“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” are the words emblazoned across an entrance to Yellowstone, the first national park in the US.
To get the most of both from a visit to one of these 60 sublime tracts of nature preserved throughout America, you need to do the right amount of planning.
1. Know when to go (avoid the crowds)
Visit US national parks in the off-season, if you can. The most popular parks can get fiercely crowded in the summer; prices tend to be lower during the rest of the year, too.
Lonely Planet has calculated that October is the optimum time to visit many US national parks. That’s not only when there’s more elbow room on trails and at lookouts and when prices for accommodation and activities fall. It’s also when the temperature in many parks is pleasantly moderate, before sometimes fierce winter weather kicks in.
October, too, can deliver gasp-inducingly beautiful autumn treescapes; plus, it’s the rutting season for antelope, elk and moose – you might catch some dramatic mating displays.
However, national parks offer plenty to enjoy in the cold months, too. Among the most popular parks, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed from November to mid-May but hikes such as the Hermit Trail, at a lower elevation, usually remain passable.
Parts of Yosemite close in the winter but you can still see a different face of the park if you strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis. And breathtaking mountain views are yours during the chilliest part of the year at Great Smoky Mountains national park – keep an eye out for black bear and deer along the routes that stay open.
2. Have an idea of what you want to see
US national parks give a flavour of most of the nation’s incredibly varied natural terrain. Wrangell-St Elias national park, in Alaska, contains one of the largest active volcanoes on Earth, which you can see smoking. With some of the darkest skies in the US, Great Basin national park, in Nevada, offers superlative star-gazing. And Miami’s Biscayne national park is 95% underwater.
Once you’ve selected a park to visit (the National Park Service lists them by state), look at the ‘plan your visit’ section on each park’s website. There you’ll find hours of the park’s operation, tips on preparing for your visit, maps and calendars showing what to see and do at each time of year.
3. Pack wisely
National park trips are about getting back to nature and, for most people, luxury items will fall far down the list of what to pack.
Concentrate on essentials, a principle that comes even further to the fore if you’re on a multiday park hike, carrying all your own gear and supplies. In that situation, try to keep your pack at no more than 20 percent of your body weight; for a day trip, make it no more than 10 percent. (These proportions are rough: they won’t strictly apply, for example, for very slight or larger hikers.)
When deciding what to carry, think safety first:
- You’ll likely need plenty of water, which is heavy.
- Be prepared for quick changes in weather, especially at altitude; bring clothing that will protect you in all potential conditions.
- Bring a light-source: nature doesn’t provide light at the flick of a switch! A headlamp is the most versatile light provider because it keeps your hands free. And pack matches or a lighter, in case you need to start a fire to keep warm.
- Stow away a first aid kit; camping shops sell them stocked with basic to more comprehensive materials, depending upon your type of trip.
- Consider bringing some kind of emergency shelter: you could pack a tent, which come very light (although pricey) these days, but a shiny space blanket packs up small and provides vital heat.
4. Stay at a national park lodge
These often highly atmospheric, and historic, properties can be part and parcel of a memorable national park experience. Rustic some of them are but you needn’t be roughing it: the best lodges offer gourmet food and highly attentive service – some have been doing it for as long as national parks have been around.
5. Check in with park rangers when you arrive
You can save yourself a lot of time and bother stopping by a national park visitor centre or ranger station before you set off into the great beyond (or even, more modestly, on a day hike). Not only will rangers or other park staff alert you to potential hazards within the park – including fires, flooding, icy trails or animal sightings, or even historic structures with no barriers to prevent falls.
More benignly, staff can also let you know about any special programmes within the park or attractions particularly worth seeking out at the time of year.
Finally, you may need to pay for any park fees or permits at a visitor centre.
6. Download the best apps for the trip
Technology has made visiting a national park easier in some ways. Mapping apps on your phone can make following a trail smoother; with less fear of getting lost, you can really concentrate on the natural beauty around you. (Bring a full phone charger, though; it could prove your best friend, if anything doesn’t go to plan.)
Maps.me has more detailed trail maps for some locations than better-known alternatives such as Google Maps.
Moreover, there are free tailor-made apps (available for the main types of phones) for some individual national parks.
Another oft-praised app is Chimani National Parks, which contains park maps and promises local expert content.
7. Take a good old-fashioned map
Mapping apps use GPS so don’t need wifi or a phone signal to operate but, even so, your phone could run out of power or you could easily damage or lose it in challenging conditions. You’re well advised to carry a physical map as a backup and to learn how to interpret its topographical markings.
And, use the map or not, you could always frame it as a memento of your experience. Map apps lack such a pleasingly tactile quality.
8. Leave the park better than you found it
US national parks contain extraordinary treasures. They not only preserve wild expanses of nature that’s increasingly under threat from human activity. They also offer more specific attractions – the strikingly preserved ancient rock art in Canyonlands national park, Utah, comes to mind, as do the fossil skeletons of sabre-toothed cats and three-toed horses lying around in Theodore Roosevelt national park, North Dakota.
“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” is the American writer Wallace Stegner’s much quoted description of these spaces he also called “absolutely American, absolutely democratic”. To preserve that idea, every national park visitor plays a role – and a crucial part of that contribution is to leave as few signs as possible of your visit. Carry in what you need, and carry out all your refuse.
Or, as the National Parks Service itself expresses it more poetically: “Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.”