We often peruse the internet in search for the best of the best activities to fill our short vacations with while visiting National Parks. More often than not, we only scrape the surface of what there is to offer in these sprawling protected lands. We scour magazines and blogs trying to find that perfect hike to take the kids on or the best place to enjoy a picnic lunch. Let me tell you a little secret…. Everyone else is doing the same thing. Your perfect solitude hike may or may not be accompanied by hundreds of other visitors trying to enjoy the same stretch of nature you are. For example if your dream is to catch the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, you may not realize that once you get there at 5:00am you’re jostling for tripod space with 50 other photographers. I know, this is starting to sound quite depressing with a Grade A buzz kill. Never fear! We’ve spent our fair share of visiting more National Parks that we can count; I even spent 2 summers working in Yellowstone. We’ve got the tips to help you enjoy your vacation even more!
The caveat here is we’re under the impression that the folks who will be reading this enjoy spending time outside, being active and seeing National Parks for what they truly are – Protected lands to preserve wildlife, habitats, incredible feats of nature and just pure beauty. National Parks are not Disneyland (no offense).
- Get up early! – If you want to see a popular landmark such as Delicate Arch in Arches or Lower Falls in Yellowstone, get up at 6:00am or earlier and enjoy the solitude you’ll find there! The trick is to think like everyone else and then do the opposite. We were informed that the most popular “long distance” hike in Arches National Park ran out of parking spots by 10am. We were on the trail by 6:00am and didn’t see a soul until we began heading back to the trailhead. By the time we got back to our vehicle there were only a few parking spots left and this was on shoulder season. Get that espresso and get moving!
- Pack your own lunch – Dining options, if your chosen National Park even has dining options, are usually less than desirable. Any food you will purchase will be expensive. Even the cheapest of staple foods will cost you an arm and a leg, or even two legs so be prepared. Bring a cooler, pack some good food and have a picnic by the river! Dried food and PB&J’s are your friend. Save your dollars for the local coffee shops which are usually stellar.
- Talk to National Park Employees – Employees LOVE to share their favorite spots with you. Talk to a couple different employees, be honest with what you’re trying to get out of your vacation and be patient. As a former employee, if someone came in to ask indignantly “Sooo uhhhh… what’s there to do around here?” I would politely hand them the printout of the most popular hikes and explain the area. If someone took the time to inquire about a certain sunset/sunrise spot or where to see bears or the best fishing spots, we could talk for hours! If you’re headed to Yellowstone this summer, don’t miss on out my Yellowstone Tips and Tricks Here!
- Make your reservations in advance – We’re talking a good year in advance! Don’t go in to a National Park vicinity hoping that there will be an opening and you’ll miraculously have a bed to sleep in. Either bring camping gear or get your reservation before it’s too late. These parks tend fill up faster than you would think!
- Do the right research – The internet has a plethora of articles boasting “The best hikes in Yosemite” or “Don’t miss out on the best of Zion” or “The best places to wake up in Yellowstone”. The best of the best of the best will most likely already be poppin’ with everyone and their closest relatives, friends and neighbors. Take these articles with a grain of salt. Or a handful of salt. Familiarize yourself with the area with maps and photos but don’t look for “The Top 5”. Instead, look in the surrounding areas. There are so many incredible sights to explore in and around National Parks, they don’t need a landmark star to let you know they’re important.
- Don’t have unrealistic expectations – So you want to watch Old Faithful erupt just like the photo you saw void of people as the sun paints the evening sky? Sorry folks, that probably isn’t going to be the case. Instead of expecting your vacation to be picture perfect, go with the flow and enjoy every minute of ups, downs and the middle ground in-between. Nothing ever goes totally according to plan and thats OK! For help dealing with travel dilemmas, click here to read our tips on keeping the travel sanity in check!
- Visit popular areas in shoulder seasons – National Parks are packed during their respective peak season! Even though you may not think Zion National Park to be prime during the middle of winter, I had the best experience walking through The Narrows in a dry suit. The grand total of 2 people I saw during winter sure trumped the 200 individuals I saw in early Spring. If you’re willing to think outside the box and work around a few inconveniences, shoulder and off seasons are where it’s at!
- But I still want to see the popular landmarks! – Those epic landmarks that National Parks are known for are truly remarkable and should be enjoyed. However, if you’re like us, you may not want to share that breath-taking, awe-inspiring, tear-jerking moment with 3 tour busses and 100 other families. Don’t get us wrong, everyone deserves to see these incredible places. If you’re like us, you may prefer to enjoy them without hearing other conversations, music speakers or cell phones going off. If you want to bask in their glory alone, be creative when you plan a visit. Avoid weekends, peak season, and prime 9-5 vacation hours!
Happy Travels and Happy Trails!
Have any tips that we didn’t mention? Comment below!