Four Tips for Visiting National Parks in the Off-Season

This post was contributed by Navy wife and writer, Joanna. You can read more about her and her work at the end of this post.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

As a kid, my parents took my family on summer road trips during which we would inevitably an extensive amount of time visiting National Parks. Like my family, most tourists visit during the summer months when school’s out and the weather’s beautiful. But there are many perks to visiting during the off-season—and it doesn’t just have to do with a low park attendance!  Here are four tips for planning a weekend getaway to a National Park!

Attend During Fee-Free Weekends

According to the NPS, only 133 out of more than 400 parks charge an entrance fee. During the winter, there are also fee-free weekends: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 20) and Presidents’ Day Weekend (February 15-17). Those weekends are typically busier for parks—although they are still much emptier than they would be in the summer. If you can’t make it to a park on those weekends, the NPS also offers The America the Beautiful Annual Pass. This pass is available for members of the military who are active duty, covers their dependents as well, and is completely free. To order, present your CAC Card or DoD Form 1173 at a National Park that charges an entrance fee or call 1-800-ASK USGS, extension 1 (1-888-275-8747).

Plan Your Trip

Planning for a winter trip has more variables than a summer one, especially if you’re visiting a park that has severe changes in elevation. Remember, some parks may have weather or driving alerts, so be sure to contact the park before you leave for your trip. Some parks close certain roads or sections of the park during the winter season or may strongly suggest alternate routes. Check the park’s website and stop in at the Visitor’s Center before you take on the park yourself—especially if there is snow in the forecast.

Talk to the Rangers

Spend some time at the Visitor’s Center or a Ranger’s Station. Many park rangers have worked in the park system or at their specific park for years. With fewer people at the park, they’ll have more time to talk to you. Ask for their suggestions for tours (either led or self-guided). Find out if there’s anything off the beaten path that most tourists ignore. Rangers may be able to direct you to a particular vista that you can only see during the winter when tree leaves have fallen or a program that only happens during the winter season.  Some parks may even offer spur-of-the-moment guided tours if you ask politely. If the weather forecast looks foreboding or it seems like there is particularly low attendance, verify the time the park will close and what you should do if there’s an emergency.

Use Technology

You probably want to unplug once you get to your National Park. But, before you do, take advantage of the resources that the NPS provides. You may know that most parks offer downloadable maps of the park so that you can go green and help save precious resources.  Did you know, however, that there are apps you can use both navigate through and learn about the parks? Many parks, such as The National Mall, offer their own localized apps about their particular park on their website.  National Geographic also offers an all-encompassing one which suggests points of interest for parks across the country. Be safe, take precautions, and have fun!

wedding headshotJo is the author of Jo, My Gosh!, a blog about her journey as a newlywed Navy wife. When she’s not working from home, she’s writing, reading, trying new recipes, or cross stitching.

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