Tips for visiting our national parks could make your vacation go smoothly and make it more enjoyable. Let’s face it most parks can get crowded especially the popular ones and the fact that most people visit when school is out making peak season at the parks crazy at times. The most popular months are from June to September with more than half of the visitors during this time. So here are some tips to make your national park vacation enjoyable and fun for the whole family.
Where to Stay
The best place to stay for an easier visit is in the park itself. The lodges at most parks are simple with few amenities however could be expensive depending on the park. However, you will save valuable hours enjoying the park instead of driving back and forth to them.
Also if you camp, definitely stay at the campgrounds in the park. You will avoid all the traffic at the gates. Most parks are large and only have a few entrances making driving time from the closest towns outside the park long.
Research How Long Your Visit Should Be
How many days do you really need in each park? It amazes me when I see that most people never really get off the main roads and time spent in the parks exploring average very low. For example, Yellowstone one of the most visited parks with over 4 million visitors each year, the average person will spend 2 days. We went there for 6 days and I feel we could have stayed much longer.
We recently went to Isle Royale National Park on a vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and we only stayed one night. Boy, that was a big mistake on my part. I didn’t do enough research or we would have stayed longer. So do as much research as possible and kind of plan your trip before you book so you can figure out how many days you need to see what you really want to see.
Either booking a lodge or a campground at our national parks should be done as early as possible once you have made your decision on where you want to go. Many of the popular parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite booking a year before you want to go is not unusual. This way you will get the lodge or campground of your choice.
If you do decide to visit a national park a couple of months before you go, always check to see what’s available. You may get lucky, like us, who booked a campground at Rocky Mountain National Park only 2 months before we went. We didn’t get the campground or the site we would have wanted but the experience of staying in the park was just the same. Listing to the elk calls in the middle of the night and checking in to the campground with elk all around truly adds to your overall experience of visiting our national parks.
Enjoy being off the phone
Most of the national parks have little to no cell service and wifi. It’s a great time to disconnect with the world and just enjoy the beauty of the park and time with the people you went with.
Get a passport
This is something I wish I did so much earlier. Over the years I’ve been to many national parks and monuments but never got the passport. A few years back, on a trip to the Badlands, we saw the passport in the gift store and since then I’m hooked.
I really enjoy making sure that every place we go we get the book stamped. You can even buy colorful sticker stamps on every location which adds to the beauty of the passport. And just a note, every visitor center within the same park has a different stamp.
You can read all about the national park passport from Accepting the Unexpected Journey.
Eat Dinner Early
This is something I really recommend if you are in a park-like Yellowstone and you want to see wildlife at dusk. When the restaurants open for dinner is the best time to go, so you’re in and out and get to enjoy the park in the evening. Additionally in crowded parks early is the best time to eat so you are not waiting for a table.
Another tip is if you’re in a busy park take-out breakfast and eat it in a picnic area it is so much faster so you have more time to explore the park.
Always go to the Visitors Center First
When arriving at any park make sure your first stop is at the visitor’s center. There you can get maps, hiking information, wildlife sightings and learn so much about the park you are excited to experience. I always found the staff at these locations to be extremely helpful. All the programs and times will be available there too. Most parks have exhibits that I always find very informative.
Take advantage of ranger programs
All the national parks offer ranger programs. They can be talks about certain subjects related to the park you are visiting or tours or hikes somewhere within the park so you can better understand the area you are visiting. If you have the time, go to one of these programs it’s a great opportunity to learn more then you would on your own and also have the ranger answer questions about the park you’re visiting.
I found the rangers at all the parks are very helpful and try to answer all your questions. It’s a good chance to ask about where to find wildlife or what’s the best hike to go on.
Junior Ranger Program
Most parks have Junior Ranger programs for children 5 to 13. During your park visit there are certain activities to complete and then return it a ranger to get a certificate or patch. You can check here for a list of all the parks and details of the program.
Slow down, wildlife is all around you
Remember you’re on vacation and the park is your destination so slow down, take in the scenery. In some parks, you never know where you will see wildlife. I remember when visiting Yellowstone, we arrived at the park at dusk after traveling all day to get there. We were in awe with all the wildlife we started to see, elk were all around grazing in the fields. We stopped at every overlook. It was the first time we saw bison, we couldn’t believe how huge they were.
Yellowstone is a big park, we entered at the West Yellowstone entrance and was driving to the lake area where we were staying. My husband was getting tired from driving all day, so I took over, he fell asleep along with the kids. I’ll never forget taking a turn around a curve and right in front of me in the middle of the road was 2 bison. OMG, I almost died! It was a good thing I wasn’t driving fast and was able to stop. They continued coming towards our car. I woke my husband up in a panic, he told me to start backing up, I was amazed the bison just walked around the car and went on their way.
Get off the road and hike
I agree that they are many things to do and see off the main roads in the national parks and I’m not saying you shouldn’t see all the things off the main roads but please go off the beaten path if you really want to experience the parks.
There are so many things to do when you explore a little. For example, you could walk behind a waterfall in the Smokies or see bighorn sheep up close when you hike the Mount Washburn trail in Yellowstone or travel back in time as they did in the 1920s when you experience Old Falls River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Explore the beauty of the National Park Lodges
Not all the parks have lodges but if you’re visiting a park that does, make sure to stop by to see the lodge. Old Faithful Lodge is one of the most beautiful lodges I’ve been too. The stone fireplace and the beautiful architect lobby is an experience all on its own.
There are famous lodges in Yosemite (The Ahwahnee), The Badlands (Cedar Pass Lodge), Death Valley National Park (The Oasis) and Smokey Mountains (Mount Leconte) to name a few.
I hope you enjoyed these tips for visiting our national parks. The parks have so much to offer for a wonderful vacation experience. Just remember some of these tips to make your trip a little easier and more enjoyable.
Enjoy your trip, Kathy xoxo
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