Tuesday, July 31, 2012

National Parks

There are so many things that I did not know about National Parks before starting these trips, that I think as a public service, I'll go over some of them.  This is the stuff that I didn't find in any of the guide books that I scoured from the library or websites that I obsessively looked through.  I plan to make a little series of places we have been as a family, as well as tips and what we would do differently or the same.  But as an introduction, this is some stuff that shocked me the first couple of times out:

Jr. Ranger Program - this program is the best and we didn't know about it until we had been to 3 National Parks.  Almost all National Parks participate and kids can earn a badge for completing a workbook.  Most of the workbook is games and puzzles although it does involve a bit of hiking, Ranger Talks, and research.  Our 9 year old Dear Daughter loves this program and it is the first thing that she asks about at the first ranger station we visit.  The program is free but it is a good idea to donate a couple of dollars to the ranger station at completion.  The newly sworn in Jr. Rangers have this very sweet vow to protect the National Parks and the earth that has made me a little misty all 8 times that my daughter has said it.  My Dear Son does not often participate because he doesn't like to do any extra work.  It is age appropriate for him as well (11 years old) but it is a battle I don't fight.

NP Passport Book - All Ranger Stations (that we have been to) have a stamper.  You can either buy a Passport Book (sold at all ranger stations) that shows lists of all of the National Parks (there are over 300) by area and stamp your book or you can just have a little notebook, they don't care what you stamp on.  The stamps are fun to collect for a little free memory of the date of each National Park visit. Ranger Stations are generally really cool (in temperature and atmosphere) and have all sorts of interesting info about the area, as well as advice on good hikes to fit the kind of family that you have.  We always stop into the Ranger Stations.

Camping - National Parks are expensive and don't have electricity or showers.  It is very normal to spend $30 a night to camp at these very primitive sites.  They pretty much only want you to pay cash; occasionally they will accept a credit card or checks or a kidney.  Almost all National Parks are first come first serve (this is not true of the Lodging - those you must reserve in advance).  Plan your driving so you arrive at a National Park around noon-2pm.  Checkout is usually noon and check-in is usually 2pm.  Some National Parks have a website to check what campgrounds are filled but most do not, you find out approximately how many sites are left at each campground at the entrance to the park.  Before we leave (or on the road if I'm behind), I usually research and make a list of the order that I rank each campground and pick the highest available on my list.  If arriving after 4pm, you will have very slim picking on a site, if you can get a site at all.  In the event that you missed your window (happened to us more than once), there are many campgrounds outside the National Parks.  These are sometimes (not always) cheaper and nicer but you need to drive into the National Parks each day (not all negative).

Crowds / Traffic - As it turns out, some people live near National Parks!  This means that weekends are actually visibly more crowded than weekdays!  When we plan trips now, we plan to have our big driving days on the weekends/holidays and our viewing days during the week.  It is easier to get campsites and parking and the hikes and restaurants are much less crowded.  It also avoids some traffic.  There is often road construction or buffalo crossing or mountains or other unexpected things that hold up getting from one place to the next.  Be prepared for the drive to take longer than you think.  We've also found that getting an earlier start helps.  It helps to avoid the middle of the day rush (more about that under FOOD) and then hike again in the early evening.

National Park Pass - This pass is good for entrance into all National Parks, but not state or county parks.  It also doesn't generally get you into National Monuments (for example, I think we still had to pay to get into Mt. Rushmore).  The pass is $80 and good for a year; it can be purchased at any park entrance or ahead of time online.  Each park entrance fee is somewhere around $25 and good for 7 days if you don't buy the annual pass.  Keep in mind that they are tricky!  for example, even though the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are right next to each other, they are separate National Parks and require a separate fee.

21 miles in the Tetons
Maps - Even if you've done tons of research and know exactly where you are hiking, camping, eating, and what you want to do, GET THE MAP and MAGAZINE at the Ranger Station.  This has updated info on closed hikes, construction, and distances.  It also has the ranger talk schedules.  Often those are very interesting.  You can always burn the newspapers in the camp-fire later but the information in these regularly updated brochures is always helpful.

Food - It is a lot of work to make food while traveling.  There are restaurants in National Parks but they are generally pretty expensive, not bad, just expensive.  We usually eat a simple breakfast of fruit or cereal, snack on granola bars and trail mix, then plan a late lunch / early dinner during the heat / rush of the day and leave the National Park for it.  Often there will be a much more cost effective place to eat a couple of miles out of the park. Those places tend to be some of our favorites on the trip, we usually check Yelp and enjoy the adventure.  Lunch is always cheaper than dinner so try to arrive before 3pm to assure the lunch menu.

I'll think about it, but I'm pretty sure that is most of what surprised me in general about National Parks (besides that there is no cell service and very little internet).  I'm sure at this very moment, very few people will care, but hopefully someday, when you are getting ready to plan your Epic Odyssey, you will remember these blogs and type them into the search bar to pull them back up.  Over the next couple of weeks, I'll enter info on the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier, Redwoods, Oregon Coast, Washington State / Vancouver, DC, & Orlando.

Happy Trails!


  1. You have a comprehensive list, but you missed the Ranger Programs that are offered at campgrounds!! They are on a variety of topics, but well worth checking out--even if you are staying in a lodge. My mom and I were at Glacier a few years ago staying in one of their lodges, we always loved the programs when we camped so we found one. You always learn something interesting and meet a variety of people.

    For campground selection, my family used to scope it out the night before. At one point (they may not do this anymore) you could tell what day the campers were expected to leave. I've been dropped off more than once with a book to "hold" the spot while my parents got the camper.

    1. You are so right! We have heard many wonderful and informative Ranger Talks! This year we saw Jack Gladstone, a Blackfoot American Indian who recounted legends and sang songs about the exact area we were camping; stories that have been passed down through generations of Blackfoot American Indians. As our kids were singing along with the echo parts of the songs and we were surrounded by mountains and trees, it was easy to believe that the forest was a living and breathing force, to be cherished and respected. The kids even begged to buy a CD afterwards (said they would use their own money). A life changing 4th of July for sure. Great point! and Thanks!