In this episode, Missy Rentz joins us to share her yearlong adventures visiting National Parks across the U.S. She’s toured 39 states, 23 National Parks and shares lots of great tips.
For more family vacation ideas, check out all the podcast episodes. Adventure Awaits!
Tell Us About Yourself
For 20 years, I had the dream to travel the U.S., and a year ago, I took a sabbatical from work to do it. And a good portion of my travel was through our National Parks.
Through the trip, I’ve been to 39 states, drove 46,070 miles, hiked 320 miles, and visited 23 National Parks, 7 National Monuments, and 4 National Historic Sites.
The National Parks are an incredible vacation, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.
How do I plan on visiting National Parks?
To start, it really helps to decide on some parameters for yourself.
- How far do you want to go – across the country or close to home?
- What activities do you want to do? Hiking, kayaking, camping, etc.
A great next step is to get the kids involved. Let them do research and think about the activities they want to do, like sledding in Great Sands and White Sands Parks. That will get them excited about what they are about to see.
And when you get to the parks, don’t over plan. It can be exhausting, so ensure you’re taking time to enjoy it. One of my favorite experiences was just sitting in Yosemite and watching rock climbers all day.
What are the best National Parks to visit?
There are 423 National Parks across the country. Most Americans live within 100 miles of a National Park, so there’s plenty to explore close to home.
The big National Parks are amazing, but they are often crowded and hard to get to.
My favorites this last year have been parks I didn’t even know were National Parks as well as some of the National Monuments and Historic Sites.
Can I stay overnight when visiting National Parks?
NPS’s sister site Recrecreation.gov is the reservation site for the lodges, campgrounds, and activities that require tickets. The reservation systems open 6 months before you want to stay there, so reservations for 6 months from today open today. And they book fast, so be up early to reserve that spot.
There are also so many other options. I did a lot of my camping in state parks around the National Parks, so I got to experience both.
Are there admissions fees for visiting National Parks?
Fewer than 1/3 of the parks have entrance fees. It’s impressive the gift we’ve been given as Americans.
The parks that do have fees aren’t super expensive. And you can get a day pass at the entrance of the Park.
There’s also a season-long America the Beautiful pass you can get on their website. It gives a family of four entrance to the parks for a year.
Another great program is all fourth graders can get a free pass for the year. And they can bring their family and friends along for free with the pass.
The Parks also offer Free Entrance days throughout the year. In 2022, they are January 17, April 16 (first day of National Park Week), August 4, August 25 (National Park Services anniversary), September 24, and November 11.
What are some of your top tips for visiting National Parks?
First Stop…Visitors Center
When I arrive at a park, the first thing I do is stop and talk to Rangers at the Visitors Center. They know what trails are open, where the best animal viewing has been most recently and can tell you where the crowds are so you can visit more off-the-beaten-path areas. They also give you warnings about weather, etc. I usually take their recommendations vs. what I’ve planned. There are also typically food and beverage options. Some have cafes. And there’s a store for souvenirs.
The Junior Ranger Program
Almost every Park has a Junior Ranger program, so kids can earn an official Junior Ranger badge or patch by completing activities or joining a ranger-led activity. At the Visitors Center, they get a badge, passport, and materials to explore the Park. It’s a great way to learn and enjoy for the whole family.
Be sure to take a good amount of water with you as it’s sometimes hard to get it in the Park. You want to stay hydrated.
Take your time to enjoy everything the Park has to offer. Don’t over plan. The parks aren’t going anywhere, so you can always come back again.
What gear do I need to bring?
The gear you need really depends on your activities. In stores, you’ll see tons of options, and it can be overwhelming. I would bring a backpack, bottles of water, comfortable shoes, and comfortable clothes. And always be prepared for the weather to change as different parks are at different elevations. So usually always have layers and rain gear.
Hiking is basically a walk in the woods. Anybody can do it. Being outdoors is about breathing fresh air and connecting with your family.
For food, check the Park’s website and see what they offer. It varies by Park and your budget. During high season, lines are long, so I’d suggest bringing your own food.