Enjoying America’s National Parks: The Gift of A Lifetime

Hey hey, National Parks Week is coming! #NationalParkWeek starts April 20, the day on which entrance fees will be waived at all parks to get the par-tay going and encourage everyone to enjoy their national parks in person.

Most people are familiar with the most popular parks – Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains — but did you know there are 63 National Parks nationwide?  There may be parks closer than you think!

You likely have at least one National Park Service (NPS) site on your ever-evolving bucket list of RV destinations … and you’re not alone!  325 million people per year visit these gems, because NPS manages some of the most spectacular and interesting places in the country.  And more than just parks:  those iconic NPS shields represent authority over 429 sites of all different types, including monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, preserves, and more.

From the smallest at 0.02 acres (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania) to the largest at 13.2 million acres (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska), all NPS sites have been congressionally designated as worthy of protection for historical, cultural, or ecological reasons.   

Visiting a NPS site can be both exciting and overwhelming.  With some advance planning and these tips, you can get the most out of your visit to any of them!

Plan, plan, plan … and then plan some more.  Advance planning is key to maximizing your visit, so don’t just strike out without understanding the specifics of your destination. This is particularly critical for sites which have few facilities or infrastructure. Plan accordingly for crowds, weather, use of electric bikes, and pets … especially pets! 

I’m Sprinkles and my faves are the parks that allow pets! Like Shenandoah in VIRGINIA and White Sands in NEW MEXICO

Some sites are only open during certain hours, so don’t expect to be able to enter 24 hours a day, and don’t count on having cell service in many locations, especially the most remote destinations.

North Cascades National Park, WASHINGTON

Technology For the Win.  Download the free, official NPS app to your cell phone; with all the tools and information you need to plan your visit and handy interactive maps, it will also be the best way to get around when you arrive.  Navigational apps such as AllTrails may be helpful to hikers.  Follow NPS social media accounts on Facebook or Instagram:  not only do they offer helpful tips, but – perhaps most importantly — they are absolutely hilarious. 

If you REALLY have a sense of humor, check out the “Worst National Park Reviews” and get a laugh from people’s misguided understandings of NPS treasures.

Outside Magazine

Take A Pass.  Avoid entrance fees by buying an annual or lifetime interagency pass, allowing free entry to national parks and other federal sites. The most popular parks are also usually the priciest, with entry fees up to $35 per vehicle, per day.  An annual pass is currently $80, annual senior pass is $20, or lifetime senior pass is $80.  This is a cost that quickly pays for itself, if you plan to enter the park on multiple days, or to visit multiple sites in a year.    

Crater Lake National Park, OREGON

Camping Options.  90% of camping available in NPS parks are developed campgrounds with nightly fees, most requiring advance reservations on www.recreation.gov. If you’re unable to snag a site, utilize their new feature which will shoot you a message should one open up later.  Many of these sites do not offer any utility hookups and/or have size limitations, so research carefully. 

Pinon Flats Campground at Great Sand Dunes National Park, COLORADO

Crowds, Reservations and Permits.  Attendance at these treasures has continued at record levels ever since Covid sent everyone outdoors. You can be sure to expect crowds, particularly in the most accessible and popular sites. For a less stressful visit, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons, during weekdays, or very early or very late in the day. At the most popular sites, you may need a reservation for timed entry simply to enter, or for specific activities with limited space.  Permits and/or entry into a lottery system may also be necessary for more dangerous activities in the park, such as challenging hikes like Angels Landing in Zion National Park.

Canyonlands National Park, UTAH

Visitor Center/Rangers.  Always make the Visitor Center your first stop upon arrival.  Rangers can advise of current conditions and offer ideas to make the most of whatever time you have available.  Don’t be shy about asking questions of rangers in spiffy brown uniforms … park personnel love their parks and want to share them with you!  Whether tips for visiting top features, recommended hiking trails, special programs, or educational exhibits, the visitor center has all the info you need to maximize your fun and learning.

