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10 Things to Know Before You Visit a National Park

    If you haven’t explored any of the United State’s 63 beautiful national parks, it’s time to start planning your first trip. Most likely, there’s one not too far from you! But before you visit your first national park (or one of the 429 sites run by the National Park Service), here are 10 things you need to know:

    National Park Entry Fees and the National Parks Pass

    What are the National Park Entry Fees?

    National Park entry fees vary by park, but for the 63 main parks, it’s usually between $25 and $35 for a 7 day pass for you and anyone else in your vehicle, although there are a few parks that don’t charge any entrance fee. Other park sites like historic battlefields, national preserves, national historic sites, and national monuments may charge a per vehicle or per person fee, or they might be free.

    How Does the National Park Pass Work?

    The annual pass for the National Parks, the America the Beautiful pass costs $80 and covers your entrance fees for a 12 month period. The National Parks pass will give you free entry to any park site that charges a vehicle entrance fee, and it will admit the pass holder and up to 3 additional people at sites that charge a per person fee. Children 15 and under are not charged.

    If you are planning to visit at least 3 National Parks or national park sites in a year, you’ll probably save money purchasing the national parks pass. I go into more detail on making this calculation in this blog post.

    Plan in Advance

    When Should I Plan My Trip? How Far in Advance Should I Book?

    This is going to seem crazy to some people, but you should be planning your National Park trip about a year in advance. Booking National Park hotels and campsites is very competitive, so you’ll want to know when your trip dates become available and be ready to book that day. Booking late probably means paying more for your accommodations or being farther away from the park.

    It’s not critical to plan your entire itinerary a year in advance, but you’ll want to get your lodging reserved before everything gets booked up.

    Crowd Avoidance Tips

    How Crowded are the National Parks?

    Some of them are very crowded. Some aren’t that crowded at all. I know, this is a super helpful post. Aren’t you glad you’re reading it? In 2023, the top 10 most visited national parks were Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, Rock Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, and Olympic. Some of those parks get extremely crowded, because they don’t have the space and infrastructure to accommodate how popular they are. Some parks have gotten a reputation for being very crowded, like Yosemite, Zion, and Arches (which didn’t make the top 10 but is very popular for its small size). That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. It just means you’ll want to strategize well for your visit there. Those are not parks to decide to visit at the last minute.

    How to Avoid the Crowds?

    Your specific crowd avoidance strategy will change with each park (and I always include that info when relevant in my blog posts), but here are a couple of strategies that will serve you well.

    Stay inside the park if you can. And if the park is big, book stays in different areas. Being close to the action will give you a head start on other guests.

    Explore early in the morning or at sunset (or both). And if crowded parking lots are possible to access safely via bike, consider pedaling for your transportation. If there’s a shuttle bus offered, use it. (Unless it’s super crowded like Zion and you have the option to bike instead.)

    Visit on the off-season or shoulder season if you can. Most national parks are busiest during the summer months, so visiting in April, early May, late September, or even October can make a big difference. We have friends who take a national park trip every year in October, and they said they always have an amazing low crowd experience.

    Go to the visitor center the day you arrive to get the scoop on the park. Look through the park map and brochure you got at the park entrance and take a look at the 3D model of the park (you’ll usually find this at the main park visitor center). Ask the rangers any questions you have and see what park closures or restrictions are posted. If you specifically want to avoid crowds, ask them for help in doing that.

    Are All the Parks Crowded?

    Some parks are pretty easy to visit without a lot of planning. Many parks with low visitor numbers, like Theodore Roosevelt or Petrified Forest, are seen as ‘drive thru’ or 1 day visit parks. Those two parks specifically are very close to the highway, so visitors can stop on their way somewhere else and often don’t spend the night in the area. Other parks like Mammoth Cave or Wind Cave have tours that can be booked, with day of tickets usually available.

    But other parks are very far from the highway, like Big Bend National Park, and have limited services. So you wouldn’t want to drive all the way out for a visit if you don’t have a place to stay already booked.

    Speaking of remote national parks…

    Limited Food and Restaurants

    Before driving into a national park, it is CRUCIAL to know what kind of food services are available and where to find them. Nothing can ruin your national park visit faster than a car full of hangry people. Many national parks have only 1 or 2 restaurants, which might be over an hour away from where the part of the park you’re exploring, and they might take reservations and be all booked up. We always recommend packing a picnic lunch when you’re spending the day in a national park, so you can maximize your time and maybe even have a scenic view while you eat.

    Cell Signal

    We may expect to have cell signal everywhere we go, but unfortunately, the National Parks do not always deliver on that. We are there to experience nature after all. We find its best to expect to be out of service while in the park and if you have service, that’s a fun bonus. So download your GPS or hiking maps in advance and do all of your pertinent research before you enter the park. Don’t forget that the rangers at the visitor centers are a great resource for any questions you might have about the park.

    Limited Parking

    Imagine that everyone else visiting this national park wants to see all the same things that you want to see. They all want to do the scenic drive and stop at all the overlooks. Everyone wants to take that beautiful but short hike that’s perfect for families with kids. As you can see, no matter how much parking the National Park has, it will fill up mid-day and people will have to keep driving and find something else to do. As you plan your National Park family vacation, you’ll probably get a sense of what the most popular attractions are, so you can strategize where you’ll want to park early in the morning or later in the day as other guests are leaving the park.

    Vehicle Entry Reservations and Hiking Lotteries

    Some of the most popular park locations and most famous hikes have become so overcrowded that the NPS has had to cap the number of people who have access to them. If you’re visiting Glacier in the summer, you might need to make a vehicle reservation. If you want to hike Angel’s Landing in Zion, you’ll need to enter a permit lottery.

    While the NPS website isn’t the easiest to use, they usually do a good job posting notices about their restrictions. Search the NPS site for the specific National Park to pull up the NPS site for that particular location. Park closures appear at the top with red signs next to each note. Any park entrance restrictions will have a large colorful banner explaining the dates and procedure.

    Hiking permits or vehicle reservations for specific park areas like Cadillac Summit Road in Acadia might not be as obviously displayed as park entrance restrictions, but you can usually find them on the main park page. Checking just this first page will alert you to all the biggest restrictions you might come up against.

    Pit Toilets

    Ok, this is probably not what you expected to read about in this post, but pit toilets with hand sanitizer instead of running water and soap are very common in national parks. You’ll find these at trailheads, in parking lots, and sometimes these will be the main visitor center bathroom option. They’re nobody’s favorite, but they’re just a fact of life. So now you know.

    Ranger Talks

    One of the best ways to learn more about a National Park and increase your appreciation of it during your visit is to attend a ranger talk. The times and locations for these are usually on the handout that you’ll get at the park entrance, but if not, this information will be posted at the visitor center.

    Ranger talks are often the same time and location each day, so if you are visiting for 2 or more days, you can adjust your plan to fit in one of the ranger talks on your second day.

    Junior Ranger Program

    If you are traveling with kids (or enjoy doing educational workbooks), make sure to pick up the Junior Ranger booklets at the visitor center when you first arrive so you can work on them throughout your visit. Some activities can be done anywhere, while other pages might need to be completed at a certain location in the park. You also might need to attend a ranger program, pick up litter in the park, or watch the park film in order to earn your badge. When you’ve finished, bring the booklet back to the visitor center ranger desk and they will lead you through the Junior Ranger pledge and present you with a badge for that National Park.

    We have fallen in love with the National Parks in the US over the last couple of years and we hope these tips help you enjoy your first visit!

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