Planning A National Parks Trip
Tips For Visiting U.S. National Parks
The United States is home to remarkable national parks. Not only are the national parks perfect for connecting with nature, but they are also a relatively budget-friendly way to take a trip to connect with a new part of the country.
This guide covers in-depth information on planning a national parks visit: including how to choose a national park, tips for drafting your itinerary, recommendations on where to stay, what to pack, how to plan hikes, and more.
As always, remember to be a responsible traveler when visiting the national parks and be sure to follow all safety and travel regulations related to Covid-19.
Which National Park To Visit
At the time of writing, there are currently 63 national parks in the USA. Most, if not all, national parks sit on native land, take some time to educate yourself on the history of these landscapes before visiting. There are numerous resources on this, like the Native Land app, perfect for a road trip when you’re covering many different places. Every park has something beautiful about it, but you will need to ask yourself a few questions to narrow down which one to visit:
- Would you prefer to explore a local park and drive from home, or is flying + renting a car on arrival an option? Some national parks are accessible via public transport, but not all.
- Is avoiding large crowds a priority for you?
- What is most important for your visit: beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, hiking trails, or native history?
- Will you be traveling on a strict budget, or do you have the means to splurge?
- Is there a particular season or date window you are planning for?
Local Versus Far Away
For local travel, simply Google “national parks in [insert your state]” and that will help you narrow down your decision. Keeping it local can be a great way to maximize your vacation days, while making the most of your time outside.
Less Crowded vs Popular
Large crowds can be a great way to feel connected to others sharing an experience in a national park. This list talks about the most visited national parks and it’s probably a good idea to avoid them if you don’t like crowds, or are trying to mitigate risk. Visiting these parks during off-peak times of the year can be a great way to see these highlights with fewer folks around: take Zion in early spring for example. If you’re looking for a more isolated national parks trip, then I would suggest considering these less crowded national parks.
Type Of Experience
The ideal park experience definitely varies person to person. Generally the most popular requests for national park visits are to experience the scenery, see wildlife, go hiking, and/or to learn about the park’s history. Here are some recommendations for each type of experience:
- All-rounders: Grand Teton, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Glacier
- Scenery: Zion, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Death Valley, Badlands, Lake Clark, Olympic
- Wildlife: Yellowstone, Katmai, Everglades, Denali, Biscayne (underwater)
- Hiking: North Cascades, Shenandoah, Kings Canyon
- Geologic History: Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic
- Human History: Mesa Verde, Hot Springs, Gateway Arch, Cuyahoga Valley
Weather And Time Of Year
Conditions and weather vary greatly between national parks in the USA. Here is an idea of which national parks are best to visit each season or if you have a particular weather preference:
- Tropical: Haleakala, Hawaii Volcanoes, Dry Tortugas, Virgin Islands, American Samoa
- Spring: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Arches, Capitol Reef, Joshua Tree. Read about the 9 best national parks to visit in spring.
- Summer: Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Glacier, all the Alaskan parks
- Autumn: Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, Grand Teton. Read about the 12 best national parks to visit in the fall.
- Winter: Death Valley, Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, Redwood, Everglades. Read about the 12 best national parks to visit in winter.
When To Start Planning Your Trip
It is possible to plan a national parks trip last minute, but in general, planning further out allows for more in-depth research and more time to book campsites/lodging, and submit that vacation request at work.
For the more popular national parks, the more advance planning can make sure you’re able to stay at your dream campground or lodging on your desired dates. Parks like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Yellowstone, Denali, Rocky Mountain, and Acadia typically book out months in advance when it comes to accommodation and camping.
If you are open to staying outside of the park or planning to utilize a first-come-first-served camping spot, then you are probably best to plan your trip more last minute and take advantage of prime weather conditions.
For more information on packing for your trip, check out our What To Bring article.
Research Your Chosen Park(s)
When thinking of taking a national parks trip, be sure to research accommodation availability, shuttle/transport reservations/permits, weather conditions, and the best times to visit. Then you can make an educated decision on whether you can leave planning to the last minute or if you need to plan months ahead of time.
Planning An Itinerary
When planning your national parks trip itinerary, consider putting together a Google Sheet, especially if planning a trip with other folks. Add some useful columns like the date, day of the week, starting location, ending location, accommodation, and activities.
When it comes to finding the best things to do, where to stay, and places to eat, some places to look are the National Park Service website, FindYourPark.com, Pinterest, Instagram, and blog posts. Calling ahead to a Visitor Center to inquire about current conditions and recommendations can be a great help to get on-the-ground information.
Getting To The National Parks
Your next step in planning a national parks trip will be to research how to arrive at your chosen park(s). How you get there will depend on a few factors:
- How many people are you traveling with?
- How far is the park from your home?
- Do you prefer to drive your own car?
- Is the park close to an airport?
- Does that airport have flights from your local airport?
- Are you traveling on a strict budget?
- Will there be off-roading required? (4×4 only)
- Will you be camping or staying in hotels?
If you are traveling on a budget then your best option will be to visit a national park closer to home. That way you can drive your own car will save on the cost of flying + renting a vehicle. Plus, you will be able to pack gear for more budget-style accommodations like camping.
Have your eye on a particular park? Some national parks are quite literally in the middle of nowhere and may be on the other side of the country to where you live. Use websites like Google Flights, Skyscanner, and Scott’s Cheap Flights to research low-cost flights within your preferred travel timeline.
If you plan to fly into an airport and rent a car, consider that some rental car companies do not allow you to drive on unmaintained or dirt roads. So make sure to research your destination and rental car adequately to avoid any hiccups when you get there.
Where To Stay
Now you will need to decide where to stay during your national parks trip. Each park has different options available, but you can typically find a mix of lodging both inside and outside the national parks, depending on what you’re hoping to access during your time there.
- Hotels & Lodges: Many of the national parks have beautiful historic lodges, which are definitely worth experiencing if you have the funds. A more budget-friendly option would be to stay at a hotel or motel just outside the entrance to a national park, though keep in mind that will increase your daily driving times.
- Vacation Rentals: Vacation rentals are commonly found close by national parks. Look on websites like Airbnb and VRBO to find a range of choices. Or simply google “cabin to rent near [insert national park]”.
- Glamping: Many of the national parks have unique glamping options nearby. Under Canvas is a company that has locations in Moab (close to Arches and Canyonlands), Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains.
- Car Camping: The vast majority of the national parks have at least one designated campground. They will vary in size and facilities, but in general, they will have toilets and potable water. Some park campgrounds also have RV hook-ups, general stores, picnic tables, and fire rings. You can make campground reservations on recreation.gov, though some are only first-come-first-served. There are also typically privately-owned campgrounds just outside the national park entrances.
- Dispersed Camping: There are public lands all over the USA that allow for free dispersed camping, and a lot of these locations are close to national parks. This is a great option for those traveling on a budget! These free camping locations are typically on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service (USFS) land. Check out our post on dispersed camping for more information.
- Backcountry Camping: There is also the option to go backcountry camping in the national parks. You will typically need a backcountry camping permit to do this, and most are hike-in access.
National Parks Annual Pass
The America The Beautiful Pass is a one-time fee of $80 and it allows for unlimited entry into Federally operated recreation sites across the USA. The pass covered both the owner and up to three accompanying adults aged 16 years and older. Children 15 and under are free.
Not only will buying an annual pass save you money in the long run, but you are also supporting the parks in which you recreate. 100% of the proceeds will go back to improving the national park system’s services and facilities. Keep in mind that there are also other types of park passes that you may qualify for, including Senior Passes, Annual 4th Grade Pass, Access Pass, and a Volunteer Pass.
