National Parks are home to some of the most spectacular landscapes and ecosystems in the entire country. The USA National Parks protect natural features like glaciers, mountains, sand dunes, geysers, coastlines, rainforests, waterfalls, craters, caves, and volcanoes, wildlife like mountain goats, bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and elk, and historical artifacts like petroglyphs, ancient wood, monuments, underwater treasure, and archeological sites.
I’ve explored dozens of our nation’s beautiful public lands, and over the years, I’ve learned so many things about visiting the National Parks. My goal for this post is to share several of the lessons I’ve learned, the things that have made my visits better, and the mistakes I’ve made.
In this guide, I’m going to list 14 mistakes to avoid when visiting the National Parks. These National Park visitor mistakes are quite common, and I have made many of them over the years. Avoid these National Park mistakes so that the next time you visit one of the parks, you can have the best experience possible.
14 Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting the National Parks
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1. Only Visiting the Parks in the Daytime
Most visitors only see the National Parks in the daylight hours. It could be that they don’t want to wake up early, or they have to leave the park before sunset in order to grab dinner, and/or they have accommodations elsewhere and don’t want to drive the desolate roads in the dark.
Whatever the reason(s) may be, if you only see the park during the daytime, you’re missing out! The parks come alive at sunrise, at sunset, and under a veil of darkness.
✨ My advice…
Wake up before sunrise to hike in the dark and be among the first to witness the park light up. Brew a hot beverage with a handy-dandy Jetboil either on the trail or at the overlook as you watch the sunlight slowly fill the landscape.
Stay late in the parks. Set up a blanket and enjoy a picnic dinner and/or a hot cup of coffee at a scenic overlook while you watch the sunset.
And since many of the National Parks are International Dark Sky Parks due to how far away they are from cities and light pollution, make sure you’re awake at least one night to observe the sky lit up with twinkling stars.
2. Not Stopping By the Visitor Center
The first thing you should do when visiting a National Park is stop by the visitor center. (If you arrive outside of business hours, just stop by when it’s open!)
A park may have multiple visitor centers; it doesn’t necessarily matter which one you go inside. Just go to the one that is convenient for you!
Once you’re inside the visitor center, stamp your passport, browse the shops and exhibits, learn about the park, grab a map, and ask a ranger what he or she recommends you do/see in the park.
Park rangers – both the ones that are stationed inside the visitor centers and the ones that are roaming the park – are filled with a wealth of information so don’t be afraid to ask questions!
3. Only Visiting Popular Areas
If you only visit the popular areas of the park, you are missing out on the rest of the park.
This may seem obvious, but so many visitors just flock to the highlights – the popular, crowded trails and overlooks – and as a result, skip over some hidden gems. Reasons for this could be that they don’t have the time to dive deep into the more remote areas of the park, or it could be related to the visitor thinking that these other areas of the park aren’t worth seeing, aren’t as scenic, or take too long to explore.
But so many times, the lesser-known areas of the park are the BEST parts of the park! 🙌🏼
While I’d recommend that you still see the highlights (there’s a reason they are the most popular things to do/see, after all), make sure you allot time to venture into the lesser-known areas of the park.
Journey to the quieter sides of the park (every park has at least one!) and hike the longer trails (you’ll leave the crowds behind around mile marker one).
Oftentimes, in these places, you’ll get treated to some surprising views and get some much-needed solitude away from the hordes of people who are crowding the popular overlooks/trails.
For more tips on how to avoid crowds when hiking, click on my guide below! ⤵️
→ READ NEXT: How to Avoid Crowds When Hiking
4. Not Filling Up Your Gas Tank
National Parks typically don’t have gas stations inside their boundaries, and if they do, the prices will likely be much higher than surrounding towns/cities.
Also, since many of the parks are in remote areas, you might have a hard time filling up even outside the park. To prevent running out of gas, fill up your tank before entering the gates and/or keep a full gas can in your trunk.
Research gas stations ahead of time so that you know when to fill up before entering the park.
5. Not Buying a Park Pass
If you’re a National Park-aholic like I am, owning an America the Beautiful Park Pass is a necessity.
The America the Beautiful National Parks Pass gets you access to all of the National Parks for an entire year for just $80. Considering many parks have entrance fees ranging from $5 to $35, the money that you spend on visiting these parks can snowball.
While all the money goes back into the park, if you frequently visit the National Parks, you’re going to want to save some money and buy a park pass! Oh, and don’t forget to actually bring it to the parks (along with your ID).
6. Improperly Interacting With Wildlife
It’s never okay to approach, harass, or feed wildlife in the National Parks. I’ve witnessed these things happening way too often – both in person and on social media.
The proper way to interact with wildlife is from afar. Do not taunt, harass, feed, approach, or provoke them in any way.
Keep your distance and give animals room. You are in their home after all. The last thing you’ll want is for an animal to feel threatened by you and attack.
Every park unit has its own rules, but most rangers recommend that you stay at least 100 yards away from predators like bears and wolves and 25 yards away from all other wildlife.
→ READ NEXT: Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Campers 🐻
7. Not Bringing Your Own Food
If you don’t bring your own food into the park, then you will inevitably have to leave the park. (The exception would be if the National Park you’re visiting has a restaurant or general store inside its boundaries, of course).
If you bring your own meals into the park, you won’t have to leave. Therefore, you will have more time to explore!
In order to spend more time in the park – hiking, camping, exploring, climbing, etc. – pack your snacks and meals for the entire day!
Day-trippers, pack a cooler! Load it down with snacks, meals, and drinks to keep you fueled and hydrated all day long. Bring a Jetboil or camp stove if you plan on cooking a meal or boiling water.
Visitors who are camping inside the park, you can either go to your campsite for your meals or pack everything in your vehicle and/or your backpack so that you can stay out on the trails the entire day. Again, a Jetboil or other camp stove is super helpful when you want to cook meals or boil water on the go.
8. Going Off-Trail
Staying on the trail is super important to the longevity of the parks.
You might wonder why it matters if you go off trail?
Going off-trail results in the trampling of fragile plants, and over time, too many footsteps create human paths that more and more people will take, thinking they’re the real trail.
Going off-trail could also result in danger to your safety. Park staff has constructed the trails in a way that’s safe for visitors, wildlife, plants, and landscapes. Taking your own route could cause you to fall, get lost, get stuck, alarm a bear on its food path, etc.
9. Only Visiting During Peak Season
Peak season is the time of year that is typically advertised as the best time to visit a park. And it’s easy to see why. During peak season, you can usually find most hiking trails, roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers fully open and accessible. So it’s no wonder why most people visit during this time!
While I see how it would be tempting to visit during peak season, if you can swing it, I challenge you to go to a park in the shoulder season. Maybe everything won’t be open, and maybe the weather will alter your plans, but you will be blessed with fewer crowds.
Many times, shoulder seasons will have most, if not all of the amenities open like peak season does, just without the crowds. I’d encourage you to do your research ahead of time to find out if this is the case for the park you’re visiting!
→ READ NEXT: 2023 US National Parks Visitor’s Guide
10. Not Planning Ahead
Not planning ahead results in not being able to book campsites, not being able to hike certain trails because they require advance permits, not being able to get into a park because they require an advance timed-entry reservation, etc.
If you get to the park, and realize you can’t pass the entrance gate, can’t hike your favorite trail, can’t bring your dog with you, and/or can’t reserve a campsite, you will be deeply disappointed. To avoid this, plan plan plan!
While spontaneity is certainly nice, when it comes to the National Parks, you’ll want to do some research ahead of time.
You’ll need to book popular National Park campsites 6 months ahead of time. Campgrounds in parks like Mount Rainier and North Cascades sell out in seconds!
You’ll also sometimes need to reserve timed-entry reservations, trail permits, and backcountry wilderness permits ahead of time as well. Check the park’s official webpage to see current requirements.
11. Not Stamping Your Passport
Don’t forget to stamp your passport at one of the park’s visitor centers!
If you don’t already have one, you can purchase a passport book at most park visitor centers or online. Then you can start collecting stamps for each of the parks you visit! It’s a fun way to reminisce all of your park memories as you flip through the pages.
12. Not Staying Overnight in the Parks
Staying outside of the parks was one of the biggest regrets we had in our early National Parks exploration years.
Staying outside of the park means less time inside the park. Staying outside of the park means you have to factor in drive time between your accommodations and the park. Staying outside of the park usually means you are less likely to be there for sunrise, sunset, dark, etc.
Do yourself a favor and stay overnight in the park! Whether that be in a park lodge, cabin, or campground, you won’t regret spending more time in the park.
13. Rushing Through the Park
A rookie National Park visitation mistake is rushing through the park. Thinking that you can see and do everything in a few hours, when in reality, it’s just not possible.
Take your time by slow-traveling through the parks. See beyond the highlights, immerse yourself in the landscapes, interact with the rangers, observe the wildlife, learn about the history and geology of the area, and really experience the park by dipping your toes into the various activities that it has to offer.
14. Ignoring Leave No Trace Principles
Lastly, I see way too many visitors ignoring Leave No Trace. I see visitors enter the park and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Instead of leaving the park better than they found it, they leave it much, much worse.
Sadly, some visitors think it’s okay to disrespect our parks by covering petroglyphs in graffiti, cutting down live trees for firewood, tossing trash onto hiking trails, polluting the waterways with chemicals and garbage, and camping illegally on fragile vegetation. The list goes on and on.
Luckily, there are much more respectful park visitors than disrespectful ones. So those of you who respect and love our parks (just as I do), I encourage you to leave the park better than you found it and educate those who aren’t doing that. (❗️Read the situation and gauge how you will be received. If you feel like you could be in danger by spreading education to the person(s) harming the park, keep on walking).
Curious how you – as a National Park visitor – can help the park? Read my guide to see how exactly you can practice Leave No Trace when hiking and camping.
Discover Your Next Adventure
Which National Park should you head to next? I’ve got some guides that will help you decide!