Before You Go: What to Research
Imagine you’re travelling to London for the first time. You think to yourself, “I know I want to see Buckingham Palace, but what else is there to do? How do I use the Tube? Does buying an Oyster Card mean I am pre-paying for shellfish?” Naturally, you’ll sit down and Google all of these things so that you’re prepared for facts such as Platform 9 ¾ looking nothing like the movie.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re clearly doing the same for your upcoming trip to a National Park. Well done! This article is meant to help you minimize unwelcome surprises during your stay. Here are the 10 things you may want to look into before you go:
1) Expected Weather
A little more than just checking the 10-Day forecast, it’s good to know in the planning stages typical temperatures and average rainfall. Are storms not unusual? Would knowing July and August are the Grand Canyon’s monsoon season influences what dates you pick? Since campsites can be booked up to six months in advance, this type of information can be very helpful.
2) Approx Driving Times
Just because everything you want to see is in the same National Park, doesn’t mean everything is necessarily close to each other. A drive from Grant Village to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone is two and a half hours one-way. From the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is four hours. On the opposite side, the entirety of Arches’ maid road can be covered in less than 40 minutes. This can help you schedule your trip and avoid spending more time than necessary behind the wheel.
3) What Time of Day First-Come, First-Serve Campgrounds Fill
Some parks don’t have a single campground available for reservations on Recreation.gov, and the only option is to snag a site that’s first-come, first-serve. Having a general idea when you'll arrive can help guide you to sites that have a better chance of being available. For example, in Grand Teton NP Jenny Lake fills up early every morning, Colter Bay in the afternoon, and Gros Ventre in the evening, if at all. If you're pulling in after a long drive, the last thing you need is for every spot to be filled because you went to the wrong campground first.
4) What Time Parking Lots Fill
Most park websites provide a general idea of when busy parking areas become full, usually in the mid to late morning range, but sometimes earlier. Avoiding parking nightmares can go a long way into how great your National Park experience will be.
5) Your Wish & Must-See Lists
This is the fun part! Come up with a wishlist of everything you want to do and see in the Park. Dream impossible dreams before you get into the logistical nitty gritty that forces you to pare down. Eventually, settle on what you consider a must-see and what is a hope-to-get-to.
6) Trails You Want to Hike
My personal favorite, but also the most difficult task for which to find a solid answer. Finding trails that sound realistic yet challenging, fascinating yet lightly travelled, and then culminate with a wondrous payoff can be really hard. The reward, however, is that these hikes create cherished memories and a sense of accomplishment—usually far surpassing the ooh aah moments at drivable overlooks.
7) Rainy Day Safety & Options
Know how rain will affect your plans. Are flash floods a risk? Lightning? If your plan is to brave the wet weather, make sure you’re prepared with equipment and information. Having at least one alternative option in your back pocket is a must either way. Just sitting and pouting while waiting for the rain to stop is about the worst possible choice you can make.
8) Park Alerts
In the week or two preceding your trip, periodically check the NPS park websites for any alerts that could affect your travel plans. Road closures? Fire restrictions? Construction? Government shutdowns? They post this information so you can plan accordingly. We once saw construction cause a two-mile long traffic backup, so it’s worth paying attention.
9) Park History
Granted, not knowing the human or geologic history of a Park won’t ruin your experience, but it definitely could enhance it. Following a trail John Muir hiked or sleeping at a campground that Teddy Roosevelt helped protect can add a layer of appreciation that otherwise may not exist.
10) Sunrise & Sunset Times
Depending on what time of year you're visiting, you’re obviously going to know that days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Knowing exactly when it’s going to be light out, however, is helpful for planning hikes, returning before dark, or being able to plan for the first daylight eruption of Old Faithful. The more information you know, the better (and safer) choices you’ll be able to make.