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7 Essential National Park Travel Hacks

How to have your best vacation this summer

Leisure travel in 2020 was challenging to say the least. But in 2021, millions of Americans are making up for lost time. Hotels and rental cars are in scarce supply (and this time we can’t even blame hackers on the dark web).

So if you’re setting out this summer into this pent-up world of vacation fever, you’d better have a good plan if you’re going to keep up with the Joneses. To say nothing of the Mathisons, Russells, Lis, O’Reillys, and millions of others.

Fortunately, Explore Better can help. We’ve compiled a list of tips, strategies and best practices to help you navigate the national parks this summer. It’s the kind of useful information park rangers would swear by that could have really helped Clark Griswold.

Here are the 7 Essential National Park Travel Hacks that will ensure smooth sailing on all of your summer travel adventures.

#1 - Arrive Early

In the national parks, the early bird gets the worm – and the parking space. Our parks host millions of visitors each year. To really immerse yourself in these natural worlds, it makes a lot of sense to give yourself a full day to work with. Set an alarm, watch the sunrise and be a step ahead of everybody else.

#2 - Have A Plan

Preparation isn’t just for Boy Scouts. To max out your vacation, think about everything you want to see in advance. Yes, you could just wing it, but that approach could also let you down. Plot out your to-do list and prioritize how you’ll spend your time. The parks are huge places. You can’t do it all. But you can pick and choose. Keep in mind that the top tourist attractions that everybody wants to see quickly fill up with people. That can make for a stressful experience. But there are so many wonderful gems in our national parks. For example, if you don’t want to deal with crowds in Yosemite Valley, check out lesser-known Upper Cathedral Lake or Dorothy Lake. Heed Robert Frost’s advice and take the road less traveled – it’ll make for a more relaxing trip.

#3 - Best Time of Day to Visit

Visiting the national parks is like going to the grocery store – when you go makes a big difference. Timing is everything. It’s smart to think about what you will experience and when. Speak with people who live in the area or those who have been to the park before. As a general rule, the parks are less crowded midweek than on weekends. The other thing to keep in mind is that the parks are even busier on holidays. If you’re looking for a serene, stress-free moment with Mother Nature, shoot for the quieter, midweek days. You work hard every day to earn your vacation time. Use it wisely.

#4 - Road Conditions / Detours

Even the best-laid plans have been felled by road construction and detours. Just because your phone says it takes, say, an hour to drive to the park, that may not always be the case. Figure out what the current conditions are on the ground. Make sure there’s nothing unexpected you aren’t aware of. The concierge at your hotel is also a good resource.

#5 - Stay Hydrated

This one seems obvious but having a refillable water bottle with you at all times when exploring the parks is essential. For example, the temperatures in the Grand Canyon can soar to more than 100ºF at the bottom of the canyon. It’s also possible to get lost in any park, and you don’t want to be out of H2O as you’re trying to find your way back. Don’t put yourself in a life-or-death situation. Keep your favorite water bottle with you at all times and you’ll have all the energy you need to see the best of our parks.

#6 - What to Pack

A trip to the Grand Canyon is going to require different items than a visit to Washington’s Olympic National Park. So pack accordingly. Savvy travelers make a list and stick to it. Make sure you have clothes for where you’re going and comfortable footwear for everything you want to do. And if you have a fancy camera you’ve been wanting to save for a special occasion, you’ve found it.

#7 - Chart Your Journey

You only have a finite amount of time to spend on your trip, and you want to get in as much as possible. It’s smart to think about what you want to do ahead of time. Are there a few things you want to see in a specific area? It may be smart to tackle these at once. Are there activities that are only offered at certain times? Looking into this in advance can save you from disappointment.

With these seven tips in mind, your best summer is right in front of you. Feed all the pets, and lock the front door. It’s time to hit the road.

Comments (5)

Interesting article. Great tips. Wish my parents had read this when we were kids. We hiked a few miles into the Grand Canyon aim the afternoon. Not fully hydrated, little to no sunscreen and did not realize that hiking back out would be twice as hard and would take twice as long. Needless to say, we had a tired, sunburnt crew the next day.

Christine Szudzik

The NPS website for each specific park always has the most up-to-date info on road closures!

My late husband and I travelled by car or small aircraft across the country many time visiting many Federal and State Parks going from the East Coast with a compass on the dash and a rough estimate of when and where we’d like to arrive. We usually travelled slightly off-season (making sure to pack for weather for many elevations, temperatures (layering!), and managed to see everything from the Badlands and Black Hills in South Dakota, to Chaco Canyon, Zuni Pueblo, and Aztec N.M., to the Grand Canyon and got snowed in the first blizzard of the season visiting friends at their ranch above Steamboat Springs, CO in the early 80s where we had to travel horseback to into town for supplies. We travelled through the north and came home through the south or vice versus – so much to see! Took thousands of photos, hiked hundreds of miles of trails…but when the kids came, we always stayed at Skyland Resort on the Skyline Drive or at Big Meadows…giving our kids their first pony rides, lodging near the restaurants rather than camping, and enjoying the peace and quiet. We’d go as often as possible to hear the Rangers’ discussions about wildlife, or the stars…the children loved this, too. My daughter chose 20 years later to be married at dawn at Skyland Resort in October and it was beautiful! The trees were so gorgeous and the breakfast that was served after in the lodge was wonderful. My daughter decided to go “old fashioned” and served spiced cake for the wedding cake and it was perfect. We were close enough to the DC area that many family members, friends and colleagues came to stay at the lodge to enjoy. So if I tell you that Great Meadows and Skyland are worth your while, it comes from the voice of experience. I expect I’ll be taking my grandsons there soon…

Thanks for sharing, Valerie. Very cool to hear about your family’s adventures in some of our natural spaces. I definitely believe Shenandoah would be a great place for a wedding. It’s just so lovely there.

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