Proceedings of the First Park Naturalists’ Training Conference, November 1 to 30, 1929




By Russell K. Grater, Park Naturalist

For several years the problem of self-guiding Nature Trails in our parks has produced nothing in the way of a satisfactory solution. It is generally recognized by every Park Naturalist that our present system of metal trailside labels is lacking in appeal, and is entirely inadequate to perform the task we wish it to do. Thus, it was with the idea of stimulating new thought on the subject that studies on the effectiveness of our present Nature Trail program were inaugurated in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks during the past summer.

These studies were carried on in conjunction with regular guided trips along the Narrows Trail in Zion–a self-guided Nature Trail. En route up the trail a special effort was made to learn which details were essential to clearly portray the canyon story to the visitor. The return trip was spent attempting to analyze the visitor reaction to the small metal trailside labels located at various points of interest. Ofttimes several visitors–not members of the guided trip–would be asked to tell me what information he or she gleaned from reading a designated label. The results of these studies were extremely enlightening but somewhat disappointing. It was immediately apparent that, in the main, the labels served only a minor purpose. As long as someone was present to explain the thought back of the label, the visitor lacked sufficient background to fill in the untold details so essential in obtaining a complete understanding of the label and its story. To the person who composed the text, the meaning of the label was childishly clear, but to the untrained visitor it was only vaguely understandable. A simple label giving the common name of a plant was easily grasped, but the significance of the plant’s presence or the part it played in the geological and biological stories was usually missed completely. With rarely an exception, this inability to get the main story behind the label was due to the limited amount of detailed information that could be placed on each sign.

In summarizing the weaknesses of the present label system a few points stand out above the other defects. These include such things as:

  • Because the sign must necessarily be small and the letters on it large enough to be easily read, our present label is seldom able to do justice to the subject being brought to the visitor’s attention.
  • The text of the metal label is seldom attractive. Lines never and where they should, and individual words have a habit of being off “center” on the line itself. Titles and sub-titles that are centered with the explanatory text are the exceptions rather than the rule.
  • The text of our present label tend to be entirely too technical. Even the simplest language is still tough enough for the average park visitor when discussing rock formations, plants and other natural features.
  • The present labels are very difficult to maintain. Each spring it is necessary to repaint a number of these metal labels, buff off the letters and make them as presentable as possible for the coming travel season. Try as one may, the second and third paint jobs never look as god as the first.
  • The labels now in use are small, easy to move, carry away, or bend. Each week along a Nature Trail equipped with such signs, one constantly finds labels moved to new locations by helpful visitors or playful pranksters. Here at Zion I have even found one such sign posted conspicuously along the roadside as far as seven miles from the park. Such labels invariably serve as foot rests or rock targets, and are often found either badly scratched through the paint. Obviously there was little in the appearance of the sign to promote a feeling of respect for it. By comparison, the Mather Plaque, found along the same trail, is unmarred and attempted abuse or defacement of it has not been noted.