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With so many people clamoring to see the most beautiful parts of the United States, coordinating a trip to America’s national parks can feel as complicated as planning a trip to Disney. Visiting national parks became 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 stunning success.
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I started planning our summer vacation six months ahead of time and was shocked to discover that there was very little lodging left at the parks we hoped to visit. Some of the lodges were even sold out for dates that are over a year away.
If you aren’t up for planning that far in advance, take heart. Less famous parks still provide breathtaking views with easier booking. Visit the newest park, New River Gorge in West Virginia, or 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 just a couple of months before you go; we recently booked hotels at Grand Canyon National Park just six weeks in advance.
Pick Camping or Lodging
Lodging or campgrounds located just outside of national parks are often the most affordable, accessible choices, especially once those popular park lodges are booked up. However, staying inside the park can mean extra access. For example, Glacier National Park’s Going to the Sun Road usually requires reservations for all visitors who wish to drive along the path. However, staying in that park area 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 make efficient use of your time. At the Grand Canyon, the nearby town of Tusayan offers several affordable lodging options with shuttles that will take you into the park (I told you it was like Disney!). But by staying onsite in one of the historic hotels on the South Rim, our family was able to watch the sunset at the park and linger after dark as the deer and elk wandered through Grand Canyon Village, with no worries about catching a shuttle back to our hotel or waiting in a long entrance line the next morning.
Book Tours and Activities
Research ahead of time to see what reservations may be needed for popular activities. Mesa Verde National Park offers popular ranger-led tours of the historic cliff dwellings, but tour tickets are only available 14 days in advance and often sell out quickly (seriously, the rangers actually congratulated us on “winning the lottery” for tickets). Carlsbad Caverns National Park requires timed tickets to be purchased up to 30 days in advance for any visitors who want to enter the caverns.
Look for specific activities your family will enjoy, and see when they are offered at the parks. As a fan of horseback riding, I loved riding along the edge of the canyon at Bryce Canyon National Park (those soft, rolling canyon walls are not as terrifying as the Grand Canyon’s steep drops!). During our recent visit to Carlsbad, my wildlife enthusiast tween had a great time listening to the ranger’s “Bat Talk” before the bats emerged from the cave in the evening. My husband loved that many of the parks we visited this summer were International Dark Sky parks, which meant stunning views of the night sky and the Milky Way.
Remember that some parks all but close during the winter due to heavy snow, so be sure 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.
Download Ahead of Time
Before you get to the park – in fact, before you even leave home – make sure you download tickets, permits, and maps to your phone. (You can also print them out. I created a special national park vacation folder to store everything, and a ranger pretty much gave me a gold star when she saw it.) You may not have cell service once you reach your destination, and if you haven’t downloaded tickets ahead of time, you might not be able to join activities or tours.
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Don’t plan to rely on park Wi-Fi. We’ve found that it isn’t 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.
Make a Back-Up Plan
The best part of national parks is also the toughest: nature! While we love seeing the wild beauty of our country, it also can be unpredictable. Extreme nature made the headlines this summer when Yellowstone National Park’s catastrophic floods and Yosemite National Park’s wildfires meant visitors had to be evacuated. Glacier National Park experienced difficulty getting their famous Going to the Sun Road opened at all this year. And last year, some friends planning to camp in national forests in the southwestern states found their plans canceled because campfires and backcountry camping were prohibited due to fire risk.
Hopefully, everything will go as planned but have some ideas in mind for last-minute pivots when they become necessary. Can you go to a nearby park instead? Stay in a local Airbnb and still enjoy nearby scenery? Or maybe you’ll switch driving directions and find someplace new and amazing!
Listen to Park Rangers
Once you arrive at the parks, be sure to listen to the national park service and the park rangers. So when they tell you how much water you’ll need even for short hikes, remind you to take it easy if you aren’t used to higher elevations, or ask you to stay away from the cute black bears or the bighorn sheep even though you want a selfie, know that they are there to keep you safe.
The visitor center is a great place to start your park experience, and you can inquire there about tour guides, maps, and any alerts or warnings you need to heed during your visit. We’ve also found that rangers are happy to recommend specific activities based on the ages of your group.
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Buy America the Beautiful Pass
A few months before embarking on your trip, order an America the Beautiful pass. The pass is a card that will give you and your family access to every federally managed park and recreation site, and it’s a great deal. We discovered 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 with no extra admission costs. (Don’t worry if you forget to buy the pass before you go – you can also purchase it at many ranger stations and visitor centers.)
Coordinating a trip to America’s national parks can be complicated, but these tips will help make your next national park vacation a stunning success.
Whether planning a road trip with scenic drives through several states or a week-long stay to go in-depth at 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 great adventure for the whole family and ensure that everyone has a great time.
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