11 Tips from Experts To Conquer Your First National Park

clingmans dome national park

The Grand Canyon. Yellowstone. The Great Smoky Mountains. Yosemite.

We can picture them all — vast, grand, and beautiful. But have you seen them with your own two eyes, hiked their trails, and been fully immersed in their wilderness? With National Park Week (plus free admission!) upon us and summer quickly approaching, we think it’s time for you to head to your nearest national park.

To provide some helpful tips for planning your next trip to a national park, we’ve interviewed Steve and Sheila Condra, a couple that has been heading to the outdoors for years. Together they’ve tackled 27 national parks, 13 national monuments, 15 national historic parks, and a variety of national battlefields, seashores, lakeshores, and scenic trails. Needless to say, they know a thing or two about the National Park Service.

bryce canyon national park

Allison, Sheila, Amanda, and Steve Condra at Grand Canyon National Park

11 Tips from the Experts:

1. Just Go

My number one tip for visiting national parks is to just go.  There are so many opportunities available to be enjoyed, but can only be truly experienced in person. No matter what anyone may tell you, pictures cannot compare to live experiences.  I’ve probably been to the Grand Canyon a dozen times, but each trip holds new and exciting discoveries. No amount of pictures can give you the feeling of walking up to the south rim in person and feeling the awesomeness that nature has presented to us.

clingmans dome national park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the Condra family’s “favorite”

2. Do Your Research

Know what to expect from any particular park and research in advance. If possible, plan your allotted time there based upon your preferences. Learn the history of the park and why it was chosen to be included into the park system.

3. Plan for Weather

Know what weather you may encounter and plan accordingly. Do I need a raincoat? Nothing dampens your spirits more than being wet, cold, and uncomfortable. Should I dress in layers? The temperature may vary as much as 50 degrees in some parks. Always pack some sunscreen; even cloudy days outdoors can result in nasty sunburns that can affect the rest of your stay.

4. Don’t Forget Food

Plan food and drink. Most parks aren’t blessed with readily accessible restaurants and/or stores. Always carry some water with you and stay hydrated. Snacks, such as nuts, trail mix and possible fresh fruits have saved the day for us on many occasions.

5. Wear the Right Clothes

Clothing designed for the activities you’ve anticipated make the visit much more enjoyable. Plan on some exercise and wear clothing that allows freedom of movement and won’t chafe. Also, clothing designed to keep you dry and warm, or cool if the situation requires, will allow you to have a more enjoyable experience.

yosemite national park

Amanda and Allison Condra in Yosemite National Park in 1999

6. Good Shoes are a Must

Wear the proper footwear for the environment— sore, wet or blistered feet are the absolute worst. Especially in back country experiences, don’t scrimp on footwear. Buy the best you can afford and make sure they are well broken in before you start on a trek.

7. Make a Few “Dry Runs”

If you plan to hike and/or camp, make a few “dry runs” locally starting with short trails and overnight camps so that you can get acclimated to the process. Along the way, learn which items are really necessities and which items are seldom used or needed. Don’t carry a five-pound hatchet on a thirty-mile wilderness hike if it is not needed. Minimal equipment is always preferred, in my opinion, and requires less energy to be expended, allowing for a more pleasant experience.

8. Remember, You’re in Nature

Learn what wildlife may be encountered, how to identify them, and what precautions may be necessary. Carry pepper spray if a there’s a possibility you could encounter a bear. Learn to identify poisonous spiders and snakes and how to avoid them. In all of our travels we have never run across a bear in the wild, nor a poisonous snake, but there is always a small chance that it could happen. It’s always best to “Be Prepared”, as my old scouting days taught me.

Speaking of preparation… there are no bathrooms in nature! 

9. Talk to Knowledgeable People

Talk to people about their experiences, before and while visiting parks. Information gained may be very helpful and very current while planning you daily visit to a park. For example, knowing that the elk are in a particular valley might allow you to see them when they would be otherwise missed.

10. Be Respectful

While visiting, be respectful of other guests. Stay quiet on trails and allow others to get those perfect photos. Also, respect the park by not leaving behind trash, causing damage to features, or carrying out rocks, flowers, etc. As the saying goes, “Take Only Memories, Leave only Footprints.”

canoyonlands national park

Canyonlands National Park in 2009

11. Consider a Pass and a Passport

Purchasing a National Parks Pass provides admission for one year to all national parks that have an admission fee. You can also buy a National Parks Passport to document all of your visits. Visitor Centers have cancellation stamps to stamp passports that show the location and date. That is how our daughter, Amanda, was able to make her list of places she had visited! 

With the 100th anniversary of the National Parks, it’s never been a better time to take a trip!

sequoia national park 50s

Driving through Sequoia National Park in 1961

sequoia national park vintage

Steve and his family at Sequoia National Park in 1958