Planning a National Parks Vacation

The National Parks of the US are known for breathtaking views, miles of trails leading into the wilderness and beautiful campsites. National parks have something to offer for everyone, from young families looking for fun to backpackers seeking a challenge. These national treasures are extremely popular destinations, so now is the time to start planning and booking your national park vacation.

What do you need to do to plan your next trip to the National Parks? We have outlined a few things you’ll want to consider in the decision-making and planning process.

Pick a National Park

With so many national parks to choose from, picking a park is no easy task. Consider the time of year you plan to visit and what you’d like to do. Trail conditions and the availability of some park features vary throughout the year, so be sure your time of travel aligns with your sight-seeing goals. You can find a lot of information online but the best source of specific park details are…park rangers! Call the park directly and chat with a park rangers about what you love doing and when you can visit. They’ll give you insider tips and offer up suggestions for the best time to visit the national park they work at!

Pick Your Favorite Outdoor Activities

Each park is known for specific activities and some parks offer things other don’t. For example, you can raft through Grand Canyon National Park but not in Rocky Mountain National Park. Of course, RMNP offers up mountains to summit while GCNP has none of those.

Decide what you want to do during your trip to national parks and keep that in mind when choosing your destination. You likely picked your park of choice for specific reasons, so start by listing what you are most excited to do or see. Ask for recommendations and do some research. From horseback riding to wildlife viewing and hiking, national parks have a lot to offer. Make a list and prioritize the things you want to do or you’ll surely run out of time.

Reserve Permits and Buy Licenses

Backpackers and those who want to do specific activities in a park, like hike Yosemite’s Half Dome or explore Zion’s Subway canyon, will need to apply for permits as soon as possible. Having flexibility either in where you explore or what dates you are available will yield the best results. The popularity of camping and backpacking within national parks is high, so flexibility is key. If you plan to do any fishing or other activities requiring a license, be sure to buy those in advance as well. It is possible to get day of permits (and some parks, such as Gunnision Black Canyon National Park, offer *only* day of permits) so keep that in mind. Again, your best resource for this information is a park ranger although the internet does have some great tips.

Book Lodging

If you want a unique lodging experience, such as staying in a cabin or yurt within a national park, you’ll need to book extremely far in advance. Sometimes this means planning a year in advance, other times 4-6 months in advance will do. Even the basic campgrounds within national parks book up quickly with very few (if any!) walk up sites. As soon as you have your dates and park picked up, snag yourself some reservations!

Depending on how popular the park of your choosing is, even hotels in nearby towns can go fast. It never hurts to book early, especially during the busy seasons (usually summer and fall).

Gather Up Camping Gear

Once your national park vacation plans are in place, double check your gear closet. If you’re planning on camping, make sure you have the a good quality tent, a warm sleeping bag, and comfy sleeping pads available to you before you start packing. Remember that many national parks are at higher elevations, where the days and nights will likely be chilly. Throwing extra layers and jackets in your suitcase will serve you well.

Once you’ve made it this far in the planning process all that is left is putting all your gear into a backpack and getting to the park! When you arrive check in at the visitors’ center to chat with a park ranger about the current trail conditions and get additional insight on how to best spend your time within the park.

About the Author


Heidi Kumm

Heidi Kumm is a trail runner, world traveler, mountain climber, and all around adventure enthusiast. She is so stoked on adventure that she has made it her career as the owner of Adventure Feet First, a travel company that focuses on getting people outside to explore the world around them. Over the past years Heidi has spent months living abroad, volunteering around the world, living out of a van/car/truck, and finding new ways to explore on foot, by bike, or with a backpack. She has learned the ins and outs of self propelled exploration the hard way, so she's here to help us learn from her mistakes and to help us become more informed on how to make your own mistakes, safely.