How to plan for all conditions and get the most out of your visit.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian Wallace Stegner once said America’s “National Parks are the best idea we ever had.” And it’s no exaggeration: our National Parks are some of the most spectacular places on Earth. But for all their beauty, these protected wildernesses can also be unforgiving if you’re not prepared. Here’s what you need to know before you visit.
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Seasons and Weather Work Differently Here
National Parks are places of extremes—extreme beauty and extreme weather. In May, for example, you’ll see snow at Yellowstone and North Cascades; while down at Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas/New Mexico border, the unrelenting sun has already dried out the landscape; and in Death Valley, average temperatures are already in the 90s. No matter which park you visit, prepare for both excessive heat and brutal cold.
Plan Ahead for the Most Adventurous Park Experiences
National Park rangers protect the parks’ ecologies from the millions of tourists who visit annually. This means that for some of the most popular adventures in the park—kayaking up-bay at Glacier Bay or exploring Slaughter Canyon Cave at Carlsbad Caverns—there are only a handful of spots open and they fill up well in advance, so be sure to reserve early on the park’s website. In some places, like at Yosemite’s Half Dome, the required permit is only accessible via a lottery system, with just 300 winners a day.
Leave No Trace
Anything you bring into the park must be carried back out or put in the appropriate garbage or recycling receptacle. Don’t pick up any rocks or artifacts or fossils; don’t collect flowers or firewood; and never touch or interact with a wild animal.
Some Campsites Are Reserved for Walk-Ups
Most parks reserve campsites for first-come, first-served walk-ups. As long as you get there as early in the morning as possible, you’re likely to get a spot, even on weekends. They aren’t always the most desirable campgrounds in the park, though—at Yosemite, for example, most of the walk-up sites are located in high country and not in the Yosemite Valley—but it’s much better than staying home.
Recognize and Respect the Park’s Indigenous History
Yellowstone, our oldest National Park, was established in 1872, and visitation has grown steadily since. For many centuries, however, the only visitors to these places were the indigenous peoples of North America. Evidence of settlement and exploration by natives in the National Parks dates back more than 10,000 years. Thanks to a mandate that enforces management of cultural and ecological resources in the parks, artifacts left behind have been well preserved. For some of the best insight into Native American history, plan a visit to Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave, Acadia, Badlands, or the Utah triad—Arches, Zion and Canyonlands. If you find an artifact while hiking or backpacking in a National Park, never pick it up; artifacts are useless to archaeologists unless they are found within their original context. Always remember that you are on Native land and act respectfully.
Fires Are a Huge Concern
Hot, dry conditions, overgrown forests, and unhealthy trees have turned the West into a tinderbox, and wildfires ravage the landscape year-round. In 2018 Yosemite closed for the first time since 1990 due to the nearby Ferguson Fire, and the burning of more than 12,000 acres of Glacier National Park by the Howe Ridge Fire. Most National Parks still allow campfires in designated fire pits, however, while others have charcoal grills. Outside of these designated areas, fires are both illegal and incredibly dangerous. If you plan to camp in the backcountry and need fire for cooking, bring a small camp stove or propane burner.
Don’t Skip the Visitor Center
At most National Parks, the visitor center is more than just a place to get information on the best hiking trails. Here you’ll often find museum-quality displays on the park’s ecology, geology, and biology; some even have archaeological artifacts on view.
Take Warning Signs and Ranger Advice Seriously
National Parks are one of the few remaining places in the United States that have not been sanitized for your safety; in some cases the only thing that stands between you and certain death is a sign. Visitors die every year in climbing and hiking accidents and animal encounters in America’s National Parks. Always take precautionary signs and ranger advice seriously.
Find Beauty and Solitude Away From the Famous Sites
It’s kind of a catch-22: you go to a National Park to experience the beauty and solitude of the natural world only to discover that everyone else had the same plan. Rather than visiting the most popular sites, hit the trails (or water), particularly routes that are longer than 3 miles and can’t be traversed by baby carriages and large tour groups. They may not be listed as the park’s top must-see locations but they’re almost guaranteed to be just as spectacular, yet apart from the crowds.
Get a Good Look At What We Could Lose As Climate Change Progresses
National Parks are ground zero for the environmental havoc wrought by climate change. These extreme environments are seeing rapid change as glaciers melt (Glacier Bay) and wildfires rage (Yosemite and Glacier). While this is devastating to watch, visiting the National Parks reminds us what we have to lose.