Visiting national parks – top 10 planning mistakes to avoid! I know lots of folks are planning national park trips for the summer and I couldn’t find an article that summed up everything I wanted friends to know when they asked for advice, so I wrote it! I have always loved trip planning but visiting national parks and monuments in the United States has its own quirks and challenges compared to international getaways.
If you’re new to planning a trip overall, check out this post with more general information and then come back for the specific national park tips. Also, don’t forget the America the Beautiful pass that gives you annual admission to most national park sites, with special discounts for veterans, Gold Star Families, seniors, and families with fourth graders! This post has general tips that apply to any national park, whether you’re roadtripping or flying in. If you think I missed anything please leave it in the comments! Keep in mind that the NPS.gov park websites are the only true “authorities” with the most up to date information, so consider them the ultimate starting point and place to double check your plans; you can also call and ask a ranger to confirm things.
Hopefully I can delete this part at some point, but be sure to plan on bringing masks and using them out of respect for NPS staff and fellow visitors when social distancing isn’t possible outside or you’re going indoors – more details here about NPS & covid.
While you’re here, check out these posts too!
- 10+ national parks board game options
- 45+ of the best gifts for someone who loves national parks
- National park books for kids
I haven’t blogged about all the national parks we’ve gone to, but here are the ones I have posted if you’re interested!
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Top ten things not to miss in smoky mountains national park + list of easy hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Yellowstone National Park + a list of easy hikes in YNP
- Acadia National Park
- Everglades National Park
- White Sands National Park (and other NPS sites)
New national parks have been added lately, so I have my eye on this brand new, 2021 guide to the national parks from National Geographic! Shop it on Amazon or your local independent book shop!
Pin this post about visiting national parks – top 10 planning mistakes to avoid, with this link and image:
Visiting national parks – top 10 planning mistakes to avoid!
An overarching theme to all of this? RESEARCH! I love the idea of just hitting the road and being spontaneous but in my experience, without research we would’ve been unprepared, missed things we loved, and wasted money and time. I know it can be overwhelming! But dig in, grab a guide book, read some blog posts, read the official NPS website for the park(s) you’re visiting, formulate a rough plan and then ask for feedback on it. And of course read the rest of this blog post to get you headed in the right research direction!
1. Forgetting to check the weather and not considering altitude changes
Unless you’ve done your research or visited before, it’s easy to forget that some parks experience snow and hail as late as June and even July! For example, heading to Glacier National Park in mid-May will mean you’re too early for some trails to have opened, any ranger programming, and some restaurants won’t be open yet. Each park will have temperature lows and highs on their official NPS website and usually estimated opening dates for main roads and buildings based on previous years.
The altitude can also directly affect temperatures and weather as well as make you potentially feel ill. If you’re a hiker, you’ll want to plan higher altitude hikes towards the end of your trip when you’ve adjusted. Even if you aren’t hitting any trails, more sensitive folks may want to prepare to drink extra water and get more sleep if you’re coming from Florida up to the Rocky Mountains, with a large altitude gain.
Along with the weather note, keep in mind that different seasons have different pests! Research seasonal bugs and be prepared; for example you’ll want to do a nightly tick check after exploring in summer for Acadia National Park and wear bug spray in summer for Congaree National Park.
2. Not realizing things book a year out
Some folks live to fly by the seat of their pants; but that turns into a huge risk when traveling to more popular national parks during busy season! Every park has its own vendors and options for lodging but generally speaking, spots start filling up a full year in advance. We booked our Yellowstone National Park Trip in October for the following June and I spent weeks trying to juggle spaces as they opened up; we wouldn’t have been able to stay in one location the entire week even if I’d wanted to. Some trails require a permit to hike them, so if you have your heart set on certain destinations you need to research that process before choosing dates.
Does that mean you can’t plan a last minute trip to a national park? Of course not. But I personally would not risk going without some type of lodging in advance since it could be literal hours to the next sizable town with options, and you should know going in that many tours and permits may be sold out.
3. Underestimating or overestimating the size of a park
Yellowstone National Park is over 3,400 square miles and not accounting for any stops/hikes, the ‘grand loop’ main road can take up to 7 hours to drive whereas Hot Springs National Park is roughly 8.5 square miles! There won’t ever be a firm answer on “how long do I need to see XYZ park” because someone will always chime in that they saw it in a day and someone else will argue they spent a full week but even if you don’t want a firm schedule, researching a loose itinerary will give you a better sense for the size and scope of each park.
Knowing the size of the park also helps inform lodging decisions (although not all parks have places to stay inside the park boundaries). It was no bother to stay outside of the Grand Tetons National Park because it was nearby and relatively small. Staying inside park boundaries at Yellowstone National Park allowed us to skip hours of driving and traffic at the entrance gates.
In addition to choosing how long to spend at each park, this information is important when shopping and prepping for the trip too. You don’t want to trek down to the White Sands National Park without getting gas and water first, because it’ll be miles and miles of empty desert along the way. Be sure to research drive times and grocery store/restaurant options for the season and location you’re exploring ahead of time. You can’t expect late night options and lots of choices at a park in more remote areas!
Also keep in mind that with larger parks and parks with multiple, disconnected areas (like Acadia National Park), you can’t just type the general park name into google maps for fear of being taken to the wrong entrance or location. Plan ahead for the specific entrance when there are multiple so you don’t waste time driving around!
4. Assuming everywhere has wifi/cell coverage
If you live in or near a city it’s easy to forget that wifi and cell coverage are not a given! Make your life easier and download any Google maps for driving and Alltrails or Gaia maps for hiking. Take screenshots or notes of your rough plan and things you want to remember, because odds are you’ll have limited cell phone access while inside the park. Also be wary when a park mentions internet access, I wasted several hours chasing visitor center wi-fi to finish some work while visiting Yellowstone NP and never did find a signal strong enough to send an email with a few photo attachments.
No cell coverage also means you are unable to call for help; hopefully this will never be an issue for you and your family but one option is to buy a satellite communicator. There are a few different options with varying features, we recently bought the Garmin inReach Mini (not sponsored, with our own money!) and it seems to work well so far but knock on wood we haven’t had to use its emergency features.
Also keep in mind you will not be able to research dining options, call for takeout, or call to make reservations if you are in a park without cell coverage! You need to have researched these things ahead of time.
5. Forgetting to research a packing list
There are some general items that everyone could benefit from coming prepared with in their vehicle like your national park admission pass (if you have one), snacks, water, sunscreen, spare clothes, bug spray, proper shoes for hiking or water activities, binoculars, and a phone power bank. Some parks will have specific things that are beneficial like bear spray when hiking in the presence of grizzly bears or motion sickness medication if you’ll be on a boat, so ask around and read trip reports for good ideas! This also ties in to planning for the weather, so you have safe and appropriate layers in extreme heat, snow, and/or rain. Those flimsy ponchos from the visitor’s center aren’t going to keep you dry!
Our favorite place to shop for hiking gear is REI; they stand behind their products for a full year and if you join as a co-op member (one time fee!) you get a dividend back at the end of the year! Shop secondhand on Mercari, Ebay, and Facebook Marketplace.
6. Skip the visitor center
I get it if you’re eager to get on the trail, but the visitor center(s) are full of important information! If you’re heading out before they open be sure to check the parks’ twitter feed and website for trail closures, but the visitor centers are kept most up to date. They often also have boards noting recent wildlife sightings, paper maps, a gift shop, and interpretive exhibits teaching about things in the park. Rangers are there to help but keep in mind there are usually lines so do research ahead of time instead of asking them a generic “what’s a good hike!” question.
Also don’t forget to talk to the rangers and check the online schedule and in-park newspaper/pamphlet (usually at the visitor centers and entrance booth) for fun programming and the junior ranger program! Depending on the park, programs may only run during summer season but they include guided hikes, talks, and lectures for all ages. The junior ranger program varies widely from park to park, but it is always a paper or booklet that kids engage with throughout the park. After you’re done you return to the visitor center, take a cute little pledge, and earn a patch or a badge to take home! It is free in most parks but busier parks may charge a nominal fee.
7. Ignoring Leave No Trace (LNT) principles
LNT is a set of guidelines for minimizing impact on the natural area you’re visiting! Nature can often be “loved to death” and taking a few minutes to educate your group before you hit the trail or walk around can help keep the parks safe and healthy for everyone. There are 7 overarching principles on the organization website here for the full picture or get what I consider to be the most important national-park-relevant highlights below.
- Getting too close to wildlife is dangerous! People are killed and injured in parks every year from getting too close to animals. Bison and bears are obvious threats but did you know prairie dogs can carry the plague?
- Pack it in, pack it out. If you can plan to bring toilet paper, plan for a baggie to take it with you! Any trash you generate should be taken back out with you. Even leaving food crumbs that are biodegradable can endanger animals; as the saying going “a fed bear is a dead bear“.
- Stay on the trail. I get it, it’s tempting to hop off and go exploring but with millions of visitors each year, this behavior can extrapolate quickly and damage the flora (like this instance).
- Don’t move nature or take things home as souvenirs. Stacking rocks might seem harmless but did you know that it can harm sensitive aquatic life like salamanders? Fort building is fun but national parks are too heavily visited for it to be a good idea. Same thing goes with taking a rock or sand home; that’s a part of the ecosystem and if everyone was doing it, the park would suffer.
8. Bringing your dog without researching ahead of time
Dogs and trails usually mix well so it can be a shock when folks plan to bring their pooch and realize that many parks restrict where dogs can hike on the trails! For example, at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park there are only two “trails” (which are paved paths) where dogs are allowed, heavily limiting your experience at the park. Travelers with canine companions may need to plan on finding dog sitters or kennels while they’re actually inside the park.
9. Coming without a plan AND not being flexible
I realize this sounds contradictory but I truly believe you need a little of both! Obviously some of this will vary on your personal traveling preferences but hear me out. The parks are busy and big, so if you come in blind there’s no way you can figure out even what your options are in most places. On the flip side, trying to plan an hourly itinerary is impossible with traffic, wildlife sightings, and crowds being unpredictable.
My strategy is to have one “must do” for each day and then a loose list of nearby ideas and alternatives, letting us hit the hot spots and then evaluate depending on how much time we have left and our mood. Also, I normally and one to avoid crowds and talking to strangers but if you see a big clump of cars on the side of the road don’t be shy, pull over and politely ask what the deal is! It’s tough to see wildlife from the car sometimes; if we hadn’t stopped we would’ve missed the beautiful shot below of a moose at Rocky Mountain National Park.
10. Trying to cram too much in
I love Facebook travel and hiking groups for inspiration and trip planning research but over and over again the main thing I see is people posting an itinerary plan looking for feedback and getting bombarded with reality checks that they’ve tried to cram way too much in. I get it! It’s so easy to look at the map and be like “well XYZ national park is a half day drive! maybe we can squeeze that in too!”. Again, some of this will come to personal taste, but be sure to map out actual drive times and look at other bloggers’ and travel guide itineraries and evaluate if you’re at risk of turning your trip into more of an Amazing Race episode than a time to explore and soak up the sights.
11. Overestimating parking availability
Parking at national parks can be like the wild wild west! Many parks and monuments operate shuttle during busy seasons; some also allow you to drive while some require that you use the shuttle. Research this ahead of time, especially if you have young kids, animals, or medical needs that make all-day access to your vehicle more important. Generally speaking, parks tend to be busiest from 10-2 so rolling in during high season at 11 am to a very popular trail or sight is a risky endeavor. Mentally prepare yourself or your driver to be patient, scope out legal parking spots that could be a backup plan if possible, and get to trailheads early if you want to make your life easier.
12. Planning to rent an RV for the first time and not researching it
We have not used an RV so I am not going to give any advice on that but I know lots of folks use them to explore national parks so wanted to mention two things that discouraged us from trying one. First, that if you’re traveling with kids, only the pull-behind style is safe so they can ride in a regular truck/SUV in their carseat, you can see more information about that here. Second, this is my personal opinion but a national park is not a good place to try driving an RV or towing an RV for the very first time. The roads are narrow, crowded, parking is often competitive, and the stakes are often high with steep cliffs, wildlife, and lots of little kids. We were almost run off the road by a skidding 1800RV type rental vehicle in yellowstone, it was terrifying! Check out this guide for RV travel in national parks if you’re interested in going that route!