No national park in the US is ever the same, and even though there’s no one-size-fits-all guide for visiting every single one in the USA, there’s definitely a list of tips that applies to each and every national park out there.
If you’re planning to visit any national park soon or plotting an entire road trip to hit several of them, here’s a handy list of tips and tricks to keep in mind for your family trip!
Practice Leave No Trace
In essence, the Leave No Trace mantra is all about leaving the national parks the exact same way you found them, if not better!
Don’t feed wildlife, dispose of your waste, take your garbage with you, follow signage, and listen to ranger instructions so you don’t disturb the fragile ecosystems of the parks. Moreover, the Leave No Trace principles are handy no matter where you go, so it also helps to practice them even at home.
Here’s the full list of the Leave No Trace rules:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Others
Get a National Parks Passport
If you’re currently planning to visit all the national parks in the United States or at least many of them throughout you’re lifetime, getting yourself a National Parks Passport is a super fun way to keep track of where you’ve been so far.
It’s not an official passport, but getting to stamp it every time you visit a national park is definitely fun and a great way to record which ones you’ve visited already!
Save Time And Money By Getting an America the Beautiful Pass In Advance
If you’re planning on visiting several national parks over the next year, getting yourself an America the Beautiful Pass is a great way to save yourself money in the long run.
This pass allows you to enter all the national parks in the United State for a one-time fee. Moreover, you’ll also get access to over two thousand other federal parks! Click here to read more about the pass.
Aside from getting to save money, having an America the Beautiful Pass will also give you an excuse to visit state parks and recreational areas close to home. When you have it with you, you’ll always have an excuse to plan your next escape!
If you have your America The Beautiful pass ready before you hit the road, you can avoid at least part of the often lengthy entry queues that can grow at national park entry gates during peak times.
Check If Your Child Is Eligible For “Every Kid Outdoors”
Have you got a child in the 4th Grade?
Then as long as they are enrolled in schooling in the USA (homeschoolers included!) then they can simply apply online, complete a small quiz and get themselves the Every Kid Outdoors pass which entitles not just the child but the whole family to access national parks, and national park managed properties FREE for 12 months.
Make sure you apply in September at the start of the fourth grade to get the most value out of the pass.
Here’s a fact about visitors to national parks: 90% of them never go further into national parks than two miles away from the road!
If you want to get to know a park better and in much more solitude, get adventurous and plan on going deeper to see the parts of the park that don’t usually make it on Instagram. Of course, planning well and staying within designated trails is a must in order to ensure your safety.
Speak To Park Rangers
Nobody knows a national park better than a ranger does. After all, their job is to be in the park a huge chunk of their time!
When you arrive at a park, always check in at the visitor center and spend some time speaking to a ranger. They’ll have tons of tips for you, including recommendations on hidden spots that usually aren’t in guidebooks as well as things to keep in mind and any dangers to be wary of.
Even better, pick up a junior ranger kit and become a junior ranger!
Available to kids of all ages (though primarily targeted at those 5 to 13 years old), you can even download your kit in advance at participating national parks. Complete the activities within the booklet and your kids grab themselves a junior ranger badge or reward.
Stay A Night Inside The Park
Most national parks provide lodging and campsite options for people who want to sleep inside the park. Some may offer comfortable lodge-style hotels while others may have cabins or simple campsites to pitch your tent on, but there is usually almost at least one option to overnight in the park.
If possible, try spending at least one night at every national park you visit. Not only do many of them provide wonderful opportunities to see night skies, but staying inside the parks will give you a brand new perspective on them that day visitors don’t get to see.
As a tip, make sure you always plan in advance and do your research. Some parks require you to make reservations in advance (these can open as much as 6 to 12 months in advance), while others only offer lodging and camping on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Remain On Designated Trails
Trails were carefully designed in order to keep you safe. Moreover, going outside trails can greatly harm the ecosystem of the parks.
Refer to the Leave No Trace principles above; drill this into your kids from a young age!
Choose The Right Time To Visit
Do proper research on the national park you’re planning to visit before your trip. Some national parks may close at certain times of the year, while others may get extremely hot or cold in different seasons.
Each park also usually has a high and low season, which is an important thing to plan, especially if you’d rather avoid huge crowds. Shoulder season tends to be the best time to visit any national park, but make sure you do proper research first and check if weather conditions will be ideal for visiting.
Note that the busiest national parks may operate a timed reservation system in peak months to ease traffic flow. You’ll want to book in advance to avoid disappointment, for example:
NB the $2 reservation fee will be in addition to the park entry fee or your annual pass.
Do An Itinerary The Other Way Around
If you’re visiting a very popular park and prefer to avoid crowds, a great way to do so is by doing a popular itinerary the other way around.
For instance, if you’re visiting Bryce Canyon, most itineraries will suggest that you start the day by seeing the sunrise at Sunrise Point and seeing the sunset at Sunset Point. This means that most visitors will be at these locations at certain hours of the day, but if you do things backward, you’ll get both super popular viewpoints almost to yourself!
Moreover, the earlier you start your day, the more likely you are to beat the crowds. That’s why staying overnight inside many national parks can be advantageous. If parks have timed entry, try and be among the first to arrive as early birds most definitely get the best views and fewest crowds in their way!
More National Park Road Trip Inspiration
If you’re not sure which national parks are best to visit on your next family road trip, try these inspiring reads for some ideas on where to head next:
- Road Trip Every West Coast National Park in the US – a tall challenge, will you try and see them all or break thse up into some smaller trips – California and beyond?
- Every National Park on the East Coast – hard to tackle as a singular road trip, but you can pick out one of these to try and incorporate in your travels each year
- Best National Parks to Visit In Spring – fewer crowds, amazing colors of wildflowers and cooler temperatures for hiking make these parks great choices for Spring Break and beyond
- Best National Parks to Visit in Summer – there will, of course, be crowds in summer, but some of the more remote national parks are only accessible in the warmest months
- Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall – these national parks shine at their best amongst the fall foliage and cooling weather of autumn
- Perfect National Parks for a Winter Escape – who says you can’t go road tripping in winter? Look our for these magical wintery destinations for a completely different take on our stunning national parks system
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