Savvy Tips for Visiting Popular National Parks

Savvy Tips for Visiting Popular National Parks

How do you plan an epic trip to the National Parks? One option is the tried and true method…Why reinvent the wheel? Why not utilize tips and tricks from other visitors.

So..I’m hoping to help make your visit to the National Parks a bit easier. Here are 3 tips from my own experiences in each of these 10 popular U.S. National Parks. Have fun planning! And let me know how it goes!!

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3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

  • Most visitors to Joshua Tree will drive to the Park from The I-10 on the Western side. Before arriving at the main park entrance visit Black Rock Campground. You can park in the campground, and there is no entrance fee. The Black Rock Canyon to Panorama Loop is a 6.4 mile lasso style trail with amazing views of the San Gorgonio Mountains and West towards Palm Springs. You can check out at the Black Rock Nature Center. After this moderate hike, you can drive over to the main gate to experience the dramatic rock out-croppings and views.
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Panorama Loop West Side of Joshua Tree National Park
  • Visit Joshua Tree in October for cooler temps, soft illuminated colors and to possibly witness the tarantula mating season. If you would rather not see the tarantulas getting frisky, visit during April. Late Spring is the best time to catch wildflowers in full-bloom after a wet Winter.
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Desert Wildflowers
  • After a long day of hiking in the Park head on over to Pioneertown. Pioneertown is kitsch at its best. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were involved in developing this replica of an 1880’s Western town in 1946. Autry filmed his show on this lot. Pappy and Harriet’s is a fun post-hiking meal with live music. The Pioneertown motel is a great choice for accommodations while visiting the area.
Pioneertown Motel – Yucca Valley

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting The Grand Canyon National Park

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South Rim View of the Grand Canyon
  • If you are an experienced hiker and like to plan in advance, place a lottery bid for Phantom Ranch accommodations. Phantom Ranch is a historic oasis nestled at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The hike down to Phantom Ranch on South Kaibab and back up the Bright Angel trail is 17.5 miles. Elevation gain is 4,845 feet. The rewards are amazing!
Phantom Ranch Cabin
  • You can cover a lot of mileage by biking in the South Village. Bright Angel Bike Rentals has 1/2 day and full day rates up to $42. The 21 mile round trip on the Yellow Trail to Hermits Rest is a great way to see all of the stops along the South Rim. During the high season, these bike trails will be packed with visitors. Shoulder season during the Spring and Fall is cooler and less crowded. Bikes are not rented Nov. 1st through Jan. 5th. Check ahead for temperatures and availability.
  • Bring head lamps with the red light for navigating your way through the park in the evening. The Grand Canyon is an amazing natural lightscape ( a natural lightscape is a sky that is unimpaired by artificial lighting). It is very difficult to navigate with the extreme dark, but you will be grateful when you look up and see the Milky Way over the canyon!
Milky Way over the Grand Canyon

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3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Haleakala National Park

Haleakala Crater

If you like this post, you might enjoy reading this post on Visiting Banff National Park in Canada

  • Sunrise at Haleakala National Park is a once in a lifetime experience. Plan on getting up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to the Park. You will need to prepare for the experience in advance by applying for lottery tickets. You will be grateful that you did. Arrive early as there will be traffic and spots are first come.
  • If you are interested in day hiking at Haleakala, there are not many options. Sliding Sands Trail is 11 miles out and back with 2,795 elevation gain. In other words, it is not easy. Other trail options include hitchhiking from one trailhead to another. The best bet is to do Sliding Sands Trail, but only descend about 3 miles. It is easy going down, but going back up sand in this elevation is pretty brutal. If you are backpacking there are 3 wilderness cabins at the bottom of the crater that can be reserved through the park system.

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Sliding Sands Trail Haleakala Crater
  • Be prepared to be hot, cold and possibly wet. The temperatures can vary from below freezing, heavy rain/hail, and intense sun and heat with no shade. Half zip pants are a great choice and layers of wicking clothing. Bring 2 liters of water and snacks.

If you like this post, you might like reading this post about what to pack for a cold adventure

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Channel Islands National Park

View from Potato Harbor Trail on Santa Cruz Island
  • Choose Santa Cruz Island as your first visit to Channel Islands National Park. There are 5 islands included in the National Park, but Santa Cruz is the largest. Santa Cruz Island offers naturalist tours and the only information center for the Park.
  • You can only get to Santa Cruz Island by boat. Island Packers has a contract with the Park offering ferry service. The service departs from Oxnard and Ventura harbors. The ride is about an hour, and is an adventure on its own. It is common to see all different types of whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine life. The water surrounding the islands is a National Marine Sanctuary. A fun book to read or reread before your trip is The Island of the Blue Dolphin. The book is based on San Nicolas Island, but it is interesting for a quick history of the Channel Islands.
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Kayaking Channel Islands
  • A great day of adventure and seeing Santa Cruz Island can include; a moderate hike in the a.m. like the Potato Harbor Trail, a picnic on the beach and a kayaking tour with Channel Islands Adventure Company in the afternoon. Hopefully you will see an Island Fox, just make sure to keep your food hidden.

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Zion National Park

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Scene from Zion National Park
  • Zion National Park is the 4th most visited Park, so plan accordingly. Fourth of July is not a good weekend to experience this dramatic spot in the Wild West. April to May and September to October are ideal with moderate temperatures and less crowds. Winter can be magical, but the upper elevations can bring snow and ice. The Angel’s Rest hike and the roads can become slick and dangerous. 
  • Consider combining Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks into a 3 day trip. If you are arriving from the West, stop at Zion first do a day of hiking and exploring. Next, get an authentic Western town experience in Panguitch, Utah. Stay for 2 nights at the KOA in Panguitch. The cabins are adorable and affordable and the campground is well-run. Spend the next day at Bryce Canyon National Park as it is easily done in one day. Depart on the 3rd morning from Panguitch and return to Zion to explore the Narrows. Your park pass will still be valid. 
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KOA Cabin
  • Angels Landing trail is an iconic trail in Zion. This comes with a caveat…it is very crowded. Prepare for an intense elevation gain of 1630 right from the start. The switchbacks are constant.  You can still have an amazing hike and epic views hiking Angel’s Landing without doing the ropes. It is enough of a challenge hanging onto the ropes, let alone dealing with other hikers. Many who choose to use the ropes do not have hiking experience, and are not wearing appropriate shoes. It is not uncommon to see people wearing flip flops on a trail where people have fallen to their death. Angel’s landing is dangerous in snow and icy conditions.

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

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  • Bryce Canyon National Park is a smaller National Park, but very unique and dramatic with its hoodoo formations. Although Bryce is not listed in the top 10 most visited National Parks, it gets super busy. As with all National Parks, you can avoid the crowds by walking further than the 1 mile limit for most tourists on bus tours, or those doing a “check off the list” visit. For example, Sunset Point is jam-packed with people during midday in the Summer, but walk 5 minutes further to Inspiration Point and you will bypass most of the crowds.
  • If you have more than a day to visit Bryce Canyon, try a back country trail like Riggs Spring Loop Trail. You care almost guaranteed to avoid the crowds on this 8.6 mile loop with 1853 feet in elevation gain. It will not offer the hoodoo views, but can be a lovely little escape from the crowds and a peaceful way to spend 4 hours in Utah’s back country.
View from the Rim of Bryce Canyon
  • Consider combining Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks into a 3 day trip. If you are arriving from the West, stop at Zion first do a day of hiking and exploring. Next, get an authentic Western town experience in Panguitch, Utah. Stay for 2 nights at the KOA in Panguitch. The cabins are adorable and affordable and the campground is well-run. Spend the next day at Bryce Canyon National Park as it is easily done in one day. Depart on the 3rd morning from Panguitch and return to Zion to explore the Narrows. Your park pass will still be valid. 

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Grand Teton National Park

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View of Grand Tetons from Camp
  • Even if you do not consider yourself a camper, try it while visiting Grand Teton National Park. You will be setting the bar high for future camping experiences. The Gros Ventre Campground has the most magnificent sunset view during the Summer. The campground offers very basic amenities, but the views make up for the lack of a shower. One night will be plenty, but it will be a memory of a lifetime waking up to the view of the mountains while drinking a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee.
  • Take the ferry ride on Jenny Lake to the Cascade Canyon Trail. This trail offers some of the best views in the region. Hiking in, you will see views to the North from Inspiration Point over the Park. You will meander along a creek and see a 200 foot waterfall. The highlight is at about the halfway point, looking up at the Grand Teton. You can take the Jenny Lake trail back to the Visitor’s Center, or take the ferry again. Let your body decide after this hike with 1128 in elevation gain.
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Grand Teton View on The Cascade Canyon Trail
  • Make a point to stop at the Mormon Row Historic District. The photo opps here are incredible. Wait until the sun is setting and take a short drive over to Moose, Wyoming. If you are lucky, you may even get a herd of bison grazing in the background of your photo.
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Mormon Row Historic District

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Valley in Yellowstone National Park
  • If you took my suggestion for accommodations at Grand Teton National Park, you might have slept in a tent in Gros Ventre Campground. You will most likely want to get a good night’s sleep in Yellowstone. There is so much ground to cover in Yellowstone. Plan on 2-3 nights at 9 Bar W Cabins located .8 miles from the West Gate of Yellowstone National Park. You will depart Grand Teton National and enter Yellowstone at the South Entrance working your way up the park and finish your day at 9 Bar Cabins. Focus on the Southern attractions on the first day and West to East attractions on the 2nd day. If you can fit in a 3rd day add Mammoth Hot Springs and the Northern part of the Park.
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  • Enter from the South entrance and work your way up the park to the marked locations. The best wildlife viewing areas are The Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. It is not uncommon to be in a traffic jam as a bear or wolf crosses the road. Elk look like statues sitting alongside the road and raptors soar overhead. You feel like you are on a movie set. Once again, the touristy areas are almost unbearable with the amount of humans. Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful should be visited at off hours during the high season. Zoom in on the above map to see the locations.
  • Hit the town of West Yellowstone in Montana. Why not add another State to your road trip. If you are going South back towards Salt Lake City, you can take Route 15. Make sure to stop at Freeheel and Wheel for an excellent cup of Joe and a quality assortment of clothing and gear. They have an excellent sale bin!

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Denali National Park

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View of Denali
  • Denali formerly known as Mt. McKinley was changed in 1975 for the Koyukon name of the mountain, Deenaalee (“the high one”). And it is high! The highest peak in North America at 20,146 ft. According to the national park rangers, only 30% of the Denali Park visitors ever actually get to see the peak of the mountain. Clouds and precipitation cover the peak the majority of the time. It is a toss up for viewing. It could be a clear day in June with sun or a crisp cold clear day in December. Best bet is to not have high expectations in seeing the peak and instead enjoy visiting the incredibly beautiful park.
Snow Shoeing in Denali
  • Very early Spring in Denali is a wonderful time to see it as a Winter wonderland! Snow shoeing and dog mushing anyone? The crowds are non-existent and the roads are empty. Great for those s-curve road shots leading up to the mountain. Be prepared for cold weather and minimal park services. Murie Science and Learning Center is the only visitors center open during Winter.
  • According to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, late February to early April are usually considered the best aurora borealis viewing months in Alaska. The “Russell-McPherron effect” means that the statistical likelihood of seeing aurora over interior Alaska is roughly twice as high at equinox as it is at solstice. Combined with a slight preference for better weather in spring than in fall, this means that late February to early April are usually considered the best aurora viewing months in Alaska. So, in my opinion, why not visit off season and possibly catch the Northern Lights.

