The Ultimate Guide to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers a wealth of things to do and places to go year-round. Its huge lakes cater to boaters, swimmers, sunbathers, and fishermen while its desert rewards hikers, wildlife photographers, and roadside sightseers.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a National Park Service (NPS) site with 1.5 million acres of mesmerizing landscapes, canyons, valleys, and two vast lakes of vibrant blue waters. This park is a playground for adventurers who love hiking, watersports, fishing, boating, scuba diving, and more.

This national recreation area offers a chance to see the Hoover Dam, enjoy the waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead, and retreat into nature in one of the park’s 9 designated wilderness areas.

Where Is Lake Mead National Recreation Area?

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is located in southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. The closest major city to this park is Las Vegas, 26 miles away. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area opening hours and seasons

This national recreation area is open year-round, 24 hours a day. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This facility is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. 

Driving to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are nine access points to this national recreation area so the route you choose will depend on the area from which you are coming and the entrance you want to utilize for your arrival. The best and most popular entrance is the one that takes you to the visitor center. U.S. Highway 93 is the main road used by those driving to the park. 

Getting around Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The best way to get around this park is by private vehicle. This vast recreation area has so many sites and attractions to explore; the best way to do this is by driving to the different areas and exploring on foot.

Of course, another good way to explore the park on the water is by boating or paddling on the bright blue waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your itinerary. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see and do in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area covers 1.5 million acres of canyons, lakes, valleys, and mountains. There is no shortage of adventure at this park. Check out some of the most popular activities and sights at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. 

Boating

Over 290 square miles of waterways are within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lake Mead and Lake Mohave provide some of the best boating opportunities for those who love to explore the park on the water. Whether you want to speed through the open water or float in a private cove, there are many fun and relaxation opportunities here. 

Boat rentals are available at the marinas on Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Many types of boats are available to rent, including sports boats, fishing boats, paddle boats, pontoons, and houseboats. These locations also rent out water skis and wakeboards for even more adventures. 

Tip: Be sure to read the park’s boating rules and regulations to ensure you have a fun, safe time.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canoeing and kayaking

Thanks to all the water within the park’s boundaries, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities at this national recreation area. The views from the calm lake waters and majestic mountains surrounding them are breathtaking.

The Black Canyon Water Trail and Mohave Water Trail are the most popular trails for paddling but there are also many hidden coves throughout the park just waiting to be discovered.

Guided tours

A variety of guided tours are offered at this national recreation area. The park’s visitor center is a wonderful place to learn about the various tour options.

Some of the guided tour options include cruises, ranger-led hikes, and hunting and fishing adventures. The most popular tours include the Cruise to the Hoover Dam and the Float Down the Colorado River. There are also self-guided options should you choose to explore on your own. Taking advantage of the many tour options is a fantastic way to learn about and explore this impressive area. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

Although most visitors are attracted to Lake Mead National Recreation Area because of lakes Mead and Mohave more than 87 percent of the park protects a vast area of the eastern Mojave Desert. Perhaps the best way to explore this diverse ecosystem is on foot, traveling across open expanses of rock formations that contain all the colors of the rainbow.

Which trail is right for you? There are a variety of hikes that vary in difficulty and length. These trails are in the Lake Mead and Lake Mojave areas. The hiking trails show off the park’s diverse ecosystems and take hikers past incredible rainbow-colored rock formations, canons, and washes.

Some of the favorite trails include the Historic Railroad Trail, River Mountains Loop, and Owl Canyon. The best time to hike here is from October to April. The temperatures are cooler during these months and the journey is much more enjoyable. Visitors are not recommended to hike during the summer months as the temperatures are dangerously high. 

Scenic drives

There are two main scenic drives in Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Lakeshore Road and Northshore Road. These drives travel through the mountains, canyons, and desert basins. Driving these roads offers visitors excellent opportunities to enjoy the views and capture photos of the bright blue waters and colorful mountains.

Visitors also enjoy stopping for picnics while driving along these roads. Cyclists, pedestrians, and wildlife use these scenic roads, so stay alert and mindful of those sharing the road with you. 

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Visitor center

The Lake Mead Visitor Center is an excellent place to visit before starting your park adventures. This facility is just a few miles north of the Hoover Dam and has so much to offer park visitors. 

Park rangers are stationed at the visitor center to help you plan a fantastic adventure or answer any questions. You can obtain park maps brochures, get a national park passport stamp, or turn in a Junior Ranger booklet to earn your Junior Ranger Badge.

There is also a store inside this facility that is run by the Western National Parks Association. This store offers guests a chance to buy books about the park, Native American arts, crafts, jewelry, posters, clothing, and postcards.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best times to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area

You’re guaranteed an unforgettable trip any time you’re able to visit this national recreation area. There are better times than others to plan a trip here especially if you hope to participate in particular activities. Take a look at the best times to visit this park.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for summer fun

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is an exciting place for summer fun. The best time to visit during the summer months is in June. The high temperatures typically reach the upper 90s and the lows dip down to the low 70s. There is an average of 0 days of precipitation during the time making the summer adventure opportunities never-ending.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area to avoid the crowds

The best way to explore a new place is without having to worry about crowds and traffic. If you want to experience this national recreation area without crowds, plan to come in November. This time of year is the least busy making it a perfect time to enjoy the park at your own pace. 

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for ideal weather

Weather can make or break a trip, so planning around typical weather patterns is a great idea. If you want to experience this park when the weather is ideal, plan to come in April. The daily lows are in the mid-50s and the highs are in the upper 70s. It typically only rains an average of 1 day in April but it’s wise to come prepared for rain just in case.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area hosts several events on a regular basis throughout the year. Some of the regularly scheduled events include star parties, guided hikes through the wetlands, and hikes to Majestic Canyon. There are also some annual events.

National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup

Each September, Lake Mead National Recreation Area participates in the National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup. This free event is an excellent way for visitors to positively impact the park and help remove litter from the beaches and other areas. A benefit to visiting on this day is that participants will receive a voucher to visit a federal public land at no charge. 

Rage Triathlon

Each year in April, the Rage Triathlon takes place at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This race has taken place since 2001 and offers a fantastic way to experience this park. It winds through beach campgrounds and along river and mountain trails. The Rage Triathlon is considered one of the region’s most scenic desert landscape triathlons.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area has an abundance of options for those who want to stay within the park’s boundaries or in a nearby town. Check out some of the best places to stay both in and near this recreation area. 

Inside the park

There are many options for accommodations within this national recreation area. From campgrounds to resorts and lodges, the options are many. Check out some of the different places to stay within this park.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds

Spend your next camping adventure on the lake. With over 900 camping and RV sites at 15 different locations, there is a variety of desert and lakeside landscapes sure to please everyone. Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s campgrounds offer restrooms, running water, dump stations, grills, picnic tables and shade. RVs and tents are welcome.

Most of the campgrounds can be reserved but there are a few that are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service such as Boulder Beach, Callville Bay, Cottonwood Cove, Echo Bay, Las Vegas Bay, and Temple Bar.

Concessioner campgrounds including recreational vehicle hook-ups are also available within the park. These campgrounds include Katherin Landing and Willow Beach.

Bottom line:

If you prefer to set up camp and sleep under the stars, you will find so many options at Lake Mead that you may have difficulty narrowing down where to pitch your tent.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina is a beautiful option for those wanting to stay within the park’s boundaries. This Spanish-style resort is right off the shores of Lake Mohave and offers red-roofed motel rooms and lots of amenities for a comfortable stay. 

This lodging option features covered outdoor patios with tables and chairs for lounging and taking in breathtaking sunsets and lakefront views. There are also outdoor barbecues for those who prefer to cook outdoors. 

Another unique choice for visitors who want to get off the grid is renting a houseboat during your stay. This is a great way to experience the lake and take a break from the duties of home.

Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing

Several types of accommodations are available at Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing. Visitors can choose from mid-century-style rooms, a full hook-up RV or tent site, and even private homes. This resort has gorgeous views of the desert scenery and Lake Mohave.

The lodge offers standard double or standard king rooms. These rooms feature a private bathroom, air conditioning, coffee makers, and satellite televisions to make you feel at home. There is also a spectacular restaurant on-site to take care of any cravings you may have during your stay. 

Visitors who stay here can enjoy world-class boating, water skiing, scuba diving, wakeboarding, and fishing for largemouth, smallmouth, and striper bass. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temple Bar Marina Resort

Temple Bar Marina Resort is located on Lake Mead on the Arizona side of the park. This resort offers lake view lodging, an RV park, access to hundreds of beaches and coves, an on-site store, gift shop, café, bar, and launch ramp. This is an incredible option for a home base when visiting this national recreation area. 

Temple Bar has standard motel rooms and cabins for those who want a more traditional type of stay. Visitors can choose from standard rooms with lake views or desert views, fishing cabins, or suites with kitchen access. Whatever type of stay you prefer this resort has a perfect solution for your travel needs. 

Towns near Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are several towns near this recreation area for those who prefer to set up a base camp outside the park’s boundaries. Whether you seek a quiet, small town or a lively, larger city, there’s a perfect place for you in these towns.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boulder City, Nevada

Boulder City is a charming small town with a rich historical heritage, only 6 miles from the park. For those wanting to stay near the recreation area, this town has a variety of options for dining, lodging, and entertainment.

This city has a variety of accommodations including RV resorts, contemporary hotels, and budget-friendly motels. Whether you’re looking for a unique stay in a themed motel, a luxury stay in a hotel, or a relaxing visit to a resort, there are plenty of options in this city. 

Food enthusiasts are in for a treat in this city. A variety of restaurants, including cafes, sushi bars, diners, and Mexican taquerias are scattered throughout this town.

For recreation, there are incredible opportunities available in this town. From kayaking to golfing, visiting museums, and exploring several types of parks, there’s no shortage of fun here. You are also in the perfect location for exploring famous landmarks like the Hoover Dam. 

Boulder City is an ideal home away from home for those visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Its proximity to the park and its incredible opportunities for food, fun, and lodging make the choice of where to settle an easy one. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Henderson, Nevada

Henderson is located approximately 19 miles from the national recreation area. This city is a great place to make a home base during a visit to this park. It has perfect options for those traveling with family, friends, or solo. 

The accommodations in this town range from luxury hotels to smaller, more affordable motels to 5-star luxury resorts. Whatever budget or type of stay you have in mind, you can find a perfect option for your vacation needs here. 

This city has fantastic restaurants including pizza parlors, formal dining rooms, authentic cultural cuisine, diners, and cafes. This city has something to offer every palate. 

If you’re looking for fun, this is the right place. Henderson has countless opportunities for outdoor recreation including hiking, playgrounds, splash pads, skate parks, and bicycle trails.

Where to eat in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are eight different restaurants within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. These restaurants serve a variety of cuisines and are located in or near the marinas. Here are two popular choices.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Harbor House Café and Lounge

The Harbor House Café and Lounge is a floating restaurant and bar right on Lake Mead. This dining option serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks daily. 

The menu seems endless at this restaurant. From freshly tossed salads to stacked sandwiches, breakfast specialties, and fish and chips, there’s something for every palate here. Some of the most popular menu items include the classic club sandwich, buffalo chicken wrap, and the Harbor Burger.

Be sure to stop by this café and lounge when visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Not only will you enjoy a fantastic meal but you can also take in the gorgeous views of the surrounding slips, lake, and mountains. 

Temple Bar Café

Temple Bar Café is located at the Temple Bar Marina. This restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Breakfast burritos, stacks of fluffy pancakes, signature sandwiches, juicy burgers, and sizzling pizzas are just some of the items on the menu here. Customers rave about patty melt, Rueben sandwiches, homemade biscuits and gravy, and home-cooked weekly specials. 

For a delicious meal in this recreation area, you won’t regret a stop at Temple Bar Café. It’s a great place to rest up and refuel for more adventures in the park.

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Lake Mead National Recreation Area facts

1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established in 1964. This was America’s first national recreation area. 

2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the third largest NPS area other than the parks in Alaska. This recreation area covers 1.5 million acres. 

3. This area was occupied by desert Indian cultures that existed 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. It’s believed that the ancestral Puebloan people were the first to inhabit this land. These people group hunted game, gathered edible plants in the area, and practiced farming.

4. Lake Mead is a large reservoir on the Colorado River. This lake was formed by Hoover Dam located in Black Canyon. Lake Mead is the largest U.S. reservoir by volume coming in right before Lake Powell. 

5. An abundance of animals call Lake Mead National Recreation Area home thanks to its diverse ecosystems. These animals have special adaptations that help them survive the harsh environment. Some commonly seen animals here include the Desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and 19 species of bats. 

Final thoughts

Whether you seek outdoor adventure or solitude in nature, Lake Mead National Recreational Area is a bucket list location. With so many options to hike, fish, boat, view wildlife, attend a guided program, and tour amazing places, it’s easy to spend several days exploring this beautiful park. Book your trip to Lake Mead today and discover what brings in millions of visitors from around the world each year.

Details

  • Area: 1,495,806 acres
  • Established: October 13, 1936
  • Recreation visits in 2023: 5,798,541
  • Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Worth Pondering…

Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open … with real inward attention. …you can extract the essence of a place once you know how.

―Lawrence Durrell

Okefenokee Swamp is like No Other Place in the World

Alligators, otters, and bears abound in this sprawling mass of wetlands

Regarding rich biodiversity and pristine natural beauty, the United States is home to many incredible destinations scattered across all 50 states. While iconic national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon have earned worldwide acclaim, one particularly fascinating natural feature has flown largely under the radar. Measuring in at over 400,000 acres of pristine wetlands sprawled across southern Georgia Okefenokee Swamp is one of the last great bastions of wilderness left in the southern U.S.

The name Okefenokee comes from a Creek Indian word meaning trembling earth. During the Seminole Wars, Native Americans hid in the Okefenokee Swamp to escape capture. The leader of these refugees was a chieftain known as Billy Bowlegs. Billy’s Island was one of his refuges and legend says the island was named for him.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the years, Billy’s Island was home to a tenacious family of squatters, the Lees, who refused to abandon their claimed land until forced by court order. In 1909, Hebard Lumber Company came and began cutting centuries-old cypress trees. 

The Hebard family sold the property to the government in 1937; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created that same year.

Despite its massive size, few access points offer visitors a glimpse into the untamed wilderness of North America’s largest blackwater swamp. However, for those wishing to spend a weekend searching for native Southern flora and fauna, Stephen C. Foster State Park offers unrivaled opportunity in the remote reaches of southern Georgia. While this certified Dark Sky Park and Natural Wonder of Georgia is a top destination, the entire region was a much different place in the distant past.

Millions of years ago, the area was under the ocean. It’s possible that, during this time, the saucer-shaped depression the Okefenokee Swamp would later occupy was formed. After the ocean receded, freshwater replaced saltwater and plant life and peat deposits began to fill in the depression. A mosaic of habitats like wet prairies, dense cypress forest, and upland pine forests are found throughout this 438,000-acre wetland.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those planning to explore this diverse array of natural habitats, there’s no shortage of lodging options scattered all across the park grounds. There are over 60 sites available for RVs or anyone brave enough to rough it in their own personal tent while anybody in need of more upscale accommodations can book one of the park’s nine fully-furnished cottages. Equipped with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a personal backyard fire pit these spacious dwellings are perfect for immersing oneself in the natural world without having to go totally prehistoric.

Many sites offer scrubs and trees to afford privacy. The wide grassy hiking trail that runs behind the campsites is a natural haven. Birds of various kinds flutter between the moss laden oaks and cypress trees. Saw palmetto and blackberry vines are a large part of the undergrowth. Plaques along the trail tell the story of Spanish moss and the native trees and scrubs. 

It’s not really a swamp. It’s the headwaters of both the Suwannee and the Saint Marys rivers. It’s just easier to say swamp than natural wetlands preserve.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Extensive open areas at the core of the refuge like the Chesser, Grand, and Mizell Prairies branch off the man-made Suwannee Canal accessed via the main entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 11 miles southwest of Folkston. The prairies are excellent spots for sportfishing and birding and guided boat tours of the area leave from the Okefenokee

Refuge concession Okefenokee Adventures works in partnership with the refuge to provide guided boat trips; rent camping gear, bicycles, motorboats and canoes; operate a gift shop; collect entrance fees; and provide food service.

Truly the best way to get a close look at the swamp inhabitants is to take a boat tour from Okefenokee Adventures. Their regular boat is a 24-foot Carolina skiff and there’s one step down into it from the dock. Additionally, you need to have a good balance in order to maneuver to a seat as the boat rocks a lot. An accessible pontoon boat is also available but it might not be the next boat out.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This boat has level access for wheelchair users and folding seats for able-bodied passengers. Both boats have a canopy for protection from the midday sun. Best bet is to check in the gift shop about the availability of the accessible boat as soon as you arrive then enjoy the visitor center while you wait.

The 90-minute tour goes through the Suwannee Canal as the naturalist points out the flora and fauna and gives passengers a short history of the area. Expect to see turtles, herons, ibis, hawks, and lots of alligators along the way. And if you visit in the fall, you’ll also likely see the migrant Sandhill Cranes.

The concession also has equipment rentals and food is available at the Camp Cornelia Cafe. The visitor center has a film, exhibits, and a mechanized mannequin that tells stories about life in Okefenokee (it sounds hokey, but it’s surprisingly informative). A boardwalk takes you over the water to a 50-foot observation tower. Hikers, bicyclists, and private motor vehicles are welcome on Swamp Island Drive; several interpretive walking trails may be taken along the way.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Save some time to explore the refuge on foot on one of the three accessible trails along the eight-mile-long Swamp Island Drive. It’s easy to find—just follow the signs as you leave the main parking lot.

The Upland Discovery Trail is the first trail you’ll come upon along the drive. There’s a paved parking area with accessible parking on the right with level access to the trail across the street. The quarter-mile trail is made of hard-packed dirt and although there are some exposed roots along the way they are easy to dodge. The worst obstructions are at the beginning of the trail so if you make it past the first ten feet, you’re good to go. Be sure and look for the trees marked with the white bands and they mark either a roosting or nesting spot of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Our guide steered the pontoon boat to a patch of grasses and peat in the process of forming land to show how the name Land of Trembling Earth came about. When he poked at the small island with his paddle, it trembled. With these little pockets of almost-land dotting the surface of the lake, it’s easy to see how a person could become lost in this place that’s more water than land.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’re likely to see alligators and birds as you travel about 2 miles into the lake from the dock. Although it’s named Billy’s Lake, the path amid the many islands looks more like a creek ranging from 35 to 155 feet wide. We ventured into a narrow offshoot of water called Minnie’s Run. Here, our guide maneuvered between giant cypress trees with branches that often brush the sides and top of our little boat. Throughout the waterway, we encountered several types of water lilies. The most distinctive, the American white water lily has dozens of narrow white petals surrounding a bright yellow center. 

Wood signs with arrows direct us where to turn to reach certain places in the swamp. Five Sisters is another marker that boaters use for navigating the area. It’s a cluster of five cypress trees, three of them living and two dead representing five sisters who once lived deep in the swamp. It’s here that we spot a small alligator swimming with just its eyes and the top of the head visible. 

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I asked about some of the other wildlife found in the park including deer, bears, foxes, snakes, bobcats, and otters. He said the best time to see a bear is when the blackberries are ripe or when there are a lot of acorns on the ground. Bobcats are early morning and late evening prowlers.

Of course, no trip to Okefenokee is complete without venturing into the remote depths of the swamp in search of wildlife—a feat that’s best accomplished on a guided motorboat tour. With a Stephen C. Foster State Park ranger versed in the ins and outs of the swamp as your pilot this is by far the best way to acquaint yourself with the many creatures that call the park home.

There are around 620 species of plants, 39 fish, 37 amphibians, 64 reptiles, 234 birds, and 50 mammal species known in the swamp today. Alligators, white-tailed deer, and turkey are regularly seen around the park during the day. Most nights, barred owls hoot across the campground, and after an evening rain shower many species of frogs will call out.

In spring, swallow-tailed kites arrive from their wintering grounds in South America to nest and are frequently seen acrobatically flying over the park. During the winter, river otters are more commonly seen in the main waterways and sandhill cranes are frequently heard calling from marshy areas throughout the swamp.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some may be drawn to the park in search of the South’s larger mammal inhabitants including bobcats, black bears, and gray foxes these particular beasts tend to steer clear of any human activity. They’re therefore seldom seen by visitors—though you may be able to catch a glimpse of one if you’re particularly lucky. For avid bird watchers, a particularly prized sight is the red-cockaded woodpecker. These mottled creatures tend to gravitate towards mature pine forests and they’re currently endangered in the state of Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp may be one of the state’s most iconic natural features but it’s far from the only one worth visiting in the region. For a truly memorable time add a second preserve to the list after you’ve thoroughly explored Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Okefenokee Swamp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few minutes’ north of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundaries, Laura S. Walker State Park offers visitors the opportunity to spot gopher tortoises, pitcher plants, and all manner of wading birds and it even comes equipped with its own 18-hole golf course. Meanwhile, those who make the journey to Georgia’s idyllic seashore can find Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal getaway that’s rife with sandy beaches.

Georgia might earn most of its acclaim thanks to its world-class cities but the state has far more to offer than simply Atlanta and Savannah. Stephen C. Foster State Park may be a little difficult to get to but there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting still in a kayak in the heart of the swamp surrounded by nothing but the gentle hum of Georgia’s native wildlife.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Worth Pondering…

Choose only one master—nature.

—Rembrandt

21 Enjoyable and Fun Hobbies to do while Camping

What hobbies can y’all do while RVing?

RVing is a great way to escape it all. You can relax in the quiet beauty of the natural world. Some people live in the peaceful and relaxing setting of a campsite. 

But sometimes camping by itself can be a little, ahem, dull. While a quiet and serene landscape may be incredible for a few days, you may need a hobby while on the road. 

Maybe you’ll find a new hobby on this list!

1. Create nature art

Many RVers enjoy creating art out of items they find in nature. For example, some folks like to create a nature journal and include leaf rubbings of the foliage nearby. While creating art out of natural items is engaging, be sure that you follow all park rules and laws. For example, picking flowers from a national park is a big no-no. You want to ensure you know what you are and are not allowed to do before starting a hobby in a state or national park. 

Yarn for knitting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Knitting

Knitting is a great portable hobby that’s perfect for camping. Not only is it enjoyable but it is useful too. While you create beautiful, handmade items, your body relaxes and experiences therapeutic healing at the same time. Using both of your hands for a focused activity is stimulating for your brain. So if you find yourself wishing for something to keep your hands and your mind busy, give knitting a try.

3. Metal detecting

A unique hobby some RVers enjoy is metal detecting. You never know what hidden treasure might be found in a campground or on a deserted stretch of beach. You can find a good metal detector for only about a $100. Not too pricey for a new hobby that keeps you active. However, it’s important to research metal detecting restrictions and the code of ethics before you dive into this hobby.

4. Wood carving/turning pens

Turning pens is a woodworking technique to create custom pens, pencils, and other writing instruments. Many people like to work with wood in varying capacities whether by carving or making a helpful tool from wood. You can get a mini wood lathe for about $200 and wood carving set for under $20 to keep in your RV.

Hiking in Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Hiking

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

6. Painting Rocks

Painting rocks is a fun thing to do while camping. Rock painting is a fun, creative outlet that doesn’t require you to be da Vinci in order to enjoy it. It requires minimal supplies (paint brush and paints) and you can search for smooth rocks right at your campsite. It is like treasure hunting and painting in one fun hobby.

7. Geocaching (modern day treasure hunting)

One of the more popular activities that many campers and hikers take part in is geocaching. A geocache can be anything from a simple logbook where you add your name and the date you found the hidden cache or something larger such as an ammo box which may be filled with trinkets left by other geocachers. (If taking something from a Geocache, it’s customary to replace it with a similar object of equal or more value.) Geocaching can be a fun way to get out and explore around your campground and people of all ages love treasure hunting.

Texas Quilt Museum, La Grange, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Quilting

Quilting is another relaxing hobby you can work on when traveling. It’s a wonderful way to create items you can use in your RV or give as gifts. Some RVers make quilts out of t-shirts they buy wherever they travel. So, the quilt becomes a storyboard for their journey.

9. Paper quilling/paper crafting

Paper quilling is the art of cutting paper into long thin strips and rolling and pinching them into different shapes to create an overall design. You can buy paper quilling kits online to get started. They have everything you need to complete numerous beginner projects. 

Fishing at Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Fishing

Fishing offers a double dose of fun and food—as long as the fish are biting. Be sure to check the local fishing regulations, get your fishing license, and read up on what kind of fish you’ll find near the campsite.

11. Jewelry making

Another fun hobby you can try is jewelry making. Create earrings, necklaces, or bracelets that are just your style. Jewelry making includes many different options including wire wrapping, leatherworking, and beading. There are numerous starter kits available. Some RVers sell the jewelry they make at swap meets or on Etsy. Talk about a creative way to make money while RVing.

12. Travel journaling

Instead of waiting until after their trip (and inevitably putting it off), many RVers journal and/or scrapbook as they travel.

13. Lego

Lego aren’t just for kids anymore. Some folks find it relaxing to build intricate lego sets while camping. You may think taking these tiny bricks camping will be a disaster but you can use an organizer box to stay tidy. You can even build a Volkswagen T2 Camper Van. The building kit for this classic camper van comes with 2,207 pieces.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Play outdoor games

Fun outdoor games to play while camping include horseshoes, bocce, cornhole, ladder golf, and Frisbee. You can also toss around a mini football or play catch with a baseball.

15. Painting

While getting started painting can be daunting given the wealth of incredible art that has been produced for centuries, it can also be an enjoyable pastime for anyone to try. Painting is a calming hobby that also allows you to express yourself creatively. On top of that, it’s surprisingly affordable to get started and you can make real progress very quickly with a little dedication.

16. Gardening

Keeping a garden while traveling can be challenging but it also helps ground you and brings in wonders like fresh herbs and produce or simply beautifies and detoxifies a closed space like an RV. Start small and then work your way up to edibles. Even a cache of succulents can brighten the interior of a motorhome or trailer and are low-maintenance. 

Gambel’s quail in Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Birding (or bird watching)

Bird watching is an ideal way to keep in touch with nature and you also have the satisfaction of learning something new. Birding also relieves stress and can provide a place of solitude except for the sweet song of a bird. Most people go birding as a casual activity. One of the must haves for this activity is a field book that has pictures and tips about birds in your area or wherever you plan to identify them. Good binoculars are one of the most important items for a pleasurable time.

Boating at Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Boating

Boating and camping just go together. Who doesn’t love a day on the water? From canoes and kayaks to small sailboats, fishing charters and recreational crafts, these vessels can be seen gliding across lakes and rivers from coast to coast. Love boating? Many campgrounds and RV parks provide on-site and nearby opportunities for boating rentals and charters.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Biking

In the minds of some, camping and bikes go hand in hand. Nearly everyone is aware of the fact that spending time outdoors is good for your health. In fact, this health benefit is one of the best reasons to go camping. And, this can be enhanced if you throw some exercise into the mix. Riding a bike to get from point A to point B is a wonderful way to get some exercise into your trip while also reaching your desired destinations. Best of all, you’ll be spending even more time outside.

20. Crossword puzzles

You might think of a crossword puzzle as a fun way to pass the time on a lazy Sunday. They’re inexpensive (especially at a Dollar Store), require only a pencil and your brain, and can be played wherever you happen to be including camping. And, it turns out that there are quite a few benefits to solving crossword puzzles. One of the most obvious benefits of solving crossword puzzles is that it can help improve your memory. This is especially beneficial for older adults who are at risk for memory decline. Solving a crossword puzzle also requires focus and concentration.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Photography

Camping is a fantastic opportunity to get started with photography. You will have a wealth of subjects, events, and scenery that you simply have to record for later enjoyment. Taking photos means you can keep a visual record to look back on for years to come. Preferably you want as little equipment as possible—both weight and space are often at a premium when camping.

Worth Pondering…

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

Elephant Butte Lake State Park: Paradise in the Chihuahuan Desert

If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, Elephant Butte Lake is for you

Seventeen of New Mexico’s 35 state parks are based around an artificial lake of which by far the largest is Elephant Butte, a 40,000-acre expanse formed by a concrete dam (completed 1916) across the Rio Grande River, a few miles north of Truth Or Consequences and 80 miles from Las Cruces.

The park contains 200 miles of shoreline and over 40 miles of the river valley including a band of marshland several miles upstream of the lake’s high water mark extending almost as far as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge though most visitor activities are concentrated in a five mile section along the southwest shore and include marinas, boat launch ramps, campsites, picnic areas, and beaches.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is plenty of water and plenty of beach room at New Mexico’s largest state park. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the state park offers restrooms, picnic area, playgrounds, and developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.

Elephant Butte Lake is one of the most visited state parks in New Mexico, popular because of the abundant water recreation and the easy access, just a few miles off Interstate 25.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This part of the Rio Grande valley forms the northernmost tip of the great Chihuahuan Desert so summer temperatures are hot and the vegetation includes several types of cactus. The lake itself is named after a strangely-shaped remnant of an ancient volcano now forming an island just opposite the dam.

The visitor center and state park headquarters are reached by State Routes 179 and 195; near the junction, a spur road leads to facilities including a launch ramp near Marina Del Sur and to a number of picnic areas and overlooks. The scenery here is typical of the whole lake—earthen hills sloping quite gently down to the water, sparsely covered with straggly bushes and cacti, many small bays and inlets, several islands, and a higher range of hills along the inaccessible east side of the reservoir.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main shoreline access is a little further north via Rock Canyon Drive forking off SR-195 in the middle of Elephant Butte, a small village offering all kinds of boat-related businesses. This paved road follows close to the water’s edge for 8 miles before turning inland and meeting Interstate 25 at exit 89. En route are many side roads, some paved with facilities and self-pay fee stations, others unpaved and free to enter.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Before the dam was built the Rio Grande River flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915. Materials and supplies were brought in by rail and transported to the dam by a 300-horse-power electric-motor-powered cable system.

Upon completion, the dam had a 1,674-foot crest, a spillway, and a road running across the top. The channel and the downstream concrete-lined chute weren’t completed until 1922. In 1940, a 23,400-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant connected to the dam began operating. One year later, the spillway was used for the first time and then not used again until 1985 when the lake reached its record high.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most common misconception visitors have of the lake is that the water levels have become dangerously low. However, even at its current level, water in the lake is up to 30 feet and in places 60 feet deep.

During the late 1980s to mid-1990s the water levels were at their highest. It even flowed over the floodgates of the dam. Before then it looked just like it does today. Even at its lowest levels Elephant Butte Lake can support boating, fishing, and many other types of aquatic fun.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun on the water

Speaking of fun, there is a lot to be had on the water. Bring your watercraft whether it’s a houseboat, yacht, speed boat, fishing boat, rowboat, jet-ski, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.

Don’t have your own? Don’t worry! There are numerous places to rent your toy of choice for a few hours, the day, or the whole weekend.

Fishing is another popular activity at the lake and a fishing license is required to cast your line. You can get them at Zia Kayak Outfitters or Walmart in Truth or Consequences.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake is known for record-breaking black, white, and striped bass as well as crappie and bluegill. The lake is stocked with all kinds of fish including four species of bass, catfish, carp, salmon, pike, walleye, and sunfish.

There are fun landmarks to explore while on the water like Kettle Top Mountain which avid lake-goers use as a geographical reference. Pirate’s Cove is a great place to anchor, go for a swim, and mingle. Castle Rock is a popular . . . well . . . rock in the middle of the lake that people climb and jump off. And, most famous of all, the elephant: a volcanic core that looks like an elephant lying down. You’ve likely already guessed that’s how Elephant Butte acquired its name!

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two marinas to serve boaters:

  • Dam Site Marina, near the rock formation for which the lake is named, is also within view of the Elephant Butte Dam. The marina has a store and offers kayak and standup paddle board rentals.
  • Marina del Sur is located at the main entrance to Elephant Butte State Park and offers boat rentals, slip rentals, dockside facilities, and a convenience store.

Fun on land

How about some lakeside hiking and nature observing? West Lakeshore Trail is a six-foot-wide hiking and biking trail with a gravel surface that spans 12 miles through the desert along the lake. It can be accessed from six different trailheads including Overlook Trailhead and Sailboat Cove Trailhead. Dirt Dam Trail is 1.5 miles of fully paved road that is closed to traffic making it a safe spot for hiking with children and pets. Use the restroom and pick up snacks first as there are no facilities along the trail.

The Paseo del Rio Interpretive Trail is a one-mile loop, half gravel and half paved. This trail features great views and restrooms at the trailhead and midway point of the loop.

The closest hiking trail to Marina del Sur is the Lucchini Trail, a sandy 1.5-mile loop that can be accessed near the Elephant Butte State Park Visitor Center and the Desert Cove Campground where you will also find restrooms.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding

This park is a prime area for waterbirds and shorebirds. The best birding is between September and May. At the lake, you may see American white pelicans, thousands of western and Clark’s grebes, several terns, and unusual gulls. Some of the better birding spots are at the marinas at Long Point, Three Sisters Point, and South Monticello Point (check for shorebirds, gulls, terns, waders, and ducks). Loons are more common at the southern end of the lake. Birding on land is best from Rock Canyon south where tall scrub and houses with plants and feeders attract numerous species. Check migrating horned lark flocks for longspurs. 

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

Camping is available in various designated areas located throughout Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Despite its large size, the park has an elaborate system of roads within it that makes the park reasonably easy to navigate—SR-181, SR-195, SR-171, and SR-51 all wind through parts of the park. Inside the campgrounds, visitors can make use of sites that accommodate rigs of up to nearly 90 feet long with a mix of pull-through and back-in options.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park has plenty of campsites to offer guests with 173 developed campsites, 144 water and electric sites, and eight full-hookup sites spread across four campgrounds and multiple primitive camping areas.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert Cove Campground is in the southern half of the park, just north of the Visitor Center and offers 16 reservable sites with water and 50-amp electric hookups. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 50 feet in length.

South Monticello Campground is home to 15 reservable sites and even more first-come, first-served sites. The campground is located in the far northern area of the park past many of the primitive camping areas. These sites can accommodate vehicles up to 87 feet in length and offer water in-site, electric hookups, a table, canopy, and fire ring. Some of these sites also offer views of the lake. Guests at South Monticello Campground can also make use of the RV dump station located near the entrance to the campground, the restrooms, and showers located in the campground, and easy access to both hiking trails and a boat ramp.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Run Campground is located next to Desert Cove Campground and has an additional set of RV campsites, two of which can be reserved ahead of time. These sites offer 20- to 30-amp electric hookups and can accommodate rigs of up to 73 feet in length. Some of the sites offer pull-through access and stunning lake views depending on the water level. Each site has a table, canopy, and fire ring. Visitors can also make use of the restrooms located in the campground and the dump station located at Desert Cove Campground. Guests staying at Quail Run Campground will be about one mile away from the lake and a half-mile from a playground. Guests can also enjoy easy access to nearby Luchimi Trail.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just northeast of Desert Cove Campground, Lions Beach Campground offers 25 sites which feature water and 30-amp electric hookups. Many of these sites offer stunning views of the lake and most have a table, canopy, and fire ring. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 70 feet in length. Visitors can also make use of the modern restrooms with running water and an RV sanitation dump station located in the campground. Guests staying at Lions Beach Campground can enjoy very easy access to the lake and nearby access to hiking trails. Some of the sites at Lions Beach Campground can be reserved ahead of time, while others are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Elephant Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Southern New Mexico, 80 miles north of Las Cruces

Elephant Butte Lake surface area: 40,000 acres

Park Elevation: 4,527 feet

Daily entrance fee: $5/vehicle

Annual pass: $40/vehicle

Maximum RV camping length: 87 feet

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Camping Activities Guide

Fun things to do while camping

It doesn’t matter how you camp—in a tent or an RV. Camping is an opportunity for serious fun and activities. Moreover, it’s an experience that you can customize for your family’s interests based on the season and where you’re camping.

You don’t have to pack to the hilt to stay entertained. In fact, there are plenty of simple activities for your next family vacation by the lake or in the mountains. 

Here’s my super RVing with Rex Checklist of Camping Activities.

Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Water-based activities

There are tons of exciting things you can do in the water if your campsite is near a lake, seashore, river, pool, or other body of water. Some are very active; others are for lazy relaxing days. Slip on your bathing suit and have some fun in the water—here’s how:

  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Floating or lounging
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Boating
  • Water skiing
  • Tubing
  • Water volleyball or basketball
  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Water balloon fight
Hiking is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Sports-related activities

Not all camping and RV resorts have a full list of amenities. If you’re rustic camping in the wild or you’re somewhere with limited amenities—or maybe just want some more variety—here are some great ideas to stay active with your family:

  • Disc golf (Frisbee golf)
  • Horseshoes
  • Ringtoss
  • Corn Hole
  • Lawn bowling
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Kickball
  • Baseball
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Nature walks
  • Spelunking/caving (make sure you have an experienced guide with you)
  • Capture the Flag
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tag (there are dozens of variations)
  • Red Rover
Combining photography with birdwatching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Nature-related activities

Part of the joy of camping is being closer to nature. Explore the great outdoors more with these activities. Be sure to respect the area where you are. Don’t disturb or damage the wildlife.

  • Birding (bird watching)
  • Animal watching
  • Photography
  • Sketching
  • Catching fireflies
  • Collecting leaves
  • Cataloging rocks
  • Fossil hunting
  • Exploring
  • Search for wild berries, nuts, and other edible plants
  • Watch the sunrise/sunset
  • Camping scavenger hunt
  • Geocaching
Canoeing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Winding down activities

Staying active and enjoying the day is an important part of every camping trip. But you also need to embrace the down time and give your mind and body a rest. Camping to relax and get away from daily stress? Here are some great ways to relax and enjoy the family camping trip:

  • Swing in a hammock
  • Watch the trees blowing in the breeze
  • Listen to nature
  • Take lots of naps
  • Daydream and let your mind wander
  • Float on the water
  • Stargaze
Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Downtime activities

Maybe the kids need some downtime in the tent. Or perhaps someone isn’t feeling well. There could be some unexpected weather that is keeping you indoors.  Of course, you could just be relaxing under the protection of your tent to escape the bugs. There are plenty of things you can do inside the tent or RV either alone or with friends and family:

  • Read books and magazines
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Crafting (knitting, sewing, drawing)
  • Watch movies on portable devices
  • Play on other electronic devices (iPods, iPads, Gameboys, etc.)
  • Make up stories to tell each other
  • Snuggle
Enjoying nature is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Evening activities

The camping trip doesn’t end when the sun sets. A whole slew of activities become available when evening comes and dark settles on the campground. The darkness is a thrilling time while family camping because you’re not dealing with the lights and commotion of the city. Check out these awesome evening activities:

  • Sit around the campfire
  • Sing campfire songs
  • Play a guitar or other instrument
  • Dance around the fire
  • Try out new varieties of s’mores
  • Make colored fire (packages of colored fire crystals or pine cones are sold at many camping supply stores)
  • Make shadow puppets
  • Go for a nighttime walk (with a flashlight, of course)
  • Stargaze
  • Play flashlight tag
  • Play hide and seek in the dark
  • Go for a midnight swim
  • Play glow in the dark bowling. Put glow sticks in 2-liter bottles filled with water. Use a ball to knock them down.
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Play Truth or Dare

Now that you have great ideas for things to do while camping, it’s time to get out there and try them.

Enjoying nature while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related Posts:

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Patagonia Lake State Park: A Southern Arizona Oasis for Boating, Fishing, and Camping<

Whether you are interested in birding, fishing, camping, water sports, or just enjoying one of the favorite lakes in southeastern Arizona, make a stop at Patagonia Lake State Park

When a sign suddenly popped up along a two-lane highway carving through Arizona’s wine country I wondered if it was a mistake. It pointed to a back road leading into the desert foothills promising an unlikely destination. Is there really a lake amid these gentle rolling hills covered in desert brush?

Taking that turn we traveled a road whose route is dictated by the landscape almost doubling back on itself as it follows the path of least resistance. The drive took us through semi-desert grasslands and rolling hills studded with ocotillo, yucca, and scrub oak. After four miles it ended at small lake tucked within the contours of rolling hills.

Road to Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and fishing in winter

The first glimpse of water at Patagonia Lake State Park came through the tents and RVs that crowd the campground. On a winter morning early risers walk their dogs nodding to their fellow campers taking leisurely strolls through scenery that demanded attention.

The 2½-mile lake plays hide and seek throughout its length ducking around bends and into coves. On this day, anglers are the first ones on the water, prowling for bass, catfish, crappie, and even rainbow trout which are stocked during the winter. Fishing opportunities abound from both shore and boat, and anglers typically do fairly well in their pursuit of whichever species they are targeting.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later on they will be joined by kayakers who cruise silently along the placid surface. Two-thirds of Lake Patagonia’s 265 surface acres are devoted to no-wake zones, the perfect playground for those who prefer to explore in a canoe or kayak.

Patagonia Lake also draws those who have binoculars and know how to use them. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted and the area has a national reputation among birdwatchers.

More on Arizona State Parks: Spring Is the Season to Hike Arizona State Parks

Many head to the east where the Sonoita Creek Trail leads to a riparian area perfect for the area’s full-time avian residents as well as those stopping briefly during migration. Birders have reported seeing such common species as the broad-billed hummingbird and great horned owl as well as the harder-to-find vermilion flycatcher, elegant trogon, and spotted towhee.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoita Creek

Sonoita Creek flows for two-and-one-half miles along the edge of the park providing some of the richest riparian habitat in the area.

Sonoita Creek courses its way through Coronado National Forest between the Santa Rita Mountains in the north and the Patagonia Mountains in the south and is notable for its extensive, well preserved riparian corridor which harbors many rare species of plants and animals, especially birds. The creek creates a band of greenery in the otherwise arid mountains in a transition zone between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and which stretches for 15 miles from the village of Patagonia to the low elevation foothills east of the Santa Cruz Valley where the waters evaporate or seep below ground.

Sonoita Creek State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A dam over the creek (constructed in 1968) formed Patagonia Lake, a small but scenic reservoir. Its blue waters are surrounded by a narrow band of trees and bushes set beneath barren, rocky hillsides bearing cacti and yucca. Below the dam, several miles of the creek and an area of hills on both sides are further protected as the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area (see the above photo).

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV and tent camping

One hundred five developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. Select sites also have a ramada. Sites have 20/30/50 amp voltage. Sites tend to fill up in the evening from May until November. Campsite lengths vary but most can accommodate any size RV. Quiet hours (no generators, music, or loud voices) are from 9 p.m.–8 a.m. 

More on Arizona State Parks: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

There are also two non-electric campsites available. They have a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles with a ramada for shade. These two sites are 22 feet long and are suitable for camper vans and short trailers.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boating and swimming in summer

As the weather warms, Patagonia Lake becomes an altogether different beast. The park is no secret to the thousands who come each summer to splash along its beach or carve rooster tails on its western third where wakes are to be jumped rather than shunned.

People from all over the area come to escape the heat. Summer weekends can get pretty crazy.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most summer visitors settle in at the beach finding a seat among the dozens of picnic tables shaded by a ramada or playing in the gentle water of the protected cove as parents make sure their children don’t venture past the line of buoys protecting the area from passing boats.

About a mile away on the lake’s western portion motor boats dominate, most of them towing skiers in an orderly counter-clockwise circle. At the end of the day some will head to the handful of camping sites available only by boat enjoying sunset from their secluded nooks.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A history of recreation

The lake’s popularity nearly killed it when local citizens first dammed Sonoita Creek 50 years ago to attract recreational enthusiasts. Members of the Patagonia Lake Recreation Association built facilities to make the area popular with those who wanted to fish, water ski, or simply have a picnic. Visitors flocked to the lake in the late 1960s and early ’70s so much so that owners couldn’t safely keep up with the demand.

More on Arizona State Parks: The Most (and least) Popular Arizona State Parks

Eventually the area was acquired by the state and on April 1, 1975 it was opened as Patagonia Lake State Park.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia Lake State Park Fact Box

Size: 2,658 acres

Elevation: 3,804-4,200 feet

Established: April 1, 1975

Location: Southeastern Arizona, 15 miles northeast of Nogales

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east to Vail (Exit 281); south on SR 83 to Sonoita; west on SR 82 past Patagonia to the Patagonia Lake State Park turnoff (distance is 177 miles one way)

Nearest services: In Patagonia, 10 miles away.

Park entrance fee: $15/vehicle Mondays-Fridays; $20/vehicle Saturdays-Sundays.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to go: Summer, if you want to cool off; Winter, if you want to kayak or fish when crowds are gone and the lake is calm.

Trails: There are more than 25 miles of hiking trails. All but a half-mile of them are within the adjacent Sonoita Creek State Natural Area

Visitor center: This should be your first stop for maps and a list of boating and swimming rules. Wakes are prohibited along two-thirds of the lake and rangers keep a close eye to make sure everyone is enjoying responsibly.

More on Arizona State Parks: Focus on Birding in Arizona State Parks

Picnic areas: Ramadas and picnic tables are scattered about the lake’s south shore with most clustered at the beach.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campground: There are 105 sites with electricity and room for two vehicles. Sites with electricity are $25-$30 per night; non-electric sites are $20-$25. The 12 boat-in campsites ($20-$25 per night) have no power or bathrooms. Cabins have a queen-size bed, two sets of bunk beds, table and chairs, mini-fridge, microwave, ceiling fan, heating and air conditioning. Bring your own bedding and supplies. Cabins cost $119 per night, $129 on holidays with a three-night minimum. Campsites and cabins can be reserved at azstateparks.com.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supplies: The Lakeside Market sells food, drink, and other common provisions and also offers boat rentals, fishing licenses, and bait.

Worth Pondering…
Patagonia is a tiny hamlet located in the Sonoita Valley in southeastern Arizona. A few blocks from the main street through town, on the edge of The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, lies a non-descript ranch house that is no less than one of the most famous bird watching sites in the world.

―Mathew Tekulsky, National Geographic News, 2004

Everything You Need for Lake Camping

Summer is prime camping season but if you don’t pick the right destination you may find yourself sweltering in the heat instead of enjoying yourself. That’s why camping near the water is key!

Lake life is where it’s at. Camping near a lake allows for playing at the beach, going fishing, boating, canoeing, or stand-up paddle boarding. Being by the water not only gives you plenty of things to do but also triggers a sense of calm and joy. I love hearing the sound of birds calling or waves hitting the shoreline. And there’s nothing better than ending a beautiful day of RVing with an even more beautiful sunset over the lake.

To prepare for a week of RVing at the lake, there are a few essentials to check off the list to make sure you have a great time while lake camping.

Boating on Lake Okeechobee, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Book early

Waterfront campsites are among the most popular spots at campgrounds. Be sure to book your lake campsite far in advance if you want to guarantee a spot for your RV. Be sure to hit the refresh button often and check for last-minute cancellations at campgrounds. 

Screen room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoo, bugs!

Where there is water, there are typically pesky insects—especially when temperatures heat up. It’s the unfortunate part of camping near a lake or in the woods. It is hard to truly enjoy the outdoors when you’re constantly swatting away unwanted insects. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks are among your worst enemies so come prepared with you anti-insect weapons of choice: bug spray with DEET, permethrin-treated clothes, Thermacell, and a screen room.

Related Article: 6 Scenic Lakes for Camping in the Southwest

Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bug spray: Look for a spray with 25 to 50 percent DEET. Spray every couple of hours especially if you’re using repellent that isn’t waterproof. After a day on the water, douse yourself in bug spray before coming back to the campsite.

Permethrin: Treat your clothing with permethrin a few days before your camping trip for best results. The treatment usually lasts up to five or six washes. The best part is that after you treat your clothes there’s no odor or sticky residue that bug spray often leaves behind. 

Lake Martin near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thermacell: Create your own little forcefield of protection around your campsite by using a Thermacell or two. It works wonders for any outdoor area whether it’s the dock, beach, campsite, or the park. Thermacells run off a butane cartridge which heats up a replaceable mat that’s saturated in a repellent called allethrin which releases into the air to create a protection zone. 

Screened room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Screened room: A screened room is an easy way to create an outdoor space that’s bug-free. It’s basically a large tent with screen walls so that you can still see and feel the outdoors while keeping unwanted pests away. It does take up space so ensure you have room for one when booking a campsite. 

Related Article: 14 of the Most Beautiful Lakes for RV Travel

Fishing at Parker Canyon Lake in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reel in your next big catch

If you’re camping by a lake, be sure to pack your fishing gear. In fact, many RVers choose lake campsites because they want to fish. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors alone or with friends and family. Consider keeping an extra travel rod in the RV in case you forget to pack the fishing gear or end up breaking a rod.

Fishing at Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Telescopic rods are perfect for RVers. The telescope in and out so that they can be a full-sized rod but also collapse to fit inside a backpack for portability. Be sure to have a ready-to-go tackle box filled with a variety of lures including spinners, jigs, bare hooks, crankbaits, spoons, and bobbers. And be sure to swing by the bait shop for minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers, or grubs depending on what you’re fishing for.

If you plan to catch and cook, then be sure to pack a sharp filet knife, cutting board, and your favorite dry batter. If you keep these fish fry essentials in your RV pantry at all times there will be fewer things you need to remember to pack.

Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Safety first with life jackets

When it comes to spending time on the water, safety is always first. If you plan to boat, kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board, a life jacket should always be worn or at least on board.

If you don’t like the bulk of life jackets, there are lower profile vests as well as inflatable vests that inflate upon immersion in water or manually inflate when you pull the inflation handle.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay safe in the sun

While soaking up the sun and having fun, it’s easy to forget about sun protection. Before heading out onto the lake, plan ahead and lather on your sunscreen. A day on the water usually means stronger sun rays due to reflection from the water.

Related Article: 10 Best Campgrounds with Lakes

Lake Mead, Nevada

UV rays can even impact your skin even when swimming in a lake as the rays penetrate through the water. Look for a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and apply it often.

If you’re not vigilant about putting on sunscreen, there are plenty of athletic and outdoor apparel brands with built-in UPF 50+ sun protective clothing. The material is lightweight and breathable while protecting your body from sun exposure.

Lake George, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And don’t forget to protect your noggin and peepers by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. A hat can not only be stylish but also helps block the sun from burning our scalp and ears. Eyes also need protection from sun exposure too. Look for sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection.

Boating (and fishing) on Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get on the water without towing a boat

No lake getaway is complete without a way of getting on the water. When towing isn’t an option because you’re already hauling an RV, there are still other ways to bring a boat with you to the lake. You can paddle around on a lake in a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board. It allows you to fish and explore different areas of the lake that you otherwise can’t experience.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many kayaks can fit through the door of most RVs. Wrap your kayak in a blanket before sliding it in to avoid scuffing up cabinets and walls.

Most toy haulers are perfectly suited for hauling all your water sports equipment. Kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards will easily slide through the ramp door opening. Canoes tend to be longer than kayaks, especially if it’s a tandem, so be sure to measure your canoe before attempting to make it fit in your RV. Another advantage of a toy hauler is that they have hooks on the floor to secure any objects while on the move.

Canoe on a roof rack goes where you go © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to be able to take your kayak to a lake that isn’t within walking distance, you’ll want a roof rack for your toad/tow vehicle. Again, you’ll want to take note of the length of your kayak and how far forward you can secure it onto your roof rack so that there is enough clearance between your RV and kayak when making turns. 

If you don’t want to deal with hauling a kayak or canoe, look into the wide variety of inflatable boats that are available today. From kayaks to stand-up paddle boards, floating docks, and regular tube floats—there are many durable and versatile options to get on the water.

Many inflatable kayaks come in a kit with a carrying case for storage and portability and a manual pump so that you can pump them up anywhere. Since it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fully inflate, consider an electric pump.

Fish Lake, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach Party Essentials

A day at the lake may put you in the mood for a beach party or at least the atmosphere that feels like a beach party.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Must-pack essentials that make your lake day feel more like a party may include:

  • Folding beach wagon to carry all your items for a day at the beach
  • Beach bag to carry additional essentials
  • Sand-free beach towels as a way to mark your home base on the beach and to dry off after a dip in the lake
  • Portable beach chairs that you can place on the shallow shoreline to cool off your toes (ideally one with a cup holder)
  • Cooler to keep your food and drinks perfectly chilled throughout the day (throw in some freeze pops for a summer treat and also to keep items cold)
  • Umbrella or portable beach shade to protect little ones and grownups from the sun
  • Waterproof Bluetooth speaker to blast some Beach Boys or other lake-vibe tunes
  • Beach games like volleyball, water frisbee, water pickle, and velcro ball toss 
Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake camping comes with some preparation work but packing the essentials and planning ahead will help you enjoy your RV getaway even more. After that, relax! You’re on lake time.

Worth Pondering…

It is good to appreciate that life is now. Whatever it offers, little or much, life is now—this day—this hour.

—Charles Macomb Flandrau

National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

Discover the National Water Trails System during National Fishing and Boating Week

Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors and spend more time in nature. Fishing and boating allow you to release stress, relax, and enjoy wildlife.

The water is open. Take this opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with your family. National Fishing and Boating Week take place June 4-12, 2022.

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

Coosa River at Wetumpka (Alabama Scenic River Trail) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a water trail?

Water trails (also known as blueways) are marked routes on navigable waterways such as rivers, lakes, canals, and coastlines for recreational use. They allow access to waterways for non-motorized boats and sometimes motorized vessels, inner tubes, and other craft. Water trails not only require suitable access points and take-outs for exit but also provide places ashore to camp and picnic or other facilities for boaters.

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the National Water Trails System?

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail (Champlain Canal) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Trails System Act of 1968 authorized the creation of a national system of trails comprised of National Recreation Trails, National Scenic Trails, and National Historic Trails.

National Water Trails are a subset of the National Recreation Trails. National Recreation Trails are co-sponsored by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and American Trails.

It’s a network of lake and other waterway trails designated as such by the U.S. Department of Interior. The system offers families vacation and recreational opportunities in scenic regions of the U.S.

Enjoy a trail.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Têche Paddle Trail

State: Louisiana

Location: Iberia Parish, St. Landry Parish, St. Martin Parish, and St. Mary Parish

Length: 135 miles

Driving Directions: Access points include Port Barre, Arnaudville, Cecilia, Breaux Bridge, Parks, St. Martinville, Loreauville, New Iberia, Franklin, Patterson, and Berwick

Bayou Teche at St. Martinsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Bayou Têche is a watershed within the Mississippi River Basin draining approximately 58,500 acres of natural, agriculture, and urban lands into Vermilion Bay. Bayou Têche flows through the towns of Port Barre, Arnaudville, Breaux Bridge, Parks, St. Martinville, Loureauville, New Iberia, Jeanerette, and Charenton (Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana lands), Baldwin, Franklin, Patterson, Berwick, and small villages in between. Each town has a standard motorboat launch and many are being equipped with floating docks designed for kayaks and canoes.

Coosa River at Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Scenic River Trail

State: Alabama

Location: From where the Coosa River enters the state in its northeast sector to Fort Morgan on the Gulf of Mexico

Length: 631 miles

Driving Directions: Numerous boat-launches along the Coosa and Alabama Rivers

Tensaw-Mobile Delta at Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Alabama Scenic River Trail is a recreational and tourism route destination for paddled and powered boats. At approximately 631 miles in length, the trail is the longest in a single state in the U.S. The Trail begins at the point where the Coosa River enters Alabama and continues down the Coosa River to its confluence with the Tallapoosa near Wetumpka. From this conjunction, the trail follows the Alabama River to its junction with the Tombigbee/Warrior system. The Trail then proceeds along the Mobile River and through the Tensaw-Mobile delta, along the Tensaw River, and its tributaries to Mobile Bay.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Canyon Water Trail

States: Nevada and Arizona

Location: Clark County (Nevada) and Mohave County (Arizona)

Length: 30 miles

Location: The 30-mile water trail is assessable at three points: Hoover Dam, Willow Beach, and Eldorado Canyon.

Lake Mead upstream from Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Black Canyon Water Trail is located within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The trip begins as the river flows at the base of Hoover Dam and meanders through 30 miles of the Colorado River where it enters Lake Mohave. Approximately 12 miles downstream from Hoover Dam, you arrive at Willow Beach, the only road-accessible portion of this stretch of river. Rental crafts are available. The river, in the next segment, becomes a lake but maintains the canyon environment with small bays and beaches appearing as you continue downstream.

Congaree River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Blue Trail

State: South Carolina

Location: River trail from Columbia south and east to State Route 601 landing

Length: 50 miles

Congaree River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: Starting near Columbia, the blue trail offers paddlers an opportunity to learn about the historic significance of the area. Continuing downstream paddlers cross the fall line and enter the Coastal Plain known for its countless sandbars, high bluffs, and extensive floodplain habitats. The highlight of the trail is the section along the Congaree National Park, a protected wilderness that is home to the largest continuous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S. Paddlers and hikers alike can enjoy the network of 20-miles of hiking trails within the park and take advantage of opportunities to camp, fish, watch birds, and study nature.

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail

State: Georgia

Location: Saint Marys to Tybee Island

Length: 189 miles

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The paddle trail connects Cumberland Island National Seashore, four State Parks, six other state-protected areas, 77 Historic Sites, and other points of interest including National Monuments and city and regional parks. Saint Marys has a rich history dating back to the mid-1500s. The two points of access, Howard Gilman Waterfront Park and North River Landing allow access to the Saint Marys River and Cumberland Sound. West of Cumberland Island is the mouth of the Crooked River, home of Crooked River State Park which has a well-defined and popular kayak trail.

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail (Champlain Canal) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail

State: New York

Location: The Hudson River from Hadley to Battery Park in Manhattan and Champlain Canal at Whitehall to its confluence with the Hudson River at Fort Edward

Length: 256 miles

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail at Whitehall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Hudson River Greenway Water Trail extends from the edge of the Adirondack Park at Hadley and the head of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall to Battery Park in Manhattan. Designed for the day-user as well as the long-distance paddler, it includes 94 designated access sites. Day use attractions include wildlife marshes, islands, historic sites, cities, downtowns, and hiking trails.

Colorado River at Laughlin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mohave Water Trail

States: Nevada and Arizona

Location: Lake Mohave and Colorado River below Davis Dam to the Laughlin/Bullhead City Bridge

Length: 76 miles

Colorado River at Laughlin looking across the river at Bullhead City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Mohave Water Trail stretches along the Arizona and Nevada shorelines of Lake Mohave and the Colorado River below Davis Dam to Laughlin/Bullhead City. It provides access to sandy beaches, scenic desert areas, and unique historic sites including submerged cultural resources. Boat rentals, shuttle, and guide service for paddle craft, scuba diving, fishing, camping, and overnight accommodations and restaurants are available at two marinas and in Laughlin and Bullhead City.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina Smoky Mountain Blueways

State: North Carolina

Location: Southwestern Mountains of North Carolina

Length: 167 miles

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The trail is located in the Little Tennessee Watershed and contains portions of the five major rivers: Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Tuckaseegee, Oconaluftee, Cheoah, and the lakes of Fontana, Nantahala, Glenville, and Santeetlah. The Little Tennessee River Basin encompasses the Nantahala National Forest and two National Park units—The great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. In the Nantahala National Forest, visitors enjoy a variety of recreational activities from camping, whitewater rafting, canoeing, fishing, hunting, hiking over 600 miles of trails, and horseback riding.

Ohio River at Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio River Water Trail

States: West Virginia and Ohio

Location: The Ohio River and Little Kanawha River

Length: 57 miles

Ohio River at Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Ohio River Water Trail is accessible from Marietta and Belpre in Ohio and Williamstown and Parkersburg in West Virginia. It is crossed by Interstate 77 and US Route 50.

There are over 100 species of fish in the Ohio River including spotted bass, sauger, freshwater drum, and channel and flathead catfish. Three of the islands on the Trail are part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors are welcome to pull their canoes and kayaks up onto the shore and explore these islands on foot during the day.

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail System

State: Georgia

Location: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Length: 120miles

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: There are multiple trails available for varying degrees of experience from one to five days in length. Each trail provides opportunities for viewing wildlife in a pristine natural setting. Alligators, black bears, egrets, sandhill cranes, and other species of animals inhabit the cypress swamps and open watery prairies of the Okefenokee. Visitors can access the trail system from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, Kingfisher Landing, and Stephen C. Foster State Park. There is also limited access from the north to Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Tennessee River at Chattanogga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tennessee River Blueway

State: Tennessee

Location: Water trail joining many sites on both sides of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga (Chickamauga Dam) downstream to Nickajack Dam.

