The US has 58 National Parks, scattered among the 50 states plus US territories line Guam. Each one has something special to offer, and so many things to consider when visiting.
Here are my top 10 tips for deciding which park to visit, when to visit, and things to consider while visiting your favorite park.
First - do your research. There are great online resources, like NPS.gov that get you real-time information on the park, things to consider, and interesting information about the park. I also like books, I have 2 that are really helpful. Regardless of what your resource is, you are guaranteed to miss park highlights if you skip this step.
2nd tip, go. Just go. National parks are inexpensive vacations, great way to get the kids off the couch, and experience nature. Be sure to dress appropriately for the weather, and never approach wild animals. Which brings me to tip #3.
#3 is all about safety - the signs for wildlife are there for a reason. We are in THEIR home, and the critters are..... like - wild. Animals in the wild are unpredictable, and posted signs are their for your protection, not the animal's.
Tip #4 - Purchase an annual or lifetime pass. Entrance into each park ranges, and if you plan to visit more than one park a year, or several over your lifetime, this will be a cost-saver for you.
Now for #5 - Don't overlook the visitor's center. They are usually a great way to learn about the park. Check out updated information like trail closures or wildlife sightings. Talk to a ranger while you are there. - they are proud of their parks and eager to share information with you. Many times, these may have the best restrooms in the park. Just sayin....
Tip #6 - Consider joining a ranger-led tour if one is available. Its not often you can get guided tours without paying a pretty fee. And any time you can get a guided tour with someone familiar with the area, take it! An experienced guide's knowledge is invaluable.
Tip #7 is all about flexibility- Get out of the car. Yes, the scenery is amazing, but the view from the road is only a portion of the story our national parks have to offer. Check to see if the park has a shuttle system. The shuttle is a great way to get to several park attractions without fighting traffic.
Tip #8 is about being creative - Think outside the box when choosing which park to visit. Dry Tortuga is on an island off the Florida Keys. Consider National Monuments, National Seashores, and other nationally protected areas - in total, there are over 400 nationally preserved areas in the US to visit - you may have one outside your front door.
Now #9 - Consider visiting your favorite park off-season. We usually visit slightly before and slightly after peak season for the parks. This means we don't have to deal with as much traffic in the park, less crowded trails, and fewer strangers in our treasured national park photos. Weather is still usually great, and we get a slightly different perspective of the park than the majority of visitors.
Of course there is always more to consider when exploring national parks - spotty cell and internet service, taking lots of photos, but for me, #10 is the biggest one.
One of the things I enjoy most about nature is seeing the wildlife. If you also like seeing critters in their natural environments instead of zoos, tip #10 is for you! The best time for animal sightings is usually at dawn and dusk. These are just natural times for animals to be out eating. Mating. Doing what animals do. We almost always make sure to be in the park at sunset when wildlife is part of the park experience, and have been richly rewarded!
These are my favorite tips for visiting National Parks in general, but each park has specific tips.