- Some US national parks are predicting record-breaking attendance numbers for the summer.
- Insider spoke with Mikah Meyer, who’s visited 419 National Park Service sites, for his top tips.
- Meyer said one way to save money is by researching gas and lodging locations outside of parks.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
National parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are predicting record visitor numbers this summer, which means travelers should expect crowds and higher prices.
Fortunately, there are some ways to avoid long entrance lines and save money on your trips, national parks expert Mikah Meyer told Insider.
In 2016, Meyer, who’s now 35, embarked on a three-year journey to all of the National Park Service (NPS) sites. By the end of his trip, he had visited 419 destinations – including national parks, preserves, monuments, memorials, and seashores.
In 2019, he became the first person to visit all NPS sites in a single journey, WBUR reported at the time.
Myer told Insider that in order to see the best of every NPS site while saving money, he spent two years mapping out his route.
When planning a national park trip, travelers should avoid six common mistakes to maximize their time and cut costs, he said.
Avoid staying in a park overnight
While many national parks offer lodging within park boundaries, staying in a national park is “the most expensive option,” Meyer told Insider.
To save money, Meyer recommends finding a short-term rental or hotel in an anchor town just outside park boundaries, which will typically be one-third of the price of park lodging, he said.
Not only do you cut costs by staying in an anchor town, but you typically have more dining and lodging options than you would if you stayed in a park, he said.
Don’t rely on getting gas inside a park
Some national parks take hours to drive through, like Death Valley National Park, which is about the same size as Connecticut. In cases like this, you’ll need a full tank of gas, but fueling up inside a park can be “crazy expensive,” Meyer said.
Meyer recommends topping off your tank just before entering a park to save money. And if a park straddles two states, sometimes it may be cheaper to cross over into another state, he said.
To figure out where he could get the best gas prices, Meyer recommends using the app GasBuddy.
Don’t miss the chance to speak with park rangers
The first thing you should do after entering a park is go to a visitor center and talk to a ranger, Meyer said.
During his three years on the road, Meyer learned that trails are frequently closed for maintenance or safety reasons.
Rangers can save you time by telling you what sites or trails are closed that day so you don’t drive an hour to a trailhead only to find that it’s off-limits. Rangers can also help you tailor your park experience based on your interests, like if you want to hike to the best viewpoints, for example.
It’s “free expert advice,” he said.
Don’t assume that a park’s main entrance is the best one
To avoid long lines, Meyer recommends doing research to figure out where park entrances are located since many GPS systems tend to direct you to a park’s main entrance – which might be the most crowded.
For example, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, most people enter through Estes Park, but there is another entrance in the park’s southern section where the roads are less crowded, which may allow you to get to your destination faster, he said.
Don’t rely on cell service for navigation
Meyer didn’t have cell service for most of the time he was in national parks.
Before entering a park, he recommends downloading Google Maps offline and plugging in your destination so that you will still be able to navigate even if you lose service.
If you need internet access in the parks, he recommends purchasing an unlimited data plan by Verizon called Visible that costs $25 per month for four lines, comes with a hotspot, and is available on a month-by-month basis with no cancellation fees.
Don’t limit yourself to exploring just the 63 main national parks
Meyer’s biggest takeaway is that some of the most beautiful places in the NPS system actually exist outside of the 63 sites that are designated as national parks.
Travelers would be remiss to overlook the other 360 NPS sites, like Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah, he said.
“It’s basically the best of everything the National Park Service has to offer all in one site,” Meyer said of Dinosaur National Monument, citing its rivers, canyons, accessible hiking, history, and geological sites.
“There’s at least one NPS site in every state and territory, so no one is far,” he said.
To help travelers, Meyer also offers a trip-planning service on his website and has photos of all NPS sites on Instagram.
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