There are so many breathtaking landscapes and endless activities in our U.S. national parks.
From whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon to exploring the elegant monuments in Washington, D.C., to scaling Yosemite’s Half Dome, there’s always an adventure to be had. Whether you’ve been there before or are going for the first time, keep these tips in mind to ensure you get the most out of your solo trek, family vacay or road trip.
Plan in Advance
With more than 280 million people visiting the national parks and monuments each year, most during the spring and summer, it’s bound to get a little crowded. If you want to make sure you’ve got a place to hang your hat after a busy day of hiking and time to see all of the sights, give yourself at least six months to begin planning. Most in-park hotels and campsites sell out quickly, so the more time you have to plan, the better chance you have to book the best room or campsite for a decent price.
No matter the season, pack a ton of layers. Some parks can change up to 25 degrees in just a few hours, so come prepared. Raincoats, sturdy hiking shoes, thick socks and hats are advised for most of the parks, especially those with rugged mountain trails, lush forests and rocky coasts. You can find any of these items at REI. Also, check the National Park Service’s website to look at the individual trip planning guides for each park — they usually detail seasonal temperatures and help you pack accordingly.
If you can swing it, opt for an off-season visit. Without the crowds, you’ve got a better chance to enjoy some of the most popular landmarks, such as Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park – in peace. Plus in many of the parks, autumn brings an added eyeful with stunning arrays of brightly colored leaves. In places like Dry Tortugas National Park and Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Rainforest, the high season is the opposite (November to April), so opt for a visit in late spring or early autumn to avoid tourists.
Stay on the Trails
Staying on the trails is not only for your safety – but the safety of the special wildlife that live there. Also, straying far from the trails can also destroy the fragile landscape, especially in places like Death Valley National Park – which sees little rain during the year.
Ditch your Smartphone
It’s true that many of the parks have modern conveniences like well-stocked grocery stores, gas stations and luxe lodges- but they often lack cell service. No matter the carrier, signals in most parks will be seriously spotty. Avoid pricey roaming charges by turning your phone off when you have no bars. Since service is such a hit or miss, be sure to have maps and directions in case you get turned around.
Take the Map
Since many parks don’t have solid cellphone coverage, take advantage of the free map the park rangers hand you when you enter the park. Not only will it help you navigate the tricky roads and trails, but it will also give you insight as to where visitors centers, gas stations and other park amenities are located. Most importantly, many maps will show you where the big sights are (like the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone) and how long it can take to get there from the park’s entrances.
Camp or Stay Off-SiteOne of the biggest challenges in visiting a national park during peak season is finding a place to sleep. Park lodges and hotels can book up to a year in advance and can cost you a lot. Try camping it’s much cheaper! And be sure to book your campsite as soon as you can. And for those of you that hate camping – you can also try finding a luxury lodge with stunning views or a simple motel on the outskirts.