A Guide to Planning Your National Park Trip
Inclusiveness is the beauty of the national park system. All are welcome — even the family dog (up to a point). And since we always travel with our distillery dogs, Char and Case, that’s the best news.
But the experiences and requirements at the 61 national parks can be so varied that before going it’s best to rely on that classic two-word bit of advice: plan ahead. Here’s what to know.
The National Park Service website (NPS.gov) is clearly one of the greatest uses of taxpayer money ever. The attractive site is remarkably thorough, useful, and up-to-date, right down to current road closures.
Every park has its own site within the overall site — and virtually no detail is left out, from fees, hours, camping regulations, accommodations, and restaurants to suggested itineraries for any season, with lots of nice photography to boot.
Buy the Book
If you’re more of a print person, there’s plenty from which to choose — from coffee table books to hands-on guides. though most haven’t caught up with the two newest national parks, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Indiana Dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan.
For some history as well as inspiration we suggest Heather Hansen’s Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service. Three other picks bound to be well-thumbed include Moon USA National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 59 Parks by Becky Lomax, National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States (eighth edition), and a spin-off volume for kids, National Parks Guide U.S.A. by Sarah Wassner Flynn and Julie Beer.
Pick a Time
If you’re taking the family along, chances are you’re limited to everyone’s vacation time, which is likely during the summer. Naturally, that’s when many other families are heading to the parks, so things can get crowded.
It can pay to find a way to visit in an off season. Most of the national park sites on NPS.gov give visitation statistics. They also suggest activities at other times of the year, even in the dead of winter.
Park fees, if any, can vary widely — from the visitors (military, seniors, families) to the seasons to the activities. To really plan ahead, decide how often and how many national parks you’ll visit in a year’s time, because weekly and yearly passes can save you a bundle.
The $80 annual America the Beautiful Pass entitles two holders (or a family of four) entrance into not only all 61 national parks, but also more than 2,000 federal recreational areas. Visit NPS.gov for more information.
Yes, you can bring Fido to parts of most national parks, as long as you follow the B.A.R.K. rules, which include never letting him off a leash (maximum six feet long). In other words, Bag your pet’s waste, Always leash your pet, Respect wildlife, Know where you can go.
What gear you’ll need for your national park trip depends on the activities you plan to enjoy while there. Obviously that can range from good hiking shoes to serious camping, backpacking, or boating equipment.
For us, one essential to bring along would be a good vessel for the evening’s dram to celebrate your time at the park. May we suggest our Yellowstone camp cup?
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