How to Plan the Perfect National Park Trip

Saturday, March 6, 2021

This blog post will take you through the steps to plan the perfect trip to a National Park, including how to select a National Park, mapping out your trip and deciding where to stay.

Which National Park should you Visit?

When I'm planning any trip, location plays a huge part in where we visit. Living in Missouri doesn't leave me with many options for a road trip, but we did make the long haul to Rocky Mountain last summer. I would love to live on the West Coast with dozens of scenic locations less than a day away but we can't have it all. Other factors to consider are scenery and activities. Some parks are more suited for hiking and backpacking while others have many accessible activities.  

Most Popular National Parks by Visitors

Least Popular National Parks by Visitors

  • Virgin Islands National Park
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
  • Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Katmai National Park & Preserve
  • North Cascades National Park

Entrance Fees

The fee to visit a National Park ranges from $0 to $35 per vehicle. If you plan on visiting many parks in a year, you should definitely consider investing in an America the Beautiful Pass. For $80, you get access to more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by various Federal agencies. Military members and 4th graders can also get special free passes.

Map it Out

When choosing activities to do at a National Park, I usually read a ton of blog posts and check All Trails for hiking recommendations. All Trails is one of my favorite resources because you can read recent reviews of trail conditions, compare mileage and altitude and see plenty of photos. After I select a few hiking trails that look appropriate, I narrow it down based on location and make sure there aren't too many similar hikes. For example, when we went to the Smoky Mountains, we chose just one waterfall hike and organized our day with the least back and forth driving. 

Make sure you look at a park map when scheduling your day. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to do several things in opposite areas of the park. The largest National Park in the lower 48 is Death Valley at 3.4 million acres! You don't want to be driving from end to end for several activities. Considering drive time to and from Visitor's Centers and trailheads ahead of time will help make your trip efficient and reduce stress while you are in the park. 

Leave No Trace

There are seven principles of Leave No Trace. They are to plan ahead & prepare, travel & camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate of others. Some are more self-explanatory than others but the guiding idea is that you reduce your impact on nature. These principles were originally established for backcountry camping but can be applied to any outdoor space. By practicing Leave No Trace, we can all help keep the environment beautiful and ensure that others can enjoy outdoor spaces too.

Seasonal Closures

You can visit many National Parks at any time during the year. Sections of various parks may be closed seasonally for safety. For example, Trail Ridge Road at Rocky Mountain National Park is closed from mid-October to Memorial Day. You can check conditions and closures at the National Park Service website. 

Where to Stay

Camping is a popular National Park activity as most parks have camping sites for visitors. Don't forget to grab a permit if you plan on backpacking. Many parks also have cabins and lodges if you want to stay in nature without being too close.  

Because most National Parks are popular tourist destinations, there is always a good range of hotels or AirBnBs available. It can be nice to have an air conditioned or heated space to come home to at the end of a long day outdoors. I also love having a kitchen or kitchenette to cut down on food costs and avoid eating all takeout food while travelling. 

Where are you planning your next National Park trip?

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