National Park Week is upon us again, ushering in the spring and summer travel season — when most parks hit their peak visitation, best weather, and highest trail accessibility. Saturday, April 16, kicks off the week of celebration wtih a fee-free day at National Park sites that charge admission, which is a great opportunity to begin your park explorations either for the season or for the first time.
I’ve spent the last several years of my life on a quest to visit all major US National Parks solo. As of this writing I’ve visited 56 of the major 63 parks at least once, all completely solo. Not to mention repeat visits and trips to hundreds of other NP sites. So it’s fair to say that at this point I have learned a lot. And, as you can imagine, I have a lot to share with others.
If you’re planning a National Park trip and looking for some practical advice, here is some of mine:
1. Plan Ahead
This seems like an obvious one, I know, but in this travel landscape it is more important than ever. National Park travel specifically has surged in the last few years and is poised to only surpass visitation records this spring and summer. With a sense of normalcy returning to our lives after years of tumult, everyone I have talked to recently is celebrating by planning a National Park road trip of some kind.
While not every park will be at record levels, many will be – and have reservation and timed entry systems in place in preparation. As of this writing, there are reservation or timed entry systems in all or specific parts of Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Arches, Acadia, Glacier, and Zion. You can learn more about the particulars here.
Outside of reservations, there are a lot of other planning pieces that you’ll want to consider. Like, now. Many National Parks are in remote areas with limited lodging and even camping – so you’ll want to book those early too. With rising inflation and a shortage in some service labor, the small tourist towns are bracing for a busy – and expensive – season.
Mitigate this by making as many reservations as far in advance as possible. And don’t forget flights and cars as well – they are also all going up in price rapidly.
2. Look Beyond the Marquee Parks
I’ve heard from a lot of people who are planning the sort of epic and quintessential National Park trips that everyone dreams of this summer. Stops throughout the west to some of the marquee parks – Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yosemite. And while these are all amazing parks that I hope everyone gets a chance to see for themselves, you might want to consider some lesser-known gems for part or all of your trip.
With the increased cost and crowds that this summer is bound to bring, a less crowded park can provide some respite. Some of my favorites for the summer months are North Cascades in Washington, Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, New River Gorge in West Virginia, and Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
Another way to beat the crowds is to visit state parks and National Park sites that aren’t official “National Parks” by designation. You see, the National Park system is actually made up of over 400 sites – National Seashores, Lakeshores, Monuments, Historic Sites, and many more. Of these, of course, the 63 with “National Park” only designation are much more popular – generally – than the others. Some of my favorite NPS sites without the “National Park” only designation are Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, Assateague Island National Seashore in both Maryland and Virginia and Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina.
3. Get in Early… or Late
My number one piece of advice that I give to National Park summer travelers is to get to the park early. Very early. Earlier than you’d ever think you should. A time when you will find yourself wondering if you even actually slept at all. When you will imagine that you’ll be the only one on the road and at the entry station. Because you’ll soon be surprised to enter the big parks and still have a crowd around you. Less of a crowd, yes, but still more than you’d think.
So to get ahead of the frustrations – get up early and get in early. This is also a workaround for many of the park reservation systems that only start at 5 or 6 am.
Another option is to go later in the day. Generally, the families and early risers are out by then and if you aren’t planning a long hike you can still catch some great views and beautiful skies. Other benefits are cooler temps and another way to get into a park you do not have a reservation for. Glacier, for example, only requires car reservations on Going-To-The-Sun road until 4 pm – and with sunsets after 9 pm from early May to August, that leaves plenty of time to adventure.
4. Add More Time to Your Itinerary Than You Think You’ll Need
Friends and social media followers often run their road trip itineraries by me before leaving on a National Park trip. One thing I always notice – and immediately caution them on – is to add in more time than they think they’ll need. Just because a park is five hours from another park or city doesn’t mean that’s all the time you’ll need. There are often stops you’ll want to make in the in-between and not planning for those roadside vistas can make your trip feel unnecessarily rushed and frustrating.
New visitors to a park may not account for the time it takes to get anywhere once they are already within a park. For example, Yellowstone, depending on which entrance you use, can lead to another hour of driving before you hit any of the sites you might want to see. Parks are very often spread out, and can become very congested in the summer – so you’ll want to plan for more time.
5. Talk to the Park Rangers – and Beyond – When You Arrive
As a naturally fly by the seat of my pants type of traveler, this has been one that I have to be intentional about. I love to enter a new park and just go. Explore and hike and figure it out as I go along. And there is a place and time for that kind of travel, for sure. But a crowded summer trip to a National Park is probably not the one.
Park Rangers are of course a wealth of information. Beyond tips and recommendations, they can let you know about recent wildlife sightings, where parking is filling up, and if any parts of the park are closed or should be avoided.
But then I like to go beyond the rangers for another perspective – employees in the gift shops or restaurants. I ask them where they go when they have a day off. Often their recommendations lead to lesser trafficked hidden gems that you may not find by looking at a list of top hikes or following the crowd.
6. Follow “Leave No Trace” Principles
One last tip applies to all trips and all people – beginners or experts. When you are visiting our precious public lands remember to leave no trace.
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose properly of waste
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of others.
More information can be found here.