A US National Parks trip is kind of a right of passage for anyone who loves the outdoors. Sleeping in barren deserts. Going off-trail to explore strange rock formations weathered over millions of years. Wading through knee-deep water in narrow canyons. Bagging peaks during the short summer when the highest altitudes are within reach. The trip is about varied terrains and diverse landscapes. Visit both Yosemite and Big Bend, and you’ll doubt that you’re in the same country. And the stuff in Utah? Well, that might as well be in another world.
But unlike the good ol’ days of the American road trip, the US National Parks are no longer well suited to an off-the-cuff style of travel. There’s a lot of competition for campsites and backcountry permits. Planning a US National Parks trip takes time and effort, and A LOT of time and effort, at that. But you’ll get every bit of energy you pour into planning back when you’re out there, experiencing some of nature’s greatest works.
Ready to go on an adventure? Here’s a massive guide to planning a US National Parks trip including everything from route planning to suggested itineraries to making reservations to costs.
Choose Your Route
1. Pick Your Parks
The US is a BIG COUNTRY. There are vast distances between the coasts and you can even expect long drives between parks in the same state. So where do you start planning a US National Parks road trip itinerary? Start by making a list of parks you want to see. Grab a guidebook or check out some of our featured Outlandish National Park Guides.
Focus on one park at a time and look at photos, watch videos, or check out things to do. Narrowing down your list of parks can be easy if you already know where you want to go, and very daunting if you don’t. If you fall into the second camp, ask yourself: how long do you have? What states are interesting to you? What season are you traveling in? What’s your overall budget for the trip?
Suggested US National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Ultimate Centennial Parks Road Trip
There are 61 National Parks in the US, which is A LOT of ground to cover; around 14,498 miles if you go the most efficient way. In 2016, data scientist Randy Olson created an interactive map that optimized driving times to create the ultimate US National Parks road trip itinerary. It excludes parks in Alaska, Hawaii, and other territories) but still manages to cover 47 US National Parks.
- Route 1: Grand Canyon to Everglades (map)
- Route 2: Everglades to Badlands (map)
- Route 3: Badlands to Zion (map)
- Route 4: Zion to Lassen (map)
- Route 5: Lassen to the Grand Canyon (map)
While that is the perfect, see-everything-save-on-gas route, obviously that won’t be the best route for everyone. You might want to spend some time in cities, pop into state parks, or skip some regions. If you’d rather customize your own National Parks road trip, here’s how you can go about it…
Other Suggested Road Trips
2. Make Your Map
Once you have a shortlist, that means you can make a map.
Google My Maps is a complete lifesaver if you’re collaborating on trip planning or undertaking a complicated road trip itinerary. Add all the parks that you’re interested in to your map. This will give you a visual representation of which parks are nearest each other and which are way out of the way. From there, you can narrow your itinerary down further based on how much time you have or your other priorities.
Once you have your locations established, you can map directions between the two parks to determine drive time. In some cases, it can be quicker to alternate states (ie. Arizona and Utah) or more comfortable to add something into your itinerary to break up a long driving day.
Spend some time on this! Figure out how you can take the trip at your own pace while maximizing on everything you want to see.
Tip: Before you go, make sure that all the maps you need are available offline. Service can be spotty at best and you’ll always want to have your driving directions accessible.
3. Plan Your Time
Once you have a good idea of where you’re going, create a planner in Excel or Google Sheets. Begin with the first park you’re going to visit, and think about how much time you’d like to spend there. Consider how big the park is and what there is to do. Look at driving time between Park A and Park B and decide where you’ll sleep on your travel days. Then, do this park-by-park with this until you have a decent overview of your time spent in each park. It is tedious, but it’s a lot easier to do it this way than by trying to take in all the information and build an itinerary after.
Before looking in dates, take a look at all the activities that might require a backcountry permit or that otherwise limits access and establish your priorities. Check availability and book that first so that you don’t schedule your whole trip around something that might be booked up.
Once that’s out of the way, you can get onto your next step.
When to Start Planning
You should start looking into your US National Parks trip no less than 6 months out. Reservations for NPS campsites and lodges almost all open 3-6 months in advance. If you’re planning backcountry travel, the permits are usually reservable 3-6 months out, too. Reservations for the most popular campsites and hikes sell out within seconds of going online (no exaggeration!). So, if you have your heart set on something specific, do your research early and set a calendar reminder so you don’t miss out.
Already late? Some parks have walk-up campsites and permits available for that very reason. There are also plenty of campgrounds and hotels outside of the park boundaries and hikes that don’t require backcountry permits. You should always be able to find a hike and a campsite, even if they’re not the exact ones you had in mind.
Budgeting & Costs
Wondering how much it costs to do a US National Parks trip? The short answer is that it really depends on what type of trip you want. But since I know this is a cop out for an answer, I’ll give you the long answer, too.
Unfortunately, a US National Park road trip probably costs more than you’d expect. Some costs you’ll want to factor in for your own trip are: park entrance or your America the Beautiful Pass, vehicle costs, gas, food & drink, entertainment, gear, campsites & accommodation, and permits. Even with camping and cooking, the US is notoriously expensive. But don’t let this stop you from going! You can keep costs down by being thoughtful about which regions you visit, altering your standard of travel, and borrowing (rather than buying or renting gear. For example, on our 21 day road trip through Arizona and Utah, we spent around $1,500. This was mostly camping and self-prepared food with a few motel nights and 3-4 meals out each week. We also had the benefit of traveling with our own vehicle and splitting many of our costs in half.
When to Go
Most of the US National Parks are at their peak business between May and August. Of course, this is more based around the summer holiday than what is actually the best time to visit.
The best time to visit the desert parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon is actually spring or fall when temperatures are more moderate and crowding is less. For summer travel, consider going to some lesser-known national parks like Capitol Reef to dodge the crowds, or go to parks like Glacier or Rocky Mountain that are only fully open in the summer. If you’re traveling in winter, consider parks in hotter regions like Everglades, Death Valley, or Joshua Tree. Most of the parks are open in some capacity year-round, but be sure to check details about when you’re visiting to make sure that you’re not surprised by closures or bad weather when you get there.
The US National Parks have gotten seriously popular in recent years (it’s called the Instagram effect). This trip is no longer the spontaneous journey it once was. Making reservations well in advance is unfortunately part of the new process. Here are a couple of the things you’ll want to look into.
Wilderness permits (sometimes called backcountry permits) are needed to hike or stay overnight in many protected areas. In most cases, your backcountry campsite reservation is the same thing as your permit to hike in an area.
At present, demand for backcountry permits in most US parks well exceeds the supply. This is essential from a conservation perspective, but it also means it can be a major source of disappointment if you don’t plan ahead.
Permits are typically bookable online 3-6 months in advance, and sell out in seconds in the most popular areas. If you’re planning a backpacking trip, you’ll often need several permits sequentially. If there’s something you have your heart set on, take some time to plan your itinerary well before bookings become available. Come up with option 1, 2, and 3. Familiarize yourself with the booking engine and pre-fill basic details like your email and address. While there are no guarantees, this will definitely give you a better chance to snag the more elusive permits.
You’ll have a better chance of getting a permit for popular sites you apply during shoulder season or travel during the weekdays. Being flexible with your dates is a huge help here.
Didn’t get your permit? Many parks have walk-up permits available. You’ll also sometimes be able to find alternate routes, or get permits for less-known hikes or backcountry sites that are just as awesome.
Booking Campsites & Lodging
Once you have your key dates anchored in, the next thing you should do is book your car campsites (or lodges if that’s more your style). There is no shortage of camping outside of the National Parks, but if you want to sleep inside the park boundaries, you usually need to book advance (or plan your travel days for early arrival if the sites are first-come-first-served).
Every park has an NPS website. Start by finding the page on accommodation within the park. Find out where each of the campsites are located within the park (they can sometimes be hours apart) and choose the best location before you book anything. Depending on how much effort you want to put in, there are sites like campsitephotos.com that post photos of campsites and suggest the best sites (ie. quiet, close to the bathroom, shaded by trees).
Once you know what you want, you’ll find most online campsite bookings are handled by recreation.gov. Bookings are relatively straightforward, but you will want to make sure that you book the proper resources (ie. a tent site vs an RV site).
Once your bookings are confirmed, it’s good to print them off and keep them where they’re easy to find (how about that glove compartment?). You won’t always have service in the campgrounds, and knowing your loop and site number will speed up your check-in process.
Before you Go
Preparing your Vehicle
Getting your vehicle sorted is a necessary step in planning a US Parks trip whether you’re renting a car or readying your own car for the trip. Some parks are easier to explore if you have a vehicle with high-clearance and 4WD though this isn’t always necessary.
If you own a car…
you have the benefit of traveling with a car that you know and trust. It’s generally cheaper to travel in your own vehicle, too! The main drawback is that you’ll be putting a lot of miles on your car.
Before leaving on your trip, schedule to have it serviced. Get the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, the break pads tested, and everything else you can think of. You’re guaranteed to be in remote areas on parts of your trip, and you’ll want your car to be in the best possible shape. Just to be on the safe side, you might also want to upgrade your insurance policy, get a AAA membership. and gear up your car with a box or some emergency supplies.
Basics aside, there are lots of things you can get to make your car more comfortable for such a major trip! It’s going to be your home on wheels, after all. Take a look at some things you’ll want for your car.
If you’re renting…
You can choose any adventure vehicle you want! And the rental company will generally take care of the maintenance and insurance stuff for you. The big drawback is that this option tends to be more expensive and you might be less comfortable than you would in your own car.
Wanna rent a car? You can definitely do this trip in a standard car. Just be sure to choose a car with enough space for your stuff (and perhaps one with 4WD). And since you’re going to be driving it hard, be sure to check the insurance policy thoroughly to make sure it covers everything you need it to. Hertz has pickup locations across the country and their car rentals are competitively priced (starting from about $50 per day including tax). They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com.
Going for a campervan? You’ll get a bit of extra room and plenty of road trip steez. Escape offers fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel. Check prices and availability on escapecampervans.com.
And as for the stuff… Make a list of everything you need on your road trip. There are some obvious items (like a tent, sleeping bag, and a cooler), but would you have thought to bring a power outlet adaptor or a pair of chains for your tires? It’s a delicate balance between being prepared and cluttering your car. Try to streamline your gear and have what you need without going overboard.
READ MORE: “What to Pack for a US National Parks Trip” coming soon!
Hitting the Road
The best part about planning your National Parks road trip ahead of time is that it’s pretty easy by the time you finally go. The adventure of this kind of trip then changes of weather. The detours. The wildlife sightings and road closures. You do your best to prepare, then whatever the hell happens happens.
What else do you want to know about planning your US National Parks road trip? Any questions you’d like answered or tips for planning your trip?