2021 National Park Visitor Spending Contributed $42.5 Billion to Economy

How National Park Service visitor spending supports jobs and business activity in local communities

The Department of the Interior recently announced that visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2021 resulted in a $42.5 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 322,600 mostly local jobs.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature is essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of every family and community in America as well as to the local economies of gateway communities that support our national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “As we continue to welcome families to our parks and public lands across the country, the Interior Department is committed to making investments in our lands and waters that will support tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.” 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the numbers show: According to the National Park Service (NPS) report, 2021 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, approximately 297 million visitors spent $20.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park. Of the 322,600 jobs supported by visitor spending, 268,900 jobs were in park gateway communities.

In western North Dakota, for example, 796,085 people visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park contributing nearly $51.2 million in visitor spending and supporting 675 jobs.

Badlands National Park National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In western South Dakota, 1.2 million people visited Badlands National Park in 2021and spent an estimated $88.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting. These expenditures supported a total of 1,190 jobs, $34.8 million in labor income, $61.0 million in value-added, and $114 million in economic output.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2021, 3.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $170 million in local gateway regions while visiting Joshua Tree National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 2,040 jobs, $76.7 million in labor income, $124 million in value added, and $208 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Joshua Tree National Park.

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

And 14.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 18.8 thousand jobs, $618 million in labor income, $1.0 billion in value-added, and $1.8 billion in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Benefits to State economies: In 2021, 35.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $2.4 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in California, the top state for visitor spending. These expenditures supported a total of 30.2 thousand jobs, $1.5 billion in labor income, $2.4 billion in value-added, and $3.9 billion in economic output in the California economy.

California was followed by North Carolina (21.0 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.7 billion in local gateway regions), Utah (14.8 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.6 billion in local gateway regions), and Virginia (22.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional findings include: 

  • Visitor spending in 2021 meant $14.6 billion in labor income and $24.3 billion in value added
  • The lodging sector saw the highest direct effects with $7 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The restaurant sector saw the next greatest effects with $4.2 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The camping sector saw the smallest direct effect with $490 million in economic output directly contributed to this sector nation-wide
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion under the socioeconomic lens: The National Park Service is initiating a new socioeconomic monitoring project in 2022 that will survey park visitors in 24 parks each year for the next 10 years or more. One of the early parks surveyed under this method was Zion National Park in 2021 offering an updated picture of visitor spending.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Zion National Park was one of the first parks where visitors were surveyed under the new method. The results showed that our previous estimates or ‘profiles’ of average visitors underestimated the time they spent in the park and in gateway communities and we underestimated the amount of money they spent during their trips to the park,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. “The new survey information will enable park managers to further improve the visitor experience and guide how to reach and engage with people who have yet to visit a national park.”  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the NPS, Zion ranked No. 10 in the country for its number of visitors attracting 5 million in 2021.

An interactive tool enables users to explore visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. Users can also view year-by-year trend data. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual peer-reviewed economics report was prepared by economists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service. It includes information by parks and by states on visitor spending, the number of jobs supported by visitor spending and other statistics.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names

The stories behind their names

What’s in a name? A lot, it seems, especially in America’s varied national parks. These vast landscapes of pristine and brilliant nature teeming with wildlife, plants, and rare geological formations have history—much of which can be told simply through their names. Some are named after people while others have Native American names with intriguing meanings. Here’s the lowdown on how 10 of America’s national parks got their monikers.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The early French-Canadian trappers called the region which includes the present-day national park, Le Mauvaises terres a traverser which translated means “bad lands to travel across.” Other traders applied the term “bad lands” to this locality as well as to any section of the prairie country “where roads are difficult….”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For hundreds of years, the Dakota people have also described this area as Mako Sica which translates to “bad lands”. This is largely due to the area’s harsh terrain—its lack of water and rocky surfaces meant it was tricky to traverse. The name has stuck in its English form to this day.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park is still pretty rocky and parched but it’s not so bad to travel through these days thanks to the many hiking trails that make its dramatic and unusual landscapes accessible. Take a walk here and you’ll get to see fossils from the now-extinct animals that once thrived here. You can also meet the bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and deer that roam the region and gaze upon some of the most striking geologic formations in the US.

