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So, you want to visit a National Park?

THAT’S AWESOME. You will not regret it. And, you’ve come to the right place if you’re unsure about where to start.

But first of all, who am I and why do I have any business telling you how to plan your vacation? My name is Riley, and I’m a Park Ranger. Currently, I’ve only worked at three different parks, but I’ve visited nearly 200. That’s almost half of the current 418 public lands protected by the National Park Service. I work for them and visit as many as I can in my spare time. So, I kind of know what I’m talking about, and I hope my experiences can help you plan the greatest trip of your life. After all, that’s why I created this website!

Before we begin, I encourage you to join my Facebook group, the National Park Travelers Network. The focus of the group is providing tips, telling stories, giving advice, asking questions, or anything else related to national parks. It’s a community that’s rapidly growing with members including visitors like you and park rangers like me. I hope to see you there.

This page contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. I will never recommend anything I don’t personally use. As always, thanks for your support!

How to Plan Your Visit

I always start with a map. This helps me figure out which parks I want to visit based on where I’m going to be. I also spend a lot of time on websites like SkyScanner looking at flights, hotels, and car rentals to find the best deals. This is usually a huge deciding factor in where I’m going.

However, more often than not, I’m already heading somewhere and decide to stop at parks along the way. Usually, it’s moving from one national park to another for work. Sometimes, I’m traveling to a conference or training and add an extra day or two to explore. Sometimes, it’s a spontaneous trip with a stranger. Anything goes, really, but if I’m planning a trip focused solely on visiting national parks, it’s usually a quick weekend getaway not far from home.

Planning the Ultimate Road Trip

So, how do I plan my routes on these long road trips?

Have you ever heard of the National Park Travelers Club? It’s a club with hundreds if not thousands of members devoted to visiting national parks. Their website is full of resources, including the best map, but you do need to be a paying member to access it (which I recommend). It’s called the Route Planner, and all you do is type in your start and end points and it will show you which national parks are on the fastest route. You can also adjust the radius to find parks as far from or as close to your route as you’d like.

For example, let’s say I’m driving from New York City to Acadia National Park, and I want to visit any national parks within 10 miles of my route.

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Here’s what it would look like. Pretty amazing, right? When you hover over the points on the map, park names and addresses become visible. It’ll also give you details on your national park stamps collection if you have yours uploaded to their database (in other words, if you’re a huge park nerd like me).

If you don’t want to become a paying member, another great resource is the official National Park Service cartography website. Here, you will find way more maps than you will ever need. You can sort by state, alphabetical order, or click through the maps and decide which one works best for you. I prefer the National Park System Wall Map, available under the National Park System Maps category. I have this saved to my desktop so I can access it easily and load it quickly. This map will allow you to locate national parks and successfully plan your trip.

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Here’s what it looks like open in Preview on my MacBook. Once it’s up, I can zoom in and move the map around to plan with ease. Heading to San Francisco? No problem. I’ll zoom in and see that there are at least seven national park sites within reasonable driving distance.

Finding the Best Flight

The fact is, you can’t drive to every national park. That pesky Hawaii! Well, I guess technically you can ship your car to Hawaii on a boat. But alas, I’m a Park Ranger, not Queen Elizabeth, so I’ll stick to searching Airfare Watchdog and CheapOair until my eyes fall out.

Seriously, I spend hours searching for cheap flights on search engines like these. And I mean for the entire world, including places that I have no immediate plans to visit. Wanderlust can be a serious problem! But, it does have its advantages. I’ve gotten very good at finding the best deals and knowing when to book. The more often you shop around, the more likely it is that you’ll know a good deal when you see one.

Let’s talk about Hawaii again for a minute. Did you know Hawaiian Airlines has a stopover program? Their rules are pretty strict, but it’s worth looking into, especially if you’re trying to reach American Samoa or Guam. You could visit some additional parks on your way to another hemisphere!

Researching the Parks

Once you know how you’re going to get where you’re going, it’s time to plan what you’ll do. I find the official National Park Service websites to be the most helpful. You can go here to search for parks by state. Another resource is my national parks checklist, also organized by state, which includes some suggestions for activities.

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Once I find the park I’m looking for, I’m greeted by a familiar page setup. Each park will have a menu like the one above. I always look at the alerts first. Park closures can occur at any time, and it’s important to stay on top of such announcements. Plus, there’s nothing worse than planning your day in a park only to arrive and find out it’s closed on Mondays (which has, unfortunately, happened to me). Next, I head to the Plan Your Visit menu and browse the Basic Information, Things to Do, and Places to Go categories. This usually gives me a really good head start on planning my trip.

