Confession. The owner of this website has never been to a National Park. That’s why I invited my friends Sarah and Lucas on the blog. They are the hosts of my new favorite podcast, Podcasts with Park Rangers.  There, they interview park rangers from the National Park System and share their growing knowledge of the parks. And of course, I had to ask them to share their most embarrassing stuff. Enjoy!

One of the biggest fights of my relationship with Lucas occurred on our first National Parks road trip. I mean, we were setting ourselves up for disaster from the get go:

  • We were dating for about 4 months.
  • Neither of us ever went on a major camping trip.
  • We planned to see 5 National Parks in 10 days.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, besides one of the biggest fights of our entire relationship, we came home exhausted, and spent most of the trip in the car. But, on that trip we fell in love with our National Parks.

Ten years and 37 National Parks later, I’d like to think we’ve got this trip planning thing figured out.

We want to share our experiences with you, and help you plan your next National Parks trip. What better way to do that than share the top 10 mistakes we’ve made!

Maybe we’ll even spill the details on our major fight…

1) Planning to see all the things.

Who doesn’t want to see every major sight when they visit a national park? But, what you might not know: people spend their entire lives documenting just one major park like Yellowstone or Glacier.

So when we planned 4 days for Yellowstone National Park, we ended up in the car most of the time, rushing to see every attraction. We took little time to take in the sights, and checked off boxes on a checklist of highlights.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it?

As Lucas and I spend more time in parks now, we like to choose one big activity. And then take our time with it. Who knows, maybe we’ll see some bighorn sheep along the way.

With everything in a rigid schedule, it’s hard to take time to stop and smell the sheep… I mean take pictures of the sheep. Yea, its better not to approach the bighorn sheep. 🙂

 

2) I skipped the Visitor Center, and missed out.

On the same trip, Lucas and I visited Badlands National Park. And, like many visitors, we cruised through in our car, got out for one hike, and admired the colorful landscape.

We recently revisited the park for an upcoming episode of Podcasts with Park Rangers, and found out there are fossils in the park. WHAT? FOSSILS? We had no idea the Badlands is one of the biggest mammalian fossil caches in the world, and if you find a fossil you can report it to a ranger and they’ll send you a report once they analyze it.

How could we have missed this? Well, we didn’t visit the Visitor Center the first time around.

Badlands National Park Visitors Center

The Visitor Center adds more depth to a park, and the Park Rangers are there for you to get the most out of your experience. Stop in for a few, and learn about the park.

3) I slept in way too late.

Whenever we visit a park, I always say I want to get up super early before the sun comes up to see a sunrise or view wildlife. And, I never do…

Until we went to Acadia National Park. A few people in town convinced me everyone needed to experience sunrise in the park once in their lifetime. So, Lucas and I grumpily got out of bed at 4:30 am, packed some coffee and snacks, and headed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia.

We sat on the side of the mountain as we waited, and nature didn’t disappoint. The breathtaking pink and orange hues dazzled us before the sun hit the horizon, and then the warm rays fell across our faces as the sun peaked out from its evening slumber — a welcome feeling after we froze our butts off for the experience.

I would 100% do it again!!! This year in Glacier, I want to get up and see some wildlife in the park. And, as an added bonus, early risers beat the crowds!

4) A t-shirt and shorts is fine for an alpine hike, right?

don't forget your jacket when you visit a national park
Countless times, I’ve forgotten a jacket on the drive up, and it ends up with a grumpy Sarah.

Lucas and I lived in Denver for much of a decade, and often went to Rocky Mountain National Park. On the first few excursions, I went unprepared.

In Estes Park, the last major town right before entering Rocky, it’s 90 degrees. Hands down, t-shirt and shorts weather, right? But, on the drive up to the Alpine Visitor Center, it gets colder, and colder.

Oh, and out the window? Piles of snow! It’s May, and they just finished plowing the roads at 12,000 feet elevation.

5) No, I didn’t bring enough water…

We decided to hike a 6 mile trail at Natural Bridges National Monument. Our camelbak was out of commission, and we brought 1 water bottle each. A hike through the New Mexico desert meant we drank a lot more water than usual.

So, when Lucas told me he drank all of his water at the halfway point, I knew the rest of the hike would be awful!

I rationed my water as much as possible, and the longer we hiked, the grumpier we became. For this hike, thank goodness we could easily find the trail! If we lost the trail, it could have meant even more trouble.

On long hikes, we try to bring about twice as much water as we think we need.

6) Hey, I didn’t bring any snacks, and the closest food is an hour away.

Speaking of other grump inducing situations, the lack of snacks or a lunch on a National Parks trip can mean major grumpos.

Some of these parks are huge. You drive two hours into the park, and there are few facilities. No gas, little water, and often no place sells food. Some parks have exceptions to this, but they’re few and far between.

And, if you do find a visitor center far into a park that sells food. Prepare to pay huge prices for it! That little piece of jerky costs about $5, and a small pack of peanuts costs around $8. At the time, it seems like a great idea, but less than an hour later you’re hungry again and you want more.

The other option: leave the park, waste a few hours looking for food outside the park, and drive back in. Now, it costs gas money and time to remedy the situation.

If you remember to pack a lunch and some snacks,, you’ll be happy campers!

7) I didn’t think to fill up the gas tank.

Usually, we’re pretty good at filling up the gas tank before entering a National Park. But, a couple times stand out in my memory where we cut it close.

We’re on our way into the Needles at Canyonlands National Park with our jeep.

This section of the park is as remote as it gets — about 1 1/2 hours from civilization. So when we showed up with about 1/4 tank of gas, I began to panic. Luckily, the local campground had a small gas pump. Then, we drove up to find gas cost $6/gallon, and our jaws hit the floor!

Oh, that day hurt the pocket book! Canyonlands is an exception, not the rule, to finding gas in a remote park. Sometimes there isn’t gas at all!

8) Altitude sickness, what’s that?

A few times, I’ve been caught off guard with this one. So what’s altitude sickness? It’s your body’s inability to function at a high elevation with less oxygen than you’re used to. Some people are more sensitive to this than others!

On a few of the more alpine hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ve found myself with a throbbing headache and super grumps. Those are pretty good signs I need to sit down and drink some water. Now, I know what to look for, but for some it can get worse.

altitude sickness in the national parks hike
Those are some pretty sick views, right?

Throw in a bit of dizziness with the symptoms I mentioned, and that’s a good sign you need to stop the hike and get to a lower elevation.

Remember at high elevation parks, drink a lot of water. Drink what you think you need to drink, and then drink a bit more. And, rest when you need it!

9) Maybe we shouldn’t take our bus on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This had to be one of our worst screw ups, and the memories are still fresh since it happened last year. On the way to a rally in Georgia, we thought it would be a good idea to take the Blue Ridge Parkway in the bus!

Maybe we should’ve checked the weather. The parkway in the fall can get rather foggy. So, driving through pea soup fog two days in a row meant no views, and a tired driver.

We stopped at a campground before our third day on the parkway and heard a hissing sound from the bus. Oh, maybe we shouldn’t have ignored that sound, but we chose to plow on ahead with the original plan.

It’s finally a nice day, and 30 minutes into the drive we pull off for some pictures. Then, as we’re about to leave the pulloff, we hear a loud pop and the low air alarm goes off. The hissing sound, a leak in our air brake system, meant failure of a major system. We need air for our brakes to work.

No air means no drive down the mountain, and we found ourselves stuck on the Blue Ridge Parkway!

Seventeen ton buses need a special, bigger tow truck than most RVs, and in conversations with the National Park we found they only authorize two tow companies in the park. Both of which wouldn’t be able to help us for two days.

We sit there until about midnight when we find a mobile mechanic to take a look at the problem. They figure it out, we drive down the mountain at 1 AM, and spend the night at Walmart because we can’t keep our eyelids open.

Moral of the story: make sure your vehicle is in good repair, because mechanical help in a National Park can be a bit more tedious than your usual breakdown on the side of a highway.

10) Don’t set up the tent hangry in the dark

So remember that epic fight? Yea, let’s talk about it.

As usual in our early days, I planned way too much and we pulled into the campground after dark without dinner in our bellies. The last thing we wanted to do was set up a tent and cook in the dark.

We shine the car headlights onto our campsite, and begin setup. And because we were both hungry and fumbling in the dark to set up camp, we end up in a fight about who knows what.

Lucas storms off, and I’m left alone with the tent.

angry at the national park
Hanger: Not a good look for anybody.

Well, I find anger as pretty good fuel to be extra stubborn, and I set up the tent by myself. A few minutes later, Lucas comes back in shock I pitched camp all by myself. We’re still both pretty grumpy, but kept it to ourselves at this point as we made a nice dinner by the campfire.

I’ve found a campfire can sooth most wounds, and as we eat, the tension eases. Looking back, it’s pretty funny how it all went down, but it also taught us a lesson: don’t set up the tent while hangry and in the dark. Nowadays, travel days are JUST travel days, so we have time to settle in.


I hope you can learn from our mishaps, and be better prepared for a National Parks trip than our younger selves. A little research and knowledge go a long way, and you’ll be on your way to happy camping.

If you would like some more help with your next trip, hop on over to Virtual Kamper to read 12 Tips for an Amazing National Parks Road Trip.

And for even more adventures:
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10 National Park Mistakes we made, but YOU don't have to! This full-time RV living couple shares their best hacks for travel and visiting National Parks around the United States. | www.TheVirtualCampground.com

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