I definitely think that national parks were my biggest discovery during this road trip on the US West coast ! I vaguely knew about it as I heard about certain places, like Grand Canyon for example, but I was not aware of their functoning nor of the number of parks on American soil. We had the chance to visit some of them and it was always synonym of discovery, surprise and beauty – as my enthusiasm in the previous articles regarding that topic shows it (well… at least I hope so !). Each one of these heavenly places has its characteristics when it comes to landscapes and they are scattered all around the country; but some pieces of advice are valid for all parks generally speaking in order to enjoy your visit. Here are a few elements that will allow you to win your perfect junior ranger badge ! You can directly go read the parts you are interested in, the article is a bit long otherwise (titles should definitely help you) 🙂
» Quick rundown : what is a national park in the US ?
The first ever national park created was Yellowstone, founded in 1872 by an order signed by President Ulysses S. Grant (Scandal lovers where are you ?). It was then in 1916 that the NPS (National Park Service) was introduced to manage and protect these spaces – the service is celebrating its 100th birthday this year ! Today, around 22 000 professionals, helped by 220 000 volunteers, are supervising the 340 million km² of land across the United States. In 2015, 300 million of visitors rushed to discover the treasures handled by the NPS : national parks (Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone being in the top 10) but also monuments (like the White House or the Golden Gate Bridge), scenic routes or military parks. All these numbers are impressive, right ? If you want to learn more about it, I encourage you to read the NPS timeline, the complete list of the areas managed by the NPS and the ranking of the most visited places in 2015.
» How to optimize the entrance fees for these parks ?
If you are planing on visiting the US West coast and some of the national parks, you probably did some research. All the parks are in fact paying – more or less expensive – and I can only strongly recommend to buy the America the Beautiful pass ! No, Americans are not chauvinistic. The pass costs 80$ (around 70€ to date) and is valid for a year, starting from the purchase date on, for the national parks and numerous other places managed by the NPS across the US. It can be bought online or directly on site, and can be used for a whole car. Two persons can signed at the back of the card and therefore become the owners of the pass, the driver having to be one of them. Rangers sometimes ask for a piece of ID to check all that. If you buy it from someone else, it should be that this person only used one signing space, so you can fill out the other one. That is what we did with friends of ours that went to the West coast a bit earlier. Basically, you just have to think about your itinerary to see if buying the pass is profitable – it is usually the case if you visit several parks because the entrance fees are around 20 to 30$ per park.
» How to organize your visit ?
For a reason I do not quite understand, visitor centers are not very popular in France (for French people at least). However, there are many of those here, and most are not that bad ! But I have heard that it is too “touristic”… Hmmm that is definitely where I am not following anymore, it is actually made for tourists, isn’t it ? And with the right interlocutor, it will not prevent you from getting off the beaten track if you want to. We can take on this debate another time (do not hesitate to enlighten me in the meantime), but in every instance, national parks’ visitor centers are definitely going to convince any sceptic ! First of all, they have style : even if it is all made up; they look kind of authentic, with wooden walls and decoration elements coming straight out of an adventurer’s equipment. And the icing on the cake is definitely the rangers, waiting for you in their uniform and hats – an outfit borrowed from an Indiana Jones movie. But do not be discouraged by this typical American staging, because visitor centers are a real mine of information.
It is surprising coming from me, but because I lacked of time, I had not bought any guide to leave for this road trip on the US West coast. That is why we planed our different steps searching on the Internet and thanks to Karolin’s knowledge, who had visited the West coast already. As a result, especially in national parks, we would always go to the visitor center before starting our day. In a first phase, you can get there a map of the park, which will be useful for you visit for sure. But apart from that, do not hesitate to call out to a ranger and ask him/her what you should do/see according to your desires. Rangers are very open, welcoming, smiling and give good recommendations. They know the park by heart and are masters at directing you by analyzing your profile, the length of your stay. We followed their tips without any regret ! I strongly recommend !
» How to observe the fauna and flora ?
Visiting the national parks in the US is the occasion to discover new types of plants and lots of unkown wildlife. It probably is not true for more arid areas, but you will surely enjoy observing the fauna and flora in Yosemite and Yellowstone for example. Do not hesitate to look at the different brochures available at the entrance of the park or at the visitor center to put a name on the various species you will see ! You will fall back in childhood trying to identify the largest number of animals. Do not forget to keep a spare battery for your camera to bring back amazing memories from more or less fortuitous meetings.
What I loved the most is spotting wildlife from that close – it is not every day that you can watch bisons or bears a few meters away (at least, not in Paris !). These animals you should not really actively look for, you just stumble upon them, because they are home and enjoy all spaces as they feel like. There are a few rules to practice this activity, the most important one being to respect the wildlife. The animals should not be disturb in their environment ! And you should also take the necessary measures just in case, keeping in mind that it is indeed wild life. You will see plenty of signs telling you how to behave, and it comes to your safety that you follow these instructions (without being a spoilsport). For the bears for example, you must place all your food and cosmetics in (bear proof) lockers near your camping spot. You should also respect a safety distance of about 100 meters to watch them and take pictures (25m for other species). We actually had the chance to see some from way closer, and it is impressive ! Fortunately enough, we have not had any problem, because even with the youngest, we feel their strength and vigor – but we would not have been a match for it (we are not Leo in The Revenant). If you go on a hike off the beaten track, be aware of these rules and do not tempt fate for a pic !
» How to go around a national park ?
To get there, you probably will need to either have or rent a vehicle. Once on site, it comes highly recommended to leave your car or van somewhere because the NPS deliberately limits circulation in the parks, for obvious conservation and environment protection reasons. But do not worry, there are many parking lots on which you can stay for the time of your visit. As far as the rest is concerned, stretch your legs and and walk for a bit – that is how you will enjoy it the most ! Of course, some of the distances are a bit long to walk, and for that the NPS comes up with a solution and put in place a free and green shuttle system (bingo !) for the visitors – it is the case in Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Get your info at the visitor center to know about the stops and different rides.
» How to find an accommodation in national parks ?
If you are traveling by car, you will surely have to find a “physical” accommodation in the parks. Just know that it is not the cheapest, and you will need to allocate a dedicated budget for that. During high season, you will also need to book it a bit in advance because spots are not that numerous. Just go on the said park’s website to find a list of possibilities and book something. You can also opt for an accommodation outside the park to save up a bit. That is what we did in Yellowstone, we were staying in a amazing cabin a few dozen minutes from the park by car (nothing too restrictive in the end).
When you travel in a van or with a tent, you will have to look at campgrounds because it is usually not allowed to do wild camping. Additionally, you will have access to the sanitary block (which is not insignificant haha). No worries, there are some in all of the parks and the list is also available on the NPS’ website. But you should also get your info beforehand and book in advance, especially during more touristic seasons, because they are usually taken by storm. Maybe you could count on last minute withdrawals and introduce yourself at the desk on D-day to get a spot. Also, be careful, some campgrounds are on first come first served base – be aware of these practices before your stay.
» How to resupply in national parks ?
Given the fact that we only visited major national parks (and most touristic), they all had at least a small superette in which you can do some shopping. Even deep down Death Valley, we could buy stocks for our dinner. But if you can, anticipate and go grocery shopping in bigger supermarkets outside the parks, because prices inside the parks are relatively high. In any case, you will not be starving, it can surely help out sometimes. There are also restaurants and places you can buy prepared snacks – same note as before regarding the prices. I am talking a lot about food, but you can also get your supply in hygiene products or basic camping material.
Well, if with aaaaaaall that you are not ready for your adventures in the national parks, I do not know what to do ! I hope I gave you a solid base, and then, each park has its characteristics (especially according to its size). Anyway, those are the steps that I loved the most, even if it is hard to compare so different places. Do not hesitate to ask me questions by commenting here below or by sending me an email through the contact form 🙂