You are here

A View From The Overlook: Nudity And The National Parks


Summer is coming in. The days are getting longer, and lake, sea, and river water are getting warmer.

This leads to a desire on the part of some national park patrons to take off their clothes and a similar number of fellow taxpayers to complain about nudity, with the hapless park ranger in the middle. This can lead to problems.

So, why do people do this?

“Because they’re depraved, left-wing libertines who probably voted for Obama!” you snort testily.

Not necessarily. Some skinny dippers are Republicans.

President Theodore Roosevelt and his favorite appointee, Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Forest Service, enjoyed swimming nude in natural pools in Washington’s heavily wooded Rock Creek. One day they invited the French ambassador to join them. The ambassador accepted the invitation. Once at the pool, the three men stripped to the buff—or almost.

President Roosevelt pointed out to the Frenchman that he had forgotten to remove his gloves.

“Mais non!” the ambassador explained. “We might meet ladies!”

A Bipartisan Affair

So, if nude bathing is a bi-partisan affair, why is it a problem in the national parks?

Well, it is perceived as prejudicial to “decency and good order” by an always vociferous and outraged percentage of park-going taxpayers. You see, among some patrons, national parks are seen as museums of public virtue as well as natural museums.

That is, the park ranger is expected to enforce the sort of public decorum that was the prevailing social code in the 1950s, if not Roosevelt’s time.

This can lead to problems. Not the least being that our easily embarrassed government has had a surprisingly difficult time in legally determining what is prurient and what is not.

Americans of a certain age can recall the less than successful literary criticism efforts of the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Customs Service in regards to the works of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, James Joyce and others. No one, not even Supreme Court justices, could agree on what was “lewd and lascivious.”

However, literary works require a degree of imagination on the part of both writer and reader. Nudity, by definition, leaves nothing to the imagination. Therefore it should have been simple for even the dullest federal legal hack to come up with a regulation against nudity.

Apparently the task is more difficult than it looks, neighbors. The best that our bashful federal government could come up with was 36 CFR, Chapter 1, National Park Service, Part two, Resource Protection, Public Use, and Recreation.

2.34 Disorderly Conduct

a. A person commits disorderly conduct, when with intent to cause public alarm, nuisance, jeopardy, or violence, or knowingly or recklessly creating risk thereof, such person commits any of the following prohibited acts:

1. Engages in fighting, or threatening, or violent behavior.

The regulation is already broad enough to fine Jeff Davis for starting the Civil War, but we are now closing in on the nitty gritty, as in:

2. Uses language, an utterance, or gesture, or engages in an act that is obscene, physically threatening, or menacing or done in a manner that is likely to inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace.

Fix that “Obscene, physically threatening, or menacing” bit in your mind’s eye; we’ll get back to it later.

3. Paragraph 3 concerns noise, which will not concern us (Unless you have a howling nude on your hands).

4. Creates or maintains a hazardous or physically offensive condition.

Now we are beginning to hit pay dirt, neighbors! Not only was he/she buck nekked to begin with, he/she refused to put on clothes and skedaddle when advised to do so by a federal peace officer!

CFR 36 and subtitles are basically what the park has to work with, unless they choose to enforce state or local regulations, which some do.

Holier Than Jarlsburg!

Now, you don’t have to be Lord Blackstone or the ACLU to figure out that these regs have more holes than Jarlsburg cheese.

Using CFR 36, the NPS is guaranteed bad publicity even if it wins the court case, as it will be denounced by the New York Times in one of its patented editorials sneering down on the grubby, small-town morality of out-of-touch federal flunkies. In addition, there will be a TV interview with Ms. Rainsong Moonglow, the defendant in the case, who will state in her best little girl voice, that there is nothing “obscene” or “menacing” or “offensive” about the human body, and she certainly did not “threaten” anyone with her nude body.

Ms. Moonglow (and her lawyers) will have a point. The whole regulation seems to imply a sort of compulsive automatic meltdown on the part of onlookers who are supposed to be “reasonably prudent” as the legal lingo goes.

So what to do? Well now, the folks over at Cape Cod National Seashore (CACO) have come up with their very own regulation (the only NPS unit to do so, by the way) that defines nudity without the pejorative sexual hysteria of CFR 36.

Cape Cod National Seashore

7.67 (e) Public nudity, including public nude bathing by any person on federal land or water within the boundaries of Cape Cod National Seashore is prohibited. Public nudity is a person’s intentional failure to cover with a fully opaque covering that person’s genitals, rectum, or female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola when in a public place.

“Public place” is any area of federal land or water within the Seashore, except the enclosed portions of bathhouses, restrooms, and public showers or other public structures designed for similar purposes, or private structures permitted within the seashore, such as trailers or tents. This regulation shall not apply to a person under ten years of age.

Well now! CACO got right to the point in defining nudity! No hysterical shilly shalling!

(I particularly liked the part about the “point immediately above the areola”; it shows the CACO lads have done some research!” Also note that there is no value judgment placed on somebody’s rectum, genitals, or breasts; there is nothing “obscene” or alarming. This omission should keep the New York Times and the local TV station at bay.

On the other hand, why not just ignore the nudes? Well, that sort of depends. If they are off on a secluded, seldom visited area of the park or beach, or a remote hot springs, there is an argument for “out of sight, out of mind.”

However, as Ranger Rick Smith, late of Yosemite, pointed out to me, sometimes there is an exhibitionistic factor involved, as at Yosemite in the '70s when “freaking out the straights” with nudity was a popular sport among some of the countercultural types of that era. Rick would patiently explain to them that Yosemite was a vast park with literally hundreds of ponds and pools where one could go naked without disturbing anyone.

When In Doubt, Ask A Ranger

I recall sitting in Rio Grande Hot Spring in Big Bend National Park one moonlit night with my good friend Mike Stafford formerly of the Martinez, California, police department (and a Theodore Roosevelt look alike!). The hot spring required a half-mile hike through the Chihuahuan desert, so it was unlikely that anyone would be bothered. Certainly none of the University of Texas kids (It was spring break), though they all seemed to have forgotten their swimsuits.

“Is this legal?” Mike asked.

Well, I didn’t know. “When in doubt, ask a ranger!” is always good advice.

So I asked the district ranger who was sitting in the pool across from me. She wasn’t wearing her badge, Stetson or anything else, but she was a woman of considerable authority.

“PJ,” she sighed, “I reckon it’s probably not, but you know, it’s about the least of the things I have to worry about!”

So, should we care? Perhaps former Park Service Director George Hartzog should have the last word.

According to Hartzog, “The fun in nearly all the recreation area parks will center on and in water. That reminds me of something that happened not long ago (July 1966) in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. On motor boat patrol one day, a young ranger passed an island on which he saw a dozen pretty girls sunning more of themselves than American custom usually approves. His duty was clear and he landed. “It turned out to be a French chorus line from a Las Vegas show,” he reported. “Despite the language barrier, I finally gathered that if they showed up for work with pale strap marks on their suntans, they would be in trouble.”

Hartzog concludes by saying, “Since no official report of the incident ever arrived on my desk, I didn’t ask how it ended."

PJ Ryan is a retired 30-year NPS veteran having served at Jewel Cave National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Joshua Tree National monument, John Muir NHS, Jean Lafitte NHP and the Washington Office of the NPS. You can read more of his thoughts on the parks at Thunderbear.


May I suggest a inverse sliding scale of punishment based on the perps age and weight?

Wrong. I'm old and fat and the sun feels as good on my old fat body as it ever did when I was a young hardbody.

Personally, I feel that bodily modesty is a social disease inflicted by too much organized religion, but no longer chose to 'freak out the straights'. I tend to do my sun worship where it doesn't inflict visions of my old fat body on those who can't tolerate it.

Sounds to me like some wisdom on the part of Hartzog.

Gutz54: So it is OK for cute babes to enjoy the hot springs or the Sun au naturel, but not me, or, I presume, you. You represent the rude, thoughtless intolerance that ruins so much. Attractive, or not, the nude bathers are not there to distress you, and neither for your amusement. If you don't like what you see, DON'T LOOK. If you do like what you see, DON'T LEER. What happened to tolerance and civility?

Generally, we don't need more and more restrictions. What would a general prohibition of nudity in the wilderness do to hikers, campers, etc that are not near restrooms or bathing facilities? Should it be a crime to poop? While 99% of the rangers are reasonable folks, it is not that uncommon for law enforcemnt to run off the rails to enforce the letter of the law. We have a friend that was arrested for relieving himself in a bush walking home from a baseball game. He had had a couple beers and couldn't make it home. My daughter's friend was caught in a traffic jam. An officer followed him into the woods, where he was completely out of sight, and arrested him for indecent exposure. Both are now registered sex offenders. Their lives are ruined. Beware what you ask for. You might get it.


Good grief, wb54 -

It looked to me like gutz54 was offering a little old-fashioned satire.

Having been a skinny dipper since well, arriving in my "birthday suit", especially at hot springs and remote rivers, ponds, streams, or water bodies, I've never seen nudity as dangerous. At a secluded swimming hole in Yosemite the opposite of said "view" was being expressed by a guy with a baseball bat, beating on a young couple who were skinny dipping, because his grandkids, over 100 yards away through the trees, might be "offended" or perhaps "damaged" by the sight of human anatomy,beyond the seashore's defined limits.

I arrested said "gentleman" as it seemed he was, oddly, more dangerous to society than a couple enjoying "nature".

But, it was back in the days Rick mentioned when merely addressing visitors that choosing a more "secluded" spot, for either skinny dipping, or perhaps enjoying a relaxing hit on "nature's grass", might be a more relaxing, and appropriate way to enjoy what our parks have to offer.

I also advised a BLM manager years later that PROHIBITING swim suits in natural hot springs (it was a remote site) was a far more ecologically sound approach for the flora and fauna in the spring than her attempt to MANDATE swim suits (which bring all those nice toxins into the water).

Gutz54 represents a very widely held viewpoint. It is nasty and socially sick. You hear Eewww! on the TV news and read it in the paper about anybody that isn't a supermodel. The supermarket rags run continual exposes on celulite and who does or doesn't look good in a swimsuit. There is a huge commercial interest in making us all feel inferior, embarrased and ashamed and generally lousy about ourselves. Unhappy people are easier to manipulate and sell to. Gutz54 gets no pass from me for repeating the same line of crap he's been sold.

I think CFR 36 is right were it ought to be. Unless someone is committing a lewd act, or being agressive or belligerent toward someone else, please, show me the harm. How is someone harmed by seeing someone else enjoying a skinny dip in the hot spring (and mining his or her own business)? And, if there is no harm, why do we need a law?

Too many people define themselves by how much they are offended by others. They come from across the poltical spectrum. Their mantra is "They aren't like me and they need to be stopped!" In that thought process are the roots of opression. The onus to prove harm should be on them.


OK, wb54, you've had your two shots.

Yeah, I get wound up sometimes. Have a great day!

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide