How To Plan a National Park Trip

04.01.23 by Travelex Insurance
Image credit: Getty Images

There’s nothing like the wonder and beauty of America’s National Parks. Whether you want to share an adventure experience with your family, hike with friends, get inspired by a photography workshop, or simply sit and stare at the magnificent landscape. With some planning, you can enjoy a successful national park trip.

With over 400 national parks to choose from, there's enough stunning scenery to fill a lifetime with unforgettable adventures and exploration. To get you started, we’ve put together four steps to help you plan your trip to a national park.

1. Choose your parks

Maybe you’ve dreamed of hiking Yellowstone since you were a kid, have always wanted to backpack Joshua Tree, or kayak in the Grand Canyon. Choosing between natural wonders can be a daunting task.

Part of choosing your destination is deciding if you're looking to travel on a day trip nearby or take weeks of vacation. and the National Park Service planning website can help narrow down where you’d like to visit. It lists parks by state, activities and interests, active alerts, accessibility, and so much more. Start thinking about if you want a do-it-yourself trip or a package adventure where all you have to do is show up.

2. Decide how you’ll get there and where to stay

Once you know the duration of your vacation and have narrowed down your top picks, it’s time to think about how you’ll get there and where you’ll stay. There are a wide variety of options depending on your budget, what kind of experience you want and how much time you have.

Do you want to fly, rent a car and stay in a nearby resort, hotel or park lodge? Do you want to do a circular road trip and see six parks in one trip in a van or RV? Do you want to drive straight to the Smoky Mountains and enjoy your pop-up camper under the stars? Do you want to book a multi-sport trip with an expert-led tour company?

Especially during peak season, you’ll have to plan well in advance if you want to reserve a group tour, camping spot, or popular lodging option in the park. If you're camping, check to see if they reserve sites for last-minute walk-ins. Looking for lodging outside of the park can save you money, but remember you’ll also be spending more time driving. Consider all your options and stay flexible.

3. Explore your options

This requires some research and itinerary building. Spend some time online and get tips from others who’ve been there. It’s almost always cheaper (and you can avoid heavy tourist traffic) when you visit off-season. You may have to throw on a jacket, but you may score that spectacular photograph you want hanging over your couch. When in doubt on any point, call or find your park online to find answers.

A few things to consider when exploring your options:

  • Factors like road closures, weather, and construction can all make an impact on your trip.
  • Find out which parks are seasonal and which are open all year.
  • Add entrance fees to your budget. Many are free, but not all.
  • Find out about parking, fees, and access to various parts of the park. On busy days, are there shuttles? Alternate parking or transportation?
  • What are the rules about pets? Know before you take yours along.
  • If you’re considering camping, know if you can pitch a tent or if you need a hard-sided camper.
  • Are there check-in policies, rules about what I can bring in or take out? What are the park hours if you're not staying in the park?
  • What will you do for food? Cook at your campsite or hotel kitchenette, eat out, or a combination?

4. Plan your travel experience

Much of the pleasure in national park adventures is the ability to explore at your own pace. Some activities like hiking only require a backpack and hydration, while others you’ll want to plan ahead for with reservations, finding guides and planning costs.

Do you want to take a guided hike or ride horses? How about a rafting trip or fishing? Perhaps you’d like to jump in a helicopter and see the sights from above, rock climb, or spend an afternoon with a good book by a refreshing mountain lake. There are so many things to explore when you visit. It’s a good idea to identify which things are “must-do” activities to ensure a fun and safe trip that won’t break the bank.

Once you’ve picked a location or two, visit that national park’s website and scope out your adventure options. Check the local Chamber of Commerce sites and Visitor’s Bureau of the area you choose. You’ll find travel tips, recommendations and guided outfitters that work in the park. Send for free national park trip planning kits and national park email newsletters that are geared towards specific parks in specific states. It bears repeating: If you want to ditch the crowds, stay off the beaten path and choose off-peak travel times. Each park will be able to tell you when high season is, what activities are the busiest and even places to go that aren’t as well known.

Bonus Tips:

  • If you're planning to visit more than one park this year, you may want to consider purchasing an annual America the Beautiful Pass. This pass covers entrance and day use fees for more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks and wildlife refuges. A pass covers up to four adults in one vehicle (kids 15 and under are free). Those in the military can get this pass for free, 4th graders get this grade year free and seniors can get a lifetime pass for the normal price of one year.
  • National park tours can be a fantastic adventure. All it takes is a quick Google search to find a multitude of options. To get you started, explore a list of tours, adventure trips, and senior options, get inspired by National Geographic Expeditions and see what REI Adventures has to offer.
  • Want to make a difference in a breath-taking environment? Consider volunteering. Check out options such as Yosemite Volunteer Vacation. You’ll help rangers restore national treasures with other outdoor enthusiasts.

Planning a national park trip can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Whether you dip your toes in with a day trip or go for a full-on week of exploration, it doesn’t matter. Rest assured, once you experience one magnificent park, you’ll want to plan another! Figure out your budget, use our tips and plan some adventures. You’ll be glad you did.

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