I love National Parks. A lot. I was privileged to spend time living and working on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Its trails were just outside my backdoor. That time was full of early morning and late night hikes, hammocking in our very own aspen grove, backpacking, camping, lots and lots of trail running and investing in some of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever made. It was a dream.
What was not a dream was witnessing a large number of park visitors, photographers included, display complete disrespect for plants and wildlife that call the park home. I’m willing to wager that some people genuinely aren’t aware of the harm they cause, some leave their common sense at home, and some are well aware, yet choose not to care. Don’t be those people.
As a photographer or maybe just as a human, the thing that frustrates me the most now are the people who will go anywhere, do anything, climb under, over or through anything – despite the existence of signs, ropes, fences or other barriers directing them to the contrary – in the name of a picture. It’s even worse if said person is a professional photographer.
I could go on and on and on and on about the 9 Things You Need to Know about Pictures in National Parks. But, in an effort to be as informative as possible, and not stay on my soapbox too long, I’ve asked several people with more mountain experience than me to share their thoughts and tips on the subject.
9 Things You Need to Know about Pictures in National Parks
A Note to Photographers
Photographers, like it or not, you set an example for your clients and anyone else who sees you during a session. Where you go, what you do in the name of photography and getting the shot matters. When clients see you walking across the alpine tundra, or anywhere where you are clearly told not to (i.e. off the trail), you’re showing them that it’s okay for them to do the same and continue this behavior even when you’re not with them. (i.e. Off the trail. A good example of this is on the popular Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. You are not allowed to walk anywhere up there except on designated trails.) You set an example for your clients. And, you set an example for other park visitors. Feigning ignorance is not okay.
Know the rules. Know where you are allowed to shoot. Purchase the proper permits. People are watching you.
Now, on to those 9 Things You Need to Know about Pictures (and Life) in National Parks
National Parks are Not Zoos
“A national park is a place we can go to experience it from the inside; to be a part of; to find your place in something bigger than you. This means people shouldn’t try to control it or try to tame it. Just observe. This also means that when you are in the national park, you are just another species accomplishing your particular goals and you don’t want to be disturbed…that’s what the wildlife is trying to do, too.
At a real zoo, you wouldn’t climb into a cage with an animal that could kill you. You make sure it’s safe, and THEN take pictures. The national park is one GIANT cage – entering it is to enter dangerous animals’ personal space. There is no “safe” distance to take a picture of an Elk -only slightly less risky distances.
Be prepared. At a zoo, you can get away with forgetting sunscreen for the afternoon, since the inside exhibits are cool and allow you to have fun even when the sun is burning up outside or a sudden rainstorm ruins the party. In the national park, you are only as good as the things in your pack. There are no water fountains or air-conditioned bathrooms at 14,000 feet.
Zoos are meant to get you up close and personal with animals. There’s a lens that can capture that. But in the national park, you’ll find that no lens can get the effect that actually being there will. If you’re just coming to the national park to get some great shots, you’re gonna miss the real deal. After all, it’s the memories that bring people back, not the pictures. The pictures are more of a treasure map leading you back to the jackpot.”
Garrick Mann, Outdoor Enthusiast Extraodinare (aka very experienced mountain guide, trail runner, and all-around wise man)
National Parks are Not about You
You are not the only person in a National Park, and not the only person to ever walk down a trail. You are not the only person who wants a picture on that particular rock with that particular view. What you do in the National Parks matters immensely.
With over 4.4 MILLION people visiting Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2017 alone, think about if your actions were compounded 4.4 million times. How would it look? Good? Bad? Would it destroy the environment? Allow it to flourish? That’s certainly something to think about.
Stay on the trail. Remember that part about your actions being multiplied 4.4 million times? Yea? Then please do us all a favor and don’t make your own parking spots regardless of how good the photo will be or if the trailhead is clogged (There are shuttles for a reason, and they work well! Plus, this helps you care for the park as well!).
Keep your distance from wildlife. If you cannot fully cover the elk with your thumb when one eye is closed – you are too close! (But as stated earlier, there really is no “safe” distance from which to view Elk. Only slightly less risky distances.) Never approach a moose, a bear, elk, or any other animal no matter how impressive the picture will be. And, do not feed the animals. Those chipmunks might be cute, but you are disrupting their health and environment by giving them that peanut.
The National Parks are not about you. In order to have beautiful photography for years to come, each of must be respectful of what we have now.” The park and its employees are doing their best to handle the nearly 40% increase in visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park without an increase in staff to manage it all. Lean on volunteers and informed locals to learn about and help out the park.” It’s alright to call out someone who is being disrespectful, unsafe, littering, and/or destroying the park.
Rosemary Truman, Olson Family Fellow, Rocky Mountain Conservancy
The Bottom Line
Use common sense.
Ask yourself, “If 4.4 million people did what I am doing or about to do, would the effect on the land/this area/the wildlife be positive?” If the answer to the question is “No,” then don’t do it.
Ask yourself, “Is what I am doing or about to do something that could result in my need to be rescued?” If the answer to that question is “Yes,” then don’t do it.
Also ask yourself, “In order to do what I am about to do, will I be breaking any laws in the National Park, or will I be setting a poor example for anyone who could potentially see me?” If the answer to the question is “Yes,” then don’t do it.
In no way is this post intended to call anyone out, because I know how fun and mesmerizing it is to visit our National Parks. They are exciting and life-giving. But if getting that awesome shot for your social media post, photography business, and/or bragging rights requires bypassing ropes/signs and possibly breaking park laws, and if you might care more about that awesome picture than caring for the park so you can enjoy it again – First off, DON’T DO IT. Secondly, question why you are in the park in the first place.
National Parks are not about you.
They are not there so you can get the most likes on your upcoming social media post, or have the coolest, trendiest engagement/wedding/elopement pictures on the planet. They are not there for one sick weekend with your pals. National Parks exist to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Please enjoy the National Parks as they were intended, and don’t let ignorance, misinformation, or a selfish attitude lead you to degrade the parks for future generations. We are all grateful for your part in preserving our natural resources.
Keep on the lookout for the second installment of this post with advice from National Park Rangers, Hike Masters, and just genuinely awesome mountain lovers.
Laws may vary from park to park, so be sure to research rules and regulations specific to the national park you will be visiting.