So, you’re ready to start exploring the national parks! Whether you’ve never been to a national park or are just getting started on your journey, we’re here to help. This national parks trip planning guide will help you understand the different units managed by the National Park Service, provide advice on how to plan your visit and give you tips on how to be a good visitor.
Basically, we want you to enjoy the national parks as much as we do!
The national parks preserve and protect much of our country’s most scenic lands, such as the Grand Canyon. That is what many folks are seeking when visiting national parks. But there is much more to the national parks!
Our national parks also preserve some of our country’s most historically and culturally significant locations, such as Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, the site that signaled the end of the American Civil War or Thomas Edison’s laboratory at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, where he created so many amazing inventions. Other parks protect land for our recreation and enjoyment, such as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail or Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Whether you are looking for incredible scenery, historical significance or recreation, you’ll find it in the national parks.
Planning a national parks visit is very similar to planning any other vacation. That said, if visiting the national parks is new for you, our tips will help you get the most out of your visit.
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Understanding the National Park System
As of January 2021, there are 423 units within the National Park Service. Only 63 of these parks are designated or named National Parks. Still, these 420+ units are often collectively referred to as national parks. Understanding the difference between these different types of parks is sometimes confusing.
There are actually more than 20 different naming designations, including National Monuments, National Battlefields, National Historic Sites and many more. Why the different names? Because, well, Congress can name a park whatever it wants!
National Monuments are the only parks that can be established by the president alone, rather than by Congress. These tend to be smaller in size and protect a specific resource or attraction.
Generally, National Parks are larger in size and protect land for its natural resources and beauty. These tend to be well known and the most-visited units of the National Park Service.
There are certainly exceptions, though. Hot Springs National Park is a relatively small site that preserves a historic destination. On the other end of the spectrum, Dinosaur National Monument is quite large and feels much like a national park.
Some names, such as National Seashores, National Lakeshores and National Parkways are quite specific to what they protect. ButNational Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks and National Military Parks can be a bit haphazard. The same is true for the many different designations for National Rivers, including National Scenic Rivers, National Wild and Scenic Rivers and National River and Recreation Area.
Named National Parks vs. Other Park Units
For the most part, the designation of a park (monument, memorial, etc.) really doesn’t matter in terms of how it’s managed. All park units preserve and protect the land with certain usage restrictions. There are some exceptions, though, particularly for National Preserves and National Reserves. With these parks, activities like hunting or fishing may be allowed (check specific parks for details).
But, when a park is redesignated, such as White Sands National Park (previously, White Sands National Monument), there is no additional funding or change in management. In short, a new name is not an “upgrade.” That said, visitation will likely increase since people *think* it’s an upgrade. That is, often, what drives local politicians to lobby for new names on established parks.
The reality, though, is that the park and the surrounding region may or may not be prepared for the uptick in visitation.
Many people work on just visiting the 63 named National Parks. For us, though, all of these 420+ parks are equally important and we’re striving to see them all. Yes, that is a huge goal! No, we are not in a rush to finish.
By visiting all the various units, we are learning so much about our country that we never learned in school. Grant often says visiting all the park units is like earning a Master’s degree in understanding our country.
Even if you don’t have the time to visit all 420+ units, we hope that you’ll at least visit “smaller” units that are convenient. Many are free and can be explored in just an hour or two.
Finally, know that parks are added and renamed more often than you might think. Just since we started really counting our park visits, the number of units has increased from 417 to 423. If this continues, we may never reach our goal of seeing them all!
Choosing a Park/Itinerary
As you start planning your national parks trip, the hardest part may be deciding which park(s) to visit first (or next). When Grant and I started planning our first extended trip together in the summer of 2009, I realized that he had never been to Yellowstone National Park. I immediately said that should be our destination. That particular park just holds a special place in my heart after several visits with my family growing up.
Thankfully, Grant not only agreed to my “demand” but also fell in love with Yellowstone! It’s one of the few parks that we just can’t seem to get enough of.
That was probably the easiest vacation decision. If there is a particular park that a friend or family member highly suggests, start with that one, if you can. Having that personal connection really can make your visit special.
The reality, though, is that it is extremely difficult to determine what the priority should be. And there really is no right answer. Everyone has different things they enjoy and what we love may not be what you love.
We tend to like to do road trips where we can visit several national parks on one trip. If you prefer to fly or have limited time, you might want to focus on just one park or a few that are close together.
Ultimately, you should consider the time of year and the weather, how much time you have, if you’ll fly or drive, do you want to camp or stay in a hotel, are you trying to visit several parks or focus on just one or two?
Itineraries to Consider
Here are a few itinerary suggestions for you to consider for your next national parks trip.
Western National Parks – This is our ultimate national parks itinerary that includes some of the best sites out there, such as Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Glacier. You’ll need more than a month to hit all of the sites included. If you don’t have that much time, you can easily just choose a portion of the full itinerary.
Great Lakes National Parks – With National Parks, National Lakeshores, National Historic Sites and more, the Great Lakes region has a little bit of everything. Our itinerary for a visit includes parks in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. In addition to having a great variety of parks, the scenery is amazing and the temperatures are generally cool, even in the summer.
Pacific Northwest (Washington) – The three National Parks in Washington protect mountains, coast and everything in between. At higher elevations, you might even find snow on the ground in late June or early July. Our itinerary includes most of the NPS sites in Washington plus one in Idaho and one in Oregon.
New England – With only one named National Park, New England is often overlooked. But, Acadia is a fantastic National Park and the other sites in the area preserve some of our country’s most foundational historic sites.
South Florida – If you’re looking for a warm destination in the winter, the South Florida national parks are a great option. We’ve been twice in February and it’s just about the perfect time to visit this region of the country.
National Parks and the Weather
When planning a National Parks visit, the weather should be a major consideration, especially in the winter. For example, much of Yellowstone National Park is not accessible to cars from early November to late April. You simply cannot just drive in and see everything you could see in the summer.
Any park that sits at high elevation can have snow on the ground into June or even early July. We’ve experienced this at Yellowstone, Glacier and Mount Rainier. Even visiting these parks in late spring or early summer could bring road or trail closures you didn’t expect.
At the other extreme, temperatures in Big Bend National Park were pushing 100 degrees in some areas when we visited the first week of April. Temperatures in the summer can make the park downright miserable.
Generally, you need to be VERY prepared to visit a park at high altitude in the winter or a park in the South in the summer. You will find information regarding seasonal road closures and weather on each park’s website.
How to Plan Your National Parks Visit
Once you’ve decided which national park(s) to visit, you’ll need to plan the details. Most named National Parks need at least a full day to fully explore. For some of the larger parks such as Yosemite NP, Olympic NP or Yellowstone NP, we’d suggest 3-4 days or more.
Many National Parks offer a scenic drive, a visitor center with exhibits and both short and long hiking trails. Of course, this varies greatly by the park. Exploring Biscayne National Park is very different because it is mostly water as compared to Rocky Mountain National Park or Hot Springs National Park.
The majority of the other park units can be seen in just a couple of hours. Indeed, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site consists of a memorial on just one acre and a nearby church and cemetery.
Just a little research as you start your national parks trip planning will give you at least an approximation of how much time you will need to explore and enjoy the each park.
Thankfully, there are tons of resources out there. Your first stop should be the park’s official NPS website. Other good resources are blogs (such as ours), printed guidebooks and social media. Facebook groups, in particular, can be great resources.
If you google the park name, the official park website will, likely, be the first result. You can also search for parks by state on the main National Park Service website.
On the front page of each park website, you’ll find a basic introduction to what the park offers and, most importantly, any alerts you need to be aware of. These alerts will tell you what is open or closed based on weather and other conditions. Please pay close attention to these alerts, especially while there are still COVID-19 restrictions and during the winter.
After checking the alerts, click on the “Plan Your Visit” drop down menu. Here, you’ll find information on the park hours, directions, fees, things to do, where to eat and sleep and much more.
Some park websites have more information than others. And while all the websites have the same general organizational structure you will notice some differences as you search. In general, we find that the bigger parks that see quite a bit of visitation have more online resources. We particularly like when we find a suggested itinerary based on how much time you have in the park.
Even just looking at the park map will give you an idea of how big the park is and how much there is to do. Generally, the bigger the park, the more time you want to allot for your visit. Of course, that varies greatly depending on if you are interested in hiking or other activities.
Finally, some of the smaller sites require a tour that you may or may not be able to make advance reservations for. This is especially true for caves, historic homes or restricted sites such as Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.
Blogs and Guidebooks
Again, just googling the name of a park will often bring up blog articles on various aspects of the park. Sometimes you’ll find an overall guide or maybe an article focusing on the best places to stay or the best hiking trails.
Pinterest can also be a great resource for finding useful blog articles and tips for your visit. The great thing about Pinterest is you can easily save articles in one place (a “board”) for later reference.
In terms of guidebooks, we have and recommend the Moon USA National Parks guidebook by Becky Lomax. Yes, it’s already slightly out of date as it covers the 62 National Parks at the time of publication but it’s still a great resource. Congress redesignated New River Gorge National River to a National Park in December 2020 as part of the Federal Government funding bill. This guidebook was published in October 2020.
You can also look for specific guidebooks on each individual park. If you’re interested in hiking, you’ll often find trail guidebooks for parks or regions with a lot of trails.
Some national parks have social media pages and some don’t. We have found that most parks have a Facebook page. Twitter and Instagram are a little more hit or miss. Still, these can be great resources, especially for up-to-date information on road conditions or hours of operation.
For planning, Facebook groups can be super helpful. My biggest advice… PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, do a little research on your own to begin with and ask fairly specific questions. First, it gives folks an idea of what information you’re looking for. Second, you won’t be overwhelmed with so much information you can’t even sort through it.
Consider this post: “I’m driving to Mount Rushmore from Florida. What should I see and do on the way? Anything else nearby that I shouldn’t miss?” If it’s a good group, I would expect several hundred comments within a few hours and more information than you can wrap your head around. And everyone thinks their suggestion is a “must-see.” Sorting through all of that might be more time-consuming than helpful.
For this Mount Rushmore example, even just asking “Where should I stay?” can prompt more answers than you might imagine. Let folks know if you are looking for a city, a specific hotel or a campground.
Still, Facebook groups can be great resources for inspiration and tips. There are groups for the National Parks as a whole and sometimes for specific parks. Just search for what you want and see what comes up.
What to Do When You Arrive at a National Park
When you first arrive to a national park, be prepared to pay the entrance fee. Most of the 63 named National Parks charge an entrance fee. Whether other units of the Park Service charge a fee is very hit or miss. Check the park website ahead of time so you know what to expect. Sometimes, you’ll pass through a fee station at the entrance and other times you’ll just pay at the visitor center.
If you’re visiting several parks within a year, consider getting a National Parks pass. The America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) gets you into more than 2,000 federal sites, including all 420+ national park units, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management sites and more. You can buy your pass online ahead of time but we have always just purchased ours in-person at a park.
Pro Tip: Getting an America the Beautiful Pass as close to the first day of the month actually gives you nearly 13 months of visiting your public lands. The annual pass is good through the end of that month the following year. Example: If you purchase a pass on June 1, 2021, it will be good through June 30, 2022.
There are also a number of other passes for military/veterans, 4th graders, seniors (age 62+) and permanently disabled citizens. Check out all the passes that are available here.
Note: Park passes generally do NOT cover tour fees or fees for campgrounds, though some do offer a discount.
Stop at the Visitor Center
After paying the fee, or showing your pass, head to the visitor center and check in with a ranger or park volunteer. This is your opportunity to talk to the experts! We always ask about trail conditions and see if they have specific trail recommendations. This is also a good chance to get the most current information on parks conditions or any other potential restrictions.
Also at the visitor center, you’ll generally find a park film and exhibits. This is where you really learn about the area, it’s history, geology and anything else that is important about the park.
*During the COVID-19 pandemic, many visitor centers are closed. Some parks have had rangers stationed outside to answer questions, but not all. Check the alerts before arriving so you know what to expect.
Finally, be sure you get the official park brochure when you pay the entrance fee or at the visitor center. The brochure will include a map and basic information on the park. Some of the bigger parks will also have a printed “newspaper” or other guide. Check these for answers to any questions you have before asking a ranger!
National Park Etiquette
When visiting national parks, please remember that the parks are there to protect and preserve the land for our enjoyment. That means visitors must follow certain guidelines to help that cause. The easiest way to sum it up is the good old adage: “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”
Here are a few top tips that are good for any park you visit:
- Drive only on marked roads.
- In a historic house, walk only on marked paths (follow directions of the guide).
- Do not take anything from a park, including pine cones, rocks, etc.
- Put your trash in a trashcan or pack it out with you.
- Keep the bathrooms clean.
- When hiking all but the shortest, easiest nature trails, carry the Ten Essentials.
- If you must potty when out on the trail, do your business as far away from a water source as possible, bury solid waste at least 6 inches and pack out your toilet paper.
- Never approach wildlife! Bison, elk and moose can all be erratic. Carry bear spray if hiking in bear territory.
Also, remember that you are not the only visitor. Please be aware of other people who are also trying to enjoy the view at an overlook or take pictures.
Where to Stay
As you plan your national parks trip, one of your biggest decisions may very well be where to stay. Even just deciding if you want to stay inside the park or outside the park can be a difficult decision.
Staying inside the park can have its advantages but it, often, comes at a price. The biggest advantage to being inside the park, is that you don’t have as far to drive. For parks like Yellowstone or Big Bend that can save you a ton of time! Other times, being just outside the park is not a big deal, such as at Bryce Canyon NP.
Lodging Inside the Park
Most National Parks offer camping inside the park. Only some will have a lodge inside the park. Other park units may have a campground but it is rare to find a lodge at anything other than a named National Park. Again, check the park website to see what is offered.
If you’re interested in camping, most park campgrounds offer only primitive campsites (no hookups). Additionally, campsites generally don’t cater to large RVs. Some campgrounds will take reservations (usually, through recreation.gov), but many are first-come, first-serve. The few campgrounds that do accept reservations, such as Fishing Bridge at Yellowstone, can fill up within days of the reservation window opening. Still, we have had success getting last-minute reservations so it never hurts to see what is available!
For those who prefer to stay in a hotel, understand that even the most basic rooms will, generally, not be cheap inside a national park. Additionally, while there are some very nice lodges, many are fairly basic and, sometimes, quite old. Indeed, our one night at the lodge in Isle Royale NP cost us nearly $250 for one night. I’ll admit, it was absolutely worth it for the location, even if the room itself was nothing exciting. The balcony and view more than made up for that!
Lodging Outside the Park
Some parks have great “gateway” towns that offer plenty of hotel and campground options. Others don’t.
Other parks, such as Capitol Reef NP in Utah, are much more remote. The gateway town of Torrey had only a handful of hotels and restaurants. And many of those were closed during our winter visit!
A small gateway town is not always a bad thing, though! One of our favorite gateway towns is Medora, ND, home of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP. This tiny little town with only a couple of hotels is full of charm and has one of the most unique outdoor musicals you can imagine.
Where to Eat
Some national parks have a wide variety of food options, like Yellowstone NP. At Big Bend NP, you’ll find a dining room at the lodge but it’s a huge park so that isn’t always convenient. Wind Cave National Park does not sell food inside the park at all.
Of course, if you’re visiting a small park that will only take you a couple of hours to explore, where you will eat may not be a big concern. Still, some parks are so remote that there may not even be food within a short drive. Indeed, you only need an hour or two to visit Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. That said, add another hour or two just for the drive there from the nearest town.
Again, check the park website and know what to expect before you arrive!
And, if you plan on doing any hiking or driving primitive roads, you will likely want to just bring food with you. We almost always carry supplies to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with a few hearty snacks.
We learned our lesson a long time ago that not having snacks is a bad idea. When we get hungry, we tend to get angry. Having a hearty snack can make all the difference in having a good visit or getting hangry!
Final Thoughts on National Parks Trip Planning
As with any vacation, a little bit of prior research will help you to get the most out of your national park visit. While the outdoors is always open, you may find trails are closed due to rockslides, downed trees or flooding. Additionally, some parks have limited accessibility in the winter, such as Yellowstone NP and Glacier NP.
Putting together an itinerary can be overwhelming. But, it’s better than getting to a park and realizing that you don’t know where you’re going to eat or that you can’t get a ticket for a tour. Thankfully, there are tons of national parks trip planning resources out there – you just have to look for them!
Whether you are on a quest to visit the 63 National Parks, all 423 units of the National Park Service or are just casually visiting the parks, we hope that you will enjoy them as much as we do!