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

30 Tips for Making the Most of Your National Park Trip

Tips for making your next trip to a national park even more amazing

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. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Camping in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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:

Scenic drive in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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:

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. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

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