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Tips For Your Next National Park Trip According To A Former Guide

Audrey Nowakowski
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

The United States is home 59 national parks — from Yellowstone (the first, established in 1872) and to Pinnacles in California (the newest, created in 2013). Writer and photographer Becky Lomax has lived and breathed the parks her whole life. Her dad was a park ranger and as a kid, she and her family would regularly visit Washington state's national parks.

As an adult, Lomax lived outside of Glacier National Park in Montana, where she worked as a backpacking and hiking guide. That experience inspired her first guide book.

Lomax's most recent guidebook, titled Moon USA National Parks: The Completed Guide to All 59 Parks, takes on the whole system.

Lomax admits going from highlighting specific parks to the whole national system was a huge endeavor, but she had help from other authors and guides. "These are people that live like I do ... right next to national parks and we go there all the time. We know what works, how to do it, what season and so forth — it's a lot of insider information."

She says in general you should plan a year in advance for your trip — especially if it's a popular national park like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. Lodging typically opens up a year in advance and will fill up quickly, but Lomax notes, a lot of parks can easily be made into day trips.

Here are some other helpful tips from Lomax:

  • Take shuttles into the parks. - "It just makes it so much easier to get to those trails heads or get to those things you want to see."
  • Go to the park before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid the major crowds. - "Most people in the national parks are out and about between 9 and 4. So if you can make use of that early morning time or that evening time, you can actually have some really cool short trail hiking experiences or sight-seeing experiences, or scenic drives where you're not battling all these cars or people."
  • Be respectful. - "Every time we go into a park, we are affecting that park." Take care to limit single-use plastics in the park and take garbage bags to collect your smaller trash to take back out of the park when you leave.
  • Use binoculars. - "Wildlife watching should be done through binoculars so you're giving these animals space, and that's for your safety and for their safety."

However big or small of a trip you take, Lomax encourages everyone to makie it to at least one national park in your lifetime. "Most people come away just totally enriched — even if it's a short national park experience — it comes frought with meaning to them, at having had that special moment out there," she says.
As for the best national parks, Lomax shares some of her favorites:

Kid-Friendly Parks

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
Wild horses roam about, along with bison, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

Roosevelt is a less-traveled park, but has a ton of wildlife watching potential — from wild horses, to buffalo, to prarie dogs. The hiking trails range in difficulty, but the park also has a lot of scenic roads if you need to keep the family in the car or give the kids a break from walking. "You don't get to see wild horses too often and that's a pretty cool place to be able to see that," Lomax adds.

Credit K/stock.adobe.com
Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

"If you go in summer, it's got a paleantology lab that is open and they have some kid programs in there. And what kids don't like dinosaurs? It's kind of a made for kids experience there. And then some of the hikes in Badlands are just really fun short little boardwalk sections or trails that go out into these crazy, erroded, magical places."

Lomax says all national parks have a Junior Ranger Program for kids of all ages. Simply stop in a visitor center, get the ranger booklet for that particular park, and complete the prompts to earn badges.

"All of the activities in it are educational ones that the kids get to learn about wildlife and the ecosystems. They fill out the book, do all the projects, take it back to the visitor center, and then a ranger there looks at their work and then swears them in as junior rangers and they get a badge. A lot of kids collect these badges."

Great Lakes Region National Parks

These parks are all about a six to eight hour drive from Wisconsin.

Credit Voyageurs National Park/National Park Service / facebook.com
Over 40% of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is water.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)

"It's a historic park along the canal system, so there's a wonderful 20 mile trail you can actually bike and hike."

Isle Royale National Park(Michigan)

"A great place to see moose, go hiking, go paddling, and just enjoy the remoteness there."

Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

"This park has four giant lakes and is really good for boating, kayaking and fishing. And they have a ton of boat-in campsites. So instead of taking the RV out, you pile everything in a boat or a house boat and you go to these campsites that are kind of remote."

Parks For Solitude

Credit davidmarx/stock.adobe.com
Winter at the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana)

"You can almost turn any park into a less crowded experience, especially if you can go off-season. One of the experiences that just blows me away every time is going to Yellowstone in winter. You take a snow coach into Old Faithful, you spend the night at the snow lodge, and you may be one of 15 people out there watching Old Faithful guiser erupt!"

Guide's Favorite Pick

Credit Photo by Jacob W. Frank / NPS
Mount Saint Nicholas in Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park (Montana)

"That's partially why I live here. It's just such a rugged, beautiful park and the mountain scenery is so chiseled by glaciers — it just is magnificent. And because it's got so many miles of hiking trails, once you get past about the three mile mark, people thin out. You can have some incredible backpacking experiences in the park where you're not around tons and tons of people."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.