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Tips for Planning a National Parks Family Vacation

The view from a car window, the road in front and desert to the side.
Driving through Utah on the way to the Grand Canyon.

Two summers ago, my family took a vacation I’d been dreaming about for years: two weeks out west, hitting five national parks: Yellowstone, Zion, Arches, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain (plus a drive through Grand Teton). Planning the logistics of a trip like this was no small endeavor, particularly since we are budget-conscious, but it was worth every hour of planning. All of us agree—it was an epic trip.

If you’re thinking about a similar trip involving multiple National Parks, here are some of my takeaways.

Turqouise steaming water
Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Go when the kids are the right age.

When we traveled, our boys were 11, 13 and 16. This felt like about the youngest I would have wanted to take this trip. At these ages—in our house at least—we had pretty similar activity capabilities. We were able to do multiple hikes that were labeled as “difficult” or “strenuous,” as long as they were on the short side. When there was an activity we couldn’t all do together, we came up with other plans. For example, while my husband and my oldest rented e-bikes (minimum age 16) to tour the Garden of the Gods, the younger boys and I did a horseback ride to the same location.

The other advantage to this age is they will all remember this trip. By taking tweens and teens, and having them be part of the planning and recording of events, they were really invested and will remember this trip for a long, long time.

Which brings me to my next point...

Pine trees in the mountains with snow
Mt. Washburn hike, Yellowstone National Park

Let tweens and teens contribute to planning the trip.

We assigned each boy a park and asked them plan a hike or activity there. For the one boy who was least enthusiastic about making a nature-themed trip (“Can we go to the Virgin Islands National Park instead?”), previewing the hikes in Arches National Park and choosing the one that sounded cool and challenging gave him some skin in the game. He looked forward to getting to do “his” activity, instead of just being told in each park what we were going to do.

This also meant we ended up doing things I personally might not have chosen. In the end, those were some of the most memorable moments of our trip: hiking through snow in June in Yellowstone to a mountain peak with a breathtaking view; hiking through desert heat up rock fins on a barely-marked trail to find a double arch carved by wind in stone in Arches; hiking in the river in a slot canyon in Zion. Of course, that level of intensity would be impossible to maintain for two weeks, so I highly recommend you…

Arches national park scene
Double O Arch, Arches National Park

Build in rest days.

If your trip is longer than a week, especially if you’re trying to hit up multiple parks, you will need some recovery days. That might look like splitting a long drive in half, rather than powering through, so you can enjoy half a day just lounging in the rental house or hotel pool.

Driving out west can be a grind—as an East coaster, it was hard to understand just how far away everything was—so we tried to limit driving days to about 6 hours (though we did have one inevitable 12-hour day from Yellowstone to Zion). A place with a pool is ideal, since stretching out after sitting in the car can be really helpful for everyone. But as long as it’s comfortable, it will do.

Speaking of accommodations one of my biggest tips is…

Snow capped mountains in distance
View from Alpine Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park

Stay in park when possible and save on accommodations everywhere else along the way.

Staying in a national park lodging is generally more expensive than a nearby hotel. On our visit to five parks, we only stayed in park at two—Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Based on those experiences, I wish we’d stayed in park at other places as well.

In Yellowstone, which is just enormous, staying in park is a no-brainer. We chose a lodging somewhat in the center, so we could get to different sections of the park each day.

Staying in park in the Grand Canyon allowed us to get out of the desert sun and go back to our room and rest before venturing back out later in the day, then again at night to see the stars. A lot of people just stop by the Grand Canyon, take a picture, and get back in the car again. By staying there for two nights, we got to see the Canyon at multiple times a day, appreciating the way it changed in the light. We watched two sunsets over the Canyon, the boys sketching what they saw. The Grand Canyon is kind of unfathomable in one visit. For me, it was my third morning, sitting there at the edge alone while my family slept, when I was most moved by the sight.

Compare that to our experience at Zion, when we chose to save some money and stay further afield at a hotel we got for free with reward points: after finishing the hike in the Narrows and emerging back into the desert heat, we were exhausted and couldn’t imagine doing another thing. We sat on the lawn outside the largest lodge to recover and then headed back to our hotel.

I immediately regretted not spending the money to stay in that lodge, knowing we would’ve gone back to our rooms, showered and changed clothes, maybe napped, and then headed back out in the cooler hours to see more of the amazing park. If you want to really know what the National Park is like, stay in park whenever you can. We will likely only get to each of these parks once in our lifetime, so going forward, I will always prioritize staying in park when possible.

(I should mention that the in-park accommodations we stayed at were not fancy. The hotels we stayed at, even less-expensive ones, were nicer. But it was still totally worth it for the fullness of the experience of the park.)

On the other hand, when we were simply on the road, we didn’t splurge on expensive hotels. We chose a hotel brand and got the corresponding credit card, and over the year prior, built up our rewards points so we could spend at least a few of the nights for free.

A woman sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon at sunset

If budget is a consideration, consider choosing hotels with a kitchenette or staying in a rental home.

In Yellowstone, we splurged and had dinner in the Old Faithful Inn. We had the best burgers of our lives at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon.

However, on the between-park travel days, when choosing hotels, we always made sure to pick one with a free continental breakfast, and a few times were able to stay in extended stay hotels with a kitchen. They were usually the same price as a standard hotel but saved us on meals. I bought premade meals from the freezer section of a nearby grocery store and heated them up. These small cost-savings made the trip work for us financially.

A shallow stream with a large rock behind it
Zion National Park

Something I haven’t mentioned yet but should be clear: Give yourself well over a year to plan a trip this big.

Most National Park accommodations must be booked 12 or more months in advance. That means you need to start thinking about it months before then, to whittle down the many amazing options, determine how long you can stay, how many parks you want to hit, and which accommodations to choose at each park.

We started planning 18 months out by asking for National Park guidebooks for Christmas. As much as I love the internet (here I am!), a printed book that gives an overview of all the parks (or the parks in a region) is a great way to start the planning. Keep it on the coffee table, let everyone flip through it and weigh in. After you’ve chosen each park, you can read lots of online articles and the park website to choose your specific hikes or special events.

I then used a basic Word document to record all ideas and possibilities, including how long the drive would be from place to place and where we could get groceries. (I downloaded the Walmart app and ordered the groceries for pick-up, so we didn’t waste time walking around unfamiliar stores.) I recorded possible activities in each park and the cost. When we booked the flights or rental car, I put the reservation numbers in the document. As we got closer and closer to the trip, we cut things out and made decisions. In the end, I had a full itinerary printed out (so we didn’t have the answer the question, “Wait, what are we doing next?” a million times) to share with the kids as well as our parents so they could know our daily plans.

Bison and calves grazing.
Buffalo and their red dogs in Yellowstone.

Here are a few non-logistical tips I’ll leave you with. I got this one from a friend:

Create a trip playlist.

Load it up with thematic songs. We put on songs like “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “Riders on the Clouds.” As we drove through alien landscape in Utah, we played “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Then, let everyone in the family contribute songs and learn to appreciate your family member’s music tastes. Listen to it on the long drives. Later, when you're back home, put the playlist on to bring back memories of the trip.

a moose crosses an open grassy area.
Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Finally, be sure to document the trip in multiple ways.

Not only with photos but also with words (okay, I’m biased here. I like to document everything with words!). I ordered a special National Parks-themed journal on Etsy and asked everyone to write something every few days.

As we went, we also started creating lists for the back: The Best Warning Signs We Saw (National Parks have a lot of warning signs about animals and weather), ranking the Best Showers, Best Breakfasts, and everyone’s favorite: What Mom Thought Might Kill Us. This was a lengthy list of times when I’d say, “That makes me nervous,” and included bears in Yellowstone and scorpions in Arizona.

Finally, as soon as you can when you get back—within a month—make and print a photo book. Put it on display. I promise you and your family will pick that book up often and thumb through, as if to be sure you really did that, you really did see those amazing sites. After all, this could be a trip of a lifetime.

Then again, if you’re like me, you’ll be so moved by the trip that you know you absolutely must do another like it…and immediately start planning the next one for a couple of years down the road. Pacific Northwest, here we come.


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