The Ultimate Guide to Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world

Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.

Plan your trip: A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.

Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.

Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.

Plan your trip: Padre Island National Seashore: World’s Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island

Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.

Bird Island Basin Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.

Malaquite Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.

Sea Breeze RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.

Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.

Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.

Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite. 

Plan your trip: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.

Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.

Read Next: Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield

Life Is a Highway: Taking the Great American Road Trip

Ready. Set. On the road!

There’s a lot of America out there. It’s a big, beautiful country with so much to see. And when you fly to your destination, you’re missing most of it—the landscapes, the views, the small-town diners, the quirky roadside attractions. You lose the chance to experience all the special little stops that exist in between the big cities. To get to know America, you have to drive through it in an RV.

World’s Largest Runner, Los Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination.

“I discovered I did not know my own country,” John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley explaining why he hit the road at age 58.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Travel usually implies seeing a place once and moving on; but this became a trip in which I made lists of places I’d return to—Prescott and Sedona and now Gallup, New Mexico where I’d happily go mountain-biking or hiking in the high desert or visiting the people who possessed the country before we claimed it as ours.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky, well-tended and fenced, and the soft green of its fields and hills, the sight of horses and farms, made it seem an orderly Eden, parklike—another place to return to. This part of the state was rich in classic names—Lebanon and Paris, but Athens and Versailles had been tamed into Ay-thens and Ver-sails.

Versailles, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Ten days into my road trip I began wondering if I were perhaps pushing it a little too hard. But wasn’t the whole point to keep going down the proud highway? The thrill is in the moving, gaining ground, watching the landscape change, stopping on impulse.

“At one point, bowling along the open road, the Supertramp song Take the Long Way Home came on the radio. Listening to music while driving through a lovely landscape is one of life’s great mood enhancers. And hearing the line, ‘But there are times that you feel you’re part of the scenery,’ I was in Heaven.”

Related Article: The Great American Road Trip: Born in 1856

Kentucky Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The journey and not the destination is the joy of RVing. Taking your RV on the open road and experiencing breathtaking views along the way can make for the one-of-a-kind vacation your family is looking for. Highways can guide you along the coast to take in ocean views at sunset. Others wind you through the mountains exploring history.

A lot goes into planning a great road trip from finding the best diners along your route and the quirkiest roadside attractions to queueing up road trip songs that make the trip. It’s all about the journey.

World’s Largest Pistachio Nut, Alamagordo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I can tell you scenic roads to take, where to camp, where to eat, and where to stop (I can even tell you where to find the world’s largest roadrunner or pistachio nut), and help you make the best road trip playlist.

With that in mind, I put together this Great American Road Trips Guide to help you find some inspiration. Discover favorite routes to drive plus some of the best stops along the way.

And remember: These are just jumping-off points. Once you’re on the road, you’ll think of other parts of the country you want to see. Along the way, you might even stumble upon a road that takes you even farther off the beaten path. If you do, follow your wanderlust. Trust me—it’s worth it!

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

Known as one of the nation’s best and most beautiful drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles across Virginia and North Carolina. It follows the Appalachian Mountains—the Blue Ridge chain, specifically—from Shenandoah National Park in the north to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south. Because the Blue Ridge Parkway connects two national parks, it’s easy to visit both during your drive.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shifting Sands

West Texas winds transform an ever-changing landscape of sand dunes at the 3.840-acre Monahans Sandhills State Park. The field of dunes begins south of Monahans and stretches north into New Mexico. Opened in 1957, the state park harbors a peaceful Chihuahuan Desert playground where people can explore the rolling landscape, slide down the hills, picnic, camp, and take in extraordinary sunrises and sunsets.

Related Article: Ultimate American Road Trips

Klosel’s Steakhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kloesel’s Steakhouse & Bar, Moulton, Texas

It was hard to believe the locals when we were told that one of the best restaurants around was Klosel’s. After some hesitation, we stopped for lunch en route to the little brewery in Shiner and give it a shot and what a pleasant surprise. The food was truly amazing and good value. Great atmosphere and friendly service. We have eaten here over the years numerous times and have always been impressed with their food and staff. Particularly love their chicken fried steak—and desert.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road

Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited, remote Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake, or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway. 

Woodstock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Woodstock

In a state that’s home to the Hamptons, Finger Lakes, Appalachian Trail, and Big Apple it’s no surprise that small communities like Woodstock fall to the back of the mind. To assume that Woodstock is only notable for its namesake 1969 music festival (that didn’t occur there) would be a major blunder—the three-day festival was held on a dairy farm in nearby Bethel. In reality, Woodstock is a charming little Catskills oasis where fewer than 6,000 residents prop up an art, religion, music, and theater scene worthy of national attention.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The stretch of Interstate running from Minneapolis, Minnesota, through the heart of the North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you’re big into grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, nobody’s confusing a drive down I-94 with one of America’s most scenic routes. Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—the Earth drops out from under the highway and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere. This is how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains-state paradise often forgotten in the world of Arches and Bryce Canyon. The three-unit park is surprising not just in its grandeur but also in its very existence in a state few know much about.

Mount Washington Cog Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Washington Cog Railway

At 6,288.2 feet, Mt. Washington is the highest peak in New Hampshire. Ride in style to the summit on a historic cog railway that has been operating since 1869. Grades average 25 percent! Keep your eye out for hikers on the Appalachian Trail which crosses the line about three-quarters of the way up. Enjoy far-reaching panoramic views at the summit on the Observatory deck on a nice day. The visitor center has snacks, restrooms, and a post office. And, don’t miss the Mount Washington Weather Museum.

Related Article: Road Trippin’

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A short trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations anywhere. Your itinerary includes the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (established 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You’ll be consuming a lot of meat so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

Shipshewana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shipshewana

Many of the towns in northwestern Indiana’s Amish Country date back 150 years or more. Among these is tiny Shipshewana known for an enormous flea market where 1,000 vendors peddle their wares twice a week from May through October. Due to the Amish lifestyle you can almost believe you’ve stepped back in time a century or more. To learn about Amish history, tour Menno-Hof. Through multi-image presentations and historical displays, you’ll travel back 500 years to the origins of the Amish-Mennonite story.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

A huge swath of Arizona seems to have been designed by cartoonists, from the trippy Dr. Seuss waves of the Vermillion Cliffs to the splaying cacti of Saguaro National Park. But Monument Valley is where nature gets serious. This is a land of monolithic red sandstone bluffs seemingly carved by the gods where enormous spires emerge so far in the distance they’re shrouded by haze even on a clear day. Each crevice tells a story and every ledge is its own unforgettable vista.

Related Article: Road Trip Planning for the First Time RVer

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Monument Valley is undoubtedly national park-worthy, this is a Navajo Tribal Park and I hope it stays that way. It’s a place rooted in ancient Native religion and serves as an expansive gateway to the wondrous desert landscapes of both Utah and Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Life is a Highway

Life is like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind

Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long
Come on. Give me give me give me give me yeah

—recorded by Tom Cochrane from his second studio album, Mad Mad World (1991)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

Where the buffalo roam and the badlands earn their name

The stretch of Interstate running from Minneapolis, Minnesota, through the heart of the North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you’re big into grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, nobody’s confusing a drive down I-94 with one of America’s most scenic routes.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—the Earth drops out from under the highway.

Where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, tree-dotted canyons border the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains-state paradise often forgotten in the world of Arches and Bryce Canyon. The three-unit park is surprising not just in its grandeur but also in its very existence in a state few know much about.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But if there’s any reason to meander down I-94 through North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is it.

Related Article: Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park is broken into three units: North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch. The latter is home to Roosevelt’s old ranch home and little else. But South and North combine for one of the most unexpected experiences in the Midwest.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to see the South Unit is along its 36-mile loop drive which starts just after the Visitors Center in the western town of Medora (come for the pitchfork-fried steak, stay for the Medora Musical, a 90-minute revue telling the history of Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt) and continues through most of the park. You’ll roll through fields dotted with prairie dogs under buttes towering into the blue sky and along ridges standing over the jagged badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best spot for pictures along the 90-minute ride is at Boicourt Overlook where a short 15-minite walk over an easy trail takes you to a sprawling view of the park. This overlook is a ranger favorite for sunsets over the badlands. You’ll be on top of the world when you climb Buck Hill, the highest accessible point in the park. This is a short, but steep trail. The view from the top is worth every step. Enjoy hiking the Wind Canyon Nature Trail alongside a wind-sculpted canyon as you climb to the best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer. Another ranger favorite for sunsets.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a better-than-average chance your drive will be delayed by a herd of buffalo but just remember the loop drive is all about the journey and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you’re unlikely to have again.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For more active travelers, the South Unit offers the most trails of any part of the park. For something otherworldly head down the Coal Vein Trail where you’ll step past steaming patches of dark rock marking large stores of coal. It’s perfectly safe as the coal isn’t burning but if you catch the trail after a rain storm steam still rises out of the ground. Think of it as a little slice of Iceland on the Dakota prairie.

Related Article: A Park to Honor a President: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For multi-colored views of the park’s signature Painted Canyon, climb down into the Painted Canyon Trail. The hike lets you delve into steep, desert scenery and only takes about half an hour to complete. Though you can reach it from the Loop Road via a few other trails, it’s still best visited by driving eight miles east on I-94 from Medora and starting at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re feeling strong and want to see some of the park’s more unusual offerings, hike the Petrified Forest Loop trail. Located in the remote northwest corner of the South Unit, this hike takes you through ancient petrified forests and badlands wilderness. The 10-mile loop includes the North and South Petrified Forest Trails as well as the Maah Daah Hey.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit is smaller than the South but more dramatic. Located about 45 minutes north, the Little Missouri River meanders through deep green canyons, along golden cliffs, and up into soft scenic mountains. Stop at the River Bend Overlook and you’ll see the view that inspired the Bull Moose to preserve the land to begin with.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit has fewer trails and can be done in one, long day trip. The Caprock Coulee trail is the signature hike, a 4.3-mile jaunt that starts just off the park’s main road. But do yourself a favor and go a little past the official trailhead to the River Bend Overlook. Starting the trail here effectively saves the best for last and makes the hike an experience that just keeps getting better the further your travel.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caprock Coulee begins atop the Little Missouri River and takes you through the North Unit’s foothills, inside a canyon, and up the mountains that stand over the badlands and river valley. Every climb brings you to a viewpoint that’s more jaw-dropping than the last, so much so you’ll barely notice the walk takes you almost three hours. No trail in either unit comes close to the scenery you’ll see along Caprock Coulee, so plan to hit it early before the crowds (such as they are) join you.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the main road, stop off and see the Cannonball Concretions a few miles in. The mysterious, spherical rocks look almost like they were shot into the side of the butte and offer a quizzical look at the geology of the region. They sit right next to a field of prairie dogs too, making it the North Unit’s best roadside stop.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To experience the whole North Unit on foot, hit the Buckhorn Trail. You can pick up the 11.4-mile loop right past the visitors center and take it through all the scenery that makes the North Unit so cool. The views aren’t quite what they are around Caprock Coulee but if you’re looking for an all-day hike this is the best.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s not much of anywhere to stay at the North Unit, though, as it doesn’t boast a fun western theme town outside its gates like its brother to the south. But you can make a full-day field trip north then cap it off with a hearty steak and cool sunset back in Medora.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has two campgrounds (both have one group site and many standard sites) and one group site for camping with horses. All campgrounds are primitive (no hookups, no showers). Group sites and half the camp sites in the South Unit are available by reservation. The rest are first come, first served. When choosing a campground, first consider which park unit you plan to visit.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground lies inside the park about 5 miles from Medora. It is the South Unit’s only campground. Half the sites are by reservation at recreation.gov while all remaining sites are first come, first served. Most sites are suitable for tents and RVs (no hookups). Cottonwood Campground fills to capacity each afternoon, mid-May through mid-September.

Related Article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Juniper Campground is 5 miles from Highway 85 and is the only campground in the park’s North Unit. All sites are open to tent camping and most can also be used by vehicles/RVs (no hookups). All regular sites are first come, first served. Juniper Campground is trending to fill to capacity by late afternoon and definitely fills to capacity on holiday weekends.

Worth Pondering…

I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks

National parks with the best scenic drives

A trip to a national park is about more than just the destination. It’s the journey to these remote corners of preserved natural wonders that are equally enticing including drives to and around the parks.

In fact, many US national parks are best seen from your car—really. We’re not saying you shouldn’t get out and breathe the fresh air and smell the flowers and hike a trail but to get the best overview of wilderness and wildlife scenic drives can’t be beat. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when planning a road trip to a national park 

Prepare your vehicle: National parks are often located in remote areas and it may be a while for help to arrive if you break down. So be sure your vehicle is fully serviced and has a full tank of fuel before you start your adventure.

Download directions: Speaking of being remote, you may not have cell service or Wi-Fi in the parks so make sure to save routing info (including this story) to your phone in advance of your trip. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack snacks and water: Don’t count on food or supplies on the road—bring everything you need with you including picnic supplies (and be sure to carry out anything you carry in with you). 

