Certain times of year, wanderlust rises up and takes hold but it’s not always possible to plan a cross-country road trip
Are you looking for a fun getaway without leaving the Lone Star State? These 12 charming small towns are a perfect way to scratch that travel itch. Some are close to home in the Hill Country but more far-flung destinations also abound assuming you don’t mind a few hours behind the wheel.
About a 1.5 hour drive east of San Antonio
Head on out to Shiner and hit up K. Spoetzl Brewery, the home of Shiner Bock beer. The brewery itself is more than 100 years old making it the oldest independent brewery in the Lone Star State. Tours of the historic brewery are offered daily. And, of course, every tour concludes with free samples of Shiner.
Discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in the Central Texas community of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function. To taste Czech culture and a delectable kolache—gooey, fruit-filled Czech pastries—and other bakery goods head to Weikel’s Bakery. La Grange Czechs out as a perfect blend of history, culture, and natural beauty.
Way yonder, not too far from Big Bend National Park, lies the desert oasis of Alpine. Though secluded, those looking for an outdoorsy weekend getaway have limitless options from mountain biking to hiking and world-class campsites. Alpine is also home to a burgeoning art community. Art installations like the Tribute to Texas Musicians mural and the Sul Ross Desk can be found throughout the desert outpost.
About a 1.5 hour drive northwest of San Antonio
Fredericksburg is loved by tourists and locals alike and truly has something for everyone. History buffs will enjoy visiting the Vereins Kirche Museum which honors the German pioneers who initially settled this Hill Country town nearly two centuries ago. Shopaholics have plenty of locally-owned boutiques to choose from and there is a swath of wineries and breweries. With an endless supply of rustic bed and breakfasts and RV parks, Fredericksburg is the perfect weekend getaway for a couple or the whole family.
About a 1 hour drive northeast of San Antonio
When a town’s claim to fame is being the Barbecue Capital of Texas that is most definitely a place worth spending your time—and money. Four major meat joints have received national attention—Black’s Barbeque, Smitty’s Market, Kreuz Barbeque, and Chisholm Trail Barbeque. If you decide to stay for a night or two, there’s the Brock House which offers stunning views of Lockhart’s historic Caldwell County Courthouse. Conveniently located near town, Lockhart State park offers 20 serviced sites.
Long a favorite with Winter Texans, Port Aransas offers many activities from walking the beach in search of seashells to taking a tour boat, a deep sea fishing charter, or a sunset dinner cruise. This seaside town makes for a perfect family vacation with endless miles of sandy beaches, a “jersey shore” style boardwalk, and countless affordable resorts.
About a 45-minute drive northeast of San Antonio
Although it’s considered part of New Braunfels (which can’t be considered a small town these days), the Gruene Historic District should be a bucket list item for Texans. In addition to the legendary Gruene Hall, the district offers other live music venue options, the local general store, a prized antique shop, and the Gristmill Restaurant. This is the place to be for a good time packed with history.
About a 1 hour drive north of San Antonio
Blanco is known as the Lavender Capital of Texas and if you visit during the blooming season from May through July, you’ll know why. Home to the HIll Country Lavender Farm, the town even hosts an annual Lavender Festival each summer. In addition to being known for soothingly scented purple blooms, Blanco is home to other attractions including the Science Mill and Blanco State Park.
About a 1 hour drive northwest of San Antonio
Enjoying the sights and getting a dose of small-town charm awaits you in Kerrville—dubbed the “Capital of the Hill Country.” From the Kerrville-Schreiner Park, home to attractions like a butterfly garden and amphitheater, to the Museum of Western Art, not to mention countless wineries, you’re sure to never run out of things to do in Kerrville.
About a 1.5 hour drive east of San Antonio
Schulenburg, like many of the small central Texas towns, was settled by German and Czech settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. A major attraction in the Schulenburg area is the Painted Churches. The churches look like plain white steeple buildings but step inside you and you’ll be in a jewel box of colors and detail. Downtown on Schulenburg’s Main Street is the Texas Polka Museum. It’s full of instruments, pictures, outfits, and a map showing every polka band in the Lone Star State. Then, learn about their heritage and culture by visiting the Schulenburg Historical Museum. Originally opened in 1894, Sengelmann Hall features a big wooden bar and long family-style tables.
Located on the banks of the San Marcos River about 45 miles from San Antonio, Luling has all the elements of the perfect Texan small town—historic buildings, great barbecue, quirky history, viable downtown, lively harvest festival, a noon whistle, vintage stop signs, and eclectic shopping. A friendly, quiet central Texas community, rich in history and Texas pride, Luling is renowned for its barbecue, rich oil history, decorated pump jacks, fresh produce and plants, abundant watermelons, and Texas’ first inland canoe paddling trail on the San Marcos River.
The main attraction in Brenham is the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory which opened in 1907. Visitors can stop by the creamery’s Ice Cream Parlor for a generous scoop, learn about the history from the visitor’s center, shop the Country Store, and watch the production from the observation deck. Be sure to take a photo with the statue of the brand’s iconic logo, a little girl leading a cow on a rope. While the ice cream alone is worth the 150-mile road trip from San Antonio, the town is also the main hub of Washington County with a plethora of attractions within in a 12-mile radius.
Zion National Park brims with awe-inspiring views and outdoor adventures
In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers settled in what is now known as Zion National Park in southern Utah. When they arrived they thought it to be so beautiful, holy with its towering natural cathedrals made of rock that they called it Zion, a nod to Little Zion found in the Bible’s Old Testament. To them, it was a sacred dwelling. It still holds sacred reverence to those who visit it today and is without a doubt one of America’s most beloved national parks.
I will leave the story of the history of the park to another time and focus on what we know best: places to explore when visiting the heavenly landscape. I’ve been to Zion several times and managed to pick up some new spots on each visit. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best of Zion.
Canyon Overlook Trail
The Canyon Overlook Trail is a gem of a hike in Zion. This is definitely one of the best hikes at Zion. It’s short, it’s fun, and it takes you to an awesome viewpoint overlooking Zion Canyon. It’s also the ideal sunset hike for those who love canyon views but aren’t up to navigating the famous—and more treacherous—Angel’s Landing hike. This is a hike that is perfect for all ages and ability levels. If this is your first or even your second time in Zion put the Canyon Overlook Trail on your list of things to do.
Angel’s Landing and West Rim Trail
Angel’s Landing is THE classic Zion hike and one of the world’s most famous hikes. The first four miles bring hikers along the West Rim Trail that leads to Scout’s Lookout from where you can take in the views while deciding whether you have the guts and desire to brave the final one-mile climb along the narrow canyon spine with support chains in hand to the landing.
This last section is not for those who fear heights, exposure, and crowds while at serious heights while facing exposure. Fatalities are not common but they have occurred and like all hikes and adventures in any national park safety is the responsibility of the traveler.
Don’t do it if you don’t feel comfortable climbing a cliff-face (you are not alone). You can still enjoy the hike along the West Rim Trail. There are incredible views the entire way up to Scout’s Landing—the switchbacks criss-crossing the valley floor are incredibly photogenic. This is not a trail for people with a fear of heights or small children.
This is a choose-your-own-adventure area in the park with three main hikes among lush vegetation leading to different water features at each. At an elevation gain of 623 feet, parts of it are quite steep so make sure you wear sturdy shoes and bring lots of water.
The lower pool is perfect for those desiring a relaxed wander and for those with strollers and wheelchairs ending at a collection of mountain streams and small pools. The middle trail is a more moderate hike gaining 150 feet leading to an overlook of the pools found on the lower trail and small waterfalls, and the upper pool is a strenuous climb up 350 feet to a waterfall that streams down from a cliff.
Zion: a river runs through it. For millions of years, the Virgin River has been carving its way through layers of rock forming the Zion Narrows. And you can walk on water through the Virgin River while exploring it. This is an iconic hike in the park and it is easy to know why after braving it. Decked out in a dry suit—Zion Outfitter in the nearby town of Springdale can hook you up with water-repellent gear and info—you will make way on foot along a 30-mile wide riverbed beneath limestone canyon walls towering 1,000 feet above the way early explorers and natives once did.
