Stop at the Visitor Center
They provide free maps and information. You can learn a little history about the place before you visit. Any questions you have, they’ve got the answer. They can tell you where camping is available, which sites allow dispersed camping, which sites have toilets, what areas are dog friendly etc. The visitor centers have public toilets open during hours of operation. Most of them provide free filtered drinking water so you can fill your canteen or water jug. This also reduces waste from people using multiple plastic bottles of water.
If you want to beat the crowds and have the park almost to yourself, then go early. You’ll get better pictures without having hundreds of people in the way and it will be easier to see the sites. If you’re in a warm climate, it’s usually much cooler early in the morning. There’s a huge difference walking around the desert at 8am vs noon. I tried to start my day by catching the sunrise at one of the viewpoints then explore the remainder of the park. Another perk of going early, the guard gates aren’t open yet so you skip paying the entrance fees. However, you can still leave a donation at the visitor center as you exit the park. Park entrance fees are generally $25-$30 and are valid for 7 days of entry. Just keep your receipt to show the guard each day. An annual pass is only $80 which is definitely worth it if you plan on visiting several parks a year.
Plan Your Route
Think about what sights are best seen at sunrise or in the morning vs afternoon or sunset. Your day will be more efficient and photos will look better in optimal sunlight instead of covered by shadows. For example, canyon walls look completely different and more colorful when the sun is reflecting light off of them. So western views are typically better seen in the morning and eastern views in the afternoon. Also, definitely consider waking up early for a sunrise if it’s listed as a popular attraction at the park. Check the weather and road conditions. Some trails/roads are closed in winter due to icy conditions. Flash floods and lightning strikes are common and can be very dangerous, so it’s important to know if a storm is coming before starting your hike.
No Dogs Allowed
Dogs aren’t allowed on most of the trails or viewpoints inside the National Parks. They can walk around the parking lots, picnic areas, and shared trail paths. Most places are visibly posted showing where dogs aren’t allowed to enter. So that is another reason to go early, if you’re leaving Fido in the car always think about the temperature outside and how hot it gets inside a closed car. There’s always some great state parks or public land nearby that allow dogs and have marked trails. Be aware of natural plants and wildlife in the area that could be harmful to your dog such as snakes, cacti, and poisonous plants. In some areas, people place traps for hunting. It’s a good idea to always keep your dog on leash and on the marked trail in a new area. Ask for info at the visitor center or info center at the nearby town.
Leave No Trace
Whatever you take into an area make sure you leave with it. Whether it’s trash, food, or waste, please dispose of it in the proper place. This applies to visiting the parks, hiking, camping, everything. We all want to enjoy the beautiful scenery, not some plastic bottle or candy wrapper somebody left behind.
Stay On the Trails
Wandering off trail may seem exciting, but you’re damaging the fragile landscape that makes these parks so unique. Some areas that were previously open to the public have been closed due to deteriorating conditions. You’re also more likely to get lost and stranded somewhere, then have to be rescued by Park Rangers, and end up on the evening news as “what not to do”. It happens…