If national parks are anything, they’re diverse -- stunning wildlife, mountains, geysers, beaches, lakes, and more make up the beautiful landscapes. Given the variety on offer, the details of your vacation are going to depend on where you’re headed. However, there are a few things to keep in mind, no matter which park you have your heart set on. Here are 13 things every traveler should know before visiting a national park.
1. National parks are not zoos.
Spotting wildlife in its natural habitat can be unpredictable, as many animals follow migration patterns or adjust their movements to weather conditions. However, if you do get lucky, keep your distance. Some creatures -- notably bears -- can be very dangerous. Also use caution around other animals, like bighorn sheep, who are known to push rocks off cliffs above “predators.” Don’t wear any fragrance, including scented deodorants, as it will attract bugs, and could even trigger aggressive behavior in some animals.
2. Calling the park before setting out is wise.
Some national parks are so large that weather conditions can vary from one end to the other. Fast, unexpected changes in atmosphere can also be common. It’s worth calling the park to find out which trails or sections might be closed due to weather or routine maintenance. The information might have you postponing your arrival for a few hours (or the next day).
3. National parks are more popular than ever.
In 2018, America’s national parks saw more than 300 million visitors. These high numbers can certainly take a toll on the environment, so it’s your responsibility as a visitor to take conservation seriously by following the rules. For starters, you can’t take any “souvenirs” home -- other than what you buy at the gift shop, of course. That pretty rock at the edge of the stream? Snap a picture, but leave it right where it is. And you won’t find any garbage cans either. Anything you bring in with you has to go back out with you, so put a trash bag in your car.
4. You can make reservations for some campsites.
You can make reservations for camping in some national parks, though many offer campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. You can also secure spots on popular park tours, such as those at Mammoth Cave National Park and Independence National Historical Park, in advance. Check the park’s website to find out what can be reserved in advance and how to do it.
5. You don’t need to rough it.
Some people avoid national parks because they believe they aren’t the outdoorsy type -- and that’s a shame because there are plenty of ways to explore one without camping. If a hot shower and comfy bed are requirements for your vacation, you should know that many larger parks have beautiful -- and often historic -- lodges located inside. Some even offer full-on luxury accommodations.
6. What you pack can make or break your trip.
Hiking boots are the most important thing to bring if you plan to spend any time on the trails. Flip-flops, especially in slippery conditions, are a ticket to injury. Sunscreen (ideally the eco-friendly kind), a hat, and sun-shielding clothing is important as well. Other must-haves include insect repellent, a first-aid kit, a rain poncho, a compass, a waterproof phone case and/or dry bag, and a backpack or large fanny pack.
7. If you’re going in the summer, book lodging in advance.
During the high season, hotels at popular parks book up many months in advance, so do yourself a favor and reserve your room as soon as possible. If the properties within the park are packed, you may have better luck at smaller motels outside the main gates. Accommodations aside, the summer crowds can cause traffic jams -- a definite distraction from the natural beauty of the park. That being said, it might be worth considering a trip in the fall or spring instead.
8. Cell service may be spotty.
Even in well-connected national parks, you might be looking at about 50 percent cell phone coverage. That being said, don’t expect to Instagram every view in real time, but more importantly, you can’t rely on your phone’s GPS, so take one of the maps in the visitor center.
9. Off-roading is usually illegal.
Despite what SUV ads might have you believing, you likely won’t be able to careen across the wild landscape of a national park. To avoid getting slapped with a fine, and damaging delicate wildlife habitats, just don’t do it.
10. The safety precautions are no joke.
Backcountry hikers and campers must take the park’s safety guidelines as gospel, no matter the level of experience. As you enter a trail, look for a log book, which the park staff uses to ensure everyone who goes in comes out. Be sure to sign it both ways. Also, tell the park rangers that you’re headed into the wilderness and how long you plan to be there. Give a family member back home a heads up as well, so that they can alert the authorities if they don’t hear from you in a designated amount of time.
11. You should prepare to leave the car.
Although national parks are often associated with road trips, you may want to step outside your vehicle upon arriving. Cars are not always the best way to get around, as some spots are choked with traffic at peak times, and others are short on parking. Many, including Zion National Park in Utah, no longer allow cars, and instead provide shuttles. Whether or not cars are permitted, many national parks are best explored on a bike or on foot.
12. You can probably bring your dog.
Many national parks allow dogs, and some even have kennels. The caveat is that they have to be leashed at all times (for their safety and the well-being of the wildlife), and you must clean up after them.
13. It’s cheaper than you think to visit.
The majority of national parks don’t charge an admission fee. Those that do, such as Bryce Canyon National Park and Arches National Park, offer free admission on five days: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week in April, August 25 (the National Park Service birthday), September 28 (National Public Lands Day), and Veterans Day. There are also free or discounted passes available for senior citizens, current members of the military, fourth-grade students, and disabled citizens. Don’t fit any of these categories? Consider picking up an annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass for unlimited visits with sizable savings.
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