My itinerary specialist and National Parks guru, Leah, is here today to guide you through the National Parks planning process – lucky you! Here’s the thing if all this sounds awesome but you have no desire to actually plan it yourself, that’s where we come in 🙂 Be sure to fill out the form here to get started!
When Heather asked me to describe how I plan my detailed national park road trips, I wasn’t sure if I could put it into words. First and foremost, though, it really depends on the park that inspired the trip in the first place. There are some parks that require only a day or two if you’re not going into the backcountry (i.e. Carlsbad Caverns or Crater Lake), and some that you could easily spend a week in (i.e. Yosemite or Olympic). I typically look at parks that are close together geographically. For example, two years ago, I did a three week loop that included North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Glacier, and Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada. Last year I did a loop in Utah that included Arches, , and Capitol Reef. This year, I’ll be doing a loop in Colorado that includes Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, and Mesa Verde.
My planning process sort of goes like this:
1. With a general idea of which park or which geographic area I’d like to visit, I map out all the parks and places I’d like to include on the road trip on Google Maps. I figure out the best airport to fly in and out of and add that to the map as well. Sometimes it’s a loop route and sometimes it’s not. I try to make it a loop when possible to avoid the fees associated with dropping a rental car off at a different location.
2. Then, I take to the Internet. First, I look at the national park maps online. National park maps are super useful for showing different attractions, trailheads, scenic lookouts, etc. I Google every point of interest marked on each map to get a feel for them and make a list of must-dos. For the really big parks, I Google driving time between locations, too, so I know what’s realistic in terms of time. Did you know you can drive for more than an hour in Yosemite or Yellowstone!?
3. Then I look at Pinterest, Tripadvisor, Instagram, and search for things like “Arches National Park blog” to see pictures and find must-do hikes and activities. I like to look at blogs because I can get insight from real people who did the trip, and most of the time there are accompanying pictures, which helps me visualize exactly what they’re talking about. I write down every single hike or activity that strikes my fancy. On Pinterest, I might just type in the place I’m going to get more information. Often times, you’ll see pins like “Must do activities in Grand Canyon National Park” or “10 Hikes Not to be Missed in Acadia National Park.” I read those and make notes. On Instagram, I search location tags and hashtags. I’m a huge fan of Trip Advisor forums, too. People who have been to the parks I’m researching, or are looking to do similar trips, are often my best resource!
3. After that, I adjust my map accordingly if I need to add or remove any destinations. When I was researching my Utah trip for example, I found lesser known spots that were definitely worth a stop, like Goblin Valley, Little Wildhorse Canyon, and Natural Bridges National Monument. I realized I could easily fit these in as stops between destinations. Sometimes, I take out a destination if it’s too far out of the way or it seems less appealing after doing some research. Most often, I find that I’d like to squeeze more parks into a single trip than time realistically allows. Even though checking off every single park tops my bucket list, I don’t want to go just for the sake of going. I want to find out what sights and experiences will really help me understand the essence of the park, and that’s what I try to include in my trips.
4. I then make an itinerary based on the activities and sights I’d like to do and see at each destination. Usually, I’m working off a huge list of hikes and other activities I’ve made note of, and I cluster them together in terms of location in the park. There might be other logic behind the way I order the activities–I usually pair long hikes with less physically demanding activities, or I might want to be somewhere at a certain time of day to avoid crowds or for photography purposes. If there are three-day hikes I know I’d like to do, I’ll try to spend three days at a park so I have ample time for hiking, relaxing, and seeing what else the park has to offer. Sometimes that means completing a hike before hopping in the car and driving to the next destination in order to maximize whatever time I have.
5. Once I have a timeline nailed down, I look for accommodations. I like to do a combination of different accommodations when possible; I like to camp if I can pack all the equipment necessary, stay in really unique cabins or AirBNBs, and stay in park lodges. My three-week road trip through the and Alberta, Canada, was all camping and that helped keep costs down, but I missed a bed and a private shower badly. Ideally, I like to squeeze cabins and AirBNBs between tent camping for that very reason, but I just can’t give up tent camping all together when some of the national park campgrounds afford some of the most incredible views in the country.
6. Lastly, I go in and fine tune everything. Some hikes are best done during certain times of day, so I make note of that. Some of the national parks have super cute towns right outside of them catering to the park-goers (hello Springdale, Utah!) and I like to look for restaurants and shops and other gems inside those towns. Other parks are super remote and require that you bring food. In that case, I even go so far as to look for grocery stores and gas stations I can stop at. There would be nothing worse than being an hour away from a gas station with no gas! I list out everything I’m going to do on each day chronologically, and usually have a short list of alternative possibilities for each day, in case weather isn’t ideal or my energy level isn’t where it needs to be to complete a planned hike or bike ride.
I love planning trips to the National Parks and if I can help ensure your trip is just as amazing as mine are, let me know, firstname.lastname@example.org
I realize a process this in-depth might sound utterly boring or exhausting to many of you. Sometimes it feels like a LOT of work, but I think for national park trips in particular, it pays off. If you want to visit one of the parks that gets really crowded (Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion) it also pays to plan in order to beat the crowds. Nothing spoils a great view or a scenic hike like crowds of people. You can easily grab a map and drive around a park exploring and have a GREAT time, but taking the time to know exactly what’s available to you and customizing it to your interests is well worth it.