Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to orient, inform, and update yourself on key features, suitable hikes, and current conditions before visiting a National Park. That being the case, does it still make sense to enter these indoor welcoming centers or should you head straight for the outdoor landscapes that are being preserved?
No amount of web-based planning can replace a stop at the visitor center for a local’s perspective, pro tips, and the most up-to-date information on seasonal experiences and day-to-day changes within the park. You may miss a natural phenomenon that’s occurring because it wasn’t part of previously published materials.
On top of that, visitor centers offer the most up-to-date information on animal sightings and current locations which can change faster than a web administrator or social media manager can update online. In other words, nobody knows a National Park better than on-site rangers.
While the internet can give you ideas ahead of time and Instagram can show you the most stunning views, neither can tell you the actual conditions of a park as well as a ranger. Even in the least visited parks, the rangers are incredibly passionate about their park which is invaluable to those arriving with a set amount of time and physical abilities.
On top of that, visitor centers can give you proper context that is often lost or easily overlooked in the information overload of the internet.
I always have a more fulfilling experience after learning about the uniqueness and justification for a park from a visitor center or on-site museum. For me, no National Parks visit is complete without the interesting exhibits found in the visitor’s center.
Individual states and cities also build and maintain visitor centers but many wonder if these buildings serve a necessary function, especially in urban areas. Or are destinations just running them out of habit?
The original idea was to provide visitors with helpful information so they could find something they’d like to do and perhaps even stay a little longer. The concept started as a brochure rack and grew to an enclosed, weatherproof shack, sometimes with an attached restroom.
In the last several decades, we’ve witnessed the birth of multi-million-dollar architectural masterpieces. They’re nice to look at and welcoming for visitors with washrooms plus a touch of regional museum and gift shop.
In that same span, we’ve also witnessed the birth of the internet, Wi-Fi, and smartphones.
Which puts more information at the visitors’ fingertips than ever: digital guidebooks, newspaper travel sections, online travel magazines with the latest what to do lists, dozens (or hundreds) of travel blogs and apps for each region and if that weren’t enough the destination typically has their own website filled with everything from their tourist office.
All a visitor has to do is ask their phone’s voice-activated digital assistant. It works well for most things, especially the hard facts. Try asking Siri when Phoenix’s Botanical Gardens opens or what the entry fee is for the Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
In spite of the changes in ways information is dispensed and received you will enhance your road trip and travel adventure better by stopping at state welcome centers and regional and city visitor information centers.
Most states offer RV friendly Welcome Centers along Interstates and other major highways.
Friendly, informative staff and dedicated volunteers provide area-specific brochures, detailed maps, and face-to-face travel consultation and advice, free of charge.
The Visitor Center is your one stop shop. You’ll find a variety of tourism/travel related services including a vast assortment of local and statewide publications, maps, and other travel information promoting all that the state has to offer.
Highway Welcome Centers also provide clean, well-maintained restroom facilities, free Wi-Fi, vending machines, and designated parking areas for RVs.
In addition to free information, visitor centers often offer a reservation service and discounts on selected products such as attractions admission, adventure products, and sightseeing tours.
Need a map? Want any suggestions for dinner? Looking for a farmers market or swap meet in the area? Wondering about roads to take and roads to avoid, roadside attractions, hiking trails, nature centers, museums, scenic roads, or weather-related information? Need help planning activities or booking a tour?
Also, begin your exploration of national parks and state parks at the visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, view a film, tour the museum and displays, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park.
Many parks offer guided tours and ranger talks. For the children there is a fun and educational Junior Ranger Program.
Regional and city visitor’s centers help identify interesting and worthwhile activities with which to fill your visit to the area, nature trails, museums, hidden parks, quiet little exhibits, and interesting free things to do.
Even in towns where you might expect to find a fair amount of interesting history or things to visit, a stop at a visitor’s center can uncover many things you never expected to find.
Visitor centers are great for directions but also getting information from locals.
Visitor’s centers can also be a great resource for people who want to discover more about their own community. First, check the visitor’s center in the city or town where you live as well as the center in nearby communities. Unless you’re incredibly well-grounded in your home community, you’ll be amazed at the gems you uncover—parks, walking trails, historical exhibits, cultural attractions, museums, nature centers, and more.
During our many years of RV travel we regularly stop at state Welcome Centers as we enter the state. While each is unique in its offerings and services, several stand out as exemplary.
Texas Travel Information Centers
Texas Travel Information Centers create a positive first impression of the Lone Star State. Their 12 Travel Information Centers are staffed by professional travel counselors who welcome visitors to Texas, help with routings, and provide information on points of interest, events, and road conditions.
Florida Welcome Centers
Florida Welcome Centers provide incoming visitors with a variety of information on travel, highways, sports, climate, accommodations, cities, outdoor recreation, and attractions.
Kentucky Welcome Centers
Kentucky Welcome Centers are staffed by friendly travel consultants who offer Kentucky maps and brochures, answer questions, and suggest itineraries to enjoy during your stay. Eight welcome centers are located on the four major interstates in Kentucky.
South Carolina Welcome Centers
No matter where you’re headed in the Palmetto State, you’ll find everything you need to know and more at one of nine South Carolina Welcome Centers. Travel counselors are available to assist visitors with tourist and attraction information, free reservation services, maps, trail guides, discount coupons, and much more.
Georgia State Information Centers
Georgia‘s 12 official state visitor information centers provide a warm welcome to more than 13 million guests each year. Pick up travel brochures, travel tips, and find friendly trip-planning assistance when you stop by. In addition to state visitor centers, you’ll also find local and regional visitor information centers all over Georgia.
Alabama Information Centers
As the first points of contact with more than 6 million visitors each year, eight Alabama Welcome Centers greet travelers with true hospitality. The mission of Alabama Welcome Centers is to achieve a positive impression of Alabama by assisting and informing the traveling public knowledgeably and courteously to enhance and extend their visit.
Tennessee Information Centers
Get the most out of your Tennessee travels by taking in the sights with no worries about where to stop for information, snacks, and breaks. Tennessee operates 14 Welcome Centers and maintains brochures in 18 Rest Areas across the state. Both sets of facilities are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year except for I-40 Shelby County (Memphis) Welcome Center which is closed every evening.
Mississippi Welcome Centers
The Welcome Centers in Mississippi are attractions unto themselves, each built to resemble the antebellum structures for which the state is famous. Each is beautifully decorated with fine antique furnishings from the period. Neatly manicured grounds feature picnic tables and grills, telephones, RV waste disposal facilities, 24-hour security, restrooms, and weather information. Motor coach parking is available, as well as complimentary refreshments. Regular hours at all Welcome Centers are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
Do you ever stop in visitor centers while road-tripping? If not, you’re missing a great travel resource.
We often live for those unusual landmarks and off-the-beaten-path places that make RVing so extraordinary. And we all know that sometimes getting there is all the fun.