Having visited more three quarters of all the NPS sites, we have learned some invaluable tips on visiting, and obtaining the cancellation stamps along the way. Below are some tips for you on your journey from what we have learned over the years.
Before heading out, it’s a good idea to consult the NPS Park Finder and look at a map of where you will be travelling. Along with Google Maps you can start adding stops and figure out which order makes sense to visit sites. With a program like this, you can list your starting point for each day, then each site that you plan to visit and the program will then tell you what is the fastest, most scenic or direct route between the sites. Using the software ahead of time will let you plan more efficiently, and know how many sites that you can fit into each day.
Its also a good idea to visit the parks official homepage over at the NPS Homepage to get an idea as to the hours, facilities and what that particular site has to offer. You may learn that a particular site is of more interest to you than another, and that you’ll want to spend more time there. Some sites are only open seasonally, and this will save you some time if you’re travelling in the off season.
You can also find out how that site recommends that you get there, the climate there, and much, much more. What they don’t tell you is where you need to go to get the passport cancellation. That’s where the information pages here on sites will help you out.
If you’re planning a multiday outing, some preparation is in order. You’ll need to have your routing all mapped out, or better yet, program it in a laptop that you can bring with you. One of the great features of the navigation software is that you can hook it up to a GPS unit and have it precisly tell you where you are, how much further you have to go and so on. It will even speak to you and tell you when and where to turn! You can also zoom in and out to get more detailed street information or zoom out to get the big picture. Try that with a paper map!
Once you have all that, you need to ready your car for the drive. I like to bring a cooler along that I pack with ice and soda, water and snacks. That’s easy if you’re going from home, but if you fly in to a location, you can pick up a cooler for under $20 at your destination and then donate it to someone local on the last day of the trip. It may seem like a waste, but the cost is a small price to pay for the convenience of cold beverages on hand at any moment. It will save a great amount of time stopping for a pop when you want one.
I also like to travel with a suitcase and one small bag. The small bag is day bag that will have that days clothes ready to go. So, all I need to do is check into my lodging and bring that bag with me. The next morning I remove the soiled clothes from the bag (while wearing the clean clothes) and put a new set of clean clothes in the bag ready for the next night. It saves a lot of time and the hassle of carrying all your clothes with you into your lodging each night.
- Most sites are open from 9am – 5pm year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, but some are open different hours. Some open at 8am, and some are open later hours during the summer. Some are only open on certain days of the week. That’s why is a good idea to check the sites homepage and see if you can start out early than you thought. When visiting multiple sites, I try to hit my first site when it opens, and the last site with enough time before it closes.
- Most sites have their Passport Cancellation stations located at the visitor center (known as the VC to NPS personnel), but others may just be in a contact ranger station. Most of the time the stamp is the book store or gift shop, but in many places its also at the information desk at the VC. Always check the date on the stamp first to make sure its correct. You might also want to do a test imprint on one of the scrap pieces of paper they have next to the stamp. That will help you apply the right amount of pressure.
- Most sites have a 20 minute or less orientation film that describes the site and the events surrounding its importance. This will give you a quick history lesson on what makes the park unique. After a while, they start to intertwine making it kind of interesting to be able to say ‘hey, I was there!’. This is the best way to start off a visit, or even make it your whole visit if the site isn’t for you. At least you can say you understand the park and you’re not just running in and out.
- When you get about 2-3 miles from the site, you should see information signs directing you to the site or various places in the park. Pay attention to these as they usually give the most direct route to the Visitor Center.
- Some sites charge a fee to use the park. You can either pay for each parks fees each time, or get a National Parks Pass. The pass is good for a year and costs $50 and is good at all NPS sites. You can also get a Golden Age pass if you’re older than 65. This pass costs $20 and is good for life and everyone in your car or travelling with you (the same is true for the National Parks Pass). One note on this: most sites have serious budget problems maintaining the treasures of America. The one way they raise revenue is by charging an entrance fee. If you pay for each site individually, more money goes to that park than if you use one of the access passes. You can use whatever you want, but its just a thought to think about.
- If you travel in the off season, you’ll be almost guaranteed to be the only visitor at the park and get a lot of attention. Sometimes you’re the first visitor they’ve seen in days! (its happened to me a few times). Your passport will also tell them you’re a serious park visitor and you’ll get special attention.
- In addition to the Web, if you happen to be in or visiting the D.C. area, stop by the Department of Interior building and visit the NPS publications office. There you will find every brochure on every site in the park system, plus a few more. Its o.k. to take one of each and then you’ll have the information (including park maps) on hand when planning future visits. I use a few panoramic photo albums to store all of the brochures, which makes for easy access.
- Some entrance stations also carry passport stamps, so if you’re running late and think the visitor center might be closed by the time you get there, ask at the entrance station if they have one. The same goes for ranger stations. Not all will, but some do. Its been my experience that park service personnel are more than happy to assist you. They may even point you to a location where you can find it, or, open the visitor center if it just closed and you’re leaving the area that day.