The kids may be back in the swing of school and the holiday season might be on your mind, but now is the perfect time to start homing in on what to do next summer, especially if you’re eager to explore our national parks as a family.
Over the last 10 years, the number of visitors to our most popular parks has increased by more than 40 percent, according to the National Park Service. With this in mind, here are five things you’ll want to do today to prepare for next summer’s national parks vacation:
1. Decide where you want to go, but be flexible.
The demand for A-list parks like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone continues to grow, so if your heart is set on one of these parks, start investigating campsites and hotel rooms now. Have back-up choices in mind too. For example, some parks and monuments, like Canyonlands in Utah, may be more amenable to bookings closer to your travel dates.
2. Book your campsite or lodging.
Once you decide on the park to explore, reserve your campground or lodging in order to lock in your most desired dates. Reservations are essential. Many in-park lodges and campgrounds open up reservations five to six months ahead of the month you plan to visit, and many can book solid that same day.
Some campsites offer first-come, first-serve sites, but those can book up well before 10 am each day. A word of advice: It’s better to have confirmed sites, especially when travelling with kids. Explore the website of the parks you plan to visit for details on how to reserve lodging and campsites.
3. Reserve activities and transportation.
Just as campsites and hotel rooms can book up quickly, so do RV rentals, as well as activities, like horseback riding and rafting. Given that renting an RV is one of the most popular ways to navigate our national parks, plan to book the right size RV for your family as soon as possible.
Most RVs can be picked up near major airports like Las Vegas and Denver that are within easy driving distance of various national parks. A reputable outfitter like Tracks & Trails can book your RV and your campsites, taking some of the stress out of the planning process.
4. Consider off-peak dates.
When you plan well in advance, you can often have your pick of campsites and hotels within the national parks. However, there’s a lot to be said for travelling during an off-peak time, like May or September, before the big summer crowds descend.
With fewer crowds, you won’t find yourself hiking the most popular trails with several hundred of your closest friends. You also won’t need to jockey quite as much for the best photos of Old Faithful at Yellowstone or General Sherman at Sequoia National Park.
5. Plan now to wake up early.
Vacation is all about sleeping in, right? Not so much at a national park. Early morning is the best time to get up and get into the parks to avoid the crowds and to get to the most popular areas before everybody else arrives. It’s also a great time for spotting wildlife. So wrap your mind around early wake-up calls now.
Early morning is also a great time for capturing beautiful photos, including spectacular sunrises. Pack a tripod in your daypack for well-focused photos. If you’ll be taking photos with an iPhone, you can get a tripod for your phone, too, as well as lenses for more dramatic images.
By Dan Wulfman, the founder of Tracks & Trails, a trip–planning company that sets up family RV vacations in the national parks. He is an avid park-goer, having spent more than 15 years exploring the national parks.