10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. But, I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

The Complete Guide to Zion National Park

Cathedral-like canyons and majestic sandstone cliffs create a wondrous landscape

A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.
—Isaac Behunin, 1861

Don’t be surprised if your first glimpse of Zion National Park with its vast red rock canyons and towering sandstone temples feels a bit like a spiritual awakening. You wouldn’t be the first person moved by its majesty.

The Southern Paiute called it Mukuntuweap meaning straight-up land. They found sanctuary and sustenance within the sheer walls of Zion Canyon harvesting plants and seeds for food and medicine and cultivating corn, squash, and sunflowers near the Virgin River. When Mormon settler Isaac Behunin built a cabin on the canyon floor in 1863 he was inspired to proclaim, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.”

Zion National Park’s more than 148,000 acres sit at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert in Utah’s southwest corner. The fusion of these distinct geographical regions created the park’s wondrous landscape which comprises six unofficial sections: the Main (Zion) Canyon, Desert Lowlands, Kolob Canyons, Kolob Terrace, Upper East Canyon, and Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These ecosystems nurture verdant hanging gardens spilling with maidenhair ferns and high-country forests teeming with aspens and ponderosa pines. They provide refuge for abundant wildlife from tiny endemic Zion snails to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and the critically endangered California condors. But despite the richness of its flora and fauna, the real star of Zion’s show is the scenery—Navajo sandstone cliffs, soaring rock spires, and a spectacular gorge carved over millennia by the Virgin River’s powerful surge.

Today Zion attracts 4.5 million visitors annually from the most adventurous rock climbers to laid-back sightseers looking to enjoy an easy hike and continues to evoke a profound sense of awe in all those who witness its splendor.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

St. George offers the easiest access to Zion National Park. From there it’s only 45 miles northeast to the charming gateway town of Springdale and Zion’s main entrance. But many people drive 165 miles northeast from Las Vegas through vast swaths of the Mojave Desert to Springdale.

Zion National Park is open year-round and each season frames a unique view of the park’s beauty. Only a fraction of visitors come between December through February when daytime temperatures hover around 50 degrees and dip below freezing at night. Quiet trails and scenes of fiery vermilion sandstone dusted with snow reward those who brave the chill.

March and April deliver temperatures ranging from 35 to 70 degrees and an influx of spring-break travelers as snowmelt feeds waterfalls and wildflowers.

The mercury begins to rise in May and by mid-June daytime temperatures climb into the triple digits where they linger until September. Fortunately, they drop to 60 to 70 degrees late in the evening. An early-morning start, frequent water breaks, and seeking out shady trails are the keys to summer in the park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the perfect mix of comfortable weather with temperatures ranging from 70 degrees during the day to 40 at night, fewer crowds and affordable lodging options, late September through November is ideal. Though the days are shorter, trails and services should be fully operational and the cottonwoods will be decked out in autumn’s golden glory.

The park’s visitor centers, shuttles, museum, restrooms, buses, picnic areas, and Zion Lodge are all fully accessible and several campsites in the Watchman Campgroumd are reserved for those with disabilities. Additionally, all shuttle stops have benches and many trails have flat rocks perfect for resting a spell. Rocking chairs on Zion Lodge’s porch offer a lovely place to while away an hour in the shade.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bulk of the park’s action happens in Zion Canyon which visitors can access only via free park shuttles from March to November and during peak holiday periods. These shuttles make nine stops at major trailheads and points of interest along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Visitors are only allowed to drive on that road and access the canyon in their cars during those times of the year the shuttles aren’t running.

When they’re operating, park at the main entrance and board a bus at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center but be aware that lots fill early especially during the busy summer months. A second shuttle stops at multiple points along Zion Park Boulevard in Springdale, making it easy to leave your car at your hotel or in the town’s paid parking areas and avoid the hullabaloo at the main entrance.

Though most visitors never venture beyond Zion Canyon you can easily escape the masses in other park sections. You can drive to trailheads and viewpoints in seldom-explored areas along the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway (which links Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the park’s East Entrance) and in Kolob Canyon, about 45 miles north of Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Built in 1925 and restored to its original stone-and-timber charm in 1990, the Craftsman-style Zion Lodge, the only in-park hotel sits right in the heart of Zion Canyon. Set against a majestic red rock backdrop, its 81 rooms and 40 cabins sprawl across a verdant expanse of lawn shaded by a 100-year-old Fremont cottonwood tree. Request a room or cabin with a porch overlooking the lawn and surrounding cliffs.

Dine on upscale fare with desert flair at the lodge’s Red Rock Grill—and sit out on the outdoor terrace for gorgeous canyon views. Two menu standouts: chili tacos made with Navajo fry bread and a locally sourced bison burger topped with cheddar cheese and jalapeños.

Open seasonally, the Castle Dome Café which serves snack-bar favorites such as hot dogs and ice cream on a shady patio makes for a good pit stop if you have wilting grandchildren in tow.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a heftier dose of the great outdoors, put down roots at one of two campgrounds for RVs and tents near Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The South Campground (open March–November) has 117 sites (three accessible) encircled by towering cliffs between the Virgin River and the popular Pa’Rus Trail. Tucked at the foot of Zion’s iconic Watchman rock formation, the eponymous Watchman Campground (open year-round) offers 197 sites (seven accessible plus additional flat sites with easy access). Both campgrounds have restrooms but only Watchman has some sites with electricity. Just outside the park entrance at Zion Outfitter in Zion Canyon Village you’ll find token-operated showers and laundry facilities.

Campsite reservations which are highly recommended can be made for the South Campground two weeks in advance; for Watchman up to six months in advance. Permits cost $20 to $130 nightly.

Backcountry camping is available May through September at the first-come-first-served Lava Point Campground off Kolob Terrace Road, about an 80-minute drive south from the park’s main entrance. It has just six (free) primitive campsites with pit toilets but no water.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Zion Canyon section

Zion National Park’s main attraction is Zion Canyon. Fifteen miles long and nearly 3,000 feet deep in some spots the canyon wows visitors with some of the park’s most dramatic scenery including the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, and the Towers of the Virgin. Walking among these sandstone monoliths with their massive, multilayered peaks streaked with iron oxide feels like being in a giant’s sculpture garden.

Get oriented at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center where you’ll find trail maps, helpful rangers, and the canyon shuttle. The shuttle ride and accompanying recorded narration is a relaxing way to experience Zion Canyon’s highlight reel. It takes about 40 minutes to travel the 6.6 miles from the visitor center to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava, a soaring stone amphitheater named for the coyote god of the Paiute people. Hop on or off at any of the shuttle stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the second stop, don’t miss the new film We the Keepers created by the not-for-profit Zion Forever Project. The 23-minute film plays throughout the day at the Human History Museum providing a moving overview of the park and its stewards. Museum exhibits showcase the natural and cultural phenomena that helped make Zion what it is today. On the patio, park rangers give talks on everything from survival tactics of the park wildlife to Zion’s fascinating geology.

Visitors can best experience Zion’s beauty by trekking any of its 35-plus trails totaling more than 90 miles and in Zion Canyon those with mobility issues or those looking to go on an easy bike ride should set out on the Pa’Rus Trail. Named for the Paiute word meaning bubbling, tumbling water, the trail starts just north of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Campground and follows a paved, 1.7-mile path through beautiful open canyon.