The park received 1,224,226 recreational visitors in 2021.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep gorge in northern Arizona. Scientists estimate the canyon may have formed 5 to 6 million years ago when the Colorado River began to cut a channel through layers of rock. The canyon measures over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though Native Americans lived in the area as early as the 13th century, the first European sighting of the canyon wasn’t until 1540 by members of an expedition headed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Because of its remote and inaccessible location, several centuries passed before North American settlers explored the canyon. In 1869, geologist John Wesley Powell led a group of 10 men on the first difficult journey down the rapids of the Colorado River and along the length of the 277-mile gorge in four rowboats.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Benjamin Harrison first protected the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve and in January 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon area into a national monument. Grand Canyon became an official National Park in 1919.

The park received 4,532,677 recreational visitors in 2021.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Named for its large deposits of petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park covers about 346 square miles encompassing semi-desert shrubs as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The Park is known for its fossils, especially of fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Epoch of the Mesozoic era about 225-207 million years ago.

National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the larger animals roaming the grasslands include pronghorns, black-tailed jackrabbits (hares), Gunnison’s prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. Pronghorns, the fastest land animals in North America, are capable of 60-mile-per-hour sprints. They are the second fastest land animal on Earth.

The park’s headquarters is about 26 miles east of Holbrook along Interstate 40 which parallels the  Puerco River and Historic Route 66 all crossing the park roughly east-west.

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site, the northern part of which extends into the Painted Desert, was declared a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.

The park received 590, 334 recreational visitors in 2021.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America’s second national park (Yellowstone became the first national park on March 1, 1872). Created to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum. One week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park included General Grant National Park into it. Since the Second World War, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly.

The park received 1,059,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The native Cherokee people traditionally called the Great Smoky Mountains Shaconage which translates to “place of the blue smoke.” Euro-American settlers drew from this name in their label of “Smoky Mountains,” with “Great” being added at some point or another to reflect the massiveness and grandeur of the range.

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

More often than not, the inspiration for the Cherokee name is plain to see on one of the many long, mountain-upon-mountain vistas the Great Smokies serve up from such vantages as Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome. There’s a whitish-blue mistiness to the scenery, a beautiful kind of haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks.

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

That haze is the optical result of a natural photochemical process. The trees, shrubs, and other plants of the dense and diverse Southern Appalachian forests emit natural hydrocarbons called “terpenes” that react with ozone particles from the stratosphere. Moisture condenses on these aerosols which then scatter the shorter wavelengths of light in the blue-violet spectrum to produce the signature haziness.

Seeing the soft-edged blush of the Great Smokies from a roadside pullout or a ridgeline bald never gets old. Next time you soak it in, maybe the old Cherokee name for this extraordinary range will come to mind: the “place of the blue smoke”.

The park received 14,161,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of huge natural amphitheaters carved into sedimentary rocks by the Paria River and its tributaries along the edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau. Water and wind erosion has produced a fantastic array of brightly colored pinnacles, windowed walls, pedestals, fins, and spires.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ancient cultures are known to have occupied the Colorado Plateau for at least 12,000 years. Paiutes were living throughout the area when the first Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. They explained the numerous and colorful hoodoos as “legend people” who were turned to stone by the mythical Coyote. When Captain Clarence E. Dutton arrived with John Wesley Powell in the 1870s, he named many of the current features according to the Paiute names including Paunsagunt (home of the beavers), Paria (muddy water), Panguitch (fish), and Yovimpa (point of pines).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ebenezer Bryce helped settle southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. He arrived on the Paunsagunt Plateau and Paria Valley in 1875 to harvest timber. The canyon behind his home came to be known as Bryce’s Canyon; today it remains the name of both a specific canyon and the national park. After 1900, visitors began to arrive to view the colorful geologic features and initial accommodations were constructed along the plateau rim above Bryce’s Canyon. By the 1920s, efforts were being made to set aside this scenic wonder of the Paunsagunt Plateau.

The park received 2,104,600 recreational visitors in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, named so by explorer John Wesley Powell, who believed this to be the Paiute name for the area, Zion got its new moniker in 1863. It was all down to Isaac Behunin, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area to farm tobacco and fruit trees. He thought it so peaceful that he should rename it, Zion, because, as he wrote: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The great cathedrals he mentioned were probably the incredible, precipitous red cliffs that rise on both sides of the Virgin River. In Hebrew, “zion” means “heavenly place” and standing atop the cliffs or even at their foot it’s easy to see why Behunin considered it a divine landscape. 

The park received 5,039,835 recreational visitors in 2021.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In the arid Sonoran Desert, this national park teems with wildlife, insects, and plants. Horned lizards, roadrunners, and Gila monsters are some of the animals that call this harsh landscape home. But, it’s the plants that most people come to see and one plant in particular that has given the park its name: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to ask a child to draw a cactus, they’d likely sketch out something that looks like a saguaro which has a thick trunk and vertically reaching “arms” covered in fine spikes. It’s estimated there are almost two million of these iconic plants throughout the national park, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve been given the limelight in this National Park’s name. 

The park received 1,079,783 recreational visitors in 2021.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Dark Sky Reserve, this national park has a lot to preserve. If you visit, make sure you see the incredible homes carved into and built around the rocky, sandstone landscape. Dating back to around AD 550, these dwellings housed the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for more than 700 years and there are 5,000 or so archaeological sites to explore within the national park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploration is how the park got its name. When Spanish explorers in the American Southwest first came upon these towering rock formations they said it looked like a landscape of tables, covered with foliage and forest. They named it “Mesa Verde”, which is Spanish for “green table”.

The park received 548,477 recreational visitors in 2021.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Trees are an incredibly unusual-looking trees, in part because they’re not a tree at all! They’re a plant belonging to the Yucca genus that happens to resemble the size and growth pattern of a tree. Joshua trees are slow-growing adding only 2 to 3 inches each year. It takes 50 to 60 years for a Joshua tree to reach full height. They live on average about 500 years.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert. Originally declared a national monument in 1936, Joshua Tree was redesignated as a national park in 1994.

The park received 3,064,400 recreational visitors in 2021.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks

National parks with the best scenic drives

A trip to a national park is about more than just the destination. It’s the journey to these remote corners of preserved natural wonders that are equally enticing including drives to and around the parks.

In fact, many US national parks are best seen from your car—really. We’re not saying you shouldn’t get out and breathe the fresh air and smell the flowers and hike a trail but to get the best overview of wilderness and wildlife scenic drives can’t be beat. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when planning a road trip to a national park 

Prepare your vehicle: National parks are often located in remote areas and it may be a while for help to arrive if you break down. So be sure your vehicle is fully serviced and has a full tank of fuel before you start your adventure.

Download directions: Speaking of being remote, you may not have cell service or Wi-Fi in the parks so make sure to save routing info (including this story) to your phone in advance of your trip. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack snacks and water: Don’t count on food or supplies on the road—bring everything you need with you including picnic supplies (and be sure to carry out anything you carry in with you). 

Following are 10 of the best US national parks for scenic drives this summer and beyond.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for Seussian landscapes

The route: Park Boulevard, drive from North (SR-62) or South (I-10) entrances

Route length: 35 miles

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transform from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to get an idea of what you’ll see on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park? Pick up a copy of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The scraggly armed trees with tufts of needles reaching towards the sky strongly resemble a “truffula tree” and the entire desert landscape has an almost whimsical feel. Make no mistake though, the rocky wonders and unusual vegetation you’ll see driving through this park—which straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts—are both real and incredible.  

Read More: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Best scenic drive through the park: best for fall foliage

The route: Newfound Gap Road from US 441

Route length: 29 miles

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

The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

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

The largest national park in the east and the most visited park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains stretches from North Carolina to Tennessee. This park is ideally situated for driving itineraries with 384 miles of roads from which to choose your driving adventure. Newfound Gap, named for the high mountain pass at the state line, offers views for days, great animal spotting, and a high perch to view the hardwood forests and changing leaves come the fall. 

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for natural architecture

The route: Arches Scenic Drive

Route length: 18 miles

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The red sandstone arches that give this Utah national park its name seem too perfectly balanced to be created by something as fickle as wind and sand. Surely, you’ll think as you drive around the amazing structures, a human architect must have lent a hand? This drive will take you past all of the soaring highlights; be sure to get out the car to get the full scope and perspective of these towering rock formations. 

Tip: After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for petrified logs

The route: Petrified Forest Road

Route length: 28 miles

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. Starting in the north at Exit 311 off I-40, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to see an 18-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and a short walking trail.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Read More: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for towering monoliths

The route: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

Route length: 54 miles

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 54-mile route starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and I-15 about nine miles east of St. George and ends at the Mt. Carmel Junction. From November until March, you’ll be able to drive the entire route but from spring through fall the Zion Canyon section is closed to cars. Take the free shuttle which makes nine stops and takes about an hour and a half.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the park’s main section: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Read More: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for panoramic canyon views

The route: Desert View Drive

Route length: 23 miles

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Desert View Watchtower is located at Desert View. Traveling west, other stops along this route include Navajo Point, Lapin Point, Tusayan Pueblo and Museum, Moran Point, Grandview Point, Duck on a Rock, and Pipe Creek Vista.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Best scenic drive through the park: 700 years of Ancestral Pueblo history

The route: Mesa Top Auto Loop

Route length: 6 miles

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites. From remains of early pithouses and masonry villages to multi-storied cliff dwellings, archeological sites along this loop show how early Pueblo architecture evolved.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the road, you’ll find short, easily-accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. Short trails along the Mesa Top Loop lead to surface sites such as pithouses and pueblos; overlooks of cliff dwellings tucked into alcoves; and viewpoints where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape that was home to generations of Ancestral Pueblo people.

Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily, 8:00 am to sunset.

Read More: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for historic and geologic features

The route: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Route length: 30 miles

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most interesting of the paved sightseeing routes in Big Bend National Park giving the greatest variety of habitats, geology, and a variety of interesting short walks and interpretive pull outs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road skirts the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District and winding up at Santa Elena Canyon trailhead where the pavement ends. Heading south from the Ross Maxwell junction there are a number of pullovers to interpretive sites, trailheads to short and longer hikes, and scenic vistas.

Read More: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Most scenic drive through the park: best for surreal and otherworldly

The route: Badlands Loop Scenic Byway

Route length: 39 miles

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with numerous opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities. Don’t miss the Big Badlands Overlook in the east or the Door, Window, and Notch Trail turnoff just a few miles further south down the road; in the west, make sure to stop at the Pinnacles Overlook and the Yellow Mounds Overlook towards the western end of the loop road. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Most scenic drive through the park: best for colorful wildflowers

The route: Skyline Drive

Route length: 105 miles

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. The only public road through the Park, it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These cement posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Read More: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

The Best RV Camping May 2022

Explore the guide to find some of the best in May camping across America

But where should you park your RV? With so many options out there you may be overwhelmed with the number of locales calling your name.

Here are 10 of the top locations to explore in May. RVing with Rex selected this list of 5 star RV resorts from parks personally visited.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly RV park recommendations for the best places to camp in March and April. Also, check out my recommendations from May 2021 and June 2021.

Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Tennessee

Formally known as River Plantation, Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge is located along the Little Pigeon River in eastern Tennessee. The park is located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the popular attractions of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big rig friendly, guests can choose from a selection of modern and spacious, full hookup RV sites that include concrete pads, a fire ring, and a picnic table. Our back-in site was in the 75-foot range with 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and Cable TV centrally located. Amenities include a swimming pool with hot tub, basketball court, game room, fitness center, outdoor pavilion, fenced-in Bark Park, and dog washing station.

Rain Spirit RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain Spirit RV Resort, Clarkdale, Arizona

Overlooking Tuzigoot National Monument and Verde River, Rain Spirit RV Resort is a new park with 63 full-service sites including 30/50-amp electric service, cable TV, and the Internet. Amenities include private restroom/showers, fitness room, laundry facilities, recreation room, library lounge, pool and spa, and dog run. This 5-star resort is a great home base from which to explore the historic town of Jerome, Sedona Red Rock Country, Old Town Cottonwood, and book an excursion on the Verde Valley Railway.

Related Article: 10 Luxurious RV Resorts for Summer Travel

Whispering Oaks RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whispering Oaks RV Park, Weimar, Texas

Whispering Oaks RV Park sits on 6 beautiful acres with large live oak trees. Located on I-10 midway between San Antonio and Houston (Exit 219), the park offers 51 large, level, full hook-up sites including 42 pull-through spaces. All sites have 30/50-amp service, fire rings, picnic tables, and can accommodate any size rig including 45-footers with toads. Interior roads are asphalt and sites are gravel with grass between sites. High speed Wi-Fi is available throughout the park.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, Hunting Island, South Carolina

Hunting Island is South Carolina’s single most popular state park attracting more than a million visitors a year as well as a vast array of land and marine wildlife. Five miles of beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon, and ocean inlet are all part of the park’s natural allure.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hunting Island Lighthouse is the only one in the state that is publicly accessible. From the top, guests can stand 130 feet above the ground to take in the breathtaking, panoramic view of the Atlantic Coast and surrounding maritime forest.

Camping is available at the northern end of the park near the ocean. 102 sites offer water and 20/30/50 amp electric service. Campground roads are paved while the sites are packed soil. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; others up to 28 feet. The campground is convenient for hot showers with restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground.

Columbia Riverfront RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Columbia Riverfront RV Park, Woodland, Washington

Developed in 2006 by the present owners who are former RVers, Columbia Riverfront RV Park is a 5-star resort. A quiet getaway on ten acres of beautifully maintained property right on the sandy beach of the Columbia River, Columbia Riverfront is big-rig friendly.

Related Article: Campgrounds and RV Resorts Can’t-Wait To Go Back To

Columbia Riverfront RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a view of the Columbia River out our windshield, our pull-in site was 45 feet in length with room for the toad. Utilities including 50/30/20-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable are centrally located. Pull-through sites in the 85-95 foot range are also available. Wi-Fi works well. Interior roads are paved and sites are crushed gravel and level. Columbia Riverfront is located 22 miles north of Portland, Oregon, in Woodland off I-5 (Exit 22); west 3.25 miles on Dike Access and Dike roads.

Hee Hee Illahee RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hee Hee Illahee RV Resort, Salem, Oregon

With a combination of 24 back-in sites (35 feet long x 20 feet wide) and 115 pull-through sites (75 feet long x 14 feet wide) available year round even the biggest rigs will have no issue finding a suitable spot. All sites include electric (20, 30, and 50 amp), water, sewer, wired and wireless Internet, and coax television hookups along with a picnic table. Park amenities include fitness room, seasonal pool and year-round spa, laundry facility, secure showers/bathrooms, and book library. The resort is located a short distance off Interstate 5 at Exit 258.

Cedar Pass Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. Enjoy the stunning sunsets, incredible night skies, and breathtaking sunrises from the comfort of your RV. Camping in Cedar Pass Campground is limited to 14 days. The campground is open year-round with limited availability in the winter season. Due to fire danger, campfires are not permitted in this campground, and the collection of wood is prohibited. However, camp stoves or contained charcoal grills can be used in campgrounds and picnic areas.

Related Article: 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Reunion Lake RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reunion Lake RV Resort, Ponchatoula, Louisiana

Reunion Lake RV Resort is a gated resort with top-rated facilities and service and all-concrete roadways. Built around a scenic lake the park offers an adult pool with swim-up bar, poolside cabanas, a lazy river with tiki bar, giant hot tub, fitness center, family pool, basketball and pickleball courts, fenced-in dog park. Our Premium pull-through site will accommodate any size rig.

Red Bluff KOA Journey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Bluff KOA Journey, Red Bluff, California

Big-rig friendly, Red Bluff KOA Journey (formerly Durango RV Resort) is a 5-star resort located on the Sacramento River. The park is well laid out and designed. Most sites are pull-through, 70-90 feet in length and 30-35 feet wide. In addition there are 11 riverfront sites and 21 water-feature spaces (fountains); these sites have utilities on both sides of the concrete pads enabling fifth wheels and travel trailer to back onto the sites and motorhomes to drive forward maximizing the view and water features. In addition, there are a number of buddy sites.

Utilities including 20/30/50-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Wi-Fi works well. Interior roads are paved. We have stayed at Durango on several occasions and would return in a heartbeat. Conveniently located on I-5, Exit 649 (Highway 36/Antelope Boulevard).

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park, Patagonia, Arizona

Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is a hidden treasure. Patagonia Lake State Park offers a campground, beach, picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills, a creek trail, boat ramps, and a marina. The nearby Lakeside Market offers boat rentals and supplies. The campground overlooks the lake where anglers catch crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout. The park is popular for water skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking.

Related Article: Announcing the Absolutely Best Campgrounds and RV Parks for 2022

105 developed campsites with a picnic table, and fire ring/grill. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30 amp and 50 amp voltage.  Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, fire-ring/grill, and ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long for camper/trailers. The park is located off SR-82, 10 miles southwest of Patagonia.

Worth Pondering…

Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.

—John Ruskin

9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Looking to get closer to nature and linger longer at a US national park? RV camping is the perfect way to experience the majestic wide-open spaces of the national parks.

Camping in an RV within a national park provides a comfortable base to immerse yourself in a park’s beauty from sunrise to sunset (and beyond for great stargazing). National park campsites also create a fun sense of community between RV campers who share everything from vehicle advice to travel tips, BBQ recipes, and s’mores around the campfire.

The national parks listed below are top destinations not only for the quantity and quality of RV campsites within the parks but for the access that RVs have to tour the parks on paved roadways with key park attractions being within roadside viewing distance. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when RV camping at national parks

Most national parks use Recreation.gov as the website to make reservations for campsites. Each park has its own quirks about the timing and process for making reservations, so check out your target park’s rules and regulations prior to booking. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make reservations as far in advance as possible. National park RV campsites can become fully booked within minutes of dates being offered, particularly for summer high season and holiday weekends. 

For your RV campsite, research the length restrictions and available hookups for water, electricity, and sewage dumps. You don’t want an unpleasant surprise after a late arrival to a remote campground.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not able to secure a RV campsite within a national park, be aware that many private RV parks and resorts operate just outside the boundaries of most National Parks. Reservations at commercial campgrounds will be easier to make and these campgrounds provide more services and amenities than those within park limits. 

Bringing bicycles or a towed car with your RV can greatly expand your options for exploration in a national park particularly to areas with limited RV access. Also, consider leaving your RV in the campground and using park shuttle services when available. 

Following are nine of the best US national parks for RV camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Main Park Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a nicely paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed. After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 1 campground with 51 sites

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Related Article: To Visit a Popular National Park this Summer, Start Planning Yesterday

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic RV route through the park: Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 519 sites available for RVs

Mather Campground is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. There are 327 sites. Each includes a campfire ring/cooking grate, and picnic table. There are flush toilets and drinking water throughout the campground. No hookups are available; however, there is a free dump station. Most RV spaces are pull-through.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trailer Village is the only in-park RV campground with full hookups (sewage, water, and electrical with 30-amp and 50-amp sites available) Trailer Village features paved pull-through sites which can accommodate vehicles up to 50 feet long. Trailer Village is concessioner operated. Reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drives in the park: The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 9 campgrounds 924 sites available for RVs

Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical, or water hookups in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transforms from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 8 campgrounds with 495 sites available for RVs

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Related Article: Tips for Reserving a National Park Campsite

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 1 campground with 267 sites

Morefield Campground is located 4 miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents and RVs and includes 15 full-hookup RV sites.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the main section of the park: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 2 campgrounds with 303 sites

South Campground (127 non-hookup sites) and Watchman Campground (176 sites, 95 with electric hookups; reservations recommended) are near the south entrance at Springdale.

Tip: This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures often exceed 95 degrees.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).

Related Article: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 5 campgrounds with 196 sites for RVs

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to reserve a campsite well in advance. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. Reservations required. You can book your site up to six months in advance.

Note: At Chisos Basins RVs over 24 feet (trailers over 20 feet) and are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Badlands Loop Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Cedar Pass Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 2 campgrounds with 118 sites

In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find 96 RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. Reservations recommended.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 357 sites

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with four campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah National Park. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Many sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance.

Related Article: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah’s four main campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service and are open seasonally from early until late fall and feature spacious tent, trailer and RV sites:

  • Mathews Arm Campground (mile 22.2) 
  • Big Meadows Campground (mile 51) 
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (mile 57.2) 
  • Loft Mountain Campground (mile 79.5)

Worth Pondering…

If we set aside time each day to be in a peaceful environment, to walk in nature, or even just to look at a flower or the sky, then that beauty will penetrate us and feed our love and our joy.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Vietnamese monk and Zen master, How to Love

Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit these 10 National Parks

All the awe. None of the crowds.

America’s national parks continued to dominate the travel sphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another great idea! Hit the parks in the fall when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists all but vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the valleys, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature transforms into the most vibrant time of the year.

Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of 10 of my favorite national parks.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories, and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange, and yellow with sunflowers and asters bloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Climb the 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Yes, the nation’s newest national park has sublimely colorful scenes every fall, and yes, the photo opportunities are only one reason to visit. Whitewater rafting is another. Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge which became America’s 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit—as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, October 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles, and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

If you love fall foliage but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (though I do recommend a hike or two) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through—slowly. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and gold. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those who want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades. And the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In the summer months, hiking in Arches can feel like slogging through a convection oven with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to close the park for the day. During fall the heat and the hordes dissipate dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage.

A certified dark sky park, Arches is well suited for stargazing. Stargazing is a year-round activity but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 8), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12), and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic is a national park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California Park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ever-present evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak. Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early as does winter. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher elevations. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and the Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in different ways.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country (and world-renown) is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow hoodoos bathed in warm autumn light with streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is located in the Midlands region of South Carolina. With a humid subtropical climate, the park experiences mild winters and very warm, wet summers. The park is accessible in all seasons, but is best experienced in the spring and fall when temperatures are at their most comfortable and insects are generally not a problem. September through November is a wonderful time to visit Congaree with average daily temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Fall colors peak between the end of October and early November. Water levels are ideal at this time of year for taking a paddling trip on Cedar Creek.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

You’ll love Zion in the fall! The temperatures are milder to enjoy the best Zion hikes, there are fewer people than in summer, and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape. Though the climate in Zion is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. Red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes, creating ample opportunities for nature photographers.

Zion has a very long fall foliage season due to the variety in elevations. At higher elevations in Zion, you can see trees turning bright by mid-September. The peak season in the park usually lasts from late September to early October. However, at lower elevations, you can enjoy picturesque fall colors as late as mid-November.

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

Bottom Line

The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the summer crowds. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in the fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.

Worth Pondering…

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

—George Eliot

Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands

Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. But these 244,000 acres of the otherworldly landscape are gorgeous with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service, Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago, sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse, and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers. Later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually, most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months, wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

While breathtaking at a distance, the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. They introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive— the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some are short including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off-trail.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses.

Even if you go hiking, you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points. One not-to-miss feature—you probably couldn’t miss it if you tried—is what is called “The Wall,” 60-mile long, many miles-wide escarpments of pinnacles, buttes, fins, and mounds that separate the upper and lower prairies.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options, you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall Drug where ice water is still free.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 244,300 acres

Date Established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City

Park Elevation: 2,460 feet-3,282 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad,” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition, referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 Recreation Visits: 916,932

Worth Pondering…

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

—Teddy Roosevelt

The Best RV Camping July 2021

Explore the guide to find some of the best in July camping across America

But where should you park your RV? With so many options out there you may be overwhelmed with the number of locales calling your name.

Here are 10 of the top locations to explore in July. RVing with Rex selected this list of 5 star RV resorts from parks personally visited.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly RV park recommendations for the best places to camp in May and June.

Smokiam RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smokiam RV Resort, Soap Lake, Washington

Smokiam RV Resort has undergone a full renovation with new premium big rig friendly RV sites, remodeled restrooms/shower facilities, renovated playground area, new cabin rentals, Tepee rentals, a sandy beach with a new dock and watercraft rentals, a renovated clubhouse for groups/events/adults and families, new café and espresso bar, a new miniature golf course, and 900 feet of sandy beach. Our site, D-3, is one of the ten new premium pull-through sites facing Soap Lake. These sites are extra long and extra wide designed for RVs up to 45 feet in length. 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Soap Lake is a unique mineral lake, world-renowned as “nature’s spa”.  One of only two similar lakes in the world, its waters have the most diverse mineral content of any body of water on earth and have long been believed to have healing properties. 

RV Park at Rolling Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV Park at Rolling Hills Casino and Resort, Corning, California

The RV Park at Rolling Hills Casino is an easy-on, easy-off (I-5; Exit 628) 96-space RV park with long pull-through sites (up to 75 feet in length) with 30/50 amp-electric service, water, and sewer conveniently located. All spaces are pull-through. Wi-Fi access is available over most of the park. The RV Park is within an easy walk of the Casino and golf course. Laundry facilities are available nearby at the Traveler’s Clubhouse. The site is safe and secure with the 24-hour patrol.

