Our guide to visiting 7 of the best national parks

From Joshua Tree to the Great Smoky Mountains, here’s everything you need to know about permits, activities, and camping.

Small blooming wildflowers up close, with a sweeping mountain vista in the distance.

National parks may just lead you to a breathtaking view like this one at the Great Smoky Mountains.

Photo by Domenico Convertini via Flickr

Table of Contents

Wondering which national park is best for your next trip? Use this great big guide to the great big outdoors to plan your next adventure. We left no stone unturned — check out when to go, what fees you’ll pay, how to camp, and what to do in seven of our country’s greatest national parks.

Big Bend National Park

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Planning a trip to Big Bend National Park? Make the most of it with these tips.

Photo by @deserthikes

Idyllic scenery, stargazing, and wildlife spotting — that’s what makes Big Bend National Park special. This park isn’t called “big” for nothing. With 800,000+ acres, it’s the largest protected portion of the Chihuahuan desert.

Getting there
Big Bend is pretty remote, so you’ll want to stock up on gas, food, and water before your trip. GPS can be unreliable, so we recommend having a map handy for your drive.

Open hours and seasons
Big Bend National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round. But note that the busy season tends to be from October through April. Check out the park’s advice for visiting during the busy season.

Fees and reservations
You’ll pay either $15 per person or $30 per car. Repeat visitor? Snag an annual pass for $55. Pro tip: Pack your plastic. Big Bend is credit/debit card only.

Looking for a deal? The park offers five fee-free days throughout the year, including a day celebrating The Great Americans Outdoors Act (Friday, Aug. 4) and National Public Lands Day (Saturday, Sept. 23).

Major rules
Sorry, Fido. Pets are not allowed on trails and must be kept on a leash. Rule of thumb: Anywhere a car can go, so can your pet.

While we’re on the subject of animals, remember that feeding wildlife is never allowed. Backcountry campers will want to bear-proof their food containers. Read more rules and regulations here.

A silver RV parked in a grove of trees at Big Bend National Park's Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground is great for RV camping.

Camping and fires
Camping at Big Bend affords you gorgeous views of a starry sky and the chance to wake up to fresh air. You have two options for spending the night in the park:

  • Developed campgrounds | $16 per night | For a gentler camping experience, these frontcountry locations have access to drinking water and restrooms. This is also where you’ll camp if you have an RV. Be sure to make a reservation.
  • Backcountry camping | $10 per night | Experienced campers will enjoy this more rugged experience. Permit required.

Looking to get cooking? Campfires aren’t allowed, but above-ground grills are.

A panoramic shot of the vistas and mountains at Rio Grande Village Nature Trail in Big Bend National Park

Hike to the sound of birdsong on the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.

Photo by Fredlyfish4 via Wikimedia Commons

Hiking
Hikers have their pick of mountain, desert, and river hikes. If we had to choose one of each, here’s a few suggestions:

Mountain pick: Lost Mine Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4.8 miles

A perfect introduction to Big Bend’s flora and fauna. Even if you cut the hike short at one mile, you’ll get a stunning view of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon.
Desert pick: Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.5 miles

See the remains of human settlement and stop for a shady picnic at Dugout Wells.
River pick: Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.74 miles

A birder’s and photographer’s dream. Go at sunset to see the panoramic vistas of the Rio Grande lit up in pink.
Want more recommendations? Check out more trails in Big Bend

A view of blue mountains in the distance from Old Ore Road in Big Bend

Take in a view of the Chisos from Old Ore Road.

Photo via National Park Services

Scenic drives
Big Bend is a desert, so sometimes the heat can make a car ride more appealing than hike. Plus, it’s a great way to see as much of the park as possible during limited trips. Here’s a couple of our top picks.

Chisos Basin Road

  • Type: Paved
  • Length: 6 miles

See both the splendid desert and glorious mountains. Plus, get a view of the erosion-formed basin area.
Grapevine Hills Road

  • Type: Improved dirt
  • Length: 8.6 miles

Get a view of the iconic Balanced Rock on this rocky road. Pro tip: Load up the SUV, this one is best for high-clearance vehicles.

