The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your National Park Vacation

Transportation tips, camping advice, and other details you need to know

Summer is almost here and for many, that means it’s time to start planning that long-awaited road trip. With 237 million visitors in 2020, national parks are some of the most popular destinations as they provide a unique opportunity to connect with nature while being socially distanced at the same time. But there are nuances that can make or break your visit to a national park and they don’t reveal themselves until you’re actually there—which can be too late.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Zion National Park in Utah you may find yourself surrounded by crowds packing into shuttles; the vibe more theme park, not nature at its best. A visit during the offseason is a completely different experience. Arriving before peak-season shuttle service begins allows you to tour the park in your own vehicle. Camp on-site, roll out of bed early for hikes and experience the Zion you imagine—tranquil and sublime. 

Driving White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get around national parks

There’s no way around it, you’ll absolutely need wheels to explore. National parks can cover vast swaths of land and some, like Yellowstone, stretch across multiple states.

When planning your park visit, take time to look at maps of your destination on the National Park Service website. These maps generally do a good job of letting you know how many miles separate different points and sometimes include time estimates for traveling between various park entrances.

Numerous days are needed to explore Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Give yourself multiple days to explore

As you study maps, you may notice that national parks have distinct areas. Sometimes they connect but sometimes they don’t. You may also be surprised to find you could lose most of a day moving between them.

Although Canyonlands is one park, it’s divided into four regions—three districts (Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze) plus the Green and Colorado Rivers that divide them up. It takes hours to travel from one district to another so most people focus on one area per visit.

It can take two hours to drive between Island in the Sky and the Needles; plan on six hours to the Maze. Most people only make it to Island in the Sky but experienced trail drivers with four-wheel drive vehicles may also want to experience the remote beauty of the Maze. If that’s you, plan for multiple days.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When driving to Pinnacles National Park, keep in mind that there is no road that connects the east and west entrances of the park. The shortest route from the east entrance to the west entrance (or from west to east) is through the town of King City on US 101, a drive of just under two hours.

But at Joshua Tree National Park in California, two deserts run into each other. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know that the park’s namesake trees don’t grow in the Colorado Desert but their Seussian forms scatter the Mojave. Absent that indicator, though, the transition between the neighboring ecosystems is seamless as you drive along the main park road.

Joshua tree in the national park of the same name © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check vehicle restrictions if you’re driving an RV

Some national parks are suitable for RVs. Arches, White Sands, and Joshua Tree are easy to explore in an RV as the elevation gain is gentle and it’s easy to stop at overlooks and points of interest along the way. Other parks may NOT permit large vehicles in certain sections, especially roads with switchbacks and hairpin turns. If renting, you may want to reconsider the size of the RV as it may mean a must-see feature will have to come off your itinerary.

Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park is a great example. There, all vehicles (including any attached trailers) can only be up to 21 feet long and 10 feet tall which is smaller than most RVs. 

No matter what park you’re visiting, a small RV makes it easier to park at trailheads where designated spots for RVs are scarce or non-existent. Going small just might save you from having to skip the hike of your dreams.

Camping in Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for staying inside national parks

Among the most convenient, immersive ways to see a national park is to camp in it. Doing so makes it easier to go on early morning hikes or do some stargazing. There is no shortage of camping locations in the National Park Service—there are over 130 park units to choose from.

The majority of the 500 campsites in Joshua Tree are available by reservation. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance and can be booked on recreation.gov. Reserving a site is highly recommended. The park offers five campgrounds including Black Rock (99 sites), Cottonwood (62 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites). Jumble Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites). Be aware that not all campgrounds have water or a dump station.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles Campground is accessed only from the east side of the Park as there are no connecting roads between the two entrances of Pinnacles. The campground offers tent and group camping along with RV sites. Each tent and group site has a picnic table and fire ring. Most RV sites have electrical hookups and share community tables and barbecue pits. Water is located throughout the campground. Oak trees provide shade at many campsites. Coin-operated showers and a dump station are available.

Devils Garden Campground is the only campground at Arches National Park. You can reserve campsites for nights between March 1 and October 31. During this busy season, the campground is usually full every night. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served. If you’re unable to snare a reservation at Devils Garden, you’ll need to look for an RV park in nearby Moab.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. The Lava Point Campground is an hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Situated at 7,890 feet, Lava Point Campground is typically open May through September, as weather allows.

South Campground and Watchman Campground (for reservations call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov) are near the south entrance at Springdale. This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures exceed 95 degrees; staying cool is a challenge. From mid-March through late November the campgrounds are full almost every night.

Potwisha Campground in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accommodations outside a national park

While staying on-site is a unique experience, your road trip can still be amazing if you stay off-site. For best results, give yourself more time than you think you need. If you choose to stay in a charming town near your chosen park, you’ll need to account for travel time between the two plus the wait time to enter the park itself.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Always bring food 

Given the amount of time you’ll spend inside your chosen park, there’s no guarantee you’ll find something to eat. At some parks, you’ll be lucky to locate a protein bar at the visitor’s center while others have their own grocery stores. So whether you’re staying on-site or traveling by car, make sure to bring a packed cooler and extra food. If you’re touring in an RV, stock the fridge. Even if you find your park has provisions available, you probably won’t want to spend precious time standing in line at the register when you could be out there becoming one with nature.

Heavy snowfall in the Sierras closes Lassen Volcanic National Park during winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing your visit

Expectations go a long way toward a great first experience and timing is the key. Seasonal closures happen and you’ll also want to check for any permits or waiting lists for iconic hikes. About a week before your planned visit, scan the websites for the parks you’ll be touring for any park alerts. Even if you can’t time your trip for when your chosen park is fully open, its beauty will still shine through—just a glimpse is enough to know you’ve visited a special place on Earth.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im