Historian Wallace Steiner called America’s national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Our parks are open to everyone. Can you imagine if places like Joshua Tree or Zion had been sold to developers, or to private parties? Instead, you and I can experience their beauty for ourselves, and they’re preserved for future generations.
The first federally protected land was in Arkansas. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Hot Springs Reservation in what was then the Arkansas Territory. The area had become increasingly popular and the locals were concerned that it would become overdeveloped.
The next step in our national parks evolution was when President Abraham Lincoln ceded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to California in 1864. This prohibited private ownership and answered the question: does the government have the right to create parks?
Yes, yes it does.
The first national park in the United States was also the first national park in the world.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation creating Yellowstone National Park. Because this massive park was in federally governed territory and spread into what would later become three different states, there wasn’t a question about the government’s jurisdiction. Montana didn’t become a state until 1889, and Idaho and Wyoming joined the union the following year.
It would be another eighteen years before the second national park, Sequoia, was created. It was followed quickly by Kings Canyon and Yosemite.
One of the biggest advocates of protecting the country’s resources was President Theodore Roosevelt. A camping trip with John Muir, who is often considered to be the father of our national parks, greatly influenced the president and Teddy signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, which enabled presidents to use executive orders to create National Monuments. Devils Tower in the northeast corner of Wyoming was the first.
Then, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, creating the National Park Service
In 1933, another President Roosevelt got in the act when FDR signed Executive Order 33, which moved the administration of National Monuments and military sites to the NPS, and finally, in 1970 the General Authorities Act further defined the National Park Service, creating the system we know today.
National Park Service Today
- 423 Individual Sites
- 63 National Parks
- 85 National Monuments
- 76 National Historic Sites
There are also National Battlefields, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and several other types of natural and cultural sites that are protected and preserved under the umbrella of the National Park Service.
Tips for Visiting US National Parks
- Know when to go
As you’re planning your National Parks adventure, check for the best times to visit. This is often dependent on the weather.
For example, parts of Bryce Canyon National Park and Mesa Verde National Park are closed during the winter due to their altitude. If you plan on visiting Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road is only open during the summer.
- Plan ahead
Once you’ve figured when you’d like to visit a National Park, book your reservations for camping, accommodations, and tours ASAP. Outdoor adventures are more popular than ever and all of the above fill up quickly. The most popular parks are booked far in advance.
- Be aware of potential closures
Due to the ongoing health crisis, many facilities and US National Park Service sites are closed or have limited hours. Call ahead or check nps.gov to find out if the activities you want to do will be available.
If you’ve planned far in advance, check periodically as your travel dates grow near. We’re in a fluid situation and things can change quickly.
- Consider your tolerance for crowds
You’ll also want to take your crowd-tolerance level into consideration. The last thing you want is to sit in a traffic jam in a National Park, but that happens when you visit the most popular parks during the most popular times. Consider going during shoulder seasons, the weeks before and after the busiest times.
- Stay in the park
If the park you plan to visit has accommodations within the park and/or campgrounds, stay there. Being inside the park itself means less time driving to and fro. It also means that you can get to the most popular parts of the park before the tour busses and masses of humanity arrive.
- Visit lesser-known parks and areas of popular parks
Even National Parks have tourist traps. For example, in Yellowstone, everybody wants to see Old Faithful. Old Faithful is great (and much easier to see if you stay in the park itself – see tip #5), but if you have limited time, you don’t want to spend it sitting in a backup of vehicles trying to get to the predictable geyser.
If that’s a bucket list item for you, by all means, see it! But if you want to experience more and spend less time in a car, then visit other, less well-known parts of the park.
- Visit the National Park’s Visitor Center
One of my biggest pieces of travel advice is to visit the Visitor Center. This isn’t just true when you’re visiting cities and towns. It’s true when you go to National Parks, too.
Each Visitor Center will have rangers on hand to give you all the advice you want, including how to find those lesser-known areas that don’t get as much love as they deserve.
While you’re there, pick up a park map and, if available, a park newspaper. The former will come in handy when you have no cell service. The latter is a goldmine of information about the park, including weather, potential warnings about animals, special programming, and other tips for visiting.
TLTip: If you’re in a larger park with lots of hiking, you can often get maps for the individual trails at the Visitor Center.
- Take advantage of special Park Ranger Programs
National Park Service Sites often have special programs hosted by park rangers. In Glacier, we learned about the park’s geology. In Badlands, a ranger taught us how to throw an atlatl. Devils Tower featured an insight into the National Monument’s sacred status among the Lakota and other Native Americans.
- Leave wildlife wild
When you’re visiting US National Parks and you come across wildlife, remember that you’re in their home. Keep your distance and never ever ever feed them. Don’t try to pet them. Don’t try to get near them. Basically, you want their existence to be as minimally impacted by your presence as possible.
- Leave no trace
The wonderful thing about US National Parks is that they’re meant for everyone. That means that when you visit, you’ll want to leave it the way you found it. The National Park Service abides by the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, and they ask that you do, too:
- 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
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
- Get an America the Beautiful Pass
An America the Beautiful Pass gets you into all NPS fee-based sites for $80 a year. If you’re 62 or older, you can get it for $20 a year, or spend $80 for a lifetime pass.
- Record your visits with a National Parks Passport
Want a reminder of your visits? Get a National Parks Passport. Bring it with you to NPS sites and you can get it stamped, just like a real passport. There’s also a map and information on the parks. Plus your purchase helps fund these national treasures. Visit americasnationalparks.org for details and to get yours.
- Use Recreation.gov to book reservations
Recreation.gov is the official website and app for making reservations in US National Park Service sites. You can find campgrounds and lodging, tours and activities, sign up for lotteries, and find information on what permits are required near you.
Related: Best campgrounds in the Midwest
- Fill your gas tank
Many parks are huge and gas can be hard to find. Use GasBuddy to locate stations and prices.
Related: How to use GasBuddy to save on gas
- Check pet rules
Want to bring your furry friend? Find out in advance if dogs are allowed on trails, etc., in the park.
- Bring food and water
Some parks have general stores, but you don’t want to count on them, especially if you’re visiting during off- or shoulder seasons. Instead, bring your own. You’ll definitely want to bring lots of water if you plan on being outside or doing any hiking, biking, kayaking, or other physical activity.
- Take LOTS of photos and video
You’ll want to remember your experience (and probably show it off to friends when you get back home). Document your trip by taking lots of photos and videos. And then…
- Put down your phone
It’s great to record your trip, but then put your phone down. Be sure to soak it all in with your eyes as well as your camera lens.
I hope these tips help you get the most out of this incredible resource. Scroll down to sign up below for a free download of these tips, a National Parks packing list, and a National Parks checklist.
National Parks Packing List
These items will help make your National Parks experience a success!
- Snacks/energy bars
- Water bottle/camelback
- Trekking poles
- Day pack for hikes
- Bear spray (depending on park)
- Bug spray
- Park map
- Install GasBuddy
- Install Recreation.gov
- Two-way radios
- Back up phone chargers
- Basic first aid kit
- A Flexible Attitude!
National Parks Checklist
Do you want to visit all 63 US National Parks? Here’s a list, and you can sign up here to get a free download of our National Parks checklist.
- Acadia National Park, Maine
- American Samoa National Park
- Arches National Park, Utah
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
- Big Bend National Park, Texas
- Biscayne National Park, Florida
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
- Channel Islands National Park, California
- Congaree National Park, South Carolina
- Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
- Death Valley National Park, California
- Denali National Park, Alaska
- Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
- Everglades National Park, Florida
- Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska
- Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
- Great Basin National Park, Nevada
- Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
- Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
- Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
- Indiana Dunes, Indiana
- Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
- Katmai National Park, Alaska
- Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
- Kings Canyon National Park, California
- Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska
- Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
- Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
- Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
- Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
- Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
- New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
- North Cascades National Park, Washington
- Olympic National Park, Washington
- Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
- Pinnacles National Park, California
- Redwood National Park, California
- Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
- Saguaro National Park, Arizona
- Sequoia National Park, California
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
- Virgin Islands National Park, US Virgin Islands
- Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
- White Sands National Park, New Mexico
- Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
- Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, Alaska
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Yosemite National Park, California
- Zion National Park, Utah
How many of these National Parks have you visited? Let me know in the comments!