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How long should I spend in XXX National Park? Is X days enough time to visit this park?

Post Summary: How long should I spend in XXX National Park?

I hate when people ask these questions in the National Park Obsessed Facebook group or any of the other Parks FB groups or email me with this question. It’s not that I don’t like answering questions. It is that these questions are what I call a “you” question with no right or wrong answer.

In the Facebook groups, it isn’t uncommon for someone to tell you “that’s not nearly enough time,” “that hardly worth visiting for that amount of time,” or you have to spend xx number of days. In an ideal world, everyone would have unlimited vacation and unlimited money and would be able to spend as much time as they desire in the national parks.

But that just isn’t the case. If you are an American, you likely get 10 vacation days and 10 paid holidays a year. Which is if you maximize your vacation days and choose not to spend your holidays traveling to see your family, you can get 2 full weeks plus 6 consecutive days and 6 three-day weekends. No matter how you swing your vacation time, you always going to be limited in how long you can spend in each National Park. It is just a fact of life.

So lets talk about what YOU should consider when asking your self “Is X number of days enough time to visit XXX National Park”

Wondering how much time you should spend in a National Park.  Here is a National Park experts advice on "How long should I spend in XXX National Park."

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How long should I spend in XXX National Park?

My response to the “how long” question is always “How long you got?” With the exception of Gateway Arch National Park, all of the parks deserve a multi-day visit, but that may not be an option for you. I’m going to say this a lot but there is no right or wrong answer on is XX days enough and you should make the most of the time you do have.

Looking at the NPS Annual Park Ranking Report** and doing some calculations for 2020, 2019, and 2018. Park visitation length is pretty steady. In 2020, the average visitor length was 7.44 hours. In 2019, it was 8.32 and in 2018 it was 8.49. Even with the 2020 pandemic, only 17 parks saw the average visit length change by more than an hour. Only 5 National Parks saw a visit length change by more than 6 hours. All five of these parks were in Alaska.

The average visit length runs from just under an hour in Hot Springs National Park to 4 days in Isle Royale National Park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular park. It sees an average visit of 7.3 hours. Grand Canyon is just over a day. Zion National Park and Yosemite National Park average visits are about 6.5 hours. Yellowstone pushes it to a day and half.

So don’t feel bad if you are only spending 1 day. Your visit is average length and this fact is the primary we have a series on this site called “How to spend one day in XX National Park.”

As a full-time National Park writer, I now have the time to make a list of things I want to do in a park and then plan my visit to be long enough to do EVERYTHING I want to do. But that wasn’t always the case. Many of my National Park visits were done while I was a full-time field engineer or college student. So I didn’t have the luxury of basically unlimited time. I had to do some complex mental gymnastics to decide which National Park I was going to visit, how long to stay, and what off my bucket list I was going to do on this visit.

** We took the total recreational hours and divided that number by the total recreational visitors. NPS defines a visitor day as 12 hours so we divided the average of the recreation hours per visitor by 12 to get the number of days visitors spend in the park.

Wood Bridge over water in the bright green forests of Olympic National park

Things to consider when deciding how long to spend?

What do you want to do?

I’m very analytical. My mind works fast and pretty much always organizes things into lists. Very early in my planning process, I make a list. I do a little research and start making a ranked list of things I want to do. For example, I’m working on a trip to New River Gorge National Park. My list right now is

  1. Raft the Upper Gauley River (Can only be done in the fall)
  2. Raft the Lower New River Gorge
  3. WWII Biplane Scenic Flight
  4. Endless Wall Trail
  5. Bridge Walk
  6. Kaymoor Mine

The list for New River is longer than those six but you get the point. Sometimes, I’ll include notes like reservation needed or the season it can be done, the millage for longer trails. That list can give a rough idea on how long I NEED to plan on being in the park.

If you are planning a multi-park trip. I suggest making a list for each park.

A foggy sunrise at New River Gorge Bridge

Does your skill set match what you want to do?

Next is do my skills match what is on my list. Sometimes you need to take a good hard and REALISTIC look at your fitness or skill level. Are you able to do everything on that list, be realistic. It isn’t fun if you are in over your head and burring yourself out.

Back to my New River list, the Upper Gauley River is a Class V whitewater rafting river. Class V river is biggest and most intense whitewater that is navigable. It’s big water and isn’t for unexperienced paddlers . While I have the whitewater rafting resume to raft this river, I’m a few years out of practice and need to get my paddling fitness level back up. Realistically, I’m not going to be ready for the Gauley in this year.

How many other National Park or places are you visiting?

If you are planning a multi-park or multi-location trip, take all those bucket lists you have made and compile them into a master list by priority. Say you are planning to visit Utah’s Mighty Five. You have 10 must-hike trails in those parks. You should rank them in order of priority. So for me, my hiking list might look like (this is just an example).

  1. Subway Canyon (Zion)
  2. Fiery Furnace (Arches)
  3. Chesler Park (Canyonlands)
  4. Delicate Arch (Arches)
  5. Navajo Knobs Trail (Capitol Reef)
  6. Angels Landing (Zion)
  7. Peek-a-boo (Bryce)
  8. The Narrows (Zion)
  9. Fairyland (Bryce)
  10. Hickman Bridge (Capitol Reef)

Combining your lists, helps you visualize where those activities stand on your “I want to do list.” So my Utah hiking list above tells me that Zion is the BIG park on my list while Canyonlands has a hike I’d really like to do but its only one hike. So I need to balance that out with the time it takes to get to that trailhead because I might be able to do the two Bryce hikes in the time it takes to do that Canyonlands hike.

How much time do you have?

How many days do you have to spent? Are you taking a week off work? Are you trying to sneak a little outdoor adventure on a three-day weekend or just a regular weekend. Get your flights or travel plans booked and see how much actual time you have on the ground to do things.

I know that if I’m flying in, I’ll lose about 1-2 hours getting out of the airport (bigger airports take longer to get out of). I also know that I need to be at the airport 2-4 hours before my flight. So I factor that in and see how much time I really have to work with.

I make a Google Map with all of my trailheads and planned stops. I’m looking for clusters of activities. These will give me more bang for my time and let me maximize the number of activities I can do with my time.

Going back to my Utah hiking list from above. Chesler Park is at least 3 hours away from any of the other hikes on the list. Given I ranked it third on my list of must-do hikes, it becomes a balancing act of is it worth it to ME to drive six hours just to do this one hike when I could say spend that time hiking the Narrows instead and then knock out all three Zion hikes on my list.

I have hiked both Chesler Park and the Narrows and they are both amazing for very different reasons. I can argue this 10 ways to Sunday. Again, there is no wrong choice. Make the one that excites you the most or feels right to YOU.

How much money do you have to spend?

I do not know why people think National Parks are cheap vacations. They can definitely be a lot more affordable than other options but they are something you need to consider in your budget. You need to consider your costs such as lodging (camping fees, rentals, hotels, showers), food (meals out, firewood, coolers, ice, kitchen supplies), and vehicle (gas, insurance, rental fees). Those costs will add up and can add up quickly.

I do a lot of solo road trips. I sort of expect to spend about $400-$700 on the trip assuming I’m driving my vehicle. Double that if I’m flying somewhere and renting a car. Don’t get me started on what my Alaska National Park trips have cost.

Depending on your budget you may need to consider where you are staying for example hotels in Springdale, UT outside of Zion are pricy., but things are much cheaper at Capitol Reef. You might get a better bang for your buck by cutting a night at Zion, spend an extra night at Capitol Reef.

Finalizing your plans

It can be really hard to come to a final conclusion on how these things come together to form your National Park trip. It’s always a balance and sadly some time you have to pick between two activities or cut a park out. If you are still having trouble planning and would like some planning help check out our National Park Guides or if you’d like some personal advice on customizing your itinerary with our Custom Itinerary Service.

In the end make sure YOU are happy with your plan. It’s your trip. You deserve to enjoy it and do what you want to do. Remember to ignore anyone who tells you, you are doing it wrong.

Is X days enough time to visit this park?

The answer is always no, that isn’t enough time. BUT (and it’s a big but) that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. We are never going to have enough time to do everything. The KEY is to make the most of the time you have and do the stuff that interests you the most.

I’m in the process of outlining a New Mexico / Arizona road trip to visit a few National Parks and some other units. I am planning to spend two weeks and looking to hit 3 National Parks and 6 other units. So that 9 sites in 14 days. I have been to two of the National Parks before so this trip is about revising a few things to get photos and spending some time hitting what I missed on that first visit.

I’ll tell you this right now. I HATE sand. I hate hiking in it. I hate laying on it. I just all around despise it. I want nothing to do with anything the involves sand. I firmly believe that Great Sand Dunes National Park hates me and Congress keeps adding sand-focused parks to spite me.

If producing guides for National Park Obsessed wasn’t my job I doubt I would spend more than a day in Indiana Dunes National Park or White Sands National Park. I would do the minimum and then get out of there. But this is my job so I’ll likely spend a decent amount of time there so I can help create guides for this website. As such I try to keep an open mind when I’m dealing with parks that have sand and try not to mumble how much I hate sand every 3-5 seconds.

On the other side of that. I have been exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 25 years. There are still times where the Smokies surprise me and makes me feel like have barely scratched the surface of the park.

But what I am getting at here is ignore anyone who tells you that the number of days you have decided to spend in a park isn’t enough. There is no right or wrong way to see a national park. I know people who don’t or can’t hike unpaved trails so their average visit is 1-2 days. They can usually see most of their must-sees in that amount of time and beyond that, they don’t need to spend more time.

I know people who make visit Glacier National Park for a two-night backpacking trip every year. They pick a different backpacking route every year and are trying to hike as many of the park trails as possible.

It doesn’t matter if you have a half-day or you have 2 years to explore a park. Make the most of your time there. My first trip to the largest US National Park was an unplanned stop on my way back to Virginia from Alaska. I had a little bit of extra time in my itinerary and just couldn’t pass up the chance to bag another park. So I spent a day and a half in Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. I knew going in that I would be barely scratching the surface of the park. But I did a little hiking, check out some history, and enjoyed my first visit. I’m glad I stopped and can’t wait to get back and explore more of this amazing park.

What makes a National Park visit?

We have had this discussion in the National Park Obsessed Facebook group twice. Everyone has their own standards. Some people want to stand in the park. Some people it’s hike a trail in the park. Some people its doing an activity in the park. Personally, its doing 4 miles of hiking or boating. But the overall opinion is that if you want to count it, it counts. It goes back to the you do you theory. It isn’t my place to judge you for how you choose to visit the parks and I’m not going to debate what counts and what doesn’t count.

Final Thoughts on How long should I spend in XXX National Park?

Above all else, I want you to enjoy your visit to the National Parks. If that means spending 3 days sitting by a geyser waiting for it to erupt, so be it. If it means, balancing your time between 2-5 parks so you can visit all the parks. Have fun. As long as you are having fun the “how long should I spend in XXX National Park” doesn’t matter.

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Wondering how much time you should spend in a National Park.  Here is a National Park experts advice on "How long should I spend in XXX National Park."

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