Monday, July 18, 2016

Road Trip: National Park Tips

We have wrapped up our 5 week road trip, & are now living in Denver, CO, but I will be sharing some of the lessons we learned along the way over the next week or so. If you have any road trip related questions or tips from your own experiences, please leave them in the comments!

A rough outline of our route is found here & the first post in the road trip series focused on setting appropriate expectations before you set out on your trip.

Today, we are talking about how to get the most our of visiting National Parks along the way. Tyler & I set out to check out as many National Parks as we could while on our trip, spurred on by the fact that many were on our bucket lists & this is the 100th anniversary of the US National Parks System.

As it is the 100th anniversary, many other people (literally thousands) have also made it a point to visit their favorite National Parks this year, so (as we learned the hard way), it is best to think ahead & be prepared!

guide to visiting National Parks
added text to image found here.

1. National Parks Passport. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, National Parks are offering official cancellation stamps at the parks, & you can collect the stamps in a collector's passport. I am actually from a National Park (Hot Springs National Park), so at the beginning of the trip, we popped into the park headquarters in my home town & picked up an official passport. The passport is only $10 & we both felt that it was a great price for what would turn into our trip memento & all of the extra information that was packed inside. Having the passport made visiting as many parks as we could a fun road trip challenge. You can buy the passport at any National Park store or online here, & check out all the cancellation locations here.

2. National Parks App. To make finding National Parks around you even easier, there is also a free app that is a companion to the National Parks Passport (download it from iTunes or the Google app store). For being a free app, it is surprisingly useful. It has features that let you check off the parks that you have visited, find out information about each park (including any fees) & has a pretty snazzy GPS tool that shows you all of the parks in a 50, 100 or 250 mi radius.

3. America the Beautiful Pass. In my mind I figured that visiting National Parks was a free activity (visiting my hometown is free, so I guess that is where I got the connection). Turns out, that is wrong. It costs money to visit parks, & if you want to visit several of them, it can actually get pretty expensive... QUICK! Entrance to Grand Canyon was $30, Grand Tetons + Yellowstone was $50, Saguaro (one of my favorites) was $20... & we are already at $100 and you've only explored 3 parks. But there is another way! The parks service actually has an all access pass called the "America the Beautiful" Pass, & it is only $80 for a YEAR of park access. Oh, & it gets better! The $80 pass not only provides a YEAR of park access, but you can put two people's names on it, & each person on the pass is allowed to have up to 4 guests with them. Basically, this thing is a STEAL & if you are going to go to multiple parks, with multiple people, it is a must have. See all the crazy money saving details at the park pass page here.

4. Camping reservations. Another misconception that Tyler & I had about visiting National Parks was that we would simply show up & snag a camping spot. Boy were we WRONG, WRONG, SUPER WRONG. Camping reservations are now almost 100% online, & the spots are available 1 year before today's date, meaning that most are gone one year out. They go FAST people! As I said above, it is the 100th anniversary, & this is no secret, people are out at the parks in record numbers. However, Tyler & I did not learn of this crazy, way up front reservation situation & we still got to camp in all the parks we wanted, so there is hope.

The two websites we used for finding camping in the National Parks were recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com. Both of these only allow you to reserve in advance (AKA not day of), but they have pretty helpful search tools to get you just want you need. It was also super easy to check in at the ranger station with our online reservations, as these are sites that are fully integrated in with the National Parks services.

In addition, most National Parks are next to National Forests (not exactly the same thing, kind of along the lines of the square vs. rectangle argument...). While the National Parks have aggressive camping reservation situations, National Forests are slightly easier to get a reservation last minute. For example, camping in the Grand Canyon is pretty hard to snag (unless you are a one of those year in advance planners), but the Kaibab National Forest is basically attached to the Grand Canyon Park, & offers 7 campsites of its own (that seem to be lesser known, or at least don't go as fast!). If the Park you want to visit is completely out of campsites, look for nearby National Forests or State Parks.

If all else fails, ask the locals where they camp. We scored a $5 campsite in Idado because we asked a bartender where he stayed. We were the only ones in the campsite (besides the coyotes) & enjoyed the most gorgeous sunset of the trip, from our campsite right on the Snake River (it was this campsite for those interested - close to Yellowstone). The locals might have more information about the state & county campsites that can be harder to track down online.

5. Visitor Center. Finally, unless you are a veteran visitor at a given park it can be overwhelming to know what to do in the park. As I explained in the setting expectations post, were decided that we would be on a "sightseeing" type of trip. Given that we had two dogs & not enough room in our car to pack all of the equipment that would have been necessary for long term camping or backcountry explorations, we were looking for day trips that let us see most of the action from our car.  The National Park Visitor Centers are not only where you will have to go if you are looking for passport stamps, but they are also an excellent source of information. Maybe, that previous sentence was a no duh kind of statement, but I think many people skip the Visitor Center thinking they are tourist traps or a waste of time. We found that each park had its own newspaper that you could pick up at the Visitor Center, with current information about events/conditions/maps, but also suggested things to do based on whether you were looking to spend 1-3 hours, half a day, a full day, or more. We also checked in with the rangers about the best driving loops through the park, & marked on our maps where dogs were & were not allowed to roam. I think we saved so much time that could have been wasted by aimless wandering, just by spending a few minutes in the Visitor Center.

Ok, I hope that helps answer any questions you might have about visiting the National Parks! If there are any additional question you can think of, please let me know in the comments. Coming up soon, I will be posting my favorite parks in each state, & giving more details about what we did & what are landmarks that cannot be missed!

Off to explore some more of Denver now!

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