Following are 10 of the best US national parks for scenic drives this summer and beyond.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for Seussian landscapes

The route: Park Boulevard, drive from North (SR-62) or South (I-10) entrances

Route length: 35 miles

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transform from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to get an idea of what you’ll see on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park? Pick up a copy of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The scraggly armed trees with tufts of needles reaching towards the sky strongly resemble a “truffula tree” and the entire desert landscape has an almost whimsical feel. Make no mistake though, the rocky wonders and unusual vegetation you’ll see driving through this park—which straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts—are both real and incredible.  

Read More: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Best scenic drive through the park: best for fall foliage

The route: Newfound Gap Road from US 441

Route length: 29 miles

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

The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

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

The largest national park in the east and the most visited park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains stretches from North Carolina to Tennessee. This park is ideally situated for driving itineraries with 384 miles of roads from which to choose your driving adventure. Newfound Gap, named for the high mountain pass at the state line, offers views for days, great animal spotting, and a high perch to view the hardwood forests and changing leaves come the fall. 

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for natural architecture

The route: Arches Scenic Drive

Route length: 18 miles

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The red sandstone arches that give this Utah national park its name seem too perfectly balanced to be created by something as fickle as wind and sand. Surely, you’ll think as you drive around the amazing structures, a human architect must have lent a hand? This drive will take you past all of the soaring highlights; be sure to get out the car to get the full scope and perspective of these towering rock formations. 

Tip: After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for petrified logs

The route: Petrified Forest Road

Route length: 28 miles

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. Starting in the north at Exit 311 off I-40, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to see an 18-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and a short walking trail.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Read More: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for towering monoliths

The route: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

Route length: 54 miles

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 54-mile route starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and I-15 about nine miles east of St. George and ends at the Mt. Carmel Junction. From November until March, you’ll be able to drive the entire route but from spring through fall the Zion Canyon section is closed to cars. Take the free shuttle which makes nine stops and takes about an hour and a half.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the park’s main section: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Read More: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for panoramic canyon views

The route: Desert View Drive

Route length: 23 miles

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Desert View Watchtower is located at Desert View. Traveling west, other stops along this route include Navajo Point, Lapin Point, Tusayan Pueblo and Museum, Moran Point, Grandview Point, Duck on a Rock, and Pipe Creek Vista.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Best scenic drive through the park: 700 years of Ancestral Pueblo history

The route: Mesa Top Auto Loop

Route length: 6 miles

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites. From remains of early pithouses and masonry villages to multi-storied cliff dwellings, archeological sites along this loop show how early Pueblo architecture evolved.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the road, you’ll find short, easily-accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. Short trails along the Mesa Top Loop lead to surface sites such as pithouses and pueblos; overlooks of cliff dwellings tucked into alcoves; and viewpoints where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape that was home to generations of Ancestral Pueblo people.

Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily, 8:00 am to sunset.

Read More: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for historic and geologic features

The route: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Route length: 30 miles

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most interesting of the paved sightseeing routes in Big Bend National Park giving the greatest variety of habitats, geology, and a variety of interesting short walks and interpretive pull outs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road skirts the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District and winding up at Santa Elena Canyon trailhead where the pavement ends. Heading south from the Ross Maxwell junction there are a number of pullovers to interpretive sites, trailheads to short and longer hikes, and scenic vistas.

Read More: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Most scenic drive through the park: best for surreal and otherworldly

The route: Badlands Loop Scenic Byway

Route length: 39 miles

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with numerous opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities. Don’t miss the Big Badlands Overlook in the east or the Door, Window, and Notch Trail turnoff just a few miles further south down the road; in the west, make sure to stop at the Pinnacles Overlook and the Yellow Mounds Overlook towards the western end of the loop road. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Most scenic drive through the park: best for colorful wildflowers

The route: Skyline Drive

Route length: 105 miles

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. The only public road through the Park, it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These cement posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Read More: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

The Ultimate Guide to RV Tires

Be in the know about RV tires

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway. You wouldn’t go anywhere without them. You must do your due diligence to protect them and keep them in optimal shape. If you take care of them, they’re more likely to take care of you. 

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tires of your RV are one of the most important investments you can make. Not only do they make it sail down the road smoothly, they’re also a big part in keeping you and your fellow travelers safe.

Just like with cars and trucks, tires wear down from normal use or occasionally require a replacement due to damage. It’s essential to keep your tires in top shape to encourage safety and ensure you have optimal control over your rig. Here’s a guide to understanding your RV tire options.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do you need RV replacement tires?

Many things affect the quality of your coach’s tires. Always inspect each tire before driving. Look for cracks, protruding objects, and bulging that may indicate low air pressure. This quick check can prevent you from getting on the road and having to call for a tow due to tire problems.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Age

Most manufacturers recommend replacing RV tires every five to seven years regardless of mileage. At this point, the treads may have diminished, limiting traction with the road and reducing your ability to control the rig. The rubber is more likely to blow out because it has thinned and stretched due to temperature and condition changes. Even if you seldom drive the RV, the tires wear out from holding the weight of the rig.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All tires made after 2000 must have the manufacture date written on the sidewall in the DOT code. To find when your tires were made, look for the numbers on the sidewall after “DOT.” The last four digits indicate the week and year they were made. For example, “1718” tires were made during the 17th week of 2018. Consider an RV tire upgrade if yours are five years old or older.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather

The environment takes a toll on your RV. Changing temperatures affect tire air pressure and cause wear. High temperatures expand the air increasing pressure and stretching the material. Low temperatures make the air contract reducing the amount of air and putting pressure on tire sidewalls while increasing the likelihood of a blowout.

More on RV safety: On the Road Again: Summer Road Trip Safety Tips

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road conditions

Some RV owners only drive their rigs on well-maintained paved roads. Others use their home-away-from-home to visit areas with less-than-perfect pavement. Driving on gravel, dirt, or ill-maintained roads will decrease the life of your tires. These conditions require the tires to absorb more upward movement from bumps and potholes, wearing out the material more quickly. Stick to roads with even pavement and avoid potholes as much as possible to minimize tire wear.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extending RV tire life

Follow proper air pressure

Underinflated tires have more resistance and require more fuel due to friction. They also generate more heat during use increasing their likelihood of blowing out. Using too little air will require more frequent RV tire replacement.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overinflated tires are less flexible and can contribute to a less comfortable ride. The unnecessary stress of too-high pressure will cause the tires to wear faster near the center of the tread. Too much air also increases the chances of a blowout.

