A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

From ancient natural wonders to Native American and Southwestern culture, to scenic vistas and alien lore, New Mexico is one of the most wonderfully unique destinations in America

Road trips have the unique ability to make you feel like you’ve thoroughly explored a region on a Lewis and Clark-esque journey. In reality, even the most extensive road trips leave many stones unturned especially in states with seemingly limitless natural beauty. New Mexico would probably take months on the road to fully explore. That’s okay. You don’t have to see every inch of New Mexico on one tank of fuel but the state’s famous national monuments are a good place to start.

Albuquerque from Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, only California and Arizona have more national monuments and that’s not even counting New Mexico’s historic parks. Rather than visit all 11 national monuments we’ve listed our favorites among them which will give you a feel for what makes this state’s geography so unique and memorable. Whether it’s a volcanic field or a white-sand desert, New Mexico’s unusual landscapes are just waiting to be visited. Here’s how to plan the perfect New Mexico road trip through its epic national monuments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Albuquerque to rock carvings

Road trips might be about the journey rather than the destination but no one wants to wait too long before stopping at their first viewpoint or reaching the first stop on their itinerary. When you set out from Albuquerque you’ll only have to wait mere minutes before seeing your first national monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically located within the city limits of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque’s West Mesa. Petroglyphs are rock carvings where drawings are made by chiseling on the outer layer of the stone to expose the paler rock underneath. One of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, this area features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks 400 to 700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers. The symbols give you a window into the life of a centuries-old civilization and serve as a record of cultural expression.

There are also four different hiking trails just a short drive from the information center ranging in length from one to four miles roundtrip. Three of these trails allow for petroglyph viewing. To see the area is less time and then continue on your journey, consider mountain biking. Bikes are permitted on the Boca Negra Canyon multi-use path.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to the headlands

About two hours west of Duke City, El Morro begs the traveler—ancient and modern—to rest awhile. This national monument is an area both of scenic beauty and historic significance. The bluff (el morro means “the headland” in Spanish) has a reliable source of water making it a great base for ancestral Puebloans and a good stopping point for both Spanish and American travelers. Along the path, only a half mile long and perfect for the casual visitor, are ancient petroglyphs as well as inscriptions from Spanish conquistadors as early as 1605 and, more recently, American travelers passing through in the 1850s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s volcanic landscape

From El Morro, your route continues back toward Albuquerque and it’s worth the detour to head to El Malpais National Monument. The rough lava landscape so scarred by its volcanic history that “malpaís” in fact means “badland.” Like El Morro, the landscape is quite barren though there is evidence of prior volcanic activity including several lava tubes you can explore.  Even though these badlands cover a large area you can see much of it by following the main park road. Numerous hikes and longer treks are available. Malpais is certainly worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South to the white desert

Since you’re half way to the border of Arizona at this point, it’s time to turn around and head south. But we’re not stopping at Albuquerque. We’re passing your starting point by about four hours (250 miles) to White Sands National Park taking Interstate 25 south to Las Cruces and US-70 northeast.

At the end of 2019, White Sands was designated a national park—but it was a national monument for 86 years. It’s on the itinerary because you haven’t really seen the New Mexico desert until you’ve seen White Sands, a remarkable place that looks like the Sahara Desert collided with the Alabama Gulf Coast. That’s because its sand is made of gypsum, a mineral salt left by a long-lost lake tens of millions of years ago.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern edge of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin, the monument is best explored by the eight-mile Dunes Drive from the visitor center into the heart of the rippled gypsum knolls. In addition to driving the alien terrain you can also get out and cycle, take advantage of picnic areas, or even camp under the stars. Indeed, backcountry camping sites among the dunes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are five hiking trails through the park ranging from the half-mile Playa Trail focusing on outdoor educational exhibits to the more strenuous Alkali Flat Trail, a five-mile round trip hike taking you to the edge of Lake Otero. Despite its name, the trail is not flat taking you over steep dunes and into the heart of the spectacular park.

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From delicate dunes to craggy peaks

To cap off your New Mexico road trip, travel south to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. A stark departure from the flat, arid landscape that has defined much of this road trip, this area is home to dramatic ranges with rocky spires and the park is full of open woodlands with towering ponderosa pines.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument includes the Organ Mountains, Doña Ana Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas Mountains Complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. The Organ Mountains are defined by their angular peaks, narrow canyons, and views of the Chihuahuan Desert habitat. It’s popular among horseback riders, mountain bikers, campers, and hikers. The Doña Ana Mountains have an abundance of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails as well as rock climbing routes. The more remote Potrillo Mountains comprise a volcanic landscape including lava flows and craters.

Before driving back to Albuquerque, consider spending an evening in Las Cruces to explore Historic Mesilla and savor the area’s Hatch Valley chile peppers in one of its tempting green chile burgers—or even in a sweet frozen custard.

