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

10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

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.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really 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. But, 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 a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

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

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Sequoia National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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.

Tips for Finding Free or Low-Cost Activities While RVing

Fun, free, and cheap

You can save a substantial amount of money by finding cheap or free things to do wherever you travel in your RV. And, it’s easier than you think. Several go-to activities and strategies will help you tighten your purse strings.

Every dollar you save is a dollar you can put toward your next road trip. Granted, you still want to enjoy your current trip to the fullest. 

But, thankfully, most free activities are worth good money. Here are ways you can find inexpensive or free things to do on your next RV road trip.

Jekyll Island (Georgia) Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Head to the local visitor center

Make the visitor center or chamber of commerce your first stop. They’ll be happy to tell you about their city and give you an event schedule and suggest things to do in the area. Concerts, craft shows, farmers’ markets, fairs, and other events are fun, interesting, and often free.

Arkansas Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’m a BIG FAN of visitor centers. They are packed with useful information including brochures and self-guided tour maps. Plus, there is always a helpful docent itching to tell you about their local knowledge and wisdom. If anyone is going to know about the best free and cheap things to do, it’s the visitor center staff.

Superstition Mountain Museum, Apache Junction, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Visit museums

Both the United States and Canada take pride in making history and knowledge available to the public. The U. S. is packed with FREE museums that are operated at the city, county, or federal level.

Museum of Appalachia, Clinton, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smithsonian Institute is the best example with incredible museums, galleries, and a zoo. While it is surely the grandest, it is by no means the only one. 

Most cities and even small towns have a public museum you can enjoy, often for free. Many do ask for a donation but in most cases, you’ll be more than happy to give it.

Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Use reciprocal memberships

If you don’t know what reciprocal memberships are, you’re not alone. Reciprocity programs offer access to many places to visit including historical museums, zoos and aquariums, and science and technology centers.

So what is reciprocity? It’s an exchange of benefits between two locations such as two zoos or two art museums. Except that the program participants are more than just a couple of locations; they typically span hundreds to thousands of locations nationwide and in some international locations.

Corning Museum of Art, Corning, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five great examples of reciprocal memberships for travelers are:

  • Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
  • Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)
  • North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM)
  • American Horticultural Society
  • Time Travelers (reciprocal membership network for historical museums, sites, and societies throughout the US)
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. National and state parks

National Parks and Monuments offer wonderful visitor centers, free ranger-led tours, and informative talks. You can purchase an annual America the Beautiful pass for $80 which offers entrance access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. This includes National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and the Bureau of Land Management. You can learn about medicinal plants in the Arizona desert, birds in Florida, and the gold rush in Alaska—all free at National Parks.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks are also fun to explore. If you’re going to visit several parks in one state, it might make sense to purchase a state parks pass for that state as that covers entrance fees for all parks in that state.

5. Google “free things to do in…”

Include your destination and the search engine will take care of the rest. You’ll get plenty of lists to explore. 

Another great search resource is Tripadvisor. Users rank the best things to do in any place which you can easily skim through.

Cape Cod Potato Chips Factory Tour, Massachusetts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Check for local factory tours

Local business or factory tours provide not only a unique experience but also a great way to connect with a local community. It gives you a real insight into the area and often a glimpse into the local history. Many of these tours are free with the unspoken expectation that you make a purchase. For instance, many local breweries offer a free tour and end it with a sales pitch to buy their brews. Some wineries waive their tasting fee with a purchase.

If not free, most factory tours are reasonably priced. In many cases, you can take the tour for less than $10 each.

Walking tour of murals in historic Denham Springs, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Free walking tours

Many cities across the U.S. have guided or self-guided walking tours for free or cheap. You can simply google “walking tours in…” and fill in the space with your destination.

There are also a few apps and websites dedicated to walking tours. A popular one for U.S. destinations is GPSMyCity. It has thousands of self-guided walking tours.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Hiking

Go for hikes on the nature trails of wildlife refuges and BLM land. National Wildlife Refuges are wonderful places to see migrating birds and learn about native animal species. There are often loop drives with stops along the way where you can photograph wildlife from a safe distance. Many state and county parks have great hiking trails too. Visiting alltrails.com can show you all the hiking trails in the area. Not only is hiking usually free but it’s great exercise and a great way to see the area from a different point of view.

Galt Farmers Market, Galt, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Flea markets, farmer’s markets, and festivals

Local flea markets, farmer’s markets, and festivals are wonderful ways to check out local produce and crafts. Some farmer’s markets also have entertainment, places to picnic, and a variety of fresh foods to try. In the Northeast, you’ll find Maple Festivals, Apple Festivals, and Lilac Festivals. Or look for the Potato Festival, Rattlesnake Hunts, and Chili Cookoffs in the south and west.

Placerville Historical Society, Placerville, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Visit the local historical society website

Most cities, big or small, have some kind of historical society. If you visit their website, you’ll often find visitor guides to historical sites in the area. In many cases, you can visit these historical sites for free, with a donation, or a small entry fee.

Simply google your destination with “historical society” and see what pops up in search results.

I hope these tips for finding cheap or free things to do while RVing has helped. I have one more recommendation for you.

The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus tip

RVing with Rex has posted a series of Ultimate Guides to…

These resources were written for RVers who wish to explore a location in depth and often highlight cheap and free things to do while traveling in the area. Having a tried-and-true itinerary can save you from wasting time and throwing money at something, anything to do. Selected guides include:

The Ultimate Guide to Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More cheap travel tips

To save even more while RVing consider these final three tips:

  • Eat in: Have a meal plan and stick to it. Cook in your RV kitchen, pack lunches if you’ll be out, and avoid spending tons of money on fast food.
  • Stay close to home: RVs are fuel guzzlers. Save on the cost of gas or diesel by choosing a destination close to home.
  • Set a strict budget: Before you start planning, decide on a budget and stick to it. You may be surprised how far you can make your money stretch using the above tips.

Worth Pondering…

Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.

—Emma Chase

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