A National Park Expert Shares Her Four Keys For Visiting National Parks

Six years ago I decided to drive to the Grand Canyon solo. I was 29 and had never really solo traveled, never camped alone, and didn’t know much (at all) about National Parks or what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to go. So I did. I spent a week on the road and in the canyon. I was learning by doing, making a lot of mistakes, and mostly realizing how much I didn’t know.

Despite some hiccups, it was the most exhilarating week I’d ever experienced. I saw so much incredible beauty and learned so much about myself, about my own capabilities, about others, and about the land. So I just kept traveling solo, mostly to the major U.S. National Parks. Now — after visiting 52 of the 63 parks solo — I can say that I have learned more lessons than I ever expected. I’m still learning, of course, but it’s all more intuitive now: What to do, when to do it, how to enjoy the whole park experience.

I want to share some of those hard-won lessons with you. After a year of incredible uncertainty and grief, things are finally starting to feel almost — dare I say — normal in some parts of the U.S. Things are opening back up thanks to vaccinations becoming fairly widespread across the country. The common question amongst my friends the last couple of weeks is, “Where can I road trip?” Or, “What National Park can I visit?” And then the technical questions start: “What do I need to know?” and “Where do I stay?” and “Emily, what secrets do you have?”

So to celebrate National Parks Week, here are a few things I think you should keep in mind while beginning to plan your National Park vacation this summer.

1. You need to plan ahead!

The Tip:

I have had a bit of a habit the last few years of just getting into the car and starting to drive without a particular plan or destination. And while in the past this has led me on some incredible adventures, I just don’t think this is the summer to risk it.

A lot has changed this past year (to say the least), and one of those things is reservation systems. So while I am ecstatic that I can make a reservation at the DMV to renew my license in just 15 minutes, reservations aren’t quite as an overwhelmingly positive experience at National Parks and campgrounds.

Every year, I visit Grand Teton National Park at least once. I always roll in on my own schedule, and every year I have been happy to find a spot for a few nights at one of the beautiful campgrounds in the park. I assumed I could follow the same pattern this year. To my surprise, while looking at the park website last week, I saw that campgrounds are now nearly all reservations only!

And, of course, most of those reservations are already accounted for.

So I rushed to find some workable days to reserve, and then after my confirmation email came through I rushed to tell everyone I know to do the same. With some people utilizing their flexible schedules to remote work from anywhere this year, there also seems to be a short supply of Airbnbs and hotels in many of the areas around the parks. So even if you don’t camp, you will need to find lodging ASAP — like, when you finish reading this article ASAP. And then also be sure to check that you can even get into the park itself on the days you have planned to be there. Some parks — like Yosemite, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Zion — are utilizing reservation systems this summer just to enter the park.

Bottom Line:

Plan ahead. It’s worth the hassle on the front end, undoubtedly, to save yourself from disappointment later.

2. Have A Back-Up Plan

The Tip:

A couple of years ago, I flew to Virginia to visit Shenandoah National Park. I picked up my rental car, set my GPS to my destination, and drove off towards what I was sure would be a great adventure. And it was — just not in the way I expected. Before I reached my destination, I came to a “closed” sign in the road. “Turn around,” it said. So I turned around, not yet too concerned. I didn’t have cell service but assumed finding the park would be intuitive. It’s a huge National Park.

Of course, I’ll be able to figure out how to get inside … I thought.

I was wrong. By the time I drove all around the park and finally found a ranger station, I discovered that the entirety of the road that goes from one end of the park to the other was closed due to downed trees. There was an ice storm in the days before, and I hadn’t even considered looking to see if the roads would be open.

This isn’t the first or last time that has happened to me. I’ve had to maneuver around many road and attraction closures through my park visits. Nature is wild, and things change quickly.

Bottom line:

Now, I take the time to update myself on road conditions, weather, and closures. But even more importantly, I have a backup plan. After the ill-fated trip to Shenandoah, I looked on the map and found a beautiful Ashram to visit nearby. The grounds were gorgeous and, in the end, I was happy to have been detoured. I only wish I would have known sooner.

So again, plan ahead, but also have a plan B.

3. Try To Find Moments Of Solitude

The Tip:

The common refrain I see online lately is that the parks are “being loved to death.” There’s a lot of chatter that all the parks are overcrowded and that everyone is taking selfies and hogging the trails and parking spots. And, to be fair, that is sometimes true. There are a handful of parks that are very crowded for a few months each year. There are iconic locations within each park that are also almost always crowded. So how do you find a moment of solitude? Or even just a photo without a bunch of influencers behind you?

It seems so simple, but it all comes down to timing. If you want to get a cool photo in a heavily trafficked area, you have to get up early. Very early. Then stake out your spot and get yourself those new profile pics. Later in the day is also sometimes a better bet, but I’ve found that locations are usually more crowded around sunset than sunrise. At dawn, you’ll usually only find yourself with other photographers. So you’re still able to experience some peace.

Want to be surrounded only by the sounds of nature on your hike? Then you might need to scroll down a bit on AllTrails and get out on some of the less-trafficked trails. Popular trails are popular for a reason: They’re beautiful, unique, and iconic. But they are also crowded. So if the classic well-known view isn’t your priority, look to some of the lesser-known.

Bottom Line:

When I visit a new park, I’ll often make a beeline for the gift shop or general store if there is one. I find a seasonal employee and ask them where they go on their day off. They often have the best trail recommendations that are away from the crowds and feel like a special treat.

But remember, some trails in some parks are going to be crowded. If you want the iconic view, get up early. Otherwise, ask around for some hidden gems.

4. Take Photos Of Yourself When You’re By Yourself

The Tip:

Parks are a great opportunity to go a little off-grid, experience some solitude, and forget about the pressures of everyday life. But you also might want to get some cool photos to remember your trip. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The question I am asked the most is, “How do you take photos of yourself when you’re by yourself? Do you have a secret boyfriend/photographer/drone that follows you around?” And the answer to all three is, unfortunately, no. I just have a tripod and an iPhone camera timer. It’s really that simple. If you want to get a little fancier, you can connect a smartwatch with your phone to release the shutter from afar. Do some unapologetic modeling poses and snap away.

No partner/photographer/drone needed. Just a little confidence.

Bottom Line:

Take photos! Even if you’re alone. You’ll love sharing and looking back on them.