Why National Parks Need Selfie Stations

US national parks are overcrowded. Some think ‘selfie stations’ will help.

Arches National Park had to close its gate more than 120 times this summer when parking lots filled up creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles. Yellowstone National Park reached 1 million visitors in July for the first time in its history. At Zion National Park, the wait to hike Angels Landing was a Disneyland-long four hours. And with the visitors came graffiti, trash, and reckless behavior.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no secret that this summer has been the busiest summer ever. Preliminary visitation statistics show that the most popular 12 to 15 national parks are seeing record numbers.

On Facebook, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to have backup plans when arranging a trip and included information on lesser-known parks with equally stunning sights and hikes.

Zion National Park trolley stop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Travel off the beaten path,” the NPS wrote. “There are more than 400 national parks across the country. We love exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines.”

Have a plan…and a backup plan…Check

Pack your patience…Working on it.

Don’t pet the fluffy cows…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is here and a little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises when visiting a park are happy ones. To help everyone have a great experience, National Park Service rangers have shared their top 10 insider tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger.

The record-setting crowds of people surging into public lands this summer have set off new challenges for park managers. They are using counterintuitive tricks like encouraging selfies in one place to prevent them in another and they are rolling out algorithms and autonomous vehicles to manage the throngs of recreation-seekers.

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

They are also acknowledging a hard truth: perhaps there simply isn’t enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for everyone who wants to visit them. In an earlier post, I provided a framework for adding more national parks.

One of the biggest issues facing parks is the many visitors all aiming to get the perfect photo. At popular spots in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, some have even fallen to their deaths in the process prompting the NPS to create a guide for safe selfie-taking. And in 2018, the tourism board in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made an unusual request to visitors heading toward Grand Teton National Park after local trails were overrun with photo-tourists: stop geotagging photos.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter the selfie station: a humble wooden stand in front of a stunning vista, ready to hold a camera for a safe and easy photo experience. They are part of an effort to corral people’s natural desire to take photos and to promote less-well-known areas.

Tom Hazelton, who leads Iowa’s County Conservation System, has overseen the installation of more than a hundred selfie stations in his state. Some of the stations celebrate quirky parts of history like the first train robbery west of the Mississippi while others point people to a lake, vista, or nature center they might not otherwise come across. Similar efforts exist in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is Iowa’s third season using the sturdy, cedar stations and they installed another 15 during the past few months. They are getting used and they are low maintenance and easy to build: the signs are $30 and the wood is another $60.

Another tactic to reduce the strain on parks is to cut the number of visitors permitted to enter them in the first place. The NPS oversees a total of 423 protected places that include national seashores, national lakeshores, national recreation areas, and national monuments, among others. Popular places like the summit of Haleakala on Maui or Muir Woods in California require timed entry slots available on Recreation.gov. More public lands are turning to such systems to reduce the number of visitors in one part of a park especially as the pandemic trimmed staffing numbers.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Recreation.gov program uses algorithms to show where there might be less-trafficked attractions in the vicinity that you’re searching in real-time. The Park Service also launched an app with tools to explore more than 400 NPS sites. You can download content from entire parks for offline use. It’s especially handy if you’re exploring remote areas in parks or concerned about data limits. And it can point visitors to other potential public lands outside the parks.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the future, the Park Service is focusing on rolling out predictive technologies that will allow people to anticipate crowds and plan accordingly. They are taking tools used in urban planning and congestion planning and repurposing them for recreation and parks. That could mean a future where a hiker scans a QR code to check-in at a trailhead sending information back to when the trails are most clogged with people. That way, the next group could be advised to wait an hour or come another time to take the same adventure. It also could mean that traffic is routed to less popular areas of the parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To cut down on traffic, some parks are experimenting with autonomous cars. The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina tested out a driverless shuttle this summer and Yellowstone is also trying a shuttle. That park is expected to run out of space for additional cars by 2023. The idea is to stop people driving between the sights in the Canyon Village area—the area around the famous Yellowstone River and Tower Waterfall—and get them in the driverless shuttle instead.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the crowds and the traffic and noise, the park service says it’s a good thing that more people are getting out to experience parks and public lands. The Park Service wants people to have exceptional experiences and they’re looking at ways to enhance opportunities for people to plan to have the best experience and stay safe.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time takes your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. There will never be a photograph captured of the Grand Canyon that can adequately describe its depth, breadth, and true beauty.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and a history that our eyes will never behold. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll start to appreciate the vastness as its depths open up as each emerging shadow moves across its void. It is perhaps for those reasons that it has earned a rare spot among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and why everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space (millions if you really want to get technical). There are endless ways to experience it depending on what the body and mind are looking for and one’s level of endurance. The Grand Canyon is not “one place” but a desert wilderness with many areas to explore—North Rim, South Rim, and West Rim (outside of Grand Canyon National Park); the Village of Supai and Kaibab National Forest—there are different stories to seek out and to create in each of them. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer—but not much. They emerge from cars or tour buses on the South Rim to peer out and take a selfie. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they’re gone, the once-in-a-lifetime visit checked off their bucket list. According to Grand Canyon National Park officials, the average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors’ parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world’s largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they’ll decide this is the place they must return to, again and again.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey, and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can’t quite be imagined. Only the condors and ravens seem to have mastered the terrain. A vast world like this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to gaze, and to rest.

First, let’s take a quick look at the two most visited locations: the North and South Rims.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Rim is visited less frequently than the South Rim for a variety of reasons—it is more remote and difficult to get to than the busy South Rim, it is further removed from major population centers, it maintains a short season (May 15–October 15) because of its heavy snow and higher elevation (about 8,000 feet; 9,200 feet at the highest point), and it offers fewer easy access points to peer into the valley of views than its southern counterpart does.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon just once in your life, you’ll want it to be the South Rim, first to get a load of the views that drew awareness to the area in the first place. They really are spectacular. If you’ve already seen the South Rim, a visit to the northern side is where you can find solitude in backcountry camping and hiking and unique sites to photograph such as the Cape Royal viewpoint.  

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is the best-known area of the park and is the passageway to iconic viewpoints such as Yavapai and Mather Points, both of which often serve up to many the first views of the colorful gorge as it is located just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. At night, catch the sunset at Hopi Point and Mojave Point, two of the most popular places in the park to drink in the pink sky. Near to all of them are iconic lodges, located just steps from the canyon rim. The panoramic views in this area seem to stretch on endlessly and visitor amenities abound including shops, restaurants, free shuttle access to iconic viewpoints, trail access, historical sites, exhibits—and the list goes on and on. 

El, Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will find everything you need for a Grand Canyon adventure in Grand Canyon Village. This historic village has excellent shopping for all the hiking and camping gear you need, as well as authentic American Indian crafts and plenty of canyon souvenirs. The village also has stellar lodging options and a top-rated walking tour. Highlights of the tour include Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Kolb Studio.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your Grand Canyon tour at the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Here you can pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour brochure for in-depth information on the canyon and its history. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also learn how Grand Canyon Village grew up around the Santa Fe Railroad starting in 1901. Stop by the rustic Grand Canyon Railway Depot which welcomes Grand Canyon Railway passengers to the village. One fun way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway which runs from the historic town of Williams into the heart of the park allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities in the Village including helicopter tours, horseback rides, scenic train rides, and mule trips. Do you remember the Brady Bunch adventure when Mike, Cindy, and the clan ventured down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule? This is an actual thing! But, why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses. From the South Rim, you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, the hiking can’t be beaten. Some of the best hikes include Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail, and Rim Trail. The simplest walk is the Rim Trail which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, but—with the exception of Phantom Ranch—they are if you plan to spend the night.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top. The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

Shuttle transport, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who aren’t up for a hike into the canyon, a shuttle transports visitors along the rim of the canyon, stopping at many breathtaking vantage points. You can also enjoy the views directly from Grand Canyon Village and enjoy lunch at one of the village’s restaurants: Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, or Maswik Lodge.

Part of the Grand Canyon but outside of the National Park is Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West. Walk the glass panels on the Skywalk. Soar over the canyon in a helicopter or on a zipline. Float down the Colorado River on a river tour. Take in the epic views at Guano Point and Eagle Point. And, you can stay on-site at the Cabins at Grand Canyon West.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

Date Established: February 26, 1919 (established as Grand Canyon National Monument on January 11, 1908)

Location: Northwestern Arizona

Park Elevation: South Rim, 7,000 feet; North Rim, 8,000 feet

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: Though open 365 days a year, Grand Canyon weather can present a few extremes. While the South Rim is warm in the summer, it’s also very busy and the temperature on the canyon floor can reach over 100 degrees. Spring and fall can be pleasant, but unpredictable.

How the park got its name: According to research by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, the park got its name from a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor named John Wesley Powell who declared it the “Grandest of Canyons” after rafting the length of the Colorado River in 1869, after which the name stuck. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: Mather Point, just steps from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is often the first view that visitors have of the park. Just after gathering the info needed in order to better plan their stay, visitors can step out onto a narrow railed overlook to take in some of the most extensive views that the canyon has to offer, including Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trail stretching down to the bottom of the canyon. From here you can also catch a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: There are two popular rim-to-rim hikes for adventurous souls yearning to gaze 4,000 feet skyward from the base of the Colorado River that bisects the canyon. The rim-to-river-to-rim hike starts at the South Rim—the most popular route being down the South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and up the Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles.) The true rim-to-rim hike starts on the Bright Angel Trail at the North Rim, descending to the bottom of the canyon for stays at the Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground, ascending the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. This adventure covers 24 miles and takes about 3 days. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

Entrance Fees: $35/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal land passes accepted

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

4 National Park Alternatives to Yosemite

With 63 national parks to choose from, it’s easy to find space of your own. You just need to know where to look.

National parks are having their moment. With many seeing record numbers this year and the number of yearly visitors rising by over 53 million from 2013 to 2019, it can feel like a fool’s errand to attempt an off-grid adventure amid throngs of other visitors. Not only are campgrounds booking up months in advance—at some parks, popular trails feel as jammed as Friday traffic in Los Angeles.

The good news is that, out of the country’s 63 national parks, only a dozen or so draw constant crowds. Many others remain off of many Americans’ radars. I’ve selected four of my favorite lesser-known national parks. Every one of these parks is bucket list-worthy on its own merits. 

So if you’re seeking an outdoor escape with plenty of fantastic scenery and room to roam, turn your attention to the West Coast. California has nine national parks—more than any other state in the U.S. So you have tons of options! The toughest choice is which gorgeous locales to tick off your bucket list first and when to visit. Not to worry, I’ve gone ahead and done the research. Thus freeing up your time for more important matters, like reserving a campsite and buying hiking gear. Scroll on for a breakdown of four of my favorite national parks in the Golden State. Happy exploring!

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Joshua Tree National Park

Best for: Rock climbers, stargazers, desert wanders, Instagrammers, camping enthusiasts

An arid 800,000-acre expanse dotted with twisted trees, cacti, massive boulders, and starry skies, Joshua Tree has it all. Perched at the intersection of the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, this otherworldly Southern California region offers a surreal landscape and sense of serenity.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock formations are obviously a major drawcard for photographers and pretty much anyone who digs desert scenery. Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree continues to be a magnet for climbers.

Amazing hikes also come with the territory. Mastodon Peak is a strenuous odyssey that rewards trekkers with jaw-dropping panoramas. Seeking a less energetic hiking stroll? Try a loop path like Bajada Nature Trail, Cholla Cactus Garden, or Discovery Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In terms of accommodations, you definitely don’t have to rough it in the traditional sense. Joshua Tree has some of the most swoon-worthy rentals around. Or, why not sleep under the stars? The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

When to go: Summer is brutal as the thermometer rarely dips below 100 degrees. Peak season—marked by pleasant weather and, admittedly, an influx of tourists—spans from October to May.

Where we stayed: Indian Waters RV Resort, Indio

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Best for: Volcano chasers, hikers

Can you guess the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park? We’ll give you one hint: The last time it erupted was a century ago. The chance of Lassen Peak blowing its top is unlikely. That should put your mind at ease as far as getting up close and personal with the park’s trademark lava rocks, steaming sulfur fumaroles, gurgling mud pots, hydrothermal springs, and jagged peaks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, volcanic features aren’t the only noteworthy attributes. This northern California gem brims with untamed forests, glistening lakes, and flower-filled meadows. I’d be remiss not to mention the 150 miles of hiking trails.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: The window for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park is pretty tight. You’ll want to avoid heavy snowfall which just leaves May to October. This period of clear skies, warmer days, and open roads offers ideal conditions for a few days of earthy expeditions.

Where we stayed: JGW RV Park, Redding

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Pinnacles National Park

Best for: Hikers, climbers, birdwatchers, camping enthusiasts

The baby of the bunch (aka California’s newest national park), Pinnacles isn’t as well known as the rest of the stunners on my list. But I have a feeling that under-the-radar status won’t last long. Not when the region is defined by breathtaking rock formations, cliffs, canyons, spires, and caves created by an extinct 23-million-year-old volcano.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular pastime is hiking. Easy, moderate, and challenging trails traverse the protected area. Adrenaline junkies with scrambling skills can attempt to tackle everything from straightforward top-roping to expert-level multi-pitch climbs. Look up and you may witness endangered condors soaring through the blue skies.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to go: Speaking of birds, Pinnacles National Park ranks among the top locales to spot peregrine falcons, red-shouldered hawks, and golden eagles—especially if you go during the spring which is raptor breeding season. Aiming to avoid the crowds and don’t mind seriously scorching temps? Consider visiting during the sweaty summer months.

Where we stayed: San Benito Camping and RV Resort, Paicines

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

Best for: Tree huggers, hikers, climbers, fans of fishing, stargazers

A diverse and magical place, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is blessed with magnificent scenery unlike anywhere else. These adjoining nature areas have a wealth of immense canyons, alpine peaks, and truly massive trees. It’s here that you’ll discover the majesty of the 14,494-foot Mount Whitney.

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

Whatever you do, don’t miss the General Sherman Tree. (At 275-feet-tall and with a 36-foot-diameter base, it’s the biggest tree on the planet by volume. Follow the paved trail in Giant Forest. Needless to say, an epic photo opp awaits.

Also on the agenda? Go caving, fishing, and spelunking. Mosey to the top of Panoramic Point for spectacular vistas of Kings Canyon and Hume Lake. Park Ridge Fire Lookout is one of the many other jaw-dropping viewpoints.

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

When to go: By now, you’re probably pretty sold on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Spring, summer, and fall are ideal for all sorts of outdoor activities. As if all that’s not enough. You can comfortably sleep under the stars at the Lodgepole Campground during the warmer months.

Where we stayed: Sun and Fun RV Park, Tulare

Worth Pondering…

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.

—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

On the Road to Mount St. Helens

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

The tranquility of the Mount St. Helens region was shattered in the spring of 1980 when the volcano stirred from its long repose, shook, and exploded back to life. The local people rediscovered that they had an active volcano in their midst and millions of people in North America were reminded that the active—and potentially dangerous—volcanoes of the U.S. are not restricted to Alaska and Hawaii.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history, sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano. The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steep-sided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people visit the area around Mount St Helens by leaving Interstate 5 in Washington state at exit 49 and traveling East along a road called Spirit Lake Highway. The road is so-called, because, before 1980, it used to terminate at Spirit Lake. The lake is no longer accessible by road from the West, and even from the East, a substantial hike is required. So, I like to refer to Spirit Lake Highway as the Road to Mount St Helens.

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. These centers are located along the 52-mile-long Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, the only scenic byway in the United States that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like a book with four chapters, each visitor center tells a different part of the story: the mountain as it was before the blast at Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center; first-hand accounts from survivors who experienced the explosion at Johnston Ridge Observatory; the recovery of the mountain and the region at the Forest Learning Center; and its present state at the Silver Lake Visitor Center. Each center offers a unique experience that brings visitors face-to-face with one of the most memorable natural phenomena of our era. 

Mount St. Helens Visit Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Located 5 miles from I-5, Silver Lake Visitor Center is a world-class facility located on the western shore of Silver Lake. With its high ceilings and massive windows, the outdoors becomes a part of the architecture. Your senses will come alive as you enjoy the interactive exhibits, a step-in model of the volcano, and theater programs. Outside, a mile-long trail takes you into marshy plains surrounding Silver Lake where you can see waterfowl and picture-perfect views of the mountain. 

Hoffstadt Bluffs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center

Located 27 miles from I-5, Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center offers an up-close view of the mountain and the flood plain where mud rushed down into the valley, raising it a mile higher than it was prior to May 18, 1980. Take a short walk to another viewing point where a grove was dedicated in 2000 in memory of the 57 people who perished during the eruption. 

Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large post-and-beam structure, Hoffstadt Bluff houses the “Memories of a Lost Landscape” exhibit, which provides an excellent depiction of the mountain prior to the blast, when the area was full of youth camps and visitors enjoying the outdoors.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Learning Center

The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on the rebirth of the forest.

Walkthrough the forest, hearing the sounds of the birds and animals on the mountain prior to May 18, 1980. Enter the “eruption chamber” to view a video of what the forest looked like immediately after the eruption. Breathtaking photographs and life-size models of loggers working in the blast zone bring the experience to life.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnston Ridge Observatory

At the end of the scenic byway, 52 miles from I-5, Johnston Ridge Observatory is tucked into the side of Johnston’s Ridge, a mere 5 miles from the north side of the mountain. Providing visitors the opportunity to come within a stone’s throw of the crater, the observatory is unparalleled. Walkout on the viewing deck or take a stroll along one of the trails and feel the energy of the mountain as it continues to puff steam into the sky.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 16,000 square-foot structure offers a fully-equipped theater where visitors can watch a video about the eruption. Just as the mountain surprised the world with its blast, the movie does likewise as the show concludes and the screen rises to deliver a picture-perfect view of the mountain.

View the many exhibits and read through personal survival stories from that fateful day in 1980. For more detailed information, catch a formal talk or join a guided walk led by one of the observatory’s volunteers.

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

Why America Needs More National Parks

There are dozens of natural wonders around the country that are worthy of designation

Nothing epitomizes the natural splendor of America quite like a national park. The designation evokes images of quiet groves of towering trees in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, sweeping views of sun-drenched rock formations in Arches, or waves crashing against granite cliffs in Acadia (National Park).

Recently, though, national parks have become synonymous not with pastoral retreats but rather a decidedly less appealing phenomenon: crowds and more crowds.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 327 million people visited the public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 and after a brief, pandemic-causing respite the system is again straining to accommodate the hordes yearning for a little fresh air after more than a year spent mostly indoors. Parks across the country are setting records for visits while landmarks like Old Faithful and Utah’s Delicate Arch have been swamped by picture-snapping visitors.

Going to a national park in 2021 doesn’t mean losing yourself in nature. It means inching along behind a long line of vehicles on the way to an already full parking lot.

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

Since last August, every month except one has been record-setting at Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited the park in 2019 and the total will likely reach four million this year.

Yellowstone, whose history as a national park predates the Park Service itself, registered its first month with over a million visitors in July. The park is grappling with the impact all those new guests are having on the park’s infrastructure. A million more people a year in Yellowstone mean you’re emptying 2,000 garbage cans five times a day instead of three. What is the impact of a million more people flushing toilets five times a day, do to wastewater?

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So far, federal action on the matter has largely been restricted to last year’s Great American Outdoors Act which directed money to the NPS’s estimated $12 billion repair backlog as well as the President’s recently proposed budget which would increase the number of full-time Park Service employees considerably for the first time in two decades. But, the core issue remains: There are too many people concentrated in too few places.

But, how can we rebalance the scale? By adding more national parks!

After all, America has no shortage of sublime landscapes. The current assortment of national parks represents a narrow cross-section of the nation’s beauty.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are undeniably magnificent but so too are lesser-known landmarks. Valles Caldera is a dormant volcano in northern New Mexico whose 13.7-mile-wide crater is dotted by hot springs and streams. Joshua trees in Southern California’s Mojave National Preserve are no less mesmerizing than in their namesake national park. These are just two of the dozens of wilderness areas across the country that are already managed by the Park Service yet remain practically unknown. Redesignating them as national parks could change that overnight.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is perceived credibility in the national park designation. Elevating a national preserve or national monument to national park status does increase visitation.

Headwaters Economics, a research group based in Montana, reported on the impact of the eight national monuments redesignated as national parks over the past two decades. Their research found that national parks overall have much greater visitation, overnight visits, spending per visitor, an economic impact than national monuments. Visits increased by 21 percent on average in the five years following redesignation compared to the five previous years.

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

Those findings are borne out by the New River Gorge in West Virginia which was redesignated last December. A spokesperson for the park estimates that visits have increased by 24 percent in the months since.

In the Intermountain West, from 2000 to 2016, recreation visits to national parks increased while visits to national monuments decreased. Importantly, national parks saw a greater increase in overnight visits which has a significant economic impact on the surrounding communities.

The most substantial difference between national parks and monuments is that the latter are created by presidential decree rather than congressional action; indeed, many national parks began as monuments and were only later elevated to their now rarefied status.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many visitors, the word “monument” is something of a misnomer. It signals that maybe there’s one thing of interest there. That leads people unfamiliar with the region to think, “Let’s plan on a two-hour stop before we go on to a big-name national park.”

There is potential for a significant increase in visitation and economic impact for surrounding communities from redesigning a national monument as a national park. National monuments like Craters of the Moon (Idaho), Canyon de Chelly (Arizona), Organ Pipe (Arizona), Cedar Breaks (Utah), Natural Bridges (Utah), Mount St. Helens (Washington), Aztec Ruins (New Mexico), and El Malpais (New Mexico) come to mind.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many of the six million annual Grand Canyon visitors might be enticed to go to Arizona’s similarly majestic Canyon de Chelly if it were a national park rather than a national monument? How many of the hundreds of thousands of eager hikers packing into Zion every month might take a chance on Cedar Breaks instead, especially given its crimson-striped cliffs and bristlecone forests are a mere hour’s drive further into the Utah desert?

Of course, many Westerners will shudder at the notion of under-the-radar gems like Craters of the Moon and the Valles Caldera becoming the next Bryce Canyon or Badlands. Which begs the question of how to alleviate crowding at some sites without overwhelming others?

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks have already reached their limits, leaving less developed public lands vulnerable. Because Grand Teton can’t accommodate everyone who wants to stay there overnight, rangers from the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest have been scrambling to respond to the campers who want to camp there instead despite the area not having a comparable visitor infrastructure. And, therein may lay the answer for another viable alternative to the overcrowded national parks. Overshadowed by the NPS, the U.S National Forests offer some of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the country.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Forest Service offers a range of choices from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, and 122 wild and scenic rivers.

National Forests, then, represent an appealing in-between alternative: sites that many outdoors-minded travelers have never heard of that can still offer an experience every bit as memorable as a brand name park.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a paradox in the national parks. They’re set aside as natural places to be protected forever; on the other hand, they’re for public enjoyment and experience. The current situation complicates both sides of that equation by compromising the Park Service’s conservation mission while also making parks less appealing places to visit. Creating more National Parks is part of the solution. If you’ve got a demand problem, you can solve it by increasing supply. That’s Economics 101.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community

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. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site.  Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.  

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor Center

See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in the Park

Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles. 

As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec West Self-Guided Trail

Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk

The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec

The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 318 acres

Date Established: January 24, 1923

Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 5,600 feet

Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park

Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Parking: RV and bus parking available

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Worth Pondering…

What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.

— Friedrich Schiller 

NPS Birthday Celebration: 10 National Parks without the Crowds

August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!

On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks are actually free year-round. Out of the 423 parks only 108 charge entrance fees (except on the six fee-free days), many of which are actual “parks”—including Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park.

That said, the remaining 315 national parks (many of which are historic sites, trails, battlefields, and monuments) offer free entrance every day of the year including Great Smoky Mountains National park, Casa Grande National Monument, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, John Muir National Historic Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

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.

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 warmer 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.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Free Days

Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.

The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

5 Reasons National Parks are a Great Option for a Budget-friendly Vacation

Visiting national parks is a great way to see the most spectacular landscapes in the country and it can be very affordable

Writer and historian Wallace Stegner famously called national parks America’s “best idea.” Turns out they’re also among the best ideas for an affordable RV vacation thanks to hundreds of drivable destinations throughout the country, free or inexpensive admission, camping, and picnicking opportunities, and tons of cheap activities.

Here are five reasons national parks make a great low-budget getaway.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s probably a national park within easy driving distance

Road trip! When people think of America’s national parks, they tend to imagine sweeping expanses of Western wilderness, like the Grand Canyon. But there are hundreds of national parks, historic sites, preserves, scenic and historic trails, national monuments and memorials, and other places across the country that fall under the National Park Service’s care. That means there’s likely a site within easy driving distance of where you live or plan to spend vacation time.

The National Park Service manages 423 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states including sites in 40 of the 50 most populous cities in the United States, according to the service’s website.

Visitors can use the National Park Service’s online “Find a Park” tool at NPS.gov/findapark to search for parks by state, activity, or topic of interest, or browse a full list.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are inexpensive (or even free) to visit

More than two-thirds of national park sites, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t charge an entrance fee.

Also look for special passes and programs that offer free or discounted admission, such as the annual fee-free entrance days (there are five in 2020) and the Every Kid Outdoors program, which provides free admission for fourth-graders and their families. There’s also the free, lifetime Access Pass which is available to people with a permanent disability, the annual free Military Pass for people currently serving, and the lifetime Senior Pass which costs just $80 for people age 62 and older.

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

And if multiple parks are in your plans, annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is a great bargain. It costs $80 and allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks. If visiting several parks with entrance fees within a year, this pass pays for itself very quickly.

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

There’s a lot of free stuff to do once you’re there

At many vacation spots, admission fees are only the tip of the cost iceberg. Not so at national parks where the talks, walks, films, museums, and other programs are typically either free or included in the admission fee.

Visitors might join a free Keys Ranch Tour at Joshua Tree National Park, hear free geology talks at Capitol Reef National Park, and hike with a ranger at Saguaro National Park. There are also interactive Junior Ranger activities for kids at more than 200 National Park Service areas.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can forgo hotels and restaurants in favor of camping and picnicking

To fully experience the majesty of national parks—starry skies, splendid sunrises, and sunsets—skip the hotel and camp instead. There are campsites in more than 130 national park units, so you can wake up on the beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore, among the ponderosa pines at Grand Canyon National Park, or with a view of otherworldly spires in Bryce Canyon National Park.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parks offer two types of camping experiences. RVers can drive directly to established campgrounds to set up a trailer or motorhome. These campgrounds sometimes have amenities such as water, electricity hookups, bathrooms and showers, fire rings, dump stations, camp stores, and food storage boxes to protect food from wildlife.

To go off-grid, pack a backpack and head out into the wilderness on foot or in a canoe, kayak, or raft to try backcountry camping with only your gear and a sense of adventure.

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

You can make it a volunteer vacation

Another way for budget travelers to visit national parks is to volunteer there. Last year, 300,000-plus volunteers contributed more than 7.2 million hours of service. Some positions are specialized and require particular talents, knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as a background check. Other positions only require a desire and willingness to volunteer. People who rack up 250 volunteer hours can get a free Volunteer Pass, good for a year’s worth of unlimited entrance fees.

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

However, you choose to experience the national parks, be sure to get the latest information before you go.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Burroughs

Which National Park to Visit Based on Your Academic Interests

Are you ready? Whether you want to explore local places or plan a road trip, you’ll find a national park to suit your academic interests.

Summer is the perfect time to go camping and hiking in the great outdoors. There’s no better place to enjoy the outdoors than at one of the many national parks. But there are so many national parks out there that it can be very difficult to choose which one to visit.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could always go with the national park easiest to get to, but even then, it can still be hard to decide. Let your intellectual interests help you!

Here are some recommendations on what national park to go to—based on your college major or the academic pursuit most aligned to your interests. For some of us, it’s a long stretch into the distant past.

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

Biology: Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology: Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a world-renowned showplace of geology.

Geologic studies in the park began with the work of John Strong Newberry in 1858, and continue today. Grand Canyon’s excellent display of layered rock is invaluable in unraveling the region’s geologic history. Extensive carving of the plateaus allows for the detailed study of the Earth’s movements. Processes of stream erosion are also easily seen and studied.

The Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon into four plateaus of the Colorado Plateau Province. The Province is a large area in the Southwest characterized by nearly horizontal sedimentary rocks lifted 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archaeology: Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its Native American sites. With villages built into the cliffside and rocks painted with petroglyphs, it’s a place that has a strong connection to the people of the past.

What else would an archaeology major want in a national park? The visitor center also has the park’s museum and research collection—so there’s an added bonus.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Art: Petrified Forest

This national park is a great fit for a student of art. The part that should be most appealing to those interested in art isn’t the tree stumps preserved as stone, which the park is named for, but the Painted Desert.

Being surrounded by something so magnificently “painted” should make an artist feel right at home. In all seriousness, though, this national park is a beautiful and strange landscape that looks very little like anywhere else. If you want something new to draw or paint, this park might be the muse you’re looking for.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of where to go to begin discovering what the national parks have to offer. No matter what national park you choose to visit, you’ll be met with stunning sights and wonderful nature. You can’t go wrong with any of the national parks, so hopefully, this list has helped you choose.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson