I can’t believe how fast the summer is going. In just another few weeks, our interns will leave, kids will go back to school, and visitation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will scale back dramatically, at least until leaf season in October. It’s been a great season full of bug-hunting in the river with Junior Rangers, telling stories on the Mountain Farm, and shaking our fists at the elk standing defiantly in the garden eating acorn squash.
But I’ve been keeping a list.
I started this list last year in Yellowstone. It’s hard not to. So much of a front-line park ranger’s job is visitor services that we quickly figure out how to get to the bottom of what a visitor is looking for in their park experience. I’m currently reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, where the golem can sense other people’s wants and desires. I can’t think of another superpower I would rather have when a visitor comes to the desk, tells their kids to hush, and asks me, “What is there to do here?”
I’ve compiled a few suggestions for folks planning to travel—anywhere, really, but especially to your national parks. It’s not exhaustive. I’m sure other rangers at different parks could chime in with a thousand more things. But these are some basics to keep in mind when planning your trip.
1. DO PLAN YOUR TRIP
I think there is a very romantic idea in people’s heads about hopping in the car with a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes and embarking on a spur-of-the-moment Great American Road Trip. I doubt this method worked well even in the Halcyon Days of Route 66, but it works even less well now, despite what Instagram will have you believe. National parks, at least at high season, are crowded places. Campgrounds fill up. Entrance lines are long. Rangers are harried. And a sure way to make sure your children never, ever want to visit a national park again is by packing them in a car and telling them you’re going to visit Yellowstone today—a park that could easily take a week to see in its entirety. And that’s just the frontcountry.
Not to speak ill of visitors—we appreciate you all, we really do—but we can easily pick out the ones that have clearly done no research whatsoever. I had a visitor walk up to me when I worked at Old Faithful with a confused look on his face. He said, “Where are the big trees?”
I prepared to go into my little pocket program about the lodgepole pines, and why there were so many dead ones. But he interrupted me.
“No, I mean, like, the really big trees.”
Me (a little perplexed): “We have a petrified tree… is that what you mean?”
Him (irritated): “No, the really big, famous trees! The ones everyone takes pictures with! The ones everyone goes to see!”
Me (realizing): “Oh. You mean the redwood trees.”
Him: “Yes! Where are they?”
Me: “Um, California.”
Do a little research. With the Internet, there’s no reason not to. You don’t have to learn everything, and it certainly shouldn’t replace talking to a ranger. But getting an idea of the general layout of the park, the main highlights, and what you hope to get out of your trip means that when you do come into a visitor center, you’ll be able to…
Visitor centers can be crowded places, with kids screaming for stuff from the bookstores while parents ask about waterfall hikes as Ranger Bob tries to give a raptor presentation in the corner. If you come in and ask me, “what should I do here?” chances are I’m going to take a big deep breath before answering so I can do it with courtesy.
Some parks are big, some are little, but they are all diverse, dynamic places. If I had an hour, I couldn’t cover all the things you could do in the park. And I don’t have an hour. At 1 PM on a Saturday in July, I have maybe four minutes, tops—less if there’s a line. I want to give you the best park experience I can, but first I have to know what you’re looking for. (See I wish I was a golem, above.)
The most relieving moment for me is when a visitor comes to the desk with a map and a list and says, “We have four days. We’re camping near the South Gate. I have two kids under five who like to hike, but not more than four miles or so. This is what we were thinking of doing—can you give me your thoughts?”
She’s given me parameters to work with. She’s anything but a blank slate. She’s looked up a little online, talked to friends, and made notes of what she wants to do. So now I can tell her that sorry, this one trail is closed, but this other one may work well for you. Oh, and if you want to visit this location, I’d do it early so you can avoid the crowds. And if it were me, I’d flip these two days so you can see the bluegrass music we have on Saturday.
The other wonderful, glorious, hand-kissingly gratifying thing this visitor has done is to…
3. Allow yourself some time.
Another thing that will dismay a ranger is if you come to them and say, “I have an hour. What should I do here?”
Here’s the likely answer, borrowed from Yosemite naturalist Carl Sharsmith: “I’d cry.”
Unless you’re visiting a small national monument or historic site, there is simply very little you can do in a national park in an hour beyond sitting in traffic. I can potentially point you to the closest highlight of the park, but as I mentioned before, these are crowded places, and those highlights—think Old Faithful, or Clingman’s Dome—are going to be the most crowded places in the park. Parking will be impossible and people will be everywhere. It’s not going to be a pleasant experience.
Sometimes we can point you to a quiet trail or lookout nearby where you can take a moment and breathe before getting back in your car. If that’s what you and your family are looking for, tell us so, and we can try to make something work for you. But if you want to see the park’s greatest hits in a short timeframe, you may wish you hadn’t.
Allow yourself a little time. Spend a night, stay a while. I had one father and daughter from Brooklyn who spent three days just around our visitor center. They came to each one of my ranger programs and popped up now and again to ask about this hike or that hike. We got to know them so well that on their last day we had the daughter help us feed the pigs and chickens on the farm, and I had her help me take down the flag while her dad took pictures. What a neat experience for a little kid—to pal around with the rangers and have several days to just explore.
Breathe. Plan for a few days. Be realistic about time. You’re on vacation.
Unfortunately, if you visit during high season, you will probably still be running into crowds no matter how much you plan or how much time you have. So as a ranger, I will often advise folks to…
4. Consider looking outside the national park.
I know, I know—a national park ranger telling people to go outside the park. Hear me out.
Some national parks are islands in the middle of an urban jungle, but many aren’t. Many are surrounded by other forms of public land—national forests, state parks, wildlife refuges, et cetera. And in lots of cases, these areas are going to be just as beautiful as the national park, and they’re going to see a fraction of the visitation.
This is especially useful for folks looking to camp. Some of the cleverest visitors I’ve met are the ones who pitch their tents in the national forest next door, where camping is free and they’ve got the campground to themselves, and then they hike into the park, skipping the lines and vehicle fees (yes, that’s totally legal). Others will use the national forest as their base camp and drive in from there, planning for the added hour or so it may take them to get in the park.
If you truly want an off-the-cuff adventure, consider sticking to less traveled places like national forests or state parks. Be prepared on the basics: always fill up on gas when it’s available, always pee when you have the chance, and carry plenty of food and water with you. That will give you a little more wiggle room to explore those backcountry roads and remote areas.
And if most of this is news to you, I ask you to please…
5. Dispel with the notion that park rangers are keeping secrets from you.
First of all, if there are places you can’t go, unless it’s the employee break room (our safe space), it’s likely we can’t go there, either. The only secret we’ll keep from you is what our favorite restaurant is, to avoid accusations of the park patronizing certain businesses. Don’t think that we as rangers joyfully snigger at visitors having to plod along the boardwalks in the geyser basins while we prance across the sinter cones. We have just as much chance of falling in a hot spring as you, and we are just as vulnerable to mama grizzlies on trails that are closed because of bear cubs, and we cause just as much damage to revegetation zones, and we wait just as long as you in road construction traffic. (I worked with two rangers who were married and worked at two different visitor centers. It was only about 45 minutes between the two centers, but for much of the spring a key bridge was under construction, so instead they were forced to drive five hours around the loop road to see each other. We used to joke about them standing on either side of the bridge and signaling to each other in semaphore, or else playing Frisbee over the river.)
We’re not hiding the best places in the park from you. The highlights of the park are highlights for a reason—they’re gorgeous or significant in some way, and they’re easy to get to. Is the view down Cascade Canyon from Lake Solitude to the Teton Group better than the view from popular Inspiration Point? Yes, absolutely, A+, 100%, Would Date. But getting up to Lake Solitude takes eight miles of hiking one-way, whereas Inspiration Point is a short walk from the boat ramp. Most people are looking for the latter. This is why specifying is so helpful (see point 2). If you are looking for things that are off-the-beaten track, tell us so, but don’t expect them to be close by or convenient to get to—that’s why they’re less crowded.
If you truly want to be let in on ranger secrets, then you should definitely…
6. Go to a ranger program!
Park ranger programs are called “interpretation” (as in, you’re “interpreting” the park for the visitor) and have evolved waaayyy beyond Ranger Frank clicking the button on a slideshow of sedimentary rocks (although we do still have traditional programs like these, and sedimentary rocks can be pretty sweet). A large bulk of our job is researching, developing, and delivering interpretive programs, and we’re going to pull out all the stops to make sure it’s engaging for you and your kids. We know you don’t have to attend our program. We want you to want to attend our program.
Even if you have a high level of nature literacy and could hike Mount Rainier blindfolded, you might still be surprised at what you can learn following a ranger on a guided two-mile walk. We’re storytellers by trade. We aim not just to explain, but to inspire and provoke. We design our programs with that guiding principle in mind (throwback to that time a few days ago when I squealed and clapped my hands when one of our interns finally got her copy of Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage in the mail).
If you walk the south rim of the Grand Canyon, you’re going to see the stone wall along the edge, and you might even know it was built by the CCC. But unless you go on Ranger Molly’s History Walk, you’re going to miss the heart-shaped rock the CCC boys put in the wall right in front of the Harvey girls’ dormitories.
There are so many little stories that whisper through the parks. I’ve seen people in tears while listening to a ranger recount the family ties of the inhabitants of Mesa Verde. I’ve seen the Badlands transformed into Narnia and Middle Earth with a ranger who paralleled the otherworldly landscape with those from fiction. I’ve seen kids laugh with delight as the ranger uses her handkerchief to show how Wind Cave “breathes.” And yes, I’ve seen visitors sway and sing along with the ranger by the campfire as he sings “Home on the Range” in Yellowstone while the buffalo do, in fact, roam behind him.
Park rangers aren’t gatekeepers or armed guards. We’re ambassadors for the parks we represent. Come see us. Prepare a little beforehand. Let us know how we can help you. Our goal is to give you the best park experience we can. We want you to leave with fond memories, a greater appreciation for our country’s resources, and a heightened sense of the world around you. We want your kids to believe in the magic and majesty of our public lands. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we wear the hat.
That’s a pretty sweet deal for the price of an entrance ticket.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator