How to Plan a National Park Vacation

Whether you were drawn in by a nature documentary featuring the majestic elk herds of Yellowstone, or by an Instagram story of Zion 's red-rock grandeur, the U.S. national parks captured your attention. And now, you’re ready to visit one in person. In 2017, more than 330 million other travelers had the same idea. While there’s plenty of natural splendor to go around, it’s wise to create a plan of action — especially if you want to visit a popular park at a popular time, like Yosemite in May.

This checklist will guide you through planning a national park vacation, from one year in advance to the day you depart.

12 Months Out: Research and Reserve

Get the whole family involved in choosing your national park destination, mapping out everything you want to see while you’re there.
  • Check to see whether lodgings and campgrounds within the park are available for booking. This is important if you’re planning to travel during high season (typically summer), when accommodations sell out far in advance at many popular parks. (To see what’s available or when lodging options will be available: Navigate to your park’s NPS page, click the “Plan Your Visit” tab and select “Eating & Sleeping.” Tip: Consider vacationing during the park's off season for more lodging options.)

Take Action with These Tips

  • Lodges inside parks like Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon typically begin accepting reservations eight to 13 months in advance. Due to even higher demand, Yellowstone National Park lodges begin taking bookings on May 1 for stays through the summer season of the following calendar year.
  • Regular campsites at some parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains, aren’t made available until six months out. However, you can begin reserving picnic pavilions at this park a year in advance.

8 Months Out: Book Motels and Outdoor Adventures

  • Book in-park lodgings that aren’t in high demand as well as motels in gateway towns outside a national park’s boundaries. Note: Some motels and lodges advertise as “nearby” a park, while in reality they’re a lengthy drive away. Be sure to pinpoint a lodge’s location on a map before booking.
  • Research and reserve organized tours and recreational activities. Think river rafting, backpacking trips and wildlife-watching tours.

Take Action with These Tips

  • The popular mule rides along Grand Canyon National Park’s South and North rims should be reserved as far ahead as possible, especially if you desire a specific day and time.
If you plan ahead, you can snag a saddled seat atop a mule for a ride of a lifetime along the North or South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

 

6 Months Out: Secure Plane Tickets, Campsites and Automobiles

  • Reserve a campsite; unless you are visiting a popular park, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, which take reservations up to 12 months in advance. Each park is different, but six months out is when many national parks’ campgrounds begin accepting bookings for their campsites.
Glacier National Park is another example of a destination where you may want to reserve at least your first night at a campsite, like Fish Creek Campground, which accepts bookings six months in advance. You can always move to a first-come, first-serve park campsite — like Cut Bank Campground (above) in East Glacier — later during your trip. Photo by Jonathan C. Wheeler, Flickr.
  • Research your park’s nearby airports and airfares; then book the flights that fit your vacation budget and schedule. 
  • Reserve a rental car at the airport nearest your destination.

Take Action with These Tips

  • With just a few minutes of research related to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park vacation, you’ll find two airports within easy reach: Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport (a 43-mile drive northwest of the park) and Tri Cities / Blountville Regional Airport (a 109-mile drive northeast). Planning ahead allows you time to compare schedules and fares, which can save you from additional expenses — like last-minute fares — down the road.

3 Months Out: Formulate Your Itinerary and Gear Up

  • Research hiking trails, scenic drives and other activities. Think about what you’d like to do each day of your trip and sketch out an itinerary. And remember, if you’re visiting a high-altitude park, plan a day to acclimate to lower oxygen levels before attempting anything physically strenuous. Doing so will help you avoid headaches and loss of breath associated with altitude sickness.
  • Take stock of your outdoor clothing and gear  —  like backpacks, hydration packs and camping equipment — and shop for any new or replacement items you may need. If your old hiking boots have seen better days, buy a new pair and start breaking them in now.  
Whether you’re planning on just a couple day hikes, or backpacking overnight, a few months before even arriving at your campsite is the best time to break in your boots and ensure your backpack is big enough — but not too big — to comfortably carry and store your essential gear.

 

Take Action with These Tips

  • At Utah’s Zion National Park, the famed Narrows trail travels through the Virgin River, and either water shoes or sport sandals are a must. If you’re adding trails like these to your itinerary several months in advance, you’ll know to purchase this footgear if you don’t already own it.
In the narrowest part of Zion National Park, the Narrows, you may be able to dip your toes in the water without closed-toe shoes, but for those who wish to hike through the gorge, surrounded by thousand-foot walls, obtain proper footwear prior to your park visit.

 

1 Month Out: Finalize a Plan of Action

  • Pad your final itinerary with downtime. It’s not always necessary to plan every minute of a trip. In fact, the most memorable moments of a national park trip can be the slow and easy ones.
  • Research dining options and read online reviews. Poke around Yelp and TripAdvisor for tasty, affordable eateries, and make reservations as necessary.  

Take Action with These Tips

  • Bar Harbor, Maine, the gateway to Acadia National Park, has more than 150 eateries. And as every New Englander knows, all lobster rolls are not created equal. Your taste buds will thank you when your research leads to the savory lobster rolls at Rose Eden Lobster.
Get a taste for your vacation by researching where to find the best local cuisines — like lobster rolls near Acadia National Park or bison burgers near Yellowstone.

 

1 Week Out: Final Checks

  • Confirm all your reservations. Print hard copies or download all reservation confirmations to your phone or tablet. Don’t wait until you’re on location: Although cell and Wi-Fi service are typically good at parks with lots of infrastructure, more remote places may have spotty reception.
  • Check the park’s weather forecast and devise a general clothes-packing strategy, while also preparing for weather changes. The forecast could be for abundant sunshine but include a surprise afternoon thundershower.

Take Action With These Tips

  • Late summer is monsoon season in the desert Southwest, which means conditions at a Utah national park such as Bryce Canyon can quickly turn from sunny to soggy. Make sure sunscreen, a poncho and clothes made of fast-drying materials, like wool, make it on your final checklist and inside your suitcase.

0 Days Out: You’ve Arrived!

  • Get your bearings at the park’s visitor center. Pick up maps, trail brochures and a schedule of ranger-led programs. If you have questions about trail or dirt road conditions, ask a ranger.
Though the GPS navigation on most smartphones can be helpful in providing travelers with a sense of direction, national park travelers should stop at the visitor center for the most up-to-date park information and to pick up a paper map — just in case your phone is ever out of range.
  • Be flexible with your itinerary. Some days it rains; you can’t control this. If you’ve planned both short and long hikes and weather is expected to be an issue in the afternoon, for example, move a short hike to the morning — when the weather is expected to still be clear — and save your long hike for another day.
  • Treat yourself. You’ve worked hard to save for and plan your vacation. Go out for a nice dinner, sip fine wine and indulge in a decadent dessert. You’ve earned it.  

Take Action with These Tips

Kick off your vacation at Rocky Mountain National Park at one of its visitor centers. Watch the park’s 20-minute film, Spirit of the Mountains; pick up maps; ask questions and learn about special programs and events, like Rocky Mountain’s ranger-led Night Sky and Astronomy programs hosted every summer.


Vacation Stories

More Destination Guides

 

The Best National Parks to visit offseason

The Best National Parks to visit in the Off-Season

Visit a national park this winter and avoid traffic, crowds & peak prices! Check out our picks for the best national parks to visit in the off-season.

Facts and Trivia about the US National Parks

Facts and Trivia about the US National Parks

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, Alamo is sharing 100 fun facts ranging from interesting to downright bizarre.

National Parks for History, Adventure, Stargazing and Wildlife Lovers

National Park Vacations for Everyone

Learn about the best National Parks for wildlife, history, stargazing and adventures with this guide of National Parks for every kind of enthusiast.

About the Author

Eli Ellison is a travel writer and veteran of 26 national parks. In 2018 he'll add two more to his list: Yellowstone and Grand Teton (at long last!). His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, AAA.com and WorldHum.com.