La Posta in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Springtime in the Smokies

Springtime in the Smoky Mountains is a nature lover’s paradise

Spring is one of the most popular times to visit Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and it’s easy to see why. When the last traces of winter melt away the Smokies offer idyllic weather, beautiful greenery, and a variety of fun seasonal events and activities.

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

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in America with over 11 million visitors a year. That is more than the number of visits of the next two national parks combined.

From photo-worthy vistas to outdoor recreation and everything in between, this most-visited national park offers something for everyone.

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

Any season is a good one to visit the Smokies but spring is a favorite. Autumn is indeed beautiful but the roads and trails are crowded. In spring, the trees are budding and the wildflowers are popping through the ground at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On a springtime visit you’ll enjoy seeing the trees bud and blossom and the wildflowers. No place this size matches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s variety of plant and animal species. Here are more tree species than in Northern Europe, 1,500 flowering plants, over 200 species of birds, and 60 of mammals.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a world-renowned preserve of wildflower diversity—over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants are found in the park, more than in any other North American national park. In fact, the park is sometimes referred to as the “Wildflower National Park.” From the earliest hepaticas and spring-beauties in the late winter to the last asters in the late fall, blooming flowers can be found year-round in the park Trilliums of many varieties, violets, wild columbine, Fire Pink, Showy Orchis, Dutchman’s Britches, Squirrel Corn, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit are just a few of the wildflowers that make their appearance in the spring.

A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals begins the yearly show. Ephemerals are so named because they appear above ground only in late winter and early spring, then flower, fruit, and die back within a short two month period. They emerge from February through April, and are gone (dormant) by late May or June.

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

This remarkable group of plants is adapted to the rhythm of the overstory trees. Ephemerals appear before deciduous trees leaf out when full sunlight is streaming to the forest floor. This is also a time when soil moisture is high and soil nutrients are plentiful due to the decomposition of tree leaves that fell the previous autumn.

The ephemerals exploit these conditions—they flower, fruit, and their above-ground parts decay before summer gets into full swing. The peak of spring wildflower blooming usually occurs in mid-April to early May at lower elevations in the park, and a few weeks later on the highest peaks.

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

Spring ephemerals include flowers such as trillium (the park has 10 different species), lady slipper orchids, showy orchis, crested dwarf iris, fire pink, columbine, bleeding heart, phacelia, jack-in-the-pulpit, little brown jugs, and violets, to name just a few.

In summer the display continues with brilliant red cardinal flowers, pink turtleheads, Turk’s cap lily, small purple-fringed orchids, bee-balm, butterfly-weed, black-eyed susans, jewel weed, and many others.

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

By late summer and through the fall, goldenrod, wide-leaved sunflowers, tall ironweed, mountain gentian, monk’s hood, coneflowers, and numerous varieties of asters begin to bloom. Purple umbels of sweet Joe-Pye-weed stretch towards the sky and can reach heights of ten feet.

Trees and shrubs bloom throughout the year too. From February through April the flowers of red maples paint the mountains with a wash of brilliant red. Showy trees such as serviceberry, silverbell, flowering dogwood, redbud, Fraser magnolia, and tuliptree soon follow. Later in summer sourwood, a tree prized for the honey that bees produce from its small bell-shaped, white flowers, begins to bloom. The year ends with the yellow flowers of witch-hazel, which blooms from October through January.

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

Closer to the ground on shrubs, the small, bright yellow blossoms of spicebush begin to bloom in February and are soon joined by sweetshrub, dog-hobble, and flame azalea. The park is famous for its displays mountain laurel, rhododendron, and flame azaleas. The lovely pink and white flowers of mountain laurel bloom in early May through June.

Rhododendrons in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catawba rhododendron, which lives primarily at elevations above 3,500 feet, reaches its peak of bloom in June. Rosebay rhododendron is in bloom at the lower elevations in June and at mid-elevations during July. Flame azaleas bloom at the low and mid-elevations in April and May. On Gregory Bald the colorful display peaks in late June or early July. On Andrews Bald the peak is usually in early July.

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

Get ready for the 71st annual Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Every year, you can be a part of the event and experience guided hikes that explore all sorts of nature in the national park—wildflowers, wildlife, culture, history, and more. This year’s Wildflower Pilgrimage will be May 8th- 16th and virtual. It’s a great way to see the Smoky Mountains, learn a little bit more about the history of the area and, of course, see all of the beautiful Smoky Mountain spring wildflowers.

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

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Birdwatching is an active hobby that involves getting outdoors and exploring

You can go birding anywhere there are birds! Many birdwatchers like to set up a feeder and see what arrives in their backyards. But if you’re an RVers you can take birding to the next level as you travel. RVers have the opportunity to see gorgeous and unique birds that would never fly into their backyards.  

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you have a motorhome or trailer at your disposal, you can easily journey to other areas where you’ll be able to find those birds you haven’t caught sight of in your own area. Plus, you’ll have a cozy place to return to for a relaxing night after a day of watching the sky. Birding is a great pastime for travelers because it’s so simple.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem. For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

Black-bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.

Here are the 10 of the most beautiful birds I’ve observed and photographed during our RV travels.

For more meaningful birdwatching, travel to amazing destinations across the country. You, too, can imagine more meaningful birdwatching!

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird, having a pink body with red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or salt water, or flying in small groups overhead.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green heron

A small, squatty bird, the Green heron generally keeps its neck pulled back close to the body, both in flight and while wading. This bird has a greenish-black crown and back, maroon neck and chest, and bright orange to yellow legs and feet. Look for them along the shallow edges of fresh water bodies where cover provided by vegetation is plentiful.

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-vented oriole

In Mexico and Central America, this large oriole lives mostly in dry forest or semi-open woods of the foothills and lower mountain slopes. It has wandered north into Texas and Arizona on only a few occasions. The black-vented oriole has s black hood, upper back, wings, and tail, including vent. Under parts and lower back are bright yellow-orange. Black bill is long and slender. Legs and feet are gray.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anhinga

Anhingas are long necked birds that hunt aquatic prey by swimming underwater or at the surface. At times, they swim with their bodies underwater, leaving only their necks and heads exposed, giving them a snake-like look. For this reason, they are often called snakebirds. They are commonly seen in cypress swamps, perched on a log or in a tree with wings extended to dry their water-logged feathers. They are black bodied with white markings on the upper wings and have long, pointed, yellow bills and fan-shaped tails with white tips. Female anhinga has a lighter brown head and neck.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill crane

Sandhill cranes are very large, tall birds with a long neck, long legs, and very broad wings. The bulky body tapers into a slender neck; the short tail is covered by drooping feathers that form a “bustle.” The head is small and the bill is straight and longer than the head. Note the red crown. Sandhill cranes form extremely large flocks—into the tens of thousands—on their wintering grounds and during migration. They often migrate very high in the sky.

Black-bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-bellied whistling duck

The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican tree duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Great egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great egret

Great egrets are tall, long-legged wading birds with long, S-curved necks, and long, dagger-like bills. In flight, the long neck is tucked in and the legs extend far beyond the tip of the short tail. All feathers on Great egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange, and the legs black. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their bill.

Western scrub-jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Western scrub-jay

Western scrub-jays have long tails and small bills. The head, wings, and tail are blue, the back is brown, the underside is gray to tan, and the throat is white. Unlike Steller’s jays and blue jays, they do not have a crest. Western scrub-jays include several subspecies that live along the Pacific coast and in the interior West. The Western scrub-jay does not migrate.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus wren

The Cactus wren is a large chunky wren with a long heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. The back is brown with heavy white streaks and the tail is barred white and black. Cactus wrens live in scrubby areas in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave Deserts. They inhabit areas with cholla, saguaro, and prickly-pear cacti, mesquite, yucca, palo verde, and other desert shrubs. No bird exemplifies Southwestern deserts better than the noisy Cactus wren.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great kiskadee

The great kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

The 16 Best National Parks for Families to Explore this Spring

Following the past pandemic winter hibernation a national park adventure is one of the best family vacation ideas for spring

During April and May, national parks tend to be less crowded and cooler then during peak summer travel which means plenty of outdoor space to stretch out and burn off energy. As an added bonus, April brings National Park Week (April 17-25, in 2021), an annual celebration that includes FREE admission and special junior ranger programs for kids.

Spring is prime time for wildflowers, to spot baby wildlife, hit the hiking trails, and enjoy seasonal waterfalls. Here are 16 of the best national parks in spring throughout the United States. These exceptional public lands will help you reconnect and reboot.

Saguaro cactus in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Spring is the perfect time to visit Saguaro before the triple-digit summertime temperatures descend on the Sonoran Desert. The region’s giant saguaro cactuses are an iconic symbol of the Southwest and families are bound to see plenty of them along hiking trails and driving routes through the east or west section of the park. The greatest diversity of spring-blooming cacti species can be seen in April. The cactus show continues as the abundant prickly pears bloom in early May followed by saguaros from mid May to mid June.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Visitors will find cooler spring temperatures at Grand Canyon with even a chance of snow on the Rim. The possibility of rain and snow, combined with more breezes and skies clear of haze and smog (that tends to drift from Las Vegas and Southern California) makes spring an ideal time to see the canyon in all its drama and beauty.

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

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, West Virginia

In January 2021, New River Gorge was elevated to national park status focusing national attention on the natural beauty of one of West Virginia’s most beloved playgrounds. The New River is one of those places that gets under your skin and stays with you especially if you enjoy outdoor activities. Spring at New River Gorge means whitewater through deep canyons, the perfect backdrop for thrilling family rafting trips.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Spring at Shenandoah National Park brings blooming wildflowers and trees, flowing waterfalls and migrating songbirds. Only 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is an easy escape from the bustle of the city. A park hallmark is Skyline Drive, the scenic byway that runs 105 miles north and south along the mountaintop ridge. To escape any April showers, duck into Luray Caverns, located just outside park boundaries for a cave exploration filled with towering stone formations and massive caverns.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Each spring, the hollows of Great Smoky Mountains National Park bloom with ephemerals such as trillium, lady slipper orchids, bleeding hearts, violets, and other native flora. For 71 years wildflower enthusiasts have enjoyed the show during the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (May 8-16, in 2021). Later in spring, synchronous fireflies light up the woodland glens (dates vary year to year).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is among the most scenic drives in the Eastern U.S. Designed to “lie gently upon the land,” this national park corridor stretches from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering scenic mountain views and ample hiking opportunities along the way. Expect to find a mix of wildflowers and tree blossoms including dwarf iris, tulips, violets, and various species of rhododendrons and dogwood trees. Craggy Gardens (MP 364.6) has a particularly spectacular rhododendron bloom in late spring.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Opt for the family-friendly Riverside Walk and look for early blooming wildflowers such as desert marigold, slickrock paintbrush, and western columbine. You just may catch a glimpse of baby animals including wild turkey chicks, mule deer fawns, and bighorn sheep.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Located north of Zion, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a 10,000-foot hidden gem, a wide red rock amphitheater similar to Bryce Canyon. Spring arrives later at this higher elevation but when it does, the meadows blaze with the brilliant colors of wildflower blooms. Be sure to hike to Spectra Point to glimpse the oldest tree in the park—a Bristlecone pine estimated to be 1,500 years old.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Tours of the cliff dwellings begin in May but early spring travelers won’t miss out since cliff dwelling structures like Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House can be viewed at overlooks year-round. Prior to June, the park is quieter with fewer crowds and moderate temperatures. A less-visited nearby site, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument has the highest concentration of Native American archaeological sites in the U.S.—more than 6,300 including cliff dwellings, kivas, petroglyphs, and sacred springs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

One of the least-visited national parks, Big Bend is a perfect place for physical distancing. Springtime at Big Bend National Park means cooler temperatures, wildflowers, and plenty of migrating birds. And Big Bend is a great place to explore the Rio Grande River which is framed by sheer canyon walls.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves 11,000 acres of old growth bottomland hardwood forest with some of the largest trees (of their kind) in the United States. The sun and water reflect the trees creating a complex world of depth, light, and life.Cypress knees spring from the swamp like forest stalagmites.The story of spring in Congaree, is the trees, water, flowers, light, and life working together to bring you something entirely new, entirely special.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Above ground, the yucca bloom, cacti send out yellow arms, and mescal plants blossom across the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. Below ground, stalactites line cave ceilings and decorative rock formations keep youngsters enthralled along the Big Room Trail. Carlsbad Caverns is famous for its bat flight program and the Brazilian free-tailed bats make their migratory journey back to the park in late spring.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Summer gets hot in the desert but spring is the perfect season to visit. With its location within 1,200 square miles of Mojave and Colorado deserts, spring is prime time at Joshua Tree. Not only will you enjoy milder weather, you might also be treated to spectacular springtime displays of lupine, poppies, and Joshua tree blooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Spring is a time to enjoy sunshine and snow at Lassen Volcanic. The Manzanita Lake and Southwest Areas of the park remain accessible by car all year. Snow clearing on the park highway (which closes to through traffic in the snowy, winter season) begins in the Manzanita Lake Area in late March or early April. It takes two months on average to clear and open the 30-mile park highway. The snow clearing process is largely dependent on the depth of the winter snowpack and spring weather.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

Arches and Canyonlands are colorful siblings that are great to visit any time of year but to avoid the high heat of summer the best time to visit is now. Spring-time activities run the gamut in these two parks. Hiking is the main attraction with endless miles of trails. Some of the more popular hikes in Arches lead to Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Park Avenue, and the Windows Section. In Canyonlands explore the Island in the Sky with its trails to Whale Rock and ancient granaries on Aztec Butte. Longer treks in the Needles District can fill several days and more. Spring also is a time of renewal, and you can see this in the blooming flowers.

Worth Pondering…

April is a promise that May is bound to keep.

—Hal Borland

Sculpted By Water: Natural Bridges National Monument

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result is not heavily visited.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges.

Unlike Arches National Park with over 2,000 classified arches, there are only three natural bridges here. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs, and scenic white sandstone canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pinyon and juniper covered mesa is bisected by deep canyons exposing the Permian Age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Where meandering streams cut through sandstone walls, three large natural bridges were formed. At an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea level, Natural Bridges is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Plants range from the fragile cryptobiotic soil crusts to remnant stands of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine. Hanging gardens in moist canyon seep springs and numerous plants flower in the spring.

Animals range from a variety of lizards, toads, and an occasional rattlesnake, to peregrine falcons, mountain lions, bobcats, and black bear.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naming the Bridges

Several names have been applied to the bridges. First named “President,” “Senator,” and “Congressman” by Cass Hite, the bridges were renamed “Augusta,” “Caroline,” and “Edwin” by later explorer groups. As the park was expanded to protect nearby Puebloan structures, the General Land Office assigned the Hopi names “Sipapu,” “Kachina,” and “Owachomo” to the bridges in 1909. Sipapu means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. Kachina is named for rock art on the bridge that resembles symbols commonly used on kachina dolls. Owachomo mean “rock mound,” a feature atop the bridge’s east abutment.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiencing the Bridges

To make the experience even more breathtaking, each natural bridge is accessed by a steep hike down to the base of the bridge and then back up again. Starting down the trail to Sipapu Bridge, we arrived at the first rough-hewn Navajo-looking log ladder and scampered down. The trail to the Sipapu Bridge hugs a massive overhanging rock wall that Mother Nature has painted in wide swaths of black, orange, and pink. Considering the forces of wind and water that shaped these rocks, we couldn’t help but imagine the ancient people who once sought shelter here.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world (only Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon is bigger). In Hopi mythology, a “sipapu” is a gateway through which souls may pass to the spirit world. After admiring the bridge for a while, we made our way back up along the striped rock wall to the wooden ladders and on up to the loop road that winds through the park.

The second stone arch, Kachina Bridge, also requires hiking down stairways that have been carved into the sandstone by the National Park Service and clambering down log ladders as well. Unlike Sipapu, however, Kachina is a thick and squat bridge that crosses a large cool wash filled with brilliant green shade trees.

A massive bridge Kachina is considered the “youngest” of the three because of the thickness of its span. The relatively small size of its opening and its orientation make it difficult to see from the overlook. Along the flanks of this bridge we saw the faint etchings of petroglyphs that were pecked out of the rock eons ago. We were intrigued to learn that some of the cliff dwellers from the Mesa Verde area 150 miles away in Colorado had called this place home around 1200 A.D. We got our workout once again as we huffed and puffed up the ladders and staircases back to the loop road.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomu Bridge is probably the most spectacular and also the easiest stone bridge to reach. The trail into the canyon underneath the bridge is a short distance from the overlook. It is the oldest bridge in the park and rock falls have reduced the thickness to only 9 feet, so it may not be here much longer. Needless to say, walking on top of the bridges is not allowed.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Current Status

Natural Bridges’ roads, trails, campground, and restrooms are open. The visitor center remains closed. When open, the visitor center has a slide program, exhibits, publications, and postcards. A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

People repeatedly occupied and abandoned Natural Bridges during prehistoric times. They first began using this area during the Archaic period from the year 7000 BC to 500 AD. Only the rock art and stone tools left by hunter-gatherer groups reveal that humans lived here then. Around 700 AD, ancestors of modern Puebloan people moved onto the mesa tops to dry farm and later left as the natural environment changed.

Three hundred years after their ancestors left, the farmers returned. They built homes of sandstone masonry or mud-packed sticks, both on the mesa tops and in alcoves in the cliffs. South facing caves provided passive solar heating and cooling. The farmers often chose sites near seep springs where water could be found.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Styles of masonry, ceramic decoration, and other artifacts suggest that the people here were related to those of the Mesa Verde region to the east. Influences are clearly evident from the Kayenta region to the southwest and the Fremont culture to the north. Like these people, the inhabitants of Natural Bridges left this area for the last time around 1270.

Navajos and Paiutes lived in the area during later times, and Navajo oral tradition holds that their ancestors lived among the early Puebloans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 7,636 acres

Visitation: 52,542 (2020)

Established: April 19, 1908

Entrance Fee: $20/private vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Camping Fee: $15

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

Celebrating America’s Parks and American Heritage during National Park Week

From April 17-25, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation invite everyone to celebrate America’s treasured places during National Park Week. Join the fun!

The Department of the Interior has announced that National Park Week—an annual weeklong celebration of America’s national parks—will run from April 17 to April 25. National Park Week encourages the public to explore the vast network of national parks, sacred sites, and historical landmarks. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Every national park has its own unique story to tell, yet so much of our nation’s shared heritage can be found in the towering forests and vast desert expanses that make up our National Park System,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The outdoors has also proven to be a welcome refuge during the past year of the pandemic. I encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty and wonder of our national parks safely and responsibly.”   

To kick off National Park Week all parks will have a free admission day on Saturday, April 17. The public is asked to recreate responsibly when visiting parks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service (NPS) invites everyone to participate in a Twitter chat preview of National Park Week on April 16 at 1 p.m. Join the conversation and share favorite memories, tips, and stories about national parks using the hashtag #NationalParkWeek.    

“National Park Week is always a great reminder of the wide variety of sites, parks and programs available for the public to explore in-person or online,” said National Park Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the week, ‘travel’ to national parks through virtual tours and other entertaining and educational digital activities designed to connect visitors with the vast network of historical, cultural, inspirational, and recreational parks across the country.”   

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The National Park Foundation and our park partners celebrate the full diversity of our parks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They are urban and rural, natural and manmade. They each have their own, unique story, perspective and experience to share with all of us that, when taken together, really tell the American story,” said National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth. “And each of us has an important role to play in helping to preserve and protect these special places.”

The 2021 National Park Week theme days are:  

Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 17: Free Admission and ParkRx Day

Spending time in parks and nature benefits overall physical and mental health and wellness. In honor of the NPS’ century-long collaboration with the Office of Public Health, National Park Week begins with ParkRx Day! Enjoy a free admission visit and experience the healing power of nature in a national park.   

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 18: Volunteer Sunday

Thank you to National Park Service VIPs (Volunteers-In-Parks)! With over 400 national park sites to manage, NPS volunteers play a critical part in helping parks thrive. From clearing trails and providing directions to assisting visitors through museum collections, volunteers help all of us enjoy national parks.   

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monday, April 19: Military Monday

Thank you for your family’s military service. Many national parks have direct connections to the American military—there are dozens of battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate and honor the service of American veterans. In gratitude for their service, free annual passes are available for all those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Learn more at nps.gov/subjects/military.  

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 20: Transformation Tuesday

National parks and communities are ever changing whether it is in nature, history, opportunities to experience places, and our own personal journeys. Some transformations in national parks have occurred naturally while others are the result of conservation and restoration projects. From restoring buildings to their historical appearance, to rehabilitating ecosystems, to the maturation of wildlife, to incorporating emerging technology, learn how and why parks and their features have transformed through the years.    

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

Wednesday, April 21: Wayback Wednesday

History happened and memories are made in national parks. Take a look at some of your favorite parks then and now. How has the view changed? Who else has stood in the same spot in the past? Learn about the living landscapes, historical battlefields, ancestral structures, homes of prominent people, and buildings that are tangible reminders of the ever-evolving U.S. story.

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

Thursday, April 22: Earth Day

A global celebration encouraging all people to learn more about and care for the planet, Earth Day is the perfect time to reflect on the natural wonders that the NPS helps to protect.   

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Friday, April 23: Friendship Friday

Caring for the parks is a big job. Park partners have played an important role since the NPS was founded in 1916 and this tradition of generous, committed support continues today with individuals, groups, and communities helping preserve and enhance the national park experience.  

Capitol Reef National Park. Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 24: Junior Ranger Day

The NPS Junior Ranger program provides fun and engaging ways for young people to connect with America’s heritage and landscapes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 25: BARK Ranger Day

National parks are fun to share with those we love including those of the fluffy variety! BARK Ranger principles ensure a pet’s visit to a park is fun and safe.   

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

Get Your Rig Ready for Spring Camping

It’s spring and with the traveling season right around the corner now is the perfect time to clear out the cobwebs and tidy up your RV

Spring is right around the corner and your RV is calling. The beginning of camping season is the perfect time to assess the condition of each distinct part of your motorhome or trailer. So go ahead, break your RV out of storage.

Let the sunshine in © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Let it Breathe

The first step is to open all of the windows and doors and let the fresh air take out any stale smells after being cooped up over the winter. It’s also a great idea to position the RV in a sunny spot and open up all of the blinds to let the sunshine in to help clean the air inside.

Shake it down and air it out © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Shake Things Out

Take all of the pillowcases, cushions, and sofa covers out and give them a good shake outside and either put them through the laundry or leave them in the sun to get rid of the stale smells that may be clinging to them.

Time for a visual inspection © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Basic Inspection & Safety Checks

One of the first things to do is make sure your RV is roadworthy is to inspect the major systems: power, propane, and tires. Do this early to allow time to schedule any necessary maintenance before it’s time to embark on your first trip. Check the battery fluid levels, adding distilled water as needed. Check the tires for proper inflation. Conduct a visual inspection of each tire for cracks along the sidewall and tread depth. Take time to inspect your fire safety systems. Make sure the carbon monoxide detector, smoke alarm, LP detector, and fire extinguishers are all in working order. Replace batteries, as required.

A clean exterior © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Exterior Inspection & Wash

Walk around your RV and carefully climb up on the roof to inspect the exterior windows, doors, roof vents, and any other seams. If you find any cracks in the caulking or missing sealant, remove the old sealant and replace it.