Old Ore Road

  • Type: Primitive dirt road
  • Length: 26 miles

Follow the same route traveled by mules to transport ore in the 1900s. Drivers beware: Your vehicle must be both high clearance and four-wheel drive.

What to bring
We’ve got one word for you: Water. Big Bend is, well… big. And its desert climate means a bottle isn’t going to cut it on long hikes. We recommend a multi-liter hydration backpackcamo optional.

You’ll also want other essentials like sunblock, or nice-to-haves like these cooling neck wraps (especially good for kids who overheat easily).

Sunblock and water aren’t the only essentials you’ll need. Check out this list of 10 things you won’t want to be without in a national park.

Blue Ridge Parkway

A view of the mountains of the blue ridge with the sun peaking through clouds above.

Prepare for spectacular blue views.

Photo via the National Parks Service

Miles and miles of roadways framed by sweeping mountain views, thriving greenery, and plenty of places to pull off and hike? Yes, please. Spanning from VA’s Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in NC, the Blue Ridge is a driveable, scenic experience. We’d recommend cruising for an hour or two followed by a hike before you head home, but fun fact: If you wanted to drive along all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge, you’d be looking at a ~12 hour trip without traffic.

Getting there
We’ll put it bluntly: There’s not a straightforward answer here. Multiple federal and state highways connect to the Parkway, so it makes sense to visit an access point close to you — you’re sure to see beautiful mountains wherever you land.

Note that the National Park Service advises that GPS units do not work well for the parkway. Use your GPS to head to nearby communities, then switch to signs and a map to access the parkway.

Once you’re on your way, the park is marked by mileposts: Milepost zero starts near Waynesboro, VA and milepost 469 ends the parkway near Cherokee, NC (again, GPS won’t recognize these).

Here’s how to get there from major nearby cities:

Mountains covered with orange fall leaves at the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Plan a fall trip to see fantastic colors like these.

Photo by Fran Trudeau via Wikimedia Commons

Open hours and seasons
The Parkway road is open year-round. Check before you go for any road closures.

As for park facilities, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and the Folk Art Center are open year-round (both are located near Asheville, NC). If you’re headed for another visitors center, campground, or picnic facility, its likely open spring through fall — check operating dates.

Fees
There’s no fee to cruise along the Parkway.

Major rules
Don’t pick flowers along the Parkway — every plant is part of the ecosystem that a National Park is protecting. You can, however, take up to one gallon per day of mushrooms, berries, and nuts found along the Parkway. (Score.)

Dogs are allowed on Parkway trails as long as they’re leashed.

See more major rules, including regulations around hunting and overnight vehicles.

Trees frosted with snow in front of winter mountains and a sun rise.

Camp for a chance to catch mountain sunrises.

Camping
There are eight parkway campgrounds open May through October (see schedules for specific dates). Be sure to reserve campsites in advance, and note that there might be a camping fee — Grab a Land’s Pass to get 50% off camping and be sure to reserve campsites in advance.

You can also backcountry camp at three designated spots: Rock Castle Gorge (milepost 167.1), Basin Cove (milepost 239.2), and Johns River Road (milepost 296.9). For this kind of bare-bones camping, be sure to read up on bear safety, hiking etiquette, and if you’ll need a backcountry camping permit. Make sure you’re prepared with water and supplies.

Bonus: See our guide to the best places to camp around Asheville.

Hiking
The good news: There are tons of nearby hiking trails to choose from. We love this interactive map to find a hiking trail near your entry point on the Parkway (select “Hiking trails” as a filter). Plus, check out a list of park hiking trails, their difficulty level, and their mileage in Virginia or North Carolina.

These mountains are home to black bears, so make sure you read up on what to do if you encounter one (think: Leave it alone and slowly back away).

Fishing and boating
For those looking to canoe, you’re in luck: Julian Price Lake at milepost 297 hosts canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals. Most boats are $20 for the first hour and $10 each additional hour.

You can also bring your own — just note, this destination is the only place along the Parkway where boating is allowed.

As for fishing, you’ll need a valid North Carolina fishing license or Virginia fishing license. See more fishing regulations here. In lakes off the parkway, you might find bass, bream, and bluegill, while streams (and some lakes) are stocked with trout.

A white waterfall streaming into a lake, followed by several small waterfalls.

Several hikes around the Parkway will lead you to waterfalls.

Photo by Alexander Armstrong via the National Parks Service

What to bring
Besides a plenty of gas in the tank and some tunes, we recommend ensuring you can enjoy sunny views with crisp sunglasses and a sun-blocking hat. Bonus: Binoculars can help you see plants and wildlife (and maybe even a black bear).

Psst — Don’t get stuck in a national park without these 10 items, as advised by the National Parks Service.

Congaree National Park

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Congaree National Park is waiting for you to explore it.

Photo via @richarscott

If you love fishing, canoeing, kayaking, camping, and basically all things wild, South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is worth visiting over your next long weekend. This park has some of the tallest trees in the eastern US and encompasses part of the largest contiguous tract of oldgrowth bottomland hardwood forest.

Getting there
Plug this address into your GPS: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061. Parking is at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, but can fill up quickly during the busy season. Consider using public transportation like The COMET as rideshare apps may not pick you up from the park.

Open hours and seasons
Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round. But note that the busy season tends to be from March to May.

Pro tip: Check out the current conditions page before your visit for closures, weather updates, and trail conditions.

Fees and reservations
There is no entrance fee to visit Congaree National Park. Picnic shelter reservations are $25 for a half day, $50 for a full day. Pro tip: Non-reserved picnic shelters are free on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Major rules
Pets are allowed on all trails and in campgrounds, but must be kept on a leash.

The following is prohibited at all times:

  • Littering — remember to leave no trace.
  • Taking or damaging any natural or cultural resources
  • Camping without a permit
Dense woods in Congaree National Park

Congaree is home to champion trees.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Camping and fires
All campers are required to have:

Reservations can be made online and must be paid for in advance. Longleaf Campground is $15 for a regular tent site or $25 for a group site. Bluff Campground is $10 for a regular tent site. Rates are per night.

Ready for s’mores? Be sure you’re only lighting campfires in designated fire rings using dead wood from surrounding areas or certain approved firewood.

Congaree National Park Trails

The Boardwalk Loop Trail is wheelchair accessible.

Photo by @hdcarolina

Hiking
There are ~25 miles of hiking trails in Congaree. But if we had to pick a few trails, here are three you won’t want to miss.

Boardwalk Loop Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 2.6 miles

This trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible. It begins at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and winds through a hardwood forest lined with trees like bald cypresses, oaks, and maples.

Weston Lake Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4.5 miles

If you want views of otters and wading birds at Cedar Creek, this trail is for you.

Kingsnake Trail

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Length: 12 miles

A birder’s delight with beautiful views. Not for beginners as the terrain can be tricky.

Want more recommendations? Check out more trails in Congaree

fly fishing

Congaree is swimming in fish.

Photo by COLAtoday

Fishing and paddling
As long as you have a South Carolina fishing license, all areas of Congaree allow recreational fishing. Read before you reel. Learn more about fishing regulations — like the daily creel limit. (Bass) Pro tip: Catch and release is encouraged.

You can also opt to grab a paddle and explore 15 miles of the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail which begins at Bannister’s Bridge and winds all the way to the Congaree River. It’s BYOB (bring your own boat), or you can use an outfitter like Palmetto Outdoors or Carolina Outdoor Adventures.

What to bring
For Congaree, you’ll want to bring bug spray or even deep woods bug spray, not to mention binoculars for bird-spotting.
Don’t forget the essentials. There are 10 items you won’t want to forget whenever you visit a national park.

Everglades National Park

The sun sets over a pond at Everglades National Park.

The Everglades are gorgeous any time of day.

Where can you see endangered species like manatees, American crocodiles, and even Florida panthers? Everglades National Park, of course. Seriously, we almost wrote a guide to every frightening or fascinating animal that calls the Everglades home — but we settled on a helpful how-to so humans can explore this can’t-miss park for themselves.

Getting there
The Everglades are huge — it has three entrances in three different cities — Homestead, Miami, and Everglades City. Each entrance can get quite busy, so it’s recommended you buy your passes in advance.

Open hours and seasons
The park is open daily, including holidays, but check online for visitor center hours. Don’t worry about getting locked in the park overnight (like the barefoot Everglades guy) — the main entrance in Homestead is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round.

Fees and reservations
You’ll pay either $20 per person or $35 per car or boat. Repeat visitor? Get an annual pass for $70. Pro tip: Entrances can be very busy. Save some time by snagging a digital pass in advance.

Looking for a deal? The park offers five fee-free days throughout the year, including a day celebrating The Great Americans Outdoors Act (Friday, August 4) and National Public Lands Day (Saturday, September 23).

Major rules
Pets are only allowed in certain places and must be kept on a leash. Don’t take your pet on the following:

  • All trails
  • Unpaved roads
  • Shark Valley Tram Trail and Road

The following is prohibited at all times:

  • Littering — remember to leave no trace.
  • Feeding wildlife
  • Drones
Several RVs parked in the trees surrounding a pond at Flamingo Camping Site in the Everglades National Park

Take your RV to Flamingo Camping Site.

Camping
The busy season for camping is November through April. If you’re camping in a group, you definitely want to snag reservations for that time. After mid-April, the camping craze dies down and reservations aren’t necessary for the remaining camping sites.

You have three camping options for spending the night in the Everglades:

  • Long Pine Key Campground | $33-$60 per night | Enjoy easy access to Long Pine Key Trail and a fishing trail, plus access to bathhouses and cell service. Note that it’s only available from November through April, and reservations book up fast.
  • Flamingo Campground | $33-$60 for non-electric, $50-$60 for electric | These campsites have access to amenities like bathhouses, picnic tables, and grills. They’re available year-round and reservations are recommended.
  • Wilderness camping | $21 plus $2 per person | Experienced campers can rough it amongst the mangrove trees. For weather reasons, it’s recommended to wilderness camp from December through April. Be sure to grab a permit.
Anhinga Trail Pond full of lily pads in Everglades National Park

Anahinga Trail is teeming with wildlife.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Hiking
Exploring the wetlands on foot can be a true adventure. Be sure to stay on the trails — we can all agree gators are best observed from a distance — and seek cover at the first sign of storms. There are plenty of trails to choose from, but here are three of our favorites.

Anhinga Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.8 miles

This is the trail for spotting wildlife. If your main goal was to spot a gator, you’re likely to see one right away. The trail is also known for its views of turtles, herons, egrets, and — of course — anhingas.

Pineland Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.4 miles

This quick trip is open year round and great for bird watching amongst the pines and palmettos. It’s wheelchair accessible, but note that the tree roots have pushed the pavement up in some areas.

Rowdy Bend Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 5.2 miles

Enjoy the sprawling open of the prairie or the shade of the buttonwoods. The overgrowth of trees provides a real sense of solitude in the wild. If you want a quicker trip, this trail allows bicycles.

Two people in a canoe at sunset in the Florida Bay in Everglade National Park

Paddle Florida Bay at sunset.

Photo via National Parks Service

Fishing and boating
Bring your Florida freshwater fishing license to fish an ecosystem unlike any other in the US. Reel in bass, snook, redfish, and even tarpon. Read more about fishing in the Everglades, and be sure to watch out for manatee.

For those looking to boat, remember the entrance fee is $30 per vessel and read up on the rules and regulations. Some waters prohibit motors. If you want to be a marine master, the park also offers a free boater education program.

Prefer to paddle? Rent from Everglades Florida Adventures or Flamingo Adventures and see the sights from the water.

What to bring
We won’t sugarcoat it: The bug situation in the Everglades can be intense. When it comes to bug spray, you can go for the natural option, but if you’re a mosquito magnet, you might want to consider something a little stronger.

Don’t let the humidity fool you — you’ll also need water. Go for a lightweight bottle like a Nalgene.

Speaking of essentials, there are 10 essentials you’ll want whenever you explore a national park. Check them out.

Great Smoky Mountains

Tall mountains covered in green trees with puffy clouds in the distance.

These mountains are great indeed.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Smokies are America’s most visited national park, and for good reason. Here, you’ll find crests of blue mountains immersed in rolling fog, vibrantly hued hills in autumn, and incredible diversity of plant and animal life (like 30+ species of salamanders). Jump into the hiking, Southern Appalachian history, and breathtaking views the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer.

Getting there
As this subrange of the Appalachia occupies North Carolina + Tennessee, you’ll find major entrances to the park in each state.

Tennessee folk, you’ll likely want to head to the Gatlinburg entrance north of the park at 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN (Fun fact for Dolly Parton fans: You’ll be ~30 minutes from Dollywood at this entrance). There’s also a Townsend entrance further west.

North Carolinians: You’ll find a major entrance in Cherokee.

Yellow colored fog immersing blurry mountains with tall evergreen trees.

Catch this park at all hours of the day to see light transform the “smoke.”

Photo via the National Parks Service

Open hours and seasons
Get your mountain views any time you want, because this park is open year-round. Note that certain campgrounds, facilities, and even roads may operate seasonally.

Pro tip: Follow Smokies Road info on Twitter to get live updates on road closures and openings while you’re driving in.

Fees and reservations
There’s no entrance fee to the Great Smoky Mountains — sort of. As of this year, vehicles parked for longer than 15 minutes will require parking tags.

Grab a daily parking pass for $5, a weekly pass for $15 or an annual pass for $40. You’ll be able to buy these in person, but why not buy them online in advance? (Psst — The annual pass is sold separately and will be shipped to you).

If you’re looking to avoid parking altogether, take a shuttle from a nearby community.

You won’t need a reservation to enter the park.

Major rules
Pets are allowed, but must be kept on a leash and are only permitted on two trails: Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. These are also the only trails you can have a bicycle on (though you can ride your bike on any road where vehicles are permitted).

As for campfires, you’re free to collect dead and fallen wood from the park. If you’re bringing outside kindling, only heat-treated firewood bundled and certified by the USDA is allowed.

A pink sunset sky behind tall mountains with swirling fog in front of them.

Stunning sunsets are just one vista you’ll enjoy at this park.

Photo by @j_kreiss

Camping
Choose from 10 park campgrounds or rough it with backcountry camping.

For backcountry, you’ll need a permit and you’d be wise to brush up on your bear safety. It’s also important to read through the park’s backcountry regulations, put in place to protect both you and the ecosystem.

If you’re more in the mood for running water and toilets, here are a few great campgrounds (be sure to make a reservation):

  • Cataloochee Campground | $30 per night | You’ll likely avoid the crowds at this campground while getting your fill of mountains, valleys, and creeks, plus a peek of history on the Little Cataloochee Trail.
  • Look Rock Campground | $30 per night | Head to this wooded spot situated at a higher elevation than other campgrounds for guaranteed panoramic views.
  • Cades Cove Campground | $30 | Park visitors planning a spring trip may want to book a site here to see nearby wildflowers blooming — plus, it’s a great spot for wildlife viewing.

Bonus: See our guide to the best places to camp around Asheville.

Hiking
When it comes to hiking, your Great Smoky Mountain options are extensive: There are 150 official trails to explore. Put that parking pass to good use and leave the car behind to travel this protected wilderness by foot — just be sure you’ve read up on bear safety (there are about 2 bears per square mile in the park).

Get started with a few of our trail recommendations.

For waterfalls: Rainbow Falls

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 5.4 miles

An 80-ft. waterfall awaits on this trail named for the rainbows you might see dancing in waterfall mist when conditions are bright.

For old growth forests: Boogerman Loop

  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Length: 7.4 miles

Hike through forests protected by Robert Palmer (childhood nickname “Boogerman”) complete with history and a nearby creek.

For mountain views: Andrews Bald

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 3.5 miles

Walk through a spruce-fir forest to find an open mountain bald offering spectacular views of the Smokies.

For a kid-friendly experience: Kephart Prong Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4 miles

Kids will enjoy four log bridges, plenty of wildlife viewing, and historic sites along this trail.

The outline of mountains in the distance and a large evergreen tree.

Explore countless hiking trails through the Great Smokies.

Photo by John Anderson via Wikimedia Commons

Fishing and boating
Fishers, you’re in luck: This park boasts one of the only remaining wild trout habitats within the eastern US. You’ll find streams all across the park, and as long as you see open water, you’re allowed to fish there. You may have better luck venturing beyond streams closest to the roads.

Fishing is allowed year-round, starting 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset each day. You must have a fishing license from either Tennessee or North Carolina to partake — both are valid across the entire park.

Note these important fishing rules before you dive in:

  • There’s a daily possession limit of up to five brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass and up to twenty rock bass.
  • Only artificial flies or lures are allowed (non-native organisms can impact the park’s environment)

Pro tip: Help the parks keep track of its fish population by filling out this survey after your visit.

What to bring
Since elevation tends to be a feature of the trails here, come prepared with sturdy hiking boots. You may also want some lightweight hiking pants.

Psst — Don’t get stuck in a national park without these 10 items, as advised by the National Parks Service.

Joshua Tree

A single joshua tree against a desert landscape and streams of sun.

The tallest Joshua trees in the park are 40+ ft. high.

Photo by Christopher Prentiss Michel via Wikimedia Commons

When you think you’ve seen all of Joshua Tree, you haven’t — two completely different ecosystems combine to create this bewitching and iconic desert landscape. The low Colorado Desert and the high Mojave desert offer richly different experiences inside this national park (there’s even a podcast called Where Two Deserts Meet). Throw in shimmering night skies and hundred-year-old trees, and you won’t want to say goodbye.

Getting there
There are three entrances to Joshua Tree. Note that the National Parks Service advises not to use GPS directions, which may try to take you on inaccessible roads or dirt trails.

  • North entrance — Recommended point of entry during the park’s busy months (October through May). Use Highway 62 to drive to Twentynine Palms, then use maps or road signs to find the entrance three miles south of the Highway 62 + Utah Trail junction.
  • West entrance — A main park gateway that may see a wait time during busy months. Use Highway 62 to drive to Joshua Tree Village, then use maps or road signs to find the entrance five miles south of the Highway 62 + Park Boulevard junction.
  • South entrance — Note that services like gas or convenience stores do not surround this less-used entrance for many miles (so stock up beforehand). Located near Cottonwood Spring as an access point off Interstate 10.

Looking to use public transportation? Check Basin Transit for bus schedules.

Open hours and seasons
Great news for desert enthusiasts: The park is open year-round, accessible 24 hours a day.

As for visitors centers, two are open year-round: Joshua Tree Visitor Center + Cottonwood Visitor Center. Check other visitor centers’ seasonal openings. Note that visitor centers are actually located in communities outside the park.

Time of year can be key for making or breaking your Joshua Tree experience — the desert is prone to temperature extremes. During the summer, daytime temperatures can exceed 100°, and while winter sees more comfortable days, it can drop below freezing at night. Visit in the fall or spring for your best chance at mild conditions.

Read before you go: Rain events and surviving summer in the park.

A pink and blue sky behind two large rock boulders.

Be wary of the summer months at Joshua tree — it’s best to plan a spring or fall trip.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Fees and reservations
Reservations are not required, but all visitors must have an entrance pass. While you can buy a pass in person at these entrances and visitor centers, why not buy it online ahead of time to expedite your park entry? Pass options include a $30 private vehicle pass that’s good for seven days and a $55 annual pass good year-round.

Pro tip: The park offers five fee-free days throughout the year, including a day celebrating The Great Americans Outdoors Act (Friday, August 4) and National Public Lands Day (Saturday, September 23).

Major rules
The park has some specific rules when it comes to pets: Pets are allowed near roads, picnic areas, and campgrounds, but not on hiking trails, in the backcountry, or in park buildings.

There’s one trail pets are allowed on: The Oasis of Mara Trail.

A red desert landscape with a Joshua tree and a pink sunset sky.

Be prepared with plenty of water if you plan to camp.

Photo by Jarek Tuszyński via Wikimedia Commons

Camping
A great reason to camp at Joshua Tree: It’s an International Dark Sky Park.

Ranked at the Silver Tier, the park is removed enough from urban and suburban areas flooded with artificial light that nighttime skies will reveal stars, planets, and the Milky Way like never before. There’s even a 2023 Night Sky Festival held this Friday, October 13-Saturday, October 14.

Snag a campground (reservations are required for most) so you don’t miss out on the beauties of the park at night. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Jumbo Rocks Campground | $20 per night | Rock scramble and star gaze to your heart’s content at this campground close by boulders formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago.
  • Cottonwood Campground | $25 per night | Conveniently close to Interstate 10, explore the Colorado Desert at this campground with especially dark skies. Bonus: Catch desert wildflowers near this campground, which begin to bloom between February and March.

Hiking
The good news: There are nearly 300 miles of trails to explore. The not-so-good news: Not all trails are recommended during the blazing summer months. In fact, it’s recommended to avoid hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the summer. We pretty much swear by this advice.

Once you’ve established safe conditions, here are some hikes to get you started:

Discovery Trail

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.7 mile

Kids from a local school district designed this trail to pass by their favorite park rocks.

Lost Horse Mine

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 4 miles

Explore one of the few successful gold mines of the area.

Black Rock Panorama Loop

  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Length: 6.6 miles

Admire plenty of Joshua trees and panoramic views; do not attempt in summer.

A cluster of palm trees in the middle of rock formations.

Another great stop on your visit: Fortynine Palms Oasis.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

What to bring
We can’t emphasize this enough — If you’re exploring Joshua Tree, you need to be prepared with plenty of water. Only a few potable water stations exist around the perimeter of the park. We’re forever fans of the 40-oz. Owala water bottle, which can keep water cold and keep you hydrated.

Psst — Don’t get stuck in a national park without the 10 items listed below, as advised by the National Parks Service.

Mammoth Cave

Brown entrance sign surrounded by trees reading "Mammoth Cave National Park" in white letters.

Mammoth Cave National Park is less than 1.5-hours from downtown Louisville.

Photo by NPS

When you go to Mammoth Cave, don’t just look around. Look down. Visit the longest cave system in the world located near Cave City, KY (which is an adventure of its own). Over 400 miles of the system have been explored in this cave, which sprawls beneath south central Kentucky. Let’s get spelunking.

Getting there
The main way into the park is via I-65, through the visitor center on the South Side of the Park. GPS isn’t reliable out here, so keep the map handy, and follow the directions to the center.

Open hours and seasons
The park is open 24 hours a day, year-round, but attractions are limited after hours. Services, like the visitor center, are typically closed at 4:30 p.m. in the winter + 6 p.m. in the summer. Check for seasonal closures before you go.

Fees and passes
Entrance to the park is free, but many areas of the caves cannot be explored without booking a tour. The schedule is full of spelunking opportunities.

Pro tip: Make a reservation in advance to assure you’ll get the type of tour you want. They often sell out on the weekends.

A group of three set up a tent at Mammoth Cave campground while a child stands next to a picnic table and watches.

The Mammoth Cave Campground is a quarter mile from the visitor center.

Photo via National Park Services

Camping and fires
Whether you’re coming in by horseback or RV, you’re in for trees and fresh air. You have the option to camp in three frontcountry campgrounds or 13 designated backcountry sites.

  • Mammoth Cave Campgrounds | $12.50-$50 | This single and group campground is perfect for those looking for access to amenities like bathrooms and hot showers.
  • Maple Springs Campground | $50 | Ride your horse (or RV) into one of seven campsites, which include a fire ring, picnic table, electric hookup, and a more secluded camping experience.
  • Houchin Ferry Campground | $10-$20 | Keep it simple with this quiet spot including a fire ring and picnic table.
  • Backcountry + riverside campsites | $10 per trip | For experienced campers looking for a more rugged experience, these sites can only be accessed by hiking or horseback. Keep an eye on the river level and weather forecast before you go.

Ready for s’mores? You cannot bring firewood into the park. All firewood must be dead or downed wood already in the park, or purchased from the Caver’s Camp Store. And be sure you’re only lighting campfires in designated fire rings.

Participants of the Lantern Tour walk in a row through the caves of Mammoth Cave National Park.

The Lantern Tour affords a unique view of the caves

Photo via Mammoth Cave National Park

Cave tours
Spelunk to your heart’s content with a host of cave tours. There’s plenty to choose from, but here’s a few of our favorites. Pro tip: Check the schedule before you go and bring a jacket — even if it’s 90 degrees on the surface, it can be 54 degrees in the cave.

Star Chamber

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 1 mile

Experience the Star Chamber by lantern light. This two and a half-hour experience tells the tale of Mammoth Cave’s early history, plus a trip to Gothic Avenue — where rocks formed to look like Gothic architecture and early visitors left behind signatures + artifacts.
Accessible tour

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 0.5 miles

Ditch the stairs. Take an accessible tour through the historic Cleaveland Avenue. Sights include both sparkling formations and historic signatures.

Violet City Lantern Tour

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Length: 3 miles

Travel up and down tunnels exclusively by lantern light like the early explorers. This three-hour tour is perfect for those who love to hike.

Psst — Don’t get stuck in a national park without the 10 items listed below, as advised by the National Parks Service.

The 10 essential items to bring to a national park

Two children sitting with their back to the camera in front of a large lake and mountain.

Here’s everything you’ll need for your great outdoors adventure.

No matter which protected lands you choose to explore, don’t wander in unprepared. Protect yourself and your travel companions by being ready with these ten crucial supplies, as advised by the National Parks Service:

  1. Navigation. Use the maps provided on each park’s website (and make sure you know how to read them), but be extra prepared with a compass and a GPS system.
  2. Sun protection. Don’t underestimate how long your skin may be exposed. Load up on a three-pack of sprayable sunscreen that’s easy to apply, plus pack an SPF stick that’s small enough to go in a fanny pack or backpack. Bonus: Make your clothing work for you with a UV protective jacket.
  3. Insulation. Sudden changes in temperature and weather happen, so be prepared with an extra layer. The NPS specifically recommends packing: a jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear.
  4. Illumination. It’s a good idea to come ready with a flashlight, lantern, and — the NPS’ preferred light source — a headlamp so you can be hands free.
  5. First-aid supplies. Here’s a packable first-aid kit designed by doctors. Add this emergency guide to it so you’ll know what to do if there’s a medical emergency and no cell service available.
  6. Fire. Make sure you can start one with tools on hand including matches and a lighter.
  7. Repair kit and tools. You’ll be thankful you have these if your equipment breaks. Fix most basic repairs with a Swiss army knife (this one includes a large and small knife, can opener, and screwdriver) and some duct tape.
  8. Nutrition. It’s recommended to carry an extra day’s supply of no-cook items — and you’ll want them to be nutritious, too. We recommend stocking up on trail mix packs and a box of granola bars (try 88 Acres bars for seeds and oats or an RXBAR pack for nuts, dates, and egg whites). You can also bring dried fruit and jerky.
  9. Hydration. Make sure to check if there are refillable water stations wherever you plan to camp or hike. Bring a reusable bottle like the Owala water bottle or even a multi-liter hydration backpack. It’s also recommended you bring water treatment supplies — brush up on how to purify water.
  10. Emergency shelter. Be ready to protect yourself in an emergency situation with a tent, tarp, bivy sack for warmth and weather proofing, and space blanket.
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