Within the National Park Service there are 59 National Parks, 108 National Monuments, 78 Historic Sites and hundreds of other sites which they administrate and maintain. The national parks in particular are popular travel destinations which offer beautiful scenery as well as offering hiking, camping, boating and other recreational activities. Across the United States there are numerous opportunities to enjoy these magnificent parks. So, get out a map and look for the national parks in your area or plan a longer road trip and visit several along the way.
The first thing to do when planning a trip to a national park is to book lodge or campsite reservations. Sometimes accommodations within a national park can be very limited and popular destinations book far in advance, so researching the information regarding accommodations is very important. Facilities can range from luxurious lodges to very rustic campsites and these decisions are determined by your personal preference. Our family had stayed at all different types of accommodations and we have enjoyed every one of them. Honestly, unless you are very particular about your sleeping arrangements, in the evening when bedtime comes around you can be so exhausted from the day’s activities that you are asleep before your head hits the pillow! When we have been on past road trips and visiting several national parks in a period of time longer then a week, we have found that a combination of campsites and lodges accommodations can be a great balance because sometimes you want the luxury of a comfortable bed and a private shower or bath. If the national park you are visiting is close to a city, sometimes the hotel accommodations are more plentiful and rooms are available in all price ranges.
Visiting a national park can be an exciting adventure for you and your family. To make the trip a successful one a little advance research is a good idea. Once you decide on a destination and have accommodation reservations made, try to gather as much information as you can regarding the area in which you are planning to visit. The local library is a good resource for tour and guide books on a particular national park or check out online book sources like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I always like to read a book about the history of the area before visiting. Then, when we are on the trip, sometimes it is a good idea to have something to read in the evening when you are back at the campsite or lodge.
When I first visited Yosemite National Park I purchased a book by John Muir. Muir was a naturalist and author who wrote about his adventures in Yosemite and the importance of protecting and preserving areas like Yosemite throughout the United States. His activism efforts lead to founding the Sierra Club which is one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. I really enjoyed reading about his adventures in Yosemite and then visiting the places he was talking about in his books. I think I appreciated my time in Yosemite more when looking at the beauty of the scenery through the eyes of John Muir.
The next major decision when planning a national park trip is determining a schedule of activities and things to do. Gathering information about the activities of the national park is a very helpful way to setting the trip budget because it allows for additional expenses such as: guided tours, rock climbing, horseback riding, raft trips, etc. Once the trip dates are confirmed, I would advise booking any type of popular activities in advance. Sometimes these activities fill up quickly especially during the peak summer vacation months. Nothing can ruin a trip more than arriving at a destination and finding out that activity you were looking forward to experiencing has been sold out. When we visited the Grand Canyon we wanted to take the mule ride on the Bright Angel Trail, so we booked the ride in advance and were able to pick the day and time that fit into our trip schedule. On this same trip we also reserved a popular river raft tour on the Colorado River in advance so as not to miss out on this exciting adventure. As early as possible, take the time to get these important reservations made and it will eliminate the stress so you can enjoy the trip knowing that your activities are confirmed!
Listed below are several additional tips and suggestions to help when planning a national park trip.
Tips and suggestions when planning a trip
- When starting to plan a trip to a national park, a great resource is the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov This website will have information regarding specific national parks such as: hours, fees, reservation, history, geology, animal, plant info as well as a special section for kids.
- Be sure to involve the kids in the planning process, talk to them about what sites they would be interested in visiting. Plan a balance of adult and children activities to keep everyone happy. Be flexible in planning the activities and don’t over schedule, smaller child need time to simply play and run or maybe even take a nap.
- When traveling, be sure to break up the trip with frequent stops at rest areas or for meal times. Sometimes national parks are located far away from cities and facilities may be limited. Be sure to check in advance for this type of information. Plan ahead with extra snacks and drinks or perhaps pack a picnic lunch. When on the hiking trails or outside the car, be sure to carry enough water for everybody and especially in the southwestern national parks in the summer it can get very hot and you will want to avoid dehydration.
- Before leaving, consider purchasing a special map for the kids so they can enjoy following along during the trip. This will answer that inevitable question of, “are we there yet”! Also, when you know the specific national park you are visiting, check out the children’s section in your local bookstore or online at Amazon.com, sometimes you can find a fun book for them to read about that particular park.
- If you are traveling to several national parks, consider purchasing the National Park Annual Pass. The pass is $80 and valid for a full year from the month of purchase. Do the math and see if this would be economical purchase for you. If you are traveling with a senior citizen, consider the Senior National Park Pass which costs $10 and is valid for a lifetime. The purchaser must be 62 years or older and the Senior Pass admits the pass holder and up to three additional adults traveling together in the same vehicle. (Children under 16 are always admitted free in a national park) We found out about this from a park ranger when we were traveling with my husband’s mother and we joked that from now on when we visit a national park we are taking her with us because basically we could get in for free!
- When at the national park visitor center, consider purchasing the Passport to Your National Parks Stamp Book. This is a great way for the kids to collect stamps from the parks they visit and a fun way to remember the places. One of our first stops in any national park we visit is the visitor center for maps and current park info, while there our daughter always heads to the passport stamp section to get the park’s stamps for her passport book.
- Another great idea for the kids is the educational Junior Ranger Program and it is totally free. When you are at the park’s visitor center pick up a copy for your child. Usually the booklet has activities and questions for them to answer while they are exploring the park. When the book is completed return to the visitor center for them to participate in a quick ceremony administrated by the park ranger, the child will raise their right hand and repeat the Junior Ranger oath before receiving the park’s Junior Ranger patch. We always try to do this with our daughter and it is a great photo opportunity!
- Taking a pet, particularly dogs, on a trip may sound like a good idea but most national parks have rules and regulations. Always check in advance for information regarding pet limitations as this will be helpful in determining whether to leave them at home and making alternative arrangements.
- When visiting the national parks, be sure to observe all the rules and regulations such as speed limits. Be sure to take into consideration any special safety signs such as bear warnings. Respect the park’s wildlife and be sure to observe bear safety rules when on hiking trails and other areas of the park. It is always a good idea to make a quick check of the weather report at the park’s visitor center and while there also check for road or trail closures. Heat or high altitude conditions can effect visitor’s health, so take precautions and be prepared. When we go on hikes in the national parks, we always carry a small backpack with a small first aid kit, flashlight and enough water for everyone. Consider purchasing a couple of reusable water bottles prior to your visit for use while hiking, this is an excellent way to be green (earth) smart.
- Since one of the goals of the National Park Service is protecting and preserving our national parks, be aware of your impact on the environment. Consider parking your vehicle and walk, bike or take the park’s public transportation when available because these simple choices will reduce the carbon emissions into the environment. Be sure to observe the recycling cans while at the visitor center, lodges, campsites, etc. while in the park. Conserve water whenever possible while in the parks, such as washing dishes at campsites. When at the campgrounds be sure to minimize your campfire impact, when leaving extinguish the fire fully and be sure to dispose of waste properly.
- When camping in the park, before to check all camping equipment before leaving. If the tent is new, consider setting up and taking down the tent. Solve any possible problems and check that all equipment is functioning properly, such as the camp stove or lantern. Be sure to have extra batteries for flashlights, etc.
- Please stop and take a moment with your family to enjoy the national park with all the beauty and activities that are available. If you have limited time when visiting the parks, be sure to stop at the visitor center. These facilities offer information and other services, excellent natural and historical displays and orientation movies as well as shopping and sometimes dining opportunities. Be sure to take a drive on any of the scenic roads because it is a great way to explore the park. Take the time to get out of your vehicle and walk even a short distance on one of the park’s hiking trails. This is a great idea especially when a park can be crowded during the busy summer months.
Finally, I hope that you and your family consider a trip to one of our national parks. There are so many diverse natural and historical sites to see and I’m sure any one of those chosen will provide you and your family with experiences and moments that will be remembered for a lifetime.
For additional ideas and tips when visiting a National Park please check out National Park Travel Tips (Part Two).