The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Thanks to the park’s varied terrain, you can choose between desert, mountain, and river hikes, or hop in your car and explore the park on four wheels

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park abuts the border with Mexico across a stunning stretch of southwestern Texas where evenings are defined by an orange sky and red canyon walls and where chirps of yellow meadowlarks and the sounds of the Rio Grande fill the air. While such stunning scenes are commonplace within Big Bend, the massive desert preserve remains overlooked among U.S. national parks—it has never surpassed 500,000 annual visitors since its designation in 1944.

The lack of tourists is likely due to the park’s extreme remoteness: Big Bend lies 300 miles from El Paso, the nearest major metropolitan area, and is geographically isolated within a massive turn of the Rio Grande from which the park gets its name. Those who brave the miles will find the journey is filled with natural riverfront hot springs, luminous night skies, and secluded mountain trails. Here is how to make the most of your trip to one of the more underrated national parks in America.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick the right season and give yourself plenty of time

With its southerly location and exposure to the elements, triple-digit temperature stretches in the summer months are not uncommon and threaten to turn the most well-intentioned hiker into a sweaty, sunburned mess. A better experience is found in winter and autumn but spring comes with the double bonus of long daylight hours and wildflower season. If you do go in the summer make sure to bring lots and lots of water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), and plan your excursions around the heat. Winters can also get surprisingly chilly—averages hover around 60 degrees but can dip into the forties—so dress warmly if you plan your trip in the colder months.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and gaze at the night skies

Roadrunners, sparrows, and warblers are among the 450 species of birds found within Big Bend, home to more birds than any other national park. With a keen eye and a bit of luck, you can also spot jackrabbits, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions (known in Big Bend as panthers), and javelina—a hairier cousin to the familiar pig. Sunrise and sunset observations are recommended for optimal wildlife spotting and while the average smartphone may suffice take a camera capable of capturing the brilliant scenery at night.

This is dark sky country. Due to its relative isolation from major cities, this side of West Texas has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. Thousands of stars are visible on a clear night and even the Milky Way can be seen under the darkest conditions earning it a designation by The International Dark-Sky Association. Consider bringing a telescope or simply lie down at night, looking up, and see what appears above.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pass through Marfa on the way in and Terlingua Ghost Town on the way out

The tiny, peculiar artistic town of Marfa is about 100 miles north of Big Bend. Here you’ll find the El Cosmico hotel with rooms consisting of brightly colored vintage trailers, tepees, and yurts. The town acts as a venue for the annual Trans-Pecos festival in September containing a weekend’s worth of art, building, and songwriting workshops, artisanal markets, pop-up parties, live music of all genres, and the tense yearly sandlot baseball showdown between Austin’s Texas Playboys and the Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel 30 minutes north on U.S. 90 to find the famous Prada Marfa art installation in neighboring Valentine, a tiny, fake store isolated within the surrounding landscape and complete with actual Prada shoes and handbags from the fall 2005 collection. Try heading east about 10 miles to watch for the mysterious Marfa Lights off of U.S. 67. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re green, and sometimes they’re white. Visible at night regardless of season or weather, nobody is quite sure what causes them.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Marfa travel 30 miles east on U.S. 90 to the town of Alpine and take TX-118 for 80 miles due south to Terlingua at the gates of Big Bend. The remnants of a mercury mining camp from the early 20th century, the former ghost town has become known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts and grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon. Spend a few days at Paisano Village RV Park & Inn to further explore the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and see Santa Elena Canyon in west Big Bend

At the western end of the park coming from Terlingua, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is perfect for single-day trips. The paved road covers 30 miles of gorgeous desert scenery including stops at landmarks such as Sotol Vista, Tuff Canyon, and Mule Ears. The road ends at Santa Elena, one of the numerous river canyons within Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend

In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak. Camping is available here as well at the Chisos Basin Campground. If camping isn’t for you, try the stone cottages at the Chisos Mountain Lodge the only hotel within the park.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Hot Springs Historic District and Ernst Tinaja in east Big Bend

The eastern side of the park is home to Big Bend Hot Springs, a geothermally heated oasis now sitting within the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse. Once a gathering place for locals, soak in the year-round 105-degree waters said to have healing properties and enjoy unobstructed views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. A short trail passes Native American petroglyphs on the adjoining limestone cliffs and the still-standing Hot Springs Post Office where mail was delivered every Monday in the early 20th century.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to know about camping in Big Bend National Park

When night falls, you’ll want to have an already reserved campsite so all you have to do is settle in. Here’s everything you need to know to secure that perfect Big Bend National Park camping spot.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are four campgrounds inside Big Bend National Park—three park-operated camping areas with various services and one by an outside company. The three park-run campgrounds are Chisos Basin Campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. All require advance reservations booked (up to 6 months in advance) through recreation.gov.

Chisos Basin Campground sits in a scenic mountain basin with views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. There are plenty of hiking trails nearby, including Window Trail, a popular place to watch the sunset. The year-round campground has 60 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, and a dump station. There are no hook-ups, and trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet are not recommended.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year-round Rio Grande Village Campground is nestled in a grove of trees near the Rio Grande. This is the place to go if you want access to more amenities—a store, laundromat, and visitor center are nearby. The park has 100 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, showers, and some sites with overhead shelters. A dump station is nearby.

The small Cottonwood Campground is more remote than the other campgrounds and has fewer services but tends to be quieter with plenty of shade. Cottonwood is a seasonal campground –(open November 1 to April 30) with 24 camp spots—all without hookups or generators.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While certain park-operated campgrounds allow RVs, you’ll want to head to the Rio Grande Village RV Park (operated by Forever Resorts) for a camping experience tailored to RV campers. All 25 sites at Rio Grande Village have full hook-ups—water, electrical, and sewer—and are built for RVs. The campground sits adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store and allows pets. For reservations, call 432-477-2293.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 801,163 acres

Date Established: June 12, 1944

Location: Southwest Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Big Bend was named for the prominent bend of the Rio Grande River that runs through it along with the United States and Mexico border.  

Did you know? Big Bend has more species of scorpions (14) than any other national park, including some species that have been found nowhere else in the world.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Tips on finding quieter havens and hidden gems

Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it’s no wonder they’re so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020—only a 28 percent drop from the year before despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors drawn to outdoor spaces relatively close to home.

These are some of my tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots, and moments of solitude even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Lesser-known National Parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona; here you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast Painted Desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness and beauty, and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker!

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find Little-known Havens within a Park

Most national parks are pretty big places but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park’s most famous attractions but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Rocky Mountain avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park’s alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park’s Never Summer Range.

In Joshua Tree, take a walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of the ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its birdlife. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit during the Off-season

Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May when it gets 10 percent of the park’s annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season—usually winter—when many parks such as Arches and Zion are quiet and beautiful.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out of your Car and Walk

It’s the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia, and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use Shuttle Trams when Available

Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with shuttle buses at popular destinations such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Denali. Use these transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.

Steller’s jay at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise Early and/or Stay Late

Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day—parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you’ll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest—soft and rich—for viewing and photographing and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of the world’s great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.

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

Purchase Park Passes and Supplies before Arriving

Nearly all national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time and money purchasing the goods and services you’ll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks but only at a few locations and you’ll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.

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

Visit National Monuments and Other National Park Service Sites

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

Oh No, Mother Nature Played Favorites

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the Mighty 5 national parks to national monuments and state parks

Summer is right around the corner that means it’s time to visit Utah’s National Parks

Utah is known for its many national parks, most notably the Mighty Five:

  • Arches National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park 
  • Zion National Park 
Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the incredible mountains to the powerful desert red rocks and the Mighty Five are just the beginning. Utah does not lead the nation in most national parks per state. California has nine national parks and Alaska has eight. 

But, Utah’s gems are abundant. Utah is home to the Mighty Five (national parks), 46 state parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, 23 accredited Dark Sky places, and The Greatest Snow on Earth.

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

Follow these tips for safe, responsible national park visits in Utah: 

  • Plan ahead
  • Stay on marked trails
  • Prepare for your trip with adequate water, sun protection, clothing, and gear
  • Arrive at popular recreation sites early in the morning and visit hidden gems as part of your trip
  • Respect the restrictions in national and parks intended for public safety and protection of the environment
Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s National Parks traditionally see a high-volume of visitation between March and September with the summer months being the most trafficked. Choose to visit during early morning hours, late afternoon and early evening, and try to avoid weekends and holidays. 

Utah’s vast, unique landscapes inspire adventure and discovery. Through the pandemic, Utah’s national and state parks, dark sky places, and off-the-beaten path destinations have called travelers from within the state and across the country and to come and explore. Utah’s mighty places allow visitors to have a truly rarified, unique experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Arches National Park lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

Bryce Canyon National Park has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. Even though the park is considered a desert its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in 24 hours. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Mighty Five, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Caynon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, Sand Hollow State Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Discover the Spirit of Adventure in National Parks of Eastern U.S.

Explore the wild terrain of the Eastern U.S. with these stunning national parks

When one envisions a U.S National Park, one thought may take them west to Joshua Tree in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, or Arches in Utah. Those three are among the most iconic national parks in the United States but one does not need to travel across the country to observe the natural beauty, geological features, and unique ecosystems or to experience the numerous recreational opportunities a national park offers.

The mainland of the eastern United States features only 10 of the 63 national parks in the country but wherever a person might live east of the Mississippi River there is a park within a reasonable drive.

Continue reading to learn about the history and unique features of the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Congaree, and New River Gorge. Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, and Indiana Dunes are on my bucket list.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

At 522,419 acres, the Smokies are among the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. Located in Tennessee and North Carolina, the park features some of the highest mountains in eastern North America, including Clingmans Dome which at 6,643 feet is the highest point in the park, in Tennessee, and along the 2,192-mile Appalachian Trail. Chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt six years later, Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States and saw 12,095,720 recreational visits in 2020. The park is nearly 95 percent forested and more than 187,000 acres have been deemed “old growth forest” with many trees predating European settlement of the area.

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

The park has a large black bear population of around 1,500. Black bears inhabit all elevations within the park and while seeing a bear is exciting it is important to remember these bears are wild animals that can behave unpredictably. Willfully approaching within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear is illegal. Visitors should also keep watch for some of the more than 200 species of birds in the park including the black vulture, pileated woodpecker, and red-tailed hawk. Fishing is permitted year-round in the park, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass being among the most sought-after quarry.

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

Historic attractions in the park include Cades Cove, an isolated valley that was home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. Cades Cove still has a number of preserved log cabins, barns, and churches.

With 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads, the Smokies are a great place for hikers. Bicyclists can travel on most roads within the park but due to the steep terrain, narrow road surfaces, and heavy automobile traffic, many roads are not well-suited for safe and enjoyable bike riding. A notable exception is the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road which provides bicyclists with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and touring 19th century homesites.

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

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations in the park. Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are open year-round. All other campgrounds are open on a seasonal basis. Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical or water hookups in the park. Dump stations with potable water are located at Cades Cove, Cosby, Deep Creek, Look Rock, and Smokemont campgrounds. In addition, there is a dump station located across the road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, approximately six miles from Elkmont Campground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park was established almost 35 years after a freshman Virginia congressman named Henry D. Flood first introduced legislation to create a national park in the Appalachian Mountains. The 199,000-acre park located in Virginia was certainly worth the wait and today sees approximately 1.26 million visitors annually. Among Shenandoah’s most popular attractions is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the national park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A can’t-miss spot on Skyline Drive is Mary’s Rock Tunnel, a 610-foot long tunnel that was created by blasting through Mary’s Rock Mountain.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also home to dozens of waterfalls with the highest being 93 feet high and located near the Hogback Overlook. Hikers who traverse through the 9.5-mile White Oak Canyon Trail will have an opportunity to view six waterfalls including one that is 86 feet high.

The 5.8-mile Cedar Run Falls Trail is a tough but rewarding hike that has elevation gains of 1,000 feet per mile. Hikers will see several waterfalls and plenty of wildlife along the way. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds including the barred owl, red-tailed hawk, and Carolina chickadee.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All 70 streams within Shenandoah National Park are open for catch-and-release fishing. Thirty-two species of fish have been found in the park including trout and bluehead chub. Shenandoah also features more than 1,400 species of plants with cardinal flowers, marsh willow herb, and blue flag iris among the more common.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No trip to the park would be complete without taking in the beauty of Hawksbill Mountain on the border between Madison and Page counties. With an elevation of 4,050 feet, Hawksbill is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah and in both Madison and Page counties.

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with five campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah. All campgrounds are open seasonally from early spring until late fall. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Backcountry camping is also available.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Located in Richland County, South Carolina, Congaree encompasses more than 26,000 acres and preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. In addition to being immersed in trees, visitors can canoe, hike, fish, and camp in Congaree which was designated as a national park in 2003.

Canoeing on Cedar Creek is a great way to experience Congaree. The waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. There are ample opportunities to spot wildlife including river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and alligators.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether looking for a short hike or a longer trek into the backcountry, there are a number of trails for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on the trail, visitors may experience oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or a plethora of old-growth trees. Guests with a South Carolina fishing license may cast their line in the park and fish for bluegill, bowfin, catfish, bass, and sunfish among others.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree has two designated campgrounds—Longleaf and Bluff—with guests being permitted to stay for up to 14 days. The Longleaf campground which has 10 individual and four group camping sites is located adjacent to the park entrance. The Bluff campground has six individual campsites and it located on the Bluff Trail approximately one mile from Longleaf campground. Only tents are allowed in the campgrounds. However, the South Carolina State Park Service has a number of state parks in the region that can accommodate RVs. An important note to remember about Congaree is that no roads travel through the park and all activities require a certain amount of walking or canoeing.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia “almost heaven” in “Country Roads”. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it has one more notch on its belt with the designation of New River Gorge as America’s 63rd national park.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. The New River has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

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

The park is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world. White-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles are among the wildlife regularly spotted here. The park provides visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the cultural history of the area and visit some of the historic sites within the park. There are many possibilities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience.

If you’re a big fan of whitewater rafting or climbing, you’re probably already familiar with the New. The canyon has 53 miles of whitewater—considered some of the best in the country—while climbers enjoy 1,500 routes on sandstone walls throughout the gorge. There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliff line on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread-out holds and spread-out bolts.

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

Worth Pondering…

Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm.

—William O. Douglas, Justice, United States Supreme Court

The Land above the Canyons: Top 10 Options for Fun in the Monticello Area

And no I’m not talking about visiting your Uncle Monti & his cello

With towering mountains, vast red rock canyons, hundreds of hiking trails, world-famous snow, and endless outdoor recreation, Utah is a major playground for adventure. The only hard part is deciding where to begin.

If you’re itching to get out the door, you can’t go wrong with a trip to the “Land Above the Canyons.” We’re talking about none other than Monticello (mon-ti-sel-oh). It may be a small town (2020 population: 1,935) but it packs a big punch. You’ll finally have some solitude in your life (get away from the hustle and bustle) along with some super real adventures! From hiking, biking, ATV riding, golfing, and camping, you’ll never have a dull moment in Monticello. If you want the chance to experience everything Monticello has to offer you’ll definitely need a few more days than you had originally planned. You can feel free to go visit ol’ uncle Monti and his cello if you fancy, or you can pack your bags and head out for an amazing southeastern Utah adventure.

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A high-elevation town on the edge of Utah’s Canyon Country, Monticello lies on the sheltered eastern slope of the Abajo Mountains overlooking a maze of sandstone canyons and plateaus. The Abajos, topped by 11,360-foot Abajo Peak, are Monticello’s summer paradise with mild temperatures, cooling rains, and recreation sites scattered through Manti La Sal National Forest.

Monticello is also a place where Utah’s past brushes against the present with ruins and rock art from the Ancient Ones scattered in nearby Bears Ears National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. The town is also a starting point for the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, a huge highway loop lined with scenic views and important archeological sites.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few things to add to your bucket list when you go.

Bears Ears National Monument: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa Units

Distance from Monticello to Indian Creek Unit: 20 miles

Distance from Monticello to Shash Jáa Unit: 61 miles

Bears Ears National Monument has a rich cultural heritage and is sacred to many Native American tribes who rely on these lands for traditional and ceremonial uses. Outstanding opportunities to hike, visit cultural sites, backpack, mountain bike, float the San Juan River, and ride OHVs exist within the monument boundaries. Other world-class activities include scenic drives, photography, rock climbing, camping, paleontological exploration, and wildlife viewing.

Bears Ears National Monument has two units: the Shash Jáa Unit to the south and the Indian Creek Unit to north.

Nawspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspaper Rock

Distance from Monticello: 21 miles

Extra, extra, read all about it! You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are hundreds of petroglyphs here that feature a mixture of forms including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs all along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon. Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However, the common nature lover will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Take your family past this historic site and see if you can decipher the rock’s story for yourself!

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Needles District

Distance from Monticello: 32 miles

The Needles District forms the southeastern portion of Canyonlands National Park. Its signature features are colorful sandstone spires—hundreds of them poking up from the desert floor. There are also entrenched canyons, natural arches, and sheer-walled cliffs in this vast, rugged landscape. This area is famous for its rough jeep trails, including some that rank with the most challenging in the world. You need a high clearance 4X4 vehicle optimized for off-road travel to drive some of the routes here.

Hole N” the Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hole N” the Rock

Distance from Monticello: 38 miles

Imagine living in a 5,000-square-foot home that’s carved directly into a large cliff. It’s a very unique way to go about building a house! That was the vision of a man named Albert Christensen in the 1940s. Christensen spent 12 years digging, carving, and blasting out a rock home for his family to live in. He also opened a unique diner where travelers could stop for lunch. After he died in the late 1950s, Christensen’s wife Gladys continued to live in their rock home and run the diner. She and her husband are both buried near the rocks they called home. The ‘Hole N” the Rock’ house has 14 rooms including a fireplace with a 65-foot chimney, a deep French fryer, and a bathtub built into the rock.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

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

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Distance from Monticello: 75 miles

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well-graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Distance from Monticello: 68 miles

Perhaps one of the most intriguing names of all of the destinations in San Juan County is the Valley of the Gods. While similar to the geography found at Monument Valley to the south, this Bureau of Land Management area sees much, much less traffic, thereby adding solitude to its beauty. A number of tall, red, isolated mesas, buttes, and cliffs tower above the valley floor and can be seen while driving along the 17-mile gravel road on which it sits. Carved over the course of 250 million years from the Cedar Mesa sandstone, the variety of formations shows the power of time, water, wind, and ice at play in this desert landscape.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Distance from Monticello: 66 miles

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

Distance from Monticello: Mile 0

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan Country of southeastern Utah providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists.

Manti La Sal National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreate in Manti La Sal National Forest

If you’re in the mood for some fishing, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking, the Manti La Sal National Forest is the perfect destination for your favorite outdoor recreational activities. The forest features more than 1,600 miles of streams, 8,100 acres of lakes, and hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and off-road trails, so there’s plenty to explore.

Worth Pondering…

Sometimes a day trip isn’t about where you’re going. Sometimes it’s just about going. About straying off the interstates and hitting the back roads to see what you can find.

Spotlight on New Mexico: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

New Mexico is a truly unique place with gorgeous landscapes ranging from white sand deserts to snow topped mountains

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

There isn’t a single amazing thing about New Mexico. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is one of the top destinations in the American Southwest. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax.

As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument 

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans.

Main Street Downtown Las Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces

Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, offers museums, theaters, historical sites, wonderful food, golf courses, bird watching, hiking, and gracious hospitality. Located in southern New Mexico less than an hour from the Texas border, Las Cruces enjoys warm weather and 320 days of sunshine per year. Las Cruces offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities such as golfing, biking, hiking, and tennis, as well as a diverse assortment of museums, shopping, and festivals.  The weekly Farmers & Crafts Market has been rated one of the best outdoor markets in the U.S. Held every Saturday and Wednesday mornings on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, the market has over 300 vendors who gather to offer fresh local produce, honey, herbs, spices, arts and crafts and much more.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

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

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla

Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserve the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is a beautiful refuge 1.5 miles from historic Mesilla. Over 900 acres of land including Rio Grande wetlands and part of the Chihuahuan Desert with an education building for nature study. Visitors have opportunity to view wildlife in natural surroundings while strolling one of the self-guided nature trails. Mesilla Valley Bosque is an Audubon designated IBA (Important Birding Area).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder

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

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system.  Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented on the Refuge.

Along the Camino Real © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Camino Real

In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through the remote and unfamiliar country now known as New Mexico. The route Onate followed became El Camino Real, “the royal road.” 

The byway begins just north of Las Cruces, in Fort Selden, built in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on El Camino Real and continues to cross 90 miles of flat but waterless and dangerous desert, the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man”) before reaching Socorro. The road then heads north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe reaching its end at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate’s journey. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park

Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.

Roswell UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roswell

Roswell is a great trip if you want that out-of-this-world vacation without the hassle of kitting out your RV for spaceflight every time you want to leave the Milky Way Galaxy. This desert town promises a unique getaway unlike any other—on this planet, at least. The city had been around since the mid-19th century, but it only got its claim to fame in 1947 when a UFO allegedly crash-landed nearby in what became known as the “Roswell Incident.” While the truth is still out there the town has embraced its notoriety with enthusiasm from the one-of-a-kind UFO-centric McDonald’s to alien-themed playgrounds and buses. And if you’re not into exploring the outer limits, you’re still in luck here. The town also boasts a thriving arts scene, beautiful nature areas, and deep ties to the history of the Wild West. 

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your National Park Vacation

Transportation tips, camping advice, and other details you need to know

Summer is almost here and for many, that means it’s time to start planning that long-awaited road trip. With 237 million visitors in 2020, national parks are some of the most popular destinations as they provide a unique opportunity to connect with nature while being socially distanced at the same time. But there are nuances that can make or break your visit to a national park and they don’t reveal themselves until you’re actually there—which can be too late.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Zion National Park in Utah you may find yourself surrounded by crowds packing into shuttles; the vibe more theme park, not nature at its best. A visit during the offseason is a completely different experience. Arriving before peak-season shuttle service begins allows you to tour the park in your own vehicle. Camp on-site, roll out of bed early for hikes and experience the Zion you imagine—tranquil and sublime. 

Driving White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get around national parks

There’s no way around it, you’ll absolutely need wheels to explore. National parks can cover vast swaths of land and some, like Yellowstone, stretch across multiple states.

When planning your park visit, take time to look at maps of your destination on the National Park Service website. These maps generally do a good job of letting you know how many miles separate different points and sometimes include time estimates for traveling between various park entrances.

Numerous days are needed to explore Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Give yourself multiple days to explore

As you study maps, you may notice that national parks have distinct areas. Sometimes they connect but sometimes they don’t. You may also be surprised to find you could lose most of a day moving between them.

Although Canyonlands is one park, it’s divided into four regions—three districts (Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze) plus the Green and Colorado Rivers that divide them up. It takes hours to travel from one district to another so most people focus on one area per visit.

It can take two hours to drive between Island in the Sky and the Needles; plan on six hours to the Maze. Most people only make it to Island in the Sky but experienced trail drivers with four-wheel drive vehicles may also want to experience the remote beauty of the Maze. If that’s you, plan for multiple days.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When driving to Pinnacles National Park, keep in mind that there is no road that connects the east and west entrances of the park. The shortest route from the east entrance to the west entrance (or from west to east) is through the town of King City on US 101, a drive of just under two hours.

But at Joshua Tree National Park in California, two deserts run into each other. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know that the park’s namesake trees don’t grow in the Colorado Desert but their Seussian forms scatter the Mojave. Absent that indicator, though, the transition between the neighboring ecosystems is seamless as you drive along the main park road.

Joshua tree in the national park of the same name © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check vehicle restrictions if you’re driving an RV

Some national parks are suitable for RVs. Arches, White Sands, and Joshua Tree are easy to explore in an RV as the elevation gain is gentle and it’s easy to stop at overlooks and points of interest along the way. Other parks may NOT permit large vehicles in certain sections, especially roads with switchbacks and hairpin turns. If renting, you may want to reconsider the size of the RV as it may mean a must-see feature will have to come off your itinerary.

Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park is a great example. There, all vehicles (including any attached trailers) can only be up to 21 feet long and 10 feet tall which is smaller than most RVs. 

No matter what park you’re visiting, a small RV makes it easier to park at trailheads where designated spots for RVs are scarce or non-existent. Going small just might save you from having to skip the hike of your dreams.

Camping in Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for staying inside national parks

Among the most convenient, immersive ways to see a national park is to camp in it. Doing so makes it easier to go on early morning hikes or do some stargazing. There is no shortage of camping locations in the National Park Service—there are over 130 park units to choose from.

The majority of the 500 campsites in Joshua Tree are available by reservation. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance and can be booked on recreation.gov. Reserving a site is highly recommended. The park offers five campgrounds including Black Rock (99 sites), Cottonwood (62 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites). Jumble Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites). Be aware that not all campgrounds have water or a dump station.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles Campground is accessed only from the east side of the Park as there are no connecting roads between the two entrances of Pinnacles. The campground offers tent and group camping along with RV sites. Each tent and group site has a picnic table and fire ring. Most RV sites have electrical hookups and share community tables and barbecue pits. Water is located throughout the campground. Oak trees provide shade at many campsites. Coin-operated showers and a dump station are available.

