Mountains, seashores, grasslands, wetlands, coral reefs, and glaciers.
With sweeping vistas, stunning wildlife, and rugged landscapes, America’s national parks are truly a collection of national wonders. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or are a regular at the country’s national parks, planning ahead is the best way to ensure your trip goes off without a hitch.
Following are 30 ways to ensure that your trip to a U.S. national park is great from planning your route in advance to making sure you bring the right supplies and why it’s really important to pay attention to those safety rules.
1. Choose a time to visit that’s best for your park and travel style
First and foremost, make sure that the park you choose 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 Death Valley National Park—the driest, hottest and lowest national park—in the heat of summer. Some parks such as Lassen Volcanic National Park are completely snowed in and unavailable in the winter.
2. Find out if the park you want to visit requires reservations
During peak seasons, many parks require timed-entry reservations that can be made in advance on each park’s website. You may not need to make that reservation in advance but checking before your trip is a good way to avoid disappointment at the gates.
3. …especially if you want to go camping
Because many parks have limited camping space, reservations fill up quickly especially on major holiday weekends. It’s best to start checking at least a few months in advance for camping sites and though a last-minute spot might open up, don’t count on getting lucky at many of the busiest parks.
4. Research the best hikes
National parks offer some of the country’s best hiking opportunities and websites like AllTrails can help you find hikes that suit your abilities and sightseeing wishes. By planning your hikes in advance, you’ll be able to strategize and maximize your time in the park. For more on hiking in national parks check out these articles:
- The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks
- The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Mighty 5
- The 5 Best Hikes in Arches National Park
- Hike Smart: How to Stay Hydrated on the Trail
5. …and don’t forget about the scenic drives
If hiking’s not your thing, don’t let that keep you from checking out the country’s incredible national parks. Almost all the parks offer scenic drives, many of which will get you up close and personal with nature without requiring a long trek. These scenic drives make an ideal start:
- 10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks
- National Parks Week: 3 Scenic Park Drives Everyone Should Do at Least Once
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive
6. Consider traveling during shoulder season to beat the crowds
During the busy season, crowded parking lots and so many tourists can put a damper on your enjoyment of the outdoors. Consider planning your trip during shoulder season or just before or after the busiest times for the park you’d like to visit. A quick Google search will reveal when the park is busiest and also let you know about any weather conditions that may result in closures or other limitations on your visit to the park.
7. Prepare yourself for the elements
Hiking even short trails at national parks requires the right equipment and weather conditions can change rapidly depending on the climate. Make sure you’ve got good shoes, essentials like a rain jacket and sunscreen, and a first-aid kit in the event of any mishaps.
8. Bring plenty of snacks and water
Most national parks don’t boast a ton of services like restaurants which means that you’ll need to bring your own (healthy) snacks. Water is especially important, especially if you plan to hike — plan on bringing about 1 gallon per person even if you’re just going on short walks, and more if you have more strenuous activities in mind.
9. …and don’t forget to pack out all your trash
Leave no trace is an essential principle of being outdoors responsibly and that means getting rid of all your trash—all of it! Pack a trash bag in the car and toss your waste in only approved containers. Don’t toss out food scraps, either. They may be a detriment to the animals that live in the park.
10. 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 the 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. Even though they’re cute or really majestic, never touch a wild animal, no matter how small or docile it seems. Wild animals are wild and contact with humans can endanger their lives — and the lives of the human.
11. …and take good care of the land you’re visiting
National parks are protected sites and the rules exist for a reason. Stay only on marked trails, don’t take rocks or other souvenirs from the ground, and never carve into any trees or rock formations.
12. Consider buying an annual park pass to save money
If you’re planning to visit multiple national parks this year, consider investing in an annual park pass. Costing around $80 per year, these passes provide access to all parks managed by the National Park Service (NPS) along with parks managed by other agencies, and are a real bargain considering that many can cost upwards of $20 per visit.
13. Check to see if you qualify for any national park discounts
Veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and some students are eligible for discounted national park passes, some of which are good for a lifetime. Check out the NPS website for details on these discounts.
14. Don’t forget to fill up your gas tank before beginning the drive
As with snacks, gas stations aren’t always abundant near national parks and you’re probably going to do a ton of driving. Fill up the tank before you head out and make sure to keep an eye on the gas gauge throughout your trip.
15. Know your limits in the outdoors and operate within them
The beautiful scenery of many national parks can also mean some pretty rugged, unforgiving terrain. If you’re not an experienced hiker, make sure to stick to shorter, safer treks, and don’t forget to bring plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat. 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.
16. …and follow all the safety guidelines
In national parks, the rules are there to both preserve the gorgeous landscapes and also keep you alive. In addition to avoiding fines and other penalties, closely following all posted safety guidelines will also prevent you from ending up in a seriously dangerous situation.
17. Don’t expect great cell phone service
Thanks to the remote nature of most national parks, cell phone service can be sketchy, especially at high altitudes or in really rural areas. Make sure to download offline maps from your favorite navigation app, or make use of the paper maps provided at most ranger stations.
18. Travel the right time of the year
Whether you’re looking for great fall foliage or a warm trip in the summer, choosing the right time of year at your park is essential. Going too early (or late) can mean road and trail closures so make sure to do your research in advance.
19. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive
Stop at the visitor center when you first arrive. Often, you’ll find interesting exhibits and artifacts that will help you learn more about the land you’re visiting. The park rangers there will have 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 (or sunrise). Consider a ranger-led hike or nature talk. While there, pick up any needed guidebooks and maps.
20. 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.
21. Stay at a national park lodge
If you really want to immerse yourself in a national park, consider staying on property. Many parks offer hotels and other lodging and of course camping is an option. 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 and seeing the Grand Canyon or Zion Canyon right in front of you.
22. Camp for at least one night—or several
The ultimate thing to do when visiting a national park is to camp under the stars. By unplugging, you’re forced to be present, you more easily connect with nature, and you engage with other people more fully. But, do plan in advance and book a site early.
23. 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. Read more on wildfire safety.
24. Have a mission in mind…
When in nature, there’s a lot to be said for being spontaneous and making discoveries by chance 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.
25. … 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.
26. 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.
27. Go with a good attitude
Remember that the national parks belong to all of us. Its part of their appeal and what makes them so special. Undoubtedly, there will be times when the places you’re visiting will get uncomfortably crowded. Meet those challenges with a smile. It’s important to remember our joint venture in these places and play well with others.
28. Passport to your national parks
A National Parks Passport is a really fun memento and a great way to mark each park you’ve visited. You pay $10 for the passport and each park will have a stamp you can put in your book. You can look back and see the exact date you visited different places.
29. 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.
30. Leave the park better than you found it
My final piece of advice is to leave the park better than you found it. This also means knowing and committing to the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace principles. They range from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly. By being a good steward of these national treasures, those who come after us can continue to enjoy them as we do now.
In my opinion, visiting just one national park is almost impossible. They quickly become addictive.
I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.
—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician