How to Vacation at National Parks

AAA travel agent shares tips on what to see, where to stay, and how to keep kids entertained

Arches National Park

WASHINGTON, DC (July 20, 2023) – It’s the time of year when visitors flock to U.S. National Parks. While there may be 63 to choose from, certain parks are more popular than others during summer. Want to see America’s beauty with fewer crowds? AAA travel agent Lori Reilly has been advising travelers for nearly 30 years and says knowing when to visit the parks and where to stay makes a huge difference. 

Yellowstone National Park

There seems to be an uptick in travel to National Parks. Why the spike in interest? 

It does seem that more people are flocking to our National Parks.  As a AAA travel agent, I often hear people say they travel to unplug and unwind, and our National Parks offer those opportunities. Many travelers tell me they want domestic vacations that offer breathtaking views. Young people love showcasing the stunning scenery on social media, like Instagram and TikTok. 

With several National Park Pass Discount Programs offering free or discounted entrance fees, as well as many of the reservation systems going away, visiting these national treasures is becoming easier. 

Which parks are the most popular? 

In the western United States, Yellowstone in Wyoming and Yosemite in California are two of the most popular. Yosemite attracts many domestic and international visitors.  Both parks offer iconic scenery, from the majestic Half Dome and waterfalls in Yosemite to Old Faithful and bison in Yellowstone.  

In the eastern U.S., Acadia National Park in Maine is popular and one of the spots where you’ll be the first to see the sun rise in the east! Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the North Carolina/Tennessee border offers some of the best fall colors and a portion of the Appalachian Trail.    

Canyonlands National Park

What are some lesser-known National Parks for travelers who want to avoid big crowds?

North Cascades National Park in Washington is a beautiful, rugged park for those looking to get away from it all.  It offers hiking and biking trails and opportunities for mountaineering and horseback riding.   

For those really looking to disconnect, consider visiting Stehekin in North Cascades National Park in Washington. This lake community is only accessible by boat, foot, or floatplane. Visitors can camp or stay at the Lodge at Stehekin, which offers beautiful rooms or private cabins.  

Another lesser known, off the beaten path National Park is Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  Here you will find an array of activities from hiking, bird watching, fishing, and star gazing. The park is home to Lehman Caves where you can take tours to view the stalagmites and stalactites. Great Basin also offers a number of astronomy events throughout the year.  

What’s your advice for families visiting National Parks with young kids? 

Investigate the Junior Ranger program for the park you are planning to visit.  Many of the parks have programs designed to enrich children’s experiences and kids can even earn patches and badges when completing tasks inside the park! Many of the programs have printable programs on their website that allow for planning in advance and increasing your child’s interest prior to arrival. Also, purchase your child a National Parks passport to have stamped when traveling to the National Parks, especially if you have more than one park on your planned itinerary.   

Another thing to consider: if you’re bringing snacks, be sure you have a way to pack your trash after you’re done eating. When walking on trails, garbage cans are not always readily available, so you may have to carry wrappers and other trash with you until you leave the park.  

Glacier National Park

Where should people stay when they visit National Parks? 

While it is the most expensive option, I recommend visitors stay inside the National Parks. It will save you time and maximize your visit to the park. People often only think about the distance from a hotel to the park entrance, but traffic is an issue as well. Lots of visitors trying to get in on the same day will cause your commute time to really increase.   

If staying inside the park is not an option, consider staying in an area that is not considered the main entrance of the park itself.  For example, in Yellowstone, many travelers stay in Cody, just over an hour drive to the eastern entrance to the park.  Another option is Jackson, just south of the Tetons National Park and approximately 1 ½ hours from the southern entrance to Yellowstone. 

Most families travel during the summer because kids are off from school. But what are some other good times of the year to visit National Parks? 

Autumn is a lovely time to visit Acadia in Maine, Glacier in Montana, Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, and Shenandoah for cooler weather plus fall foliage. Winter is a great time for visitors interested in skiing and snowshoeing up north and for those looking for milder temperatures in the parks in the south.  

Yosemite National Park

What’s your favorite National Park?

Due to my proximity, my favorite National Park is Yosemite, especially in the fall when the trees are beginning to turn. 

Yosemite offers so many incredible views, from the tunnel view as you first enter the park, to Glacier Point giving unparalleled views of Half Dome, a massive rock formation. We enjoy the trails that go out to Mirror Lake or the Mist Trail that takes you right next to Vernal Falls. We love the views of the Merced River and Phono Bridge, which reminds me of a bridge in a fairytale – and you half expect a troll to be living under it! Another great place to get views of Half Dome is from Stoneman Meadow, where in the early evening before sunset you may find deer eating there. A visit close to sunset can make for some stunning photographs!    

Want more inspiration? Check out this list of lesser-known National Parks from AAA Travel Editors.  

Ready to book? Browse National Park tours and road trip ideas on Trip Canvas, AAA’s free online travel planning tool. Or contact a AAA travel agent to find the perfect National Park for you!  

Photos courtesy of the National Park Service photo gallery.