There's never a bad time to visit a national park, whether it's heading to a new park or to taking a fresh look at a park you've visited. Sure, you could hop in the car and navigate your way through a day at the park using one of those handy brochures — or you could take it up a notch by downloading a few handy apps and bookmarking a couple of websites that will help you get the most out of your national park visit.
Here's how to visit the national parks like a boss:
- Find your park. Not sure which park to visit? Plug your location into this handy-dandy website, and it will pull up a list of national park sites near your location. (I just tried it out and learned about five new park sites that I never even knew existed!) You can also search for park sites by state or by activity.
- Plan your visit. You don't have to spend hours on a website or pouring over travel books to get the most of your national park experience. Simply download Chimani, an app that specializes in outdoor adventures, and you'll have all the info you need including maps, a list of ranger events and hiking information. Chimani is free, and after you download, you can access the info even without WiFi or a cell signal, making it perfect for exploring those more remote parks.
- Get the kids involved. Almost all national parks have a Junior Ranger program, which includes special activities that kids can complete to earn a badge or patch. This may include kid-friendly workbooks (think crossword puzzles and hidden pictures,) crafts and hikes designed especially for kids. Check out the NPS site you'll be visiting to learn more about the Junior Ranger programs that will be available during your visit.
- Find out the places to go and those to avoid. If you've ever found yourself in Yosemite Valley in mid-July, you know some times are busier than others. Sure, everyone wants to see Half Dome, but there are lots of places throughout the park to get that view without all of the crowds. TomTom has partnered with the national parks to create downloadable hiking maps of the trails less traveled at many of the top parks. So you can take in the sights while leaving the crowds behind. You can also check out this list from former National Geographic photographer Jonathan Irish on the best "secret" locations at U.S. national parks.
- Get stamped. Whether this is your first or your 50th park visit, you can commemorate your trip with a stamp in your National Park Passport. NPS veterans know that these books are the gold standard when it comes to park memorabilia as they let you keep track of the dates of all of your park visits. Mikah Meyer is using his passport to document his attempt to become the youngest person to visit all 417 NPS sites, but you can use yours even if you don't plan to hit quite so many locations.
- See the stars. Depending upon which park you're visiting, it's likely that you'll have a clearer view of the night sky than you normally do at home. Take advantage of this opportunity by utilizing an app such as Google Sky (free) or Sky Walk ($1.99), point your phone at the sky, and learn exactly what you're gazing at.
- Brush up on survival skills. OK, so you may not need this one, but it's always better to be prepared. With tutorials on how to build a fire, photos of edible plants, and information about first aid and extreme weather survival, the SAS Survival Guide is the app that you download with the hopes that you never have to use it.