There is no trail so-to-speak, the trail is the riverbed. Sublime! Permits are required and water level and weather are factors in whether or not a visit there is possible as flash floods in the park occur often during peak season and are a danger.
Riverside Walk Trail
If you’re not ready to commit to The Narrows hike above, you can still enjoy some of the epic views of Zion’s scenic Virgin River as it cuts through the stunning canyon on this easy riverside walk.
This hike begins at the shuttle stop 9 (Temple of Sinawava) which is located at the end of the Scenic Highway. From there, you’ll make your way along a concrete path between the Virgin River and a steep canyon wall. (Side trails along the river make a nice alternative for strolling in more solitude.)
Observation Point provides one of the best views in Zion National Park but is underrated compared to Angels Landing and the Narrows. This trail is perfect for those who want to avoid the crowds at Angels Landing but still want incredible views. From the Observation Point summit, you look across Zion Canyon. You can even look down upon Angels Landing.
This trail is incredibly strenuous with some steep drop-offs. The most popular route starts at the Weeping Rock trailhead. You’ll climb steep switchbacks from the start-up to Echo Canyon, the perfect shaded spot for a rest.
After passing through this shaded area you’ll climb along sheer cliff edges to the top of Zion Canyon. After the climb, you’ll be rewarded with views from the top of Observation Point, the best in the park.
Guarding the park’s southern entrance, the Watchman is arguably the most iconic scene and provides some of the best sunset photography. There is a 3-mile trail leading to a lookout of the towering peak but this entry refers to the viewpoint as seen from Canyon Junction with the Virgin River winding right through the middle of the scene.
The hike ends with a phenomenal view of the Temples, Towers, and lower Zion Canyon. You can see Watchman Peak from here as well and all of Springdale below. Hikers rave about the quality of the light and epic views in the early morning here.
The Pa’rus Trail is one of the newer and most accessible trails in Zion National Park. It is the only trail in Zion open to bicycles and pets and is also one of the few wheelchair-accessible trails in the park. Starting at the South Campground just north of the Visitor Center, this wide, paved trail skirts the Virgin River in the flat and open lower section of Zion Canyon and ends at the Canyon Junction. This trail is great for a leisurely stroll at sunrise or sunset and you are likely to see big and small wildlife from butterflies and birds to mule deer.
Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Tunnel
Driving the 6-mile Mt. Carmel Highway through the park provides visitors easy access to viewpoints while offering that winding-road experience. It is easily accessible throughout the park’s most popular area and the richly brick-colored highway with canary-yellow stripes plays really well visually against the soft color of the canyons.
A few miles along the highway past the Visitor Center you will cross through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel, completed in 1930, a landmark with a rich history that at the same time allows modern travelers like us passage THROUGH a mile of canyon in what feels like the dark of night.
Zion’s popularity certainly draws in the crowds and for some people this can be a bit overwhelming. For a pleasant escape from the busyness take a trip to the far side of the park and the Kolob Canyons.
This lesser-visited area is almost as spectacular as the main area of the park. Deep canyons and stunning scenery will leave you awed. The most popular activity and the one that provides the most reward for the least amount of energy is the five-mile Kolob Canyons Road. Strategically placed viewpoints afford incredible views out over the surrounding countryside.
For those interested in venturing off on a hiking trail several good options exist. Of the 10-plus hikes available one not to be missed is the Timber Creek Overlook. This one-mile trek is easy with wonderful views along the way and especially at the end.
Kolob Canyons is about an hour from the main park gates. You’ll need to head back out to Interstate 15, head north, and take exit 40. The exit is well marked with National Park signs.
There are full-service RV parks outside the park gate but camping within the park is a whole other experience. Watching birds and wildlife flitting about the campgrounds, sitting around a fire ring in the evening, and peering up at the night sky creates a different set of memories than simply exploring Zion by day.
Watchman Campground and South Campground are the two main camping areas in the park and both offer beautiful natural surroundings and well-spaced sites. These two campgrounds are close to each other near the West Gate entrance to the park.
A third much smaller and more isolated campground is located in a separate section of the park at almost 8,000 feet. This is Lava Point Campground on Kolob Terrace Road about 50 minutes from the Zion Canyon section of the park.
Reciprocal museum memberships allow you to visit other participating museums which grant free or heavily discounted entry to members
Did you know that museum memberships at one museum could get you into hundreds of others for free? Museums, zoos, aquariums, science and technology centers, and more participate in reciprocity programs that let you do just that.
So what is reciprocity? Basically, it’s an exchange of benefits between two locations such as two zoos or two art museums. Except that the program participants are more than just a couple of locations but span hundreds to thousands of locations nationwide and in Canada.
Following is more information about these programs, where you can buy them, what benefits they provide, and how to use them.
Benefits of buying museum memberships
Paying for visits to museums, zoos, and science centers individually gets expensive fast so this is a great way to save money. Reciprocity programs give you access to many more places to visit as you travel in your RV. And also a great way to supplement the learning programs of homeschoolers and road schoolers.
Museum reciprocity organizations
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is an organization of zoos and aquariums and dedicated to conservation, education, science, and recreation.
In reciprocity programs including the AZA, you can get free or discounted admission to participating parks. The list of participating zoos and aquariums indicates which locations are participating and what their reciprocity is (50 percent discount in most cases). The list of zoos and aquariums participating in the network may change so please call the museum you plan to visit ahead of time to verify their participation in the AZA Reciprocal Network.
Current participating zoos and aquariums include:
The Living Desert (Palm Desert, California)
Mote Aquarium (Sarasota, Florida)
San Antonio Zoo
Gladys Porter Zoo (Brownsville, Texas)
Texas State Aquarium (Corpus Christi, Texas)
Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)
The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) is an organization of science and technology centers and museums that fosters understanding and engagement in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
In reciprocity programs including the ASTC, you can get free entry into ASTC locations that participate in the ASTC Travel Passport Program. The list of science and technology centers participating in the network may change so please call the museum you plan to visit ahead of time to verify their participation in the ASTC Reciprocal Network.
Current participants include:
U.S. Space & Rocket Center (Huntsville, Alabama)
Turtle Bay Exploration Park (Redding, California)
Saint Louis Science Center, Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, Montana)
Fleishmann Planterium and Science Center (Reno, Nevada)
The Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, New York)
Space Center Houston
Witte Museum (San Antonio, Texas)
Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)
The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) is an organization of museums specifically geared towards children and their learning through play and exploration.
The ACM Reciprocal Network is a voluntary group of ACM member museums open across the U.S. and Canada that reciprocate discounted admission to each other’s members. Two hundred museums participate in the network and reciprocate 50 percent off general admission for up to six people. The list of museums participating in the network may change so please call the museum you plan to visit ahead of time to verify their participation in the ACM Reciprocal Network.
Current participanting children’s museums include:
Miami Children’s Museum
Boston Children’s Museum
I.D.E.A. Museum (Tempe, Arizona)
Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga, Tennessee)
The Children’s Museum of Cleveland
Children’s Science Center Lab (Fairfax, Virginia)
Sacramento Science Center
Children’s Museum of Pittsburg
North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM)
The North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM) is a mosaic of 1,244 art museums and galleries, historical museums and societies, botanical gardens, children’s museums, and zoos.
In reciprocity programs including the NARM, you can get free entry into participating locations. It is always best to contact the institutions before your visit to confirm all the reciprocal benefits you will receive.
Current participants include:
Sharlot Hall Museum (Prescott, Arizona)
The Dali Museum (St. Petersburg, Florida)
Auburn Cord Dusenberg Automobile Museum (Auburn, Indiana)
National Corvette Museum (Bowling Green, Kentucky)
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Will Rogers Memorial Museum (Claremore, Oklahoma)
Bullock Texas State History Museum (Austin, Texas)
Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Alberta)
Time Travelers is a free reciprocal membership network for historical museums, sites, and societies throughout the United States.
Currently, the Time Travelers program includes 472 organizations in more than 45 states. Members of these organizations can receive a variety of exclusive benefits and privileges such as free admission and gift shop discounts. It is always best to contact the institutions before your visit to confirm all the reciprocal benefits you will receive.
Current participating locations include:
Edison & Ford Winter Estates (Fort Myers, Florida)
World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum (St. Augustine, Florida)
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, Illinois)
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (Oak Park, Illinois)
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Studebaker National Museum (South Bend, Indiana)
Living History Farms (Urbandale, Iowa)
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home (Abeline, Kansas)
Armstrong Air & Space Museum (Wapakoneta, Ohio)
National Museum of the Pacific War (Fredericksburg, Texas)
American Horticultural Society (AHS)
The American Horticultural Society (AHS) is a national gardening organization providing gardening and horticultural information. A current membership card from the American Horticultural Society or a garden participating in their Reciprocal Admissions Program (RAP) entitles you to special admission privileges and discounts at 345+ gardens throughout North America.
Some gardens have exclusions for special events or exhibits. Each garden has its own distinct admissions policies and hours of operation which is also why it’s best to check ahead of time to get the most up-to-date information.
Current participants include:
Tohono Chul (Tucson, Arizona)
United States Botanical Garden (Washington, D.C.)
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (Sarasota, Florida)
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest (Clermont, Kentucky)
Frekerik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Hoyt Arboretum (Portland, Oregon)
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (Charleston, South Carolina)
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (Austin, Texas)
Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC)
The Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) is an association of museums focused on the Southeastern United States including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Southeastern Reciprocal Membership Program (SERM) is a way for museums to offer their members an opportunity to visit participating museums in the Southeastern region. Reciprocity is for general admission only. A participating museum membership card with “Southeastern Reciprocal” or acronym, “SERM” must be shown to receive admission.
Current participants include:
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (Sarasota, Florida)
Andrew Lowe House (Savannah, Georgia)
Tubman Museum (Macon, Georgia)
Kentucky Artisan Center (Berea, Kentucky)
Cheekwood Estate & Gardens (Nashville, Tennessee)
Burritt on the Mountain (Birmingham, Alabama)
Beauregard-Keys House (New Orleans, Louisiana
Museum Alliance Reciprocal Program (MARP)
The Museum Alliance Reciprocal Program (MARP) is similar to NARM, mentioned above but with fewer participants.
Participating institutions include:
Amon Carter Museum of American Art (Fort Worth, Texas)
Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
The Bruce Museum (Greenwich, Connecticut)
The Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida)
National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario)
Vancouver Art Gallery (Vancouver, British Columbia)
Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM)
The Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM) program includes art and history museums, gardens, and various other types of museums. Reciprocal membership with ROAM provides free admission to participating ROAM locations as well as other benefits determined by each location individually. ROAM was created in February 2013 and currently has 447 participating museums.
Participating institutions include:
Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West (Scottsdale, Arizona)
Charles Schultz Museum (Santa Rosa, California)
Rosemount Museum (Pueblo, Colorado)
Oldest House Museum and Garden (Key West, Florida)
Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Henry Ford Estate (Dearborn, Michigan)
Georgia O’Keefe Museum (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
McNay Art Museum (San Antonio, Texas)
Museum of Glass (Tacoma, Washington)
Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Cody, Wyoming)
Tom Thompson Art Gallery (Owen Sound, Ontario)
Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta)
Various museum memberships will get you reciprocity at locations in one or more of the above organizations. Once you know the type of reciprocal membership you’d like, look for museum memberships that offer those specific programs and provide the best price. There are lots of options.
Things to know about museum memberships
In addition to the benefits offered and the price, there are a few things of note as you’re picking out your museum memberships for reciprocity benefits. For AZA benefits, you want your membership to be from a place that offers 100 percent/50 percent reciprocity. You will then receive 100 percent discounted admission to other zoos and aquariums listed at 100 percent/50 percent in the reciprocity program list and 50 percent off of those listed as 50 percent. If your home museum is listed only as 50 percent you will only receive a 50 percent discount regardless.
Also, consider the location of the place you are buying a membership from. This is not only for the ability to visit that location but because it affects which other locations you can get into for free or a discount. They may check your ID and your membership and may refuse admission if you are trying to use it somewhere that is either within 90 miles (as the crow flies) from your home address or your membership institution.
Number of people covered
Check the type of membership you desire based on the number of adults and children you want covered. The options can include single, dual, or family memberships up to a certain number of children/grandchildren for example, or family plus for additional guests among other potential options.
Keep up to date
Before you go, double-check the most current participant lists for the membership and museum you are hoping to get reciprocal admission to. These are updated and published periodically and there can be changes. Consider calling to double-check as well as not all locations participate in these reciprocal admission programs.
Things to bring
Bring your driver’s license or another form of ID to confirm you are the membership holder and if they ask to confirm your address. Bring your membership card as well. You can use an app in which to load your virtual membership card. Use the eMembership Card app to download your membership cards and reduce one more plastic/paper card you have to carry. Features of the app are that you can quickly look up your membership card to show, see your benefits, how many people are covered, and when the membership expires. Additionally, you can find nearby institutions you may want to visit and read some information about them.
Just a few visits will make up for the cost of the museum memberships outlined above. You’ll have access to all sorts of fun for yourself and your family. So if you’re looking for fun things to do, ways to save some money, and great learning opportunities for your kids, consider these memberships. And whether you choose one of the memberships listed above or are looking into another, make sure to see what reciprocal benefits are included and make sure you use them.
A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.
Why not shake it up this year with a new tradition? Instead of the usual family gathering, jump in the RV and hit the road for a holiday you can be truly thankful for.
The classic vision of Thanksgiving typically involves a giant stuffed turkey with multiple side dishes and pies, all covering a long dining table surrounded by family and friends.
However, as RV travel continues to grow in popularity and more and more people adopt non-traditional lifestyles such as digital nomads and full-time RVing, the entire concept of holidays is rapidly changing. They can still be spent making memories and connecting with loved ones but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean spending several days in meal planning and prepping or even staying home.
This year, why not consider a Thanksgiving RV trip? Whether you go to a favorite place or a new one, head out solo, bring your whole family along, cook up a quintessential Thanksgiving feast or skip a traditional meal altogether, hitting the road is a fun and memorable way to spend the holiday.
Reasons to take a Thanksgiving RV trip
Experience national parks and other popular destinations during the shoulder season when there are few other visitors—enjoy less-crowded viewpoints and trails, little to no traffic, and your pick of campsites
A Thanksgiving RV trip creates a new tradition with your significant other or family
Minimal cleanup as compared to a kitchen in a house for Thanksgiving dinner
If you’re not a full-timer, a Thanksgiving trip can extend your camping season and let you enjoy one more adventure before storing your rig for winter
Ideas for your Thanksgiving RV trip
The sky is really the limit when it comes to places you can spend Thanksgiving in your RV but here are some unique ideas.
Even the parks that close individual entrances or most roads for winter have at least one campground open all year. Planning a Thanksgiving RV trip is a wonderful way to experience some of the country’s most popular parks in a unique way without the crowds and in a much quieter setting. Most national park campgrounds are dry camping with no utilities.
Best of all, some national parks even host special Thanksgiving programs. For example, restaurants in Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park host elaborate Thanksgiving spreads.
A quieter alternative to national parks, many state parks are open year-round and are very accessible. Choose one close to home, look for one that will still have fall foliage late in the season, or pick one that offers a warm climate. State park campgrounds offer a variety of sites including no services, electricity, and water only, and full-service camping. It’s a design-your-own-Thanksgiving-RV-trip.
Traditional RV parks
Camping in an RV park or resort over Thanksgiving can give you access to full hookups, scheduled activities, clubhouse and pool, fire pit, outdoor seating, and table space, and perhaps even shared kitchen facilities. Some parks may even host Thanksgiving events where you can meet other travelers.
If you want to try something different and completely unplug over the holiday, consider boondocking. You’ll need to do some advance planning in terms of grocery shopping and meal prepping plus decide how you’ll make Thanksgiving dinner but can be a fantastic, memorable way to create new traditions.
