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California State Parks - Policy Issues

The following is an article published in the CA state park newsletter "Bear Facts" in February of this year. It is important to understand how caching is perceived when making contact with rangers. The article does NOT state that caches should not be permitted, but voices concerns that must be addressed if we are to continue placing caches in the parks. Note particularly the reference to "increased litter" caused by cachers!!! I would suggest having a copy of this article with you, and be prepared to offer an alternative view when asking permission to place caches in the parks. Oh, and bring a CITO bag. -workerofwood

California State Parks, February 2005

Geocaching: What is It?

First there was Orienteering and Letterboxing. Now we have Geocaching. What is it and how does it affect our parks? Geocaching requires physical and mental exercise, provides an opportunity to experience the great outdoors, gives us a chance to build valuable skills and offers lots of fun and excitement. But more importantly, the new sport has the potential to harm our parks and we should be aware of the negative impacts.

Orienteering was developed in Sweden in 1919 as a military training exercise and received a technical boost by the invention of a new more precise compass that was brought to the U.S. in 1946. At that time, Orienteering with a map and compass became an organized competitive sport with participants racing each other to find a series of points on a map (marked on the ground with orange and white flags) and returning to the finish in the shortest time. Many different Orienteering team and relay disciplines have emerged. The race is performed on skis, in canoes, on mountain bikes, at night, on trails by those with disabilities and, along strings for training preschoolers. The "Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance" takes place over long distances by foot during a 24 hour period. Some races feature international competition and foot orienteering has been recognized as an Olympic sport since 1977. For more information, see

Letterboxing was conceived in 1854 by a Victorian gentleman walker who put his calling card in a bottle and left it in the wilds of what is now southwestern England's Dartmoor National Park. Now, letterboxes containing a guestbook and a rubber stamp are hidden in the park and complicated clues to their whereabouts are posted on Internet sites or published periodically in catalogs. When seekers find the boxes, they log their discovery by writing or stamping with their own, often artistically made, rubber stamps in their journals and in the letterbox guestbook. Smithsonian magazine published in 1998 an article on Letterboxing and soon it was introduced to the United States. As many as 10,000 letterboxes are hidden in Dartmoor National Park, and the park distributes a brochure outlining how to participate "with moor care and less wear." Over 13,600 letterboxes are said to be hidden in North America, with over 1,000 in California, some on State Park property. Clues for letterboxes in Montana de Oro SP, show a series of loops and above the link for the "waiver of responsibility and disclaimer" is a warning to "watch for lions." Additional information is at

Increasingly affordable technology has advanced the new outdoor pursuit of Geocaching. Geocaching is a treasure hunt adventure game for users of personal Global Positioning System (GPS) units. The units range in cost from $100 to $1,000. The sport came into being in May 2000 when the government stopped their intentional degradation of GPS for security reasons. The first geocache "treasure" was hidden soon thereafter near Portland, Oregon. The treasure was found, a system of rules was devised and Geocaching was off and running. A website coordinates the game. The site gives the rules, lists the caches, maps and coordinates, and offers hints for finding them. Today, Geocaching is so popular that enthusiasts can seek caches in over 200 countries.

Caches are hidden by participants anywhere. They can be big or small and are often cleverly named. The rules are simple. When you find the cache, take something, leave something and write about it in the logbook. Variations are encouraged and many spin-offs have been developed. Caches are maintained by 'owners' who are supposed to be responsible for any physical impact to the site. But the impact on the surrounding area is less predictable and often depends on how long a cache is offered. The cache locations may require difficult hiking, orienteering, or specialized equipment and some locations may be underwater. The location demonstrates the owner's skill and daring. A cache can be covered and hidden, but burying it is not recommended, and 'owners' are urged to consider the sensitivity of the environment. Before placing a cache on private or public land individuals should contact the land owner. Locating a cache on National Park Service parkland is a violation of federal regulations established to protect fragile habitat and historic and cultural resources. Before placing a cache on State Park land or in a regional or local park, you should contact park personnel directly. Deborah Chavez, a Research Social Scientist with the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station in Riverside, has described the emerging management issues of Geocaching in her article "Over the River and Through the Woods," Parks & Recreation, April 2004.

Understandably, many are concerned about the impact of hiding and seeking in State Parks. Any off-trail use opens a Pandora's box of increased resource damage including unwanted 'volunteer' trails, soil erosion, damage to rock faces from uncontrolled rock climbing, damage to resources and wildlife habitat. Such disturbance can be considered a "take" in listed species habitat. Cultural resources can also be damaged by unauthorized use. Staff at Mount Diablo, Henry Coe, and Mount Tamalpais State Parks describe other negative impacts, including more litter and improper disposal of human waste. Increased law enforcement and search and rescue costs also can over extend park budgets.

Although Geocaching may attract new users to California's parks, the question needs to be asked, "Do the negative impacts outweigh the benefits?" Certainly we need to be aware of Geocaching activities, and be ready to educate users and apply existing laws, regulations and policies to minimize the negative impacts to our parks. [Our thanks to Janet Didion, Natural Resources Division, who contributed to this article.]
Planning California State Parks Planning Division
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001