3 Ways to Maximize Your National Parks Trip

Published: October 4, 2022

If you’ve found yourself longing to catch the outdoor adventure fever going around, but you wince at the thought of enduring a 10-mile vertical ascent to that summit vista you saw on Instagram, know you’re not alone. When it comes to the great outdoors, what defines a great trip is less about recreating the experience of others and more about learning how to customize the next escape to suit your individual or family’s preference.

With over 423 sites and 150 more related areas spanning all 50 states, the robust selection within the National Park System offers the chance to adventure together – no matter if hiking is on the itinerary.

From National Park to “Feels Like Home”

Living close to an NPS site or park as a military family is like winning the outdoors lottery. But what do you do when you’ve already checked all the major boxes? As it turns out, there’s quite an abundance of new adventures left to be had if you’re willing to shake things up.

Try these three non-hike options on your next trip.

  1. Cast Your Fishing Line

Families fishing at Prince William Forest Park, VA (NPS). Photo courtesy of Dominique Garrison

As a participant in the Outdoor Explorers for All (OEA) program, fishing has never been more accessible. When you’ve already seen the major sights, why not try slowing down for a bit along the shores of America’s most beautiful waterways? Not only is the sport an incredible vessel for conversation, it’s also an opportunity to stand still and watch the landscape change around you.

  1. Dive Deep into Ecology

    Starfish at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Photo courtesy of Samantha Peterson

Named the most biodiverse of all the national parks, Great Smoky Mountains offers an incredible opportunity to dive deep into the study of ecology through tools like its SpeciesMapper. On ecology-focused trips, the eyes and mind wander while the physical body stills.

In coastal regions like Olympic National Park’s Ruby Beach, an entire intertidal wonderland appears and disappears with each changing tide. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter soft-shelled creatures (like mussels), small crabs, green sea anemones, and starfish.

  1. See a Sky Full of Stars

Arch Rock and Milky Way at Joshua Tree National Park Night Sky. Photo by Janell Searles on Unsplash

Being primarily urban dwellers, most of us never get the opportunity to see the night sky as it appears in the breathtaking photos of National Geographic. Nestled within several NPS locations are certified Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries where the world above us is illuminated in a raw, unfiltered way that’s guaranteed to stay with you. You can find locations throughout the country using this interactive map.

Badlands National Park by road. Photo courtesy of Nicole Rawlinson

Short on time? Try the Cliffs Notes version. 

You don’t have to attempt to see an entire park during your visit. Enjoying single trails, points of interest, or breaking up larger parks, like Glacier, into multi-trip adventures can increase how often you visit a national park – while staying overwhelm-free.

If you ever find yourself PCSing cross country through the great state of South Dakota, two stops fall temptingly close to the infamous northern I-90 route: Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Although each park has the potential for its own in-depth multi-day exploration, it’s entirely possible to drive the scenic loop or rush out for a quick selfie (during off hours) in front of the Presidents – and still feel accomplished.

Points to Consider Before a Quick Trip

  1. Call the park ahead of time and ask which route they recommend seeing the most by car.
  2. Determine if a reservation is required during the hours you plan to visit.
  3. If you’re visiting during the off-season, ask if there are any season-specific locations to check out.
  4. Know your family’s average rate of walking. If hopping on a short trail, check the elevation change and distance against your family’s average pace to know if it can be accomplished in your limited time frame.

Stopping Into the Visitor Center is an Often-overlooked Opportunity

Nestled within the halls of America’s national parks are incredible opportunities to experience galley-worthy artwork, Ranger-led programming, ongoing archaeology, and enough history to make you feel like you’re earning another degree.

Active archeological work is happening at national park sites all over the country, providing visitors a chance to witness the unearthing of history in real time. Contact your NPS visitor center to hear about upcoming digs or opportunities like this program at Fort Frederica.

You can also access history anytime with the Junior Ranger Program, giving kids the chance to earn an archaeological badge by completing a downloadable activity booklet and online activities.

If travel is in your future, consider planning a stop or two to the many in-park galleries within the “Treasured Landscapes” collection or the various interactive museum activities highlighting Native American culture at Olympic National Park.

Unique ideas aside, the simplest way to maximize time in the outdoors around you is simply to just get up and go. For short walks or endurance-building trips. For picnics, campfires, or in search of solitude.

For more outdoors-related programming and activities, check out our Blue Star Outdoors Program.

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