There’re some things we celebrate loud and often here at Uproxx 1) because we genuinely think they’re cool and 2) because we think they should be a regular part of the larger contemporary discourse. If we were to list those things, both solo travel and our national parks system would be near the top. So, when we happened upon traveler Emily Hart on Instagram, we fell in love.
Currently, the badass math teacher has traveled to thirty-four national parks in the United States and five in Canada, and she did it all totally on her own. We respect both the independence and the wanderlust, but it’s also great to see someone committed to visiting places that are being increasingly underfunded and encroached upon. Emily documents her trips on Instagram (where else?), also adding sincere and thoughtful captions — the sorts of musings that invite curiosity and offer inspiration.
Clearly, Emily is the ideal person to lay down rules for solo travel to national parks. Check out her rules, and think about visiting one of the national parks in your region. They’re truly amazing… oh, and AND ALL TOTALLY FREE TODAY!
#1 Be Balanced About Your Itinerary
I always tell people to be planned, but not too planned. Many of the parks are different than people expect them to be when they first see pictures. Plan enough that you feel confident about where you’re staying, obviously, and know a couple of things that you want to do. Then, leave open space to really explore because a lot of parks are huge. You don’t get that idea when you simply see pictures on Instagram. You don’t understand the scale of a place and how it could take hours, literally, to drive from one end to the other.
So that’s the key: Plan enough so you feel confident, but leave a lot of space for spontaneity.
The Redwoods is a good example. The actual park is the National Park of the Redwoods. It’s just huge and long. I went there not really knowing anything, and it ended up being one of the most beautiful times I’ve had, because I didn’t really know anything I wanted to see, other than just trees, and I didn’t realize it was so huge. The area is actually comprised of the State Park and the National Park. I spent an entire day just on the coast, which is a beach. I had no idea that there’s a beach in the Redwoods.
I think that Canyonlands, all of the Utah parks, are similar. Because there are certain places that are photographed a lot. Like one spot in Canyonlands is the Mesa Arch, but that’s a less than a one-mile hike. Then after that’s it like, “What am I gonna do now?” It’s a huge space. I mean there are thousands of acres of unique landscape.
#2 Start Early
You should always get to national parks really early. A lot of the parks now, especially because of Instagram, are very crowded. But they don’t get super crowded maybe until 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning when families arrive. If you get there around sunrise you get in faster.
That’s when you get good pictures. No one’s really around. It’s not really hot. In the summer, it’s so hot in a lot of those parched valleys. Then, if you’re tired out by the afternoon, you can just lie down in the grass somewhere. But it definitely gets very crowded around 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning.
#3 Go Off Season
I try to do offseason travel, as much as possible, because of crowds. But I’m a teacher, so it’s not really possible. All of my off times are also the ones families have, so during the week is much better… but not always possible.
#4 Know Your Motivation
It’s important to understand your motivation for going. Some people think that maybe all you can do is a hike, but there are a lot of parks you can just drive through. You can go on boat rides. Even if there’s snow in certain parts, there’s still a lot of interesting things you can do in the winter or in the spring or the summer.
The National Park website is really good about helping people with this. For each of the parks, you can see what activities are possible for each season. I was just in Heath Canyon and there was still a ton of snow, but they have ranger-led snowshoe hikes. They happen each morning during a certain part of the year, and you can rent snowshoes for a quarter or something.
If you don’t look into that in advance, you don’t necessarily know what happens. If you do, you get to see the park in a different way than most people normally would in the winter.
#5 Be Aware Of The Weather
I usually go to the warmer places in the winter if possible because a lot of roads are closed in the cold weather parks. Some of the parks, like Crater Lake, have roads that are still closed now. It can snow there in June or July, and I don’t think people expect that. I’ve had several friends go to Crater Lake or just some of the higher elevation parks, and they’re surprised if they’re there around Memorial Day and it snows. They aren’t prepared for that.
I’m going to Mount Rainier in a couple of weeks, and it’s all sketchy as to what I will actually be able to do and see because there’s still 20 feet of snow.
#6 Don’t Go Overboard With Gear
I usually tell people: “You don’t need very much gear.” I think in Colorado everyone understands gear and whatever, but my friends from the Midwest, they don’t necessarily understand what they’re gonna need to go on a road trip to Yellowstone or something.
Look: Yellowstone has a grocery store. You can be as outdoorsy as you want to be. You could backpack and whatever or you can stay in a really beautiful lodge. You can see it without really getting dirty. A lot of the more popular parks have all of the amenities you could want or really need. So, you don’t need a lot of specialized gear, if that’s not already your thing.
#7 Be Prepared To Feel A Little Weird At First
The first hour, any trip that I do, I always feel a little bit weird and uncomfortable and vulnerable. But then once you get a mile or two into your hikes or get something done, that eases up (for me anyway). I don’t even realize that I’m alone. I feel vulnerable and nervous sometimes being by myself and I do it all the time. You just have to keep going. Once you do anything at the park, you get so much more confident at it.
#8 Know That Other People Will Socialize With You
I have a backpack with all these patches on it, and I do that almost because I want people to talk to me; they ask me about it when I go places. They’re like, “Oh, you’ve been here or here,” and then they ask me for tips.
But also, when you’re alone, people are more likely to start talking to you or ask you to take their picture or something. For me, I speak to a lot more people because I’m alone. So, it’s never just a whole day of just complete loneliness. I feel like I meet a lot of interesting people.
That’s why I chose to go to national parks though. I tell people it’s like Disneyland but for outdoorsy people. They feel very safe. You can assume other visitors are there for a similar reason. You have to go really far in the middle of nowhere to get to these places, so it’s there is effort involved and money and everything. So, people aren’t arriving there on a whim. I feel like everyone around me feels some sort of pull to these places the same way I do. It feels like you’re just with your people.
I’d be more apprehensive about walking the streets of Denver than I would outside in a National Park. They feel like a safe place.
#9 Take A Ton Of Pictures
I always wish I’d taken more pictures. I think I’m getting better now, but in the beginning, I wasn’t. I’ve been to a lot of parks that I only have one picture from. And some of them are so remote and hard to get to that I probably won’t go again. I wish I would’ve taken more. Most of the pictures I take are snapped with my phone, but I have a tripod.
I like to be in the picture, and then, every time I ask someone to take them, they’re never what I want. Figuring out what you want and then finding a way to do it yourself is usually the best. Or if I ask someone to take a picture, I’ll show them the picture that I took of that exact scene, and then be like, “Can you take this picture, and I’ll just be over here?”
Usually, there are no people around when I’m doing it, but if there are, you just have to get over that embarrassment. You’re by yourself, and people don’t know what your purpose is. When they see me by myself, I think people already assume I have a reason or purpose other than just being there.
#10 You Don’t Have To Go Hard
I camp in my car or I get an Airbnb. I mean I think there are so many options and there are so many just ways to enjoy it. It depends on what your motivation is. If you just really want to get out in the middle of nowhere, you can do that. If you just want to sit at a lodge and drink and people watch, you can do that. It’s interesting.
I assume half the people in larger parks like Yellowstone are tourists from other countries, so that is really interesting, too. Because I don’t find that amount of diversity anywhere else. I always stop at a lodge, if there is one, and eat lunch. Listening and watching the people around you in a really interesting environment that you can’t really get at home is cool.
#11 Be Cautious But Don’t Be Scared
Safety wise, you’re definitely more likely to be hurt by an animal than anything else. When I was in Glacier or Canada, I just brought bear spray. I usually bring a pocketknife. I have a little thing of pepper spray. I never did use any of it, but I felt more comfortable. When I’m camping in my car, I make sure I always stay at a campground, rather than being on my own because I feel like I want to have people around me. If I’m in a hotel or an Airbnb, I have a doorstop alarm that you can just put under the door and turn on at night. Then, if for whatever reason, the door opens, the alarm comes on. I’ve never had to use any of it, and I don’t think that I will, but having it makes you psychologically feel better. And I think it makes other people feel better for me, like my parents.
#12 Keep In Touch With A Few People
I tell at least one or two people what my hiking area is, and I share my location from my phone with my parents and two of my friends. I don’t know how that works when you don’t have service, but it makes me feel better that if they don’t hear from me, they can see my location.
In my car, I have a cell phone booster, because a lot of places in the west there isn’t service. I think it’s made for RVers, and it has an antenna that I put outside my car to boost the cell phone signal. It really does work. I’ve driven through Wyoming, Montana, and all of these places with limited service, and very rarely do I not to have service. That makes you feel better to know that if something were to happen you could call for help. When I started, my biggest concern was that there’d be hours without cellphone service. I would think, “If something were to happen what would I do?” After using this, I really haven’t had that kind of feeling.