National Parks

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Over the last couple years I’ve been exploring the US a lot more.  I’ve started going to a lot more National Parks and want to share all of my tips and advice for them with you right here.  As I go to new parks, and back to old ones, I’ll add them to this guide and update with new information, so check back for new stuff.

I’ll include the basic facts, like where, how much, and if anything is seasonal, as well as my personal recommendations for each of the parks.  All of this (except cost, location, and seasonal information) are all my own opinion so it may not include everything.  If I include something I haven’t done but want to, I’ll say that, too.  So, hold on tight, grab some coffee and get reading.

General Advice

  • Get the America the Beautiful pass if you’re going to a few parks.  It’s $80, but totally worth it, especially for road trips.
  • Most are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.  I’m not sure if this is the park itself or the visitors centers.
  • If you’re using a GPS, put in the park visitor center, or you could end up in some other weird part of the park, which can be cool, but annoying if you have limited time.
  • Bring snacks or eat before you get to the park.  The food is usually expensive and not very good.
  • Bring lots of water and stay hydrated.  Keep some a couple gallons in you car and bring a reusable water bottle, too.  That way you can fill up from the gallons right into your water bottle.  Here are some of my favorite water bottles for traveling:
    • Hydro Flask insulated 40 oz – I LOVE this because it keeps my water icy cold all day.  I love icy cold water.  It’s a little heavy, but I absolutely love it and it’s perfect in the desert heat, which I’m in a lot of.  If you bring it abroad, a STERIpen will work with it.  Some have too small of openings.
    • Camelbak Groove insulated water bottle with filter – Like I said, I like my water cold.  This doesn’t keep it as cold as the Hydro Flask, but it does a pretty good job, even in the heat of Ecuador.  I like this for shorter trips, or at home, because the mouthpiece is hard to clean.  It’s easier to drink from, though, which is a plus for hiking.  A STERIpen would also work with this.
    • Vapur Element water bottle – This is handy if you’re trying to pack light because when it’s empty, you can fold or roll it up for easy storage.  I like this for convenience, but you can’t put ice in it so if you want it cold you have to keep it in the fridge for a while.  STERIpens also don’t fit in the opening.  It’s also a little weird to drink from, taking a little getting used too, but I like it for at home.
    • GRAYL ultralight water purifier and bottle – I haven’t personally used this, but I’m dying to try it!  Lauren at Never Ending Footsteps (one of my favorite blogs) does though and really likes it.  I will be getting this sooner than later, maybe closer to my next international trip, and will update this.
  • Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.  The sun can be pretty relentless, especially in the desert.  I would recommend a hat too if you’re going to be out in the middle of the day when the sun is the harshest.
  • I usually wear tennis shoes if I’ll be hiking a lot, but if I’ll be doing less hiking or anything in water, I prefer my Chacos. Make sure you get ones that fit really well though or they’ll rub weird on your feet and toes.
  • All parks are manageable in one day, but will take some planning.  If you’re limited on time, figure out what you want to see so you don’t miss out, then make other stops if you have time or just can’t pass it up.  Two days would be better to really get to see and do more in the parks.

Utah

Capitol Reef

  • Torrey, Utah
  • $10 per vehicle
  • Park and campgrounds open year round
  • My favorite things to do here:
  • Capitol Reef really has two parts, Notom Road and the scenic drive area.
  • Notom road is dirt, very washboady and potholey, so drive with caution.  It’s about 30ish miles, but takes at least an hour to drive and can take you to Burr Trail and Bullfrog.  My Smart Car made it if that helps you decide.

Zion

  • Springdale, Utah
  • $30 per vehicle
  • Open year round, here is campground information.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Drive down Kolob Terrace Road
    • Hike part of Wildcat Canyon
    • See Kolob Reservoir
    • Overlook Lava Point
    • Hike to Angels landing (I didn’t make it to the top because I was sick, but I will!)
    • Explore the Narrows (I haven’t because water, but I want to now more than before) and walk along the Virgin River
    • Hike to the Emerald Pools
    • Get lucky with a permit for the Subway (I haven’t done this either, and you do need a permit, but it’s one of the more famous hikes there, along with the other two I didn’t do..)
  • If the main area of the park is too busy, head to Kolob Terrace Road, or just go to both anyways.
  • Get here early or in the evening to beat the crowds.
  • Definitely get food outside the park before you go and bring snacks or sandwiches in.  Food options are super limited.

Arches

  • Moab, Utah
  • $25 per vehicle
  • Open year round, Devils Garden Campground open year round, but closed March 1 – October 31, 2017.  During winter it is first come, first serve.  Between March and October, make reservations ahead of time.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike to Delicate Arch
    • Explore Devils Garden (I haven’t done all of this, but want to at least do more of, if not all of, this summer.)
    • Stop at all the arches along the scenic drive (Double, Skyline, Sandstone, and tons more.)
    • Get a permit for the Firey Furnace (I haven’t done this but it looks cool.  The website says it’s for experienced hikers as it isn’t a marked trail.)
    • Feel like you’re in a Western on Park Avenue
    • Overlook the Moab Fault
  • To avoid the crowds, and the heat, get to the park before 8AM or after 3PM.
  • If you plan on doing Fiery Furnace, you’ll need to get a permit.
  • Park Avenue is 2 miles round trip, you just go back the way you came from.

Bryce Canyon

  • Bryce, Utah
  • $30 per vehicle
  • Open year round, but there may be temporary road closures in the winter
  • My favorite things to do there:
  • Bryce is awesome, even in the rain.  Don’t let the weather stop you, just come prepared.
  • It can get cold, so check the weather ahead of time and dress accordingly.

Canyonlands

  • Moab, Utah
  • $25 per vehicle
  • Open year round, but visitor centers usually close for the winter.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike to Mesa Arch
    • Stop at the overlooks
    • Admire the end of the scenic drive (Island in the Sky)
  • Island in the Sky is the road near Moab.  Past Moab, away from I70, is the Needles Overlook.  The Needles and The Maze have a different entrance and 4 wheel drive is recommended.

Arkansas

Hot Springs

  • Hot Springs, Arkansas
  • No entrance fee
  • Open year round, but bathhouses have certain hours.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike Goat Rock Trail
    • Go to the top of the observation tower for views of Hot Springs (I didn’t do this, but the views are probably awesome.  They were just from the trail)
    • Hydrate from the springs themselves (grab a map at the visitors center to see the cold ones)
    • Soak in the hot springs in one of the bath houses
    • Enjoy a beer or root beer in the Superior Bathhouse Brewery
  • If you get car sick, some of the roads are pretty twisty.  I would highly recommend Dramamine.  I wish I took it.
  • Go early if you only have one day to hike and explore the bathhouses.
  • The bathhouses all have different hours and are open different days.  Keep that in mind when planning your visit.

Wyoming

Yellowstone

  • Yellowstone, Wyoming
  • $30 per vehicle ($50 for Teton and Yellowstone)
  • Open year round, but with road closures due to snow.  Read here to get all the info on what is open when.
  • My favorite things to do there:
    • Search for bison
    • Overlook the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
    • Be awed by the Grand Prismatic Spring
    • See the infamous Old Faithful
    • Hike around springs and Geysers in Black Sand Basin and the Upper Geyser Basin
  • Keep an eye out for wolves, bears, moose, and bison.
  • Do not touch the wildlife!
  • Pleeeease do not go off the boardwalks and trails, especially here.  There are hot springs all over and you don’t want to fall in.
  • Stay out of the hot springs as well.
  • I would recommend at least two days here, one for the east side, one for the west side.  There’s so much to see.
  • Bring bear spray if you’re hiking, especially in less populated areas or camping.  Just be careful with it, especially indoors.  And by that I mean don’t spray it indoors.

Grand Teton

  • Moose, Wyoming
  • $30 per vehicle ($50 for Teton and Yellowstone)
  • Open most of the year, but with seasonal road closures.  For specifics, read here.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike from String Lake to Jenny Lake then up to Hidden Falls
    • Walk around Jackson Lake
    • Search for wildlife in Gros Ventre (especially in winter)
    • Kayak on Jackson Lake (I didn’t do this, but it would be a good way to see more of it)
  • Bring bear spray when you’re hiking and camping.
  • Keep and eye out for moose, bears, and bison.
  • In the winter, you can almost always see moose in the Gros Ventre area.  I’ve only been down there once and not seen any and I go there a lot.

Colorado

Great Sand Dunes

  • Mosca, Colorado
  • $15 per vehicle
  • Open year round, but check here for camping information as well as weather.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Climb the dunes (this is the only thing I did there, but these are other options below)
    • Go sand boarding
    • Hike in the mountains
    • Cool off in Medano Creek (in the summer)
  • In the summer, wear tennis shoes because the sand can be 150+ degrees.
  • In the winter you can go barefoot.
  • I’d bring a backpack to carry shoes, snacks, water, sunscreen, all that good stuff.
  • Definitely bring sunglasses to help keep sand out of your eyes.  It was super windy when I went.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

  • Gunnison, Colorado
  • $15 per vehicle
  • South Rim is open everyday, North Rim closes between late November and early April.  Here are more specifics on that.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Watch the sunset over the South Rim
    • Drive between the North and South Rim (it’s a super pretty drive, I’d only do it if you’re going that way or to the North Rim)
    • Hike some of the trails along the rim (I didn’t do much of this, we were short on time.)
    • Stop at the overlooks to admire the canyon and river.
    • Drive down to the river (I didn’t do this either, but it looked super cool)
  • If you’re using a GPS here, definitely put in the visitors center.  We didn’t and ended up at the river with no way to cross after driving down a terrible dirt road.  Always put in the visitors center.
  • It takes roughly two hours to drive from one rim to the other.
  • The drive down into the canyon is super steep.
  • Be extra careful if you’re hiking along the rim or into the canyon.  It would be quite the fall.

Rocky Mountain

  • Estes Park, Colorado
  • $20 per vehicle (one day), $30 per vehicle (seven day)
  • Open year round, but there are road closures.  Read more about those here.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Look for wildlife like elk, moose, bears, mountain lions, and deer to name a few
    • Hike around one of the lakes
    • Admire the mountains along the scenic drives
    • Go fishing, climbing, or horseback riding (I didn’t do any of these, and horses freak me out)
  • If you get carsick, I’d take Dramamine here, too.  The road up from Loveland in the summer can get pretty twisty but it’s soooo pretty.

Arizona

Grand Canyon

  • Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • $30 per vehicle (here is all kinds of information on fees and where you can get passes)
  • South Rim is open year round, North Rim closes for the winter and opens mid-May.  Here are more specifics.
  • My favorite things to do here(I’ve only been to the South Rim):
    • Stop at all the overlooks.
    • Hike the Kaibab Trail (I want to go back to do this)
    • Take a helicopter tour (I didn’t do this but would LOVE to)
    • Ride a mule into the canyon
    • Go rafting in the Colorado River (in the canyon)
  • I think to really enjoy the Grand Canyon you need to go in it.  I just drove and stopped at overlooks and was a little underwhelmed, but I could have also been worn out of parks by then.
  • It’s at least a two hour drive from the North to South Rim, I’m not sure about to the West, which is where the glass floor overlook thing is.

New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns

  • Carlsbad, New Mexico
  • $10 per person (if you have the America the Beautiful pass, you can use it for up to four people)
  • Open year round, read here for opening hours and when you can hike in.
  • My favorite things I did here:
    • Walk around in the main cavern (this is actually all I did)
  • It may be hot outside, but it can be cool in the cave, so bring a sweater.
  • There are tours in the cave.
  • This is a good park to visit if it’s on your route or if you’re visiting Roswell.
  • To get excited about your visit, read Blind Descent by Nevada Barr.  This made me want to go spelunking even though it sort of freaks me out.

South Dakota

Badlands

  • Interior, South Dakota
  • $20 per vehicle, this will increase to $25 in January 2019
  • Open year round
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Stop at all the overlooks, or anywhere along the road as long as it’s not busy
    • Hike down into the Badlands, but be cautious and avoid causing any damage
    • Hike along some of the trails
  • Make a pit stop at the famous Wall Drug on your way in or out.
  • One day should be plenty here if you’re not doing tons of hiking, even just a few hours if you do almost no hiking.
  • It can actually get pretty hot here, even in April, so be prepared for that as well as cold weather.

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