How To Make The Most Of A Trip To A National Park

It’s no secret I love exploring the National Parks in the US.  I’ve learned a thing or two on those trips to know how to better use my time in the parks.  

It can be a little overwhelming knowing how to utilize your time most effectively without being super stressed while fighting the tourist hoards.  This could be anything from wearing the right shoes to knowing when to go where.

National Park Goodies

Before and at the park

Plan ahead (at least a little)

I don’t mean create a minute by minute itinerary for your trip, I mean look at a park map to see where everything is and check out the park website or hit up Pinterest for some ideas on hike and activities you’d like to do.  

I think all parks have ranger programs, but some have night sky programs, which are awesome.  Great Basin is known for the dark sky and has a few programs a week.  You can usually find schedules online and at visitors centers.

Wear the right shoes

Fo realz.  Nothing is worse than getting halfway into a hike and realizing you’re ready to cut your feet off and drag yourself the rest of the way.  Wear the right shoes for the weather and type of hiking you’ll be doing.  

You already know I prefer Chacos over tennis shoes (this hasn’t changed in 2022), I hate getting sand in my shoes and when my feet get hot, but if it’s going to be coolish I’ll wear tennis shoes.  It’s more reasonable.  If it’s snowy, obviously boots would be best.  If you’ll be getting your feet wet and doing regular land hiking, Chacos (or Tevas) are great.

Check ahead for any park closures

Some parks may have trails closed due to high wildlife activity, like bears or wolves killing a moose.  Others may be closed because of park updates and construction, like in Arches this summer.  

This can also lead to campground closures, so check ahead to make sure you’re not planning your trip around something you can’t actually do.  Some parks, especially in snowy areas, close most areas for the winter, so check that, too.  Grand Teton and Yellowstone are good examples, but still worth visiting then!

Make sure you have enough gas

This is so you don’t spend all of your time in the park trying to find a way to get to gas.  Most don’t have gas stations in them so you need to get it in the closest town.  Others, like Yellowstone, might have it, but it’s really far apart.  No matter which park, make sure you have enough before you start exploring.

Look up campgrounds ahead of time

Like park closures, take a look at what your camping options are if you plan on camping.  Check to see if they take reservations or are first come, first serve.  See how many spots are in each and which fills the fastest.  

If you need RV hookups, check where they are available as well.  If there’s a specific one you want, get there early or reserve it if you can.  Just in case they are full, make note of some others in the area as backups.

Bring some sort of snack

It’s good, but not necessary, to have some kind of snack with you if you plan on hiking all day or spending the entire day in the park.  Not all of them, most that I’ve been to actually, don’t have food available in the park at all.  

You would have to go to the nearest town instead.  And, if there is food in the parks, it’s probably not going to be great, but it will be expensive.  Save your wallet and taste buds with some jerky or something and splurge on dinner at a good restaurant.  Definitely have breakfast before you go, too.

Stay hydrated

Like my Chacos, you know I love my Hydro Flask.  It’s important to stay hydrated when you’re out hiking all day, especially in the desert parks.  It’s nice to have a bigger one to keep lots of water on you so you don’t have to worry about finding somewhere to fill it up.  Some parks will have places to do this, though.  Better to be safe than sorry!

Grab a park map

You usually get these at the entrance gate, but some parks without entrance fees don’t have the pay stations, so pick one up at the visitors center instead.  They will show all the camping, gas, food, bathrooms, visitors centers, and trails.

It’s super helpful to have, especially in big parks like Yellowstone or if you make an impromptu visit to a park.  I always reference mine when planning out a route through the park, then it’s a fun thing to have to take home with you.

Stop at the visitors center

This is always the first thing I do, mostly to get postcards and a patch, but occasionally I’ll ask about what the rangers recommend doing and their opinion on a trail, like Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef, to get a better idea of what to expect.  

Take it with a grain of salt though.  In Gunnison it felt like we were being discouraged from driving down into the canyon when it really isn’t bad at all.  Plus, now is a great time to ask about ranger programs to see if any interest you if nothing is listed online.

Be flexible

I think this is most important.  You can plan everything you want, but you need to be flexible.  Everything might not go according to plan.  A trail may be closed for construction, from storm damage, or because if wildlife activity.  Just keep an open mind and enjoy your time in the park.

Resources to help plan

National Geographic Guide to National Parks

This is my go-to book when I decide to go to a park whether it’s my first or fourth visit.  It breaks the parks down into the different areas and gives you an idea of the park’s highlights.  

If it’s your first visit and you have limited time, this is super helpful.  If I’m returning to a park, I look for some of the less visited areas and some lesser known hikes to try.  It has tips on camping, when to go, all the visitors centers.  It’s awesome.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

Gotta get from park to park somehow, don’t you?  Why not take the scenic way!  This book will help you find the prettiest roads to get you around America.  

Head from Lake Powell (in Utah) to Escalante?  Take Burr Trail! What about Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon?  Scenic Byway 12!  Great Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah?  Blueridge Parkway will get you there!  Going through Mississippi?  Why not take the Natchez Trace!

National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks

This is another great book for finding hikes do to in the parks.  It does highlight some of the well-known trails, but there are a few lesser known ones that they talk about that are actually pretty cool.  

It doesn’t include all of the parks, so keep that in mind.  If you’re looking for information on a specific one, check to see if it’s in here before buying it.  It’s a good addition to the Guide to National Parks.  If I were to only bring one for a trip, it would be the regular guide.

My National Parks page

Obviously, I had to include this.  I haven’t been to all the parks yet, not even close, but the ones I have been to I’ve created a guide with.  I add every new park and update when I go back to them, so I update it quite a bit.

Park Service websites

These are obviously the best resources.  I always check the specific park website to see closures and get a chart with all of the hiking trails on it.  You can also find entrance fees and camping information.  This is also the place to look for any park closures or advisories.

Switchback Kids podcast

In 2016 Elizabeth and Cole visited all 59 National Parks in honor of the Park Service centennial.  They are now doing a podcast with different themes for a few episodes at a time.  

They usually talk about two parks per episode and every ten or so have a countdown list.  The day hike and short hike episodes are pretty awesome.  I mean, they all are, so I would definitely listen to those.

Do you like visiting National Parks?  Which is your favorite?  How do you plan for your visits?

How to make the most of a trip to a National Park
How to make the most of a trip to a National Park (2)

10 thoughts on “How To Make The Most Of A Trip To A National Park

  1. I love your suggestion about stopping at the Visitor Center! This is usually valuable to any traveler that’s often overlooked!

  2. I need to take the “stay hydrated” and “bring a snack” tips to heart for any kind of outdoor activity, national park or not… I’m famous for undertaking hikes (not super long but always reasonably sweaty/challenging) and realizing at the halfway point that I brought… nothing. I usually leave a park feeling over-hungry and kind of grumpy, so I could definitely do better there!

    I’m curious which parks the desert-like photos under the “My National Parks page” and the colourful steamy photos under the “Parks Service Websites” are from? These places look gorgeous, and someday (when I get a chance to do a cross-USA road trip) I’d love to be able to check them out.

    1. I need to work on taking my own advice and bringing snacks! I usually have enough water but end up starving by the time I’m done!

      Under the My National Parks Page is Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and under the Park Service Websites is Yellowstone! The middle is Grand Prismatic Spring and the other two were in the area of Old Faithful and the black sand basin I think.

  3. I think my favs are Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii and Haleakala in Maui. We learned that you can obtain a junior rangers workbook at the visitor station and if you complete it you get a badge (or something) we never completed it just did some activities. I’m pretty sure this is available at all parks. Another tip would be to make sure you have fuel. Most do not have gas stations 🙂

    1. Oh, I would love to go to both of those! I loooove volcanos. I’ve seen the Junior Ranger stuff but never really looked into what it was, I’ll have to do that. I’ll definitely have to add the gas thing! I have a desert travel tips post with that in it, but somehow I missed it here!

  4. This is probably the exact checklist running in my head when I plan any National Park visit! Gas was added after being stranded in Smoky’s on an Autumn night :/ Lovely read!

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