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Insider Tips for Visiting U.S. National Parks

There are few places in the world that offer the breathtaking landscapes, endless activities and awe-inspiring architecture of the U.S. national parks.
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There are few places in the world that offer the breathtaking landscapes, endless activities and awe-inspiring architecture of the U.S. national parks. From whitewater rafting through the Grand Canyon to exploring the elegant monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to scaling Yosemite's Half Dome, there's always an adventure to be had in these coveted destinations. Whether you've been there before or are going for the first time, keep these insider tips in mind to ensure you get the most out of your solo trek, family vacation or national park road trip.

Plan in advance

With more than 280 million people visiting the national parks and monuments each year, most during the spring and summer, it's bound to get a little crowded. To ensure you've got a place to hang your hat after a busy day of hiking and time to see all of the sights, give yourself at least six months to begin planning. Most in-park hotels and campsites sell out quickly, so the more time you have to plan, the better chance you have to book a room or campsite for a decent price. In addition, many trails and roads aren't open year-round, so planning ahead ensures you don't miss a thing.

Pack lots of layers

No matter the season, pack a ton of layers. Some parks can change up to 25 degrees in just a few hours, so it's key to come prepared. Raincoats, sturdy hiking shoes, thick socks and hats are advised for most of the parks, especially those with rugged mountain trails, lush forests and rocky coasts. Check the National Park Service's website to look at the individual trip planning guides for each park -- they'll detail seasonal temperatures and help you pack accordingly.

Consider an off-season visit

If you can swing it, opt for an off-season visit. Without the crowds of the high season, you've got a better chance to enjoy some of the most popular landmarks, such as Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, in peace. In many of the parks, autumn brings an added splendor with stunning arrays of brightly colored leaves and winter offers extra outdoor adventure, with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In places like Dry Tortugas National Park and Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Rainforest, the high season is the opposite (November to April), so opt for a visit in late spring or early autumn to avoid the onslaught of tourists.

Rent bikes or boats to get around

If you can, skip the car and enter the park via foot, bike or boat. These options bring a much lower sticker price (up to a 50 percent discount) and allow you to better explore the trails, canals, caves and monuments up close.

Stick to the trails

There's a reason all of the trails in the are clearly labeled, and it's not just to prevent you from getting lost. Staying on the trail ensures your safety and the safety of the unique wildlife that call that park home. In addition, straying far from the trails can also destroy the fragile landscape, especially in places like Death Valley National Park, which sees little rain during the year.

Don't touch or feed wildlife

Despite warnings from park rangers and ample signs, many tourists forget this critical rule when they spot a bison, bear or bald eagle. It's important to remember that these animals are wild and could view you trying to pet or feed them as a threat. Avoid accidental mishaps by also securing your campsite and making sure it's free of leftover food.

Don't rely on your smartphone

While many of the parks have modern conveniences like well-stocked grocery stores, gas stations and luxe lodges, they often lack cellphone service. No matter the carrier, signals in most parks will be seriously spotty. Avoid pricey roaming charges by turning your phone off when you have no bars. Since service is so hit or miss, ensure you have maps and directions in case you get turned around.

Look into annual passes

If you're planning to visit more than one park (which you should!), look into getting an annual pass from the Park Service. For just $80, you'll gain access to all 2,000-plus federal recreation sites, national parks and monuments for an entire year.

Take (and keep) the map

Since many parks don't have solid cellphone coverage, take advantage of the free map the park rangers hand you when you enter the park. These will not only help you navigate around the tricky roads and trails, but will also give you insight as to where visitors centers, gas stations and other park amenities are located. Most importantly, many maps will show you where the big sights are (like the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone) and how long it can take to get there from the park's entrances.

Camp or stay off site

One of the biggest challenges to visiting a national park during peak season is finding a place to sleep. Park lodges and hotels can book up to a year in advance and most cost a pretty penny. Although camping is far cheaper, the on-site campgrounds often fill up fast, too. Get ahead of the curve by booking your campsite as soon as you know you're going to secure a spot and a great price. Some parks also offer first-come, first-served campgrounds with very basic amenities if the other grounds are sold out.

For the best hotel prices and more flexible dining options, stay out of the park in a nearby town. Whether you choose a luxury lodge with stunning views or a simple motel, there's an option for just about any price point in the neighboring cities.

Claire Volkman is a social media journalist with a passion for food and travel. She's spent time in more than 30 countries and hundreds of cities writing, photographing and immersing herself in all things food, wine and culture. You can find her favorite recipes on her blog, The Realistic Nutritionist. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+ to keep up with her adventures.