Everything you need to know to plan a national park road trip

Everything you need to know to plan a national park road trip

Deemed “America’s best idea,” national parks protect some of the most scenic and historically significant areas in the U.S.

About the National Park Service

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which established the National Park Service (NPS). Its goal is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and … leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” 

The NPS now manages 63 national parks and hundreds of monuments, historical sites, seashores, scenic trails, riverways, and more across the U.S. and its territories. According to the NPS, there are more than 20,000 NPS employees who care for both the protected land and its visitors. 

Many of these employees are park rangers, who support programming at national parks, staff visitor centers, and offer guided tours. While programming varies by park, the Junior Ranger program and Every Kid Outdoors are nationwide programs. Local programs can be found on each park’s individual website by navigating to “Things To Do” in the “Plan Your Visit” menu.

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List of all 63 U.S. national parks

Name State Year Founded Visitors (2021)
Acadia Maine 1919 4,069,098
American Samoa American Samoa 1988 8,495
Arches Utah 1971 1,806,865
Badlands South Dakota 1978 1,224,226
Big Bend Texas 1978 581,220
Biscayne Florida 1980 705,655
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Colorado 1999 308,910
Bryce Canyon Utah 1928 2,104,600
Canyonlands Utah 1964 911,594
Capitol Reef Utah 1971 1,405,353
Carlsbad Caverns New Mexico 1930 349,244
Channel Islands California 1980 319,252
Congaree South Carolina 2003 215,181
Crater Lake Oregon 1902 647,751
Cuyahoga Valley Ohio 2000 2,575,275
Death Valley California 1994 1,146,551
Denali Alaska 1917 229,521
Dry Tortugas Florida 1992 83,817
Everglades Florida 1934 942,130
Gates of the Arctic Alaska 1980 7,362
Gateway Arch Missouri 2018 1,145,081
Glacier Montana 1910 3,081,656
Glacier Bay Alaska 1980 89,768
Grand Canyon Arizona 1919 4,532,677
Grand Teton Wyoming 1929 3,885,230
Great Basin Nevada 1986 144,875
Great Sand Dunes Colorado 2004 602,613
Great Smoky Mountains Tennessee 1934 14,161,548
Guadalupe Mountains Texas 1966 243,291
Haleakala Hawaii 1961 853,181
Hawaii Volcanoes Hawaii 1916 1,262,747
Hot Springs Arkansas 1921 2,162,884
Indiana Dunes Indiana 2019 3,177,210
Isle Royale Michigan 1940 25,844
Joshua Tree California 1994 3,064,400
Katmai Alaska 1980 24,764
Kenai Fjords Alaska 1980 411,782
Kings Canyon California 1940 562,918
Kobuk Valley Alaska 1980 11,540
Lake Clark Alaska 1980 18,278
Lassen Volcanic California 1916 359,635
Mammoth Cave Kentucky 1941 515,774
Mesa Verde Colorado 1906 548,477
Mount Rainier Washington 1899 1,670,063
New River Gorge West Virginia 2020 1,682,720
North Cascades Washington 1968 17,855
Olympic Washington 1938 2,718,925
Petrified Forest Arizona 1962 590,334
Pinnacles California 2013 348,857
Redwood California 1968 435,879
Rocky Mountain Colorado 1915 4,434,848
Saguaro Arizona 1994 1,079,786
Sequoia California 1890 1,059,548
Shenandoah Virginia 1935 1,592,312
Theodore Roosevelt North Dakota 1978 796,085
Virgin Islands U.S. Virgin Islands 1956 323,999
Voyageurs Minnesota 1971 243,042
White Sands New Mexico 2019 782,469
Wind Cave South Dakota 1903 709,001
Wrangell – St. Elias Alaska 1980 50,189
Yellowstone Wyoming, Montana, Idaho 1872 4,860,242
Yosemite California 1890 3,287,595
Zion Utah 1919 5,039,835

Cost for visiting national parks

Each national park charges its own vehicle entry—usually around $30—or per-person fee, while a few parks offer free admission year-round. Entrance for children ages 15 and under is free.

National parks with no entrance fees include:

The NPS announces entrance-free days for some national holidays and other celebrations each year. For 2022 there are five entrance-free days: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (January 17), the first day of National Park Week (April 16), the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act (August 4), National Public Lands Day (September 24), and Veterans Day (November 11).

Tickets and reservations at national parks

In recent years, national parks have experienced a record number of visitors. This has led some parks to require advance reservations for entry or certain activities, including shuttles and hikes. To avoid any disappointment, do your research ahead of your visit. Each individual park’s website will have information on whether tickets are required, and many reservations can be made on Recreation.gov. Popular parks with advance ticketing for some or all areas include Acadia, Arches, Glacier, Yosemite, and Zion.

Discounts and passes at national parks

Frequent national park visitors can save big on entrance fees by purchasing an annual America the Beautiful Pass, which is valid at areas managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The pass costs $80 and covers entrance for up to four adults traveling in the same vehicle. Passes expire 12 months from the month of purchase on the last day of the month. The pass can be ordered online, via phone at 888-275-8747, or purchased in person at many federal recreation areas

All current U.S. military members and dependents as well as veterans and Gold Star Family members receive free entrance to all parks through a special military pass. Seniors are able to purchase a discounted lifetime or annual senior pass. Those with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free lifetime pass; volunteers with a certain number of service hours are eligible for free annual passes. Children who are in fourth grade receive free access for their families for a full year (September through August) through the Every Kid Outdoors program. More information on all these passes can be found here

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Use the NPS App to view park maps, accessibility information, alerts, and more. You can also download content for offline use.

Preparing for a national park visit

A visit to a national park is made better with research, planning, and backup options. You’ll be enjoying the outdoors so expect encounters with wildlife—including bugs—and, depending on when and where you visit, inclement weather.

Visiting national parks with pets

Not all national parks are pet-friendly. While many allow leashed pets at campgrounds and some trails, there are restrictions. Learn more about the B.A.R.K. Ranger program, and consider a nearby kennel if needed.

Visiting national parks by RV

RVing is a popular way to visit national parks. Make sure you know your RV’s height and length restrictions before planning a trip so you can make sure your rig fits at campsites and on roads.

Accessibility at national parks

The NPS has its own Accessibility Task Force to recommend changes for improving accessibility at park units. All permanently disabled U.S. residents are eligible for free park entry. You can learn more about each park’s accessibility levels on its website under the “Plan Your Visit” menu.

Seasonality at national parks

Some national parks close or have limited access on a seasonal basis due to weather conditions. You can view this information on each park’s website under the “Plan Your Visit” menu. Information will be listed under “Basic Information > Operating Hours & Seasons.”

Recreate Responsibly and Leave No Trace

The NPS supports the Leave No Trace Seven Principles and Recreate Responsibly. Learn more about these campaigns below.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

The NPS recommends 10 items for national park visits: navigation (map, compass, and GPS system), sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat), insulation (jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and underlayers), illumination (flashlight, headlamp, and lantern), first-aid supplies, fire starters, repair kit and tools (duct tape, knife, screwdriver, and scissors), nutrition, hydration, and an emergency shelter (tent, space blanket, tarp, and bivy).

Camping and lodging at national parks

Most national parks offer convenient accommodations in the form of lodges and campgrounds inside the park’s grounds. There are more than 130 campgrounds to choose from within the 63 parks and nearly half of the parks offer in-park lodging.

Camping at national parks

Most campground reservations can be made in advance through Recreation.gov, although this varies by park. Some sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Nightly rates and other fees vary by park and will be listed on each park’s website.  

To find camping information for each park, visit the park’s website and navigate to the “Plan Your Visit” menu. Lodging and camping information will be listed under “Eating & Sleeping.” Most popular campgrounds fill up the day the reservation booking window opens, which can be anywhere from 14 days to 12 months in advance of travel dates. Make sure to mark your calendar and make bookings as soon as you can. 

Note that many national park campgrounds are limited in amenity offerings and site size. Depending on your camping style and rig size, you might consider a private campground in a gateway town. Glamping sites are also cropping up in the areas surrounding many popular national parks and can be convenient for families or those looking to bridge sleeping outdoors with creature comforts. 

Lodging at national parks

Almost half of U.S. national parks—including Badlands, Death Valley, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion—offer in-park lodging, typically through park concessionaires. Like campgrounds, rooms book well in advance, so make your reservations as early as possible. Most lodges have their own websites for booking and additional information.