Visitation to the United States National Park is at an all-time high. Every year more and more people are heading to the National Parks to experience the wonder that is the National Parks. More and more people are looking forward to hiking Yosemite’s Half-Done, see the eruption of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, or witness the sunset behind Delicate Arch in Arches. With 417 national parks, you can visit a new park for a week, and it will take you eight years to see all the parks. There is more park to see then there is time. Learn how to optimize your trip without making common mistakes.
With over 150 national park service units under my belt, I have seen, heard, and made almost every mistake one can make in a national park. For many visitors, a national park vacation is the trip of a lifetime. They should be making the most of the trip, yet many don’t. Here are the 11 most common mistakes made by national park visitors.
Not planning ahead
National Park sites range from 13 million acres to 0.2 acres. Every site is different, and a little bit of planning can help make the most of visit. Some parks like Koduk Valley National Park has limited access. One has to charter a plane to visit Koduk. Other parks like Statue of Liberty require booking ferry tickets well in advance. Always research before visiting a park.
Fill-up your gas tank
If you are driving to a national park, fill-up before entering the parks. Only a handful of parks sites have gas available within park boundaries. The only ones I can think of is Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Yosemite. It is a scary thought to get to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park and realize that you need gas. Fill-up when you get off the interstate and head towards the park. Fill-up a second time at a gas station near the park entrance, just to be safe.
Decide what souvenir you are going to collect
National parks offer a range of souvenirs. If you are going to be visiting a lot of parks (and make it a goal to visit them all), decided what you are going to collect before you start. It is awful to start collecting something and realize you are missing your first couple of parks. Also, think about how you want to display them.
Some of the collection options include t-shirts, iron-on patches, shot glasses, coffee mugs, stickers, postcards, magnets, cancellation stamps, or junior ranger badges. I collect the postcards, patches and cancellations stamps. On average, I spend less than $10 on my collectibles.
Not reading the park newspaper or map
All National park service units have a guide map with a detailed map of the park. The major stops will be listed. On the back of the maps is a collection of information on the park.
For the larger units such as National Park, visitors will be handed a newspaper. The newspaper has important park information. It will cover operation hours of visitor centers, the services offered in the park, animal and safety warnings, hiking trails, ranger lead program and any other important information to know.
Skipping the visitor center
Visitors will sometimes make their entire plan based without talking to the park rangers. The parks are a natural environment. Mother nature can change things in a park in an instant. The visitor center will have the latest and greatest information on the park. On occasion trails and roads will close for a variety of reasons from flooding to construction to wildlife issues. The park ranger have valuable insight into the park. If there is a particular animal you would like to see, they can advise on recent sightings. For example, I am on a quest to see mountain lions, so I always stop and ask about recent sightings.
Be sure to double check with the rangers on all the trails you are planning to hike. They can sometimes share interesting features that you would otherwise miss.
Don’t be so focused on the plan
National Parks are a time to get away from the busy scheduled of life. They are about exploring the park and being in the moment. It is about taking 5-30 minutes to enjoy seeing the moose or changing plans because the avalanche lilies have bloomed along one of the trails. It’s about snagging that Zion Subway permit, the people in front of you just handed back. A plan is great, but the plan should be an outline. Most of the parks aren’t going away where. Except for the glaciers, they are moving downhill and melting. I guess a few of the volcanic parks could drastically change if they were to erupt. But for the most parks, the parks are not going anywhere and any activities not done today can be done on another visit.
If you are in a park that offers optional paid tours such as cave visits, then you do need to make it to the meet points on time but other no need to rush a park tour.
Get up and get moving
A national park visit isn’t a time to sleep in. There are several reasons to get up early in the parks.
Many of the parks are world renowned for their sunrises – Bryce, Acadia, and Canyonlands to name a few. Watching the sunrise in Bryce is quite a sight, but it can be a crowded sight. Decided on your dawn watching spot during the day and then the next morning head straight there. Sunrise watching is becoming quite popular so getting to your sport well before sunrise is a must.
Wildlife is more active in mornings, and it can be a great time to see the wildlife.
The last reason to get up early is parking in most national parks is somewhat limited. Once the lot is full, its full and no more parking is found nearby. If planning to hike a favorite trail, the lot can be packed very early in the morning.
Going to bed
The absolute worst thing one can do in a national park when the skies are clear is going to bed. So many people live in cities where seeing a handful of stars in the norm. Nothing can compare to seeing the Milky way fill the sky. Almost all the national park are far enough from cities that light pollution is minimal. Astro-viewing can be unbelievable in many parks. If you are fortunate and in a northern park, it is possible to see the northern lights as well. I once saw terrific stars and the northern lights in Badlands National Park.
Not stopping and asking
The best way to spot wildlife is to look for vehicles pulled over. If you see someone pulled over, pull over as well. Make sure your vehicle is all the way off the roadway. Get out of your car quietly and walk over and ask what they are looking at. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask. 99% of the people are willing to show you what they are looking at. If they are using a spotting scope, they will probably let you look thru it. I have never had anyone not share what they are looking at.
Look up from the camera
Photos are a fantastic way to remember your national park visit but take a moment and look up from the camera. The national parks are natural wonders and historic sites. Look around and take the view in. Stand there and say wow, I am looking at Half-dome over the Yosemite Valley or I am watching the Alaskan Brown Bears fish for salmon. Picture are tremendous but standing there and enjoying the moment without fooling with a camera is better.
Interact with the Wildlife
There is a reason the wildlife is called WILDlife. They are wild animals. In the national parks, they need to stay wild. This means that no matter what they need to be left alone. There is absolutely no reason on this planet that you should feed them, offer them a drink of water, or try to pet them. Think of wildlife like toddlers. Once they learn a bad habit, it is near impossible to break them of this habit. It is not good for the squirrels, chipmunks, and other cute furry creatures to be feed (in particular salted sunflower seeds). All that sodium makes for fat animals that are easy prey for something bigger. Plus those cute little animals can be disease vectors for rabies, hanta, and plague.
The bigger animals (like bears) become a danger to human after being fed. A fed bear can start approaching humans and get aggressive once they know humans mean food. As park service says “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Every year, a handful of people learn the hard way why you don’t mess with the large herbivores in the park system. Any and all of the animals can be dangerous. Bison have been known to chase and gore people. The elk regularly kick people (Mammoth Hot Spring in Yellowstone is a common place for this). Stay at least 25 yards from these animals and odds are in your favor that nothing will happen to you.
Have you made any of the common mistakes? What other mistakes have you made?
Jennifer has been obsessed with national parks as a child. This Tennessee native spent her childhood exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveling with her parents to National Parks and around the Caribbean. She is always planning her next adventure and is ready to see the world while trying to visit all 59 National Park (*She is ignoring the hunk of concrete that just became a national park).