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

The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pick the right season and give yourself plenty of time

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to know about camping in Big Bend National Park

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 801,163 acres

Date Established: June 12, 1944

Location: Southwest Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Lon Garrison

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

Spotlight on Texas: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

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

The big-city sprawls of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, or San Antonio seem very far away as you pass through hundreds of miles of open land and small towns. You know how the song goes, “The stars at night, are big and bright (clap, clap, clap, clap) DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!” The song goes on to declare the “sage in bloom” to be “like perfume” and the “prairie sky” that is described as “wide and high”…DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS.

Texas is big—and we mean big—and the only way to truly appreciate its size is to hit the road and discover what’s out there in those wide-open spaces. The cities have tons to offer, but Texas does “small town” like few other states, with friendly locals, historic buildings, quirky claims to fame, and an easygoing way of life everywhere you look.

So what’s your pleasure?  Whatever route or destination you choose, you’ll saddle up for adventure on a grand scale.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

In the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg maintains a small-town feel while having lots of things to see and do. With its unique German heritage, thriving wineries, and shopping, it’s the perfect getaway. The historic buildings along Main Street are home to over 100 shops. Influenced by the town’s heritage, German and German-inspired food options abound. Fredericksburg and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. This area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corpus Christi

Beaches, islands, bays, and ports—there are many opportunities to engage in the variety of available water and wind sports. Arts, music, museums (such as the USS Lexington battle ship), and other cultural activities (like the Texas State Aquarium) make this Texas road trip enjoyable for those who desire a more relaxing time than their water-adventuring counterparts.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. While you could make it a daytrip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Tackle at least two of the Big Three on Day One: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling

Luling is home to some of the best barbecues in the Lone Star State, so prepare for a meat coma. City Market is one of Texas’s most-storied ‘que joints serving up only three types of meat—brisket, sausage, and ribs. Across the street from City Market is Luling Bar-B-Q—a relative newcomer since it’s only been open since 1986 (which still a long time to perfect their recipes!) Stop by for a second barbecue meal of moist brisket, smoked turkey, and tender pork loins. To cool off on a summer’s day, head to this renovated Zedler Mill on the banks of the San Marcos River to splash in one of Texas’s best swimming holes. It’s got everything you need for a perfect afternoon—shade, water, and plenty of sun. If you’d rather paddle than swim, you can rent kayaks and canoes on site.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shiner

Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week where visitors can see how their popular brews get made. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg

Located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US 77, Schulenburg may be best known as a reliable stop for a kolache fix. But with its roots in German and Czech settlement, this little town offers numerous cultural attractions including the Schulenburg Historical Museum, Texas Polka Music Museum, the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the spectacular painted churches. The area has the rolling hills and the beautiful bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spring. Not far from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, or Waco either, Schulenburg is halfway to everywhere.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Caverns of Senora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Caverns of Senora

The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth form 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface. The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.

Painted churches tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Churches of Fayette County

The Painted Churches of Fayette County are a sight to be seen. Go inside a plain white steeple church and you will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors, and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

You’ll discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in this Central Texas community, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Much of the town history is encased in dignified old architecture laid in the late 1800s. Many of the original buildings have been renovated and serve as creative outlets. The Texas Quilt Museum is located in two historic 1890s buildings. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio

From the San Jose Mission to the Alamo, this city is known for its fabulous, historic architecture. With a mix of Spanish and U.S. cultures, the Mexican and Tex-Mex food is more authentic than found almost anywhere else in the country. There is a lot to do in San Antonio, from visiting the missions to the Alamo and touring the River Walk or Natural Bridge Caverns. You can also spend days enjoying family-fun destinations like SeaWorld and Six Flags or join a ghost and vampire tour. There is no lack of diversions to explore in this city.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton

Find yourself in Rockport-Fulton and discover why Rockport-Fulton is the Charm of the Texas Coast. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing.

