Mountains, seashores, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs and glaciers. Our national parks protect a multitude of terrains for every taste. And with more than 400 national park units across the country to explore, it can be daunting to choose which one you want to visit the soonest.
Luckily, you have help. FindYourPark.com shares details about parks across the nation and the activities that are offered at each of them. And, the National Park Foundation has a collection of downloadable, free Owner’s Guides that highlight road trip itineraries, lesser-known sites, places to stay and more.
Once you’ve chosen which national park is next for you, use the tips below to make the most of your adventure. It’s fortunate that these tips are “recyclable,” because I guarantee that after your next national park trip, you’ll be hooked and planning another one as soon as your suitcase is unpacked.
1. Choose a time to visit that’s best for your park and travel style
First and foremost, make sure that your chosen park is open at the time of year that you’d like to visit. Several national parks are located in regions that can be dangerous, inaccessible or uncomfortable if you select the wrong time. For example, you may not want to experience California and Nevada’s Death Valley National Park—the driest, hottest and lowest national park—in the heat of summer. Some parks, such as California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, are completely snowed in and unavailable in the winter.
Secondly, if you’re not particularly fond of crowds, go in the off-seasons or shoulder-seasons, the times when kids go back to school or right before they get out. Parks, then, tend to be quieter but still beautiful. September, for example, can be a rich fall-color, wildlife-filled adventure in Grand Teton National Park.
If you must go during a peak season, there are still ways to find tranquility and peace. Plan far enough ahead to secure lodging or camping sites. While there will be crowds at popular spots, you can shift the timing of your outings so that you arrive at unusual moments. Walk or hike in the early morning or late evening under a full moon.
And, remember that those crowds aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Park visitors build park advocates, assuring that we’ll have these unique treasures for generations to come.
2. Stay at a national park lodge
When I travel to national parks, I don’t always stay in a national park lodge, but when I’m able to, I do. Being in grand old lodges literally surrounds you with park history. An added benefit is that you have the early mornings and late evenings in the park. There’s nothing like waking up, stepping out of your front door and seeing the Grand Canyon or Grand Tetons right in front of you.
The National Park Service offers lodging information on each park’s website pages. You’ll have to book early to stay at a park lodge; many fill up quickly. If you’re trying for a lodge that’s already full, check back every day or call for cancellations.
3. Camp for at least one night—or several
Some say the ultimate thing to do when visiting any national park is to camp under the stars—even if it’s just for a night. By unplugging, you’re forced to be present, you more easily connect with nature and you engage with other people more fully.
Do plan in advance, though. Check out www.recreation.gov for designated campgrounds; or, if going into the backcountry, get a camping permit through an easy, on-site process.
4. Tend to campfires and cooking stoves with the utmost care
In 2013, a hunter’s illegal fire got out of control in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. For nine weeks, this “Rim Fire” burned the backcountry areas of Yosemite National Park, consuming 257,314 acres. In 2018, Yosemite National Park closed for the first time since 1990 due to the nearby Ferguson Fire, which burned 96,901 acres. In that same year, the Howe Ridge Fire, ignited by a thunderstorm, burned more than 12,000 acres of Glacier National Park.
Today’s hot, dry conditions, overgrown forests and unhealthy trees have turned the West into a tinderbox. Fires now ravage landscapes year-round. While most national parks still allow campfires in designated fire pits, others have charcoal grills. Outside of these designated areas, fires are both illegal and incredibly dangerous. If you plan to camp in the backcountry and need fire for cooking, bring a small camp stove or propane burner.
5. Have a mission in mind …
When in nature, there’s a lot to be said for being spontaneous and letting serendipity play a part in your days, rather than overscheduling yourself. But when you show up at a national park and don’t have any idea about what you want to do, you might end up not doing much.
On the other hand, making a list of everything you want to do in a sprawling national park can be overwhelming and cause you to become overly concerned with time allotments.
So, go with at least one mission in mind to accomplish on your trip. If you really want to see Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser erupt, for example, plan a hike that overlooks that landmark. That way, you’ll complete at least one of your most sought-after goals while still having the flexibility to take advantage of in-the-moment opportunities and lucky chances.
Find your park’s page on www.nps.gov. Then, under the “Plan Your Visit” tab, click on “Things to Do.” Here, you can scope out your options.
6. … But don’t forget there are wonders—and place to wander—away from the famous sites
Rather than sticking to the most popular sites, go out a bit and hit the trails (or water), particularly those routes that are longer than three miles. They may not be listed as the park’s top must-see locations, but they’re almost guaranteed to be just as spectacular, yet apart from the crowds.
7. Download the best apps for your trip
On your park’s National Park Service website, find the “Maps” tab to download maps and visitor guides. Some examples of apps you might find useful are:
• Compass: perfect for wayfinding.
• Gaia GPS: helpful for planning and navigating backwoods hikes with the aid of National Geographic national park maps.
• Snapseed: allows you to edit your photos on the go.
• The Weather Channel: good for deciding what to carry with you.
Whatever apps you decide to bring, do use them responsibly, however.
Wi-Fi can be spotty in some places, so it’s always wise to additionally bring along some printed maps and guidebooks.
8. Travel light—but right
It’s the classic travel conundrum: national parks are outdoor-adventure destinations, so it’s important to be prepared with adequate gear for the activities you plan to take part in. Yet, packing too much makes for headaches and inflexibility. You’ll need to travel light, while still making sure you have the right equipment and protection from the elements.
Compounding the problem is that seasons and weather work differently in national parks. National parks are places of extremes—both in beauty and in weather. In May, for example, you’ll see snow at Yellowstone and Washington’s North Cascades National Parks; while down at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, the unrelenting sun has already dried out the plants. Some regions are so high up that they have their own weather patterns. No matter which park you visit, prepare for both excessive heat and brutal cold. In the desert, for example, it can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime but drop to 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night, even in the summer.
Check your park’s website for any packing tips, then consider your itinerary. Will you be bird-watching? Bring binoculars. Is hiking a big part of your plan? Pack sturdy hiking shoes or boots and leave the flip-flops at home. Are you walking The Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park? Pack waterproof shoes and a hiking stick or inquire about rentals at a local outfitter.
A good place to begin your packing is with these 10 essentials from the National Park Service. Here are a few other things to consider:
• Bring a backpack and a dry bag for electronics.
• Carry insect repellent.
• Dress in layers (preferably moisture-wicking).
• Have extra batteries and an extra USB charger.
9. Know your transportation options
We Americans are pretty dependent on our cars. Knowing about parking options at your national park is critical, especially when heading into some of the most visited sites. Parking during peak seasons and certain holidays may be limited. Take a look at the “Directions and Transportation” section under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on your park’s website.
If you do take a car, it may not be an allowable once you get into some national parks. Several, like Zion National Park, have disallowed autos almost completely and instead have instituted a regular shuttle system. Still other parks are more easily explored in certain areas on foot or by bicycle.
10. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive
Go to the visitor center when you first arrive. The park rangers there will have the current insider information that you’ll need, such as which hiking trails, roads and areas of the park are closed and what special ranger programs are being offered during your stay. Park rangers can also help you figure out what hidden trails to try or the best place to watch the sunset.
While there, pick up any needed guidebooks and maps.
11. Know your physical limitations and operate within them
Guests to national parks sometimes forget that the wild nature that makes national parks so appealing can also be dangerous. Animals, weather and other surprises from Mother Nature can strike at any time. Steps and trails can be steep, and handrails can be shaky. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get into trouble; in some national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with children.
Most facilities are in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that doesn’t mean you will have 100 percent access to all facilities 100 percent of the time.
12. Be respectful of wild animals and keep your distance
The animals you encounter in national parks are wild; they’re living in their natural habitats, and they behave accordingly.
Respect the full-time inhabitants in our parks. Don’t attempt to touch them or point a selfie stick at them. Don’t chase them, and stay the recommended number of feet away from them.
Check out the National Park Service’s wildlife-watching tips here.
13. Recognize and honor indigenous history
For many centuries in the lands that are now our national parks, the only visitors were the indigenous peoples of North America. Evidence of settlement sometimes dates back more than 10,000 years.
For some of the best insight into Native American history, plan a visit to Acadia, Arches, Badlands, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde or Zion National Parks. If you find an artifact while hiking or backpacking in a national park, never pick it up; artifacts are useless to archaeologists unless they are found within their original context.
14. Practice trail etiquette
Stay on designated trails. By doing so, you’ll help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Do not litter, pick flowers or use the outdoors as your personal gift shop.
Be aware of your surroundings and make room for quickly approaching groups, fast-paced cyclists or horseback riders. Take a moment to move to the side and politely let them pass.
15. Take warning signs and ranger advice seriously
Every year, some visitors die in climbing and hiking accidents and animal encounters in America’s national parks. Always take precautionary signs and ranger advice seriously—in some cases, they are the only things standing between you and certain death.
If a sign restricts you from exploring past a certain point, do not go into that area—not even for what you think will be a great photo op.
16. Be mindful of what we could lose due to climate change
National parks are ground zero for the environmental havoc wrought by climate change. These extreme environments are now seeing glaciers melt and wildfires rage. While this is devastating to watch, visiting the national parks reminds us about what we have to lose.
It’s worthwhile to spend some moments of your adventure in contemplation of these facts.
17. Journal every day
Make sure to record your memories in a journal each day so you don’t forget the good times—and the bad. They’re all part of your experience and your story. Journaling is also a great way of releasing any anxiety or stress.
18. Leave the park better than you found it
The one piece of advice that my father always impressed upon me was to leave a place better than I found it. That’s especially good counsel regarding our national parks.
Check out the National Park Service’s Leave No trace principles. They range from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly. Knowing what they are and committing them to memory will make you a good steward of these national treasures so that those who come after us can continue to enjoy them as we do now.
19. Go with a good attitude
Remember that the national parks belong to all of us. It’s part of their appeal and what makes them so special. Undoubtedly, there will be times when the places you’re visiting will get unexpectedly crowded. Meet those challenges with a smile. It’s important to remember our joint venture in these places and play well with others.
20. Share your experience
If it’s possible, take a family member or a friend along with you on your adventure; there’s no better way to share your experience.
One of the best family travel values in the United States is the national parks annual pass. It gives you access to all national park units for a full year from the date of purchase. Currently, it costs $80 a year; and for those 62 years of age and over, it’s a onetime $80 charge for the rest of his or her life (single-year senior passes are $20). It can be assigned to two adults, so spouses can share a single pass even when not traveling together. With many national parks having entrance fees as high as $30 per car, you could break even with just a few visits. Even more rewarding may be the knowledge that the money helps fund the National Park Service.
When you return from your national park trip, be an inspiration for others. Share your favorite moments with the park community. On social media, use #FindYour Park.
As Terry Tempest Williams, one of my favorite writers, stated: “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go … . This is the story of our past, and it will be the story of our future.”
I hope you’ll begin your national park narrative soon.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,