Ambassador RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ambassador RV Resort, Caldwell, Idaho

Ambassador RV Resort is a 5-star resort that is easy-on, easy off (I-84 at Exit 29) with 188 full-service sites, pool, spa, sauna, and 5,000 square foot recreation hall. Features 30-foot x 85-foot short term pull-through sites, 35-foot x 75-foot long term pull through sites, 45-foot x 60-foot back-in sites and wide-paved streets. Pets are welcome if friendly and owner is well trained.

Located near Idaho’s wine country and convenient to the Boise metro area, the Ambassador is the perfect home base for all your activities.

Whispering Hills RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whispering Hills RV Park, Georgetown, Kentucky

Whispering Hills RV Park is nestled in the heart of horse country in Georgetown, north of Lexington. The park is located approximately 2.5 miles off I-75 at Exit 129. Whispering Hills offers 230 full-service sites including nine new premium pull-through sites in the 70-90 foot range. Amenities include a swimming pool, basketball court, laundry facility, book exchange, fishing pond, bathhouses, picnic tables, and fire rings at most sites. Our pull-through site was in the 60-foot range. Most back-in sites tend to be considerably shorter and slope downward. Interior roads and sites are gravel.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Regional Park, Morristown, Arizona

One of the most scenic water recreation areas in the Valley of the Sun, this northwest Valley park is a recreationist’s dream. This 23,362-acre park offers many activities including camping, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing. Lake Pleasant is a water reservoir and is part of the Central Arizona Project waterway system bringing water from the Lower Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. Lake Pleasant Regional Park offers 145 sites for camping. Each “Developed Site” has water, electricity, a dump station, a covered ramada, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. Each “Semi-developed Site” and tent site has a covered ramada, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.

Cedar Pass Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. Enjoy the stunning sunsets, incredible night skies, and breathtaking sunrises from the comfort of your RV. Camping in Cedar Pass Campground is limited to 14 days. The campground is open year-round with limited availability in the winter season. Due to fire danger, campfires are not permitted in this campground, and collection of wood is prohibited. However, camp stoves or contained charcoal grills can be used in campgrounds and picnic areas.

Edisto Beach State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edisto Beach State Park, Edisto Island, South Carolina

Edisto Beach State Park offers access to the Atlantic Ocean and beach. It also provides access to the saltwater marsh and creeks. An environmental education center highlights the natural history of Edisto Island and the surrounding ACE Basin. The trails wind through Edisto Island’s maritime forest of live oak, hanging Spanish moss, and palmetto trees. During your walk, you may see white-tailed deer, osprey, or alligators. 112 RV and tent camping sites with water and 20/30/50 amp electrical service is available ocean-side and near the salt marsh. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available for park guests near the office area and in the Wi-Fi room located adjacent to the office.

Jamaica Beach RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jamaica Beach RV Resort, Galveston, Texas

Jamaica Beach RV Resort is across the street from the beach on Galveston Island with wide-open views of the Gulf. The park offers 181 pull-through sites with full hookups, concrete pads, a picnic table at every site, and all-inclusive amenities like a 700-foot-long lazy river. Other park amenities include a relaxing beach pool, family pool, indoor infinity hot tub, outdoor hot tub, splash pad, 3 laundry facilities, 3 shower houses, and pickleball courts.

Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Tennessee

Formally known as River Plantation, Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge is located along the Little Pigeon River in eastern Tennessee. The park is located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the popular attractions of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Big rig friendly, guests can choose from a selection of modern and spacious, full hookup RV sites that include concrete pads, a fire ring, and a picnic table. Our back-in site was in the 75-foot range with 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and Cable TV centrally located. Amenities include a swimming pool with hot tub, basketball court, game room, fitness center, outdoor pavilion, fenced-in Bark Park, and dog washing station.

iRVin’s RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

iRVin’s RV Park & Campground, Valemont, British Columbia

Big-rig friendly with pull-through sites in the 70-foot range, iRVin’s RV Park & Campground is a 5-star park with full-service sites including water, sewer, and electric power (choice of 30 or 50 amps). The park is nestled in the Robson Valley with a 360-degree mountain view, a quiet place where deer wander by occasionally. Wi-Fi worked well from our site (#27). No problem locating satellite. Conveniently located one mile north of Valemont on Highway 5 en route to Alaska and an hour from Mount Robson and Jasper National Park.

Worth Pondering…

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

—Yogi Berra