National parks of the US (Part One).

 SUMMARY   This guide (Part one / A – G) is designed to offer essential advice, useful links, and helpful resources to assist you in “Planning like a Ranger” for your national park journey! Having a well-thought-out plan can steer you away from common pitfalls that might impact your trip and even pose risks of injury.

PART ONE  |  PART TWO

The Trip Planning Guide is intended for both day trips and overnight stays within a park. If you’re considering a multi-day expedition, especially into remote areas, additional planning measures will be necessary, which go beyond the scope of this guide.

Continue reading to discover how you can optimize your park visit for the utmost enjoyment.

Embark on Your Adventure Planning!

Visiting the U.S. national parks offers a remarkable opportunity to immerse yourself in natural wonders, appreciate unique ecosystems, and explore the country’s cultural heritage.

The United States is home to 63 national parks, which are officially designated protected areas managed by the National Park Service. Among these, 14 national parks hold the distinction of being UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while 21 have the honor of being named UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Remarkably, eight national parks are recognized in both of these esteemed programs.

Every park environment is unique and continuously changing with the seasons. Considerations to Keep in Mind for Your Park Visit:

Learn about the park.

  • Amenities: Check if the park offers amenities like drinking water, park shuttles, or stores for purchasing food and equipment.
  • Weather: Study the weather forecast for your trip’s duration. Plan accordingly to cope with changing conditions.
  • Wildlife: Learn about the park’s resident animals and prepare for possible wildlife encounters.
  • Terrain: Be aware of uneven surfaces such as unpaved trails or staircases that might impact your movement.
  • Water: Evaluate whether there are currents or underwater risks, and note the water temperature.
  • Park Alerts: Stay informed about closures, hazards, or ongoing alerts that could influence your visit.

Adhering to these factors ensures a well-informed and safe park experience.

Find out what activities you can do at the park.

There are various ways to enjoy the park. Discover a comprehensive list of activities on the park’s website under the “Things to Do” section. Delve into the pages related to the activities that pique your interest.

Look for regulations, permits, and reservations needed for your activity.

Familiarize yourself with park regulations, restrictions, and closures designed to safeguard park resources and ensure visitor safety. Explore these rules under the “Learn About the Park” section on the park’s website.

Determine whether your planned activity necessitates a permit by referring to the “Plan Your Visit” section. Adhere to the park’s instructions on the application process and acquiring a permit.

Note that specific parks might require reservations for park entry, accessing certain areas, or participating in activities. For all reservations, visit Recreation.gov.

Prepare an Alternative Strategy.

Occasionally, plans can deviate from the course. Weather predictions alter, parking lots reach capacity, park sections close, essential gear gets left behind, or you might not feel up to the initially planned activity. Be ready with an alternative activity that enables you to relish the park without scrapping the trip altogether.

Indoor activities serve as excellent backup options, including park museums, historical structures, and interpretive exhibits. These activities involve minimal physical strain and necessitate no specialized equipment.

The 10 Essentials encompass a range of first aid and emergency supplies that can prove invaluable in case of minor injuries, abrupt weather shifts, or unforeseen delays. The 10 Essentials represent the fundamental items you should carry. Depending on the specific activity you’re engaged in (such as boating, hiking, etc.), you might require extra items like a life jacket, insect repellent, or a personal locator beacon. Before embarking, explore the park’s website for comprehensive insights about the park and your chosen activity.

NAVIGATION: Navigation tools come into play both when charting your course prior to your excursion and when you require assistance in getting your bearings during your outdoor pursuit. Familiarize yourself with the operation of a topographical or relief map, as well as the usage of your compass or GPS device, before venturing out.

SUN PROTECTION: Shielding yourself from the sun is imperative to safeguard your skin and eyes from the harsh UV rays, which can lead to sunburns and even skin cancer. Think about utilizing sunglasses, sunscreen, and hats. Additionally, clothing designed for sun protection, like long pants and sleeve shirts, can aid in reducing your sun exposure.

