It seems our nation's best idea is becoming nearly everyone's best idea for vacation. Rightfully so. Our national parks are treasures everyone deserves to see. Jaw-dropping vistas and abundant wildlife are only part of the attraction. The history of our nation speaks from every towering tree and roaring waterfall. Pictures never do these places justice. You must experience them for yourself.
If you're planning an adventure to one of our nation's national parks, I'd like to share some of my secrets with you. Expectations are sometimes smashed when the idealistic Instagram image doesn't match the realities of sharing your experience with the other 300+ million visitors that saturate our parks annually. These tips will help you maximize your experience and minimize the stress that often follows trying to meet all of your vacation expectations.
But Where Will We Sleep?
Because we 'camp' (we have a travel trailer), our accommodations are usually in-tow. However, there have been times when we've taken extended family along, leaving our beloved Trailer Swift (that's our camper's name) behind. Either option require some level of planning in order to avoid the worry of not having a place to stay.
My husband and I love spontaneity. My mother-in-law is the polar opposite. We like the thrill of no plans. She prefers to have an itinerary. Still, we love adventuring together. How do we make it work? It's a little recipe involving equal parts of research and risk. (And heaping amounts of grace.)
Here are the top three realities of accommodation planning:
1) Know Your Options- Unless you book well in advance, most national parks will likely not have available overnight accommodations. Neighboring towns can be miles away from some remote parks. If you're traveling during peak seasons (which vary, depending on the park), even distant accommodations may also be booked up. We've used Good Sam, Airbnb, and Trip Advisor with great success. However, a hidden gem in the hunt for a place to hang your hat is found in local chambers of commerce or visitor's bureau. Give them a call! The locals who answer offer a wealth of information.
2) Be Aware of Freebies- If you're feeling incredibly adventurous, take advantage of free camping available in national forests, BLM land, or other public lands. Many national parks are in close proximity to these designated places. Our Free Roam app even shows us where in-town overnights are allowed (Camping World, Walmart, etc.) One of my all-time favorite camping experiences took place in a idyllic field in the San Juan National Forest. We built our own fire ring, foraged for downed trees, and slept beneath innumerable stars that blanketed our mountain landscape. If you're willing to risk it, the rewarding encounter with nature will etch its place into the richest part of your memory bank.
3) Don't Hesitate to Ask- Traveling to national parks means that demand is typically greater than supply. Rates for rooms and campgrounds can escalate quickly, eating up a good chunk of your vacation budget. While booking online is super-convenient, it hinders your negotiating power. So find that place online, then give them a call to ask for a discount. Maybe you're pulling in last minute... ask for their walk-in rate. This can discount your rate significantly. If you're booking more than one room or campsite, ask if they'll give you a group discount. Because we are Good Sam and AAA members, we usually get 10% off the advertised rate.
So Many People
Most parks are overcrowded. Your experience will be shared with thousands of others trying to enjoy their own experiences. In order to avoid frustrations, keep these three things in mind:
1) Plan for Patience- Long lines go hand-in-hand with breathtaking landscapes. Everyone wants their glimpse at the baby bison, or their group photo in front of a sweeping vista. Offer to take their photo. You'll be amazed at the conversations that can start as a result. We love meeting people from all over the world, and our parks make that an easy task. If you're looking to avoid the crowds, grab yo'self a backcountry permit. There's plenty of wilderness that can be put between you and the droves of softies that stick to the paved paths.
2) Look for the Lesser-Known- One of my favorite Yellowstone experiences was biking the Natural Bridge Trail. Although we passed a few other bikers, there were many times where we were the only humans in sight. (Something that made me a bit uneasy, since we weren't carrying bear spray.) Each park offers unique experiences that many are not aware of. Ask the Rangers for their favorites. Their stories are usually accompanied by a sparkle in their eye, as they speak of the reasons why they love the parks they serve.
3) Think Green- Most parks are making tremendous efforts towards reducing the ecological impact of the millions who tread these hallowed grounds each year. Take advantage of public transportation when visiting. Transit routes within the parks are clearly marked nearly everywhere you go. Be patient with others! I had a man yell at me for line-jumping at Zion. I was trying to find the end of a very long line, and mistook what was a gap as my place in line.
Leave No Trace
Please. Please. Please. Our planet requires the stewardship of all. Ditch the plastic water bottles. Most parks have bottle-ready fountains. Pack in, pack out. Protect delicate ecosystems by staying on-trail. Deny thy selfie if it means standing, walking, or climbing onto off-limits areas. The wildlife doesn't need you to share your snacks, although the squirrels and marmots will try to convince you otherwise. My grandchildren's children need to see these wild places.
Born with a severe case of wanderlust, I'm always searching for new adventures and sharing those stories here.