24 Reasons to Stop Dreaming About It and Travel NOW

Stop dreaming about it and just do it. The time is NOW.

There are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t embark on your right now—but there are even more reasons why you should. You work hard for those vacation days to freely take a few weeks to yourself.

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

No matter what it takes, traveling should be everything you hoped it would be and more. You’ve only got one life to live, so get in everything you deem worthwhile while it still seems like a good idea. And, taking a dream summer vacation is most certainly a good idea—and the time is NOW.

But back to that one specific vacation, you keep daydreaming about. The Grand Canyon, Historic Route 66, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Mount Rushmore! They’re all on our list.

We looked to travelers past and present to share their insight into why you should stop dreaming about it and travel NOW. Ahead, you’ll find 24 reasons why you should start (or finish!) planning that dream summer vacation.

USS Lexington, Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out There

The distance is nothing; it is only the first step that is difficult.

—Marie de Vichy-Chamrond (1697-1780)

Why We Travel

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.

—St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Alamo Lake State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin the Journey

If we wait for the moment when everything is ready, we shall never begin.

—Ivan Turgenec (1818-1883) Russian writer

Learn From History

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician, scientist

Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smell the Roses

That delicate forest flower, With scented breath and look so like a smile, Seems, as it issues from the shapeless mould, An emanation of the indwelling Life, A visible token of the upholding Love, That are the soul of this great universe.

—William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) American poet

Explore the World

Oh, the places you’ll go.

—Dr. Seuss

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

Connect with Nature

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

—John Burroughs (1837-1921) American naturalist and nature essayist

Explore Wild Outdoor Spaces

Not to have known…either the mountain or the desert is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) American writer, critic, and naturalist

Roseate spoonbills at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try Something New

Once a year go somewhere you have never been before.

—Dalai Lama (1935-)

Experience More

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.

—Michael Altshuler, American writer, speaker, and leadership trainer

Carriage tour in Historic Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reconnect with Wilderness

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…
—John Muir (1838-1914) Scottish-American naturalist and author

Love Nature

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) essayist, naturalist, and philosopher

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Expand Your Horizons

You lose sight of things…and when you travel, everything balances out.

—Daranna Gidel

Walk Amid Nature

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English poet and playwright

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk in the Woods

To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn.

—Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) American poet

Learn to Go with the Flow

An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.

—Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936) English writer, poet, and philosopher

Helena, Montana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drop the Itinerary

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.

—Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English author

Learn Something New

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

—Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958) American historian

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn from Nature

The world is not to be put in order; the world is order incarnate. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.

—Henry Miller (1891-1980) American writer

Enjoy the Journey

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) Essayist, playwright, and poet

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

Make Memories

Take only memories leave only footprints.

—Chief Seattle (1786-1866) Suquamish chief

Find a Reason to Journal

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.

—Moslih Eddin Saadi (1210-1291) Persian poet and writer

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just Enjoy the Journey

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

—Lao Tzu (601 BC-531 BC) ancient Chinese philosopher and writer

Yes, You Can De-winterize your RV: Here is How

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the ice has thawed—do you know what that means? It’s time to de-winterize your RV!

The snow and ice have melted, temperatures are rising, and the sun is making its way out of hibernation—it’s finally spring! And, you’ve probably itching to take your recreational vehicle out for quite some time now. But before you get too excited, you’ll need to de-winterize your RV properly for warmer weather.

Winter is over? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you could take your recreational vehicle to a service center, many choose to de-winterize the RV on their own. It’s not too difficult, but if you don’t follow the proper protocol you could end up discovering winter damages halfway through your first trip. Not ideal, to say the least.

So, without further ado, here’s some advice for a seamless de-winterizing process!

No more winter? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A quick note: Make sure you stay with your RV throughout the entire de-winterizing process. It will likely take the better part of a day but if you leave in the middle of the task you might come back to an unintended swimming pool in your beloved RV.

Charge Your Batteries

When de-winterizing your RV, you’ll want to check your batteries for any wear and tear, including cracks that may have developed from frozen water. Batteries lose power in cold weather so it’s likely they’ll need to be charged and reconnected to your RV.

Prep your RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Propane Power

Next step, propane power!

To start, make sure everything is turned off when testing the propane system. Then, open the valve about ¼ of an inch and check for any propane leaks by smelling the inside of the RV or by putting a soapy sponge by the connectors to see if any air bubbles appear. Assuming that you don’t find a leak, test your gas appliances and let them run for a few minutes. (It may take several minutes or more for the gas to work its way through the lines). If things shut off, try turning them back on—there may be air pockets in the line that just need to be pushed out.

Once inside the RV, also check for any water damage (this doesn’t have to do with propane but its good practice regardless). Inspect all vents and the areas surrounding the AC unit which tend to receive the most water damage. Finally, look inside cabinets and closed spaces—there may be some unwanted critters that snuck their way into your RV.

Prep your RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flush the Water System

The most important step to de-winterizing your RV is prepping the water system for use. When it comes to winterizing your RV, you probably followed one of two methods: using an air compressor to get all the water out of the vehicle or adding non-toxic antifreeze to your tank to ensure no water turned to ice over the cold winter months.

If you went the air compressor route, you won’t have to deal with draining antifreeze and can move along to prepping the water heater. If you did add antifreeze, you’ll have to make sure it’s out of your drains and into your holding tanks before you sanitize the system.

Prep your RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the anti-freezers, connect your water hose to a fresh potable water supply and fill your tank. Then, run water through every faucet, both hot and cold. You’ll also want to test toilets, showers, the refrigerator’s ice machine, and dishwasher during this time. Once the color from the antifreeze is gone and you have clear water, you can turn off the water supply drain pressure from the system using low point drains. At this point, you can install all filters back into the system that you removed during the winterization process.

If your coach is equipped with a water heater, you’ll need to install a drain plug, open the water heater valves, and close the by-pass valve on the water heater. This ensures that your antifreeze doesn’t get into your hot water tank. Turn on the fresh water supply, open the hot water faucet until the water heater is filled, turn on your faucet, and wait until the water flows through without any air.

Prep your RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now, We Sanitize!

Next, sanitize the RV water system by using a household bleach-water mixture (roughly a quarter-cup of household bleach for every 15 gallons of water that your fresh water tank holds) and flushing it through your water system.

Prep your RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First, make sure all drains are closed (for obvious reasons). Next, fill the tank with the sanitizing mixture, turn on the pump, run it through the hot and cold faucets, close the faucets, and let it sit for at least three hours. Drain the bleach mixture, refill your fresh water tank with potable water, and flush out the system to get rid of any remaining bleach (no one wants to drink bleach water).

Finally, check your holding tank levels and dump excess waste if necessary at a suitable waste disposal site.

Not the way to care for your tires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check Your Tires

During the harsh winter months, your tires may have taken a beating. Check for any cracks or irregular bumps, and use a tire pressure gauge to measure the psi. (Check your user’s manual for recommended psi or utilize your RV’s tire-pressure monitoring system).

Worth Pondering…

My parents live in the part of the United States that is Canada. It is so far north that Minnesota lies in the same direction as Miami. They have four distinct seasons: Winter, More Winter, Still More Winter, and That One Day of Summer.

—W. Bruce Cameron

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.

The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”

Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.

And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (California)

If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.  

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina)

The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park (Utah)

Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop

California Missions: San Antonio de Pala Asistencia

When visiting, be sure to see the chapel which has been fully restored

Starting in 1769, Spain built a chain of 21 missions across the length of Alta California—from San Diego to Sonoma—as a way of gaining a foothold in the new frontier. California’s mission era ended in 1834 but you can still see the architectural legacy that endures in the state’s red tile roofs, whitewashed walls, arched colonnades, and bell towers.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The missions were built approximately 30 miles apart—about a day’s journey by horseback—covering 650 miles total. All 21 missions are open to visitors and feature a gift shop and museum and most of them hold mass on Sundays (or even daily).

Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is the 18th in a chain of 21 California missions. It was established in 1798 by Father Fermin Lausen who was president of missions during that era.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in present-day Oceanside, the mission was named for Louis IX, king of France. The main church was designed and constructed in the shape of a cross. Its impressive architecture combined Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican influence. All the buildings were arranged around a 500 by 500 foot quadrangle, nearly the size of two football fields.

Mission San Luis Rey was one of the largest outposts stretching over 1,000 square miles in what is now San Diego and Riverside counties. This outpost provided support for the mission and also allowed baptized Indians to remain in their native villages and serve the mission by working on the ranchos.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Luis Rey expanded its influence north and east including the Pala Valley. Mission San Luis Rey’s first record of construction at Rancho de Pala was in the annual report of 1810. This construction was a granary and other buildings soon followed. As Mission San Luis Rey began to flourish, Father Peyri felt it was necessity to establish an asistencia near Pala because it was the natural congregating place for a large native population. A chapel was built in 1816.

Within two short years, the quadrangle was complete, two granaries were built, and two apartments were built, one for men and boys and one for women and girls. By 1818, a small town had began. Father Peyri had an aqueduct built to supply water to the mission. By 1821, the mission only lacked a resident priest to make the asistencia a full mission. Mission Pala had reached its peak prosperity by 1827.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three mission asistencias were built in the San Diego district. Mission Pala is still in active service and is the only Mission to have remained in continuous service as was originally established ministering a native population.

The Asistencia was named in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua, nicknamed the “Wonderworker of the world.” Pala continues to be an active Church.

The bell tower is striking in that it is detached from the building, unusual in the mission system. It is modeled on a tower in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The two bells were cast in Mexico. The larger is dedicated to St. Francis, St. Luis the King, St. Clare, and St. Eulalia. The maker of the bell is named as Cervantes. The smaller bell is dedicated to Jesus and Mary.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step back from the tower and look carefully at the top of the tower. There you will see a small cactus plant growing by the base of the cross. It is said that upon completion of the Asistencia, Padre Peyri climbed the tower and planted a cactus to symbolize Christ conquering the desert (both in California and the human heart and soul).

There is a courtyard in front of the church entrance.

Across the street from the Asistencia is a park.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the Church you will find the original floor and outstanding Indian art. The chapel here is much smaller than the typical mission chapel and it uses a lot of large wood beams which you do not see as often in the other missions. The chapel can still hold a decent amount of people though and it is working chapel for Mass on the weekends. The altar is relatively plain but beautiful in its simplicity and the walls are covered in a fading pattern.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Behind the bell tower is the cemetery for both Indians and people who lived and worked at the mission. It is the original cemetery for the Asistencia and contains the remains of hundreds of Indian converts and early California settlers. It is still in use as evidenced by some of the current dates on the headstones.

Pala Casino RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the cemetery and out the back to the main church office offers an interesting view on cultural differences. In front of the office you will find a statue of St. Anthony of Padua; but unlike many such statues you see at other churches and missions, this one depicts St. Anthony as a person of color. Around the front, there is a bell post that signifies this spot as a mission on the El Camino Real Trail.

It took about 20 minutes to walk around this mission and see it. I wouldn’t say you should plan a trip just around visiting this mission but if you are in the area then it is worth stopping by as it is interesting and historic.

Pala Casino RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pala Casino RV Resort is reason enough to be in the area with 100 large full-service sites with grass lawns and picnic tables. Temecula and Temecula Valley wineries are 22 miles to the north. Here you can taste and tour through nearly 50 wineries, stroll the boardwalks of historic Old Town, shop Promenade Temecula or the local farmers’ markets, and play a round of golf.

Worth Pondering…

The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.

—Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

What Makes a National Park a National Park?

Turns out, it’s extremely complicated

On December 27th, 2020, the US gained its 63rd national park, the 73,000-acre New River Gorge Park and Preserve. West Virginia’s first national park definitely fits the bill of what the words “national park” evokes: It is home to an ancient river, a gorge surrounded by huge cliffs and lush mountains, and a centerpiece steel-arch bridge that is the country’s third highest and a virtual art piece at 3,030 feet long.

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

The area has drawn adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts since well before being named a national river in 1978. If a national park is to be “reserved for units that contain a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources,” as the National Parks Service says, New River Gorge is a no brainer. 

But the road to becoming a national park and what actually even constitutes a national park is weirdly confusing.

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

National Parks have stirred the imagination of Americans ever since they were dreamed up and a recent focus has been sparked by the influence of social sharing like YouTube and Instagram, the park service’s recent 100th anniversary celebrated in 2016, and Ken Burns’ incredible documentary “America’s Best Idea.” But the structure of the National Park System remains a mystery to many visitors—some of it’s even confusing to the National Park expert. What exactly makes a National Park?

This popularity, combined with politics and the promise of tourism dollars, have driven government officials to leverage the Park system to fit their agendas in recent years. It’s time to step back, take a look at the whole picture, and take stock of what we have and what we haven’t.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park,” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military, History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

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

Some designations are self-explanatory: You can figure out what a national seashore means. Others are varied: monuments, for example, refer to objects of historical, cultural, or scientific interest and range from massive natural areas like Organ Pipe Cactus to historic homes and Lady Liberty. 

Becoming a NPS Unit often requires an act of Congress: always in the case of national parks and never in the case of national monuments which are created by presidential decree. In the end the NPS’s concerns were swept aside by congress and Gateway Arch got what it wanted, locking it in as one of America’s Best Ideas.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So…it’s a bit of a mess, and though the Park Service has guidelines for nomenclature, Congress can essentially call something whatever it wants. In the end, the National Park Service calls them all National Parks.

So what does becoming a National Park actually get you? Surprisingly, not necessarily additional funding! And if you’re already an NPS site, there’s usually no change in management—though monuments could fall under the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

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

If the park you manage gets national status, you’re on the hook to pay for new signage which just seems cruel. 

“We have hopes that the initial funding will be other sources to cover the costs associated with this redesignation,” says National Park Service’s Eve West, spokesperson for the site in West Virginia. “And of course if we get a huge uptick in visitation, our needs will change.” 

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

That’s the main benefit of becoming a national park: The prestige and recognition that all but guarantees increased revenue in tourism. Indiana Dunes is probably the best example with visitation increasing 21 percent the year after the new National Park status.

But why? Are we so addle minded that we don’t accept the beauty and splendor of a place without a name change? Do we really skip all these other wonderful places because they don’t have National Park in the title? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the name really is the thing. Which I suppose is why there was a lot of anger when Gateway Arch National Park was announced.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway Arch was formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and it consists of the Arch, of course, and the Old Courthouse (where the landmark Dred Scot case was tried) and a museum representing the location on the St. Louis Riverfront as the ceremonial beginning of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Some thought naming it for the arch diminished the importance of the Courthouse. Others thought it too small. Most, frankly, just think a National Park is a large expanse of beautiful nature, and Gateway just didn’t fit the bill.

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what’s the big picture? National parks are all unique whether on the shores of the Mississippi or in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada. They’re here to protect fragile ecosystems, or to help us remember history, or yes, for our enjoyment.

Should politicians leverage the system for the gain of their district, I don’t know. But I do know that if we didn’t care so much about names, it wouldn’t work. Yes, the naming system is a mess and could be entirely overhauled. Heck, maybe they should all just be named National Parks. But, don’t consider any national park service designation as being more important than another. Doing so may have you missing out on incredible vast mountains, deserts, canyons, and untamed rivers. Each National Park Service site has a wonderful, unique story to tell. Dig deeper than 63 passport stamps.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The promise of increased tourism is already starting to be fulfilled at New River Gorge. That alone is likely worth the extra effort even if the path to national park status is as perilous and perplexing than even the most otherworldly landscapes you’ll find in Bryce Canyon or Joshua Tree

“We’ve already had lots of people come and say hey, we heard you were a national park, we thought we’d check it out,” says West. “The pandemic has been a horrible thing, but it does make people recognize what a wonderful opportunity we have just out the door.” 

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

One of my favorite things about America is our breathtaking collection of national and state parks, many of which boast wonders the Psalmist would envy.

—Eric Metaxas

Become Best Friends with a Burro in Oatman

The burros own the town

No trip to Laughlin is complete without a detour to Oatman, a Route 66 ghost town in Arizona that has become a bit more touristy over the years. The new escape room at the local jail is fun. The Oatman Hotel is a great stop for lunch. The restaurant has killer buffalo burgers and the walls (and even parts of the ceiling) are covered with dollar bills.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the real draw is the burros roaming Oatman whose ancestors were brought in to work during the mining days. A few unwritten rules to follow: first—burros and dogs don’t mix. Second—don’t feed the burros carrots which are high in sugar and do a number on the digestive tract. You’re more than welcome to feed them alfalfa squares, sold in bags for a dollar.

Finally—when the burros are in the middle of the road (which they frequently are), they have the right of way. Cars have to wait, no matter how long it takes. No honking, revving engines, or doing anything else to encourage them to move along.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They know how to have fun in Oatman where good-humored shops line the street and the burros contribute to the annual fall Burro Biskit Toss.

More than 500,000 visitors are drawn annually to Oatman’s gold mine history as well as the legend of its namesake. Olive Oatman is entrenched in western lore as a woman who was kidnapped by an Indian tribe, then sold to a friendly local tribe before being freed to her family near what became Oatman.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman was sparsely settled starting in 1863 when a small bit of gold was discovered in the surrounding Black Mountains. Not much came of the discovery until two lucky prospectors struck it rich in 1915 with a 10 million dollar claim. The town grew rapidly after that, and in the course of a single year the tiny tent village became a town of 3,500 people. In the 1920s and ’30s, the population grew to around 10,000. In 1921, a fire swept through the town destroying most of Oatman’s buildings.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman certainly prospered during a decade-long gold rush, but when the mines dried up, so did everything else. The town’s biggest mine closed in 1924, and by 1941, the government ordered the closing of Oatman’s remaining mining operations as part of the country’s war efforts.

Because of its location on Route 66, local commerce shifted toward accommodating motorists traveling between Kingman, Arizona and Needles, California. From 1926 to 1952, the Mother Road coursed through the heart of Oatman, sustaining a healthy tourism business. Interstate 40 bypassed Oatman in the early 1950s, however, and by the early 1960s, the whole area was all but abandoned.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A revitalized interest in historic route 66 saved Oatman from demise, and while it may not be thriving, it’s got a lot to offer visitors looking for that kitschy slice of Americana. Oatman is often described as a ghost town, but that is not quite accurate. The current human population is 128. The burro population is close to 2,000.

The town prides itself on maintaining a Wild West feel, down to the wooden sidewalks, staged shootouts, and kitschy shops. (You can even adopt a wild burro and take it home!)

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard allegedly honeymooned at the 1902 two-story adobe Oatman Hotel after marrying in nearby Kingman. Some say the lovebirds’ spirits as well as other former lodgers still vacation there. The hotel remains open as a museum and restaurant.

Oatman is surrounded by Bureau of Land Management wilderness which is also home to desert bighorn sheep. Outdoor activities include hiking, camping, hunting, photography, and rock climbing.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman is a day trip full of surprises—of ghost towns and ghost roads and wild burros. And one of the most scenic drives in the state. Now that’s something to bray about.

Worth Pondering…

So many ghosts upon the road,
My eyes I swear are playing tricks;
And a voice I hear, it’s Tom Joad,
Near Oatman on Route 66.

—Dave MacLennan

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

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

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

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

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Native American Proverb

A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

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

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

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

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

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Albuquerque to rock carvings

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

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to the headlands

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s volcanic landscape

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

White Sands National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South to the white desert

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

From delicate dunes to craggy peaks

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

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

La Posta in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Springtime in the Smokies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhododendrons in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Ashley Monroe

Imagine More Meaningful Birdwatching

Birdwatching is an active hobby that involves getting outdoors and exploring

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

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

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

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green heron

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

Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-vented oriole

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

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anhinga

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

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill crane

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

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

Black-bellied whistling duck

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

Great egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great egret

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

Western scrub-jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Western scrub-jay

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cactus wren

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

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great kiskadee

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

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Chinese Proverb