The quaint fishing village of Rockport has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for many years. Be it sportfishing, bird-watching, seafood, shopping, the arts, water recreation, or simply relaxing in the shade of wind-sculpted live oaks life here revolves around Aransas Bay.

Blue Bell Creamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham

Blue Bell fans travel from all over to see the making of their favorite ice cream. At The Little Creamery in Brenham, visitors can watch the manufacturing process from an observation deck and then check out the Visitors Center to read up on the company’s history and see artifacts. The self-guided tours conclude with $1 scoops from the parlor. In addition to regular favorites, the creamery also serves special flavors like Cookies ’n Cream and Pecan Pralines ’n Cream and the newest flavor to temp your taste buds, Fudge Brownie Decadence.

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston

Strung along a narrow barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston is a beautiful blend of graceful Victorian and early 20th-century mansions, bungalows, and cottages, along with a stunning historic downtown lined with tall palm trees and shady live oaks. Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens, Schitterbahn Waterpark, the Historic Pleasure Pier, dazzling Victorian architecture, and 32 miles of sun-kissed beaches.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

10 Amazing Places to RV in February

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

February is a great time to travel. If you’re looking for someplace warm with ample sunshine, there are some great destinations to consider especially for the RVing snowbird escaping the ravages of a Northern winter.

The bad news is COVID-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry and continues to impact snowbird travel. Canadian snowbirds won’t be flocking south this winter to escape the cold and snowy weather. With their wings clipped by border closures, Canadian snowbirds have traded in their golf clubs for snow shovels.

Naturally, RVers—and, in particular, Canadian snowbirds­—are looking forward to the relaxation of these restrictions. But where are the most amazing places to RV this month?

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in January and March. Also check out our recommendations from February 2020.

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is a 98-acre zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, natural history museum, and art gallery. It features two miles of walking paths traversing 21 acres of desert landscape. Get to know various Sonoran Desert habitats featuring flora and fauna native to the region, 16 individual desert botanical gardens, Earth Sciences Center cave featuring the region’s geology and showcasing the Museum’s extensive mineral collection, and admission to live animal presentations and keeper-animal interactions where you can watch animals being fed or trained. A visitor favorite, the Raptor Free Flight, a birds-of-prey demonstration where visitors view from the birds’ flight path occurs seasonal mid-October through mid-April.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and St. Marys River, Georgia

At over 400,000-acres, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge protects most of America’s largest blackwater wetlands sheltering a vast mosaic of pine islands, serpentine blackwater channels, and cypress forests that provide habitat for an abundance of wildlife. The largest refuge east of the Mississippi River, Okefenokee is home to a multitude of rare and declining species. Roughly 15,000 alligators ply the swamp’s placid waters. Wood storks and sandhill cranes frequent the skies. And gopher tortoises find sanctuary in underground burrows. From this vast wetland ecosystem is born the St. Marys, a blackwater river that meanders 125 miles before reaching the Atlantic. Largely unspoiled, the St. Marys River shelters the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, an ancient species that once reached lengths of up to 18 feet.

Manatee at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish as they swim by—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife. The Fish Bowl underwater observatory floats in the main spring and allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the manatees and an astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish swim about. The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity.

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi

Located on the beach in Waveland, Buccaneer is in a natural setting of large moss-draped oaks, marshlands, and the Gulf of Mexico. Use of this land was first recorded in history in the late 1700s when Jean Lafitte and his followers were active in smuggling and pirating along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The French Buccaneer, Lafitte, inhabited the old Pirate House located a short distance from what is now the park. The park site, also known as Jackson’s Ridge was used as a base of military operations by Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson later returned to this area and built a house on land that is now Buccaneer State Park.

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buccaneer State Park offers Buccaneer Bay, a 4.5 acre water park, Pirate’s Alley Nature Trail, playground, Jackson’s Ridge Disc Golf, activity building, camp store, and Castaway Cove pool. 

Buccaneer State Park has 206 premium campsites with full amenities including sewer. In addition to the premium sites, Buccaneer has an additional 70 campsites that are set on a grassy field overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. These Gulf view sites offer water and electricity. A central dumping station and restrooms are located nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend Scenic Loop, Texas

Touring Big Bend National Park and experiencing endless vistas straight out of an old Western would be reason enough to make this trip. But you’ll also have plenty of fun along the way exploring quirky small towns that are definitive road-trip material. Unforgettable experiences in West Texas include minimalist art installations, nighttime astronomy parties, and thriving ghost towns. Start your road trip in El Paso, a border city that’s wedged into the farthest-flung corner of West Texas and wraps up at the popular art installation—Prada Marfa. Highlights include Fort Davis and Terlingua, a one-of-a-kind thriving ghost town.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile. Alabama

Mobile is more than 300 years old and from that fact alone there must be a lot of history associated with a city of that age. The many museums and historical homes help tell Mobile’s story. Eight National Register Historic Districts make up what is known as downtown and midtown Mobile. Explore the mighty WWII battleship USS Alabama, winner of nine battle stars, and the submarine USS Drum. Both are National Historic Landmarks. Mobile is the home to the oldest carnival or Mardi Gras in the United States.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Find yourself in Rockport-Fulton and discover why Rockport-Fulton is the Charm of the Texas Coast. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing.

The quaint fishing village of Rockport has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for many years. Be it sportfishing, bird-watching, seafood, shopping, the arts, water recreation, or simply relaxing in the shade of wind-sculpted live oaks life here revolves around Aransas Bay.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla, New Mexico

Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and fosters an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posta.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities in the Coachella Valley of Southern California are a desert area with abundant artesian wells. Palm Springs acquired the title “Playground of the Stars” many years ago because what was then just a village in the desert was a popular weekend Hollywood getaway. Today, the village has grown and consists of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether it’s golf, tennis, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than “the Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. You might not find gold during your visit but you’ll become entranced with the golden opportunities to experience the beautiful and rugged area known as the Superstition Wilderness accessible by trails from the Park. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron. The four mile mountain bike loop trail is another great way to enjoy the park’s beauty.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on the year’s rainfall, you may be treated to a carpet of desert wildflowers in the spring. Enjoy a week of camping and experience native wildlife including mule deer, coyote, javelin, and jackrabbit. 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) are available in the park.

Worth Pondering…

I’ve never gotten used to winter and never will.

—Jamaica Kincaid

Best National Parks to Visit this Winter

While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring

As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.

November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.

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.

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 Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain 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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

Organ Pipe National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.

Worth Pondering…

There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.

—Edith Durham

Most Breathtaking Deserts to Explore in Winter

These deserts are even more stunning in winter

Desert regions might conjure up images of soaring temperatures, rolling sand dunes, and prickly cacti. And while these areas can be excruciatingly hot during the summer, they transform in the winter with falling temperatures, serene landscapes, and even, on occasion, powdery snow.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One benefit of winter travel is you’ll usually experience fewer crowds. Winter light can be harsh for photography but it can also create incredible shadows and sunrises and sunsets you just don’t find during the summer months. Depending on the rainfall and temperatures, the latter part of winter may signal impressive spring wildflowers.

From California to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, these eight desert areas are beautiful to explore in winter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, 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. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter brings cooler days, around 60 degrees and freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations. With the right timing, it doesn’t get more magical than seeing freshly fallen flakes gracing the smoothly rounded boulders that seem straight out of The Flintstones and the Joshua trees that look like something from an alien planet. Don’t miss other highlights of Joshua Tree including the fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). These trees are some of the tallest palms native to North America and can live around 80 or 90 years.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Organ Pipe is where “summer spends the winter” with warm days (60s) and chilly nights (40s) common from late fall to early spring. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

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

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

New Mexico is one of our favorite winter road trip destinations and Santa Fe is one reason why. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax. As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise. Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, once an inland sea and now a desert area with abundant artesian wells. An escape from winter’s chill and snow, it is also a destination filled with numerous places to visit and things to do.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Indian Canyons are one of the most beautiful attractions for any Palm Springs visitor, especially if you love to hike. There are so many great trails to choose from—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours. Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs.

Rio Grande River and Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm along the Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size and geographic diversity this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week or more with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend receives very little precipitation as storm systems are blocked by the mountain ranges that surround it. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should prepare for a variety of conditions. Air temperature changes by five degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation change; temperatures in the high Chisos Mountains can be 20+ degrees cooler than temperatures along the Rio Grande. Be prepared for this kind of variation during your trip. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California with just over 640,000 acres. There are over 10,000 years of human history recorded here including Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. Winter is a popular time to visit Borrego Valley as it’s sunny and warm. When you have sufficient winter rain, spring wildflowers begin to show as early as February. Hiking and mountain biking are popular in the canyon washes and over the ridges of red desert rock.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter also sees the visitor center open daily. The visitor center is an experience in itself as it was built with the environment in mind. It was built underground and has a landscaped roof topped with plants, native soil, and rocks. You can reserve camping sites in the park which has 175 developed sites, eight primitive campgrounds, and plenty of options for dispersed camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

The red rock expanse of Southern Utah is stunning in all seasons, but winter is unique. Arches is one of the most beautiful national parks to visit in winter (seriously!). The quietness of the park is perfect for those hoping to photograph the beauty of Arches in winter. Yes, it does snow in Arches National Park although not often. When it does snow, it tends to be a light covering that melts fairly quickly. If you’re timing is right, you will be able to see the arches and fins covered in snow creating a unique landscape where the orangey-brown rock contrasts beautifully with the white snow. And wherever you roam, you find few other travelers and plenty of peace and solitude.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Located in Arizona’s high desert under the towering southwestern rim of the vast Colorado Plateau, Sedona is blessed with four mild seasons marked by abundant sunshine and clean air. Almost the entire world knows that Sedona, strategically situated at the mouth of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, is a unique place. Characterized by massive red-rock formations, as well as the contrasting riparian areas of Oak Creek Canyon, the area surrounding this beloved community is at least as beautiful as many national parks.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the winter months, Sedona transforms into a dazzling wonderland with light dustings of snow and millions of twinkling stars amidst the dark night sky. Sitting at 4,500-feet elevation, the town enjoys moderate winters. Mild temperatures during the day are perfect for hiking the famed Red Rock Country. Snow occasionally dusts the upper reaches of the surrounding mesas and mountains in a most picturesque fashion.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert,

I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.

The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.

I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

National Parks at their Spectacular Best in Winter

All the wonder with none of the crowds

Summer will always be the most popular time to visit national parks. For generations, families have flocked to these precious natural wonderlands to commune with nature—and to crowd hiking trails, overtake campsites, and transform peaceful naturescapes into theme parks. But sometimes you long to experience the natural sounds of nature without the discordant noise of humanity. And to do that may involve packing warm clothes. 

Winter is a magical time for many of the parks. The trails clear. The campsites are less likely to be serenaded by a guitar-picking yodeler. Fire danger is down. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have it mostly to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in winter. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines just to board the tram. End this madness and go during winter. Just 13 percent of Zion visitors journey to the park between November and March for a wintertime visit in one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

With average summer highs of 99 degrees, Joshua Tree is just too hot to enjoy for much of the year. However, a great time to visit is in the winter. During January, February, and much of March, Joshua Tree will treat you to mild temperatures and relative quiet. See this strange beauty before the mercury rises and the Coachella Valley Music Festival and spring break crowds arrive. Joshua Tree is not only a national park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge but also the name of the funky little town outside the park. Give yourself time explore the park as well as the shops and curiosities along the main drag on Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and hoodoos dusted with snow then you owe it to yourself to do so. The entire park is an embarrassment of riches come wintertime. There’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and a winter festival. The drier air this time of year makes the desert skies unparalleled for stargazing; you’ll find regularly scheduled astronomy programs including full-moon snowshoe hikes at the newly designated International Dark Sky Park. Nowhere else on Earth will you get as vivid a look at Mars overhead while feeling like you’re standing on the Red Planet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

