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Tips and Tricks for Visiting our National Parks

By Katie Smith

Summer means more daylight for exploring! National parks are a popular place to scratch that itch. However, if you caught our director Heidi’s previous blog post about loving our parks to death or if you’ve visited a popular national park recently, you may be all too familiar with the frustrations that can arise at a busy park. The first time I visited a national park, I was six weeks old, and I haven’t stopped! Keep reading for tips that I have found to make sure you get the most possible out of your visit, while respecting our national lands and their original caretakers.

  • Start your research ahead of time.

While spontaneity might be on your list of desirable qualities in a romantic partner, a spur-of-the-moment vacation to a national park can lead to disappointment and discomfort. To compensate for rising visitation over the last decade, many national park sites have implemented permit systems for specific recreation activities, parking spots, or even entry into the park. Planning ahead means planning for success. If you decide to be spontaneous, understand that you may be out of luck in some scenarios or find a different kind of destination that is better suited to your needs.

This spring, I decided to visit Death Valley National Park, located on the California/Nevada border about a six-hour drive southeast of Reno. I started planning my trip a few months beforehand. I based when I wanted to visit and how early I needed to plan on a number of factors: what time of year and what days the park would be busiest, what the weather would be like when I went, and if I needed reservations for anything.

  • Check the website!

While social media posts and travel blogs can be helpful in your fact-finding missions, they often miss critical up-to-date details. Start with the website when trip planning. Every site has its own webpage loaded with wonderful information–if you know what you’re looking at. Most of the webpages have the same layout, so finding similar information about different parks should become easy. The banner at the top is your best friend! Look for the Plan Your Visit tab for the most basic information to start you off. This section can point you to a map of the park, an idea of weather throughout the year, camping reservations, and what the popular recreation activities are.

  • Find the most current park map ahead of time.

The visitor guide, or park newspaper, is a great place to get the highlight reel of pertinent information! Many parks have a summer and a winter version of their guide. While it’s something you can pick up at the visitor center, taking a peek at the digital version beforehand can help you pick out hikes you’re interested in and get a feel for current operations.

  • Have a back-up plan ready.

Even the best-laid plans are subject to change. When you’re dealing with the wilderness, trails or roads may close unexpectedly because of rockfall, weather, or fire–just to name a few reasons. Keep in mind other options that you might be interested in doing to prevent frustration later on if you run into a roadblock.

  • Bring the 10 essentials.

Just like a back-up plan might be necessary, you never know what you might encounter while recreating outdoors. National parks are not curated amusement parks, and help might be hours away. Inform yourself of the risks of your chosen recreation activity in this potentially unknown landscape. Consider packing safety equipment such as the “ten essentials:” first aid, navigation, sun protection, headlamp, knife, fire, shelter, extra food and water, and spare clothes.

  • Check in at the visitor center.

Once you have planned, prepared, and arrived, it’s time to enjoy! Stop at the visitor center to check the weather forecast, read up on any new closures or warnings, and find a ranger available for questions–anything from last-minute trip planning considerations to “What was that cool bird?” Catch a park film or ranger program if they’re available and learn something new! If you are traveling with kids or you are young at heart and love to learn, ask about the Junior Ranger program. If you complete a book full of activities that help you learn about the park before you leave, you can return to the visitor center to be sworn in as a park protector.

  • Learn about whose land you’re on.

Today, the National Park Service is charged with the mission of preserving these lands for human enjoyment and wilderness conservation. However, Native Americans are the original stewards of these places. What is known today as Death Valley National Park is the homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone. I work to learn about the indigenous history of the lands I visit as a small act of recognition and thanks.

National Parks Near Reno

If you’re looking to get out and explore a national park site, there are many within a day of Reno! Here’s a few with general driving times to get you started.

  • Death Valley National Park, 6 hours. Extreme heat in summer unsuitable for many visitors

  • Great Basin National Park, 6 hours

  • Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, 7 hours

  • Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 7.5 hours

  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, 3 hours. Closures due to wildfire recovery

  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, 6.5 hours. Closures due to wildfire recovery

  • Yosemite National Park, 3-6 hours depending on Tioga Pass winter closures. Requires park entry reservations May 20-Sept 30, 2022

  • Muir Woods National Monument, 4 hours. Requires either shuttle ticket or parking reservation

  • Crater Lake National Park, 6 hours. Winter road closures in effect at the end of April 2022

About the Author:

Katie has previously worked as a park ranger for the federal government. The opinions and views expressed here are her own and not a reflection of her former employer. She is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Naturalist Educator with Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation. Utilizing city parks as outdoor classrooms has been a wonderful reminder of the importance of green spaces in urban places. Katie has enjoyed taking local students out with binoculars and magnifying glasses to get to know our local parks and their inhabitants better. She hopes to continue fostering connections between diverse audiences and their outdoor spaces of all sizes in her career.


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