11 Safety Essentials for a National Park Trip
When it comes to America’s national parks, we wear our heart on our sleeve: For natural beauty, wildlife appreciation, and value, there may be no better vacation choice than, say, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the dozens of other national parks that stretch from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and from Maine to Alaska.
But there’s something else we wear, not just on our sleeve: Climate-appropriate clothing, which usually means layering and sun-protection. The right apparel is just one of the must-packs for a safe and comfortable visit to a wild and sometimes unpredictable environment. As the summer travel season approaches, we want to share the number-one NPS safety tip all travelers must know, plus 10 essentials to pack to ensure health, safety, comfort, and fun.
1. Follow Park Rules & Ranger Instructions
This should go without saying, but the number-one item to pack for a successful national park visit is your common sense. When you visit a national park, it’s vital that you follow all posted rules and directions, and follow any verbal instructions given by park rangers. Often, the rules boil down to staying on the park paths and keeping a safe distance from all wildlife. No problem, right? But, unfortunately, each year park visitors are injured or killed because they wander where they don’t belong or get too close to wild animals.
2. Prepare to Navigate
Pack a paper map and compass in addition to your GPS device—not coincidentally, some of the most beautiful places in America are far from Wi-Fi hubs. Review driving and hiking directions in advance, from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-enabled hotel room or rental property, and be prepared to navigate the old-fashioned way when you hit the trails.
3. Protect Yourself From the Sun
The sun’s heat and damaging UV rays pose both short- and long-term risks. UV-protective sunglasses, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective shirts and pants will keep you cool and energized on your day hikes, and protect your skin from premature aging and skin cancer.
Even in summer, some national parks become chilly in the evenings and sometimes dangerously cold at elevation. Insulate yourself by packing a jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear.
5. Get Illuminated
Packing a flashlight, lantern, and headlamp may feel like a throwback, but illumination that doesn’t require an electrical outlet can come in handy for campers, cabin renters, cavern explorers, and just about everybody else from time to time.
6. Bring a First-Aid Kit
Sure, you are trying to limit what you have to stuff into your car’s hatch or your checked bag. But a small first-aid kit that can supply antibiotic and bandages while you’re out hiking, padding, or engaging in other summer activities can help keep cuts and scratches from turning into a much bigger deal.
7. Be Ready to Build a Fire
This tip applies mostly to campers and those who plan on exploring park backcountry, where waterproof matches, a lighter, and kindling can help with cooking and, in a pinch, staying warm. (If you pack matches and lighters, keep them locked away where kids can't get to them.)
8. Bring a Repair Kit
Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, scissors. No, you’re not preparing to appear in an episode of MacGyver. But outdoor activities from camping to kayaking to hiking can sometimes require last-minute repairs to equipment, and most travelers just don’t think of packing these handy tools.
9. Pack Nutritious Snacks
The NPS suggests having at least one day’s food on hand in the event of an unforeseen change of plans, which can happen in the blink of an eye thanks to changing weather, wildfires, and flooding. Packing nonperishable foods can be easiest, but do strive for high fiber carbs such as woven wheat crackers, lean proteins such as jerky or cheese sticks, and easy healthy snacks such as trail mix, nuts, and granola bars.
10. Stay Hydrated
Water can sometimes seem like an afterthought to travelers who are lucky enough to take access to abundant drinking water for granted at home. But staying hydrated in the wild requires some planning and is crucial to health and safety. In the hot summer sun, you should sip water regularly, not waiting until you feel thirsty. Park rangers suggest a gallon of water per person per day. That’s a lot of water. Campers and backcountry hikers will do well to pack water-treatment supplies and to research nearby bodies of water. (Never drink untreated water in a national park—as clean as the water looks and feels, it may carry bird-borne microbes that can upset your digestive system.)
11. Carry Your Own Emergency Shelter
This may not be necessary if you’re planning to hit the park highlights via car or park shuttle, but those going farther afield should carry portable shelter such as a tent, space blanket, tarp, or bivy in the event that they get stuck out in the great outdoors longer than they expected.
