10 Best Things to Do When Visiting a National Park
10 Best Things to Do When Visiting a National Park
Choosing what to do when visiting a national park is not an easy task. There are just so many options! While most travelers just drive in, take some pictures at the lookouts, and might stay one to two nights in the park, we recommend exploring each national park on a deeper level. Learn about the geologic or natural history of the area or experience unique outdoor activities in the park.
To be qualified as a national park by the National Park Service, only 3% of the entire park area could be used for infrastructure, such as highways, trails, campsites, visitor centers, lodges etc., while the other 97% are protected areas. There are at least over 100 things we could list when visiting a national park, however, we will only highlight the absolute must-do’s.
1. Shoot amazing pictures
With all the great scenery and wildlife, it is hard to beat a picture taken from inside a national park. There are many of those viewpoints in each national park that will provide you with a stunning picture. If you want something more unique, hike for a while to find your own perspective. We highly recommend a tripod for time-lapse photos of sunsets or waterfalls. Be aware that wildlife photos can be shot best in the early morning during sunrise. Also, you might need a telephoto lens to shoot wildlife, given that you will want to be far from the animals.
2. Take a guided tour through the park
When entering a national park, most often you will receive a map from the park ranger that will highlight all the viewpoints and stopping points. It is recommended to use those park maps as a guide to tour around the national parks with a bus, RV, car, bicycle or even on foot. The map will also highlight roads that are motorized (by vehicle) vs. non-motorized (on foot, horse etc.). Be aware that parking might be difficult in some national parks (like Zion), so you will need to take a shuttle to see all the different areas. We recommend doing the driving tour in the early morning so that you can get the full experience.
3. Watch amazing wildlife
Some national parks, like Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Denali, are famous for their wildlife habitat. It is one of the most surreal experiences to watch the wildlife (from a safe distance) with binoculars and take awesome photos. Therefore, we always recommend exploring parks during sunrise and sunset to see the most wildlife. Be aware, although the wildlife might not look “wild”, they truly are, so pay attention to the park ranger’s distance recommendation to see the best wildlife. Most of the accidents within the park happen when visitors are approaching elk, bear, or bison too closely.
4. Choose your most scenic hike
Most of the national parks have a well-established hiking trail system where trails are (usually) marked well, so you should not get lost easily. However, always take precautions of unpredicted weather changes, such as thunder storms, flash floods, etc. In case you are entering trails in very remote areas, you might need a wilderness permit, which can be requested at the visitor center inside a park. Be aware that a national park is the premium habitat of wildlife, so if you encounter any bears, elk, moose, snakes, or other wildlife, give them their space. Always pack extra water for emergency, as well as adequate shoes and clothing.
5. Camp inside a national park
For anyone who wants to visit a national park, a camping experience is a must if you are able. It is the oldest overnight stay experience and in several national parks, camping is the only opportunity for overnight stay. Check beforehand, as many campgrounds in the parks require a prior reservation, while others are first-come first-serve. Most campsites come with a tent site, a fire pit, and sometimes a picnic table with seating. Many of them have shared bathrooms, and sometimes even showers. Make sure you follow the particular campsite rules. For example, check if you can make a fire at night and if you have to store your food in containers to avoid attracting wildlife.
6. Attend a local event
Right next to national parks, you will find gateway towns that often provide everything for your national park experience, such as grocery stores, camping supplies, gas etc. We recommend checking out these towns for unique events happening like rodeos, live music, festivals, farmers markets, and more! One event that you should not miss is a Native American powwow, where you can learn about the culture of Native Americans.
7. Ride a horse
One amazing way to experience a national park is from the saddle of a horse. Horseback riding is also a great group activity for those who want to experience the original mode of transportation and how the United States was discovered in the 19th century. Hire a guide and be sure to wear good jeans and boots for the horseback rides.
8. Go Fishing
One of the true, American outdoor sports is fishing. National parks are a great place to fish, but they’re also protected lands, so it is very important to learn about fishing regulations in each area. What is quite popular in the U.S., is the so-called catch-and-release, which means you will catch a fish, but then release it back into the water in order to keep the fish population healthy. A good option would be to hire a fishing guide who will take care of the permits, equipment, and knows the best local spots.
9. Experience a national park with a backpack
One of the true national park experiences is to go into the backcountry. This is the best way to experience the national park, while being away from the crowds. If you have never backpacked, we recommend using a guide in order to be safe in the national park wilderness areas and to learn the techniques. Most of the national park and wilderness areas require overnight permits for parking your car at the trailhead and staying overnight in the wilderness areas.
10. Try water activities
Many national parks or nearby areas carry abundant water, which will offer fun water activities. While motorized boating in the United States is quite popular, we recommend human-powered adventure as it feels a bit more connected to nature. On a river, you could go whitewater rafting or canoeing. On a lake, try out kayaking or standup paddle-boarding. If you just want to get into the water, you can always get a tube and just float on the water.