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The National Park Service's website, www.nps.gov, has general information on national parks, monuments, and historic sites, as well as individual park maps that can be downloaded in a variety of formats. The site also contains a link to every individual park's website, and those often contain links to nearby attractions and other useful information. Unfortunately, the official national park websites are not as user-friendly as we would like, but you'll find most of the information you want if you're willing to do some searching. A good first step on the individual park websites is to look over the latest park newspaper, if it's available online.

Another useful website is www.recreation.gov, a partnership of federal agencies that can link you to information on national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management sites, Bureau of Reclamation sites, Army Corps of Engineers sites, and National Wildlife Refuges. You can make reservations at campsites, book tours, and either apply for or purchase various permits here.

Finally, those who like to travel with an animal companion should check out www.petswelcome.com, a site that provides tips on traveling with pets, as well as lists of lodgings that accept pets, kennels for temporary pet boarding, and veterinarians to call in an emergency.

Maps

When you arrive at a national park, you'll receive a large, four-color brochure that has a good map of the park in it and in many cases, a park newspaper that also has maps. If you plan to do some serious hiking, especially into backcountry and wilderness areas, you'll need detailed topographical maps.

Topographical maps can usually be ordered in advance from the individual park bookstores, and we suggest that you check with park personnel to see which maps they recommend. Maps can also often be purchased in electronic form and carried with you, or you can print out the sections of the areas you need to carry on the trail.

What Should I Take?

In packing for your trip, keep in mind that much of the West is a land of extremes, with an often-unforgiving climate and terrain. Those planning to hike or bike should take more drinking water containers than they think they'll need -- experts recommend at least 1 gallon of water per person per day on the trail -- as well as good-quality sunblock, hats, and other protective clothing, and sunglasses with ultraviolet protection.

Summer visitors will want to carry rain gear for the typical afternoon thunderstorms, and jackets or sweaters for cool evenings. Winter visitors will not only want warm parkas and hats, but lighter clothing as well -- the bright sun at midday can make it feel like June.

Take a first-aid kit, of course, and make sure it contains tweezers -- very useful for removing cactus spines from your flesh if you should make the mistake of getting too close. Hikers will appreciate having a walking stick.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.