【Guide】Planning A National Parks Trip——Tips for Visiting U.S. National Parks
The United States is home to outstanding national parks. Not only are national parks the perfect place to connect with nature, but they are also a relatively affordable way to travel and connect with a new part of the country.
This guide covers in-depth information on planning a trip to a national park: including how to choose a national park, tips on drafting an itinerary, suggestions on where to stay, what to bring, how to plan a hike, and more.
As always, please remember to be a responsible traveler when visiting the national parks and make sure to follow all safety and travel regulations related to Covidi-19.
Which National Park To Visit
At the time of this writing, there are currently 63 national parks in the United States. Most, if not all, national parks are situated on native lands and it is important to take some time to educate yourself on the history of these landscapes before visiting. There are many resources for this, such as the Native Land app, which is great for road trips when you're covering a lot of different places. Each park has something beautiful to offer, but you'll need to ask yourself a few questions to narrow down which park to visit:
- Would you prefer to explore a local park and drive from home, or is flying + renting a car on arrival an option? Some national parks are accessible via public transport, but not all.
- Is avoiding large crowds a priority for you?
- What is most important for your visit: beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, hiking trails, or native history?
- Will you be traveling on a strict budget, or do you have the means to splurge?
- Is there a particular season or date window you are planning for?
Local Versus Far Away
For local trips, simply Google "national parks in [insert your state]" and this will help you narrow down your decision. Keeping it local will maximize your vacation days while making the most of your time outdoors.
Less Crowded vs Popular
Large crowds can be a great way to get a feel for sharing the national park experience with others. This list talks about the most visited national parks, and if you don't like crowds or are trying to reduce your risk, then avoiding them is probably a good idea. Visiting these parks during off-peak times of the year can be a great way to see these highlights with fewer people around: take Zion in early spring, for example. If you are looking for a more isolated trip to a national park, then I would suggest considering these less crowded national parks.
Type Of Experience
The ideal park experience definitely varies person to person. Generally the most popular requests for national park visits are to experience the scenery, see wildlife, go hiking, and/or to learn about the park’s history. Here are some recommendations for each type of experience:
- All-rounders:Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains
- Scenery:Zion, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Death Valley, Badlands, Lake Clark,Olympic
- Wildlife: Yellowstone, Katmai, Everglades, Denali, Biscayne (underwater)
- Hiking: North Cascades, Shenandoah, Kings Canyon
- Geologic History: Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic
- Human History: Mesa Verde, Hot Springs, Gateway Arch, Cuyahoga Valley
Weather And Time Of Year
Conditions and weather vary greatly between national parks in the USA. Here is an idea of which national parks are best to visit each season or if you have a particular weather preference:
- Tropical: Haleakala, Hawaii Volcanoes, Dry Tortugas, Virgin Islands, American Samoa
- Spring: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Arches, Capitol Reef, Joshua Tree. Read about the 9 best national parks to visit in spring.
- Summer: Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Glacier, all the Alaskan parks
- Autumn: Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, Grand Teton. Read about the 12 best national parks to visit in the fall.
- Winter: Death Valley, Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, Redwood, Everglades. Read about the 12 best national parks to visit in winter.
When To Start Planning Your Trip
It is possible to plan a last minute trip to a national park, but generally speaking, the earlier you plan, the more in-depth research you can do and the more time you have to book campgrounds/lodging and submit that vacation request at work.
For the more popular national parks, the more advanced planning can ensure that you will be able to stay at your dream campground or lodging on the dates you want. Parks like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Yellowstone, Denali, Rocky Mountain and Acadia are usually booked months in advance when it comes to lodging and camping.
If you're willing to stay outside the park or plan to take advantage of first-come, first-served camping sites, then you may be better off planning your trip last minute and taking advantage of prime weather conditions.
To learn more about packing for your trip, check out our "What to Bring" article.
Research Your Chosen Park(s)
When considering taking a trip to a national park, be sure to research lodging availability, shuttle/transportation reservations/permits, weather conditions, and the best time to visit. Then you can make an informed decision as to whether you can leave planning to the last minute or whether you need to plan months in advance.
Planning An Itinerary
When planning your national park trip itinerary, consider putting together a Google sheet, especially if planning to travel with others. Add some useful columns such as dates, days of the week, starting locations, ending locations, lodging, and activities.
When it comes to finding the best things to do, where to stay, and places to eat, some places to look are the National Park Service website, FindYourPark.com, Pinterest, Instagram, and blog posts. Calling ahead to the visitor center for current conditions and suggestions can be very helpful in getting information on the ground.
Getting To The National Parks
Your next step in planning a national parks trip will be to research how to arrive at your chosen park(s). How you get there will depend on a few factors:
- How many people are you traveling with?
- How far is the park from your home?
- Do you prefer to drive your own car?
- Is the park close to an airport?
- Does that airport have flights from your local airport?
- Are you traveling on a strict budget?
- Will there be off-roading required? (4×4 only)
- Will you be camping or staying in hotels?
If you are traveling on a budget, then your best bet is to go to a national park that is closer to home. This way, you can save money on flights + car rentals by just driving your own car. Plus, you can pack your gear for more budget accommodations like camping.
Have your eye on a particular park? Some national parks are really remote and may be just on the other side of where you live. Use sites like Google Flights, Skyscanner and Scott's Cheap Flights to research low-cost flights at your preferred travel time.
If you plan to fly into an airport and rent a car, consider that some rental car companies won't allow you to drive on unmaintained or dirt roads. So be sure to fully research your destination and rental car to avoid any hiccups when you get there.
Where To Stay
Now you need to decide where to stay during your trip to the national parks. Each park has different options, but you can usually find a mix of accommodations in and out of the national parks, depending on what you want to get out of your time.
- Hotels and lodges. Many national parks have beautiful historic lodges, which are definitely worth experiencing if you have the funds. A more affordable option is to stay in a hotel or motel just outside the entrance to a national park, though keep in mind that this will add to your daily driving time.
- Vacation homes. Vacation rentals are often available near national parks. Look for a range of options on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Or simply do a Google search for "rent a cabin near [insert national park].
- Camping. There are unique camping options near many national parks. Under Canvas is a company with locations in Moab (near Arches and Canyonlands), Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, Glacier and the Great Smoky Mountains.
- Car camping. The vast majority of national parks have at least one designated campground. They will vary in size and facilities, but generally they will have restrooms and drinking water. Some park campgrounds also have RV hookups, grocery stores, picnic tables and fire rings. You can reserve campsites on recreation.gov, although some are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Privately owned campgrounds are also often available just outside the National Park entrance.
- Dispersed camping. There are public lands throughout the United States that allow free dispersed camping, and many of these are near national parks. For those traveling on a budget, this is a great option! These free camping sites are usually near national parks. These free camping sites are usually on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands. Check out our post on dispersed camping for more information.
- Backcountry Camping. Backcountry camping in national parks is also an option. You usually need a backcountry camping permit to do this, and most are accessed on foot.
National Parks Annual Pass
The America the Beautiful Pass is a one-time fee of $80, which allows unlimited access to federally operated entertainment venues throughout the United States. The pass covers the owner and up to three accompanying adults over the age of 16. Children 15 and under are free.
In the long run, purchasing an annual pass not only saves you money, but you're also supporting the parks where you recreate. 100% of the proceeds go toward improving the services and facilities of the National Park System. Remember, you have other types of park passes available, including senior passes, 4th grade annual passes, Access passes and volunteer passes.
Visiting During The Pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some additional considerations when planning a visit to a national park. The most important thing is to follow all federal and state guidelines and to research local and park recommendations prior to your trip. Here are the top things to keep in mind.
- Research even more than you normally would. This is not the time to take an impromptu road trip without giving it a lot of thought. Each park will state its current closures and health warnings on nps.gov.
- Be prepared for closures. Many parks have facilities that are closed or restricted. These facilities may be visitor centers, campgrounds, picnic areas, restaurants, general stores, or even restrooms. This means you will need to bring your own food, water, itinerary and emergency supplies to prepare.
- For your safety and the protection of others, please wear a mask. the NPS website states "Visitors must wear a mask while inside federal buildings, including visitor centers, historic buildings and museums. Outdoors, masks are required on NPS-administered lands when it is not possible to maintain a physical distance." When passing other hikers on the trail, be sure to pull your mask up - it's an easy thing to do and respectful of others. Click here for instructions on how to properly wear a mask.
- Pack hygiene essentials Bring hygiene supplies such as hand sanitizer, extra masks, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, water and soap. We also recommend that you bring Bearhard first aid sleeping bags and first aid blankets, which can maintain human body temperature in extreme situations, and have eye-catching colors, so that rescuers can find you first and take you out of danger. (Readers who read this carefully can enjoy 15% off the price through the promo code XXXXXX)
- If you are sick, stay home. If you develop symptoms similar to COVID, choose another time to go to the park. If you have had close contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patient within the past 14 days, stay home.
- The National Park Service has its own resource on how to responsibly re-activate during a COVID-19 pandemic.
Making Reservations For Activities
Reservations are required for hikes, lodging and activities in some national parks. This varies from park to park, so it is important that you research your destination and requirements. Here are some general guidelines.
- Campgrounds usually have some first-come, first-served sites, and others can be reserved in advance on Recreation.gov.
- Popular hikes like Half Dome (Yosemite), Wonderland Trail (Mt. Rainier), Mt. Whitney (Sequoia) and Rim-to-Rim Trail (Grand Canyon) require access to a lottery system to win a permit. Keep in mind that some of these hikes still offer a limited number of same-day walk-up permits.
- Most national parks require backcountry permits for wilderness camping. These permits can usually be obtained in person at the park's wilderness ranger station or visitor center.
- Some parks have a lottery system or permits to drive certain roads. Denali National Park, for example, has a lottery system that allows access to the Denali Parkway by private vehicle for four days each September.
Making The Most Of Your Visit
There are a number of things you can do to get the most out of your trip to the national parks. Some of these you can take into account when planning your trip to a national park, while others make more sense when you arrive at the park.
First, stop by a national park visitor center. Most visitor centers have educational information about the parks, usually a short film, and the opportunity to chat with park rangers. I really enjoy taking the time to learn about the parks through these free resources.
Speaking of chatting with rangers, ask if there is anything you should know about current park conditions or events. They may even be willing to share some of their favorite spots in the park.
Finally, another great way to make the most of your trip to the national parks is to visit nearby areas outside the park boundaries. Some of the most beautiful places are outside of the national parks. These are usually in the form of designated wilderness areas, national forests and national parks.
- When you enter the park, you will be given a national park map and an information booklet. Read them carefully, as they often provide information on recommended hiking trails and seasonal closures.
- Be sure to stop by the visitor center and ask about trail conditions and openings/closures for that time of year. You can also double check if you need a permit for a particular hike.
- When planning a hike before arriving at the park, then you can refer to the NPS website and All Trails (website or app) for current conditions.
- Read the local hiking guide for that particular park. Do you need to be aware of the presence of bears? If you're not sure, then ask a ranger.
- Research any gear you may need to hike in the terrain/conditions you choose.
Renee Hahnel is a Backcountry ambassador, professional photographer, and national parks expert. She took a road trip in 2017 to visit every US National Park, so you can say she knows a thing or two about planning a national parks trip.Click here to learn more about her road trip and the route she took.