When it comes to sightseeing in the United States, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. After all, the country is so large and varied that it would be easy to spend an entire lifetime sightseeing there and never run out of places to see. No wonder so many Americans have never bothered to get a passport!
Places like New York and L.A. are all fine and dandy, but what if you want to see what the rest of the country has to offer? How do you choose where to start?
Here’s an idea: Start with America's national parks and national monuments. Many are iconic sights that you're probably already familiar with, and if you're into world heritage sites, more than 10 of them have been designated as UNESCO sites.
Bonus: Most parks are free, some have campgrounds or historic hotels, going off-the-beaten-path is encouraged, and they offer a lot to see and do.
Okay, but what if nature isn't your thing? Think about the Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg and the Grand Canyon. They're all different, right? So whether you’re a city slicker, a history buff or a nature lover, America has parks that you'll enjoy.
Did you know there's a passport for America's National Parks?
Well, there is, but it's not required for admission.
We had a lot of fun visiting various national parks with our kids, especially after we bought a Passport® to Your National Parks. It’s a cute, affordable, spiral-bound, pocket-size booklet, with a list and map of every national park in America.
Not only was it a cheap souvenir of our visits around the country, we found that it's actually a great resource. The Passport contains maps that indicate all the national park locations, broken down and color-coded by region of the country.
It's probably the best $10 you can spend in a national park.
Tip: Keep your Passports in the glove box. Otherwise, you may forget it at home.
Use it to find parks to visit
We enjoy driving, so wherever we went, we’d check the Passport to see if any parks were along our route. That might seem crazy and meaningless at first glance, but it's a great way to find cool sites that might be otherwise overlooked.
For instance, thanks to the Passport we found out about Jean Lafitte National Park. It's only a few minutes outside of New Orleans, and we didn't find it in our guidebooks. It gave our family a chance to see a new historical site and learn more about the War of 1812.
We even planned our entire Las Vegas itinerary, simply by using the map to learn where the nearby parks were.
I should mention at this point that the passport does not include all of America's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, only those that are in America's National Parks system. (Hmm…Maybe UNESCO should create its own special passport for that!)
Get a stamp at every park
Some travelers like to collect passport stamps from each country they visit. If you live in the U.S. and don't have the time, money, or desire to go overseas, it can be just as much fun to collect stamps from America's national parks.
Collecting park stamps has become so popular that now there's even a club for people who collect them.
The stamps look similar to postal cancellations or immigration stamps. They record the name of the park and the date of your visit, just like a regular passport.
These cancellations are free of charge, too. All you need to do is pop into the gift shop at the park’s visitor center, find the stamp and ink pad (usually near the checkout counter), and stamp your Passport yourself.
You can also collect stamps at national monuments and national conservation areas.
Add stickers for more color and interest
Kids enjoy stickers, don't they? Meh, who are we kidding, we like them too! Passports have room for both stamps and stickers.
Figuring that our kids would probably fight about who gets to stamp the passport or which sticker set to buy, we bought a passport for everyone in the family.
Each year, the National Park Service releases an annual commemorative stamp set. It includes nine regional stamps and one national stamp on one sheet, each with a beautiful photo. At only $3.95 per set, it's a great deal.
Just a note here … the commemorative stamp set is a set of postage style, lick-and-stick stamps. I call them stickers in this article to differentiate them from the ink-pad stamps.
Tip: The Passport has only 104 pages, so you'll need to be selective about your stickers.
Enjoy the memories
Memories are the best souvenirs, but it has been great fun to look through the book over the years. We reminisce about our trips, who we went with, and when we’d been where.
Along with our travel photos, it has become a wonderful, inexpensive souvenir of our trips as a family. Better yet, this is one souvenir that doesn't collect dust in a drawer!
So what about you? Chime in below—How many of America's National Parks have you been to?
Learn more about the National Parks passport program
To purchase a passport book online, visit www.eparks.com/store/. Passports are also available at most National Park visitor centers.
Tip: For NPS' complete list of all stamp cancellation locations, click here.
- Packing Essentials for America’s National Parks
- 10 UNESCO Heritage Sites in America You Need To Visit
- Lonely Planet USA's National Parks
- National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States
- Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 59 National Parks