Last year, I visited 14 national parks spanning from the East Coast to the West Coast and everywhere in between. I’ve hiked up mountains for stunning 360-degree vistas, ventured underground to explore cave systems, and wandered through slot canyons in the desert heat—and to do it all successfully, I’ve relied on a few trusted apps. Whether I’m searching for campsites, organizing a packed itinerary, or navigating long hikes safely, I’ve found these apps extremely useful in pulling off my national park trips. Here are the apps that can help you plan your own adventures.
Learn about the national parks
The app: National Park Service (iOS and Android)
What it’s good for: Information about every single national park site across the country—including national parks, monuments, and historical sites.
The nitty-gritty: All of my trip planning begins with this handy app released last year by the National Park Service. Easy to use and free to download, the NPS app (which you can also use offline as long as you download content beforehand) offers interactive maps of each park, self-guided tours curated by park rangers, and news and current events, along with lists of amenities (such as food services, restrooms, and gift shops). You can get as involved with the app as you’d like, whether you want to keep detailed lists of the overlooks and points of interest you want to see or you just need to check the park hours and entry fees.
The NPS app gives real-time updates on conditions within the park—such as road closures, long entry lines, weather advisory warnings, and whether you need a reservation to enter—allowing you to find all the pertinent information you need to know before heading to or traveling throughout the park. I didn’t use the NPS app on my trip to Big Bend National Park—but if I had, I could have avoided a two-hour wait at a trailhead when important roads were blocked off for construction.
Discover the best hiking trails
The app: AllTrails (iOS and Android)
What it’s good for: Finding and researching all possible paths through a park.
The nitty-gritty: With a free membership, you can search for hiking trails using a name, city, or park and then filter your results based on difficulty level and length. From there, you can read through hiker reviews to learn more about the trail and assess whether it’s right for you. You can also save your preferred routes on curated lists; for example, I created separate lists for each of the parks in Utah I planned to visit so that I could easily refer back to them while preparing for each trip. And AllTrails isn’t just for hikers, as you can also use the app to plan out mountain biking, snow sports, mountaineering, trail running, and climbing excursions.
If you plan to hike a few different trails during your trip, the AllTrails Pro Membership might be worth investing in. For $30 a year, you have the ability to download maps for offline access, something that comes in handy if you find yourself veering off-trail in an area with limited service. Just make sure you’ve downloaded the map prior to your hike. The Pro Membership comes with other perks, too, but I’ve found the ability to see my GPS dot moving alongside the correct trail worth the yearly membership fee all on its own. If you’re not sold, you can sign up for a one-week free trial—but make sure to time it so that the period lines up with your next trip.
After your trip, return to AllTrails to leave reviews of the trails you hiked. If you relied on information you learned about certain trails to choose and execute a hike safely, repay the favor by leaving thoughts about your experience in the comment section. Prospective hikers will appreciate your updates on trail closures, maintenance issues, and tricky-to-follow trails.
Find a place to sleep
The apps: Recreation.gov (iOS and Android), The Dyrt (iOS and Android), Hipcamp (iOS and Android)
What they’re good for: Finding campsites suited to your budget, expertise, and comfort level.
The nitty-gritty: Which app you use to reserve a campsite or lodging for your trip ultimately depends on the kind of experience you’re looking to have.
Recreation.gov lists only federal camping options, so if you know you’d like to stay in the national park or forest you’re visiting, this app should be your first stop. Each campsite listing shows site details including rules, amenities, and availability. You can book directly through the app, and you can also use Recreation.gov to apply for permits and pay your park-entry fees.
The Dyrt is a good option for campers looking for free and discounted campsites, as it offers a repository of more than 500,000 campgrounds around the country on both public and private land. Similar to the listings in Recreation.gov, each Dyrt listing gives a rundown of the amenities and rules of the campsite, but rather than allowing you to book through the app, Dyrt redirects you to the campground’s website. You can also look through Dyrt user reviews and photos as you make a decision. The Dyrt is a free app, but if you want the ability to search for campgrounds offline or to download maps, you can sign up for The Dyrt Pro for $36 per year. You can sign up for a free seven-day trial if you’re not ready to commit.
Hipcamp is perfect for folks who would rather glamp than camp. Through this app, you can find Instagram-worthy private glamping sites (think decked-out RVs, yurts, and cabins). These sites tend to be more expensive, but they offer more amenities and creature comforts for those who aren’t comfortable pitching their own tent or sleeping on the ground. Like Airbnb (which can also help you find glamping and camping sites), Hipcamp lets you read through each host’s bio, flip through photos of the listing, and scroll through reviews before booking directly in the app. You can use Hipcamp to find cheap DIY campsites, as well.
Explore the park without leaving your car
The app: Just Ahead (iOS)
What it’s good for: A narrated car ride through the parks.
The nitty-gritty: This app is useful for folks who want private guided tours. Employing your phone’s built-in GPS (offline use is also an option), the Just Ahead app automatically begins narrating as you drive by certain markers on the map, and you can learn about scenic views, geology, and park history as you pass them. Each guide is professionally written and narrated by journalists and authors who have written for National Geographic and Outside Magazine. Just Ahead isn’t without its limitations, though: It offers guides to only a handful of the more popular US national parks (such as Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, and Rocky Mountain), and each guide must be purchased separately, starting at $15.
Organize your travel plans
The app: Notion (iOS and Android)
What it’s good for: Keeping important travel information and documents in one place.
The nitty-gritty: You can plan your trip however you’d like, be it in Google Docs, detailed Excel sheets, or the notes app on your phone—but I love using Notion, a free project-management and note-taking app that you can access on both your phone and your desktop. Because you can use this app to organize all parts of your life, it can feel a little overwhelming at first, but Notion provides a dedicated travel template that can help make trip planning more streamlined. You can pull all the essential details of your trip into one highly organized spot by creating tables for different kinds of information (such as your budget or flight details), embedding Google maps specific to your trip, and assigning tags to certain categories so they’re easier to find. You can create a general overview of your trip, linking out to other important documents, files, and websites—and you can make more in-depth, filtered views for each day of your trip with all the information you’ll need. Notion also makes collaborating with others simple, so you can share your plans with travel buddies ahead of time and work together to create the perfect trip.
This article was edited by Treye Green and Annemarie Conte.