Additionally, I have a few favorite national parks blogs I visit repeatedly. Most of them focus on the 59 national parks, but remember there are actually 418 – don’t forget about the little guys. I’ve listed three of these blogs for you below.

Don’t forget about my Facebook group! If you ever have questions about traveling to parks that you want to be answered, frequent travelers and park rangers are there to help.

The Greatest American Road Trip

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Stefanie and Jonathan visited the 59 national parks in 2016 to celebrate the National Park Service Centennial. Their main goal was to create amazing content from each, mainly through their stunning photography. Their website is full of helpful advice and information about visiting our nation’s treasures. I had the pleasure of meeting them when they stopped in South Dakota and loved hearing about their trip. They were very, very passionate and put a lot of love and hard work into this project. Visit their Jewel Cave page and you may find a familiar face.

The Switchback Kids

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Elizabeth and Cole also visited the 59 parks in 2016 for the centennial. Now, they facilitate a very resourceful podcast and write about their visiting other national parks. Furthermore, they’ve expanded their blogging expertise to traveling internationally on a budget. Most recently, they’ve also began posting about putting down your smart phone while you travel in order to fully engage. I especially love following this couple on Instagram for inspiration.

Travel Beyond Convention

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Mikah Meyer is on an epic quest to become the youngest person on record to visit all 418 national parks in one sweep. He’s also openly gay and representing diverse national park visitors and encouraging people of every race, gender, and sexual orientation to visit national parks. He’s already 2/3 through his amazing journey, and I love following his story.

What to Pack

The real key is actually what not to pack. For example, I flew to Hawaii with a tent and a sleeping bag, and I never used them. Sometimes, I’m a little over-prepared, and I’m sure you are, too. But usually, it’s best to leave some things at home.

National Park Essentials

Depending on where you go, your packing list will vary. However, there are a few things I bring with me no matter where I’m headed.

America the Beautiful PASS

Unfortunately, not all national parks are free. However, if you visit multiple in one year, you may be missing out on a bargain. The America the Beautiful program provides various types of national parks passes for visitors. Passes are valid for entry to all federal public lands, including National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests. Here’s the scoop so you’ll know which pass is right for you.

  • Annual Pass, $80: This pass is good for twelve months from the date of purchase. Anyone can buy this pass. If you’re going to four national parks, it will probably pay itself off. The best time to buy this pass is in the beginning of the month because it won’t expire until the end of that same month the following year. For example, if I buy a pass on May 1, 2018, it will be valid through May 31, 2019. Essentially, you receive thirteen months of use for the price of twelve!
  • Senior Lifetime Pass, $80: U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years and older can purchase this pass, valid for the rest of their life.
  • Senior Annual Pass, $20: U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years and older can purchase this pass, valid for twelve months. Just like the standard annual pass, you could potentially receive thirteen months of use by purchasing at the beginning of the month.
  • Military Annual Pass, Free: This annual pass is free for members of the United States military who are currently serving their country as well as their dependents.
  • Access Pass, Free: Any U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a permanent disability is eligible for a free lifetime pass.
  • Every Kid in a Park Pass, Free: Children entering 4th grade are able to participate in a program online to earn this free annual pass. It is valid from September 1 – August 31 the year they’re in fourth grade.
  • Volunteer Pass, Free: If you volunteer in a national park, or other federal public lands, and complete 250 service hours, you will earn this free annual pass.
Passport to your national parks

A blue spiral notebook

The Passport to Your National Parks is basically my favorite thing. I have multiple books at this point and they are all among my most prized possessions. What would I grab if my house was on fire? You guessed it, my laptop and my passport books. I’ve visited the majority of my current 192 parks since 2013, also the year I purchased my book. It has so many memories inside that money could never buy.

The passport itself, of course, costs money. I started with the smallest book and eventually updated to the spiral collector’s edition. If I could start all over knowing how obsessed I’d become with my passport, I’d purchase the binder, also known as the explorer’s edition. It allows you to add pages as you see fit, a much more flexible system.

You can also purchase stickers to liven up your passport. Necessary? Not at all. Fun to collect? You bet.

Additionally, there’s an app you can download to keep track of where you’ve been no matter where you are.

For more information, visit Eastern National’s webpage.

PRO TIPS: Due to my obsession with my passport, my biggest worry is that it’ll be lost, stolen, or damaged. For this reason, I scan or take pictures of all of my stamps and save them to my computer and upload them to the National Park Travelers Club database (available to paying members). Furthermore, sometimes I leave my passport books at home and stamp pieces of paper instead. Then, I’ll tape them into my books later. Preferably, I’ll stamp a label or sticker so I can place it directly into my passport book.

Guidebooks

I know I know, there are e-books all over the place now and they’re wildly convenient. But I’ll be honest, I still prefer a good hard copy. They look so nice on the bookshelf and remind me of the amazing adventures I’ve had!

Where to Go Once You’re There

My first stop is always the park visitor center. Here, I pick up a park map, grab a trail map, stamp my passport book, and ask the park rangers any questions I have. If time allows, I’ll also watch the park film and peruse the exhibits in the visitor center.

After that, it really depends on where I am. I always ask, “why is this a national park?” and aim to answer that question for myself through my exploration.

Free Souvenirs to Collect

No, I’m not talking about taking things like pinecones or arrowheads from the parks. That’s illegal. But, there are other freebies you can take advantage of.

Passport Stamps

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Obviously, I’m a huge fan of the passport book. However, you don’t need to buy the official book to collect the stamps. You can buy your own notebook with blank pages, or make your own. You can stamp anything your little heart desires so that you remember your trip.

Junior Ranger Badges

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Becoming a Junior Ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Junior Ranger badges are not just for kids. As a disclaimer, there are some national parks that believe otherwise and prefer not to provide books to adults, but most parks will let people of all ages participate. Personally, I think it’s one of the best ways to learn about the place you’re visiting. Sometimes, you can even complete the books online prior to your visit. This will help you plan your trip and you’ll have more time to enjoy the park once you arrive.

After completing your book, a park ranger will review it with you and go over the answers. So long as you’ve completed all the requirements, you’ll be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger and presented with your badge. Then, you can start your collection!

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Unigrids

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Wait, what the heck is a unigrid? Basically, it’s park ranger speak for a map or brochure. Sorry to confuse you! But, it’s a special kind of map that you’ll probably recognize if you’ve ever visited a park. These are free and each park has one, so they’re a popular collector’s item. I’ve also seen many people stamp these, establishing two collections in one! I keep all of mine in a plastic container organized by state and in alphabetical order (why yes, I am crazy).

Suggested Trips

Here are some of my favorite destinations and itineraries. You’ll notice that I usually visit multiple national parks in one trip by going places where parks are relatively close together. But trust me, I do go way off the beaten path to find them, too.

Washington, D.C.

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Big cities like Boston, New York, or San Francisco have multiple national parks. That makes it pretty easy to see them all! Perhaps the greatest example is Washington, D.C. with 25 national park sites, all within a few miles. Plus, there are some additional parks in nearby Maryland and Virginia just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

The Black Hills of South Dakota

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South Dakota is fascinating to me. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from windy prairies to desolate badlands to granite peaks. Not to mention the mysteries that lie beneath the surface in its many caves. Within about 2 hours you can travel to five of South Dakota’s national parks, and additional parks in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Nebraska aren’t much farther. When I worked at Jewel Cave, I organized a national parks weekend at the Journey Museum featuring twelve national parks within 350 miles of Rapid City, South Dakota. TWELVE parks all within a day’s drive. AND the famous Custer State Park is here, too!

South Florida

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You didn’t think I’d leave you without mentioning my home state, right? One of our country’s more famous national parks, Everglades, is just an hour from Miami International Airport. Not far from there is Biscayne National Park, perhaps most famous for the houses built on stilts (“Stiltsville”) that sit in the Atlantic Ocean. You can also enjoy the wildlife of Big Cypress or the solitude of Dry Tortugas. South Florida is a wonderland of recreational opportunity!

Utah’s Mighty Five

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I can tell you from first-hand experience that in one trip, you can see Utah’s Mighty Five. That’s the nickname for Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. Others, like Glen Canyon and Natural Bridges, aren’t too far away, either. Utah is a wonderful place to go if you’re interested in seeing the wonders of the desert. In fact, the entire Four Corners area is filled with cultural gems and natural treasures preserved for the people.

Central California

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California has more national parks than any other state, so naturally, it’s easy to visit many in one go. But no other area in California has more than the central valley. From San Francisco to the high Sierras, you’ll find the peace of nature or fascinating history no matter where you go.

Do you have any questions about visiting national parks? Join the National Park Travelers Network or ask me.