Getting the Most Out of Your National Park Visit

Wandering Elk Island in Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Wandering Elk Island in Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Temperatures are rising and school days are over, meaning only one thing: it's the start of Summer! As we mark the Summer Solstice this week, many of the U.S. National Parks enter their peak season, welcoming millions of people looking to discover the natural beauty of these preserved tracts of wilderness.

No matter the season, if you have any of the 59 U.S. National Parks on your vacation list, Compass & Key has curated nine essential tips to ensure you get the most out of your adventure.


1) Get Social

The staff and volunteers at our National Parks curate helpful tips and stunning images through their popular social media feeds. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter well before your trip to learn more about local wildlife, park conditions, interesting trails, and more. The popular parks will have verified accounts with the official checkmark and often include 'NPS' (National Park Service) in the account name. 

2) Find a Friend

A Friend of the Park organization, that is. These nonprofits help support and preserve the Parks in conjunction with the NPS by hosting educational programs, rehabilitating trails, and engaging the community. Because they are local to the park, Friends groups often share the best tips through their blogs, social media feeds and websites for off-the-beaten-track places to visit. They also have access to local history, providing context through stories and photos from early settlers and visitors. 

Find the right Friend of the Park website with this handy list shared by Find Your Park.

3) Preview the Park Newspaper

You will receive a Park Newspaper after paying any entry fees, detailing Ranger talks, educational programs and general news. But most people don't know that you can usually find the park newspapers online before your trip, helping you plan ahead for timely events.

These guides are typically published monthly or seasonally, and available as PDF downloads. Sometimes the guides are tricky to locate on the park websites, so try the search term "[WHICHEVER NATIONAL PARK] park newspaper", i.e. "Yosemite park newspaper".

Here are direct links to the newspapers published by some of our favorite National Parks (tip: you may need to scroll down the page to find the newspaper PDF links).

Park Newspaper Links: Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, GlacierAcadia (archive only), Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon


4) Pack Smart

A little prep can go a long way when it comes to your National Park visit. We have compiled all of our favorite gear into the Compass & Key National Park Packing List. Check off the essentials in equipment, clothing, food and water storage, safety, and comfort. 


5) First Stop: Ranger Station / Visitors Center

Our first stop is always a National Park Visitor Center, where friendly Park Rangers are eager to help make the most of your visit (pro-tip: ask about the trails they explore on their days off). Review schedules for tours and Ranger-led talks and make sure to learn about any trail closures due to wildlife sightings or maintenance work. Visitor Centers also carry maps, guidebooks, snacks, and gifts, and many offer exhibitions about the history of the park.

Start your National Park visit with the helpful Park Rangers.  Photo courtesy NPS

Start your National Park visit with the helpful Park Rangers. Photo courtesy NPS

6) Get Out of the Car and Onto the Trail

If you take anything away from this article, it's this bit of advice: leave your car. So many visitors barely exit their vehicles while touring the National Parks. But it's remarkably easy to experience the beauty of these wild places on the trail.

The National Parks offer a range of hikes for every skill level. Ask for ideas at the Ranger station, pick up a guide book, or consult an app like AllTrails, which makes it easy to filter hikes by length of time and level of difficulty. Check out our favorite hikes and guide books on the Compass & Key travel guides for Yosemite and the Smokies.

On the  Inspiration Point Trail  in Yosemite

On the Inspiration Point Trail in Yosemite

7) Start Early

The early bird catches the worm, as they say. Snag a parking spot, avoid the crowds, and capture the best photos during the golden hour by setting off for your hikes early. Also, if you're planning on visiting a popular trail, waterfall, or other major attraction, go on a weekday.

Sunrise at Yellowstone Lake

Sunrise at Yellowstone Lake

8) Keep Wildlife Wild

Spotting wildlife is one of the highlights of any National Park visit. Just remember to treat their home with respect, and help preserve their way of life by following a few simple rules. Remove all food from a parked car and store food appropriately while camping. Keep a safe distance from any wild animal, and never feed or approach them. We enjoyed observing this handsome fellow in Many Glacier Valley.

A moose on Lake Josephine in Glacier National Park

A moose on Lake Josephine in Glacier National Park

9) Preserve the Parks for the Future

It is a privilege to experience these preserved lands of natural beauty, so make sure to leave the National Parks as you found them for future generations of explorers. Follow these friendly reminders: leave nothing along the trail or at the campsite, regardless of how small, follow the main trails, leave wildflowers and plants untouched, and only use designated campsites and campfire rings.

For more helpful tips, visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

The colorful but delicate 'hoodoo' formations in Bryce Canyon

The colorful but delicate 'hoodoo' formations in Bryce Canyon


For more vacation planning tips and detailed itineraries, visit the Compass & Key National Park destination guides.

How do you get the most out of your visits to the National Parks?

Share your advice with the Compass & Key community in the comments below.