Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a detailed dive into our National Parks. You can read Part 1 here.

youtubeWelcome back to Exploring America’s National Parks, Part 2!  Last month, we provided you a cadre of resources to begin researching which of the 63 National Parks you’ll explore next.  In this issue, we’ll share our secrets and tips on when to visit, where to go, what to bring, where to camp, how long to stay, and more!  For this insight, we draw upon our 25+ years of outdoor adventure and exploration (with nearly 10 years full-time RVing) and our professional outdoor and environmental education backgrounds.

When to Visit? 
Much of this has to do with your own schedule, but if you think that August is the perfect time to visit Acadia, Yosemite, or Yellowstone, so do tens of thousands of others. Visiting during the busy season means that you’ll be sharing trails, restrooms, visitor’s centers, campgrounds, park roads and popular view spots with large crowds.  Since many parks have seen a huge increase in visitations, some have implemented a timed entry system for something as common as driving the park loop road, others have gone to bus systems to avoid car traffic all together, and other crowd management plans are in the works.  While most parks let you make camping reservations up to 6 months in advance, planning that far out can often be a challenge.  If you prefer to travel nearly reservation-less like we do, you simply need to be a bit more strategic, and flexible with your visits. 

For us, hands down, the shoulder season is the best time to be in a National Park.  This is often the few weeks on either side of the busy season.  Each park has a different sweet spot, based upon its location and seasonal weather.  Obviously, there are some which may not be inhabitable in their off season – Death Valley, where summer time highs top 120; or Glacier, where the winter closes the campgrounds as well as the roads.  But, in some cases, the off season can offer surprising alternatives with fewer crowds and unique offerings. 

Shoulder Season Camping

One trick to extend your RV camping season in less desirable weather is to insulate the space below your camper with AirSkirts. These air-filled tubes slide under your RV keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, reducing your energy usage and extending your comfort range.  Take advantage of special pre-season pricing this May, June, and July – for delivery in October.

But if you must go during a National Park’s busy season, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Get Out Early & Stay Out Late: Most people enjoy the parks between 10am and 4pm.  So, channel your early bird and head out just after the sun is up.  Or, start out later in the day, and bring a flashlight for the way back.  Doing this will allow you to see the more popular areas without the crowds!  Love gazing at the night sky?  Discover the 15 parks which are designated as International Dark Sky Parks.

  • Visit The Less Popular Areas: Find out from the visitor’s center which areas, trails, and activities are among the least popular, head there during the busiest time of day.

  • Use Alternative Transportation: Many parks have busses which take visitors to popular destinations, or leave your car parked at the visitor’s center and use your bikes.  Many park buses also have bike racks so that you can do a hop on, hop off bike ride around the park.

  • Get your Pass Ahead of Time: Some larger parks have “annual pass holder” traffic lanes which shortens your wait at the entrance station.  We’ll discuss the variety of passes later in this blog.

  • Bring All your Food: No one likes standing in long lines at the concessions, for the chance to eat mediocre food.  You’ll save a ton of time, money, and can eat while out on the trails…but remember to Leave No Trace!

  • Leave Dogs at Home: All parks have leash laws, some don’t allow any dogs on trails during the busy season, or anywhere outside of the campground.  Every park is different, so check before you go.  These rules are in place for the safety of your dog, as well as people and wildlife.

Shari Exploring After Dark

Which are the 10 Least Visited National Parks?
Want to get completely away from crowded parks?  There are at least 10 parks where finding a gathering of 10 people will be a challenge.  While these are difficult places to get to (requiring a ferry or plane and half are in Alaska!), they are very worth the effort.

10. Katmai, AK

 9.  Dry Tortugas, FL

 8.  North Cascades, WA*

 7.  Wrangell-St. Elias, AK

 6.  Kobuk Valley, AK

 5.  Isle Royale, MI

 4.  Glacier Bay, AK

 3.  Lake Clark, AK

 2.  American Samoa, AS

 1.  Gates of the Artic, AK

North Cascades National Park

The only one with road access is the North Cascades – so what’s your excuse for not checking out that place?  It has turquoise blue lakes, jagged peaks, spectacular trails, and the most glaciers of any national park in the lower 48 states!  Most Washingtonian’s tell us they’ve never really explored the North Cascades, so put it on your list for the summer!  It’s truly one of our favs.

To give you an idea of what we mean by least visited, in 2020, 33K people per DAY visited Great Smoky Mountains in NC/TN (#1 most visited) compared with Gates of the Artic (#1 least visited) at 2872 visitations per YEAR.  With this said, if you eliminate the 10 most visited and the 10 least visited, this still leaves 43 national parks which are lesser visited…and truly gorgeous!

Where to Camp? 

The National Park Service adheres to an ethic that is deliberately low-tech, rarely offering campsite services (or often even showers) inside their campgrounds.  It’s camping like we remember as kids.  As a federal agency that must do an environmental impact study with every proposed “improvement,” it is slow to adapt to new camping trends.  And, thank goodness for that!

National parks campsites often have smaller RV spaces.  An RV 12ft (or smaller) in length will fit in 100% of NPS campsites that allow RV’s, while those 25ft or less fit into 80%, and <40ft will fit into only 53%.  But, thinking that you can fit into half the sites is misleading because most smaller parks only have a few of these larger sites.  Remember those 6-month advance reservations? These few sites can fill up quickly by big rig folks who like to plan ahead.

Something to keep in mind is that within many national parks, the backcountry or primitive camping can be among the most spectacular!   Just because you’ve brought your RV to the park doesn’t mean you can’t get out for a night or two into the backcountry – this is what first convinced Hutch that we could actually travel in an RV. 

Backcountry Camping in NCNP

Overall, we love that our parks keep it simple, because it keeps them special, and it also creates a niche market for private industry outside the park which can more quickly respond to camping trends. 

Private campgrounds often proliferate outside the parks, some of them right on the edge of the park, and usually provide the services RV’ers are seeking – from water + electric to full-service hook-ups.   Remember, these campgrounds tend to be more expensive than campgrounds inside the park.

Additionally, immediately outside of most parks, especially in the western states, you’ll find national forest or BLM land that you can camp on for free or very low cost.  Some areas have established sites, but others have dispersed areas for boondocking or dry camping.  Since we prefer to travel without reservations as much as possible and we run completely on solar, we take advantage of this resource quite a bit.

Boondocking on Dispersed Land Outside of Badlands

Our main go-to resource for finding private, public, and dispersed camping – both in and around our national parks – is The Dyrt PRO app.  This app was started by a fun, entrepreneurial couple from Portland, Oregon who simply got frustrated with not being able to easily find campgrounds. They have grown their business over the past 10 years to become America’s #1 Campground locator and we are proud to say we know them personally.  In addition, there is an integrated map layers function to find public land for boondocking, road trip planner, offline maps for no cell service areas, discounted rates for many private campgrounds, as well as a newly integrated cell service map to show you which of the three major carriers provides service within a specific area.  Try a 30-Day Free Trial of this amazingly helpful resource!

A final camping resource which has opened up a bunch of new overnight parking options is the Boondockers Welcome membership program.  These Hosts are friendly RVers who own property and live all across the North American continent, with many situated near our national parks!  Get 15% off the annual membership for Boondockers Welcome with this link and promo code “BWFRIENDS15.”

How Long to Stay?

We know people who have tried to do all of the Southern Utah parks in 5 days. Seriously?  This would take us 5 weeks…at the least!  But we know that most people don’t have that kind of time on their hands. 

Ignore the signs at the visitor’s centers which say “If you have 2 hours, 4 hours, 1 day, etc...”  You’ve traveled all this way, so take it slow and drink it in.  We typically recommend staying in each park 3-7 days – 3 days for smaller parks, and a week for the larger ones.  If you can swing that much time, you will be rewarded with a much deeper appreciation for the park and even identify what you want to do on a return visit!  Even though we’ve been to nearly all the parks in the contiguous 48 states, there are many things we have left undone for next time. 

People often ask how much time should they plan in between parks, and we recommend allowing for 2-3 times as much as your GPS says for both additional sightseeing and driving at slower speeds with a larger vehicle.  If you have a large RV or have never driven with a trailer, you’ll want to take it slower than normal because your stopping distance can be much greater!  Pedestrians, cars, as well as the wildlife you came to see in the park will thank you for taking it slow.

Vermillion Cliffs, Alabama Hills and Baxter SP

What’s Nearby?

If you take our advice and plan 2-3 times what your GPS says, you’ll be rewarded with some additional treats along the way! There are often incredible places near the national parks that are not as well-known, but are stunning and often less crowded!  If you leave yourself enough time in between your schedule park visits, you’ll be greeted with a delight of places, such as:

These are just a few of hundreds of examples, so slow it down, take it in, and enjoy some jaw dropping sights in between.

What to Bring?

Leave No Trace Ethic:  Take what you bring with you, leave nothing behind.  Don’t disturb others.  Don’t ever feed wildlife, even accidentally.  And, leave the places you visit better than you found them.  It’s a simple ethic that many people ignore.  Spread the word and teach your kids, friends, and family responsible outdoor adventure.  For more information, visit lnt.org.  Don’t be that person!

Food, Snacks, & Drinks:
  Bring it all…many national parks are not close to regular stores or have high prices for food and drinks in their convenience stores.  And, the smaller parks rarely offer these services at all, so come prepared and make sure you have a plan to keep wildlife out of your food.

First Aid Supplies, Bug/Bear Spray: 
Bring a basic first aid kit.  For any major catastrophe, they of course have medical supplies and emergency personnel, but you don’t want to have to bug them for a band-aid and some antibiotic cream.  Bear spray is only really necessary if you are in grizzly country out west, and learn how to use it as it is the most effective deterrent in an aggressive bear encounter!

Cycling and Kayaking are the Best Ways to See Some Parks

Bicycles or E-Bikes:  Seeing a park by bicycle is often the best way to see a park, there is much less hassle with parking, and you can slow your pace down to enjoy the park.  Most of the parks with buses have bike racks, so you can get on/off as you want, and don’t have to fight for a parking space at popular trail heads.  A note about E-Bikes:  While E-Bikes are approved for use in the park system, each park has different rules about the class of E-Bikes that are allowed and where they are allowed, so be sure to check the rules and regulations before taking off on the trail.

Kayaks & Canoes:
  If you have boats and the park has water of any kind, bring them along as seeing a park from a river, lake, or sea can often be the best way to experience it without any crowds.

Solar Panels!
  National Park campgrounds limit generators and/or generator hours because of both noise and air pollution, but very few parks offer electrical hook-ups.  So, leave your generator in the storage bin and rely on solar.  We’ve lived with solar for nearly a decade now!  Bookmark this page and sign up for our almost monthly newsletter, Canlife Correspondence to learn more about how we’ve done this for so many years now.

Where to Go?  What to Do?

Go to the Visitors Center & Watch the Park’s Film:  Many people tend to skip these when they arrive at the park, because they just want to get out there!  We always make time for these experiences as they help provide a historical and ecological context for the amazing place we are about ready to explore, as well as provide us current information about ranger programs, park alerts, road conditions, and trail information.  As connoisseurs of park films, we find these short 15-20 minute films to be inspiring, enlightening, informative, and well worth the time.

Attend Ranger Programs!
  These (typically FREE) programs are so helpful to learn more about the ecosystem, history, geology, wildlife, and much more.  There is so much potential for learning for kids of all ages!  We know lots of people who skip these offerings, but we can’t imagine visiting a park without attending at least one.  Doing these activities EARLY in your visit can inform the way you experience the park, open up new options that you didn’t know about, and put everything you see and do in perspective.  It’s also a great conversation starter for the whole family.

Black Bears, Deer & Bison

Wildlife Viewing:
  Find out which trails and areas are the least visited.  These places are often where the wildlife magic will be found, mainly because there are fewer people.  Many species are crepuscular which means they are most active at dawn and dusk, while others are more nocturnal than diurnal.  So change up your daily schedule and you’ll be rewarded with some very special opportunities to see the animals that call the park home.

Sunrise & Sunset Viewing:
  Taking the time to watch the sun rise or set in these spectacular treasures have been some of our favorite memories!  Always ask a ranger where the best place is to watch, then get there at least 30-45 minutes before to establish your spot.  If it’s a popular place, you’ll be surrounded by photographers!  Better yet, get the inside scoop, befriend a ranger during a Ranger Program and ask them where their favorite sunrise/sunset place might be.  You might just get a different answer.

Sunsets & Sunrises in Our National Parks

Take a Guided Tour:
  Many parks have guide services available, ranging from guided hikes to kayaking/canoeing, to rafting, to cruise/bus tours.  These services keep thousands of seasonal businesses open and workers employed.  And, their enthusiasm for the park and its ecosystem is often very contagious!  You can typically find out about these options from the visitor’s center or on the park’s website.

Save Money, Get the Pass!

The America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, $80 annual fee (per vehicle) provides you FREE entrance to all NPS Sites, National Forest Sites, BLM sites, and a few others.  It’s truly the best deal for family entertainment you can buy!  You can order this annual pass online, purchase it at REI, or get it at the park entrance station or visitor’s center.

Other NPS Passes Include:

  • Senior Pass (age 62+) $20/year -OR- $80 lifetime + 50% off camping fees!

  • Access Pass (lifetime) – FREE for anyone with a disabled hangtag!

  • Active Military & Veterans (lifetime) – FREE!

  • 4th Graders (annual) – FREE!

  • Volunteer Pass (annual) – FREE! Learn more about how to volunteer below.

Since each of these passes is a bit different, and requires a different ID, check out this link to find how to obtain them.

Volunteer with the National Park Service

Giving our time to our national parks has been a very rewarding experience for us.  The parks desperately NEED volunteers, as we’ve recently learned that there are at least 20 volunteers for every 1 staff member – so they literally run on volunteer power!  With federal budgets always under severe pressure, these national treasures need our help.

The parks seek enthusiastic people with a wide range of skills and experience.  From teaching to maintenance, from customer service to engineers, from biologists to designers, your skills will be put to work.  You can serve as a camp host, work in the visitor’s center, assist with field research, help with maintenance, lead ranger tours, or even teach environmental education programs to children like we have!  The options are endless…

Shari Volunteering at National Junior Ranger Day, Acadis NP

To find a placement that is appropriate for your skills/needs, check out volunteer.gov.  For RV’ers, many parks have a volunteer campground (use the filter for “RV/Trailer Pads” under “Host’s Housing and Amenities”).  Discover the endless opportunities to volunteer while RVing around the country!

So pack up the RV and hit the road with some new tools and resources in your back pocket!  We wish you many more years of national park exploration, and hope that these resources have helped you get there. And, as usual, always reach out with questions. We love to get comments on our social media or via email!

Questions? Comments? Please add your thoughts below.

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com.

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