Not even the majesty of the purple mountain and the amber waves of grain cover the beauty of the United States. From sea to shining sea, the National Parks of the United States deliver some of America’s finest pieces, offering plenty of hiking, wildlife viewing, and scenic drives along the way.
The park system began in 1872 when Congress established Yellowstone National Park for the ‘pleasure of the people’. Now, there are 63 national park sites throughout the States and its territories, showcasing natural phenomena, backcountry wilderness, ancient art, and more.
If you’re dreaming of a great American vacation, don’t expect a trip to explore a national park or two.
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Decide what kind of experience you want
From remote arctic locations with bush plane access only to well-defined trails among towering sandstone hoodoos, the national parks offer a wide range of experiences.
Go deep into what you expect to see in the field. Do you enjoy snowy mountain views or do you prefer to watch the bison (they really are bison) roaming? Are you hoping to tick off a few grueling multi-day hikes or do you prefer wandering through ruins and learning about human history?
You’ll also want to consider the crowds – do you enjoy the buzz of a busy lookout or do you prefer the quiet solitude of a backcountry hike? Think about the level of independence you want on your trip too. Some national parks are easily accessible without a car, while others rely on personal vehicles.
What time of year are you going?
Shoulder seasons reign supreme. Although summers are gloriously hot and full of life, they are also a popular time for school holidays. Winters can be harsh in many national parks, sometimes with limited access and amenities, but sometimes the conditions are worth the unique landscapes.
When you decide which park(s) you want to see, look at the best season to visit.
Decide where you are staying – inside or outside the park?
National park campgrounds offer a personal experience and often have personal picnic tables, fire rings (where permitted), and bear boxes (where appropriate) on site. You’ll also be near park rangers if you have questions and some offer free ranger-led activities at night.
Keep in mind that some campgrounds are on a first-come, first-served basis, so plan to get there early. Reserved sites can be secured through recreation.gov and you are advised to do so ahead of time.
National park lodges offer an elevated, hotel-like experience with actual bathrooms (no long toilets here), restaurants, and some amenities. Most of the lodges are historic, so if you’re looking for something luxurious, you might want to stay off-site. On-site lodging can be expensive, because it’s where you’re paying.
If you’re looking for a luxurious, unique experience, check out the glamping opportunities or historic hotels in town or further afield. Those hoping to save a little money can score with off-site campgrounds (many still have fire pits, picnic tables and the like) and motels.
Buy a National Park pass
The America the Beautiful Pass is an annual pass that covers entrance fees to all federally operated recreation sites throughout the US, including national parks. For US$80 (NZ$124), the pass covers the owner and occupants of a vehicle (for parks that charge the car’s load) or the owner and three additional adults.
Many parks charge a day rate of $25 or more, so if you’re visiting multiple parks for many days, the pass pays for itself in just a few visits.
Plan your itinerary
Now for the fun part – planning what you want to do. The NPS website has a wealth of information on attractions, scenic drives, trails, shuttle bus information and more, so start your trip there.
Keep in mind that some parks, such as Zion, require visitors at peak times to travel on their free bus system, which runs frequently and helps keep the roads free of traffic.
Other parks, such as Arches, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain, have timed entries, which means you must reserve the time you enter the park through an online reservation system. The reservation must be made online, through recreation.gov, and apply for the entire park.
Once you’ve worked out the logistics, explore the wide variety of trails, scenic overlooks, and picnic areas, planning your route through the park. If you’re driving, plan to get in and out of the park through other entry points if there are any, or you’ll be backtracking quite a bit.
What to pack
If you’re camping, pack any essentials you can in your suitcase and rent bulky items – and gas canisters – from local outdoor retailers. Clothing is similar to what you would pack for an outdoor holiday in New Zealand – plenty of layers, a waterproof jacket, and some comfortable walking shoes and socks.
Paper maps also come in handy, and it doesn’t hurt to bring heavy-duty trash bags so you don’t leave a trace – for the sake of the beauty of the surrounding area and to reduce your chances of getting caught by a bear.
When you come
Go straight to the visitor center and talk to a park ranger. They will be able to fill you in on park conditions, events, crowds, wildlife sightings, and more. They can also recommend trails, trackers and drives, depending on your experience. If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, the heat, or see wildlife, be sure to set your alarm for an early rise.
Finally, don’t stop at the national park borders. The areas immediately adjacent to the parks are usually designated public lands, in the form of state parks, national forests, and wilderness areas. While they may not have the same attractions that make national parks special (looking at you, Old Faithful), the beauty doesn’t stop at the park gates. You can often find similar landscapes
Once you have the lay of the land – go! Explore every little pocket of parkland you can find waiting for you – the national parks are very exciting, so let your mouth be shaved.