How to Enjoy the National Parks: Plan and Hike Safely
Updated: Jul 19
My husband Jon and I are headed to our 17th national park vacation in July. This time we'll be exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park in OH. Our journey to America's beautiful parks began in 2010 on our way to spend time in Frisco, CO with our son, our daughter, her future husband, and his family. We included Grand Canyon NP in our itinerary, and discovered Arches NP along the way. We have been to one or two national parks every year since and even combined a trip to Rocky Mountain NP a few days before my daughter's wedding in Silverthorne, CO two years later.
Eight years of vacationing and hiking in our national parks have made us "experts" on how to plan, pack, find accommodations, hike trails safely, get sworn in as not-so-junior rangers, and so much more.
CHOOSING AND PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO A NATIONAL PARK
There are 59 national parks to chose from. Try picking a park close to home or in a neighboring state. If you live in New England, you've got Acadia NP in Maine. Live further south? How about Shenandoah NP in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains NP in Tennessee? Live out West? There you'll find Bryce NP, Zion NP, Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks, and many more.
Plan around the time of year best for you and/or your family. The best time for us is July/August when I'm off for the summer and when my husband is able to get away from his busy work schedule. The parks may be packed but we don't mind. We're too busy hiking strenuous trails.
Decide on the best way to get to the national park. Is it best to fly, drive a car, or cruise around in a RV? To get to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, we flew to Salt Lake City, UT and picked up our Cruise America RV rental. We flew to Fresno, CA, and picked up our car rental to get to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon. After flying into Miami, FL, we picked up another Cruise America RV rental and combined visits to Biscayne and Everglades national parks and Big Cypress National Preserve with running the Wildcat 100 mile ultra in Pensacola, FL. Closer to home, we have driven our car to Acadia, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains. Hiking and enjoying the beaches at Virgin Islands NP in St. John was our Christmas getaway in 2016.
We have experienced a variety of great accommodations. We've hooked up the RV in campgrounds available in national parks and in RV parks such as KOA. We have stayed in spacious cabins with all the amenities, some with a full daily breakfast. We stayed at an amazing resort in St. Thomas and took the ferry to St. John twice to hike on short but strenuous trails that took us to a piece of heaven on earth - beautiful beaches!
HIKING TRAILS SAFELY
We love to hike, especially challenging and strenuous trails. Before you set off on that hike, stop in the park's Visitor's Center, speak to the helpful volunteers and park rangers, ask about the trails, from easy to strenuous, and pick up trail maps to take with you.
Hiking with sufficient food, hydration, and a first-aid kit is critical. Pack sufficient fuel and hydration for the distance and the amount of time you'll be on the trails.
Food - Pack fruit (bananas, apples), trail mix, dry fruit, almond butter/peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salty crackers, and cookies. Always carry a plastic bag(s) to take your trash with you. Don't trash the trails!
Hydration - Carry lots of water and your favorite sports drinks. We like to carry water hydration bottles, a hydration bladder, and a Fuel Belt. We freeze all hydration the night before in the RV freezer or the freezer in the cabin we stay in so we have nice cold thawing frozen water and sports drinks through out the hike.
First Aid - Pack mosquito repellent, sunscreen, zinc oxide (Desitin), Band-Aids, Benadryl, Neosporin, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, elastic gauze, and a tweezer (in case you need to pluck a tick), Although we have never carried bear spray, some hikers do.
Bears - We have seen a collective 6 - 7 bears in Yellowstone, Zion, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains on the side of the road, on the trail, and deep in the woods. We've learned a lot about what to do if we see a bear on a trail. We raise our arms above our heads as high as we can and yell "Hey bear, hey bear!" repeatedly and walk away slowly. When hiking on the trail, especially on trails that twist and turn, and where we might not see a bear coming around the bend, we sing loudly and yell "hey bear, hey bear," as the cowbell we hang on our backpack blares rings with every step we take. Bears do not like noise or the sound of humans talking.
Packing appropriate gear and wearing the right shoes is essential. Determine the level of difficulty you want to take on, and the distance of the hike. Wear hiking boots or good trail shoes, and socks. To minimize tripping on rocky terrain, stubbing your toes, and getting blisters, don't wear open toe sandals. Tuck a rain jacket or poncho, and a small umbrella in your backpack. The weather can change suddenly. Pack a light long sleeve shirt in case it gets cool and to protect your arms from the hot sun, mosquitoes and other insects.
Wear comfortable clothes like hiking pants that you can unzip into long shorts, a hiking dress, a hiking skirt, or a skort. A cap or Safari hat will protect you from the sun. Apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses. A hiking/walking stick will help you to navigate rocky terrain, slippery, and muddy trails, and hike uphill and downhill. We usually find one or create our own from a fallen tree branch along the trails. When our hiking trip is over, we leave the hiking sticks at the trail head or in our cabin for other hikers to enjoy.
JUNIOR RANGER PROGRAMS
One of my favorite things to do at every national park is to participate in the junior ranger programs, attend lectures and activities, complete my activity book, get sworn in, and receive my junior ranger badge and patch! As long as you are a kid at heart, you can participate. If you are traveling with your children, include the junior ranger programs in your itinerary.
COMBINE A NATIONAL PARK VISIT WITH ANOTHER ADVENTURE
Have a destination wedding to attend near a national park? Are you an ultrarunner? Consider combining a national park visit with your ultra race event. In 2017, we combined a RV
"race-cation" to Biscayne and Everglades national parks with the Wildcat 100 mile ultra. I wrote an article for Competitor Running on tips for combining both. In 2018, we combined hiking in Cuyahoga Valley NP with the Burning River 50 miler in Ohio.
LEARN MORE AND FIND YOUR PAR
To learn more about our fun-filled hiking adventures in the national parks, click and visit my national parks link. Enjoy the photos. Each park link will take you to the official website of each national park that we have visited. You will learn more about accommodations, lodging, junior ranger programs, things to do, and much more. Hopefully, our photos and adventures will inspire you to find your park and seek outdoor adventure in any one of America's 63 beautiful national parks. Happy Trails!
Check out my YouTube video What to Pack for a Great Hiking Experience in the National Parks
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service 2016, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post: Keep Your Childlike Sense of Wonder Alive in America's National Parks.