Showing results for 
Show  only  | Search instead for 
Did you mean: 
Welcome REI Co-op Members!
We're glad you're here. If you can't access the Co-op Members section of the community,
click here for instructions on how to join the section that's just for you.

Oh National Parks, how I love/hate thee!

OK, I may be asking to be pelted with rotten Mountain House meals for the following confession, but here goes...

We live in the Midwest, and when it gets REALLY hot, say around July/August, my sons and I head West for our annual long, summer  hike, somewhere around 50 to 100 miles. Year last we went to Rock Mountain National Park (RMNP). The wilderness, the wildlife, etc., was wonderful. The Park, with its rangers and stacks of rules, well, not so wonderful.

Thus, I confess to you, my REI family, that I have an unresolved love/hate relationship with backpacking in National Parks (NPs). While they are stunningly beautiful (some of the best land in our nation), they are also heavily regulated, requiring that you walk here and not there, sleep there and not here, and so on. If I want to be told that I must pay for where I can and cannot walk/stand/sleep, I’ll stay at a hotel. Having to reserve camping sites, carry a BearVault, and get checked two or three times for each by a ranger just rubs me the wrong way.

And I get it, NPs have so many people hiking in them that the rangers there are overwhelmed with what might be called the “Idiot Factor,” or IF. The IF is that small percentage of people who, wherever they go, just cannot keep their hands inside the ride, stay away from the lip of the canyon or, in the case of NPs, figure out how to sh*t in the woods and NOT feed the bears. As a result, the IF never fails to scare the jeepers out of the resident authorities, leading to an excess of knee-jerk regulations that must be suffered by the rest of us. The scenario, I imagined, has unfolded something like this in RMNP:

“What this!” Some people cannot figure out how to dig a hole and bury their crap? Well, we’ll just have to require that everyone pack out their toilet paper AND, coming soon, all human waste!”

“Whoa, hold on, hold on!” “Some hikers just gave their dinner to a bear!? Pass the regulations, and quick! Two to three pounds of useless, freak’n dead weight in the form of a BearVault must be carried by everyone!”

Concerning the (new-ish) requirement of a BearVault for RMNP, I asked the nice ranger folks why they did not allow hikers to hang their food in bear bags, notably in PCT style. They responded that they tried that, but after some hikers pulled trees down on themselves (yes, I know, loud facepalm “smack!”), it was BearVaults for all.

So, my fellow backpackers et. al., is there anyone out there who, in the words of Peter Frampton, "feels like I do," about navigating the regulations of NPs, or I have simply become an old backpacker who now yells at the world, "hey, get the he** off my lawn!"?

14 Replies

I can't say that I have experienced this with the national parks, but I feel this way about society in general. The knee jerk reaction of "there ought to be a law" is too common. It brings to kind the frequently quoted Park rangers response to the question of why bear vaults are "so hard to open" that "There is a remarkable overlap between the smartest of bears and the dumbest of tourists".

I don't see a great alternative though. If people won't follow best practices, there is a real possibility that some of these places will be closed to the public - and then we all lose. 

And it's gotten more prevalent in the past two years as more and more people - who would otherwise be staying home - "discover" the outdoors. Not a bad thing in and of itself but it is adding additional stress to the environment.

FWIW, I am finding that national forests are still less populated and easier to navigate in terms of permits, camp sites, etc. Not to say they're free from any regulations but I've had two great trips this year in national forests and hoping for another one late this month or early October.

Of course, you have to be more careful about when you go as hunting is allowed in a national forest, so just keep an eye on schedules and leave your novelty deer antler head band at home. 🙂

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I  feel the OP's pain and I am compelled to respond, giving a perspective from the other side.  I (mostly) enjoyed a 40year + career in the NPS and witnessed events from the other side.

First of all, i confess, that like others, I came to prefer hiking in National Forests to trips in National Parks - my all time favorite area being the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.  I believe there is more regulation in that area than when I was active there.  Greater visitation inevitably leads to enhanced regulation and control; one reason being that for most agencies, preservation of the resource is the most important objective.  This makes very good sense....

The short term solution is "go where they ain't'" and this is still quite possible, and avoid the destination parks, especially during their high season.  It is amazing how things can change, once summer is over, and the crowds relent.  The rangers can actually talk about the park's values and resources instead of just herding dudes.

Go to the less frequented areas of the park.  north Rim of Grand Canyon is less crowded than the South Rim, and especially in the off seasons, much more relaxed.

If you really want to avoid crowds, from personal experience, I would recommend a back country trip on Santa Rosa Island, Channel islands National Park.  it does require some planning and permits, but once there, you will be far, far away form the maddening crowds ( remember this is a back country trip, not the developed campground at Becher's Bay.

In most parks, crowds include a mix of abilities and backgrounds - seasoned, knowledgeable outdoor types adjacent to clueless novices.  This is a very tough challenge for the guys and gals in the flat hats....

Happy to discuss further... This is a tough problem!!

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

For years I’ve said take the warning signs off everything, we would rid the planet of stupid people that cause us to have what I call nonsense laws that are created to protect us from ourselves. 

Sometimes stupidity has nothing to do with's just lots of people.  I believe access to sequoia trees has been restricted, simply because excessive foot traffic has compressed the soil and disrupted normal growth patterns.  There are lots of other regulatory efforts that come about simply because of large groups of people nd overcrowding.

The regulations are no fun when you are trying to enforce them, believe me.  I, and nearly all the rangers I knew, would rather have productive discussions with visitors than ring up necessary regs...

Again, one solution is to seek out the less crowded parks, and visit during the "off season" typically a time when the weather is nicer as well,  Don't b afraid to ask about the necessity of a reg, as well.  any ranger who knows hisstuff should be able to give you a complete and accurate explanation.

Letting Darwin take its course also creates problems.  Cadavers on the nature trail constitutes a tripping hazard (and it smells bad as well)....

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I sort of feel the same way, but...NPs do have the best of best our country has to offer.

That said, I strongly feel WILDERNESS AREAS are the way to go.

Set your own itinerary.  Camp where you want (within distance rules from trails/lake shores, etc.)

Want to camp?---Camp.  Want to go further?----Go further.  Want to go bush-whack---by all means!

Want to have a campfire?----have a fire*  *Always check current fire warnings/alerts/restrictions.


REI Member Since 1979

Phil and Hikermor,

I feel you both - And yes, we spend lots of time in wilderness areas. Did the Uinta Highline this year (now THAT'S a trail to write home about!

But concerning what the rangers must contend with, have either of you read Jordan Fisher Smith's _Nature Noir_? I feel for you man, I feel for you. 

And yes, cadavers do nothing to not feed the bears!




@JBGI've looked at that hike (are you out of SLC per chance?), anyway....I'd appreciate some pics of the area!!! thanks!


REI Member Since 1979


Born and raised in SLC (West Valley, really), now live in the great state of Missouri. Pics? yeah, we got those... Great passes, and Alaska-like drainages. So beautiful, we may do the whole thing again in 2022.

20210723_080707 (1).jpg

The whole crew (I am second from the left)


Endless tundra-like drainages...


Mountain lakes (many) full of hungry trout