Our national park system is a highlight reel of the most dramatic landscapes and wild species in North America. Which explains why some of the parks can get a bit crowded during peak tourist season, not to mention pricey. At $30 per car for some of the bigger parks, if you’re planning an epic road trip to visit several of them, the entrance fees will add up. We asked David Lamfrom, director of the wildlife program for the National Parks Conservation Association, for his advice on how to do national parks right.
- Get the Parks Pass. It’s $80, but if you make a couple trips to the bigger parks, it pays for itself. The pass covers everyone in your car, and it gets you into all federal lands, covering parking and day-use fees in national forests, national wildlife refuges, and BLM lands.
- For wildlife, Yellowstone National Park really is the best. Especially for big mammals. Yes, it’s crowded, but go to the less crowded northeast portion of the park in the Lamar Valley, and spend all day looking for wolves and bears. You’ll see antelope and elk, too. Everyone should also go to Everglades National Park. You might see the American alligator and American crocodile in the same day, not to mention a Florida manatee and dolphins.
- You can avoid the crowds, even at the most popular parks. What I’ve found in my years of travel is that people are incredibly predictable. They wake up at the same times, they eat at the same times. If you can wake up early, you’ll have the parks to yourself. If you can walk a couple of miles from the road, you’ll have the parks to yourself.
- Hit the desert parks for the best night skies. Nevada’s Great Basin National Park has the very best sky I’ve ever seen, because of its combination of low humidity and high elevation. There’s nothing to obscure the stars. And it has campsites at 10,000 feet.
- The best beach experience you’ll ever find is in a national park. Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore has 26 miles of wilderness coast, and nobody goes there. The Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida, North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore, Georgia’s Cumberland Island… the list of wild, uncrowded beaches in our national park system is long.
- Visit our parks because they provide hope. Our parks show we still have incredibly wild places in our country. They show that we can protect species. They show that there’s still something to fight for.