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

Every U.S. National Park Ranked

Every single national park is worth visiting!

Good morning. Sending Virtual Raspberry Chardonnay Sonic Slushies to my readers in the Southwest where things are getting punishingly hot. 

  • 40 million people will experience temps of 100 degrees F or more in the coming days.
  • The low in Phoenix Tuesday night was 91 degrees. The low! Was 91!
  • Salt Lake City tied its all-time record at 107.
  • And even Palm Springs issued an excessive heat warning with a temp of 117 degrees.

But hey, look on the bright side. You could be a Diamondback fan. Losing 20 consecutive road trip games! Which must be some kind of record?

Keep in mind, it’s almost impossible to say that one is better than the next—there’s truly something special about each one of the national parks.

Did I rank the parks according to their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. I ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.

When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back—every single national park is worth visiting!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Visitors to Mesa Verde can retrace the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans who once lived in the park’s magnificent cliff dwellings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the U.S. with more than 4,500 found within its boundaries including Cliff Palace which contains 150 rooms.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Step back in time at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Steep canyon walls cradle hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins. A Navajo Indian community still inhabits the canyon floor herding sheep during the summer. Two self-guided drives follow the rims of the canyon. At the end of the South Rim Drive, take in the sights from the popular Spider Rock overlook featuring the park’s signature geological formation.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

A park that will please history buffs as well as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Water and wind over millions of years have carved the plateau into the park’s distinctive red rock pillars, called hoodoos, into the park’s series of natural amphitheaters. Bryce Canyon National Park awes visitors with spectacular geological formations and brilliant colors.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Many come to the southwest to visit the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Brilliant colors and unforgettable panoramas make it one of the most popular attractions in the U.S. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

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

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

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

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

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

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

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

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

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

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

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

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

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

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

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

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

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

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

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Park Trails You’ll Want to Hike This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

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

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

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

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

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

Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah

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

Hiking Badlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

Hiking Capitol Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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

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

Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

Hiking New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Hiking Shenandoah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Edward Abbey

The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

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

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in western SoDak

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

More than half the North American continent was once grassland like that which exists in the Badlands. Today, only two percent of that grassland remains—it has since been replaced by farm fields, ranches, and cities. Nearly 600,000 acres of prairie grassland border the national park in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, as well as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland meets Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands is a geologic term for a type of dry terrain where soft sedimentary rocks are extensively eroded by wind and water. The title is also derived from the Native American Lakota name “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.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for bison, animals that again inhabit the park. Sharing the prairie landscape are pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and coyotes. In prairie dog “towns,” black-tailed prairie dogs in large numbers pop out of their holes alerting pals when outsiders are coming. Overhead, birdlife watches over the landscape—magpie, hawks, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and as many as 211 other bird species have been identified.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. Cedar Pass Lodge serves as the park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the parks two visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic area.

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, wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You ARE allowed to walk onto the badland formations throughout the park. Naturally occurring erosion makes it so that footprints don’t have a great effect on the landscape. Watch where you step and place your hands though—there are prairie rattlesnakes throughout the park. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), the park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park. Billboards on Interstate 90 touting “free ice water” have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936. Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant, and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 244,000

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

Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails

Main attraction: Striated rock formations

Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle

Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road

When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring or fall

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger and you are very small…

—Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

Best Places for RV Travel this August

It’s time for the final hurrah of summer with peak sunshine

Like the preceding month, August is also named after another real person—Augustus, who was the first emperor of Rome and also the nephew of Julius Caesar. The month was originally supposed to be the sixth month, not the eighth, and was called Sextillis to reflect that.

Eleven Range Outlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunny days and warm weather are the norm and here are our top places to enjoy them.

What does your ideal summer look like: Hiking in a national park? Soaking up the sun on a white-sand beach? Enjoying outdoor activities in a state park? Whatever your dream summer RV trip, one of these destinations will fit the bill.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in MayJune, and July. Also check out our recommendations from August 2019.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California

From northern redwood forests to the High Sierra, the wild Big Sur coast to the expansive southern desert, you’re never very far from the next adventure in California. It’s a state with fabled drives—Highway 1 on the coast, 101 through the redwoods, 395 beneath the eastern Sierra—and national parks that need no introduction. But with 280 state parks and 18 national forests, the state has almost endless portals into wild country that suits pretty much anyone’s outdoor inclinations.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

Artists, photographers, and moviemakers are crazy about New Mexico and the amazing quality of light which is why just naming the state conjures such familiar images for most of us. You know: huge, empty red-rock landscapes with big sunny skies and UFOs arrive on a regular schedule. But there’s more here, of course, including the dramatic Sangre de Cristo Range—the southernmost stretch of the Rockies—and ancient ruins of disappeared cultures. Whether you’re exploring high desert broken by mangled badlands, notching up trophy parks like Carlsbad Caverns, or diving deep into the 34 state parks or five national forests, you always feel you’re discovering something in New Mexico.

Penticton Channrl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Float the Channel

August is the perfect month to go for a float down the Penticton (British Columbia) Channel. This quintessential Penticton bucket-list activity is fun for the whole family. Cool off in this gorgeous heat with your favorite floatie and friends as you enjoy a leisurely ride down the 4½-mile long channel. You can fill up your own flotation device or rent one from Coyote Cruises. They also provide shuttle transport back to the starting point. They also have some awesome new rental floaties and even some party floats for larger groups.

Menno-Hof Amish/Mennonite Information Center, Shipshewana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shipshewana, Indiana

The Shipshewana area is celebrated for being home to the third largest Amish community in the United States, for having the Midwest’s largest flea market, and for its reputation of hand-crafted wares. Enjoy buggy rides, visit an Amish working dairy farm, and experience delicious Amish cooking in beautiful Northern Indiana-Amish/Mennonite Country.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years, resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Board the Grand Canyon Railway

You don’t have to be a train buff: One of the world’s great rail journeys is the Grand Canyon Railway. Departing from the historic Arizona town of Williams, it chugs each morning on a 65-mile journey north to Grand Canyon National Park. On the two-hour trip you’ll wind your way over Arizona’s 5,000-foot-high Colorado Plateau passing the red buttes, prairies, and pinyon pines of the high desert along its scenic route. Performers in authentic Wild West costumes bring the past alive with onboard (and, yes) touristy) entertainment. Passengers will have time to explore the South Rim and check out two century-old train depots before returning in the early evening.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith