Two of the biggest effects of the pandemic on travel have been the emphasis on domestic tourism and the increased interest in outdoor adventures. When you combine those in the U.S., what you get is a newfound appreciation for the stunning national parks.
In 2021, the National Parks System reported nearly 300 million recreation visits across all properties, and 44 parks set new visitation records. These high numbers include many first-time parkgoers, who don’t always know how to take advantage of all these stunning destinations have to offer. In fact, many seasoned national park travelers don’t hesitate to point out some of the faux pas they’ve observed from their fellow visitors.
We asked some experts to share some of the biggest mistakes they believe travelers make when they visit national parks. Read on for 11 examples, as well as advice for avoiding these common missteps.
Not Planning In Advance
“A lot of travelers get caught up in the romanticism of spontaneity,” said Heather Gyselman, a product manager for adventure travel at REI. “I get it, who doesn’t want to hit the road without a care in the world? However, when visiting a national park today it’s important that you’ve invested time in planning and organizing your trip.”
If you don’t do any advance planing, you might find yourself scrambling as you encounter daily capacity limits, trail and road closures, limited parking and fully booked campgrounds and lodgings. Go to the official website of the national park you want to visit, so you can find this relevant information ahead of time and keep up to date with any changes. Prepare a basic itinerary.
“The No. 1 rule is to have a plan,” said Dan Austin, founder and director of special projects at Austin Adventures. “While you can always adjust on the fly, it’s a good idea to plan out the key places you want to see. Once you have that list, review the layout of the park and the road system as it can take all day to get across many of our parks. Add traffic to the mix and it can really get tricky. Having a plan and mapping out everything you want to see can really help with those challenges.”
Only Visiting The Most Crowded Attractions
“Don’t limit yourself to the popular or ‘Instagrammable’ spots,” advised Alan Fyall, the Visit Orlando endowed chair of tourism management and associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “Explore the park. Ask a ranger or campground host what they recommend that could be outside the heavily trafficked areas.”
There are countless scenic spots that aren’t packed with photo-snapping crowds. Only focusing on the most popular attractions might also keep you from some truly powerful national park experiences.
“Most people don’t get far enough away from the parking lots,” said writer and naturalist Janisse Ray. “They do the canned version of our parks, which means they see iconic sights like Old Faithful blowing in a kind of drive-by viewing, but they don’t experience the sense of place or the incredible, life-altering, deeply meaningful spectacles that occur at smaller scales and slower paces.”
She encouraged parkgoers who are physically able to get out of the car and go for long walks to immerse themselves in the wilderness.
“Stay a while,” Ray said. “Spend some nights. Prepare for your heart to burst open in a way it can’t if you don’t leave your vehicle.”
Insisting On Staying Overnight Inside The Park
“If you’re looking for lodging inside the parks, book early as reservation space is at a premium ― this includes campgrounds,” Austin said.
Even if you are able to book in-park lodging, that might not be your best option. These accommodations are often more expensive than the hotels or short-term rentals in the surrounding area.
“Sure, staying overnight at campgrounds or lodges inside the park is cool. Nature is right outside your tent, RV or hotel room,” said Joe Yogerst, author of “50 States, 500 Campgrounds: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do.”
“But many parks are surrounded by national and state parks with great campgrounds and small communities with outstanding accommodation,” he added. “That means making day trips into the park, but I find that a small inconvenience compared to not going at all.”
“In addition to having a plan, I recommend starting very early in the morning,” Austin said. “You’ll beat the traffic and crowds, and it’s prime time for grabbing photographs and spotting wildlife.”
National parks tend to be open 24 hours a day, so take advantage of the flexibility. If you traveled out West from the East Coast for your outdoor adventures, don’t let your internal clock adjust to the time change and wake up early instead.
“The early bird gets the solitude,” said Andrea Lankford, author of “Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks.” “Set the alarm and enjoy the serene hours between sunrise and 10:30 a.m.”
“National parks are amazing but wild places, so it is essential to practice basic safety while visiting them,” said Will Pattiz, co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “Every year, people die while vacationing in national parks. This is easily avoided by sticking to trails, checking the weather before going out on a hike, maintaining a safe distance from wildlife and avoiding ledges with steep drop-offs.”
Lankford cautioned against what she calls “high-altitude selfies,” pointing to the rise in photography-related deaths over the past decade.
“Stay back from the cliff edge, put the phone down, and be here now,” she said.
And as beautiful the views can be, drive carefully and be mindful of wildlife, pedestrians, bikers and other cars.
“Pay attention when in your car,” said Michael Childers, an associate history professor at Colorado State University specializing in the modern American West and the environment. “It is easy to watch a bison frolic and miss that camper stopped in front of you.”
Trying To Do Too Much In A Short Time
“Resist the temptation to do a lot in a short time frame,” Fyall said. “Doing the ‘Mighty 5’ [in Utah] plus the Grand Canyon in a week is something that people commonly inquire about. You are doing yourself and the parks a disservice in trying to ‘park hop.’”