INSULATION: The natural world is full of unpredictability. Anticipate abrupt shifts in weather patterns. Pack an additional layer of clothing that accounts for the most extreme conditions you might face.

ILLUMINATION: Illumination is essential in outdoor settings where traditional light sources are absent. Essential items encompass flashlights, lanterns, and headlamps. Headlamps, offering hands-free functionality, are favored. Remember to pack spare batteries.

FIRST-AID SUPPLIES: Ensure readiness for emergencies by carrying along first-aid provisions. Begin with a pre-assembled kit and adapt it to match your journey and specific medical requirements. Inspect the expiration dates on all items and replace them as necessary. Contemplate incorporating an emergency guide to handle unfamiliar medical situations.

FIRE: Fire serves as both an emergency signal and a means of cooking and staying warm. Carry waterproof matches and fire starters, materials that ignite easily and maintain a flame (such as a lighter). Prior to embarking, acquaint yourself with your park’s regulations concerning fire usage. Enhance your understanding of campfires as well.

REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS: Keep a fundamental repair kit on hand to aid in equipment maintenance. This kit should encompass essentials like duct tape, a knife, and scissors. Reflect on including a multi-tool, a compact device featuring multiple functions such as a knife, screwdriver, and can opener. Additionally, ensure you bring any tools tailored to your trip and intended activity.

NUTRITION: Remaining ready for potential alterations in your travel plans is crucial. Stash an additional day’s worth of food, preferably non-cook items that offer substantial nutritional content to sustain your energy levels. Opt for easily digestible and salty snacks (like trail mix, nuts, and granola bars) that are well-suited for outdoor pursuits.

HYDRATION: Maintaining proper hydration during your journey is paramount! Physical exertion heightens the risk of dehydration, where the body loses water and essential salts, potentially leading to adverse health effects. Engaging in outdoor activities (such as hiking, biking, running, swimming, etc.), particularly in warm conditions, necessitates frequent water intake even before thirst sets in. Prepare your water supply in advance and prevent dehydration. Prior to embarking, ascertain if there are accessible water sources at your destination, which you can treat using your water purification equipment. Gain further insights into water purification methods.

EMERGENCY SHELTER: Shelter stands as a paramount component in emergency survival scenarios. It safeguards you from harsh weather conditions and exposure to the elements. Options such as a tent, tarp, bivy sack, or emergency space blanket are all lightweight alternatives suitable for emergency shelter.

Outdoor Emergency Plan. Unforeseen incidents occur. It’s possible to become disoriented or injured during outdoor activities. Search and rescue operations might span hours or even days, influenced by variables like weather, capacity, and available resources. Being equipped for emergencies enhances your capacity to promptly address the situation. Keep in mind that every outing and activity could entail distinct demands, requiring you to tailor your outdoor emergency plan to suit the specifics of your trip. ⇒ https://www.nps.gov

Acadia National Park.

Acadia National Park (map) might seem compact on a map, but it spans nearly 50,000 acres along the Maine Atlantic Coastline. This includes Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Peninsula, Isle au Haut, and various outer islands. The park boasts 60 miles of coastline, 33 miles of scenic motor roads, 45 miles of carriage roads, and over 150 miles of hiking trails, offering a plethora of avenues to delve into its beauty.

Plan Your VisitDirections & Maps

American Samoa National Park.

American Samoa National Park, located on the American territory of Samoa (map), encompasses tropical forests, coral reefs, and breathtaking landscapes. The park offers a unique blend of cultural and natural riches, including jungles, volcanic mountains, and turquoise waters. Visitors can enjoy a variety of marine life, active volcanoes, and traditional Polynesian culture.

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Arches National Park.

Nestled in the heart of Utah’s red rock country (map), Arches National Park showcases the awe-inspiring result of millions of years of geological forces. With over 2,000 natural stone arches, as well as hundreds of soaring pinnacles, giant fins, and balanced rocks, the park is a testament to the beauty and power of erosion. Visitors can explore the vast landscape, hike through winding trails, and witness the breathtaking vistas that have made Arches a true marvel of the American Southwest.

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Badlands National Park.

Stretching across the rugged terrain of South Dakota (map), Badlands National Park is a mesmerizing testament to the forces of erosion that have sculpted its striking landscape. The park is adorned with dramatic rock formations, deep canyons, towering spires, and unique buttes, all painted in vibrant shades of red, orange, and tan. With its rich fossil beds and diverse wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns, the park offers a glimpse into the natural history of North America’s Great Plains.

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Big Bend National Park.

Encompassing a vast and diverse landscape along the Texas-Mexico border (map), Big Bend National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. This remote gem features a stunning array of geographical features, including towering desert mountains, rugged canyons carved by the Rio Grande, and expansive desert landscapes. The park’s isolated location creates some of the darkest skies in the United States, making it a prime destination for stargazing and observing celestial wonders.

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Biscayne National Park.

Embracing the aquamarine waters of southern Florida’s Biscayne Bay (map), Biscayne National Park is a unique blend of lush coastal mangroves, vibrant coral reefs, and stunning aquatic life. This diverse ecosystem showcases the intricate interplay between land and sea, offering visitors the chance to explore thriving marine habitats, historic shipwrecks, and picturesque islands. From snorkeling through crystal-clear waters to kayaking among mangrove forests, Biscayne beckons adventurers to discover its underwater wonders and tranquil landscapes.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Carved over millions of years by the relentless force of the Gunnison River (map), Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park stands as a dramatic testament to the power of erosion. With its steep, narrow walls plunging down to the tumultuous river below, this Colorado gem offers a glimpse into the sheer force of nature. The park’s unique geology, diverse plant life, and breathtaking vistas make it a destination for both adventurous hikers and those seeking the serenity of its awe-inspiring beauty.

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Bryce Canyon National Park.

Nestled in the high desert of Utah (map), Bryce Canyon National Park is a geological marvel renowned for its breathtaking amphitheaters of whimsical hoodoos, towering spires, and intricate rock formations. These unique structures, sculpted by frost, wind, and water, create a surreal and enchanting landscape. As the sun casts its golden rays on the crimson, orange, and white rocks, the park transforms into a mesmerizing world of color and shadows, offering visitors an otherworldly experience.

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Canyonlands National Park.

Spanning across the rugged landscape of southeastern Utah (map), Canyonlands National Park presents a mesmerizing showcase of deep canyons, towering mesas, and iconic buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Divided into four distinct districts – Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves – the park offers diverse landscapes that cater to every adventurer’s appetite. From breathtaking vistas atop mesa rims to challenging backcountry hikes, Canyonlands invites visitors to explore its raw and untamed beauty.

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Capitol Reef National Park.

Etched into the heart of Utah’s red rock country (map), Capitol Reef National Park boasts a captivating tapestry of towering cliffs, rugged canyons, and the iconic Waterpocket Fold – a nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust. The park’s unique geology, shaped by eons of erosion, has left behind a landscape of mesmerizing rock formations, arches, and petroglyphs. Visitors can explore the park’s diverse terrain, hike through narrow slot canyons, and marvel at the contrast between its lush oasis and the arid desert beyond.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Hidden beneath the surface of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (map), Carlsbad Caverns National Park unveils a subterranean world of awe-inspiring beauty and mystery. Its vast network of underground chambers, stunning stalactites, stalagmites, and intricate formations, takes visitors on a journey through eons of geological history. The park’s most famous chamber, the Big Room, is one of the largest underground rooms in the world. From exploring the caverns’ depths to witnessing the mesmerizing flight of thousands of bats at sunset, Carlsbad Caverns offers a truly unique and enchanting experience.

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Channel Islands National Park.

Off the coast of Southern California lies the captivating Channel Islands National Park (map), an archipelago of five rugged islands and their surrounding waters. This unique park boasts a rich biodiversity and protects a variety of habitats, including lush coastal ecosystems, rocky shores, and vibrant kelp forests. From hiking along scenic trails to kayaking through pristine coves, the park offers opportunities to explore its natural beauty and encounter a wide array of wildlife, including sea lions, dolphins, and the island fox.

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Congaree National Park.

Within the heart of South Carolina’s lowlands (map), Congaree National Park preserves one of the last remaining old-growth floodplain forests in the United States. This unique ecosystem is characterized by towering hardwood trees, diverse wildlife, and the Congaree River that winds its way through the landscape. The park’s pristine wilderness offers visitors opportunities for hiking, canoeing, and birdwatching, as well as a chance to experience the beauty of the natural world in its raw and unspoiled state.

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Crater Lake National Park.

Nestled within the rugged peaks of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon (map), Crater Lake National Park cradles the awe-inspiring Crater Lake, one of the deepest and most pristine lakes in the world. Formed in the caldera of an ancient volcano, the lake’s deep blue waters mesmerize visitors with their clarity and striking color. The park offers a variety of trails that lead to breathtaking viewpoints and allow visitors to marvel at the lake’s beauty from different angles. Whether you’re exploring the Rim Drive or hiking down to the shore, Crater Lake’s serene landscapes and natural wonders are bound to leave a lasting impression.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Embracing the winding Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland (map), Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a green oasis nestled within the urban landscape of northeastern Ohio. The park offers a diverse blend of natural beauty, including lush forests, rolling hills, and serene waterfalls. With a range of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and birdwatching, as well as cultural attractions like historic sites and a scenic railway, Cuyahoga Valley provides a unique blend of recreational opportunities and a tranquil retreat from city life.

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Death Valley National Park.

Nestled within the Mojave Desert of California (map), Death Valley National Park stands as a stark and captivating landscape of extremes. Known for its scorching temperatures, salt flats, towering sand dunes, and rugged mountain ranges, the park is a land of unique contrasts. It’s also home to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Despite its challenging conditions, Death Valley’s beauty is undeniable, with its vast vistas and surreal landscapes captivating the adventurous souls who explore its depths.

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Denali National Park.

Encompassing the awe-inspiring Denali, North America’s highest peak, Denali National Park in Alaska (map) showcases a vast wilderness of towering mountains, pristine tundra, and breathtaking glaciers. The park is a haven for adventurers and nature enthusiasts, offering a chance to witness the beauty of the subarctic ecosystem. Visitors can explore the park’s diverse landscapes, witness abundant wildlife such as grizzly bears and caribou, and immerse themselves in the raw and untouched beauty of Alaska’s vast wilderness.

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Dry Tortugas National Park.

Situated in the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico (map), Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote and enchanting oasis off the coast of Florida. This unique park encompasses a group of seven small islands, including the historic Fort Jefferson. Known for its vibrant coral reefs, crystal-clear waters, and abundant marine life, the park offers excellent snorkeling, diving, and birdwatching opportunities. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, Dry Tortugas provides a tranquil escape to a pristine natural and historical wonder.

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Everglades National Park.

Spanning across the southern tip of Florida (map), Everglades National Park is a unique and vital ecosystem renowned for its vast sawgrass prairies, intricate waterways, and diverse array of wildlife. This UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve is home to species such as alligators, manatees, and a variety of bird species. As one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world, the park offers opportunities for airboat tours, kayaking, and exploring its diverse habitats, allowing visitors to experience the beauty and ecological significance of the Everglades.

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Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Embracing the wild and rugged expanses of Alaska’s Arctic region (map), Gates of the Arctic National Park stands as a true wilderness sanctuary. This untouched landscape is characterized by towering mountains, vast tundra, icy rivers, and a complete lack of roads and trails. The park’s vastness and isolation offer intrepid adventurers a chance to experience the Arctic’s pristine beauty while navigating its challenges. With no visitor centers or marked trails, the park provides a unique opportunity for those seeking a truly remote and immersive wilderness experience.

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Gateway Arch National Park.

Dominating the St. Louis skyline and commemorating westward expansion in the United States (map), Gateway Arch National Park is a stunning monument and an icon of American history. The stainless steel Gateway Arch stands 630 feet tall, symbolizing the gateway to the West as settlers journeyed to new frontiers. Visitors can take a tram ride to the top for panoramic views, explore the Museum of Westward Expansion, and stroll through the beautiful grounds along the Mississippi River, immersing themselves in the historical significance and architectural marvel of the arch.

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Glacier National Park.

Nestled in the rugged Rocky Mountains of Montana (map), Glacier National Park showcases a breathtaking panorama of alpine meadows, towering peaks, and pristine glacial lakes. Known as the “Crown of the Continent,” the park features over 700 miles of trails, providing opportunities for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to explore its diverse ecosystems and witness its rapidly receding glaciers. Visitors can traverse the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a marvel of engineering that offers stunning vistas, and experience the unspoiled beauty and grandeur of this majestic wilderness.

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Glacier Bay National Park.

Stretching across the icy waters of southeastern Alaska (map), Glacier Bay National Park is a realm of dynamic glaciers, stunning fjords, and rich marine life. The park’s landscape has been sculpted by retreating glaciers, revealing impressive tidewater glaciers that calve into the sea. This ever-changing environment is home to humpback whales, sea otters, and diverse bird species. Visitors can witness the dramatic calving of glaciers, explore coastal rainforests, and experience the pristine beauty of a remote wilderness that continues to evolve.

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Grand Canyon National Park.

Carved by the mighty Colorado River over millions of years, Grand Canyon National Park stands as an awe-inspiring testament to the Earth’s geological history. Its colossal chasm reveals layer upon layer of vibrant rock formations, each telling a story of time and change. From the towering South Rim to the less-visited North Rim, the Grand Canyon offers unparalleled vistas and hiking opportunities, inviting visitors to explore its depths and experience the grandeur of one of the world’s most iconic natural wonders.

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Grand Teton National Park.

Nestled within the Teton Range of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park is a mesmerizing blend of rugged peaks, alpine lakes, and pristine wilderness. The iconic Teton Range serves as a dramatic backdrop to the serene Jackson Hole valley, offering a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. Visitors can explore hiking trails that wind through meadows, spot diverse wildlife such as elk and grizzly bears, and experience the unparalleled beauty and tranquility of this mountainous landscape.

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Great Basin National Park.

Nestled within the diverse landscapes of Nevada’s Great Basin, Great Basin National Park offers a unique blend of ancient bristlecone pine forests, rugged mountains, and remarkable underground caves. Wheeler Peak, the park’s highest point, stands as a testament to the region’s geological history. Lehman Caves, a subterranean wonder, unveils intricate formations that have been sculpted over millennia. With its captivating scenery, abundant stargazing opportunities, and hiking trails that lead to high alpine lakes, Great Basin invites visitors to explore a lesser-known, yet awe-inspiring, corner of the American West.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Nestled at the base of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park showcases a unique and mesmerizing landscape of towering sand dunes, as well as wetlands, forests, and alpine lakes. These massive dunes, some rising as high as 750 feet, were formed by the wind’s continuous movement of sand grains from an ancient lakebed. Visitors can hike, sled, or even sandboard down the dunes, and also explore the diverse ecosystems that surround this natural wonder.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a natural wonderland that enchants visitors with its mist-covered peaks, lush forests, and abundant biodiversity. As the most visited national park in the United States, it is renowned for its ancient mountains and diverse ecosystems, including temperate rainforests. The park offers a wealth of activities such as hiking, wildlife watching, and exploring historic buildings that provide a glimpse into the region’s Appalachian heritage.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Rising majestically from the arid landscape of West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park boasts a rugged wilderness of soaring peaks, colorful canyons, and ancient fossils. Home to the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, the park offers spectacular vistas and challenging hikes. The dramatic McKittrick Canyon reveals a burst of fall colors and is a prime spot for exploring. With its rich geology and diverse flora and fauna, this park presents a unique opportunity to discover the untamed beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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