Guide to Visiting a National Park


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What You Need To Know Before You Go To A National Park

The best way to make the most of your trip to a park is to plan ahead and prepare. You will need things like a pass for the day, or for the year, to get in and a plan of where to stay and what you will need to bring.


Park Passes

The annual National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands pass are sometimes called a ‘National Park pass’ ‘inter-agency pass’ or an ‘America the Beautiful pass’ and they all refer to the same type of pass.

There are five different passes available for visiting National Parks. The passes listed below are valid at over 2,000 federal recreation sites including all 62 national parks.

Annual Pass 

The Annual Pass is available to everyone and it costs $80 per year (free for US Military).

Get your pass by calling 888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747), extension 2 (8 am - 4 pm MST), online or in-person at a federal recreation site that issues these passes.

Annual 4th Grade Pass

The Annual 4th Gade Pass is available to US 4th graders with an Every Kid Outdoors paper pass. The paper pass can be exchanged for the 4th Grade Pass at federal recreations sites that issue these passes.

Senior Pass

The Senior Pass is available to US citizens (or permanent residents) age 62 and over.  Documentation of age and residency/citizenship is required.

The cost is $80 for the Lifetime Senior Pass and $20 for the Annual Senior Pass available online or you can get your pass in-person at a federal recreation site that issues these passes, online* (Lifetime or Annual) or via the mail* with this PDF.

*There is an additional $10 fee for buying your Senior Pass online or via mail.

Changes to the Senior pass details can be found here.

Access Pass

The Access Pass is available free of charge to US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. 

Documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship.

Get your Access Pass in-person at a federal recreation site that issues these passes or via the mail* with this PDF.

This pass may also include a 50% reduction on fees for things like specialized interpretive services, boat launching, camping, and swimming.

*There is a $10 fee for requesting your Access Pass via mail.

Volunteer Pass

The Volunteer Pass is free for one year for volunteers with 250 hours of service with agencies that take part in the Interagency Pass Program.  Find volunteer opportunities here.


Activities At National Parks

The best part of the park is getting out and enjoying it! Having the right gear can make a big difference. So, before you hit the road make sure you have the right clothes.

The easiest way to approach it is to make a list of what you need, see what you have (that still fits and works) and then shop for what you’re missing.


Hiking 

Take time to consider the conditions of where you are planning to hike. Most people already know to have shoes and a shirt with maybe a bottle of water, but that is not nearly prepared enough to safely go on a hike. Make sure you have everything you need with our hiking checklist, complete with suggestions that we know will work for you.

Hiking, like any outdoor activity, can be done without the right equipment, but you will spend your time taping and rigging broken stuff to work.  When you have the right stuff you can spend your time enjoying yourself.

Get Ready for Your Next Adventure

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For example, if you are planning a trip to Joshua Tree for Thanksgiving make sure you have sunscreen and a rain jacket since it can snow one day and be warm and sunny the next. 

If you are headed to Dry Tortugas for some island-style hiking, make sure you consider sandals for your adventures - we love our Keens for that kind of summer hiking.

Before you head out make sure you check the local trail conditions and any changes from the park rangers. In some cases it can be a matter of life or death if you are not prepared for the cold or the heat.

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Camping

Putting together a camping trip to a National Park can be quite a feat, don’t squander your time setting up and fixing stuff that doesn’t work.

Camping at the parks are what memories are made of, make sure you have the right camping gear so you can focus on the stars and not the bugs in your tent.

A pro-tip is starting and ending the trip in a lodge or rental house. This is a great way to get a good night’s rest before a week camping and to get all clean before the drive home.

No matter who you are traveling with and what your plan is you will definitely need a tent, something warm for sleeping, cooking equipment, and a few other things to make sure your trip is full of memorable moments and not leaking tents that are too small. 

To make any camping trip better make sure you check the expected climate and plan for food you enjoy, camp lighting, shade or rain protection.

Get Ready for Your Next Adventure

Check out the best selection for your next National Park adventure.

Let’s say you are headed to Yosemite with a large group, your best bet might be two large Coleman tents and a bunch of lanterns.

On the other hand, if you are going with a few close friends for a quick trip to a National Park in Utah you may be more suited for a hammock tent and a headlamp.

Every time we camp we spend the last night in the lodge or rental house.  It is a nice way to clean up and refresh for the dreaded drive home.

It is worth the few extra dollars for a great end to a fun trip.

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Backpacking

Backpacking in a National Park is such a wonderful experience, in order to fully enjoy it you want to be sure you have dependable gear like a great backpack. You don’t want to be thru hiking and have your air mattress get a hole and not have a repair kit.

A nice way to treat yourself to a great trip is a good night’s rest before you start the trip. We prefer to get a rental house before (and after) our backpacking adventures.  It’s nice to clean up before heading home and always worth the few extra dollars to be more comfortable.

Get Ready for Your Next Adventure

Check out the best selection for your next National Park adventure.

If you went backpacking in Joshua Tree for the weekend, you will want a lot of water or to plan on picking up water during the hike. On the other hand, if you’re headed to do part of the John Muir Trail (JMT) you will be crossing water nearly every day and will need a few extra socks.

Just like camping, we always get a lodge or rental house for the last day or two of our trip. It is so nice to clean up and take a soak in the hot tub or pool after an epic journey.

Backpacking, in comparison with camping, uses lighter-weight equipment and usually has few creature comforts. A well-fitting backpack, supportive hiking shoes, a tent, cooking equipment, and a first aid kit are the bare essentials. Some of the best starter backpacking tents are REI tents, like the REI Half Dome 2. 

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Rock Climbing

Rock climbing has gained popularity at Yosemite and Joshua Tree in the last few years. Some of that is from the recent films and notoriety of Alex Honnold’s climb up Half Dome without any ropes.

If you are planning on bouldering, climbing without a harness or rope, then you will want a crash pad. This is a firm foam pad that is equipped with backpack straps and opens up to create  soft and safe landing pad for climbing.

Get Ready for Your Next Adventure

Check out the best selection for your next National Park adventure.

If you are headed out to top-rope (the technical term for climbing with a harness and rope) you will want a well-fitting harness. The harness acts like a seat that keeps you upright and comfortably seated when you come off the rock.

The other element of rock climbing that is important are shoes! Rock climbing shoes are tight and made with a stiff and sticky rubber material on the heel and front foot. If you are just starting out, get a size that is snug but doesn’t make our feet fall asleep or feel pinched.

As you advance in rock climbing you can get more particular with the specifics of your shoes and will likely get tighter ones after you climb regularly. The ropes and other climbing accessories are typically provided by the tour guide or leaders.

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Cycling

This is the way to see the National Parks! Cycling is slow enough to enjoy the views but quick enough to cover some serious ground. In some parks you can bike on long flat road stretches and other parks it is all dirt trails and suspension bikes. 

Get Ready for Your Next Adventure

Check out the best selection for your next National Park adventure.

Something that really makes a difference on any bike ride is the cushion for that pedal pushin’! (Okay, I said that to my husband and he had no idea what I was talking about - so I’ll explain in the next section.)

When you are sitting on a bike seat for more than 10 minutes it is not uncommon for your ‘butt bones’ and crotch area to be sore for the following days, yes multiple days! So the padded shorts or pants you wear are super important to your comfort.

Another great thing to take with you are removable warm arm and leg sleeves. These handy items all you to change your body temperature without getting off the bike. They are so easy to layer under just about anything, making it easy to pack and add a layer to any ride.

Always wear a helmet and obey traffic laws.

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Snorkeling and Paddling

There are so many great water sports! Paddling sports include kayaking, canoeing and stand up paddleing.

I prefer snorkeling to SCUBA diving because you don’t need any training and the amount of gear is limited. The right bathing suit and face mask make all the difference.

The bathing suit should fit well so it doesn’t slip down when you keeping up with the sea life. A great option is a one-piece. If you like something more revealing try a cut-out one-piece so you can show off your skin and keep your clothes on when swimming

Pro-tip for face mask fitting - the face mask should stay on your face without the strap. To see if it fits, press the mask up to your face and push it on like a suction cup, then take your hands on. If the mask falls off your face it isn’t making a seal and will likely leak underwater.

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Where To Stay?

Where you choose to stay while you are visiting a park can make the trip really easy and memorable or a total stress ball. Figure out what makes the most sense for your group and then make a reservation early.


AirBnB, HomeAway or VRBO Rental House

Most of the National Parks have beautiful VRBO houses to stay at nearby when visiting. Chose one that can fit your group comfortably and has the amenities you want, like a hot tub or dishwasher - both can be game changers.

Some of the parks on the western half of the US like in Utah are near enough that you can find a great spot between them. For example, there are few wonderful options right between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. With a little planning, you can see two national parks on the same trip without having to move.

For super cute and eclectic housing options, Joshua Tree has some awesome options. They have goddess pools, yoga rooms, desert views, and rooms on room on rooms. If you look, I bet you can find the right one for you.

No matter if you are staying the whole time or need a place to launch or land, some of the best prices and styles are available from VRBO, HomeAway or AirBnB.


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RV’s

A great way to see the park in style is in an RV.

You can post up and create a comfortable home away from home in a rented RV. It is so convenient to have a place to stay warm, dry or cool if the weather changes suddenly.


If you travel in an RV the real risk is that you may not want to return to camping after all this luxury.

When we travel as a family, we often put the kids in a tent and we stay inside on the bed. We all like the privacy that affords, the kids aren’t keeping us up and we all enjoy breakfast more.




You could even rent an RV to make it easier to see multiple parts of the park or more than one park!


Depending on the park there may or may not be RV hook ups inside the park. Make sure you check the details at the national park you’re planning to visit.


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Campgrounds

Many of the parks have at least some campgrounds inside the boundaries. At the most popular sites, you may have to reserve your spot 6-12 months in advance to be able to camp inside the grounds. Check the details for your destination to see your options

Another great choice is a campground outside the park. Sometimes these are county, state or regional recreational areas or they can be privately owned with added amenities.




No matter which route you choose, be sure to plan ahead so that you have plenty of options.

Some campgrounds have showers, flushing toilets, and even cabins while others only have the bare necessities.

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Lodge and Hotel Accommodations

The most comfortable way to sleep near a park is to get a hotel. With this level of comfort, you can have your clothes washed, your bed made and a private bathroom. The great sleep you can accomplish can be the best thing about the trip.


Some of the more popular and large parks have lodge’s inside the park where you can stay. These often have a great restaurant attached and allows access to transportation and hiking trails.

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