Top 5 National Park Sites To Visit in New Mexico this Spring (2024)

New Mexico’s newest national park tops the list with more than half a million visitors last year

Some of New Mexico’s highest mountains and deepest caves are preserved for residents and visitors to the state alike via the National Park Service (NPS).

The Service has two national parks in New Mexico along with nine national monuments, two national historic parks, and one national preserve.

Millions of people flock to these sites every year as New Mexico’s mostly mild winter gives way to a hotter spring and often sweltering summer.

Here are the Top 5 popular National Park Service destinations based on visitation data from 2023.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park – 729,096 visitors

White Sands was a national monument since 1933 before being designated a national park in 2019.

It’s situated just west of Alamogordo and northeast of Las Cruces in south-central New Mexico alongside White Sands Missile Range.

The park is known for its namesake, the white gypsum sand dunes that sprawl across it’s about 145,000 acres.

Visitors can hike, camp, or even sled along the iconic dunes.

Here are some helpful resources:

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park – 394,121 visitors

About 700 feet beneath southeast New Mexico is the Carlsbad Caverns known for enormous underground rock formations and thousands of stalactites and stalagmites that wowed visitors since they were discovered in 1898.

Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923 and a national park in 1930.  

The park is amid the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains in the southeast corner of New Mexico just outside Carlsbad to its east.

Most visitors opt to travel underground via a hike down the cavern’s natural entrance or a ride down the park’s massive elevator shaft to view the iconic formations but there are also hiking trails and other recreation opportunities on the surface.

Here are some articles to help:

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument – 314,528 visitors

Ancient drawings and indigenous symbols survive today in New Mexico from 400 to 700 years ago at Petroglyph National Monument.

The monument is just outside Albuquerque amid the city’s West Mesa, a volcanic escarpment seen by all those who visit New Mexico’s largest urban area.

Hiking trails can take visitors alongside petroglyphs for a glimpse into the past and the lives of Native Americans and Spanish settlers who carved the symbols into the volcanic rocks.

That’s why I wrote this article: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument.

Bandelier National Monument – 199,501 visitors

Ancient pueblos once dwelled in the 33,000 acres protected at Bandelier National Monument north of Santa Fe and just outside Santa Fe National Forest.

The monument is sacred to the state’s indigenous community and presents an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with New Mexico’s past and enjoy breathtaking mountain views.

Bandelier can get snow throughout winter and early spring until May but visitors can journey to the monument all year for short hiking trails amid the remains of ancient dwellings.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument – 167,107 visitors

Volcanic terrains are a rare sight throughout the U.S. but can be enjoyed at El Malpais National Monument which is situated between the Acoma Pueblo and Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.

Geologic features like lava flows, cinder cones, lava tube cave, and sandstone bluffs are all available to enjoy at the monument.

Visitors can find short to challenging hikes, scenic overlooks, and journey underground to explore the area’s cave systems.

The name was given by early Spanish explorers who encountered the lava flows and  it translates to the badlands or bad country.

If you need ideas, check out:

Five other National Park sites to visit in New Mexico

Capulin Volcano National Monument – 88,514 visitors

  • Region: Northeast New Mexico
  • Closest city: Raton
  • Activities: Hiking, auto tours

Valles Caldera National Preserve – 76,090 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Los Alamos
  • Activities: Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, hunting, camping
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument – 54,836 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Grants
  • Activities: Hiking, camping

Pecos National Historic Park – 50,709 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Pecos
  • Activities: Museum, hiking, guided tours, fishing in the Pecos River
Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument – 47,554 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Aztec
  • Activities: Hiking, historic trails, Heritage Garden

What missed the list?

  • Chaco Culture National Historic Park – 40,198 visitors
  • Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument – 39,556 visitors
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings – 33,973 visitors
  • Fort Union National Monument – 9,570 visitors

More New Mexico travel stories

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

15 Fascinating Historic Sites in the American Southwest 

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

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

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

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Montezuma Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona

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

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

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

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Four Corners Monument, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

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

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

Palace of the Governors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Plan your next trip to Santa Fe with these resources:

Whiskey Row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Whiskey Row, Prescott, Arizona

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

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

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

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

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

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

If you need ideas, check out:

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mesa Verde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos, Colorado

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

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

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

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

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chinle, Arizona

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

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

Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see the original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico

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

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, Arizona

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

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

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

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

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

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

12. Coronado Historic Site, Bernalillo, New Mexico

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

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

Hovenweep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

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

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

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

Here are some helpful resources:

Tuzigoot Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Tumacacori © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tumacácori, Arizona

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Miriam Beard

The Best National Parks to Visit in October

Wondering where to travel in October? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in October!

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

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

In October, fall colors sweep across much of the United States. The majority of the parks that you will see on this list are parks that are ablaze in fall colors. Some of these are obvious picks such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains but a few may surprise you. In this guide, I list six beautiful national parks to visit in October plus four bonus parks and a road trip to link several of these together.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Visiting the National Parks in October

From mid-September through November, the leaves change from green to vivid hues of yellow, orange, and red across much of the United States. To see these brilliant fall colors, October is the best month of the year to plan your national parks road trip.

On this list are parks that show off some sort of fall colors and some are more spectacular than others. Shenandoah National Park is gorgeous this time of year and one of the top national parks to visit to see fall colors. But there are also parks like Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt that put on a show which are places that you might not associate with fall colors.

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

Best National Parks in October

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse through the park.

Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in October. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the kaleidoscope of fall colors.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Shenandoah in October: The last two weeks of October are prime time to visit the park to see fall colors. Plus, the weather is perfect for hiking.

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 40°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and October is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison, pronghorn, and other wildlife from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt is a relatively quiet park to visit all year. We visited in early October and had an awesome experience. The weather was still warm, crowds were very low, and the hint of fall colors was a nice bonus.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in October: The weather is getting cooler but this is a beautiful time to visit the park. The trees turn a nice shade of yellow adding a splash of fall color to the park. 

Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 30°F. On hotter than average days, the temperature can get up into the 80s. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan Your Visit

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

3. New River Gorge National Park

Location: West Virginia

Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. There is some debate among geologists about the age of this river with estimates ranging from 3 to 360 million years. During this time, the river carved out a 73,000 acre gorge in West Virginia. The sandstone cliffs and whitewater rapids create world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destinations. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through the forests leading to overlooks and historic settlements.

There are two big reasons why New River Gorge is one of the best national parks to visit in October: Bridge Day and, you guessed it, fall colors.

On the third Saturday in October (October 21, 2023), the New River Gorge Bridge closes to traffic and opens to pedestrians. This is one of the largest extreme sporting events in the world. On Bridge Day, BASE jumpers leap from the bridge and rappelers ascend and descend from the catwalk. There is also a zipline that runs from the bridge to Fayette Station Road (the High Line) that you can sign up for in advance.

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

Why visit New River Gorge in October: To participate in Bridge Day and to see fall colors in the park. For peak colors, plan your visit for the last week in October into early November.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 46°F. October is one of the driest months of the year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 6:45 pm.

Top experiences: Do the Bridge Walk, hike the Long Point Trail, drive Fayette Station Road, go mountain biking and rock climbing, enjoy the view from Grandview Overlook, hike the Castle Rock Trail, and visit Sandstone Falls.

Ultimate adventure: Go white water rafting on the New River (rafting season is April through October).

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

How many days do you need? If you want to visit the three main areas of New River Gorge National Park (Canyon Rim, Grandview and Sandstone) and have enough time to go whitewater rafting, you will need three to four days. However, with less time, you can visit the highlights and hike a few of the trails.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Zion National Park is one of the best places in the United States to go hiking.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion is a busy park to visit all year round but in October visitation begins to ease at least a little bit. And October with its warm weather and splash of fall colors is a gorgeous time to go hiking in Zion.

October is also a great time to visit the rest of Utah’s Mighty 5: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyons National Parks.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in October: For fewer crowds, some fall colors, and pleasant hiking weather. If you have plans to hike the Zion Narrows, this is a good time of year to do it. The water temperature is still relatively warm and the water level is low, prime conditions for doing this hike.

Weather: The average high is 78°F and the average low is 50°F. On unusually warm days the temperature can get into the 90s. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 6:50 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook.

Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you need? If you plan to hike, spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

The colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country. Bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep roam this larg mixed-grass prairie region. The sunrises and sunsets are magical, the hiking trails are short and sweet, and for those looking for more solitude, you can take your pick from a handful of backcountry experiences.

This is not a park that you might expect to see some fall colors but in October there are a few trees in the gullies their colors as they turn yellow and red.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Badlands in October: For fantastic weather, few crowds, and the chance to see some fall colors. 

Weather: The average high is 65°F and the average low is 38°F. On unusually warm days, it can get into the 80s. October is the end of the rainy season with 1.5 inches of rain.

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

Top experiences: Drive Badlands Loop Road and visit the overlooks, watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, hike the Notch Trail, hike the Door and Fossil Exhibit Trails, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, hike the Castle Trail, and count how many bison you can find.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate experience, venture into the backcountry. In Badlands National Park, you are permitted to hike off-trail and the Sage Creek Wilderness and Deer Haven Wilderness are great places to go hiking and spot wildlife.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? One day in Badlands National Park gives you just enough time to visit the highlights and hike a few short trails. Make sure you catch either sunrise or sunset in the park because these are one of the best times of day to look out across the landscape. To fully experience the park add an additional day or two and be sure to make a pit stop at nearby Wall Drug.

Plan your visit

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

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 12.9 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).

This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in October: For great weather for hiking and an array of fall colors.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 41°F. Rainfall is about 5 inches for October which is one of the driest months of the year. 

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

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in October

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

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. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

October road trip idea

South Dakota Road Trip

With one week, you can go on a road trip in South Dakota visiting Badlands and Wind Cave National Park. Add on Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and even Devils Tower for an epic road trip. The aforementioned Minuteman Missile National Historic Site a few miles from Badlands National Park.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Road Trip Love: Take a Look at 25 of the Prettiest Little Towns in America

From coastal towns to southern gems, these idylls are worth a visit

I am always dreaming of taking a road trip, somewhere, anywhere. Do you ever find yourself staring out the window and wishing you could hop in the RV and drive away?

When you find yourself having moments like this, where do you imagine yourself driving? Do you envision a desert town or a beachfront campground? Or maybe it’s the drive itself you’re most jazzed about.

One of my favorite road trip destinations is traveling to pretty small towns that offer a unique experience in a lovely setting without necessarily having to brave a gazillion people once I get there.

If that is something to which you can relate, I’ve done a little research on some of the prettiest little towns in America. Let’s take a quick photographic tour. Cuz hey, even if you can’t head out on the open road immediately, you can at least make some travel plans so you’re ready to launch when you are.

And research shows that even just PLANNING a trip can be a mood booster. Isn’t that an encouraging thought? I think so! And while many others could be added to this list, let’s simply start with these.

