Photograph by Andrey H. Brown, National Geographic 
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Yellowstone National Park, 1950: A black bear with a cub leans into a tourist's car. Today's park rules require visitors to remain at least 100 yards away from bears.

Photograph by Andrey H. Brown, National Geographic 

Tourists Behaving Badly: What Not to Do in National Parks

Avoid trouble—or worse—in the national parks by following a few easy rules.

Petting wild animals. Vandalizing ancient rocks. Destroying endangered species’ habitats. The national parks’ busy summer tourist season has just begun, but already, some visitors are behaving badly.   

The incidents are symptoms of visitors “loving their parks to death,” says Vanessa Torres, a supervising park ranger for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

A record 305 million people visited national parks in 2015, and that number is expected to grow in 2016 as the system celebrates its centennial year. Many have never been to a national park and are unfamiliar with their rules and regulations, says Torres. As a result, visitors can stumble into dangerous situations or damage natural features.

“It all comes down to education,” she says. “Park staff need to be clear about park policies, especially for new visitors, while visitors should do their homework before they go to any park. Be prepared for what you’re getting into, carry enough water, bring maps and GPS, and know the park rules. Walk into a visitors center and ask questions.”

While each park’s rules and regulations differ slightly, their common purpose is to protect people and natural resources. “Visitors should leave the parks as they find them, so we can protect these places and preserve them for the enjoyment of others,” Torres says.

Here are six tips for behaving better when you visit these national treasures.

Leave wildlife alone. 

Parks encourage wildlife viewing from a safe distance with the aid of binoculars, spotting scopes, or telephoto lenses. You should never get close enough that you alter animals’ behavior. Not only is approaching too closely dangerous for you, but it also provokes animals and may cause them to react defensively. And it’s illegal according to federal law.

In any park, visitors should stay at least 100 yards (300 feet) away from bears and wolves, and 25 yards (75 feet) away from bison, elk, and other animals, says National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson. More people have been killed by bison in Yellowstone National Park than by any other animal, and if you encounter them on the road, remain in your vehicle. Don’t be like the tourists who found a lone bison calf on one of the park’s roads and put it in their SUV because they thought it was cold. (The calf had to be euthanized when it was unable to rejoin its herd.)

Visitors should also check a park’s website and its newspaper for specific rules about local wildlife, Olson says.

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An American bison in Yellowstone National Park next to a sign advising park visitors to stay back

Leave natural objects where they are.

Just this month, a child learned the hard way that it’s against the rules to carry seeds out of the parks. The young visitor to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park had taken a single pinecone from underneath General Grant, a giant sequoia that is the world’s second largest tree. When the kid realized that wasn’t allowed, the cone was returned with an apologetic letter.

Unfortunately, most of the objects removed by visitors never make it back. In addition to pinecones, visitors pick up animals, plants, seashells, feathers, rocks and minerals, fossils, petrified wood, Native American pottery, petroglyphs, arrowheads, Civil War relics and other objects as souvenirs. All are federally protected and should remain in the park.

Stay on the path.

Many underestimate the hazards in many of our most popular parks, Torres says. Straying from a path or jumping over a safety fence can lead to injury or death in an instant.

Recently, at Yellowstone, a man died after wandering off the boardwalk and falling into a hot spring, and a father and son suffered burns from touching the highly acidic thermal pools. At Acadia, a man trying to photograph the sunset fell off a cliff to his death. In 2011, three people were swept over a waterfall and killed in Yosemite after ignoring a safety barrier.

Prevent vacation-ruining accidents by sticking to the trails and boardwalks and obeying warning signs. “The rules are in place for a reason—to ensure the safety of park staff, visitors, and the natural resources," Torres says. "Staying on the trails is a big part of that."

Carry in, carry out.

Park lovers were outraged when photos of an abandoned campsite full of trash, tents, and plastic lawn chairs in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest was posted on social media earlier this year. Fortunately, authorities easily tracked down the culprits—members of a University of Oregon fraternity—because they’d left behind coolers emblazoned with their frat’s logo. (The fraternity later apologized.)

National park visitors generate a hundred million tons of trash every year, which has led three major parks—Denali, Yosemite, and Grand Teton—to launch an ambitious effort to reduce their landfill contributions to zero. But individual parkgoers can help by carrying out all of the stuff they bring in, including gear, food wrappers, bottles and cans, and even used toilet paper.

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Tourists ignore a warning sign in Yellowstone National Park. Disregarding signs and other rules can put parkgoers in harm's way, officials say.

Store food properly, save bears.

First, the good news: Bears are making a comeback in their historical North American ranges. Now, the bad news: The close proximity of bears and humans presents problems for both, especially in national parks. Food odors attract bears to campsites, picnic areas, and parking lots where people gather, and for that reason, park regulations require visitors to store food, toiletries, and trash in bear-resistant containers at all times.

Lock all food, beverages, coolers, stoves, grills, cookware, pet food, and pet bowls in your car, and dispose of trash in bear-resistant dumpsters. Backpackers and hikers without vehicles should store food and utensils in bear-safe storage lockers or hoist the items up in a tree, away from tree trunks. Most importantly, do not leave food unattended or store food or coolers in your tent.

It may go without saying, but you should never feed bears (or any other wild animals), or leave food out for them. Animals that become accustomed to human food can become aggressive and threaten human safety. In that case, park authorities must relocate or euthanize them.

Leave no trace.

The seven tried-and-true “leave no trace” principles encourage park visitors to make as little impact on the natural surroundings as possible. Given the recent incidents of vandalism and destruction in national parks—a couple spray-painting graffiti in Grand Canyon, visitors carving their names into priceless petroglyphs in Zion, a drunken rampage at an endangered fish habitat in Death Valley—perhaps a refresher course is in order.

Planning ahead and preparing for a low-impact experience is the first step. Once you’re in the great outdoors, travel and camp on hard surfaces where you won’t injure plants or anything else on the ground. Likewise, minimize your campfire’s impact on the terrain. Dispose of waste properly (or carry it away), and leave everything as you find it. And finally, have respect for wildlife and your fellow hikers, campers, and backpackers.