3 Savvy Tips for Visiting Yosemite National Park

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Mirror Lake Trail Yosemite
  • If you arrive on a weekend in Yosemite, start with a less crowded trail like The Mirror Lake Trail. This 5.6 mile loop is a great way to get warmed up for the higher incline trails. The best part is the photo opp on the lake and the reflection of Half Dome. You can cool down in the lake and Tenaya Creek if you visit Yosemite during warm weather. Remember to wear a suit under your hiking clothes, water shoes like Chacos for the stones and bring a small towel.
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Half-Dome Village Tentalow
  • Reserve a tentalow in Half -Dome village 6 months in advance. These tentalows are great accommodations with a locker, and army style cots. You have access to the bath houses, shower stalls, and the location within Yosemite is ideal for day hiking from camp. If you go during the Summer months remember the village is hot during the day. Request a tentalow in a shaded area if possible. If you go in the colder months, bring a 10 degree rated sleeping bag, as the wool army blankets will not suffice for the freezing nights.
  • Train in advance for the Vernal and Nevada Falls. You will want to see this trail. The perfect escape from the majority of the crowds after about a mile and a half into the hike. You will see the 2 massive waterfalls and experience amazing views of the valley on your way up the trail. Training prior will make for a more enjoyable day given the 8.8 miles and 2,191 feet of elevation gain. Start turning up the incline on your stairclimber now!

Thoughts on Visiting our Amazing National Parks

You will want to visit the larger parks and some of the smaller parks more than one time. Depending on the time of the year and the weather, your experience is guaranteed to be new and exciting.

People often ask me which park is my favorite. I do not have one. I am in awe of the beauty and uniqueness of each National Park. I have more U.S. National Parks to explore, and I am so excited. It is a gift that we have these parks in our own country. Each time I visit a U.S. National Park, I am thankful that I have the freedom to visit!

Published by Judy Hughes

I am a small group trip leader for 2 travel clubs. We check out cool and off the beaten path places around the World. Adventure is our specialty. I love to take notes and share the travel tips with you in my blog! Hope you check it out!

16 Comments to “Savvy Tips for Visiting Popular National Parks”

  1. Aimee says:

    These were wonderful tips!! My husband and I travel and kayak in our motorhome! We’ll be sure to be using these tips in the future as National parks are a favorite of ours!!

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Nice!! We had a Bambi Airstream when our kids were little. We hope to do it again. Wish they weren’t so darn expensive now!!

  2. I’m an indoor girl but this post has really piqued my nature curiosity. I like the way you’ve broken each park down with great tips for visiting. Maybe it’s time for me to give this a try!

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      I think so!!We are so fortunate to have these incredible places so easily accessible.

  3. And now I want to visit all of those places! The hubs and I are actually going to Maui next month, we might have to squeeze in a trip to the volcano! Looks spectacular.

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Definitely worth it!! And have you been to O’O Farm in up country for the farm to table experience? so good! are you doing road to hana? so much ..I love Maui!!!!

  4. Raquel says:

    I was expecting 3 super generic tips for visiting national parks in general. Fortunately, that’s not what I found! I love how you had specific tips for specific parks (: That makes this article actually useful, rather than just another blog post to skim. Thanks!

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Thanks Raquel! I’m obsessed with our parks. Glad you found the tips helpful!!

  5. Nomads RTW says:

    Absolutely wonderful, we want to visit Grand Canyon Park this year, so will take this into action 🙂

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Oh fun!! It is mind blowing walking up to it the first time. Remember a head lamp:)

  6. Alex says:

    What great tips, thanks so much. I’m planning on visiting many of these in September 2020! Would you consider it a good time to visit, the parks in California at least?

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Thank you! Always a good time to visit the California Parks. Forest fires have been a challenge the past few years. Hopefully after this wet winter it will be ok.

  7. Tarun D says:

    what really good tips! thanks for this!

  8. Tamera says:

    I love the National Parks! It’s on my bucket list to see them all

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Thanks Tamera!Mine too..I need to do some East Coast Parks now.

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