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How to plan a national park vacation

Spanning the United States from the snow-capped mountains of Alaska to the shimmering waters of the Florida Keys, an elite group of protected natural settings inspire awe and reverence for their astounding beauty, fascinating wildlife, and diversity of terrain. The country's 63 designated national parks are its crown jewels. 

Photographs never fully capture the essence of these sanctuaries. To understand that, you must be there. That’s why millions of travelers visit these national treasures each year. Is a national park vacation on your travel bucket list? Here are 4 ways to craft a trip to suit your travel style and budget. 

Guided tours

Natural Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park

Natural Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park. ©Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Adobe Stock

One of the easiest ways to visit several national parks in one trip is to join a guided tour vacation. You’ll be with like-minded travelers, and avoid the extensive work that goes into creating a multistate itinerary.

AAA Member Choice Vacations® (MCV) offers more than 15 tours featuring U.S. national parks. Each vacation price includes premium accommodations, meals, local guides, experiences, and transportation between destinations. Plus, an experienced tour manager will travel with you to handle logistics.

Bison near a spring at Yellowstone National Park

Bison near a spring at Yellowstone National Park. ©west7megan/Adobe Stock

MCV’s most comprehensive itinerary is its National Parks of America tour. The 12-day guided journey visits Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks. The tour weaves through 4 states: Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Travelers will marvel at a variety of landscapes, from the soaring rock spires and canyons of the Southwest to the pine-and-granite vistas of the Black Hills of South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The tour also offers a glimpse into the Indigenous cultures in these regions. Tour guests travel through the Great Sioux Nations territory and can meet a local Lakota Native American to learn about their history and culture.

Don’t have that much vacation time? Consider the 8-day itinerary. This guided vacation focuses on the West’s cowboy culture. Visit mountain towns such as Jackson and Cody, Wyoming, and Deadwood, South Dakota, where gold, gambling, and guns were driving forces of its frontier history.

Customized vacations

View over the South and North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

View over the South and North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park from a helicopter. ©Amanda Mohler/Adobe Stock

If group travel isn’t your thing, give your national parks bucket list to your AAA travel advisor. They’ll build a one-of-a-kind vacation that gives you freedom to explore independently.

AAA travel advisors regularly partner with Pleasant Holidays. Itineraries can include flights, accommodations, rental car, activities, and travel insurance. Pleasant Holidays recently expanded its portfolio of carefully chosen hotels to meet the increased interest in national parks.

Pleasant Holidays also offers immersive experiences within the parks—everything from awe-inspiring helicopter tours of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to exhilarating airboat tours of Everglades National Park in Florida.

A couple watching the sunrise at Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii

A couple watching the sunrise at HaleakalaNational Park in Maui, Hawaii. ©James Wheeler/Adobe Stock

Perhaps Hawai‘i is on your must-visit list. America’s 50th state is home to 2 national parks on 2 islands: Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on Hawai’i Island and Haleakala National Park on Maui. You’ll also find national sites, trails, and memorials sprinkled across the islands, the most famous of which is Pearl Harbor National Memorial on O‘ahu.

But coordinating interisland flights, as well as multiple activity and hotel reservations, might make your head spin. Let AAA and Pleasant Holidays do the legwork instead. They’ll create an itinerary that includes island flights, stays at upscale oceanfront hotels, and island excursions. One activity that’s a must: viewing a magical sunrise from near the summit of 10,023-foot-tall Haleakala. The volcano (now thought of as dormant) once inspired poetic accolades from Mark Twain and Jack London. 


A cruise ship sailing beside glaciers

A cruise ship sailing beside glaciers in Alaska. Courtesy Holland America Line

Cruising is the best way to see certain national parks. That’s often the case in Alaska, which has 66,000 miles of coastline, the longest in the country. Cruising on a Holland America Line or Princess Cruises ship is an affordable way to visit the otherwise difficult-to-access regions of the state, which is home to 8 national parks.

In Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a highlight of Inside Passage cruises, ships sail close to the towering blue ice of a tidewater glacier. Onboard the ship and during optional shore excursions such as sea kayaking, you’ll be wowed by spectacular fjords, mind-blowing glaciers, and abundant wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for bears, moose, and maybe even whales. 

A ranger talking with passengers aboard an Alaska cruise

A ranger educates passengers aboard an Alaska cruise. Courtesy Princess Cruises

Your AAA travel advisor can help you narrow the options to select a weeklong cruise or build a truly epic adventure with a cruise tour, which combines a cruise with a land-based vacation. A cruise tour is the gold standard for experiencing Alaska’s spectacular sights because you get to explore both by sea and by land. On trains, luxury motorcoaches, and/or floatplanes, you’ll access pristine wilderness in the Alaskan interior.

AAA advisors often work with Holland America Line and Princess Cruises to craft Alaska cruise-tour vacations. Both have been sailing in Alaska for decades, more than 75 and 50 years, respectively. This gives them the expertise and connections to curate adventures, such as flightseeing tours, guided bear-watching, glacier walks, and train journeys that trace the storied paths of the Klondike gold rush. 

Couple standing on a balcony at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

A couple admires the view of Denali from the treehouse at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Courtesy Princess Cruises

A popular option from Holland America and Princess is a weeklong cruise paired with a few nights at an upscale wilderness lodge near Denali National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest peak in North America. 

Do-it-yourself trips

Cars winding down Blue Ridge Parkway through Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Blue Ridge Parkway runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. ©ALEX Grichenko/Adobe Stock

Do you relish creating your own trip itineraries? The creative and tactical challenge of planning can be stimulating and fun. You can use online trip-planning tools from AAA, as well as save money with exclusive AAA member benefits and discounts.

One of the best places to begin crafting your vacation is with your accommodations, because those tend to go quickest. In fact, the most-desired lodgings in or near national parks are sometimes fully booked as early as 9 months in advance for peak summer travel. 

AAA offers hotel and vacation rental (private home) options across the country, bookable online. Learn which towns travelers typically stay in while visiting a national park. For instance, if you want to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you could base yourself in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or Bryson City, North Carolina. Then plug in your preferred travel dates to compare lodging options. From there, build out your itinerary with flights, a rental car, and pre-booked activities.

Pro tips:

  • Check for parks that require timed reservations for popular attractions. Some national parks instituted these systems recently to manage crowds.
  • If you’re 62 or older, consider the Senior Pass ($20 annual, $80 lifetime). This gives you unlimited access to all national parks, a great reason to plan multiple vacations.
Zion National Park

Explore America’s natural treasures

Soaring peaks, untouched forests, beautiful coastlines, glacial valleys, geysers, and volcanoes—the national parks have a lifetime’s worth of landscapes to discover. See what some of the most popular parks have to offer, plus tips on what to see and how to visit.

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