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The Secrets to a Successful National Park Summer Vacation

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Summer is a time of exploring and enjoying the outdoors. Whether it be at a lake, in the mountains, along a river, in the desert, or on the beach, our national parks offer a landscape for every natural preference. In order to get the most out of the experience, there are things you need to know before heading out to decompress.

Since their official establishment in 1916, the National Park Service has grown to include 401 units (parks, rivers, forests, etc.) that welcome around 275 million visitors each year. Yes, you read that number right, and with that amount of traffic, proper planning and knowledge of park rules is essential to having a positive experience.

Picking a Park (or two)

The first question you need to ask yourself, is what do you want to do on your trip?

Depending on what type of activities you enjoy, some national parks will be more than you could have imagined, while others will leave you feeling a bit disappointed. The big activities people pursue are hiking, fishing, bird watching, star gazing, swimming, rock climbing, skiing/snowboarding, kayaking, canoeing, and whitewater rafting. If you want to go swimming, then heading out to the desert may not be such a good idea. So, if you want water-based activities, plan ahead and do your research. Luckily, the National Park Website allows you to search parks based on activities, as well as name and location. So click here and start planning now.

When you start looking at all the activities offered at the national parks, chances are you will have a hard time picking just one place to visit. If you think you may visit more than one park in a year or even more than one park in a vacation, it may be more economical for you to purchase a National Park Pass as opposed to single entries. The annual pass costs $80 and is valid for all National Parks for 12 months from the purchase date, and will cover the entry for the pass owner and 3 adults. If you are traveling with children under 15 years old, good news–they enter for free! If you fall in love with one particular park, you may be able to purchase an annual pass for that specific park, meaning you pay one fee and can visit unlimited for 12 months. Keep your pass protected, as there are no refunds or replacements if it is lost or stolen.

Also, keep in mind that smaller parks often do not charge an entry fee at all, while others (like Yosemite or Yellowstone) can charge up to $25 per vehicle. There are also discounted passes for seniors (above the age of 62) that run at $10 and last a lifetime! In addition, all military members and dependents are eligible for free annual passes, and U.S. citizens and permanent residents with disabilities may also obtain free access passes. So consider your options before heading out and pick the pass that makes the most sense for your future plans and budget.

Bring cash with you for the duration of your stay, as many parks do not have an ATM and accept cash only.