I’m a HUGE National Park fan. So far I’ve been to over 100 of the 400 of them, and each year I look forward to visiting even more. Our parks have been called the best gift we have ever received as Americans, and I completely agree. I spent some time thinking through some of the best “secrets” about the parks that you’ll want to tap into on your next national park trip!
1. Passport: While not a real passport, this parks’ passport program is one of my favorite things. You take it with you on your trips, (if you forget it you can still get your stamps!) and at each park you get to stamp your passport. Each stamp has the date on it, commemorating the day you visited that park! I absolutely love my book, and it also helps you plan out your next trip! It comes in two sizes, small and what the rangers often refer to as the Bible size. At some gift stores you can also find Junior Ranger passports and commemorative passports. There are also stickers you can buy each year and add to the books.
2. Internet resources: There are a LOT of cool internet resources out there, and I don’t have the time or space to list them all. I will, however, put a few of them here. First, you can download over TEN free park guides here from the National Park Foundation. Their Owner’s Guide is an amazing one stop resource for your next trip. I plan on using it this summer, in fact! They also have a guide for the best parks for families, best hikes, the parks by rail, and romantic getaways!
The national parks official website is a must-use resource when you’re planning your trip. Each park has their own page full of what to do, travel alerts (don’t ignore these!), weather, hikes, open hours, camping reservations, downloadable maps, events, and more. Almost all parks also have a link to their brochures you can download. Here is an example of all the types of brochures you can download using the Glacier National Park website.
The “Things to Do” link on each park’s webpage is the place to start. This link shows you everything you need to get started on planning your stay: hiking, where to stay, ranger programs, guided tours, fishing, biking, photography, boating, special events, and more! Here’s an example of that page.
3. Park Newspapers: When you arrive in MOST parks, there are some newspapers, maps, and brochures that they will hand to you. Take them if you haven’t already downloaded them off the internet. Last year while in Glacier, I used them to help me find some new adventures and special events such as a boat tour and some hikes I’d never been on! They also contain travel alerts, camping info, safety info, maps, and more. See the Glacier National Park example here. And for a map example, click here. Don’t forget to recycle these if you’re not going to save them to remember your visit!
4. Special Events, Tours, and Ranger Programs: If you’ve never been to a park, one of the most overlooked things at the parks are the special events, tours, and ranger programs, most of which are free or very inexpensive. A lot of people will say things like, “Oh, I’ll just do that on my own” when they should have attended a program instead like the night sky viewing my mom and I attended in Rocky Mountain National Park a few years back. Months before you go to the park of your choice, make sure to check out the events in advance because some do require reservations. For example, here is a sampling of those offerings using the White Sands National Monument’s page. You’ll see they have some cool events such as a full moon hike, photography events, and MothaPalooza. Most of the parks also have a calendar to help you see far in advance what you can do there.
5. Annual Passes: If you’re going to be visiting several parks in a given year, an annual pass is the best way to go. There are also passes for special rates or free passes for military, seniors, 4th graders, and volunteers! I recommend getting the annual pass for the sole reason that it helps support our parks in general.
6. Teacher Resources: Place-based education is not only a hot topic in education, it’s also proving to be an effective way to learn. Teachers, I cannot recommend the park resources enough! A few of my favorite resources include this link from the parks’ website that will get you started and this link, which is PBS’s archive of national park lesson plans and videos. I also highly recommend purchasing the Ken Burns’ series and book, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
7. Free Entrance Days: Several times a year, the parks open their doors and remove the entrance fees! These days can be found here.
8. Volunteering: Our parks cannot function without the help of volunteers. Give back your time in a variety of ways! Start out by watching this video, then head over to www.volunteer.gov or search for specific events and dates at this website.
9. Support: Many of the national parks are free or cost a nominal fee. If you would like to give back financially, I recommend giving through the National Park Foundation and the National Parks Conservation Association. The latter also does an excellent job of keeping you in the know about legislation moves that support or oppose park related projects and shows you how to be an advocate for our parks! You’d be surprised how many of our elected officials are NOT for the parks.
10. Junior Ranger Program: Whether you’re 5 or 105, the Junior Ranger program provides learning and fun for kids of all ages in the parks, or even at home! The NPS Junior Ranger website has resources to get you and your kids started before your trip.
11. Audio Tours: Many parks have free audio tours you can download or access with your smartphone and play in your vehicle as you tour the park! For a sampling of some of these, check out these two audio tours offered at White Sands National Monument. If you don’t want to do the download thing, many park gift shops have audio tours or booklet for purchase. When at Gettysburg, my best friend and I purchased a self-guided booklet tour to use because the park was so vast. It was a fantastic resource and souvenir! The nps.gov site often has self-guided printable tours to download, as well, such as this flower tour.
12. National Parks Overseas: Yes, other countries ALSO have their own national parks! One of my favorite “secrets” is that when traveling abroad, make sure to visit these beautiful places. Do keep in mind that in all parks near or far, you need follow Leave No Trace rules and all laws. Many parks overseas do not have facilities that are always up to USA standards concerning handicap accessibility and safety. Travel with care!