Preparing for a National Park Trip

Planning trips is something I enjoy. I revel in the process, the research, as well as the building anticipation as the trip nears. Right now we have two trips for fall 2022 planned. One is to Buffalo, NY to attend the wedding of a friend’s son and from there we are going to make the trek to Acadia National Park. Last fall we went out west and did a loop of some of the National Parks including Arches, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and the Petrified Forest. We’ve been to other national parks as well, including Haleakala on the island of Maui three times, Joshua Tree in Southern California, and the Badlands in South Dakota.

© Carol Labuzzetta, 2010

When you are planning a trip to one of our national parks, it is best to prepare well ahead of time and do some research on the particular park you plan to visit. There are a few tips that I can share with you. Since obtaining a park pass is paramount and necessary, I’ll forgo listing that as one of the tips. We used a National Park Pass (good for all US National Parks) on our trip last fall. It was extremely convenient and cost-efficient. I think when we totaled up the parks that the pass gained us entry to, it was seventeen! Having the pass saved hundreds of dollars.

Five Tips for planning trips to our National Parks

Research Early

Far ahead of your trip, research the park and where you plan to stay. And, I do mean far in advance – as much as six months to a year ahead of time for the more popular parks. For example, we knew we wanted to stay in Grand Canyon National Park last fall, but we knew hotel reservations for that park become scarce quickly. I ended up being able to book in March of 2021 (our trip was in October 2021) at the El Tovar but could only get one night at this iconic hotel on the edge of the canyon. The second night we had to move to Kachina Lodge which was only a short distance down the road. Honestly, Kachina was more our style and much less pricey. Both hotels provided early hiking access to the canyon’s trails and avoided the lines of cars waiting to get in each day. Staying in the park also avoided any parking issues. We parked once and our car stayed there the entire time we were at Grand Canyon National Park. Had I waited to make reservations or been unsure about where to start, we would have joined those traveling into the park each day from outside hotels. My advice? Research and make your reservations early!

Plan for Early Entry into the Park

The saying, “the early bird catches the worm” can aptly be applied to visiting our National Parks. Parking lots fill up fast. If you know there are certain trails you want to hike or sights you want to see, get there early – really early! When we visited Arches National Park, we were up at 4:30 a.m. and in the park by 5:15. We knew we wanted to see the sunrise at Delicate Arch and it is quite a hike from the parking area to get there. On top of that, the parking area at the trailhead to reach Delicate Arch fills fast. By being there early, we were one of the first three cars in the parking lot. It was also great fun to hike in the dark! It was very adventurous in my opinion!

On our second day at Arches we were an hour later, at 6:15 a.m. We visited Turet Arch and Windows. The parking lot was fuller and there were probably about 20 people there already. But, we didn’t have a parking issue early in the morning on either day. Later, on the second day when we visited another area of the park, Devils Garden, we had to loop around to the back of the large parking lot to get a spot that someone had just pulled out of.

© Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

If you want to commune with nature more than other people in our national parks, it definitely helps to be very early on the day of your visit. The earlier the better.

Expect Crowds

Visiting our national parks have become a very popular trip destination. You need to expect crowds, especially at the more popular parks. Part of your research should include finding out if you need reservations to see any of the more popular sites or drives in the park you are visiting. For example, I found through reading that to see a sunrise at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, you need a timed parking pass. Reservations are made online and only open up in a timed fashion – 90 days before the date you expect to visit in this case. Once I knew this, I was able to watch the reservations page and sign up for a parking pass as soon as the day we plan on visiting in September opened.

We missed an opportunity to visit Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach located in Wai’anapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana when we went in January of this year. A trip to Hana and the back entry to Haleakala National Park was planned, but timed parking passes for three-hour blocks were required to visit Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach. There were slots left but none that fit an adequate time frame as our trip to Hana was from Kapalua and it takes several hours to reach the state park. We doubted it would also give us time to visit Haleakala National Park’s Pipiwai Trail and Seven Scared Pools as well as travel back to the other side of the island if we took one of the midday park passes for the black sand beach. Planning ahead is key.

If you want to avoid crowds, research going at less popular parks, times of the year, and get to the park earlier in the day. We found at both Arches and the Grand Canyon that as the daylight hours progressed to mid-morning and beyond, the crowds at both were more dense. We were able to avoid it by sticking to early times and less traveled activities, like hiking down into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail.

Heed All Warnings

This is paramount for a safe trip. To keep the natural beauty of our national parks, many only have signs to not travel too close to a trail edge. In addition, trails might be closed or off limits to travelers. Heed these warnings! They are for your safety! We took plenty of water with us when we hiked down into the Canyon in October. The water stops had been closed for the season, so it was the hiker’s responsibility to bring enough water. In addition, we heard that it took twice as long to come up and out of the canyon than go down and in. Therefore, we just hiked to the first rest stop on the Bright Angel Trail. In hindsight, we could have gone farther, but since it was our first time hiking into the canyon, we erred on the safe side.

Pipiwai Trail, Haleakala National Park, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2022

The Pipiwai Trail in Haleakala cautioned hikers to not venture too close to the edge of the trail to avoid falling off the edge. Trails become erroded and people have died by ignoring the warning signs.

Again, heed all warnings! YOU are not an exception.

Leave No Trace

As an environmental educator, I have to mention this caveat. The only thing one should leave on a trip to one of our National Parks is footprints. And, as mentioned above those footprints should only be in the designated areas. The parks do a great job reminding people of the need to carry out whatever is carried in but it still bears a reminder.

The beauty of our parks is unparalleled in my opinion. We need to work to keep it that way. It is especially important since more and more people are enjoying the beauty of the parks. Take photos and nothing more. Souvenirs of rocks and plant life is illegal. No place was this more evident was our Petrified Forest, National Park.

The parks were a grand conception by artist George Catlin and visited in earlier days by some of the founding fathers of the environmental movement, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Some might know that Teddy Roosevelt had his hand in the creation of parks as well. If you want to know more about the origin of our national park system, you can find more information here, on a page from the National Park Service.

Your trip to any national park can be awe-inspiring and rewarding. Just do your research and prepare for your trip well in advance. Happy Travels!

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