Despite the popularity of video games, theme parks and every other kind of high-tech entertainment, around 280 million people visit our national parks every year. And while former president and passionate conservationist Teddy Roosevelt is smiling down on us for supporting these incredible churches of nature, the popularity of our national parks can have its drawbacks. Long lines, overflowing trash cans and premium-priced lodging can put a damper on summer trips. To save you time, money and, more importantly, a headache, be sure to plan your trip ahead of time. Enjoying the outdoors should be your break from the masses, not another rat race.
Have a Backup Plan
Whether your plan B is to hit up another nearby park if your top choice is overcrowded or to skip the well-known parks altogether, it’s always good to have options. It’s easier to find these hidden gems online by searching for them based on the activities you want to take part in. For example, if you love bird watching, search for the best national parks for that exact activity. Then, cross reference that list with the most popular national parks in the country. Cross off any that are going to be too crowded from your list. Now, you have a short list of the less popular parks that offer just what you’re after.
From astronomy to geology, kayaking to rock climbing, the National Park Service hosts all kinds of special events to get excited about. If you’re open to trying a new adventure, search its event calendar for activities you might not have considered otherwise.
Figure out Lodging Logistics
If you’re planning on camping, get to your first-come first-serve campground between 10 a.m. and noon so you arrive when last night’s campers are packing up and leaving. This way you have your pick of the cleanest, best-situated campsites.
If you’re looking to stay at a hotel inside or nearby the park, research hotel cancellation policies. If the policy is 48 hours notice, you can start calling and checking for cancellations three or four days before you get there. It’s a risk, but you might get lucky and score a hard-to-get room for a rock-bottom price.
If you’re rambling in an RV, make sure you enter the park with plenty of extra fuel. Gas prices inside the park are typically high, and gas sometimes sells out. If you prefer to hook up and unroll outside of the park, Camping.com has a great way to search for RV parks close to national parks. You can even add amenities and lifestyle options to refine your search and find the perfect RV park for your group.
Don’t Forget the Details
To avoid large crowds, research the peak times of the park you’re visiting. Most national park visitors are just there for the day and don’t stay overnight. You can avoid this crowd by getting up a little early and avoiding the rush between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Holiday weekends are insanely busy, so look to visit the parks during the off-season or during the week to avoid droves of tourists. Be sure to research the website of each individual park you want to visit to be aware of peak weekends, as they tend to vary.
Fast track your party into the park by investing in the “America the Beautiful” annual pass. It’s $80 and saves you serious time and money getting into over 2,000 federal recreation sites. Senior citizens also can invest a paltry $10 to $20 for a lifetime pass, which also gets you up to 50 percent off various amenity fees such as camping or boat launching.
Make sure you have clothing that is ready for all seasons, as a sunny day can quickly turn into a downpour. Invest in cargo pants that are breathable, comfortable and have tons of pockets for long adventures. Also be sure to bring a rain jacket, hat, extra pair of shoes and plenty of sunscreen.