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31 Secrets Park Rangers Want You to Know

From excellent deals to cautionary tales, these tips and tricks will leave you perfectly prepared for a trip to the national parks.

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iStock/Paolo Cipriani

Go beyond the overlooks

No matter which park you’re visiting, walk at least a quarter mile down a trail. You’ll get away from the crowds and experience a completely different perspective.

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People will do anything for a picture

A tragic accident that happens surprisingly often: People pose as if they’re falling off a cliff for a photo but then actually fall off. Make sure you never take these photos in a national park.

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Stay put if you get lost

The more you move around, the harder you are to find. If you can’t reach us on your phone, spread out brightly colored clothing.

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We do a lot more than lead nature talks and campfire sing-alongs

Rangers make arrests, fight fires, search for missing hikers, conduct public health inspections, manage wildlife, and watch for suspicious characters and fugitives. Don’t miss these 15 amazing American campsites that should be on your bucket list.

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Have a fourth grader in your family?

You’re in luck: At everykidinapark.gov, fourth graders can sign up for an annual pass that grants them and a carload of passengers free access to all national parks.

Veterans and gold star families can also enter national parks for free.

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iStock/Björn Alberts

Here’s how to skip summer crowds

To avoid crowds during busy summer months, check out Death Valley instead of the Grand Canyon, Kings Canyon instead of Yosemite, or Capitol Reef instead of Zion. Or, you can visit one of these other national parks that are off the beaten path.

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iStock/Dirk Freder

We work hard to keep poachers out

Some raid our parks for plant life to sell to the floral industry. Others have used antifreeze to collect moths and butterflies. Some have even killed bears for their gallbladders, which can fetch $3,000 each as a “traditional medicine” in Asia.

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You’re closer to a national park than you think

When people think of national parks their mind typically goes to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. While the more popular national parks are in extreme nature settings, there are a lot of national parks in urban areas as well. There are national parks in big cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Detriot, and many more.

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iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Don’t be a “code W”

That’s what some rangers call wimpy tourists who request a rescue when there is nothing medically wrong with them. Lots of people call and say they’re too tired to keep hiking. Sorry, but we’re not going to send a helicopter for that.

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Many people don’t read the signs—including us

I was in a national park with my son once, and we walked right to the edge of a drop-off. We were marveling at the scenery when I heard a park ranger behind us clear his throat. We had walked right by a big sign that read, “Danger: Don’t go past this sign.”

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iStock/Rich Legg

Keep your distance from any animal, whether it’s a squirrel or a buffalo

One time at Yellowstone, a bison was eating grass near a parking lot. People tried to take selfies, but the bison got mad and attacked someone. If you must get a close-up, invest in a telephoto lens.

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People have asked me if the Grand Canyon is human-made…

…what time we feed the animals, and when we turn on the waterfalls. Other visitors know more historical facts than I do. Yet no matter what your knowledge level is, if I teach you one thing you didn’t know before, I’ve done my job as a park ranger.

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We have a diversity problem

Despite record numbers of visitors to our parks, the vast majority are white people, and African Americans, in particular, are severely underrepresented. The Park Service doesn’t regularly track attendance numbers by race or ethnicity, but the most recent survey for the system found that minorities as a whole make up only 22 percent of visitors to our parks, even though they comprise nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. In 2009, separate studies of Yosemite and Everglades national parks found that a minuscule 1 percent of visitors to each park were African American. As the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial this year, we’ve launched several efforts to attract more minority visitors, including an advertising push and hiring more black rangers.

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Always check for cancellations if something is sold out

Many visitors reserve rooms, tours, and campsites up to a year in advance and end up changing their plans a few weeks out. We also get a lot of same-day cancellations, so it’s worth a call that morning to see if you can get in. If your dog came on vacation with you, these are the parks you can bring your pooch to.

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Please don’t ask a park ranger this question

“Where’s the best place to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon?” This is like asking a mother of triplets to pick her favorite. There are 277 miles of rim on two sides of the canyon. Just pick a spot and watch it happen.

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The one thing every visitor forgets to pack is common sense

We’ve seen people hiking into the Grand Canyon in stiletto heels and rubber flip-flops, heading up a mountain despite a severe thunderstorm warning, or setting off on a trail with no idea how steep it is or how far it goes. Those are the kinds of things that get you into trouble. Do some research before you set off; pack water, a flashlight, and a raincoat; and always take a map.

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Never spend time in a park without talking to a ranger

Our heads are crammed with trivia, interesting facts, and historical information about our locations, and we love sharing it with you. Your tax dollars are paying for us so you might as well take advantage. Here are a few good questions to ask: What’s something I wouldn’t learn just by looking at exhibits or walking the trails? What is your favorite spot in the park?

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I’m not just being polite when I ask you these questions

“Where are you hiking today? How much water do you have?” It’s part of an effort called “Preventative Search and Rescue” that aims to help visitors be more prepared before they hike. If I suggest a shorter hike or a long break in a shady spot, take my advice. We’ve seen a dramatic drop in our search-and-rescue calls since we launched the program in the Grand Canyon in 1997.

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If you’ve got kids, don’t miss our Junior Ranger program

Designed for children ages 5-12, kids pick up a booklet in the visitor’s center and complete a specified number of age-appropriate activities, such as finding items in the park, completing a word search, or attending a ranger-led program. Once they finish, a ranger will lead them in a mini-ceremony and give them a coveted Junior Ranger Badge.

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Visit early morning or evening if you can

That’s when the wildlife will be out, the crowds will be thin, and the light is truly beautiful. If you want to visit in the spring, these photos of national parks in full bloom will get you to book your trip now.

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The hardest part of the job for many of us is dealing with suicides

From 2003-2009, 286 suicides took place in national parks, according to a 2010 CDC report on the problem. We are trained to intervene when a visitor is considering suicide, and we have to recover their bodies when we’re too late. One time the office got a phone call from a woman who was wondering how often rangers patrol a specific overlook. That seemed strange to me, so I asked a few questions and she eventually told me she was thinking about ending her life. (She wanted to know how long her body would be there before a ranger found her.) Then she hung up on me. Fortunately, I was able to trace the call, find her, and talk her out of going through with it.

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Don’t let your children run ahead

It’s so easy for them to get off the trail, and then suddenly, you’ve lost the kids and you’re calling me to help you find them. Try to keep everyone within sight of each other.

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Don’t pay for a tour when you can get one for free

In most parks, we know more than the paid tour guides, and we have regular talks, tours, and programs. In Washington, D.C., for example, we offer tours on the National Mall every day, including a weekend bike tour, an evening lantern walk, and programs for kids. Check nps.gov for a schedule.

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iStock/Jason Lugo

In this job, we never know what we’re going to encounter next

A bighorn sheep jumping through a window of a park hotel. A surly elk with Christmas lights stuck in his antlers. Or a Japanese man rolling a suitcase several miles into the Grand Canyon because he thought his hotel was down there! I once captured an escaped bank robber at Yosemite who had to call 911 because he was scared and lost.

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iStock/Leonardo Patrizi

People who don’t respect the park drive me crazy

The park is our chapel, so when you feed the wildlife, dump your trash, build an illegal campfire, party in a loud and obnoxious way, drive off-road, or scratch a tree, it’s like you are defacing a holy place.

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Respect the edge

Many people have tragically lost their footing and fallen to their deaths while monkeying around in an area without a guardrail. If your hat or your camera lens cap falls just over the edge, come get one of us instead of reaching for it. We have long poles with grabbers. Last summer, this kid with a cochlear implant somehow flicked a part of it off his ear and it went over the Grand Canyon’s South rim. It was a $12,000 device that helps him hear. Holy cow. But we were easily able to get it.

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iStock/Joel Carillet

Our ranger motto

“Protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from the people.”

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Don’t overdo it to stay hydrated

Hikers trying to stay hydrated sometimes drink too much water and suffer from water intoxication, which can be just as deadly as being dehydrated. So go for what we call “mellow yellow.” Drink just enough water to keep your urine light yellow in color. And, if you get low on water…uh, we don’t recommend drinking your own urine.

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Being on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was my most mind-blowing experience in the park service

With over 22 million visitors a year from all seven continents, I learned more about American history there than I ever did in the classroom. My favorite was the Vietnam Memorial because I got to hear stories from veterans that never were printed in my history books.

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Be smart

No matter how hot you are after hiking into the Grand Canyon, don’t jump into the Colorado River. The water is cold and deep, the current is very strong and many swimmers have drowned.

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One of my favorite sleeper parks is Oregon Caves National Monument

It’s a quaint little park in southern Oregon. Take a tour of one of the few marble caves in the world, hike a nice little trail through the forest, and then stay in a gorgeous little lodge where you can hear the waterfall from your room while you sleep. Now that you know how to think like a park ranger, visit seven of America’s most stunning hiking trails.

Sources: National Park Service Rangers Kathy Kupper, Brandon Torres, Michael Kelly, Michael Liang and Enimini Ekong; and former rangers Andrea Lankford, author of Ranger Confidential: Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks and Bruce Bytnar, author of A Park Ranger’s Life

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest