The Ultimate Coastal South Road Trip: From New Orleans to Savannah

Discover the sights, sounds, and tastes along this Coastal South road trip

The dog days of summer are the perfect time to embark on a great American road trip.

One such road trip links two of the South’s most historic and poetic cities: New Orleans and Savannah.

Cajun cuisine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the route, explore the Gulf Coast—balmy shores full of quirky beach towns, Cajun culinary magic, and breweries—as well as the white-sand beaches of the Eastern Seaboard between Florida and Georgia.

Pack your sunscreen and bathing suit, and throw on a blues and Southern rock playlist. This weeklong road trip through America’s warmest (both in climate and culture) region awaits.

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your trip in New Orleans

The Big Easy. N’awlins. The Birthplace of Jazz.

New Orleans is one of America’s most storied and with deep French, Spanish, and African roots culturally distinctive cities. As the saying goes, New Orleanians are perpetually either throwing a party or recovering from one. For those seeking revelry, look no further than the French Quarter or Frenchmen Street—the latter is also one of the best places in New Orleans for live music.

Like Las Vegas, New Orleans doesn’t have open-container laws. So snag yourself a daiquiri while you stroll and admire the city’s inimitable architecture, street music, and local characters.

Related article: The Ultimate Deep South Road Trip: Savannah to Charleston

Dine at one of New Orleans’ legendary restaurants—perhaps Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, or Galatoire’s.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Bay St. Louis is about an hour and a half east of New Orleans.

As with Louisiana, the French colonized these shores in the late 17th century. I recommend taking Highway 90 from New Orleans. This route follows the coastline and is far more scenic than the slightly more expedient Interstate 10.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the revelry of New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, a quiet and breezy beach town is the ideal place to catch your breath.

For those interested in blues history visit 100 Men Hall. This hallowed music venue has hosted the likes of James Brown, Etta James, and Muddy Waters. The current owner, Rachel Dangermond continues to host musicians and uses the hall for events in support of coastal Mississippi’s African American community.

The gorgeous Pearl Hotel overlooks the ocean and sits within easy walking distance of the restaurants, beach bars, and ice cream parlors of Bay St. Louis. Right across from Pearl Hotel is The Blind Tiger, a beach bar serving up delicious “royal reds,” deep-water shrimp, a coastal Mississippi delicacy.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulfport, Mississippi

Driving east from Bay St. Louis, you’ll soon arrive in Gulfport.

Be sure to start the morning with a coffee and plate of biscuits at Fill-Up with Billups, an old-fashioned gas station converted into a diner.

Related article: The Underrated Coast

Boasting a dozen well-known casinos, Gulfport is a popular gaming destination. But if gambling isn’t your thing, Gulfport also boasts world-class charter fishing and is home to Chandeleur Island Brewery.

Bay St. Lewis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Biloxi, Mississippi

About 30 minutes down the coast from Gulfport is Biloxi, the Playground of the South.

Long renowned for the abundant shrimp, oysters, and crabs of its warm waters Biloxi suffered tremendous destruction from Hurricane Katrina.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Biloxi is on the rise again with a slew of busy casinos, booming commercial and recreational fishing industries, and killer dining and drinking. If you’ve had your fill of gambling, take a shrimp boat tour with Capt. Mike at Biloxi Shrimping Trip. He takes passengers out into Biloxi Bay to learn about the world’s favorite crustacean.

Mississippi Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Just east of Biloxi Bay, this small town is a leafy artists’ colony that punches well above its weight for dining, coffee, and nightlife. It’s sprawling with live oaks and buildings bedecked with wrought-iron balconies and the old French influence is palpable.

Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocean Springs comes alive at night. To find a bustling patio bar and live music, just walk up Main Street after dark. Check out Maison de Lu for excellent French-inspired seafood with a Gulf twist. And don’t leave Ocean Springs without getting a cup of joe at Bright-Eyed Brew Co., a local roastery adored by both visitors and locals.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile, Alabama

Continuing east and crossing state lines, Mobile is about an hour from Ocean Springs.

Related article: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

If you have time, keep to coastal Highway 90—it’s a much prettier drive than the inland Interstate 10 as noted previously.

Mobile Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with New Orleans, Biloxi, and most older Gulf Coast settlements, the French founded Mobile in the late 17th century. Mobile also claims to be home to North America’s oldest Mardi Gras.

Beer aficionados should check out Braided River Brewing Co., a recently opened brewery that’s already garnering national awards.

Hank Aaron Childhood Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re a sports fan be sure to pay homage to one of the great ones at the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum located adjacent to Hank Aaron Stadium. Aaron was one of the best to ever play this game. Aaron played 23 seasons. He came to the plate almost 14,000 times. He hit .305 with 755 home runs and 6,856 total bases—more than 700 total bases beyond everyone else. The gap between Aaron and No. 2 on the list, Stan Musial, is more than 12 miles worth of bases.

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s coolest small towns, Fairhope is an upscale beach town about an hour southeast of Mobile. With wooden piers stretching out over blue waters, white-sand beaches, and gorgeous architecture, Fairhope is a town that seduces visitors to stay permanently. What’s more, Fairhope boasts some of the South’s best restaurants. Check out Tamara’s Downtown for scrumptious Gulf Coast delicacies.

Fairhope is undeniably posh (golf carts are the preferred means of transportation here). However, it also has a funky side, evidenced by the ample coffee shops, breweries, and the fact that the town once had a flourishing nudist colony.

Tallahassee, Florida

Welcome to the Sunshine State!

Tallahassee is about three hours east of Fairhope. Home to nearly 35,000 college students, Florida’s capital is one of the country’s most notorious college towns. As you would expect with an overpopulation of 18-to-22-year-olds, Tallahassee brims with rowdy bars, late-night eateries, and youthful verve.

Amelia Island near Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jacksonville, Florida

Another 2½ hours of driving will take you from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Jax is the largest city in the U.S. in terms of geographical breadth. It’s also the hometown of Southern rock legends the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In Jacksonville, the characteristic form of the Florida beach—that is, powdery white sand against placid, turquoise water—is fully realized. Not to mention that Jacksonville’s beaches are far less crowded than those farther south. For fun in the sun, head to Neptune Beach near downtown Jacksonville.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah, Georgia

Head north up the coast for about two hours to reach Savannah, the final stop on our jaunt through the coastal South. Savannah is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. and boasts some of the most stunning examples of the South’s grandiose pre-Civil War architecture.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike Atlanta, a city Gen. Sherman burned to the ground during the Civil War, the Union Army spared Savannah its torches—some say because Sherman had a local mistress who convinced him that her city was too beautiful to destroy. Either way, posterity is grateful that Savannah remained intact as the Historic District—with its stately fountains, mansions, and lush public parks—is a national treasure.

Related article: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

St. Marys, Georgia (just north of the Florida/Georgia state line) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

Whether your thing is American history, beautiful cities, fabulous cuisine, or gorgeous beaches, the coastal South makes for a fantastic road trip.

This route links the old and superlatively poetic cities of New Orleans and Savannah. It shows you the best of coastal Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, North Florida, and the southern reaches of the Eastern Seaboard.

Worth Pondering…

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T. S. Eliot

How to Travel with Ideal Weather

Planning a trip? You will always have two basic questions on your mind—where and when to go—and both of these are wrapped in the most important quirk of all: weather.

Traveling in an RV brings you closer to the outdoors, which, in turn, brings you closer to seasonal weather, both pleasant and unpleasant. Even though RVs come equipped with heating and cooling technology these systems are not typically as efficient as the systems you’d find in traditional homes.

RV camping in Badlands National Park in South Dakota in summer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For this reason, RV camping in both extreme heat and extreme cold can be rather uncomfortable. This is especially relevant if you are dry camping without access to electrical hookups.  However, if you time your RV travels correctly, you can avoid most of the uncomfortable weather. This will also allow you to experience beautiful places in their optimum seasons. Follow along for all the tips and tricks on how to travel with the best weather.

Enjoy La Connor, Washington in the summer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel north in the summer

Extreme temperatures on either end of the spectrum can be very uncomfortable. However, excessive heat can feel especially brutal in an RV. Even with air conditioners running when the temperature outside is more than 100 degrees the temperature inside will often have a hard time falling below 80 degrees. In addition, outdoor adventures are much less fun and tolerable in overly hot weather, and enjoying the outdoors is one of the ultimate perks of RV camping. For all of these reasons, traveling in the northern regions or higher elevations is ideal in the hot summer months.

Related: The Best Stops for a Summer Road Trip

Enjoy Wolfeboro, New Hampshire in the summer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many places in the US are challenging to visit via RV in the winter due to the snow and extreme cold. Yet, these same places typically boast reasonably warm temperatures in the summer. New England, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and the Northern states (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, North and South Dakota) are perfect locations for your warm yet not too hot summer travels. In these states, you will find mild temperatures and beautiful mountain ranges and lakes that are excellent for sunny, summer adventures. 

Hiking Catalina State Park in Arizona in the winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel south in the winter

The same states that have lovely summer weather typically endure brutally cold temperatures in the winter. Keeping an RV warm in temperatures below freezing is not easy. Instead of suffering through the cold, visit the southern states and the lower elevations in the winter. In doing so, you will experience warm, sunny weather in the winter perfect for hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

Many of the places that are excessively hot in the summer are warm and comfortable in the winter.

Enjoy Corpus Christi, Texas in the winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Favorite locations include Arizona, Florida, Southern California, Texas, and many of the Southeastern states—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. Other favored locations include southern Nevada and New Mexico. While the summer temperatures in these regions may peak at 100+ degrees or even 115+ in the Southwest they typically stay at temperatures of 50-75 degrees in the winter months. This weather is perfect for RVing and enjoying time outside so be sure to plan your winter RV adventures for one of these beautiful locations.

Related: Top 10 State Parks to Visit This Winter

Enjoy the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit places with four seasons in the spring and fall

Many of the states that experience four distinct seasons are both hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Because of this, you may be wondering when to visit these locations. Ideally, saving these regions for the warming spring and cooling fall months is best. This will allow you to experience the best weather to be found and avoid the overly hot and overly cold months of the year.

Enjoy Vermont in the fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ideal locations to visit in the spring and autumn months are northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and many of the states of the Midwest—Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. There is so much beauty to be seen in these places and encountering them in their optimum seasons is the best way to experience it. 

Related: America’s Fall Foliage: Leafing through America

Enjoy Shenandoah National Park in the fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you encounter extreme temperatures

Even if you time your travels perfectly there will still be times when you experience uncomfortable temperatures. Heat waves, cold spells, and intense storms can show up even in places where the weather is generally mild. If this happens there are numerous things you can do to help regulate your RV interior temperature and still make the most of your vacation.

Enjoy the Urbana (Virginia) Oyster Festival in the fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Warm weather tips

When the outside temperature outside is 85 degrees or more, there are a few simple tricks that can cool your RV even without running your air conditioner. First, open up your fans and power them on the highest setting. Next, open your windows to increase air flow while drawing your shades or curtains to block out the direct sun. Consider utilizing Reflectix on your windows to reflect the heat away from your RV. This should bring your interior temperature down by at least ten degrees.

If all else fails and it’s too hot outside to regulate your interior temperature, fire up your air conditioners.

Enjoy Palm Springs, California in the winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cold weather tips

When the temperature outside is 55 degrees or less, it can be quite chilly in your RV. Yet, without cranking your furnace, there are a few things you can try to stay warm. First, ensure that all windows and fans are closed tightly. Next, consider utilizing your Reflectix on the opposite side to reflect the heat into your RV. Open your shades to let the sun pour in.

In addition, you should consider purchasing an electric space heater. These small heaters can keep your RV interior warm even in the frigid cold. If all else fails, you can run your on-board furnace.

Enjoy Yuma, Arizona in the winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV adventures are fun in any season but for many folks they are even more fun when accompanied by warm, mild temperatures. Timing your travels to properly enjoy the best weather throughout the year can be a bit difficult but totally possible with a bit of planning. Just remember to head north in the summer and south in the winter and you should find yourself chasing seventy degrees all throughout the year.

Related: 10 Inexpensive Outdoor Activities for Spring

Do you like to travel with the seasons? What are your favorite places to visit in both the warm and cold months of the year?

Worth Pondering…

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.

—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip

Plan a route from sea to shining sea—without breaking the bank

Road trips have always been part of America’s DNA and despite skyrocketing gas prices there’s still never been a better time to see just what those amber waves of grain are all about. For many remote work has left the door wide open for new methods (and longer timelines) for exploration.

Whether by motorhome, travel or fifth-wheel trailer, camper van, or whatever trusted stagecoach you’ve got sitting out in the driveway, pulling off a cross-country road trip is incredibly rewarding—but it does take planning. From trip planning to money-saving, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Rawhide Western Town in Chandler, Arizona along I-10 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning the route: north, south, or a little of both

Arguably the most important part of planning a cross-country road trip is to decide how to get from coast to coast. You’ll hear people talk about the “north” route, I-90 from Seattle to Boston, or the “south” route, I-10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. I don’t like having to choose so my road trip route incorporates a little bit of both. Also, consider the season; I don’t recommend either I-90 or I-80 during winter.

Black Hills of South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most important thing is to design the road trip around what inspires you (more on this later). For me, that means the Grand Canyon, the Black Hills, the Smoky Mountains, Charleston and Savannah, and the Southwest which dictated that we drive the northern route and then pivot straight south before turning east again and then zig-zagging a few more times and taking the southern route to the Southwest.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Write down the following numbers:

  • How many days do you have for your road trip?
  • Approximately how many miles do you intend to cover?

Start by making a list in Google Maps of all the places you want to see. You may be surprised at how naturally a route forms. You also may be surprised at how little time it takes to get from one place to the next, especially in the East.

