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A Guide to Visting National Parks

National Parks Week is upon us and I could not be more excited. Some people plan trips around where family lives or iconic landmarks, I plan trips around National Parks. And usually, very much to the annoyance of my wife, I plan trips around how many parks we can realistically explore in the amount of time we have.

Traveling in our habitat has opened up so many opportunities for us and has allowed us to travel further for longer. Airbnbs and hotels are fun at times, but get expensive. Hauling gear in and out of the car into various lodging for extended travel periods becomes tedious. Plus, what better way to further experience a National Park than staying inside of it? Now that we’ve traveled in our Mantis, we really can’t see traveling any other way.

In honor of National Park Week, I have rounded up my best tips for camping and visiting these glorious places.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Book Ahead

This may seem obvious, but it still needs to be said. Planning ahead will give you the most options and ensure that you aren’t “settling” for whatever is left, or worse having FOMO because you weren’t able to snag a site.

Most National Parks will let you book well in advance, but some have rolling windows of availability that you can book within. Depending on the park and time of year, you will want to make sure you are giving yourself enough time to lock in a site.

Zion National Park, Utah

Busy Seasons

If you’re planning a trip during high traffic months, like Spring Break, holiday weekends, or basically anytime in the summer, go ahead and accept that options will be more limited and that you’ll need to book months in advance. Busy times also heavily depend on the park’s location and climate. For example, Big Bend National Park is a desert and not somewhere you’d like to be in the heat of a Texas summer. As a result, its busy seasons are from November through April when the temperature is the mildest. We visited in late December and it was still in the 80s during the day. Alternatively, National Parks that are at higher elevation or in colder climates can sometimes be closed during winter months from snow and extreme conditions. Luckily, every National Park has a “Plan Your Visit” section that gives you all the information you would need. From historical weather conditions to busy seasons to park-specific policies.

For our family, we choose to visit parks when the least amount of people will be there. For us, it makes the experience so much more special and manageable. We have no issues being cold or getting up super early to beat the crowds. We tend to visit during “shoulder season” and try to find local hidden gems or less crowded locations to visit.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Booking Your Site

Most National Parks are now booking from Recreation.gov, which is much easier than their previous booking system (in my opinion). Within Recreation.gov, you can select the park you’d like to visit and use filters to find the right fit. If you’re going to be traveling and staying in a habitat, you’ll want to make sure you choose a site that allows for a trailer, even if you aren’t using hookups. Some campgrounds/sites only allow for tents while others only allow for RVs and trailers. Because all TAXA habitats are 19’ and under, you shouldn’t have any issue finding a site that will accommodate yours and you’ll even be able to fit into spots that other RVers can’t. Within Recreation.gov, you can filter by equipment type, amenities, etc to find the site that works best for you.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

COVID Protocol

If you are looking to visit National Parks during the COVID-19 pandemic, make sure you are doing your research ahead of time. Each park has its own regulations and they can greatly affect how you experience the park. For example, most of Zion National Park is only accessible by shuttle bus during the pandemic and passes must be reserved ahead of time. We weren’t able to secure a pass on our first visit to Zion, so we had to pivot our plans to the parts of the park that were accessible by car. Some Visitor Centers may be closed or only allow a limited number of guests at a time, same for indoor programs or exhibits. Aside from closures or modifications to the park’s operating procedures, you may also be limited on your group size, so it always pays off to check beforehand. Again, all of the closures and policies are posted on the park’s website.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Pack Accordingly

We all know to bring snacks and water for a hike, but what about packing for other activities? If the park has water features, like rivers or hot springs, you might want to take a dip. Or if they allow for mountain biking, you’ll want to bring along all of your biking equipment. Weather can greatly affect how you pack as well. In hot temperatures, you need to make sure you have enough water based on how long you plan on being outside. Likewise, you’d want sunscreen, a hat, and loose-fitting clothing. If it’s cold, make sure you wear layers and begin taking them off as you begin to warm up. There are plenty of great resources out there on how to dress for different climates and activities and I’d highly recommend reading up on them before venturing out.

Pro-tip when planning a trip to a new place: pack a few different varieties of clothes. When we went to Big Bend, we had planned on it being colder than it was and we ended up getting super hot during the day because we didn’t bring clothing options for warmer times of the day. Packing a pair of shorts and a short-sleeve shirt or a puffy jacket won’t take up extra room and you’ll be happy to know you have options. 

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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