Many breathtaking national parks are in relatively close proximity to each other, so it might feel feasible to knock out a bunch in the same trip. But attempting to do this will make the experience more stressful and rushed.
Instead, Fyall suggested narrowing the list down to one or two parks per vacation. That way you can devote the proper amount of time to each one and create a less jam-packed itinerary.
“Get a feel of the park,” he said. “Go to the same vistas at different times of day, you’d be surprised at the different experiences you could have. The same can be said for trying to do too much in a day.”
It’s also better to be flexible at national parks, which is hard if you have a full and stringent itinerary.
“If something catches your eye, go check it out,” Fyall said. “If a trailhead is busy or closed, ask a ranger what else you could do or try that trail a different day or time of day.”
Only Visiting During The Summer
“Try visiting the most popular parks in the off-season rather than summer,” Yogerst said. “I actually think Yosemite is more gorgeous in winter snow and my best-ever visit to the Grand Canyon was in October.”
If you have to do your national parks travel during the summer, he encouraged checking out less-visited parks like Pinnacles in California, Dry Tortugas in Florida, Canyonlands in Utah, Big Bend in Texas and all of the parks in Alaska.
The day of the week can make a difference as well. Avoid busy weekends when possible.
“See if you can visit on slower days,” Childers said. “Many of our larger parks are being overrun, so if you can go midweek or in the off season to alleviate the pressure and have a much more enjoyable visit.”
Showing Up Unprepared
“One of the biggest mistakes visitors to national parks make is arriving unprepared,” said Riley Mahoney, creator of the website The Parks Expert. “Not bringing enough water, expecting restaurants or other services, or not wearing appropriate shoes are things I notice often on my travels. I’ve seen visitors at parks like Sequoia or Yosemite in December planning to hike or sled but show up wearing sneakers, or sometimes even flip-flops, when there is a foot of snow on the ground.”
She noted that some parks have limited water stations, so visitors need to bring a lot with them. Similarly, there are no places to get food or gas within the boundaries of certain parks, such as Joshua Tree.
“Visitors should plan to be self-sufficient and pack their patience,” Mahoney noted.
Pay attention to the weather forecast and travel with layers so that you can adjust to any big temperature shifts. Prepare for dips in cell service, and pick up a paper map so you have backup navigation.
“Bring water if you are going on a hike,” Childers added. “And check the map before you get too far from the trailhead and find out it is beyond your abilities. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen.”
Disturbing The Land And Wildlife
“National parks are not petting zoos,” Lankford said. “Give park wildlife some personal space, for your sake and theirs.”
Visitors have a responsibility to be respectful of the land and creatures that dwell there, so avoid off-limits areas and make sure not to litter. Clean up after your pets as well and be considerate of where you take them.
“I love man’s best friend as much as the next guy, but our furry companions are actually not allowed on many national park trails,” said Jim Pattiz, the other co-founder of More Than Just Parks. “This is because, of course, they can have an extremely detrimental effect on native plants and wildlife. The short of it is your Siberian husky should not be chasing lizards in a federally protected area like Saguaro National Park.”
A general rule of thumb is that dogs should only go where cars are allowed to go. Pattiz also noted that the use of drones is also prohibited in national parks.
“They disturb visitors as well as the wildlife, and can damage the fragile ecosystems our national parks safeguard for us and future generations to enjoy,” he said.
Not Consulting With Experts
You don’t have to figure out your whole park adventure on your own. National park visitor centers are filled with experts happy to share their advice.
“Park staff are incredibly helpful and have great suggestions on things to see, park programs and ideas for how to avoid crowds,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation.
Talk to a ranger, volunteer or campground host about the trails you’re interested in hiking and your ability level. They have a wealth of knowledge to share. You can also check out the informational videos and exhibits at the visitor centers to learn more about the history and geography of the park.
“Be adventurous!” Gyselman urged. “Ask a ranger what their favorite hike is or where you can get away from the crowds. Most of the time these areas require a little more effort, but the payoffs are huge.”
She also recommended checking out the many Facebook and Instagram groups where people share national park travel tips and ideas.
“Many National Parks also have designated social media pages managed by rangers or park administration,” Gyselman explained. “The posts they create are informative but so are the chats that fellow park lovers start in the comments section. I’ve found all sorts of helpful nuggets in those conversations.”
Skipping Nearby National Forests And Sites
“Don’t limit yourself to just the national park,” Fyall said. “Adjacent and adjoining wilderness areas, monuments, national forests and other designations that fall under the National Park Service are often less crowded, and have equally stunning vistas, making for a fantastic experience.”
Driving over to a national forest or other nearby site can offer a break from crowds during your outdoor adventure time.
“There are 155 national forests in America, many of which are equally as beautiful as the national parks they neighbor and only see a fraction of the visitors,” Will Pattiz said. “For example, try the Flathead National Forest next to Glacier National Park, the Bridger-Teton next to Grand Teton, and the Dixie which borders nearly all of the Utah National Parks.”