11 Tips for Visiting a National Park this Summer

Before you head out on a National Park road trip, here are 11 important things to know

All told, I’ve been to 20 out of the 63 National Parks in the United States and numerous other National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Seashores, and National Historic Parks. I hope you’re planning on seeing at least one this summer because they’re all amazing. 

Below are a few tips I’d give to those headed to a park (or parks!) this summer. It’s also worth checking each park’s respective website. Every park has one and they’re filled with maps, things to do and see, and most importantly, if there are any road closures or other important info including alerts.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Prepare yourself for crowds

National Parks are extremely popular—and for good reason. They’re amazing! As a destination, or stop on a long road trip, lots of people want to visit. This is especially true of the larger, most popular parks like Zion, Grand Canyon, and Arches but even many more remote parks like Glacier. Parking inside the park will be challenging. Even getting into the park will take time. Visitors to Sequoia recently reported there was a half-hour line just to enter the park.

This shouldn’t dissuade you from going but if you have smaller less-visited parks on your list, you might have a better or more relaxing time at those. 

There will be more traffic in the park as well, so if you’re thinking you can see it all in a day chances are you won’t be able to.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Book your reservations in advance at these parks

To combat overcrowding and human impact on the fragile ecosystems at some of the busier parks, the NPS requires visitors to make reservations in advance at seven national parks this summer: Glacier, Yosemite, Acadia, Zion, Haleakalā, Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Shenandoah

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

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

3. Stop at the visitor’s center

Whether you’re the type of person that plans every moment of every adventure or not, the first place to stop is the visitor’s center. You’ll get a map and the park’s newspaper at the entrance but one of the rangers at the visitor’s center can help you figure out a plan for the day based on your interests, what’s open, and how much time you have, and any other considerations. They’re fantastic. This is absolutely worth the time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Park in the first space you see

This relates to the first tip. Parking lots fill fast but in many cases the roads leading there support roadside parking. If you see a long line of cars parked on the shoulder, definitely assume there will be a wait for parking in the official lot. If the road signs say it’s ok, park as soon as you see an opening. You’ll spend significantly less time walking from that spot than you will drive in circles and waiting for someone to free up a better space. 

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The wildlife can kill you

Every few weeks there are stories of people getting injured or even killed by wild animals at National Parks. An Ohio woman was recently gored by a bison in Yellowstone and tossed 10 feet into the air when she approached the animal to within 10 feet.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS recommends all visitors to stay more than 25 yards away from all large animals—bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves. If need be, turn around and go the other way to avoid interacting with a wild animal nearby.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

A bison won’t eat you, but it will easily mess you up. The same goes for elk or moose. Bears… well, black bears are scared of you. Grizzly bears are most decidedly not. 

Rocky mountain goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The problem, I think, is two-fold. One, I think some people just don’t realize how fast animals can be. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have sharp teeth, if they hit you at 40 mph and then kick you, you’re going to be in a bad way. The other is that most phones have wide-angle lenses. So people want a cool photo (no judgment, me too), but can’t because of the limitations of their phone. So they do the “logical” thing and move closer. 

Ideally, keep something between you and the fuzzy friend, like a car. Or the best option, don’t get out of your car if they’re near the road.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Don’t expect cell reception

Cell coverage in National Parks, even the popular ones, is sparse. Some ranger stations and visitor centers have free Wi-Fi, but not all. 

Download maps and hiking info before entering the park. This is easy with Google Maps. Hiking apps like AllTrails allow for offline viewing as well, if you pay for the premium version. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Bring your own food and water

Some parks have small cafes or even full cafeterias. Many don’t. It’s advisable to bring your food and water. Especially the latter! 

If you’re camping in the park, check with the rangers about how aggressive the local wildlife is. Many parks require all food to be put in bear-proof containers. These will either be heavy metal cabinets at the campsite, or portable versions available at the visitor’s center.  Bears absolutely do love pic-a-nic baskets. And NEVER leave food inside your tent. See #4 for more on wildlife.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Get the year pass

The vast majority of Americans are within a few hours’ drive of a National Park. Not just any National Park but the best National Park: the one closest to you. Sappy as that is, it’s true. They’re all cool. Some are cooler than others, for sure, but there’s a reason they made it through the process of becoming designated a National Park. 

Related Article: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So for most people, the Annual Pass makes a ton of sense. This is also called the America the Beautiful or Interagency Pass. Each visit to most parks is ~$30 per vehicle but the year pass that gets you into all parks for 1 year for $80. That math is easy to figure out. You can buy them at the park entrance or online at the USGS store or REI. They also get you to entrance into 2,000 federally-protected lands like National Forests and National Wildlife Preserves. There are also lifetime senior passes and several other varieties.

That said, many parks don’t charge an entrance fee or don’t charge for accessing certain areas of the park. It’s worth checking ahead of time.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Plan additional activities for kids

From my experience with the small humans, I observed at the parks, they all seemed to be having a fantastic time. If you want to give them something else to do while you’re all enjoying the parks, consider National Park passports, journals, and activity books.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Stay near the park, not in it

If you haven’t booked a campsite or lodge inside a park by now, you’re probably not going to get a spot. Some parks also have first-come-first-serve campsites but don’t count on getting one of those either (see #1). While staying in the park is undeniably cool, it’s not required. Most parks have a nearby town or towns that exist pretty much entirely to service visitors to the park. For instance, on our trip to Arches and Canyonlands, we stayed in Moab and Torrey was our base when touring Capitol Reef. Jackson for Grand Teton, West Yellowstone for, you guessed it, Yellowstone, West Glacier for—wait for it—Glacier, and so on.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Leave with everything you brought

This includes wrappers, food, water bottles, annoying children, everything. In select places, there are wildlife-proof trash containers. Use them. Some people felt it was ok to leave bags of their dog’s poop and trust me, this is not OK. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check ahead to know if your chosen park allows dogs and if so to what extent. Many don’t want them on hikes, don’t want them on certain trails, but all require them to be leashed at all times. It’s downright dangerous to hike with a dog in bear country, especially off-leash.

Read Next: 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Most of all, I hope you have a grand adventure!

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome