Writer Wallace Stegner once described the United State's national park system as, "Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
Taken in perfect context, the quote seeps with truth. But taken from the context of drivers in national parks, doubt emerges about "us at our best."
The same tourist mindset that upon entering a national park compels sound-minded people to suddenly covet gem stones, shot glasses, and log rolls also seeps into driving practices.
Drivers, for obvious reasons, become distracted. Attention to road rules becomes secondary to spotting wildlife or rustic backdrops. Consequently, roads become blighted with cars making sudden stops and turns, and long lines due to "parade marshal" drivers oblivious to the purpose of turnout lanes. Plus, tally in the inexperience factor with wilderness driving conditions―hairpin turns, mercurial weather, steep roads, limited services―and your national park visit can become memorable for all the wrong reasons.
To best prepare yourself for driving in any national park consider the following:
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- Exhibit patience, especially if you're visiting during summer―the height of the tourist season. This especially bears true for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, which attracts close to 10 million visitors annually (more than double the number for the Grand Canyon, the second most attended park).
- To avoid congestion, consider visiting during the low peak seasons of spring and fall. For detailed information on busy and slow periods visit the National Park's website.
- Beware of wildlife, the celebrities of the parks. Many species have grown accustomed to visitors, exhibiting an almost pedestrian-like comfort level with crossing roads. Others, like Yellowstone's bison, take full advantage of their all-star status and treat park roads like personal red carpets. It's common to see a bison slowly saunter down a yellow center line with a Paris Hilton-like air that tacitly conveys, "I'll let you snap my picture if you veer. Otherwise, I'm not moving. "
- Don't speed. Not only must you stay alert for wildlife, but also for humans blindly running across roads for photos.
- Be alert for clusters of stopped cars at non-designated pull-offs. What might look like a crash scene is just another impromptu wildlife photo opportunity.
- Use common courtesy (Yes you, Mr. RV driver) when driving slow by using designated turnouts and pull-offs and allowing other cars to pass.
- When driving on mountain roads like Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road or Rocky Mountain's Trail Ridge Road, avoid overheating your brakes by driving in low gear.
- Bear in mind that some engines aren't designed for high altitudes and can experience vapor lock, causing the car to stall or overheat. If this occurs, pull over and allow the engine to cool.
- Check radiator levels before ascending mountain roads, or some of the desert parks such as Big Bend, Arches, and Death Valley.
- Check weather conditions in mountain parks. Blue skies in high altitudes can quickly yield to snow or rain.
- Top your car's gas tank to full before entering a park. Very few provide gas facilities.
- Stay with your vehicle if it breaks down. It's easier to find a vehicle than a person.
- Tent or RV Camping
- How To Pull A Trailer
- Pre-trip Maintenance
- How To Map Your Route
- Planning Your Getaway
- RV Handling & Driving Tips
- Finding a Place to Park Your RV
- Getting Off the Beaten Path
- Roadside Attractions: Stopping Along the Way
- How To Reach Your Destination Safely
- How To Buy a Sailboat
- How To Buy a Power Boat
- Vintage Cars and Rallies
- Should You Join a Car Club?
- Fun with ATVs
- Saving Money on the Road
- How to Plan a Road Trip
- Stocking Your RV
- Top Ten Seasonal Scenic Drives
- Traveling With Your Pet
- National Parks
- Hitting the Slopes
- Preparing An Emergency Kit
- Preparing A First-aid Kit
- Crossing the Border
- Gambling Getaways
- Paper Maps and Online Guides
- Guide to GPS
- Wireless Maps on Cell Phones
- Beach Excursion
- Avoiding Road Construction
- Sample Trip Itineraries