7 essential things you need to know before going on a national park vacation

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With so many people clamoring to see the most beautiful parts of the United States, planning a trip to America’s national parks can seem as complicated as planning a trip to Disney. Visiting national parks has become everyone’s favorite pastime during the pandemic, and once Americans discovered the great outdoors, they were hooked. Try these tips to make your next national park vacation a resounding success.


Plan ahead

If you want to visit the most popular parks, like yellowstone national park, Glacier National Park, Where Zion National Park, you will need start planning a year ahead.

I started planning our summer vacation six months in advance and was shocked to find that there was very little accommodation left in the parks we were hoping to visit. Some lodges were even fully booked for dates over a year away.

If you’re not prepared to plan that far in advance, don’t worry. Less famous parks still offer breathtaking views with easier booking. Visit the newest park, New River Gorge in West Virginiaor more remote parks like North Cascades National Park in Washington or Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. And even some of the “big ones” have enough capacity that you can plan a few months before you leave; we recently booked hotels in Grand Canyon National Park only six weeks in advance.

The stunning red rocks of Arches National Park

The stunning red rocks of Arches National Park attract so many visitors that the park requires timed admission tickets during peak months. Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash.

Choose camping or accommodation

Accommodations or campgrounds located just outside national parks are often the most affordable and accessible choices, especially once these popular park lodges are full. However, staying inside the park may mean additional access. For example, Glacier National Park Go on the Road of the Sun generally requires reservations for any visitors wishing to drive along the way. However, staying in this area of ​​the park means you are guaranteed access once the road opens for the season.

Some parks are so remote that staying in the park is the best way to use your time efficiently. At the Grand Canyon, nearby Tusayan has several affordable accommodation options with shuttles that will take you around the park (told you it was like Disney!). But by staying locally at one of the historic South Rim hotels, our family was able to watch the sunset in the park and linger after dark as deer and elk roamed the grounds. Grand Canyon village, without worrying about taking a shuttle back to our hotel or waiting in a long line the next morning.

The towering mountains of Grand Tetons National Park

The Grand Teton National Park accommodation offers spectacular views of the Grand Tetons and easy access to Yellowstone. Photo by Jairph on Unsplash.

Book tours and activities

Do some research ahead of time to see what reservations may be needed for popular activities. Mesa Verde National Park Offerings popular tours led by rangers historic cliff dwellings, but tour tickets are only available 14 days in advance and often sell out quickly (seriously, the rangers actually congratulated us for “winning the lottery” for the tickets). Carlsbad Caverns National Park requires timed tickets to be purchased up to 30 days in advance for all visitors wishing to enter the caverns.

Look for specific activities your family will enjoy and see when they’re offered at the parks. Passionate about horseback riding, I loved riding along the edge of the canyon Bryce Canyon National Park (Those gentle, rolling canyon walls aren’t nearly as terrifying as the steep slopes of the Grand Canyon!). During our recent visit to Carlsbad, my wildlife-loving tween had a great time listening to the ranger’s “Bat Talk” before the bats came out of the cave in the evening. My husband loved that many of the parks we visited this summer were International Dark Sky parks, which meant amazing views of the night sky and the Milky Way.

Remember that some parks are practically closed in winter due to heavy snowfall. So make sure that your desired activities are available during the week of your visit. The summer months are the best times for most activities, but in the northern parks even some hiking trails will still be closed in early summer.

A lighthouse on the coast of Acadia National Park

Beautiful Acadia National Park on Maine’s East Coast offers horseback riding, hiking, boating and wildlife viewing. Photo by James Coffman on Unsplash.

Download in advance

Before you arrive at the park – in fact, even before you leave home – be sure to download tickets, permits and maps to your phone. (You can also print them out. I made a special national park vacation folder to store everything, and a ranger gave me a gold star when she saw it.) you may not have cell service once you reach your destination, and if you have not downloaded tickets in advance, you may not be able to participate in activities or tours.

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Don’t count on relying on the park’s Wi-Fi. We’ve found that it’s not always offered (at Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, only two out of five visitor centers have Wi-Fi), and of course it won’t be accessible from trails, caves and backcountry. areas.

Canyonlands National Park

Remote areas like Canyonlands National Park have very little cell phone signal coverage and unreliable Wi-Fi, so download everything you need (and call your mom) before entering the park. Photo by Christoph von Gellhorn on Unsplash.

Make a backup plan

The best part of national parks is also the hardest: nature! While we love seeing the rugged beauty of our country, it can also be unpredictable. The extreme nature made headlines this summer when catastrophic flooding in Yellowstone National Park and wildfires in Yosemite National Park forced visitors to evacuate. Glacier National Park has struggled to get its famous Go on the Road of the Sun open at all this year. And last year, some friends who planned to camp in the National Forests of southwestern states had their plans canceled because campfires and backcountry camping were banned due to the risk of fire.

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Hopefully everything will go as planned, but have a few ideas in mind for last minute pivots when they become necessary. Can you go to a nearby park instead? Staying at a local Airbnb while enjoying the nearby scenery? Or maybe you’ll change direction and discover a new and amazing place!

A cabin at Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks each year. But if nature keeps you from visiting, cruise down the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina to see other beautiful parts of Appalachia. Photo by Delaney Van on Unsplash.

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Listen to the Park Rangers

Once you arrive at the parks, be sure to listen to the National Park Service and park rangers. So when they tell you how much water you’ll need even for short hikes, remember to relax if you’re not used to higher elevations, or ask yourself to stay away from cute black bears or bighorn sheep even if you want a selfie, know that they are there to protect you.

The Visitor Center is a great place to start your park experience, and here you can learn about guidebooks, maps, and any alerts or warnings you should be aware of when visiting. We’ve also found that the rangers are happy to recommend specific activities based on the age of your group.

Pro-Tip: Stop by the Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger books for your kids. Once they complete the book and show it to a ranger, they will earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Buy America the Beautiful Pass

A few months before leaving on a trip, order a America the Beautiful pass. The pass is a card that will give you and your family access to all federally run parks and recreation sites, and it’s a great deal. We found that the $80 pass paid for itself once we decided to visit three national parks in one trip, and having the pass meant we could add an additional park to our itinerary at no additional cost. additional admission. (Don’t worry if you forget to buy the pass before you go – you can also buy it at many ranger stations and visitor centers.)

Whether planning a road trip with scenic drives through multiple states or a week-long stay to dig deep into your favorite park, a national park vacation is one of the best family vacation ideas and a fun way to see the most beautiful places in North America. With these tips, you can smoothly plan your next big family adventure and ensure everyone has a great time.


7 tips for national parks: what you need to know before planning a vacation

Christy Nicholson is a recovering writer, editor, and perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When she’s not traveling with her family, she spends fun days at home reading, gardening, making music and arguing with two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.

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