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From guide school in Big Bend to an Acadia solo trip: 4 of my most memorable national park trips

April 18, 2022
10 min read
Tents Camping in the Desert
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Editor's note: In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America's national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series.


My family didn't visit many U.S. national parks when I was young. So, I didn't understand the appeal until I tagged along on a national park road trip with my husband's family (at that time, my boyfriend's family) in college.

Then, when I moved to Austin for graduate school, I discovered two amazing national parks (Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains) and a national seashore (Padre Island) were all within a day's drive. After taking my first camping trip ever to see the early morning release of a sea turtle nest at Padre Island, my love of national parks quickly grew.

Today, I'll describe some of my most memorable and inspirational national park visits, and include some tips on how you can plan similar trips yourself.

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Guide school in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

While in graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin, I was looking for something new to challenge me in my free time. So, I decided to apply for guide school through my university's outdoor recreation program.

I was surprised the program chose me over applicants with more outdoor experience. But, after a semester of classes and short trips, we set off for a seven-night guide school capstone trip to Big Bend National Park.

I'd been to Big Bend once before, staying within the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and taking day hikes. But this guide school trip was my first true backcountry trip.

We spent five days and four nights canoeing the Rio Grande from Lajitas through Santa Elena Canyon to the pullout just after the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead. Those days and nights were exhausting but magical. We camped at backcountry campsites along the river, hiked to remote canyons, stopped at overlooks above Santa Elena Canyon, and spent the evenings in deep discussions and learning sessions.

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It was memorable to stay along the U.S. and Mexico border for so long, landing on both sides to scout rapids. And the landscapes, especially at sunset, were amazing.

It was also surreal to only see two other people during our entire time on the river. But, what was particularly affecting and memorable about this trip were the friendships and bonds I made, the skills I learned and the things I began to recognize in myself and others.

We also spent time hiking in the Chisos Mountains before returning to Austin. We did a long day hike on the South Rim trail and to Emory Peak before concluding the trip with a meal at the Chisos Mountains Lodge.

If Big Bend's beauty sounds appealing, you can do a version of this trip yourself. You can hire a guide in Lajitas to take you on a similar river trip and do as much (or as little) of the planning and preparation as you'd like. One option is Far Flung Outdoor Center, which provided river information and vehicle shuttles for our trip.

You can also hike in the Chisos mountains as a long day trip or an overnight backpacking trip. The trails in the Chisos Mountains are all well maintained and easy to navigate — just don't expect to find reliable water sources once you leave the visitor center. As such, the hike up from the basin can be strenuous if you're carrying water for multiple nights. The backcountry campsites in the Chisos Mountains have bear boxes, so there's no need to bring your own.

Related: 5 national parks to visit before your kids leave the house

Removing invasive plant species in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

My first assignment after completing guide school was a nine-night alternative spring break trip to remove invasive plant species at Lees Ferry, in Arizona, which is jointly managed by Grand Canyon National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We spent five nights at Lees Ferry on the service project and two nights in Mather Campground at the Grand Canyon.

We had two large group sites at Lees Ferry Campground and we camped alongside the two Grand Canyon staff members who were running the project. We spent four days at Lees Ferry removing invasive Sahara mustard plants around the campground. And we used a few hours each evening before sunset to walk nearby canyons, swim in the Colorado River, hike to the Spencer Trail lookout and visit Lonely Dell Ranch.

And although we only spent two nights at the Grand Canyon, we fit in a ranger-led stargazing talk, a hike deep into the canyon and walks along the Rim Trail.

This trip required five guides, who split driving duties across three vehicles for over 1,200 miles from Austin to Lee's Ferry. While driving, I had plenty of good discussions, but I also saw firsthand how poverty afflicts some Southwestern U.S. communities. This trip let me see an entirely different side of the country that you miss when flying.

It's likely impossible to replicate this exact experience. Some alternative spring break trips offered by universities accept alumni, though. And if you have a group of your own, you may be able to arrange a similar trip. Several organizations also organize volunteer trips to national parks, including ConservationVIP and the American Hiking Society.

Alternatively, you could camp at Lees Ferry Campground and Mather Campground on your own and do nearby hikes. Or, if you live near a national park (or want to), you could become a national park volunteer for a more extended period.

Related: The best times to visit the Grand Canyon

Solo camping in Acadia National Park

A beach in Acadia National Park. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Most of my national park trips have been with family or guiding a trip. But, after representing my university at a robot soccer competition in Brunswick, Maine, I added on a few extra days to visit Acadia National Park. Since I was traveling alone, this became my first solo national park visit.

I camped in Blackwoods Campground for two nights. As with any solo trip, I enjoyed the freedom to see the park at my own pace and exactly as I wanted. I did several hikes, drove around the park, walked on a beach and stopped at Jordan Pond House for their famous popovers (but found it closed for the season).

My visit was in the shoulder season, so the park and campground were relatively uncrowded. Ferries weren't running and multiple trails were still closed for nesting birds. It also began snowing as I drove back to the airport in Portland, Maine, to catch my flight home.

Despite the closures and snow, however, this national park trip was one of my most memorable because it was my first solo national park trip and one of my first times hiking and camping alone. Plus, due to the off-season, I felt wonderfully alone in parts of the park.

If you're looking to take an off-season or shoulder season trip to Acadia National Park, note that Blackwoods Campground currently only opens from May to October, so an April camping trip such as I took would be off the table. As many of the accommodations in Bar Harbor are seasonal, you'll want to plan your lodging in advance. Check the national park website for opening dates for roads, campgrounds, picnic areas and more.

Related: 10 of the best national parks to visit in the fall

Visiting Zion National Park in an RV

Back in 2018, my husband and I rented an RV for just $1 a day from Las Vegas to Denver. This rental was a relocation rental, meaning we paid very little to take on the job of relocating an RV from one location to another. Even better, we were given extra incentives, including a gas and travel stipend.

One downside of relocation rentals is that you often don't have much more time than is necessary to relocate the vehicle. But, by driving more miles on three of the four days, we were able to spend two nights and one full day in Zion National Park. I made the most of the day with a hike to Observation Point and a short hike up the Narrows in the water.

This trip was memorable because it was our first time driving an RV and I snagged two coveted nights at Zion's Watchman Campground at the last minute. The trip was also meaningful because it showed us we could confidently drive an RV — which likely had a role in us buying a similar RV in 2020 to keep traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.

If you want to try an RV relocation rental yourself, keep an eye on imoova and book quickly if you see a trip that looks appealing to you.

Related: I love luxury hotels, but rented an RV and lived to tell the tale

Find your own alternative national park adventures

Visiting Yosemite in winter could be a fun adventure. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

There are many different ways to enjoy national parks. I prefer camping (both in tents and by RV), backpacking and hiking. But, regardless of how you prefer to enjoy nature, you can likely find an unexpected or alternative national park adventure that's right for you.

Of course, your experience and preferences will strongly dictate what this looks like in practice. Perhaps you want to focus on less well-known national parks. Or, you may want to venture into the backcountry at popular national parks instead of sticking to well-trafficked trails.

It's good to get out of your comfort zone, as doing so can create memorable experiences and help you grow. But, for more intrepid journeys that require complex planning, you may want to join a group or hire a professional guide.

Unexpected adventures can't be designed — by nature, they are unplanned. But, patience and curiosity will often avail you to chance encounters. By doing your research online or chatting with locals, you may discover alternative viewpoints or hidden gem experiences. For example, we wouldn't have known about most of the canyons we visited in Big Bend if we hadn't traveled with individuals incredibly familiar with the park.

Likewise, consider exploring outside the primary areas of a park. Hiking the backpacking loop trail in Zion's Southwest Desert allowed me to see an entirely different side of Zion.

Whether you venture far from home or to a nearby park, I wish you happy adventuring.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

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  • Extended warranty protection
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Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
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