Plan Like a Ranger When You Visit National Parks

Plan Like a Ranger When You Visit National Parks

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Visitation at national parks is increasing and expected to continue to grow throughout the summer. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is experiencing high monthly visitor numbers, suggesting we may top 2019’s record-breaking 12.5 million visitors by the end of 2021.

Even during 2020’s lockdown, GSMNP visitor numbers reached 12 million. Like many parks and businesses in park gateway communities, the Smokies continues to modify operations in response to the pandemic. The park is fully accessible for outdoor recreation, but some indoor operations and educational programming remains limited. The best way to learn about current park operations is to visit NPS.gov.

In anticipation of this unusual season, the National Park Service released a top-ten list of visitation tips encouraging members of the public to plan like a ranger.

A little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises are happy ones. Plan like a ranger with these 10 tips. Photo courtesy of NPS.
A little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises are happy ones. Plan like a ranger with these 10 tips. Photo courtesy of NPS.

“It really boils down to the notion that a trip well planned is more likely to be a successful one,” Caitlin Worth, acting management assistant at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, explained. “Planning like a park ranger will help visitors have great experiences, make lasting memories, and stay safe.” 

1. Have a plan...and a backup plan  
A successful park visit begins at home with a trip to NPS.gov. Park websites have ideas about where to go, what to see, what to do, and most importantly, what you need to include in your planning. Flexibility and a backup plan are key, too, in case of changing weather conditions, road closures, and other unforeseen circumstances.   

2. Be patient with each other and us 
Always remember to allow yourself extra time to get from one place to another and enjoy the experience. National parks are popular places to be in summer—especially as we transition out of pandemic lockdown mode.

3. Travel off the beaten path  
There are more than 400 national parks across the country. Try exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines. 

4. Reservations may be needed  
Many campgrounds and lodges in and around well-known parks are already fully booked. Having a reservation guarantees you won’t arrive at a park only to find that you need an entrance reservation, there’s no place to sleep, or a popular trail is closed.  

5. Ask a ranger  
Have a question? Ask a ranger. “We’re always here to help,” said Worth. “We can answer questions, share park stories, and let you know what activities are available before or during your visit to the park.”

Ranger Caitlin Worth, acting management assistant at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, answers visitor questions and helps them plan their activities. Photo courtesy of NPS.
Ranger Caitlin Worth, acting management assistant at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, answers visitor questions and helps them plan their activities. Photo courtesy of NPS.

6. Explore the new NPS app  
Yes, NPS now has its very own app at NPS.gov—and new content is being added every day! The new NPS app offers tools to explore more than 400 national parks, including interactive maps, tours, and accessibility information. Plan ahead and you can even access it offline while in the park.

7. Keep safety in the picture  
Everyone who visits parks loves to take photos. But it’s important to take them where it is safe. Some popular trails and views may be especially crowded this year, so an unobstructed photo might require a bit of a wait.   

This rule of thumb can help you stay aware of how close you are to wildlife when visiting parks. Illustration courtesy of Emma DuFort, Great Smoky Mountains Association.
This rule of thumb can help you stay aware of how close you are to wildlife when visiting parks. Illustration courtesy of Emma DuFort, Great Smoky Mountains Association.

8. Don’t pet the fluffy cows  
“When the National Park Service wrote this tip, they were referring to the bison that are a big draw to some of our parks out west,” said Worth. “But the Smokies iconic megafauna—elk and black bears—are just as treasured and we need your help to keep them safe! Keep your distance from wild animals, never feed the wildlife, and when taking pictures, use your zoom and give them room.”

9. Leave only footprints  
Everyone—rangers, volunteers, visitors—plays a vital role in protecting the national parks, which belong to all of us. Caring for and sharing some of our nation’s best treasures with millions of people means that litter removal is vital to the ecological health and beauty of all parks, the Smokies included. So, carry out what you brought in, leave the spots you visit as you found them, and please stay on the trail to respect these incredible places.  

Smokies LIVE

10. Ruffing it?  
Many parks allow pets on leashes and in campgrounds, and some even have kennels. But sometimes these furry friends are best left at home. Discover what you can (and can’t) do with your pet and follow the B.A.R.K. principles found at NPS.gov

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