Getting Around.  Recognize how long it could possibly take to get from place to place, as various areas and attractions can be very spread out.  Factor in potential delays for traffic congestion, animals, or parking delays, particularly in the largest parks, or those with roving wildlife like Yellowstone. 

A LOT of wildlife in Yellowstone! Plan accordingly as you may encounter lengthy delays.

Parking lots may be unable to accommodate larger campers or RVs.  Take advantage of shuttles where available – they usually exist because parking is limited or fills up very quickly – and factor wait time for the shuttle into your timeline. 

Events and Programs.  Don’t miss ongoing events and programs like nature talks, guided hikes, stargazing or animal education programs; but do be aware that some of them require advance registration or even a lottery process, such as the Synchronized Firefly Event in South Carolina’s Congaree NP. 

Get free entry to NPS sites on special days like MLK Jr Day and Veterans Day, the first day of National Parks Week in April, Great American Outdoors Day in August, and National Public Lands Day on the fourth Saturday in September, when 70,000+ volunteers give back every year by helping on hundreds of service projects like painting or landscaping at sites around the country.

Philip “helping” workers clearing brush at Kings Canyon, CALIFORNIA

Gear Up.  Always wear appropriate footwear, a hat or sunglasses, sunscreen and bug spray. Include a light source like a flashlight or headlamp, and hiking poles for stability where appropriate. Always carry basic first aid supplies and a whistle, and pack plenty of snacks and water — twice as much as you think you might need, even in the winter.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, COLORADO

Even the more simple adventures should include extra layers of clothing, emergency rain gear, and territory-specific items, like bear spray and bells in the Northwest, or a simple comb to flick out cactus spines in the Southwest. If you’re biking, always wear a helmet and know how to perform basic maintenance like getting the chain back on the gears or dealing with a flat tire.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OHIO

Stay Safe.  Check weather conditions and forecasts before heading out, and always tell someone where you will be.  Have navigational apps and trails downloaded into your phone, or carry paper maps and a basic compass — and know how to use them.  Know the signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion and altitude sickness. 

Grand Canyon National Park, ARIZONA

Respect the trails by staying out of closed areas, which are likely to be unsafe.  Respect wildlife by keeping your distance, not bothering them, and knowing in advance what to do if you encounter wild animals in the park.  Hint:  it does NOT involve a selfie!

Memories Are Made of This.  Adopt special ways to keep your parks memories alive.  Purchase a NPS passport book and fill it using the stamping station available at major sites.  Collect stickers, magnets or patches from the places you visit. Many NPS sites offer a Bark Ranger program for dogs and a Junior Ranger program for kids … in fact, check out National Junior Ranger Day on Saturday, April 27th this year!

Many artists offer series of beautiful commemorative posters for NPS sites for sale online. And if you happen to snap a particularly stunning photo on any federal site, share it with the world in the annual amateur photo contest at www.sharetheexperience.org … you could win $10,000 or other prizes! 

We commemorate our national park adventures with artist Rob Decker’s WPA-style posters in our sticks-n-bricks home

Keep Reading and Learning! Subscribing to publications that cater to RV’ers will keep you informed and inspired about great destinations, including National Parks. This article about National Parks was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of RV America Magazine, a publication of Passport America, one of the nation’s most popular discount RV camping programs. Read the entire issue for free!

WHEN Should You Go? Short answer: whenever you can! But, obviously certain months are better than other months in all locations. Our friends at National Parks Experience — besides providing LOTS of detailed information about most of the U.S. National Parks, have also provided this handy-dandy chart!

For even more National Parks Week info and trivia, check out Explore The Best Natural Wonders Our Country Has To Offer During National Park Week 2024. The 429 special sites managed by the National Park Service deserve our ongoing attention and appreciation, and have been preserved not only for our enjoyment but for multiple generations to come.  Learning how best to visit them will have you appreciating their importance, and is sure to have you “jumping for joy” to see even more of these “gifts of a lifetime!”

Cedar Breaks National Monument, UTAH

Our summer’s adventures for 2024 include New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana, Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois, and Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri! Subscribe to this blog to automatically get updates in your email inbox about these amazing places and more!

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