Even in the midst of a historic pandemic, 2020 was a bumper year for U.S. National Parks.
With travelers embracing road trips, domestic adventures and the outdoors, 15 parks broke a record for visitors last year—despite the fact that many parks were closed for months, and countless Americans remained isolated at home.
The parks are expected to remain popular, as families continue to embrace nature and nearby destinations. But for urban aficionados and families who are more familiar with theme parks than hiking trails, they can also be a little intimidating. There are so many parks to choose from, and the parks themselves are so expansive.
It’s not as complicated as it might seem. We tapped travel writer Jessica Dunham and publicist Tatum Luoma, whose family recently RVed to four parks, for advice on mapping out what might just be the best trip you’ve ever taken with your kids.
Pick a Park
No two National Parks are the same. Some serve as monuments to moments in history, others are wonderlands for hiking or kayaking. The smallest is just 5,500 acres, the largest is twice the size of Massachusetts.
If you want to know which destination checks all the boxes on your family’s wishlist, Dunham recommends visiting FindYourPark.com, powered by the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service.
You can search for a park by location or activity, or take a questionnaire to help you identify the best fit for your family place. You might even discover a surprise or two.
Luoma says that her two young sons found plenty to do at each of the four parks they visited. They participated in the Junior Ranger program, which encourages children to explore the park and learn more about conservation. When kids complete all the activities in their manual, they’re sworn in as Junior Rangers and given a certificate and badge.
“Our kids were enthralled with the wildlife, vastness and diversity of the parks, and simply exploring each and every amazing destination along the way,” Luoma says.
Consider the Season
No matter which park you choose, chances are that most of the features that drew you to it are available in the summer. The skies are likely to be clear, the weather warm, and the parks—well, the parks are going to be packed.
If taking in nature’s majesty with thousands of other families while the nation is still in the grips of a pandemic isn’t your thing, Dunham recommends visiting in the spring or the fall. Maybe choose a destination in the southwest, where weather is less of a factor—except for in summer, when temperatures can reach triple digits.
If you do visit at a peak time, Luoma says you can avoid crowds by heading out early and choosing less-popular trails and sites.
Don’t rule out parka season—parks are far less crowded in the winter, though depending on the park, roads and lodging may be limited. “A lot of the popular national parks, like Yellowstone, have a lot of closures in the winter,” says Dunham.
No matter when you travel, pack lots of layers. “The hottest place we went on the RV trip was 100 degrees at the Grand Canyon,” Luoma says. “And then three days later, it snowed in Yellowstone!”
Reserve in Advance
If you’re planning to head to one of the big national parks, such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, make reservations as soon as you can. Dunham recommends booking indoor lodges at these locations at least six months ahead of your trip. Reserve campsites three to six months in advance.
“Do not roll up in your car and expect to get in,” she warns. “Those parks book up so far in advance. You don’t want to be disappointed at the gate.”
Though Yosemite normally has first-come, first-serve campgrounds, because of the pandemic all overnight stays are currently reservation-only.
If you and your family want to enjoy nature but don’t want to sleep on the ground, “glamping” company Under Canvas offers safari-inspired tents furnished with real beds, full bathrooms. There are locations outside the high-traffic national parks, including Moab, Mount Rushmore, and Zion.
If you haven’t planned ahead, don’t lose hope—availability can change suddenly. When Luoma’s family went on their two-week trek last year, they managed to make reservations a month before.
“We were able to book on short notice thanks to last-minute cancelations,” she says.
Check shuttle schedules, too. “Some must be booked in advance, if they are operating,” Luoma adds.
Download the App
Luoma and Dunham both recommend downloading the National Park Service app, which provides interactive maps of parks as well as information about closures and other changes.
You’ll also have self-guided tours and lists of park amenities at your fingertips. If you’re concerned about your phone’s data plan—or just getting a signal—you can download content directly to your device.
Spring for an Annual Pass
Entrance fees vary for each National Park, with the more popular parks such as Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Yosemite charging $35 for admittance. If you have more than one park on your itinerary, consider investing in the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80 a year, you have access to national parks, forests, grasslands, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It covers standard amenity and day use fees, and it’s good for the driver and the passengers,” says Dunham.
For the same price, seniors over the age of 62 can get a lifetime pass. Current veterans and their dependents, volunteers with 250 service hours with federal agencies, fourth graders, and those with a permanent disability are eligible for a free annual pass.
As amazing as these parks are, they can also be hazardous.
“You need to be prepared for poison oak, poison ivy, and especially the wildlife,” Dunham says.
Avoid approaching the animals (sorry, no selfies with the badgers) and follow all the rules posted in the park. Luoma remembers having to carry bear spray when she visited Yellowstone last year (but thankfully not having to use it). She also recommends keeping any food inside your vehicle to avoid attracting any furry visitors to your campsite. Stay hydrated, and be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion, altitude sickness, and—depending on when you travel—hypothermia.
“Make sure you have plenty of food and water when you set out to experience the park each day,” she adds. “And stay on the path while hiking and exploring to protect these amazing natural wonders.”