How to Enjoy State and National Parks Like a Pro with Your Family

Recently, my husband and I went on a trip to Utah to visit two famous and incredibly gorgeous National Parks: Bryce Canyon National Park & ​​Zion National Park. Now when I tell you that I married well, especially when it comes to wilderness travel and adventures, I am not kidding. My husband is an Eagle Scout, a member of our armed forces, comes from a long line of extremely prepared adventurists and outdoor enthusiasts, and has that extra added bonus of an engineering degree to boot. So he set us up for success on the trip by ensuring we had the proper gear and provisions on hand, and I handled the coordination of the itinerary.

couple stand on river bank between canyon

While our recent national park getaway was just for the two of us and we left our three kids at home with family {pure bliss, I tell ya!}, I couldn’t help but think of how I would advise others wanting to have the best experience exploring state or national parks with their family. Whether you are a novice adventurist like me, an Eagle Scout engineer like my husband, or somewhere in between, it is hard to not have a good time while experiencing nature at its finest. Below are some tidbits that will hopefully set you and your family up for success as you explore some of the most gorgeous areas of the United States, our state and national parks.

State and National Parks Gear Essentials:

state and national parks gear for visiting

  • Hiking Shoes: My preferred brand is Salomon, but any waterproof hiking shoe with good support will do. If your journey is more strenuous, you will need to consider if hiking boots are more appropriate for ankle support.
  • Socks: Even in the heat, wool socks are best and help with moisture control and blister prevention. My go-to brands are Smartwool and Farm to Feet.
  • Hydration Pack: Since I’m known to be a Mary Poppins type with the items in my handbag, I prefer a combo day pack/hydration pack when I’m hiking. That way I can store the essentials and also ensure I’m hydrated. Gregory’s Day Pack with Hydro reservoir checked all the boxes for me on necessary features and is super light with great lumbar support. I prefer Camelbak’s 3-liter hydration bladder to the one that Gregory makes, but it’s a matter of personal preference. Also, be sure to include enough water to stay hydrated. Pro-tip: Sprinkle just a little Gatorade powder in with your water for a bit of light flavoring that also helps replenish your electrolytes.
  • Clothing: The name of the game is layers for cool climates and moisture-wicking for warm climates. Also, clothing with built-in UV protection is never a bad idea.
  • First Aid Kit: You laugh, but you never know who might need an Advil out on a hike. On our trip to Utah, a fellow hiker with a hip injury was looking for anyone on the trail that might have some. I cannot tell you the gratification this Enneagram 6 felt as I handed over that Advil from my first aid kit while flashing my best “Told ya so!” face to my husband.
  • Tissue & a Resealable Bag: Mother Nature has a way of calling {if you know what I mean} when you’re out in the wilderness, so don’t get caught unprepared. I always carry a mini-tissue pack inside of a zipper bag when I am on hikes so I can adhere to the Scouting principle of “Leave No Trace.”
  • Protein & Carbs: The duration of your hike will dictate the amount of food and provisions required, but I always prefer to be prepared for the unexpected. That means I always have a protein bar, some jerky, nuts, or trail mix, and some carbs in my day pack. Most people {especially inexperienced hikers} underestimate the amount of energy you burn while out all day on a hike, so pack what you will need to avoid a hangry National Park meltdown.
  • Hat/Sun Protection: This goes without saying these days, but be sure your sun protection is waterproof, you have enough to reapply, and your hat also protects the back of your neck.

Planning Tips, Resources & Apps:

couple standing at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park

  • Park Pass – Square away the purchasing of your pass before your trip and be aware that due to the surge in popularity of State and National Parks these days, several require permits for some if not all areas of a park. When we were at Zion National Park, we needed a permit to hike the most popular section of Angels Landing. Note that there is a significant difference between state and national parks and a pass for one does not get you admission to the other.
  • Apps – I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the National Park Service has an app as does Texas Parks and Wildlife. Both allow you to download apps for offline use, but I also like to ensure I have a paper map as well {hello, Enneagram 6 here!} in case my phone loses charge. For more useful apps, NY Times recently put together a solid list of recommendations to consider.
  • Talk to the locals – Some of the best recommendations we received on our recent national park trip came from area locals who knew what was up and how to have the best experiences. So don’t be shy to hit up the locals on your trip at your hotel’s check-in desk, local coffee shop, or the local grocery store. My experience has been that most of them love sharing info about their area with others!
  • Less is more – Plan fewer activities than you think you have time for while visiting parks. I generally loathe being overscheduled on trips as it is, but the nature of state and national parks is that you need time to fully absorb their beauty. You also want to leave time in your itinerary for exploring things the resource guides might not have covered. So be sure to pace yourself and not attempt to pack in too much all at once. Your sanity will thank you.
  • Start early – We found that as much as it stinks to set an alarm on vacation, early birds have the best experiences in National Parks. Again, the surging popularity of National Parks is somewhat to blame but there’s also something magical about experiencing National Parks first thing in the morning. Just trust me.
  • Emergency Preparedness – Make sure someone not on your trek knows where you are headed and your approximate timing. If cell service is available, sharing your location with them is a good idea as well.

Hopefully, these tips and recommendations will help you and your family have the very best experience available to you at a state or national park soon. Also if your kiddos are in that really fun, sweet spot of childhood between the ages of about 6 to 12 years old where the eye-rolling is minimal, be sure to get them a “park passport” so they can collect stamps at every national park they visit. If that’s not their jam, there are plenty of other ways to get them engaged along the way. Camp songs, anyone?!

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