Devils Garden Campground is the only campground at Arches National Park. You can reserve campsites for nights between March 1 and October 31. During this busy season, the campground is usually full every night. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served. If you’re unable to snare a reservation at Devils Garden, you’ll need to look for an RV park in nearby Moab.

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

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. The Lava Point Campground is an hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Situated at 7,890 feet, Lava Point Campground is typically open May through September, as weather allows.

South Campground and Watchman Campground (for reservations call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov) are near the south entrance at Springdale. This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures exceed 95 degrees; staying cool is a challenge. From mid-March through late November the campgrounds are full almost every night.

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

Accommodations outside a national park

While staying on-site is a unique experience, your road trip can still be amazing if you stay off-site. For best results, give yourself more time than you think you need. If you choose to stay in a charming town near your chosen park, you’ll need to account for travel time between the two plus the wait time to enter the park itself.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Always bring food 

Given the amount of time you’ll spend inside your chosen park, there’s no guarantee you’ll find something to eat. At some parks, you’ll be lucky to locate a protein bar at the visitor’s center while others have their own grocery stores. So whether you’re staying on-site or traveling by car, make sure to bring a packed cooler and extra food. If you’re touring in an RV, stock the fridge. Even if you find your park has provisions available, you probably won’t want to spend precious time standing in line at the register when you could be out there becoming one with nature.

Heavy snowfall in the Sierras closes Lassen Volcanic National Park during winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing your visit

Expectations go a long way toward a great first experience and timing is the key. Seasonal closures happen and you’ll also want to check for any permits or waiting lists for iconic hikes. About a week before your planned visit, scan the websites for the parks you’ll be touring for any park alerts. Even if you can’t time your trip for when your chosen park is fully open, its beauty will still shine through—just a glimpse is enough to know you’ve visited a special place on Earth.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Park Trails You’ll Want to Hike This Year

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

Each year, the American Hiking Society celebrates National Trails Day on the first Saturday in June. On that day thousands of people across the country head out on their favorite hiking route to enjoy a walk in the woods where they get the chance to reconnect with nature along the way. Others donate their time to help build new trails or provide maintenance on those that already exist.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is a chance for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts to show their appreciation for the more than 200,000 miles of recreational trails in the U.S. Some of the absolute best hiking trails are found inside America’s national parks many of which are tailor-made for exploring on foot. With so many trails to choose from, it is difficult to pick which ones are the very best. Here are 10 national park trails that belong to your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Hiking Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the most unique landscapes that you’ll find anywhere and one of the best trails to explore that environment on is the 3-mile long Navajo Loop. Starting at Sunset Point and continuing to the main amphitheater this trail takes hikers past some of the more scenic elements in the entire park. Beware of falling rocks though as this trail can be a bit treacherous at times. 

Hiking the Boardwalk Loop in Congaree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes Mosquito repellant is a must, especially in the summer months.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

For a trail that’s only one mile total, the Blue Mesa loop in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is filled with immense and impressive scenery. Home to two of the park’s signature sights, colorful badlands, and gigantic petrified logs, it’s an easy and accessible way to experience the overwhelming beauty of this underrated park. It starts off along a paved trail atop the mesa before zig-zagging down into a canyon of blue- and purple-hued badlands. It loops through a sea of kaleidoscopic petrified wood whose twinkling blues and purples make them look like bejeweled boulders. This trail is also dog-friendly and a safe and fun way to explore with four-legged friends.

Hiking Park Avenue in Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, in Southeast Utah, is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Park Avenue Trail is most aptly named for New York City’s famous street. Early travelers noticed a similarity between these sandstone spires and the famous skyscrapers along New York’s Park Avenue and the name stuck. The main difference, of course, is that the “skyscrapers” of Arches National Park were sculpted by nature. Although you can start at either end of this shuttle trail starting at the south end (Park Avenue) results in a totally downhill hike. You’ll really be missing something if you leave Arches without taking this short hike. You can see the Courthouse Towers, Tower of Babel, Three Gossips, the Organ, and other grand “skyscrapers” from the road but if you don’t take this hike you’ll miss the truly stimulating experience of walking among them.

Hiking Badlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail over a boardwalk but gives hikers an opportunity to see local wildlife and a great view of the White River Valley and Eagle Butte. Over 50 plant species and 100 bird species have been seen in the area around the trail partially due to the Cliff Shelf’s bowl-like shape-retaining more water. There is occasionally a small pond that attracts wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Keep your binocular handy and get hiking!

Hiking Capitol Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Towering 1,400 feet above the road at the bottom of Capitol Gorge, Golden Throne is an icon of the park and draws many tourists and photographers every year. Toward the east end of Capitol Gorge in Capitol Reef National Park, hikers have the chance to climb up into the higher reaches of the Waterpocket Fold to enjoy the view of Golden Throne from up close. The trailhead to this short but strenuous ascent ascends by way of switchback from the narrow confines of Capitol Gorge. This hike gains close to 800 feet of elevation within its 1.5-mile ascent and then loses the same on the way back down.

Hiking Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

There is no better way to experience the unique landscape of White Sands National Park than by venturing out onto any of the five established trails. Explore the dunes and enjoy the silence and solitude of the dune field with its stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The trails vary in terms of difficulty and scenery. The Interdune Boardwalk is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. Take an easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers. The average completion time is 20 minutes.

Hiking New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Endless Wall Trail in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

The New River Gorge National Park is home to the highly underrated Endless Wall Trail. This moderate 2.4-mile walk begins in the forests of the park before crossing Fern Creek and zig-zagging along a cliff edge overlooking the New River. The trail is dotted with scenic overlooks including the breathtaking overlook at Diamond Point. From there, hikers can retrace their steps or continue to trail’s end and hike for another half mile along a road to the starting point.

Hiking Shenandoah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way, hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Hiking the Big Trees Trail in Sequoia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, pronghorns, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

North Dakota is not a place you might expect to wow you with wild terrain. As you drive through the remote western part of the state along two-lane highways, there appears to be nothing in sight but flatland for as far as the eye can see. Then as you near the areas surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park a visible trace of wilderness filled with badlands, dense vegetation, grasslands, and diverse wildlife appears seemingly out of nowhere. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to “bag a buffalo.” His first visit to the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born, an ethos that would shape the future of conservation efforts and of the National Park Service.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office, he established the United States Forest Service, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments, and five national parks—protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land.

This park doesn’t get a lot of play on the national stage, mostly because of its out-of-the-way location. My hope is that this article will inspire others to journey there—not only is it among the most historic of all national parks but it is absolutely beautiful as well. With that, I’ll delve into some of the reasons why we loved being there.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighboring state of South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt is home to many colorful badland formations—sedimentary deposits created over the course of 65 million years by the effects of erosion caused by wind, sun, hail, snow, and rain. One unique distinction of the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt is that vegetation grows from and all around them. Tucked into the folds of the badlands are large deposits of petrified wood—massive trees turned to solid quartz over the course of millions of years. At Theodore Roosevelt, you will find the third-largest deposit of petrified wood in the United States following Yellowstone and Petrified Forest national parks. The most concentrated area can be found along the Petrified Forest Loop trail, a 10-mile hike located in the south unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is composed of three units that are bound together by the Little Missouri River. The north unit is quiet and rugged; the south unit is home to abundant populations of watchable wildlife; and the Elkhorn Ranch, or west unit, is where Teddy Roosevelt lived for nearly 13 years. Drives between the three areas can take several hours each so plan to devote at least a couple days in both the north and south units and one afternoon in the Elkhorn unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora, and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista, an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset; Badlands Overlook, which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines; and Cottonwood Campground, for a picnic under the tall trees. For another easily accessible point in the South Unit, including for those using wheelchairs, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 off I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook, the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, colored buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the park on foot is the best way to get up close with the terrain and wildlife, and you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails. The hikes are mostly short (under a mile or two) and flat, as the highest buttes only rise a few hundred vertical feet. But be mindful of the summer heat: Average highs climb to the high-80s and it often feels hotter and drier, so bring plenty of water.

In the South Unit, two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats.

Whatever scene you are watching, you will be blessed one way or another with a view that differs only slightly from that which captured the heart and imagination of Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 70,466.89 acres

Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947)

Location: Western North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: This park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Dakota Territory. The site where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is now located was selected after his death in 1919 to honor his dedication to preserving America’s wilderness. The land was set aside by an act of congress. He was known as the “conservationist president” for dedicating his life to obtaining federal protection for lands and wildlife species under threat. During his time in elected office he established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt