National park tourism has been steadily increasing for years as people from all walks of life find the emotional and physical benefits of spending time outdoors.
Unfortunately, more people equals more traffic on paths, which makes finding peace in the woods practically impossible.
Overcrowding, however, does more than impair the outdoor experience; all those humans squeezed into a small amount of space can wreak havoc on our treasured public lands’ pristine landscapes and natural ecosystems.
Fortunately, there are ways to get outside—even to our country’s most popular parks—while avoiding crowds and reducing your influence on the places we love.
THE NUMBERS OF CROWDING
We could be adoring them a little too much. National parks are typically breathtakingly natural places with vast vistas, diverse animals, and a plethora of recreational activities.
Travelers with a sense of adventure are catching on. They are not, however, evenly visiting all national parks.
According to the National Park Service, only six parks accounted for 25% of all recreational visitation in 2020, accounting for only 1.5 percent of all parks in the system.
Overall, visitor numbers increased from just under 279 million in 2011 to over 327 million in 2019.
Despite a drop in total visitor numbers in 2020, 15 parks flipped the script and reached new attendance records.
With 12.1 million visitors, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was by far the most popular.
To manage the crowds, some parks’ trails and campsites need reservations or are closed entirely to reduce the number of visitors.
Many other parks are plagued by overcrowding, cars parking on delicate wayside flora, and excessive rubbish.
These issues are well-known in the gateway villages to these natural areas.
One of them is Jackson County, North Carolina, which is located just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Caleb Sullivan of the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority (and local Cub Scout den leader) spends a lot of time there training people on how to avoid not only lines of other hikers and packed parking lots, but also how to be nicer to the earth.
WHY DOES OVERCROWDING MATTER?
Putting aside the inconvenience of clogged trails, the truth is that the more people in a given location, the more harmful the cumulative effect of their presence is.
Trail erosion, litter, cut-through routes created by people looking for shortcuts or fresh perspectives,
and even visitors putting themselves and wildlife at risk by going too close are all examples.
All of these behaviors have the potential to be unsightly, attract animals, contaminate waterways, and even destroy entire ecosystems.
Then there are the less visible ways that visitors have an impact on nature, such as piling pebbles.
Many people use these stacks, also known as cairns, as a kind of meditation or a pleasant family pastime, but they are more destructive than useful.
For instance, rangers use cairns to designate paths on rocky trails on occasion, so extra stacks can lead hikers astray.
Moving and piling rocks, however, can damage wildlife in particular regions.
The Smoky Mountains, which are home to the endangered hellbender salamander, are an excellent example: Because hellbenders lay their eggs under rocks, visitors moving stones can threaten the entire population of the salamanders.
Other animals suffer as well. If an animal, such as an elk, becomes too comfortable among humans in the Smokies and there is proven interspecies interaction, the animal may have to be euthanized.
Furthermore, food, such as orange peels and trail mix, should always be dumped correctly for the health of animals; feeding wildlife, whether accidentally or on purpose, can make them overly reliant on or inclined to approach humans.
Since the epidemic began, Sullivan has noticed an increase in the frequency of all of this,
as an influx of people new to the outdoors (and inexperienced with outdoor etiquette) are opting for fresh air and natural social separation over indoor pursuits.
HOW TO GET AWAY FROM THE CROWDS WHILE HIKING
According to Ben Lawhon, senior director of research and consulting at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, “many of these harms are avoidable.”
And the best thing any visitor can do is adhere to the seven Leave No Trace principles:
- Plan ahead of time and be prepared.
- Travel and camp on solid ground.
- Waste should be appropriately disposed of.
- Minimize the effects of campfires by leaving anything you discover.
- Wildlife must be respected.
- Consider others’ feelings.
Sullivan has been trained to help educate visitors on the best ways to preserve outdoor spaces for future travelers.
Jackson County and North Carolina as a whole are both Leave No Trace partners,
and Sullivan has been trained to help educate visitors on the best ways to preserve outdoor spaces for future travelers.
He provides even more suggestions for avoiding crowds.
To begin, visit parks and public lands throughout the week rather than on weekends.
He explains that “fewer people on the route equals less effect on natural areas.”
Then think about going during the park’s off-season. In Jackson County, this is January through March, however, off-peak seasons vary by location.
Next, be flexible and choose trails and areas—even entire parks—that aren’t on any “best of” lists.
(National forests and state parks don’t get nearly as much love as national parks.)
Ask rangers or look up local websites for suggestions for less-traveled routes or hidden gems, and you might not only have the trail to yourself, but you’ll also be helping to decrease the impact on more heavily traveled paths.
“When there are fewer people on the route, fewer people wander off the trail to yield to other hikers,” Sullivan notes, adding that this ostensibly courteous behaviour can result in trail degradation and trampled vegetation.
“If the demand is dispersed, the impact should be dispersed as well.”
Before you go, learn as much as you can about the place you’ll be visiting. This step may be more crucial than ever before due to COVID-19 constraints.
Some establishments now require reservations or use timed entrance systems, and others lack open or well-stocked restrooms.
Lawhon indicates that some areas have daily parking restrictions. “The more you know before you leave, the better your experience will be and the less impact your vacation will have on the environment,” he continues.
Finally, remember the slogan of outdoor enthusiasts: “leave it better than you found it.”
That implies you should expect to pick up a few pieces of trash on your outing.
Bring a trash bag and gloves, collect litter while you explore, take a photo, share it on social media with the hashtag #TrashTag, and then properly dispose of the junk once you’re back in civilization.
“More and more of us are attempting to appreciate a finite quantity of space,” Lawhon explains.
“Given that reality, it is incumbent on everyone to reduce their impacts.”
And, as Sullivan points out, don’t forget to have a good time. “Get out there and spread a little bit of love.”