Related article: Life Is a Highway: Taking the Great American Road Trip

Charleston, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are the most miles you’d be comfortable driving in one day? Start by considering how many hours you’d feel comfortable behind the wheel then convert that into miles.

How many days do you want to do zero driving? Consider days spent exploring towns or in national and state parks. Likely, you won’t want to drive every single day of your trip.

These numbers should give you some clarity on what your itinerary will look like.

Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes following a pre-planned itinerary takes a lot of the guesswork out which many people prefer. Everyone’s tolerance for driving is different, too; you’ll need to gauge your threshold. Don’t plan to cross the country in six days if you can only handle four hours of driving at a time.

Amish Country in northwestern Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Create your itinerary

Now, start plotting days out so you can see them. You can use whatever works best for you. There are also road trip planning apps out there.

Once you have a basic itinerary drafted, run through it and see how it feels. Is it too rushed? Are you trying to cover too many miles? Do you think you could squeeze more stops in?

Kentucky Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make any tweaks you feel are necessary. Even though this will hopefully be a pretty solid plan my advice is to always think of it as a guide rather than something that needs to be followed 100 percent.

Here are a few more questions to ask yourself as you’re making alterations to your itinerary:

  • Does it feel balanced?
  • Do you have all your long drives at the beginning of the trip?
  • Will you feel exhausted when you reach your final destination or will you be ready to rock?
  • Do you have time in your schedule to be spontaneous?
  • What would happen if you don’t get home on the exact date that you planned?
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan ahead for national parks

Part of the adventure of a cross-country road trip is leaving room for improvisation. We don’t book RV parks and campgrounds until a day or two before our planned arrival which is great because we can be on our timetable. But this can become an issue around the national parks where campgrounds can often be booked months in advance.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As badly as you want to see Zion and Bryce Canyon, well… so does everyone else in America. It’s vitally important to plan and know each park’s entry restrictions. Consider springing for the $80 America the Beautiful National Park pass which provides access to all National Park Service sites as many times as you want in 12 months. In short, if you plan to go to more than three National Parks in one year, this is a good investment. If you plan to spend considerable time in one state or a region, look into those state or local passes too.

Related article: Epic Road Trips for this Summer and Beyond

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Design the road trip around what inspires you

Don’t miss out on great parks like Arches because you forgot to get reservations. If summer’s come to an end, you may get lucky—many parks, like Yosemite, do away with the reservation system after September 30. On the flip side, other parks like Glacier National Park or the Grand Canyon North Rim close their scenic drives in the colder months when snow is expected. It pays to do your research.

Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beat the crowds by going in the off-season—fall is an especially great time to visit—or opt for less-visited national parks that everyone seems to forget about. Get creative: America is full of gorgeous state parks, national forestsnational monumentshistoric parks, roadside attractions, and much more.

Gettysburg National National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Set a road trip budget

Unless you’ve got a bottomless bank account (wouldn’t that be nice?!) you’ll probably want to set some sort of road trip budget. Now, this will vary from person to person. For some, it might be more or less a target to aim for but you’ve got flexibility. And for others, it’s a strict number that you’ll need to be very mindful of the entire trip. Whichever sounds like you, setting a budget is important. 

Truth BBQ in Brennan, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you can, skip traveling to popular places over holiday weekends and possibly the week before and after as prices will be inflated (plus, it’ll be extra crowded).

Road trip costs to consider include:

  • Fuel: This category is pretty straightforward
  • Accommodation: RV parks and campgrounds
  • Food: Restaurants AND groceries; also, the cost of snacks, coffee, alcohol, ice cream… ALL the good stuff
  • Entertainment: Fun things you plan to do along the way—hiking permits, entry fees, tours, rental equipment
  • Miscellaneous: The little expenses that don’t fit elsewhere—like propane, parking fees, tolls, medicine, paying for Wi-Fi, toiletries, souvenirs, gifts
  • Emergencies: We all hope to avoid unforeseen circumstances but, they do happen. This might include RV repairs, medical expenses, etc.
La Posta in Historic Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t get gouged on fuel prices. I secretly get excited when we save money on diesel fuel. One great app to save money on gas is Gas Buddy. Simply input your location and Gas Buddy shows you the cheapest gas around you. This app alone can save you hundreds of dollars when traveling across the US. Independent truck stops often offer diesel fuel at 50 to 60 cents per gallon cheaper than the majors like Pilot/Flying J and Loves.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Planning the Best Summer Road Trip

Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, driving the speed limit will help you stretch your fuel—not to mention, it’s kind of the law. Speeding can lower your fuel economy by as much as 30 percent. When you get up to places like Montana where the speed limit is 80 mph you’ll see how quickly your tank drains.

Turning off toll roads is another money saver. It never adds that much extra time and you can score substantial savings. There are some cities where tolls are unavoidable but in others, these are only slightly faster and the tolls can add up quickly. Driving from New York to Washington, DC, for example, can cost as much as $35 in tolls—each way. In cities that are infamous for their tolls, like Chicago, do a little pre-planning so you find the best route for your trip and don’t get stuck paying unnecessary fees for tolls.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Have meals “on deck”. You can make some epic meals on the road but not every meal has to be fancy or overly planned out. Have some meals on hand that are just that—super simple to make.

We always have several “reserve meals” that don’t require much preparation for travel day.

Wild Turkey Distillery in Kentucky Bourbon Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dining out can be one of the biggest money sucks. It may seem like sacrilege to not be seeking out the best thing to eat in each town along your route but whittling your list down to the absolute can’t-miss spots will be lighter on your wallet. Texas BBQ joints are pretty high on my must-do list.

Eat out for lunch instead of dinner. If there’s a restaurant you just have to try, plan to go there for lunch instead of dinner. Restaurants often have items that are similar to their dinner menu with smaller portions sizes and smaller price tags. This is a great way to try a specific restaurant while still sticking to your budget.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find free things to do

No matter where your road trip may take you there should be a ton of free (or inexpensive) activities to do. Simply Google “free things to do in (enter city name here)” and you should find enough to get you started.

Alternatively, you could replace “free” with “cheap” for some more options.

Galt Farmers Market in Central Caliroenia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free activities that to seek out include:

  • Hiking and walking trails
  • Farmers markets
  • Local parks
  • Beaches
  • Visitor centers
The Okefenokee in southern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before you hit the road…

Make sure everything on the RV and toad/tow vehicle is in good working order. This means checking the tire pressure, lights, oil, transmission fluid, and all the features before heading out each day. Don’t forget preventative maintenance.

Related article: Road Trip Planning for the First Time RVer

World’s Largest Roadrunner, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for things you didn’t prepare for

Even with the most detailed and extensive planning, things happen. But being open and flexible to mishaps is how to not let them ruin your day. If and when something goes wrong, remember to not panic. Trust that you’ve prepared yourself as best as possible and you’ll get back on track in no time.

Inconveniences are also exacerbated by exhaustion, so remember to take care of yourself on the road. Eat plenty of healthy food, drink water, and get a good night’s sleep before a long driving day. Leave the windows open for airflow, especially if you’re feeling sleepy. If you need to take a power nap, find a well-lit, safe area. This should not be a chore. Driving at your best is going to make the trip infinitely better.

Other than that, fire up your best road trip playlist, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Worth Pondering…

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

—George Harrison, Any Road

Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

The annual festival takes place from July 19 to July 21

When you come home at night and flip on the lamp switch, do you ever stop to think about what you might be missing?

In 1880, less than 150 years ago, electric light first came to American cities.
In 2017, roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night. In other words, our dark night skies often really aren’t all that dark. When was the last time you were able to experience the awe of seeing a sky full of stars? It can be easy to feel disconnected from or simply forget about the beauty and sheer vastness of the cosmos.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are some of the best places to appreciate night skies because the National Park Service works to protect these places from the increasingly prevalent effects of light pollution. The National Park Service recognizes dark night skies as a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks are becoming a refuge for people from city light pollution. Dozens of national parks around the country have earned designations such as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. These distinctions recognize “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Many of these parks have astronomy programs where people of all ages can learn more about the wonders of the night sky—and all of them have places to lay out a blanket and simply enjoy the darkness. Grand Canyon National Parks hosts an annual Star Party in June.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Under the stars at Shenandoah National Park

The crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountains air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity and constellations come into clearer view.

Related article: Where to Stargaze

While Shenandoah National Park may not get as dark as some of the Parks in the West, its high elevation combined with its relative remoteness from dense urban areas makes the Park a great place to engage in stargazing on the east coast.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On moonless and cloud-free nights it is a wonderful spot to view the Milky Way or some of the 2,500 stars visible to the unaided eye that make up one of the 88 official constellations. Finding and observing constellations, phases of the moon, meteor showers, and eclipses can provide a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.

Starting in 2016 Shenandoah National Park began a Night Sky Festival, full of ranger programs and activities to help celebrate our disappearing dark skies.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Stargazing

A good place for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park is by the Big Meadows area near the Rapidan Fire Road. The amphitheater in the Skyland area is also appropriate.

Related article: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Most people are a bit uncomfortable in the dark. Try getting used to it by walking outside in a dark area while keeping your flashlight in your pocket.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow your eyes time to adjust; it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to become accustomed to the nighttime darkness. You may be surprised how well you can see by starlight.

Make a red flashlight or use one with a red LED. To make your own, use red paper or cellophane to cover the white light of the flashlight. Red light allows your eyes to adapt better to the darkness than white light while still providing visibility for safety.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoying the night skies is for everyone, you don’t need expensive equipment. If you don’t have a telescope, grab your binoculars to get a better look at the fuzzy spots in the sky overhead. Also, use the binoculars to gaze upon the Milky Way.

Educate yourself on the constellations overhead with the use of a star chart or a star-finding app downloadable for your smartphone or tablet.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When venturing out to stargaze in the park make sure to bring a red flashlight to journey from your car to your destination. Be sure to dress in layers, as summer nights are often cool on the mountain ridge. Bring a blanket or a set of chairs to sit on.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah National Park will conduct its sixth annual Night Sky Festival from August 19-21. Rangers and guest speakers will present a variety of programs at sites throughout the park focusing on space, celestial objects, nocturnal residents, and the importance of dark night skies. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guest speakers presenting will include NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern and amateur astronomer Rich Drumm. These programs are sponsored by Delaware North, the park concessioner.  

Other activities include special ranger-led talks, discussions, children’s activities, and telescope/night sky viewings. Programs will take place at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6), Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.1), Skyland Amphitheater (Milepost 42.5), Byrd Visitor Center (Milepost 51), Big Meadows (Milepost 51), and Loft Mountain Amphitheater (Milepost 79.5). 

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All programs are free. No reservations are needed. However, park entrance fees apply ($30/vehicle, valid for 7 days). Participants should be weather-prepared and bring a flashlight with a red filter. The complete program schedule can be found on the park’s website.  

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Outdoor Adventures

The joy of life lived outside

The U.S. Department of the Interior suggests, “Get outdoors in the great outdoors.” Perhaps more than anyone, RVers understand the meaning of that message. After all, the vast lands throughout North America are natural playgrounds filled with hiking trails, lakes and streams, and public and private recreation sites—and that’s just the beginning.

Regardless of whether you travel long distances or set up camp in the next town over, your RV is your vehicle for discovering these fun-in-the-sun pastimes. Enjoy hiking, bird-watching, photography fishing, swimming, white-water rafting, and stargazing, to name just a few activities. Wherever your interests lie, I encourage you to pursue those passions!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover magnificent natural wonders on a stunning sweep through the beautiful Southwest. From Sedona to Moab to Taos to Santa Fe, beautiful landmarks dot the way with stops at the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Petrified Forest, Montezuma Castle, Mesa Verde, and more.

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finding Outdoor Adventures

If you are an RV full-timer, part-timer, or weekend warrior, seeking your next adventure is probably always on your radar. If you think about it, being on the road is an adventure in itself: always on the go, staying in new places (or returning to your favorites), and exploring the local area.

Related article: Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

Like most RVers, most of our trips or overnight stays are planned for places we want to explore and have fun. If this is the case for you, consider adding these adventures to your list. They include cities that are known for exciting mountain bike trails, picturesque flower gardens, and ocean exploration.

Glacial Skywalk along Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or maybe you want to explore Canada? The best Alberta road trip is from Banff to Jasper (or vice versa) through the Icefields Parkway. National Geographic named this one of the best road trips in the world!

Columbia Icefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If this is your first time visiting Canada, prepare to be amazed! You will pass through ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and emerald lakes surrounded by forests. The drive has many points of interest along the way including Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls, and the Columbia Icefield.

Rocky Mountain goat in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If that isn’t enough to please your eyes, there are also over 53 species of mammals you can spot in the area including bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and elk. Banff and Jasper are both must-see spots on a visit to Canada and a drive through the Icefields Parkway is the ideal way to get there.

Of course, not all of our trips work out that way. Maybe you’re traveling to visit family or friends and you end up with a little spare time. Or you have a planned overnight stay on the way to your destination and you’re looking for some outdoor adventure—something that you can easily fit into your schedule.

Related article: If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park it and hike

Hiking is a fun pastime that can easily be associated with camping and spending time in the great outdoors.

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead.

Blue Mesa Loop Trail in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail in Petrified Forest National Park is sure to please. This mile-long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Gulf State Park features 28 miles of paved trails or boardwalks including seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex that inspire visitors to explore the nine distinct ecosystems within park boundaries. The majority of trails are suitable for walking, running, and biking.

Related article: Discover more on a Texas-sized Outdoor Adventure

Remember to hike safely! Wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots and dress appropriately for the weather. Always take plenty of water and a snack. Incorporating The Three Ts (Trip Planning, Training, and Taking the Essentials) into your hiking regimen will help keep you safe out on the trail.  

Hiking Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kids In Parks

The National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program is one of many great ways to introduce youngsters to the geography, history, and features of U.S. national parks. This activity-based program is conducted at most NPS facilities. During a park visit, kids complete activities and are rewarded with an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate. They also can read, play, and try various projects online, anytime. Help your young RVer adopt the Junior Ranger motto: Explore. Learn. Protect.

Related article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Worth Pondering…

In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.

—John Fowles (1926- ) English writer

Newport Cliff Walk: Ocean Views, Mansions and more

Three and a half miles of cliffs, rocky beaches, Gilded Age mansions, and 40 Steps to nowhere in particular

While Newport Island boasts many attractions, one that stands out is the famed Cliff Walk. Overlooking Easton’s Bay as it travails past Gilded Age mansions and the homes of Newport’s rich and famous and turns back toward Bailey’s Beach, the path welcomes more than a million visitors annually who are looking for exercise or a stroll, regardless of the time of year.

Cliff Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From First Beach at one end to Bailey’s Beach at the other, Newport Rhode Island’s Cliff Walk is a three-and-a-half-mile National Recreation Trail with seven access points and 40 steps with a history dating back to the Gilded Age. The breathtaking views have made it one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions and a central part of Newport’s identity.

While the far-reaching ocean views are stunning enough, visitors looking toward land can take in the sights of Newport’s many famous mansions. Among those along the path are Marble House, Rosecliff, Ochre Court, The Breakers, and Rough Point. 

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Breakers is a Vanderbilt mansion located on Ochre Point Avenue along the Atlantic Ocean. It is a National Historic Landmark, a contributing property to the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, and is owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century.

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Breakers is the most famous of the Gilded Age Newport Mansions for good reason. It’s breathtaking in scope and scale. The design of this grand home was inspired by European palaces and every room is more lavish than the last.

Visitors can also traverse a little closer to the water at Forty Steps near Narragansett Avenue.

Cliff Walk in front of The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traversing the Cliff Walk has a few challenging (and slippery) sections but most of it is long easy stretches with sweeping views of Narragansett Bay. You can see why those Captains of Industry all wanted their piece of it—the bigger the piece the better.

The story of what is known as the 40 Steps just off the east end of Narragansett Avenue is one story of Cliff Walk in miniature. As Newport was being gobbled up as a resort town for the super-wealthy, access to some of the most arresting shorelines in New England was still open to people who weren’t named Astor and Vanderbilt. Sure there were mansions like The Breakers and Ochre Court dominating the land high atop the cliffs but their cooks, maids, butlers, chauffeurs, and gardeners created their piece of the seaside playground.

Cliff Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometime around 1880, a set of 40 rickety steps was built down to the bottom of the cliffs. With no beach at the bottom, the steps had no real destination. But they became the servants’ meeting place with music and dancing breaking up the monotony of work at the big houses. Today, much of the land along Cliff Walk is still privately owned but since 1975 this public trail with seven rights-of-way (and those 40 steps) the beauty of the Bay is still accessible for everyone.

Cliff Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1975 the Cliff Walk was named a National Recreation Trail. At the time, it was the first location in New England and 65th nationally. According to the National Park Service, “National Recreation Trails are recognized by the federal government with the consent of any Federal, State, Tribal, local, nonprofit, or private entity having jurisdiction over these lands. Today almost 1,300 of these trails have been designated throughout the country.” 

Over the years, the mostly paved pathway has fought the effects of erosion with multiple repairs, both big and small to maintain the popular site. Those efforts have kept Cliff Walk viable as both a significant attraction for tourists and local residents alike.

Cliff Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the city and state also contributed funds for repairs covering about 9,200 feet between Newport Beach to the west property line of Marble House at Sheep Point.

The 1938 and 1954 hurricanes destroyed several areas and the walk could have deteriorated completely. In the 1970s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent about two years supervising basic repairs using gravel, asphalt, and rocks weighing tons fitted to form revetments.

Ocean Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further improvements were made in the early 1980s and funded by the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1993 and 1994, an additional $3.4 million was spent on new retaining walls to check erosion along the northern cliffs and to repair damage from Hurricane Bob that occurred in 1991.

In 2004 additional improvements included the area south of Ruggles Avenue and extended to Reject’s Beach at Bellevue Avenue.

Ocean Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 washed out several sections of the walk and closed about half of the walk for just over 13 months. The over $5 million project was financed through federal aid with the state matching 20 percent of the federal aid. Areas involved were a walk near Rough Point, a cement walk at the edge of Miramar, a cement walk near the Waves, and many smaller segments. The 40 Steps were rebuilt too, this time not so rickety.

The city is in a bind: Should it continue propping up its landmark Cliff Walk even though chunks of the path keep crumbling into the sea?

Earlier this year, coastal erosion knocked out 30 feet of the paved trail that winds its way beside Gilded Age mansions high above the rocky shoreline. Peering down at the collapsed section of trail where a chain-link fence still dangles in space, city officials pondered whether to rebuild or retreat. It’s a question they’ve reckoned with many times before in Newport. It’s unknown how long repairs could take or how much they might cost.

The section that collapsed this month is next to private property—the last original shingle-style summer cottage on the Cliff Walk—so the path can’t be moved inland there.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors are taking a roughly four-minute detour on local streets to get around the 450-foot stretch that is closed off.

The freeze-thaw cycles and mud layers within the cliff’s shale layers possibly contributed to the collapse.

A major appeal of the Cliff Walk is—as the name suggests—that it runs along cliffs. It isn’t a sidewalk next to a calm pond. There’s surf and a churning ocean below.

International Tennis Hall of Fame © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We humans like to put fixed infrastructure at the coast, particularly nice cliff walks around mansions to look at the views. There’s always this tension between where we want to put things and the dynamic coast. That means the city of Newport can count on constant repairs to keep the walk where it’s at.

Worth Pondering…

Life is a walk to the edge of a cliff. Every day we get a step nearer and what lies over the brink, no one can tell.

—Deepak Chopra

Where to Stargaze

Planning a camping trip? Consider these starlit gems.

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your backyard. It was once a common reality until artificial lights from our growing cities started encroaching upon the night sky. Today, to see the Milky Way—and most constellations other than, say, the Big Dipper—you have to trek far, far away from humanity. The darker the sky, the better the view!

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 196 certified Dark Sky Places spanning 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate the public, and counteract the harmful effects of excessive light pollution linked to everything from insomnia to obesity to cancer.

“It messes with our circadian rhythms,” says Ryan Parker, secretary of the IDA’s Colorado chapter. “Our body naturally needs to sleep and rest and rebuild. And, when we don’t allow that to happen it interferes with our natural homeostasis.”

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the 24-hour cycle of light and dark is interrupted for wildlife the consequences can be dire. Nocturnal animals confuse night and day and become easy prey. Birds that migrate or hunt by moonlight get thrown off course by artificial light migrating too early or colliding into buildings. Baby sea turtles that hatch on the beach and find their way to the ocean by the light of the moon can be lured in the opposite direction by urban glow.

Related: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Beyond that, the impetus to preserve our dark skies should be pretty obvious: Just look up. An unpolluted sky is glorious, awe-inspiring even. And more and more communities are working to get officially certified by the IDA’s standards—a process that can take up to three years. 

Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky Places fall under five designations: 

  • International Dark Sky Communities: Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities include Borrego Springs (California), Sedona (Arizona), and Fredericksburg (Texas).
  • International Dark Sky Parks: Parks are public- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks include Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California), Arches National Park (Utah), Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park (Texas), El Moro National Monument (New Mexico), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), and Stephen C. Foster State Park (Georgia).
  • International Dark Sky Reserves: Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves include Central Idaho and Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve (Texas and Mexico).
  • International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries include Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (Texas), Cosmic Campground (New Mexico), and Medicine Rocks State Park (Montana).
  • Urban Night Sky Places: Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid significant artificial light night and that otherwise do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Places category. Certified IDA Urban Night Sky Places include Fry Family Park (Ohio), Stacy Park (Missouri), and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico).
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to certifying Dark Sky Places, the 50 IDA chapters also run star parties like June’s Rocky Mountain Star Share, an annual extravaganza in Colorado on 35 acres of land with speakers, camping, and massive telescopes. The Premier Star Party of the Rocky Mountains was held June 22–26, 2022.

Related: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

There’s also International Dark Sky Week in April and both Utah and Colorado host Dark Sky Months with events and extra outreach to inspire visitors to make changes in their own homes and communities. Utah’s 23 accredited International Dark-Sky Association places include four of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, 10 state parks, and two towns. Colorado currently claims 15 of the world’s 196 International Dark Sky Places.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coolest Dark Sky Places in the US

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The bend isn’t the only thing that’s big in one of America’s most underrated national parks—the number of stars you can see here is massive. Big Bend is an ultra-remote superstar. Located in far West Texas, you’ll find yourself with plenty of peace and quiet as you hike through desert canyons, marvel at the Chisos Mountains, or kayak down the Rio Grande. But don’t forget to save some energy for after dark: Big Bend’s extreme isolation makes it the least light-polluted of all the national parks in the lower 48 so that as the sun goes down the heavens explode with stars. Park yourself anywhere beneath its 1,112,000 acres of dark skies for a night and take it all in.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon may be the best national park in America! That’s debatable. But it is the most recognizable and extraordinary place to stargaze. A few years ago, the Grand Canyon Village began retrofitting its lighting to be more dark sky-friendly and in 2016 was rewarded with Provisional Dark Sky status. Between that effort and its accessibility, Grand Canyon’s allure for the astronomically inclined is not up for debate.

Related: Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held each June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography. On a full moon night, take a ranger-led hike along the rim, or on other nights a ranger-led constellation tour. Here’s how to plan your visit.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Like its state parks, Utah’s national monuments often hide in the shadows of its big five national parks. As such, only about 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year and most of those folks don’t stick around once the sun goes down. This is unfortunate—Natural Bridges became the first international Dark Sky Park back in 2007 owing to it having some of the absolute darkest skies in the country and countless astronomy events held through the summer. At night, the sky positively explodes with stars and celestial bodies and the canyon walls are pitch black in contrast to the celestial river that is the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge. Let your gaze drift through the arch, upward and uninterrupted.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

6 Things You Need To Know about Camping in a Storm

Survival tips for RV camping in storms and bad weather

Spring and summer storms can make RV camping a scary experience rather than the fun and pleasant one it should be. 

What’s an avid camper to do? Fortunately, there are ways to ensure you and your family stay safe while also fully enjoying the camping season. Here are my top tips for camping during storm season.

Storm clouds over Capital City RV Park, Montgomery, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Create a storm-smart route

Your tiny home has wheels, after all. Why not use them? 

By avoiding areas such as Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas during tornado season and places where hurricanes tend to crop up during hurricane season you can reduce your risk by quite a lot. Instead, choose to travel to those areas during other times of the year and focus on different destinations during times when storms are likely to come around.

Cleanup following a flash flood at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Pay attention to weather reports

No matter when or where you decide to travel, you need to pay attention to the weather forecast. Knowing if and when a storm might crop up is important because it allows you to watch for it and get out of harm’s way if needed be. I recommend keeping a weather radio on hand for this purpose.

More on severe weather: Lightning and Thunderstorms: Safety Tips for RVers

It’s also a good idea to install an app such as Weather Bug on your smart phone. This app will send you an alert should severe weather be headed your way. 

Storm clouds over Skyline Ranch Resort, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Stock up on the right supplies

Besides your weather apps and a hand-crank weather radio, there are a few other things you’ll want to keep on hand just in case you end up camping in a storm. These include:

  • Flashlight and spare batteries: This will help you see should the power go out
  • First aid kit: You never know what kind of injury you might need to tend to
  • Water: Being thirsty in a storm shelter is no fun; avoid it by packing bottles of water and be sure to stay hydrated
  • Snacks: In case you get hungry while waiting out a storm, you’ll be glad to have a few non-perishable snacks on hand

I recommend putting all these things into a tote bag. This should be kept in an easily accessible location near the exterior door. It will ensure you’re well prepared. Then you can get to safety quickly.

Make sure your family is fully dressed with closed-toed shoes. Grab your smart phone and any important documents in the rig. Then head to shelter. If you can, grab helmets and/or pillows to cover your head. They also protect you from flying objects. 

Know where to go! Pictured above Whispering Oaks RV Park, Weimar, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Know where to go

Of course, if you’re going to head out when the weather gets bad, you don’t want to be confused about where to go. Always establish where you will go in case of a storm when you arrive at a new campground. 

More on severe weather: 5 Tips for Avoiding Extreme Weather While RVing

Numerous RV parks in tornado alley have storm shelters. As an alternative, head to a bathhouse or another sturdy structure with as few windows as possible. 

When you get to the place where you will wait out the storm, find a place that is far from windows and potential projectiles. Wear your helmets. Keep your important items under you. Use the weather radio to track the storm. Have your pillows close at hand in case you need them.

