Pro Tips and Tricks for an Unforgettable National Park Experience

When visiting a national park, whether it be the first time or the hundredth, you are bound to have a memorable experience. Towering mountain ranges, extensive cave systems, stunning coastlines… The scenery alone is enough to leave you in awe for years to come. But with wild beauty comes the need for preparation and without it, your wonderful national park memories may be tainted with things like massive crowds, soggy socks, and trail closure disappointment.

Head out on your next national park adventure with confidence (and a plan!). Check out this park ranger approved list to make the most of an already spectacular experience!

Check For Reservations

Cars waiting to enter Yosemite National Park.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Sundry Photography

With national parks like Yosemite National Park and Glacier National Park gaining more and more popularity, it is vital that you check to see if the national park you want to visit requires reservations. Many parks have established a reservation or timed-entry system to combat crowds and while this makes your experience more enjoyable once you are inside the park, it also means you won’t be able to get in without proper planning. Nothing kills a national park experience like waiting an hour in line only to be told that you have to turn around because you don’t have a reservation.

The reservation system may sound frustrating but it makes a world of difference for people who plan ahead. The days of circling viewpoint parking lots for hours to find a spot are no more and everyone who enters gets to enjoy a more serene experience.

Important Notice: While some parks don’t require reservations to enter the park, they may require reservations to hike that popular trail you saw on Instagram. If there is something you really want to do, check to see if it requires reservations!

Check the Website for Alerts

Warning sign at Death Valley.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Mark Sayer

When planning your next national park adventure, the park’s website will be your best friend. This is where you can learn about seasonal road closures, construction projects, trail closures, dangerous conditions and more. Alerts are often found at the very top of the park’s homepage but spend some time navigating through the “Alerts & Conditions” page to make sure you have all the information that you need for a successful trip.

Wake Up Early (…And Stay Late)

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Wisanu Boonrawd

Are you really on vacation if you aren’t tired all of the time? Waking up early (and staying late) not only maximizes the amount of time you have to explore but it is also the best way to beat the crowds. Take that coffee to go and make a plan to go on a short sunrise hike or visit the viewpoint that is normally packed with people by midday.

Picture this: The sky is painted pink as you watch the sunrise and light up whatever spectacular view you are looking at. There is nothing but silence and the occasional bird song. It feels as though you have the entire park to yourself. You head out to your next great activity of the day before most people have even gotten out of bed. The day is yours!

The same rule applies for staying late. Will the most popular viewpoints be filled with people for sunset? Sure. But there are plenty of ways to escape the crowds by venturing off on a trail… Even if you only walk for 10 minutes!

By now everyone will have gone home but a true national park explorer will know to stay after dark! Most national parks are International Darky Sky Parks and offer some of the best stargazing in the country.

Visit During the Off Season

Saguaro National Park in Arizona
Image Credit: Shutterstock / high fliers

…..If you can. It’s not always as simple as dropping everything and going to Yellowstone in late spring before the crowds get there. Chances are you are revolving your trip around a holiday of sorts and so is everyone else, so crowds just come with the package. But, if you have a more flexible schedule, visiting during the off-season is a must!

The “off-season” can vary based on the park so make sure to do your research! Plus, some park’s off-season trades one obstacle for another. For example, Saguaro National Park sees a massive drop in visitation during the summer but that’s also because of the scorching temperatures. Hope isn’t lost though! If the summer season is too extreme, you can always visit in late spring or early fall for similar results and a more enjoyable climate.

Pro Advice: Holidays are always busy! Even if the holiday falls into the category of “off-season”, you can expect a big spike in visitation.

Pack for the Weather

Storm and rain at Rocky Mountain National Park
Image Credit: Shutterstock / kurdistan

This one may seem obvious but packing requires more than just a glance at the 7-day weather forecast. Just because the weather looks like it’s going to be sunny five days from now, doesn’t mean that it actually will. So, when packing for weather, pack for all of the weather types that are possible for your destination… Whether they are in the forecast or not. Are freezing conditions common during the spring but it looks like it’s going to be a warm week? Pack the layers and the traction devices anyway!

Stop at the Visitor Center

Sequoia National Park visitor center.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / cciexplore

While checking the website is a great way to be ahead of the game, conditions can change at the drop of a hat so it never hurts to stop at the visitor center for the most up to date report. Plus, you are exploring the rangers’ backyard! Park rangers offer a wealth of knowledge and can lead you to some extraordinary places that you can’t find advertised on the internet. Even if you already have a trip planned, stop by the visitor center to go over your plan with a ranger. They can advise you about trail conditions and offer some other suggestions to help take your experience to a whole new level!

Plus, visitor centers often have extensive exhibits so you can learn and better appreciate the natural wonders that surround you!

Have a Back Up Plan

Hikers going to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Pmmrd

At the end of the day, your vacation has to bend to the will of nature. The trail you have been dreaming of may close that very day for grizzly activity or stormy conditions may destroy your hopes of taking that boat tour. But don’t let disappointment flood your experience! Always come prepared with a back up plan for the day (or stop by the visitor center and let the ranger come up with one for you) so you waste less time moping and more time exploring!

Get Off the Beaten Path

Tower Arch in Arches National Park
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kelly vanDellen

Popular viewpoints and hikes are busy for good reason- they offer spectacular views! And while you should definitely experience these places (preferably in the early morning to beat crowds), there are plenty of other places that offer equally beautiful views without all of the people. Download a digital copy of the park map ahead of time to start scouting out some lesser-known trails and stop by the visitor center to get the green light from a ranger. Chances are, if the hike is located in a national park, it’s going to be amazing. It just hasn’t found its way into the hands of a social media influencer…yet.

Go the Extra Mile

Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Dezso Matyas

Even the most popular trails in a national park have pockets of tranquility. You just need to know where to look! If the trail continues on past the “main attraction”, most people won’t bother to hike it. For example, at Grand Teton National Park, most people will hike out to the popular Hidden Falls, some will make it as far as Inspiration Point, and very few will continue on through Cascade Canyon where you will get some of the most dramatic views in the park. The bottom line is you are willing and able to put in the extra effort, you will be rewarded!

Visit a Lesser Known Park

North Cascades National Park, Washington
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Tobin Akehurst

With 63 national parks to choose from and each one more breathtaking than the last, you simply can’t go wrong! Everyone wants to see Glacier National Park but you can ditch the crowds (and multiply the mountains) by visiting the lesser-known North Cascades National Park instead. Lesser-known national parks aren’t less picturesque, they just aren’t under the thumb of influencers. So if your goal isn’t to see one main attraction like the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone and rather to be fully immersed with nature, check out some of the National Park Service’s hidden gem parks for a more personalized experience!

Nicole Westcott

Author: Nicole Westcott


Nicole Westcott is a freelance travel writer who loves traveling and hiking in some of America's most beautiful places. Whether it be backpacking through the iconic Grand Teton range or going for a relaxing stroll amongst a fairytale rainforest, I am in my happy place. I enjoy all types of travel and I am always planning my next adventure!

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