Planning a National Parks road trip can be exciting! So many big sights to see in so little time. Once you’re at the park you realize you can’t do it all, the park is way bigger than you expected it to be, and the buffalo cause massive traffic jams. The stress to see everything begins to mount, and you feel a bit of FOMO.
But what if this trip could be a lot easier. If you let go of the need to see everything and take a deep breath — let’s figure out how to relax!

1. Hike past the pull offs.

National Parks Road Trip: Hiking Dinosaur National Monument

I’m amazed at how many people stick to the road at National Parks. In a ½ mile, you’ll see a huge drop off in crowds, and become immersed in wonderful solitude…

A sense of peacefulness sets in as nature surrounds you. Every step, you’ll feel more and more relaxed. Sometimes the things you can see are even better than what you find at the roadside.

2. Get to the park EARLY – between 6 am and 9 am.

National Parks Road Trip: Catching a sunrise at Acadia National Park
Now I’m not an early bird, but there are perks to being in the park when everyone else is sitting down for breakfast. You can walk down trails in peace, take glorious pictures without the crowds, and dance like nobody’s watching…

You could also get the chance to see an epic sunrise!

3. Plan only one big event or major site per day.

National Parks Road Trip: Old Faithful in Yellowstone

On our first national parks road trip, we tried to see Yellowstone in only 4 days. We even tried to cram in a few major hikes! The rush, rush, rush from one place to another lead to exhaustion and achy, swollen feet.

Since Yellowstone, we’ve learned a few things: we plan 1 or 2 major sites a day. Whether this means a scenic drive with a few pitstops, a day hike, or an attraction like Old Faithful — less is more. You won’t feel rushed to see every single overlook in the park.

BONUS — extra time: you might hear about a local hidden gem or discover a special event in the park after you arrive. You’ll have extra time to explore, and still conquer your must-do list!

4. Allow for some time at the Visitor Center.

National Parks Road Trip: At the Visitor Center of Florissant Fossil Beds NM.

Rangers at the park provide valuable information. Sometimes trails are closed, or there are bear sightings. This kind of information isn’t always available on the web and can change how your adventures play out.

Plan about an hour in each Visitor Center to see the videos, explore the exhibits and get park passport stamps. Additionally, this can be a good way to break up your travel days.

5. Pack a lunch.

Picnicking on our National Parks Road Trip
After some exploration and a good hike, we often get hungry much earlier than usual. And after beating the crowds, the last thing I want to do is drive out of the park to find a meal.

A packed lunch lets us stop whenever we’re hungry, and avoids any extra driving to find a meal.

6. Expect delays on your road trip.

Buffalo causing a traffic jam on a National Parks Road Trip.

The National Parks have a record number of visitors. So, it’s no surprise that you might find yourself in a traffic jam.

In parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park, animals like elk and buffalo stand in the middle of the road. Prepare to be flexible and patient.

Remember, you’re there to enjoy the journey — no need to rush to the next destination! And maybe, you can stare at the buffalo while you wait.

7. You may have NO PHONE SIGNAL in the park.

National Parks Road Trip: This payphone is horribly broken, and Sarah is demonstrating.
Lucas and I have been lost a few times on the drive to a National Park, and it’s always in a situation where we have no bars. A little bit of panic creeps in as it dawns on us we don’t know where we are anymore.

To solve this: we either print out directions or save them directly to our cell phone.

If you plan to use a particular app for your national parks road trip, not all apps are designed to work without signal. Plan ahead — try your app out in airplane mode, and see if it works as expected.

Protip: Airplane mode can also save your battery when you don’t have any signal. Your cell will lose battery power faster when it can’t find a signal.

8. More than one park on your national parks road trip? Pace yourself.

National Parks Road Trip: Bent's Old Fort in Colorado
We’ve felt the most relaxed on multi-park trips when we allow plenty of time for travel and exploration.

I mean, you could drive 6 hours, unpack, rush to the park and spend the rest of the day sightseeing. However, such a pace leaves us exhausted. When we do this day after day, the vacation becomes less enjoyable, and we have a tendency to fight with each other more.

Here are the guidelines we use to be sure we stay relaxed and happy:

  • Small Parks: A minimum of 1 day.
  • Large Parks: At least 1 week.
  • Travel Days: Travel only, minimal sites. Take some time to settle in.

9. Have a plan for dinner.

Lucas cooking over a campfire on our National Parks Road Trip.
The campfire plan: Nothing’s worse than setting up the campfire and prepping meals in the dark! Try to be at your campsite about an hour before sundown.

The restaurant plan: If you have a particular restaurant to visit, plan your route so that you’re close to the restaurant around supper time.

10. Check the park’s hours of operation.

National Parks Road Trip: Jean Lafitte National Historic Park
Some parks are only open certain days of the week, and others are open 24 hours. Visitor Centers almost always have hours of operation.

We often expect historic sites and Visitor Centers to be closed on some federal holidays. However, we’ve run into the occasional odd and unexpected closure.

Many of the parks in the New Orleans area are closed on Mondays. And don’t even think of a visit during Mardi Gras — they’re closed. Everyone’s out partying!

11. Have backup activities for rain days.

National Parks Road Trip: Lucas and Sarah and Florissant Fossil Beds NM during a rainy day.
While brief thundershowers are common in the mountains and on the coasts, sometimes you’re faced with entire days where it pours. This can be a major setback on your national parks road trip, but a backup activity can help keep things tolerable:

  • Go to one of the towns right outside the park. They are often full of indoor attractions or shops.
  • Go to the visitor center: watch the video and see the exhibits.
  • Attend a ranger talk.

12. If you don’t see everything on this trip, it’s OK. You have an excuse to go back!

National Parks Road Trip: Lucas walking in the sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes NP.

Hopefully these tips will ease away the stress and FOMO from your national parks road trip. You’ll find your experience to be less rushed and much more memorable. After all, you’re going to the parks to experience the outdoors and to get away from the stresses of everyday life!

Be patient, be flexible, and have fun.

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12 Simple Tips for An Amazing National Parks Road Trip