Travel News: Outdoorsy Launches Guides for National Park Week
In anticipation of 2019’s National Park Week, launching April 20 with entrance fees waived nationwide, RV rental site Outdoorsy (outdoorsy.com) has introduced digital guides to more than 40 national parks and a thousand state parks across the country. For Park Week inspiration and beyond, here’s where to look for an offbeat experience. The State of Outdoor Affairs National parks might claim most of the attention, but state parks deserve more than a passing mention. And Outdoorsy provides attention a'plenty. From the dramatically named—and deservedly so, given its blazing red-sandstone formations—Valley of Fire just north of Las Vegas to the idyllic waterfalls, caves, and lush plant life in New York’s Watkins Glen to the free-roaming bison of Custer, South Dakota, America’s often-smaller state parks highlight the diversity of our country’s landscape, not to mention its flora and fauna. National Treasures While the big guns like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon will always hold a special place in our hearts, we have plenty of love for the National Park Service’s lesser-known gems as well. In addition to protecting unique areas from human encroachment, the system’s 400-plus sites include historic landmarks and places of cultural significance—think: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace and the library of Frederick Douglass, Native American effigy mounds in Iowa and ancient Pueblo architecture in New Mexico, the birthplace of jazz in New Orleans and nearly 500 miles of planned roadway stretching between the Great Smokies and Shenandoah National Park. Outdoorsy’s picks for under-the-radar destinations include North Cascades and its 300-plus glaciers in Washington State, whale-watching and wolf-spotting in Alaska’s Katmai, and the islands, coral reefs, and marine life of the Dry Tortugas in Florida.
We have plenty of love for the National Park System’s heavy hitters, but with 418 sites spanning more than 84 million acres across the country and its territories, there are a ton of lesser-known gems just begging to be explored. Here are 10 extraordinary protected lands that deserve a place on your bucket list. 1. Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico (Golasza/Dreamstime) From the mid-800s until the mid-1200s, the Chaco Canyon’s high-desert environs was a social and economic hub for the ancestral Pueblo culture that called it home. Chacoan architecture was particularly impressive, featuring huge, multi-floor, multi-room dwellings called great houses, built over the course of decades and incorporating canny design elements in the process. More than 3,000 of the massive stone structures have been preserved, and most of the cultural landmarks are open for self-guided exploration year-round. Take in the five major sites along the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, sign up for a ranger-led tour of the great houses, or hike the backcountry trails for ancient petroglyphs and stunning vistas. For a special treat, visit at night, when the Milky Way puts on an unbeatable show. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, Chaco’s Night Sky program roster includes weekend lectures and telescope viewings at the observatory. Stargazers, mark your calendars: Biannual star parties are usually held in May and October, and an astronomy festival happens each September.7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/chcu. 2. Glen Echo Park: Maryland With a children’s discovery museum, a dance hall, and a fully functional carousel dating to 1921, it’s safe to say Glen Echo Park, located about eight miles from Washington, D.C., is not your average federally protected land. Originally established in 1891 as a Chautauqua, a non-denominational Christian summer camp–like phenomenon, it became a proper Coney Island-style amusement park in 1911. During the next three decades, Echo Park added bumper cars, a pool with a capacity of 3,000 swimmers, the Spanish Ballroom, which hosted pop stars like Bill Haley and His Comets, and more. It closed in 1968, the National Park Service took over in 1971, and the historic district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, Glen Echo counts half a million annual guests for classes and performances, though few of its original attractions remain: Its entrance is still visible, but the pool itself is in ruins; the bumper-car pavilion remains intact, albeit without its steel floor; the carousel, fully restored, operates from May through September, and the ballroom can be rented out for special events. Pack a picnic lunch, go a few rounds on the carousel, and bask in the nostalgia.Park entry, free; carousel rides, $1.25; nps.gov/glec. 3. Effigy Mounds National Monument: Iowa Throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley, in parts of what’s now Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, Native American earthen mounds of varying shapes and sizes dating to pre-Columbian times proliferate. You’ll find 206 of them in northeastern Iowa, from linear ceremonial mounds to more animal-shaped effigy mounds than anywhere else in the world. Just don’t expect to leave with a full understanding of these ancient structures: Archeologists speculate that they could be territorial markings, while tribal descendants say they’re sacred sites. Stop at the visitor’s center for a map of the park’s 31 bird and bear shapes, then wander its 14 miles of trails, including short accessible stretches and steeper hikes, to see how many you can spot.Free; nps.gov/efmo. 4. Manhattan Project National Historical Park: New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee The world’s first atomic weapons were developed through a top-secret government project involving hundreds of thousands of scientists, mathematicians, and members of the military, spread across three massive sites: uranium-enrichment and plutonium plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; nuclear reactors and chemical separation plants in Hanford, Washington; and the remote complex at Los Alamos, in northern New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer notoriously led the team that designed and built the bombs. All three sites are open to visitors, though some areas of each remain under the Department of Energy’s purview and may not be accessible to the public. Still, there’s plenty to see: Walk through historic downtown Los Alamos on a self-guided tour, sign up for a free guided tour of the B Reactor in Hanford, or, for a small fee, book a bus tour through the Oak Ridge site with the Department of Energy.Park entry, free; nps.gov/mapr. 5. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park: Louisiana (Wangkun Jia/Dreamstime) From L.A. to New York, America boasts a dizzying array of jazz venues, but where better to get a feel for the form than the place it was born? At the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the city’s National Historic Park, near-daily concerts range from solo acts to traditional quartets to a band made up of park rangers and civilians alike. There are also ranger-led demonstrations and lectures on the history of jazz that often have a live-music component as well. But there’s more to the park than these performances. Drop in for a free yoga class and practice your downward dog as a park ranger provides the improvisational-piano soundtrack, take a self-guided audio tour of 11 historically significant sites around the city, or visit the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University to watch hundreds of oral histories from local musicians.For a schedule of park events, including concerts, talks, and ranger-led demonstrations, visit nps.gov/jazz. 6. Wind Cave National Park: South Dakota In the Black Hills of South Dakota, below a square acre of prairie and pine forest, there’s an extremely complex cave—one of the oldest and longest in the world. Wind Cave is so spacious it has its own internal air-pressure system, taking its name from the gusts emanating from its natural entrance: The Lakota referred to the cave as the “hole that breathes cool air,” and the brothers credited with its discovery in the 1880s were drawn to it by the sound of the wind across its mouth. Subterranean expeditions during the next 130-plus years revealed a staggering geological display, from cave formations like the commonly seen popcorn and frostwork to the much rarer boxwork—and there’s more of that here than in any other caves in the world combined. It’s free to explore the 33,851 acres of parkland above ground, but you’ll need to sign up for a guided tour to see the cave itself. Options range from easy (the Garden of Eden tour, which enters and exits via elevator) to extremely strenuous (the Wild Cave tour, which comes with a warning that crawling is involved). Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis; they go quickly during the peak summer season, and reservations are only available for specialty tours, so visit early to avoid a wait. Cave tours from $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids ages 6-16, and free for kids 5 and under; nps.gov/wica. 7. Manzanar National Historic Site: California (James Mattil/Dreamstime) Eastern California’s Owens Valley has seen its share of tragedy. In the early 1860s, 1,000 members of Paiute tribal groups were forcibly removed by the military after miners and homesteaders arrived on the scene. And almost 80 years later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry—including natural-born citizens—and herded them into internment camps for the duration of the war. Manzanar was one of 10 relocation centers built in seven states, and it’s said to be the best preserved of the bunch. A National Historic Site established in part “to serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties,” it offers visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the 11,070 Japanese Americans interned here from September 1942 until November 1945. The grounds feature exhibits, reconstructed barracks, and excavated gardens, ponds, and building foundations, which you can explore on foot or via a 3.2-mile self-guided drive.Free; nps.gov/manz. 8. Saguaro National Park: Arizona (Irina Kozhemyakina/Dreamstime) Flanking Tucson to the east and west, the two districts of Saguaro National Park are best known for their namesake plant: The saguaro is the largest cactus in the country, and it's been heavily protected here since 1933, when Herbert Hoover designated the area a national monument. Congress bumped it up to national-park status in 1994, and it’s been welcoming the cactus-curious ever since. There are more than 25 types of succulents on display, but the giant tree-sized saguaro is the star. Native to the Sonoran desert, it's an anchor for the area's diverse southwestern ecosystem, providing nesting space for birds and serving as food for bats, mammals, and reptiles too. Both park branches combined have more than 165 miles of hiking trails, from accessible walks to seriously strenuous treks; there’s also backcountry camping, cactus gardens in each district, and a petroglyph site boasting more than 200 of the prehistoric rock carvings. Visit from late April to early June to see the saguaro in bloom, and be sure to stay in the park to catch a sunset—between the vibrant sky and the stark desert landscape, it’s a spectacular show. 1-day pass, $20 per car; nps.gov/sagu. 9. Blue Ridge Parkway: North Carolina and Virginia Running 469 miles through the Appalachian countryside, the Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The outcome of a Depression-era public works project that began in 1933, it’s the longest American road conceived as a single stretch. As a "museum of the managed American countryside," the meandering road juxtaposes mountain-top views with lush stretches of forests and streams, passing by rustic log cabins and millionaires’ vacation homes. Construction took decades—the majority wasn’t completed until 1966, and the last 7.7 miles finally opened in 1987. By design, it’s the ideal setting for a leisurely road trip: Speed limits top out at 45 miles per hour, and the route combines stunning natural beauty (alongside opportunities for hiking, kayaking, biking, and more) with history (a center devoted to the region’s traditional old-time music, a working early-1900s mill, a textile magnate’s grand estate) and whimsy (Dinosaur Land!). Check for road closures before you go, and bon voyage.Free; nps.gov/blri. 10. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve: Colorado Colorado is home to the tallest dunes on the continent, and people have been answering their siren song since nomadic Stone Age hunters and gatherers first made their way into the San Luis Valley 11,000 years ago. Modern Native American tribes like the Ute and the Navajo, Spanish and American explorers, Gold Rush hopefuls, homesteaders, and Buffalo soldiers followed in succession, before fears of destruction via mining and industry prompted President Hoover to declare it a national monument in 1932. In 2004, it was expanded into a national park and preserve, and the diverse activities on offer today are a big draw. There are two accessible areas at the edge of the dunes, and the visitors’ center has two sand wheelchairs available to loan. Most of the park and preserve is open for exploration on horseback, and you can sign up for a guided ride or bring your own animals. Rent sandsleds or sandboards from an area outfitter and take to the dunes or hit the road for a fat-bike ride; other options include, but are not limited to, swimming, fishing, hunting (in season), and four-wheel driving. Regardless of how you spend your day, stargazing is a required nighttime activity.7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/grsa.
Shutdown Threatens National Parks
In a matter of days, the partial shutdown of the federal government has turned “America’s best idea” into every traveler’s worst nightmare. As reported by the PBS News Hour, the Washington Post, and other major news sources, some national parks have been left with minimal or no supervision, leading at least one California local to characterize the situation as a “free-for-all,” with overflowing garbage containers, visitors taking their vehicles illegally off-road and damaging fragile ecosystems, and human waste in, um, places you just don't ever want to find it. NATIONAL PARKS IN CRISIS Because hundreds of thousands of federal employees deemed “nonessential” are currently furloughed, meaning they are not being paid and are not expected to show up for work, many national parks, which are already underfunded and in need of repairs, are now largely unstaffed. And because, unlike during other government shutdowns in recent years, the Trump administration has decided to keep national parks open to visitors despite the lack of proper staffing, we are now seeing a “nightmare scenario,” John Garder, senior budget director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the PBS News Hour. Public toilets in many parks are either closed or overflowing, visitors have been reported arguing over campsites because rangers are in short supply to help resolve disputes, some visitors are taking advantage of free admission and understaffing to drive their vehicles off the road onto land that is typically off-limits, and there are reports of visitors urinating and defecating in the open and allowing their dogs to run off-leash into areas where wildlife, including bears and mountain lions, abound. SAFETY TIPS FOR NATIONAL PARK VISITORS Avoid camping in national parks during the shutdown. If you’ve booked lodging at a hotel in or near a national park, contact the hotel directly for on-the-ground advice about how the shutdown may affect your visit. But most importantly, we seriously urge every traveler to carefully research and consider postponing most national park visits during the shutdown—not just for your safety but for the good of the parks themselves. Park advocates and news reports have made it clear that the Trump administration’s decision to keep the parks open while understaffed is a direct threat to the safety of visitors, wildlife, and ecosystems. SOME NATIONAL PARKS ARE OPEN AND STAFFED But there is some good news. A few states are pitching in to keep some of their NPS attractions up and running during the shutdown: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remain open to visitors thanks to $65,000 per day from New York state. The Grand Canyon remains open thanks to support from the state of Arizona. Utah is keeping the visitors’ centers open at three of its Mighty Five parks, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. And remember that state parks across the U.S. are completely unaffected by the partial federal government shutdown, and in some cases state parks deliver virtually the same gorgeous natural beauty that their neighboring national parks do.