Finally, give your RV a thorough washing using a gentle soap solution. Baby shampoo works well. Don’t forget the awnings. They are exposed to all weather conditions and rarely see sunlight on their underside making them prone to mildew especially during a long, damp winter.

Use a lamb’s wool pad or soft brush and the soap solution to clean. Be sure to rinse well and leave them out a few hours to fully dry before retracting.

Dust it down © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Dust, Dust, Dust!

With a damp cloth, dust down every surface in your RV and remember to open up all of the vent covers where possible and remove the dust from inside so you can enjoy clean air when traveling. Give a good dusting behind and around all of your appliances too.

Give the interior a good clean © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Clean the Cabinets, Drawers & Shelves

Give the interior a good thorough cleaning. Drain your dehumidifiers (or replace any disposables). Be sure to check inside the cabinets and under the sinks for any signs of pests or rodents.

With a warm and damp wash cloth, give all of the cabinets, drawers, and shelves a good cleaning to remove any crumbs, dirt, and grime that may have accumulated. If there are any stains, try mixing a teaspoon of baking soda with water to make a thick paste and gently apply to the stained area before wiping off.

With a clean cloth, give your fridge and freezer a thorough cleaning at this stage as well.

Now is a good time to go through all of your supplies and restock the camper with the essentials.

Windows clean again © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Window Time

Systematically go through the RV washing every window, and then do the same washing the outside of each window so that you have the best views when you go out on the next adventure.

Check to ensure all things work © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Check That Things Work

You should ensure that all of your air conditioning filters are clean, and while there check that each aircon vent is working. If it has been a while since the last time the RV was used, then take a few minutes to go through and ensure that each appliance inside still works and give them a good clean while you’re at it.

All clean and ready to travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Vacuum and Mop

With all of the surfaces and appliances clean, move onto the floors and give them a thorough vacuum along with the sofas if necessary. Once everything has been picked up, get the mop out and make the floors sparkle.

With an RV that has been aired out and cleaned top to bottom, you can rest knowing that everything is ready and waiting for the next adventure that lies just around the corner!

Now, hit the road already

10. All Systems Go!

Taking the time to run these checks and performing any necessary maintenance will go a long way towards making your camping season a success. Now all you need to do is pick a location and head out for an epic spring vacation.

Worth Pondering…

Spring has sprung. The grass is riz. Time for RVing and camping bliss!

Why RV?

Why RV vacations are the best

Do you want to live life on your own schedule in your own way? Do you want to be part of the landscapes you’ve only looked at in photos? Then you will love the RV lifestyle. Millions of folks have opted to live out their dreams and adventures in a recreational vehicle. Here is why you should too.

Spending time outdoors in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 1: Convenient Travel

The RV lifestyle is exploding due to COVID. The uptick in the number of camping trips Americans and Canadians are taking is not exactly a surprise given that it allows people to change their surroundings without greatly increasing the risk of contracting COVID. One thing we’ve been reminded of is that spending time outdoors brings a world of physical and mental benefits. Medical professionals advise us to socially distance from one another and tell us that when we spend time with others, it’s preferable to do so outside rather than indoors. This advice seemed tailor-made for the RV lifestyle.

Going for a hike in Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 2: Connect With Nature

A dose of nature does wonders for one’s well being. Anyone who has ever stepped foot in the forest or dipped a toe in a lake or creek likely knows this but nature is a happy-maker. A walk outdoors is more than just a great pick-me-up. It can be a calming and regenerative exercise improving your mood and easing anxiety, stress, and depression. Go outside! Go on a scenic drive! Go to a state park! Go for a hike! And find the peace that nature provides! With an RV, the whole world is right outside your front door, ready to be explored.

Camping at Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 3: Common Bond

When you RV, you’re never alone. From families to couples to solo travelers, all RVers have one thing in common: an urge to see the world on their own terms. When you pull into a campground or RV park, you know you’ll be surrounded by likeminded people who make up one of the most tight-knit communities around.

Freightliner Club Rally © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 4: Join a Community

RV memberships and clubs provide numerous services including a community for RVers. One reason for selecting an RV club is for cost savings and discounts on various RV parks. The discounts can vary from 10 to 50 percent and have restrictions on when they are valid. The choice of RV clubs also depends on the location of the campgrounds where the discounts are available and your current and future travel plans.

Staying active while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 5: Travel with Comfort

Your home comes with you. A comfortable bed. A full kitchen. A restroom. A shower. An entertainment center. In an RV, it’s all with you. And the open road is yours for the taking. And when you RV, you can tailor your adventures from where you go to how and where you sleep to how you keep everyone active and entertained. RVing lets you make every adventure completely your own. It’s your schedule, your wish list, your road map, and your world to explore. Hike, bike, climb, kayak, ride horses, swim, and make the world your playground.

