Plan Your Vacation Like a Park Ranger

Screenshot of social media posts sharing information about joshua trees
Park rangers are sharing vacation planning tips including other national parks you can see or experience similar things. A useful tip for avoiding crowds during popular times—and seeing another awesome park, of course!

Image designed by the National Park Service

Ready for vacation? It’s never too early to start planning. Park experiences can be as diverse as the 400+ national parks themselves. A little trip planning can ensure that your surprises are mostly happy ones. Put on your imaginary park ranger hat and begin planning your best national park adventure.

Park rangers have shared their top ten tips and things to know in lists below. You can also use #PlanLikeAParkRanger to find more tips from park rangers on social media or to share your vacation successes!

Pack Your Park Ranger Vacation Planning Bag

Don’t leave for your national park vacation without these park ranger tools:

Top 10 Tips by Park Rangers

Park rangers share insider tips for making the most out of national park adventures. These are the most common tips and things to know about planning your vacation. Also check for lists for specific parks you plan on visiting.

in the foreground a blurry thumb is held up next to a turtle in the distance in a sandy area surrounded by scrubby vegetation
Tip 7: Watching wildlife safely...We follow the rule of thumb: hold your thumb up at arms length and if you can cover the entire wild animal with your thumb you're probably a safe distance away. Nifty, eh? (NPS photo)

1. Don’t miss the good stuff.

With more than 400 national parks across all 50 states and many US territories, we love discovering places not as well known that offer the beauty of nature and the power of history—only with fewer crowds and lines.

Search for parks for a park by topic, activity, or even close to you in your state

2. Make a plan...and a backup plan.

For us, a park visit begins at home with a trip to Park websites have ideas about where to go, what to see, and what to do, and most important, what we need to include in our planning. Flexibility and a backup plan are key, too, in case of changing weather conditions, road closures, etc.

Use a trip planning guide to help plan your trip.

3. Use the NPS app.

We nerd out over our own app—it’s very cool. It offers great tools like interactive maps, tours, accessibility information, and more. You can easily find parks closest to you and you can even access it offline if you plan ahead. And we’re adding new content every day!

One app, every park at your fingertips.

4. Reservations may be needed.

We heart reservations. (Nope, we don’t get in for free.) Many campgrounds and lodges in and around well-known parks book quickly during peak seasons. Having a reservation guarantees we won’t arrive at a park only to find that we need an entrance reservation, there’s no place to sleep, or a popular trail is closed.

Check the park website to see if reservations are needed. Many reservations are made on

5. Keep safety in the picture.

We love to take photos. (Have you seen our Instagram?) But we like surviving the experience, too. So we’re careful to take pics where it is safe. Some popular trails and views may be especially crowded this year, so an unobstructed photo might require a bit of a wait.

Get great tips for photography in parks.

6. Ask a ranger.

Have a question? Ask a ranger. (Yep, we ask other rangers about visiting their parks.) We’re always here to help. We can answer questions, share park stories (we’re always happy to point you to the nearest restroom), and we can let you know what activities are available.

7. Don’t pet the fluffy cows.

JK, but bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and run up to 35 mph—and they can really hurt you. We can’t run that fast and are pretty sure you can’t either. Keep your distance from wild animals, never feed the wildlife, and when taking pictures, use your zoom and give them room. #SafeSelfie

Find super ideas for enjoying park wildlife , such as what equipment to bring and how to protect yourself and those cool critters.

8. Are you ruffing it?

This one’s for the dogs—we love ours. (Have you seen the Denali puppies?) Many parks allow pets on leashes and in campgrounds; some even have kennels. But sometimes these furry friends are best left at home. Discover what you can (and can’t) do with your pet and follow the B.A.R.K. principles.

Yep, your pet can be a BARK Ranger (See what we did there?)

9. Leave only footprints.

We know that each of us—rangers, volunteers, visitors, everyone—plays a vital role in protecting YOUR national parks. Whether it’s carrying out what we brought in (including our pooch’ know), leaving the spots we visit just as we found them, or staying on the trail, we’re careful to respect these incredible places.

Learn the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

10. Expand your options and discover something new.

A lot of national parks are popular places. Broaden your horizons to find other gems that offer similar experiences or a chance to try something new. If your favorite park is pretty packed this time of year, maybe look at other nearby national and state parks too. Can't make it all the way across the country this year? There may be parks closer to home than you realize.

Did you know the NPS App will show you the nearest parks to you wherever you are? You can also search for parks on

Top 10 Tips by Park

Visiting a specific park? Rangers in parks across the country have shared their top 10 tips and things to know when visiting their park.

Featured Parks and Places

Loading results...

    Last updated: January 29, 2024