The national park system in the United States has been famously called "the best idea we ever had" by Wallace Stegner in 1983. FDR said that "there is nothing so American as our national parks" and we here at outdoorpals agree. National parks are a great resource for everyone to visit and are home to some of the most beautiful and inspring landscapes around the world. However, with the rising number of visitors each year, here are some tips for making the most of your visit.
1. Get out of your car as often as you can!
This may seem obvious, but you'll be surprised at how easy it is to spend the whole day driving around the park. Whether its trying to see the expanse of Yellowstone or the iconic "Road to the Sun" at Glacier, there is so much to see that sometimes a trip to the great outdoors ends up with a lot of windshield time. Now there are definitely times where it makes sense and is an efficient way to see the park, make sure you break up driving with getting outside. Plan a route that allows you to stop at multiple sights and get out and explore. Turnouts are good but trailheads are better. The views from the road will only show you so much of the park. Glacier National Park is a great example of this. Though it has an iconic road that cuts through the park, it is the only section of the park that has a paved road through it and most of the valleys and cirques can't be seen from a car. If you don't get out of the car you won't be able to see most of the park.
2. Leave the dog at home
I know that this one might be unpopular for a lot of folks out there, but the reality is that national parks aren't made for dogs. Dogs are only allowed in very specific parts of each national park and you will be largely limited to the road and established campsites if you bring your dog. Now some people may bring their dog and leave it at a boarding kennel during the day, but this can be very expensive and not all national parks have boarding facilities nearby. Save adventures with your pooch for national forest lands and local state parks. When you go to a national park, allow yourself the freedom to fully explore it by not bringing your dog.
3. Go backcountry for camping
More and more national park established campgrounds are turning into small cities of tents, cars, and noise. On top of that you are going to be paying top dollar to be sleeping in a tent at a lot of national parks ($20+ dollars a night). On top of that you often have to make reservations months in advance and the lines to get first come first serve spots in campgrounds fill up really early every morning during peak season. No one wants to spend their trip stressing about where to set up a tent. The best way around this is to get a backcountry permit if you are camping in the park. To do this at most parks all you need to check in at a ranger station or visitor center the day before or the day of your camping. Often these permits are free and you can get multiple days set aside. If you are flexible about what backcountry zones you want to camp in, you can almost always get a permit for a place to sleep and they are usually free. If you like the convenience of car camping, look at areas just outside the park. Most parks have easily accessed dispersed camping at land just outside of the park or national forest campgrounds that are much cheaper. They may still be busy if you're there during peak season, but I've never not been able to find a spot.
4. Enjoy the communities outside the park
A lot of national parks have some pretty historic and beloved communities that provide some unique experiences. Whether its Jackson, Springdale, Polebridge, West Yellowstone, or Torrey, they all have their own charm and experience that is worth looking into. Sure there will be plenty of tourist trap locations, but you will also find some hidden gems among the restaurants, stores, and art galleries. Each one lends itself to the character of the park and I think can be an enriching experience. I mean, who can visit the Tetons and not spend a night or two (or three) in Jackson?
5. Plan for quality over quantity
Above all else, plan of quality over quantity. Especially if you are visiting a national park far away from your home, you may be tempted to try to see it all in two or three days. From my experience I'd say that enjoying the depth that each park has to offer leads to richer memories and more fulfilling experiences than trying to seeing it all on a surface level. Get lost a bit, spend some time relaxing, and delve into the things you find most interesting. Leave time in your itinerary for the unexpected rather than planning out every hour of the day. This is a vacation, not your work day. If you are living the life of someone who is reading this article, you will likely have the chance to go back and see more if its what you want to do. Get off the beaten path and find the areas of the park that call to you. You won't regret doing so.