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Resources for Planning Your Next National Park Vacation

Keep in mind these useful tools when researching and booking your trip

visitor takes a photo of the Grand Canyon

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Our incomparable national parks are experiencing a record number of visitors these days, which makes planning your trip as far in advance as possible more important than ever. Fortunately, there are useful online tools to help you.

You’ve probably already done the obvious and checked the National Park Service (NPS) website. There you’ll find links to the official website for each of the 63 parks. Most offer loads of useful information, but they are especially handy for finding each park’s latest COVID-19 protocols, road closures and other alerts.

And here are more helpful resources that many travelers might not be aware of.

Recreation.gov

This easy-to-use website — and accompanying app — allows you to reserve campsites and other facilities and services in many parks and public lands, such as cabins at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and permits for outdoor wilderness camping at Yosemite National Park.

You can also use the site to book many activities requiring reservations (driving to the top of Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain in Maine, for example) and to obtain fishing permits.   

Note that reservations for most lodging in the national parks must be made directly through the private companies that manage them, including the iconic lodges in Yellowstone National Park, which are operated by Xanterra.

To begin, just register with the site by entering your name, email address and phone number. They’ll send you an email with a link to create your password. Then log in and start planning.

An example: Say you want to reserve a campsite for two nights in Acadia (a good choice!). Use the search feature to enter the keyword “Acadia”; the website will respond with a list of everything that’s reservable in the park, with information on each. Select a campground (we like Blackwoods), enter the dates you prefer as well as any other information to help filter your results, and the website will respond with an "Availability Grid" and a campground map indicating which campsites are open. Then it’s simply a matter of making the purchase.

If you have questions at any point throughout the process, take advantage of the site’s chat function and phone number, which allows you to speak to a real person.


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The NPS app

If you have a smartphone, you can access a new virtual portal to the national parks: the NPS app. This free app that was launched last spring is the only one created by the NPS, so you can trust its accuracy. It covers all the national parks, plus the hundreds of other areas managed by the NPS — national monuments, national historic sites, national recreation areas and more. 

You can search for a place to visit by location, name, activity or subject matter. Once the selections appear, tap on the picture that interests you in order to pull up a screen that offers a preview and abbreviated information. If you like what you see, tap on Explore Full Park and you can access interactive maps, activities, visitor center locations and hours of operation, and other useful information. There’s even a section for amenities, such as restrooms and picnic spots. If a reservation is required (for a tour or campsite, for example), you’ll be directed to the appropriate site — most likely Recreation.gov — to do so.

The app is especially handy when you’re in the park. Because you’ll probably not be able to access the internet during parts of your trip, it’s a good idea to download material from the app for viewing offline before you go. 

AARP’s guides to the parks

And don’t forget AARP’s many in-depth guides to popular national parks. They include tips on when to go, things to do, where to eat and stay, accessibility, and what to know about gateway towns and nearby attractions.

Martha and Bob Manning are frequent visitors to the national parks. Their recent award-winning book is ​Walks of a Lifetime in America’s National Parks.

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