How to travel solo at national parks

by Сашка

Going at their own pace allows solo hikers to reduce distractions and fully immerse in nature.

Over the next few months, millions of visitors will flock to U.S. national parks to hike, climb, boat and explore. With a maximum cost of $35 per vehicle for entry, visiting a national park can be one of the cheapest, most rewarding vacations you can plan this summer.

And while entry requirements may complicate planning for groups or for multiday treks, solo hikers should be flexible enough to enter at off-hours and win last-minute lotteries.

Hiking and spending time in nature alone has demonstrably proved to improve mental health. It becomes easier to marvel at the natural world without distracting devices or another person’s hiking constraints. Beginner hikers can benefit from a few hours of silence to clear their minds and observe the trees around them at their own pace. Those with more experience outdoors can focus their energy on reaching new heights all by themselves.

But even seasoned solo travelers may balk at the idea of hiking by themselves if they haven’t done it before. Despite the rare story, you are highly unlikely to die in a national park, especially if you are a woman.

When I spent two years alone, living in my van and traveling to every national park in the Lower 48, I tested my own methods for getting the most out of my solo excursions. Here are my four biggest lessons.

Share your plan with people you trust

You may choose a park based on location, number of visitors, difficulty level or just because you’ve always wanted to go. Some parks are enmeshed in the surrounding community, like Acadia or the Great Smoky Mountains, and some are isolated even by nature’s standards, like Glacier or the Badlands. Consider your own heat and humidity tolerance. And while every park offers hikes to meet many different fitness levels, appraise your options for terrain and how mountainous routes may be.

If you plan to sleep inside a park, make sure there are viable (and available) spots for that, too. Once you’ve chosen a park, commit to a few key details of your adventure. Securing accommodations is a top priority as a solo traveler, regardless of whether you plan to camp, stay in a hotel or stay outside the park. Many parks, like Zion, have a shuttle system and actively discourage traffic, so determine in advance whether bringing or renting a car is helpful.

In addition to your camping gear, bring the Park Service’s 10 essentials, which include things like a first-aid kit, water and flashlight, plus any park-specific needs like bear spray or hypothermia apparel. Note that you are almost certain to find park-specific needs at the visitors center at an upcharged price — great for forgotten gear, but not as a primary option.

Be sure to tell at least two trusted people which park you will be visiting, where you will be staying, what hikes you already have planned, a clear deadline of when they will hear from you again and what they should do if they do not. Keep in mind that parks typically have very little cell service. Include the phone number for the park ranger service.

Always start at the visitors center

The first thing you should do when you arrive at a park is stop by the visitors center. No matter how much research you do in advance, national parks still operate in a somewhat analog manner, often posting the most accurate weather concerns, trail and road conditions, events, and other announcements on-site. Talk to park rangers, and ask for advice on their hikes or must-see stops; they may have insider knowledge about how to beat the crowds. Learn at the park’s museum about the history of the land and animals to look out for — and, of course, be sure to get your passport stamped.

It’s important to start slow and small when hiking, even if you’re a seasoned veteran, to understand the park’s layout. Most parks have an short and easy “discovery” trail leading from or close to the visitors center. These low-impact trails are intended for less mobile visitors to see a snapshot of the park but shouldn’t be overlooked by more ambitious hikers. Some are geared toward educational exhibits, like the Fossil Exhibit Trail in Badlands. Others serve as examples of the landscape, like the Discovery Trail in Joshua Tree. Spend time acclimating to the park on easier trails before jumping into anything bigger, as you may find factors you overlooked and need to adjust your schedule.

Read also:
You asked: Should I buy travel insurance for my honeymoon?

Unless you have extensive experience hiking alone in the wilderness, do not hike anywhere other than an established, maintained trail. None of the parks I’ve visited required an off-trail excursion to embrace the beauty of feeling totally immersed in nature. There are plenty of groomed trails that are sparsely hiked. Stay on the trail, and hike smart.

Engage with nature — and other people

Just because you take a trip alone doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself. Beyond the park rangers, visitors and staff alike are bound to have experience and opinions about the park. If you buy snacks in the store, ask the person working whether they have a favorite spot in the park; if you’re waiting in line for the shuttle, ask another traveler what they’ve hiked so far. You may find most other visitors are just as eager as you to learn about experiences.

During the busy season, parks offer a wide variety of educational and interactive events, including guided walks and ranger talks. You can join a morning geology walk any day of the week in the Badlands, learn about forest birds with a park biologist in Haleakalā, or have coffee with a ranger on Wednesday mornings in Yosemite. Participate in at least one event to gain a better understanding of the park and pick up additional advice from others’ questions you hadn’t thought of. And while some of the events may be aimed at younger visitors, don’t let the age designation fool you: Grown-ups can become Junior Rangers, too.

Be sure to take notes and keep track of suggestions for trails or vistas. Mark suggestions on your park map, and pay attention to regions of the park you may be overlooking. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to change your original plans — trail conditions can change frequently and unexpectedly, and feedback from other visitors in the park will always be more accurate. After all, changing plans is the boon of getting to travel alone.

Stay present and take time to reflect

Once you’ve done all of the above, it’s time to embrace what you came for: the solitude of nature. Both for safety reasons and to enhance your adventure, don’t explore the park with headphones or other distracting devices. Keep your eyes and ears open to people, animals and traffic around you. While your phone probably won’t have service, bringing a separate camera to document your time will be more enjoyable than fumbling with it anyhow.

Whether you day-hike, take a scenic drive, or simply find a good spot to sit and take it all in, consider keeping a journal of your time in the park. Write notes about the experience, from the plants you saw to the people you met. Reflect on what frustrates you about traveling alone and what feels better or different from expected.

What you write may help encourage another, bigger solo trip — or confirm that you prefer traveling with a group. Either way, you’ve taken one step closer to finding your own way to enjoy nature on your own terms.

Emily Edwards is a solo van lifer who writes the Stories From the Road newsletter. Follow her on Instagram: @em_inavan.

Where to go

Our favorite destinations: Take our destination quiz to choose your own adventure. Then read about 12 dream destinations at the top of our wish list — without the crowds.

Travel like a local: Residents share their favorite places in our top city guides: New Orleans, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City.

National parks: Explore tips from locals for visiting Yosemite, Glacier and Everglades.

Tales from the road: Trace a route along the southern coast of Puerto Rico. See how jamón gets made in the heartland of Spanish pork.

Related Posts