Planning a trip to any of the 59 U.S. National Parks can be challenging, but there are essential tips that apply to whichever park calls your name. Presenting our national parks trip planner, covering everything you need to know about when, where, and how to visit.
Don’t forget that the U.S. is covered in beautiful National Monuments, too! Check out the best 20 here.
- First national park: Yellowstone
- Newest national park: Pinnacles
- Largest national park: Gates of the Arctic
- Smallest national park: Hot Springs
- State with the most national parks: California (nine)
- Most-visited national park: Great Smoky Mountains
PREPPING FOR YOUR TRIP
First thing’s first, know how many national parks you plan to visit. Typically, if you want to add more than three stops to your national park trip planner (to any of the parks) over the course of a year, it’s financially beneficial to purchase an annual pass. These passes cost $80 and can grant you entrance into any of the national parks and federal recreational lands.
If you’re not willing to commit to an annual pass yet, most national parks participate in fee-free days throughout the year, when entrance fees to the parks are waived. Or, consider visiting one of the many national parks without an entrance fee (the most popular of these is Great Smoky Mountains).
WHERE TO GO
The U.S. National Parks System covers just about every type of landscape. From the desert of Death Valley to the mountains of the Rockies, the volcanic areas of Hawaii to the swampy Everglades to the caves of Kentucky — there truly is a park for everyone.
While most are drawn to the well-known and most popular parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, etc.), the less-visited parks shouldn’t be overlooked either (Katmai, Gates of the Arctic, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Isle Royale — just to name a few).
If you’re planning your first national park trip, choose the one closest to you and make a day-trip out of it. Or, plan for a longer trek and travel to the park that intrigues you most, whether that be the geysers of Yellowstone, the cacti of Saguaro, or the peaks of the Smokies.
WHEN TO GO
National parks are most crowded during the summer months. Visiting during the off-season (fall, winter, or spring) is always your best bet to avoid crowds and have more luck with reservations and permits. For accurate information on specific parks, check out the individual NPS webpages.
Though some argue that certain months are ideal for national park visits (September and October are oft-quoted as the “best”), visit whenever you can. These protected areas should be experienced, preserved, and respected whenever, and as often as, possible.
ROAD TRIP RULES
The states that feature multiple national parks are perfect for road trips — so jump in the car and explore California, Utah, Alaska, or Colorado.
Each national park has its own rules and regulations regarding where you’re allowed to camp or park within the park’s bounds, so be sure to check online before you leave. In some cases, you’ll need to reserve or apply for a permit ahead of time.
YOUR PACKING LIST
Regardless of how long you’ll be visiting your chosen park, make sure to pack enough water for you and your companions (even if you’re not hiking). Bring snacks and/or meals for your trip as well, since most of the parks are remote and don’t offer food establishments. If you plan to camp in the backcountry, make sure you have filtration equipment and always check with the ranger’s office about water availability in these areas of the park.
It’s always a good idea to rely on layers when visiting the national parks. Even desert landscapes experience drops in temperature at night, so it’s best to have options in terms of clothing. You should also wear sturdy shoes or sandals.
Typically, you’ll be thankful if you throw a few other items in your backpack as well: bug spray, sunscreen, sunglasses or a hat, and a first-aid kit.
PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE PARKS
The national parks are rife with photographic possibility, but there are a few key things to remember before pulling out your camera.
In almost all cases (the geothermic features at Yellowstone being one of the exceptions), it’s best to avoid photographing at midday. This is when the light is harshest and will make composing your shots even more difficult. If possible, try to hit Golden Hour (right before sunrise, or right after sunset) or Blue Hour (right after sunrise, or before sunset). These are the times of day when the light is perfect for photography.
If using a smartphone, do your best to avoid zooming in on your photos (especially landscapes). Smartphones lack a physical zoom lens, which means they digitally zoom in on the image. This creates grainy photos that lack the clarity of crisp images. Instead, avoid the zoom function entirely and simply crop the photo after the fact.
The national parks have plenty of opportunities for all types of photography. Take landscape shots, action shots of the wildlife, portraits of your travel companions, and macro shots of the details; experiment with long exposures, capture the misty mornings, or use water to snatch reflection shots.
Be sure to check the park’s website if you’re unsure of what (and when) you’re allowed to photograph. This applies for drone photography as well, since some of the parks don’t allow the use of drones without special permits.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
The National Parks System website is the best resource for visiting the individual parks — it’s where you’ll find the most up-to-date information on camping, permits, and closures.
If you plan on bringing a furry friend along on your adventure, make sure to check online first. Some parks are more dog-friendly (Acadia), while others don’t allow pets at all (Channel Islands). And, always make sure to bring extra water and snacks for your companion.
A good first stop in any of the parks is one of the park visitor centers, where you can find maps, information, ranger programs, event calendars, and other resources for your visit.
Along the way, you may come across wildlife. When this happens, leave them alone. Don’t feed the animals or try to touch them. Taking photos is acceptable, just don’t get too close.
Finally, don’t rely on cell phone service in most of the parks. Some of the parks offer offline apps, which can be especially helpful. For those that don’t, be sure to grab a map at the park center or screenshot images on your phone for later use.
America’s national parks are some of its most treasured outdoor spaces, so adhere to the “Leave No Trace” mentality during your visit. Respect the parks and leave the land just as you found it.
Now get out and explore!
Header image by Michael George.