Hey there fellow adventurers! Thanks for checking out part 1 of the Adventurers park visit tips! Part 2 is coming soon and will be focused on how to visit parks CHEAPLY! It was my 2018 trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, which was a super brief drive-through, that I decided that this national park thing was pretty awesome, and a bit after I decided to make visiting all 63 (60 at the time) a travel goal. At that point I had Gateway Arch and Indiana Dunes (both of which were not among the 63 when I visited them), Dry Tortugas, Grand Canyon, and Denali under my belt. In 2019 I would visit 8 more parks. Then covid hit, and soon after the massive exodus to America’s great outdoor spaces began in earnest. During this time I was blessed to be able to visit 10 more National Parks! But, what I am getting at is that I definitely was not early to the National Park scene, but I got started well before the covid craze started. I am embarking on another National Park trip this weekend and I thought I would take a moment to gather my thoughts on how to travel the U.S. National Parks in the current climate! The most important thing is that your trip is your trip, done your way, and have a blast! But here are my tips to have an outstanding experience!
Planning and preparation. Do not assume you can just stroll into a park anymore. Due to crowd control, many parks now require ADVANCED tickets or reservations for entry, campgrounds, some key sites, roads, and even some trails now. (And by advanced, I mean advanced – not the day you show up.) This might even depend on the time of year. What season are you wanting to visit? Is the park fully open at that time, at all, or even just partially? Park websites should be your first line of research for any visit, and check them often, as conditions can definitely change on a daily basis. Be sure to join online communities of the park you are going to visit. Lodging and rental car arrangements should probably be made WELL in advance. Many of the parks are highly visited or in remote areas where lodging is limited, and advanced planning may very well be for next year, or even further out than that! Car rentals, as of late, have become suspect. When I booked a trip to Yellowstone this past June I booked a car in March for about 100 bucks a day. I noticed by early May it was up to nearly $500 a day, and by early June I noticed it was no longer possible to even rent a car by the day and it was 3 grand for a week. EEK! I hate itineraries as a general rule. However, when visiting a park it is best to have some sort of game plan, but it is important to not over schedule yourself. Always check your routes to avoid road closures or unnecessary backtracking. And probably most important, especially now, is to get a general sense of how busy that thing you want to see is and what times it is less busy and also know what parks you can get in through the gates 24 hours or not. I saw Old Faithful go off with maybe 100 people total rather than 1000. I also saw it at 7:30 AM. I got an awesome experience at the Grand Canyon with not one single person around, and I was near the visitor center. It was also 2 AM. Be willing to do that if you don’t want crowds. And always, ALWAYS be willing to call an audible. Don’t fuss. Don’t stress. Just go with it. Remember that the ENTIRE national park is amazing, whether or not the stars align to see that main draw or not.
Arrival. You are now at the park, or at the area near the park. Recon is your friend. Get a unigrid (the map) and open it. I recommend a drive through the immediate area to see drive times, turns, what crowds might look like in real life. Maybe that one thing you wanted to see is straight away, from the road, not that impressive and that one thing you didn’t even hear about piques your interest. You should have stocked up on any supplies at the furthest point away from your park that you could to save money and to make sure what you need is in supply (getting a cooler in West Yellowstone is not going to happen – and getting one is Bozeman was difficult and not cheap). Early and late are ALWAYS the best times to visit. Your best chances to see wildlife are during these times and most people often come into a park conveniently during visitor center hours but that’s it. Speaking of visitor centers, CHECK THEM OUT. ALL OF THEM. If there is any kind of Park Facility for visitors, it is probably there for a reason and worth a visit. Talk or listen to rangers! Plus, if you are a passport stamp fiend like myself, there is probably a stamp at each and every one of them. People also tend to have a habit of being lazy. Do not be this person. These people tend to go into a park just a bit, or go down a trail just a bit and then turn around and do something else. A spot that might be jammed up might be jammed because it’s the turn around spot for many. Wait it out and go past to probably clear sailing. Partially for this same reason, you DO NOT NEED TO STOP AT EVERY SINGLE OVERLOOK. I have been guilty of this one, but I am breaking myself of this habit. Again, people will flock to the first few overlooks and then the crowds with taper off the further in you get. Also, you can waste a ton of time stopping at 15 overlooks that are actually looking at essentially the same thing, just from a different angle. Do you really need to stop at one more overlook half a mile away? Probably not. Get into the habit of going to your furthest destination in the park and working your way back (since you have to anyway). More than likely you will get to that spot and have it more to yourself and as you go through the day you will get the earlier stuff after the morning crowds, and will also avoid that same crowd all trying to come back at the same time. If you are hiking, make sure you hike smart, most of those trails in the park have an info placard and I snap a pic on my phone in addition to taking the trail map there. Practice leave no trace, and get there EARLIER than you think for popular trails. Most importantly, be willing to be flexible. This is nature. Animals and weather may very well not cooperate. If you can find a substitute activity or rearrange your schedule do it. Most importantly, ENJOY your time and relish the opportunity to see and experience some of the most amazing spots on the planet!
Outside the Park. There are often lots of cool things to do outside of any given park. If you are staying in a “park town” or run into a local place somewhere near, don’t hesitate to stop in and chat with the locals. Doing this gave me the opportunity meet a bartender who also wrote a book about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Yellowstone (including a signed copy of his book) and provided me with a route to a little visited point well off of the road at the Grand Canyon, along with stories of this person’s Shoshone tribe! You might also be in a locale that has unique foods or drinks that you should try! And yes, sometimes this equals $$$ but you are probably spending a decent chunk already, so don’t skimp on this part. There are often state parks or national forests nearby that sometimes equal or even surpass the national park you are visiting (Valley of Fire vs Zion?)! Make sure to check these out as well! Many fun excursion opportunities are found outside the park boundaries (reservations?), and quite frankly, you might have missed them in researching. These also cost $$$ but…. A great way to experience Denali is to pony up the 400 bucks to fly and land on a glacier for an hour or so looking straight up at the summit! Maybe try white water rafting through New River Gorge. Chances are you are not coming back to this area ever again, or at least not for a long time, and now is not the time to be cheap.
Leaving. You have had a blast! Don’t forget to talk to your companions about your trip or journal your experiences. Maybe you loved it! Maybe it was very underwhelming! Maybe some event colored your experience in a negative way. Those are all great! Why? Try not to allow a previous “more spectacular” park experience to jade this particular trip. Two of my earliest park visits were the Grand Canyon and Denali. It is pretty dang hard to top those two! You probably took a bazillion underwhelming-to-real-life pictures. Without context these memories might fade. And, chances are the internet has better ones of the same thing you photographed. So, definitely find some way to chronicle your trip! You got your unigrids, passport stamps, and postcards (did you send them from inside the park to get the park’s cancellation?). On your way out don’t forget to get that 50 dollar thing in the first gift shop you stopped in. You know, that thing that grabbed your interest but was too expensive, or you wanted to see if another gift shop had something similar for cheaper? You didn’t find it anywhere else and you forgot it until you got home and then lo and behold the internet doesn’t have it, or at least not the one you saw in the gift shop…and what is available online is probably not any cheaper.
Reflecting. Lastly, get home and reflect on the wonderful opportunity you just had. Honestly, I have 600 “friends” on Facebook. I RARELY see any of them post trips to national parks. Most people don’t really get to experience the best idea the United States ever had! Sure, many will go to Yellowstone. Many go to Yosemite. Many go to the Smokies. Many go to the park they are lucky enough to live a hundred miles from, and that might be it. Whether this is park 1, 63, 3, 58; whether you decided to go outside for the first time in your life because of covid events; whether you never see another national park again….you probably saw something amazing and beautiful that changed your perspective in some small way!