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8 Tips for a Smarter Small-Town Getaway

Traveling to rural communities means planning ahead, playing by local rules, and protecting public lands

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In this unanticipated year of 2020, our lives have changed in myriad ways, including how we travel. Vacationers craving wide open spaces and outdoor activities have rediscovered the rich allure of California's rural towns—especially their easy access to parks and public lands. After all, doesn't a little fresh air and freedom sound good right now?

But before you make a trip to the countryside—whether it's a big-name national park, picturesque mountain town, or sea-breezy coastal village—remember that travelers make a big impact everywhere they go. That's even more true for rural communities. By practicing the eight good-visitor principles below, your outdoorsy getaway can be great for you and also the small town you're visiting.

1. Do Your Pre-Trip Homework.

Leaving home for a weekend getaway? You probably searched the Web like crazy to find the perfect lodging for your crew. And of course you checked Waze or Google Maps to avoid traffic and roadwork hassles. Nice work. But you still have some planning to do.

"Visitors aren't always aware that there are different rules in nature-oriented destinations. The forest is not the city," says Tony Lyle, Vice President Tourism Development at Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. "Different rules apply."

Think about how you'll spend your days at your destination, then research the nitty-gritty. Find out the current regulations for your favorite beach, park, trail, or picnic site. Now more than ever, rules vary greatly among parks. For example, visitors need advance reservations to enter Yosemite National Park—you can't drive in to the park without them. Some of California's national forest lands closed to public access due to fire restrictions in September, so check to ensure your destination is open on the U.S. Forest Service website.

2. Treat Your Vacation Home Like It's in Your Own Neighborhood.

Not so long ago, vacation lodging meant hotels, motels, or campgrounds. Now we often vacation in private homes in residential neighborhoods. Instead of hotel guests for neighbors, we have doctors, schoolteachers, plumbers, chefs, and other working people living right next door—and they might need to get up at 6 a.m.

Sherry Gardner, who manages six vacation homes outside of Yosemite National Park, says visitors need to be vigilant about quiet-time rules. "We know people are on vacation and want to let loose, but they must always be respectful about loud music, parties, and yelling," she says. "Visitors sometimes forget that they're on vacation but their neighbors aren't."

3. Act Like a Local.

Let's say you're a city- or suburb-dweller on your first trip to a small mountain town. Here's the lowdown: The locals don't do things the same way you're used to. Tailgating? Not cool (slow down on two-lane roads). Playing amplified music on a trail? Not cool (use your earbuds). Leaving trash around? Definitely not cool.

Lyle says your trip will be better if you adopt the norms of the place you're visiting. "Most of us say we want to 'live like the locals' when we travel. That doesn't apply just to exotic destinations. Living like a local is the best way to travel anywhere."

Rosie Hackett, Director of Outdoor Leadership at Sierra Nevada University, says visitors should look to the locals as role models. "Visitors coming to a new environment can observe what locals are doing and learn from them," she says. "Watch what the locals do, then model your behavior after them.”

4. Be a Smart Hiker or Camper.

Your smartphone makes it easy to find out when the local grocery store is open and whether that Indian restaurant serves tikka masala. You can also use it to find out how many miles you need to walk to get to that waterfall, and how steep the trail is.

"Inexperienced hikers go out on the trail and don't carry enough water, don't carry a map, or don't wear good shoes, and they get in trouble," Hackett says. Search-and-rescue workers have been busier than ever in 2020, and many rescued hikers are found only a few miles from their cars. A modicum of preparation can prevent most outdoor calamities. For safety advice, see the National Park Service's simple tips on its Hike Smart web page.

Camping trips require good planning, too. Before you go, make reservations to ensure you'll get a site. Many campgrounds are closed this year due to COVID or wildfire restrictions. Others have adjusted their rules. "First-time campers always think that camping means s'mores over a campfire. They don't know that campfires aren't allowed in a lot of places," Hackett says.

5. Become a Trash Steward.

Even if you don't venture farther than the local beach, you can help protect natural resources by becoming trash-savvy. Lyle says that rural areas need to do a better job of educating people about litter. "We have electronic signs on the highway that say, 'Pack It In, Pack It Out,' but many visitors have no idea what we're talking about."

City dwellers are used to having easy access to trash cans and bins, but that's not the case in rural areas. "Rural parklands are not like city parks," Hackett says. "Don't expect to find trash containers. Or if there is one, it might be full. That's when you need to 'pack it out.' Don't pile your trash on top or set it next to the can. That's bad for local wildlife and the community."

Hackett always carries a small plastic bag to carry her own trash or pick up any trash she comes across. "It's so easy to leave a place more beautiful by picking up any litter that you find," she says.

6. Don't Be a Selfie Offender.

Every year, people fall to their deaths because they ventured too close to the cliff edge for an Instagram-worthy shot. We've all watched too many videos of tourists invading the personal space of bison, bears, and other wild animals. And beautiful natural sites around the globe have been damaged by photo-seeking crowds.

Stop risking your life and trampling the landscape for social media, no matter how much you want that close-up. You're not just endangering yourself, you're endangering wildlife—even those cute little chipmunks.

Instead, use your social media account for good. Tag your posts with #RecreateResponsibly to show how you can enjoy public lands in a safe and responsible way, and inspire others to do the same.

7. Remember COVID-19 Hasn't Gone Away.

Sure, we'd all like to take a break from virus vigilance, but no matter where we go, COVID-19 doesn't take a vacation. Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart. Wash your hands. Follow these simple regulations and you'll stay healthy and help small-town businesses stay open.

"In terms of practicing COVID protocols, we've noticed compliance fatigue," Lyle says. "People are tired of doing it. But visitors need to follow local laws and help to protect the communities they're visiting." Want more COVID safety tips? Visit #RecreateResponsibly.

8. Yes, You Can Make a Difference.

Part of the allure of rural communities are their surrounding public lands, filled with scenic natural landmarks, colorful flora, fascinating wildlife, and historic sites. But most people are completely unaware of their impact on these places. How do we enjoy and protect irreplaceable resources? Hackett says to practice Leave No Trace ethics, which are seven well established principles for minimizing impacts and respecting land and wildlife. "The Leave No Trace principles apply whether you're recreating in a local park, a remote wilderness, or even in your backyard," she says.

Lyle adds that sometimes we think our individual behavior is only a tiny drop in the bucket, so it doesn't matter much. "But every visitor can do something to make a difference," he says. "It comes down to respect for your fellow humans and the environment we live in."

Before you explore California, be sure to visit our Responsible Travel Hub, which includes helpful Travel Updates. Also check out our What You Need to Know series for information on staying in a hotel, visiting state and national parks, renting a car, and more.

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