August 25, 2013 (Updated Jan. 2022) — Visiting the National Parks is high on most baby boomer bucket lists – at least that’s what we’ve learned from our previous surveys (see Further Reading at end). So when your editor rolled into Yellowstone National Park 10 years ago, he not only ticked off a bucket list item, but he also experienced another great thing about getting old enough to retire. As we arrived at the gate in we noticed a sign that said Interagency Senior Pass. Asking about it, we were astonished to find that for a mere $10 anyone who is at least 62 years can enter any National Park or Natural Wildlife Refuge (more than 2,000 sites in all) for the rest of your life (unfortunately the pass is now $80, but is still a bargain). And that’s just not you the pass owner who is covered, it’s everybody in the car, regardless of age. Discounts on amenities like camping fees are also usually available. (See end of article for how to get one, along with many other resources to help plan your trip).
Now that you are retired you finally have the time to visit the parks. You also have an unbelievably cheap way to experience a top bucket list item. But how can you best take advantage? This article will address some of the top ways to enjoy the national parks, where to stay, what to do when you’re there, along with some safety tips. We are also hoping you will take this opportunity to share your suggestions in the Comments section on your favorite national parks and the things to do while you are there.
Some National Park Factoids
President Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan of the outdoors, and he was very influential in getting the parks started. Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park, approved in 1872. There are 59 National Parks in the U.S. (although there are 401 “units” in the National Park System. The largest national park is Wrangell–St. Elias in Alaska at over 8 million acres. Hot Springs in Arkansas is the smallest. Pinnacles (CA) is the newest (2013). Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is the most visited. Most of the parks are in the American west; only a few, such as Acadia National Park in Maine, are in the east.
Best ways to visit them
There are many ways to visit the national parks, whatever your transportation preferences and physical abilities. All of the methods we discuss here were on display in Yellowstone this August.
Car or minivan. Drive your own car, or rent one at an airport or train station. The self-drive option gives great flexibility – you go where you want, when you want.
RV. This is a terrific way to see the parks, particularly if you want to visit several in a region. Once again, it might be your own rig or one you rent from CruiseAmerica, Camping World, or other provider. The advantages of this mode of transport are many. For one, you can travel economically and with all the creature comforts of home right with you. If you need a snack, nap, or a bathroom, it’s right in back. You don’t need a hard to get and expensive hotel room (Although you will need a reservation, unless you decide to leave the park and stay (free!) in a Walmart parking lot.) Two couples or several single people can travel together in an RV a lot more comfortably than in a car.
The main disadvantage of an RV is that somebody has to drive the rig. Fortunately most rentals are a reasonable size and fairly car-like. Private RVs range in size from customized vans, pickup truck units, to giant luxury rigs as big as a greyhound bus. Almost all represent a vehicle that you would prefer never to have to back up!
Motorcycle. An impressive number of baby boomer age people visit the national parks via motorcycle. Though we don’t get why so many opt for ultra-noisy models that disrupt the experience for others, the appeal of free-wheeling through the parks is readily apparent. Travel light, of course. That said, we did notice some folks who carried all their camping gear on their cycles.
Train. At Yellowstone we ran into a tour group that was traveling by train. You are met at the station and escorted through the park, hassle free. Sounds like an interesting option. Amtraktoparks.com says that you can visit 237 parks by train. (See end of Article for possible sources).
Private tour. Dozens of companies offer private and group tours of the national parks. Normally you are driven on buses or big vans. The advantages include lack of hassle, expert commentary, and ease of travel. Disadvantages include having to travel with a group of strangers (except for smaller private tours), expense, and lack of flexibility.
Biking. We did see some some intrepid cyclists who were touring the national parks. You have to be in good shape and travel light, but you will really experience the open air! Not all roads are great for cycling, so you should do research online to prepare your route. You can even rent bikes within some of the parks, such as the Old Faithful location in Yellowstone.
Horseback. Many of the national parks can be explored on horseback, which is a great way to see them. There are special stock trails set up and many outfitters to choose from.
Where to stay
Camping. There are plenty of campsites at most national parks. But you generally will need a reservation. You will also need to follow common sense safety precautions, since generations of campers have produced bears trained to look for human’s food. There are frontcountry sites near roads where you can car camp, usually with restrooms and running water. There are also backcountry sites for backpackers. Either way you will need a permit obtained in advance. In contrast to federal wilderness areas, in the national parks you must usually camp in designated areas, which can take away from the wilderness experience (see vignette of your editor’s wilderness experience at end).
RV camping. Many of the national parks have designated RV camping areas. Reservations are a really good idea, although there are usually some spots available to drop-ins who arrive early enough to snag one. There are usually plenty of private campgrounds outside the park grounds.
Park lodges. The National Park System has some great lodges that are located right at the best sites. The ones at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier Hotel, Yosemite’s Ahwahnee, and Grand Canyon National Park’s El Tovarare are particularly memorable. You will need to make your reservations at least a year ahead.
Outside the park. There are almost always plenty of accommodations of varying quality outside the parks. Use TripAdvisor, your travel agent, and other sources to ones that fit your needs.
What to do
Most people probably just drive through the national parks, occasionally stopping at one of the famous sites like Old Faithful or peering over Arizona’s Grand Canyon. But there are so many interesting things to do in the parks – don’t just stay in your car and/or park at the major stops. Most of the parks have a “Things to Do” page which you can find from http://www.nps.gov/ Here are some ideas:
– Take a guided tour or talk with a ranger. Check with the park for guided or interpreted tours. You will learn so much more from these experts.
– Hike or backpack
– Fish (you will need a license)
– Horseback ride
– Take a boat ride
– Wildlife viewing (don’t forget your binoculars)
– Visit with friends, grandchildren, or other group
The National Parks get a lot of visitors, and not everyone there is guaranteed to be a nice person. So protect your property. Drive safely. Do not feed or approach wildlife – stay in the car with the windows up. Buffalo can and do charge people unpredictably. At many of the western parks in particular it is necessary to observe some common sense precautions about bears (black and brown/grizzly). If camping, you will be required to store your food safely in a bear-proof canister and suspend it from the ground. No food, not even toothpaste or sunscreen, should be kept in a tent. Packs should be open, emptied of all food, and kept away from tents. Follow all regulations to a T. Hikers should make noise as they hike to let wildlife know you are about. Bear spray should be accessible as a last line of defense.
For further reading:
Senior Pass to National Parks: Your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. A pass covers entrance and standard amenity fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). The lifetime Senior Pass is $80, annual passes are available for $20. You can buy them in person or online. See Senior National Park Passes
List of the National Parks
Visiting the National Parks by Train
Backcountry Hiking and Camping
RV Camping in the National Parks
How to Make Reservations in a Popular National Park
Wow, Your Bucket Lists are Amazing
Comments. We would all love to learn about your favorite national parks, and what you like to do when are there. Which ones are left on your bucket lists? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
A note about your editor’s trip. Your editor drove through Yellowstone with some friends and then went on a 7 day backpacking trip into the Absaroka and Beartooth Wilderness, which is just north of Yellowstone in Montana. We went off trail and climbed up and around some of the rockiest, most beautiful terrain on the planet. We camped near pristine lakes with towering mountains above -sometimes teeming with fish, sometimes not. Never saw any sign of bear, except possibly the scat of 1 black bear. Going off trail was extremely liberating, far from any sign of humans and surrounded only by nature’s beauty. Here are a few pictures from our trip. You might want to check out the Pinterest Boards we just created with more pictures. The 2 new boards are on Alpine flowers and Amazing Rocks of the Beartooths.
More Bucket List Articles:
Our Pinterest Bucket List (lots of cool photos)
What’s on Your Bucket List?
Bucketlist-Topretirements – The Complete List of Responses
Top Member Concerns at Topretirements – A Survey
Best and Worst Things About Retirement – A Survey
Australia as a Bucket List Destination
Nostalgic Cars of the 50s and Sights of Cuba
An Antarctica Bucket List Adventure
Bagging the National Parks