Travel Tips 

10 Best Things To Do When Visiting a National Park

There are so many fun things to do in national parks that planning your trip can quickly become overwhelming. While many travelers choose to simply drive in for the day and take some pictures, we recommend exploring each national park on a deeper level. Learn about the geologic or natural history of the area or experience unique outdoor activities. To be qualified as a national park by the National Park Service, only 3% of the entire park area can be used for infrastructure, such as highways, trails, campsites, visitor centers, and lodges, while the other 97% is protected land. With all that space, there are hundreds of unique things to do in national parks, but this list of absolute can't-miss things is a good place to start.
Prepared By:

VUPContributor

Adventurer & Photographer

Yellowstone Boardwalk

1. Snap Some Photos

With all the great scenery and wildlife, it is hard to beat a picture taken from inside a national park. Each national park has breathtaking vantage points that make equally stunning photos. Don’t forget your tripod for time-lapse photos of sunsets or waterfalls and a telephoto lens for safely photographing wildlife. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture epic natural beauty, making this one of the easiest and most popular things to do when visiting a national park. 

2. Take a Guided Tour Through the Park

When entering a national park, you’ll receive a map from the park ranger that highlights all the major park attractions and viewpoints. It is recommended to use the provided park maps as a guide to tour around the national parks with a bus, RV, car, bicycle or even on foot. The map will specify roads that are motorized (by vehicle) versus non-motorized (on foot, horse etc.). Be aware that parking might be difficult in some national parks (like Zion National Park), so you might need to take a shuttle to access certain areas. We recommend taking a morning drive to get an idea of how you’d like to spend the rest of your time in the park.

3. Observe Amazing Wildlife

Some national parks, like Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Denali National Parks, are famous for their wildlife habitat. Watching wildlife in a national park is a surreal experience, just be sure to pay attention to park guidelines and recommended observation distances provided by park rangers. Explore during sunrise and sunset for the best chance of seeing wildlife in national parks.

4. Choose a Scenic Hike

Most national parks have well-established hiking trail systems where trails are usually well-marked and easy to follow. For some trails in remote areas, you might need a wilderness permit, which can be requested at the visitor center inside a park. Always pay attention to changing weather patterns, pack extra water, adequate shoes and clothing and any other emergency supplies you might need. 

5. Set Up Camp

For outdoor enthusiasts visiting a national park, camping is a must. Camping is the original overnight stay experience and in several national parks, it is the only way to stay the night. Many national park campgrounds require a reservation, but a few are first-come, first-serve. Be sure to do your research for campsite amenities and rules before your arrival. Camping isn’t just an affordable way to stay, it’s a must-do national park activity itself. Sleeping under the stars with fresh air surrounded by natural beauty makes camping a rite of passage when it come to visiting national parks.

6. Attend a Local Event

Just outside of national parks, you’ll find gateway towns that often provide everything you need for your national park experience, including grocery stores, camping supplies, gas stations and more. These towns standout for their unique year-round events like rodeos, live music, festivals, sporting events, farmers markets, and more! One event to keep on your radar in any gateway community is a traditional Native American powwow, where you can learn about the indigenous cultures. 

7. Ride a Horse

You haven’t experienced a national park until you’ve seen it from the saddle of a horse. Horseback riding is great for groups and those who want a more unplugged mode of transportation during their national park exploration. Many parks welcome your own steeds or you can book through one of the many reliable horseback riding tour companies throughout the country. Whether your opt for a one hour ride or a weeklong expedition, horseback riding is one of the best ways to experience a national park. 

8. Go Fishing

What would the great outdoors be without fishing? National parks are a great place to fish, but they’re also protected lands, so it’s important to educate yourself on fishing regulations in each area. One popular way of hobby fishing is known as catch-and-release, which means you release caught fish back into the water in order to keep the fish population healthy. For the full national park fishing experience, consider hiring a fishing guide who will take care of the permits, equipment, and scouting the best local spots. 

9. Bring Your Backpack

One of the true national park experiences is to head into the backcountry with nothing but a backpack of supplies. If you have never backpacked, we highly recommend going with a professional guide in order to be safe in the vast national park wilderness. Most of the national park and wilderness areas require overnight permits for parking your car at the trailhead and staying overnight in the wilderness areas, so plan accordingly. Backpacking is one of most minimalist yet popular things to do in any national park. 

10. Get on the Water

National parks aren’t just for hiking! These protected lands boast some of the most pristine waters found anywhere on the planet. While motorized boating is popular, a human-powered water adventure is more eco-friendly and rewarding in experience. On a river, try whitewater rafting or canoeing. On a lake, grab a kayak or standup paddle-board. If you just want to take a refreshing dip, you can always blow up a tube and go for a float. National parks and nearby areas have an abundance of fun water activities to choose from!

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