OK, here are 25 of the prettiest little towns you ever did see.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Berea, Kentucky

Known as the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is a dynamic spot for creators and craftspeople working across a variety of media. Many sell their wares at galleries along Chestnut Street and in both the Artisan Village and the Kentucky Artisan Center. 

Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 2. Wetumpka, Alabama

Put your finger on the middle of a map of Alabama and you’re likely to land on Wetumpka. Just north of Montgomery, this town is known as the The City of Natural Beauty and it’s easy to see why: Visitors love canoeing and kayaking on the nearby Coosa River and enjoying the green spaces on walks and picnics. Don’t miss Swayback Bridge Trail (for hiking), Corn Creek Park (for birding, fishing, and waterfall watching), and William Bartram Arboretum (to see local flora and fauna).

To learn more about Wetumpka, read The Inspirational Transformation of Wetumpka, Alabama

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Aztec, New Mexico

Known by the Navajo as Kinteel (wide horse), this town’s names come from Escalante’s misguided notion during his visit to the San Juan Basin. He stumbled across the ruins of the Aztec National Monument and thought it was built by the Aztec Indians (though they were built by the Anasazi). 

History lives here at Aztec, especially along its downtown core which is complete with a host of historical buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Otherwise, this San Juan County community is packed with natural wonders and historical monuments, perfect for activities such as fishing, mountain biking, or hiking.

To learn more about Aztec National Monument, you can read The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Schulenburg, Texas

Known as the town that’s halfway to everywhere, Schulenberg is a great small town between Houston and San Antonio. This quiet, cozy spot of just over 2,600 people is usually used as a stopover for those long road trips in Texas but it deserves more time on any itinerary.

Schulenberg was founded by Czech, Austrian, and German settlers in the mid-nineteenth century making it the perfect home for the Texas Polka Museum and a great place to try Czech kolaches (I recommend Kountry Bakery) or German schnitzel.

Downtown, you can dance the night away at Sengelmann Hall, a fully restored Texas dance hall that still has its original pinewood floors from 1894!

One of the local highlights is a stunning series of Painted Churches that some say rival the cathedrals of Europe.

To learn more about Schulenburg, read Halfway to Everywhere: Schulenburg

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 5. Murphys, California

In California’s historic Gold Country, Murphys is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and boasts a historic Main Street lined with wine bars and tasting rooms, restaurants, and boutiques. The picturesque town park is a popular place to have a creekside picnic after visiting several of the town’s historic sites where you can delve into the history of the Gold Rush. Don’t miss the Murphys Hotel whose famous guests have included writer Mark Twain. 

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Bisbee, Arizona

Bisbee is a funky artist haven with copper mining town roots. It sits nearly a mile high in the Mule Mountains which means it’s 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in the summer here than it is in Arizona’s major cities. Victorian homes and buildings are perched precariously on the town’s steep mountainside which has over 350 staircases carved right into it for access.  

Discover Bisbee’s past by visiting the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and taking the Queen Mine Tour. The tour will bring visitors underground to explore the mine on an ore ride while they learn more about the stories of the miners who worked here. Those who have an interest in the paranormal can book one of several ghost tours in Bisbee to hear the eerily fascinating reports of unexplained happenings and even sightings of spirits donning Victorian attire. Public art features prominently throughout town, from colorful murals and mosaic walls to cars that have been transformed into unique works of art.

Roswell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Roswell, New Mexico

Chaves County’s community of Roswell is known among tourists for the reported site of an extraterrestrial sighting and spacecraft crash in 1947. Believers of the extraterrestrial flock to Roswell every July for the UFO Encounter Festival.

Visitors can admire the extensive UFO memorabilia and related activities at Roswell including exhibits at the International UFO Museum and Research Center and the souvenirs at the Invasion Station Gift Shop. 

Besides being famous as an alien town, Roswell is also a hub of cultural activities and local history given it was once the original homeland of the Mescalero Apaches and the Comanche’s hunting grounds.

To learn more about Roswell and the UFO Festival you can read What Really Happened at Roswell? and A Giant UFO Festival with All the Outer Space Vibes.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Mesilla, New Mexico

While Mesilla exists as a small New Mexico town today, it was once a major stop for traveling between San Antonio and San Diego. Once visitors step into Mesilla they will feel like they stepped in time as the town remains mostly unchanged since its heyday in the 1800s! 

Explore the San Albino Church in the town plaza, which stands as Mesilla Valley’s oldest (and still active) church. This town is also lively thanks to its offerings of unique boutiques, galleries, wineries, and specialty eateries!

To learn more about Mesilla, read La Mesilla: Where History and Culture Become an Experience and Old Mesilla: Where Time Stood Still.

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Mount Dora, Florida

Once a haven for hunting and fishing enthusiasts arriving by steamboat to escape chilly northern winters, today’s visitors flock to Mount Dora just 40 minutes northeast of bustling Orlando to play on 4,500-acre Lake Dora and see wildlife but also to shop for antiques, soak up the vibrant art scene, and stroll the historic downtown. 

With its live oaks, lovely inns, and quaint shops, Mount Dora offers a nostalgic taste of Old Florida. Head to Palm Island Park to stroll a boardwalk surrounded by old-growth trees and lush foliage or spend an afternoon hitting the many nearby antique shops. 

Just a bit north of Palm Island Boardwalk is Grantham Point Park, home to one of Florida’s few freshwater lighthouses. The 35-foot-tall lighthouse is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks and a great place to watch boaters and enjoy the sunset.

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Fairhope, Alabama

When Otis Redding sat down to pen The Dock of the Bay he may have been dreaming about Fairhope. The bayside spot is populated by ethereal live oaks, brilliant azalea bushes, pastel-colored bungalows, and brick sidewalks traversing a lively downtown. 

There are many reasons to visit Fairhope, especially in the off-season. If you love the Gulf Coast, there are few places more scenic with historic homes on streets lined with live oaks and a charming, walkable downtown. Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook Mobile Bay, so you’re never far from a view of the water. 

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Given the millions of people who visit this area every year, the actual size of Gatlinburg which comes in at fewer than 4,000 residents escapes many travelers. Despite the high-season influxes, it’s the area’s homey Appalachian charm that helps draw all of the visitors here in the first place. The village has continued to evolve with a variety of new attractions joining the perennially popular pancake houses, candy shops, and craft galleries. 

To learn more on Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, read Smoky Mountain Day Trips from Gatlinburg and Springtime in the Smokies.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Helen, Georgia

The South holds its own in terms of small towns packing more than their weight in charm—but Helen, Georgia, really hammers that point home. With around 550 residents and only 2.1 square miles, it’s undoubtedly tiny. But the steeply pitched roofs, quaint cross-gables, and colorful half-timbering make the authentic Bavarian village enchanting. It looks straight out of fairytale dreams but sits in the mountains of Georgia.

Helen’s Oktoberfest celebrations have been going on for more than 50 years involving multiple weeks of traditional dancing, food, and beer from September through October. Held in the city’s riverside Festhalle, the permanent home of the festivities, the celebration is the longest-running of its kind in the United States. Helen’s Oktoberfest runs from Thursday to Sunday through September and daily from September 28 to October 29, 2023.

Alamogordo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Alamogordo, New Mexico

Nestled in the high desert on the base of the Sacramento Mountains in Otero County, this southern New Mexico community gets an average of 287 days of sun giving visitors plenty of sunlight to enjoy a collection of thrilling activities.

Play a round of golf at the Desert Lake Golf Course, admire the mechanics of the F-117 Nighthawk at the Holloman Air Force Base, or feel the soft sands at the nearby White Sands National Park. This New Mexico destination is also home to several family-friendly attractions, including the Alameda Park Zoo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. 

Before you leave Alamogordo, don’t forget to stop by the world’s largest pistachio which is located near the world’s largest gypsum dune.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Bardstown, Kentucky

Rand McNally and USA Today called it the Most Beautiful Small Town in America. But Bardstown, Kentucky, is much more than just a pretty face. This Bourbon Capital of the World is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s Official Outdoor Drama, one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums, and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.

 If you’re looking to get away and take it easy for a couple of days or longer or for a home base for your pilgrimage along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this is the ideal location.

Learn more about Bardstown by reading Bardstown Sets the Stage for Spirited Memories and Step Back Into Time at My Old Kentucky Home.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Shiner, Texas

Speaking of beloved American beverages… Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week where visitors can see how every last drop of their popular brews gets made. 

Tours and samples are available for a small fee. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer to states across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

To learn more about Shiner and Spoetzel Brewery, read A Toast to Texas History.

Bay St. Louis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Just 51 miles away from the one-of-a-kind hub that is New Orleans, Bay St. Louis couldn’t feel further from the hustle and bustle. The town’s prime spot on the Mississippi Sound, an embayment of the Gulf of Mexico, provides a glorious stretch of white-sanded beach with virtually no crowds. This strip of shoreline is known as Mississippi’s Secret Coast.

Just off of Beach Boulevard, you’ll find Old Town Bay St. Louis, a walkable area full of local shops and eateries. Spend an afternoon strolling through Old Town, browsing the beach boutiques and art galleries. Plan your trip to be in town on the second Saturday of each month when Old Town puts on a giant art walk complete with live music, local merchants, and other special events.

To learn more about this charming town, read Bay St. Louis: A Place Apart.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Marietta, Ohio

The oldest town in Ohio, Marrieta gets its name from the infamous Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. Marietta was the first settlement of the Northwest Territory which was all of the land west of Pennsylvania, northwest of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River. The end of the Revolutionary War saw the establishment of this territory in 1787.

A group of pioneers settled and founded Marietta in 1788. The town was easy to access by boat due to its placement on the banks of two major rivers. One of the early industries of the area was boat-building. Boats built in Marietta made their way down to New Orleans and often into the Gulf of Mexico. The town also made steamboats and furniture but much of their industry began to focus on brickmaking, sawmills, iron mills, and, eventually foundries.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Port Aransas, Texas

Hurricane Harvey caused major damage here in 2017, but nothing can keep this resilient coastal town down. Port A remains one of the state’s main spots for deep-sea fishing and dolphin watching and its 18 miles of beautiful beaches continue to attract returning visitors and new residents.

Stowe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Stowe, Vermont

This impossibly quaint Green Mountain town has all the makings of a Norman Rockwell painting—right down to the general store. But there’s more to Stowe than simple pleasures. Not only does Stowe have Vermont’s tallest peak making it one of the East Coast’s most popular (and powder-friendly) ski destinations, but it’s also home to the Trapp Family Lodge, an Austrian-style chalet owned by the family immortalized in The Sound of Music.

Have a sweet tooth? The Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory is nearby in Waterbury. Be sure to book a maple syrup tasting at one of the local sugar farms to get a real sense of Vermont’s long and storied maple sugaring industry.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Enjoy the quaint yet lively Breaux Bridge. Known as the Crawfish Capital of the World, the small town of Breaux Bridge offers rich history, world-class restaurants, and a very lively Cajun and Zydeco music and art industry.

Breaux Bridge is also home to the world-famous Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival which is celebrated every May (May 5-7, 2023). This is to pay homage to the sea creature that brought fame and wealth to the town.

Aside from being a popular stopover, you might also want to stay in the quaint town for a couple of days.

Woods Hole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Woods Hole, Massachusetts

The quaint New England village of Woods Hole lies at the far southwestern tip of Cape Cod with Buzzards Bay to its west and Vineyard Sound to its east. Because of its excellent harbor, Woods Hole became a center for whaling, shipping, and fishing before its dominance today through tourism and marine research.

Woods Hole is a small village and is easily strolled. The village is a world center for marine, biomedical, and environmental science. It houses two large, private organizations: the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. A total of 49 Nobel Laureates have taught, taken courses, or done research at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Woodstock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Woodstock, New York

To assume that Woodstock is only notable for its namesake 1969 music festival would be a major blunder—the festivities weren’t even held within city limits. In reality, Woodstock is a quaint little Catskills oasis where residents prop up an art, religion, music, and theater scene worthy of national attention. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild continues to attract artists hoping to retreat from city life and hone their craft and visitors can tour the grounds and see where magic was made.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Medora, North Dakota

One would think getting Broadway-quality performers to spend their summers in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota would be tough. But it’s barely a chore when you’re drawing them to quaint Medora, home of the Medora Musical and gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The once-depressed cattle town was brought back to life when businessman Harold Shafer sunk millions into it turning it into an Old West Revival that avoids being too campy. Saloons and steakhouses offer stellar food; day hikes along the Pancratz Trail, just outside the Badlands Motel offer sweeping views; and a trip to the Burning Hills Amphitheater—a sort of Hollywood Bowl in the Badlands—is a must for musicals and steak-on-a-pitchfork dinner. The entire town obliterates expectations of what one would expect to find in North Dakota.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Jacksonville, Oregon

Life slows a pace or two in quaint, historic Jacksonville. Steeped in history, the entire town of Jacksonville is designated a National Historic Landmark. Explore the roots of the area from the days of the 1850’s gold rush to now through a variety of historical tour options including a self-guided walking tour as well as trolley and haunted history tours. A quintessential western town, you’ll find yourself enthralled in how things used to be.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. La Conner, Washington

La Conner is one of those places in Washington State that people love to visit—time and time again. The reasons are many, but one that stands out is that La Conner is a quaint, historic waterfront village.

This riverfront town has a lovely setting located on the Swinomish Channel overlooking Fidalgo Island with plenty of waterfront restaurants.

Downtown La Conner has a wonderfully preserved Historic District with 27 vintage buildings from the 1860s to the early 1900s. Many of these were constructed during La Conner’s heyday in the 1890s when it was a major steamboat hub between Seattle and Bellingham.  

Get more tips for visiting La Conner: La Conner: Charming, Picturesque & Quaint.

Worth Pondering…

I say half your life is spent trying to get out of a small town and the other half trying to get back to one.

—Anon

The Best National Parks to Visit in September

Wondering where to travel in September? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in September!

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

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

September is one of the best months of the year to visit the national parks. The weather is fantastic across much of the US, the busy summer season is coming to an end and in some parks you can see the first of the fall colors. In this guide, I list five of the best national parks to visit plus four bonus parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

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

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

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

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in September

In my opinion, September is one of the best months of the year to plan a national parks trip. In September, the weather is still warm and the snow has melted on the higher elevation trails. After Labor Day, crowds get lower in the national parks now that children are back in school.

During September, you can visit almost any national park and have a great experience. The parks in the northern half of the US are still relatively warm and the roads are still open. In warmer climates like Utah and Arizona, September is still a hot month to visit but not as bad as June through August especially if you can delay your visit to the end of the month. And in a few places, you can even catch the first fall colors at the end of September.

I recommend avoiding Everglades and Congaree in September as they tend to be hot, humid, and swarming with mosquitoes.

For this guide, I could have listed 30 great parks to visit in September since there are so many good options. Instead, I list five of the very best parks to visit with more suggestions at the end of this guide.

Let’s get started.

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

Best National Parks in September

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison and other wildlife right from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in September: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s weather is defined by the seasons. Summers are warm with occasional hot periods. Thunderstorms occur in the afternoons. Spring and fall are mild. Winters can be quite cold with high winds.

Weather: Although some days will be in the 80s, the average high is 74°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is low with only 1.3 inches of rain falling in September.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 5 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan your visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: New Mexico

An underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels is located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.

From late May through October you can watch the Bat Flight program. At the Bat Flight Amphitheater, grab a seat and watch as the bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave. The best time to see the bats is in August and September when the baby bats join the show. The Bat Flight Program takes place every evening and it is weather dependent.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in September: To watch the Bat Flight Program when bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave.

Weather: Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a semiarid climate with generally mild winters and warm to hot summers. In September, the average high is 83°F and the average low is 60°F. September is one of the wettest months of the year with 2.9 inches of rainfall. The average temperature throughout the cave is 68°F and the relative humidity remains close to a constant 100 percent.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 7:40 pm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Plan Your Visit

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking traverse the park.

Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in September. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the valleys below.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Shenandoah in September: The fall colors begin the last two two weeks of September in the higher elevations. Plus, the weather is perfect for sightseeing and hiking.

Weather: The average high is 66°F and the average low is 58°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and September is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day, visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

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

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, over 12 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4 million visitors).

This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in September: For great weather for hiking and the beginning of fall colors.

Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 52°F. Rainfall is about 4 inches for September which is one of the driest months of the year. 

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

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on weekends. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Mesa Verde National Park

Location: Colorado

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.

Why visit Mesa Verde in September: Fall is one of the best times of year to visit Mesa Verde. There are fewer visitors in the park than during summer and cooler temperatures make conditions more comfortable for hiking and other activities. September brings sunny days, pleasant temperatures, and fewer rainy days.

Weather: The average high is 75°F and the average low is 48°F. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Take a ranger guided tour of a cliff dwelling, see the Spruce Tree House, hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, drive Mesa Top Loop, explore the Far View sites, and hike the Point Lookout Trail.

How many days do you need? One to two days are all you need to take a cliff dwelling tour and go on the scenic drives through the park. Consider spending a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. 

Plan your visit

Bonus! More parks to visit

As stated earlier, September is a great time to visit just about any of the US national parks.

In the east, September is a beautiful time of year to visit New River Gorge National Park.

In the west, the list is long and includes Pinnacles, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Badlands.

September is still a bit warm for Utah’s Mighty 5 and the American Southwest but the later you go, the cooler it will be. I prefer October into November for these parks.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in September

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

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

National park-like amenities tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon, Georgia is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Change of Seasons

The summer solstice is today

‘Tis the solstice…and you know what that means! Well, I hope you know what that means because I don’t.

Well, literally it means that it’s the longest day of the year so pack in all the activities you can. You’ve got all the time in the world. Visit a museum, set out on a cross-county RV road trip, run a marathon, make pie from scratch, go to an indoor surfing fitness class, head out on a hike, climb a mountain (any mountain will do), swim across the lake (any lake will do), brainstorm what to do with those extra minutes of sunlight. Now is your chance!

Helena, Montana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today is the summer solstice, aka the longest day and shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Forecast: burnt hotdogs, fireworks, and sunniest warm day you could even imagine.

It is the day on which:

  • The Northern Hemisphere has its longest day
  • The Northern Hemisphere has its shortest night
  • The Northern Hemisphere has the most direct intense solar radiation
  • The sun will be directly overhead at noon as viewed from the Tropic of Cancer
  • Any location north of the Arctic Circle has 24 hours of sunshine
  • The North Pole has been receiving 24 hours of sunshine every day since March 21—yes, the past three months

Today is the summer solstice, aka the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year. In terms of astronomy, the June solstice marks the sun’s northernmost point in our sky for the year. The sun rises the farthest north on the horizon—and is highest in the sky at local noon.

For the Southern Hemisphere, it marks the longest nights and shortest days. After this solstice, the sun will be moving southward in the sky again.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a solstice?

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and stitium (still or stopped). Ancient cultures knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. In fact, they built monuments to follow the sun’s yearly progress.

The solstice is a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky. Some 5,000 years ago, people placed huge stones in a circle on a broad plain in what’s now England and aligned them with the June solstice sunrise.

Creek Indian houses, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We may never comprehend the full significance of Stonehenge. But we do know that knowledge of this sort wasn’t limited to just one part of the world. Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you’d see the sun set exactly between them.

Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and by its orbital motion around the sun. Indeed, the Earth doesn’t orbit upright. Instead, our world is tilted on its axis by 23½ degrees. Through the year, this tilt causes Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres to trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. In fact, our planet is closest to the sun in January during the the Northern Hemisphere’s winter.

Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, Globe, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where should I look for signs of the June solstice in nature?

Everywhere! For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is as fundamental as the length of the day. After all, the sun is the ultimate source of almost all light and warmth on Earth’s surface.

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, you might notice the early dawns and late sunsets and the high arc of the sun across the sky each day. You might see how high the sun appears in the sky at local noon. And, also be sure to look at your noontime shadow. Around the time of the solstice, it’s your shortest noontime shadow of the year. And in to the out-of-doors, you know the peaceful, comforting feeling that accompanies these signs and signals of the year’s longest day.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is the June solstice the first day of summer?

No world body has designated an official day to start each new season and different schools of thought or traditions define the seasons in different ways. In meteorology, for example, summer begins on June 1. And every schoolchild knows that summer starts when the last school bell of the year rings.

Yet June 21 is perhaps the most widely recognized day upon which summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere and upon which winter begins on the southern half of Earth’s globe. There’s nothing official about it but it’s such a long-held tradition that we all recognize it to be so. It has been universal among humans to treasure this time of warmth and light.

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

Is the summer solstice a time to celebrate?

People around the world celebrate this sunny late June day in different ways ranging from sunrise gatherings to bonfire-lit revelry and sauna relaxation. Keep reading to learn about some of the most interesting summer solstice traditions around the globe. You just may get a few ideas for how to celebrate on the big day. Before you make any decisions, though, check out what the summer solstice means for your zodiac to make sure those plans will align with the universe’s larger plan for you.

Perhaps one of the most coveted seats in the world for the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice traditions is on the grounds of the Neolithic structures at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Ingeniously designed to showcase the ascending light of the solstice, the sunrise on this occasion aligns perfectly with a circle carved in stone at the site. Theories of its origin vary but both mystical seekers and history buffs convene here on the solstice to witness an architectural wonder built, some say, to worship deities of the Earth and the sun. Stonehenge is one of the ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.

