The United States’ national parks are among the country’s greatest treasures, and this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service. To celebrate, our experts share their tips for planning the perfect national park trip.
1. Know when to go.
National Geographic adventurer, photographer, and filmmaker Jimmy Chin has been exploring and photographing national parks for years. Solitude is something he values, especially when you’re trying to get away from the human hustle of the city streets to enjoy nature.
“Go in the shoulder seasons right when kids go back to school or right before they get out,” he says. “When you go right off the main season it tends to be quieter, but still beautiful. September is one of the best months to plan a visit.”
For those with families, such as Ford Cochran, director of programming for National Geographic Expeditions and an expert on our National Geographic Ultimate National Parks Expedition, planning a trip for early spring and fall can be challenging.
“If you are a parent like me with kids in grade school you need to plan your trips around when they are free, which will be in the summer during peak tourist season,” he says. “There are crowds at popular spots, but you can go at unusual times. Go early in the morning or late at night with a full moon. Everything is quieter and you can feel almost as if you are alone.”
2. Go with a mission in mind.
When planning a trip to a sprawling national park, especially one as vast as Yellowstone, it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. Instead of fretting over how many historic landmarks you need to fit into your trip itinerary and driving yourself crazy with time allotments and schedules, pick one thing you want to accomplish on your trip.
“If you are going to go to a park and know how much time you have, do a little homework and pick one objective and commit to it,” Chin recommends. “When you show up at a park and don’t have any idea what you want to do, you don’t end up doing much.”
If you want to take a hike and see Old Faithful, for example, plan a hike that overlooks this landmark. You’ll also successfully avoid the crowds and combine objectives so you can do more with your time.
3. Travel light.
There is nothing worse than packing too much. When you are traveling to a national park, less is more.
Photographer Drew Rush, an expert on our National Geographic Ultimate National Parks Expedition, has been making it his goal to travel lighter. It makes for fewer headaches and adds to the flexibility you have when traveling.
“Don’t feel you have to pack a lot of clothes and streamline the equipment you are taking with you,” he says. “Most parks have laundry facilities on-site.”
4. Bring the best gear.
It’s not just how much you pack that’s important, but also what you bring with you.
“Pack headlamps,” Rush says. “They are much smaller and lighter than a flashlight and you can wear them around your head or neck to keep your hands free.” Rush also recommends a water bottle, a small pair of binoculars, a backpack that’s comfortable to carry with you on hikes, and batteries.
Louise Johns, a photographer who shot Yellowstone for a May 2016 National Geographic magazine feature, recommends brands such as Marmot, Patagonia, and North Face, and anything a good outdoor gear store such as REI would sell.
“The individuals working at these stores are experts and should be able to point you in the right direction for gear that matches your trip and budget,” she says.
5. Stay at a national park lodge.
“I love the national park lodges,” Cochran says. “Then you have the early morning and late evening [in the park]. You wake up and step out of your front door and you see the Grand Tetons right in front of you.”
Book early to stay at a park lodge; many fill up quickly. If you’re trying for a lodge that’s already full, check back every day for cancellations.
6. Check in with park rangers when you first arrive.
You may plan your trip perfectly and know exactly where you are going, but it is still wise to check in at the visitor center when you first arrive. Park rangers will have the insider info you need to make sure your trip goes down without a hitch.
“They will tell you which roads are closed or areas of the park that are under construction,” Cochran says. “They can also help you figure out what hidden trails to try or the best place to watch the sunset.”
“Consider getting an annual park pass when you first arrive,” Chin adds. “It gives you access to all national parks for a full year from the date of purchase, and a side benefit is that money goes directly to funding the National Park Service, which is a great thing!”
7. Go camping.
Johns, Chin, Cochran, and Rush unanimously agree that the ultimate thing you should do when visiting any national park is to camp under the stars—even if it is just for a night.
“The benefits outweigh the discomforts,” Chin says. “You engage differently with people when you are camping as you are forced to unplug and to be present. You connect with nature and other people and that’s really special.”
Johns recommends packing these items:
- A tent
- A sleeping bag and sleeping pad
- A stove (such as the MSR PocketRocket Backpacking Stove)
- Flashlights (or headlamps)
- If you are in bear country, a bear bag
- If you are camping in backcountry, a water filter
If you want to camp at your park of choice–whether in the backcountry or at a designated campground–you need to call in advance. If you are camping at a campground, you’ll need to reserve your spot in advance as they have a limited number of spaces. If you plan on camping in the backcountry, call to check with the park about extra equipment you should bring (such as a bear bag) and what else is required. You will almost always be required to get a camping permit, which is a relatively easy and on-site process.
8. Download the best apps for your trip.
Social media is a spectacular way to share your adventure, and there will be plenty of Instagram-worthy moments on your trip. Here are some other apps recommended by our experts:
- National Parks by National Geographic: Comprehensive park guides plus interactive maps, park secrets, photo tips, and more.
- Nike+ Running: Great for tracking your runs and hikes.
- AllTrails: Shows you all the trails you can take, tracks your progress, and displays comments from previous hikers.
- Compass: Perfect for wayfinding.
- Weather Channel: Good for planning ahead for the day.
- Snapseed: Edit your photos on the go.
Wi-Fi can be spotty in some locations, so it’s always wise to bring old-fashioned maps and guidebooks on your trip. Consider National Geographic’s own Guide to National Parks of the United States.
9. Leave the park better than you found it.
As Cochran says: “I’ve been traveling the world with National Geographic for 25 years, and there is no place I love more than America’s national parks. They offer everything for everyone: Huge mountains, coral reefs, wetlands, seashores, glaciers. There is so much to see and do.”
General rule of the land: Leave the park better than you found it. If you see trash, throw it out, and don’t disturb animals or habitats. Remember: These parks need to be protected.