|Half Dome from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.|
Begin by asking what you’d most like to see. Do you want to watch wildlife? Experience great geological features like canyons and exotic rock formations? Of deserts, volcanoes, autumn leaves, or tropical rain forests, which appeals to you? Are you interested in history? Was there a park you’ve always wanted to visit since childhood? The quandary you’ll face is that you’ll want to see more than you probably have vacation time for!
Next, decide how you’ll reach the park. Many parks are remote and require driving, at least from a nearby airport. How much time you have to travel and how much money you’re able to spend on transportation can help you narrow your list of potential parks to visit on during a vacation.
After that, determine how much money is in your budget. The good news is that the park itself is fairly inexpensive to visit. As of press time, Congaree National Park in South Carolina and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio are absolutely free to enter while Zion in Utah charges $25 a vehicle for a week-long stay. The real cost will come in lodging and food. Hotels within national parks generally are pricey while those near the park entrances only slight less so. Camping in the park or a neighboring national forest can be a good, inexpensive option. Food also can cost a small fortune within a park, but usually there are plenty of good, less expensive alternatives in nearby communities.
A fourth consideration is when you will be traveling. Parts of some parks, such as Rocky Mountain, Crater Lake and Yosemite, actually cannot be reached during winter as heavy snowfall closes high mountain roads. Others, such as Death Valley, are simply too dangerous to hike in the summer heat. Most parks also have a peak season in which roads, campgrounds, sites and trails will be crowded; visiting a park when attendance is low, but the weather is ideal.
Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.