National parks are ideal places to explore the “wildness” of our natural heritage. Connecting to our wild spaces is a great way to learn about the world around us, the wildlife within it, and a little bit about ourselves, too.
Each April, during the presidentially-proclaimed National Park Week, the National Park Service joins the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, to celebrate America’s treasures.
Here are a few ideas to help you explore the National Parks:
Hike the National Parks
Many parks offer hikes in wilderness areas. There are so many health benefits to hiking from getting physical exercise to improving your mental health. The warm sunshine on your face, the sound of the wind rushing through the trees overhead, and the soft earthy feel of the trail under your boots. Not only are these experiences enjoyable to have, but they’re good for you, too.
Hiking is proven to have many health benefits, ranging from physical exercise you get when out on the trail, to emotional or mental relief that comes from being in nature. Here are just a few benefits of hiking the National Parks:
- Physical Exercise: Hiking is one of the best ways to get exercise. No matter what type of trail you find yourself on, hiking is a great whole-body workout—from head to toe and everything in between. Other physical benefits of hiking include building stronger muscles and bones, improving your sense of balance, and improving your heart health. and decreasing the risk of certain respiratory problems. Whether you find yourself scrambling up a steep incline or walking on a winding dirt path, hiking in our national parks is the perfect opportunity to get a workout.
- Mental Health: Being in nature can boost your mood and improve mental health. Spending quality time in the great outdoors reduces stress, calms anxiety, and can lead to a lower risk of depression, according to a study done by researchers at Stanford University. In addition to having mental health benefits, being outdoors opens your senses to your surroundings and improves your sensory perception. Taking in the sights, smells, and feelings of nature has so many health benefits it can even be prescribed by a doctor.
- Relational Health: You don’t have to go it alone next time you lace up your hiking boots. Grab a friend, neighbor, or family member for more fun on the trail. Hiking with a partner, or even in a group, can improve the strength and health of your relationships. Because hiking ranges in difficulty from an extremely challenging climb to a casual way of spending time outside, it’s a great way to strengthen the friendships or bonds you have with your companions. Whether it’s with a younger sibling, neighborhood friend, or even a grandparent, hiking a trail together can bring you closer and help build a healthy relationship.
National parks and their many health benefits are open to anyone, no matter who you are and where you come from. There are more than 400 national parks for you to explore across the country, and each one presents its own unique opportunities for experiencing nature. Don’t be afraid to lace up your boots and grab a walking stick. The opportunities and benefits of hiking are waiting for you, all you have to do is go.
Watch Wildlife at the National Parks
Animals in parks are wild – when you visit parks, you have an amazing opportunity to view animals in their natural homes. From bears and bison to bugs and birds, there is likely a wildlife watching opportunity near you. Just remember to stay safe using these 7 tips on staying safe in the National Parks:
- Know before you go. Every park is unique and has specific guidelines, including minimum wildlife viewing distances and food storage requirements. Before you head out on the trail, take a few minutes to review the park’s rules.
- Give animals room. The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approaches you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.
- Do not disturb. Even when you’re farther away, leaving wildlife alone can help your viewing experience—plus it’s the law. It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife. Remember that wildlife in parks is wild and can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised. Interacting with wildlife also can cause harm to both people and wildlife, including injury and disease. Stay on trails to help keep a human presence in predictable areas. If dogs are allowed, keep them on a leash (most parks have a 6-foot leash policy) pick up fecal matter and ensure they are vaccinated and do not use bird calls or wildlife calls and attractants.
- Keep your eyes on the road. Vehicle strikes are one of the most deadly types of encounters for wildlife in parks. Roads cut through their habitats or migration routes. Be sure to always follow the speed limits and watch for wildlife that may dart into the road. When you want to stop to watch wildlife, pull your vehicle completely off of the road into a designated pull-out—this keeps wildlife safe as well as other motorists.
- Store your food and stash your trash. Feeding wildlife in parks can make them come looking for more. To an animal, anything that smells like food is treated like food. Access to the trash and even crumbs left on picnic tables can attract them. Once they have learned that people are a source of food, wildlife can become aggressive toward people. This puts you at risk of injury and the wildlife at risk of being removed and humanely killed by wildlife managers. Don’t be responsible for the death of wildlife! Keep a clean picnic area or campsite, store your food and dispose of garbage in the proper containers. Use wildlife-resistant food storage or trash containers where available or required and make sure they’re securely closed.
- See something, say something. Tell a ranger if you come into physical contact with wildlife. Also, tell a ranger if you see wildlife that is sick, dead, or acting strangely, including wildlife that approaches you. And when you see people who aren’t following these guidelines, let them know what they can do to be a smart wildlife watcher, too, and contact a ranger if necessary.
- Be responsible. Ultimately, staying safe and keeping wildlife wild is up to you! When you go out into a national park, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself, your family, and the wildlife safe.
Camp in the National Parks
Why limit your wild adventure to just a day trip? Immerse yourself in nature and spend the night. Camping n the great outdoors transforms a regular old road trip into an epic experience. So pack up your tent or hitch up the fifth wheel – adventure awaits.
Sometimes spending a day in the wilderness isn’t quite enough to truly capture the feeling of a special place. Sure, you see some amazing views or go on an unforgettable hike. But to get the full experience, you yearn to see the dark, starry skies. To listen to the yips of coyotes. To watch the sunrise on a silent, dewy morning.
Take Advantage of National Park Week
This article explored just a few of the activities that you and your family can do this National Park Week. The National Parks are true gems offering unbelievable beauty and diverse wildlife. This National Park Week, take some time and explore one of our National Parks.