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.

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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 visitor 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 your 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.  They can take a while, like two months sometimes, to break in.  Don’t give up on them too soon!
  • 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.
  • If you want to camp in the parks, check to make sure they’re open and if you need to make a reservation.  Some you do, others are first come, first serve.  Plan accordingly.  If it’s first come, first serve, you’ll probably need to get there pretty early to get a spot.

Follow along on Pinterest for more national park inspiration!

Utah

Capitol Reef

  • Torrey, Utah
  • $10 per vehicle
  • Park and campgrounds open year round
  • My favorite things to do here:
  • Capitol Reef really has three parts, Notom Road, Cathedral Valley, and the scenic drive area.
  • Notom road is dirt, very washboardy 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.
  • Cathedral Valley is the most northern part and I believe you need a high clearance vehicle.  I’d like to go this summer and I’ll update after.

Zion

  • Springdale, Utah
  • $30 per vehicle
  • Open year-round, here is campground information.
  • My favorite things to do here:
  • If the main area of the park is too busy, head to Kolob Terrace Road or Kolob Canyon, or just go to both anyway.
  • Get here early or in the evening to beat the crowds.  If it’s possible, visit in the winter.
  • Definitely get food outside the park before you go and bring snacks or sandwiches in.  Food options are super limited.  Springdale has lots of good options.
  • For the Narrows, I would recommend closed toe shoes, but Chacos still work.  A walking stick isn’t necessary unless you’re unsteady on your feet.  I saw people with and without them fall.

ArchesArches

  • Moab, Utah
  • $25 per vehicle
  • Open year-round, Devils Garden Campground open year round.  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 Fiery 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
    • Explore the Sand Dune Arch area, but watch for falling rock.  Head over to Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch from here, too.
  • 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.
  • If you’re on a budget, there is a hostel in Moab.  If you’re going in the summer and want to stay there, book it ahead.  Also, if you want delicious food in Moab head to The Spoke.

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.
  • Navajo Loop can be combined in parts with Queens Garden, Wall Street, and Peek-a-boo Loop for a longer hike.  You don’t have to do all of Peek-a-boo, but it’s pretty and way less busy.

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)
    • Check out a wall of petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock on the way to The Needles.
    • Climb up Whale Rock.
    • Hike around Upheaval Dome or to the overlooks at it.
    • Hike into the canyon at the Canyon Overlook Trail at the end of the road (literally)
    • Enjoy some roadside ruins and an arch that looks like a wooden shoe in The Needles.
  • Island in the Sky is the road closest to Moab.  Past Moab, away from I70, is the Needles Overlook and a little past that 9closer to Blanding) is The Needles entrance. The Maze has a different entrance and 4 wheel drive is recommended.  That area is not for the everyday hiker, so research before going.
  • The Needles is a popular overnight backpacking destination but is still far less visited than Island in the Sky and Arches.

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.)
    • 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 bathhouses
    • Enjoy a beer or root beer in the Superior Bathhouse Brewery
    • Wander around the town
    • Explore the different bathhouses
  • 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)
    • Hike around the Gros Ventre Area.
    • Get up into the mountains.
    • Take the ferry across Jenny Lake.
  • Bring bear spray when you’re hiking and camping.
  • Keep an 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.

Nevada

Great Basin

  • Baker, Nevada
  • Free entrance, but cave tours are $8-$10
  • Open year-round, but there are some road closures in the winter.
  • There are three campgrounds, all are first come first serve and fill up mid-day in the summer.
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike to Theresa Lake and Stella Lake
    • See the oldest living trees in the world, the bristlecones.  Combine that hike with the alpine lake trail and glacier trail.  It’s easier than doing them separately.
    • Spend a day climbing Wheeler Peak (I didn’t do this and have no plans to in the near future.)
    • Take a cave tour in Lehman Cave and hope you get Ranger Paul for a guide.
    • Check out pictographs at Upper Pictograph Cave.  You can’t go in the cave, but they are at the entrance.
    • Drive and wander along Snake Creek.
  • The trails up at Wheeler Peak can still have snow on them in June.
  • Most of the hiking in the park is on the more strenuous side.  The Alpine Lake trail isn’t too tough, though.
  • Cave tours require reservations and can sell out weeks ahead of time.  There are two: Lodge Room (60 min., $8) and Grand Palace(90 min., $10).  They can be made on recreation.gov 30 days ahead.  You can only make same-day reservations at the visitors center.
  • highly recommend Kerouac’s to eat at in Baker.  They are closed on Tuesday.  They also sell ice.
  • Make sure to stay up to see the stars.  They. Are.  Crazy.

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 there 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.  And don’t forget your bug spray!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

  • Gunnison, Colorado
  • $15 per vehicle
  • South Rim is open every day, 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  and walk along the edge
  • If you’re using a GPS here, definitely put in the visitor 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, but not as terrifying as the visitors center makes it sound.  You’ll be fine unless your car already doesn’t have brakes.  You will have brakes when you get back up, don’t listen to them.
  • 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 days)
  • 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.

Mesa Verde

  • Cortez, Colorado
  • $20 from May 1-October 31, $15 the rest of the year
  • Open year-round, but some area close in the winter
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Hike down to Step House at Wetherhill Mesa
    • Check out Spruce Tree House near the museum
    • Explore the top sites on Mesa Top Loop
    • Wander around the Farview site near the lodge
  • Tours for Balcony House, Long House, and Cliff Palace are needed and can be booked at the visitors center.
  • There is a campground with about 100 spots and a lodge in the park, which is pretty nice.
  • Cortez is a cheaper option for food and accommodation.  It’s 10-15 miles from the park entrance.  The lounge has delicious food, and the Metate Room sounds delicious (they come from the same kitchen), but I would avoid the Terrace Cafe, the cafeteria style place.
  • Spruce Tree House is closed until further notice due to falling rock.
  • The roads are a little confusing on the Chapin Mesa area.  I was very disoriented here, but that just happens to me some places.
  • Keep an eye out for the turnoff signs.  They’re usually only facing one direction and really hard to read.

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
    • Climb up the Saddle Trail to meet up with Castle Trail and a couple others.
    • Hike along some of the trails.
    • Keep an eye out for cute little prairie dogs in the park and near the entrances.
    • Bighorn sheep also tend to make occasional appearances.
  • 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.
  • Don’t pass up a visit in the winter.  It will probably be extremely cold, but it’s super pretty!  Just know a lot of places (hotels and restaurants) will be closed in Wall.  There are still things open, though.

Wind Cave

  • Hot Springs, South Dakota
  • No Entrance Fee to drive through or Hike, but there is a fee for cave tours which are sold on a first come first serve basis.  You can find prices here.
  • Open year round
  • Camping is available for $18 a night and $9 a night when water is turned off (usually November to March)
  • My favorite things to do here:
    • Watch Bison roam the roads and relax in the fields.
    • Hike on one of the trails covering about 30 miles.
    • Look for prairie dogs.
    • Take a historic candlelight cave tour (I didn’t, but it sounds cool!)
    • Take a regular cave tour (I didn’t do that either, but would like to someday)
  • Take a trip into Custer State Park, they are right next to each other.
  • Visit the nearby Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
  • The dirt road in the park (not the main road) isn’t very rough and just takes you back out of the park.

Tennessee / North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains

  • Gatlinburg, Tennessee / Cherokee, North Carolina
  • No park entrance fee
  • Open year-round, but some roads close in the winter due to snow
  • My favorite things to do:
    • Find a quiet walkway to explore
    • Look for wildlife around the park
    • Drive the Cade’s Cove loop (we only walked part of it to see bears.  There was a traffic/bear jam)
    • Check out the views from Clingman’s Dome
    • Hike part of the Appalachian Trail
    • Check out the farm museum at the Oconaluftee visitors center
  • Spend a day exploring nearby Gatlinburg
  • Check out Pigeon Forge, too
  • Drive up to Asheville on the Blueridge Parkway or all the way to Shenandoah National Park

South Carolina

Congaree

  • Hopkins, South Carolina
  • No park entrance fee
  • Open year-round, some trails may close due to flooding and downed (especially November to May)
  • My favorite things to do there:
    • Follow the boardwalk loop
    • Keep an eye out for cool bugs and other wildlife
    • Take a ranger-guided canoe trip (I didn’t, but it would be fun)
    • Take your own or rented kayaks out
    • Hike one of the other awesome trails
  • Visit one of the state parks nearby.  There’s a bunch.
  • It’s the perfect side trip driving from Florida to Asheville, North Carolina.
  • It’s one of the least visited national parks in the US.

Guide to US National Parks (1)Guide to US National Parks