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

Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

RV friendly visitor centers are your one stop shop

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Alabama Gulf Coast Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Alabama Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mississippi Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Savannah Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

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.