Overhead trees could be a problem during a severe storm on this site at Jekyll Island Campground, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Check your site

If you have enough notice of an impending storm, there are also several things you can do. If you plan to stay in your rig while camping in a storm, following these fairly simple steps can make a big difference. Take time to follow them. They include:

  • Take pets inside: Dogs and cats deserve a safe, dry place to weather the storm as much as you do—take them to the shelter with you
  • Remove projectiles: If you have chairs or other potential projectiles on your site, stow them; you don’t want one to go through a window
  • Close storage bay doors: Ensure your storage bay doors are closed and secured
  • Retract the awnings: RV awnings can’t stand up to much wind and rain. Keep yours intact by retracting before any kind of storm. As a word of caution, always retract the awning when leaving your rig or retiring for the night.
  • Close the windows: Obviously, you’ll also want to make sure all windows are closed and securely latched
  • Park away from trees: If possible, move your RV out from under trees that could break and fall on your roof causing extensive damage
  • Retract the slides: Slides can catch the wind causing an entire trailer or motorhome to flip
  • Fill the water tank: If it’s going to be very windy or if a tornado is headed your way consider filling your tanks to add more weight to your rig
Bring your pets indoors before a storm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Use common storm sense

Of course, you’ll also want to use your common sense when it comes to storms. Don’t hang out outdoors in a lightning storm. Avoid pools or other bodies of water. Especially if there is lightning in the area. If there is hail, get away from skylights and windshields.

More on severe weather: Hurricane Season: Staying Safe in your RV

Finally, you will want to watch for flooding and evacuate quickly. Head for higher ground if it looks like water is headed your way. 

Worth Pondering…

In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

10 Underrated National Parks for Avoiding the Crowds

A guide to 10 national parks without the crowds

One thing is for sure as summer gets into full swing: some of the most popular national parks are going to be crowded. But if you intend to visit a national park this summer to get away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life, don’t worry. Some of the least visited national parks in the country are also some of the most fun and there are still plenty of unique places to get away from the summer crowds.

I love the Great Smoky Mountains and Zion and no matter how many times I visit, the Grand Canyon will never cease to take my breath away. But when the swarms of tourists around Yellowstone’s Old Faithful start to make a day at the park look more like a rock concert I know it’s time to look America’s most popular parks in the eyes and say, “It’s not you, it’s us.”

National forests and state parks certainly offer alternatives to the hustle and bustle of major attractions, but there is also a segment of the 63 crown jewels that, stacked up against the more Instagram trend-inspired visits, seldom get their due.

Say goodbye to claustrophobic crowds and hello to getting remote, in a national park where your woes have less to do with slow-moving tour buses and more to do with the possibility of dormant volcanoes becoming…not dormant. Of America’s 63 national parks, these 10 deserve a spot at the top of your anti-social bucket list, especially if you’re looking to emphasize the “wild” part of your next wilderness adventure.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California is filled with some of the most iconic—and crowded—national parks in the nation including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. One park that miraculously flies under the radar though is Lassen Volcanic National Park, the least visited in the state with around 500,000 annual visitors (for reference, Yosemite sees about nine times that amount).

Nestled in central Northern California, this sleeper hit has a lot of elements similar to Yellowstone: your bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and freezing royal-blue lakes. Another thing the two share? The potential for a volcanic eruption at any moment! Lassen Peak is an active volcano, though its most recent eruptions took place back in 1917, so there’s (probably) nothing to fear as you trek up the mountain and drink in the views of the Cascade Range. If you’d rather keep things closer to sea level, try paddling on pristine and peaceful Manzanita Lake or exploring the Bumpass Hell area, a hydrothermal hot spot filled with billowing basins and kaleidoscopic springs.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

In the national park Venn diagram between Everglades and Redwood, Congaree National Park is the overlap. This tiny 26,000-acre park smack dab in the center of South Carolina has the murky look and feel of Florida’s Everglades, complete with unnervingly dark water, along with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. The result is a singularly unique park woven with meandering creeks and the namesake Congaree River which provides a killer backdrop for paddling.

Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp, it’s a massive floodplain; the river routinely floods, carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, and laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Talk about the remote. In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande River with Mexico just on the other bank (the park is named for… wait for it… a gigantic bend in the river). Even though it offers some of the most awe-inspiring backpacking in the US, fewer folks visit Big Bend each year than watch the Longhorns play in Texas Memorial Stadium for two or three Saturdays.

If you’re going, traverse the high country of the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park, or go lower to the trails on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Or just spend the day kayaking to your heart’s content. Once night falls, you’ll witness one of the greatest celestial panoramas you’ll likely ever see as Big Bend’s far-flung location gives it the darkest measured skies in the continental US.

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Nothing is petrifying about Petrified Forest National Park nor is there anything forested about it. Hidden away in northeastern Arizona along a dusty stretch of Route 66 that looks like something from Cars, this mysterious 221,390-acre park has a lot more to it than meets the eye—except for people since the park gets less than one-fifth the visitors the Grand Canyon sees each year.

Unlike any forest you’ve been to, Petrified Forest gets its name from the copious boulder-sized petrified logs strewn across the arid desert landscape. Some 200 million years ago, mighty trees stood here in what was once a tropical forest before being washed away by ancient rivers, buried under sediment, and slowly crystallized by volcanic ash and silica.

Today, long gone are the rivers and leaves, replaced by petrified wood composed almost entirely of solid quartz and bedazzled by minerals like iron, carbon, and manganese, which give the logs shimmering tints of purple and green. Hiking trails here are short, but they pack a wallop of wow as you get up close and personal with these prehistoric gems.

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Located near the charming desert town of Moab in southeastern Utah, Canyonlands has a lot in common with that other canyon park. For instance, both colossal chasms were carved by the Colorado River, both are high desert meccas of red-hued earth and both boast endless vistas of a landscape that looks all too otherworldly to exist on this planet. We suggest recruiting a buddy or two, hopping in a 4×4, and driving down White Rim Road, a 100-mile trip around and below the mesa top. You’ll spend hours taking in tremendous Mars-like desert panoramas while the crowds over at nearby Arches National Park are stuck in traffic.

To get even more secluded, visit in the wintertime when the vast landscape morphs into a wonderland of snow-swept mesa tops dotted with hoof prints from mule deer. Here, the four primary sections—Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon—are ripe for exploration. And at night, turn your gaze upward: Canyonlands is home to some of the darkest skies in the country.

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

You might not even know it’s there: in the vastly misunderstood state of North Dakota, usually thought of as just flat, rolling grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park appears as if out of nowhere: where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, craggy, tree-dotted canyons flank the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them and mountains somehow appear like magic. The rangers still say “you betcha,” though. Some things about North Dakota are correctly understood.

This is where the Badlands start cutting into the landscape, carving sharp rock faces and hoodoos into the countryside, where the night sky alternates between panoramic star show and explosive thunderstorms, and where packs of buffalo and wild horses roam with abandon among its river valleys and painted hills. And there’s history: the only National Park named after a single person, it was a source of inspiration for our bespectacled 26th President, heavily influencing his conservation policies. You can still visit his Elkhorn Ranch–the foundation stones of the cabin, anyway–and perhaps be inspired yourself.

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Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

While it may be cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, it’s certainly not untrue: hiking, biking, and driving through the forest of nearly 2 million lanky, 40-foot-tall cacti that make up Saguaro National Park is almost certain to take you back to those Saturday mornings eating Froot Loops in front of the TV. Long overshadowed by the Grand Canyon, Saguaro’s namesake giants—found only in southern Arizona and northern Mexico—sit just outside Tucson, making this one of the easiest-to-access national parks in the entire system.

Yet in 2021, it received just over a million visitors. (Compare that to Yellowstone’s 5 million.) But its relative obscurity is also its greatest strength: Here, you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the wilds of some remote backcountry. Hike the 7.9-mile Wasson Peak loop for sweeping vistas or trek amongst the saguaros on the Garwood Trail.

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New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Designated in December 2020 as the United State’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park in southern West Virginia is home to more than 65,000 acres of lush Appalachian mountains and forest, as well as various superlatives: It’s best recognized by its dizzyingly tall bridge—the third-highest in the US—and its 53 miles of the New River, which despite its name is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on the planet.

Although the misty mountains may look soothing, this is not a place for the faint of heart: In New River Gorge, rock climbers can scale to extreme heights, and river rafters can careen through Class IV and Class V rapids. Oh, and also there are ghosts–those who perished in the gunfights, cave-ins, and explosions during the days when the area was the frontier of coal mining. Even fearless ghost hunters might find themselves spooked by the various ghost towns tucked in throughout the area.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

No offense to Batman, but the Dark Knight’s luxurious bat cave can’t hold a candle—or a flickering, old-fashioned lantern—to the tunnels of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Hidden away in the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico, the park’s immense underground labyrinth of cavities was created hundreds of millions of years ago.

The caverns hide dozens of subterranean splendors, including stalactites, stalagmites, and a population of 700,000+ Brazilian free-tailed bats that migrate upward nightly in a quiet fluttering tornado. Plus underground treasures like the aptly-named Big Room, the largest cave chamber in North America, reachable only via a hike that’ll take you as deep underground as the Empire State Building takes people into the sky.

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Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

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Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

In state parks and national parks alike you’ll find things like caves and waterfalls, mountains and valleys, wide-open fields, and pristine lakes and seashores

There’s one thing you know for certain: you’re looking to get away, get outdoors, and go exploring. But where are you going? Chances are you want to visit a place where the natural world is front and center which means state parks and national parks are two of your best options. These special, protected environments are available for public use and offer plenty of opportunities for exploration, recreation, and adventure. Whatever outdoor activities you’re enthusiastic about it’s guaranteed that both national and state parks afford plenty of access to a variety of great places to pursue them.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in any case, you have no bad options! No matter which type of park you choose to visit, you’ll be able to explore endless trails, campsites, and outdoor adventure opportunities. So make your choice and get out there!

In the southeastern corner of Georgia lies the Okefenokee Swamp, a 438,000-acre wetland. The cypress-filled wilderness—with its labyrinth of black canals inhabited by some 12,000 gators—is a long drive from anywhere. The Native Americans aptly called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits covering much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish moss-laced trees sway in the breeze. A carpet of yellow bonnet lilies floats on top of the glossy dark waters of this refuge, home not only to alligators but also to turtles, black bears, herons, and many other creatures. At night, you hear the barred owls hooting deep within the forest.

More on state parks: 16 of the Best State Parks in America

One noise missing is the beep-beep of mobile devices. Cell phone service is spotty at best and honestly, you’ll be delighted by a break from the digital world. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors have three main entry points to choose from, each about two hours from the next. Stephen C. Foster State Park is the western entrance to the Okefenokee. It’s nestled within the much larger Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge but it offers much that the bigger reserve does not include campsites with electrical hookups, running water, and access until 10 p.m.—a plus for the stargazers attracted by its International Dark Sky designation in 2016. The park is 18 miles from the closest town of Fargo, Georgia.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park staff removed 13 streetlights and switched many bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LED). They worked with a local power company to install state-of-the-art lighting which casts downward rather than outward. The staff even retrofitted outdoor lighting on park cabins to be motion-activated.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, Okefenokee’s 120 acres of state park have more fans than ever. Since the pandemic started, they’ve seen an uptick in visitation even in the summer when numbers are normally low. That’s no anomaly. As travelers seek new options for enjoying the outdoors, state parks across the country have reported rising attendance.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surprisingly, as of 2019, they were already welcoming about 2.5 times more visitors than their higher-profile, federally funded counterparts despite having only 16 percent of the acreage. While many state campgrounds do book up fast, a relatively local audience means that visitors at this southern George park tend to be more evenly distributed throughout the year which preserves the low-key, less crowded atmosphere. People can be out relaxing in nature without encountering the Instagram swarms angling for photo ops in the more famous parks.

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowd volume is also helped by the simple fact that there are more state-run options for travelers to choose from. America’s State Parks alliance tallied nearly 6,800 reserves while the National Park System manages just 423.

More on state parks: 12 of the Best State Parks for Summer Camping

As national parks introduce timed entry tickets and day-use reservations in an attempt to tackle overtourism these laid-back siblings feel all the more inviting. Of course, 50 states mean 50 different systems for camping permits, and from park to park amenities are even more variable. Some sites are tricked out with golf courses, zip lining, and RV hookups; others, such as Maine’s Baxter and California’s Sonoma Coast state parks don’t even have running water.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As demand grows, so, too, do the choices. Texas’s first new state park in 25 years, Palo Pinto Mountains will open next year on nearly 5,000 acres halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth. Visitors will be able to hike, bike, and ride horses over the hills. There will be fishing and canoeing on Tucker Lake and campsites where you can stargaze. Once the park opens, one of the first things visitors will see is a sweeping view of the hills from a road built along a ridge. That was on purpose—to awe people on their way in and out.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And Michigan just announced $250 million in funding for state parks including $26.2 million to create one in Flint—a key investment in the community as it continues to move past its water crisis.

Older sites are getting new energy, too. Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee opened a $40.4 million, 85-room lodge this past January.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In five Minnesota parks, all-terrain electric wheelchairs with continuous-track treads for navigating rugged ground will be bookable as of this summer.

More on state parks: The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

Still, state parks grapple with the same challenges national ones do—and then some. One big concern is having enough help to manage maintenance, ticketing, and other operations.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pennsylvania recently announced the creation of three new state parks. The state’s 2022-23 spending plan includes $56 million to add the new state parks to what is currently a 121-park system. The three will be the first new state parks in Pennsylvania since 2005 not counting Washington Crossing which was transferred from the state Historical and Museum Commission. The money will also help develop the state’s first park for the use of all-terrain vehicles and similar motorized recreational vehicles.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Delaware State Parks which have been filled with a growing number of visitors in the past few years is getting $3.2 million to upgrade some facilities. The goal is to increase the number of attractions in the popular state parks drawing even more tourists to the state. A record-breaking 8 million people visited state parks in 2021 exceeding previous attendance numbers. State officials say this year’s numbers are on track to top that total. Since 2011, reservations and occupancy for camping nights in the parks have grown 124 percent. In 2011, 67,000 nights were reserved, while last year, total reservations approached 150,000.

More on state parks: 7 of the Best State Parks in Texas to Take Your RV

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge