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National Parks Tips for Beginners: Getting Started with National Parks Travel

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Want to visit a national park but not sure where to start? Many Americans have discovered America’s national park system in the last several years. National parks are unique and breathtakingly beautiful destinations that have the added benefit of being budget-friendly. It is no wonder attendance has skyrocketed nationwide.

But national parks can also be intimidating to the uninitiated, especially first time travelers with kids. My husband worked in Yosemite National Park when we were in college, so national parks have been part of our travels from even before we had kids. When we had babies and toddlers, I must admit that the prospect of hiking, camping, and roughing it with little ones in tow seemed a bit daunting.

Bryce Canyon National Park landscape covered in snow

Once we started taking our kids to national parks, however, we were bitten by the bug for sure. And we wondered why we hesitated in the first place! We’ve now taken the kids to the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Mountains, Lassen Volcanic, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Pinnacles, the Everglades, Crater Lake, Yosemite, and Saguaro National Park all within the past several years. I’ve also snuck in a solo trip to Haleakala, and we already have plans booked for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons next summer.

We’ve learned quite a few tips and tricks in our many national parks trips. This is particularly true when it comes to experiencing national parks with younger kids when some adventures may need to be more limited. Whether you are taking babies and toddlers or pre-teens and teens on a national parks vacation, here are 9 things that beginners to national parks travel need to know to get started.

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9 National Parks Tips for Beginners

1. Understand the National Park System Basics

Beginners to the national parks often don’t quite understand the various terms thrown about, so let’s start there. The National Park Service (NPS), a division of the US Department of the Interior, manages 63 full-fledged national parks.

Many of these you’ve probably heard of even if you’ve never set foot in a national park – Yosemite, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park etc. Many of these are probably new to you unless you happen to live nearby one of them. Ever heard of Pinnacles National Park? How about Congaree? Or the Dry Tortugas? They all have the same classification as Yellowstone National Park even if not quite the fame.

Family at Lassen Volcanic National Park Sign
Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California may not be well known, but it’s one of the big 63.

The National Park Service also manages a several hundred other protected areas that are not national parks. These include national monuments, national memorials, national recreation areas, national historic sites, and quite a few other designations. The NPS does not manage national forests or grasslands, which are handled by the U.S. Forest Service (and the U.S. Forest Service actually manages a few national monuments and recreation areas as well).

Muir Woods Multigenerational Family Selfie
Muir Woods north of San Francisco is managed by the National Park Service but is designated as a National Monument.

2. You Don’t Have to Rough It (Unless You Want To)

A lot of travelers shy away from National Parks because they don’t like to rough it. I feel you. I’m not super outdoorsy myself, and I definitely do not love to camp overnight. I prefer to get dirty hiking and exploring all day long and retreat to a hot shower and warm bed at the end of it all.

Luckily, for the vast majority of national parks, you don’t have to rough it if you decide that’s not your scene. Many major national parks have iconic historic lodges located within the parks that offer quality – and even luxury – accommodations. Many more parks have inexpensive but adequate motel and hotel options located outside the park gates not too far away. Start with what is within your comfort zone and proceed from there.

Zion Lodge in Zion National Park
Zion Lodge in Zion National Park kept us from roughing it too much on a recent trip.

3. Consider an Annual Pass

One of the best family travel values in the United States is the America the Beautiful national parks annual pass. It’s just $80 for a year. Starting in 2024, the passes are officially assigned to one adult, but they work to provide admission to many more people. For parks that charge admission by the car, a pass covers everyone in a single personal vehicle. For parks that charge admission by the person, a pass covers the passholder and up to three additional adults (kids 15 and under are free).

With many national parks having entrance fees as high as $35 per car or $20 per person (see this list of NPS sites that charge fees), you break even at just a couple of visits. And since national monuments, historic sites, and many other federal lands are included in addition to the 63 major national parks, there are a lot of places of interest near you that are probably included too (see, for example, just how many National Parks managed sites there are in the San Francisco Bay Area).

If you regularly travel with grandma and grandpa as we do, make sure they get their senior pass too, as it is an even bigger value. A one-time $80 charge for a senior pass covers admission for the rest of their lifetime (age 62 & over). Single year senior passes are just $20.

Multigenerational Family at Bryce Canyon National Park sign
We love making our national parks travel a multigenerational affair! With grandma and grandpa at Bryce Canyon.

There are a lot of options, so be sure to check out all the iterations of national park passes before you buy.

4. Every Kid Outdoors Program Means Families with 4th Graders are Free

Family at Yosemite Valley View in September in Fall
Our first national park visit during my son’s current 4th grade year!

Just a few years ago, the NPS began offering a program that makes the national parks even more budget-friendly and accessible to families. The Every Kid Outdoors Program (formerly known as Every Kid in a Park) allows 4th graders nationwide to apply for a free pass to the national parks during their 4th grade year. The whole family can tag along for free as well.

We used our daughter’s 4th grade pass extensively a few years ago, and are in the middle of taking advantage of our son’s pass this year in a big way.

5. Make the Most of the Junior Ranger Program

Child with National Park Junior Ranger book and patch from Mendenhall Glacier Alaska
Earning a junior ranger badge at Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Alaska.

The National Parks Service wants to get kids engaged and entertained when they visit the parks, so they have invested a lot of resources into the Junior Ranger Program. This program is a series of written workbooks and challenges for kids to complete during their visit to parks and other NPS sites. A lot of homeschooling and roadschooling families use these resources, but they are great for all kids to help them learn while on vacation.

You can obtain some of the Junior Ranger booklets in advance of your trip by downloading them online at each park’s website. I recommend doing this if you have a shorter visit, as some of them are quite lengthy. You can also pick them up for free at most visitor centers within the parks. Kids who complete the programs can be sworn in by a park employee as a Junior Ranger. Usually small prizes and badges are available too.

6. Know When to Go

Joshua Tree National Park Scenery
We visited Joshua Tree National Park on spring break when the weather was mild, but the summer season can be punishingly hot.

A lot of national parks are located in regions that don’t make them great destinations all four seasons of the year. Some, like Death Valley or Joshua Tree in the deserts of Southern California, can be downright miserable and even dangerous in the heat of summer. Others are completely snowed in or inaccessible in winter, like one of my close-to-home favorites, Lassen Volcanic. It’s vitally important to do your seasonal research before you plan a trip.

It is also important to know what to expect when you visit at peak season at some of these national parks. Quite a few parks are choked with visitors during peak times, such as summer at Yosemite or Yellowstone. It’s often impossible to get lodging without planning many months (and often up to a year) in advance. Visiting during peak times can be frustrating too for visitors who may find themselves sitting in traffic for hours instead of exploring nature.

The bottom line: being willing to go “off-season” can be a great strategy for dodging the crowds that plague some of the most popular parks. Just make sure off-season is actually accessible, advisable, and safe at your park of choice.

Related: Best National Parks to Visit in Fall

7. Have a Plan for Getting Around

National Parks Tips for Beginners - Zion Shuttle System
No cars allowed in Zion Canyon – all guests must use this shuttle.

As Americans, we are pretty dependent on our cars. And most visitors road trip to national parks, so cars are an integral part of the national parks travel experience. Cars are not always, however, the best transportation choice once you arrive into some national parks.

Several national parks are just completely overwhelmed by car traffic or short on parking, making a car a liability rather than an asset. Several, like Zion National Park in Utah, have disallowed cars completely certain times of year and instead have instituted a regular shuttle system to transport visitors. Still other parks are more easily explored in certain areas on foot or by bike.

National Parks Tips for Beginners - Biking Zion Canyon
An alternative method of transportation in Zion National Park – renting a bike!

Before your trip, take a good hard look at the best transportation options for where you want to be and when. Consider getting out of the car onto park shuttles, bikes, or even walking/hiking when you can. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the park more without a car in many instances anyway!

8. Get the Right Gear

National Parks Tips for Beginners - Haleakala National Park Hiking Boots
Good hiking boots were essential at Haleakala National Park on the Sliding Sands trail!

National parks are outdoor adventure travel experiences, so it’s important to be prepared with adequate gear for the destination and the activities you plan to do there.

Hiking boots are the most important piece of equipment you can get if you plan to get out on the trails. On my family’s visit to Bryce Canyon, we were shocked to spot multiple families slipping and sliding down muddy switchbacks on a fairly challenging trail literally in flip flops. Having the wrong footwear is a quick and easy way to get hurt.

Sun protection – sunscreen, hats, and sun protective clothing – are also essential, as is plenty of water. Consider a quality hiking backpack if you have younger kids so you can take them on longer hikes without little feet wearing out.

Related: Tips for Hiking with Toddlers

National Parks Tips for Beginners - Zion National Park Many Pools Hike and Waterfalls
We were prepared with ponchos for a downpour in Zion National Park, which meant we were able to chase waterfalls!

A short list of things think about packing/wearing for day hikes at national parks include:

9. Respect Nature

National Parks Tips for Beginners - Saguaro National Park
Teaching the little one lessons in respecting nature at Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

National parks travel are an excellent opportunity to teach kids about responsible travel and protecting the earth. Unfortunately, you’ll witness many visitors behaving badly at most national parks these days. Lead by example in your own family with the goal to “leave no trace.” Don’t let your kids feed wildlife, drop trash, or do damage to the natural landscape.

Furthermore, guests to national parks sometimes forget that the unspoiled nature that makes national parks so appealing can also be dangerous. National parks are not Disneyland with every danger micromanaged down to negligible levels. Wild animals, weather, and surprises from Mother Nature can strike at any time. Respect that.

I recommend checking with park rangers about current conditions before setting off into the wilderness. Don’t take unnecessary or stupid risks. And don’t expect to rely on your devices if you get in trouble – in most national parks, cell and data service is negligible. Know your limits and stay within them, especially with kids.

Best National Parks for Beginners to Visit

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance Sign
Great Smoky Mountains – the country’s most visited national park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So now that you have all the tips for visiting a national park for the first time, what are good parks to start with? While some parks are certainly easier than others in terms of both planning and touring logistics, the easiest national park to visit is probably the one that is closest to home for you. So start there – and ask local friends and family if they’ve been and can provide you recent park-specific tips.

If you are looking to explore beyond what’s close to home, I have some recommendations! Personally, I think the following five sites are all are easy national parks to visit, each for a different reason. But there are certainly many more to consider, so always consider what might be nearby to other places you are traveling.

  • Great Smoky Mountains: Within an easy drive for millions of Americans, this national park spanning the borders of North Carolina and Virginia is the most visited in the entire system. Easy hikes and overlooks, waterfalls, and car touring options make it a good fit even for beginners or mobility-limited. It’s totally free to enter (but does charge a small parking fee) and is open year-round.
  • Zion National Park: Zion is less than two hours away from Las Vegas and can be easily done as a day trip or quick addition to a Vegas trip on either end.
  • Everglades: Super accessible for anyone on a South Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale) or Florida Keys vacation. This park also has a really unique landscape that sets it apart from many other in the system (my kids were in awe of all the alligators we saw!).
  • Gateway Arch: Many national parks are off the beaten path and hard to reach for travelers coming in by plane. But Gateway Arch is located right in the city of St. Louis, a major hub for several airlines. You could even see it on a long layover in town.
  • Joshua Tree: Just one hour from Palm Springs, this is a popular drivable national park from lots of Southern California destinations. There are quite a few places to see unique otherworldly scenery without having to do serious hiking.
First timer to national parks? Essential tips and tricks for beginners visiting America's national parks, national monuments, historic sites, and more.

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Chandan

Sunday 7th of August 2022

I love your blog, I want to plan a trip to Yosemite but I am scared of the woods as I may get lost. I am an immigrant and never visited any national park. Could you do a blog post on how to make sure one is not lost, what to do if one gets lost. I don't know how helpful the maps will be.

Riley (The Parks Expert)

Wednesday 8th of April 2020

It's so awesome that you and your family visit so many national parks! It makes my little heart happy :) Great post.

Wednesday 14th of November 2018

I am so glad I came upon this blog. I am planning a trip to the national parks with my husband and kids this summer and this information is great since we are beginners.