Potential downsides of a Thanksgiving RV trip (and how to deal with them)
Being away from family and friends
If you’re used to spending the holiday with a large group of friends and family, this can be a major factor in deciding whether or not to take a Thanksgiving RV trip. Thanks to modern technology, it’s easier than ever to stay connected with loved ones. Consider scheduling a FaceTime or Zoom call at some point during the day so everyone can say hello.
You can also plan a traditional Thanksgiving meal when you’re all together in person even if it’s nowhere near the actual holiday. Who knows, this could become a new favorite tradition.
Wanting to prep a traditional meal but not having enough space
Whipping up a Thanksgiving meal can be challenging even in a single-family home so there’s no denying it’s difficult in an RV. However, it’s not at all impossible.
Think about what you realistically have fridge and oven space for and come up with creative ways to prepare and cook everything else. For example, maybe you purchase a pie from a local bakery or you cook some dishes over the fire pit or grill.
And if table/counter space is an issue make use of any surfaces you have outside the RV. There’s no rule saying you can’t decorate a picnic table or folding chairs for Thanksgiving.
Late November can be dicey weather-wise, no matter where you are. Plan ahead and have some day-of backup plans in case inclement weather forces you to stay inside. Do your Thanksgiving grocery shopping in advance to eliminate the possibility that you’re short one or two key ingredients and if you’re planning to dine outside have an indoor layout in mind so there’s plenty of space to accommodate everyone.
Do something different this Thanksgiving, Go RVing! Take your family off the Wi-Fi craze for a few days and enjoy a nearly work-free meal prep and enjoyable conversation with the whole family. It will be an experience you never forget!
Give thanks not just on Thanksgiving Day but every day of your life. Appreciate and never take for granted all that you have.
With Thanksgiving being less than a week away, it’s important to figure out your travel plans soon. If you’re traveling by car or RV, you’ll want to start gathering everything you need to hit the road.
Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence. —Erma Bombeck
Thanksgiving 2022 falls on Thursday, November 24 this year. When planning your travel schedule, give yourself ample time to get to your destination during this historically busy travel time, and keep in mind any harsh weather that could potentially delay your plans.
Packing an emergency kit can come in handy in case you encounter an unscheduled stop in traffic or need to pull over because of car or RV problems. Items to pack include:
Extra bottled water
A flashlight and extra batteries
First aid kit
Drivers and passengers also should remember prescription medications and items such as a cellphone charger in case of unexpected travel delays.
Getting adequate rest, buckling up, obeying speed limits, and never driving while impaired is behaviors that promote improved highway safety. Eighteen people were killed last year in a total of 15 fatal crashes on all Arizona roads including local streets over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Drivers also should check their vehicle before traveling, including tire pressure, engine belts and hoses, fluid levels and the condition of windshield wipers.
This Thanksgiving holiday, 54.6 million Americans are planning to travel 50 miles or more away from their homes, according to AAA. The amount is 1.5 percent more than travelers during last year’s Thanksgiving festivities and 98 percent of pre-pandemic volumes. AAA is predicting 2022 will be the third busiest year for Thanksgiving travel since AAA started tracking in 2000.
“Families and friends are eager to spend time together this Thanksgiving, one of the busiest for travel in the past two decades,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel. “Plan ahead and pack your patience, whether driving or flying.”
AAA finds that most travelers will reach their destinations by car (or RV), similar to last year. Nearly 49 million people are expected to drive and while Thanksgiving road trips have increased slightly—up 0.4 percent from 2021—road travel remains 2.5 percent below 2019 levels.
INRIX expects severe congestion in several U.S. metro areas with some drivers experiencing more than double normal delays. Highways in and around Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles will be the busiest. To avoid the most hectic times, INRIX recommends traveling early in the morning on Wednesday or before 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and avoiding travel between 4 and 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Air travel is up nearly 8 percent over 2021 with 4.5 million Americans flying to their Thanksgiving destinations this year. That’s an increase of more than 330,000 travelers and nearly 99 percent of the 2019 volume.
Americans are also ramping up travel by other modes of transportation. More than 1.4 million travelers are going out of town for Thanksgiving by bus, train, or cruise ship. That’s an increase of 23 percent from 2021 and 96 percent of the 2019 volume. “With travel restrictions lifted and more people comfortable taking public transportation again, it’s no surprise buses, trains, and cruises are coming back in a big way,” Twidale adds. “Regardless of the mode of transportation you have chosen, expect crowds during your trip and at your destination. If your schedule is flexible, consider off-peak travel times during the holiday rush.”
A new survey of leisure travelers conducted by the RV Industry Association finds that 15.3 million Americans plan to travel in RVs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s this year. This represents 12 percent of the total number of leisure travelers intending to spend the holidays away from home and the impact of these RVers continues to be felt in the economies of the locations they visit.
Increased spending on outdoor recreation—of which the RV industry is a centerpiece—was reaffirmed last week when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released its Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account (ORSA) report revealing that the sector contributed a record $862 billion to the U.S. economy and employed 4.5 million Americans in 2021. This represents an increase of 31 percent in gross output and 13 percent in jobs over 2020.
“These two studies demonstrate that the RV industry and its customers are vital contributors to America’s economy and all indications are that they will continue to be so,” said RV Industry Association Executive Vice President James Ashurst. “Growth in the industry is being increasingly driven by younger and more diverse RV buyers whose purchases are largely motivated by the desire to experience the great outdoors.”
According to the RV Industry Association’s travel intention study, 29 percent of Millennials and 20 percent of GenZ leisure travelers plan on staying in an RV over the holidays. Some of these will be driving to warm-weather campgrounds or mountain ski resorts while others will be parked outside their extended families’ homes over the holidays.
“Spending time with friends and family is an integral part of the holidays and we know that whether RVing together for a holiday vacation or traveling in your RV for a holiday visit, spending time with friends and family is a primary reason people are going RVing this holiday season,” said Ashurst.
The survey also showed that finances are a driving reason for people’s plans to take an upcoming RV trip. With RV vacations costing 50 percent less than comparable hotel and plane ride trips and a third less than hotel and car ride trips, RVing is an attractive option for people looking for the freedom to travel while also controlling their travel expenses.
AAA recently revealed the top 10 domestic travel destinations for the Thanksgiving holiday. Two theme-park destinations top the list this year—Orlando and Anaheim—as they did in 2019 and 2021 while Chicago and Charlotte are new additions to the top 10.
“Thanksgiving is all about spending time with family and friends so it’s no surprise that theme park destinations top the list with entertainment and meals accessible within a resort,” said Twidale. “Chicago and Charlotte join Atlanta as hub cities for the three largest airlines—American, Delta, and United—and will see lots of activity this holiday season as airline routes and direct flights are limited, and staff shortage still exists.”
Average hotel booking costs are up 8 percent compared to 2021 but hotel prices in some cities like Las Vegas and Denver are lower this year.
The top 10 destinations are:
New York City
According to IRI, big Thanksgiving celebrations are back this year with 76 percent of consumers reporting they plan to celebrate the holiday as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. The average number of people at the Thanksgiving table will be close to eight and that number jumps to 9.8 for Gen Z and younger millennials (those under 32). The oldest consumers, seniors, and retirees anticipate six people at their tables.
While people are hosting larger meals, inflation is a top concern for consumers and 38 percent expect to pay more for groceries this year but intend to buy the same amount of food. IRI reports that traditional Thanksgiving meal items are estimated to cost 13.5 percent more than they did a year ago.
In response to high inflation, retailers are discounting holiday meal items including Pilot Flying J and Love’s Travel Stops.
Overall, food and beverage costs were up 13.3 percent year over year in October. Additionally, this year could become the worst year ever of avian flu outbreaks for poultry, skyrocketing turkey prices. Wholesale turkey prices are at $1.79 a pound in October which is 40 cents higher than last year’s peak. (Walmart is keeping whole turkeys at $1 a pound.) IRI research shows pies and side dishes are up 19.6 percent and 18.8 percent, respectively.
I think we should be saying as American as pumpkin pie
When life gives you pumpkins, make pie.
—a play on Elbert Hubbard’s words
Pie is revered in the modern American household. Juicy apples mixed with sugar and cinnamon make much-anticipated appearances in the kitchen throughout fall and winter. Rich, creamy spiced pumpkin and sweet potato pies are delivered on Thanksgiving. Deep burgundy red cherry pies are served on Christmas.
We’ve all heard the phrase countless times before: As American as apple pie. Many people never question it. Apple pie is on the menu at most American diners and Normal Rockwell featured the dessert in several of his illustrations. It’s unmistakably American—and yet that well-worn cliche isn’t historically accurate. When you dig into the history of the earliest days of the American colonies you’ll find that the pie most connected to this country’s roots is pumpkin, not apple.
Pumpkins are native to North America. Columbus wrote about pumpkins he saw from his voyages and brought some back as did subsequent explorers so people in Europe were familiar with them as early as 1492. Pumpkins and other squash were some of the first crops colonists planted when settlers arrived in America in 1621.
And then there’s pie. There’s been a love for pie in North America from the very first settlers to their present-day ancestors. Early settlers cut up pretty much anything that could grow, baked it between two pieces of crust, and called it a pie. Culinary tastes of the era meant that almost all vegetables grown in the colony were baked in a pastry crust.
Pie generally meant something a little more savory. Tarts were dishes where they added lots of sugar. That was the difference between a pie and a tart in the 17th century.
A matter of fillings
Pumpkin, not an apple, was the dominant pie filling in the early American colonies as apple orchards hadn’t been planted yet. New England without apples is difficult to picture but the first decade of the Plymouth colony was mostly appleless.
William Blaxton planted the first apple seedlings trees soon after he arrived in Weymouth, Massachusetts just south of present-day Boston in 1623.
Once apples were abundant in the colonies, pie recipes popped up that combined sliced apples and pumpkins with butter and a little spice. These original pies, however, were more vegetable-heavy. They used sliced pieces of pumpkin or squash mixed with spices and butter and then baked in a pastry crust. Pumpkin pies with a whipped, fluffy texture became widespread after the advent of Libby’s canned pumpkin puree in the early 20th century.
How pumpkin pie was traditionally served
Pumpkin pie in the 21st century is relegated to dessert—a savory and sweet cap to an already decadent meal. Thanksgiving seems incomplete without it.
But pies weren’t reserved for special occasions in the pilgrim household. Meals were served family style and pies were set out with the rest of the main courses rather than being presented at the end of the meal. Once the family sat down to eat the pies weren’t sliced, either.
When you served a pie in the 17th century you’d cut the top crust off, scoop out the filling, and then you’d take little bits of crust to go with it. So pie acted like a container to hold the rest of the filling in.
About that crust: There seems to be some confusion about the uses of early pie crust. New England’s early settlers called pie crust pastry or paste and typically the ingredients were simple: hot or cold water depending on the type of pie, butter, and flour. These crusts, sometimes known as the coffyn became rock hard during the baking process leading to the misconception that the crusts were tossed into the garbage once the filling had been consumed. America’s settlers, however, were much more industrious and recycled the pastry for future use.
You would eat the pastry with the next meal with broth to soften the pastry. You didn’t throw it away. Because when people go through all the trouble to grow food like wheat or rye or other grains and harvest it by hand and thresh it and grind it, they aren’t going to throw it away. They might not feed it to the lord of the manor but somebody is going to eat it.
The term coffin might sound off-putting when applied to your dinner but it simply described the pie as a basket or box. This dining method proved popular throughout medieval Europe. For one, it required no additional dishes and could be eaten by hand, no utensils needed. And that’s not the coffin pie’s only practical purpose.
In Janet Clarkson’s book, Pie: A Global History, she writes that this hefty pastry case served as a container similar to a lunch box. It was a way for people to both transport their food and preserve it (especially important before refrigeration when people needed a way to make their food last). Sometimes, the baker carved a hole in the top of the crust and poured melted fat into the hole to act as a seal against intruding air thus keeping it fresh for an extended period.
Pastry crust didn’t catch on in America until the 1640s, however, when the settlers began growing wheat and rye in the colonies. Maize, the corn favored by the Native American people already living on the land the pilgrims had colonized made soggy pastry that fell apart. So, for the first 15 years, the colonies operated there was no crust made in New England—and therefore very few pies.
However, there was one exception: When the long-serving governor of the Plymouth Colony William Bradford married in 1623, rye from England was used to make 12 venison pies.
Even before pie crust became commonplace what the pilgrims did not do was bake pumpkin pies inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. This cooking method is a widespread myth, plain and simple.
This misconception might stem from a 16th-century source who wrote that pumpkins the size of an acorn squash were hollowed out then sliced bits of pumpkin and apple were added and baked together. The real dish would have looked and tasted more like an acorn squash side dish, not a sweetened pumpkin pie. But even so, there is no record of that dish even being cooked in the colonies, only in 17th century England.
That’s very different than taking this giant field pumpkin and hollowing it and pouring in four quarts of cream and a pound of sugar and baking that forever and a day.
As American as pumpkin pie
Pies were undoubtedly a major part of the cuisine in the New England colonies. Until Amelia Simmons published her cookbook in 1796—the first cookbook written in America by an American—reprints of cookbooks from England where pies had long been a staple dish circulated in the colonies. The pilgrims ate plenty of pies, just not apple pie.
It would take a little more than 20 years after the first successful colonies before apples appeared in pies or anything else. America’s earliest settlers filled their pies with what grew most abundantly in their backyards and that was a pumpkin. So next time you’re thinking about celebrating America, pull out the pumpkin pie recipe you’d usually save for Thanksgiving.
The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves
Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.
—Terry Tempest Williams
It’s huge! The four districts are approximately the area of 172,121 football fields! Ringing in at over 520 square miles, Canyonlands is the largest of Utah’s five national parks and doubtless one of the most stunning. Known for its sweeping vistas of colorful desert landscapes carved by rivers into countless canyons, Canyonlands National Park draws thousands of visitors each year both with its views and its endless outdoor recreational opportunities.
With seemingly unlimited wild landscapes to explore it can be tough to know where to start an adventure. The Green and Colorado Rivers help to do some of the narrowing down by trisecting the park.
The park is divided into four distinct areas, each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.
The lack of development narrows it down even further by providing only a couple of roads into the park boundaries. Such paved access opens a door to the red rock wilderness where the scenery is enhanced by a colorful Southwest sunset that gives way to soft dusky skies and brilliant starry nights. It is very much a place to write home about.
Like its neighbor Arches to the north, Canyonlands is served by the small but busy gateway city of Moab where visitors can enjoy a variety of restaurants, shopping opportunities, museums, and cultural events. Other small towns in the Canyonlands area include Monticello and Spanish Valley.
The weather at Canyonlands is characterized by the wide temperature fluctuations of a high desert environment; the area sometimes sees temperatures change by more than 40 degrees in one day. The summer is excruciatingly hot and prone to sudden afternoon thunderstorms while the spring and fall bring temperate climates—and crowds.
With its untamed landscape, Canyonlands offers unparalleled outdoor adventure opportunities both on land and on water. Visitors can enjoy the park on foot, horseback, or bicycle, or take to its two formative rivers for both flat- and whitewater boating. The Park Service also hosts several organized, ranger-led activities such as geological talks and stargazing parties. Check the official park calendar for up-to-date information on these opportunities.
What is today known as Canyonlands National Park is the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples including the Ute, Southern Paiute, and Pueblo people. The Indigenous story of Canyonlands begins long before European men named it such—indeed before they ever set foot in this jaw-dropping desert.
Canyonlands features two on-site campgrounds which are accessible and open to RV camping. However, neither campground offers hookups and both have a tendency to fill up fast.
Fortunately, campers can also choose from a wide array of privately-owned RV parks and campgrounds in the Moab area as well as several free or low-cost dispersed camping or boondocking options.
Island in the Sky
The Island in the Sky mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. Island in the Sky is the easiest area of Canyonlands to visit in a short period of time offering many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails or four-wheel-drive roads can take you into the backcountry for a few hours or many days.
The Island in the Sky area is the closest of the four districts to Moab which serves as a jumping-off point into Canyonlands as well as to neighboring Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains. Island of the Sky is the place to get your 101 briefing on the area.
Driving the paved park loop road aside the canyons on the high mesa provides easy access to stops along the road at archeological sites as well as at trailheads that lead to easy-to-moderate hiking trails into your private wilderness. In the evening, scenic viewpoints welcome visitors to cap off a day of exploration with the magic of sunset skies.
This popular area is not only ideal for day trippers but is also heaven for mountain bikers and off-roaders who want to take 4WDrive vehicles onto the legendary 100-mile White Rim Road which provides an up-close and personal meeting with the interior canyons.
Several short trails explore the mesa top with minimal elevation change enjoying canyon views from above. Moderate trails involve elevation such as climbing a sandstone feature or descending partway into a canyon. Long trails at Island in the Sky begin on the mesa top and descend via switchbacks to the White Rim bench or beyond to one of the rivers. All are considered strenuous with an elevation change of 1,000-2,000 feet and require negotiating steep slopes of loose rock as well as sections of deep sand.
Mesa Arch Trail is a short hike (0.5 miles) that leads to a cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a classic sunrise spot and is popular among photographers. It has stunning views toward the La Sal Mountains any time of day.
Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first come, first served. The campground is open year-round. The spectacular Green River Overlook is nearby. The nightly camping fee is $15 per site. Sites fill quickly from spring through fall. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. You can get drinking water outside the visitor center spring through fall. RVs are limited to 28 feet in length.
To reach Island in the Sky, drive 10 miles north of Moab on US 191 or 22 miles south of I-70 on US 191. Turn onto UT 313 and then drive southwest 22 miles. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is about 40 minutes. Be aware that a navigation system may send you the wrong way.
The Needles form the southeast corner of Canyonlands and were named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Hiking trails offer many opportunities for day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.
The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails as challenging as they are rewarding. Many different itineraries are possible.
Four short, self-guided trails along the paved scenic drive highlight different aspects of the park’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven. Trail guides are available at the visitor center and the trailheads.
Roadside Ruin (0.3 miles), Pothole Point (0.6 miles), Cave Springs (0.6 miles), and Slick Rock (2.4 miles) are some of the most popular easy/moderate trails but you’ll likely find after consulting a map and with expert rangers at the visitor center that there are plenty of creative ways to chart your own adventure while flexing your outdoor survival skills.
Conditions of other trails are more primitive, traversing a mixture of Slickrock benches and sandy washes. Longer trails are especially rough and require negotiating steep passes with drop-offs, narrow spots, or ladders. Water in the backcountry is unreliable and scarce in some areas. Trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Although most trails can be hiked in a day by strong hikers many form loops and may be combined with other trails for longer trips. Net elevation change is generally several hundred feet or less except for the Lower Red Lake Trail which drops 1,400 feet to the Colorado River.
The Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs in the Needles section of the park is easy to access on your way in. Having the ability to walk up to and stand face to face with remnants of ancient peoples who lived so long ago in areas that are now our national parks is a grand reminder of the history of the precious American wilderness and its long and important connection with humanity.
The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites plus three group sites in different locations around The Needles district. The nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. RV’s maximum length is 28 feet.
To reach Needles, drive 40 miles south of Moab on US 191 or 14 miles north of Monticello then take UT 211 roughly 35 miles west. UT 211 ends in The Needles and is the only paved road leading in and out of the area. Be aware that GPS units frequently lead people astray.
The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and the proper equipment or gear for self-rescue. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.
The Maze is the Wild West of the park—remote, rugged, and open to those who are eager and equipped to experience the Utah backcountry without signs and/or other visitors leading the way. In the Maze, you are left with the proverbial horse you rode in on, a map, your best-charted plans, your instincts to guide you as well as the company you keep.
Four-wheel-drive roads in The Maze are extremely remote, very difficult, present considerable risk of vehicle damage, and should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. A high-clearance, low-range, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required for all Maze backcountry roads.
The Hans Flat Ranger Station is 2.5 hours from Green River. From I-70, take UT 24 south for 24 miles. A left-hand turn just beyond the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park will take you along a two-wheel-drive dirt road 46 miles southeast to the ranger station.
From the ranger station, the canyons of The Maze are another 3 to 6 hours by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Another four-wheel-drive road leads into The Maze north from UT 95 near Hite Marina (driving time is 3+ hours to the park boundary). Use a map to reach The Maze. GPS units frequently lead people astray.
Also well worth visiting in Canyonlands are the rivers themselves. The Colorado and Green rivers wind through the heart of Canyonlands cutting through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons. In stark contrast to the hot, sunny desert above, the river corridors are remarkably green, shady, and full of life.
Both rivers are calm upstream of The Confluence, ideal for canoes, kayaks, and other shallow water craft. Below The Confluence, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon with remarkable speed and power creating a world-class stretch of whitewater.
As you can see in that basic outline of the Canyonlands wilderness, there are endless things to do and see while hiking, camping, off-roading, exploring the waterways, taking photographs, and blazing your path in this famous and also challenging park.
Size: 337,598 acres, largest national park in Utah
Date established: September 12, 1964
Location: Southeastern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau
Designation: International Dark Sky Park
Park Elevation: 3,700 feet to 7,120 feet
Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days
Park camping fee: $15 (Island in the Sky), $20 (Needles)
Recreational visits (2021): 911,594
How the park got its name: Citing From Controversy to Compromise to Cooperation: The Administrative History of Canyonlands National Park by Samuel J. Schmieding, explorer John Wesley Powell designated the region “The Cañon Lands of Utah” in a 1878 report written for the U.S. government. The word cañon was anglicized in the early 20th century and in 1963 the National Park Service merged them into one—Canyonlands.
Iconic Site in the Park: In the Island of the Sky district is Mesa Arch,the most iconic landmark in Canyonlands and among the most photographed landmarks in the national parks. The pothole arch frames Utah’s White Rim country and the La Sal Mountains—a vista view that is magnificent—and that is before the first ray of sunlight pops over the horizon. That first light bounces off of the rock beneath the arch casting an epic glow onto the roof of it framing a keyhole view of the valley with illuminated light. Every morning, photographers hike their gear along the 0.5-mile trail to the 1,200-foot-high cliff-side to watch the scene unfold, each vying for their own take of the classic shot. Photograper or not, this landmark is a must-see for any visitor to the park, just know that it is only at sunrise when you will see this magnificent light show.
Accessible adventure: One of the engineering marvels in the U.S. National Parks are the roads that were constructed, both recently and long ago, to enable visitors to experience America’s most special wilderness places.
The Island in the Sky paved scenic driving road is the easiest way to explore Canyonlands National Park in a short amount of time. It is the only paved road in this area of the park winding for 34 miles along the high mesa with panoramic views of the red rock wonderland stretching from the canyon bottom 1,000 feet below. The star of the show is at the end of the loop at the Grand View Point, the highest point on the mesa and a scene that is considered by many to be the best view found anywhere in the park.
Did you know?
Canyonlands was the 31st national park and was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Because of its twisted labyrinth of slot canyons, what is now known as The Maze was one of the last sections of the contiguous United States to be mapped. Mapping became easier once planes were invented.
Desert scenes from the film Thelma and Louise were captured in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
Canyonlands is one of 11 International Dark Sky Parks in the state of Utah. Others national parks with this designation include Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon.
…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.
—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands
The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry. A western movie icon. There are movie stars and then there are Hollywood legends. Clint Eastwood rose from a TV actor to an Oscar-winning filmmaker, forever making his mark on the entertainment industry as one of the greatest we’ll ever see. His moody glare has made his acting roles iconic and his undeniable directing skills have made him one of the most talented entertainers not only of his generation but ever.
Early on, Eastwood’s rise to fame can be tied to his starring roles in spaghetti western movies which are some of the most beloved from his lengthy resume. Though most of those were filmed overseas this Clint Eastwood-inspired road trip will take you around the United States to visit some other notable film sites from his legendary career.
Pale Rider – Boulder Mountains, Idaho
Eastwood has made a career starring in memorable westerns and this was one of the most popular of the ’80s. He stars as the mysterious Preacher, an enigmatic character who helps protect a struggling California mining town from treacherous prospectors. The title and Eastwood’s character are based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with a pale ghost rider portraying death itself. Eastwood even directed this epic western which was primarily filmed in the beautiful Boulder Mountains of Idaho despite taking place in California.
Bronco Billy – Treasure Valley in Boise, Oregon
Another solid ’80s western directed by and starring Eastwood is this action comedy. He stars as the title character and star of Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show, a traveling show similar to Buffalo Bill’s real western-themed show that traveled the world. Billy struggles to keep his show popular and relevant while dealing with declining interest from the public. Despite his best efforts to keep his team’s spirits up they seem to run into a series of bad luck after a spoiled heiress joins their group as Billy’s assistant. It’s funny, unique, and one of the least Clint Eastwood movies on his resume. The stunning Treasure Valley in Oregon served as the backdrop for filming.
There are a handful of roles that come to mind when you think of Eastwood and this is one of them. Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan gets assigned to a serial killer case on the SFPD, a case inspired by the real-life zodiac killer. Frequently recognized as one of the iconic films in Hollywood history it’s the ultimate ’70s action film whether or not you’re a die-hard Eastwood fan. Filming was kept as authentic as possible mostly taking place in San Francisco.
Outlaw Josey Wales – Kanab, Utah
Set after the Civil War, Eastwood directed and starred as Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer whose family gets murdered by Union soldiers during the war. He sets out on a war path of revenge on those who took his family joining up with a Confederate guerrilla band and earning a reputation as a feared gunslinging outlaw. It’s another incredibly iconic performance from the beloved star, especially in his repertoire of memorable westerns. Despite taking place in the Midwest the movie was filmed in the small Utah town of Kanab known for being a popular spot for western films. You can visit the town and see some fun Josey Wales memorabilia and filming spots.
Joe Kidd – Tucson, Arizona
Eastwood rocked the ’70s and ’80s with a slew of solid westerns. Joe Kidd was another standout with Eastwood starring as the bounty hunter Joe Kidd hired by a wealthy land baron to hunt down a Mexican revolutionary leader. Though set in New Mexico the movie was filmed in the state next door in Tucson, one of many western films to be shot at the historic Old Tucson Studios. It’s now a western theme park and tourist attraction you can visit but has been temporarily closed to the public since 2020.
Back in the ’60s, Eastwood was quickly becoming one of the biggest western stars in Hollywood. In Hang em High, he stars as an innocent man falsely accused of cattle rustling and sentenced to hang. He somehow survives the incident and becomes a lawman, later able to bring the men who falsely convicted him to justice for other crimes. The movie was filmed at the White Sands National Park where Eastwood allegedly did his own stunts including letting a horse drag him through the park with a noose around his neck.
Cry Macho – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Eastwood’s most recent film is this modern western which he directed and starred in. Based on the 1975 novel the movie follows an old rodeo star hired to reunite a young Mexican boy with his father (played by country singer Dwight Yoakam) in the U.S. The film follows the Texan rodeo star (Eastwood) as he travels across the Texas border and back but it was fully filmed in the city of Albuquerque.
Rawhide – Tucumcari, New Mexico
The western TV series that helped turn Eastwood into a star was shot all over California and parts of New Mexico. Multiple episodes were notably filmed on ranches in the Tucumcari area back in the late ’50s. The actor played the role of cattle driver Rowdy Yates for eight seasons notably gaining the attention of Italian director Sergio Leone who took his career to the next level by casting him in his historic spaghetti westerns.
The Beguiled – Napoleonville, Louisiana
In this 1971 thriller, Eastwood plays a wounded Union soldier seeking care from a southern girls’ school. The school matron holds him captive but becomes angered when he rejects her romantic advances. It becomes a psychological game of wits for the soldier to try and escape the school and make it back to his troop, but does he? The Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville served as the main filming location for the film which mostly takes place in the house itself. Real Union soldiers had a hospital on the plantation’s grounds during the Civil War.
Later in his career, Eastwood primarily focused on directing projects so when he stars in something you know it’s good. Trouble with the Curve follows an old baseball scout whose adult daughter joins him on his last scouting trip. It was the first time Eastwood starred in something he wasn’t directing himself since 2005. Eastwood’s character is a scout for the Atlanta Braves so the movie was fittingly filmed in the nearby city of Athens.
People love westerns worldwide. There’s something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time. There’s no organized laws and stuff.
Arizona hikes, rides, tours, and a local winery or two
All through the summer, Arizona has bounced between extremes—going from record-breaking heat to a deluge of monsoon storms. Since fall is not a season prone to anything quite that intense things should calm down. Autumn comforts even as it calls locals and returning snowbirds outside to play. Basking under big blue skies while reveling in mild sunshine, fall is a perfect time to go exploring.
For an incredible fall road trip, take the drive to the geographic center of Arizona, the Verde Valley. The wide valley stretches from Mingus Mountain to the Mogollon Rim, a lush transition zone separating the Sonoran Desert from the high country and slashed by the winding Verde River.
Scenic small towns full of personality are sprinkled throughout the valley just a few miles apart creating plenty of easily accessed options. Here are a few.
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
Nestled in the high desert of Camp Verde, Out of Africa Wildlife Park provides a sanctuary for hundreds of exotic animals and features dozens of large predators. The preserve spreads across 100 acres of rolling terrain on the slopes of the Black Hills. The large natural habitats eliminate stress-induced behavior.
Tiger Splash is Out of Africa’s signature show. There is no training and no tricks. The daily program is spontaneous, just animals frolicking with their caretakers. Fierce tigers engage in the sort of playful activities every housecat owner will recognize. It’s just the grand scale that makes it so impressive. Visitors can also take a narrated African Bush Safari and attend the Giant Snake Show.
Outside the park is Predator Zip Line which offers a two- to three-hour zip line tour across five lines and a suspension bridge high above the animals.
Wine Tasting in Cottonwood
Not long ago, Cottonwood was a sleepy little burg with much of its small downtown sitting vacant. Everything changed when vineyards and wineries sprang up on nearby hillsides with rich volcanic soil.
Wine-tasting rooms opened, one after another, and soon restaurants, shops, galleries, and boutique hotels followed. The businesses filled the Prohibition-era buildings fronted by covered sidewalks along the three blocks of Old Town.
Such a picturesque and compact setting makes Old Town Cottonwood a popular destination for lovers of wine and food since so much can be sampled by walking a block or two.
Walk the Streets of Jerome
Most everybody knows about Jerome, the mile-high town clinging to the steep slope of Cleopatra Hill. It was once known as the Billion Dollar Mining Camp for the incredible wealth pulled from the ground.
After the mines closed it became a rickety ghost town saved by enterprising hippies who turned it into a thriving artist community with fine art and crafts studios and galleries, cool boutiques, mining museums, historical buildings, eclectic inns, and B&Bs, and memorable restaurants and bars lining its narrow, winding streets.
From the high perch of Jerome, views stretch across the Verde Valley to the sandstone cliffs of Sedona. Music spills from saloons and eateries as visitors prowl the shops moving from one level of town to the next, pausing to read historic plaques and admire the Victorian architecture. Jerome feels cut off from the rest of the world. It’s one of those towns where it always feels like you’re on vacation.
Ride the Verde Canyon Railroad
Go off-road the old-fashioned way when you climb aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad and rumble into scenic backcountry. The train departs from the station in Clarkdale and travels into a high-walled canyon carved by the Verde River.
Cottonwood trees canopy the water and turn golden in the waning fall days. Such a rich riparian habitat lures a variety of wildlife, notably eagle, hawk, heron, mule deer, javelina, coyote, and beaver.
Vintage FP7 diesel locomotives provide the power. All passenger cars have panoramic windows and allow access to open-air viewing cars, where you’ll likely spend most of your time savoring fine fall days.
