The Complete Guide to Visiting National Parks
Experts Journal — Editorial and Opinion

The Complete Guide to Visiting National Parks

National Park Guide

National parks are one of the most iconic symbols in America. They represent the rich history of our country and its future, as well as freedom, the beauty of nature, and so much more. If you haven’t visited any national parks, then it is time you change that. Each of the 63 national parks in the U.S. offers up its own magical experience, and in our opinion, you shouldn’t miss out on any of them.

Whether you plan to try and visit all 63 national parks, or only have time for one, there are some tips you’ll want to carry with you to ensure that your visit to these stunning places is as epic as the scenery they offer up. From picking the best time to go to becoming buddies with the park rangers, here is the ultimate guide to visiting national parks.

1. Choose the Right Time to Go

The time of year to go visit the national parks depends on a few things.

First of all, some of the parks won’t be open year-round, so you’ll want to do your research on that before embarking on your journey. The last thing you want to do is plan your trip and show up to the national park of your choice, only to find its gates closed for the season.

Secondly, think about the type of experience you want to have. If you’re looking for something quiet and relaxing, then you’ll probably want to rethink a decision to go during the summer. Summer is peak season for national parks throughout the country, and things will be buzzing with life. However, you may love the hustle and bustle of all the people around, so summer might be the right time for you.

Also, if you’re traveling with kids, that will also determine when you visit the parks. It may be difficult during the fall and spring for your kids to take time away from school, so summer may be your only choice.

If you’re traveling sans kids and are looking for a more quiet experience, aim to go right after school starts again in the late summer/early fall, or right before school gets out in the late spring/early summer. That way you’ll get the great weather, but will be able to avoid too much of a crowd.

2. Bring the Proper Gear

Just like with any camping trip, having the right gear is integral to your enjoyment of your trip. Forgetting one thing such as a proper coat to keep you warm in the cooler nights could really affect your experience.

However, you also don’t want to over pack because then you’ll be weighted down with a bunch of extra stuff.

Here are some packing tips:

  • Bring a daypack: Pack a smaller bag with things you’ll use during the day while in the park. This should include sunscreen, a hat, water bottle, snacks, and sunglasses.
  • Pack a picnic: When you venture into the park, bring a picnic with you. You can either opt to do a full meal picnic, or just some snacks. Most national parks do have food available so you won’t go hungry, but it’s always a good idea to at least have some food with you.
  • Opt for a backpack versus a suitcase: You’ll want to be mobile while in the parks, and dragging around a suitcase can really hinder your mobility. Instead, grab a backpack that you can use for a variety of things.
  • Water, water, and more water: Bringing enough water is key to any camping trip, so when you’re heading to the national parks, make sure you’re bringing extra water with you. Chances are good you’ll be doing plenty of wandering around the park, and you will get more thirsty than you expect.

3. Book Ahead of Time

Some of the more popular national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite draw massive crowds and camping sites get booked up sometimes an entire year in advance. To avoid the massive disappointment of getting your hopes up for a Yellowstone trip only to discover there is nowhere near the park for you to stay, book in advance.

KOA has campgrounds nearby all of the must see national parks and monutments in the country, making it easy for you to pop into the park for the day. You can either tent campRV camp, or spend the night in one of KOA’s Camping Cabins, and you’re guaranteed to have the time of your life.

KOA provides all of the amenities you need to make your national park trip one that’s full of fun memories. And if you’re a KOA Value Kard Rewards camper, then you’ll save 10% on all daily registration rates, all year long – making your national parks trips affordable and fun.

Booking ahead of time will also give you the chance to make the most of planning your trip. With your specific dates known that far in advance, you’ll have time to really research what fun can be had in the park while you’ll be there.

4. Plan Your Time in the Park

Some of these national parks are massive. And by massive, we mean really big. Yellowstone, for example, covers nearly 3,500 square miles of nature. So, you don’t want to just show up to the park sans plans — that’s asking to be overwhelmed.

Clearly when visiting a park like Yellowstone, you won’t have time to see everything. So it is key for you to pick what is most important for you to see, and plan for that. It’s also a good idea not to try and pack in as much as possible and check off all the sights in one trip. Rather, find a couple key things that are on your list, and make that your priority.

What you don’t see in the park can be saved for your next trip there. You’ll enjoy your experience far more if you plan for more time at a handful of places as opposed to rushing through things and sticking to a strict timelines.

5. Choose to Camp, but Plan for One Night at the Lodge

Though obviously camping is our favorite way to stay during a national park visit, there’s something to be said about the experience of staying at a historic lodge inside the park for a night. You’ll be able to walk right out the door and into the park. Plus, you’ll be able to see it in its beautiful nighttime and early morning light, which at these places is worth a lot.

But convenience like that does come at a steep price (especially when traveling during the peak season), hence our suggestion to stay there for just one night. Also, lodging in the parks books up very early, so you’ll also need to plan ahead for this and pick your night to stay in the lodge.

6. Befriend the Park Rangers

The friendly folks in the hats are here for a reason — they know the parks inside and out, and are here to help you stay safe, but also to help you enjoy your experience. So, make friends with them upon arrival.

The rangers will be able to share with you insider information such as the top spots to hit, what to stay away from, shortcuts to get to places, and things to look out for along the way. They’ll know the best places for you to eat your lunch, the best hiking spots, and the best place to catch an oh-so-perfect sunset.

7. Download Helpful Apps

You’ll be surprised at how handy apps will be when you’re traveling in national parks.

Beyond taking pictures to share on Facebook and Instagram, here are some apps that you will be happy you have:

  • Weather Channel: What you do while on your trip will be determined largely by the weather. Hiking in the pouring rain is not our idea of fun, so be sure you take a look at this app before going on your trip, and also while you’re adventuring through the parks.
  • KOA Camping App: Use this app to navigate to your campground, get information about the campground, search other campgrounds, and access your Value Kard Rewards information, along with many other features.
  • Gaia GPS: This app will be your go-to for finding the best places to hike. It has a database of tons of hiking trails and will give you a map of how to get there. You can also record your trips with the app and share your trip plans with your fellow travelers.

Download these ahead of time and get comfortable with the before heading on your camping trip.

8. Consider a Guided Tour

If you don’t feel completely comfortable exploring the park on your own, a guided tour may be just what you need. The majority of the parks will have outfits that know the park inside and out and can give you the experience that you’re looking for.

This can also take some of the stress off of you when it comes to planning. If you’re feeling pressured and buckling under that pressure to organize the perfect national park visit, simply call up one of the tour companies and book a reservation. You’re guaranteed to get some great insider information about the park, and see things that you would have never seen on your own tour.

Plus, with a lot of these companies you can explore the park via hiking, biking, climbing, and a number of other ways you may not have your own gear for.

9. Explore Smaller Parks

While there is a lot of deserved attention given to some of the major national parks such as Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, and a handful of others, there are are some truly fabulous smaller parks that offer equally as incredible experiences.

You won’t be battling the crowds at these parks, and you may find yourself embarking on adventures that no one has before.

With nearly 60 national parks to choose from, you definitely are not limited to the big hot spots. In fact, one under-the-radar park is Dry Tortugas National Park. We bet you haven’t heard of it, but it’s got a lot to offer. Head about an hour outside of Key West and you will find yourself in a stunning place to do some hiking, snorkeling and so much more.

Parks like this and many others exist, but just don’t get the spotlight of the bigger parks. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the spotlight — so give them a chance to shine their light on you.

10. Get a Park Pass

If you’re planning to go to more than one national park this year, then it is worth it for you to look into purchasing an annual park pass. With this pass you’ll gain access to the over 2,000 federal recreation sites, as well as free entrance to all national parks and national wildlife refuges.

A national park annual pass will set you back just $80 and can be purchased either at select federal recreation sites, online, or via phone.

This pass isn’t just for one person — it covers free admission for the driver and all the other people in your car. So grab your friends, grab a pass and head to the parks!