Since I started traveling back in the day, one of my favorite class of destinations within the United States has always been national parks. When visiting these beautiful recreational areas, eating well without spending $40 per meal can be a challenge. Just like with a lot of things, when there’s no competition, prices get jacked up and restaurant owners have no motivation to put much effort into how the food tastes. I’ve been to many national parks and have consistently seen this pattern of overpriced, underwhelming food.
Here are a few tips to keep yourself satiated without spending a fortune.
Bring some of your own food with you. Most national parks, just based on location, require you to have some sort of car to get yourself there. An advantage of having a car during vacation is access to a large, empty trunk that you can fill with good food and beverages of your choosing. I generally stick to items that don’t need to stay cold so I’m not dependent on having constant access to a refrigerator. Some preferred foods that travel well are canned goods (mostly vegetables), a variety of nuts like peanuts and cashews, beef jerky, crackers and chips (Pringles are great because they don’t get crushed), fruit – either fresh or dehydrated, and single serving packets of instant grits and oatmeal. Having one self-prepared meal per day can not only save you a lot of cash over the course of your vacation, but it’s also usually way healthier than a lot of the fat and sugar-laden meals sold in restaurants.
Approach the fancy restaurant with low expectations. Many national parks have that one restaurant, usually attached to the most expensive hotel in the park, that is advertised as the fine dining option. My most recent such experience was eating at The Majestic at Yosemite National Park. I’ve dined at several of these upscale restaurants, and they were invariably a disappointment. Here’s the problem: the food is mediocre, and they often don’t give you much of it. What you’re paying for is atmosphere. Go into the experience knowing this, and you won’t be too angry on your way out. A $50 meal at one of these places is not anything close to a $50 meal.
For a better deal, go to the restaurant that is the next step down. In my experience, you can get food that’s very similar to the food at the hoity-toity establishment for a lower price, and the service is often faster and friendlier. Back to my recent Yosemite example: our second night there, we ate at the Mountain Room Restaurant, and everything was universally better than the more expensive Majestic, including the taste of the food, the speed and accuracy of service, and the menu prices.
Visit the general store for reasonably priced booze and food items. One surprising pattern I’ve found is that alcoholic beverages are reasonably priced at the convenience stores within national parks. Not only is the selection better than expected, but you can buy bottles of beer one at a time and they don’t cost much more than what you’d pay at a normal grocery store. I don’t ever worry about buying beer and bringing it into the park anymore since it’s so easy and cheap to just buy it there. I wouldn’t be surprised if this changed at some point in the future, but right now it’s a nice thing to take advantage of.
The general stores also sell a variety of food items that are a bit more expensive than what you’d normally pay, but not outrageous. If you want the absolute minimal amount of preparation, then you can even pick up pre-prepared dishes that you can immediately open up and eat out of the container.
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Whenever Mrs. Lite Adventurer & I go vacationing in national parks, she usually prepares a simple breakfast in the morning (I don’t eat breakfast except on the weekends, so just a cup of coffee for me), we have ourselves a makeshift lunch from the food we brought in, and we buy our dinners at whatever local restaurant is available to us inside the park. By doing this regularly, we save some cash, don’t feel quite as gross from eating out all the time, and our waistlines don’t explode over the course of our time away from real life. All it takes is a little planning and effort.
[The following is a comment made by Mrs. Lite offering her own tips on this topic. It’s got some great info in it, so I just added it to the post to increase its awesome-dom.]
Just as an example, my breakfast is usually:
-Instant oatmeal prepared in a coffee cup with some hot water from the in-room coffee maker
-Banana/Fruit that has a peel (this is especially important when you’re traveling internationally–most of the fruit in other countries is washed with local tap water, which may contain parasites)
-Coffee/Tea (I’m a tea snob so I bring a variety of that)
-Nuts/single packet of peanut butter for protein
A few other suggestions I would include with Mr. LA’s suggestions:
-Bring your own can opener. Not the fancy kind, just the really cheap one
-Bag everything that could get wet in a plastic sandwich bag (e.g. oatmeal, grits, etc.)
-Bring your own plasticware. You can wash it in the sink in the room using hand soap or shampoo (it won’t kill you to use a different kind of soap, I promise!)
-Cans with pop tops are amazing
-Soup cans are awesome if you don’t mind eating it cold. I wouldn’t suggest eating soup that has a lot of grease in it cold, though–usually the creamy/fatty soups, stews, chilis, etc.
-Bring extra napkins, sandwich bags, and plastic grocery bags. That way you can keep opened/leftover food fresh, and you don’t have any issues with packing in/packing out when you eat your cold soup out of a container at the base of a volcano on Easter Island, for example.
-Don’t bother bringing your Nalgene/Thermos/Yeti/etc. bottle. It’s just too hard to clean and starts smelling like old spit after a while. Stick to bringing disposable cups instead, which also saves you from buying overpriced water in an airport vs. just using the fountain.