Another easy, magical hike in the canyon, the 1.1-mile Riverside Walk (the first 0.4 miles fully accessible) begins at the final shuttle stop and traces the edge of the Virgin River. Along the way, lush foliage spills from weeping canyon walls and cathedrals of rock envelop you on all sides.

The trail ends at the entrance to the Narrows hike which leads into the legendary slot canyon that marks Zion Canyon’s narrowest section: About two miles into the gorge the sheer, 1,000-foot canyon walls flanking the Virgin River close in leaving just 20 feet between them.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re an adventure-seeker planning to hike the Narrows come prepared with closed-toed, waterproof hiking boots—you’ll be wading through the river much of the time—and a walking stick to help navigate the slippery riverbed. Some people liken it to walking on wet bowling balls. Don’t dismay if you decide to turn back early: Even a short foray into the canyon delivers a memorable experience.

You might also like saddling up and exploring the canyon on horseback, a fun way to cover more ground than you might on foot. At the corral for Canyon Trail Rides, across the road from Zion Lodge, join a one-hour excursion along the Virgin River to the Court of the Patriarchs, three towering terracotta-hued peaks named for the biblical figures Abraham, Isaacm and Jacob.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In other park sections

Some of the park’s other areas offer unsung hiking paths and gorgeous overlooks minus the canyon’s crowds and plenty are accessible by car.

One excellent option: a drive along the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, a 10-mile stretch of twisting switchbacks and stunning vistas that links the Main Canyon to the park’s eastern boundary. Kick things off with a stop at the Canyon Junction Bridge—the view over the Virgin River with the giant rock buttress Watchman in the distance is particularly spectacular at sunset. In about 3.5 miles, you’ll reach the Zion–Mount Carmel Tunnel where six huge windows cut into its sandstone walls deliver a fleeting glimpse of the canyon below.

For another splendid drive, take the road even less traveled and head 45 miles north of Springdale to the park’s Kolob Canyons section, a vast maze of towering crimson finger canyons replete with solitude and breathtaking wilderness. The Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, a 10-minute drive from the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center makes a perfect picnic spot. From there, a gentle jaunt on the half-mile-long Timber Creek Overlook Trail leads along the ridgeline and boasts scenery that rivals anything you’ll see in Zion Canyon.

Springdale © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

With its small-town atmosphere, sweeping canyon views and location just outside the park’s South Entrance, Springdale makes an ideal home base for exploring Zion National Park and offers multiple diversions including art galleries when your feet need a break from hiking.

For accommodations, you’ll find everything from chain hotels to boutique resorts, cozy inns, and vintage motels along Zion Canyon Boulevard, the town’s main drag.

For lunch-to-go on your way to the park, pick up gourmet panini from Café Soleil. Later, reward a day of hiking and exploring with a cold craft beer at Zion Brewery then head to local favorite Oscar’s Café for its huge burgers and delicious, Mexican-inspired pub grub. Or wash off the dust and go upscale at King’s Landing Bistro. Whet your appetite with a King’s Ol’ Fashioned made using Utah-distilled High West Campfire Whiskey before tucking into dishes such as rabbit cacciatore over polenta.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

Many Zion visitors drive north from Las Vegas. For the first 100 miles or so the highway beelines through barren desert lowlands passing through a small corner of the rugged swath of land between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border known as the Arizona Strip.

About 40 miles outside Vegas take a short detour to visit Valley of Fire State Park. On the 10-mile Scenic Byway that winds through the park several easy hikes lead to arches, petroglyphs, and pinnacles. Two popular ones: Fire Wave and Rainbow Vista.

Nestled into Utah’s southwest corner, the Greater Zion region is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and culture seekers alike. Spend some time here before going on to the park basing yourself in the vibrant hub city of St. George. Check into the family-owned Inn on the Cliff for panoramic views of the red rock landscape, or the Advenire, a luxe new downtown property.

At Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, 18 miles northeast of St. George, try stand-up paddleboarding on the reservoir during warm-weather months or head into the dunes on a guided ATV excursion with ATV Adventures year-round.

Sand Hollow offers a variery of camping amenities. Westside, Sandpit, and Lakeview campgrounds have fire pits, tables, and access to restrooms with showers. Westside Campground offers full hook-up sites at $50 per nighy. Lakeview Campground has partial hook-ups ($45) and full hookup sites ($50).

 In Ivins, nine miles northwest of St. George, browse the galleries at the Utah-centric Kayenta Art Village and take in a show at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, a natural sandstone amphitheater featuring a seasonal lineup of Broadway-caliber performances.

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Fact box

  • Location: Utah’s southwest corner
  • Acreage: More than 148,000 acres
  • Highest peak: Horse Ranch Mountain, 8,726 feet
  • Lowest point: Coalpits Wash, 3,666 feet
  • Miles of trails: More than 90 miles along more than 35 trails
  • Main attraction: Zion Canyon
  • Entry fee: $35 per vehicle, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)
  • Best way to see it: The Zion Canyon Shuttle (from mid-March through November) which makes nine stops on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: Late September through November

Worth Pondering…

It is a place where a family can rest at streamside after a pleasant morning hike.

It is a vast labyrinth of narrow canyons where one can become hopelessly lost, shrinking to invisibility beneath dark, towering walls of stone.

One may feel triumph and exhilaration, or awesome smallness atop Angels Landing; thirst and fatigue, or a rewarding weariness, on the return trek from the backcountry.

Perhaps one’s view of Zion is in the eyes of the beholder.

—Wayne L. Hamilton, The Sculpturing of Zion

15 Fascinating Historic Sites in the American Southwest 

The American Southwest blends nature and history in a beautiful way. Coyotes, canyons, and brilliant sun-kissed rock formations mark the region’s desert terrain. It’s also home to hundreds of national parks and monuments including the Grand Canyon. While there are a number of places you will want to see on your trip, be sure to stop and check out these Historic Sites in the Southwest.

The stories of the American Southwest extend well beyond the history of the United States. From the Indigenous peoples who built cliffside castles to the Spanish explorers who established missions and the cowboys of the Wild West—the history of this region is incredibly diverse.

To learn more about what makes the Southwest so captivating, check out 15 of the region’s best historic sites and the fascinating stories behind them.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Montezuma Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona

Embedded into the side of a sheer limestone cliff, Montezuma Castle dates back to around 1100 BC and was established as a national monument in 1906. The cliffside abode was named incorrectly by settlers who believed it to be of Aztec origin. In reality, the Sinagua peoples who inhabited the Verde Valley of Arizona for thousands of years, built and occupied the castle. Naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the site of the cliff dwellings was chosen due to preexisting caves and nearby water resources; inhabitants used wooden ladders to move throughout the settlement’s five levels.

To see the historic monument, start at the Visitor Center before walking up to the base of Montezuma Castle on a 0.3-mile loop trail. Then, you can drive to Montezuma Well, a naturally occurring sinkhole and the site of more cliff dwellings. The land around the well was home to prehistoric groups of people approximately 1,000 years ago before being settled by Anglo-Americans in the late 19th century.

Check this out to learn more: Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Four Corners Monument, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

Located in Navajo Tribal Park, the Four Corners Monument is the only point in the country where four states meet. Marking the point where the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah state lines coalesce, the historic landmark also marks the boundary between the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Tribe Reservation. 

However, the monument’s history goes further back than just statehood. During the Civil War, Congress created several new territories—including Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—to discourage residents from joining the Confederacy. In 1861, Congress voted for a marker to be placed in the monument’s exact location to demonstrate the southwest corner of the Colorado territory.

Palace of the Governors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dating to 1610, the Palace of the Governors is the oldest public building in the contiguous U.S. still in continuous use. For nearly three centuries, the building was home to a rotating roster of Spanish, Mexican, and American governors as control over the New Mexico territory shifted and changed. Additionally, the native Pueblo peoples took over the palace during the Pueblo Revolt of the 17th century while the Confederacy occupied it during the Civil War.

Today, the Palace of the Governors is part of the New Mexico History Museum with interpretive galleries displaying its history and a palatial courtyard that connects to the rest of the museum. For visitors to Santa Fe, the palace features a block-long portal where Native American vendors sell their artisan wares and crafts.

Plan your next trip to Santa Fe with these resources:

Whiskey Row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Whiskey Row, Prescott, Arizona

This legendary block in Arizona earned its moniker in the late 19th century when the street consisted of whiskey saloons favored by the local cowboys and miners. After a lit candle burned most of the downtown area in 1900, a group of locals famously rescued the actual bar from the Palace Saloon and began drinking their sorrows away. A year later, a new downtown was erected in a more fire-safe brick and the same bar was installed inside the new Palace Restaurant and Saloon.

Today, visitors can belly up at the historic bar or visit myriad other notable sites located on the city block. Rumored to be haunted by a lady in white, Hotel St. Michael has housed a number of famous guests over the past century including the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Doc Holiday. And while galleries and shops now decorate the historic square, famed establishments like the Jersey Lilly Saloon still embody the historic spirit of Whiskey Row.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Before it became the site of perhaps the most infamous battle in the Southwest, the Alamo was known as the San Antonio de Valero Mission. In 1724, Spanish colonizers established the church to convert the area’s Native American peoples.

It wasn’t until the 1835 Texas Revolution that the former mission became a war fortress and battle site. Stationed in the Alamo in 1836, Texas revolutionaries fought against Mexico in the Battle of the Alamo, a bloody 13-day squirmish that resulted in the deaths of all the defenders. Although they lost the battle, Texas later won independence from Mexico and would eventually become an American state nine years later.

Today, the Alamo is open and free to visitors although reservations must be made in advance. With guided and self-guided tours available, the Alamo is also part of the San Antonio Missions Trail giving cyclists easy access to the city’s network of historic missions.

If you need ideas, check out:

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum, Globe, Arizona

One mile southwest of the City of Globe, Arizona, stand the remains of a large pueblo village constructed by the Salado culture who occupied the region between 1225 and 1450.

The pueblo is known today as Besh Ba Gowah, a term originally given by the Apache people to the early mining settlement of Globe. Roughly translated, the term means place of metal

The partially reconstructed pueblo structures along with the adjacent museum provide a fascinating glimpse at the lifestyle of the people who thrived in the ancient Southwest.

Besh-Ba-Gowah had about 400 rooms of these about 250 were ground floor rooms. Precise numbers are impossible due to modern destruction of sections. Entrance to the pueblo was via a long narrow ground level corridor covered by the second level. The corridor opened onto the main plaza. This may have had a defensive purpose.

Check this out to learn more: Exploring a Remarkable Pueblo: Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park

Mesa Verde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park’s cliff dwellings are just one wonder to be found at this national park in Colorado which also includes protected wilderness.

Located in Southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde, Green Table in Spanish, National Park offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and experience a unique cultural and physical landscape. Including more than 4,000 known archeological sites dating back to A.D. 550, this national treasure protects the cliff dwellings and mesa top sites of pit houses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples who lived here for more than 700 years. This national park gives us a glimpse into the places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage.

The cliff dwellings are some of the most notable and best preserved sites in the United States. After living primarily on the mesa top for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo peoples began building structure under the overhanging cliffs of Mesa Verde—anything from one-room storage units to villages of over 150 rooms. Decades of excavation and analysis still leave many unanswered questions, but have shown us that the Ancient Pueblans were skillful survivors and artistic craftsmen.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Mesa Verde:

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chinle, Arizona

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Dine’ families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons. A place like no other, the park and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Canyon de Chelly sustains a living community of Navajo people who are connected to a landscape of great historical and spiritual significance—a landscape composed of places infused with collective memory. NPS works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage park resources and sustain the Navajo community.

Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see the 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.

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico

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. 

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, Arizona

Casa Grande Ruins, the nation’s first archeological preserve, protects the Casa Grande and other archeological sites within its boundaries.

For over a thousand years, prehistoric farmers inhabited much of the present-day state of Arizona. When the first Europeans arrived, all that remained of this ancient culture were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and various artifacts. Among these ruins is the Casa Grande, or Big House, one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America. See the Casa Grande and hear the story of the ancient ones the Akimel O’otham call the Hohokam, those who are gone.

Check this out to learn more: The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites and features volcanic rock carved by Native American and Spanish settlers.

Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples and early Spanish settlers.

Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands, and crosses; others are more complex. Their meaning, possibly, may have been understood only by the carver. These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them.

If you need ideas, check out: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

12. Coronado Historic Site, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Home to the partially reconstructed ruins of the ancient Pueblos of Kuaua, this historic site dates back to 1300 DC. Inhabited by the ancestral Puebloans, Kuaua was the largest Pueblo complex in the region with roughly 1,200 ground-floor rooms and 10 to 20 large kivas. Each kiva (underground ceremonial room) is painted with layers of intricate murals revealing stories of the Pueblo peoples and representing some of the best examples of pre-Columbian art in the U.S.

Today, the village is known as the Coronado Historic Site named for Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who discovered the village in 1540 during his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. The Puebloans were gracious toward their guests at first although their hospitality eventually faded and Coronado and his troops moved on. History buffs can visit these reconstructed kivas to see the well-preserved murals, as well as walk the site’s interpretive trails, complete with views of the Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande.

Hovenweep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character, Hovenweep National Monument was once home to more than 2,500 people in 900 A.D. In 1923, Hovenweep was proclaimed by President Warren G. Harding a unit of the national park system. The name Hovenweep is a Paiute/Ute word meaning deserted valley.

A group of five well-preserved village ruins over a 20-mile radius of mesa tops and canyons, these ancient Pueblo ruins include towers that remind visitors of European castles. Straddling the Utah-Colorado border, the ruins were built about the same time as medieval fortresses.

The largest and most accessible of the six units of ruins is Square Tower where several well-preserved structures are located. The area was home for several prehistoric farming villages. Throughout the ruins, visitors may find castles, towers, check dams (for irrigation), cliff dwellings, pueblos, and houses. Petroglyphs (rock art) can also be found in the area.

Here are some helpful resources:

Tuzigoot Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

The Southern Sinagua built a ridge-top pueblo at Tuzigoot around 1100 AD and continued to add new rooms until the 1400s. This pueblo housed about 50 people. The Sinagua would often use a large pueblo as a dwelling and community center surrounded by additional smaller dwellings and outbuildings connected to agriculture.

While the region has a mostly arid climate, the marsh and river provide a source of fresh water, wild game, fish, and turtles to the Sinagua. Although summers are hot, a very long growing season allowed for the organized cultivation of crops as a supplement to food taken from the marsh and the river.

Despite the comfortable natural setting, the Sinagua left the pueblo at Tuzigoot for unknown reasons around the year 1450. Possibly the valley became overcrowded and the Southern Sinagua moved to different locations or were absorbed by other tribes. When the Sinagua abandoned Tuzigoot, they left behind many artifacts, some of which are on display in the visitor center.

Today, much of the ruin at Tuzigoot has been reconstructed to provide a safe and stable environment for visitors; however, the main tower is mostly original and is open to the public. The pueblo is accessible as part of a short loop trail. An additional trail leads out to a viewing area overlooking the marsh that was so important to the Sinagua.

Read more: An Ancient Village on the Hill: How Life was Lived at Tuzigoot

Tumacacori © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tumacácori, Arizona

Tumacácori sits at a cultural crossroads in the Santa Cruz River valley and is where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people mixed with Europeans.

From his arrival in the Pimería Alta in 1687 until he died in 1711, Padre Kino established over twenty missions. The Jesuit missionaries administered them until the time of their expulsion in 1767. From 1768 until after Mexico got her independence in 1821 the missions were operated by the Franciscan missionaries. Some are still in use today while others have fallen into ruin.

Tumacácori National Historical Park in the upper Santa Cruz River Valley of southern Arizona is comprised of the abandoned ruins of three of these ancient Spanish colonial missions. San Jos de Tumacácori and Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, established in 1691, are the two oldest missions in Arizona. San Cayetano de Calabazas, was established in 1756.

Check this out to learn more: Tumacácori National Historic Park: More Than Just Adobe, Plaster & Wood

Worth Pondering…

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

—Miriam Beard

Look to the Stars! National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of their dark skies by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various night-time events in addition to stargazing. 

These events are right around the corner so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are even designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights…”

Some national parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification are:

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. There are so many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why it’s no surprise that my posts on Southern Utah are some of my most popular posts. Here’s a sampling:

I also have an article on the Best National Parks for Stargazing.

National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

These annual events are held at similar times annually so if you’ve missed one you can start planning for next year. 

National parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Pro tip: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Alrighty, let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2024.

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 1-8

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But did you know it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around? 

You can take in those skies in early June at their annual Star Party. The event is free but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is good for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset and the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes will be taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, June 5-8

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019!

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their Annual Astronomy Festival includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. Last year, they had a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it:

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.  

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So, you’re close to many historical sites and museums as well.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions.

The event includes ranger talks, other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations include a span of topics, including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission. 

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 5-7

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks! 

The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory! 

This fall, you can attend their 15th annual stargazing event. This year’s festival will have many of the same events as 2023 with new guest speakers, ranger programs, and art projects.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October (Dates TBA)

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. They haven’t announced the 2024 dates yet, but it’s typically held around the second weekend of October. You can click that link to see if they’ve updated their website with dates and ticket information.

It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

The Top 30 Places to Visit in Arizona

There are a lot of places to visit in Arizona—from admiring the Grand Canyon to experiencing cultural tourist attractions throughout its desert landscape

Arizona’s landscapes are nothing short of stunning. Towering buttes meet hills covered with saguaro cacti. The otherworldly landscape that often feels better suited for Mars than our planet is grounded by what has become Arizona’s other great draw: the proof of human history found in the sites and settlements of Ancestral Puebloans. These archaeological sites which include cliff dwellings, sandstone homes, and petroglyphs dot the state offering a reminder of the people who came before.

With a deep human history and a stunning natural landscape, there is plenty to explore in Arizona, including cities, national parks and monuments, and outdoor attractions. This guide is split into specific sections as Arizona has many different types of places to visit.

So let’s get started.

Best cities to visit in Arizona

Arizona isn’t all desert and canyons; the state has numerous cities that deserve visiting. The following cities are some of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Phoenix from Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix

Phoenix is the sunny state capital of Arizona. Located in central Arizona, Phoenix is surrounded by mountains and desert landscapes. Its location seems unlikely for a city with skyscrapers and luxury hotels shooting up from what (before 1881) was once sand and dust. However, its incongruous allure is all part of Phoenix’s charm.

Phoenix is the best place to visit in Arizona for a big-city experience. The city is bursting with creativity and attractions including more art galleries than you could see in a whole week.

Phoenix is also home to the Musical Instrument Museum, Natural History Museum, Phoenix Bat Cave, and Desert Botanical Garden.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Tucson

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily.

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back.

One of the top places to visit, San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic Mission. This national historic landmark was founded in 1692 and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors per year. The church is considered the finest Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Cottonwood

If Phoenix is best for a big-city feel, Cottonwood is best for the opposite. Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north.

Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and ’30s. Old Town antique stores, wine-tasting venues, six galleries, and three hotels!

Best National Parks to visit in Arizona

What would a trip to Arizona be without visiting a national park? Arizona’s national parks are renowned for their incredible attractions including the famous Grand Canyon.

You can explore the hiking trails, and biking trails, take off-roading tours, or book a scenic helicopter flight—it is up to you. These are the best national parks to visit in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is located just outside Tucson. It is a great place to visit for stunning scenery and hiking trails while visiting Southern Arizona.

The park is most known for its cacti. Indeed, in this national park, you’ll find some of the largest saguaro cacti in the U.S. Some of the cacti live up to 200 years old and grow at a very slow rate. The national park feels like an old American West movie scene and has over 90,000 acres to explore.

Valley View Overlook Trail is a short walk that should take around 20 minutes to complete while hiking to Signal Hill Petroglyphs, a must for anyone interested in ancient art and civilizations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park

If Petrified Forest National Park sounds fantastic, it’s because it is. However, if you arrive expecting a lush forest full of beautiful trees, you’ll be shocked. The national park is a barren landscape full of fossils and petrified, sliced tree trunks.

The petrified wood is scattered across the national park and you can drive the length of the park in around an hour or two—stopping at whatever spot catches your eye. Some not to miss places include Rainbow Forest Museum, Painted Desert, and Crystal Forest Blue Mesa hiking trails.

Wondering how this natural phenomenon occurs? Petrification of trees takes place when trees have been buried underground without oxygen for thousands of years. Over time, the decaying wood becomes mineralized and turns into fossilized stone creating a replica of the original form, just in a different material.

For a unique natural experience, Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best places to visit in Arizona. We recommend choosing this national park for anyone intrigued by natural mysteries and wanting a memorable experience in Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon! What can I say? The park is one of the best places to visit in the U.S., never mind Arizona. Visiting the Grand Canyon is at or near the top of most people’s bucket list.

South Rim and North Rim are the most popular areas to explore the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is the lesser-seen side of the Grand Canyon and is best for those who want a quieter place to experience this amazing wonder. South Rim is much busier and is packed with different hiking trails.

A popular hiking route is the Bright Angel Trail. The trail is well-maintained and relatively easy. It follows a side canyon, past cliff faces, and various switchbacks before finishing at Plateau Point. Plateau Point has stunning views of the canyon and the park’s scenery.

Of course, you can always splurge on a helicopter ride instead. Many tourists opt to view the canyon from above, which is one of the most exhilarating things to do in Arizona.

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

7. Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of the state. For those who want to experience nature in the north, it is easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument covers over 80,000 acres and is home to the Spider Rock spire. The spire is a 700-foot-high sandstone rock. Spider Rock spire gained its shape by gradual erosion over time and experts believe it was once connected to a ridge. Nowadays, it makes an unusual natural attraction and a great photograph.

You can drop by the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center for expert local guidance on things to see and do. However, you should make sure to try a hiking trail or scenic drive.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce its first flower near the age of 35.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Chiricahua National Monument

About 27 million years ago, this Land of Standing-Up Rocks was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot-thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that makeup Chiricahua National Monument.

There are hiking trails, both short loops and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Best State Parks to visit in Arizona

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest.

More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than the Dutchman Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name.

You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas.

Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Patagonia Lake State Park

South of Sonoita, the blue waters of Patagonia Lake glisten for 265 acres. Unlike the craggy escarpments that border many desert lakes here it’s all rounded corners and gentle slopes. The surrounding hills ease down to the tall grasses that line the shore. A trail meanders from the beach to Sonoita Creek which formed the lake when it was dammed.

A marina provides boat rentals: canoes, pontoons, rowboats, and paddleboats. In a former life, this land was the home of the Sobaipuri and Papago tribes, both related to the Pima Indians. Today, it’s the home away from home for campers, birders, swimmers, sunbathers, boaters, and anglers.

Best Outdoor Attractions

After exploring the best national and state parks and cities, let’s look at Arizona’s largest category—its outdoor attractions.

Arizona is perfect if you love being outdoors and experiencing natural attractions. The state is full of things to see and do outdoors including visiting Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley. Ready to be inspired? Let’s take a look.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Monument Valley

Monument Valley is located along the Arizona-Utah border. If you want to visit easily, overnight at the Valley’s View Campground, and what a view you’ll enjoy especially at sunset. The valley is one of the most famous landscapes in the U.S. and easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

The valley is over 90,000 acres and is full of hiking trails and spectacular rock formations. It is most known for its towering sandstone buttes which you can experience on scenic drives or hiking trails. Don’t miss Forest Gump Point, the iconic viewpoint used in famous movies and is an important filming location in cinematic history.

The valley is a great place to cut through if you are planning an Arizona road trip. There are many things to see while driving through the valley and the scenery is perfect for memorable road tripping.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Lake Powell

If you are heading up to the Arizona-Utah border it is well worth detouring to Lake Powell. The lake is a stunning artificial body of water situated between Monument Valley and Grand Canyon National Park. It is a beautiful place to visit in Arizona. The lake’s bright blue water and orange sandstone surroundings cut a picture-perfect scene.

The lake is fed by the Colorado River and covers over 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a significant attraction on the lake and the vast stone arc is the largest natural bridge in the world. It is an excellent attraction to combine with enjoying the lake itself.

Many people spend a day or two staying along the shores of the lake. You may wish to visit on a day trip or book a campsite so that you can stay overnight. Full-service sites are available.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Fascinated by ancient culture and archaeological sites of inhabitation? Montezuma Castle National Monument is the place to visit. The site is home to several cliffside dwellings, built and lived in by Indigenous People around 1100 to 1425 AD.

Sadly, access inside the dwellings has now been prohibited in an understandable attempt to protect the site from excessive damage. However, visitors can take a virtual tour inside the houses. They look incredible from the outside and you can enjoy numerous hiking trails for different views.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Desert Botanical Garden

I mentioned the Desert Botanical Garden when discussing Phoenix. The garden is located in Papago Park in the center of Arizona’s capital city. However, the Desert Botanical Garden is worthy of a spot on our list in its own right.

Why is the Desert Botanical Garden so spectacular? The 150-acre garden has over 50,000 desert plants and is the ideal place to visit for a convenient desert experience. The botanical garden is an easy and fun alternative for those who don’t have time to visit major desert locations like Saguaro National Park.

Glen Canyon Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon Dam is situated in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a one million-acre reserve encompassing biking trails, hiking trails, and Lake Powell.

Planning a trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Park to visit Lake Powell? I recommend taking a detour to visit the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam is a hydroelectric power plant and has become an iconic attraction along the Colorado River.

Visitors can take boat tours to view Glen Canyon Dam up close or even fly over the dam for a flight experience. The 710-foot infrastructure is incredible from a distance and even more impressive up close. Of course, to save a bit of money, you can always walk across Glen Canyon Dam Bridge where you’ll still have great views over the dam.

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

21. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead is another impressive artificial attraction. The lake has the highest water capacity of any U.S. reservoir and sits on the Nevada-Arizona border. If you love water activities and lakeside living, Lake Mead is one of the best places to visit in Arizona to unwind and relax.

Allow time to take a Lake Mead cruise as the contrast between desert and an oasis-like body of water is striking and best experienced from the water itself. You can also fish and boat on the lake.

If you are planning a road trip, Lake Mead is ideally located en route to Las Vegas. It is worth detouring to enjoy the lake and consider combining it with a visit to the nearby Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Hoover Dam

Once the tallest dam in the world, the Hoover Dam has a nostalgic kind of power. While it no longer holds that grand title, it is still one of Arizona’s best places to visit. Visitors quickly appreciate its power and strength. It is said that the dam could withstand the force of Niagara Falls which gives you an excellent perspective on how strong it is.

You can view the Hoover Dam from afar or drop by the Hoover Dam Visitors Center to book a guided tour. Tours typically include access to the Hoover Dam tunnels, an elevator ride to the top, and special access to functional rooms throughout the building.

If you are interested in architecture or just want to see a national historic landmark up close, the dam is great to visit. It is also combined with a trip to Las Vegas as the dam sits on the Nevada-Arizona border.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Jerome State Historic Park

Fancy indulging in a bit of history? Jerome State Historic Park is a fantastic place to visit in Jerome. The state park has a couple of acres surrounding Douglas Mansion which has been transformed into a quirky mining museum.

Visitors can wander through two floors of informative exhibits plus outdoor gardens. The museum balances general mining stories and the local town’s history. You can learn about region-specific minerals and mining processes through various mediums including cinematic videos.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. The Superstition Mountains

The Superstition Mountains cover 160,000 acres and are full of gorgeous mountainous and desert scenes. That is not what makes this place famous, though; it is the lost gold mines.

Legends of gold have kept mining companies and independent hunters searching the mountains for years. Many hunters have hit the jackpot and found lots of riches. You can join the crowds or find non-gold-related entertainment in the mountains.

You can visit the Superstition Mountains Museum, explore the surrounding Tonto National Forest, or hike along one of the various trails. These mountains are one of the best places to visit in Arizona for adventure.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Sedona

A magnet for outdoorsy types, Sedona enjoys a picturesque location at the base of Oak Creek Canyon surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land. You could easily get swept away in all the activities to be enjoyed nearby from hiking and biking to rafting and fishing but the town itself is also well worth exploring. Thanks to its longstanding connection to the art world—surrealist painter Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning moved here in the 1940s—there are more than 80 galleries to explore as well as street art and performing arts centers.

More places to visit in Arizona

These destinations are special additions to my guide on the best places to visit in Arizona. Whether they are a museum or sacred tribal lands they don’t fit into the outdoor tourist attraction category. I’ve given them a category of their own.

Here is my final subsection, my special list of more places to visit in Arizona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

26. Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona and there’s no way we couldn’t add this unique church to my list.

While I’m not placing the church in the outdoor attraction category, its exterior is a beautiful sight. The church is wedged between two sandstone buttes and has large, plain glass windows that give it a modern, chic design. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is not your typical church.

You can enter the church to look around or join a service if you wish. The church is near Sedona and plenty of other attractions so it isn’t too much of a detour to make.

Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is situated on the outskirts of Tucson. However, the museum deserves a place on this list in its own right.

The museum is a bit of everything from a natural history museum to a zoo and a botanical garden. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum covers 98 acres and includes an aquarium section and live animal exhibits plus flora displays in the botanical garden section. There is also an art gallery for visitors to enjoy.

You could easily spend a whole day at the museum. The museum is a chance to experience multiple attractions at once.

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway

Looking for a scenic drive? Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is an incredible, relatively short scenic drive that you can enjoy from Tucson. Short enough to comfortably squeeze into a day yet long enough to provide diverse scenes and attractions, this scenic byway is a great place to drive.

Mount Lemmon Highway starts near the outskirts of Tucson.

I recommend stopping at Babad Do’ag Scenic Overlook, Molino Canyon Vista, Thimble Peak Vista, Windy Point Vista, and Geology Vista Point. There are quite literally dozens of hiking trails and trailheads along the highway as well. You can easily park up and take a detour on foot.

Allow extra time again once you reach Mount Lemmon’s peak. There is Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Mount Lemmon Sky Observatory, and a Fire Lookout Station to visit. Mount Lemmon has a small town near the mountain top where you can grab refreshments and do some light shopping.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Tombstone

A relic of the Wild West that refused to become relegated to the history books, Tombstone has a legacy stretching back some 140 years. The Cochise County town started life in 1877 when prospector Ed Schieffelin arrived here in the hunt for silver. He struck lucky discovering huge reserves of the stuff—as well as large gold deposits—and the town boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unlike many similar places, Tombstone didn’t become a total ghost town. Today, it’s filled with everything from saloon-style restaurants to Western boutiques, all paying homage to the days when prospectors and merchants ran riot here. 

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Watson Lake

Although it may not be as well-known as big hitters like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, Watson Lake is certainly up there with Arizona’s most beautiful landscapes. This stunning natural lake situated just four miles from downtown Prescott provides a breathtaking backdrop for several outdoor pursuits including swimming, hiking, boating, and kayaking. For the best all-round tour, hike the six-mile Peavine Trail which loops around its granite boulders and follows along the route of the former Santa Fe Railway providing plenty of scenic vistas along the way. 

The Grand Canyon State is packed with wonderful activities and tourist destinations. Visiting Arizona is guaranteed to be memorable and you’ll stay well entertained throughout your stay. The state has so much to offer, whether you want a typical desert experience, a quirky tourist attraction, or a cultural immersion.

Have a fantastic trip. I hope you manage to experience at least a few of these best places to visit in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip south.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who crave adventure.

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles, where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

This is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands is a small, easy, fun park to visit. This national park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

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.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

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.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by 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.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

The Best National Parks to Visit in February

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in February, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in February, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to the US national parks in February but don’t know which ones to visit? In February, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the best national parks to visit in February plus several bonus parks and a road trip idea.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in February

In February, much of the United States is cold and blanketed in snow. Like January, park visitation remains relatively low in February making this a great time to visit most of the parks with low crowds. 

Best National Parks to visit in February

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Visiting Petrified Forest National Park is like taking a step back in time. The petrified logs date back hundreds of millions of years to a time when this land was once lush and fertile. These trees fell and became the mineralized versions of their original forms even before dinosaurs walked the earth.

This national park beat all of my expectations. I imagined a barren desert with a few colorful hills, littered with some ancient, petrified stumps. Instead, we were treated to the colorful, uniquely beautiful hills of the Painted Desert, giant, petrified trees that puzzle the mind, and the chance to walk backcountry trails without another person in sight.

Petrified Forest is a very cool, underrated, and easy park to visit.

Why visit Petrified Forest in February: Even though temperatures are on the chilly side, this is a great time to visit Petrified Forest because crowd levels are low and this makes a great February road trip destination with several other parks in Arizona.

Weather: The weather is surprisingly cool in February. The average high is 53°F and the average low is 25°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: View the Painted Desert from the overlooks, see the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, see the Teepees on Petrified Forest Road, walk the Blue Mesa Trail, and see the petrified wood at Crystal Forest and along the Giant Logs Trail.

Ultimate adventure: The Blue Forest hike is a favorite experience in Petrified Forest National Park. This 3-mile trail takes you through the badlands, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.

How much time do you need? One day is plenty of time to drive through the park, visit the overlooks, and hike a few short trails but I recommend a second day to explore hikes you missed on the first day.

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Located in southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park is one of the warmest parks to visit in February. Temperatures in the park soar from late spring through early fall making the winter months the best time to visit Saguaro.

Saguaro National Park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

This park is split into two different sections, the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District. You can visit both in one very busy day but you’re best to spread them out over two separate days.

Why visit Saguaro National Park in February: For the near perfect weather conditions. With an average high of 70°F and a very low chance of rain, this is a great park to visit in February. These great weather conditions do draw big crowds so expect busy trails and make your travel arrangements in advance.

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6:10 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

With sand as white as the snow, this might look like a winter wonderland, but in February, this is one of the warmer parks to visit in the United States.

White Sands National Park is home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. These pure white dunes create a fun place to explore, for both kids and adults. Hike out into the dunes, learn about the wildlife that calls this park home, and go sledding on sand as white as the snow.

Why visit White Sands in February: February is one of the quietest months to visit this park in terms of crowd levels. Although the days start off cold, the temperature warms up very nicely during the day making this one of the warmer parks to visit in February.

Weather: In February, the average high is 63°F and the average low is 28°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park although rainfall is low all year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:45 am and sunset is at 5:50 pm.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dune field. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is an underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels.

I’m not a big fan of caves and caverns but I found this place to be amazing. If you want to see stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon-like curtains, totem poles, and unique formations called soda straws, Carlsbad Caverns is the best cave system in the US to put on your list.

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in February: In terms of park visitation, February is one of the quietest months to visit Carlsbad Caverns (park visitation spikes in March with Spring Break). The caverns remain a consistent 56°F all year. With good weather and low crowds, February is one of the best months to visit Carlsbad Caverns and it can be combined on a road trip with White Sands National Park (mentioned above).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5:44 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour.You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive. 

How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.

Plan Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park makes a great winter destination especially for those who like hiking and rock climbing. Joshua Tree is a top rock climbing destination in February since temperatures are relatively mild.

Most visitors spend their time along Park Boulevard where the Joshua Trees and enormous piles of boulders form the iconic landscapes that many people imagine when they think of Joshua Tree National Park.

You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Why visit Joshua Tree in February: With its mild weather this is one of the best hiking and rock climbing destinations in the US in February. However, it is also one of the busiest months to visit Joshua Tree (but March tends to be the most crowded time to go).

Weather: In February, the average high is 61°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall chances are low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

3 more national parks to visit in February

Here are 3 more great national parks to visit in February.

Grand Canyon National Park

February is one of the least crowded months to visit Grand Canyon National Park. If you don’t mind cold temperatures and the chance of snow, this is a great time to visit the Grand Canyon if you prefer low crowds.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a chilly place to visit in February but if you want to visit the park with low crowds, this is a good month to go. February is the second least-visited month to go to Zion with January being the quietest month of the year.

Arches National Park

Like Zion, temperatures are low but so are the crowds. In February, you can visit Arches National Park relatively crowd free.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

Chiricahua National Monument

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

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.

February road trip idea: Arizona road trip

Arizona makes a great February road trip destination.

On this 10 day Arizona road trip, you can visit three national parks (Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and Saguaro) and three NPS sites (Organ Pipe, Chiricahua, and Casa Grande Ruins) plus visit Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Sedona. February is a great month for this road trip before temperatures heat up and people start hitting the road for their spring break trips.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

14 Outdoor Adventures You Can Only Have in Arizona

Adventurers, take note: Whatever you’re into, you can get into it in Arizona

Sunny skies, year-round perfect weather, and stellar sunsets complemented by rugged backcountry terrain make Arizona an adventurer’s dreamland. From the North Country’s pine-forested rim that drops into the depths of the Grand Canyon to the picturesque Sonoran Desert landscape of central and southern Arizona, all the ingredients for the quintessential American adventure recipe are at your fingertips.

Check my list of some of the can’t-miss experiences, possibly life-changing opportunities, and adventures that give a glimpse into the incredible backcountry world of the amazing state of Arizona.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine

Nothing more perfectly sums up Arizona’s sense of adventure than the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The truth behind the legend is harder to pin down than a Gila monster but the gist is that somewhere hidden in the Superstition Mountains just east of Phoenix is a gold mine once tended by German immigrants Jacob Waltz and Jacob Weiser.

The two men pulled untold amounts of the precious metal from the mountain before a murderous run-in with—depending on who you ask—Apaches or each other left all who knew the mine’s location dead.

To this day, adventurers set out into the Superstitions in search of the mine. Sadly, more than a few have met the same fate as Waltz and Weiser.

If you’re not particularly interested in hunting for gold there are still more than a dozen access points into the surrounding wilderness that can take you on a short day walk or a multi-day expedition. Give the Peralta Trail a shot—this nearly five-mile hike is one of the state’s most popular.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Longboard (or bicycle) down Mount Lemmon

Rising 9,000-plus feet in the north of TucsonMount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and for longboarders one of the truly epic runs in the country. The 20-plus miles of highway are paved smooth and offer great views and a challenging ride.

Don’t take my word for it—check out the plentiful YouTube videos. And watch out for the cactus!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim

You simply can’t have a conversation about Arizona adventures without mentioning the Grand Canyon. The 24-mile Rim-to-Rim hike is an immense challenge that gives those who complete it an intimate understanding of the canyon that’s impossible to attain without dipping below its surface.

Start on the North Kaibab Trail and descend 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River awaits. On the way down, you’ll pass through every ecosystem that exists between Canada and Mexico. Cross the Colorado and connect with the Bright Angel Trail and return to the surface along the South Rim passing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of history preserved in the surrounding rocks.

Most guides suggest planning on two to five days to complete the trail at a regular pace.

4. Ride horses around the legendary landscape of Sedona

If the red-rock cliffs that preside over Sedona don’t make you pause it’s time to book a trip to Mars because Earth has nothing left to offer. In the early evening, the spires reflect a reddish-purple hue that no photo could ever hope to do justice. Whether or not you subscribe to New Age beliefs, it’s easy to understand why people say there’s energy here that’s different than anywhere else on the planet.

There are many ways to explore the desert scenery around the cliffs but none gives you the chance to interact with nature on its own terms quite like riding a horse. Horseback trips typically last between one and three hours with sunrise and sunset options available. Beyond the red rocks, you can catch glimpses of the Verde Valley, the Mogollon Rim, and if you’re lucky some wildlife as well.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Explore the Petrified Forest

While it may not be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, Petrified Forest National Park offers an amazing place to see extinct species. Many of the fossilized logs that dot the floor of the 146-square-mile national park belong to long-extinct trees. Interestingly, the site of the park is not where an actual forest stood but rather an ancient riverbed where fallen plants accumulated.

To get the most out of your Petrified Forest adventure, forget the trails—the National Park Service administers eight off-the-beaten-path routes. Check out Devil’s Playground, an especially old part of the park. Only three permits are handed out for it each week with information on how to access the route supplied only to those granted permission to take on the journey.

6. Off-road to ghost towns

While Arizona is a state known for its epic highways and scenic views, even more, it happens off the state-maintained thoroughfares. For every ghost town worth a visit there’s the main road to take you there and a secret second entrance for those with a hearty sense of adventure and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

Off-roading or wheeling to the initiated is a great way to see Arizona’s wildlands and get a dose of history as well. Many off-road trails pass through old mining towns and other long-abandoned remnants of human habitation. The Bradshaw Mountains Trail takes you past the ghost town of Bumble Bee which was once a stagecoach stop for the U.S. Cavalry.

Traveling by these backroads is probably one of the most vastly under-appreciated ways to explore the state. There’s simply no way to not feel like a pioneer when you cross a mountain path or stream named for some long-deceased prospector. For a good off-roading guidebook, try the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails, or check out the Off-Highway Vehicle Program at AZStateParks.com.

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

7. Explore both well-known and secret ancient cliff dwellings and ruins

Arizona is home to some of the most famous cliff dwellings in the world. Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley is an 800-year-old, five-story structure built by the Sinagua Indians and one of the best-preserved examples of such a site. Three hours northeast on Navajo Land is Canyon de Chelly and its White House Ruins.

While many of Arizona’s ruins require a guide or sit inside well-developed tourist sites there are still plenty that demand a more intrepid spirit. The Sycamore Canyon Cliff Dwellings north of Clarkdale lie at the end of a tough drive and hike but exploring these magnificent ruins away from the masses is a worthy payoff. Just remember that when there’s no park ranger to keep an eye on things, it’s up to you to ensure these locations remain intact and pristine for the following generation of explorers.

8. Stand in a shaft of light in Antelope Canyon

There are other slot canyons but few if any can truly compete with the beauty of Antelope Canyon. Located east of Page on Navajo tribal land, the roughly quarter-mile-long canyon is a tight squeeze through a wonderland of colored sandstone, speckled shafts of light, and a smooth sandy floor. There are two canyon routes here, the Crack and the Corkscrew; both offer jaw-dropping palettes of light and color. Don’t you dare enter without your camera (and the mandated guide)!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. See the biggest cacti in North America at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park boasts some absolutely huge cacti. They dominate the desert landscape and make for some very cool photo ops. Located in the Sonoran Desert, it’s worth dedicating at least a couple of days to this park. Tackle the 1.5-hour King Canyon, Gould Mine Loop hike, walk the Signal Hill trail out to ancient petroglyphs, or go for some backcountry camping if you’re looking for a real adventure. 

10. Tour Hopi country

If you’re fortunate enough to take part in a tour of Hopi land you won’t just see some of the most beautiful terrain in the Southwest—you’ll also be given a lesson in the importance of living in harmony with nature and showing respect for all things, alive and otherwise.

The Hopi inhabit 12 villages spread across three separate mesas in northeastern Arizona. These homes have been occupied continuously for centuries, longer than most—if not all—settlements in the U.S. Your tour will include explanations of Hopi beliefs and culture, panoramic views from the high villages, and of course culinary treats.

Make sure to review the visitor etiquette (which includes refraining from taking photos or recordings of any kind) before you go. This is one Arizona-only adventure you can’t post to Facebook—which makes it all the more special.

Off-road adventure at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Off-road in Sedona

It’s easy to imagine Zeus and the other Greek gods bickering over whether to settle on Mt. Olympus or in Sedona’s sandstone red rocks. During the evening, the massive outcroppings turn a shade of red so intense and worthy of contemplation that they feel like massive antennae signaling to the New Agers who flock from across the planet to admire them.

Like so much of Arizona, Sedona is a place that holds onto its secrets. Many beautiful views are accessible from the road but an entire world opens up when you have an off-road vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. To accommodate, there are several companies offering jeep tours to remote locations among the red rocks. Trips typically last between two and three hours and will take you to sweeping desert views and the ruins of ancient Native American dwellings.

12. Walk in Geronimo’s shadow at Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is a maze of volcanic rock spires in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Boulders balance on top of each other so precariously it can feel as if the laws of physics have been suspended.

Covering nearly 12,000 acres, this is where Native American warrior Geronimo and other Apaches hid and planned attacks against the invading U.S. Army. Today, the national monument is notable for hiking trails and birdwatching—look out for bald eagles and prairie falcons. For an unbeatable view, be sure to check out Massai Point.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Mine the ramshackle history of Jerome

Lots of people recognize Jerome as a great day trip but it’s time to think bigger. Spend a night or two in this mountainside artist community soaking up the culture and general weirdness.

Visit Jerome State Historic Park which preserves a rambling 8,700-square-foot mansion built in 1916. Once the opulent home of mine owner James Douglas, it now serves as an informative museum filled with photographs, artifacts, mining, equipment, minerals, and models of the network of shafts and tunnels dug through the mountains.

Sitting a mile north of Jerome, Gold King Mine and Ghost Town harbors an assortment of ramshackle buildings, a menagerie of friendly animals, and a sprawling array of rusted machinery that forever teeters between ruin and redemption.

Coronado Pass looking east © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Picnic at Montezuma Pass, hike to a cave

Nestled in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains abutting the Mexican border, Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and its lasting impacts on Southwest culture. Located about 20 miles south of Sierra Vista, the memorial is part of Arizona’s Sky Island Mountains filled with spectacular scenery.  

Enter on the park road, which climbs from verdant grasslands into oak woodlands and continues through heavier forest up Montezuma Canyon. Past the visitor center the road is paved for a mile and graded dirt for the upper 2 miles. It twists around tight switchbacks (vehicles over 24 feet are prohibited) and steep grades as the world falls away below.

Montezuma Pass Overlook sits at 6,575 feet flanked by picnic tables and interpretive signs, a perfect spot for an end of summer picnic celebration. Afterward you can make a short scramble (0.8 mile round-trip) to the summit of Coronado Peak, crowned with a shade ramada and additional signs describing the Coronado Expedition.

Adventurous types will want to visit Coronado Cave, one of the few open, undeveloped caves in southern Arizona. You don’t have to worry about squeezing through. The large cavern is 600 feet deep and in most places about 70 feet wide. Legend has it that Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo often hid out in the cave.

FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

America the Beautiful: The National Parks Senior Pass

Hands down, the best value in the RVing world is the National Parks Senior Pass

One of the consolations of old age is the America the Beautiful Pass which like most Federal entities has undergone a name change—it used to be called MANY years ago, the Golden Age Pass.

For $80, seniors can get a Lifetime Senior Pass. Seniors are anyone over the age of 62.

If you want the Annual Senior Pass, it’s $20, as of this posting.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass includes

All U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible for this pass which will greatly reduce your expenditures for visiting and camping in National Parks and federal land—more than 2,000 locations in all.

Each pass covers entrance fees for your RV (or whatever vehicle you are in) and all passengers at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard and day-use fees at national forests and grasslands and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Most campgrounds in National Forests give you a 50 percent discount on camping fees with the America the Beautiful pass.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get an America the Beautiful Senior Pass

The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is sold at all National Park entrances, national monuments, many National Forest ranger stations, Bureau of Land Management field, and district officers, and numerous other places.

Purchase the LIFETIME Senior Pass Here

Purchase the ANNUAL Senior Pass Here

As soon as you turn 62, just show up with documentation that you’re either a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (driver’s license, US passport, birth certificate, or green card) and that you’re 62.

Pay the fee ($80) and you’re literally set for life. Since the replacement charge is the same as a new card the procedure is just to get another one if you lose yours. So don’t lose your card! And they don’t accept pictures of the card (in case you like to digitize your paper for trips)—so keep your card handy!

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Parks Senior Pass has lots of benefits for campers

There are many other uses more important to RVers and fulltimers who spend more than the usual two or three weeks a year touring the country.

Six federal agencies—the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management—all honor the America the Beautiful National Parks Senior Pass at sites where entrance or standard amenity fees are charged. 

“Standard amenity fees” are governmentese for day use, swimming, boat launch, or campsite fees which is where the pass comes into its own.

When you check-in at one of the campgrounds, look on the envelope you use to pay your camping fee at National Forest and BLM campgrounds. 

On the bottom line, there’s a place for your pass number and a 50 percent discount on the overnight camping fee. Army Corps of Engineers campsites also honors the 50 percent discount for senior pass cardholders.

Even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will give you 50 percent off of the campsite fees. The TVA offers hundreds of campsites among its six dam reservoir campgrounds in the Southeast available from March 15 to November 15. The length of stay is limited to 21 days during the high season (May 1 to September 30) and 30 days in the off-season (October 1 to April 30, excluding closure dates).

The America the Beautiful pass for seniors will also save you the trouble of going into the ranger station or store to get a permit for National Forest dispersed camping—just display your card on the dash in lieu of the permit. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the Access Pass?

The site also explains, “A free, lifetime pass—available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States that have been medically determined to have a permanent disability (does not have to be a 100 percent disability)—that provides admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by six Federal agencies” is only $20. 

At many sites the Access Pass provides the pass owner a discount on Expanded Amenity Fees (such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and guided tours).

Purchase the Access Pass Here

America the Beautiful Annual Pass

An $80.00 Annual Pass that provides access to more than 2,000 recreation areas managed by six Federal agencies with up to 100 percent of the proceeds being used to improve and enhance visitor recreation services.

Purchase the America the Beautiful Annual Pass Here

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are some exceptions

The only fly in the ointment are concessionaires—private companies that contract with the Federal government to manage campgrounds in national parks and forests.

They aren’t required to accept the pass for a 50 percent discount although there are many who do. Each concessionaire has a separate agreement with NPS.

If the campsite has improvements—water and/or electric hookups—expect to pay full price for the improvements and get 50 percent off the basic campground fee only. 

Most Federal campgrounds don’t have hookups, though, so if you have solar or just like to boondock, an America the Beautiful Senior Pass will come in handy.

There’s just no downside to getting this card. Even if you don’t camp at all you’ll be able to drive through national parks without getting paying the entrance fee.

This has to be one of the best values out there in the RV world. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many other types of passes are available

If you take a look at this brochure, you’ll see many other types of passes available, including a Military Pass, a Volunteer Pass, a student pass, and many more.

Where are you going next?

RVing with Rex has posted a series of Ultimate Guides to…

These resources were written for RVers who wish to explore a national park or other location in depth and often highlight cheap and free things to do while traveling in the area. Having a tried-and-true itinerary can assist you in maximizing your time in a NPS site by showcasing the highlights including hiking trails and campgrounds in and near the park.

Selected guides include:

You can also read:

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer