Not Preparing Campsites for Bears
Those who are new to the national park scene are bound to make some common mistakes that waste time and money. One such miscue can also become a matter of safety.
Many national park visitors imagine the chance of a bear ravaging their campsites equates with getting struck by lightning or getting caught in a flash flood.
Reality check: bears routinely visit campsites. Attacks and injuries are uncommon, but they're really after food products. They'll tear into garbage and damage or destroy valuables in pursuit of a meal.
Many U.S. national parks are natural homes for bears. When park brochures present ways to minimize or eliminate these dangers, the details often are ignored.
Beyond the mess and the damage, you expose yourself to the danger that bears will return for more -- perhaps when you're still there. You also make these wild animals a bit more dependent on humans.
Pay close attention to food storage instructions. Make frequent runs to the park trash cans. Be prepared for bears whenever the warning is issued.
Failing to Reserve Camping Space
Camping at a national park is among the best outdoor adventures any budget traveler can experience. The range of camping opportunities is impressive, and it varies greatly by the park you visit. There are places where you can practice primitive camping on rarely used trails. You won't deal with crowds in most of these settings.
But stays at such campsites frequently require reservations. You'll need to check in at the park and pay the fees.
In more conventional camping settings, it is a great idea to reserve well in advance of arrival, even if you're traveling off-peak. You'll get a better selection of sites, and you'll avoid the disappointment of arriving only to find you're going to be searching elsewhere for a place to set up camp.
Assuming Services and Airports are Nearby
Some of the most popular national parks can be located quite a distance from major population centers. This enhances their appeal in many ways, but keep in mind that even smaller towns with limited services can be many miles away.
Reaching airports with commercial service could require hours of driving. Take a look at the nearby services as you plan for a national park visit. Stock up on gas, RV provisions, and other necessities before hitting the road.
Failing to Access Senior Discounts
Senior discounts at national parks can amount to some substantial savings. But many first-time national park visitors never inquire about discounts for which they might be eligible.
For only $20, U.S. citizens and permanent residents age 62 and older can purchase a lifetime Senior Pass to U.S. national parks and receive it through the mail prior to their trips. You're bound to have some questions about Senior Pass, but don't neglect the research.
That price is just a fraction of the cost for a one-year national park pass, which is still a good deal at $80.
Overlooking Lodging Options in the Park
Most of us find national park lodgings practical if not luxurious. Sometimes, the relatively rustic facilities come at prices higher than you would expect at such a level of comfort.
You'll be tempted to find a nearby budget hotel that's less expensive. Consider location in that shopping equation.
Kalaloch Lodge on Washington's rugged Pacific Coast, in Olympic National Park, is fairly isolated. Staying on the property enables visitors to enjoy beautiful sunsets and many other local attractions with a minimum of driving.
If you're driving 50 miles each way just to get back into a park, that's a poor use of time and resources.
In places where the distances to services are great, a simple lodge room becomes an excellent value, even if the furnishings are basic.
Budget travelers making full use of the park opportunities are likely to be so tired at the end of the day that the decor and the updates won't matter. Convenience and time savings do matter.
Avoiding Ranger Programs with a Fee
Some budget travelers become so focused on eliminating potential costs that they rule out small investments that can greatly enhance a visit. Note the word investment -- if you've paid money to get to a national park, it makes sense to get as much out of that expenditure as possible. But some travelers reason that if they've already paid an admission fee to the park, it is unwise to purchase additional tours.
Many times, that proves to be faulty reasoning. The added fees often enhance your experience.
For example, at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, you can see the ancient dwellings in Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House from a distance with the price of park admission, or you can take a guided tour for a much closer, far more memorable experience.
Cost? An additional $4/person.
Visiting at Peak Season
Most travelers have a limited window of opportunity for their visits. That schedule often is dictated by work necessities or school calendars.
But it pays to find out the peak visitation periods for your destination park(s), and then avoid those peaks whenever possible. The scene shot here shows traffic during peak leaf season in popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
That said, if peak season is the only time you can visit, go ahead with your plans. But off-peak times offer better values. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always free of admission fees, but on certain Fee Free Weekends, none of the U.S. parks charges for entries. You'll still have to pay for park services such as campsites.
Taking Unauthorized Souvenirs and Feeding Wildlife
When you visit Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, you'll be reminded at every turn that it is illegal to remove pieces of petrified wood from the park. There are fines and even a checkpoint at which you'll be asked if any of the petrified wood in your car wasn't purchased in the gift shop.
Budget travelers avoid actions that lead to fines. But beyond the expense, there is a noble principle at work here.
The national park concept is built upon a core value: preserve unique places for future generations to enjoy. That means leaving it just as you found it -- or even better. The only thing you should remove is the trash you generate during your visit.
Feeding wildlife is another variation on the "leave it as you found it" theme. You might not be attacked by a wild animal expecting a handout, but the next person who visits might pay for your carelessness. Follow the rules and preserve the greatness.