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 whether you’re a seasoned hiker or first time visitor, it’s important to plan your visit. From seasonal changes to temporary closures and from trail etiquette to reservations, 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.

as the sun rises it begins to illuminate large rock formations
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/Frank)

1. Have a plan...and a backup plan

For us, a park visit begins at home with a trip to NPS.gov. 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

2. 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. And keep in mind that all people - regardless of vaccination status or location - must wear masks inside park buildings and in crowded outdoor areas.

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

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. (NPS/Hoyer)

3. Travel off the beaten path

There are more than 400 national parks across the country. We love exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines.

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

4. Reservations may be needed

We heart reservations. Many campgrounds and lodges in and around well-known parks book quickly during peak seasons. Having a reservation guarantees you won’t arrive at a park only to find that you 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 recreation.gov

5. 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.)

6. Explore the new NPS app

We nerded out over our own app—it’s very cool. You can even access it offline if you plan ahead! The new NPS App offers tools to explore more than 400 national parks...interactive maps, tours, accessibility information, and more. And we’re adding new content every day!

Learn more > One app, every park at your fingertips

7. Keep safety in the picture

We love to take photos. (Have you seen our Instagram?) But we like surviving the process, too—so we’re careful to take them 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

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)

8. Don’t pet the fluffy cows

JK, but bison can weigh up to 2,000 lbs 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

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’s...well...you know), leaving the spots we visit 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. Ruffing it?

This one’s for the dogs. 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?)

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

Redwood

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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