Many national parks saw near-record-breaking attendance levels last year and countless others logged attendance levels that were close to pre-pandemic numbers.
If you’re planning to visit a national park — or even several parks — this year, that doesn’t mean you need to stress about crowds. Instead, it simply means you need to plan wisely, the National Park Service (NPS) explains.
Indeed, the best way to plan a trip to a national park is to get advice from a park ranger. After all, nobody knows the parks like the rangers who work there.
Fortunately, the NPS recently released this much sought-after insider knowledge. Coined “Plan Your Vacation Like A Park Ranger,” the tips explain how rangers themselves plan a trip to a national park.
“A little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises are happy ones,” the NPS explains. The rangers’ tips “help everyone have a great experience.”
So, let’s get to it. Here are park rangers’ top 10 tips for planning a terrific trip to a national park.
1. Don’t Miss The Good Stuff
“With more than 400 national parks across all 50 states and many U.S. territories, we love discovering places not as well known that offer the beauty of nature and the power of history — only with fewer crowds and lines,” the rangers explain.
To help with your trip planning, you can use the NPS Find A Park website to search by park, topic, activity, or even find parks in your state.
2. Make A Plan… And Have A Backup Plan
“For us, a park visit begins at home with a trip to www.NPS.gov,” the rangers continue. “Park websites have ideas about where to go, what to see, and what to do, and most importantly, what we need to include in our planning. Flexibility and a backup plan are key, too, in case of changing weather conditions, road closures, and so on.”
You can learn more at Plan Your Visit.
3. Use the NPS App
Rangers say they love the NPS app, and they even “nerd out” over it because it includes tools to explore more than 400 national parks nationwide. Importantly, those tools include interactive maps, tours, and accessibility information. Plus, the rangers explain they are adding new content every day.
You can learn more by downloading The NPS App.
4. Reservations May Be Needed
“We ‘heart’ reservations, and nope, we don’t get in for free,” the rangers explain. “Many campgrounds and lodges in and around well-known parks book up quickly during peak seasons. Having a reservation guarantees we won’t arrive at a park only to find that we need an entrance reservation, there’s no place to sleep, or a popular trail is closed.”
5. Keep Safety In The Picture
“We love to take photos. Have you seen our Instagram?” the rangers note. “But we like surviving the experience too, so we’re careful to take pics where it is safe. Some popular trails and views may be especially crowded this year, so an unobstructed photo might require a bit of a wait.”
Indeed, the rangers explain that to avoid slips, trips, and falls, everyone should stick to trails and boardwalks, use extra caution and watch their step, wear shoes or boots with sturdy soles, and always stay on the safe side of barriers and safety railings.
You can learn more about taking pictures safely in national parks at Keep Safety in the Picture.
6. Ask A Ranger
“Have a question? Ask a ranger. And yes, we ask other rangers about visiting their parks,” the rangers continue. “We’re always here to help. We can answer questions, share park stories, point you to the nearest restroom, and we can let you know what activities are available.”
You can learn more at Ask a Ranger, where you can find the types of questions rangers can answer.
7. Don’t Pet The “Fluffy Cows”
All kidding aside, bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and run up to 35 mph, so they can really hurt you, the rangers explain.
“We can’t run that fast and are pretty sure you can’t either,” the rangers caution. “Keep your distance from wild animals, never feed the wildlife, and when taking pictures, use your zoom and give them room.”
You can learn more about safely taking pictures of wildlife at Observe the World Around You.
8. Are You “Ruffing” It?
“This one’s for the dogs — we love ours,” the rangers proudly note. “Many parks allow pets on leashes and in campgrounds; some even have kennels. But sometimes these furry friends are best left at home. Discover what you can, and can’t, do with your pet and follow the BARK principles.”
If you aren’t familiar with the term, BARK stands for:
- Bag your pet’s waste
- Always leash your pet
- Respect wildlife
- Know where you can go
You can learn more, including how your pet can be a BARK Ranger, at BARK Rangers.
9. Leave Only Footprints
“We know that each of us — rangers, volunteers, visitors, everyone — plays a vital role in protecting your national parks,” the rangers continue. “Whether it’s carrying out what we brought in (including our pooch’s… well… you know), leaving the spots we visit just as we found them, or staying on the trail, we’re careful to respect these incredible places.”
You can learn more at Leave No Trace Seven Principles.
10. Be Patient With Each Other And Us
“First of all, we always remember to allow ourselves extra time to get from one place to another and enjoy the experience,” the rangers explain.
“We also know that national parks offer refuge and respite to hundreds of thousands of people and, like many places you go this year, we may not yet be able to offer the past level of service as we emerge from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” the rangers continue. “But we are all doing everything we can to help one another have an inspiring park experience.”
You can learn more about the NPS response to the pandemic and operational updates at NPS Public Health Update.
While you’re planning a trip, or trips, be sure to read all of our U.S. National Park content, including: