Stop! 5 Reasons to Stop at National Park Visitor Centers

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

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

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. Friends, let me tell you—I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are five reasons that I sign the praises of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. The National Park Visitor Center will enhance your experience

Each Visitor Center is unique but one thing that they each have in common is that they provide an abundance of information and resources that set you off on the right foot for fully appreciating your park experience. Whether you are in a Historical Site, Battlefield, Scenic Park, or Monument, chances are that your stop at the Visitor Center will yield one or more of the following experience-enhancing things:

Interpretive displays

These displays will set up the context that you are about to experience. I particularly think that the displays at Historic Sites and Battlefields are an absolute must! You will see various artifacts, learn about important people, and learn about the environment that existed when the events that you are about to experience unfolded. Some of these sites are even hands-on and provide great visuals that will not only educate you but also leave an image in your mind to help you digest your experience and appreciate it even more.

Video introduction to the park

Many parks have developed videos that will talk about the history of the park and significant events of note. The videos usually last from a few minutes to 20 minutes or so and along with the interpretive displays, give more depth to your understanding. Some of my favorite videos connect the place to the people who have lived in the areas that I am about to explore. Some share stories that I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to hear.

Demonstrations, guided tours, or other special events

Many National Park units offer special programming and events throughout the year. Some of these events include things like biking with a ranger, ranger-led tours, musket firing demonstrations, outdoor wildlife tours, and nature talks. The Visitor Centers are typically the hub for learning about much of this programming and is where you will be able to register for and depart for these special events.

Junior Ranger Programs

Many parks offer a Junior Ranger Program. These programs are typically targeted for children between the ages of 5 and 13 although many others will participate as well. The Visitors Center will have material for these programs and is the places where Junior Rangers return their completed booklets in exchange for a badge and swearing in ceremony.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The National Park Visitor Center will provide you with information that you can take with you as you explore

Sure, we all have smartphones these days and you can look up information about the park that you plan to explore well before setting foot within the park’s boundaries. Did you consider; however, that the information that you have online is only the beginning? For starters, don’t count on being able to use your phone in all areas of the park (you might not have access to data). Instead, stop by the Visitor Center to get information including the following:

The Visitor Center will load you up with maps and brochures

You will even have the opportunity to get a curated plan for the day when you chat with a Park Ranger or volunteer. We have found that Park Rangers and Volunteers are happy to share the inside scoop on the park in which they serve. If you’ve already done your research, you can ask them questions to deepen your love for the place that you are visiting as well.

Stop by the desk to ask a Park Ranger for their tips on how to best make use of your time

Park Rangers will often highlight areas that you might otherwise overlook. They will be able to point you to the key sites within the park (often not the most popular stops) that they recommend when you have only a limited amount of time to spend in the area. In our experience, Park Rangers are good folks and are an invaluable resource.

Zion National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. The Visitor Center can point you to the National Park Bookstore

A lot of the National Park Bookstores are contained within the park’s Visitor Center. There are some; however, that are located in another facility that is distinct from the Visitor Center. The park bookstores are typically where you will be able to find stamps and stickers to commemorate your visit in your National Park Passport (and support your stamp-collecting addiction). You can often find great gifts for yourself and others in the bookstores. I love it when you are able to support local artists at the park bookstores.

Arches National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. The National Park Visitor Center will increase your comfort with the park

In addition to adding to your knowledge and providing context for your visit, the Visitor Center is a place that will make you feel at home. You will find clean restrooms, air conditioned facilities, places to sit, friendly faces, and a safe place to explore. Visitor Centers will make you feel proud of the great care that is provided for America’s precious natural and historical places.

5. Visitor Centers will provide you with an opportunity to donate to the park

Many National Parks are open to the public each and every day without charging a fee. It is amazing to me that we have access to such special places and experiences at no, or low, cost. For this reason, when we are able to, it adds to our enjoyment to make a donation to the parks. The Visitor Centers provide an opportunity to do this.

Cowpens National Battlefield Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

While national parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally, others operating outdoors may close due to inclement weather or poor air quality.

Here are some helpful resources when it comes to National Parks:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer