The Ultimate National Park Travel Guide

“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

The Ultimate National Park travel guide.jpg

Living in the West — Colorado in particular — sometimes makes me feel like everyone is a master outdoors-person. That everyone has been to more National Parks than me (and I’ve been to 47 on my own just in the US!), 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 have generally increased each year (318 million in 2018!) they are still mostly concentrated in the top 5 parks, with the bottom 5 only receiving between 10-20,000 visitors a year.

For comparison sake (and math!) Disneyworld averages over 52 million visitors a year — nearly five times the number of visitors of the most visited National Park — Great Smoky Mountains — which sees just over 11 million. The second-most visited park — Grand Canyon — only had 6.3 million visitors last year.

So, while social media may make it seem like everyone already knows everything about National Parks — don’t worry, they don’t. With the start of National Park Week (and a fee free day April 20) and summer vacation season gearing up, hopefully you are planning a trip to one or two of America’s best idea. To assuage any anxiety you may have, here are my answers to the most common questions I get about National Park Travel:

Planning

which parks should i visit

This is the by far the question I get asked the most! Which parks are “the best” or my favorite. Well, here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter what my favorites are — because my motivations for visiting might be different than yours or your family’s.

I always tell people to consider their motivations when planning a National Park trip. What do you want to do while you’re there? Because while you may think a parks trip is all hiking and wildlife — there is so much more to do at many (most, even) of the parks.

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.

when is the best time to visit

Again, the “best” time might be different for everyone. I go to a lot of parks in the off or shoulder season to get away from crowds (and it’s cheaper), but I also miss some things that way. That being said, there are some “rules” to consider when planning a trip.

If you aren’t from a mountainous or higher elevation place, you may not realize how long “winter” lasts. Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier, North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Crater Lake are just a handful of parks that will have snow well into Spring. In many cases the roads won’t even all be open until much later than you might expect. So unless your motivation is to see the snow, check each park individually to see when roads will be open and when you can expect the snow to be melted.

Similarly, there are a few parks that you really don’t want to be in after the spring. Death Valley, Saguaro, and Joshua Tree all have extremely high, uncomfortable, and even dangerous heat in the summer months.

Other things to consider: is there a certain ecological event you’d like to witness? Many parks are known for spring blooms and fall foliage. While the parks will be more crowded during those times, it is for good reason, and might be worth the trip.

Bugs/Wildlife: There are definitely certain seasons that are better for seeing wildlife and worse for certain bugs. If these things concern you, look up that park specifically.

where do i stay?

Not to sound like a broken record here but, this depends on what you want/like to do. You don’t have to camp! But if you want to, that’s definitely the best option in my opinion. Many times any other lodging options are 1+ hour away, which takes time away from your experience in the park.

There are also beautiful lodges in many parks. These are often booked well in advance, so if this is the route you want to go — book early.

Gateway towns often have chain hotels, but I find that they are often overpriced for what you get. If I’m not camping I generally will spring for an Airbnb. There are almost always an abundance of interesting Airbnb listings near the larger and more remote parks.

how do i plan my route?

When visiting a National Park, you’re going to need a car. While there are shuttle buses within many parks (and I recommend using them!), the parks themselves are generally remote. Luckily, a lot of National Parks are (relatively) close to other parks — especially in the West. And remember, they’re also mostly all in the middle of nowhere 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 even 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. 

what do i pack?

National Parks are great because they cater to all sorts of people. You can hike the back-country 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!)
Hat
Tevas
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.

what do i wear

Again, this isn’t as complicated as you might think. What would you wear to go to a park in your town? You can probably wear that. I usually wear leggings, Tevas, and some kind of t-shirt or tank. If it’s hot I’ll wear some denim or athletic shorts. I usually keep a flannel nearby if it get’s cold.

Think about breathable fabrics, layers, and comfortable shoes. You’d be shocked at how many people try to hike down into the Grand Canyon in totally inappropriate dress shoes and even heels.

Just use common sense :)

In the Park

what do i do there

Again, this depends on what you like to do. There is no “right way” to visit or experience a National Park. But, if you have no idea or are looking for new experiences I always recommend visiting the visitors center first. And don’t just walk in and out. Talk to the Rangers! Get specific! 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. 

And then let go of any expectation. You’re there to enjoy yourself, so if you get sidetracked and miss a spot or two on your list — it’s okay.

what if its crowded

If you’re visiting some of the more well-known parks in season, they’re going to be crowded. It’s just the way it is. And in many ways it’s great to see the parks being appreciated. But, if you’re like me, the crowds can make the experience a little… annoying. Luckily, I’ve spent enough time in the popular parks to come up with a game plan for crowds.

Get there early. Always. The early mornings are always going to be less crowded. Parking lots may not be full yet, popular trails aren’t congested, and you also get the best views.

Venture off the main “attractions”. While I would never say to skip something like Old Faithful or the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone (they’re worth fighting a crowd) remember that there is SO MUCH more to do and see at Yellowstone. And this is true for all of the parks. If you’re not sure where to find a hidden gem, ask a ranger, but then also ask someone else. I usually ask a gift shop or restaurant worker. Maybe someone you met in town. The key is to find someone who lives and works in the area — they know the spots.

Another option is to travel in the off season. When I post pictures in a park I always get comments that I went at the wrong time, or should really come back for ______ season. But, like I’ve said about 50 times, my motivations are different than theirs, so I might be perfectly fine missing that season or event in a park in exchange for less people overall. You might be too.

what if i dont want to hike

Then don’t! Like I mentioned above, there are so many options in each park. You can bike, drive, boat, swim, canoe, snorkel, and all kinds of other activities depending on where you go. Think about that before you plan your trip so you’re not stuck doing something you’re not interested in.

what if i'm tired

Then take a break! Seriously, don’t burn yourself out. That is definitely not the point of a vacation. I see so many people at parks who seem totally beat down from trying to see and do it all. Families are bickering and no one seems to be having any fun.

I spend a lot of time relaxing. Sitting on a rock somewhere and reading a book. Or just sitting. Listening. Meditating. Taking a nap. Allow yourself to do the things that make you feel good. That give you energy and fill you with joy. If that’s going hard for 12 straight hours, that’s great. If it’s sitting at a lookout for 12 straight hours, also great. It doesn’t make your experience any more or less.

am i safe

One of the reasons I started traveling to National Parks was because they felt safe. I wanted to spend time outdoors, but wasn’t ready to go off the grid completely. While National Parks are often very large and remote, they are also generally full of people — and park rangers!

If you’re concerned about safety camping, or encountering wildlife, stop by the visitors center and talk to a ranger. Maybe even go on a guided hike. Remember that you are surrounded by like-minded people — who would help you if you needed.

how do i care for environment

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)

For more information, check out the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

what's trail etiquette?

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 many hikes 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. :)

Traveling Alone

As much as I’d like to think that traveling alone isn’t any different than in a group — it is. Especially as a woman. So while all of the above information still applies, there are some special concerns I’ll try to address here. For more information on solo travel and safety check out my posts here, here, and here.

what if i'm scared

Fear is a natural emotion. It makes sense to be afraid of something when you don’t know what to expect/haven’t experienced it before. But you can’t let the fear stop you. Real courage is acknowledging fear and continuing. Easier said than done though right?

Here are some things that can help to face fears:

 Gradual exposure – Identify your fears and then gradually expose yourself to them. If the idea of going on a week long off the grid hike is scary – start with a solo hike on a busy trail for a couple of hours. Work your way up to the thing you are afraid of. Practice is key – the more you expose yourself to the source of your fear the less of a hold it will have on you.

Acknowledge and accept – There’s always a point at the beginning of a trip where my mind is working overtime with fear. Did I remember to turn off the oven, did I pack my phone charger, what if the Airbnb is sketchy, what if what if what if. I have learned to acknowledge my fears and then accept that I can’t do anything more. I feel the fear and let it pass. This is a practice of mindfulness. Imagine you are watching cars drive by on a street. You acknowledge they are there and let them pass. Do this with your fear – acknowledge it and let the thoughts pass.

Think positively – A generally positive attitude is key. Assume things will go well. Assume it will all work out. Look to the past and remember the times when your fears were unfounded and assume they will be again.

Practical Tips: I always carry a pocket knife, pepper spray (or bear spray), and when staying in a hotel or Airbnb I have a doorstop alarm and/or an add a lock. Much more here.

how do i get photos?

Every day people ask me how I get photos of myself if I am traveling alone. Some people seem to think that I am lying, and have some secret boyfriend or photographer in tow. But, nope, 99% of my photos I take on my iPhone with the camera timer. The other 1% are taken by strangers I ask to take a photo of me if I’m in a crowded area. For many years I just set my phone up on a ledge, wall, or ground, but now I use this inexpensive tripod that fits in my day pack.

Here are a few tips:

Basics: Set the timer on your phone camera to 10 seconds and either set up the tripod or find something to prop your phone up against. It could be a wall, a fence, your water bottle – I’ve found some crazy stuff that works.

If you can help it, don’t use the selfie camera – you won’t be able to see yourself but the quality of the photo is much better.

Set your phone up as high as you can. Sometimes a pic from the ground can look cool but generally closer to eye level makes a better photo.

If you have an Apple Watch - set your phone somewhere farther away and use the watch to cue the photo — or use a remote (most tripods will include one)

Camera timers are the secret to the cartwheel/active shots – the timer takes a burst of photos so you have a few to choose from.

Take a bunch! Haha but seriously – take one, look at it, and then make adjustments as necessary.

And then post them all over the internet. (duh)

how do i let people know where i am

I tell at least one or two people what my hiking area is, and I share my location from my phone with my parents and two of my friends. I don’t know how that works when you don’t have service, but it makes me feel better that if they don’t hear from me, they can see my location. It’s also important to check in with others when you have service.

On the other side of that, it’s important not to post where you are! I’ve seen people post photos of their exact campsite while they are at it — not a good idea.

I still have questions!

You’re going to be okay! At some point you have to stop planning and start doing. Just go. Talk to rangers. Make friends with others in the park. Learn by doing. You’re going to have a great time :)

If you have specific questions about any of the parks I’ve been to, leave me a comment below!