If you’ve never been to a National Park before, planning your first trip can be intimidating!
Traveling to National Parks isn’t something that my husband or I did growing up and we didn’t start hiking & camping until our late 20s. Since our first trip to a National Park, our love for nature has only grown and it made us realize that it’s never too late to start enjoying the great outdoors.
In a collaboration with method and the Fifty-Nine Parks initiative, I’ve rounded up 15 beginner tips that can help you start planning your first trip to a National Park!
Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a small commission when you book through these links for which I am very thankful!
1. Choose a Park Close To Your Home
Planning a trip to a National Park for the first time can feel overwhelming, especially if you haven’t spent a whole lot of time outdoors. Planning a trip out of state can add extra stress since you will need to consider flights, car rentals, and accommodations.
If you haven’t been to a National Park before, we suggest starting small with trips to local National Parks in your state that are close to your home.
We live in Southern California and within a short drive, we can reach top National Parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree. All of these parks are located within a few hours’ drive from our home base so if something doesn’t go according to plan, we can easily head back home. There is comfort in being somewhat close to home, especially when trying something new for the first time.
If you’re not sure what parks are nearby, you can use this website to find parks by state.
2. Check If Entrance Reservations Are Needed
Before heading out to a National Park, check to see if the park requires reservations or has any entrance limitations. To better preserve our natural wonders many parks are starting to implement a reservation system for crowd control and to reduce impact.
Reservations haven’t deterred us from exploring National Parks but they do require some planning ahead of time. Yosemite National Park requires summer entrance reservations that need to be booked well in advance while other parks such as Haleakalā National Park and Acadia National Park require specific summit road and sunrise entry reservations.
The National Park reservation requirements have been changing year to year but this list highlights the current requirements.
3. Get America the Beautiful Pass
Visiting National Parks can be an expensive activity but there are ways to save on cost. When you enter a National Park, you will be asked to pay around $20-$35 per vehicle. This can easily add up if you plan to visit several National Parks on a trip or return at a later date.
If you plan on visiting numerous National Parks in the next year, it’s worthwhile getting America the Beautiful Pass to cover entrance fees. This pass costs $80 but it allows unlimited entries to all US National Parks for one year.
Since I purchased this pass, I’ve been to National Parks 8 different times already so it has paid itself off multiple times over. The pass can be used by two pass holders so you can split the cost and share it with a family member or a friend.
US National Parks also offer discounted and free passes for military members, seniors, residents with permanent disabilities, volunteers, and 4th graders. It’s always a good idea to inquire about discounts at the entrance booths before paying the full price.
Want to know how much each park charges for entrance fees? You can browse National Park entrance prices here!
4. Find a Place To Stay
One of the hardest parts about visiting a National Park (especially during the busy travel season) can be finding available accommodations for your trip.
When visiting National Parks we typically stay in:
Recreation.gov is our go-to website for finding campgrounds at National Parks. National Parks typically have several campgrounds within the park boundaries, but these campsites often need to be reserved well ahead of time.
Some National Parks like Death Valley and Joshua Tree have some first-come-first-serve campgrounds. This is always ideal because it requires the least amount of planning and you can find a spot to sleep upon arrival or after exploring the park.
Other parks like Yosemite offer canvas tent cabins that are a step up from sleeping on the ground and allow you to enjoy comfortable amenities like hot showers, a seasonal pool, and multiple dining choices.
If the National Park campgrounds are taken, you can browse for private campgrounds and RV parks near the park entrance that may cost a bit more, but oftentimes have more availability.
Hotels, Inns, and Motels
If all of the campgrounds are booked, we’ll browse through websites like Booking.com and Expedia for cheap accommodations in towns close to the National Park entrances. We prefer to stay in hotels when traveling to parks out of state and can’t bring all of our camping gear with us.
Staying at a hotel is ideal if you’re just not into the idea of camping (and that’s totally ok too!) or want to get photo-ready before heading out into the park for the day.
There is nothing better after a full day of exploring the outdoors than returning to a hotel room and taking a hot shower – a nice perk that you don’t always get to enjoy when camping!
Private Vacation Rentals
When traveling with a larger group or family, we typically try to rent a cabin, Airbnb, or VRBO for our National Park trips. This way we all can enjoy a bit of space and nice amenities during our visit.
In recent years we have been booking VRBO rentals over Airbnb because they have lower booking fees and offer more availability.
Check out some of our popular National Park VRBO articles below:
- 10 Stunning VRBO Vacation Rentals In Joshua Tree
- The 10 Best VRBO Rentals Near Yosemite National Park
- 10 Incredible VRBO Rentals Near Yellowstone National Park
Oftentimes we stealth camp on National Forest lands or BLM lands that allow dispersed camping for up to 2 weeks at no charge. We’ve done wild camping in a variety of vehicles over the years from our Honda Element SUV to our Promaster campervan.
Wild camping is something that we do when traveling by ourselves or want to save money on costs. Camping in our van also allows us to cook healthy meals on the road instead of eating whatever fast food is available nearby.
I recommend using iOverlander, park4night, Thedyrt.com, and Freecampsites.net to find places to sleep at night. These apps & sites show locations and ratings of campsites along with other helpful tips on where to fill up on water, take a shower, and show locations of dump stations.
5. Look Up Things To Do
While heading into a National Park is a great way to unplug and relax for a few days, you might want to prepare before your trip and look up a few things to do. Most National Parks don’t have reception once you head into the wilderness so have a plan in mind for your visit.
National Parks typically have a highway that leads through the park with the main attractions located next to it. Before heading out on trips, I mark the main attractions on Google Maps and look up a few easy hikes on the AllTrails hiking app. You’ll also want to download an offline map of the park in case you lose reception.
When planning a trip to a National Park for the first time, avoid any long or strenuous hikes that have a lot of elevation gain. Be sure to stick to short, easy hikes that are 1-3 miles long, and bring plenty of water.
Here are a few National Park hiking guides covering easy trails and things to do for first-time visitors:
- 10 Best Day Hikes In Yosemite That Should Be On Your List
- 15 Wonderful Things To Do In Acadia National Park
- 6 Incredible Day Hikes At Kings Canyon National Park
- 6 Easy Death Valley Hikes That You Shouldn’t Miss
- 7 Incredible Day Hikes At Joshua Tree National Park
6. Keep The Trip Short
For your first National Park trip, try to keep it short to a few days or an extended weekend. Longer trips require more planning and can start feeling overwhelming.
Over the years we’ve visited many different US National Parks and have found that you can see most of the main attractions in a National Park within 2-3 days.
You do want to account for driving time as well as it can take half a day to reach some parks even when flying there. Travel can take a toll on your body and mind so be sure to set aside some time for resting after lots of driving.
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7. Pack The Right Gear
Packing for a National Park trip can be a challenge, especially when you’re new to the outdoors. For our first wilderness trip, we used a cheaply made tent from Big 5 that we got just a few days before our trip. It’s been years since we moved on from that first camping trip and along the way we’ve had a chance to test different outdoor items.
If you don’t have your own camping and hiking gear yet, here are a few tips to help you get ready for a National Park trip:
- Borrow gear from friends and family. This is by far the easiest and cheapest option if you can find people to lend you things like tents, sleeping bags, backpacking packs, and hiking clothing.
- Buy used items on Craigslist. Buying used items is a great way to own gear and try something new while saving you a lot of money. I got my first backpacking pack from Craigslist years ago and I still use it to this day!
- Rent gear from REI. If you want to try a few outdoor items before committing to them, REI offers gear rentals. This way you can try out different items and see what you like or dislike before purchasing them.
- Find affordable alternatives on Amazon. While you want reliable gear, you don’t always need the top-of-the-line stuff especially when you’re just starting out. We often find cheaper alternatives on Amazon especially when we’re new to a sport or activity and are not sure if we’ll stick with it long term. For example, this year I purchased cheap microspikes on Amazon for my first snow hike. I ended up using these microspikes multiple times over the winter season until they started to fall apart. Now that I know it’s a worthwhile investment, next year I’ll upgrade to a better, more durable set.
Here are a few helpful gear articles to get you started in the right direction:
- Backpacking Gear Guide: Our Ultimate Packing List
- Road Trip Essentials: Our Ultimate Packing List
- 3 Best Light & Ultralight Tents For Backpacking
8. Plan For The Weather
Not being prepared for the right weather is one of the biggest factors that can make a National Park trip go south fast. While some National Parks are great to visit year-round, others have a short visitor season limited to a few months out of the year.
For example, Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California are wonderful parks to visit in the spring and fall but you want to avoid going to the desert during the summer months when temperatures spike past 100 degrees.
Before your trip be sure to look up the weather and plan accordingly. Outdoor activities in the summer can easily dehydrate you so plan to bring extra water for your trip.
In recent years we have also started venturing out to National Parks in the winter. While it can feel daunting traveling to the outdoors in the winter, it can offer a magical experience – as long as you go prepared with plenty of layers, warm clothing, and cold weather gear.
