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25 Insider tips for visiting US national parks

There’s no right or wrong way to experience and appreciate the national parks across the US, as long as you respect the landscapes and wildlife and don’t disturb other guests. But these expert insider tips will help you get the most out of your trip, whether you’re planning on visiting the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde or any other national park, many of which you can explore on our small group tours in the United States.
1. Book ahead of time
US national parks are extremely popular destinations and during high season, hotels, campsites, tours and timed entrance slots for popular hikes and attractions can sell out fast. Advance booking will ensure you get the accommodations and experiences you want. If you book one of our small group tours, you’ll save time and hassle, as we take care of everything for you. 

2. Consider visiting during the shoulder or low season
Peak season – usually the summer months – is when national parks are at their busiest. Visiting popular parks such as Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, a destination on our Walking the Western US National Parks tour, off-season means fewer crowds and lower rates. October is considered an ideal time to visit most national parks as it’s quieter and the weather can be glorious.

3. Plan a road trip
Many parks are a short driving distance from each other, so it’s advisable to plan a road trip to several national parks in the same area. This way, you’ll experience a bunch of national treasures in one trip. For example, our Best of the American West tour hits all of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

4. Visit mid-week or early in the day
Even if you visit a national park during high season, you can still avoid the crowds. You can head to the park first thing in the morning before most tourists arrive or visit in the middle of the week to avoid the weekend rush.

5. Pack sensibly
When exploring national parks, you’ll want to bring durable, comfortable gear. Essentials include hiking boots, sunscreen, waterproof jackets and layered clothing. On our Alaska Adventure tour, which takes you to national parks like Denali and Wrangell St-Elias, you’ll need to pack cold-weather, waterproof clothing like jackets, hats, gloves and snow boots.

6. Check weather conditions before arriving
Before arrival and a few hours before visiting the park, check the weather so you can pack accordingly. Even if the weather seems good in the morning, a thunderstorm could blow in during the afternoon, so it’s best to be prepared.

7. Research hiking trails in advance
Every national park hike might not be accessible or easy for all members of your party, so before setting off on a lengthy trek, be sure to know the specifics of the trail, including the distance and terrain. Your tour leader will have recommendations and advice for you. 

8. Bring a daypack full of essentials
Even if you don't have a long day planned, you should still bring essential supplies like a first aid kit, sunscreen, water and snacks each time you visit a national park.

9. Respect park rules
National parks are protected places where the preservation of cultural sites and even entire ecosystems is critical. Therefore, it's essential to follow all park rules during your visit, including staying on designated trails, respecting wildlife, not littering and being mindful of fellow travelers. This way, national parks will continue to bring joy for generation after generation.

10. Always check out the visitor center
During your visit, stop at the visitor center in whichever national park you're visiting. Run by the National Park Service, these centers are great spots to learn more about the park, with interactive exhibits, displays, archival footage and more.

11. Talk to the park rangers
Representing the National Park Service, Park Rangers are one of your best resources for understanding and learning about our national parks by answering questions for park visitors and enforcing rules.

12. Take a guided tour
You’ll get so much more out of your national park trip if you go on one of our small group guided tours, as they provide a much more immersive and educational experience than you’ll usually find on solo excursions. Our local guides have a wealth of information on each national park you visit, so you can find out everything you could ever want to know.

13. Stay in a historic lodge
Featuring natural materials and gorgeous designs, the grand, historic lodges of America's national parks offer a wholly unique accommodation experience worth staying in for a night or two. However, booking a room can be difficult and availability can be limited. If book one of our US National Park tours, it saves you time and effort, and you’ll stay in a great location.  

14. Book vacation rentals near national parks
If you want to stay close to the national parks but save money, book vacation rentals in nearby towns, as there are usually plenty of affordable options.

15. Try camping
Visiting national parks is all about outdoor adventures and experiencing nature, so making camping part of your vacation is one of the best ways to authentically experience the park.

16. Bring a good camera
On your national parks visit, you’ll see mind-blowing desert or forest landscapes, rock formations, a variety of native wildlife and more. Bringing a high-quality camera will mean you can take great photos of your experience and be able to look back at them for years to come.

17. Leave our national parks better than you found them with Leave No Trace
Many national parks are home to entire ecosystems, fragile geological formations and unique landscapes that are protected for their natural and cultural significance. Leave No Trace principles help preserve these places by minimizing human impact, so always adhere to its seven principles: Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, correctly get rid of your waste, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife and be considerate and mindful of other visitors.

18. Respect wildlife
When you’re on your national park trip, you’ll probably see all sorts of wildlife, such as moose and grizzly bears in Denali or brown bears and bison in Yellowstone. While you might want to get as close to them as possible, it’s important to respect their boundaries and maintain a safe distance.

19. Dispose of your waste properly
In accordance with Leave No Waste principles, always dispose of garbage from hikes or camping trips properly or recycle it if you can.  

20. Have your kids try the Junior Ranger Program
One of the National Park Services' most special programs is the Junior Ranger program, available at most US national parks, which helps kids learn about each national park. They can earn their own Junior Ranger badge and certificate through fun activities and challenges.

21. Get a national park annual pass
Streamline the entry process by purchasing the National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass, which covers entrance fees to national parks and national monuments across the US. If you book one of our tours, all the fees are included.

22. Download helpful apps like the National Park Service app
Download useful apps like the NPS app and the Weather App to get up-to-date information to make your trip more enjoyable and safe.

23. Visit under-the-radar parks
While you might want to head to famous national parks like Grand Canyon or Acadia, lesser-known parks like Mesa Verde National Park are equally incredible places to explore and discover. Plus, they have fewer crowds. Our tours go to big-name parks and ones more off-the-beaten-path, so on our Discover Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons tour, you can visit Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

24. Be mindful of campfires
Untended campfires pose a serious threat, so help prevent forest fires by never lighting campfires in prohibited areas and always ensuring authorized fires are properly extinguished.

25. Embrace the digital disconnect
Cell service in national parks can sometimes be patchy. Our final tip for visiting any US national park is to make the most of this so you can be fully present in what will be an unforgettable experience.

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