A mother and son are hiking the ten-mile Ken Patrick Trail in Grand Canyon National Park when another group of hikers comes across them. They have no map, no compass, no gear, and no water. They were clearly dehydrated and lost. The thru hikers gave them two quarts of water, which they gratefully guzzled down and escorted them back to Imperial Point.
A tourist visiting the Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park ignores warning signs and walks to the edge of the Green Dragon Cauldron and thrusts his hand into the profoundly hot and acidic water.
A man driving a forty-foot RV navigates it up the very narrow Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Despite several signs indicating that vehicles over 19’ were prohibited, he drives his RV to the Temple of Sinawava Parking Lot, parks in a no-parking zone, gets out, snaps four pictures, and proceeds back out at his ten mile an hour crawl.
The National Park Service has a semi-private word for the above stories, they all involve, “tourons.” Tourons is a combination of the word, “tourist,” and the word, “moron.” All though it is not clear where the word was coined, legend has it the expression started at Yellowstone National Park.
One of the refreshing things about these stories is they all have relatively happy endings. Only the touron at Norris was injured, and fortunately it was minor. Sadly not all stories end with only wounded egos or minor burns, tourons are killed every year in our National Parks. Over a two day period in Grand Canyon National Park two people lost their lives, one from heat stroke on the Bright Angel Trail and the other fell almost 2,000 feet to their death. People have been boiled alive at Yellowstone, or even worse fished out half dead. In an amazing statistic, more people have been killed and injured by bison at Yellowstone then by bear attacks.
With visitation to our National Parks exploding and budgets dwindling the US Park Service has its hands full. The job of the modern park ranger is part teacher, part police officer, part chaperone, part garbage collector, and part conservationist. It’s not an easy job, and a small percentage of folks just make it harder.
If you don't want to end up being labeled a touron by your fellow man, here are some simple steps you can follow:
Obey all signs when visiting a park. This may seem incredibly simply but amazingly a lot of people don’t. Although the danger may not seem obvious, trail closures, restricted areas and barriers are there for a reason. Falling 3,000 feet to your death, being boiled alive, or getting mauled to death by an animal is not worth any photographic opportunity.
Don't feed the animals. Although smaller outdoor critters like marmots and prairie dogs may seem harmless they can still bite. Remember, a fed animal is a dead animal. Wild animals that learn to associate humans with food will exhibit aggressive behavior. In the case of bears, female sows teach this to their cubs. Every year dozens of aggressive bears are destroyed or relocated because of human interaction, and every year people are killed.
Be prepared. Day hikers tend to get into the most trouble when visiting our National Parks. Not because day hiking is a dangerous activity, but because many hit the trail woefully unprepared. Have a map and know how to read it, even on a well-marked trail. Also be sure to have at least a compass (that you know how to use), pocketknife, whistle, personal first aid kit (that you know how to use), flashlight with spare batteries, waterproof matches, emergency rain gear, insect repellant, sunscreen, water and food. A good rule of thumb is one quart of water for each hour to two hours you plan to hike and 24 hours of food that requires no preparation to eat.
Make plans in advance. Popular parks like Acadia, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yosemite can be booked up months in advance. If your planning a trip to any National Park call as far ahead as you can. This doesn’t just apply to reservations at cabins and lodges, but includes backcountry permits; cave tours, and other park activities.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Rangers truly appreciate visitors that ask questions about conditions, environment or considerations that should be taken before hitting the trail. Walk in to any visitors center with your pack, a good set of boots, a map and a plan and you will command far more respect then if you showed up in sneakers asking about hiking down to the base of the Grand Canyon for the day.
Don't be over confident. GPS receivers, cell phones, and your own intelligence can be your worst enemies. If you even think for a moment you might be getting in over your head you probably should listen to your conscious and turn back. That steep climb you had to scramble up you have to climb back down. That river that seems to be rising may be impossible to cross a few hours from now. Sure you can call for help on the cell phone, but search and rescue operations cost thousands of dollars and in some situations you may be left holding the bill for your own rescue and extraction.
If your looking for more touron stories the official National Park Service website offers up a daily dose of Darwinian exploits in their official Morning Report. These daily, "incident reports," range from people being run over by their own runaway campers to convicted felons on probation smoking marijuana in clear view of a park ranger. You can visit http://www.nps.gov/morningreport/ to read more about the adventures of your fellow man. By applying a liberal amount of common sense while visiting our National Parks, you can be almost assured that your story will not become one of the growing wilderness legends in the touron hall of fame.