What’s more iconic than a family vacation to one of our amazing national parks? Our national parks will satisfy your wanderlust, and your craving for nonstop adventure. But be forewarned! Heavy crowds and an overwhelming number of options can hamper any traveler’s bucket list experience. Here are seven quick tips for visiting national parks that will help you stay safe, have fun, and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Head to the most popular places EARLY to get parking and avoid crowds!
Many National Park trailheads and natural attractions offer extremely limited parking. Years ago in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we arrived around lunchtime at a trailhead that led to a gorgeous waterfall…only to find the small parking lot full and irritated drivers stalking each other for parking spots. We eventually found a parking spot over an hour later. Now we make sure to arrive at trailheads and other popular areas before 9 AM, and we always find parking, and often have the entire trail to ourselves.
Head to “off the beaten track” attractions in the afternoon.
When the most popular attractions swell with tourists during the peak afternoon hours we suggest seeking out hidden gems that may be a little bit harder to find. Every National Park has its main attractions that draw visitors from other states and countries, and most visitors don’t explore much farther than that. But with the right attitude and the right advance planning you can often end up in beautiful locations and be completely alone in nature. So how do you find these hidden gems? That’s tip #3!
Choose guidebooks that are specific to your interests.
It may be tempting to purchase an overarching guidebook to the state or region you are visiting (think Lonely Planet, Frommers, Fodors) and they can be useful, but often they just lead you to the same attractions where thousands of other travelers are heading. We recommend picking up guidebooks that are more specific to your family’s interests. There are typically National Parks guidebooks that focus on hiking, or photography, or bird watching etc., and those are the ones we pack. They offer detailed maps and instructions written by a regional expert–as opposed to a travel writer who just blew through trying to cover a thousand things at once.
Consult Park Rangers and Local Experts About Your Plan.
Once you have created a short list of outdoor adventures we recommend that you consult a park ranger or local expert to make sure your plan is viable. We have often selected hikes marked “family friendly” in our guidebooks only to discover far too late that they were extremely challenging for our young boys. National Park Rangers have never let us down. In fact, time and time again they have led us to our most memorable adventures. Campground owners and managers can also be excellent sources of information. Don’t be shy! Ask an expert.
Look at the National Park’s Program Schedule Before You Arrive.
We love attending Ranger led programs and hikes in our National Parks, but we wouldn’t have even known they were happening without consulting a print or online program for the park. These programs are often free and the Rangers will bring the park to life for you and your children and give you a greater appreciation for the natural wonders around you. If you can’t find a schedule online, talk to a ranger when you first arrive to learn about the best programs currently available.
National Parks are not Theme Parks So Be Careful and Show Respect to Wildlife and the Environment.
National Parks can be dangerous if you don’t take precautions and follow all posted safety rules. Respect the wildlife around you and keep a safe distance. Leave no trace so that the park may also be enjoyed by your grandchildren–hopefully on another epic RV trip with you at some point in the not to distant future!
Check out the Every Kid in a Park Program.
When students are in the fourth grade, they can get a pass for free entrance into national parks for the entire year. And guess what? The whole family gets in free, too! You have to go to everykidinapark.gov to get the pass AND PRINT IT OUT. The NPS sites only accept printed copies, which we learned the hard way when we were at Chincoteague National Seashore last fall.
We go on a wide variety of camping and RV trips throughout the year, but our frequent visits to national parks are one of our favorite parts of the RV lifestyle. Our tips for visiting national parks will help ensure you have a safe, fun, and memorable experience exploring some of our nation’s amazing treasures.
We’ve got some great guides to national parks around the country. Check out our favorite things to do in Olympic National Park, Acadia National Park, and Mount Rushmore. Also make sure to join RVFTA: The Group over on Facebook for great recommendations from RV travel experts!
We’ll see you at the campground,
Stephanie + Jeremy