What Do You DO at National Parks, Anyway?

Trunk Bay, Us Virgin Islands

Trunk Bay overlook at our fave NP, US Virgin Islands

As teachers, one of the statements that we hear over and over is “But what do we do?”  Usually we’ve already given the directions six times, and it drives us nuts, but in your case, we’ll make an exception because it can be challenging to figure out what to do in the national parks, especially if you’ve never been to one.

National parks are great for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, sightseeing, backpacking, canoeing, rafting, climbing, riding, snorkeling, diving, geocaching, picnicking, birding, tidepooling, photographing, cycling, boating, stargazing, wildlife watching, kayaking, and just some plain old relaxing.

While most national parks are famous for their geology, each one has its own unique biological, historical, and cultural aspects, too.  Most offer wildlife sighting of some sort, and all offer unique and unparalleled natural beauty.

We recommend starting at the National Park Service website, nps.gov.  This site has lots of very good information.  There are general information pages and specific park pages.  However, it can be challenging to find information on this site, even for those of us who’ve done it a time or thirty-eight!  It will take a little navigating, so be prepared to spend some time, and keep going through the layers.  Luckily, NPS has started to standardize all of the park websites to make navigation easier.

North Cascades NP

North Cascades NP

You can also request an information packet online.  Use the Contact Us button on the bottom of any park’s page on the nps.gov site to send them an e-mail.  The park will mail you an envelope with brochures, maps, schedules and other helpful information.  These are generally packed with information and also pared down to the highlights which is helpful.  Be specific in your request:  if you’re into hiking, ask about good trails.  If you’re a birder, ask about birding hotspots.  If you’re an angler, ask about fishing opportunities and regulations.  Plus, I just think it’s exciting to have the glossy park brochure to look at!  (Many of the brochures and maps can also be downloaded from the website.)

Don’t hesitate to call the park directly and ask questions.  You’ll find the park phone numbers via the Contact Us buttons as well.  The park rangers are specialists about their parks and usually more than willing to answer questions for you.  It is a good idea, however, to have some questions ready for the ranger.  If you call and say, “What do I do?”, that question will be much more challenging to answer than if you say, “We’ll have two days to spend at the park, what are the highlights you don’t think we should miss?” or “We have our own canoe — where in the park can we use it?”

Another option would be to ask us!  We’re not park specialists like the rangers, but we have been to thirty-eight parks (plus four new ones coming this year), and we love to talk travel.  We’ve been to lots of national monuments and historic sites as well.  Leave us a note in the comments and we’ll reply, or send us an e-mail.

Olympic NP tidepools

Olympic NP tidepools

Families should definitely participate in the junior ranger programs available at all the parks.  Junior ranger booklets are available from the visitor centers and require kids to complete some written activities, sometimes attend a ranger led activity, maybe do some drawing.  Most parks also let adults participate – we are proud to say we have several junior ranger badges ourselves – so you can make it a family activity.  Some parks really ham it up during the ceremony to honor the newest junior rangers!  There are also several virtual junior ranger activities kids can do from home.  Try out this link to start exploring!


Checking the river’s pH in Denali

A few parks also have family activity backpacks available for checkout at visitor centers.  At Denali we checked out a backpack with our nephews that had a water pH kit, an animal print making kit, binoculars, a thermometer, a bird book, crayons and paper, a make-a-postcard kit, wildlife identification information, and more.  And the best thing about it?  It’s FREE!!!

This weekend we’re actually in Washington, DC, for the inauguration festivities, so we’ll be visiting some of America’s most famous National Park Service spots on the National Mall.  You can be sure we’ll have our NPS map in hand and our National Mall app on our phones to be sure we don’t miss anything.  [Update:  we’re not heading to DC after all because Erin’s sick.  In her words, “it totally bites!”  But DC is awesome — and entry to nearly every sight, museum, and government building is free!]

US Capitol

Capitol building, Washington, DC

Enjoy your week or your weekend!



5 thoughts on “What Do You DO at National Parks, Anyway?

  1. Thanks for this post! I just got my national parks passport over the weekend (first stamp: Dry Tortugas National Park!) I have a short list of parks I need to go back just for the stamp. My goal is to eventually visit all 59 parks. The Alaska parks are last on my list because I hate the cold. How cold does it get in the summer? I know it’s possible to camp in some of them, how would you prepare for the cold?

    • We love our National Parks Passport! We can’t believe we neglected to mention it in our blog post.

      For those that don’t know, a National Parks Passport is a small spiral notebook complete with regional maps and information about NPS sites. Each park has a “Passport Cancellation Station” complete with a unique rubber date stamp ready to “cancel” your passport with an “Official Cancellation.”

      A page in our NP Passport

      In addition to stamping our passport, we often stamp our journal and any postcards we’re about to mail. Free fun!

      As for Alaska, its eight parks have varying weather. We’ve visited Denali, Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias. Kenai Fjords can be downright chilly, but in the other parks we’ve experienced mild temperatures and of course loooooooooong days. While not exactly shorts weather, high temperatures seemed to be in the 60s (°F) or mid-teens (°C). A light jacket or sweatshirt and long pants did the trick. We didn’t camp; instead we stayed in a hostel (Kenai) or in cabins (at the other three parks). All had heat.

      The scenery and solitude in Glacier Bay and Wrangell can’t be beat, and the wildlife in Denali and Kenai Fjords are spectacular. Don’t let the cool temps stop you from a visit!

  2. Pingback: Happy 13th Birthday – Let’s Visit a National Park! | A Week or a Weekend

  3. Erin–So glad that you put this blog in Ruth’s OASL newsletter! We are off to the Dry Tortugas for part of our spring break and this post has been helpful and inspiring!

    • Dry Tortugas is amazing! You will love it. We camped there several years ago – a fantastic experience. Highly recommend kayaking out near the birds. Don’t recommend being in a tent in a thunderstorm. A bunch of us ended up holed up in the concrete bunker/bathroom. Wild times. Have fun, and thanks for stopping by the blog! Enjoy your week or your weekend.

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