National parks evoke memories of summer road trips, hiking adventures and peaceful communions with nature.
But every so often, tales of visitor misbehavior shake that idyllic image: vandals leaving graffiti along a trail, parkgoers getting dangerously close to bison, a TikTok personality launching a golf ball into the Grand Canyon.
“We try very hard at our organization not to shame people and to instead sort of flip it and talk about why everyone should care enough to protect resources,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates on behalf of the National Park System. “This is why visitor education is so important.”
Bad behavior at the country’s 63 national parks – not to mention hundreds of other historic sites, memorials, monuments, rivers, seashores and other areas – often make headlines. These are some of the actions park officials are asking visitors to avoid.
1. Licking psychedelic toads
The National Park Service put out a attention-grabbing warning last month: Please keep your tongues off the toads. Specifically, the request was about the Sonoran Desert toad, which have glands that “secrete a potent toxin.” The toads produce a natural psychedelic, but international research group Drug Science says it is a “popular myth” that licking toads can result in a high.
“It can make you sick if you handle the frog or get the poison in your mouth,” the park service said in social media posts. “As we say with most things you come across in a national park, whether it be a banana slug, unfamiliar mushroom, or a large toad with glowing eyes in the dead of night, please refrain from licking.”
2. Chucking items into the Grand Canyon (or anywhere)
“Do we really need to say, ‘don’t hit golf balls into the Grand Canyon?'” the national park said in a plaintive Facebook post last month. Apparently, the answer is yes. A TikTok star posted a video of herself hitting a golf ball into the depths near Mather Point; her club goes flying too.
She now faces charges for littering, creating a hazardous condition and throwing objects over the canyon rim, The Washington Post reported. She’s not alone in her illicit sporting activity: Last year, one man was seen hitting a baseball into the canyon. A comedian also faced charges for hitting a golf ball at Yellowstone National Park last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Grand Canyon National Park public affairs specialist Joelle Baird said there’s an inherent public safety issue, not to mention environmental concerns.
“We have trails that descend into the canyons where a lot of visitors are concentrated,” she said. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t necessarily realize when they get to the edge of the canyon, that there might be people below.”
The park’s request applies to other objects as well. Baird said volunteers rappel over the edge of a popular South Rim viewpoint every year and “collect an obscene amount of coins.” Those can be dangerous for wildlife, who sometimes die with foreign objects in their guts, she said.
National Park Service spokesperson Cynthia Hernandez said visitors shouldn’t leave anything behind that isn’t naturally part of a park’s environment.
“It detracts from the experience that other visitors will have in that space and also could negatively impact plants, animals and even entire ecosystems,” she said.
3. Getting too close to the wildlife
At Yellowstone National Park this summer, bison gored three visitors in the span of a month. The park says people must stay more than 25 yards from the creatures, which are the largest land-dwelling mammals in North America.
Baird, at the Grand Canyon, said the park also has issues with people feeding – and getting bit by – squirrels and approaching elk and deer at a close distance.
Last spring, a grizzly bear charged a woman in Yellowstone who approached her cubs within a distance of about three yards to take photos. The woman was charged with feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentionally disturbing wildlife, The Post reported.
“You have to keep your distance from these animals,” Brengel said. “You’re in their home and you have to be very, very careful with them.”
4. Loving nature to death
So many visitors have trekked to see Hyperion, an out-of-the-way redwood that holds a Guinness World Record for height, that the base of the tree has degraded. Trash and human waste have been found on the way to the tree, which is in a closed area of Redwood National and State Parks.
“Those accessing and viewing the tree have trampled, and in some instances killed, the surrounding native vegetation,” the National Park Service said. This summer, the agency said it was discouraging people from visiting the world’s tallest tree, warning that people found in the prohibited area could be hit with a fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.
Hernandez, the Park Service spokesperson, said parkgoers across the system need to follow directions on signs or from rangers in the field about where they can and can’t go.
“No matter how many times we say to stay on the trail, I think we often see people straying to get a better spot for a photo or something,” she said. “Depending on the location, it damages the environment there by trampling on potentially endangered or threatened plant species or degrading the ecosystem that is important to a lot of wildlife.”
5. Taking souvenirs
Federal regulations prohibit taking “pretty much everything” from national parks, Baird said – including “plants, even soil, minerals, wildlife or parts thereof.” Still, she said there’s a common problem of visitors taking rocks or minerals from the Grand Canyon.
In 2019, a child identified only as “Karina” sent a package to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a picture, note and a heart-shaped rock that she’d taken with her during a trip. “I’m sorry, and I want to return it,” she wrote. A worker took a photo of the rock with a waterfall in the background, then tossed it back into nature.
6. Chopping down trees
During the government shutdown in 2019, viral photos showed some of the namesake Joshua trees cut down in Joshua Tree National Park. With limited staffing to deal with misbehaving visitors, the park was temporarily shut down.
“While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree National Park do so in a responsible manner, there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days that have precipitated the closure,” the park said in a news release.
7. Leaving a mark
Zion National Park released a video on YouTube in April showing the impact of graffiti, noting that seven rangers and volunteers had to spend more than 35 hours sanding rocks to remove 150 square feet of spray paint. Blaming “a very small number of visitors,” the ranger who narrated the video said workers were also having to remove stickers, permanent marker and rock and tree carvings.
In May, Yosemite National Park officials asked for help on Facebook identifying people who left blue and white graffiti at 30 sites on Yosemite Falls Trail. Some of the markings were larger than 8 feet by 8 feet.
Brengel said sometimes even touching fragile objects, like a petroglyph on the side of a rock at Big Bend National Park or formations at Carlsbad Caverns, can do damage.
“If we want to preserve these places for other people to enjoy, in most cases seeing with your eyes and not your hands is really important,” she said.
8. Driving carelessly
An unidentified ranger at Yosemite National Park wrote a pained post on Facebook last summer describing how they had responded to a report of a bear cub who was struck by a car, only to find its mother nearby calling for her young.
In 2016, a cub belonging to “the most famous living wild bear on Earth,” a grizzly named No. 399 at Grand Teton National Park, was hit by a car and killed.
And Yellowstone National Park said in 2019 that two wolf pups were hit by a car and killed in 2019, according to USA Today.