You may have been curious about Congaree National Park but it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit in summer because the area gets so hot and muggy. Winter, it turns out, is a great time to explore without contending against the park’s dreaded “Mosquito Meter.” The park is a cypress swamp intersected with creeks and lakes. The cypress trees grow with the bases of their trunks underwater. The simplest path for new visitors is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail. Its raised planks are less likely to be washed out than the muddy trails on the ground. Also, this is not a park I’d visit in midsummer, as the bugs are unbearable. Autumn, winter, and early spring (before the bugs come out) are the most enjoyable times of year to visit.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with cactus wrens and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat. Even better, the backcountry campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag, allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is famous for the approximately 2,000 arches located throughout the park. Driving from the park entrance to the end of the road at Devil’s Garden is a total of 18 miles, one-way. There are numerous spots to pull out and take in the sights of the park. Crowds? No way. Heat stroke? Not very likely! Traffic jams? Nope. Winter is off-season at Arches which means it’s the perfect time to visit. Snow certainly falls in Arches but it rarely sticks around for more than two or three days. It’s a photographic jackpot: one day you’ll get the contrast of snow on the red rock landscapes and the next day the sun will shine, melt the snow, and blue skies will complement the park’s sandstone formations. Basically, winter in Arches is a win-win.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Located along the San Andreas Fault in central California, Pinnacles National Park is of geological significance and is known for its beautiful and diverse habitats that range from spectacular wildflowers to oak woodlands and chaparral scrub, caves, and rock spires. The giant boulders you see at Pinnacles today were formed as a result of volcanic activity that occurred over 23 million years ago. Enjoy hiking trails, rock climbing, exploring caves, star gazing, camping, and bird watching. Boasting a Mediterranean climate, the Park enjoys mild winters with moderate precipitation.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The largest protected area of Texas, Big Bend is most appealing in winter. Temperatures hover in the 60s, perfect for taking on the park’s nearly 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails which span desert, riverside, and mountain terrain. The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. Elevation in the park ranges from 1,800 feet along the river to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures can vary by 20 degrees between the two. Summers are hot; the desert floor is often above 100 degrees. Winter is pleasantly mild and usually sunny. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. After the December holidays, winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Dramatic winter storms bringing several inches of snow are contrasted with sunny days. Crisp air and a dusting of snow bring a new perspective to the temples and buttes emerging from the canyon floor and provide a perfect backdrop to view the canyon’s flora and fauna. The South Rim of the park is open year round. Winter solitude blankets the North Rim of Grand Canyon which is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter. Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and come experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Glistening white slopes extend as far as the eye can see. A ski resort in the dead of winter? Hardly! Those white slopes are glistening with grains of sand, not snowflakes. Black-diamond trails drift and shift with the wind. Cars inch forward on a hard-packed white surface. The black-diamond signs refer to the difficulty of navigating gypsum dunes rather than groomed ski trails. And even though the road may look freshly plowed, it is packed sand, not snow that forms the white surface.

Worth Pondering…

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes the fashioning hand.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Visit a National Park but Skip the Big Name Ones

America’s big name parks are attracting major crowds. Here’s where to avoid them.

As summer creeps into full swing and cities across America do the dance of easing and then reinstating COVID-19 restrictions, people are clamoring to be someplace—most anyplace—besides their own homes. While there is no form of travel that’s 100 percent safe right now, there are certainly more responsible options than others for scratching the itch.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks with their wide-open space are more befitting a socially distant vacation than, say, popular resort towns or theme parks. But even vast wilderness expanses have potential for riskier areas—visitor centers, for one, and popular trailheads near crowded parking areas. And then there are the crowds at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or the scenic drive at Zion National Park which has been so popular since reopening that the park had to cap access at 6:30 a.m.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now more than ever, this is the time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks. Steering clear of the hoard of tourists at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, exploring new territory provides a sense of discovery with the added benefit of fewer people. The adventure doesn’t stop at park boundaries, either, as these less-famous parks are often surrounded by small communities rich with their own charms.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As enticing as all this sounds, it’s important that travelers tread carefully in and around all national parks since these smaller gateway communities are not equipped to handle a potential outbreak brought in from visitors. It’s a double-edged sword for small businesses that rely on tourism dollars to survive. That is why it’s important to maintain the same caution on your road trip as you maintain at home. Wherever you are, social distancing and adherence to health mandates are important in order to support these communities while keeping them safe.

So, with safety top of mind, here are some alternative parks to consider for your 2020 summer escape.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Judging by the fact that Congaree sees about 3 percent of the annual visitors of parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, it seems many people don’t even know this South Carolina park exists. Located in the middle of the state, the swamp-like terrain feels part Everglades and part Sequoia with the tallest trees east of the Mississippi and intertwining waterways ripe for paddling.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s front and backcountry areas are open including all hiking trails, Boardwalk, restrooms, picnic shelter, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, and canoe landings. Note that parts of the Boardwalk and Weston Lake Loop Trail remain closed due to flood damage. Cedar Creek is a narrow waterway that weaves through hardwood forest so tall and dense that it blocks out the sun. For easy hiking, out-of-the-way trails like the River Trail and Oakridge Trail are currently accessible. The park is within 20 miles of the state capital of Columbia. The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington offers a convenient home base for exploring the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding communities are rich with character but low on crowds like the dusty ghost town of Terlingua which is emerging as a tranquil artist’s enclave and the peaceful riverside town of Lajitas. There are several campgrounds and RV parks in Big Bend and surrounding communities.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is once again beckoning visitors itching to hike, drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road, and marvel at the park’s famed cliff dwellings and structures. At just over 50,000 acres, the park is perfect for its mesa-skimming scenic drives and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re traipsing through the clouds surrounded by panoramic views of the surrounding valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has reopened using a phased approach. Some areas are open on a self-guided basis while other facilities and areas remain closed. Cliff dwellings are closed and tours are canceled until further notice. But there are many superb viewpoints along the Mesa Top and Cliff Palace Loop Roads

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Badlands, petrified wood, bison, pronghorns, and wild horses make it clear what endeared President Theodore Roosevelt to this tranquil part of the country. And you’re more likely to encounter chirping prairie dogs on your hike than people.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, eroded sandstone formations, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, and the meandering Little Missouri River. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

Visitors can access South Unit Visitor Center, trails, picnic areas, roads, and backpack camping. Painted Canyon and North Unit visitor centers and all campgrounds remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The world-famous caverns—brimming with stalagmites, stalactites, and a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats—has partially reopened. The visitor center is open from 8 am to 5 pm daily. For social distancing entrance tickets to the cavern are limited to 575 visitors per day and available on a first-come, first-served basis at the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bat flight amphitheater is closed to protect the bats and social distancing for visitors and staff. Bat flights can still be observed from the visitor center parking lot and a ranger presented Bat Flight Program can be listened to on a vehicle radio.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With nearly 50 miles of trails through the peaceful Chihuahuan Desert, from Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge, there’s plenty to explore, and plenty of opportunity to break away from crowds and convene with cacti and roadrunners.

Worth Pondering…

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

— John Muir

The Least Visited National Parks and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s national parks at these lesser-known sites

Among America’s 61 national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

We’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks, which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Those dwellings were once the homes that native peoples used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the dwellings, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The only cave system on our list of least-visited parks is located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, Carlsbad Cavern itself forming the natural entrance to the park as the tallest cave. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic is best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds. Many established trails take you past—and through—those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption in 1917.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. In spite of its remote location, Big Bend is worth the drive. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here. Visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking and it’s a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago. Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree offers the opportunity to explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau