6 Essential Questions For Planning your National Park Family Trip
- What national park is top on your family’s list to visit?
Has your family been dreaming about a well-known park like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon? Maybe your priority is to get out in nature with fewer crowds? Choose where you really want to go, but don’t forget to see what other park sites may be nearby to visit. Do you want to spend a lot of time seeing one park or do you want to make sure you check off many parks from your list in one visit?
We often choose a primary park where we’ll focus the majority of our visit, but if our travel schedule permits, we love seeing some other nearby parks while we’re making the trip. When we visited Yosemite in May of 2019, we initially planned to add Sequoia and Kings Canyon. We unfortunately had to shorten our trip, but were able to include other National Park Service sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Muir Woods, Fort Point at the Presidio, and Rosie The Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park.
- Are your dates locked in?
If you need to plan around school schedules, work schedules, and personal responsibilities, but still want to avoid crowds, determining your best time to travel requires some creativity. While you can certainly visit the parks at popular times, it will be busier and more challenging to get lodging reservations. Consider whether you are truly locked into school vacation schedules. If you are, it will still be an amazing and rewarding trip. While it takes some schedule manipulation, we try to visit parks in shoulder season whenever possible, so it is less crowded and cheaper to travel there.
Bryan and Danielle at Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
We consult with our children’s elementary school teachers and try to select dates that will not conflict with important school events or tests. Sometimes school events pop up at the last minute and you have to make a family decision. When our daughter’s band concert was planned at the same time we were supposed to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon (after visiting Yosemite), we had an important family decision to make. We had booked on Southwest Airlines, which in our experience is very amenable for flight changes, so we decided to modify our trip to Yosemite as I mentioned in #1. You may also consider visiting a park in the off-season. We visited Yellowstone in the winter, and while different, it was an unforgettable experience, especially to find ourselves alone cross-country skiing on the Upper Geyser Basin watching Old Faithful erupt.
3. Is staying inside the park a priority?
Staying inside the park, whether camping or at other lodging, can really add to your experience. It saves time on traveling into the park each day, makes it easy to start your day early, and allows easy access to experience the park at off-peak hours, such as seeing the night skies. Not surprisingly, park lodging is very popular, so you may need to book as much as a year in advance, especially when going to one of the more highly visited parks. Each park has different partners and concessionaires, so in order to be sure you are accessing the correct information to make reservations, we recommend you start from the park’s website on nps.gov and follow the relevant links for lodging or camping.
As reservations open at different times and book up quickly for the busier parks (sort of like booking concert tickets!), check in advance what date and time reservations open. Be sure to put a reminder in your phone and block that time on your calendar so you are ready. You may not get your first pick, so discuss in advance what lodging options you’ll be happy with.
We planned ahead this way for our trips to Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and our now-cancelled trip to Glacier National Park (due to COVID-19).
For our trip to Yosemite, my husband Bryan had his heart set on spending one night at The Ahwahnee. He booked that reservation eight months in advance once we had our travel dates. We had decided what other options we were most interested in, and ended up with an amazing blend of lodging styles. Our other park lodging nights were in a heated tent at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley (the heat was helpful in May) and two nights at the Wawona Hotel close to the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove.
Early morning bike ride in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park/Photo by Danielle Jacobs-Erwin
Planning for camping inside the park varies as well and may be by reservation, but sometimes it is first-come, first-serve. If it’s the latter, plan where you’ll stay the night before so that you can be at the park early to get a campsite. The first time we visited the Great Smoky Mountains, we made a reservation in advance at the Cosby Campground for the latter part of our trip, but also wanted to camp in Cades Cove, which is the most visited area of the park, and one that does not take reservations. We booked an Airbnb close to the park in order to get on line for a campsite first thing in the morning. We succeeded! Knowing the Smokies campgrounds did not have shower facilities, we booked another night at an Airbnb for the end of our trip and were all thrilled for the hot showers and hot tub.
It does not always have to be that challenging, though, and we don’t always plan our trips a year in advance. We have had some good luck getting reservations just weeks in advance at Shenandoah’s Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland. When we visited the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, we were able to reserve a combination of Airbnb and a campsite at Everglades’ Flamingo Campground, less than five months in advance. If you can’t get lodging in the park, you may find lodging and camping options outside the park. We have stayed at hotels, Airbnbs, and private campgrounds, to name a few.
4. How are you getting there?
We usually secure where we are staying first and then figure out how we will get to the park. Since we live on the East Coast, we do not have many parks near us that are within a day’s drive—many of our travels to national parks require us to travel by plane and rent a car. A few parks also require planning around ferry schedules. Every family is different. Know what you and your family members will tolerate when it comes to travel, especially if you are traveling with kids. Things to consider are how easy it is to travel to a location, and the cost. Our kids are used to long car rides and they pack their “car-rion” (what our kids’ call their carry-on bag for car trips) with books and activities to entertain themselves. Many parks are far from major airports, so you may want to break up the trip.
When we went to Yosemite, we flew into Oakland and stayed nearby in Mill Valley to visit Muir Woods the next day. On the following day, we drove four hours to Yosemite Valley. On our return, we spent another night close to the Oakland airport and visited several sites in the Bay Area before flying home.
We’ve had podcast listeners ask us how we bring our camping gear when we travel by plane. We are partial to Southwest Airlines for several reasons. In this case, their policy of two pieces of checked luggage free per person allows us to check our tent and pack our sleeping bags and other equipment in our suitcases like we did on our trip to the Everglades. We also like Southwest for the ease of making changes to flights if the need arises as well.
5. Are you going to eat out, cook, or bring camp food?
Consider your budget for food and what the options are where you are going. Saguaro National Park, for example, is in Tucson, Arizona, which has many great restaurants. However, most parks are not close to a culinary destination like this.
There are usually restaurants at lodges and maybe other fast food-type concessions inside the parks. We always bring at least some food staples with us or stop at a store on our way to the park. Our staples include bread, peanut butter, jelly, trail mix, granola or protein bars, and instant oatmeal. We’ll also try to get some fruit and vegetables that travel well, like carrots and apples. In addition, we always bring some emergency dehydrated camp food; we like the brand Mountain Home. Sometimes we make our own dehydrated food, too.
We often get asked what we eat and what provisions we buy when we go to national parks. For breakfast, we typically have instant oatmeal or one of Mountain Home’s breakfast options; we bring a single burner camping stove to make hot water. For lunch, we always pack healthy snacks and/or peanut butter and jelly to eat on the trails. For dinner, we will either make something, eat dehydrated camp food, or get food from one of the park’s dining options.
6. What activities are most important to your family?
Get the kids excited for your trip and involved in planning. Get ideas by listening to podcasts, reading blogs and guide books like Moon Travel Guides, check out the park website, and talk to other park enthusiasts. Then make your list as a family of top interests. Is there a key hike you want to do? A vista you want to see? An animal you want to spot? My family heads to the park with a list of ideas, but we always consult with a park ranger at the visitor center when we get there. They are amazingly knowledgeable and have the insider’s information on what is going on in the park at any given time. They may suggest activities you hadn’t even considered, but might turn out to be your highlights.
Sunrise at Flamingo Campground, Everglades National Park/Photo by Danielle Jacobs-Erwin
One lesson we have learned from experience is don’t over-plan your itinerary. Everything takes longer than you think and you will likely not get to everything on your list. Sometimes, switching gears to keep your kids happy is easier on everyone. Our kids loved biking in Yosemite Valley so much that they begged to do it again the next day, so instead of doing another hike, we biked and explored new things we had not seen the previous day. We also took a pause to picnic and play along the bank of the Merced River. They had a blast, and everyone was happy.
Speaking of hiking, if you are planning on doing a popular hike at a busy park, there is no substitute for being an early bird—bribe the kids if you have to. Hiking to Vernal and Nevada Falls is a must at Yosemite if your group is able, but an amazing adventure can feel like an amusement park in midday.
To wrap it all up, when traveling with a family, plan ahead, do your research, always be flexible, and don’t try to do too much. With kids, less is more. It makes for happy kids and creating treasured family memories.
Header photo: Family bike ride in Yosemite Valley/By Danielle Jacobs-Erwin
Danielle Jacobs-Erwin, along with my husband Bryan and their two junior rangers, host Everybody’s National Parks, an audio guide podcast promoting family adventure in national parks. “It’s like having a ranger in your pocket.”