The U.S. National Park Service manages more than 400 distinct sites across the USA, from historic battlefields to expansive wildlife refuges to the 59 renowned national parks.
Of those 59 national parks, no two are the same. Some overlook the ocean, and others don’t see water for weeks on end. Some experience lava flows while others are buried in ice. Some sit surrounded by towering peaks, and others feature views that seem to stretch on forever. Filmmaker and outdoor enthusiast Scott Sporleder says a trip to the western USA wouldn’t be complete without visiting at least one national park. But the U.S. national parks do have a few things in common. From swampy Everglades National Park in southern Florida to sandy Death Valley National Park on the California-Nevada border to snowy Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, you can expect to see the following features in every national park across the USA.
Clearly Marked Entrances
You’ll know you’re entering a U.S. national park when you see the arrowhead-shaped welcome sign. If you’re entering one of the 59 primary parks, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee. Prices vary from park to park, starting at $10 per vehicle.
Tip: If you’re planning to visit multiple parks, you may purchase an $80 America the Beautiful annual pass at your first park that will grant you access to 2,000-plus federal recreation areas.
Arrowhead shape on entrance sign at Yosemite National Park in California
Each of the 59 major U.S. national parks contains a visitor center, though some visitors centers – particularly those associated with national parks in Alaska – are outside the parks’ perimeters. Some larger parks, including Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming and Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona, have more than one. Stop by to pick up a map, get information on park amenities and trails, and learn about the history and wildlife of the park.
Tip: Make sure to visit the restroom here before heading into the park as lavatories are often few and far between. Once you get deep into the park, your only option may be a portable toilet.
The visitor center at Zion National Park in Utah
Whether you need a bottle of water or some postcards, you’ll find places to buy them in the national parks. Many U.S. national parks feature concessions of some kind, though the types of services vary widely from park to park. Some parks even feature full-service restaurants and indoor lodging for those who aren’t up for roughing it.
Tip: You should throw away or take with you anything you bring into or purchase in the park during your visit. There may not be trash cans on the trails, so be prepared to take any waste with you when you leave.
Grand Canyon National Park visitor center in Arizona
There is no shortage of beautiful hiking spots throughout the U.S. national parks. Trails are usually clearly marked, and it’s important that you do not stray from the designated paths. Doing so can damage the park’s habitat.
Tip: Before you finalize your hiking plans, check the U.S. National Park Service website for information about trail closures. This is especially important during the spring and fall, when the weather is unpredictable. Some parks close entire sections due to lingering snow, so be sure to factor this into your planning.
Hikers on the trails at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington
Dedicated U.S. park rangers preside over every park, including areas outside the 59 national parks. Park rangers wear many hats, serving as guides, educators and protectors. They lead hikes and supervise children’s activities while also watching over the park’s wildlife and facilities. They can answer any questions you may have.
U.S. national park rangers are tasked with protecting the country’s greatest natural treasures, and they love nothing more than sharing them with visitors. Rangers are the folks to ask for recommendations on hiking trails or scenic spots.
Tip: Rangers know the U.S. national parks like the backs of their hands. They are some of the best people to ask for hiking and sightseeing recommendations.
Find a park ranger at any U.S. national park
From the rocky shores of Acadia National Park in Maine to the towering cliffs of Yosemite National Park in California and the stark desert scenery of Great Basin National Park in Nevada. The landscape may change from park to park, but one thing never changes: Each park is beautiful in its own way.
Tip: Visit as many U.S. national parks as you can. You won’t believe how diverse they are until you see them for yourself.
The setting sun at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming