From the tiny Hot Spring National Park (a mere 5550 acres) to the unbelievably massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (13.2 million acres), our nation’s 61 national parks are a wonder of splendor just waiting for you to explore. An RV trip is the perfect way to see these treasures.
Peer deep into canyons, hike up mountain peaks, walk in the steps of history—whatever your passion, you can pursue it at a National Park Service (NPS) site. Since 1916, the NPS has been tasked with overseeing our public lands, which now include over 400 sites with a wide range of designations, including national parks, seashores, parkways, historic trails, and more.
Whether you choose to visit a park close to home or plan an epic cross-country road trip to hit several sites, these tips can help you make the most of your national park travels:
- Head to the most popular places EARLY to get parking and avoid crowds!
As NPS sites have become increasingly popular, some have become very congested. However, early risers know that the parks are less crowded and parking spaces are plentiful before mid-morning. We discovered this tip while our sons were young. Since they were early risers anyway, we conformed to their schedules and learned that going early helped us have a better park experience.
- Visit “off the beaten track” attractions in the afternoon.
Many park visitors go to the most popular sites and nothing more, so expect these to be congested as more and more visitors arrive in the park. The afternoon is the best time to venture off the beaten track and away from the crowds. While these spots aren’t on the top-five lists of most-visited attractions, they still can inspire you to connect with the landscape.
- Choose guidebooks that are specific to your interests.
Guidebooks are especially useful when visiting some of the larger national parks (think Yellowstone), which are chock full of attractions and options. The right guidebook can show you the lay of the land, share the best places to eat in the park, introduce you to the flora and fauna, and help you discover activities your family might enjoy, and more.We especially recommend picking up guidebooks that are specific to your family’s interests. Look for books focused on hiking, birding, photography, etc. in the park you’ll be visiting for a more personalized experience.
- Consult Park Rangers and Local Experts About Your Plan.
It is always a good idea to stop by the visitor center to learn more about the park before you begin your adventures. You may also find park rangers and regional experts to talk with, and they can give you tons of insider tips. For example, since we are traveling with three young boys, we like to ask the rangers for recommendations for family hikes we all can enjoy, customized to the ages and adventure level of each member of our family.
5. Look at the National Park’s Program Schedule Online Before You Arrive.
Our national parks provide some amazing programming, and you should check out the program schedule online before you arrive. You never know what you might find! It could be a historical reenactment, wildlife talk, or stargazing event. Park rangers and guest speakers share their education and experiences in a wide variety of ways, all of which are included in your park entrance fees.
- National Parks are not Theme Parks—Be Careful and Show Respect to Wildlife and the Environment.
While the NPS tries to help visitors stay safe, our parks are wild landscapes. Venturing off the trail or getting too close to wildlife can put your life in jeopardy. Respect the environment and all of the creatures in it in order to stay safe in our national parks.
- Check out the “Every Kid in a Park” program.
Started in 2015, the Every Kid in a Park program provides every 4th grader with a free NPS America the Beautiful annual pass (an $80 value). This gets the child and his/her family in every single NPS site in the nation for free for almost an entire year. If you have a 4th grader, do not miss out on this opportunity!
No matter how many parks you’ve visited or how many times you’ve gone to your favorites, there’s still something more to explore in our national parks. We hope these tips help you make the most of your NPS adventures!