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Plan an Unforgettable National Park Adventure

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By Melissa Hart on November 24, 2020 in Travel

Magnificent geysers cascade up out of the ground. Waterfalls tumble into sparkling rivers. Miles of hiking trails wind through forests, circle the borders of impossibly blue lakes, and offer views of towering rock formations. If you need a vacation, a national park trip can provide a spectacular change of scenery.

The national park system includes 419 national park sites protected for their natural and cultural heritage. The sites attract more than 300 million visitors a year. These federally protected spaces offer something for everyone, including programs for kids, guided tours, scenic roadways, backcountry camping, and four-star historic lodges. To ensure your vacation is picture perfect, we’ve compiled tips for choosing and exploring your favorite national park.

Pick the Perfect Park

You’ve heard of Yosemite, Zion, and Yellowstone. But what about Wind Cave in South Dakota, Voyageurs in Minnesota, or Kobuk Valley in Arkansas? Crowds flock to the most popular national parks. But you may be able to avoid packed trails and roads by visiting a lesser-known park such as one of these.

Sandboard or sled down the tallest dunes in North America in this Colorado park and preserve 170 miles north of Santa Fe. Hike through aspen and conifer forests, and explore grasslands and wetlands on horseback. Swim and fish in alpine lakes, and scope out sandhill cranes on their spring or fall migration. Navigate the sand on a fat bike or borrow a dunes wheelchair. And if you visit during May or early June, bring your swimsuits so you can wade and play in shallow Medano Creek, which has a mysterious surge flow that creates ocean-like waves.

This urban park in Atlanta, Georgia, invites visitors to walk through the civil rights leader’s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor with his father. Also, tour the King Center, which includes Dr. and Coretta Scott King’s crypt and exhibits on both the couple and Mahatma Gandhi, King’s hero.

Visitors to this Michigan archipelago must travel across Lake Superior. There, you can kayak or canoe in a multitude of bays and coves; fish; and scuba dive down to several shipwrecks. Explore the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, and look for moose and wolves as you hike or backpack through birch, spruce, and aspen. Take a wheel-chair-accessible boat tour, and spend the night stargazing at one of the park’s numerous campgrounds.

Wander along 27 miles of historic motor roads on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, and stop to photograph bridges and boulders at sunrise. Explore 158 miles of hiking trails along rocky beaches and granite peaks. Bicycle 45 miles of carriage roads with crushed rock surfaces, or kayak and swim in lakes and ponds. Children will love exploring tidepools on the Bar Island Sandbar, while fans of snow sports may gravitate toward the skiing and snowboarding that Acadia offers during winter months.

Natural amphitheaters filled with rock spires called hoodoos are the star attractions of this park in southern Utah. Walk among them on a day hike, or travel by horseback. Visit during the annual geology or astronomy festivals, participate in the Christmas Bird Count, or snowshoe and hike during the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival. Stay in one of two campgrounds or the historic lodge.

This urban National Park in St. Louis, Missouri, offers historical structures, galleries, and tours. See the Old Courthouse where enslaved African American Dred Scott sued for his freedom, and visit the American history museum. Take a tram to the top of the arch, or fly over it in a helicopter. Conclude your visit with a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi.

Timing is Everything

At first glance, summer seems like the perfect time to visit a national park. The weather is usually warm and sunny enough for swimming, hiking, and camping, and kids have time off from school. But if you travel in June, July, and August, you may find yourself shoulder to shoulder with others on narrow nature trails.

If summer is an optimal time for your family to travel, consider a national park that offers respite from the heat. Explore the temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington, or check out the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina to access both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound.

Spring and fall tend to be less crowded than summer, and many experts regard September and October as a particularly good time to visit. This “shoulder season” between summer’s high attendance and winter’s low offers fewer crowds and discounted costs. The weather is often mild, and trees put on a spectacular show. Consider a trip to see the golden larches blanketing the slopes at Glacier National Park in Montana or the red oaks and multi-hued maples in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

Worried about getting caught in an autumn rainstorm at your campground? Reserve a room in one of the many historic hotels or lodges in or outside our national parks. And don’t discount a winter visit. Snow against the red rocks at Arches National Park makes for stunning photographs. Denali National Park in Alaska offers guided snowshoe walks and dog sledding. And visitors to Northern California’s Lassen National Park can enjoy sledding hills and backcountry skiing.

Plan for Success

Savvy national park-goers know it’s best to plan a year in advance to score campsites or lodge rooms, and ensure you can enjoy your favorite sightseeing and recreational activities. Many parks offer free trip planning kits, which include maps, favorite road trips through the area, information on park entrances and nearby towns, wildlife-watching guides, and itineraries.

The National Park Service maintains a website for each park; many sites include links to the region’s history and culture, related scientific facts and discoveries, and ways to get involved in the park as a volunteer or artist in residence. Be aware that weather and road closures can affect your trip. Call the park’s office or check its website, and pay attention to the active alerts in the park you’re visiting to learn about any dangers and closures. Also, check for driving and parking restrictions. Some parks allow travel on particular roads only via shuttles.

Many national parks are free year-round. Some require an entrance fee per vehicle, motorcycle, or hiker/bicyclist. An annual pass to all parks costs $80 and covers the owner of the pass plus three accompanying adults. (Kids 15 and younger don’t need to pay to enter the national parks.) The pass is free for members of the U.S. military. U.S. citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability can apply for a free lifetime pass to over 2,000 federally-managed recreation sites, including the national parks. Senior citizens age 62 and older can apply for a lifetime national parks pass for $80.

Have a child in the fourth grade? You’re in luck. The Every Kid Outdoors pass offers the families of fourth graders free, year-long admittance to national parks and other spaces maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others. Park volunteers who’ve logged 250 service hours with federal agencies participating in the Interagency Pass Program can also apply for free year-long admittance.

Even if you don’t qualify for the discounted passes above, you may be able to visit a National Park for free. The parks offer free entrance days each year—typically, the first day of National Park Week in April, and to celebrate National Public Lands Day in September.

What to Pack

You’ll likely spend a great deal of time outside on your national park vacation. With this in mind, make sure to pack layered clothing, sun protection gear, and other outdoor essentials.

Something for Everyone

Children between the ages of 5 and 15 can participate in the national parks’ free Junior Ranger program. They receive an activity book with nature and science activities. If they fill out the pages and share the book with a park ranger, they receive a badge and certificate.

Ranger-led interpretive programs include short nature hikes and canoe or bicycle trips, educational talks, and stargazing opportunities. Visitors to Lassen National Park can learn to manage wildfires and band migratory birds, and those visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California can take a guided winter snowshoe walk. Several parks provide ramp-equipped shuttles for people with disabilities, while others such as Acadia National Park offer tours in wheelchair-accessible horse-drawn carriages.

Hikers and backpackers can embark on self-guided adventures. Visitors to Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps can walk or travel by mule to camps spaced six to 10 miles apart in the backcountry. The camps offer a tent plus dinner and breakfast, so visitors only need to carry a day pack. On Mt. Rainer in Washington, skiers can stay in three huts and a yurt along the 50-mile trail, and at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah, hikers can take multi-day tours which end each night with a gourmet meal and lodging in a tent or inn.

Want to bring your four-legged friend? Most national parks offer dog-friendly areas, including roads, sidewalks, bike paths, and the occasional trail. Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park allows leashed dogs on 110 miles of hiking trails, plus 20 miles of the historic Towpath Trail along the Ohio & Erie Canal. And dogs are welcome on the Pacific Crest Trail and in the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas in Washington’s North Cascades National Park.

Make Memories

Whichever park you choose to visit, share your experience and photos on the National Park Service’s social media channels. If you use the popular national park hashtags #findyourpark or #parkchaser, the official NPS Instagram page may feature your photos. Or ditch your smartphone and camera and immerse yourself in the spectacular scenery of one of our 419 national parks.

Melissa Hart is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens and the award-winning middle grade novel Avenging the Owl. She's contributing editor at The Writer Magazine and a Creative Writing instructor for the MFA in Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University.