Everything you need is here © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 6: Everything you Need is with You

A pile of books. Your favorite coffee mug. Board games and video games. A cabinet packed with snacks. RV travel allows you to bring the comforts of home anywhere you go which is a relief for people who struggle to fit the essentials into an airplane carry-on. Just be aware that packing too much stuff into your RV can be a safety hazard. Every RV has a cargo carrying capacity—you can find this number on a label typically inside a cabinet or closet. The cargo carrying capacity is the weight of everything—people and stuff—you can safely carry in your RV. Exceeding capacity is dangerous, as it can strain your brakes, axles and tires, and potentially cause an accident.

Enjoying a sunset at Two Rivers Landing, Sevierville, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 7: Family Togetherness

Nothing bonds families together like being together. Breathing the same air. Seeing the same sunrises and sunsets. Bringing on landscapes and campfire stories, not TV shows. RVing brings you closer to natural beauty. And to those you love.

Zip line adventure © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 8: Retire in Style

Your time. Your way. Make the road your new home. Best estimates indicate 750,000 to one million seniors call their RV home—and the ranks are growing. Go anywhere you want. Stay as long as you like. The possibilities are endless and the choices are all yours. So whether you become a full-time RVer, a snowbird, or simply travel from time to time, RVing is a great way to design your own life and your own adventures. Live your dream.

Traveling Scenic Byway 12, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reason # 9: Simply the Best Way to Travel

Anywhere the road takes you, you can go. Travel by RV allows you to fully appreciate the country around you and the people you meet on the way. If you’re not a fan of meeting people, there’s opportunity to avoid them as well. Never before has a vacation method been so affordable, yet so flexible. If you haven’t looked into RV camping you’re missing out on a great thing. RVs are simply the best way to vacation.

Worth Pondering…

No matter where we go in our motorhome, that sense of independence is satisfying. We have our own facilities, from comfortable bed to a fridge full of our favorite foods. We set the thermostat the way we like it and go to bed and get up in our usual routine.

The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

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

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

A four-story structure of mud and wood, the Great House, is all that remains of a community of Hohokam people who lived here during the 14th century

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge and about 15 miles east of Casa Grande. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. The area has a low elevation and is very hot—often over 110 degrees for several months in the summer. Even in winter, daytime temperatures can reach 80.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guided tours are offered from late November to mid-April. Tours meet in the shaded Interpretive Ramada located immediately outside of the visitor center’s rear doors. While you are seated for the introduction the guide will explain the history of the ruins, the archeology, and the Hohokam Culture. Your guide then leads the tour into Compound A and points out interesting features. You may enter or leave the tour at any point or you may chose to visit the park on a self-guided tour. There are signs and exhibits to enhance your visit with volunteers and staff eager to hear your stories and discuss your questions. Tours are wheelchair friendly.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Ruins

The Great House can be seen from some distance away owing to the flatness of the terrain and the rather curious appearance from a distance—the structure is protected from the harsh desert sun by a large metal roof supported by four great pillars designed by architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. This is an impressive design made necessary to help preserve the building but it is still rather incongruous. The present cover replaced an earlier wooden construction in 1932.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scale of the ruin is best appreciated from close up—it is 60 feet by 40 feet wide at the base and has caliche walls over three feet thick. Although visitors are not allowed into the building owing to its delicate state and for safety reasons, much can be seen from outside including details of the construction with wooden beams supporting the clay walls and various internal features such as stairways and windows. However, besides the protective canopy, the interior contains other modern items such as re-enforcing beams, metal ladders, and measuring devices on the walls, all contributing to the slightly unnatural scene.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

History

It is believed that the Casa Grande functioned partly as an astronomical observatory since the four walls face the points of the compass and some of the windows are aligned to the positions of the sun and moon during the solstice. There are various smaller ruins to explore the remains of a Hohokam farming village and some are yet to be excavated. A second, similarly sized compound is located 850 feet northeast of the Casa Grande though this is usually closed to the public. Nowadays, the roof and walls of the main building provide shelter for several species of birds most notably a great horned owl.

The Hohokam themselves seem to have abandoned the complex around the 16th century. Apart from other Indian peoples and Spanish missionaries the area was not revisited until the 1880s when American settlers arrived and began to threaten the ruins by removing artifacts as souvenirs. In 1892, the Casa Grande became the first archaeological site in the US to be protected.

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Hohokam or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 472 acres

Established: August 3, 1918

Fees: No fee is currently charged

Operating hours: Limited Hours Due to Covid-19; check with the park before planning a visit

Great horned owl at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why go: The Hohokam were expert farmers who developed a network of 1,000 miles of canals to channel water from the Salt and Gila rivers. The monument preserves structures that are 700 years old.

Don’t miss: The tallest building is four stories high and covered with a shade structure to protect it from further deterioration. Based on holes in the walls that correlate to the path of the sun during the solstice it’s believed the building was used, at least partly, to study astronomy. Guided tours are available in the cooler months.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes