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18 Things You Need to Know About US National Parks

Updated on June 13, 2017

If you want to visit any of the US national parks, there are several things you need to know about them that can help you with your planning.

  1. There are 417 national park sites in the US and its territories, but only 59 of them are referred to as “national” .
  2. The most well known ones fill with visitors early each the day during their high season.
  3. All have stay limitations, but these vary from park to park.
  4. Most parks employ seasonal volunteers as well as paid workers.
  5. Many are more expensive to visit than you might think.
  6. Most require entry fees.
  7. All charge for camping, but not all provide camping sites.
  8. There are additional costs for accessing certain amenities.
  9. Many parks offer cost reducing passes.
  10. Few have hookups and most have none.
  11. Some offer hotel lodging, but others do not.
  12. Some require reservations, while others do not.
  13. The parks vary greatly in size, costs and availability of amenities.
  14. Some are remote, while others are close to populated areas.
  15. Rules are strictly enforced by Park Rangers.
  16. Rangers can legally fine and imprison violators.
  17. Many parks present life threatening dangers to visitors.
  18. You can find specific information about each park on the National Park Service website.

An overview of the United States park system.
An overview of the United States park system. | Source

Basic Info

There are many types of parks overseen by the United States Government, the most well known of which include the 59 national parks, Bureau of Land Management Lands (known as the BLM) and the US Army Corps of Engineers facilities.

Each has its own website that provides important information for visitors such as stay lengths, permits and costs. However, you can find information about all 417 nationally managed parks here.

BLM lands are mostly wild and primitive areas, while the National and Corps parks generally offer travel experiences for those who prefer to have more conveniences.

For this reason, it’s important for those wishing to visit any of these places to decide on the type of travel experience they want to have and then choose a location that they feel will meet their needs.

Those desiring to visit the big national parks need to understand that during the summer season campgrounds and hotels fill up very early in the day. Many are based on a first come, first served basis.

Most also have limits on the number of days people can reside in their facilities. Usually it’s 14 days, but this can vary from park to park.

Some will take advanced reservations, but most will not, which is why those wishing to visit should do their homework and plan early so they don’t get turned away at the entry gate!

Camping facilities vary greatly from one park to another.
Camping facilities vary greatly from one park to another. | Source

Parks Vary In Size, Fees and Amenities

The larger parks are usually beautiful, spacious, clean well maintained and relatively safe. Some offer full hookup campgrounds and beautiful hotels, while others don't offer anything but a place to park a recreational vehicle

Most of the smaller parks offer limited amenities but some offer more than might be expected.

For example:

YellowstoneNational Park offers only the barest of amenities but has magnificent scenery and great fishing opportunities which makes it a popular place to visit. Staying there is not cheap because they charge a 7 day entry fee ($25), a daily camping fee (from $12 to $19.50) and fees for fishing licenses ($19 per day per person if you buy one for Montana and one for Wyoming).

On the other hand, Vine Prairie Campground in Mulberry, Arkansas is small, off the beaten track and charges $10 to $16 per night for camping. There is no entry fee, but it offers absolutely nothing except 20 campsites, a view of the Arkansas River and only minimal hookups.

GulfIsland National Seashore charges $22 per night, has no entry fee, but has a gorgeous lush campground with water and 50 amp hookups and a dump station. It also has hiking trails, picnic areas and a marina. It is conveniently located in the town of Ocean Springs, just across the road from a big hospital and less than 5 miles from a big casino resort town.

Visiting Can Be Expensive

People often assume that visiting our national parks is free, but nothing is further from the truth. In fact, costs can add up depending on which spot you choose to visit and how far you have to drive to get to it!

  • All but a few of the most popular parks require entry fees.
  • Most that provide campsites charge for them.
  • Lodge, cabin and hotel rooms can be quite expensive.
  • Parks charge hefty fees for items such as showers and laundromat use.
  • Fishing license costs can be significant.

Furthermore, parks, such as Glacier and Yellowstone, are located far from where many visitors live. Thus, the cost of getting there can be high.

RVing in the 4 Most Popular National Parks will give you specific amenity, rule and pricing info about the four most visited national parks, but if you want to visit others, you'll have to do further research.

BLM sites are often quite primitive.
BLM sites are often quite primitive. | Source

How to Reduce Costs

The overnight camping prices for national parks can vary from $8 to $40, so it pays to make some phone calls before deciding where you want to go.

The good news is that you reduce your costs significantly if you purchase a park pass or qualify for a free one.

Senior citizens pay $10 for an annual pass Disabled people get them for free, and they are permanent. These passes both eliminate all entrance fees and cut camping costs in half.

If you don't fall into those groups, you can purchase an annual pass for $80 that will give you the same benefits. Doing this can be a very good deal if you plan on visiting several federal facilities during the year because the entry fee savings alone will pay for the cost of the pass.

All of these non-transferable passes can be obtained in person at any federal recreation site or by calling 1-888-275-8747 Extension 3.

Other ways to save money include:

  • finding lodging just outside of the parks that may offer a greater variety of prices and amenities,
  • doing laundry before you enter the park you wish to visit,
  • stocking up on groceries, gasoline, food and supplies before you enter a park so that you can avoid paying the extremely high prices that many of them charge for such items or
  • visiting in the late spring or early fall to avoid the big travel season when prices are much higher.

If you like to fish, consider local conditions carefully before spending the money to buy a license.

  • Several years ago my husband and I were in Yellowstone, where he had to purchase two fishing licenses (because Yellowstone is located across two states), which were quite expensive.
  • It was only after he bought them that he found out that there had been some problems in the area waters that made catching anything impossible!

Always ask a lot of questions before you spend your money so you can avoid being subjected to situations like this one.

Doing laundry before entering national parks can save money.
Doing laundry before entering national parks can save money. | Source

Volunteering and Employment

  • RVers who want to stay for free in parks can apply to volunteer for the summer season by contacting the NPS.
  • Those wishing to stay and also earn, can apply to work in stores, gas stations, hotels and similar types of facilities that are located within the parks.

Not all parks have every type of facility and those wishing to take advantage of volunteer or employment opportunities need to understand that they either need to own an RV or be willing to live in dormitories or primitive cabins during their stays.

  • Volunteers usually get free campsites, some of which have hookups.
  • Workers must pay for their lodging.
  • Salaries usually meet minimum wage requirements.
  • Medical care is only minimal within parks that provide it, and workers must pay a small fee to have it...

On the other hand, people who choose these routes get to spend entire summers living in gorgeous environments, do work they enjoy and meet interesting people from all over the world.

What You Need to Know About RV Volunteering provides more detailed information about this option.

Rules and Enforcement

Every park has rules that are strictly enforced either by camp hosts or rangers.

While hosts don’t have much authority, rangers have the legal right to fine and arrest violators and will come running if contacted by a park host.

Rules are fair and exist for the protection of visitors, wildlife and park resources.

Every year rule breakers are injured or killed because they chose to ignore them.

The bottom line is that it's important to know and obey the rules.

When visiting our national parks, never approach wildlife, stay behind guard rails and remain on walkways. Your life may depend on doing these things!

Where to Find Good Information

Planning and organization are the keys to having a successful national park visit.

The best way to learn what you need to know is to use the internet to find websites such as the ones noted above to help you with planning.

The information I provided herein about visiting US national parks gives you a good starting point.

The rest is up to you!

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  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

    TIMETRAVELER2 2 weeks ago

    Dianemae: Thank you. I think it would take a lifetime to visit all of them! People should shoot for seeing the better known parks...they are indeed gorgeous.

  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

    TIMETRAVELER2 2 weeks ago

    Fullerman5000: Rocky Mountain National Park is the one we were turned away from because the campgrounds were full when we arrived! Go early in the day if you plan to stay there.

  • Fullerman5000 profile image

    Fullerman5000 2 weeks ago from Louisiana, USA

    Several of these parks are on my bucket list to visit. Especially the ones close to the Rocky Mountains. Thanks for sharing these wonderful and informative tips. I will definitely have to revisit this hub if I get the chance to visit some of these parks. Thanks again for sharing. Keep up the good hubs.

  • Dianemae profile image

    Dianemae 2 weeks ago

    Great article lots of information. The parks are beautiful and well maintained. People should take advantage and visit as many as they can.

  • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

    TIMETRAVELER2 2 weeks ago

    Blond Logic: Yes, the prices can be shocking. However the park passes can bring significant relief because they can be used at any national park service facility during the year. I though it would be important for people to know these things before they decided to go.

  • Blond Logic profile image

    Mary Wickison 2 weeks ago from Brazil

    I gasped when I saw the price of a day's fishing license in Yellowstone. I can't believe how expensive it is. I'd want to fish for a full 24 hours to get my money's worth!

    I knew the parks weren't free but gosh, it has put the parks out of many people's reach.

    I like that you have mentioned money saving ways to still visit whilst economising. The idea of a discount book is also a good idea.

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