Another wonder of ancient architecture, the pyramids of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are a wonderful place to celebrate the longest day of the year. The precise construction and engineering of the pyramids create a visual display twice a year in which the central pyramid of El Castillo is bathed in pure sunlight on one side and full shadow on the other. Thousands of spectators come from near and far to celebrate the summer solstice in view of this ethereal spectacle in which the pyramid appears to be cut in two.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The indigenous people of New Mexico paid close attention to the sun. In addition to the Pueblo-built sandstone buildings of Chaco Canyon, the state is also home to the Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec. Ancestral Pueblo people had a strong relationship with the cosmos. They built the back (north) wall of the monument to perfectly align with the rising and setting sun as it touches the horizon during both the summer and winter solstices. Despite its name, the Aztec Ruins National Monument was not built by the Aztec people (that was just an incorrect guess from early settlers) but instead by the Ancestral Pueblans. It took approximately 200 years to build these structures which date from around the 12th century.

Despite holidays at all times of the year, the summer solstice is when Swedes really celebrate. Is it so surprising that inhabitants of one of the world’s most northerly countries want to celebrate a day full of sunshine and warmth? The Midsummer (or Midsommar) Festival takes place across the country. The day is brimming with ancient agrarian symbolism from walking barefoot in the morning dew for good health to ringing floral crowns around women’s hair to celebrate beauty and fertility. If you want to join in the fun of this summer solstice tradition, stock up on pickled herring for a snack and strawberries topped with whipped cream for dessert.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why doesn’t the longest day have the hottest weather?

People often ask, if the June solstice brings the longest day, why do we experience the hottest weather in late July and August?

This effect is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noontime. Earth just takes a while to warm up after a long winter. Even in June, ice and snow still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice and warm the oceans and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat.

Ice and snow have been melting since spring began. Meltwater and rainwater have been percolating down through snow on tops of glaciers. But the runoff from glaciers isn’t as great now as it’ll be in another month even though sunlight is striking the Northern Hemisphere most directly around now.

So wait another month for the hottest weather. It’ll come when the days are already beginning to shorten again as Earth continues to move in orbit around the sun bringing us closer to another winter. And so the cycle continues.

Soap Lake, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line: Time to celebrate! Ah, the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and the official kickoff for warm-weather festivities.

Worth Pondering…

This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath.

—Margaret Atwood

16 Under the Radar National Monuments to Visit

For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, these 16 lesser known national monuments may be perfect spots for your next road trip

Since Wyoming’s iconic Devils Tower became the first U.S. National Monument in 1906, America is now populated with well over 100 of these unique cultural and geographic gems. In addition to volcanic landscapes like Malpais and Mount St. Helens and Utah’s oft-photographed Cedar Breaks there are numerous others that you might be less familiar with—and which absolutely merit a visit. From ancient petroglyphs to the geological wonders these are 16 under-the-radar national monuments to visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Breaks, Utah

Like a mini Bryce Canyon, minus the crowds, Cedar Breaks contains a stunning assortment of hoodoos and cliffs in southern Utah. Technically an amphitheater, the monument is three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, filled with craggy rock formations jutting up from the base like natural skyscrapers. Considering the monument’s high elevation, it gets cold and snowy in the winter which lends vivid color contrast from the white powder atop the orange-hued hoodoos and lush green forests surrounding it. It’s a popular destination for snowmobilers as well who can ride along the rim and gaze out over the illustrious expanse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Petroglyph, New Mexico

Located on the western edge of Albuquerque lies one of the most concentrated collections of ancient petroglyphs on the continent. Native American tribes settled here hundreds of years ago and they left their mark in the form of symbols carved into volcanic rock across the desert terrain. With around 24,000 images and symbols, there’s plenty to see here. In addition to the petroglyphs, the monument contains hiking trails throughout its 17-mile park along with dormant volcanoes and canyons.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petroglyph National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona

Some folks might be surprised to learn that Arizona has another national park unit dedicated to the preservation of a rare cactus. Saguaro National Park in Tucson is famed far and wide while Organ Pipe Cactus is more of an under-the-radar gem. Located along the Mexican border at the southern edge of the state, the monument is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. One glimpse at this sprawling, soaring species will clue you in to where the cactus gets its name. An ideal place for desert camping and hiking, the monument also has horseback trails, scenic drives, and biking opportunities.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Natural Bridges, Utah

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges. The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means rock mounds, massive Kachina means dancer while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means place of emergence. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

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

6. Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observator tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

>> Get more tips for visiting Mount St. Helens National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

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

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. South Rim Drive and North Rim Drive, each more than 30 miles long, are excellent driving routes along the canyons. The scenery is spectacular, including the White House Ruin cliff dwellings and the 800-foot sandstone spire known as Spider Rock.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

9. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes, and seemingly endless Slickrock. The monument is a geologic sampler with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Hovenweep, Utah and Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. The towers of Hovenweep were built from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Montezuma Castle, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Tuzigoot, Arizona

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

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 called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

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

14. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House is preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

A Wonderland of Rocks is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base seemingly ready to topple over at any time. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Built and used over a 200-year period, Aztec Ruins is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called great houses and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a great kiva—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called roads, earthen berms, and platforms

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

The time to prepare for your next expedition is when you have just returned from a successful trip.

—Robert Peary

The Least Visited U.S. National Parks

These least-visited national parks in the U.S. have all of the beauty and none of the crowds

Currently, there are 63 national parks in the U.S., alongside countless more national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites overseen by the National Park Service (NPS). These protected spaces represent some of the most important natural and cultural landscapes in the country.

The NPS recently released its latest annual visitation data which will help us (and you) decide where to plan your next hike, whether you’re looking for a communal vibe, or a more secluded and isolated experience.

With almost 13 million visits last year, the Great Smoky Mountains remain undefeated when it comes to the most visitors of any national park. But other, no less spectacular parks see a fraction of those numbers. If you want to head off the beaten path, here are 21 of the least visited NPS service sites in the U.S.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 38,786

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tumacácori National Historic Park

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 50,017

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 50,396

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

State: Pennsylvania

2022 visits: 57,238

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is the best-preserved iron plantation in North America. Hopewell Furnace consists of a mansion (the big house), spring and smokehouses, a blacksmith shop, an office store, a charcoal house, and a schoolhouse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 60,501

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.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 61,377

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

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 64,387

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga National Historic Park

State: New York

2022 visits: 70,742

Site of the first significant American military victory during the Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga is considered among the most decisive battles in world history. Here in 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender, an event which led France to recognize the independence of the United States and enter the war as a decisive military ally of the struggling Americans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

State: Utah

2022 visits: 71,249

Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908. Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 78,557

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

State: Virginia

2022 visits: 83,483

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site, and have been restored to their original condition. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

State: Texas

2022 visits: 87,386

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire circle of life gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

State: New York

2022 visits: 100,665

See the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and buried in Hyde Park at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The home is also the location of the first presidential library.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

State: South Dakota

2022 visits: 105,776

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 116,639

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. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 131,359

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave. For those looking to stay above ground, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting Coronado National Monument

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 133,317

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 155,242

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 162,755

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. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 204,522

Some of the tallest trees on the east coast are located inside Congaree which was named after the Native American tribe that used to reside in the area. Unlike many hardwood forests, Congaree was largely spared by the lumber industry in the late 1800s and was eventually designated as a national monument and then a national park. The terrain includes the forest, the Congaree River, and the floodplain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 212,534

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cowpens National Battlefield

These 21 lesser-known and visited parks have minimal visitors, plenty to do, and much-needed peace and quiet. Consider adding these least-visited national parks to your 2023 list of road trip destinations.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Winter Solstice 2022: What it Is, Why it Occurs, and How it is Observed

The Northern Hemisphere experiences its shortest day and longest night of the year today as the sun reaches its most southerly point in the sky

Good morning and welcome to winter. Not to get all dark at the beginning of the article but it is the shortest day of the year, meaning if you began watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy just before sunrise, it will be dark again by the end of the third movie.

Let us beat a hasty retreat. Jump into a hole, down to a cozy warren, deep below the surface.

Winter is as much about going deep, as it is about finding our way back out the other side.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The astronomical metaphor to keep in mind during these dark and chilling times is that starting the day after the winter solstice each day gets a bit longer. It’s only by two or three minutes—too incremental to notice—and yet brightness is accumulating every day as the season progresses.

Norwegians—among the happiest people on earth despite living in such extended periods of darkness—have a word that snugly wraps up this winter philosophy: “koselig” (pronounced “koosh-lee”). It’s a combination of coziness and a connection to nature and others.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer in the Northern Hemisphere. But that’s about to reverse itself.

Winter solstice 2022, the shortest day of year and the official first day of winter, is on Wednesday, December 21. How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Camping

First we’ll look at the science and precise timing behind the solstice. Then we’ll explore some ancient traditions and celebrations around the world.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Solstices happen every June and December, though the exact dates vary by a day or two each year.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stop—which reflects our host star’s seemingly brief pause in the sky on the solstice before reversing direction. 

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun appears at its most southerly position, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The situation is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year—and the beginning of summer in places such as Australia, Chile, and South Africa.

The solstice usually—but not always—takes place on December 21. The time that the solstice occurs shifts every year because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same spot as seen from Earth) doesn’t exactly match up to our calendar year.

If you want to be super-precise in your observations, the exact time of the 2022 winter solstice will be 16:48 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on Tuesday, according to EarthSky.org and Farmers’ Almanac.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daylight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole. Residents of Nome, Alaska, will be sunlight deprived with just three hours, 54 minutes, and 31 seconds of very weak daylight on Tuesday. But that’s downright generous compared with Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It sits inside the Arctic Circle and won’t see a single ray of sunshine.

The equinoxes, both spring and fall, occur when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. On those two days, everyone has an equal length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are farthest north over the Tropic of Cancer giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no surprise many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday—whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, or pagan festivals—that coincides with the return of longer days.

Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in various societies around the world.

Related article: Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

Ancient peoples whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, a shedding of bad habits and negative feelings and an embracing of hope amid darkness as the days once again begin to grow longer.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the ancient symbolsand ceremonies of the winter solstice live on today or have been incorporated into newer traditions.

For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer, and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year and the yearly cycle begins again.

Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins indicate they took a keen interest in the sun’s movement. In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-night ceremony then begins including kindling fires, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.

Related article: Winter RV Camping: What You Need to Know

The UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations is Stonehenge. On the winter solstice, visitors traditionally have had opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

8 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit This Fall

Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites

How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?

574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley.

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

With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites are listed here by their original Indigenous names.

Related: Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado

After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants of these people teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley

Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah

One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Related: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.

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

Tseyi’ / Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Diné Nation, Arizona

Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.

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

The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Related: Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

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

Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.

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

Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

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

Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Related: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

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

Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.

Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico

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

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes