USA national parks travel advice

Richard Hanson, Managing Director of our top supplier of USA vacations, Grand American Adventures, is a fount of knowledge when it comes to USA national parks travel:

Trip planning tips

“Many people don’t realise that National Monuments are also part of the National Park System. What makes them different is that they are of historical significance, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which is hidden in the middle of the Grand Circle of National Parks. Or the amazing Canyon de Chelly in Arizona is the same. Yet no one knows they are there.”

Wildlife tips

“Please don’t invade wildlife space. These national parks are not for us. They are actually for the wildlife, and so let’s keep them wild. Follow the rules, stay on the path, don’t litter, and don’t feed the animals. As tour leaders we really hit home with our guests about these points.”

Get hiking!

“It is amazing how many people don’t get out of their cars in the national parks. The average person visiting the Grand Canyon takes a few photos, goes to the visitor center and spends 90 minutes there. Someone once pointed out to me that if you walk an hour down the trail you are walking with Americans, walk two hours down the trail you are walking with Europeans, and walk three hours down the trail, you are walking alone”

Photography advice

“It bothers me when people take photographs without actually stopping to look at what is out there. You need to watch for wildlife and just take it in. It is the Facebook check-in culture.”
Dave Patrick from our specialist Alaska operator Infinite Adventures

Waste not

"I think responsible tourism in Alaska national parks is really about awareness of your impact. Waste is a big issue, because some places are so remote they can't cope with large amounts. So we typically carry everything out in the hope it can eventually be recycled. But that's getting harder so it's about minimising your waste. Buying locally helps with that."

When to see wolves

"There's no best time to see wolves really, they're doing their thing all year round. Like the bears they're very opportunistic. However wolves are more solitary in summer when there is more prey to be had, then they hunt in packs in winter. You'll sometimes see them by the side of the road after snowshoe hares. But occasionally you get super lucky and there's a fresh moose or caribou kill, it's a once a season thing though if ever, they're very reclusive."

Attraction No.1

"We decided to use a school bus to get around for various reasons. In America it's kind of an iconic vehicle anyway, and not massively expensive to buy and fit out. But crucially in many other overland vehicles you have these bench seats, tinted windows, they're not comfortable and they don't lend themselves well to wildlife-viewing. And in Alaska the wildlife is the number one attraction."

Health & safety

HEALTH

Some national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain are very arid, so make sure you stay hydrated. Take hydration backpacks, style CamelBak, so you have it on you at all times. You sweat between 0.5-1 litre of fluid for every hour you hike in the heat. This can double if you are hiking uphill in direct sunlight at the hottest time of the day. The sweat evaporates quickly, so you can’t see it. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink – by then you are already dehydrated. Take rehydration powders too if necessary. Eating also helps heat exhaustion.   Signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, pale appearance, stomach cramps and cool, clammy skin. If any of these symptoms occur, find shade, drink and eat. If water is available, wet your hat, shirt or bandana, and carry a spray bottle to cool yourself down. If the symptoms persist after two hours, seek help. Sunscreen is always a good idea, but particularly at altitude. Altitude sickness is not uncommon in the high peaks regions such as the Rocky Mountain National Park. The best way to cope is to adjust slowly. Take short hikes for the first couple of days. A good rule of thumb is that once you are above 3,000m do not increase the altitude at which you sleep by more than 300-500m a night. You can go up higher during the day, but each night go back down to lower level. Don’t drink from the rivers. Although they may look super clean they can be source of the bacteria giardiasis which can be very nasty indeed. You can boil the water, but do so for five minutes in elevated areas. You can also filter, but it is not always perfect, with iodine treatments considered better. Ticks are a feature of some region, so read up beforehand. Use a repellent, keep covered, keep checking for them especially in the shower after a hike, and carry tweezers for removal. Like all trips to the USA, make sure you have up to date travel health insurance.

SAFETY

Many states don’t wear helmets for outdoor activities, but awareness is changing. People don’t even use them when rafting, unless on the wilder class 4 and 5 rapids, so do ask for one and set a good example! They all supply them, they just don’t shout about it. All kayakers use helmets. Wildlife awareness is important in the national parks. With animals like bears, mountain lions and snakes, you need to inform yourself of what to do in the event of an encounter before you go. The Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, has excellent guidelines. Do not let your children wander too far ahead of you, so that you can keep a close eye. Temperatures can plummet in some of the national parks, so always carry a sensible layer or two. Hypothermia can be life threatening and happen at any time of year. Lightning storms are common in some parks, and usually take place on summer afternoons. So best to hike early if you are going high, so that you are descending by the afternoon. If lightning does occur, get below the treeline and stay away from summits or isolated trees. Stay as low as you can and take your backpack off if it has a metal frame in it. Always be prepared with maps, compass, rain gear, pocketknife, matches and a whistle. And always tell someone where you are going. Most trailheads in national parks have a book you can sign to say where you are going, and how many are in your party.  Flash floods do happen in some of the canyon parks, and waters can rise very quickly. Each national park website always has updated warnings, so keep an eye on this as well as the weather forecast. People do die in these every year, so you need to very cautious. On cliff trails, beware of loose sand or pebbles, as these can become very slippery. Also, some travelers become distracted at cliff edge viewpoints if they are using cameras or binoculars. Drop dead gorgeous views should not be literal. Never throw or roll rocks on from cliff edges, as you could start a rock fall and, more likely, there might be hikers below you whom you could hit.

Our top National Parks of America Vacation

Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon vacation

Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon vacation

Take in some of the USAs greatest landscapes

From US $2799 to US $3749 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2021: 9 Mar, 11 Apr, 2 May, 2 Jul, 31 Jul, 14 Sep, 27 Sep, 25 Nov
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about National Parks of America or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Tips from our travelers

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travelers are often... other travelers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do - and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful USA national parks travel tips that our guests have provided over the years to help you make the very most of your vacation - and the space inside your suitcase.
Be prepared for extremes of temperature – cool and cloudy in San Francisco, extremely hot and dry in Vegas.
– Ian Roberts
“Mostly don't bother to pitch the tent - just sleep under the stars! Take as little baggage as possible - you live in the same pair of shorts for most of the trip. Bring spices/sauces/recipes from your home country - it's great fun to share some traditional cooking. Next time I go I will have been on a watercolour painting course and plan to sit for hours painting that amazing scenery.” - Helen Perry on our family camping vacation in America

“It’s a camping trip so you need to pack carefully, laundry facilities are available at some campsites but the itinerary is so packed that often there is just not enough time. If you do this vacation during the summer it is REALLY hot. Make sure you have a water bottle to fill up and remember that kids will need to drink huge amounts, footwear is important for hiking you will need decent boots or summer trail walking shoes and also walking shoes/sandals that can go in water.” - Rebecca Hill on our Family vacation to National Parks in America

“Go prepared to have a go at everything, especially trails and walks, and you won't be disappointed. Make sure that you tot up how much cash you'll need for meals and tips and stuff so that you don't have to worry while you're in the middle of the trip.” - Sally Seed

“The tour is offered in two different directions. I went from San Francisco to Las Vegas with my major highlights at the start. If you take the opposite route you get Yosemite as your final highlight. Consider also when you go. The temperatures in the second half of May ranged from 29°F to the high 90s°F but it was comfortable most of the time…There was a lot of traveling in the minibus but I expected that. If you want to do a lot of walking this might not be the tour for you. As a reasonably fit 60 year old, I was happy with the treks provided, and alternatives were offered for those who were less fit.” - Paul Rimmer on our West Coast tours in America vacation
Pack some warm clothes, although we walk in deserts it does get cold at night. Also don't take too many things, no cumbersome cases, I had a 12 kilo backpack, it was perfect.
– Anne Marie Benouville
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mike van Dalen] [Richard Hanson advice: Yellowstone National Park] [Dave Patrick advice: Yellowstone National Park] [Health & Safety: Yellowstone National Park] [Ian Roberts quote: Joshua Tree National Park] [Anne Marie Benouville quote: Joshua Tree National Park]
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