13 Things You Can't Do in US National Parks

Grizzly bear warning, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
••• Bear Warning Sign, Glacier National Park. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The US National Park system gives visitors access to an immense variety of natural, historical and cultural treasures. Whether you enjoy backpacking in a remote wilderness, viewing natural wonders or exploring the history of the United States, you can find a National Park that will be a great vacation destination.

As you plan your trip to a US National Park, keep in mind that, in addition to each park's specific rules, there are policies that apply to every park in the system.

Some are fairly obvious, but others are a bit more unusual. Here are some things you cannot do in any US National Park.

Fly an Unmanned Aircraft (Drone)

The National Park Service (NPS) banned all drone use in national parks in 2014. Most parks continue to follow this policy. The few parks that allow model aircraft use on designated fields will still be allowed to do so. Check your park's website for current information on unmanned aircraft use before you pack your drone.

Collect Rocks, Plants, Fossils or Antlers

Leave your collecting bag at home. You may not take rocks, fossils, plant specimens or anything else out of the park except the items you brought in and the souvenirs you purchase during your visit. If you find antlers in the woods, leave them there; you can't take them home, either. Some parks make exceptions for traditional visitor pastimes, such as seashell collecting and berry picking.

As a park ranger before you start picking up shells or pulling berries from their stems.

Pan for Gold

You can pan for gold in a few parks, including part of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. If you aren't traveling to Alaska or Whiskeytown, leave your gold pans in your garage; you aren't allowed to go prospecting in US national parks.

Gather Wood, Nuts, Berries or Fruit

Individual parks may allow you to collect nuts, fruit and berries for your own consumption or to gather deadwood for a small fire, but you need to ask a park ranger about park policies before you head into the woods.  In general, park visitors cannot gather wood or edibles in national parks.

Feed Wild Animals

Feeding wild animals encourages them to seek out more "people food," but some park visitors haven't paid attention to Yogi Bear or to any of the information provided by park rangers. Please do not feed any wild animals, especially bears. Use park-provided bear boxes to store your food. Never leave food in your car or tent. 

Climb, Walk on or Deface Structures, Rock Formations or Cultural Artifacts

Shouldn't park visitors know enough to stay off of monuments, fragile rock formations or other structures? Apparently not. In 2013, a woman vandalized the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The same year, park rangers found graffiti carved into saguaro cactus plants in Arizona. It is illegal to deface, vandalize, alter, carve, climb on or walk on any natural object, monument or structure in a national park.

Throw Rocks

You may not throw or roll rocks in a national park.

You could start a landslide, damage a rock formation or, even worse, block, and therefore ruin, a hot spring.

Use a Metal Detector

You may not use metal detectors or similar object-finding instruments in national parks.  It is against federal law to dig for artifacts and relics on federal property, too.

Enter Caves Without Permission

There are many caves on federal lands, and you can visit a large number of them whenever you like. Crystal Cave, located in Sequoia National Park, and Mammoth Cave are two of the best-known caves in the park system. If you stumble upon a cave that is not monitored by park rangers, you should not go inside until you have secured permission from park management. This policy protects you, the cave itself and the wildlife, particularly bats, within the cave.

Release Helium Balloons

Helium balloons harm wildlife.

For this reason, the NPS prohibits outdoor release of helium-filled balloons.

Build Fires Outside of Designated Areas

Before you build a fire in a national park, ask a park ranger about fire rings and / or backcountry fire permits, and follow the ranger's instructions.  Don't be the person who accidentally sparks a wildfire.

Smoke Marijuana

While some states have decriminalized marijuana use, national parks are federal property, and it is still illegal to smoke marijuana on federal lands.

Stay in a Park During a Government Shutdown

If the federal government shuts down due to lack of budget funding, national park visitors will have up to 48 hours to leave the park they are visiting. Expect national parks, monuments, historic sites and preserves to close immediately once a shutdown begins. 

Source: US Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Management Policies 2006. Accessed June 10, 2017.