In Florida, a day at a park doesn’t always have to mean hanging out with The Minions, Mickey or Big Bird, though it often does. No surprise, considering the Sunshine State is synonymous with popular theme and water parks. But, Florida is also home to 175 state parks scattered from the Panhandle to the Keys, each offering an opportunity to experience the state’s myriad natural and cultural treasures, whether streams and rivers threading through a verdant landscape, a system of caverns peppered with stalactites, miles of undeveloped sandy beaches, dense tracts of forests dripping with moss, or historic forts and lighthouses. The entire compendium of state parks shows off Florida’s grand diversity of ecosystems, from mangroves to pinelands to dunes, as well as the resident and migrant creatures that call these vast expanses home or pay a seasonal visit. In the six state parks below, a grand array of enticing scenery and activities are on full display. (You can learn more at floridastateparks.org.) 1. Oleta River State Park Just 30 minutes from downtown Miami, Oleta is considered Florida’s largest urban park and one offering numerous water- and land-based activities. Inside the park, BG Oleta River Outdoors (bgoletariveroutdoor.com) rents canoes and kayaks so visitors can paddle through dark, foliage tunnels along the mangrove-lined river and then on to peaceful Biscayne Bay and the Intercoastal Waterway with opportunities to spot river otter, and sea turtles. (This concession also offers full moon and one-hour Friday sunset kayak tours.) And, despite Miami’s perfectly flat topography, Oleta is considered one of Florida’s best mountain biking venues, with more than a dozen miles of interconnected, challenging single track coursing beside the park’s waterways. 2. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park On the southern tip of Key Biscayne, Bill Baggs is most noted for its one-mile-some beach -- perfect for sunning and swimming -- that’s often named as one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. by Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University, aka Dr. Beach. Bird watchers are also attracted to this park that’s a stopover on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating species, such as Cerulean and Bay-breasted wood-warblers. Anyone walking to the southern tip of the Pond Trail will be near the Cape Florida Lighthouse, South Florida’s oldest structure that provides stunning views of Biscayne Bay, Key Biscayne and South Beach. 3. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park Named for the tallest of the coastal dunes along the Gulf of Mexico that resembles a ship’s sail, rising over 25 feet high, Topsail Hill, located in the Florida Panhandle, preserves these white quartz dunes with lakes -- a unique ecosystem -- where fresh and saltwater mix. Those with a fishing license can try to snag catfish, bream or bass in one of these lakes, or cast from the beach for Spanish mackerel, pompano or red fish. The paved Campbell Lake Bike Trail -- named for this coastal dune lake, a popular picnic spot -- that’s shaded by tall longleaf pines appeals to cyclists. 4. Hillsborough River State Park Just a few minutes north of Tampa, Hillsborough is one of the few spots in Florida featuring whitewater rapids. Those who bring their own canoe relish the small section of Class II rapids. The park also rents canoes that can be put in just below the rapids on this blackwater river, the color deriving from the tannins leaching from fallen leaves. Growing along the shore, live oaks, magnolia and cypress trees provide for shaded paddling, with opportunities to see otters or alligators on the banks. History buffs often sign up on a guided tour of the reconstructed Fort Foster, a replica of the circa 1837 fort from the time of the Second Seminole Indian War. 5. Honeymoon Island State Park Having received its name after several dozen honeymoon cottages were constructed (and subsequently demolished) in the early 1940s, this barrier island remains a stunning day-trip from Tampa for nature lovers. Though beachgoers flock to the sandy and seashell/rock studded four-mile stretch, a wild landscape of tide pools, sand dunes and salt marshes await those walking past the last parking lot to the shaded Osprey Trail. Hikers will find monarch butterflies fluttering about and the ever-present scent of pine. (A real treat is seeing osprey with their young.) 6. Caladesi Island State Park A short ferry ride away from Honeymoon Island, Caladesi was once attached to its sister island prior to a major hurricane in 1921. Though now connected to Clearwater Beach after a land bridge formed, Caladesi feels like the Florida of another era, once visitors wander past the ranger station/concession, with nothing but the sounds of bird calls, and the tide lapping at the powdery beach. In 2018, Dr. Beach ranked Caladesi’s dazzling quartz sands as one of the country’s top 10. A network of sandy trails wind through the heart of this island where signs remind visitors that the dense interior is snake territory.