Travel Tips

The Secrets to a Successful National Park Summer Vacation

Canyonlands kayakingSummer 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.


The next step is figuring out where you are going to lay your head at night. Now, if you are planning a day trip, this may not apply to you, but it is always good to know your options just in case you arrive and don’t want to leave so soon.

Camping is most people’s preferred option, since sleeping under the stars is a wonderful way to embrace the great outdoors. Unfortunately, many campgrounds fill up fast in the summer season, so making sure that you will have an available site is crucial. Some campgrounds are first come, first serve, meaning you need to plan to get there early to secure a spot or take your chances on coming up empty handed. Other campsites are able to be reserved in advance, meaning you should check the online availability before heading out. The National Park Service runs many of its reservations through, which is an easy to use website that allows you to search for availability based on your location or the activities you are interested in for your stay. Another reservation website is the unofficial Reserve America which allows you search based on what type of camping you want to undertake (tent, RV, yurt, cabin, etc.) and the location you are hoping to reach.

Maybe you want to experience the outdoors, but don’t necessarily want to “rough it?” Don’t worry; there are plenty of lodging options available in National Parks. Some of the big names, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, offer high-end lodging, and mid-grade rooms in cabins or cottages, in addition to RV spots and tent camping. Once you pick the park you want to visit, check ahead for what each park offers and plan according to your comfort needs. If you can’t find lodging on park ground, chances are you will be able to find a room in a nearby town or city, often at a lower price with the bonus of checking out local communities. Again, plan early in the high season as these places tend to fill up quickly.

Respecting Nature

A big part of visiting National Parks is making sure you are doing your part to preserve the natural environment and wildlife that workers and volunteers have been safeguarding for years. It only takes a little bit of unintentional carelessness to create a large amount of damage. We recommend checking in at the Ranger Station or Visitor Center immediately upon arrival to pick up park brochures with need to know information, and park maps. You may also find out about special class offerings or park activities that may be of interest during your stay. In addition, here are a few general things to know before heading out.

Pack In Pack Out

While this is a rule well known by backpackers, it applies to every visitor who comes to a National Park. No matter where you are, take care to properly dispose of trash so that it doesn’t end up in the lakes, rivers, or streams you so admire. At some places in the park there will be designated containers for disposing of litter, but if there isn’t, make sure to have a personal receptacle on your person to contain your garbage until you can find a designated bin. Also, you can take an extra step by becoming a rogue volunteer and picking up any trash you may see that has been carelessly discarded by other visitors. Do your part to preserve our national heritage for the generations to come.

Stay in Designated Areas

At many places in the park you will see signs that advise you to stay on designated trails or observe park boundaries. Not only are these for your personal safety, they are often to preserve fragile ecological areas. You may not be scared to encounter wildlife off trail, but by heading out on your own, you risk damaging the delicate life systems of plants and animals living in the area. If you want to head into the backcountry for more solitude and adventure, please stay on established trails and don’t venture into sensitive areas. Check in at the ranger station before embarking your hike or backpacking trip to see if there are any particular areas that need to be avoided. The same rules apply to vehicle operation within park bounds; be sure to obey all posted traffic signs and only drive in areas that are clearly designated for visitor use.

Stay Aware of Park Alerts

Similar to being respectful of off-limits areas, pay special attention to any park alerts that may be in effect for the park you are planning to visit. Due to a variety of circumstances, there could be road closures, trail closures, and fire rules that you need to follow. Again, these rules are crucial for your safety and the well being of all life in the park. Please do not take these lightly and check at your parks official website before your visit, or stop in at the visitor’s center prior to venturing out.

Camping Savvy

Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone National Park - photo courtesy National Parks ServiceThere are camping guidelines that must be followed in order to have a safe and fun experience. The first is fire regulations: Many parks in the U.S. do not allow open campfires due to the highly flammable brush and wildlife present in the park. If there are fire rules where you are going, you must follow all instructions. Normally, if open fires are not allowed, you are permitted to have a propane stove or maybe even a charcoal grill, but before you plan your adventure, make sure to check the guidelines for your specific park so that you don’t plan your meals around a campfire, only to find out upon arrival that you can’t have one.

Keep Wildlife Wild

While it may be tempting to feed the squirrels or try to pet the deer, it is important that you refrain from such desires. National Parks are designed to preserve wildlife and by feeding or interacting with animals, you are making them reliant on humans for food, and putting them at risk of being hurt.

Putting Safety First

Safety must come first. Many visitors come to national parks and do not take risks seriously. For example, Yosemite sees fatalities every year, and while some of these are due to natural causes like heart attacks, or freak accidents like falling rocks, many could be avoided by common sense. Many visitors choose to swim in pools above waterfalls not realizing that there are strong currents that can quickly grab even the strongest of swimmers and pull them over the edge. Others may not pay attention to their physical health and try to take hikes that are much too strenuous and then get injured because they were not listening to their bodies. There are always risks involved when going out into nature, but through planning and prior research visitors can be smart and stay safe. And just because there are dangers, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go; just be aware of what you are getting into before setting out.

If you are planning a long hike, make sure you have plenty of food and water to sustain you in case your hike ends up taking longer than expected. Be sure to bring along a first aid kit in case of an emergency and always check in at the ranger station to let them know exactly where you are going and how long you plan to be gone. Consider purchasing a small knife and powerful flashlight to take along, and bring along a compass or some sort of GPS (that won’t run out of battery life) in case you get a bit turned around. Invest in proper footwear and dress in clothing that is appropriate to the climate and geography you will be visiting. Oh, and please, wear your sunscreen. While these may seem like painfully obvious pointers, it is the little things like this that people often overlook.

If you are undertaking more adventurous activities make sure your gear is in good shape and know how to operate and troubleshoot in case of malfunctions. If you are new to an activity, consider hiring a knowledgeable guide, or sign up for a group trip so you will be with experienced professionals. Many accidents are attributed to faulty gear, so please take extra precaution.

If you enjoyed your stay and want to do your part to give back to the National Park Service, there are many Volunteer Opportunities available, so have a look and Get Involved!

For more camping information, check out:

By Ashleigh Whelan for