The holidays are over, and now it's time to start planning that summer family vacation to a national park. Get started now with these helpful tips. No, really, now, before everything is booked.
1. Book your lodging early. That means NOW if you are planning a summer trip. In-park lodging fills up quickly, often a year in advance. Staying inside the park can potentially save you a lot of driving time and many of the national parks have beautiful, historic lodges with restaurants on site. All of these benefits make the lodges extremely popular--like Beyonce tickets popular. Even the campgrounds can sell out 6 months ahead. So if you are thinking of staying in a national park this summer, you might want to go ahead and book and then cancel later if your plans change.
2. Consider the season of the park you are visiting. Even though the flowers are blooming at your home, you might encounter snow as late as July in some parks. For example, the alpine section of Glacier National Park's Going to the Sun Road is often impassable and closed until late June or early July. Conversely, the Grand Canyon will be blazing hot by midday in the summer so a rim to rim hike might not be a good idea. Or, you might want to consider that August to November is hurricane season in the Everglades and get trip insurance before you plan a visit.
3. Buy the National Park Pass. For $80, you will have access for one year to all national parks and over 2,000 federal recreation sites. Your card gets entry for everyone in your vehicle so it can really pay for itself; plus, you are donating to the park system so there is some good karma.
4. Start your activities early. Early is the theme when visiting national parks. Get a jump start on the crowds, heat, etc. by getting up early before the crazy hordes of people descend upon the park. You'll have a much better experience, I promise. I have visited national parks with and without the crowds, and the early alarm clock is absolutely worth not getting knocked in the head with selfie sticks.
5. Don't expect cell phone service. Most national parks have limited or non-existent cell phone service so plan accordingly. Bring a map and don't count on using your phone for travel guidance. Nothing exasperates our nice park rangers more than rescuing people that were depending on Siri to tell them where to go.
6. Bring water and snacks. Don't let the kids (and you) get "hangry." Be prepared on the road and trail with snacks and water. For many of the western parks, food services are limited to certain locations throughout the park. Have food in the car for unexpected delays. For example, Yellowstone traffic can be horrendous and can take you twice as long as stated in your Google Maps app. Furthermore, it's amazing how kids will happily take to the trail with a little "Skittles encouragement" dispensed along the way.
7. Find water activities. Kids love water. It's just that simple. Hike to a waterfall, canoe on a lake, wade in a creek, or skip rocks on the river.
8. Participate in a Junior Ranger Program. The National Park Service Junior Ranger Program is for kids of all ages, but believe me, it's fun for adults too. Your kids will complete a series of activities during your park visit, share their answers with a park ranger, and receive an official Junior Ranger patch and Junior Ranger certificate. It is fun, informative, and really makes your visit a memorable experience. Information can be found at any of the visitor centers in the park.
9. Don't feed or approach the wildlife. This should go without saying, but harassing or feeding any kind of wildlife, no matter how small or familiar, is illegal in all national parks. I am always amazed at the number of people who think squirrels won't bite you. You also need to be familiar with the large wildlife you might encounter in a national park. For example, if you're in grizzly country, you need to have bear spray if you are considering hikes into the backcountry. And, always store food properly.
10. Know yourself and your kids. Don't try to pack in too many activities during your stay. Choose reasonable hiking trails for your family and don't worry if you have to turn around before the end point. If you've rented a great cabin, take the time to enjoy it. Cook a meal, play cards, listen to the sounds of nature, and connect as a family. That's what a family vacation is all about anyway.
See our itineraries below for all the information you need to plan your trip to a national park. Itineraries include our recommended lodging choices including airbnb and VRBO, where to eat, activities that were fun for both kids and adults, easy family hikes, maps, tips, and much, much more!
We’ve put in the hours to research a fantastic trip, our own families have loved them, and we provide all you need to experience the same. You can duplicate our trip in its entirety or gather ideas for your own itinerary.
When you purchase a trip itinerary, you will receive an email with a link to download a PDF file for easy printing and viewing on your cell phone (no heavy guidebooks to pack.) We are so confident you will find the trip information helpful that we offer a money back guarantee.