Tips for Planning an Awesome Trip to the National Parks

Ever since my trip to Portland and Las Vegas in 2016, I haven’t been able to stop dreaming about that deep shade of hunter green that I’ve only seen in the sky-reaching pine trees of Oregon. We’ve recently gone to San Diego, and we’ve done places in northern California like San Francisco, and also ventured to Arizona last summer.

The next west coast trip on my mind is to Yosemite, or Glacier, or any of the awesome national parks that the west coast has to offer.

Yosemite National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

The thing is, Luke and I haven’t camped recently. Like at all. It’s been on my bucket list, but since neither of us know what we’re doing we’re a little hesitant to go.

I’ve been taking notes from what others are doing, whether that’s chatting over a beer or sending a message that reads something like, “Your trip looked amazing! How in the world did you do that?!”

One of our super adventurous friends, Kelly Bitner over in Denver, just explored three national parks with her boyfriend and fellow outdoor-lover, Scott Bright.

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

Yosemite, Glacier, Teton, and Banff National Parks were explored by these two. Trip of a lifetime, right?! I was in disbelief at all of her Instagram posts at how beautiful they were, especially knowing that pictures don’t do justice to sights like crystal-clear blue waters, mountain ranges on mountain ranges, and wildlife.

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

Kelly and Scott shared with me some critical tips for planning an awesome trip to the national parks, which you can check out below.

From their experience, in addition to what Ashley shared on her recent road trip through various national parks, I have learned so much and hope to be able to plan just as incredible of a trip in the near future (after we settle into Miami and establish ourselves in our new jobs, that is).

Here are Kelly and Scott’s pro tips for planning an awesome trip to the national parks:

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

AB: What was your inspiration to want to take this trip to various National Parks?

KB: I had actually done two different national park road trips in earlier years. I live in Colorado and am surrounded by SO many parks that are close enough to get to within a day or two’s drive.

After seeing a number of the national parks in Colorado, I bought a national parks passport and decided I wanted to try to visit as many of them as I could. On my earlier trips I had gone west and south to Zion, the Grand Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands, as well as Mesa Verde and the Great Sand Dunes but I had yet to hit anything north of here.

SB:I love to camp, road trip, and see new things. I was excited to explore areas of the US I’d never visited, and also head into Canada for the first time in over a decade.

AB: What was your itinerary, and how did you pick the parks you visited?

KB: To hit some new parks, I knew I wanted to head north. I had visited a lot of the others towards the south so I wanted something totally different. Yellowstone and Teton had been on my to do list forever, because while they’re not THAT far from Denver, about 8-9 hours or so, it’s still too far to go for a weekend. Plus, I had only been to Yellowstone as a kid and in the winter, so I knew there was plenty there I still wanted to see.

Once I knew, I just searched to see what other parks were in the area and saw Glacier National Park. Plenty of my friends had told me that this park was out of this world, and that if I wanted to actually SEE the glaciers before they were all melted, then I needed to make sure to go soon.

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

Ironically, the addition of Banff National Park in Canada was a total fluke. I was just chatting with a friend about my plans for my trip and he told me he was going to be in Banff the same weekend that I had planned for Glacier. SO what was 5 hours more north to add on another park and make this thing international? ☺

SB:  Kelly told where we were going and when. 🙂

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

AB: How did you figure out what types of activities you’d do in each park?

KB: I planned most of the trip as a hiking trip. I knew I wanted to see the major sites but I also didn’t want to spend too much time in the car driving from site to site, which can be easy to do when these parks are as big as they are. But I made sure to do a lot of research about the major attractions, or must-sees of each park, and then checked AllTrails to find some great recommended hikes.

For Teton and Yellowstone, I actually purchased a guidebook once I got into the park. While we did tend to have a pretty well-researched route, I’ve always found that you have to keep an open mind on trips like these. The trail you may want to hit, or the attraction you want to see, may be closed due to too much bear activity in the area, or the trail has too much damage from recent rainfall and is being repaired, or the weather won’t be safe to be at higher elevations or above tree line.

Or, you may even talk to a park ranger at the visitor center who tells you all about this less well-traveled but equally amazing hike somewhere else that will be less crowded! It’s great to know what you want to do, but always be willing to be flexible with it when circumstances or opportunity come knocking.

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

SB: We would do a bit of online research ahead of time, but often decided what we would do once we were in the parks themselves. Often, we would hear about things to do by word of mouth, from rangers, or by looking at the parks’ activities guides.
AB: What was your favorite part about your trip?

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

KB: If I had to choose just one, I would say it was my very first day after the drive to Banff. We had been in the car for two days straight, got to our campsite pretty late the night beforehand, so we woke up in the morning itching to move our legs and see some of the sights. We woke up and drove straight to Moraine Lake and I saw some of the bluest water I have ever seen – this gorgeous lake was pressed up against jagged snow-covered peaks.

We asked one of the park staff there what hike they recommended, as there were several we could have done, and he said if we wanted a challenge to try to go up Sentinel Pass. This route was windy and steep at the onset, but opened up at the top to this valley called the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It was 10 mountain peaks of the range all right in a row from this vantage point.

From there we climbed gradually a bit more to an alpine lake, and then did a steep hike, with sections still snow covered from there. But the view at the top was well worth it.

After a break at the top to enjoy the view and eat our lunch we came back down and even took a little short cut with a slide down the snow, sitting on our jackets before heading back down. the blue of Moraine Lake was peaking through the evergreens. It was pretty incredible.

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

SB: Driving into a new park for the first time and always being mesmerized by the surroundings

AB: What was the one or two unforeseen challenges that you faced on your trip? What advice would you tell somebody who wanted to do this same type of travel?

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

KB: One unforeseen challenge was definitely the mosquitoes! I’m from Florida originally so I’m no stranger to these things, but I’m not going to lie, living in Colorado for the past few years I can probably count on my fingers how many times I’ve been bitten.

So fair warning friends: bring lots and lots of bug spray with you if you plan on visiting this part of country in summer. I never would have thought they would be here, but we were devoured! It was a routine of shower, and reapply the deet, cause we could not go a few steps without it on without them swarming.

SB: Securing campgrounds in the national parks. It’s unpredictable because many are first come first serve and it’s a roll of the dice.

AB: How did you determine what types of gear you’d need to spend so long in the outdoors?

Tips to Planning a trip to the National Parks
Credit: Kelly Bitner

KB: Lots and lots of lists. Before I left, I created a list of all the kitchen items I wanted to bring and collected those from my house. Next, anything I didn’t have was purchased in a trip to REI. Kitchen items included things like a cast iron and a non-stick pan, plus a pot and then travel fold up versions of a spatula and serving spoon.

We also brought one sharp knife with a blade cover, a few dehydrated meals (some nights you will definitely be too exhausted to want to meal prep or cook) and our backpacking pots. These are great because they’re the size of a small, tall pot, but they have two bowls and two cups that fit inside them. Super compact but versatile. Then our camp stove and plenty of propane to fuel it!

After that I created lists for clothing I would need (definitely bring extras, you’ll get so sweaty some days you’ll want to do a change midday so have extra outfits on hand), what other miscellaneous camp items I would need (things like headlamps, my eno hammock, sunscreen, etc.) and then a meal list for few days. On this one, I would suggest getting ingredients that can be used in several different dishes.

For instance, buy wraps, then use them for breakfast burritos then sandwiches to pack for the hike. Then, get veggies to use in the burritos, to throw on your sandwich for lunch, and also to throw on the cast iron pizzas you make that evening. As much overlap as you can do, the better!

The more money you save, the less food you waste, and the more room you have in the cooler for beer from the local breweries 😉 (make sure to check those out too on the trip!).

SBI do a fair amount of camping as it is, so I didn’t need to add much additional gear to my setup. Mostly, I knew we would be car camping and I wouldn’t need to worry so much about weight. The big questions across the trip were food and food storage. 

We had a cooler that would keep things relatively cold for about two days before more ice was needed. In the future, a yeti cooler that allows longer duration of cold with less ice might be ideal.

Thanks to Kelly and Scott, I have a way better idea of how to get this national park trip show on the road and make this dream become a reality! My big takeaways are:

  1. Planning ahead as much as possible for logistics is a wise move when you’re dealing with campsites in national parks due to high demand.
  2. Research gear and food to see what fits best for transportation means and also practicality with space and what can stay good for a while.
  3. Stay flexible with day itineraries as better opportunities may arise once you’re actually there!
  4. Know when to go – seems like certain times of year get crazier than others!
  5. Balance must-see sights with off the beaten path routes to get an enriching experience.

I can’t wait for us to make our way out west to these awesome national parks sometime soon!

What are your favorite national parks tips and trips?