Hike in West Sedona
If you want to enjoy red rock scenery while avoiding some of the crowds and traffic issues, hike a few trails on the far edge of West Sedona.
The Western Gateway Trails at the end of Cultural Park Place weave together a series of interconnected pathways across juniper-clad slopes above Dry Creek. Signs with maps at every junction make for easy navigation.
The gentle Roundabout Trail, a 2-mile loop, provides a quick introduction to the area as it branches off from the paved Centennial Trail and swings through shady woodlands and past a couple of small boulder fields. Curling back, it traces the edge of the mesa overlooking Dry Creek with views north of Cockscomb, Doe Mountain, and Bear Mountain.
You can create a slightly longer loop (3.3 miles) by combining the Stirrup and Saddle Up trails. After crossing an arroyo the route climbs to the top of a plateau where the views stretch to Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock at the other end of town.
If you want a little more of a workout, the Schuerman Mountain Trail can be accessed across the road from Sedona High School. It climbs at a moderate uphill slant to the top of an old volcano, now eroded into a rangy mesa.
There’s a great view of Cathedral Rock from the first overlook. It’s a 2-mile round-trip if you make this your turnaround. If you’re in a rambling mood, the trail continues across the broad back of the mountain, golden grasslands dotted with juniper and pine trees.
Apartment House of the Ancients
Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top. The placement of rooms on the south-facing cliff helps regulate summer and winter temperatures. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night.
A short self-guided loop trail leads from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and catclaw mimosa trees along spring-fed Beaver Creek. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.
The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.
Drive 11 miles north to see the Montezuma Well which is part of the national monument. Along with the limestone sinkhole, cliff dwellings, and irrigation channels are characteristic of the prehistoric people who lived in the area. The water in the well which is 386 feet across has high levels of arsenic and other chemicals but it still supports endemic species such as water scorpions, snails, mud turtles, and leeches.
An Ancient Village on the Hill
Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. An interesting fact is that Tuzigoot lacked ground level doors having roof-accessed doors instead.
The site is currently comprised of 42 acres that includes the hilltop pueblo, cliffs, and ridges in the valley and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River. A paved, fully accessible trail takes you through the pueblo giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed and you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.
Tuzigoot can be found in Clarkdale, Arizona, just west of Montezuma Castle and just north of Jerome. Visiting Tuzigoot is definitely worth your while!
To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.
Favorite ways to see this region’s geological wonders, surreal sunsets, and wide-open spaces
Edward Abbey who immortalized the Southwest in his writing would be turning over in his grave in Cabeza Prieta Wilderness west of Tucson, Arizona if he knew that Arches National Park had to temporarily close its gates in mid-October because capacity was maxed out. The famous monkey wrencher saved a special venomous wrath for the kind of tourist who drove from one viewpoint to the next only to snap a photo and move on.
But Abbey who was a ranger at Arches in Utah for two summers in the 1950s (when it was still a monument) also understood that there’s no better region than the Southwest, a place of mind-bending geology, impossibly living fauna, ferocious wide-open spaces, a sublime light, and millennia of human history to clear the mind and make peace with the soul.
I have spent 10 winters in the Southwest and believe everyone can benefit from the solace and adventure these majestic landscapes provide. We all, however, need to grapple with how to responsibly recreate within them. If you choose to wander this wide-ranging southwestern road trip starts in Tucson and ends at Big Bend National Park and hits icons and off-the-beaten-path places providing an itinerary to the best of the region. It’s ridiculous how much jaw-dropping splendor there is on this trip.
In the words of Abbey: “For god sake folks… take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamn idiotic cameras… stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—walk upon our sweet and blessed land!”
Might I politely add: leave no trace, BYO water, and respect those who came before you?
Route: Tucson, Arizona to Patagonia, Arizona
Distance: 64.8 miles
Your base camp: Patagonia
Patagonia, a no-frills mining and ranching town 20 miles north of the Mexican border cropped up in the middle of Pima, Tohono O’odham, and Apache territory in the late 19th century. It has been a beloved destination for birders almost ever since.
Adventures in Patagonia
Hikers and trail runners have easy access to the summits of 9,456-foot Mount Wrightson and the historical fire lookout station at the top of 6,373-foot Red Mountain.
What has more recently put Patagonia on the map is its mountain bike and gravel cycling with 30 miles of new singletrack right from downtown on the Temporal Gulch Trail and endless miles of dirt roads in the San Rafael Valley. Take note: the Spirit World 100 gravel road race takes place the first weekend of November and sells out fast.
The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a place to explore and experience the special birds of southeast Arizona. It is dedicated to the celebration and conservation of hummingbirds—and all of southeast Arizona’s astounding biodiversity. Two hundred twelve bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of Patagonia including Violet-crowned hummingbirds, gray hawks, varied buntings, thick-billed kingbirds, and many more local specialties.
Considered a hidden treasure of southeastern Arizona, Patagonia Lake is a manmade body of water created by the damming of Sonoita Creek. The 265-acre lake cuts a vivid blue swath through the region’s brown and amber hills. Hikers can also stroll along the creek trail and see birds such as the canyon towhee, Inca dove, vermilion flycatcher, black vulture, and several species of hummingbirds.
Where to Stay
The Gravel House is built for small groups of cyclists with a straw-bale house that sleeps six and a wood-framed studio that sleeps two. Both have kitchens and share outdoor space to wrench on bikes or celebrate post-ride with a cocktail.
For a unique place to camp in the area, Patagonia Lake State Park features seven camping cabins with beautiful views of the lake. The 105 developed campsites offer a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV.
Where to Eat and Drink
Chef Hilda at the Patagonia Lumber Company serves a delicious menu filled with Sonoran specialties like fresh tamales, Carne adovada tacos, and barbacoa.
The new Queen of Cups restaurant and winery offers fresh pasta dishes and three house-made wines on the menu.
The Best Detour
Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a must-stop destination for travelers who want to learn more about the fragile yet resilient ecosystem they are traveling through. A highlight includes daily Raptor Free Flights where birds only native to the Sonoran Desert like the Chihuahuan raven, Harris’s hawk, and great horned owl fly free while an expert describes their attributes, habitats, and behaviors.
Route: Patagonia, Arizona to Big Bend National Park, Texas
Distance: 624 miles
Your base camp: Terlingua, Texas
It might take you a few days to get to Terlingua because there are a lot of fun detours along the way (see below). But the wait is worth it. This town, once 2,000 inhabitants were strong and rich with cinnabar from which miners extracted mercury in the late 19th century now stands by its claim as one of the most popular ghost towns in Texas with 110 residents. It is now 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.
Adventures in Terlingua
Sitting six miles west of the entrance of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua offers easy access to the 801,163-acre park’s offerings including rafting or kayaking the Rio Grande River, hiking the Chisos Mountains, or road cycling its low-traffic paved highways.
Just west of Terlingua is the storied mountain biking in Big Bend Ranch State Park including the challenging 59-mile Fresno-Sauceda IMBA Epic route known for long, steep, technical, and rocky climbs and descents. Heavy rains have washed out much of the park’s trails so check in with Desert Sports whose owners Mike Long and Jim Carrico (a former superintendent of Big Bend) provide a wealth of knowledge about where and where not to go and offer shuttles, guides, and equipment.
Where to Stay
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.
Where to Eat and Drink
Stop at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon, sit on the front porch, and sip a beer then head inside for tequila-marinated Texas quail, a Scorpion margarita, and a rollicking night of live music.
The Best Detour
Chiricahua National Monument is 131 miles northeast of Patagonia. Stretch your legs on the 7.3-mile-long Heart of Rocks Loop that surpasses the most unusual formations in the monument including the aptly named Pinnacle Balanced Rock which looks like it might topple over any second.
Three hundred eighty-two miles east of Chiricahaua is New Mexico’s White Sands National Park home of the world’s largest gypsum sand dunes. Take a ranger-guided hike to Lake Lucero to understand how the dunes are formed. Bring a tent and grab a backcountry permit at the visitor’s center (available the day of camping only) to sleep among the dunes preferably under a full moon.
We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime.