Spending Time in Nature Just Might Save the World

Nature is not a refuge—it’s a forge that transforms us

Spending time outdoors can serve as a forge that brings out the best in us.

Nature transforms us

What’s come down are medical studies showing time in nature does a multitude of good things for our health. Add to that the brainwave studies showing the benefits to our mental health. Top it off with the sociological studies showing time in nature leads to increased creativity.

Improved health and creativity are just what the doctor ordered.

In sum, we now have the science to justify it: nature is a forge in which much-needed world-saving values are brought to life.

Ajo Scenic Loop in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still stuck in the old paradigm

While our appreciation of what nature does for us has evolved, the way our culture looks at time spent in nature, unfortunately, is still much the same. Despite what we know about the benefits of spending time in nature, our culture still views time spent there as passive. It’s often spoken of as a retreat or escape.

Our attitude reflects the society we grew up in. “Nature is so relaxing.” “I go hiking to get away from it all.” “The outdoors is my happy place.” We hear these phrases. The problem is that they’re limiting. They pigeonhole nature and the role nature can play for us.

Even though we now have awe theory and forest therapy, even though we know about the three-day effect and have books like The Awakened Brain and The Comfort Crisis we’re stuck in the old paradigm that defines time in nature is a form of recreation—and holds that the real work takes place when we’re sitting at a board meeting or behind our laptops.

It’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new paradigm

These are dire times and the old paradigm of nature as recreation no longer makes the cut. If we as a species are to shift onto a less self-destructive path, we need to access the values-shifting awarenesses nature can provide.

If the next generation is to care about protecting the natural world, they need to have had positive experiences in it. If these changes are to come about, we need to value nature more broadly and spend time in nature with broader intentions. We need more access to green spaces for those who live in cities. Nature needs to be more than a place to relax. And, so of course, it’s not nature that needs to change, but us.

We need a new paradigm. We need a new story to tell ourselves about nature and the time we spend in it.

Simply put, we need to embrace the idea that nature isn’t so much a place to retreat and relax but rather a forge that can transform us.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the good of the people

The idea that spending time in nature can lead to personal transformation is not new. Far from it! Seers and prophets have been going out into the wild since the beginning of human civilization. When they went, they weren’t going on vacation. They weren’t sipping mai tais by a pool.

Native Americans—and many other indigenous cultures—had a tradition of the vision quest in which young people on the verge of adulthood would go out into nature alone in order to experience spiritual growth.

Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux tells a story from his childhood in which a tribal leader welcomes a group of young men back from a scouting mission with the words, “Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen” (Niehardt 65).

Those simple words signify recognition of what the young people did and its importance. The young people left the community and went forth into the wild. Their purpose was to see. Their seeing was beneficial not just to themselves but to their community. It was “for the good of the people.”

Roseate spoonbills in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature helps us save ourselves from ourselves

It’s a small shift—thinking of nature as a forge rather than a retreat—but it makes a big difference. I’m reminded of the well-known Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Wildness and wilderness can strengthen and preserve us. I have no doubts about that. But the bulk of the world seems to have little interest in wildness. How then could the wildness be important to the world or have a chance of saving it?

The solutions to the problems of today are unlikely to spontaneously show up on the screens of our cell phones. The solutions might just manifest themselves when we’re out in nature, however. This is because nature is a rich source of complexity, mystery, and inspiration; nature is a bottomless well, a source that counters and supplements all that is human.

In light of the new paradigm, in light of what we now understand in terms of how crucial nature is to our health, in light of our dependence on nature for everything from new medicines to new technology, and in light of the popularity of rewilding now—more than ever—we can see Thoreau’s words as being amazingly prospicient.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Over the course of history, our preoccupation with technology has led humanity to stray from nature but if we’re to survive and if our planet is to thrive (some would say survive) we must ever circle back. And so the time ahead may later in history be seen as the great circling back—a time when people rediscover the power of nature to strengthen our bodies and nurture our spirits. A time when we acknowledge that to be the best versions of ourselves, we need nature—and that nature is an inexhaustible source of new understandings.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Here’s what a million-plus visitors a year mean to Saguaro National Park

The cactus crush continued at Saguaro National Park in 2023

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

For the third time in the past five years, annual visitation topped 1 million at the park bracketing Tucson.

The 1,010,906 recreation visits logged by the National Park Service (NPS) last year were the third most in Saguaro’s 90-year history, first as a national monument, then a national park. Until 2019, the park had never seen more than 1 million visitors in a single year.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The impact is easy to see. Just drive out to the east end of Broadway or Speedway on a sunny day in spring and try to find a space in one of the trailhead parking lots.

There are cars parked on the street that go half a mile in both directions. You can definitely see the need for increased parking and increased opportunities for people to access the park.

Congestion is also increasingly common at Saguaro’s east and west visitor centers especially in March, typically the busiest month at the park.

Though it varies year-to-year, visitation has increased by almost 50 percent overall since 2013 when Saguaro saw fewer than 680,000 recreation visits. The current surge to 1 million visitors and beyond began in 2017 though it was briefly interrupted by the pandemic which sent the figure back down below 765,000 in 2020.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationwide, 2023 ranked as the fourth busiest in Park Service history with 325,498,646 visitors at 394 sites managed by the agency from California to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii.

So far, though, Saguaro appears to have avoided many of the problems plaguing other popular parks close to urban areas. The sharp rise in visitor volume has not resulted in an increase in crime, vandalism, or even litter.

The community takes a lot of pride in the park and they’re not going to let things fall apart.

Recent feedback from the public seems to back that up.

As part of a larger visitor use study early last year, officials conducted a survey in the park to find out where people were coming from and what they were there to see and do. More than 1,500 visitors were interviewed at various locations and a sizable majority of them said they found Saguaro to be clean, safe, and not too crowded.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Friends

Even as attendance has exploded in recent years, Saguaro has seen its federal funding flatline preventing the park’s workforce from growing along with its visitation. According to a park’s spokesperson, Saguaro has roughly the same number of uniformed staff now as it did a decade ago.

That’s where the Friends of Saguaro National Park come in.

Since it was founded in 1996, Saguaro’s nonprofit fundraising partner has provided $12 million in support to the park. They are able to provide funding for things the park wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

For example, the park’s environmental education programs are entirely paid for by the Friends, according to Fred Stula, executive director of the nonprofit group.

Last year alone, the group and its donors supplied Saguaro with $671,000, its largest yearly contribution to date. And that figure did not include the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of work the Friends have provided for trail maintenance and other work.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then there is the group’s Next Generation Ranger Corps Internship Program which has placed more than 100 paid temporary workers at the park since 2015.

The goal of the program is to supply Saguaro with some much needed personnel while helping “diverse young people to get their foot in the door” at the park service and other federal agencies

(58 percent of interns are women and 76 percent come from Latino, Indigenous, or other historically underserved communities).

Nearly every graduate of the program has gone on to work in the environmental field including 38 who have landed jobs with federal agencies. Eighteen former interns are now on the permanent staff at Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upgrades coming

The Park Service hopes to address some of its congestion issues starting next year with a major construction project at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center.

The work will more than double the current number of parking spaces and add spots large enough for buses and recreational vehicles. It should also improve visitor safety by rerouting the entrance road between Old Spanish Trail and the fee stations to separate it from the parking lot.

The project represents the first major upgrade to the visitor center parking lot since the early 1950s when fewer than 80,000 people a year visited what was then a national monument limited only to the Rincon Mountains.

President John F. Kennedy expanded the monument to include portions of the Tucson Mountains in 1961 and Congress elevated the land to national park status in 1994.

The final designs and cost estimates for the visitor center upgrade have not been released but according to park officials the work will be funded in part with the additional entrance fee revenue Saguaro has received as a result of its increased visitation.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No changes would be made to Cactus Forest Drive, the iconic, one-lane scenic loop through the Rincon foothills that dates back to the earliest days of the national monument in the 1930s and is considered “part of the historic character” of the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center in the Tucson Mountains is far newer—and so is its parking lot—but it is also due for its first major renovation since it was built in the 1990s.

The Park Service just launched the design process for that project which will focus on a new layout and all new exhibits for the inside of the building.

Park officials have no immediate plans to expand the parking lots at Saguaro’s most popular hiking spots, namely the Broadway and Douglas Springs trailheads on the east side of the park and the King Canyon trailhead on the west side.

Best advice is come early in the day. By 9:30 or 10 a.m. parking at some locations can be hard to come by.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus and crowds

The three busiest years in the history of Saguaro National Park have all come since 2019. Here are the annual recreation visits for the past 10 years, according to the NPS:

  • 2023: 1,010,906
  • 2022: 908,194
  • 2021: 1,079,786
  • 2020: 762,226
  • 2019: 1,020,226
  • 2018: 957,405
  • 2017: 964,760
  • 2016: 820,426
  • 2015: 753,446
  • 2014: 673,572
  • 2013: 678,261
Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Packing the parks

Of the 21 NPS sites in Arizona only two are among the nation’s 10 busiest—and the Grand Canyon isn’t one of them. Here’s where park sites in Arizona ranked on the list of America’s most visited parks in 2023:

1. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia: 16,757,635 recreation visits

2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California: 14,953,882

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee: 13,297,647

4. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey: 8,705,329

5. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi: 8,277,857

6. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.: 8,099,148

7. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia: 7,391,260

8. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee: 6,784,853

9. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada: 5,798,541

10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah: 5,206,934

Others sites in Arizona:

13. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 4,733,705

75. Saguaro National Park: 1,010,906

117. Petrified Forest National Park: 520,491

146. Montezuma Castle National Monument: 367,239

154. Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 333,349

190. Wupatki National Monument: 215,703

194. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 186,601

209. Walnut Canyon National Monument: 152,548

214. Coronado National Memorial: 140,089

228. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument: 111,392

232. Tuzigoot National Monument: 102,936

250. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: 81,519

262. Chiricahua National Monument: 62,582

276. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site: 54,187

287. Navajo National Monument: 44,180

300. Tumacacori National Historic Park: 37,872

314. Tonto National Monument: 31,216

329. Pipe Spring National Monument: 24,016

370. Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 8,333

Worth Pondering…

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

Most Amazing Places to Visit in the South (2024)

Whatever your travel preference, you will get to experience true Southern charm and beauty in these breathtaking locations

The South is home to many fascinating, attractive and unusual destinations. Because the Southern states occupy a significant portion of the United States, anybody planning extensive travel in the country will inevitably find themselves in the region sometime. Once you arrive, you will be in for a real treat.

The South is definitely worth the journey, no matter what takes you there: a road trip, state exploration, or a vacation to a national park. There is so much to see and do in this region, from bustling cities with deep histories to picturesque, natural settings.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina is a lovely coastal city with plenty of Southern charm, pretty architecture, and historic points of interest. There is truly something here for everyone making this city a top place to visit in the South. Also, did I mention the food?! This is a city full of great eats and I suggest taking a food tour to get a bite of all the best Southern food the city has to offer.

When you are full from eating your way through Charleston, relax on a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city or a boat cruise of the harbor. If you are into history or architecture, then check out the Fort Sumter National Monument, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, or the Citadel.

If you are traveling with kids you might have fun at the Joe Riley Waterfront Park, the South Carolina Aquarium, or the Magnolia Plantation & Gardens.

There are many great things to do in Charleston. That’s why I wrote this article: The Ultimate Deep South Road Trip: Savannah to Charleston

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

With five miles of unspoiled beaches and sweeping paths, Hunting Island State Park provides a prehistoric camping experience amid a maritime forest of palmetto, palms and pines. It’s almost as if dinosaurs could be lurking around the tropical vegetation.

Climb to the top of the lighthouse for a great view of the island and saltwater lagoon. A hundred campsites include all the usual amenities with access to the beach.

There are many great things to do at Hunting Island State Park.

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Located three miles south of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island has clear blue water and powdery white sand galore. It’s connected to mainland Alabama by a bridge, or you can take a ferry ride over. The island is a boon for history and nature. Visit the 164-acre Audubon Bid Sanctuary to see migrating birds in the spring. Head to Shell Mound Park to see beautifully preserved shell mounds dating to 1100-1500 AD and swing by Historic Fort Gaines, a 19th century bread seacoast fortification.

There are many great things to do at Dauphin Island. That’s why I wrote Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Berea, Kentucky

The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and even glassblowing studios. Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college.

Folly Beach, South Carolina

Folly Beach is Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms’s alienated, hip, rule-breaking elder brother. You do not travel to Folly to flaunt your new designer beachwear or attend a social event. You go there to drink beer, eat fish tacos, and lounge in the Bert’s Market parking lot. Most importantly, you surf.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is a must for any Georgia road trip. This is a city full of Southern charm from its cobblestone streets to the Spanish moss covering the oak trees. This is the perfect city to escape to for people with any hobby or interest. History buffs will love exploring Old Fort Jackson or learning about the city’s past on an Old Savannah Trolly Tour.

If you are into architecture, you will really love checking out the Victorian district, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, or the Mercer Williams House. If you are traveling with kids and want some family-friendly fun, head over to pretty Forsyth Park or consider booking a river cruise on an iconic steamboat. No matter what you do in Savannah, you are sure to have a great time.

There are many great things to do in Savannah.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, Louisiana

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, the first in the Louisiana State Parks system, honors the story of Evangeline and the author who made her famous. The main attraction here is Maison Olivier, a Creole plantation built around 1815 that once grew indigo, cotton, and sugar. Sitting on the banks of Bayou Teche (pronounced “tesh”) on the northern edge of St. Martinville, Maison Olivier features a mix of French, Creole, and Caribbean architectural influences that were typical of the early 1800s.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site explores the cultural interplay among the diverse peoples along the famed Bayou Teche. Acadians and Creoles, Indians and Africans, Frenchmen and Spaniards, slaves and free people of color, all contributed to the historical tradition of cultural diversity in the Teche region. French became the predominant language and it remains very strong in the region today.

Here’s a helpful resource: Cultural Interplay along the Bayou Teche: Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greenville, South Carolina

With an incredible food scene, charming Downtown, and striking nature to discover, Greenville, South Carolina is one of the most enjoyable places to visit in the south. Start your southern getaway savoring delicious southern food in one of the countless restaurants in town.

Then, stroll around Downtown while enjoying the local charm. Once on Liberty Bridge, take in the beautiful view of Falls Park on Reedy River which has beautiful gardens and trails.

Nestled up against the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of South Carolina’s Upcountry, Greenville is a heaven for nature lovers. 

Here, you’ll find a number of places to disconnect from technology and get lost in nature. 

There are many great things to do in Greenville.

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina is another Southern city worth visiting. This is a popular travel destination for a number of reasons. For one, the cute city is surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy America’s favorite drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway as you twist through the mountains to find hiking trails and gorgeous scenic vistas. The nearby French Broad River gives tourists a place to go tubing, boating, or fishing.

When you are not exploring the encompassing nature, you will want to wander the cool city. Known for its art scene, Asheville is a hip city full of unique shops, outdoor markets, craft breweries, and local art galleries. Take a trolley tour to learn the history of the city or enjoy a delicious food tour. Another way to step into the past is to visit the Biltmore mansion which was built by George W. Vanderbilt in the 1890s.

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Dora, Florida

An hour north of Orlando, you’ll find this small quaint town full of antique shops and historic charm on the edge of Lake Dora. Stay at Lakeside Inn, Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel, and get your fill of delicious Florida cuisine, offered by chef Norman Van Aken at his restaurant 1921. Be sure to make a stop at the iconic Mount Dora Lighthouse, one of only three registered freshwater lighthouses in the country.

If you need ideas, check out: 11+ Sensational Things to do in Mount Dora

Fairhope, Alabama

If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic. Stroll to see historic homes on streets lined with live oaks. Get lost in the European-inspired alleys of Fairhope’s charming, walkable downtown. Make a stop at the legendary Grand Hotel to see its well-landscaped grounds and vibrant bougainvillea. One last thing to note: Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, Louisiana

One of the state’s most legendary and off-the-beaten-path destinations is the Jungle Gardens of Avery Island which has been open to the public since 1935. Its connection to the McIlhenny Company (which created and still produces bottles of the famed Tabasco hot sauce) runs deep.

The gardens were established by Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny, former company president and the son of the inventor of the sauce. McIlhenny cultivated the land for conservation and research, eventually expanding it to more than 170 acres.

Located around a 45-minute drive south of Lafayette along Bayou Petite Anse, Jungle Gardens is an ideal spot for glimpsing wildlife. In fact, there are so many avian creatures here that one exhibit has been named Bird City and serves as a refuge and sanctuary. To see the beauty of Avery Island for yourself, you can traverse the grounds via automobile on a self-guided jaunt—just be sure to get the most out of your ticket and save time for a tour of the nearby Tabasco factory.

There are many great things to do on Avery Island.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bardstown, Kentucky

Bardstown is a small city in Kentucky with a population of around 13,000 but that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. Many people call it one of the most beautiful small towns/cities to visit in America, so it’s worth adding to your travel list.

This city is most well known for its great bourbon, so be sure to head to one of the distilleries, like the Barton 1792 Distillery which offers tours. 

Visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History to learn more about Whiskey and stop by the Old Kentucky Home for a tour of a nineteenth-century estate.

There are many great things to do in Bardstown.

Natchez, Mississippi

Natchez is a city in Mississippi, located on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. Its beautiful antebellum architecture is a huge draw for tourists, and homes and estates like the Melrose Estate or the unique, octagonal Longwood estate are very popular for visitors yearning for a glimpse at life in the pre-Civil War era.

The Natchez Trace, once a trade route, is now a beautifully scenic driving road where travelers can roll the windows down and enjoy the breeze as they look out over some of the loveliest nature in Mississippi.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge conserves the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp and is the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. The refuge provides habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and wood stork along with a wide variety of other wildlife. It is world renowned for its amphibian populations. More than 600 plant species have been identified on refuge lands.

There are three major entrances to the Okefenokee.  From the open prairies of the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area to the forested cypress swamp accessed through Stephen C. Foster State Park, Okefenokee is a mosaic of habitats, plants, and wildlife.

There are many great things to do at Okefenooke National Wildlife Refuge and Stephen F. Foster State Park.

Worth Pondering…

I am southern—from the great state of South Carolina. They say, ‘You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.’ And it’s true.

—Ainsley Earhardt

The Complete Guide to Shenandoah National Park

Cruise scenic Skyline Drive, explore mountain trails, and find serenity at this Virginia treasure
Gushing waterfalls. Rolling mountains. Granite peaks. Lush valleys. Ninety-plus streams. Fog oceans that tumble over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Animals and wildflowers aplenty.

With such an abundance of natural beauty Shenandoah National Park ranks as one of Virginia’s wildest yet most serene destinations. Author Bill Bryson calls it “possibly the most wonderful national park I have ever been in.”

Native Americans wandered this area for millennia to hunt, gather food, and collect materials for stone tools. Shenandoah is a Native American word that some historians believe means daughter of the stars.

European hunters and trappers arrived in the 1700s followed by settlers and entrepreneurs who launched farming, logging, milling, and mining operations.

In the early 1900s inspired by the popularity of Western national parks, Virginia politicians and businessmen pushed for a park in the East and President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation authorizing Shenandoah National Park in 1926. Roughly 465 families had to leave their homes after the state of Virginia acquired the land but a few stubborn mountaineers refused to go, living the rest of their lives in the thick woods.

In 1931, the federal highway department began building Shenandoah National Park’s signature attraction, 105-mile Skyline Drive which runs north to south through the length of the park. Two years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pet New Deal programs—started constructing its infrastructure from overlooks to picnic areas and FDR dedicated the 197,438 acre park in 1936. Fast forward to 2022 and this Old Dominion beauty now attracts 1.5 million visitors annually.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

From Washington, D.C., Shenendoah National Park is an easy 71-mile drive southwest. It’s also a doable drive from Philadelphia (210 miles northwest of the park) and Raleigh, North Carolina (218 miles south).

In the park, mileposts along Skyline Drive will help you locate significant sites from lodges to trailheads. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is at mile 4.6, for example; the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center, mile 51. The numbering system starts in the north at the Front Royal entrance (mile 0) and ends at the southern Rockfish Gap entrance (mile 105). Two middle entrances are Thornton Gap (mile 31.5) and Swift Run Gap (mile 65.7). The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle (annual Senior Pass, $20).

In October, the most-visited month throngs of leaf lovers arrive for fall foliage but autumn’s reds and golds are worth the extra traffic and overflowing parking lots on Skyline Drive. Come on a weekday for smaller crowds. The leaves change sooner at higher elevations so explore the park’s lower points between the Front Royal and Thornton Gap entrances if you go later in October.

The park website posts a frequently updated report on when the leaves will hit their peak colors. Don’t count on posting foliage photos on social media while in the park. Cellphone service is spotty at best though the two lodges and visitors centers offer Wi-Fi.

You’ll see stunning sights any season you visit. May brings woodland flowers such as trillium, which grows near streambanks and other wet areas. Columbine, milkweed, and other wildflowers take the floral stage in June; black-eyed Susans and goldenrods often bloom into fall.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other seasonal draws

Waterfalls are typically fullest in spring and fall and some park visitors favor the quiet of winter. Sure, it’s cold—average high temperatures in the mid to upper 30s—but you’ll experience the park in a completely different way.

You’ll see deeper into the woods in winter because there’s nothing obstructing your view. You’ll see more of the rock outcrops and you might see more deer because they’re not blocked by the vegetation. And the lighting in the wintertime is beautiful.

December through March are the least-visited months—the facilities are closed then so bring food and plenty of water—and May and September tend to be quieter as well. Summer can be hot and humid (this is Virginia) but July’s average high temperature is a comfy 75—and Shenandoah is typically up to 10 degrees cooler than muggy D.C.

Restrooms are available at the park’s picnic grounds (some are pit toilets), visitor’s centers, lodges, waysides, and camp stores. You’ll find portable toilets at the Panorama Comfort Station (mile 31.6) and at the Beagle Gap parking area (mile 99.5).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Some national parks have iconic hotels worth seeing even if you’re not a guest but Shenandoah National Park’s two lodges are pleasant places to stay, not must-see attractions, each offering a mix of rooms, cabins, multiunit lodges, and suites. Their advantage over gateway-town hotels: The lodges and the park’s cabins and campgrounds are within easy walking distance of trails and you can revel in Shenandoah’s quiet, woodsy seclusion.

Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51) near the Byrd Visitor Center was built in 1939 using local chestnut trees and stones from nearby Massanutten Mountain. From the lodge’s wood-paneled lobby enjoy the sweeping view of 30-mile-wide Page Valley. Walk just a mile at sunset to Big Meadows the park’s largest meadow and you’ll see whitetail deer grazing; in August, you might spot bears dining on blueberries. The lodge is open from early May through early November.

If you book the Skyland lodge (mile 41.7), request a room with a balcony overlooking Massanutten Mountain and Page Valley. With Skyland’s elevation at 3,680 feet, Skyline Drive’s highest point you’ll get jaw-dropping views. The property is open April through November.

For something only slightly more rustic, settle into a cabin in the dense woods at Lewis Mountain Cabins (mile 57.5)—no Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, or kitchen but you’ll have a bathroom, electricity, and an outdoor grill. Rentals available from April through November.

Whichever option you choose book at least three to four weeks in advance for spring and summer and 10 to 12 months ahead for fall-foliage season.

Shenandoah National Park’s five campgrounds—spread out along Skyline Drive in secluded, tree-filled locales—open at different times between March and May and then close in fall. Driving an RV? Stay at Mathews Arm (mile 22.2), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), or Loft Mountain (mile 79.5). For showers and washing machines choose Big Meadows or Loft Mountain. Dundo (mile 83.7) is for groups of seven to 15 people.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5) is exclusively first come, first served; the other campgrounds accept reservations while also offering limited spots on a first-come, first-served basis. Nightly permits range from $15 to $50. Book up to six months in advance at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

Ready for some Virginia cuisine? At Big Meadows Lodge, the Spottswood Dining Room serves Southern favorites such as fried chicken along with wow-inducing views of Page Valley on the pet-friendly terrace. Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room also mixes regional dishes with valley views. The must-try dessert at both restaurants: blackberry ice cream pie.

Seven shady picnic grounds lie between miles 4.6 and 83.7 tucked away from Skyline Drive noise. Overlooks make appealing picnic spots, too. Or walk to easy-to-reach summits such as the 1.6-mile round-trip Stony Man trail (mile 41.7). Sit on a rock, eat your PB&J and gaze out at the mountains and valley. If you didn’t pack a lunch the wayside food stops located every 25 miles on Skyline Drive sell carryout meals, groceries, and camping supplies. Or stop by Addie’s Corner at Skyland for sandwiches, pastries, beverages and snacks.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Driving

Cruising Skyline Drive to see the sights—that is Shenandoah National Park’s must-do activity. The speed limit is only 35 mph but you won’t want to zoom past the gorgeous scenery. Whether you drive all 105 miles or just one lovely, leafy portion, stop for the panoramic views at some of the 75 overlooks. Two recommended by park staffers: the Big Run (mile 81.2) and Range View (mile 17.1).

On a clear day you see ridge after ridge after bluish ridge and you don’t see a lot of development when you look down into the lowlands below. The same thing with Big Run—it’s all wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

For all of Skyline Drive’s two-laned delights, hiking is the best way to experience Shenandoah National Park’s sights, sounds, and smells—take your pick from 335 trails (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail). Since park elevation peaks at about 4,000 feet, even the steepest hikes aren’t as daunting as their Western counterparts.

The 2.4-mile round-trip Compton Gap trail (mile 10.4) takes you on the Appalachian Trail to a T-like intersection. Go right and walk 0.2 miles for splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Go left 0.2 miles to a unique geologic formation: clumps of polygonal columns formed by ancient lava flows. The path is steep but worth the walk.

If you have accessibility issues, set out on the flat-and-mild, 1.3-mile Limberlost (mile 43), the park’s only wheelchair-friendly trail. Rest on its benches and enjoy mountain laurels and bird calls. (Listen for towhees—the distinctive call sounds like, “Drink your teeee. Drink your teeee.”) Nearby streams and plentiful food such as apple trees attract black bears, too. Shenandoah National Park rangers advise making noise so bears know you’re nearby—they’ll usually run from humans—and staying at least 150 feet away if you see any. The bears are not aggressive but do not approach a mama with her cubs.

Waterfalls are among the park’s most soul-soothing sites. Winding streams, hovering trees, crashing water—what’s not to like? The moderate Whiteoak Canyon Trail (mile 42.6) features two falls but to reduce fatigue hike 4.6 miles round trip to the spectacular first falls—the Upper Whiteoak Falls—rather than walking to both. The reason: The trail descends (as do all the park’s waterfall trails), so you endure the steep part on the way back. Before reaching the falls, side trails lead to a stream where you can walk on flat rocks, hear the thunderous rapids and feel cool air emanating from the water.

Hard-core hikers favor Old Rag, a strenuous 9.2-mile round-trip hike up Old Rag Mountain. Its multiple heart-pumping highlights include a rock scramble (you’ll be clambering over rock faces, often using your hands for balance) and a summit.

Tackle it on a weekday; this popular hike gets crowded on weekends when you may even experience lines at narrow passages which can feel more like a day at the DMV than a national park. You can’t access Old Rag from Skyline Drive; rather, you’ll need to take route 600. For directions to the trailhead, type in the address of Old Rag’s newest parking lot—2923 Nethers Road—into a mapping app.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing

Amateur astronomers often host night sky presentations discussing celestial wonders and pointing out notable planets and stars. They typically set up telescopes on Rapidan Fire Road leading into Big Meadows, near the lodge.

You can also attend a free outdoor “Under the Stars at Shenandoah National Park” presentation held monthly at the Big Meadows or Skyland lodges (time varies based on sunset). Talk topics range from meteorites to star life cycles.

Each August, the park hosts Night Sky Festival, a weekend with presentations from rangers, astronauts, and guest speakers on interstellar subjects.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird-watching, horseback riding, fishing

Prefer animals over Alpha Centauri? If you’re a bird lover, meet an owl, raptor, and a red-tailed hawk in the ranger-led Birds of Prey program held four times a week at the amphitheater in the Big Meadows picnic ground (mile 51.2). Equestrians clip-clop across 200 miles of horse trails. Skyland Stables (mile 42.5) offers guided horseback and pony rides throughout the day.

Anglers can cast in more than 70 streams with 38 species of fish, from brook trout to fantail darters.

Touring

Thanks to fishing, Shenandoah National Park can claim Herbert Hoover slept here. Frequently. In 1929, the then-president bought 164 acres for Rapidan Camp near Skyline Drive’s midpoint, as his personal fishing hideaway welcoming big-shot guests such as Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh. The camp sits near two streams that merge to form the Rapidan River surrounded by hemlocks.

Make reservations online for a 2.5-hour ranger-led tour of the property and Hoover’s wood cabin named the Brown House to distinguish it from the White House. The simple-but-pretty interior has been restored to its 1929 appearance with much of the furniture original although replica handmade Navajo rugs are most striking. Ride a minibus from the Byrd Visitor Center to get there or hike 4 miles round trip from the Milam Gap parking area (mile 52.4).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

Front Royal

Download a walking tour from the local visitor’s center to take in the must-see sites in this town 1 mile from Shenandoah National Park’s north gate. Its charming historic district teems with antique shops, restaurants, and attractions such as Belle Boyd Cottage (a tour reveals sizzling stories about Belle, one of the Confederacy’s most infamous spies).

Drop into Spelunker’s for its frozen custard and burger which a Washington Post food writer declared a culinary masterpiece.

Stay at the nearby L’Auberge Provençale, named one of the world’s 50 best romantic getaways in 2020 by Travel + Leisure. Rooms at the 270-year-old home in White Post (13 miles northeast of Front Royal) start at $180 a night, but the fresh croissants, French antiques, and Provençale designs make the inn worth the splurge.

Waynesboro

Here, just 5 miles from the southern Rockfish Gap entrance, you’ll find some of Virginia’s best trout fishing as well as canoeing and kayaking on the 4-mile Waynesboro Water Trail.

At the town’s annual Virginia Street Arts Festival, artists paint large murals on buildings.

From the patio at the Basic City Beer Co. take in a back-wall mural titled Isabelle—a gripping black-and-white closeup of a woman with a yellow flower in her mouth—while drinking a honey-hued malt lager.

The Fishin’ Pig’s T-shirt worthy name might lure you in for a bite but locals come for the fried catfish.

Luray

Luray Caverns, one of the East Coast’s largest caverns draws visitors to this town, 10 miles west of the Thornton Gap entrance.

But also make time to view regional artists’ work at the Warehouse Art Gallery and sip a latte at chill coffee joint Gathering Grounds.

Check into the stately Mimslyn Inn or the wooded Shadow Mountain Escape where four timber-frame cabins feature European decor and exposed oak-beam ceilings.

Sperryville

Tiny Sperryville sits near a gushing stream 7 miles east of the Thornton Gap entrance. At Headmaster’s Pub, replenish those calories you burned hiking with the pub’s juicy burgers made from grass-fed beef. Also have some fun in its game room with air hockey, pool tables, and old-school pinball machines (some not even digital).

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you drive through Charlottesville, take time to explore this charming college town 25 miles east of the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia at age 76 as “the hobby of my old age.”

A must-see: The Lawn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the social centerpiece of campus since the university opened in 1819. Academic buildings border the long, grassy courtyard at both ends with student and faculty housing along the sides. Also tour Jefferson’s exquisite home, Monticello, 2 miles outside the city.

Back in town, stroll the pedestrian mall for the people watching, window-shopping (book lovers should browse the New Dominion Bookshop) and dining. Duck into the Whiskey Jar for top-notch Southern cuisine, but save room for peanut butter pie at the Pie Chest.

Virginia has nearly 300 wineries, many clustered outside of Charlottesville. Jam-band rocker and former Charlottesville resident Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Vineyards, about 20 minutes southeast from town. Enjoy a bottle of the house white out on the patio for views of rolling, vineyard-covered hills. If you prefer a pilsner, the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail guides you to 15 breweries.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving to the park via Interstate 81, stop by Staunton, 17 miles west of the Rockfish Gap entrance. The city escaped the Civil War unscathed and publications such as Architectural Digest and Smithsonian have raved about its well-preserved Main Street where quaint 18th- and 19th-century buildings thrive as restaurants, shops, theaters, and more.

For a local history lesson, take the Historic Staunton Foundation’s walking tour, offered every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, May through October. Afterward do lunch at LUNdCH from owner/chef Mike Lund, former chef de cuisine at the world-renowned Inn at Little Washington.

Coming from Washington, D.C., don’t miss the massive Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near Dulles airport. The museum’s collection includes the Concorde, Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever flown.

Shenandoah National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

Location: Virginia, about 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Size: 197,438 acres

Highest peak: Hawksbill, at 4,051 feet

Miles/number of trails: 518 miles along 335 trails

Main attraction: Skyline Drive

Entry fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days; annual Senior Pass $20

Best way to see the park: By car and by foot

When to go to avoid the crowds: December through March

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

Why You Should Attend an RV Rally

Attending an RV rally can be a great learning experience

RV rallies are wonderful ways to connect with other RVers, to become a part of the RV community and to sharpen your RV skills, develop more practical, on-the-road and camping knowledge, and to truly enhance your RV lifestyle.

There are different types and sizes of rallies. Large national rallies are hosted by Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA).

Freightliner rally © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are brand club rallies for owners of a specific brand of RV. In addition to a major annual RV rally, some of these RV clubs and manufacturers host regional events. And there are numerous local chapters of various types that may hold RV rallies throughout the year.

As a general rule, the larger the RV rally, the more activities and scheduled events. Chapter rallies typically center on the gathering of a smaller group yet often include side trips, activities, door prizes and so on. The cost to attendees will vary too, depending on the size and location of the rally, the cost of camping, and what is included. Sometimes meals are part of the RV rally price, sometimes not.

There are rallies for families with kids who travel fulltime, rallies for people with common interests, and even rallies specifically for, say, Newmar owners. No matter who you are, there is an RV rally for you, and here are some of the reasons you should make a point to attend.

Rally entertainment © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Experience community

The most valuable thing a rally can offer is community. When traveling, it’s not unheard of to go weeks or even months without a good friend, let alone a group of them.

Rallies bring together groups of like-minded people who enjoy the same sorts of activities and give them time to socialize. Obviously, this builds community quite quickly and often the rally attendees will end up staying together after the event to continue the nightly campfires, weekend potlucks, and group outings.

Considering the fact that it can be difficult to find a good solid community even in a stationary home, finding such a group in the RV world is an incredible thing that nobody should pass up.

FMCA regional rally in Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Shared ideas

Good rallies can be a bed of great ideas. These can help us find work-arounds on issues we may be having with our RV. They can also provide cost-saving concepts when we find out how someone else is handling an issue we have been stumped by for weeks or months. We may even discover a way of doing something that saves us time or makes our lives just a little easier.

3. Learn new skills

Rallies usually include seminars, classes, and workshops. They might bring in speakers on any number of topics and attendees are welcome to join any event that interests them.

What this means is that everyone leaves the rally with a new skill set that can be applied to their RV lifestyle. From cooking lessons to lectures on solar power, you never know what kinds of learning opportunities you’ll find at a rally.

On top of those organized opportunities, many rally attendees also find themselves learning new things from fellow RVers. After all, if your new friend is an expert on RV roof repair and you know a lot about finding internet on the road, why wouldn’t you exchange knowledge?

Pets are always welcome at RV rallies © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Find new travel buddies

As mentioned before, rally attendees often hang around the same place and enjoy the company of one another in the days following the event. However, some of the more social RVers out there aren’t content to end the fun after a mere few weeks.

These individuals will use rallies to find friends to travel alongside for extended periods of time. Sometimes these travelers even go so far as to build a group of friends who then travel together as a caravan, sharing the benefits of community while still traveling.

5. See different rigs

I don’t know about you, but I’m always interested in seeing how other RVers live. Rallies are the perfect opportunity to do just that. Some rallies include a parade of homes in which attendees can show off their respective setups. Others feature a lot of brand-new rigs for rally participants to walk through.

That said, even if a rally has no such event, you can always ask to have a look around the homes of your new friends. Not only is this interesting and fun but it’s also a good way to get new ideas for how to organize and use your own space.

RV supplies are often demonstrated at RV rallies © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Discover new hobbies

Some rallies are for folks with niche interests. However, not all rallies are so specific and those that cater to more eclectic mixes of people tend to provide awesome chances to discover new hobbies.

Chat with other RVers and find out what they do. Make a point of attending crafting or sporting events put on by the rally. Use the event to venture outside your comfort zone. After all, you probably don’t have much to lose in doing so and you might just gain a cool new passion you would never have thought to try on your own.

It’s a dog’s life at an RV show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Gather new recipes

Many rallies involve one or more potluck meals. What’s great about potlucks with other RVers is that you know any food you find and love can be made in a tiny RV kitchen. Many RVers are happy to share their recipes with others at the rally.

These are just some of the many, many reasons to attend an RV rally. If you’ve never been to one, seek one out and give it a try. I bet you’ll have a blast!

Worth Pondering…

Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.

—Frank Herbert

Ten Ways to Keep Your RV Clean and Tidy

Make every camping trip more enjoyable by keeping your RV clean and tidy

Almost everything about camping in an RV is great—except for cleaning it. The dreaded chore can put a damper on the fun. Spring cleaning, prepping before your next trip, and cleaning up when you get home are all important and often unpleasant tasks.

Being on the road often, driving, and parking in the dirt and traveling through various weather conditions all put your RV through a lot. The cleaner you keep your RV, the easier it will be to avoid the normal wear and tear from traveling throughout the year. (You should aim to wash the exterior of your RV at least once a quarter, if not more depending on how often you travel and where you go.) 

An RV seems like a lot of work to clean but doing little things frequently will make it seem like less of a daunting task and help you take pride in your ride.  

Here are 10 tips that can help to take the hassle out of cleaning your RV.

1. Read the instruction manual

Your RV’s instruction manual is a treasure-trove of information that can give you tips and tricks for cleaning your RV’s exterior and interior. This includes what type of cleaners you should and shouldn’t use and any specialized care instructions. For further information, try your RV manufacturer’s website for extra tips on cleaning and making your RV sparkle. Failure to read the instruction manual could lead to damage to your RV’s surfaces and finishes. 

2. Ditch the brand-name products

Most RV materials aren’t any different from other vehicle or living material types. It’s easy to want to purchase a brand-name cleaner or solution that’s made exclusively for RVs but the truth is many common and generic household cleaners work perfectly well to keep your RV sparkling, including dish soap, window cleaner, even distilled white vinegar. Those fancy products at the RV superstore are appealing but they’re typically more expensive. 

Dawn Dish Soap © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Spring cleaning

Make sure to have a clean start for your camping season. A deep clean each spring makes your entire summer of camping so much better.

Give the exterior of your RV a thorough cleaning and waxing.

Don’t forget to wash the awning, too. It is easy to forget about this important accessory because it is usually folded in when you are at home doing maintenance and cleaning on your RV.

Clean your RV’s tank sensors to keep them working all season long. Use a cleaning wand to blast the gunk out of your black tank. You can also soak your black and grey water tanks by adding a cup of Dawn dishwashing detergent to a tank that is ½ full of water and then driving around to agitate. There are also commercially available enzymatic tank cleaners that help to remove a dirty tank.

By the way, I have a series of posts on spring cleaning:

4. Clean out the storage area

Your RV’s storage areas can hide nasty messes and smells. It can also host mold, mildew, and other nasty critters. Clean out your RV’s storage areas, including external storage, often to avoid build-up of any dust or the accumulation of dirt and debris. Always check the nooks and crannies of your RV’s storage areas to make sure nothing is left behind that can turn to stink. 

Dump the black and then the gray water tank © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Dump those tanks

Your gray and black water tanks can be the source of many nasty odors and while tanks don’t directly affect your RV’s appearance, a poorly maintained tank will bother you while hanging inside and outside your ride. Dump and flush your tanks as necessary to keep your whole ride refreshed. Keep a supply of disposable vinyl gloves, a hose, a bucket, and other necessary items stored away exclusively for dumping and cleaning your tanks. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Reduce moisture with dehumidifiers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Prevent mold and mildew

Mold and mildew are major enemies of RVs and since they thrive in moisture reduce moisture within your RV. This includes running yo ur air conditioning in humid environments, opening windows and doors when possible, and buying moisture-absorbing packets for closets and storage areas. If you have an item that reeks of mildew, avoid detergent as it can feed the critters. Wash mildew-smelling clothing in a washer with a couple of cups of distilled white vinegar to kill off the bugs and leave your clothes smelling fresh. 

Be sure to read How to Reduce Moisture and Condensation in Your RV.

Take good care of your tires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Give your tires some shine

Over time, your RV tires start to fade and wear out as they are increasingly exposed to the elements and road debris. Tires withstand a lot of abuse and can sustain scuff marks and small cracks which ages them and frankly makes your vehicle less attractive overall.

Use a product that’s specially designed to spiff up your tires. The best tire shine brands not only clean your tires but also produce a nice, glossy look. When used as a regular part of your maintenance routine, tire shine not only makes your tires look better, it can also protect them from UV rays and other damage. 

There is quite literally more tire dressing products on the market than you can count. Recommended products include Meguiar’s Ultimate Insane Shine Tire Coating, Chemical Guys Galactic Black Wet Look Tire Shine Dressing, and 303 Aerospace Protectant.

Here are some articles to help:

8. Don’t forget the roof

The roof of your RV is one of the most important parts to maintain to avoid interior leaks and other issues. Many modern RV roofs are constructed from membrane roofing, but you still see plenty of metal roofs on the road. If yours is metal, you can wash like you would your RV’s exterior, but if your RV is made of modern membrane roofing, it’s recommended to use specialized cleaner found at RV and camping stores. A twice-yearly cleaning of a membrane roof is usually enough to keep it in good shape. Take this time to inspect the roof for any tears, cracks, rips, or other damage. 

Start with a clean RV

9. Before you head out

Starting out each trip with a clean RV makes the entire trip much more enjoyable.

Clean all of the surfaces of the interior. Use a mild cleaning solution like a mixture of vinegar and water to wipe down every surface, wash walls, and clean all the nooks and crannies.

Clean camping toys in the dishwasher with about a cup and a half of vinegar.

Make sure the sponges in your RV are free of bacteria by microwaving damp sponges for one to two minutes.

10. When you return home

Take a few minutes when you get home to do a quick tidy up so your next trip is that much easier.

Check everywhere for dirty laundry or stray dishes. Move cushions and open cupboards to make sure nothing gets left in the RV between trips.

A quick wet mop on the flooring cleans up all of the dirt that is bound to accumulate during a camping trip.

Clean the toilet with a gentle, natural cleaner so it doesn’t break down the seals around the toilet and cause a leak.

Throw all bedding in your home laundry so it is ready to go when you are.

Keeping your RV clean doesn’t have to be a huge chore. When everyone pitches in, it shouldn’t take too long to get your rig back up to scratch.

Worth Pondering…

Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.

—Phyllis Diller

Discover Native American Cultures on the Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway traverses a portion of the American Southwest that once experienced cannot easily be forgotten

The Trail of the Ancients is the ultimate American Southwest road trip into the Native American history of the region running through four states.

Long before the United States existed there were many civilizations throughout the lands that now make up the country. Today, visitors can learn about the history and heritage of these lands in the Four Corners region on the Trail of the Ancients. The route is found in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Trail of the Ancients explores many of the state parks, Indian reservations, national parks, and national monuments of the region. On this trail, travelers can see some of the best landscapes of the region along with some of the land’s deepest history. But it’s not all about history; you will also see the enduring traditions and practices of the Ancient’s living descendants today.

The Trail of the Ancients is a collection of Scenic Byways that highlight the archeological history of the region. Along this route, visitors can delve into the cultural history of the Native American peoples of the Southwest.

Here are some helpful resources:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients Byways

  • Utah: Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
  • Colorado: Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway
  • New Mexico: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
  • Arizona: Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road

The Trail of the Ancients connects historic points of interest of the Navajo, Utes, and early Puebloan peoples. Along the way, visitors see snow-capped mountains, red rock landscapes, green valleys, canyons, and some of the most iconic landscapes of the Southwest.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Colorado

The Colorado section of the Trail of the Ancients has been a National Scenic Byway since 2005. It traverses the arid and cultural terrain of the Ancestral Pueblo. This is a land with cliff dwellings, rock art, and broken pottery sherds.

The scenic drive starts on US 160 at Mesa Verde National Park, home to over 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi People between 450-1300 AD. Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park designated by UNESCO and you can spend days here exploring over 4,500 archaeological sites and extraordinary setting. 

From the park, the drive heads to the town of Dolores by following the US 160 west and CO 145 and CO 184 north. The premier archaeological museum, Anasazi Heritage Center honors the history of the Anasazi People and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region with exhibits on archaeology, local history, and lifestyle including how they weaved and prepared corn. A short trail will bring you to two pueblos. The Anasazi Heritage Center is also the visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which protects more than 6,000 ancient ruins.

From Dolores, head west on CO 184 and then north on US 491 passing pastoral farmland with mountain peaks in the distance. As you approach the town of Pleasant View, turn right onto Country Road CC. Heading west for 8.5 miles, you arrive at Lowry Pueblo, an Anasazi ruin constructed around 1060 AD. It housed approximately 40-100 inhabitants who subsisted as farmers and made elaborately decorated pottery.

Retracing back a few miles, you arrive at Country Road 10 which heads southwest towards Utah for 20 miles on a dirt road. After crossing the border into Utah, stop at the Hovenweep National Monument. Along the canyon rim stand two, oddly-shaped stone towers created by the master builders of the Anasazi’s people, the meaning of which are still unknown.

The Monument also has a total of six groups of ruins and is known for its square, oval, and D-shaped towers. Explore the Square Tower Group by walking the two mile loop trail from the Visitor Center. Stargazing is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this peaceful and moving setting. Make a night of it with camping which is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

The scenic drive comes to an end as you arrive at the US 191. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Utah

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on US Highway 491 and travels to the junction in Monticello with US Highway 191. Turn south onto US 191 and travel to Blanding where you find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Musuem, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area.

From Blanding the route follows US 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and west on US 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument along the way. It then turns south at the junction with UT 95 and UT 261 and proceeds to the top of the Moki Dugway, a 3 mile stretch of gravel road that descends the 1,000 foot cliff from Cedar Mesa to Valley of the Gods. Along the way you will find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Just before dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road #274 leading to Muley Point and views into Johns Canyon.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway the route continues past the entrance to Valley of the Gods and on the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosencks State Park. At Goosenecks you encounter a view of the largest entrenched river meander in North America.

UT 261 continues to the junction with US 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat or turn left to drive to Bluff. Turning right will take you to Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley; turning left will take you to Bluff and back to Blanding.

Along US 191 between Bluff and Blanding is the junction with Utah Highway 262 where you turn east and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument OR you can access Hovenweep from Bluff on US Highway 162 and follow the signs.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-New Mexico

The Trail of the Ancients passes through the unique geology of the Colorado Plateau high desert offering a rich but fragile mix of natural resources. The stunning rock formation, Shiprock, is a central scenic point that is visible from most places on the Trail of the Ancients. Shiprock provides a focal point for the interpretive theme of the landscape and helps to integrate the trail stops. The visible cultural heritage of the Four Corners area boasts numerous archaeological sites, modern communities, and Indian lands.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a USESCO World Heritage Site, is the centerpiece of the New Mexico segment of the byway. Occupied at the height of Ancestral Pueblo culture between around 850 and 1250 AD, it served as a major center of the ancestral Puebloan civilization. Remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, astronomy, artistic achievements, and distinctive architecture, it was a hub of ceremony/trade for the prehistoric Four Corners area for 400 years.

The Navajo people arrived late on the scene. Their roots trace back to the Athabascan people of northwestern Canada. Spanish explorers first used the name Navajo. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ meaning The People. Contact with other groups and the introduction of farming and ranching brought lasting changes to the lives of the Dine’. The Navajo reservation is the largest in the continental United States both in size and population.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic turnouts along the Trail of the Ancients reveal vast valleys, towering mountains, badlands, clear blue lakes, raging rivers, and gentle streams.

The route traces a massive hook shape on the New Mexico northwest as it explores some of the loneliest parts of the state. Sites along the way include the El Morro National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Crownpoint (stop here for the monthly Navajo Rug auction), Casamero Pueblo, El Malpais National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Here are some helpful resources:

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Arizona

In Arizona, Trail of the Ancients consists of two distinct roads, The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road.

The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road consists of two sections of a single road. The road crosses the state line between New Mexico and Arizona. The official scenic road is only on the Arizona side of the line. The southern section runs from Lupton north through the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to the state line. Then it picks up again further north in the Lukachukai Mountains when the road crosses back into Arizona wraps around the north side of Canyon de Chelly National Monument and turns southwest to end at Chinle. At no point does the route leave the Navajo Nation.

The Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road is a 27-mile route along US Highway 163 from Kayenta to the Utah state line. Monument Valley is known as Tse’ Bii’ Ngzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks) among the Navajo.

Forrest Gump Road in Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arguably, Monument Valley offers one of the most iconic drives of the entire American Southwest with Route 163 (featuring the Forrest Gump Road) being one of its most scenic. This area has been the backdrop of countless Western movies (as well as where the character Forrest Gump in the famous namesake movie decided to give up running as the road’s nickname suggests). These roads in Arizona are not designed as national scenic byways but they are of immense cultural and scenic value.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

Forest
Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

The Beginner’s Guide to Hiking

Hiking for beginners can be intimidating but there’s really not much to it. You don’t need any special skills to hike; you just have to be able to walk and know where you are. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in nature, get a good workout in, and recharge your batteries. This guide will give you some essential hiking for beginners’ tips to make your hike safe and fun.

Hiking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the outdoors. Transported by your own two feet and carrying only what you need for the day on your back you can discover the beauty of nature at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. And, with a little planning and preparation, it’s an activity that almost anyone can do.

Hiking, a timeless and invigorating outdoor activity has been a favorite pastime for individuals seeking a harmonious blend of exercise, nature, and adventure. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or a novice to the world of outdoor activities, hiking provides an excellent opportunity to reconnect with nature, improve physical well-being, and embark on a journey of self-discovery.

In this article, I’ll delve into the essence of hiking, highlighting its benefits and why it is an ideal activity for beginners. Moreover, I’ll underscore the inclusivity of hiking, catering to individuals of various fitness levels.

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

What is hiking and its benefits

Hiking is a form of outdoor recreation that involves walking or trekking through natural landscapes, often along trails or footpaths. Unlike more structured exercises, hiking allows participants to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature offering a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The benefits of hiking extend beyond the physical realm encompassing mental and emotional well-being.

Physical fitness

One of the primary advantages of hiking is the positive impact it has on physical health. As a weight-bearing exercise, hiking helps improve cardiovascular health, strengthen muscles, and enhance overall endurance. The varied terrain encountered during hikes engages different muscle groups providing a comprehensive workout for the body.

Mental well-being

The therapeutic effect of nature is well-documented and hiking serves as a conduit to experience it firsthand. The serene landscapes, fresh air, and the rhythmic act of walking contribute to reduced stress levels, improved mood, and enhanced mental clarity. Hiking provides a valuable opportunity to unplug from technology and connect with the present moment.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Social interaction

While hiking can be a solo endeavor, it also presents an excellent opportunity for social interaction. Group hikes allow individuals to share the experience with friends or meet like-minded individuals fostering a sense of community and camaraderie. Conversations flow more freely in the relaxed setting of nature strengthening social bonds.

Why hiking is ideal for beginners

Hiking’s appeal lies in its simplicity and adaptability making it an excellent choice for individuals new to outdoor activities. Here are several reasons why hiking is an ideal starting point.

Low entry barrier

Unlike some sports or fitness routines that require specialized equipment or skills, hiking has a remarkably low entry barrier. A comfortable pair of walking shoes, appropriate clothing, and a water bottle are sufficient for a beginner’s hike. This simplicity encourages more people to try hiking without the need for significant initial investment.

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

Flexible intensity

Hiking offers a wide range of intensity levels accommodating individuals with diverse fitness backgrounds. Beginners can choose trails with gentle inclines and shorter distances gradually progressing to more challenging routes as their fitness improves. The ability to tailor the intensity of a hike makes it accessible to individuals of all ages and fitness levels.

Connection with nature

For those unaccustomed to regular physical activity the prospect of heading to a gym can be intimidating. Hiking, on the other hand, provides a natural and scenic environment offering a more appealing setting for exercise. The desire to explore nature often serves as a strong motivator for beginners to lace up their hiking boots and hit the trails.

Varied terrain

Hiking trails come in various forms from easy, well-groomed paths to more rugged and challenging terrains. Beginners can choose trails that match their comfort level and gradually progress to more demanding routes. This adaptability ensures that hikers can tailor their experience to suit their fitness and skill levels.

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

Accessibility for people of different fitness levels

One of the most remarkable aspects of hiking is its inclusivity. Regardless of age, fitness level, or prior experience, there is a hiking trail suitable for everyone. Here’s why hiking is accessible to people of different fitness levels:

Trail diversity

Hiking trails are available in a range of difficulty levels from beginner-friendly to advanced. Novices can start with flat, well-marked trails, gradually progressing to more challenging routes with steeper inclines and uneven terrain. National and state parks often classify trails by difficulty helping hikers make informed choices.

Customizable distances

Hiking allows individuals to customize the length of their journey based on their fitness level and preferences. Beginners can start with short, leisurely hikes and gradually increase the distance as they build stamina. The ability to set one’s pace makes hiking an accommodating activity for people at different fitness levels.

Hiking Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supportive hiking communities

The hiking community is generally welcoming and supportive providing resources and encouragement for individuals at all levels. Local hiking clubs and online forums offer valuable advice, trail recommendations, and shared experiences fostering a sense of inclusivity and making the transition into hiking smoother for beginners.

Adaptability to health conditions

Hiking can be adapted to accommodate various health conditions and mobility levels. Many trails are wheelchair-accessible and nature reserves are increasingly mindful of creating inclusive outdoor spaces. Those with health concerns can consult with healthcare professionals to find suitable trials and modifications that cater to their specific needs.

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

Choose your hiking gear

One of the wonderful things about hiking is that you don’t need a bunch of high-tech gear to get out there. With a few essential items for the trail and a sense of adventure, you’re ready to head into the wilderness.

Hiking footwear

Footwear is one of the most important items you need to choose and it’s a very personal choice. Some hikers prefer supportive over-the-ankle boots while others enjoy lightweight trail-running shoes. The terrain you’ll be walking on can also affect your decision. 

Food and water

As a beginner hiker, it can be tough to know how much food and water you need. A good general recommendation for how much to eat is 200–300 calories per hour. About a quart for every two hours of moderate activity in moderate temperatures is a good starting place for water intake. These amounts depend heavily on several factors such as the intensity of your hike, the weather, your age, your sweat rate, and your body type. As you gain more experience, you’ll get a better sense of just how much you need.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appropriate clothing

Wide-brimmed hat or hat with a neck cape protects the head, face, and neck. Light-colored, light weight, long sleeve shirt protects shoulders, arms, and back. Light color reflects back more heat and light weight allows perspiration to evaporate.

In the realm of outdoor activities, hiking stands out as an accessible, adaptable, and immensely rewarding pursuit. Whether you’re seeking a stroll through scenic landscapes or a more challenging trek to test your limits, hiking offers something for everyone.

The physical, mental, and social benefits make it an ideal activity for beginners. So, lace up your hiking boots, explore the trails, and embark on a journey that not only enhances your well-being but also allows you to discover the wonders of nature.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources for hikers of all levels of experience:

Worth Pondering…

As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was about to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.

—A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

How to Know a Tornado is Coming?

April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S. comprising more than half of the annual average of 1,333 twisters

Is a tornado coming? An RV is not a safe place to be during a tornado. Here are warning signs and how to stay safe in the face of a tornado.

Tornado season is here! How do you know if a tornado is coming? 

Here is my guide to all things tornado! I cover the tornado warning signs and how to stay safe during and after one occurs. 

What is a tornado? 

I know most of you know this but you’d be surprised how often this question is searched for in Google! I did say this guide is for all things tornado so here’s a quick definition.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that reaches from a thunderstorm to the ground beneath it. Most tornadoes are thin but some can be greater than two miles wide. A tornado hits when warm air collides with cold air.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado season

Tornadoes can occur in the U.S. at any time throughout the year but there’s a distinct seasonal peak in tornadic activity and it starts in April. Long-term severe weather records show April, May, and June are the three most active months for tornadoes in the U.S.

Between 1991 and 2020, an average of 1,333 tornadoes were documented across the country each year of which more than half―54 percent―occurred between April and June.

Looking back on history, May is typically the most active month for tornadoes averaging 294 each year. That’s followed by April and June, each with an average of 212 tornadoes.

But remember―these are just averages based on a 30-year period and the weather doesn’t always follow what’s considered to be average.

Different weather patterns that set up each spring can cause the number of twisters between April and June to be significantly greater or much fewer than the 718 tornadoes that are typical during those three months.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where do most tornadoes occur? 

Tornado outbreaks during spring are most common when a southward dip in the jet stream punches into the Plains or Midwest and warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico surges northward out ahead of it at the surface.

A stronger jet stream can be fuel for extreme weather adding spin and energy needed in the atmosphere that will allow for thunderstorms to grow and intensify, potentially developing into supercell thunderstorms that could produce tornadoes if wind shear―the change in wind speed and/or direction with height―near the surface is particularly strong.

By the spring, the jet stream is migrating northward out of the South and setting up more frequently over the Plains and Midwest as it retreats toward the Canadian border for the summer.

That’s why the potential for tornadoes increases in Tornado Alley during the spring while the risk of tornadoes decreases for the southern U.S.

The term Tornado Alley has been given to the broad area where most tornadoes occur in the United States. The boundaries of Tornado Alley change depending on the criteria you use to define it. 

Generally, the region includes central Texas stretching horizontally through Oklahoma to northern Iowa. Then from central Kansas and Nebraska eastward to the west edge of Ohio. 

The U.S. tornado threat shifts from place to place during the year. The Southeast states are threatened during the cooler months. The southern and central Plains are most at risk in May and June. The early summer is a risky time for the northern Plains and Midwest areas. 

While tornadoes generally stay in these regions they have occurred in all fifty states!

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tornado watch and tornado warning

Tornado watch

A Tornado Watch is issued by the meteorologists at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center. They watch the weather all day, every day across the U.S. for signs of severe weather. A watch can cover parts of or entire states. 

If you know there is a chance of severe weather, you can tune into NOAA Weather Radio to hear when an advance warning is issued. Many survival radios have the seven NOAA Weather Stations pre-programmed for your convenience. 

Tornado warning

A Tornado Warning is more urgent. It is issued by the NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office meteorologists watching a designated area nonstop. It means that radar or spotters have picked up on an actual tornado that is threatening people or property. 

A Tornado Warning means that you are at risk of danger and need to seek an immediate storm shelter. A warning can include parts of counties or several counties. When in an area issued with a Tornado Warning be sure to watch for the tornado warning signs. 

The National Weather Service cannot always predict a tornado nor give much warning. That is why it is a good idea to be able to spot the warning signs of tornadoes yourself. Advance planning can also mean the difference between life and death. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to learn how to spot if you think a tornado is coming your way.

1. Wall cloud

You may see a wall cloud or the lowering of the base of the thunderstorm. Be especially cautious if the wall is rotating. 

2. Debris cloud

Even if a tornado is not visible look for a whirling dust or debris cloud near the ground which can indicate a tornado without a funnel. 

3. Large hail

Large hailwith the absence of rain can be an indicator of an impending tornado.

4. Heavy rain

When hail or heavy rain is followed by a quick, intense wind shift or a dead calm be watchful. This can indicate a thunderstorm as many times they are wrapped in precipitation and cannot be seen. 

5. Still weather

Many times before a tornado strikes, the wind speeds will die down producing a quiet, still air. Many report this as eerie silence. Others call it the “calm before the storm.”

6. Roaring noise

A tornado can produce a loud rumbling sound that is similar to the loud roar of a freight train. This can occur during the day or night. 

7. Funnel cloud

A rotating extension of the cloud base can signal the formation of a tornado.

8. Dark sky with greenish tint

The sky may appear dark and have a greenish hue.

9. Small and bright, blue-green flashes

At night, pay attention to small, bright, blue-green flashes near ground level. That could indicate power lines are being snapped by strong winds or a tornado. 

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do if you are caught in a tornado

Tip #1: When referring to tornado safety, your stationed RV is similar to a mobile home. It’s even less safe. If you are camping somewhere and find yourself at risk of a tornado get out if possible. 

Tip #2: While you do not want to be exposed outdoors you do want to try and find the safest place possible. The best places are underground shelters or sturdy, permanent buildings. 

Tip #3: If you are driving your RV or other vehicle and get caught near a tornado, it can also be dangerous. Your best-case scenario is to try and drive out of the tornado’s path. To do this, drive at a right angle to the tornado if at all possible. 

Tip #4: If you get caught in high winds or hit with flying debris, park the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible. Lower your head below the windows. Cover your head and hands with a blanket or coat. 

Tip #5: If you spot an area lower than the roadway, leave your vehicle and lie down in that area. Cover your head with your hands. 

Tip #6: If you are in the outdoors, try and locate some sort of storm shelter in a sturdy building. If that is not possible, lie down at the lowest level you can find.

Tip #7: Try to avoid trees and vehicles and cover your head with your arms. 

Tip #8: Invest in a Survival Radio before you leave on your next road trip whether heading toward Tornado Alley or not.

Tip #9: For more helpful information, refer to the NOAA’s Tornado Safety Guide.

Is a tornado coming? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do after

Once the tornado passes, assess the damage. Look and smell for a gas leak and move away if needed. 

If you can stay put and wait for medical personnel or law enforcement. Help any injured people that you can. 

If you haven’t already, turn on your radio and tune in to NOAA weather radio or local radio station. 

If you must drive out of the area, be careful to watch for any downed power lines. 

Worth Pondering…

Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building—banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded—a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2:40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.

―Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado