Avoid These National Park Nightmares on Your Next Family Vacay
The national parks are inspiring, and your children will thank you later in life for introducing them to the great outdoors. The idyllic scenery, however, doesn’t guarantee your trip will go smoothly. The popular parks see millions of visitors annually, and the combination of tourist traffic and poor planning can create a frustrating family vacation.
After a decade of living and working around several different parks, you could say I’ve seen a few vacations turn sour. Luckily, you can avoid turning your great park adventure into an unforgettable nightmare by steering clear of the following scenarios.
Getting Locked Out
Remember the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” scene when the Griswold family pulls into Wally World, and the park is closed? Let’s go ahead and avoid that one. Most national parks are open year-round, and you can plan an impromptu or well-researched visit easily. There are a few, however, that experience seasonal hour changes and weather that limits access to a good portion of the park.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park doesn’t open until June in some years, as snowpack and plow progress dictates when the road opens. Just ask my dad about our first attempt at Glacier. He had no idea that this road was closed, despite bragging about it the entire 14-hour drive to Montana. Luckily for him (and our family as a whole), you can still visit the east or west entrance in the winter. We camped on the west side then drove to East Glacier for a day. While we still enjoyed the trip, postponing it a few weeks would have opened the opportunity to drive the entire road.
And let’s not forget the latest edition of bad politics and government shutdowns that can also block your visit. Several parks are completely closed or abandoned by all staff during these times, so it’s best to go elsewhere during a shutdown.
Traffic That Rivals Los Angeles
Traveling across the country only to find yourself in a traffic jam within the park will raise the tension level in your car. Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are especially notorious for horrendous traffic during the summer months. Plan your drives for early morning or evening. The best wildlife and landscape viewing happens during these times, and the traffic is lighter as a bonus.
Traffic jams that rival Los Angeles at rush hour do happen in some parks regardless, so bring your A-game and make a plan to avoid the gridlock. I was stuck for an hour in Yellowstone while a dozen drivers broke out the long-range cameras to photograph a small black bear. The bear was trapped between a cliff face and the cars. They literally had the poor guy pinned down, and he clearly just wanted a way down to the river and out of sight.
Lesson learned: Don’t be the person that holds up the show for a squirrel and unpacks the entire family in the middle of a trafficked road. Find a safe place to pull over when you see something worth stopping to photograph and view.
Staying right inside a national park is a good choice … until it’s not. It comes back to the peak season issue. Millions of visitors in the big parks comes at a price. Imagine your family being surrounded by hordes of tourists, lining up at vendor food stands for overpriced junk. The exorbitant costs eat away at your budget in a hurry. For the price of a few pretzels, you might have scored an Airbnb just outside the park in a quiet location.
If you can swing a waterfront room at a nice, quiet park lodge, go ahead. Visiting during the shoulder seasons also helps with the crowds, but the prices are still fairly high, and your kids likely have school in session.
Lodging inside a mellow, somewhat less-traveled park offers a unique experience, but avoid the nightmare that comes with lodging in the hornets nest of tourist activity at a place like Grand Canyon. Unless you enjoy the chaos.
Camping Alongside All the Other Campers
Skip the lodging altogether, and go camping for a rustic experience. Maybe. Do your research before pitching a tent in a park. Developed campgrounds fill quickly, and some even require reservations. And developed campgrounds are the only options.
Even backcountry travelers are required to register and stay at specific campgrounds. Camping in national parks is either pure bliss or a complete disaster. That is unless you enjoy rubbing elbows with a thousand other campers all day and sleeping to the hum of their RV generators all night.
Personally, I like to get away. Look for campgrounds off the main thoroughfares. The ones requiring a little extra effort tend to weed out a large number of the folks you don’t want around your family camp. Laying out under the stars at a peaceful campsite is the goal for the entire family. Anywhere that restricts RV travel and is only open to limited tent camping is your ticket to a more pleasant experience.
Forgetting Crucial Gear
“Honey, did you pack the raincoats? That storm is headed right for us” are words that no one ever wants to hear. You can buy quality gear without breaking the bank, but the $1 poncho won’t cut it when the rain lets loose in Washington’s Olympic National Park.
Don’t pack the kitchen sink, but bring a quality set of layers, rain gear and sun protection to every single park in the United States. If you leave the rain gear behind when visiting Canyonlands in Utah, it will likely pour all day and night. Pack light, but pack smart with quality gear.
Refusing to Get Directions
Let’s circle back to that Griswold list of vacation mistakes. Asking for directions, especially from a local, can save you an incredible amount of time. Even in the world of GPS, TripAdvisor and detailed planning, asking for directions is worth the stop.
In more remote areas around the parks, a local can tell you about bad and closed roads, saving you a flat tire in the middle of nowhere or an unwanted detour. You might also discover interesting stops and places that are not listed on TripAdvisor or a local search.
Reaching Your Family’s Breaking Point
You made it through the traffic, pitched a tent and your national park vacation is off to a great start. Now, it’s time to book a few tours and go explore. But taking a full day trip in the elements with a full family in tow can lead to major breakdowns and unhappy campers later that night.
Know your family and their capabilities before booking a two-week rafting trip down the Grand Canyon or even a full-day guided hike in the park. When little ones are a factor, half-day trips are ideal. You still enjoy the great experience without the sunburns and tears.
Indulging in Tourist-Trap Food Stands
My last trip to Glacier National Park resulted in a stop near the entrance for a huckleberry shake. I love huckleberry shakes and eat them with real berries in my hometown of Missoula, Mont. Naturally, I assumed Glacier, home of massive huckleberry patches and billboards boasting about huckleberry gifts would serve up a good shake.
After a bad experience with a terrible shake made from artificial syrup and an even worse burger, I investigated a few other restaurants and roadside stands. None of them made their milkshakes with real berries.
Go to most busy national parks, and the food vendors near the entrances serve up some pretty rough grub at a high markup. Take your time finding a good restaurant, and avoid the tourist trap ones.
Skipping the Rules
We get it. You were a boy scout and have the badges to prove it. That doesn’t mean harassing a bison or walking off the elevated platforms at a geyser site will impress your children.
The signs are in place for a reason. Follow the rules, don’t harass the wildlife, and set a good example for your family.
Ignoring International Boundaries
Want to show your family what an immigration holding cell looks like from the inside? Watch out for those international boundaries. Better yet, bring your passport, and know how to cross them legally.
Parks are located on both the northern and southern borders with long stretches of the border being unmarked. The roads are typically labeled, but you could easily hike across a border on accident.
Petting the Wildlife
This should go without saying, but somehow, it continues to happen. The wildlife is actually wild. Many people mistake the parks for a zoo-like setting and believe a kind of safety net exists around wild animals.
There is, however, nothing to prevent a coiled rattlesnake from striking or a bison from charging. Keep a safe distance, and avoid spending your family vacation in the hospital.
And Feeding the Wildlife
On that note, keep the wildlife wild, and don’t feed them like pets. Early in the history of national parks, feeding bears and wildlife was commonplace. The bears in Yosemite National Park are still conditioned to the influence of human food despite strict rules about storing food in bear-proof canisters and keeping food out of reach.
People actually quit wearing bear bells because they were alerting the bears that hikers were nearby with potential treats. Bears in the Yosemite backcountry are also recorded standing on each other’s shoulders to reach food in a bear hang. Canisters are now required in the backcountry as a result of these antics.
We know the consequences of feeding wildlife are severe now, and so should you. Oh yeah, it’s also illegal and comes with citations and fines. So, just don’t.
Forgetting the Bear Spray
Yes, bear spray is a thing. You definitely should bring some with you, and make sure you know how it works because it doesn’t work like mosquito repellant. It’s a super-charged canister of pepper spray that will burn your eyeballs for a week if discharged on a person. It seems like a concept that should go without saying, but more than one person has used the spray like a can of Deet.
Don’t spray down your kids with bear spray, just keep it on your backpack for emergency use on an actual bear.
Insisting on Getting Where the Action Is
Sometimes, the parks are just too much. Crowds, closures, strict rules or major events like wildfires can make your trip difficult. Maybe you want to bring along the family dog and go for hikes without registering at ranger stations and filling out forms.
The great thing about many of our national parks is the country surrounding the park. Some parks are located inside a greater swath of public lands, and you can easily seek out Forest Service or BLM lands that remain in the same ecosystem. If the park is too big a hassle and you are geared for camping on public lands, take the family near a park rather than to a park.
Not Making S’mores
Something is bound to go wrong on your next national park vacation. Getting through any group trip without a few fails is rare. Keep your head up and bring plenty of firewood, graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey's bars. A few s’mores before bed will bring everyone together around the campfire with a smile.
Quick tip: Make them with a Reese’s peanut butter cup in place of the chocolate bar. It’s the most amazing dessert ever.