Length: 50 miles

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway at Chattanooga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: Tennessee River Blueway encompasses a 50-mile stretch of the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. Experience Chattanooga’s bustling revitalized waterfront with its historic bridges and a few miles downstream the solitude of the Tennessee River Gorge. Pause to watch a great blue heron rookery on Maclellan Island and bald eagles in Moccasin Bend National Archeological District. Paddle in the wake of the ancients who first rippled these waters some 14,000 years ago.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Find Open Space on a Post-pandemic Arizona Road Trip

Miles away from ordinary

It’s arguably the most iconic highway in the United States. But motoring down historic Route 66 isn’t the only sightseeing road trip you can enjoy in Arizona. Every corner of this state has things to see and do and ways to recreate. And most importantly in this era of COVID, you can experience it all without another soul around for miles.

Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the things that make Arizona a great destination is that they have the benefit of major metropolitan areas in Phoenix and Tucson while most of the state offers large areas of public lands to explore. You can find yourself alone in some of the most amazing landscapes with a little planning and knowing what you’re looking for.

The pandemic has severely impacted Arizona’s tourism. Airport traffic is down 55 per cent year to date while state park visitation is down 16 per cent. This is a state that before COVID in 2019 marked 6.1 million international visitors who spent $4.6 billion.

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona presents many opportunities for socially distanced travel in the great outdoors. For example, Aravaipa Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona and only 50 people are allowed in each day so it’s possible you won’t come across anyone else. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge attracts people for the same reason. It’s very rugged with little in the way of infrastructure and few visitors.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To really get away from it all get off the main highways onto the back roads of the state. There are many secondary routes with breathtaking scenery and quirky history such as centuries-old cliff dwellings, mining ghost towns, and still thriving cowboy bars. There are also three distinct wine-growing regions beckoning off the beaten path. Just be aware that some of these routes pass through tribal lands which at the time of writing were closed to travel due to the pandemic.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hard part will be deciding where to go. There are 30 state parks, six national forests, 11 U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, dozens of national parks, national monuments, wildlife areas, and numerous certified Dark Sky Places.

Narrow down the experience you want whether it’s a road trip to see iconic landmarks or a more active trip away from the crowds. First, decide what you want your road trip to include. To minimize the number of people around you take the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and other iconic destinations off your list and focus on off-the-beaten-path places—and Arizona has plenty of these. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Hiking

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t have to go far from civilization to immerse yourself in a stunning landscape. The Superstition Mountains lie just east of Phoenix but are a world away. The Siphon Draw trail gains 2,500 feet over 3 miles before it reaches the top of Flat Iron (gulp). But wait, don’t let that stop you! Of all the Superstition Mountains hiking trails, Flat Iron may be the most demanding in the shortest distance but also the most rewarding.

A much more doable hike for the average joe is in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge off U.S. Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma. Two mountain ranges dominate the 665,400-acre refuge of which more than 80 percent is designated as wilderness. The Palm Canyon Trail is a mile-long stroll through the desert. You’re pretty much on your own out here and may spot more bighorn sheep and mule deer than fellow humans. This area does attract serious climbers though to Signal Peak, Ten Ewe Mountain, and Castle Dome Peak.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness area 85 miles north of Wilcox is another good bet for isolated hiking and backpacking. The area is a great mix of all of what makes Arizona so unique: canyons, cliffs, caves, deserts, and rivers. The entire canyon hike which can be accessed at either end takes 10 hours but take your time for side forays.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two well-known areas that still have plenty of open space to explore are Monument Valley and Chiricahua National Monument. Monument Valley on the northeast Arizona-Utah border is one of the most photographed places on earth and the site of many a western film shoot due to its towering sandstone buttes. Chiricahua is in the extreme southeast near the border of New Mexico. Hiking here will take you from massive rock formations through pine forests to the Sonoran desert.

Biking

With so many national forests, there are dozens of options for both on and off-road cycling. For mountain bikers, the pinnacle might just be the Rainbow Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon. Located on the north rim in Kaibab National Forest, it’s the only single-track in the canyon and runs for about 20 miles through meadows and forests. Arizona Outback Adventures recommends bikers acclimatize first however as the route traverses between 7,500 and 9,000 feet elevation.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the other end of the spectrum is the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument way south in the Sonoran desert bordering Mexico. This is a UNESCO biosphere reserve that attracts few visitors. So you’ll have the roads to yourself. Just be aware that bikes are not allowed on hiking trails or after dark.

Mount Lemmon scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road riders will want to head for Mount Lemmon, an hour north of Tucson. At 9,000-feet-high, it’s the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and attracts both cyclists and longboarders (a type of skateboard popular with downhill racers). But it’s a hard climb of almost 7,000 feet of twists and turns although the incredibly fast downhill makes it worthwhile for many. Just be aware that you’ll be sharing the road with motoring sightseers.

Lynx Lake near Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddling

Depending on whether you want a lazy float trip, a thrilling whitewater adventure, or something in between, there are options in Arizona.

On the California border, Lake Havasu is adventure central with all manner of watersports, offroading, cycling, hiking, and golfing. It’s one of the more popular areas of Arizona but with 400 miles of coastline and 40 miles of navigable waterways, you can still find space of your own.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another popular lake lies along the border with Utah. Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir attracts upwards of two million people a year. But follow the Colorado River south to Lees Ferry and you’ll find exception kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Various outfitters run trips here for those too inexperienced to navigate on their own.

The global pandemic has changed the way people view travel. For many, it’s now about really experiencing a place and finding space for themselves. There is no better way to do that than exploring the outdoors. Arizona stacks up well with options in every corner of the state.

Lower Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail Creek, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park has some of the warmest waters in the state and is a popular area for fishing as well. Filled from the Virgin River the lake is home to some of Utah’s warmest water making it a paradise for water lovers and fishermen. Quail Lake is also surrounded by reefs of tilted sandstone, flat-topped mesas, and the towering Pine Valley Mountains. You’ll have breathtaking views in every direction.

The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so the deeper water stays cool enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass which is also stocked and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek reservoir was completed in 1985 to provide irrigation and culinary water to the St. George area. Most of the water in the reservoir does not come from Quail Creek but is diverted from the Virgin River and transported through a buried pipeline.

Two dams form the reservoir. The main dam is an earth-fill embankment dam. The south dam is a roller compacted concrete dam constructed to replace the original earth-fill dam that failed in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1989.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Powerboats and jet skis zoom across the water, making waves and pulling water skiers. The lake is a perfect destination for paddle craft with kayakers and stand-up paddlers gliding across the glassy water in the early morning. If you want to get in on the fun, you can rent a paddleboard or kayak at the park. Swimmers find coarse sand beaches along the lake’s edge but don’t forget water shoes or sandals for beach walking.

There are also a few solid mountain biking trails south of the lake including Rhythm and Blues, a 2.5-mile roller coaster, and the Boy Scout Loops.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a fun day, settle into the park’s campground on the western shore. It offers 23 campsites with shaded tables, modern restrooms, tent sites, and pull-through and back-in sites for RVs up to 35 feet in length.

Equal parts refreshing and beautiful, clear, green water dominates Quail Creek State Park. Red, white, and orange cliffs surround the shore and are set against the powerful Pine Valley Mountains as a backdrop. Greater Zion offers a long season for playing on or in the water with high temperatures in the 80s or above from May to October. Couple that with 320 days of sun each year and you’ve got the perfect recipe for lake-focused adventure!

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to Do

Paddleboarding and kayaking on a peaceful lake like Quail Creek Reservoir are easy activities to pick up without much experience. And they make great transportation for exploring the little coves and corners of the lake while soaking in the sun. DIG Paddlesports offers rentals at the beachfront or bring your own water toys.

Quail Creek’s size accommodates speed boats, tubes, and wakeboards with ease. An easy access boat launch accompanies ample parking for trucks and trailers. Boat rentals can be obtained from local shops.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jump into the no-wake zone of the lake and swim, splash, and play to your heart’s content. Relax on the beachfront that offers shade and picnic tables and shade trees. It’s perfect for a day outing with friends or family.

And if speed isn’t your game, try your luck at catching some of the largemouth bass using a fishing boat. Mornings and evenings are best for fishing especially when the water is calm. A Utah fishing license is required. Try using power bait and worms and look for shady areas in which to cast.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Date Established: 1986

Location: Southwest Utah

Park Elevation: 3,300 feet

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surface Water: 600 acres

Park Entrance Fee: $10-$20

Campsite Rates: $25-$35

Worth Pondering…

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.

—E. O. Wilson, biologist