Check out these guides on how to prepare for visiting National Parks in the winter:
- Guide To Visiting Yosemite National Park In The Winter
- How To Visit And Snowshoe Mariposa Grove
- Guide To Visiting Sequoia National Park In The Winter
9. Bring Your Own Camping Food
One of the biggest expenses when heading out to a National Park can be food. Most National Parks have restaurants and camp stores within the park boundaries, but they are pricey since the food has to be brought in from far away.
Not sure what to bring to prepare your own meals? Here are a few items that we recommend:
To make meals during outdoor trips we have a camping stove set that comes with two pots. This is handy when you want to make two separate items in the same meal like coffee and oatmeal.
We can eat our meals right out of these pots eliminating the need for extra plates. Our stove pots are made of aluminum so they are easy to clean with some water and a little scrub that we usually bring along.
This Amazon camping set is budget-friendly compared to most stoves that you’ll find at other outdoor stores and works just as great!
If you get a camping stove set that doesn’t come with utensils, you may want to get a few cheap camping sporks that can be used as a spoon and a fork saving space and weight.
REI offers a lot of great backpacking meals like Pad Thai with chicken, Mexican-style rice & chicken, and Fettuccini Alfredo. These meals come dehydrated so all you need to do is add hot water and enjoy!
For a more affordable option, we usually go to our local grocery store and get a couple of cans of chicken and a pack of ready rice. For lunch, we usually eat tuna, crackers, fruit, and protein bars.
For breakfast, we bring a few packs of oatmeal, instant coffee, and dehydrated milk that we use for oatmeal and as a creamer in our coffee.
10. Always Prioritize Safety
When planning a trip to a National Park, things can go wrong (speaking from our personal experience) so it’s always best to go prepared.
Here are a few things that we recommend getting for your National Park trip to ensure a safe experience:
- First aid kit. REI sells ultralight medical kits that come with all the necessary basics to care for small wounds, blisters, bleeding, and scratches. Most medial kits also include medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, and sting relief wipes.
- Portable phone charger. In colder conditions and in altitude phones use up more battery even if you set your phone on airplane mode and don’t use it. That is certainly not the ideal situation especially if you need to look up maps or make an emergency call.
- Headlamp. I don’t go on any hiking trips without a headlamp. Having a headlamp is essential in case you get lost and need to find your way back during the night.
- Water filter. Even if we plan to pack enough water, we always bring along a water filter in case we run out and there are no stores nearby. We’ve been using the Sawyer water filter for years and it does the job well!
- Extra clothing. Depending on the season and location of your National Park trip, your clothing list will vary. A trip to the mountains will have different weather conditions and clothing needs than a trip to the desert.
- Sunscreen. During outdoor trips, it’s easy to get a sunburn even on shaded forest trails or on overcast days. Always pack a small sunscreen to protect your skin from sunburns.
- Alpine jacket. When traveling to parks and wilderness, it’s always colder than expected so pack a jacket that you can easily carry around. I have a jacket by Mountain Hardwear that I bring in my daypack with me everywhere.
If you’re heading out on a hike and don’t feel comfortable or prepared, it’s ok to turn back! We’ve done it plenty of times especially when the weather is not what we expected or we’re running low on food and water. You can always come back and try to re-do a hike so always put your well-being and safety first.
Tip for solo travelers: Before heading out on a solo trip share your travel itinerary & phone location with a family member or a friend in case of an emergency.
11. Familiarize Yourself With National Park Rules
There are a few rules and regulations to keep in mind when visiting a National Park. Knowing the basic laws can also keep you out of trouble with the park rangers, have a more enjoyable visit and avoid getting a ticket or a hefty fine.
Here are a few of the main National Park rules:
- Droning is not allowed. While we love drone photography and own a drone ourselves, when traveling to a National Park it’s best to leave your drone at home. Drones are disturbing to wildlife and other park visitors and if you’re caught flying a drone you can get a ticket. Read more on National Park drone laws here.
- Dogs are not allowed on most trails. Typically dogs are not allowed on dirt trails, in undeveloped areas, on shuttles, and in the backcountry. National Parks do allow dogs in campgrounds, on paved roads, and in developed areas.
- Don’t bring recreational drugs. Even in states where cannabis is legal, you can still get a fine for having it at National Parks. National Parks follow federal laws that are enforced by the park rangers.
- Don’t vandalize, graffiti, or remove items from the park. Vandalism of National Parks is a federal misdemeanor. We’ve seen vandalism at Barker Dam Nature Trail In Joshua Tree where historic Native American Petroglyphs have been painted over. Other vandalism is less obvious. Did you know that thousands of dollars are spent every year to return displaced rocks, sand, and coral reef to their original location at Haleakalā National Park in Maui? It’s something that we learned during our latest trip to Maui.
12. Don’t Approach Wild Animals
Seeing wild animals at National Parks can be one of the coolest experiences you can have. But when you see wildlife on your visit, don’t approach, crowd, or get too close to them. If you see an animal crossing the road while driving, do stop and let them pass safely before continuing sightseeing.
If you are scared of having an encounter with wild animals on the trail – believe me, they are more scared of you than you are of them. We’ve had plenty of bear, bison, moose, deer, and elk encounters over the years and typically wild animals tend to run off whenever they hear a human approaching.
Visitor Tip: If you plan to visit a park with high bear activity like Glacier National Park, Grand Teton, or Yellowstone, you might want to get a bear spray. Hopefully, you won’t ever need to use it, but it’s good to have one just in case!
13. Follow Leave No Trace Principles
To reduce visitor impact on the natural wonders, it is recommended to follow the Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines when heading into nature. These guidelines were created to protect forests, and wildlife and ensure that everyone is welcomed to enjoy the outdoors.
Essentially the principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare. Planning is the most important aspect of visiting the outdoors. When you plan for the weather and are familiar with the park rules, you can have a safer and more enjoyable trip.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. When hiking you should always stick to established trails. Always set up your tent on durable surfaces and avoid damage to growing vegetation.
- Dispose of waste properly. Whatever you pack in be sure to pack out, especially trash and waste.
- Leave what you find. Don’t damage or remove plants, trees, natural objects, or cultural artifacts from parks. When heading on backpacking trips, only set up your tent on established campsites and don’t create new campsites.
- Minimize campfire impacts. Campfires are often allowed at established campgrounds, but the rules can vary from park to park. When creating a campfire keep the flames small and put out the fire with water before going to sleep.
- Respect wildlife. If you see wildlife in parks, keep a safe distance and don’t disturb or scare wild animals.
- Be considerate of others. As National Parks receive more visitors it’s important to stay considerate so everyone can have a pleasant trip. Keep the noise levels down, make sure your pets don’t disturb other visitors or animals and let faster people pass you on trails.
14. Connect With Outdoor Organizations
Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors in a safe, inclusive, and welcoming manner. But from lack of representation, resources, and sense of belonging there have been obstacles historically that have excluded many groups and communities from visiting National Parks.
Programs such as National Park Foundation’s Park Ventures address these obstacles and work with equity-focused outdoor leaders and organizations so more people can enjoy the benefits of being outdoors.
A few equity-focused outdoor organizations and groups that Park Ventures support are:
- Black People Who Hike. Their mission is to empower, educate and reengage black people in the outdoors through wellness campaigns, health advocacy, and community-based activities including hiking, camping, kayaking, rock climbing, and yoga.
- Latino Outdoors. Their mission is to inspire, connect, and engage Latino communities in the outdoors.
- Camping To Connect. Camping to Connect is an experiential learning and mentorship program for underserved young men. This program is geared specifically towards young men of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
- Pride Outside. Pride Outside is dedicated to connecting the LGBTQ community around the outdoors. They host hikes, outdoor skills classes, LGBTQ history working tours, discussions, and more.
- Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. The Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. initiative seeks to build momentum for the creation of a national equity fund that will ensure long-term investments in programs to serve all youth with opportunities to explore the great outdoors.
15. Have Fun And Enjoy It!
Planning your first National Park trip can be challenging and is an ongoing learning experience. Even now years and many trips later we still learn something new every time we head outdoors!
If you still have questions about planning your first National Park trip, feel free to ask us in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them!
This post was sponsored by method. method and Fifty-Nine Parks are raising awareness to support Park Ventures, the National Park Foundation’s new collaborative effort to increase park access & equity so more people can experience the powerful social, mental, and physical benefits of the outdoors.
method products has released a new Fifty-Nine Parks limited edition collection with gel & foaming hand washes that feature 5 amazing scents inspired by our beautiful National Parks.
Our favorite is the Alpine Meadow scent that reminds us of meadows and wildflowers from our backcountry trips in the wilderness.
The Paradise Reef scent is perfect for washing off after a day at the beach! With notes of tropical fruit and ocean breeze, it will make you feel like the summer never ends.
You can check out this limited collection at method products or your local Target!
Looking for more National Park travel inspiration? Be sure to check out some of our other popular travel posts below:
- Visiting Yosemite In October & November For Fall Colors
- Hiking Yosemite Valley Loop Trail In California
- Hiking Precipice Trail In Acadia National Park
- Backpacking The Cathedral Lakes Trail In Yosemite
- Ryan Mountain Trail At Joshua Tree National Park