has a lot of elk roaming around. Again, I saw many people getting way too close to elk while they are grazing next to the boardwalk. Not surprisingly, I saw two news stories come out regarding people getting kicked by elk near Mammoth Hot Springs. Both incidents happened on the days I was there.
Illegal feeding of wildlife: While I didn’t see any large mammals get fed by tourists, I did see some cars throw food at the crows when I was driving by. Based on that it wouldn’t surprise me if the same idiots were feeding larger animals as well. Years ago, I photographed some idiots in Joshua Tree National Park throwing food out their car at the coyotes. The coyotes would run up to the cars and beg for food after. Fed animals result in dead animals and/or people, please don’t do this!
Defacing natural features: Carving your name into aspen trees is not cool. Don’t do this! Not only does it make for ugly photographs, but it’s not good for the trees and is considered graffiti. Here are some other media stories regarding vandalism and defacing of park features:
- Woman sentenced for vandalism in several National Park Service sites
- Vandalism At Colorado National Monument Might Not Lead To A Prom Date, But Could Produce Jail Time
- Investigators think they know who tore up Death Valley’s fragile Racetrack Playa in an SUV
- Photographer Charged in Delicate Arch Fires
- Iconic Point Reyes Shipwreck Destroyed by Amateur Photographer
Drones: Yellowstone & Grand Teton now has signs everywhere telling people that flying drones is illegal in the parks. These signs didn’t exist in the past so it seems like a lot of people have been illegally flying drones in the parks. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case because I’ve seen Instagram videos of people flying drones in places like Point Reyes National Seashore which is not technically a National Park but is still operated within the National Parks System. I personally abhor drones and find them to be obnoxious. There is a time and place for them but National Parks is not one of them.
I could go on and on about how people break the law and behave badly at National Parks but I think you get the point now. Some parks like Zion & Grand Canyon have addressed overcrowding by restricting private vehicles during peak travel season so you have to take the park shuttle to get around to various trailheads. People have proposed the same for Yosemite. I see how that could be a viable solution but I really hate the thought of losing our individual freedoms. Having visited Yosemite a number of times in my life I like being able to come and go as I wish at all hours of the day. Without the ability to travel freely within Yosemite Valley, I’m not sure I would even want to photograph there anymore. Though I might be more amenable to summer season restrictions during 9 to 5 or something like that so the less-crowded sunrise and sunset hours are still free. Point Reyes National Seashore does that during some parts of the year I believe. While addressing overcrowding would reduce the amount of bad behavior in national parks by virtue of reducing the number of people; that doesn’t actually address the behavior problem.
I would like to propose my own ideas for how to improve National Park visitor experience:
- Require all National Park visitors to acquire a permit. To do this you would need to pass a short test regarding rules & regulations. The test can be translated to other languages if needed. If caught violating park rules then you would be banned.
- Reduce the number of large tour bus groups permitted in the park at once if not eliminate altogether.
- Make sure that tour groups have strict permitting requirements and follow the rules; and properly educate their guests on proper etiquette.
- Have multiple rangers and park enforcement at popular sites. There seems to be minimal oversight in some parks like Yellowstone in my experience. This is a detriment to the visitor experience in my opinion.
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for vandalism. Mandatory jail time for graffiti and defacing of park features.
- Tourism boards should stop marketing the popular parks. At this point they’re already selling themselves.
If you know of any other news stories about people behaving in the National Parks, let me know and I’ll add to this post.