“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
― John Muir
Living in the West — Colorado in particular — sometimes makes me feel like everyone is a master outdoorsperson. That everyone has been to more National Parks than me (and I’ve been to 24!), everyone has an SUV crammed with gear, and everyone is on top of some mountain right at this moment, probably looking down at me and laughing. But, alas, apparently that is not so.
While National Parks visitors are increasing each year (331 million in 2016!) they are still mostly concentrated in the top 5 parks, with the bottom 5 only receiving between 10-20,000 visitors a year. The number is also misleading since it includes people who visit multiple parks or the same park multiple times (like me!)
For comparison sake (and math!) Disneyworld had 52 million visitors last year — nearly five times the number of visitors of the most visited National Park: Great Smoky Mountains at 11 million. The second-most visited park — Grand Canyon — only had 5.9 million.
So while social media may make it seem like everyone already knows everything about National Parks — don’t worry, they don’t. With summer vacation season gearing up, hopefully you are planning a trip to one or two of America’s best idea. So, to assuage any anxiety you may have, here is my list of 10 National Park Vacation Tips for the beginner. (cause you gotta start somewhere)
Plan well but not TOO well
Planning is key. But it can also keep you from some awesome experiences. Check the website, read blogs about your destination, scour Pinterest if that’s your thing, and look at Instagrams that are tagged in the park — but don’t plan your every waking moment. That will just lead to burnout. Not the point of a National Park trek.
Pick 2-3 must’s at each park for each day and then decide if there’s a certain time you need to be there. For example, at Canyonlands, a must is Mesa Arch. It is a short trail with an amazing view anytime of the day — but especially at sunrise. If you know this going in, you get there at the right time. On the other hand, Old Faithful goes off all day long, so you don’t have to be there at one specific time.
So, know the general lay of the land (some parks are HUGE and some can honestly be seen in a half day), allot a little more time than necessary for random adventures and recommendations, then just go.
(and read more about how I plan a weekend trip here)
Go early! Always
Like a lot of old people, I have naturally become a morning person. But even if I wasn’t, I would make myself for National Park trips. This is important for many reasons:
1 — It’s summer, and most parks will get HOT!
2 — Sunrise! Watch it. Take pictures of it. You won’t regret it.
3 — The popular parks fill up FAST. If you want to get a spot at a trailhead, or a picture without a million other people in it, it pays to be the early bird.
*This is especially true in parks with limited parking/shuttle bus only systems like Zion. I got to Zion fairly early, and STILL had to wait an hour in line for the shuttle bus (you have to take one). That hour was excruciating for me — to see the beautiful scenery without being able to do anything in it!
So just get up geesh!
Use the park amenities
I always make a stop at the Visitor Center when I enter into a new park. I buy a postcard, magnet, and either a pin or patch from each park (plus some other random thing) in lieu of a park passport stamp, then I ask the Park Rangers for recommendations.
Get specific with the Rangers! They want to help you have the best experience. I say some version of this: “I like to _______, I have ______ time, I’d like to see _______, what do you recommend?” Always works. They know the secret spots.
Other “amenities” to be aware of and use:
Shuttle buses! They are there for a reason! Big parks are crowded and parking is limited. Don’t spend your day circling when you can hop a bus. Generally the bus driver has some good insider info, you meet other people heading to your trailhead, and you can spend your time looking at maps/scenery/not driving. Win.
Water stations! Fill up whenever you see one. Especially at higher elevations than you are used to. Duh.
Lodges! If a park has a lodge with some history (or two or three), I always visit. It’s a great chance to see some architecture, read some history, maybe grab lunch or some ice cream, and get out of the sun for a bit.
*Lots of parks have other unexpected things "amenities" that you may not expect - Capitol Reef has a pick your own fruit orchard and a homestead where you can buy amazing pie - don't miss those stops!
Obvious, but hear me out. It may seem like I take a ton of pictures, but I actually always wish I would have taken more! I usually take a couple — one of me in the park as a souvenir of sorts and a few scenery shots — then forget about it.
While I’m all for enjoying the moment and not being stuck behind a camera all day, I do wish I had more photos of some of the parks. Especially those that are difficult to get to or that I may never visit again. It would be nice to be able to look back at more specific memories.
Plan your trip in groupings
A lot of National Parks are close (relatively) to other parks — especially in the West. And they’re also mostly all in the middle of BFE anyways, so if you’re going to spend the time to drive to one, you might as well add in another one. Or four (looking at you California).
I’ve taken advantage of proximity on most trips. Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are obvious groupings, but Theodore Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain National Park aren’t too far from them either. Wind Cave and Badlands are near each other, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison are all within somewhat short distances of each other, and I just went to Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend all in one big loop.
Then of course there are the obvious: California, Washington, and Utah are all packed with National Parks — it would be a crime against Ken Burns to only visit one.
Understand your motivations
There’s a lot more to do at National Parks than hike. While you can hike at basically any park (and you should if that’s your thing), there are some that are definitely more geared to hikers. Some parks are great for a drive (with lots of photo worthy overlooks), some parks are great to bike in, some parks are on water or have a lot of water inside, some parks are better for families, and some parks have entire towns inside. The point: understand your motivation for the trip and how it matches up to where you are going.
If you want to stay in a cool lodge and play mini-golf in the afternoons — don’t go to the Petrified Forest. On the flip side, if you want to hike in solitude (you know, become one with nature, kumbaya, namaste) then maybe don’t hit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Village.
There are a lot of different atmospheres within parks, and also outside of them. Big parks generally have towns outside that cater to tourists and families (Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain) while other parks are literally in the middle of nowhere (Guadalupe Mountains, Pinnacles, Theodore Roosevelt) and some are nearby to medium to large cities (Channel Islands, Saguaro).
It’s important to take all of this into account and also to understand what you/your friends/family actually like to do. If you only want to walk 3/4 of a mile (or less) to see some natural wonders — that’s awesome and totally possible. Don’t try to backpack for three days just because you think that’s the thing to do.
Check the weather!
Another seemingly no-brainer that I haven’t done on more than one occasion and has come back to bite me. Don’t assume the weather will be a certain way because of the state or season. You can be in a park in California where it’s snowing one day and then a desert park the next. Even now, in June, there are trails/roads that could be closed or snow covered in northern and higher altitude parks. Plan ahead. And keep checking!
Be prepared (but don’t go crazy)
National Parks are great because they cater to all sorts of people. You can hike the backcountry for days and climb a 14er, or you can stay in a luxurious lodge in a park with it’s own grocery store. There are certain things you need, sure, but if you plan on doing the normal things, no need to spend your entire vacation budget at REI.
That being said, there are some things I have with me no matter what:
Water — in a water bottle and a gallon or two in my trunk (although many parks have water stations for fill ups)
Sunscreen -- even though I always forget to put it on (just having it makes me feel mature and prepared haha)
Snacks — usually mixed nuts and dried fruit (no melted mess)
Book -- (related to the place I am in if possible! - check the visitors center)
Camera — DSLR or just iPhone (make sure they are charged!)
America the Beautiful Pass - $80 to get into all the parks for a year, as well as tons of other National Park sites (GREAT DEAL I use it all the time)
Pepper spray/knife -- cause hey, I'm alone (and I guess the type of badass who carries a knife)
and…. that’s it. That’s really all you need. Probably more than what you need, actually. I have other boots, backpack, first aid, poncho, hiking poles etc, but generally use those mostly at non-National Parks.
Pack it in, pack it out
This might seem obvious, but according to what I’ve seen at parks apparently it isn’t. There might be a few areas for trash in some parks, but they are few and far between. Anything you bring in, you need to take out. Park rangers are not custodians, and more importantly — there are bears hanging around! Wildlife does not need your skittles wrapper/you are actually endangering people on top of ruining the very thing you are here to see.
Actually, aim to leave a place even better than you found it! If you see some trash, pick it up.
And it should go without saying, but don’t write on, deface, carve etc anything into anything (yes, people still do this)
If you don’t spend a lot of time on trails, you may not know trail etiquette is even a thing. So here’s a quick rundown (of the stuff that bothers me):
Right of way - The hiker going uphill has the right of way. It takes more energy and flow to ascend so the hiker going down should step to the side.
Noise - Keep it down. I've actually been on a hike where someone was playing music loudly from their iPhone. No earbuds. That is NOT why people go into nature. Keep it to yourself.
Groups - Hike single-file unless you are truly the only people on the trail and can see ahead/hear behind! Sorry, but you can still talk that way. At least stay on the right half of trail space, and stay on the actual trail.
Don’t take it with you - Don't take the rocks/branches/whatever. Leave it for others to look at. :)
If you have other questions, or want more specific info on one of the parks I've been to, ask me! I've been to these parks as of today:
Arizona: Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Petrified Forest
California: Yosemite, Channel Islands, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles
Colorado: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison
New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns
North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt
Texas: Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend
South Dakota: Badlands, Wind Cave
Wyoming: Yellowstone, Grand Tetons
Utah: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion