America’s national parks are one of the country’s greatest treasures, and many people have it on their bucket list to visit one or more of these gems. But figuring out where to go and how to execute a national park experience can sometimes feel a little overwhelming.
Here to offer some really helpful advice on both visiting and camping in the national parks is Jeremy Puglisi, co-author, along with his wife Stephanie, of Where Should We Camp Next?: National Parks: The Best Campgrounds and Unique Outdoor Accommodations In and Around National Parks, Seashores, Monuments, and More. Today on the show, Jeremy walks us through how to navigate the complex reservation system some of the parks have in place and what it takes to secure a campsite inside the parks. He then shares his best tips for getting the most out of a national park experience in general, as well as when you’re visiting some of the country’s most iconic destinations, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. At the end of our conversation, Jeremy shares the national parks he thinks are underrated, and if you want to avoid the crowds of the national parks, he also shares his picks for the country’s best state parks.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Jeremy’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #711: — How to Plan the Ultimate Road Trip
- KOA campgrounds
- AoM Article: Beat the Crowds (And the Fees) With Dispersed Camping
Connect With Jeremy Puglisi
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. America’s national parks are one of the country’s greatest treasures, and many people have it on their bucket list to visit one or more of these gems. But figuring out where to go and how to execute a national park experience can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. Here to offer some really helpful advice, on both visiting and camping in the natural parks, with Jeremy Puglisi, co-author along with his wife, Stephanie of Where Should We Camp Next? National Parks: The Best Campgrounds and Unique Outdoor Accommodations In and Around National Parks, Seashores, Monuments, and More. Today in the show Jeremy watches through how to navigate the complex reservation system some of the parks have in place, and what it takes to secure a camp site inside the parks.
He then shares his best tips for getting the most out of a national park experience in general, as well as when you’re visiting some of the country’s most iconic destinations. Including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. At the end of our conversation, Jeremy shares the national parks he thinks are underrated, and if you wanna avoid the crowds of national parks, he also shares his pick for the country’s best state parks. After show is over, check at our show notes at aom.is/nationalparks.
Alright, Jeremy Puglisi, welcome back to the show.
Jeremy Puglisi: It’s so great to be here, and thank you so much for always having authors on your show, big, big fan of your podcast. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much. So, we had you and your wife Stephanie, on the show a few years ago to talk about how to plan and execute the perfect road trip. And the reason I wanna bring you back on this time is you all have a new book out called Where Should We Camp Next? National Parks. So, I know a lot of people, they’re planning summer vacations, they’re thinking about maybe doing some national parks. And these can be surprisingly tricky to navigate, and I’m hoping we get some advice from you today, but I also wanna talk about camping in national parks. That’s something that a lot of people don’t… You can do, but I think a lot of people just think about visiting national parks, so camping inside of a national park adds another dimension of maybe complexity to this thing, but maybe some high reward there, let’s talk about you and your wife’s experience and your family’s experience with camping in national parks. You guys are big campers, you do a lot of RVing. How many national parks have you all camped in?
Jeremy Puglisi: So, between the two of us, we’ve done about half of the 63 national parks, and then we’ve done a lot of the other national park sites, which are not necessarily national parks. And it’s been about a decade of doing long RV trips with our kids and every summer we definitely hit up a few of our national parks. I would love to get to all of them, I don’t know if that’ll happen, but we’re working hard to do so.
Brett McKay: What’s been your favorite national park you visited so far?
Jeremy Puglisi: So, my favorite, and this surprises people. My favorite is Olympic National Park in Washington State. And I think that’s because it has so many different ecosystems, you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the ocean, you’ve got rain forest, you’ve got some really hip cool gateway towns. And it’s pretty close to Seattle, so you kinda can fit in a city trip if you want to as well. So, that’s always been my favorite, I think Stephanie would say Glacier National Park was her favorite.
Brett McKay: So, you’re still trying to hit national parks every time you’d go out traveling in the summer?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, and this is one of our biggest tips is we often do a big national park trip at the very end of August. That’s the time we’ve been really zooming in on, because our kids are still off school here in the Northeast, they go back after Labor Day. And so, what we’ve discovered is most of the country is back to school at that point, so we have hit some of the major national parks at the very end of the summer, and not had the crowding issues that everybody has been talking about.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned there’s 63 official national parks, but you mentioned that there’s other sites or land governed by the National Park Service. What other sites should people consider when they think National Park Service?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, so there’s 63 national parks, but there’s 424 national park sites, and there’s all different kinds of designations. You’ve got national seashores like Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Cod National Seashore. You’ve got national lake shores like Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. You’ve got national recreation areas, we have in New Jersey, we have Gateway National Recreation Area, we’ve got national memorials, national parkways. And the thing that we really wanted to get across in the book is that a lot of them have amazing camping experiences. Sometimes there are sites inside those parks, but sometimes you have to camp outside of the parks. But we wanted to sort of re-distribute the balance of how people look at national park camping trips, ’cause we all think of the iconic trips out West, and there are more national parks in the West, but in the East, we have a lot of those other designations. We have a lot of the recreation areas, the seashores, the lake shores, the monuments, and those offer great camping experiences too, and we really wanted the book to give people alternatives from the places that are so, so crowd. Some of which I think we’ll talk about today.
Brett McKay: Oh, the other thing I didn’t think about, but it made sense, the Civil War Sites. That’s National Park Service.
Jeremy Puglisi: 100%. And so Gettysburg, there’s no camp grounds in Gettysburg National Battlefield, but there’s a whole culture of camping right outside of Gettysburg. There’s also a lot of campgrounds outside of Fredericksburg, almost all of those major sites have camping right outside of them, and people love to go on camping trips and make a whole tour out of it.
Brett McKay: So, the big take away there, don’t limit yourself just to the national parks. National parks are great, and we’re gonna talk about some of them today, but also think outside the box, think of other lands or sites governed by the National Park Service. Let’s talk about just visiting national parks in general, maybe someone just planning on going there, they don’t wanna camp, they wanna visit a national park. I’m sure people have heard, or they’ve tried in the past five years to visit a national park, they’ve heard or experienced that getting into a national park can be surprisingly difficult. Why is getting into a national park so hard sometimes?
Jeremy Puglisi: So, my theory here is that during the pandemic interest in national parks, interest in camping exploded for obvious reasons. But then everybody that had been taking other types of vacations like cruises or flying to Europe, I think a lot of them just wanted to go to the same five or six places that they’ve been hearing about their whole lives. They’ve been hearing about Yellowstone, they’ve been hearing about Yosemite, they’ve been hearing about a little place called Zion, and so I think that we had an absolute flood of people that were new to camping and maybe even kinda new to road tripping, all trying to descend on the same places at one time.
So, it is true that there are crowding issues at the most popular national parks, at the most popular times. But shoulder seasons are pretty open, and there’s also so many great national parks that are off people’s radars. Now, I would never tell someone, “Don’t go to Yellowstone, don’t go to Yosemite.” That’s your travel dream, go do that. And we’ve gone to those places too, we just wanted to open up some other options as well, and some of the places that we wanna talk about, I think like Yosemite, it’s near San Francisco. So, that’s gonna be crowded, there’s massive population density nearby. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within striking distance of massive population density, so a lot of people go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s our most visited Park. But then there are places that are a bit more off the beaten track that people cannot get to quite as easily, and there’s campsites open, there really are.
Brett McKay: Okay, so some national parks, they are very popular, different times they’re gonna be more popular. I imagine Summer, like early Summer is probably the peak time for most of them.
Jeremy Puglisi: That sweet spot where all of the kids in the country are off for school is the worst… It’s the hardest time, the most difficult time to go. ‘Cause you have kids in the country that go back to school after Labor Day, then you have kids in the country that get off earlier in May, so that place in the middle where every kid in America is off, that is definitely, honestly a very tricky time to do these types of trip. So, if you can any way move off to the beginning or end of the Summer as opposed to say July, you’re gonna do better. And then of course, if you’re not traveling with kids and that’s not an issue for you, the shoulder seasons are a really wonderful time to visit almost all of these places that we wanna talk about.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I think something people often don’t realize with the national parks is that sometimes you need a reservation ahead of time just to get into the park, or to do certain things in the park. And we had a nightmare experience with this during the pandemic. So, 2021 my wife was turning 40, and she wanted to go to Yosemite for her 40th, and so I thought, Okay, great, I’ll go to recreation.gov, buy the tickets. But at the time, they were expecting you to reserve your spot into the park three days in advance of your arrival at the park. So, a couple of weeks before the day I needed to buy my permit, I got on there to get familiar with recreation.gov and see how fast things went, and just to practice buying the permit. ‘Cause I heard that things can go fast, and so I got on there and tickets went fast in three minutes, they were all gone. But every time I was able to put a permit in my shopping cart, and delete it. So, I thought, okay, I’m not gonna have a problem with this.
So, on the day of, like this is the day that it counted, I had to get one a permit on this day, because we’d be in Yosemite three days. I had to get it. We had already bought lodging, we already bought plane tickets, so this was now or never. So, I had my friend Grant, him and his wife Mary, were gonna come with this as well, and say, “Hey, you get on too, and you just start refreshing your browser and see if you get one will increase the chances. So, we started doing it, got on 10 o’clock Central Time in the morning, ticked, started refreshing the browser trying to get one, trying to get one, trying to get one. And none of us got one, they were gone in a minute. And I remember I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I just ruined Kate’s 40th birthday. This is devastating.” Luckily, my friend Grant, he was clutch, he got on Reddit right after that happened and started searching about getting permits or whatever. And he found that if you get the app, sometimes they reserve a few permits for the recreation.gov app, so we download the app really quick and he was able to get a permit for us to get in.
So, yeah, he saved the day. So, that’s one tip there if you’re trying to get into a hard to get into park or an attraction at a park. Don’t just use the browser, get the app as well. And what was interesting, I was like, “Why is it? Is this is like an off season? We were in February is like, “This is an off season, why was it so crazy to get in at this time?” And what was going on in Yosemite, around February 20th, there’s this phenomenon and is the fire falls which is like a waterfall. And at sunset, the sun hits this waterfall and it looks like fire is going down the wall of the mountain. And so, there’s photographers from all over the world who are trying to get in to get a picture of this. If you look it up, you can see pictures of this online or videos of it.
Get there and except for people around the waterfall, the park was empty. We had basically at the park to ourselves, we went on these great hikes, didn’t see anybody on the trails at all. So, that was another thing thought that I thought was interesting. Even though a park might be busy or hard to get into, you might have it to yourself, because people are there for a certain attraction. And another thing too is, what we saw when we got to Yosemite was some people didn’t know about the reservations that you needed in advance, you see these people in line. I’m sure they drove hours to get to Yosemite, they get to the gate and they didn’t have the permit, and so they just had to turn around and go back.
So, lessons there, check in advance with the park you plan on visiting months in advance that they have a reservation system, be prepared for some parks or some attractions to have to really be ready and try to refresh the browser to get a permit. Use the app, and yeah, that was the thing, just do a lot of research in advance. But I’m curious, so, that was the pandemic, a lot of people were going to the national parks during this time, so I think a lot of parks put in this permit system. Is that still the case? Do a lot of parks still have this, you need a reservation in advance just to get into the park?
Jeremy Puglisi: Well, it’s only a handful, but actually, I’m guessing that a lot of those people that got turned away that day were not Yosemite rookies. I’m actually thinking a lot of them are probably people that have been going to Yosemite for years and never needed that reservation. Because this whole thing made a lot of news during the pandemic, ’cause it had never happened before, the National Park Service has always required reservations for campsites. But for all of its history, you could just drive up and get into the park. And so, since the pandemic though, they have been targeting really specific parks and some really specific attractions or things like fire fall. This year, there’s only five parks that require a reservation to get into the park, and again, we’re not talking camp sites here, we’re just talking getting in.
So actually, Yosemite doesn’t require a reservation to get in this year, though they do require reservations for fire fall, as you described. But this year Acadia requires a reservation to get in, but that’s not the whole park, that’s like the Park Loop Road. Arches requires a reservation, Glacier requires a reservation, but it’s only for going to the Sun Road, and you need to remember these national parks are gigantic. So, sometimes they’re just pinpointing the busiest part of the park and saying, “You need a reservation to get in.” And in Glacier, from what I understand it’s only from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM that you need that reservation for going to the Sun Road. You can be in other parts of the park and not need a reservation at all. Rocky Mountain National Park, you need reservations for specific things, and then Haleakala in Hawaii, you just need a reservation if you wanna come in super early and do the sunrise, which is a very popular.
So, what the NPS is doing is they’re just targeting things they know they get over crowded, and I think they’re almost keeping people from getting disappointed by showing up and not being able to park or not being able to get in. So, it’s very limited, for the most part, every National Park Service Site, you can pull up and pay the price to get in and not have a problem.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know at Zion they instituted… You don’t need a reservation to get in to Zion, but to do this hike called Angel Landing, you need a permit or a reservation in advance to do that.
Jeremy Puglisi: And I will admit, I will never do that hike, and I think you did, didn’t you?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I did. And we took her son went up it, and he was like 11 or 10 at the time, I think he was 10 or 9. It was crazy ’cause it’s just like a chain and you’re just going up the sheer cliff. The view is great, but it was pretty crazy going up there, and it was definitely crowded too. You just kinda had to keep inching up this long line of people.
Jeremy Puglisi: I don’t blame the NPS for limiting the number of people doing that hike though, ’cause it’s dangerous. So, there’s been a lot of grumbling about the National Park Service implementing some of these reservations, but they tend to know what they’re doing, and I think that one definitely makes sense. And like Acadia National Park, the Park Loop Road, if you let too many people in, then you can’t park anywhere. So, you literally could just drive around it, but it would be impossible to stop and check out any overlooks. So, for the most part, 99% trust the NPS to make good decisions about this stuff.
Brett McKay: So, I guess the take away there, if there’s a national park you’re gonna visit, I would get on recreation.gov to check out the different reservation policies, if you need one in advance, etcetera.
Jeremy Puglisi: I would do two things, I would go to nps.gov, go to the actual National Park Service website, and then click through to recreation.gov, because what I’ve discovered over the years is sometimes there’s more and better information on the National Park Service website, and then recreation.gov is just where you go to make the reservation and sometimes the information can be different. But if you look at both of them together, you’re gonna get the whole picture of whatever is going on with the reservation system.
Brett McKay: Okay, so always do your research beforehand as to whether you need a reservation to get into the park, or to do a certain hike in the park. And then also be aware that those passes, they can be hard to get sometimes. And that could be especially true when it comes to getting your reservation for a camping site, what does it take to get a camp site inside a national park?
Jeremy Puglisi: So, for Yosemite, it is literally… And we can talk about a few different parks here, but for somewhere like Yosemite, it becomes incredibly, incredibly stressful. There’s 13 campgrounds inside the park, some of them you can reserve five months early, some you can reserve two months early, some you can reserve two weeks early. So, you got to figure all of that out. And again, nps.gov, and then go to Yosemite they lay out everything for you. They have 20 pages worth of information on the reservation system, you need a PhD to book a reservation here. And then they basically tell you. They give you a chart of when you need to get on your laptop and at what time, so basically you need to be on your laptop at 7:00 AM Pacific Time on the day that the camp sites are gonna be released. And then on the national park website, it actually says that thousands and thousands of camp sites disappear in seconds, and the issue has become so stressful that there’s been a lot of complaints from the public about it. The public is saying it’s not equitable, not everybody has access to high-speed internet, and some people are gaming the system. They’ve actually had problems with hackers and bots invading the system and getting camp sites at Yosemite.
And this is a real thing, I actually had somebody direct message me on Facebook and say, “Hey, if you wanna get into Yosemite or Yellowstone in the summer, I’ve got a hacker for you, I’ve got somebody. He’s a little expensive, but I can get you the camp site.” So, the National Park Service has kinda become aware of how stressful and awful this is, particularly at Yosemite, Zion, etcetera, etcetera. So, now they’re experimenting with a lottery system at Yosemite, which could spread to other campgrounds across the country. So basically, you put in the dates you want, you put in when you wanna go, and they sort of pull your name out of a digital hat, and then you get early access to the reservation system. And I kid you not, there are seven pages of instructions just to show you how to get the early access through the lottery system. But I do kind of hope that that kind of lottery system becomes more widespread, because I do think it’s even harder for people to get reservations if they’re not really kind of sophisticated with their laptops as silly as that sounds.
Brett McKay: Okay so getting a campground is gonna vary depending on the national park. Yosemite doesn’t have very many campsites, so there’s an elaborate reservation system. And really, you just have to take the time to walk through the instructions and then basically be at your computer at a certain point and just ready to hit Refresh over and over again until you get a spot, correct?
Jeremy Puglisi: No, you need to be on your laptop, your wife needs to be on a laptop, your three kids need to be on their Chromebooks. That’s what people do. They get the whole family literally trying to do it. And yes, you’re hitting refresh. And I have tried this, and I’ve had my heart broken many times. And the sites disappear quickly. And then a couple of times, I’ve been able to get them at some super popular places. But that is definitely an issue. There’s people that feel like they’re not gonna ever build a camp inside Yosemite during their lifetime.
Brett McKay: Okay, so to get a campsite, you have to look at each national park. It’s gonna be different on how far in advance you have to get a spot. It could be six months, it could be five months, could be two months, could be two weeks. And also, I imagine there are some national parks where you could probably just go to the place and there’s probably a campsite there, ’cause it’s not as popular, for example. Are there any national parks like that?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, I think you could go to somewhere like Big Bend in Texas. I think there are definitely some parks that are like you could walk in Shenandoah National Park it’s in Virginia. That’s kind of closer to me. I would be willing to bet money I could book a site there this weekend right now. So there’s definitely some places that fly under the radar and there are sites available almost at any time. But summer weekends, almost anywhere are gonna be booked inside the parks. And to kinda emphasize a little bit why that is, it’s dirt cheap to camp inside the national parks. It’s often $10, $20, maybe $30 a night, and those campgrounds are in the most beautiful, spectacular locations right inside the parks. And then also, you don’t have to worry about getting into the park in the morning, as you were describing, because you’ve already gone through that process, you’re already in there. You’re waking up in the park and then able to either take a shuttle or just go on a hike from your campsite. But there’s places that are definitely less crowded, for sure, if you dig around, and our book has a ton of them.
Brett McKay: Okay, so camping inside a national park can be stressful. Are there any other campsites that people should consider that are outside of a national park that can give you easy access to the national park, but avoiding the stress and headaches of camping inside the national park?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, so it does become much easier to move outside of the park and look outside of the park. Those types of campgrounds do not book up as quickly. They’re often two to three times, to four times more expensive. So that’s one of the dynamics at work here, is that a site inside of Yellowstone might be 20 bucks. A site outside of Yellowstone could very easily be 100 bucks a night, because it’s a small business owner trying to make a profit. And many of those campgrounds outside the parks are beautiful, but they’re not gonna be as beautiful as being in the park. So there’s major trade-offs. But if you wanted to do a last second national parks trip right now after listening to this podcast, you’re most likely gonna end up looking outside the parks. A good place to start, which I often recommend is KOA, that’s Campgrounds of America. They have 500 campgrounds to franchisee system, and they tend to have a strong presence outside of most national parks. For instance, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s gonna be like 8 KOAs around the perimeter of Great Smoky Mountains.
But it also depends on gateway towns. So somewhere like Yosemite does not have an immediate gateway town. You’re gonna drive an hour away to find other camping options. Now, somewhere like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are camping options literally right outside the gates of the park. So it’s gonna vary a bit, but it’s always gonna cost more, and it’s always probably gonna be easier to get sites.
Brett McKay: Are state parks a good option for camping outside a national park? ‘Cause I imagine there’s a lot of state parks close by to some of these national parks.
Jeremy Puglisi: State parks can be. Definitely, for sure. Like I think of Custer State Park in South Dakota is a great place to stay if you wanna go to Mount Rushmore. Also national forests are a really great place to walk where there’s more sites available. So particularly thinking about Yellowstone and Grand Teton, they’re surrounded by national forest campgrounds, and those are often first come first served, which makes it a bit tricky if you’re coming from far away, and there’s often maybe like a dirt road to get in, it’s a little more rugged, there’s not a lot of services. But a lot of people do end up in national forest campgrounds, sometimes state parks. It’s unusual to have a national park and a state park right next to each other, though it does happen. Indiana Dunes, which is now a National Park, also has Indiana Dunes State Park literally right next door. And then one of our favorites, Assateague Island State Park, literally right next door is Assateague National Seashore. So you could play that game there, if you can’t get into the national park, try the state park, but that’s gonna be a little bit the exception to the rule, I think.
Brett McKay: Well, another option to consider is dispersed camping. So dispersed camping is, you can do it on certain national lands. And basically, you drive out there, and you can camp pretty much wherever you want, wherever you can find a spot. There are few regulations about where you can camp, but generally, it’s wherever. But the thing is, you’ve got nothing, like there’s no water, there’s no restrooms, you’re digging a cat hole, but it’s a good way to avoid the crowds, and it’s free. So what about dispersed camping? Where is that an option?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, so you can do dispersed camping on BLM land, which is only in about 13 states in the American West, though. I’m a New Jersey guy, I’m jealous. We don’t have that. Also, you can do dispersed camping in national forests. Like if you go to the National Forest Service website, they have rules for how close or far you can be from the road, if you need a permit, if you don’t. In those situations, if you’re gonna try what I often call boondocking, what you just called dispersed camping, you can often call a field office, whether it’s BLM or National Forest, where there’s a ranger or there’s jurisdiction over the land. And it’s very wise to check in because mother nature’s at work, and sometimes things are flooding, or sometimes trees are down and roads are cut off. So there is often a point of contact that you can make literally by picking up a phone and calling somebody to say, “Hey, look, I wanna do dispersed camping in this national forest.” Is there anything I need to know? Is anything closed?” Etcetera, etcetera. It’s getting much bigger in the American West, not so much a thing in the American East. And one of the reasons it’s getting bigger among RV owners is because RVs are becoming much more equipped with solar to be able to be out in the middle of nowhere without electrical hook-ups.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. What general tips do you have for people for just visiting the national park, whether they’re camping in it or just visiting for a few days? Any tips that you found that are useful to get the most out of the national park experience?
Jeremy Puglisi: The single most important thing that we tell everybody is to get up early. Even if your family does not naturally get up early, if you wanna hike a popular trail or go to a popular overlook, parking lots fill up, and it’s amazing. Parking lots tend to fill up by like 10 o’clock. If you can get to a popular trailhead at 7:00 AM, you’re golden in almost every case. So we’ll go to a trailhead at 7:00 AM to a hike, like Gorham Mountain Trail and Acadia. When we come down the mountain at 10:00, the parking lot’s full and people are circling. So getting up early, even if that’s not your natural thing, is hugely important. We also tell people to kind of take it slow and don’t feel like you have to cram in everything. We would rather take our time and linger in certain places than say we checked off all 12 things that we wanted to do at Yellowstone. My theory is always, I can come back if I want to. And then we also recommend too, if you do a big activity in the morning, we always hike in the morning with our kids, which they’ll grumble about, to be honest, then we tend to, in the afternoon, kinda let them pick, and that often means going back to a campground pool, maybe going into a town and getting some food or something like that, or buying souvenirs. So creating a balance between what Mom and Dad want and what the kids want has been hugely important too.
Brett McKay: And you also highly recommend visiting the office where the rangers are at, ’cause they have lots of useful information. They also, for the kids I thought it was… I didn’t know about this, the junior rangers… It’s like they’re junior rangers? Is that what it’s called?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, the Junior Ranger Program. So if you go to the visitor center and you ask for the junior ranger booklet, and it’ll be like an activity booklet that kids fill out through their day or through a couple of days at the park, and it’s answering some questions or it’s maybe doing a nature trail. It varies in difficulty from park to park. And then when you complete the booklet, you bring it back to the visitor center, and they will swear you in as a junior ranger. They’ll actually do a little ceremony, which is quite adorable when the kids are little. And then they give them a Junior Ranger badge. So that program was a huge part of my kids national park experience when they were little.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I imagine it keeps your kids from having a meltdown, keep them from complaining or having a bad attitude, because it gives them something to do.
Jeremy Puglisi: 100%. And look, if you wanna do a national parks trip as a mom or dad and you are worried about the kid part of it, because you can burn your kids out on another hike, another hike, another hike, another overlook, then camping outside of the park can be a really cool way to go, because then the campground experience can be really fun for them with pools, playgrounds, bocce ball, volleyball, whatever it might be. That’s always helped us strike a balance.
Brett McKay: And also, if you have kids, don’t forget, if you have a fourth grader, they get to go to the national parks for free. They get a free pass to all the national parks that year. And we took advantage of that during the pandemic. My son was in fourth grade at the time. We had the pass, and so we hit up a lot of national parks during that time.
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, that’s another great program The National Park Service has, for sure. And just in general though, the admission is cheap, the camping is cheap. It’s all supplemented by our tax dollars, etcetera, etcetera, but it is a… A national parks trip can be a very affordable family vacation.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about specific national parks. We’ve talked about some general tips about how to navigate the reservation system, how to figure out if you’re gonna camp inside the park, outside the park, how to get the most out of your park experience. Let’s talk about specific parks, ’cause you do a great job in the book, you basically talk about every single national park and the ins and outs, where to camp, attractions to check out, things you need to consider when you’re planning. So let’s talk about some of the really popular national parks. Let’s talk about Yosemite. We’ve already been talking about Yosemite. And when we went, I was… Before we went, I was wondering, “Is this thing gonna live up to the hype?” ‘Cause you hear about it your entire life. So I was afraid it was gonna be overhyped, but it was so incredible. It exceeded expectations. It lived up to the hype and more. But because it’s so incredible, it’s very popular. It’s one of the most popular parks in the country. So are there any problems with overcrowding at Yosemite?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, Yosemite is the sixth most visited national park. To put it into context, more people visit Yosemite than Yellowstone, and Yellowstone’s three times the size. And Yosemite is day-trip-able, from San Fran, and most people just are gonna do the valley part. And that’s common in most national parks, that most people are going to one spot. Like in Acadia, everybody wants to do a Park Loop Road. In Yosemite, everybody wants to do the valley stuff. So if you are willing to go off the beaten track, there’s often many other options than the ones that people… The people are just kinda driving in, parking, looking around. They don’t know exactly what they wanna do. Maybe they stumble into a little bit of a hike. So look, Yosemite I wish I had some secret answer to doing Yosemite in the summer, but it is a challenge. But we’ve had people that have gone in the shoulder seasons that have really been raving about visiting in the non-summer.
Brett McKay: Yeah, like I mentioned earlier, when we went in February, we hardly saw anyone else on the trails. We had to hike on the snow. There was still snow on the ground. And we did that. That was fine. It was fun, actually. And there was a ton of people there for the fire-fall at the fire-fall spot, but other than that, there was actually a lot of solitude. So I wouldn’t go again during the fire-fall time, but it seems like winter, in general, is a great time to hit Yosemite.
Jeremy Puglisi: What you’re saying about the hiking is incredibly true. I mean, most people are touring in our national parks. They’re driving in, they’re parking. They don’t really quite know what to do. They’re looking around a little bit. Every national park we’ve been to, from Yellowstone to Glacier to Acadia, very, very crowded parks. Once you get out on the trail… I’m not even talking deep back country. Once you just get out on the trail, it tends to not be super, super crowded.
Brett McKay: Have you guys camped in Yosemite?
Jeremy Puglisi: It’s been a long time, but yeah.
Brett McKay: So was Yosemite one, I imagined you would recommend finding a spot outside? ‘Cause it’s probably just too stressful to get a spot inside the park.
Jeremy Puglisi: In the book, we have a couple of recommendations, but they are 45 minutes to an hour outside of the park. And for most people, that’s a bummer. There is a really cool place called Auto Camp Yosemite, and that’s a campground that’s only Airstream rentals. And it’s expensive, it’s kind of boujee, but that’s a really cool option outside of Yosemite. And then there’s some RV resorts that are an hour away that are fine, but it, frankly, doesn’t compare to being in the park. Now, somewhere like Glacier, there are awesome, beautiful campgrounds outside of the park. So it’s gonna vary from park to park.
Brett McKay: Okay. I recommend Yosemite, if you’re gonna visit a national. It’s fantastic. Another iconic summer national park destination is the Grand Canyon. Anything people should consider when planning a road trip or a camping trip to the Grand Canyon?
Jeremy Puglisi: So there’s some similarities with Yosemite. So the gateway town of Williams is over an hour away. So sort of you’re in the park or you’re far away. The reservation system is a little bit simpler, so you can reserve six months in advance there. And on the South Rim, the more popular rim, there are campgrounds that are open year-around, and there’s a few campgrounds that are just in the summer. Now, on the North Rim, it’s seasonal camping. There’s no camping in the winter. So you could do off-season Grand Canyon. And in fact, a lot of people say it’s really, really beautiful to go. I mean, you run the risk of having bad weather, but there’s campgrounds open year-around. You might consider the shoulder seasons there. And Williams is really cool as a gateway town. So I would certainly recommend stopping there, spending a couple of nights there, and then going into the Grand Canyon.
Brett McKay: Okay, so camping, six months advance reservation mostly?
Jeremy Puglisi: I would definitely get on six months if you want that reservation, for sure, ’cause the campgrounds will book in the summer. Shoulder seasons are gonna be a bit more friendly. Grand Canyon too, for me, like you wanna be there for a sunrise and the sunset, but I feel like the average person can go for just a couple of nights and really experience the Grand Canyon, unless you wanna get super adventurous and do some serious hiking. You don’t need a week at the Grand Canyon, I don’t think personally.
Brett McKay: Yeah. No, we went to the Grand Canyon when I was a kid. I think we just did a day. I mean, we were just kind of driving through and we stopped. Probably could have done a little bit longer. We also talked about, inside the Grand Canyon National Park, there are different types of attractions that, besides the camping, are gonna require advance reservation. What are some examples of that?
Jeremy Puglisi: Like if you wanna do a floating trip or something like that, you’re gonna need to hook up with a concessionaire and you’re definitely gonna need tickets or something like that, but all the hiking is… As far as I know right now, there’s no reservations for things like that. But if you’re gonna be doing something with a concessionaire or a deeper hike into the canyon and staying overnight, that’s also something you’re going to definitely be booking in advance.
Brett McKay: Alright, let’s talk about the most popular national park. That’s Great Smoky Mountains, correct?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, so Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park. I think they topped. They almost hit 14 million visitors last year, and I think that’s like twice the amount of visitors that other national parks got. And it’s just a population density issue. I mean, I could hop in my car right now from New Jersey. I could be at Great Smoky Mountains in 10 hours. So people all up and down the East Coast can get to the Smokies within a day’s drive. So yeah, it’s super, super popular. It, up to very recently, was completely free to enter the park, which is maybe one of the reasons it gets very crowded, but Great Smokies, to me, is very accessible and much less stressful than some of these other places we’ve been talking about, for sure.
Brett McKay: What’s the camping like inside Great Smoky?
Jeremy Puglisi: Lots of great camping. And when you think of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you have the Tennessee side, and you have the North Carolina side. So you can approach the park from two different states, which is another reason why it’s so crowded. But there are tons of great NPS campgrounds in and around the park. There’s probably about 15 of them. There’s places like Smokemont and Elkmont that are super popular or harder to get, but much easier than the other places we talked about. And then the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s several gateway towns, where we were saying Yosemite doesn’t really have an immediate gateway town, Grand Canyon doesn’t have a gateway town. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has Cherokee on the North Carolina side, it has Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on the Tennessee side, which is almost like a little mini Las Vegas right outside of the gates of the park, then also Townsend. So there’s a massive… There’s probably 100 camp grounds outside of the park. So you don’t hear about the stressful stories. If you can’t get a site inside the park, you just move to one of the KOAs outside of the park. The last time we went to the Smokies, we stayed at Camp Margaritaville. We stayed at a Jimmy Buffett property, 10 minutes from the gates. And my wife’s drinking Margaritas at night, there’s a pool, there’s a hot tub. It’s a very different type of national parks trip than the ones that last, we’ve talked about.
Brett McKay: It’s also got… It’s got Dollywood too.
Jeremy Puglisi: Dollywood is awesome.
Brett McKay: Is it really that great? ‘Cause I’ve got some family members who go there all the time, and I’m like, “Why would you go to Dollywood over and over again?”
Jeremy Puglisi: I’ll tell you why, I’ll make the case for Dollywood. Lots of live music. So the ticket… You pay your ticket price, which is not cheap. I mean, it’s less than Disney World, but certainly not cheap to go to Dollywood. But there’s live music all day. You could literally not go on a ride and just go from concert to concert to concert. And these are good people. These are high-level talent. But then also, Dollywood has world-class roller coasters. I like roller coasters. I won’t go on super frightening upside down roller coasters, but they have those too. If you want music and you want entertainment, you want food, all that’s there. But if you also want the thrills of the roller coasters, that’s there too. Now, for the national park purist too, somebody who’s into hiking and all that stuff, you might wanna avoid Dollywood. But we’ve gone twice, and we really liked it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so Great Smoky Mountains sounds like camping inside the park, it’s not as stressful as the ones out West, and there’s also great camping outside as well and a lot of other stuff to do outside the national park. And just from reading about it, I’ve never been, but it sounds like a lot of great hiking as well.
Jeremy Puglisi: Hiking there is beautiful. We did a hike this past year where you can actually hike up to a national park lodge and spend the night, the Leconte Lodge. And the only way you can get there is by hiking. But there’s a beautiful hiking there. And the Great Smokies, it’s like rushing rivers, really deep, thickly, green forests, and then you kind of emerge at the end to a view of the mountain. So it is a very good hiking park.
Brett McKay: Alright, so Yellowstone is another popular national park, but it’s also huge. So any tips on getting the most out of your Yellowstone visit?
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, Yellowstone was definitely one of our favorite trips. You need to decide where your base camp is for Yellowstone, ’cause you can enter the park from so many different places. And we decided to use West Yellowstone as our base camp, which is actually in Montana. But Yellowstone is a driving park, to me, more than it is a hiking park. It’s a touring park, where a big part of the experience is gonna be hopping in your car, driving from place to place to place, so planning for those drives and not being shocked, you have to do a lot of driving, is a big part of the experience. We actually love the driving, but we learn to bring snacks into the park, bring water into the park. You often end up pretty far away from concessions. And we did Yellowstone, like I mentioned earlier, in the last week of August. And I could have landed a plane in the Old Faithful parking lot. It was so empty. So I know Yellowstone is definitely crowded in June and July, but end of August would be a really good time to do Yellowstone. And if it’s your first time, a big tip would be to concentrate on the lower loop. Now, there’s awesome things in the upper loop, but the lower loop has so many of the iconic places we think about, like Old Faithful, like Grand Prismatic Springs.
And then if you have more time, you could do the lower loop in, say, two days, three days. Then if you have a longer trip to Yellowstone, then head into the upper loop, do Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. And then Lamar Valley is quite far away from everything, up there on the upper loop, but the wildlife was incredible. We were in, like, five bison jams. If you’re going to Yellowstone for wildlife, go to Lamar valley. Don’t let people tell you to go to Hayden Valley. That was a total bust for us, and I’ve heard that from other people. Lamar Valley is the place to go to see bison.
Brett McKay: What’s camping like in Yellowstone?
Jeremy Puglisi: So many options. There’s a universe of camping inside Yellowstone. In the lower loop, the Madison Campground is one of the more popular options, but then there are campgrounds in all of the different parts of the park. So if it’s your first trip to Yellowstone, look at Madison Campground. That’s relatively close to the gateway town of West Yellowstone. And then as you progress into a second or third Yellowstone trip, you can get deeper into the park, further into the park, into the northern loop and get sites there. And it’s gonna be easier to get sites in the northern loop than the southern loop, ’cause the southern loop’s where everybody goes. And then there’s great gateway towns, KOAs. There’s all that stuff right outside of the park.
Brett McKay: And another nice thing about Yellowstone, depending on where you are in the park, it’s really close by to Grand Teton National Park.
Jeremy Puglisi: I liked Grand Teton more, and I sometimes…
Brett McKay: I did too.
Jeremy Puglisi: I totally liked Grand Teton more. It’s a super short drive from the bottom of Yellowstone into Grand Teton. If I’m remembering correctly, it’s like a 10-minute drive. And personally, for me, I liked Grand Teton more because we’re a hiking family, and Teton is a hiking park to me, where Yellowstone is more of that, like cruising around in your car kinda park. And I just thought the views were more resplendent and awe-inspiring in Teton. I am not saying that Yellowstone is overrated, but my whole life, people have been saying, “Yellowstone, Yellowstone, best park, national park in the country,” and it was maybe not even in my top five. Grand Teton was certainly in my top three. And Grand Tetons are great for camping. So in the center of Grand Teton National Park, there’s an area called Colter Village, and it’s all concessionaire-run, but there’s a RV-specific campground, there’s a tent camping specific campground, there’s a cabin area. We stayed in cabins last time. And cabins can be an option in some of these national parks. The cabins in Teton were adorable. Then they have this area called The Tent City or something like that, where two of the walls are made of wood and two of the walls are canvas, and it’s kind of like rustic glamping. So Teton is pretty easy to figure out the camping thing too.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I would agree Grand Teton is much better than Yellowstone. We went there, I think it was end of 2021, and we did Grand Teton. And what’s amazing about Grand Teton, it seems so out of place in United States. You look up at it and it looks like you’re looking at the Matterhorn, like you’re in Switzerland, but it’s the United… It’s crazy. Views are great. And yeah, then we went to Yellowstone. We just kind of drove around. That was it. But Teton was the highlight.
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, and Jackson’s great too. I’ve not spent much time in my life being jealous of rich people, but when I was in Jackson, I was like, “Man, I wouldn’t mind living here,” right at the base of Grand Teton. To me, to be able just drive from your house and to Grand Teton National Park would be amazing.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned you wouldn’t say Yellowstone is overrated, but it didn’t entirely live up to the hype. Are there any national parks you would say or you think are overrated, even amongst the ones we’ve talked about, like Grand Canyon, etcetera?
Jeremy Puglisi: I very rarely go to one of these parks, and, “Oh, this is overrated.” I just tend to be a guy that’s like, I’m just so happy to be there. I think Olympic is underrated, in Washington state. I think Olympic is one of our most majestic national parks, and it’s certainly not on as many people’s bucket lists as a bunch of these other ones that we’ve talked about. We loved Mount Rushmore. Now, a lot of people say Mount Rushmore is overrated, and we certainly… And there’s the history, Mount Rushmore is very complicated, etcetera, etcetera, politically, but our family really liked Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Also, I would say Badlands National Park is underrated. Badlands National Park in South Dakota, you feel like you’re on another planet. It’s not that big, it doesn’t take that many days to see. And a lot of people just kinda skip it on their road trip out west to get to Yellowstone, but I think that one’s underrated as well.
Brett McKay: Yeah, if you go to Badlands, you just hang out where Teddy Roosevelt hung out.
Jeremy Puglisi: Exactly. And Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I would say, underrated, up in North Dakota. It’s just so hard to get to. That’s part of the problem.
Brett McKay: Well, I think too… I mean, maybe you even know more about this, ’cause I think when most people think national parks, they’re thinking the big ones out west. Are there any overlooked national parks in the East that people like, “Man, you should go check that out ’cause it’s actually really cool?”
Jeremy Puglisi: 100%. So like in the East, we have Acadia National Park in Maine, which is one of the most visited. So that one is very popular. But then you have Cape Cod National Seashore, which my family adores Cape Cod National Seashore, it’s not underrated in our region, if that makes sense, everyone knows it around here, but I don’t know many people from out west who are like, “I’ve gotta get to Cape Cod National Seashore.” So I’d say nationally, that one is a little bit off the radar. Then I think Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is definitely underrated. I think it’s overshadowed by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is somewhat nearby. Shenandoah was beautiful, a beautiful hiking, beautiful views. Only takes a couple of days to see it. And now New River Gorge is our newest national park, so I don’t know if I wanna say it’s overrated or underrated yet, ’cause I think people are just sort of figuring it out and discovering it, but I do think that that will emerge as a really, really popular national park in the East. And I also love Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. That is astonishing beach camping options, etcetera, etcetera. And everybody on the East Coast knows it, but I don’t think that nationally, people know it.
Brett McKay: And we mentioned too, the civil war sites. That’s also governed by the National Park Service. And you mentioned you can camp, not exactly in the monuments, but nearby, and that could be another cool… You can plan a whole summer vacation around that. We’re just gonna camp along these civil war sites.
Jeremy Puglisi: Yeah, ’cause Gettysburg is really close to Hagerstown, and then they’re both really close to Harpers Ferry. So those three… And there’s not campgrounds in those parks, but there’s a culture of camping outside of the parks, that you could do a tour of those three battlefields. You could do a week’s trip camp around those three battlefields, and then maybe also head down to Fredericksburg, Virginia. And that’s cool too, ’cause then you’re getting history. It’s a whole different type of national parks trip than just going hiking out west.
Brett McKay: So you all have done a lot of camping and RVing to national parks, but there’s a lot of great state parks too. Do you guys have a list of your favorite state parks that you think are almost as good as a national park, but don’t have the crowds?
Jeremy Puglisi: 100%. The first one that always comes to mind when people ask about state parks, Custer State Park in South Dakota, if it changed to a national park tomorrow, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I’m sure the state doesn’t want it to. It is just as a grand as any national park I’ve been to. The wildlife at Custer State Park was better than Yellowstone. And I had people tell me that before. I didn’t believe them. But then we went there, and we saw more bison there than we saw in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. So Custer is magnificent. There’s like 13 campgrounds in Custer. South Dakota takes a lot of pride in their state park system, and I think that Custer is the crown jewel. And then you could camp in Custer and go right to Mount Rushmore. It’s not very far. South Dakota, most people blow through South Dakota. We always tell people, South Dakota is its own vacation.
Another one to consider, and this is not technically a state park, but the Adirondack Park in New York state, it’s operated separately from the state park system, that is another place that is just as magnificent as any national park, and I feel like it flies way under the radar for people all across the country. Filled with great camping, filled with great hiking, filled with fishing, with waterfalls. Any outdoor activity you want, you can find in the Adirondack Park. And the Adirondack Park is massive, and it’s intertwined with communities and towns. It’s very, very different than a national park. And then my favorite state park in the country, personally, is Assateague State Park in Maryland, where you can camp right on the beach, where you can hear the waves crashing over the dunes from your tent site or RV site. Maybe not as big or as grand as a national park, but it just is beautiful, to me.
Brett McKay: For me, one that sticks out, if you’re going to Zion, in Southern Utah, there’s a state park that’s nine miles from St. George. It’s Snow Canyon State Park. It exceeded my expectations on the hiking and the views. So if you’re going to Zion or you don’t wanna deal with the crowds at Zion, check out Snow Canyon State Park. And then another great state park I like, I don’t know if you can camp in there, but Jack London State Park. It’s by San Francisco kind of. So you got the Redwoods, great hiking, small, like hardly any crowds, and you get to see where Jack London, he built this house out of materials in the area, and the week before he moved in, it burned down to the ground, and the ruins are still there. You can check that out. So that’s cool. Jack London State Park in California.
Jeremy Puglisi: That reminds me of Mark Twain State Park in Missouri, where Mark Twain’s, I think the birthplace home is there in that park as well.
Brett McKay: Well, Jeremy, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jeremy Puglisi: So the books are ‘Where Should We Camp Next?’ And now the follow-up is ‘Where Should We Camp Next?: National Parks.’ You can get it wherever books are sold, get it at an independent bookstore or from Amazon, obviously. And then everything else we do is at The RV Atlas, The RV Atlas Podcast, @thervatlas on all of the different social media handles.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jeremy Puglisi, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jeremy Puglisi: Thank you so much. And again, thank you for having all the great authors on the show and letting us talk about our books. Appreciate it so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jeremy Puglisi. He’s the co-author of the book, Where Should We Camp Next? National Parks. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about him and his wife’s work @thervatlas.com. Also check out the podcast, The RV Atlas Podcast on any podcast platform you enjoy. And check out our show notes at aom.is/nationalparks, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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