Lonely Planet Writer

Top tips on visiting US national parks from a couple who made it to ALL 59 last year

To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service last year, Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish spent 52 weeks visiting all 59 parks in one epic adventure.

Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish spent 52 weeks visiting all 59 parks. Image courtesy of Stefanie Payne
Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish spent 52 weeks visiting all 59 parks. Image courtesy of Stefanie Payne

The couple, who documented their journey on The Greatest American Road Trip, also aimed to inspire fellow travelers to explore the country’s natural beauty. They visited the 59 spots with “national park” in their proper name, though the country boasts more than 400 parks. “Unsurprisingly, we learned a lot on our great American road trip, including plenty of tips and tricks to help make the most out of any experience in North America’s most treasured places,” says Payne. Here, the intrepid travelers share some of their most helpful advice on making the most of your own national park adventure.

"Before heading into any of the national parks, we read up on what to do and see in two of Lonely Planet’s National Park guide books".
“Before heading into any of the national parks, we read up on what to do and see in two of Lonely Planet’s National Park guide books”. Image by Stefanie Payne

Go in smart and prepared

Our #1 piece of advice is to always pay a visit to the NPS visitor centers before heading into any park. Rangers will notify you of closures, as well as environmental conditions that may affect your plans. They are also pros at helping you plan an outdoor adventure – equipped to help with logistics planning, alert you of safety precautions, teach you about the wilderness backcountry (if that’s where you are headed) and able to provide you with all of the general info you might need to ensure a safe and fun experience.

"We used the webcams often before heading into the parks to check conditions in advance of our travel. Pictured here is Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which closes when snowy conditions occur at its high altitude location."
“We used the webcams often before heading into the parks to check conditions in advance of our travel. Pictured here is Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which closes when snowy conditions occur at its high altitude location.” Image by Stefanie Payne

Check out your destination just before heading into the park…

To do this, utilize NPS webcams! Especially if taking photographs is important to you. Many of the national parks have webcams set in place in popular areas and they are great tools to gather real-time activity occurring in the parks during the time of your visit. At Katmai in Alaska, for example, you can check to see if the bears are actively fishing at Brooks Falls; on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can see if the snow is falling at high elevations. Wildflower blooms, inclement weather, crowds – there are many factors that could encourage/discourage a visit to certain areas once you are in the park. Knowing what was in store helped us a lot, allowing us get the shots we were looking for without losing too much time to scouting.

"We put our request in early for a late summer stay at the Cougar Rock Campground in Mount Rainier National Park – it books up fast and is the only site in that area of the park that is equipped for trailer trailers (this is ours, Wally the Airstream!)"
“We put our request in early for a late summer stay at the Cougar Rock Campground in Mount Rainier National Park – it books up fast and is the only site in that area of the park that is equipped for trailer trailers (this is ours, Wally the Airstream!)” Image by Stefanie Payne

Negate unwanted headaches

Planning in advance is really important as it enables you to carve out space of your own, which can be a real challenge in the busier parks, especially during high season. Not only do lodges book up quickly, but campsites do as well – especially camping areas equipped for travel trailers and RVs, which are hot commodities among the roving explorer crowd (like we were last year.) Park closures can be a real drag as well, and there are plenty of factors – environmental and otherwise – that turn off the lights on popular areas that might be the entire reason you planned to visit a particular park in the first place. Our recommendation is to arrange for accommodations well in advance, and to call the corresponding park visitor center upon booking reservations to get a sense of what is happening in the area during your anticipated time of visiting. There is nothing more frustrating than having an idea in mind of what your trip will look like only to show up and learn the hard way that there is nowhere to stay and that the top sites are closed. Save yourself the trouble and disappointment and try to plan in advance.

Ranger Jackie at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky walks visitors through the discovery of the largest mapped cave system on Earth.
Ranger Jackie at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky walks visitors through the discovery of the largest mapped cave system on Earth. Image by Jonathan Irish

Hop on a guided tour when possible

Park rangers are some of the best resources for information in the parks. Not only do they know a lot about both their and other parks, but they also have tons of intriguing behind-the-scenes stories to share that can’t be found in park literature or online. We like to ask a lot of questions of the rangers, which we find to be tremendously helpful in determining cool off-beaten areas to explore that often turned out to be incredible gems.

Stefanie taking a photo of the Washington wilderness in backcountry at North Cascades National Park.
Stefanie taking a photo of the Washington wilderness in backcountry at North Cascades National Park. Image by Jonathan Irish

Save a buck while supporting the parks

Become a member of supporting national park organizations. Membership often spans a multitude of parks in one large region (for example, we belong to the Zion Natural History Association which extends to other non-profit partners, giving us access to the same benefits at many parks in the western U.S. The immediate benefit is a 10-20% discount on merchandise in concessioner-operated national park stores (where we picked up all of those hiking stock medallions); the long game is that you are contributing to the support and preservation of a vast network of fragile places. You can ask inside the visitor center at your favorite national park to see which association they work with.

Pick up park keepsakes

One of our must-do stops in each of the national parks last year was at the visitor centers where we stamped our passports before picking up hiking stick medallions, stickers, and patches – a fun personal keepsake, and fun to give to others as well. Our favorite item to gift on, though, is the NPS annual pass, which at 80$ earns its value after just four car visits. Just keeping it in your wallet will inspire you to spend more time in the parks!

"National Parks are as precious as they are delicate. Do your part to follow guidance in the parks and help to keep them alive and well for future generations to enjoy!"
“National Parks are as precious as they are delicate. Do your part to follow guidance in the parks and help to keep them alive and well for future generations to enjoy!” Image by Stefanie Payne

Respect the wilderness

One thing we saw all too much of last year was visitors ignoring guidance – guidance put in place for actual reasons – and general apathy to efforts made by the Park Service and conservation associations meant to minimize our heavy human footprint on America’s wilderness places. Littering trash, stomping on restoration areas, trying to feed and/or harassing wildlife, climbing on ancient artifacts – we saw it all. These individual actions make a really big impact collectively and it’s heartbreaking to witness. To counteract these offenses, try to learn a bit about what resource the park is protecting, as well as conservation efforts being made in individual parks and share it with others along your journey. The long term effects of becoming better stewards of America’s natural environments tends to trickle down to others and it feels great to know that you were an active participant in protecting lands that each of us are incredibly privileged to have at our fingertips 24/7/365.