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Plan the perfect national park vacation

Ever wanted to vacation in a national park? This step-by-step guide walks you through planning the perfect outdoor adventure.
Yellowstone
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January 22, 2018 04:06 PM
Plenty of easy hiking trails make it simple to explore this nearly 3,500-mile expanse centered mostly in Wyoming, which is also the site of a supervolcano and the largest high-elevation lake in the continental U.S.

So you’ve made the decision to visit a national park—or maybe you’re still just thinking about it. Either way, now is the time to start planning a memorable trip. Planning is especially important because some individual campgrounds fill up six months ahead of time.

The first stop on your search
First, you have to figure out where you want to go, so make your first stop the National Park Service's website. There you can search by name, activity, terrain or location. There’s no shortage of options, so have fun exploring!

Look for the park you’ve been dreaming of visiting; or search for the space with the best hiking trails; or find an area where you can study dinosaur fossils; or just look for the one closest to home. There are filters for all of that and more.

Yosemite national park image
Yosemite National Park

Booking that perfect campsite
You’ve got a few ways to nab a campsite, whether you’re looking to stay in a tent, RV or cabin. If you know you’ve got the time off and you’re already planning to go camping, you may want to go ahead and book now. That way you’ll know where you’re camping and you can plan accordingly.

Reservation policies vary from park-to-park, and even from campground-to-campground within those parks. You can generally stake your claim either by visiting the National Park Service’s reservations site or by calling the park directly.

If your vacation plans are still up in the air, you’ll probably want to watch for a cancellation at www.recreation.gov or try your luck at grabbing a first-come-first-served campground.

Kathy Kupper with the National Park Service tells us the secret to scoring one of those is making the reservation office your first stop of the morning. While you don’t generally have to be there when the doors open, it’s best to swing by before that first hike of the day.

Ackerman Campground
Ackerman National Recreation Area Campground

When you’re reserving your site, keep in mind who’s going. For example, if you’re a family searching for more privacy or if your goal is to see more nature than people, it’s best to search for the less popular campsites within the park, according to Kari Cobb at Yosemite National Park.

She notes that every year there’s a rush on campgrounds in the Yosemite Valley, home of the the park’s majestic waterfalls. Cobb says you can still get the same oohs and aahs by choosing a site away from the valley and hiking in for the scenery during the day.

A little camping prep goes a long way
So, now that you have your trip reserved, what’s next? If you still have several months standing between you and your relaxing vacation, get imaginative. Kupper suggests you grab the stove you plan to pack and start practicing the meals you want to serve.

It’s a great way to get everyone excited and makes for exciting dinner table talk about all the fun things you’ll do and see. If the weather’s nice, break in the tent and sleep a night or two in the backyard. A few trial runs at home, and you’ll have that tent up at the campsite faster than your little one can ask you what’s next.

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