Ah! It’s here!

No, not the trip. The planning.

How to Plan Your National Parks Adventure

To anyone who knows me, this might seem contradictory. I am not a planner. Not really, anyway. I just do. I do love to make lists and write out my plans, but I usually forget them somewhere and end up winging it. I tend to be the bigger planner of Cole and me. I plan out what we’ll be doing in five years, and he plans out the evening’s activities. It’s just how we function.

But. When it comes to this National Parks trip, this such daydream-inducing trip we have on the horizon, I am all about that planning. Spreadsheets and books and research, oh my. It is so much fun.

I thought I’d share my process for weeding through and narrowing down activities for our precious time in each park. I hope you will share your knowledge and strategies with us as well! Goodness knows we are major newbies.

Websites Galore

In true millennial fashion, I start on the Internet when I am researching a park or nearby attraction. But where do I go from there?

Well, thanks to the National Park Service people, I have an almost one-stop shop for all things National Parks trip logistics. Contact, hours, trail maps, nearby destinations? They have it all. NPS.gov is definitely my first step in gathering information about a park.

After some quick research and when I have a grasp on the variety of park activities, the amount of time we’ll want to stay there, and the types of adventures we might want to have, I move on to a less objective site.

TripAdvisor is great. I love its breadth of locations and its sheer number of reviewers. A quick Google of “Grand Canyon TripAdvisor” will result in pages and pages of opinions on things to do within the National Park (and beyond it). TripAdvisor is the way Cole and I were able to cram so much into our Puerto Rico honeymoon and ensure our trip to the island was one hundred percent worth it.

After TripAdvisor, I usually check with Backpacker next. Backpacker is a magazine and thorough website that never lets Cole or me down. The site (and ‘zine) has great popular and off-the-beaten-path hikes and adventures that seem to fit the two of us. Incorporating a few “hidden gem” trails is crucial because we want to share those finds with others. Solitude is also an important part of our year-long journey and we hope to find that along some lesser-known paths.

Besides the above websites, Google is my BFF. After searching, I seek out results that link to EveryTrail or AllTrails, which provide more of a community feeling to my searches. I hope to become more involved in sites like these when sharing out our adventures along the most beautiful trails next year.

After my go-tos and my first Google searches, I just click and click and click. The more knowledge I acquire about each park, the better I am able to narrow down the options to fit in the limited time we will have in each park.

Beyond the Screen

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Research does not stop at the Internet, however. Try telling that to my middle school kiddos.

Books have become a second staple in our information-gathering stage. We have acquired just a few books as gifts and when we see them that are full of tips, tricks, and additional information not found on my normal sites.

The first book I use when learning about a specific park is National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks. This is a launching point similar to the NPS website. It offers general facts, information, trail guides, and safety warnings. From here I can get a broad picture of what we will be encountering next year.

The second book was a gift from two of our dear friends who live in New Mexico. Last summer, on our derailed trek to the Grand Canyon and several other destinations, we visited them and told of our dream trip: this one. They surprised us with a book from a local used book store: Secrets of the National Parks (also National Geographic. We love us some off-the-beaten path treasure-hunting.

And just like true treasure-hunters, we are currently looking for more books and guides to be a part of our journey. In the spirit of downsizing and minimizing, additional books will probably come from the good ol’ library. The KCMO and Mid-Continent libraries both have a great selection of ebooks and hard copies that we will absolutely be scoured in the next several months.

Now, we’ve got the Internet and we’ve got books. What do I look for in each of these sources? Tips. Secrets. Popular attractions. Unpopular hidden gems. Stories. Photos.

Anything that will fuel my daydreams and get my planning gears in motion.

What I learn is valuable to our planning. Details I find out, like the fact that in Mesa Verde, hike & bike tours are available, but only on Sundays and Wednesdays, are the very puzzle pieces that will link together to create one beautiful, amazing adventure.

The pieces might seem random now, but slowly and surely, they will start to form this picture of our year to come. A picture of the most beautiful parks in the country. A picture of self-discovery. A picture of our number one daydream.

Written by Elizabeth

  • chris

    Thanks for all of the good info about places to search for planning info. My husband and I are planning an extensive/though not as extensive as yours, trip to a variety of National and State Parks in the US and Canada. we’d like to leave the exact dates of some of our itinerary open. After all, what if we really want to spend more (or less) time at a particular location. We’ll be tent camping, mostly car camping, though occasionally back packing for a couple of days and I’m wondering how difficult it is to get campsites without advance reservations. I know you started in August so mostly not in the midst of the summer… Still, what have been your experiences? Do you usually have reserved campsites ahead of time or have you just shown up at times? How has that worked? If you made reservations ahead of time, how far ahead?

    Thanks for any insight into this. Your trip sounds awesome. so great to do this while you are young.

    • Chris – your adventure sounds awesome! As far as camping reservations, we have done both. I think it depends on the season & popularity of the park. We visited Utah and Arizona in late summer, and Maine in the fall, and so we made reservations about two-three months in advance. We were glad we did, because the sites were full! When we went to Florida in November, it was off-peak season and we were just about the only ones in the campground. Of the parks we’ve visited so far, I would recommend reservations at Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Acadia, Smokies, and Acadia (if you are visiting during peak season.) Good luck!!