One Woman’s Journey Brings Physical Geocaches to National Parks

Abby Wolfe (hydnsek) on left and Park Ranger Cindy Bjorklund on right

Geocacher Abby Wolfe (pictured on the left) wears many proverbial “hats.”  The avid hiker is the President of the Washington State Geocaching Association (WSGA) and chairs its Park Advocacy Committee. Her Geocaching.com username is hydnsek.

Abby is also one of the few to make physical geocaches in national parks in the United States a reality.

Here’s her story, in her own words. See what you might learn about bringing physical geocaches to a national park near you.

LATITUDE 47: Tell us the big geocaching news about the North Cascades National Park, what happened and how did you make it happen?

ABBY: The first two physical caches were recently published in North Cascades National Park Service Complex (NCNPSC) – Cascade Pass Trailhead and Gorge Dam Overlook. This may be the first western national park to permit physical caches – a great win for geocachers!

I first contacted North Cascades three years ago to get permission for an EarthCache. They were receptive, and their interpretive specialist suggested the location for a second EarthCache. I met with them, and built a relationship from there—becoming a park volunteer (VIP) and their geocaching liaison, and educating them about geocaching and the potential benefits of physical caches. It helped that the superintendent was already enthusiastic about “questing” activities (as he calls them) because he’d taken his kids letterboxing, and they had already permitted a letterbox.

Near Cascade Pass Trailhead geocache

LATITUDE 47: What lessons have you learned about working with the National Park Service that other geocachers should know?

ABBY: Many cachers believe the NPS bans geocaching, which isn’t entirely true. The current NPS geocaching guidance document (PDF file) leaves it to the discretion of individual park superintendents. Many NPS personnel aren’t familiar with it, so you may have to educate them about the guidance doc as well as geocaching.

You’re more likely to have success with lesser-known parks that are looking for ways to raise their profile and increase attendance (and funding). For example, Mount Rainier is hugely popular and has no incentive to permit physical caches (although we’ve turned a key ranger into an avid geocacher). North Cascades is a different story; they receive only 19,000 visitors each year (!), so promoting geocaching as a popular activity and educational tool that could help attract new visitors was a strong selling point.

LATITUDE 47: Why do you think geocaching belongs in national parks?

ABBY: Many of our greatest natural wonders are in the National Parks. Geocaching provides a fun and educational way to explore them, especially for families, since kids are more engaged by the “treasure hunt” than by scenery and signs. EarthCaches are great, but they’re limited to geological features and are less appealing to some cachers and kids. Physical caches can showcase scenery, flora and fauna, and human history.

Near Gorge Dam Overlook geocache

LATITUDE 47: How do geocachers (seekers and those seeking to hide caches) continue a healthy relationship with the national parks?

ABBY: I think the best way is to show that we understand their goals and concerns, and that we respect the environment (think CITO!) and park policies. Becoming a park volunteer is a great way to foster this; it’s helped WSGA win over several parks. If you can get park personnel to view geocaching as a positive recreational activity that supports their mission without adding to their workload, it will be easier for them to support geocaching.

Building these trusting relationships is the goal of WSGA’s Park Liaison Program, which pairs a geocacher with a park system to self-manage geocaching activities. North Cascades was one of our first participants, and we currently have 10 park systems in the program.

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  • Thank you Abby for working so hard on this and doing it the right way by talking with them. It is geocachers like you that set the example of what we are all about; you give cachers a good name!

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  • Jan

    We (I) have been trying to get the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to allow physical caches for more than 4 years. I have been a VIP (Park Volunteer) for more than 10 years and our local caching Club has done numorous CITO’s in and around the Park. So it’s not like we have not tried to do our part as a group.
    We have met with them many times over those 4 years. Made many proposals that would not add to their workload. Provided reams of positive educational and family outdoors benefits. Had to even show them their own regulations when it came to geocaches. (they are not prohibited, but each Park has to OK the caches) Showed them where other NP’s were starting to allow physical caches. (there are several)
    We are completely willing to give them total OK over where a cache can be, what the exact container can be, etc. Even offered to start with a “visitor log” cache in one of several Visitor Centers as a “test cache”. (the logbooks already exist, we would just designate the logbook as a cache) We have offered to do all maintaining of the caches. We offered to start with Earthcaches to see how things would go. Still the answer is “No”.
    We have explained over and over again that caches aren’t buried, yet they still keep coming back to us with “we don’t want people going out and digging holes in the ground”. It’s like we sit down to talk with them, but they don’t hear what we are saying.
    One obstacle I think, that is holding things up, is they have a Ranger that transferred in from the Everglades. He keeps telling the personnel (head Ranger) we have been building a relationship with that “people tried to get caches allowed in the Everglades too and we wouldn’t allow them. We shouldn’t allow them in the Smokies either”.
    It has been a VERY head banging experience, the say the least!
    We are on good terms and everything is always cordial. But it’s like they are afraid to make the first step to allow caches because they are afraid their “higher ups” will come down on them.
    I have never been for saturating NP’s with caches, and that has never been my intention for it to ever get that way. But NP’s have some of our Nation’s most spectacular places to visit and things to see. Allowing caches to be strategically placed, with total control of the placements left up to the Park Service personnel, would give the Parks free advertisement, more money in the coffers of the NP”s (and surrounding communities) from increased visitation, an opportunity to provide a free educational component to the Park, and perhaps provide for additional physical exercise venues for the people who visit the caches.

  • hydnsek

    Jan – I’m impressed with your efforts! It sounds like you’ve done everything “right,” and understand your frustration at the impasse. I’ve encountered similar issues at some other parks we work with – old-guard rangers who don’t want to try new things, and erroneous-but-stubborn mindsets about what caching involves (e.g., digging). I had a very rough experience this year along those lines with a city park system.

    Two things that worked in our favor for North Cascades NP:

    – A young, forward-thinking superintendent who wanted to try new ways of engaging visitors, and an interpretive ranger who was willing to run with it. Based on your comments, it sounds like you unfortunately may have to wait out a changing of the guard in park personnel before you see a new attitude toward caching.

    – A smaller, less-visited park that wanted to raise its profile and visitorship. Great Smoky Mountains is the #1 national park in attendance, so like Mount Rainier, it has much less incentive to introduce new activities.

  • Charlotte Moore aka Hikers2

    A pleasure to have met you when volunteered at the GWVIII WSGA’s Ape Event. Excellent what you have done to have the two caches placed in North Cascades National Park! Congratulations!!!
    Charlotte Moore aka 1/2 of Hikers2

  • Asabernathy

    woo-hoo Abby!!!

  • Mitrustme

    We were able to place four physical caches in the Gulf Island National Seashore Park in May 2010. It took us nine months of meetings and many hours of talking to the superintendent, and showing him where the caches would be placed. We were finally able to place them after we recievied a user permit which cost us $50.00 dollars and they put us on a six month probation period, if there were no problems we could request to put out more.
    We put in that requst last week but they are now wanting us to pay another 50.00 dollars that will be due every year for a user permit, but we are working on getting that changed. We sent copies of the cache pages and showed them how many people had log their finds and what they had to say about the park and if they had camped in the park and where they lived. We also had an event in the park last June and another cacher was hosting one in April and having an Easter Egg Hunt for the kids.
    Placing caches in the National Parks are achievable, make a trusting agreement and keep it. You will need alot of patience, it can happen.

  • Randy Michyesvicz

    You said” Many cachers believe the NPS bans geocaching, which isn’t entirely true. ” Hm, I wonder why…
    Geocaching > Getting Started with Geocaching > Hiding Your First Geocache :Please note: You will be in violation of federal regulation by placing a cache in any area administered by the National Park Service (US). The National Park regulations are intended to protect the fragile environment, and historical and cultural areas found in the parks.