How to plan a national park visit

13 April 2024
How to plan a national park visit

National parks around the globe are a celebration of nature and the great outdoors. Everywhere you go, national parks are the best way to see some of the most beautiful and sometimes downright famous landscapes a country has to offer.

America has more than 400 national parks, some of which are super popular and overcrowded and others that are rarely visited.

If you want to plan a national park visit this summer, now is the time to get on it!

Here’s what you need to know to plan a national park visit this summer.

Consider an entrance pass

If you’re looking to visit a few parks this summer, consider purchasing an entrance pass, and there are several to choose from.

Make it happen:

  1. Count how many parks you want to visit and when.
  2. Compare the entrance pass options and choose the pass that works for your plans.

Pro tip: Seniors can save money on annual and lifetime passes. US military and veterans are free.

Get a reservation

It’s both positive and negative. People are visiting national parks (yay!), and sometimes that causes overcrowding (boo!).

In 2024, more national parks will introduce reservation systems, asking visitors to plan their trips in advance. And there’s usually an online processing fee on the government website.

Important notes:

  • Reservations are often required only during the ‘busy’ season
  • Some have hiking-specific reservations vs entire park reservations
  • Some park reservations have road limits, meaning your access includes or excludes certain roads
  • Some reservation systems are lottery-based
  • Reservations may include timed entry, meaning you can enter within a timed window
  • Most parks keep aside some last-minute reservations which can be days prior or day-of
  • Parking tags may also be required for some parks

Make it happen

  1. Review the list of national parks requiring reservations:
    • Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
    • Arches National Park, Utah
    • Glacier National Park, Montana
    • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
    • Yosemite National Park, California
    • Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
    • Zion National Park, Utah
    • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
    • Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
    • Acadia National Park, Maine
  2. Figure out your schedule for visiting and preferred activities. A scenic drive pass is different than an overnight camping pass, for example.
  3. Check the national park website for reservation information. If you don’t get a reservation the first time, keep checking back!

recent article from Outside magazine has tips for each park’s reservation system.

Visit on Free Entrance Days

The NPS has six days every year when the parks that charge a fee offer free admission instead. If you’re looking to save money, consider visiting on these days.

Hint: Not all of them are in the summertime, so you’re more likely to get in.

Make it happen:

  1. See the list of dates:
  2. Get there early – many other travelers could have the same idea!

Skip all the planning work

You can visit the US national parks and skip all this planning work.

Make it happen:

  • Go during the off-season (Yosemite is great in winter!)
  • Visit the lesser-known parks (no overcrowding!)
  • Explore your state parks instead

Take a guided tour

First Day Hikes is an effort to encourage people to experience beautiful natural outdoor environments with a guide. 

First Day Hikes are held in state parks across America to inspire people to take advantage of these state treasures year-round. 

However you visit – do not do this!

It is strongly advised not to attempt to enter parks that require reservations without authorization. The fines are steep (as high as $5,000 US), and you could spend up to six months in jail!

Final word

All in all, the good news is that most of the US parks do not require a reservation. Do your research. Book as early in advance as you can. And remember that it’s still possible to get reservations last minute if you’re lucky.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.