Main illustration by Moreno Chiacchiera; (all other images)

Too Many Tourists! 

Big crowds are putting a strain on America’s national parks. 

As You Read, Think About: What can visitors do to help protect national parks?

America’s national parks are known for their wide-open spaces, natural beauty, and stunning wildlife. But these days, visitors might also find long lines of cars, litter on packed hiking trails, and people taking selfies dangerously close to animals. 

Parks in the National Park System had more than 311 million visitors in 2022. And the number of visitors to some of the most popular national parks increased last year. More people can often mean more problems. 

“If all those people left trash behind or fed wildlife or were not considerate of the other visitors, that would be a really messy park,” says JD Tanner. He’s the director of education and training at Leave No Trace. The organization encourages people to protect the outdoors.

As crowds get bigger, the National Park Service (NPS) has a difficult challenge. It must balance people’s enjoyment of parks with its mission of protecting these special places. But the NPS can’t do it alone: Visitors play an important role in preserving parks too.

Crowd Control

The NPS is taking steps to alleviate some of the strain that comes with overcrowding. This summer, several parks will use a timed-entry system to limit the number of visitors. Tourists must make a reservation to enter these parks at a certain time. 

The NPS advises people to plan ahead so they know where and when reservations are needed. It also encourages people to visit during less-busy times and to avoid the big crowds by exploring lesser-known parks.

“You don’t have to go to Yellowstone,” Tanner says. “You probably have a lot of amazing state parks or city parks in your backyard.”

Parks are also cracking down on bad behavior. For example, hiking to Hyperion, the world’s tallest living tree, is no longer allowed at Redwood National Park in California. Visitors had trampled the forest around the tree and left behind trash and human waste. Now anyone who attempts to get close to the tree could be fined $5,000 and face six months in jail.

Keep Your Distance

The NPS is also educating people about dealing with the parks’ wild residents. Last June, officials at Yellowstone National Park issued a statement urging visitors to keep a safe distance from wildlife. It came about a week after tourists in the park picked up a baby elk and put it in their car. (The calf escaped.) Later that summer, a bison attacked a woman in the park. Tanner says many tourists don’t realize that the animals aren’t there for entertainment. 

“They see other people have posted cute pictures on social media,” Tanner explains. “They’re not thinking that at any minute, the animal could decide to defend itself or its babies that might be nearby.”

Back away from the bison! The National Park Service requires people to stay at least 75 feet away from wildlife.

Know Before You Go

Leave No Trace has tips for safely enjoying the outdoors (see “Protect Our Parks”). Above all, Tanner says, it’s about being considerate of others and respecting nature. 

“Let’s be stewards of those spaces and really think about the folks that are coming after us,” Tanner says. “One day, your kids are going to be coming in there and enjoying those spaces too.” 

1. How does a timed-entry system work? What is the purpose of the new timed-entry system at some national parks?

2. What are some examples of bad behavior that visitors at national parks have engaged in, according to the article?

3. Based on the article and its sidebar, “Protect Our Parks,” what do you think is the meaning behind the name of the group Leave No Trace?

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