9 Things we Use to Plan a National Park Vacation

Top 9 Things We Use to Plan a National Park Vacation

In just a few weeks we’re heading out on our first #parkchasing adventure this year!  After a break from traveling, we can’t wait to get back on the road and chasing more parks.  We often get asked by readers “How do you plan a national park vacation like that?”  

After visiting parks in more than 30 different states, we’ve really fine-tuned the process.  Our trips typically start with a conversation or an idea about when we might get some time away from work to travel.   We try to start with narrowing down the dates for travel first since it helps to know the seasons, flying vs. driving times, etc. 

Once the idea gets hatched and we have an idea about tentative travel dates, we have a great set of tools we use to plan a national park vacation.  

We’re sharing them today to show you two things we think are big misconceptions about how we plan trips: 

  1. You DON’T need to spend a ton of money to plan a national park vacation. 
  2. You DON’T need a lot of travel expertise to plan. 

1. Our #parkchasing list

Since we’re actively looking to plan trips to cross off all 400+ parks in the National Park Service, we always start by checking our #parkchasing bucket list.   We maintain lists in a couple of different places, including parkstamps.org (more below), a printed copy of our downloadable .pdf list, and of course, right here on our About page.  

We also both have a list of national park bucket list items that we sometimes reference in the early stages of trip planning.  These bucket list items are special events and things we’ve read about during other trips we’d love to see.  Some things on our current bucket list: 

  • Cherry blossoms on the National Mall in Washington D.C., 
  • Brooks Falls Camp in Katmai National Park 
  • Rafting trip in Kobuk Valley National Park

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2. NPS.gov

We’d be remiss if we didn’t start by saying how valuable the National Park Service website is to how we plan a national park vacation.  NPS.gov has a ton of resources to help you plan a visit to any of the sites.  We always check the NPS website for the most up-to-date information about trail closures, road work, and important events happening in the park unit we’re planning to visit. It’s often the resource we use to make reservations for ranger-led tours, buy tickets, or find out about the junior ranger program. 

Finally, while the maps and hiking recommendations aren’t always the most detailed on the park website, they generally give us a good idea of highlights we might want to do some more research on.

Collage of a Couple Posing with various National Park Signs

3. Google Maps

After NPS.gov, our next biggest resource we use to plan a national park vacation is Google Maps.  Our Google Map itineraries are some of our most popular posts here on #parkchasers.  

The amount of time we spend searching the web version and the app on our phone is almost an obsession in our early days of planning a trip. 

How far is it from x to y? 
Can we drive from y to z in one day? 
What if we stopped at xyz stop in the middle? 

Our sweet spot in a week-long road trip is somewhere between 1200-1800 miles.  We’ve done more than that, but find it’s not as enjoyable.  Less than that and we tend to get a little bit stir-crazy sticking in one spot. Google Maps helps us plan the best route for our own travel preferences.

We know there are other mapping options available online, but it just does it for us. Easy to use. We can store our routes and share them later. And it interfaces well with the rest of the resources on this list.

4. National Park Travler's Club (NPTC)

Where would we be without NPTC?  

If you aren’t familiar with the National Park Traveler’s Club, stop what you’re doing and hop over to their website (just promise to come back and finish the rest of the resources on this list!)  

We’ve been members of the NPTC for years.  Geared towards Passport Stamp collectors and the national park community, they have the single largest database of national park information outside of NPS.gov.

Logo for the National Park Traveler's Club

While you can get a taste of the website without becoming a member, it’s well worth the $10 sign-up and $5 annual dues. Some of the tools we use on the NPTC website for trip planning include: 

  • Route Planner – a custom map function that allows you to plug in starting and ending destinations and then view all of the national park destinations along the way. 
  • Master Stamp Database – A list of all the known national park passport stamp locations. 
  • National Park Travelers Club Wiki – a wiki-style database of all the 400+ units in the park service. 
  • Trip Reports – many NPTC members file trip reports after planning large national park vacations.  These trip reports have been valuable to us in our own planning, especially to trickier destinations like Gates of the Arctic and Isle Royale National Parks.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Sign

5. "The Binder"

When traveling for long road trips, we’ve found it helpful to assemble all of the trip information in one place before we go, and then to keep anything we collect along the way in one place. 

Lovingly known around our house as “the binder”, imagine something similar to what you might get from a travel agent if you booked a national park trip through an agency. 

We generally use a three ring folder or binder and a plastic page protector for each day.  Using Google Docs (so we can reference the document from anywhere), then we create a document for each day of our trip including the rough outline of our itinerary for the day, arrival and departure times if we’re on a schedule, and any confirmation numbers if we’ve booked hotels or tours.  

Click the image below to see a sample of our binder:

As we travel then, we have a handy place to store receipts, unigrids, postcards, and anything else we collect along the way. Back home, all of our ‘binders’ get stored in one place.  When someone’s looking for travel advice about a park, then it’s easy to reference and hand over everything we know about a destination.

Park Chasers in front of different National Park Signs

6. Travel Guidebooks

Back when we first started national park trip planning, one of the only ways to research trip ideas was through old fashioned travel guidebooks.  While we occassionally invest in a hard copy book to carry along with us, we most often check out books from our local public library.  We’ll browse them for trip ideas until we fill out a rough itinerary and then return them.  

Not all travel guidebooks are built the same, so it may take some research until you find the series that fits with your own vacation style.  Do you like rugged, off-the-beaten path trips?  Do you travel with kids or pets?  Do you prefer luxury hotels and lodges or campsites?  Different travel guidebooks focus on different types of travelers so do your homework before you decide to purchase one for your collection.  

Some of our favorites (affiliate links)

7. Blogs & Podcasts

We also don’t get very far into our national park trip planning without diving into the trip planning advice of our fellow national park content creators.  We have built some terrific friendships with fellow national park enthusiasts since starting Park Chasers.  Many of them have been featured in our Park Chaser Profile series here on the blog.  

The best part about using blogs and podcasts for trip planning is the first-hand experience and knowledge you’re not likely to obtain from the NPS website or travel guides which may be paid to feature specific tourist attractions.  

In a recent trip to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, we used hiking tips from Dusty and Mike at the Gaze at the National Parks podcast and the Dirt in My Shoes blog posts on how to structure our itinerary to avoid the busiest times in the park.  Learning from their trip experiences set us up for the best success on our own visit. 

8. Topo Maps

This isn’t a must-have for every national park traveler, but selfishly it makes our trip planning list because we love collecting them! For longer than we’ve been alive, National Geographic has published topographical trail maps of National Park Service properties and other federal lands.  Although they’re meant for the more serious outdoor adventurer, we find the maps provide so much more information about the landscape as you’re traveling through the park.   

We don’t purchase them for every park, but we do when we plan to spend a significant amount of time on backroads or on the trails.   The maps are readily available online (affiliate links below) or in the park bookstores.

9. Word of Mouth

Last but not least, there’s so much to be said for good ‘ol word of mouth.  We’ve learned a ton about different parks, trails, and campgrounds from chatting about the parks with others.  Our first trip to Glacier National Park was inspired by a friend who mentioned the Ken Burns “America’s Best Idea” documentary. We’ve been hooked on national parks ever since. Word of mouth continues to be how we find out about new places to visit, the best hiking trails, and where to stay when we visit parks.

If you’ve got questions about a park or are looking for trip planning advice, drop us a note.  We love to talk parks!

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