10 Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a National Park Vacation

Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park, 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park vacation.
Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park

Are you planning to visit a national park this year? Then read on to learn the 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park vacation. 

The United States has some of the most sought-after travel destinations, but our country’s true gems are our national parks. Some incredible sights in these parks include extraordinary mountain ranges, shimmering lakes, remote deserts, and out-of-this-world canyons. These are geographical wonders that make for an ideal outdoor vacation. 

As of 2024, the U.S. is home to 63 national parks, providing plenty of options for outdoor adventure vacations. These trips suit all different needs, they’re family-friendly, generally affordable, and a way to connect with nature and the great outdoors. 

Following the Covid pandemic, outdoor recreation exploded in popularity, and national park vacations rose in demand. Parks have received a record number of visitors. In 2023, there were 325.5 million visits to national parks. That's an increase of 13 million visits compared to the previous year. With this popularity surge, more preparations are needed when planning a national park visit. As someone who visits at least one of our stunning parks each year, I’ve learned the mistakes to avoid before setting out on a trip.

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Woman hiking the Skyline Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.
Hiking the Skyline Trail at Mount Rainier National Park

10 Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a National Park Vacation

1. Not Making Entry Reservations

Faced with this new reality of popularity in national park vacations, the National Park Service implemented a reservation system for their most visited parks. This list includes Arches, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park, among others. With this system, visitors must book their park entry time slot during peak hours in advance. Sometimes months beforehand.

The reservation system is used during the high season from May to October, but some start as early as March or April. Reservations book quickly, and failing to make them for your national park vacation would put a damper on the entire visit. Without a reservation, visitors need to arrive before or after peak hours, generally before 6 am or after 4 pm. Additionally, the night before, parks release limited time slots for visitors without reservations for the next day. 

Which parks require reservations varies each year, so it’s best to stay updated. The National Park website is a fantastic resource for all the latest changes and updates. 

National Parks Requiring Reservations in 2024:

  • Arches National Park
  • Mount Rainier National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Zion National Park (Angels Landing)
  • Shenandoah National Park (Old Rag Mountain)
  • Acadia National Park (Cadillac Summit Road)
  • Haleakala National Park (for sunrise)
Dream Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park, 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park vacation.
Dream Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

2. Waiting to Book Accommodations

Time entry reservations aren't the only thing that sells out for our national parks, so do the hotels. National parks are now in demand for vacations and stay busy most of the year. Especially during the high season in summer, national holidays, and weekends. Most national parks aren’t in a large city but instead surrounded by a nearby town or towns with limited accommodations. 

Hotels and AirBnBs are reserved months in advance, sometimes up to a year. While visitors can occasionally get lucky and find a room last minute, it’s not worth the risk. Waiting to book national park accommodations also means choosing between limited options and increased prices. The earlier you book, the better the room rate. If able, try to make accommodation reservations as soon as possible. 

Mount Rainier reflection in lake, 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park vacation.
Mount Rainier National Park has limited accommodation options.

3. Not Packing Proper Gear and Attire

National parks aren’t inherently dangerous, but accidents and even death can occur when people visit without preparing. Common injuries include sprains or broken bones from falling, dehydration, and heat stroke. The best way to avoid a medical emergency on a national park vacation is to bring appropriate gear and wardrobe for that environment. 

Hiking is one of the most popular activities when visiting a national park. If you plan on embarking on a scenic hike, wear hiking shoes and consider bringing poles to reduce the chance of injury. Carry plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and wear light moisture-wicking layers with a hat to avoid heat stroke. Plus, don’t forget the sunscreen. A sunburn in a national park is no joke. 

Research packing lists before your vacation to confirm everything you need. Different parks require different items, such as bear spray for Yellowstone National Park and a waterproof jacket for Olympic National Park. I’ve also included the essentials below for any national park visit. 

Essential Gear for Any National Park Trip:

Woman in the hoh rainforest in Olympic National Park
Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park

4. Forgetting to Check the National Park Website for Updates

Every national park has its respective official site through the park service. These sites provide information on everything from the park's history to the wildlife to the countless hiking trails available. While learning this background knowledge is incredible, these sites are also a necessary resource to enjoy the national parks safely. They list pertinent real-time updates and need-to-know information. 

The national park website is the first place to check for entry reservation requirements and permit details for trails or backcountry camping. Before venturing off on a national park visit, the best due diligence is to stay updated through the park service. The park website lists weather updates, trail conditions, and road closures. Forgetting or failing to check for these updates can impact your vacation and safety if these conditions are dangerous. 

Before and during a vacation, check the national park website regularly and follow on social media for real-time updates. 

Bearfence Mountain Trail in Shenandoah National Park.
Bearfence Mountain Trail in Shenandoah National Park

5. Waking up Late

Vacations are usually a time to relax and take a break from the daily grind of life. Waking up at the crack of dawn on a trip probably doesn’t sound like the most relaxing thing in the world, but when visiting a national park, you’ll want to do just that. 

There are a few reasons you don’t want to wake up late. The first and most important is the crowds. Peak time when the parks are busiest is from 10 am - 3 pm. Hiking trails are packed, parking lots filled to the brim, and long wait times to enter the park. As someone who struggles with severe anxiety and panic attacks on vacation, avoiding the intense crowds is essential for my mental health. Yet, even without that concern, being somewhere with a mob of people is often less relaxing than waking up late. 

Some additional reasons to get up early are lower temperatures, especially in the summer, and increased chances of spotting wildlife. Plus, nothing beats a national park sunrise. 

Woman looking out over Bryce Canyon National Park during sunrise.
Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park

6. Only Visiting the Popular Spots

There are quintessential sights you don’t want to miss on your national park vacation. Whether it's watching the sunrise at Haleakalā National Park, photographing the tunnel view at Yosemite, or hiking the famous Narrows in Zion, these are all must-do activities when visiting those parks. However, there are plenty of other activities without the same level of popularity you shouldn’t skip. 

Less popular trails and sights offer more seclusion and a better chance to connect with nature. Since these spots draw fewer crowds, there’s less pressure to arrive at a certain time of day or feel congested with other visitors. I enjoy seeing the famous attractions in the morning and then enjoying the less popular locations in the afternoon. There is so much to discover in every national park, that you don’t want to limit yourself to only the popular places. This is a vacation to get out and explore. 

Dry Tortugas National Park, empty beach and fort.
Don't skip less popular national parks either, like Dry Tortugas National Park.

7. Underestimating the Weather and Altitude Changes

To say that national parks experience extreme weather conditions would be an understatement. Parks in the southwest are known for their severe heat, with temperatures in the summer breaking 100-plus degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, parks in the Pacific Northwest can have intense rain and snowfall. In any of these cases, these are weather conditions to prepare for on a national park vacation. 

Weather isn't the only thing to consider when visiting a national park, changes in altitude can also have a major impact. As a lifelong East Coaster, I vastly underestimated the altitude difference when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I figured since I didn’t plan to hike on day one and drive the Trail Ridge Road, I would be fine. Well, I wasn't and instead felt sick for a good portion of the trip. Rather than immediately exploring the park, it's best to acclimate to a different altitude for a few days. 

Both weather and altitude will directly affect a national park vacation, and the best way to minimize that impact is to prepare accordingly. Always stay updated on the weather forecast for each day in the park. 

View of mountains on Trail Ridge Road in Colorado.
Trail Ridge Road

8. Deciding Not to Create an Itinerary

The days of spontaneous trips to national parks without encountering massive crowds appear long gone. Showing up to a park without a basic idea of what you plan to see each day will surely result in disappointment. There are long waits to enter, parking is scarce at trailheads, and incredible locations are missed. Hikes also range in difficulty, so you always want to confirm each trail is right for you. National park trips aren’t the type of vacation where you should go with the flow for its entirety, some planning is recommended. 

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have a level of flexibility on your trip. It’s also important to leave space on your itinerary each day should plans shift. Things can go wrong or need to change, especially due to weather, illness, or exhaustion, and having some flexibility helps with that. The idea isn’t to plan every moment of each day on this vacation, but to have a basic itinerary of what you want to do and prepare accordingly for safety. It’ll make for a much more enjoyable national park experience. 

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park vacation.
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park

9. Failing to Respect the Wildlife and Leave No Trace

There are many reasons why we choose to visit national parks, but at the top of that list are the majestic scenery, impressive rock formations, and undisturbed areas of nature. As well as the incredible wildlife you can spot in their natural habitats. However, these lands can only remain beautiful if we protect them. Unfortunately, as national parks continue to draw millions of visitors each year it has become significantly more challenging. 

To keep these magnificent parks as they are, visitors should practice the seven principles of leave no trace. Essentially, these are fundamental steps to avoid damaging the natural environment. Everything from packing in and out garbage, staying on designated trails, not stacking rocks, keeping campfires small or avoiding them entirely, and not taking anything with you from its natural place in the ecosystem like a shell or pebble. Visitors should respect the wildlife, not only for their safety but also for the animals. Of course, it's fine to admire from a safe distance, but don't try to approach them and don't try to take a selfie. 

Respect the land, the wildlife, and each other when visiting a national park so we can continue to enjoy these awe-inspiring places. 

Leave No Trace Seven Principles:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Zion Canyon Overlook Trail at sunset.
Zion Canyon Overlook at Zion National Park

10. Being Glued to Your Phone and Camera 

This advice is probably more debatable than the other mistakes on this list, but I speak from experience when I say it. There are plenty of times I got caught up in capturing as many beautiful photos as possible and missed out on simply enjoying the moment. With social media, we all want to get the perfect Instagram shot, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but we also should embrace the natural beauty surrounding us in these parks. Breathe in the fresh air, connect with nature, and disconnect from the phone for a while. 

The U.S. national parks are stunning locations with breathtaking scenery at every turn. It’s no wonder we might want to photograph everything we come across. This isn’t to preach that you shouldn’t take photos, I definitely do, but it’s also important to put the phone and camera down and be in the moment. The memories I made on national park vacations are my most treasured souvenirs. 

Grand Canyon National Park sunset.
Sunset at Grand Canyon National Park

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