11 Ways to Maximize Your National Parks Vacation

how to maximize your national parks vacation

Get the most out of your National Parks Vacation with a few simple tips.

Word is out: the U.S. National Parks are some of the best damn places in the world to visit. These areas hit a record attendance of over 325 million visitors in 2016, a number that comes with pros and cons. The downsides of a record-setting visitor count are the increase in trash, erosion of trails, and a scramble to keep up with maintaining the beauty of the Parks.

The upside, of course, is that more people are exposed to America’s Greatest Idea and gain a better understanding of the lands we need to protect. Conservation begins with understanding, so my greatest hope is to encourage National Parks tourists to be well-educated in terms of their individual impact on these areas.

There’s no one way to experience the majesty of the National Parks, but there are a few things you can do to ensure that you’re getting the most of your National Parks vacation as safely and environmentally-friendly as possible.

Go in the Off Seasons

April is not exactly prime time for Rocky Mountain National Park given that spring in the Rockies can still mean snow. However, when my husband and I visited in April 2015, the park was ours. We encountered maybe two other vehicles on the road, which gave way to spectacular wildlife viewing and less congestion at popular sites.

You’ll get to experience a Park its more regal state - sans humans, traffic backups, and maddening amounts of waste. Of course, the downsides include potential road closures and erratic weather, but preparedness for the unpredictable should be a no-brainer to the National Parks traveler. Check your National Park’s website to find the off-season dates.

Note: National Parks in extreme weather areas (Denali, Rocky Mountain, etc.) are closed for months during the winter with no access allowed. Check those dates before booking that ticket.

Take a Guided Hike

For hikers, hitting the trail is the obvious way to spend a National Parks excursion, but even the most experienced trail blazers can afford to learn a thing or two from a trained guide. Park boundaries are lined with independent vendors offering guided hikes ranging anywhere from geological day hikes to history-filled backpacking expeditions. Wildland Trekking offers day hikes, backpacking trips, tours, and custom/private trips in the United States National Parks and international destinations such as Patagonia and Nepal.

how to maximize your national parks vacation

Denali National Park is unique in its Discovery Hike experience. With a maximum of 11 people per hike, groups are led by a Park Service Ranger through Denali’s expansive terrain on a historic day hike ranging from a few hours to a full day. Through this hike, I was able to to see a Denali not visible from the Park’s only road, so I recommend a “Disco Hike” to anyone willing to experience it. Be warned: you can only sign up at Denali’s Visitor Center and the staff will turn down unprepared hikers, so get your gaiters and backpacks ready.

Listen to Your Hotel’s Front Desk Agents

If you’re like me, you’ll spend weeks to months preparing a vacation by researching things to do and comparing prices online. While I certainly recommend an itinerary, give yourself the chance to stumble on an unplanned activity. Hotels surrounding the National Parks make partnerships with outside vendors for lower prices on tours and activities, such as flightseeing, ATV rides, whitewater rafting, photography excursions, and so much more. Plenty of hotels offer seasonal front desk agents the opportunity to experience these tours for free, meaning they can give you the best idea of which tours to book and why.

Still want to plan? Get on Groupon for similarly reduced prices on tours and activities that can be added to the itinerary ahead of time.

Browse the Event Calendar

With this handy tool on the National Parks website, you can browse NPS sponsored events by date, state, and National Park. Most of the activities are free and include guided hikes, junior ranger programs, informational tours, and art exhibits.

Visit the NPS Event Calendar

Respect the Rules of Wildlife

The most useful tool for outdoor recreation is your brain; use it. It’s downright dangerous to treat wildlife as a personal tourist attraction, so follow a few basic rules to safely enjoy the animals of the National Parks.

  • Maintain a distance of at least 25 yards for hoofed animals and a distance of 100 yards for predators.

  • Absolutely do not feed wildlife. This puts you at risk for injury or death and makes the animal comfortable with humans.

  • Do not honk at wildlife. Car horns not only frighten animals, but also contribute to sound pollution.

  • Invest in a zoom/telephoto lens for your camera. If your goal is to capture the best possible photo of wildlife encounters (and who can blame you; those encounters are magical), do so from a safe distance.

how to maximize your national parks vacation

Talk to a Ranger

Nobody loves their job more than a Park Ranger, and they want you to experience the Park in the safest, most memorable way possible. Find the employees decked out in the signature green uniform and talk their ear off. They’ll likely be happy to give you the scoop on what tourist-packed areas to avoid and any must-see hidden gems. Park Rangers are also the #1 guide on how you can experience the National Parks in a low-impact way.

Learn the Leave No Trace Ethics

The parks are for everyone, but the best experience comes from a collective appreciation of the land and its preservation. Brush up on outdoors ethics with an overview of the LNT Seven Principles:

  • Plan ahead and prepare.

  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

  • Dispose of waste properly.

  • Leave what you find.

  • Minimize campfire impacts.

  • Respect wildlife.

  • Be considerate of other visitors.

These practices ensure a safe, legal, and friendly interaction with the wilderness and help maintain the integrity of the parks for years to come. For a more in-depth look into the Leave No Trace Ethics, visit https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles.

Make the Right Camera Choice

There’s no doubt you’ll take photos on your trips through the National Parks, but it can be a frustrating endeavor should you run into troubleshooting or pack the wrong equipment. If you’re a DSLR-toting hiker like me, read about the three to four items I carry with me every time I travel in Essentials to Cover Your Travel Photography Bases.

how to maximize your national parks vacation

You may not want to spend your energy getting the right shot with your DSLR, and that’s fine! There are many times I ditch my camera in favor for the pocket-friendly phone. There are a ton of advantages to keeping your camera as simple as possible: user-friendliness, lightweight, minimal options to better focus on composition...the list goes on. Just make sure to go the extra mile when protecting your phone with a heavy-duty case.

Pack Smart

In 20 minutes’ time, I went from a rain jacket, to a light t-shirt, and finally into a bikini top while hiking in Haleakala National Park - Kipahulu District. Although the ever-changing weather of Hawaii is a bit of an extreme example, it’s best to stick to the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” There’s no need to pack glamorously for a National Park visit, but there’s no way a simple t-shirt/shorts combo will suffice for all possible types of weather. Research your Park’s average weather conditions and never assume a correct forecast.

If you’re heading into park boundaries for a day hike, check out the 10 Backpack Essentials for a Day Hike.

Get your 4th Grader in for Free

The Department of the Interior and several other U.S. agencies support former President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative as a way to get children to experience the outdoors. Fourth graders and their family can sign up for a free pass to all U.S. National Parks and Monuments by visiting  https://www.everykidinapark.gov/.

This option is also available to educators and adults serving fourth graders in an organization. The future of our Parks relies on the connection we allow children to make with nature, so please take advantage of this initiative.

Never Leave

Okay, I know; it’s easier said than done. However, if you’re looking for an  easy way to take a paid vacation, there are plenty of seasonal hospitality positions surrounding our nation’s finest lands. Retirees, college students on summer break, hospitality professionals looking to excel their careers; seasonal workers come to live/work/play from all around the globe. Seasonal opportunities typically fall into the maintenance, customer service, food service, and tour guide categories, but some hospitality vendors offer year-round positions in management.

Visit https://www.coolworks.com/ to search for your next dream job; it’s one of the more rewarding ways to experience the National Parks.

You can’t hike a volcano in Yosemite, and you certainly can’t swim in Great Sand Dunes; the activities that the National Parks can offer are just as unique as their geographical locations. Hiking is the general offering of every National Park, but off-trail endeavors can be just as inspiring. Get the most out of your National Parks vacation with a little bit of research, planning, and by paying a visit to www.nps.gov.

Happy hiking!