Make the most of your national park visit.

By Andrea Romano
Updated March 12, 2020

As of 2019, the United States is home to 61 national parks (and 418 national park sites), adding up to hundreds of thousands of acres of the great outdoors to explore.

Visiting a national park is a great way to spend a vacation in pretty much every season. Millions of people flock to some of the most popular parks in the nation, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Yosemite National Park, to name a few.

There’s practically a national park for everyone, whether you want to see the impressive Old Faithful at Yellowstone or marvel at General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, at Giant Forest of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Plus, many of these parks offer a huge array of activities, like camping, hiking, biking, climbing, horseback riding, dogsledding, and stargazing. You can even catch a glimpse of the northern lights in some states, such as Denali National Park in Alaska.

The country’s beautiful national parks span a wide range of terrains beyond typical forests and mountains, too. For example, there’s the smooth sands of White Sands National Park and the fascinating red and pink rock formations of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Elisabeth Pollaert Smith/Getty Images

With so much to see and do, it’s easy to make a few mistakes that could prevent you from enjoying your national park vacation to the fullest.

So, if you’re planning a trip to a national park, here are a few mistakes tourists often make and how to avoid them.

1. Not Planning Ahead

For any vacation, it’s always best to plan ahead. That is especially true for a national park trip. U.S. parks can vary in size and terrain, and depending on what season you’re planning to visit in, you can run into a lot of roadblocks, including huge crowds, unpredictable weather conditions, and park closures. It’s best to research your park before going, making sure you’ve packed appropriately for the weather and have all the proper permits – especially if you plan on camping or visiting popular attractions. This also gives you an opportunity to figure out your schedule, so you can check off everything on must-see your list.

All that said, it’s also important to leave a little time to account for sudden changes. You never know when you might want to stray from your schedule.

2. Improperly Interacting With Wildlife

National parks are perfect places to spot incredible wildlife, including bison, elk, bears, wolves, coyotes, big cats, and more. However, there is a right and wrong way to deal with wildlife — and it mostly has to do with giving the animals plenty of space so they don’t feel threatened.

Lots of people fail to realize that the park is not a zoo, animal shelter, or controlled place for animal encounters. None of the animals are domesticated and they will always react to things. In order to keep yourself safe, follow the National Park System’s rules in regards to wildlife.

3. Being Glued to Your Camera

Yes, getting those Instagram photos is important. How else will your old friends from high school know you’re in the Rocky Mountains? But in all seriousness, while you want to snap some stunning photos and capture memories that you can look back on, it’s good to remember that you’re in the great outdoors: the perfect place to unplug. Get your snaps, sure, but also don’t forget to look up from the screen and take in the beauty for yourself.

4. Not Staying Out Late to See the Stars

Plenty of vacationers like to be on the go all day long. This is perfectly fine, and you’ll definitely see some amazing sights during the daytime. However, all that activity during the day can also mean you’ll be too exhausted to hang out at night, which cuts you off from half the experience of staying in a national park.

Many parks hold events at night. Not only is this the best time to get a glimpse at a sky full of stars, you can also catch things like the northern lights (depending on where you are) or natural phenomena, like the Yosemite firefall.

5. Not Getting Up Early to Watch the Sunrise

On the flip side, people who sleep in until noon may miss out on one of the best parts of being in the great outdoors: watching a stunning sunrise over the landscape. Sure, a sunrise can be beautiful in the city, too. However, missing the first hours of the day while staying in a naturally beautiful place would be a shame.

6. Not Filling Up Your Gas Tank

National parks aren’t always easy to reach, especially if you’re running low on gas. Remember, these areas often include tens of thousands of acres of protected land, so there may not always be a pump station nearby. Be sure to fill up when you get the chance, and bring extra tanks just in case.

7. Not Using Park Maps

Your phone’s GPS won’t work if you’re out of the service area, and some parts of the park might not have a strong signal. Yes, you’ll find some spots that are still connected to outside civilization, but if you’re out on the trails, you might need to stick to a good, old-fashioned paper map. They most likely can be found in the visitor’s center wherever you go. (More on that below.)

8. Going Off the Trail

Staying safe while hiking should be a top priority. The National Park Service provides a list of items you should always pack for your national park visit, including clothing layers, flashlights, water, extra food, and so on. But one other safety guideline you shouldn’t break is going off-trail. Even some experienced hikers can get lost in national parks, which may lead to injury or even death. It can also damage your environment. Some parks have off-trail travel and backcountry camping, but these are best for those who have extensive experience. Be honest with yourself about your wilderness skills.

In general, sticking to the designated trails, following a map, and even getting a trail guide are the best ways to stay safe. And always pay attention to warning signs or barriers that will keep you away from dangerous areas.

9. Skipping the Visitor Center

As mentioned above, the visitor center has a wealth of knowledge and resources you can access about the park you’re visiting. Not only is this a good place to find maps, but you can also talk to park rangers and get information about special events, closures, and other important details. It’s the best way to not get blindsided while you’re out on the trails.

10. Only Going During Peak Season or Only Visiting the Most Popular Attractions

There’s a national park for every season. Some parks are best visited in the summer, while others are better in the fall. Even finding a time to go during the off-peak season can be rewarding, especially since this means you likely won’t have to contend with crowds. You might even be able to get a discount on lodging.

The same goes for the most popular attractions, like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or Yosemite’s Half Dome. They are beloved for a reason, but national parks have much more to offer than just the well-trodden places. Research before you go or ask a park ranger about some of the less-visited or underrated areas they recommend. Or, even better, opt to visit an underrated national park.

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