The stillness of a deep blue alpine lake entrances you.
Above you, pointy peaks seem to stand guard over this remote area. Hiking here required a two-mile trek with a 1,000-foot gain in altitude.
Sweaty but satisfied, you snack on an orange that tastes sweeter in the backcountry than it does at home. You drink in the peace of this spectacular spot.
Then a buzzing sound shatters your serenity.
Three dudes have just launched a drone and are loudly filming video of themselves in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s illegal, of course, but in the TikTok era, social media posts from once-wild places have sparked inconsiderate viral behavior.
Back in 2017, you no doubt heard about the Brazilian outerwear company that hauled models and a commercial photographer to Colorado’s beloved Hanging Lake for an ad shoot. That, too, was illegal, and the company was fined. But after the egregious violation, Hanging Lake became more famous than ever. Tourist visits increased, prompting a reservation system, then a wildfire ravaged the area near Glenwood Springs. The trail to this once quiet gem currently is closed.
Since then, the pandemic prompted a rush to spend time outdoors. As droves of people headed to the mountains, the number of people climbing Colorado’s 14-ers spiked 44% in a single year. The use of U.S. Forest Service trails and camping spots also surged and the National Park Service started requiring reservations for visits to its most popular destinations like Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado also earned the dubious distinction in 2021 of requiring more backcountry searches and rescues than any other state.
It’s clear that crowds are threatening some of our most precious outdoor areas. But nature lovers can team up to make a difference. During a month when we celebrate Earth Day, take a pledge to “leave no trace” and learn how to be a steward who is kind in nature and protects the great outdoors.
How you can be kind in nature
Outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and camping all are great for the heart and soul.
“There is no doubt that spending time outdoors, either in solitude or among family and friends, can enrich a person’s quality of life,” said Donna Nemeth, regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the USDA Forest Service.
Nemeth said outdoor recreation activities by far account for the single greatest use of National Forest lands.
“We encourage healthy, active and safe outdoor activities that support ‘leave no trace’ principles,” Nemeth said.
It’s absolutely critical for individuals to step up and do their part to take better care of natural areas.
“Each of us has a role in being a steward of the land, and a responsibility to follow ‘best practices’ when visiting public lands so that the shared experience is enjoyable to everyone,” Nemeth said.
Here is advice for being kind in nature and leaving parks, plants and wildlife just as you found them.
1. Know before you go
“Plan ahead and prepare for your outing,” Nemeth said.
It’s critical to check for information in advance. This includes everything from weather and road conditions to hiking and camping information.
“Plan ahead and prepare for your outing. Be aware of local guidelines, potential restrictions or closures and off-road vehicle regulations. Many places have limits on camping, and if you’re bringing your dog, you need to be aware of leash laws,” Nemeth said.
“A lot of great information is available on the web. If you have more questions, call the District or Forest Service office and talk with someone to get the most current information,” she said. “Being aware of regulations in advance can make your trip so much more enjoyable.”
2. Stay on trails and avoid harming fragile areas like alpine tundra or riparian areas like streams and wetlands.
Nemeth advises people always to wear good hiking shoes or boots that can get wet so you can stay on trails and avoid causing erosion or damage to natural areas.
“Especially now, during mud season, you may have to walk through puddles. If everyone skirts a puddle, a trail that was three or four feet wide can become 10 feet wide. Try to stay on the trail,” she said.
“If you do have to travel off of trails, have your group spread out to minimize damage to plants,” Nemeth said.
3. Bring everything you need to stay safe in the outdoors and pack out everything
Trash and human and dog waste have become rampant along some trails, at popular destinations and camping spots or at heavily used areas like natural hot springs. It’s unacceptable to leave waste behind.
Nemeth says the backcountry ethic is to bring what you need, pack everything out and leave no trace that you were there.
“Always bring water, food, toilet paper, a garden trowel and Ziploc bags with you so you can pick up pet and human waste,” Nemeth said. “It’s important to dispose of waste properly. Never leave it in the backcountry. People go on picnics, which is great. Some people will bag everything up and just leave it there.”
4. Leave what you find
Natural areas soothe us because of the beauty that we find there. That includes flowers, rocks and other natural objects.
“Don’t collect rocks, plants or archaeological artifacts. All of these things need to stay where they are so the next person can enjoy them,” Nemeth said.
5. Respect trees and rocks. Never mark them with your initials or other graffiti.
Nature sometimes leaves scars behind. For instance, natural wildfires sometimes leave black spots on tree trunks that can remain standing for decades. Elk are famous for rubbing their antlers on aspen trees. And ferocious winds at high elevations can whip trees and shrubs into spookily-shaped curving stumps called krummholz. These phenomena are fascinating and natural. But some park and forest visitors who are not familiar with how to behave in natural places like to carve their initials into trees or paint rocks. Leaving human-created scars is illegal and permanently mars pristine areas.
6. Practice fire safety
As climate change is causing larger, more extreme wildfires, it’s absolutely incumbent on all nature lovers to prevent unplanned fires in remote areas.
“Beware of fire restrictions and minimize your impacts,” Nemeth said.
If you’re backpacking and fires are not allowed in a wilderness area or national park, then plan ahead to cook with a small camping stove.
If you are camping in an area that allows a campfire, be sure to use the established fire ring and never leave a campfire unattended. When you leave your campsite, be sure that your fire is completely out.
“You should be able to stick your hand in the ashes. They should feel cold to the touch. If any amount of heat remains, add more water and try touching the ashes again,” Nemeth said.
7. Respect wildlife. Do not approach or feed wildlife.
Many decades ago, rangers at Yellowstone National Park used to feed grizzly bears so visitors could see the mighty animals. Of course, biologists then learned that feeding wild animals harmed their populations.
These days, you might encounter aggressive chipmunks or birds that have become used to humans intentionally or accidentally dropping snacks. Nemeth encourages everyone to avoid approaching or feeding wildlife.
“It can be tempting to want to feed them. Some wildlife have gotten used to people feeding them. But it’s not good for the animals or the humans,” Nemeth said.
Also, if you ever spot a baby animal like a young fawn on its own, leave it alone.
“The animal may appear to be abandoned, but the adults sometimes leave them while they go out to feed. You don’t want to disturb them,” Nemeth said.
8. Always have a Plan B
Packed parking lots have become rampant during the pandemic. Nemeth encourages people to prepare for complications like this.
“If you show up to your favorite trail head and it’s full, rather than adding to the congestion, you may want to visit an area that’s less crowded,” she said.
The same holds true for changing weather. As Coloradans well know, storms move in quickly. Perhaps you were planning to do a peak climb, but thunderstorms are moving in early and it’s not safe to be at high elevation when lightning could strike.
“Always have a Plan B in place,” Nemeth said.
9. Be mindful of your surroundings and considerate of others
“Be respectful in nature. Be mindful of your surroundings. Be considerate of others. Yield to other people on trails and keep your pets under control,” Nemeth said.
“Simple courtesies will make your experience and everyone else’s experience much more enjoyable,” she said.
10. Embrace quiet and dark places
As crowds surge in once-remote areas around the world, it’s increasingly difficult to escape light pollution and find silence. We can all do our part by being as quiet as possible and paying attention to designations for intentionally dark areas.
Some ways to be kind in nature are obvious. Do no play loud music, bring drones or rev up loud, motorized vehicles in areas where they are not allowed.
And we can all learn about and enjoy International Dark-Sky Parks like Great Sand National Park and Preserve. Enjoy Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in all seasons.