National Parks Family Road Trip: Part 1 – Introduction & Planning

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It’s exciting to travel to faraway places to see new sights and different cultures.  But don’t forget, the US has some of the most amazing (and popular!) parks in the world.

Million Mile Secrets team member Meghan recently returned from a 2,500+ mile road trip through some of the top National Parks in the US.  I’ll let her tell you about it!

Meghan:  Thank you Daraius!  My husband and I love adventure, and with a new(ish!) baby in tow, we decided it would be a great idea to take a road trip to fantastic National Parks including Yosemite, Death ValleyRed Rock Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon.  Especially because our daughter is still light enough to carry in a backpack. 😉

National Parks Vacations

Family Hike to Angels Landing, Zion National Park. The Baby Is Sleeping in the Backpack!

Visiting National Parks like these is a great way to spend a vacation, so I’ll share how my family and I planned our trip.  Along with the highlights from each of the parks we visited.

National Parks Family Road Trip Series:

National Parks Vacations

If you want to visit any of the US National Parks, it’s important to put some thought into planning your trip.  So you and your friends or loved ones can have a great vacation!

Step 1.   Decide Where to Go

I’d suggest first figuring out what type of activities you and your family enjoy.  For example, my husband and I love to hike and get off the beaten path, and the National Parks in the West have some of the best hiking trails in the US!

National Parks Vacations

We Hiked Through Tunnels and Hoodoos In Bryce Canyon National Park

If you prefer guided tours, staying in hotels, or different types of terrain, it could make more sense to plan a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example.  That connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Where you can stop and stay in popular cities like Asheville, North Carolina.

Or consider a trip to a spot like Biscayne National Park near Miami, if you’re looking for a beach vacation.  Where you can snorkel or scuba dive in coral reefs and mangrove forests, and fish for snapper.

National Parks Vacations

Prefer a Beach Vacation? You Can Camp, Hike, and Fish on Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park in Florida

And if you’re an animal lover, I’d recommend Yellowstone National Park.  Where you can see bison, moose, elk, and maybe even a grizzly bear!

Plus, take into account where you’re traveling from and how much time you have.  In case you need to plan for flights and a rental car during your trip.

We live in Montana, so driving to Nevada, California, and Utah, was doable for a 2-week trip.

Step 2.   Plan When to Go

When you’re planning a National Parks vacation, deciding what time of year to visit is very important!  Because things like weather and crowds can have an effect on your overall experience.

The parks are busiest during the summer months (May through August), so if you’re not a fan of crowds, it might be wise to plan your trip during the off-season months.  Though some of the more famous parks (like Yosemite) are busy year around.

National Parks Vacations

Want to Drive the Stunning “Going-to-the-Sun Road” in Glacier National Park? You’ll Have to Visit Before There’s Too Much Snow When They Shut Down the Road!

Plus, winter weather can cause difficult driving conditions, and in some cases, parks close off certain areas to visitors during the winter months.

We chose mid-October for our trip because there would be fewer crowds, cooler temperatures, and fall leaves in certain locations.  It really was an excellent time of year for a trip like this!

Step 3.   Choose Where to Stay

Deciding where you’re going to stay is critical if you’re planning a trip during peak summer months.  Especially in the most popular parks like Yosemite, because hotel options are limited and can book up a year in advance.  And it can be hard to find chain hotels inside the parks, so sometimes using points isn’t an option.

National Parks Vacations

The Historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley Usually Books Up a Year In Advance

If you want to camp, you can be more flexible, because oftentimes there are camping spots in and around most National Parks.  But some do require a reservation.

We did a combination of camping and hotel stays during our road trip to save money.  Because camping sites are substantially cheaper than hotel rooms!

You Can Do It, Too!

Camping, Hotels, & Airbnb Stays

If you decide to camp during your vacation, be sure to bring enough cash.  Because you can NOT pay with a credit card at a lot of camp sites, unless you’re booking your site in advance.

And if you want to use points for a hotel stay, you can use tools like Hotel Hustle and AwardMapper to help search for award nights along your route.

National Parks Vacations

Camping During a Vacation Is a Great Way to Save Money. Em Thinks It’s Fun Too!

Just remember, it can be hard to find chain hotels inside most parks.  So you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth staying outside the park and driving in each morning.

Or you could even find a great Airbnb nearby!

I like spending as much time exploring as I can during a vacation, so I’d prefer to pay cash for a hotel inside the park to save time, and save my points for another trip.

Gas

One of the biggest expenses on a road trip is gas.  So use a credit card that earns miles, points, or cash back at gas stations.

I used my Chase Ink Plus (no longer available), that earns 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards on gas.  But you could also use a card like the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, that earns 2 AMEX Membership Rewards points per $1 you spend at US gas stations.  Or the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express that earns 3% cash back at US gas stations.

Check out this post about how to decide which is the best card to save on gasoline.

Flights & Rental Cars

Depending on where you live and which parks you plan to visit, you might need to fly closer to your destination and rent a car.

Using the Southwest Companion Pass can save you LOTS of money on airfare, because you can fly nearly 2-for-1 on domestic paid and award tickets.

Pay with a credit card that earns bonus miles and points on airlines.  Or a card that earns a bonus on travel, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard.

And if you need to rent a car, read this series on cheap car rentals, for tips & tricks on saving money on rental cars.

More Ways to Save Money

All of the National Parks charge a vehicle entrance fee, so depending on how many parks you plan to visit, it could be worth buying an Annual Pass that costs $80.

I did the math, and if you plan on visiting 2+ parks over the year, an annual pass is likely worth it.  Because the major parks, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Park, charge $30 for a week-long permit.  And the pass grants you access to other National Park Service monuments, like Devils Postpile, that can easily cost $10+ per visit.

Tip:  This Wikipedia page lists the areas in the US National Park System.  So it’s a good resource for planning your trip.

Plus, if you need to buy gear for your trip, you can go through shopping portals that earn cash back, miles, or points at certain retailers.  I like using sites like CashbackMonitor.com that show you what bonuses various portals are offering.

And don’t forget to check out this post on how to plan a terrific road trip!

Bottom Line

Visiting one (or more!) of the amazing US National Parks can be a great way to spend a vacation.  Especially if you like adventure and beautiful scenery!

But it’s important to plan your trip carefully, to make sure you and your travel companions have an enjoyable experience.

In the next part of the series, I’ll share the highlights of our time in Yosemite National Park!

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7 responses to “National Parks Family Road Trip: Part 1 – Introduction & Planning

  1. We currently have a southwest companion pass, but the closest it flies to Yellowstone (or trip for this year) is Salt Lake or Boise. We are going to use our Citi Thankyou points to fly American into Bozeman and rent a car. As we are only visiting one park we are renting a whole house on VRBO as we expect to have other friends and family join us as well to split the cost.

  2. Very excited to see this post in my inbox this morning! I love our national parks, and traveling with points and miles. In June last year, a friend and I took an epic 11-day trip around the Northwest, hitting up ten national and one international park. All the flights were booked with miles and we used points for a few hotels. Would have used more points for hotels, but it is nice to stay closer to the park (or in the park) at some locations and points weren’t always feasible. Overall, I think we only paid $600 each for flights (2 people, 3 three flights each) from the East Coast and hotels. Great way to travel!!!

  3. My wife and twin 16 year old sons did a 14 day trip kind of like this last summer. Flew into Las Vegas (best rental car rates), got a Mustang convertible and went up through Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and finishing up in Las Vegas for 2 nights. Did 6 national parks, Mt. Rushmore, Grand Canyon, white water rafting, US Air Force Academy tour, Custer Battlefield, all with points and miles. 3400 mile road trip making great family memories. One of these days I should let Daraius or Emily write up my adventure and how we did it.

  4. And don’t forget, seniors can buy a lifetime National Parks pass for $10! Bargain of a lifetime. The pass gets you and all those kids and grandkids in free that you can pack into your van.

  5. If you are over 65 you can get a lifetime pass for $10.00 and get the whole car in for showing the pass.
    ‘Best return in a 10 over 10 years ago…

  6. I give them major kudos for hiking up Angel’s Landing with a baby in a backpack. That trail isn’t easy to start with let along carrying the weight of a baby.

  7. The National Park lifetime senior pass minimum age is 62.