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Off-Trail Visitors Stick Together


Visitors to national parks and forests often leave designated trails, despite signs and rangers telling them not to. Utah State University scientists used GPS technology to follow visitors off-trail and assess their impacts.

A new study published by Utah State University scientists in this month’s issue of The Journal of Environmental Management, used data from GPS trackers to show that most public lands visitors tend to stick together, potentially minimizing ecological damage.

“We’re interested in understanding where people go when they leave designated trails. And so, in this study, we wanted to use GPS tracking to kind of see where people are leaving trails, and then, importantly, what are they doing once they leave these trails: where are they going, how far are they going off-trail, what type of plants might they be interacting with.”

Unlike, say, a wolf biologist, Dr. Ashley D’Antonio, a post-doctoral researcher at Utah State University, couldn’t affix GPS collars to visitors. Instead, she and a small army of field technicians asked almost 5,000 visitors to carry a handheld GPS during their visits to seven recreation destinations on federal lands in California, Colorado, and Wyoming. Over 93 percent of them said yes. Every 15 seconds, the GPS unit recorded the visitors’ location, allowing the researchers to see when and where visitors traveled off-trail, and for how long. In total, a little more than half the visitors hiked off-trail at some point.

“We looked at a whole bunch of different sites across different types of public lands in national parks and national forests, and we found that areas that kind of had view sites, you know, a waterfall to look at, a mountain peak to look at, that’s where we tended to see people clumping together during high periods of use.”

Credit usgs.gov
El Capitan, a focal point for many visitors to California's Yosemite National Park

  In fact, the researchers found that rather than spreading out when parks got crowded, off-trail visitors tended to clump together, especially at spots such as Yosemite’s El Capitan, where a single landscape feature dominated the area. At sites without an obvious focal point, such as Rocky Mountain National Park’s Emerald Lake, visitor behavior off-trail was similar no matter how crowded it was. D’Antonio’s other research suggests that what people choose to do off-trail, such as whether or not they travel on durable surfaces, might be more important than the number of people who leave the trail.

Read more about Dr. D'Antonio's research at her blog, The Average Visitor.