Plan Your Vacation Like a Park Ranger

Insider tips for making the most out of national park adventures

Every experience in a national park is unique, and while everyone recognizes the names of iconic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, there are hundreds more that should be on everyone’s bucket list. A little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises are happy ones. To help everyone have a great experience, National Park Service rangers share their top 10 insider tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger.

a coastline with green trees and a blue sky
It may look like Acadia National Park, but this is Saint Croix Island International Historic Site which is also in Maine! (NPS/Stauffenberg)

1. Don’t miss the good stuff

With more than 400 national parks across all 50 states and many US territories, we love discovering places not as well known that offer the beauty of nature and the power of history—only with fewer crowds and lines.

Learn more > Advanced search for a park by topic, activity, or even close to you in your state

2. Make a plan...and a backup plan

For us, a park visit begins at home with a trip to Park websites have ideas about where to go, what to see, and what to do, and most important, what we need to include in our planning. Flexibility and a backup plan are key, too, in case of changing weather conditions, road closures, etc.

Learn more > Tools of the trade for planning your visit

sunbeams shine through thick trees along a wooded pathway
Even the most visited national parks have places of serenity and solitude—you might just have to walk a little further on the trail to find it. Visit busy sites off-season or in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid lines and crowds during peak times of the day. (NPS/Hoyer)

3. Use the NPS app

We nerd out over our own app—it’s very cool. It offers great tools like interactive maps, tours, accessibility information, and more. You can easily find parks closest to you and you can even access it offline if you plan ahead. And we’re adding new content every day!

Learn more > One app, every park at your fingertips

4. Reservations may be needed

We heart reservations. (Nope, we don’t get in for free.) Many campgrounds and lodges in and around well-known parks book quickly during peak seasons. Having a reservation guarantees we won’t arrive at a park only to find that we need an entrance reservation, there’s no place to sleep, or a popular trail is closed.

Learn more > Check the park website for details or visit

5. Keep safety in the picture

We love to take photos. (Have you seen our Instagram?) But we like surviving the experience, too. So we’re careful to take pics where it is safe. Some popular trails and views may be especially crowded this year, so an unobstructed photo might require a bit of a wait.

Learn more > Great tips for photography in parks

6. Ask a ranger

Have a question? Ask a ranger. (Yep, we ask other rangers about visiting their parks.) We’re always here to help. We can answer questions, share park stories (we’re always happy to point you to the nearest restroom), and we can let you know what activities are available.

Learn more > Ask a Ranger (Really, that’s the page name.)

in the foreground a blurry thumb is held up next to a turtle in the distance in a sandy area surrounded by scrubby vegetation
We follow the rule of thumb: hold your thumb up at arms length and if you can cover the entire wild animal with your thumb you're probably a safe distance away. Nifty, eh? (NPS photo)

7. Don’t pet the fluffy cows

JK, but bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and run up to 35 mph—and they can really hurt you. We can’t run that fast and are pretty sure you can’t either. Keep your distance from wild animals, never feed the wildlife, and when taking pictures, use your zoom and give them room. #SafeSelfie

Learn more > Super ideas about what equipment to bring and how to protect yourself and those cool critters

8. Are you ruffing it?

This one’s for the dogs—we love ours. (Have you seen the Denali puppies?) Many parks allow pets on leashes and in campgrounds; some even have kennels. But sometimes these furry friends are best left at home. Discover what you can (and can’t) do with your pet and follow the B.A.R.K. principles.

Learn more > Yep, your pet can be a BARK Ranger (See what we did there?)

9. Leave only footprints

We know that each of us—rangers, volunteers, visitors, everyone—plays a vital role in protecting YOUR national parks. Whether it’s carrying out what we brought in (including our pooch’ know), leaving the spots we visit just as we found them, or staying on the trail, we’re careful to respect these incredible places.

Learn more > Seven principles to leave no trace

10. Be patient with each other and us

We always remember to allow ourselves extra time to get from one place to another and enjoy the experience. We know that national parks offer refuge and respite to hundreds of thousands of people and, like many places you go this year, we may not yet be able to offer the past level of service as we emerge from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But we are all doing everything we can to help one another have an inspiring park experience.

Learn more > Information about the NPS response to the pandemic and operational updates

More great tips...

palm trees in a setting sun

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau

National Historical Park -- Hawaii

a group of people carrying flashlights in a cave

Mammoth Cave

National Park -- Kentucky

a gabled two story house with a clearstory on top surrounded by a lush green lawn

Martin Van Buren

National Historic Site -- New York

a path winds along very tall trees


National and State Parks -- California

a road winds along a hill crest beside the cliffs of a deep blue lake

Crater Lake

National Park -- Oregon

two canoes rest along the wooded bank of a lake in the setting sun

10 Alternatives

This list from the Department of the Interior offers hidden gem alternatives to popular national parks.

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    Last updated: March 1, 2022