DIY vs Guided Tour: How to Visit the National Parks

When planning the perfect National Park adventure, you might be wondering whether organizing and booking every detail yourself is still the best route considering the current climate of changing regulations and procedures.

Or whether putting your dream trip in the hands of a professional is the right path to choose?

Kasey Austin

Director of Operations & President, USA at Austin Adventures

10 min read

I don’t know about you, but my ideal way to travel is stress-free and uninterrupted from the daily grind. Years of planning my own National Park trips have taught me that to truly get the most out of your DIY experience, you need to understand the landscape inside and out to find those off-the-beaten-track gems tourists never venture to.

You may not have the luxury of time, so you shouldn’t let that limit your National Park experience - which is where guided tours swoop in to save the day!

Not to mention the rapidly changing travel landscape you’re now navigating. Opting for a guided tour adds that extra layer of protection when it comes to cancellations and reschedules.

This article will help you figure out which type of trip best suits your needs for when you start planning your next National Park visit.

1. How to Visit Yellowstone

From seven to seventy, the unique, vivacious landscape of Yellowstone brings out the kid in everyone. Home to over half the entire world's geysers and hydrothermal features, it’s no wonder why over 4 million eager visitors flock every year to witness the geothermal action.With 2.2 million acres to explore, however, which is better - DIY planning, or opting for a self guided tour?

Granted, being the most famous National Park in the US, Google is inundated with travel bloggers tips for planning your visit. However, if Yellowstone is completely new to you, the immense hours of research and time that it takes to curate the perfect itinerary can be daunting and often leave you feeling more lost than when you first started clicking away. Google can give great guidance, but it can’t engage back with you to uncover your exact needs, and tailor your perfect trip!

Stumble upon the odd bad review about Yellowstone and you’re sure to see it described as being an overcrowded tourist trap. This is because approximately only 5% of visitors swerve off the beaten track. Unlike most other companies, at Austin Adventures, we operate on a 6:1 guest-to-guide ratio with a group size average of 12, ensuring exclusivity is at the heart of your National Park experience. In such an intimate setting, this also enables our homegrown guides to show you the secret nature spots other tourists and groups can’t get to.

2. How to Visit Yosemite

Located in the High Sierra of Northern California, Yosemite National Park boasts incredible wildlife, dare-devil monoliths such as El Capitan, and tumbling waterfalls. Experience for yourself why John Muir described Yosemite as “…by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter”.

But if you want to share the same experience as ‘Father of National Parks’ John Muir, without spending months exploring and researching every nook and cranny, opting for an expert-led guided tour is a no brainer for saving time, avoiding disappointment and seeking out the grandest parts of this temple.

If you’re looking to escape the summer crash, I recommend visiting in Spring or Fall heading to the west end, to the Valley Loop trail. This is a fairly quiet route, but if you want to go one further, then I suggest getting off the trails altogether, and getting to grips with an introductory rock-climbing and rappelling course in Yosemite Valley.

If you opt for a guided tour, our Yosemite expert guide will take you away, carefree and stress-free, from granite climbing wall to saddle, to enjoy a trail ride through the 2,000-year-old redwood trees. Perhaps photography is your forte? A guide with years of experience, such as myself, can show you all the photography hotspots for capturing the beauty of El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall.

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3. How to Visit the Grand Canyon

Since 1927, writers and artists have been drawn to the stunning landscapes of the American Southwest and the Grand Canyon. The mile deep canyon is an iconic image to behold and a destination that should be on your bucket list if it isn’t already.

And yet, did you know Grand Canyon National Park offers more than just cinematic views from up high?

Something that most travelers miss when they DIY plan their visit is the hiking trails below the rim, bordering ancient sea beds and volcanic remnants. In fact, only 1% of park visitors trek these parts.

In just a few days, a tailored guided tour can take you and your small party at ease from exploring the glorious underbelly of the canyon, to discovering the castles and railways of the wild, wild West, to spotting prolific wildlife roaming the grasslands and mesas.

If you book with us you may even find yourself being greeted with ice-cold lavender scented towels and a root beer float by your tour guide after a long day in the Arizona dust.

Of course, you can DIY but making and giving yourself ice-cold refreshments after a sun scorched hike doesn’t feel like such a luxury now, does it?

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4. How to Visit Arches

The dry desert landscape of Arches National Park is rugged, severe and almost seems inhabitable on the surface. Yet, there is a plethora of hearty plants and curious critters who call this otherworldly land their home.

Looking for the ultimate adventure? Look no further than the famous ‘Fiery Furnace’ trail. A true desert maze to navigate, with 2/3rds of travelers getting lost and never completing the loop. Although the trek can be a little strenuous for beginners, don’t let that put you off. Children as young as 6 can join the hike, so take that as some reassurance in terms of how difficult it is to scramble.

If you’re thinking of planning your visit DIY style, there is a drawback, as with many trails nowadays you need to organize a self-guided self-exploration permit if you want to hike ‘The Fiery Furnace’, since only guided tours are allowed to trek these tracks due to the challenging terrain.

One thing to keep in mind about Arches National Park is the impermanence of the rock formations. They are in constant transition. So only time will tell how long Landscape Arch will be around; I’d definitely see it sooner than later!

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5. How to Visit Glacier

The jaw-dropping grandeur of this glacier carved terrain, tucked away along the Northern border of the Montana Rockies bordering Canada will leave you breathless at first sight. It’s the perfect setting to find solitude in the wilderness, and catch a glimpse of the fantastic surrounding wildlife, such as Wolverines, and Lynxes. However, be aware, this is the real Montana, not Disneyland, so if you’re planning a self-guided trip bring plenty of bear spray and basic supplies.

One of the many benefits of joining a small guided tour is that it takes the majority of the risk away, if you’re unfamiliar with wilderness practices and faux pas. This means more time to spend learning about the beautiful animals roaming nearby. The way we travel is constantly evolving, even pre-pandemic, tour guides like myself have always known how to pull off a safe vacation.

Also, if you’re craving something a little more luxurious than basic camping food, let us step in and take it from here. Believe it or not, there are some first-rate lodge resorts with spectacular views and amenities scattered throughout the park—and we know all the best ones.

With numerous trails and photography spots to explore, often several hour drives apart, it can be a logistical nightmare if you’re planning to design this trip yourself. It may seem simple enough to connect the dots on a map, but in reality due to ongoing and changing Covid procedures, acquiring passes for trails such as the famous ‘Going to the Sun Road’ can be challenging.

Why put all that stress on yourself when you’re on vacation? Especially when you can hand all that fuss over to a dedicated vacation planner and tour guide.

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Ready to Go?

While many travelers DIY their National Park trips with limited success, guided tours (especially when going with us) are a one-stop shop for all that’s needed to find your ‘WOW’ moment and plan your perfect itinerary.

Adventure isn’t just in our name, it’s at the heart of everything we do. So, if you’re ready to start planning your National Park adventure, get in touch here and one of our adventure travel experts will help you plan your next awesome adventure!

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