Families across the country are gearing up for their summer travels with plans to explore the more than 400 National Park Service sites scattered across the country. Whether walking in the footsteps of history or hiking through the majestic wilderness, our nation’s park system offers experiences of all kinds, perfect for every explorer.
So far our family has had the chance to discover more than 30 NPS sites–and this year we are excited to add a few more to the list. To help you get ready for your epic adventures, we are sharing our five secret tips to visit the National Parks like a pro:
1. Know before you go
A little bit of research ahead of time can go a long way to visiting the National Parks like a pro. Check the National Park site website for hours of operation and whether the site charges any fees–if so carry cash in case the site doesn’t accept credit cards. If you are planning to visit several NPS fee sites during the year, consider investing in the $80 annual pass. Additionally, seniors can purchase a $10 lifetime pass, and current military personnel can obtain a free annual pass. Fourth graders and their families can also request a free annual pass: Find out more here.
Research what gear you need before you arrive. Places like the Badlands get extremely hot in the summer, so having a cooler of water bottles is essential. If you are hiking in Yellowstone, bear spray is a must. Some locations prohibit pets or restrict them to certain areas; park websites will offer full details of such restrictions under the “Plan Your Visit” tab.
If you are planning to take an organized tour, some locations like Independence Hall and Mammoth Cave offer and recommend advanced reservations. Making reservations in advance is often the key to getting in during peak season at some parks.
2. Avoid the crowds
Many of the most iconic National Park sites see a particularly high volume of traffic during peak times, including the summer, weekends, holidays, and fee-free days. To encounter fewer crowds, try to schedule your visits during non-peak travel times. If that’s not possible, then the best strategy is to plan to arrive early. When we are visiting popular NPS sites, we aim to be one of the first cars through the gate when the park opens, which is usually between 8 and 9 a.m. Not only does this ensure we snag a parking spot in areas where parking is limited, but it also gives us some time to explore before the larger crowds trickle in around 10 to 11 a.m.
3. Get the app
Did you know that some of the National Park sites now have a variety of mobile apps designed to enhance your visit? The apps offer site information and audio guides, as well as site orientation and activity planning.
Some of the available NPS site-specific apps include:
OnCell Systems also offers a National Park Service Tours app that includes historical overviews of more than 70 NPS sites. To find more national park related apps, search “national parks” in your app store. In addition to the official mobile app releases, you will find a variety of third-party options as well. And if you love tracking your National Park visits in your official passport book, then check out the official app.
4. Find a ranger
Want insider information on the best wildlife viewing spots, the coolest hikes, and overlooked park spots? Then find a ranger. Rangers love to share their insider information about their parks, and taking a few minutes to chat with a ranger at the beginning of your visit can help guide you to getting the most out of your visit. This can be especially helpful when you have a limited amount of time to spend at an NPS site: Ask the rangers what they would recommend seeing or doing first to help you spend your time wisely.
5. Attend a program
Sometimes in the hype of finally getting to see and experience an iconic National Park site, we overlook the amazing educational programming every NPS site provides. Attending a ranger program is a fabulous way to learn more about the location and get insider information.
Ranger programs can vary from special behind-the-scenes tours and nature hikes to programs about specific slices of history, such as the historic weapons demonstration at Castillo de San Marcos. Many sites also offer special programming geared for children and their families so visitors of all ages can enjoy digging deeper at each location.
During our visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina, we were fortunate enough to be at the park in time to hear a ranger program with Darrell Collins. It was the best ranger program we have ever attended, and if you have plans to visit the site, we heartily recommend you make time to hear him speak.
If you have kiddos in tow, make it a priority to check out the Junior Ranger program during your next NPS visit. Through this free program, children can earn a special park patch or badge by working through a booklet of activities related to each NPS site. Although every participating site does its Junior Ranger program a little bit differently, the focus of all of the programs is to promote education about the NPS site and instill conservation principles.
At some NPS sites, kids can also earn special edition trading cards. Thus far we’ve found the cards at Independence Hall and Gettysburg. For a complete list of locations offering the Civil War to Civil Rights Trading Cards, click here. Ask a ranger during your visit for more details on how kids can earn the cards.
So those are our secret tips to visit the National Parks like a pro! Do you have any tips you would add? If so leave a comment below.