How to #FindYourPark: A Beginner's Guide

April 27, 2018Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Big Bend National Park — National Park Service
6 Steps to Help You Plan an Unforgettable National Park Adventure

You like being outdoors, learning about fascinating stories throughout history, and absorbing different cultures. You know that national parks exist, though you haven’t sought them out before – but you’re open to the idea! So, the next question becomes: where do you start? How do you begin figuring out how to explore these places?   

This guide will help you discover where to go, what to do, and how to make sure you have a fantastic, safe, and unforgettable adventure.

Step 1: Choose a Park

Backpacking at Easy Pass at North Cascades National Park
National Park Service

When you realize there are more than 400 national parks across the country to explore, it can be daunting narrowing down the choices. The first step is to decide whether you’re looking for a day-trip or a multi-day experience. FindYourPark.com shares details on parks across the country and activities offered at each of them. You can also download our collection of free Owner’s Guides that highlight road trip itineraries, lesser-known sites, places to stay, and so much more.


Step 2: Research & Build Your Itinerary

Make sure you’ve done your research ahead of time. Different factors like road closures and weather advisories can impact your trip. Many smaller parks are closed during certain parts of the season while historic homes may not be open some days of the week. And others may be open, but with limited opportunities depending on the season. Be sure to know before you go by checking the park’s page online or giving them a call to know if there are any alerts in effect.

Entrance Fees

Motorcyclist at the fee booth at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Manzanita Lake Fee Booth at Lassen Volcanic National Park

National Park Service

More than two-thirds of national parks are free year-round. Some do require a small entrance fee, used to help maintain the park, so be sure to know if you’ll have an entrance fee. Check the park’s website for more information (look for the “Fees & Passes” sub-section of “Basic Information” under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on the park’s navigation bar). You can consider getting an America the Beautiful pass if you’re planning to visit more than once, or if you intend on visiting several parks. You can also visit during the annual fee-free days – just be prepared to be joined by many other park lovers, as these are popular days to visit.

Plan Your Activities

You’ll find great travel ideas on our blog and experiences on FindYourPark.com. The National Park Service also offers an excellent trip planning guide that will ensure a fun and safe trip.

After you’ve narrowed down which park you’d like to explore, the next step is to spend some quality time navigating the park’s page on nps.gov. The “Things to Do” section (found under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on the park’s navigation bar) can be helpful in scoping out the options at your park of choice. You can also check our the local Chamber of Commerce sites, as well as the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau of the area you’ll be visiting – they’ll often include tips, recommendations, and concessionaires (e.g., guided hikes or rafting trips) that work in the park.   

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Lit tent at night under the stars and the Milky Way at Joshua Tree National Park

Camping under the stars at Joshua Tree National Park

Hannah Schwalbe/NPS

Overnight trips add another layer of research. Consider if you’re comfortable camping, or if you’d rather stay in an RV, or look into park lodges. In-park accommodations vary widely in the camping areas and services provided, but this information can easily be found by looking at the park’s page (look for the “Eating & Sleeping” section under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on the park’s navigation bar) or calling the park directly. Not quite ready to stay overnight in the park? Find a hotel or use an online lodging service to find a homestay near the park — you’ll return to civilization for the night but be close enough to jump right back into your park adventure after a hearty breakfast in the morning.


Step 3: Pack Your Sack

Two backpackers overlooking a valley on the Rambler Mine Route at Wrangell St.-Elias National Park & Preserve

Shookum Volcano to Rambler Mine route at Wrangell - St Elias National Park and Preserve

National Park Service

Packing for any trip can be the most tedious part, and it’s also the most important! Visiting a historic home won’t necessitate the same level of equipment as a backcountry hiking trip, though both require forethought. Don’t know where to begin? Start by packing these ten essentials. Packing food and water, as well as appropriate attire and first aid kit, are always a good idea. Check the park’s website for any tips, then consider your itinerary. Bird-watching? Bring the binoculars! Hoping to sketch wildflowers? Paper and pencil are a must! 


Step 4: Getting from A to Z

Free shuttle service at Zion National Park

Free shuttles at Zion National Park

National Park Service

Knowing about parking and access to the park is critical, especially when heading into some of the most-visited sites. Parking during peak seasons and certain holidays may be limited. Plan ahead and scope the many resources and tips provided by the parks (start by looking at the “Directions & Transportation” section under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on the park’s navigation bar).

For example, parking on a fee-free day at Zion National Park could be headache-inducing — the main parking areas fill up by late morning. However, the park has additional options, such as parking in nearby Springdale and taking a free shuttle. If alternative transportation isn’t available, consider adjusting your schedule to get into the park earlier or visiting during the shoulder season (read: not peak season). This window varies from park to park so again, be sure your research covers this too.


Step 5: Enjoy, Courteously and Safely

Trail Etiquette

Two people hiking on a trail through the woods at Acadia National Park
Kristi Rugg/NPS

Stay on the trail and pay attention to signs – they aren’t just suggestions to make sure you don’t get lost. By doing so, you’ll prevent damage to the surrounding vegetation and erosion. If a sign restricts visitors from exploring past a certain point, do not go into that area — not even for what you think will be a great photo-op. National parks are priceless and exquisite, so treat them with the respect they deserve. 

Be aware of your surroundings and know if a group is quickly approaching, a fast-paced cyclist is on their way, or maybe a horseback rider is trotting up. Take a moment to move to the side and let them pass — it’s the polite thing to do!

To Bring Your Pet or Not To

A man standing behind his big white dog on a bench with Lake Mead in the background

Dogs are allowed at parts of Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Diane Petrie, Share the Experience

Wondering if you can bring your pet along for the journey? You may be able to, but each national park has its own rules, so check online (see the “Pets” sub-section of “Basic Information” under the “Plan Your Visit” tab on the park’s navigation bar) or call in advance to confirm what’s permissible. If pets are welcome, remember to keep them on a leash at all times and to clean up after them. Bringing plenty of water for your pup will also be very important, especially if you consider the temperature and length of the journey.

Stop the Spread

Invasive species in our national parks are no laughing matter. The National Park Foundation often assists parks in projects committed to removing invasive species to save the area’s natural ecosystems. Individual parks may have rules about cleaning different types of gear and equipment depending on which parts of the park you’ll be visiting and the activities in which you’ll partake. For example, if you’re hoping to boat in Isle Royale National Park, be sure to check all boats and water equipment for zebra mussels or other invasive aquatic species.

Leave No Trace

A family walking towards the ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Exploring the ruins at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Jess Curren, Share the Experience

You may have heard the saying, “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” – this is especially true during national park visits. There are seven principles to ensure you leave no trace, ranging from minimizing campfire impacts to disposing of waste properly, to respecting wildlife. Know what they are and commit them to memory. By doing so, you’ll not only prove yourself to be a great steward of these national treasures, but you’ll also help preserve them so that future generations can continue to enjoy them as we do now.  

Let it Be Known

Whether you’re going on a day hike or exploring the wilderness, it’s imperative to let someone know where you’ll be going and how long you’ll be gone. If you’re going with friends, make sure that the group has an emergency contact for each individual. Some parks will also have check-in policies. If so, let park rangers in the visitor center know your plans before setting off. Anything can happen on your journey, so make sure someone knows where you are and when you expect to complete your trip.


Step 6: Share Your Experience

Colorful sunset over the cactuses of Saguaro National Park
Jonathan Horng, Share the Experience

Though the necessary research and preparation may seem tricky, the rewards far outweigh the daunting nature of the task. We guarantee: you’ll be hooked after your first adventure. Once you’ve returned victorious, be sure to tell a friend – better yet, take a friend! It’s often easier to tag-along with somebody who’s done it before and to learn from them. And now that you’ve conquered the steps, you can be that person.

As you make new memories, inspire others to do the same. You can share your favorite moments with the park community or even enter your best shots into a photo contest! Share your adventures online by using the hashtags #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque. Tell a friend in person about your favorite parts of the trip – share your tips with them too.

Have you already found your park? What planning tips would you add to this guide? Have you learned any lessons during your park adventures? Let us know in the comments below!

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