Visiting During The Pandemic
There are some additional considerations when planning national park visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most important thing is to follow all guidelines from the federal and state governments and to research local and park recommendations before traveling. Here are the top things to keep in mind:
- Research even more than you typically would. This is not the time to take spur-of-the-moment road trips without thoughtful consideration. Each park states its current closures and health warnings on nps.gov.
- Be prepared for closures. Many of the parks have some facilities closed or limited. These can be visitor centers, campgrounds, picnic areas, restaurants, general stores, and even restrooms. This means you will need to come prepared with your own food, water, itinerary, and emergency supplies.
- Wear a mask for your safety and to protect others. The NPS website states: “Visitors are required to wear face masks in federal buildings including visitor centers, historic structures, and museums. When outdoors, face masks are required on NPS-administered lands when physical distance cannot be maintained“. Make sure to pull your mask up when passing by other hikers on the trail, it’s an easy thing to do and shows respect for others. Click here for guidance on how to wear a mask correctly.
- Pack hygiene essentials like hand sanitizer, extra masks, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, water, and soap.
- Stay home if you are sick. Choose another time to visit a park if you’re experiencing COVID-like symptoms. Stay home if you have had close contact with someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
- The National Park Service has their own resource on how to recreate responsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Making Reservations For Activities
Some national park hikes, lodging, and activities do require reservations. This varies depending on the park, so it’s important that you research your destination and the requirements. Here are some general guidelines:
- Campgrounds usually have some first-come-first-served sites and some that can be reserved on Recreation.gov ahead of time.
- Popular hikes like Half Dome (Yosemite), Wonderland Trail (Mount Rainier), Mount Whitney (Sequoia), and the Rim-to-Rim Trail (Grand Canyon) require entrance into a lottery system to win a permit. Keep in mind that some of these hikes still offer limited amounts of day-of walk-up permits.
- The majority of national parks require a backcountry permit for wilderness camping. These can usually be obtained in person at a park’s Backcountry Rangers Station or at Visitor Centers.
- Some parks have lottery systems or permits to drive certain roads. For example, Denali National Park has a lottery system to access Denali Park Road with a private vehicle for four days every September.
Making The Most Of Your Visit
There are a few things you can do to make the most out of your national parks visit. Some of these you can factor in when planning a national parks trip and some are more relevant when you arrive in the park.
Firstly, drop into one of the national park’s visitor centers. The majority of visitor centers have educational information on the park, often a short film, and a chance to chat with a park ranger. I really enjoy taking the time to learn about the park through these free resources.
Speaking of chatting with a park ranger, ask if there is anything you should know about current park conditions or events. They might even be open to sharing some of their favorite spots in the park.
Lastly, another great way to make the most out of your national park trip is to visit nearby areas outside of the park boundaries. Some of the most beautiful places in the country are just outside the national parks. These are usually in the form of designated wilderness areas, national forests, and state parks.
Every national park in the USA has at least one scenic walk or hiking trail. These are very often the most beautiful parts of the park and should definitely be explored if it is within your capabilities! How to plan national park hikes:
- You will be provided with a national park map and an information brochure when you enter the park. Read over this as they often provide recommended hiking trails and information on seasonal closures.
- Be sure to drop into a visitor center and ask about trail conditions and what is open/closed for that time of year. You can also double-check whether or not you need a permit for a particular hike.
- When planning hikes before arriving at the park then you can refer to the NPS website and All Trails (website or app) for current conditions.
- Read up on that particular park’s local hiking guidelines. Do you need to be bear aware? If you aren’t sure then ask a ranger.
- Research any gear you may need for hiking in your chosen terrain/conditions.
Follow Leave No Trace principles when visiting the parks. Packing out trash and staying on established trails are two major ways you can help preserve these delicate areas for future visitors. Find out more information via the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and the National Park Service.
Renee Hahnel is a Backcountry ambassador, professional photographer, and national parks expert. She took a road trip in 2017 to visit every US National Park, so you can say she knows a thing or two about planning a national parks trip. Click here to learn more about her road trip and the route she took.