Visiting National Parks in Retirement

When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you

Retirement! What does that word mean to you? For us, it means RV travel and the freedom to visit places we’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the time.

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

National parks are amazing places to visit for people of all ages. Whether it’s to walk the trail, hike, or camp these parks are national treasures that should be seen and enjoyed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks are an ideal destination for retirees not only because of the distinct natural beauty. But also because anyone over 62 visiting these protected lands can purchase a senior pass.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Senior Pass is a ticket that covers entrance fees to 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees to national parks and wildlife refuge as well as day use fees at national forests and grasslands. This includes lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If you are visiting a location that changes per person, the pass will also cover the entrance fee for up to four adults. If you are visiting a location that charges per vehicle, the pass covers the non-commercial vehicle and its passengers.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can either buy an annual pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80. You have to be a U.S. citizen age 62 and over in order to be eligible to buy one. You also need to have proof of residency and age before the pass is issued.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over half a million senior passes are sold each year to retirees who want to explore both the big-name parks as well as the smaller, more obscure (but still stunning) sites. To help narrow down the choices, here are 10 of our favorite federal recreation sites for retirees to hit. Though technically not a national park, this list includes national wildlife refuges, national seashores, national monuments, and national military sites.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes).

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm in the canyon.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park is called Arches for a very good reason. There are roughly 2,000 arches within the park — delicate, natural sculptures varying from three to over 300 feet high. Arches is also full of towers, spires, hoodoos, and ochre-colored sand.

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A park that will please history buffs as well as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. The Tucson Mountain District (West) has many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles. There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other: a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles protecting a diversity of plants and animals.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts.

Worth Pondering…

On being retired…we woke up this morning with nothing to do and by evening we had not completed it!

7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

The best national parks to visit this winter

There are 62 national parks across America. That’s not counting the hundreds of national monuments, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, trails, and more. When you count all of them together, the number of protected sites that fall under the US National Park Service is well over 400.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America—from sea to shining sea.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a national park to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located just outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into two units separated by 30 miles: Rincon Mountain District (East Unit) and Tucson Mountain District (West Unit).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen.

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro, no matter the season.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon‘s residents are a hardy bunch—visit in winter and you’ll spot Abert’s squirrels on nut-foraging expeditions, bald eagles soaring above snow-dusted ridges, and mule deer making their way through the ponderosa pines.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many animals develop additional finery during these colder months. One example is Abert’s squirrels, which grow extra tufts of fur on their ears to keep out the cold. Furry-eared rodents aside, there are lots of other reasons to visit in winter, including hikes along the park’s beautiful low-elevation trails (which have less snow and ice) such as the South Rim’s Hermit Trail.

Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The different elevation throughout the park cause flowers to bloom at different times, with the low elevation flowers blooming earlier than higher elevation flowers.

Zion National Park in Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is a park that you have to see to believe. It is a true desert oasis and an American icon. The surrounding area looks desolate, dry, and barren, but when you drive into Zion Canyon, a massive formation, miles wide, with sheer rock walls that rise thousands of feet, await you. There is something so incredible about seeing the oranges and yellows of sandstone mixed with the greens of the Virgin River and the vegetation that grows so easily there.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona

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

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

From the Chattahoochee National Forest to the still waters of steamy swamps and coastal seashore, there’s so much to explore in Georgia

Several of Georgia’s parks preserve attractions known as the state’s Seven Natural Wonders, including the picturesque Okefenokee Swamp. Excellent fishing opportunities abound throughout the mountain lakes and manmade reservoirs while hiking, cycling, and horseback riding trails provide unique vantage points to observe the scenery of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain regions.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a spectacular National Park Service-managed national seashore located along Cumberland Island. The seashore is only accessible via boat from the park’s visitor center in the nearby mainland town of St. Mary’s. Stunning sand dune, salt marsh, and freshwater lake habitats are preserved throughout the seashore area which also includes the 9,886-acre Cumberland Island Wilderness and several historic sites related to the Carnegie family.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seashore visitors may bring their own bikes to the island or rent bikes from the Sea Camp Dock for daily exploration. Overnight camping is offered at the park’s public campsites, including a full camping area with restrooms and facilities. Back on the mainland, the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum showcases exhibits on the region’s indigenous history and Antebellum-era plantations.

Laura S. Walker State Park

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

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, an oasis where you can enjoy the serene lake, play rounds on a championship golf course, and stroll along the trails and natural communities in this southeast Georgia haven. Located near the northern edge of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to many fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants.

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

Walking or biking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. For years, the lake has remained popular with boaters, skiers and jet skiers, but recently the area has become a hit with bass and crappie anglers. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park spans 80 acres anchored around the gorgeous Okefenokee Swamp. The park, which is located within the broader 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016 to protect its unique and sensitive swamp ecosystem.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park visitors can canoe, kayak, and boat on the Spanish moss-lined swamp’s waters or embark on guided fishing and boating tours. Wildlife watchers can enjoy chances to catch glimpses of the park’s population of more than 12,000 American alligators along with black bears, deer, herons, wood storks, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Exhibits on the park’s wildlife are showcased at its Suwannee River Visitor Center which also offers interpretive programming.

Vogel State Park

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park is a 233-acre state park that was one of Georgia’s first two state parks at its founding in 1931. The park which is located within the Chattahoochee National Forest at the base of the impressive Blood Mountain is also one of Georgia’s highest-altitude parks sitting at elevations of over 2,500 feet above sea level.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four hiking trails of varying difficulty offer opportunities to observe spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains scenery year-round, most popular during the autumn months as leaf-watching routes. A public visitor center museum focuses on the park’s history and construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps with features detailing the park’s connection to the Great Depression. A 22-acre lake is also open for boaters along with a seasonal swimming beach available to visitors of all ages throughout the summer months.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is more than just 6-ton gigantic cacti (though it has those, too)

Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson, Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique to the Sonoran Desert the park’s giant saguaro has a slow growth cycle and long lifespan. The cactus grows between 1 and 1.5 inches in the first eight years, flowers begin production at 35 years of age and branches, or arms, normally appear at 50 to 70 years of age. An adult saguaro is considered to be about 125 years of age and may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet. A saguaro’s lifespan can be up to 250 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the saguaro is merely the headliner for a roster of desert vegetation to be seen as you hike or drive through the park. You’ll also spot spiny ocotillo, huge clumps of prickly pear, and the tiny hedgehog and stubby barrel cactus, as well as spiky mesquite and palo verde trees.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First designated as Saguaro National Monument in 1933, the area received national park status in 1994. It is also the ancestral home of the Tohono O’odham people who today continue to play a role in the park’s culture visiting every year in the early summer to pick saguaro fruit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, the giant saguaro cactus silhouetted by the setting sun is the universal symbol of the American Southwest. And yet, these majestic plants are only found in a small portion of the U.S. Saguaro National Park protects some of the most impressive forests of these sub-tropical giants. Saguaro is actually two parks separated by a metropolis of 1 million residents: the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. In 2018, the park drew 1,229,594 recreational visitors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is located within a desert but contrary to what you might expect there is an abundance of life. Plants here are adapted to drought, so during long dry periods they are able to go dormant conserving their water. At these times many plants appear lifeless but shortly after a rainfall they’re able to come to life sprouting new green leaves. Within just 48 hours after a rainfall, the ocotillo plant is able to change from what appeared to be a handful of dead sticks into a cheerful shrub with tall green branches, covered in new leaves.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna. Current research indicates there are approximately 400 species in the Tucson Mountain District and approximately 1,200 species in the Rincon Mountain District.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tucson Mountain District ranges from an elevation of 2,180 feet to 4,687 feet and contains two biotic communities—desert scrub and desert grassland. Average annual precipitation is approximately 10.27 inches. Common wildlife include Gambel’s quail, cactus wren, greater roadrunner, Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoise, and coyote.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park ranges from an elevation of 2,670 feet to 8,666 feet and contains six biotic communities. The biotic communities (starting from the lowest elevation) include desert scrub, desert grassland, oak woodland, pine-oak woodland, pine forest, and mixed conifer forest. Average annual precipitation is approximately 12.30 inches.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rincon Mountains peak at a considerably higher elevation than the Tucson Mountains, therefore there are more biotic communities and increased plant and wildlife diversity. Because of the higher elevation in the Rincons, animals like the black bear, Mexican spotted owl, Arizona mountain king snake, and white-tailed deer live in this district.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While each season has its draw, spring, when the desert blooms with yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers, is hands-down its most beautiful and busiest time of year. Fall is similarly temperate and winter offers the chance to see the water flowing in the washes. Arizona’s merciless heat makes summer significantly less popular.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

The 10 Best National Parks and Monuments in Arizona

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those undiscovered by the masses.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It took millions of years for the Colorado to wear down the surrounding landscape and create the Grand Canyon.

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The slow process of fossilization transformed ancient trees into solid quartz.

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most visitors to Petrified Forest come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park only grow in the Sonoran desert.

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

This labyrinth of three narrow canyons has sheltered indigenous peoples for 5,000 years.

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

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

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert

Why: This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Thirty-One species of cactus have mastered living in this place, including the park’s namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore.

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

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

The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Why: For more than 650 years the Casa Grande has stood as a meeting place and landmark

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

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has starred in so many Hollywood movies that its silhouette is known all over the world.

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people.

Why: Witness the legacy of a people who lived in the Verde Valley 1,000 years ago

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by a culture known as the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 little oasis below the pueblo is an exception, a pleasant place to stop and have a picnic by the creek under the shade of white-barked Arizona sycamores. Listen for the descending trills of the canyon wrens while you gaze through time at the “castle”.

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.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Montezuma Castle one of the country’s first national monuments, maintaining and protecting the cultural resource.

Our visit to the castle began in the cool modern visitors center which stands adjacent to the ruins, welcoming more than 2,000 visitors a day. The center offered us displays of Indian artifacts, a chronicle of the early discovery and preservation of the ruins, and information on desert wildlife. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association also runs a small bookstore in the Visitor Center.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We learned that Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a larger community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than several miles apart.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail led us from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling, through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and along spring-fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soaring 100 feet above the desert floor, the empty dwelling fills a huge recess in the cliff wall. There is little evidence of conflict or warfare but perhaps people felt more secure living in the Castle. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night. A small ruin above the Castle, on the top of the cliff, provides views of the entire countryside—a sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking at the castle we theorized that the previous mode of entry provided protection from enemies but must have provided a challenge for both the youngest and oldest tenants of the ancient apartment building.

A few yards farther along the path stood a neighbor: Castle A. This lesser known ruin once loomed much larger than Montezuma Castle. However, the structure is badly deteriorated, and little remains except a few low walls.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We moved down the path to a large 3-D diagram depicting how the castle may have looked when occupied. An audio presentation told us how smaller functioned as individual family living quarters while the larger spaces served the entire community.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some amazing adaptations help the Arizona Sycamore survive from seedling to old age—at least 200 years. Each fruit pod contains an average of 667 seeds with a protective coating designed to withstand seasonal flooding.

No one knows for sure why the Sinagua left the two castles. Possible explanations for the exodus include farmland exhaustion, overcrowding, and conflict between families or neighboring tribes

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with people of other centuries.

Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

The American southwest is a place of mind-boggling beauty

With an amazing variety of landscapes, the Southwest is a fascinating and awe-inspiring area to explore. While the stereotype of the area is that it’s all barren desert—which isn’t entirely inaccurate—there’s a lot more variation and personality in the Southwest than the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would suggest.

With special attention to National Monuments, here are 12 of the most beautiful places in the Southwest. We think that you should definitely add these National Park Service sites to your next road trip to the Southwest.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

You can drive along the rim and take in the views from above, but the best way to experience Canyon de Chelly is to take a guided tour of the canyon. You’ll learn the history of the canyon, from the Anasazi who left behind cliff dwellings to the current Navajo residents who still farm there.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning the grand staircase, Cedar Breaks sits at over 10,000 feet and looks down into a half-mile deep geologic amphitheater. Wander among ancient bristlecone pines and meadows of wildflower.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus live here including the giant saguaro and the park’s namesake. This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. See original timbers holding up the roof.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

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

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. A natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Explore a variety of structures, including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders.

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people. The riparian, upland, and marsh habitats in the monument are used by a large number of bird species.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

Fort Frederica National Monument: Georgia’s Second Town

Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island

Located on the interior coast of Georgia’s St. Simons Island, Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the remains of one of the most impressive British settlements ever carved from the American forests. In the early 1700s, Georgia was the epicenter of a centuries-old imperial conflict between Spain and Britain.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1736, three years after the founding of Savannah, James Oglethorpe came to St. Simons Island to establish a town that would serve as a bulwark against the Spanish in Florida who still claimed the coastal islands now being settled by the English. To achieve this goal, he established Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named for Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales (1702-1754), Frederica was a military outpost consisting of a fort and town that for a time was one of the most important settlements in the American Colonies.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forty four men and 72 women and children arrived to build the fortified town, and by the 1740s Frederica was a thriving village of about 500 citizens. Colonists from England, Scotland, and the Germanic states came to Frederica to support the endeavor.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town’s site at the bend of the Frederica River allowed the British to control the important inland passage leading up the Georgia coast. This powerful bastioned fort protected both the river and the town from the Spanish. Armed with heavy cannon and enclosed by thick walls of earth and timber, the fort was one of the strongest in the South.

In addition, the town itself was surrounded by stout walls of earth and timber which in turn were enclosed by a deep moat. Within this defensive barrier, the town soon became one of the most prosperous in the colony.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A smaller work, Fort St. Simons, was also built at the site of today’s St. Simons Lighthouse. The establishment of the forts took place just before the outbreak of the oddly-named War of Jenkin’s Ear (named for an English sea captain who was captured and lost his ear to the Spanish).

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oglethorpe led expeditions into Spanish Florida from Fort Frederica, but was repulsed by the powerful fortress Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Led by Governor Don Manuel de Montiano, a Spanish force moved north on a campaign of  reprisal during the summer of 1742. Arriving on July 5th, Montiano moved first against Fort St. Simons, which the English evacuated before it could be attacked.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using Fort St. Simons as a base, Montiano sent troops up the Military Road to scout the situation at Fort Frederica. This force was met by a party of Oglethorpe’s scouts at Gully Hole Creek about one mile down the road from Fort Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driven back after a sharp fight at Gully Hole Creek in which they lost 12 men killed, the Spanish began to retreat up the Military Road. Montiano moved up additional troops to cover this withdrawal, but they were defeated by English forces at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Despite the name, casualties were light. Although both sides claimed victory in the battle, the Spanish soon gave up their campaign and returned to Florida.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This British victory not only confirmed that Georgia was British territory, but also signaled the beginning of the end for Frederica.

Frederica remained a flourishing town for another 10 years, but the end of the site’s use for military purposes also spelled an end to the community as well. Most of the surviving structures were destroyed by fire in 1758.
Today the archeological remains of colonial Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica is a small colonial site. The terrain is mostly level and the park is beautifully decorated with large oaks and pecan trees draped with Spanish Moss. Ruins of the original fort and barracks can be seen and archaeological investigations have  exposed the foundations of many of the homes.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the activities at Fort Frederica include a 23-minute park film “History Uncovered”, self guided explorations through the archeological site, and a museum area with artifacts found at Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument is located at 6515 Frederica Road on St. Simons Island and is currently a fee free park.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven

With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven

Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,

Emerald twilights,

Virginal shy lights,

The wide sea-marshes of Glynn.

—Sidney Lanier (1842–1881)

Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

The Real “Triassic” Park

The colorful rock layers of northeastern Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park form a visual display of eroded badlands, dating to the Triassic.

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land below is awash in burnt sienna, deep maroon, dusty purple, and sprinkled here and there with green plants.

Petrified Forest, a surprising realm of fascinating landscape and science, was set aside as a national monument in 1906 to preserve and protect the petrified wood for its scientific value. The Painted Desert was added later, and in 1962, the entire monument received national park status.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is recognized today for having so much more, including a broad representation of the Late Triassic paleo-ecosystem, significant human history, clear night skies, fragile grasslands ecosystem, and unspoiled scenic vistas.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 200 million years ago, flourishing trees and vegetation covered much of this area of northeastern Arizona. But volcanic lava destroyed the forest, the logs washed into an ancient river system and were embedded into sediment comprised of volcanic ash and water. Oxygen was cut off and decay slowed to a process that would now take centuries.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minerals, including silica dissolved from volcanic ash, absorbed into the porous wood over hundreds and thousands of years, and crystallized replacing the organic material as it broke down over time. Sometimes crushing or decay left cracks in the logs. Here large jewel-like crystals of clear quartz, purple amethyst, yellow citrine, and smoky quartz formed.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Erosion set the logs free millions of years later, revealing the petrified wood made mostly of quartz—that visitors to the park come to see.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though only seven species of tree have been identified through petrified wood, over 200 species of plants have currently been identified from other Triassic fossils, such as leaves, pollen, and spores.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to enjoy and experience Petrified Forest National Park is on foot. Designated trails range in length from less than a half-mile to almost three miles.

Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between I-40 and U.S. Highway 180. There are two entrances into the park. Your direction of travel dictates which entrance is best to use.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Westbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to I-40 via Holbrook.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eastbound I-40 travelers should take Exit 285 into Holbrook then travel 19 miles on U.S. Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance. Drive the 28 miles north through the park to return to I-40.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the features at Petrified Forest are on a scale best appreciated by leaving the car. Plan enough time to walk among the fossil logs and Painted Desert badlands.

For a half-day visit, follow the park road from the Rainbow Forest Museum toward Pintado Point. If you can stay longer, include a walk to Agate House, take the trail into the Blue Mesa badlands, and consider a hike in the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area.

Worth Pondering…

The way in which many Paleozoic life forms disappeared towards the end of the Permian Period brings to mind Joseph Hayden’s Farwell Symphony where, during the last movement, one musician after the other takes his instrument and leaves the stage until, at the end, none is left.

—Curt Teichert, 1990

Creole Nature Trail: Bayous, Beaches & Birds

Experience the Louisiana Outback along the Creole Nature Trail

Water—seemingly everywhere—is a big part of the Creole Nature Trail experience. Part of America’s Byway’s system, this All-American Road is known for its distinct waters, pristine blue skies, and plenty of wildlife and bird watching.

A+ Motel & RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We used A+ Motel & RV Park on Highway 27 in Sulphur, Louisiana, as our home base while driving the Creole Nature Trail and exploring the area. Conveniently located on the trail, A+ Motel & RV Park earns its name with 134 full-hookup sites, neatly trimmed grounds with a stocked fishing pond, two laundry/shower houses, and two pools, including an adults-only pool with a covered patio and a 75-inch flat-screen TV. New in 2008, A+ is big rig friendly with pull-through and back-in sites and conveniently located 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer connections, and cable TV.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two exits onto the trail from I-10; one near our home base at Sulphur, and, to the east, near Lake Charles. While both towns boast the usual stores, fuel stations, and cultural attractions like museums, casino gaming, and restaurants serving Cajun cuisine, we quickly drove into wild Louisiana wetlands. This is the Louisiana Outback.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Creole Nature Trail, one of only 43 All-American Roads in the U.S., runs 180 miles through three National Wildlife Refuges. The main route is U-shaped with spur roads along the Gulf shoreline and angling into other reserves like Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge and the Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We head south, passing through small towns, then farms, and, just past Hackberry, the landscape becomes meandering waterways with islands of grass as far as the eye can see. The road courses along the west side of brackish Calcasieu Lake. At 8 miles wide and 18 miles long, the lake earns its “Big Lake” nickname. Along the roadway, brilliant orange, daisylike flowers flutter in the breeze.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our first stop is Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, at 125,000 acres, the largest along the trail. We pull into an area marked “Recreation” where a dozen locals are fishing.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a hop down the road, we stop at the Blue Goose Trail and wildlife overlook, a paved 1-mile walking trail and raised wildlife viewing platform. Atop the tower, the breeze through the grasses and bird tweets, cheeps, and squawks are the only sounds.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Creole Nature Trail is filled with prairie grasslands and miles of freshwater, brackish, and saltwater wetlands rich in marsh grasses, crustaceans, and small fish, making it a key stopover for birds passing through the Central and Mississippi flyways. In fact, this area boasts more than 5 million migratory waterfowl and 400 species of birds, making it one of the top birding spots in the country.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While visitors will see birds and the occasional alligator along the road, the best way to explore the Creole Nature Trail is to hike refuge trails and walkways. We walked the Wetland Walkway, a raised, 1.5-mile-long boardwalk that wends through 6-foot-tall grasses to a two-story observation tower with a sweeping view.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun, now fully emerged from the clouds, makes me glad I brought along my Tilley, a broad-brimmed hat. We spot roseate spoonbills, great white egrets, great blue herons, tricolored herons, white ibis, and red-winged blackbirds, and, while there are Alligator Alley warning signs, no gators.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another stop is Holly Beach, a community of beachfront homes leveled in 2005 by Hurricane Rita. Like a phoenix, the colorful stilted beach cabins have been rebuilt, and this “Cajun Riviera” is once again popular for sunbathing, swimming, and shelling.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center features exhibits about Sabine, Cameron Prairie, Lacassine, and Shell Keys National Wildlife Refuges, and their coastal habitats and inhabitants. Exhibits include a diorama theater with Cajun animatronic characters, a scale model of a water control structure for hands-on learning about marsh management, natural habitat dioramas, impressive alligator displays, an interactive computer, and a fiber-optic migration exhibit.

On your next adventure out, consider a scenic drive on the Creole Nature Trail; you never know what may be lurking ’round the next bend.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It’s not just a drive.

It’s an experience.