A Beginner’s Guide to Pokémon Collection in National Parks

Pokémon Go, made available for download in America on July 6, 2016 (and adding new countries every day!) enables collection, training, and battling of the first 150 Pokémon. Individual Pokémon collection and observation is now possible, and Pokémon trainers will be venturing into their communities and the wilds that surround them in record numbers as they strive to catch ‘em all. By virtue of collecting and learning about (albeit augmented, virtual) animals, people will also rediscover their attraction to the natural world. Through Pokémon Go, trainers will develop a keen eye for their surroundings, patience for tracking, quick thinking in anticipation of Pokémon behaviors.  And what better place for young and old alike to hone their PokéSkills but the expansive wilderness of America’s greatest natural treasure, the National Park system.

The iconic U.S. National Parks have provided access to both nature and natural sciences to visitors for 100 years. Combined annual attendance to these natural wonders registers at a whopping 305 million people each year, attracting visitors from all over the world. Our National Parks span the landscape of the United States and her territories, ranging from the remote reaches of Alaska to the bustling east coast parks, like Shenandoah-a quick drive from several major cities-and hop entire oceans to appear in far pacific lands like Hawaii, American Samoa, and Guam. Sometimes, these parks pack a hefty admission fee, up to $30 in some of the most famous parks. The fees go toward necessary maintenance and upkeep of the most pristine natural environments in the country, preserving the experience for the next generation of visitors. Don’t be scared by the entry fees; reasonably priced annual passes and special free events can make access extremely affordable!  In fact, I planned a trip to Shenandoah National Park this past weekend for both my sister and me as a respite from the rigors of academia. However, once we got the news dropped of the long-awaited Pokemon Go release, our plans quickly adapted to incorporate some Pokemon collecting into our adventure.

A quick entrance photo at the North Entrance Gate PokéGym.

Pokémon Go gameplay consists mainly of exploring various areas to find and catch Pokémon. Nearby Pokémon will be listed on the bottom right of your screen; information which can be expanded to a 3×3 grid of local specimen. Collecting animal specimen as a scientist can involve such intricacies as setting traps for birds, electroshocking for fish, luring insects or small mammals into containment devices, or even go as far as darting larger mammals with (reversible) drugs to slow them down/knock them out. Venturing out into the field for collecting can as involved as trekking into a remote jungle or as simple as a literal walk in a park. Tracking down a Pokémon in Pokémon Go incorporates much of these same underlying tactics. Trainers must be patient in their search, vigilant of their surroundings, and mindful of a Pokémon’s probable habitat (e.g. water-type Pokémon are more likely to be found near rivers, lakes, and coastal areas).

Knowing when and where to be on the lookout for Pokémon is key to ensuring a safe, responsible visit, and collection of real-life animals, plants, and artifacts by the general public is prohibited in the parks. Of course, it’s still worthwhile and rewarding to explore non-Pokémon species. Should you need help with identification of a real critter or plant, be sure to ask a scientist with the #PokeBlitz hashtag on Twitter. Many scientists of all disciplines are eagerly embracing the surging interest of Pokémon Go players have in exploring the natural world for virtual monsters  in order to easily guide young collectors into lessons about taxonomy, ecology, and biodiversity. In fact, some were even inspired to explore science by Pokémon games of their youth, while other wildlife scientists hope to learn from this new style of gameplay how to better engage with the public on issues related to real plants and animals. However, not all are convinced that National Parks are meant to be experienced science through the lens of technology. I would encourage trainers to follow their excitement and passion towards new and rousing experiences. Should you find that you would like to further your participation in scientific data collection, many National Parks offer more opportunities.

Unfortunately for Pokemon enthusiasts, much of our nation’s great National Parks are still unserved by cell towers. However, the draw for collecting Pokémon in National Parks is the opportunity to collect rare species that are available in their pristine ecosystems. Indeed, we found that Shenandoah National Park was already well equipped and welcoming to collectors, and many visitor centers and trails in that park boasted numerous PokéStops and PokéGyms

If you are one of the brave new trainers eager to venture into the US National Park system in search of rare Pokémon, you’ll need to be prepared for all of the excitement and dangers that lie ahead of you.

Items to Pack

Sketch by Madeline Bartley at the summit done while I conquered the nearby PokéGym in the name of Team Mystic.
A wild Clefairy welcomes up to the highest point in Shenandoah, Hawksbill Mountain. 4,050 ft (1,230 m).
  • Tent
  • Food, cooler
  • Camping stove (optional)
  • Sleeping gear – sleeping bag, pad, camping pillow
  • Water – amount varies with climate, difficulty of hikes, but plan on about 1L per hour
  • Sunscreen
  • Small backpack – in addition to bringing  your cellular device replete with
    your Pokéballs, potions, etc you’ll need an actual real-life bag that can hold your water, maps, ID, snacks, head lamp, and other supplies
  • Bear mace (if applicable)
  • Comfortable shoes and clothes
  • Head lamp or flashlight
  • Extra chargers – I recommend a charging phone case, or one that charges with kinetic energy like AmpyMove

Before arriving at your destination, you may want to check for campsites available for reservation online as well as that park’s website. Park websites are also good for recommendations and lists of current park events, like star-gazing parties or guided nature hikes. We opted to try our luck at some first-come-first-serve campsites, and even though we were delayed by taking a longer route to avoid the highway (and find Pokémon!), we still managed to snag a site in Mathew’s Arm campground by mid afternoon on Saturday. As with all of my trips to National Parks our first stop after securing our campsite was the nearest visitor center, in this case Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, to check out some souvenirs and get hiking recommendations from the rangers. In fact, some park rangers will go as far to help you find local Pokemon. Our first night we did a short hike adjacent to the visitor center and had a sunset picnic overlooking an amazing vista. Despite our close proximity to the center, we encountered many common, and some new-to-us, species of Pokémon (also some familiar real woodland animals!). Between the two of us, we were able to sample and collect Vulpix, Machoke, and Seel before heading back to the tent.  

We had all of Sunday for hiking and Pokémon collecting, so we set out early, itching to explore the areas recommended by the trusty rangers. While I had spent much of the drive down in the passenger seat on the lookout for Pokémon along the way, I knew we’d have to be more cautious when we entered the park. Many trails pass near treacherous cliffs, swift rivers, and other dangerous obstacles that we needed to be vigilantly aware of. You should trust that your phone will buzz to alert you to a Pokémon appearing, and always keep your device by your side or in your pocket with Battery Saver mode engaged while hiking and enjoying the views, and not stuck to your nose obstructing your view. I do not recommend watching your device screen for nearby Pokemon or Stops while hiking. Nor do I advocate hiking off trail at any point. Hiking without eyes on the trail is extremely dangerous, and Pokémon collecting should only be done at or adjacent to areas where you have stopped and fully considered potential hazards. There are always potential dangers around the bend, and an injury in the woods is much more difficult to address than an injury at home. As a personal testament to the import of this advice, I can offer my own anecdote: after rounding a  sharp bend in the trail in Shenandoah, we suddenly found ourselves less than 30 feet away from a full-grown black bear, who was wandering across our hiking path. This bear was not even half of a 2km egg hatching distance from the trailhead and main road. The encounter, while jarring, ended with harm to neither us nor the bear, but it was a stark reminder of what could have gone not-so-well had we been paying more attention to our screens than to our natural surroundings.

Not even a nibble.

Speaking of wildlife encounters. Bears and other wild animals in the park would love to nom your snacks and can get into your tent/car/flesh no problem. Store food/toiletries/anything scented either in your locked vehicle, in a bear box, or up in a tree. Don’t feed the animals. Only the Razz Berries have been approved for improved ease in collection of Pokémon. Feeding wild animals can lead to dangerous and possibly lethal encounters for both human and animals alike. But that’s not to say that you need to be overly cautious about all animals. Explore! Talk to strangers! You’ll encounter other collectors along the trails and vistas that will be just as excited as you to find new specimen. It helps to spread out in wider areas to locate more Pokémon. Luckily, competition for wild Pokémon is never an issue, as there always seems to be just enough in an area for all to collect one.

With these recommendations in hand, you’re now prepared to set out in search of new Pokémon and new experiences. Whether you bring a friend, partner, or the whole family, you’ll surely embrace all that the parks have to offer. We all benefit from time spent in nature and the parks offer some of the world’s most impressive natural wonders. We also all have a responsibility to embrace the mission to protect and preserve the fragile ecosystems and history of the parks (natural or otherwise). During your endeavors, stay smart, stay safe, and please don’t overthrow the PokéGym that my Porygon still resides in.

“I think everyone ought to have a chance to get the views from here. I think they’re the greatest in the world, and I’ve been everywhere.” – President Hoover

Notable Pokémon Caught: Vulpix, Clefairy, Haunter, Seel, Machoke, Mankey, Rhyhorn, Koffing, Bulbasaur, Tentacool, Weepinbell, Slowpoke, Venomoth, Abra

Notable Pokémon Seen But Not Caught (I Don’t Want To Talk About It): Squirtle, Scyther, Exeggcute


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