With 423 parks to choose from, your options seem endless. While the big names like Yosemite and Yellowstone are tempting, don’t forget about the amazing underrated adventures with fewer crowds. National Parks are extremely busy. Each has its own busy season and many have seasonal road and campsite closures, so count on booking your trip as early as possible and following the parks you’re interested in on social media for up-to-date information.
… Or Don’t
While some people love hiking and being amongst the trees, it’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. As @subparparks on Instagram plainly shows, the National Parks draw unimpressed visitors more frequently than you would think. Some people find these natural wonders humbling, inspiring and awesome, but National Parks are still just parks, not zoos or amusement parks. You’re in nature, observing nature. So, if bugs bother you and rocks don’t impress you, you can still support National Parks by taking a virtual tour or donating instead of visiting!
We are all guests in the outdoors, so be a courteous visitor and Leave No Trace! Safety is the most important thing when venturing into the wilderness. Be sure to plan ahead as some National Parks don’t have access to food, water, gas or other essential items. Bring what you need, and then take it with you when you leave! COVID-19 has slowed trash programs in the parks and might mean you have to pack out your trash.
Sleep Under the Stars
If you plan to camp at a National Park, try to make your reservations as soon as possible. Many campsites fill up months in advance. If you’re taking a last-minute trip (like I recently did), don’t worry. There are other options! You can camp outside of the park on public land (I camped on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just outside of Joshua Tree National Park). Or book a spot at a private campsite instead, but don’t just pitch a tent wherever you feel like it or you can get a hefty fine. You can also continue checking the Recreation.gov websites for cancelations at your favorite sites (I found a spot at Sequoia National Park this way just a week before my trip). Yosemite provided this “How To” guide for booking a campsite on Recreation.gov, which is actually helpful because the site is kind of a pain.
Another option is to try and snag a coveted First-Come, First-Serve campground. The way these sites work is you arrive at the campground and locate the check-in sign. There will be yellow envelopes where you either provide your card information or insert cash, then tear the perforated end off to display at an empty site and deposit the envelope into the lock-box. Simple enough, right? The trick is finding an empty spot. During busy season, these usually fill up before 8 a.m. You’ll have to arrive early and look for a group that is vacating. Each site’s yellow tag will have a date written in black marker by a ranger. This date is when the current occupiers are leaving, which can help you communicate with the current campers about taking over their spot after they leave. Just don’t harass or disturb people by stalking their site!
Map It Out
National Parks are bigger than you might think. While they vary in size, it can take hours to drive through some parks. If you plan to camp at one end, but all of your favorite trails and sites are at the other, it can become a major problem, especially with no gas stations in sight. Map out your plans, even within the park, so that you get the most out of your trip.
Ask a Ranger
While each park has its most popular attractions and trails, don’t just follow the herd! Deep dive into the internet or ask a park ranger to identify his or her favorite trails. After seeing the world’s largest tree and visiting all of the sites on my list in Sequoia on the first day, I asked a ranger what she would recommend. She sent me on a beautiful 10-mile hike through the largest Sequoia grove in the world featuring gorgeous overlooks and streams. I hadn’t even noticed the trail previously because the access road was closed.
While April 17 has passed, it is the first day of National Park Week and one of the six fee-free days to enter a National Park. However, if you plan to visit multiple National Parks within a year (not just on the fee-free days), the America the Beautiful annual pass could be for you. I feel it isn’t stressed enough that this pass is good for you plus up to three other adults in your car. So invite your friends to join you on your adventure!