Tire manufacturers offer the suggested air pressure on tire sidewalls near the manufacture date. This number will be written in pounds per square inch (PSI). Always carry a heavy duty tire pressure gauge and check it before driving to ensure your tires are in top shape. Gas stations and mechanic shops have air compressors to make it convenient to fill up. Some coaches include tire pressure monitoring systems to make checking PSI easy.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to maintain the optimal tire pressure for the best quality ride, weigh each wheel position of the fully loaded RV and then check the tire manufacturers inflation chart for that tire and adjust the inflation pressures to match the tire manufacturers recommendations based on the actual tire loads taking into consideration that tires on both ends of any given axle should be running at the same pressure and the pressure selected should be appropriate for the heaviest loaded tire side.

More on RV safety: April 2022 RV Manufacturer Recalls: 15 Recalls Involving 8 RV Manufactures

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a temperature decrease you may need to add some air with a compressor. If you drive into higher-temperature areas, you might have to release some air from the tires to prevent pressure problems. Press a screwdriver to the metal pin in the middle of the tire air stem to release air for a second or two. Recheck the pressure and follow this process until you reach the desired PSI.

Your RV manual will state the best tire pressure for your rig. This number is also noted on a data plate on the inside of the RV along with the VIN and weight capacity. Your vehicle might feature this plate on the electrical box near the driver’s seat at the back of a cabinet or inside a cabinet door. 

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Protect the tires

There are steps you can take to extend the life of your rig’s tires. Rotate RV tires every 6,000 to 8,000 miles to promote even wear. Use tire covers when storing your rig to protect the material from precipitation, heat, and debris.

Choosing RV replacement tires

Here is some information to consider before heading to an RV dealership in search of new tires.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weight

Your new RV tires must be able to handle the weight of your rig. Class A motorhomes weigh between 15,000 and 54,000 pounds and can be up to 45-feet long. Class B rigs are 6,000 to 8,000 pounds and range from 17 to 19 feet. Class C tires must withstand 10,000 to 20,000 pounds and reach from 20 to 30-feet-long. This information is listed on the data plate inside the rig and in the owner’s manual. Know your vehicle’s weight to ensure you purchase the correct tires to handle your RV.

Make sure your current tires are correct for your rig before using their information to establish which model to purchase next. If the current set is not the appropriate size, you may invest in the wrong tires for your RV. You can verify the tires with a mechanic, an RV dealership, or a tire specialist. If the tires are correct, you can use their specs to inform your new purchase.

More on RV safety: 10 RV Driving Tips

The tires have numbers indicating their size, like 315/80R 22.5. The first number is the width of the tire wall while the second number is the height of the wall as a percent of the width section. The R means it has radial construction and the last number refers to which wheel rim size the tire will fit.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Speed Rating

Not all tires are rated for the same speed. Installing tires with a low speed rating could create hazard if the RV is driven at speeds higher than the rating of the tire. So if you’re usually taking it slow on local and backroads and avoid the highway, you’ll want different tires than if you’re cruising on interstates.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Season

Having the right tires is especially important if you drive in cold, icy places. Worn-out or bald treads will limit steering capacity and braking, potentially causing you to skid off the road or lose control more easily. If you regularly adventure in winter climates, consider investing in a set of snow tires. These models have thicker treads to promote traction on slippery surfaces. You can switch to these models before heading to snowy places.

Your RV tires are what keep you rolling down the highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some states and Canadian provinces require RV drivers to carry snow chains. These net-like chains go over your tires and provide grip for inclement weather. Avoid driving in blizzard or whiteout conditions whenever possible but keep these tools on hand in case of an emergency.

More on RV safety: 30 RV Hacks and Tips for a Successful Road Trip

Replacement RV tires are a big decision, so don’t be afraid to contact your dealership or tire specialist and ask questions.

Worth Pondering…

Speed was high

Weather was hot

Tires were thin

X marks the spot

—Burma Shave sign

Touring Apache Country

Land of Geronimo and Cochise

With the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Four Corners area, and many other geographical wonders in the northern part of the state, southeastern Arizona, steeped in both natural history and human history, is often overlooked. But it is not to be missed!

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This was the home of Cochise. This was the land of Geronimo. This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday.

Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for us to enjoy.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With summer temperatures milder than many parts of the state, southeastern Arizona offers comfortable day trips into history and adventures not possible in some of the hotter Sonoran Desert areas. There is so much to see and do in Apache Country making it easy to find something to delight each member of the family.

For the naturalist, birds abound, including some of the rarest and most beautiful in the United States. For the history buff, there is the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons, the site of Geronimo’s surrender, and boomtowns such as Tombstone and Bisbee to explore. There are hikes and picnic areas in national monuments that will take your breath away with their splendor.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

There are historic (and reportedly even haunted) hotels and B & Bs as well as some of the best camping in the state. There are reenactments of the Shootout at the OK Corral and there are overlooks that fill one with amazement. There is something for everyone here. This is Southeastern Arizona, Apache Country.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Apache

The Apache were once a nomadic people. There are Apache reservations today scattered throughout Arizona Southeast Arizona was their home.

Apache Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the arrival of the Spanish and their horses, the Apache people developed a rich equine culture. Horses allowed them a freedom to travel they had not known before and they became excellent horsemen. The horse also allowed these people to fight for their land as the westward expansion took place—and fight for it they did. Cochise, perhaps best known for his desire to be a liaison between the two cultures, worked hard to secure peace but peace was not to be had. It was not until Geronimo’s surrender in the 1880s, also in this little corner of the state, that the Indian Wars finally came to a close.

Related Article: All Aboard & Bound For Benson

The story of the Apache is an integral part of southeastern Arizona’s history, yet far more than that. It is part of this beautiful land, much of it still the way it was when the Apache lived here. And that beauty is something we can still see and experience for ourselves.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

One of the most spectacular of all places to visit in this fascinating land is Chiricahua National Monument. With rock formations and pinnacles that seem to defy gravity, this is a must for anyone visiting the area.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 27 million years ago, this “Land of Standing-Up Rocks” was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that make up Chiricahua National Monument.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Ranger Station and Visitor Center are just inside the park entrance. From there, a beautiful scenic drive that climbs gradually through oak, juniper, and pine forests—Bonita Canyon Drive—winds 8 miles to the crest of the mountains and Massai Point. Picnic tables and restrooms are available here.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Echo Canyon Trail and Heart of Rocks Trail offer fantastic views of balanced rocks, pinnacles, and spires. The picturesque homestead of the area, Faraway Ranch, is currently being renovated. When the renovation is completed it will be reopened for tours. The monument’s Visitor Center has an audio-visual program and exhibits, as well as books and maps for sale.

There are hiking trails, both short loops, and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Related Article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: The Old West

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Massai Point you will see Cochise Head, the incredible formation that appears to be the face of Cochise, prone and facing the sky above, beautifully sculpted from nature herself in a seeming tribute to the Apache people for whom this land was once home.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A plethora of animals and birds can be seen in the monument, many of which are found only in this corner of the southwest. Javelina, Coatimundi, hog- nosed and hooded skunks, deer, bear, mountain lions, rare hummingbirds, Scott’s orioles, painted redstarts, hepatic tanagers, and red-faced warblers are just a few of the interesting wildlife species to be found in this fantastic land.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

The story of the west and any tour of this area would not be the same, or complete without including the legendary town of Tombstone. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family here in Tombstone.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first glance, it might appear that gift, book, and curio shops are the main attractions but if you take the time to stroll down the boardwalks, you will find yourself drawn into the past. Besides the OK Corral and the reenactments that take place in the outdoor amphitheater, there are public and private museums, antique stores, the original Tombstone Epitaph newspaper print shop, and Boot Hill. Visitors can pan for gold, horseback ride down trails once traveled by Doc and Wyatt, take a stagecoach ride, tour the silver mines, stay at historic bed and breakfasts, and visit the infamous Bird Cage Theater where Tombstone’s haunting and colorful past will take you back to its heyday.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

Bisbee, just east of Tombstone, is a picturesque and historic town created by its huge copper mine. Today, the historic Copper Queen Hotel is the center of town. It is surrounded by art galleries, local artisan’s craftshops, and antique shops. There are tours and lookouts of the copper mine, offering many unique photo opportunities.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee is in the mountains between Tombstone and Douglas and has pleasant summer temperatures. A day in Bisbee is a delight and a visit to the Copper Queen Hotel a must. Bisbee is the county seat of Cochise County.

Other Places to Visit in Southeastern Arizona

In this land of the Apache, there are historical sites, forts, monuments, boom towns, streams, mountains, mines, and wildlife to be found in abundance. It would be impossible to cover them all in one article.

Related Article: Your Cochise Adventure

Lavender Pit mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But before you leave southeastern Arizona, or on your return trip to this land of history and wonder, be sure to include:

  • Cave Creek Canyon and Portal
  • Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoons
  • Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Remember, there is truly something for everyone in Southeastern Arizona! And with its milder seasonal temperatures, this region can be enjoyed year-round.

This is Apache Country!

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

The Ultimate Deep South Road Trip: Savannah to Charleston

There are so many things to love about a Deep South road trip from Savannah to Charleston

Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina are two of the most popular travel destinations in the southeastern United States and they happen to be neighbors.

With famous historic squares, delicious southern cuisine, and a lively waterfront it’s no wonder Savannah attracts nearly 15 million visitors every year.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head north from Savannah and you’ll soon hit Charleston, another historical city where you can dine, shop, and take in the fresh sea air. After walking around its colorful, cobblestone streets it isn’t hard to understand why this city frequently earns a spot as one of the best places to visit in the US.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah and Charleston are just over 100 miles apart. The Savannah to Charleston drive time takes about two hours if you drive straight through with no detours. Because these two cities are fairly close, they make a great day road trip since you’ll have plenty of time to explore attractions along the way.

Driving from Savannah to Charleston is pretty straightforward. If you’re starting in Savannah, you’ll take I-95 North to US-17 North. But along the way, there are some interesting stops that are worth a visit.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before beginning the drive, I recommend several days in Savannah beginning the drive to visit attractions like Forsyth Park, the Bonaventure Cemetery, and the River Street waterfront area.

Just a 15-minute drive north of Savannah, you’ll find the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. This 30,000-acre wildlife refuge is home to birds, alligators, and other marsh-dwelling flora and fauna.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could easily spend an entire day hiking, biking, and kayaking at this nature-lovers paradise but for this itinerary, we’re just going to visit Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive. The Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive is a scenic four-mile road through the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Along this road, you can spot wildlife from your car or one of many lookout points.

Next, you’ll drive about an hour northeast to St. Helena Island, South Carolina. St. Helena Island is the perfect place to immerse yourself in natural beauty and learn about Gullah culture.

St. Helena © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the center of the island, surrounded by Spanish moss-draped oak trees, you’ll find the Penn Center, a 50-acre historic district comprising 25 historic buildings and structures. The Penn Center was one of the first schools in the country where formerly enslaved individuals could receive an education. The center was visited by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s and continues to work toward preserving and celebrating Gullah culture to this day. Visitors can learn about African American history, art, and culture on self-guided tours and group tours.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From St. Helena, continue driving one island further and you’ll arrive at Hunting Island State Park. This State Park is known for having five miles of amazing beaches and a lighthouse that dates back to the 19th century. You can even climb the lighthouse stairs for a panoramic view of the surrounding islands and wetlands. After visiting the lighthouse, you can spend time exploring the beach or head down to Hunting Island State Park Nature Center where you can learn about local wildlife.

Related: The Perfect Georgia Coast Road Trip

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available at the northern end of the park near the ocean. 102 sites offer water and 20/30/50 amp electric service. Campground roads are paved while the sites are packed soil. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; others up to 28 feet. The campground is convenient to hot showers with restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Backtrack through Hunting Island and St. Helena Island to the coastal town of Beaufort. Next, we’re heading inland to the Old Sheldon Church Ruins. Sheldon Church dates back to the mid-1700s. It was burned down during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt many years later. It’s believed that the church was burned again during the Civil War but this time it wasn’t rebuilt.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the ruins are hauntingly beautiful and surrounded by a lush landscape. The property is located right off Old Sheldon Church Road and has informational markers as well as shaded seating areas to enjoy the view.

From the Old Sheldon Church Ruins, head northeast to Edisto Island. Edisto is a peaceful vacation island south of Charleston that’s perfect for a bit of relaxation.

Related: Spotlight on South Carolina: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Edisto Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edisto Beach has long been a spectacular place to enjoy all of nature’s beauty while enjoying outdoor activities to keep your heart (and mind!) healthy. You can hike, bike, or run on Edisto whether you’re a seasoned fitness expert or just a fan of the leisurely stroll. There are walking paths, hiking, biking, kayaking, and paddle boarding options. Edisto is sure to offer something that matches exactly what you have in mind. 

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to Edisto Beach State Park to stretch your legs on one of the many hiking paths or visit the environmental education center to learn more about the island. The park has an impressive array of camping sites in oceanfront and maritime forest habitats and most can accommodate RVs, some up to 40 feet. There are 64 oceanside sites and 33 sites along the salt marsh. Many sites offer easy access to the sea, sand, and sun.

Botany Bay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to see the South Carolina coast the way the original settlers did, take a step back in time to Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve located adjacent to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the northeast corner of Edisto Island. The 3,363-acre preserve includes almost three miles of undeveloped, breathtaking beachfront. Botany Bay is very accessible; you can tour most of the property in half a day or less. The 6.5-mile route begins along a magnificent avenue of oaks interspersed with loblolly pine and cabbage palmetto.

Related: Edisto Island: History, Pure Bliss & More

Folly Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The last stop on this Savannah to Charleston road trip is Folly Beach.. Folly Beach is just outside of Charleston and is one of the most popular Charleston day trip destinations for locals and visitors alike. Take a stroll along the Folly Beach fishing pier or spend some time meandering through the beachy downtown neighborhoods. If you have time, rent a paddleboard or a kayak for a chance to see ocean life like turtles and dolphins.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you’ve had your fun in the sun, head north for about 20 minutes and you’ll be in the heart of Charleston. You may have reached your destination, but the adventure isn’t over. Charleston has tons of things to see and it’s a great destination to explore for a few days. You won’t want to miss walking along the waterfront park or strolling past one of Charleston’s most colorful streets, Rainbow Row. Hop aboard a historic harbor cruise for a guided tour of the city or try some of the best local flavors on a guided food tour.

Worth Pondering…

If you lead a good life, go to church, and say your prayers, you’ll go to Charleston when you die.

—old South Carolina saying

Why You Should Explore the Wines of the Okanagan Valley

Thirsty? You’re in luck. Hundreds of wineries line the fertile Okanagan Valley, clustered around a string of scenic lakes.

The Okanagan Valley is a roughly 155-mile-long valley that stretches from Osoyoos on the Canadian border with Washington State to roughly Vernon, British Columbia.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s located approximately 240-miles east of Vancouver, BC, between the 49th and 50th parallel. That puts it on the same latitude as Champagne in France and the Rheingau in Germany.

The region has a continental climate, but its extremes are moderated by the presence of a series of deep, interconnected lakes—Okanagan Lake, Skaha Lake, Vaseux Lake, and Osoyoos Lake.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is a largely desert region which averages less than 12 inches of rainfall a year. The valley gets progressively drier from north to south with roughly 16 inches of rain at its northern end around Kelowna to less than 10 inches a year around Osoyoos.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winters can be cold here with temperatures falling to below 10 degrees Fahrenheit but they are generally short. Summers can be exceptionally hot. Average summer temperatures in July and August are 85 degrees with temperatures over 100 degrees are common.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its northern latitude also means that the region’s vineyards experience more daylight during the summer growing period—roughly 14 hours of direct sunlight. Compared to Napa Valley, for example, the Okanagan receives about two hours more sunlight a day and has markedly hotter temperatures.

Related Article: The Okanagan Valley: A Special Place

The northern latitude, however, also means that the onset of cool autumn weather can often come quickly reducing the amount of hang time that grapes can receive.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The steeply sided slopes and surface geography create a range of aspects and produce varied microclimates across the valley. The resulting wines vary from Mosel style Rieslings to concentrated Bordeaux inspired red blends.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The region experiences a pronounced diurnal cycle (a pattern that recurs every 24 hours) especially during the harvest season with warm days and cool nights combining to promote acidity as well as maximize hang time. The result is new world style, concentrated fruit forward wines that retain a notable, vibrant acidity.

There are over 60 different varieties of wine grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley. These are vinified in a variety of styles ranging from sparkling to still to ice wines.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The geology of the Okanagan Valley is particularly complex; presenting an array of rock types (basaltic lava flows, carbonaceous sedimentary beds, intrusive granites, and metamorphic rocks) which have been shaped by complex processes of mountain building, volcanic eruptions, glaciations, and erosion.

The result is a series of ancient soils composed of glacial till and eroded bedrock. It’s not uncommon for a small 10-acre vineyard to exhibit a half dozen or more different soil types.

Okanagan Wine Country Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The valley has approximately 9,000 acres of vineyards. It represents roughly 85 percent of British Columbia’s wine production spread out over 185 wineries.

The valley is in turn organized into eight wine producing areas, four of which are official sub-regions or appellations that present distinct soil and climate conditions. From north to south these eight wine producing areas are:

Kelowna/Lake Country

Quails Gate Winery in the Kelowna wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grapes were first planted in this region in 1859. It also boasts the oldest continually operating winery—Calona Vineyards, established in 1932. The region hosts some of the valley’s best-known wineries including Gray Monk Estate, Summerville Pyramid Winery, Cedar Creek, and Quail’s Gate Winery. There are about 900 acres of vineyards across 44 wineries.

Soils here tend to be heavier, consisting of a mix of sandy loam, clay, and limestone. Grape varietals cultivated include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Related Article: South Okanagan: Beaches, Peaches, Wine, and More

Peachland/Summerland/Penticton

Play Winery in Penticton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This region overlooks Okanagan Lake and sits across from the Naramata Bench on the east side of the lake. Soils here are a mix of volcanic soils and very fertile ice age clays.

Dirty Laundry Vineyard in Summerland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Principal grape varieties include Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Among the better-known wineries here is Sumac Ridge which was established in 1980. The region has about 355 acres of vineyards across 23 wineries.

Naramata Bench

Red Rooster Winery in the Naramata Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naramata Bench consists of the bench lands overlooking Okanagan Lake situated between Penticton Creek and Okanagan Mountain Park. Okanagan Lake and the pronounced aspect of the terrain exert a powerful moderating influence resulting in a long, frost-free period compared to other regions of the Okanagan Valley.

Lake Breeze Winery in the Naramata Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The soils here consist of nutrient rich topsoil formed by the deposition of silt loam in glacial lake sediments. At lower elevations soils are remarkably stone free but these give way to gravelly soils, mostly the result of deposits of glacial till that occurred when the ice sheets of the last ice age began to recede some 15 thousand years ago.

Upper Bench Winery in the Naramata Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is a total of 618 acres of vineyards spreads across 39 different wineries. The principal grape varieties cultivated are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. The first winery established here was Lang Vineyards in 1990.

Skaha Bench

Blasted Church Vineyards in the Skaha Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On May 13, 2019, wineries in the Skaha Bench joined the Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, and Golden Mile Bench, near Oliver, as wineries that meet the requirements of the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation.

With Okanagan Falls at its heart, vineyards stretch northwards along the East Bench of Skaha Lake and across the water to Kaleden and then south over rolling hills above Vaseux Lake.

Related Article: Exploring Canada’s Breathtaking Wine Country

Wineries in Skaha Bench include Blasted Church, Black Dog, Painted Rock, Pentage, and Crescent Hill. Principal grape varietals are Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.

Okanagan Falls

Wild Goose Vineyards in the Okanagan Falls wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okanagan Falls is, along with the Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, and the Golden Mile Bench, a sub-geographical indication (a sub-appellation) of the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan Falls sub-appellation runs from the shores of Skaha Lake to the tip of Vaseux Lake.

See Ya Later Ranch in the Okanagan Falls wine producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The region averages around 1,407 growing degree days which puts it on par with France’s Bordeaux or Italy’s Piedmont. Soils here are extremely heterogeneous with vineyards planted on both the valley bottoms and terraced slopes. Principal grape varietals are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir.

Noble Ridge Vineyards in the Okanagan Falls wine producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is a total of 539 acres of vineyards spread out over 12 wineries. See Ya Later Ranch, originally founded as Hawthorne Mountain Winery, dates back to 1986.

Oliver

Black Hills Winery in the Oliver wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oliver, called the Wine Capital of Canada, hosts 40 wineries and, with 3,543 acres of vineyards, represents roughly half of British Columbia’s grapevines. The region runs from the Golden Mile Bench in the west to the Black Sage Bench in the east.

Church and State Winery in the Oliver wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The principal grape varietals in the area include Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (mostly planted on the west side) to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc (mostly planted in the east). Notable wineries include Black Hills, Burrowing Owl, Phantom Creek, and Church and State.

Golden Mile Bench

Hester Creek Winery on the Golden Mile Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Mile Bench was the first sub-appellation created in the Okanagan Valley. It dates to 2015. It’s located on the western slope of the Okanagan Valley, south of Oliver and across from the Black Sage Bench.

Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery on the Golden Mile wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bench’s southerly aspect provides a warm climate. Its position on the west side, however, means that it gets morning rather than afternoon sun, and is cooler than the Black Sage Bench.

Tinhorn Creek Winery on the Golden Mile Bench wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soils consist of well-drained fluvial fans, consisting of a mix of stony gravels and sandy loams. Principal grape varieties here are Chardonnay, Gewürztraminerm, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. There is a total of 791 acres in vineyards across nine wineries. Wineries of note include Tinhorn Creek, Hester Creek, Gehringer Brothers, and Road 13.

Related Article: Taste Your Way through the Okanagan

Osoyoos

NK’Mip Cellars in the Osoyoos wine producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Osoyoos lies at the southernmost tip of the Okanagan Valley, across from the US-Canadian border. This is Canada’s hottest spot and BC’s principal red wine producing region. It’s also one of the youngest. The first winery, NK’Mip Cellars, wasn’t established until 2002.

Moon Curser Vineyards in the Osoyoos wine producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Currently, there are 1,510 acres of vineyards across nine wineries. In addition to being a major wine producing area, the region also exports red grapes to other producers in the Okanagan Valley and elsewhere in BC.

Adega on the 45th Winery in the Osoyoos wine-producing area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soils consist of glaciofluvial residues overlying the granite bedrock. Grape varietals include Chardonnay along with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah/Shiraz.

If you are not familiar with the wines of the Okanagan, they are certainly worth exploring and often represent exceptional values.

Worth Pondering…

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.

―David Hyde Pierce

Smoky Mountain Day Trips from Gatlinburg

From Clingmans Dome to pioneer history

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is known as the Gateway to the Smokies for a reason. This tiny East Tennessee mountain resort with a population of just 3,754 is nestled against the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are a wild expanse of rounded ridges, often shrouded by the mists that give the national park its name.

Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies are part of the vast Appalachian chain among the oldest mountains on the planet. Formed more than 200 million years ago these ancient peaks were once much higher but have been worn down by the eons of time. You can contemplate that remote past while huffing your way up to the top of a 6,000-foot peak overlooking the seemingly endless expanse of undulating ridges that stretch off into the distance. There are mesmerizing viewpoints all across the park as well as one mountaintop lodge that can only be reached by foot.

Along US-321 from Gatlinburg to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland. Rich blooms of springtime wildflowers come in all colors and sizes while flame azaleas light up the high-elevation meadows in summer. Autumn brings its own fiery rewards with quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes. In winter, snow-covered fields and ice-fringed cascades transform the Smokies into a serene, cold-weather retreat.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This mesmerizing backdrop is also a World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

As well as Gatlinburg, other Tennessee towns offering easy access to the national park include Cosby, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park is so big—spanning two states, Tennessee and North Carolina—it can be hard to know where to start exploring. This is also the most-visited national park in the United States with more than 14.16 million visitors in 2021 so it can take a little planning to get away from the crowds. Fortunately, Gatlinburg makes it easy for first-timers to get outdoors both inside the national park and at smaller but no less lovely parks inside the city limits.

Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly space to get outside or the best ways to get into the national park, we’ve got you covered. Here are my top picks of Gatlinburg’s green spaces. 

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you’re looking for an easily accessible way to see the Smokies, this 5.5-mile looping driving trail should be your go-to. As you slowly make your way down a winding paved road, you’ll pass gorgeous forest scenery and plenty of spots where you can pull over for woodland hikes or soak up the vistas from scenic overlooks.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail is named for Roaring Fork, a fast-moving mountain stream, and its tributaries create several surging cascades along the route including Grotto Falls reached via an easy 2.6-mile round-trip hike and Rainbow Falls at the end of a more challenging 5.4-mile tramp. Near the end of the loop, the Place of a Thousand Drips spills dramatically through the forest but it only performs during wet weather.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s history here too. Built in the 1920s by an eccentric lawyer seeking a healthier life in the wilderness, Ely’s Mill is no longer a working mill but stopping here gives a sense of what agricultural life was like in these mountains in the past. Today, there’s a shop with locally-made crafts some rather charming wood cabins where you can spend the night and demonstrations of blacksmithing and other traditional skills.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn left at Traffic Light 8 in Gatlinburg and follow the signs to the national park. En route, you’ll pass the worn, wooden facade of Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place, a historic 19th-century homestead offering another evocative glance into the region’s past.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the park’s most popular driving routes starting about 30 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. Between town and Cades Cove you’ll pass Metcalf Bottoms one of the Smokies’ biggest and best picnic areas with a swimming area set on a pretty stretch of the Little River. The scenery along the Loop Road is stunning and there are numerous historic stops including restored churches and pioneer cabins and the old Cable Grist Mill built in 1867 but it can get very busy all along the route. If possible, avoid weekends especially during fall.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historically, Cherokee and other Native American peoples used Cades Cove as a way to traverse the Smokies on foot (the valley was named for Cherokee leader, Chief Kade). Modern park visitors like to drive through this meadow-like section of the park scanning the verges for wildlife. Cades Cove is famous for black bear activity; you’re likely to see them as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, river otters, elk, and woodchucks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s best known as a driving loop, every Wednesday and Saturday morning from May to September, the route is closed to cars so you can walk or cycle (rental bikes are available). The Visitors Center near the midpoint of the driving loop is a solid source of information for deeper explorations.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More visitors centers can be found in downtown Gatlinburg (520 Parkway) and in Sugarlands (2 miles south of Gatlinburg), Oconaluftee (2 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina), Sevierville (3099 Winfield Dunn Pkwy), and Townsend (7906 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering remarkable 360-degree views over a rippling sea of forested hills from the top of its curving, concrete observation tower. You’ll need to walk up a steep, paved half-mile-long footpath to get here (wheelchairs are not recommended because of the slope) but once you get to the top, you’ll have conquered the third-highest peak in the eastern United States.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The views are spectacular, particularly in fall when the changing foliage repaints the landscape in a palette of reds, browns, and golds.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

To get here, drive about 23 miles south from Gatlinburg along the Parkway; Clingmans Dome is at the end of a 7-mile spur road.

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

Why Sedona?

Sedona has the uncanny ability to seem familiar yet mysterious at the same time

As you look into the wilderness, it may seem vaguely familiar. The familiar part is no surprise. Sedona’s distinctive red-rock landscape and renowned scenery has been featured in nearly 100 films, plus numerous videos and commercials.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop by the Sedona Heritage Museum and you’ll be treated to exhibits that highlight the region’s movie power. Beginning in 1923 with the silent film The Call of the Canyon, based on a novel by Zane Grey, through the golden age of American Westerns in the 1940s and ’50s, Sedona has had a distinguished role in film. During the peak years, virtually every major movie studio and big-name movie star worked there. Streets in a Sedona subdivision are even named after movies made in the area.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The strata that contain the famous Sedona red rock were created when a warm, shallow sea brought vast expanses of sand. When those sand grains became covered with thin coatings of iron oxide, they began taking on that red color we see today.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most famous views in Sedona revolve around Cathedral Rock. Oak Creek flows past the base of the formation to create a much-photographed image. That scene is most often captured from Crescent Moon Picnic Area, known locally as Red Rock Crossing.

Red Rock Crossing, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor adventure fills the Sedona area. Hiking and biking trails abound. Whether you take the easy ½-mile Allens Bend Trail, the 5.6-mile Wilson Mountain Trail with a 2,300-foot elevation change, or any of the numerous other trails, you’ll be treated to fabulous scenery and famous landmarks like Submarine Rock or Vultee Arch.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walkthrough the desert in the coolness of the evening when it’s aglow with moonlight to put a fresh spin on exploring Sedona’s terrain. You don’t need to wander alone. Naturalists at Red Rock State Park offer guided interpretive hikes during the full moon. The tour covers two miles and you’ll learn about Sedona’s fascinating geology, history, and plant life.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long before T.C. and Sedona Schnebly arrived in Red Rock Country, American Indians considered this land to be sacred. Sedona continues to be regarded as a special place because of its vortexes. Described as intersections of natural earth energy, Sedona’s vortexes are said to inspire meditation and healing. They are usually found on or near a rock formation.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spirit seekers or those just curious about the metaphysical world can hike to one of Sedona’s vortex sites. These natural areas are said to radiate energy (considered masculine, feminine or a balance of the two) from the earth, drawing people to meditate, practice yoga, or engage in other spiritual and wellness activities.

Bell Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although all of Sedona is considered to be a vortex, rock shapes called Airport Mesa, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, and Cathedral Rock are all sites where the energy is reportedly more intense. Some say that Chapel Rock is the site of a fifth vortex, but less powerful than the others.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appearing to rise out of the red rock formations, the Chapel of the Holy Cross towers in a panorama of buttes, valleys, and sky—all a source of inspiration inviting rest and reflection. An eye-catching architectural wonder, the Chapel is built into a 250-foot-tall twin-pinnacled red rock spur. Both the chapel and its 90-foot concrete cross built into the front façade (it functions as both symbol and structural support) are visible from the Red Rock Scenic Byway (State Route 179). Yet thanks to its modernist design, there are no sky-piercing spires or ornate embellishments detracting from its dizzying position. Peek inside the 1956 chapel for a look at the 33-foot bronze crucifix commissioned by a local artist which was installed in 2018. 

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a unique experience, stop at Slide Rock State Park and cool off. You can slide down the slippery creek bed, cruise down the creek in a tube, or take a dip in the natural swimming pools. Listed on the Travel Channel’s “10 Top Swimming Holes in the United States,” this natural waterpark is 7 miles north of Sedona along 89A in Oak Creek Canyon.

Tlaquepaque, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Nestled on the banks of Oak Creek is Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, a collection of Spanish-style buildings reminiscent of a Mexican hamlet. Cobblestone walkways meander past splashing fountains, vine-covered walls, and beneath picturesque stone archways. Flower-bedecked courtyards frame a complex of 15 specialty shops, 16 galleries, six jewelry stores, and four clothing stores—plus several restaurants.

Tlaquepaque, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named after a suburb of Guadalajara, Mexico, Tlaquepaque is pronounced “Tlah-kay-PAH-kay.” This internationally renowned art and shopping destination mimics Old Mexico and is covered by the refreshing shade of giant Arizona sycamore trees along the banks of Oak Creek.

Sedona Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The galleries feature one-of-a-kind art in a range of media and styles, including contemporary and abstract works, American Indian, and classic Southwestern fine art. You can find everything from wildlife bronzes to Navajo rugs, wind sculptures, and traditional ceramics.

Yet, Tlaquepaque has so much more. Musicians and dancers celebrate special fiestas throughout the year, bringing the sights and sounds of Old Mexico to Sedona.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why Sedona? Perhaps the meaning of Tlaquepaque contains the most fitting answer. It means the “best of everything.”

Plan your trip: 

Worth Pondering…

There are only two places in the world

I want to live—Sedona and Paris.

—Max Ernst, Surrealist painter