The Grand Circle Tour

11 days, 1,500 miles, 6 National Parks, Monument Valley, adventure towns, lakes in the desert, and something about a Dead Horse Point? Yes, please. Strap your seat belts on for this one.

Millions of years of erosion have created a spectacular display of cliffs, canyons, arches, natural bridges, red slickrock, hoodos, and mountains that you will experience during your two-week travels.

The canyons, sunsets, trails, colors, and rock formations will keep your camera busy so bring lots of flash memory and batteries. And don’t forget your hiking boots.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day One: Zion National Park

Drive from Las Vegas (168 miles) or Salt Lake City (314 miles) to Springdale, gateway to Zion National Park.

Park Fees: I recommend that you buy the $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Pass that covers entrance fees at lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and US Fish & Wildlife Service and standard amenity fees (day use fees) at lands managed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Army Corps of Engineers.

Hike Canyon Overlook Trail (1 hour, 1 mile round trip)

This short moderate hike on a well-marked trail leads to an overlook offering incredible views of lower Zion Canyon. If you time it right, the sunset will light up the whole canyon. The trailhead is at the parking lot just beyond the east entrance of the tunnel. Cross the road and begin the easy 1 mile hike. This hike is great for people who want to see a beautiful overlook of Zion that don’t necessarily like long hikes and it’s great for kids.

Return back to your accommodations by following State Route 9 back into Springdale.

Check into your campground in or near Zion National Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 2: Zion National Park

Stop at the local market to get water and (healthy) snacks for the day. You will want a day pack to carry things in since you will be gone for the entire day.

Explore Zion Canyon (all day)

During the summer months, the shuttle runs from 6:30 am to 11:00 pm. Since parking at the Visitors Center inside the park can be difficult from May-October, riding the shuttle from Springdale is a better option. November through March you can actually drive in the canyon.

Shuttle stops:

  • Court of the Patriarchs (5 minutes, 0.1 mile)
  • Zion Lodge: Emerald Pools trailhead (1-3 hours; lower, 1.2 miles; middle, 2 miles; upper, 3 miles)
  • The Grotto: Angels Landing trailhead (4-5 hours, 5 miles)
  • Weeping Rock: Weeping Rock trail (½ hour, 0.4 mile)
  • Big Bend: View the Angels Landing ridge trail
  • Temple of Sinawava: Riverside trail, gateway to the Narrows (1.5 hours, 2 miles)

Add a little extra adventure and incredible scenery by walking up the Virgin River Narrows a mile or two. You might want to bring an extra pair of shoes and a walking stick. The trail is the river and you are walking on slippery rocks as you go up the Narrows.

Find my complete guide to Zion National Park here.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park

Leave for Bryce Canyon National Park (86 miles). Enjoy the scenic drive through Utah State Route 9 and U.S 89. Pass through historic towns and the beautiful Red Canyon.

At Bryce Canyon, visit some of the scenic overlooks. If you’re looking to relax a little, stay in or near the park. There are three options located inside the park: the North Campground (open year-round), Sunset Campground (high season), and the 114-room Bryce Canyon Lodge which was built from local timber and stone in 1924-25. 

Any non-park related activity—sleeping, eating, shopping, fueling up, or learning about the local history—will almost surely bring you to Ruby’s legendary roadhouse.

For sunset, I recommend Inspiration Point, Paria View, or Sunset Point and plan to arrive one-and-a-half hours before sunset for the best lighting. If you want to see mostly all of Bryce Canyon, drive or take the shuttle on the scenic loop. Its 38 miles (one way) of pure beauty and you will cover many viewpoints.

View points of the Scenic Loop:

  • Swamp Canyon
  • Piracy Pointe
  • Fairview Point
  • Aqua Canyon
  • Natural Bridge
  • Ponderosa Canyon
  • Black Birch Canyon
  • Rainbow Point
  • Yovimpa Point

Check into your campground in or near Bryce Canyon National Park.

Eat at Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill and enjoy great Cowboy Entertainment. Or check out other restaurants in the area.

Find my ultimate guide to Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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

Day 4: Bryce Canyon National Park and Scenic Byway 12

Get up early and see the sun rise over Bryce Canyon. The two most popular viewpoints for sunrise are Sunrise Point and Bryce Point.

Hike the Navajo Loop Trail (1.3 miles round trip)

This is hands-down the greatest way to see the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon from the canyon floor. You start by hiking down Wall Street a narrow canyon with high rock walls on either side.

Drive All American Road Scenic Byway 12 (4 hours)

This drive cuts through a corner of Bryce Canyon National Park and then follows a breathtaking scenic route through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It is a good, paved highway but steep in spots. It descends into the Escalante Canyons region and then climbs over Boulder Mountain. From Boulder Mountain you can see the Waterpocket Fold section of Capitol Reef National Park. Stop at scenic turnoffs as time permits. Scenic Byway 12 ends in Torrey near the Capitol Reef National Park entrance.

Highlights of Scenic Byway 12:

  • Mossy Cave, a sneak peak of Bryce (drive past Bryce toward Tropic and there is a pullout on the right; play in the small cave and waterfall down a short half mile path
  • Kodachrome Basin (22 miles from Bryce)
  • Escalante State Park (44 miles from Bryce)
  • Calf Creek Falls (67.6 miles from Bryce)
  • Anasazi Indian Village (80.8 miles from Bryce)

Check into an RV park in Torrey or the 71-site Fruita campground in Capitol Reef National Park.

Check out the restaurants near Capitol Reef too. Torrey is so small that all you need to do is drive down the main road (SR 24) and you’ll see all of the restaurants.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 5: Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is amazing in its own special way. The formations you see here you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Drive the scenic drive south from the Visitor Center.

The Scenic Drive is a 10 mile mostly paved road with dirt spur roads into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge that weather permitting are accessible to ordinary passenger vehicles. In every direction the views are fascinating. From the road you can see sheer sandstone cliffs, uniform layers of shale and rocks that have been lifted and folded and carved into shapes that stir the imagination. The Scenic Drive is not a loop, so you must return on the same road. Entrance fees of $5 per vehicle are charged for the Scenic Drive.

Find my ultimate guide to Capitol Reef National Park here.

In the afternoon begin your drive to Moab, Utah’s Adventure Capital (144 miles).

Check into an RV park in Moab or Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 6: Arches National Park

In the morning, pack a lunch and plenty of water and drive to Arches National Park to watch the sunrise over the world’s largest concentration of natural stone arches (2,000 and counting). Drive North on U.S. Highway 191 from Moab for 5 miles. The turnoff for Arches will be on the East side of road. For the more adventurous, get up 1 hour before sunrise and hike the 1.5 mile trail to Delicate Arch and watch the sun rise.

Main points of interest:

  • Park Avenue
  • Balanced Rock
  • Windows Section
  • Delicate Arch Viewpoint
  • Devils Garden
  • Landscape Arch

Eat lunch in route.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the afternoon drive to Dead Horse Point State Park and to the scenic overlooks in Canyonlands National Park.

Dead Horse Point State Park offers spectacular vistas with views of Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River. From Arches, drive back to U.S. 191 and head north for about 6 miles to State Route 313 and take the signed turnoff to Dead Horse Point. Follow SR 313 for about 22 miles as it winds to the top of the plateau and then south to Dead Horse Point.

Tour Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District (2-3 hours)

Island in the Sky comprises the northern portion of Canyonlands National Park. From Dead Horse Point, return north on SR 313 for 7 miles to the junction with the Grand View Point Road and then drive the Grand View Road south into Canyonlands. Stop at the Visitors Center to pick up a map and information before continuing to the lookout points.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Main Points-of-interest:

  • Mesa Arch
  • Grandview Point
  • Upheaval Dome
  • Green River Overlook

Return to Devils Garden Campground (Arches National Park) or Moab for the night.

Here are some helpful resources:

Day 7: Moab

Engage in one of Moab’s many adventure activities; whitewater rafting on the Colorado River, horseback riding among the red cliffs, mountain bike the slick rock trails, take a Hummer 4×4 ride over red rock trails or hike to Corona and Bow Tie Arches.

If you need ideas, check out: Moab’s Scenic Byways

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 8: Monument Valley

Drive to Monument Valley (150 miles)

This is a scenic drive; plan to stop at the historic towns and viewpoints and take some pictures.

Eat lunch en route. Drive to the Visitors Center and sign up for a Navajo guided tour through Monument Valley at Sunset. Check out the amazing overlooks East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. Unique sandstone formations, red mesas and buttes surrounded by desert were used in hundreds of western movies. There is only one hiking path called Wildcat Trail (3.2 miles) that starts at the Visitors Center and loops around West Mitten Butte. At night the stars are absolutely amazing because of the remote area and no city lights.

Check into The View Campground or lodge at Monument Valley and eat dinner.

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

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 9: Lake Powell

Leave for Lake Powell (132 miles) in the morning. Lake Powell offers one of the most beautiful views of water and red rock cliffs. Take a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural stone bridge in the world. I recommend bringing hiking shoes for the trail to Rainbow Bridge (3 miles round-trip). Click here for more information on boat tours: Eat lunch before the tour in Page, Arizona or pack one for the boat tour.

Check into Wahweep Campground and RV Park centrally located at Wahweap Marina about ¼ mile from the shore of Lake Powell. Wahweap offers plenty of fun with a wide variety of powerboats and water toys from which to choose. You can also enjoy the restaurant, lounge, and gift shop at the Lake Powell Resort. 

Read more: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Lake Powell and So Much More

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day 10: Kanab and the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

Drive 110 miles to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim has the most spectacular views and is surrounded with forest of Ponderosa Pines. The North Rim averages 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher than the South Rim! Perfect for hiking and great photos! Eat lunch and enjoy the view at the North Rim Lodge. Be aware that that State Highway 67 leading to the North Rim closes from about mid-October to mid-May due to heavy snow.

From here you can drive to Las Vegas (266 miles) for the night or stay in lodging near the Grand Canyon (77 miles).

Points of Interest on North Rim:

  • Point Imperial is often considered the greatest viewpoints on the North Rim. It overlooks the Painted Desert and the eastern end of Grand Canyon and different than other viewpoints.
  • Bright Angel Point, south from the visitor center, can be reached via a 1 mile round trip hike with a grand view of the canyon.
  • Cape Royal (0.6 miles round trip) is a long peninsula extending from the North Rim out over the Grand Canyon. It offers a phenomenal view perhaps the most sweeping view of any Grand Canyon vista. You can see much of it from your vehicle but the best views await those who take the short, easy stroll to the end of the cape.

Check into accommodations near the Grand Canyon.

Day 11

Drive to Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or destination of your choosing. Need ideas?

Worth Pondering…

RVing and imagination—both take you anywhere you want to be.

10 Amazing Places to RV in May 2024

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in May

There is only one success… to be able to spend your life in your own way.

—Christopher Morley

With more than 100 books to his credit, Christopher Morley’s oeuvre includes novels and essay and poetry collections. Perhaps his best-known work is 1939’s Kitty Foyle, a novel that sold over a million copies and was adapted into a film starring Ginger Rogers.

The source of this quote, however, is a satirical novel that the American writer debuted 17 years earlier. In Where the Blue Begins, all the characters are anthropomorphized dogs starting with Gissing, the protagonist.

When three puppies fall under his care, Gissing travels to the city and attempts to earn money in various ways such as managing a department store. His adventures in the workforce remind him that accomplishments are defined by individuals, not society, and self-awareness can clarify our  unique sense of success.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in March and April. Also, check out my recommendations from May 2023 and June 2023.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. One of America’s oldest settlements

Santa Fe boasts some of the most eye-catching architecture in the U.S. This historic New Mexico city, also one of America’s oldest settlements, is proud of its long heritage and celebrates it with the conservation of the adobe buildings built by the region’s Indigenous Puebloans as early as 800 AD. 

The Puebloans layered adobe onto a basic wooden framework of vigas and latillas and the Spanish later adapted the technique in the 16th century by filling wooden molds to make brick and then spreading a thin layer of adobe over the rough walls to retain the smooth rounded finish that we still admire today. Features such as covered porches (portales), arches set within interior walls (nichos) and kiva fireplaces also originated during this period.

Be sure to seek out landmark buildings such as La Fonda on the Plaza, San Miguel Chapel, and the Palace of the Governors as you stroll around. 

Here are some articles to help:

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Synchronous fireflies viewing event

With over 2,000 species found world-wide, there are only three species of synchronous fireflies that can be found in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring display of synchronous flashing while the fireflies search for a mate. This special and unique phenomenon is extremely popular.

The 2024 Synchronous Fireflies Viewing Event will take place May 16-25. Passes will be required to enter the park on event nights and will be awarded through a lottery system hosted through recreation.gov.

Unfortunately, Congaree is well-known for another insect that certainly isn’t as appealing as fireflies. Yep, mosquitos! So much so that they even have a Mosquito Meter above the entrance to the National Park visitor center.

The Mosquito Meter has a half-circle dial with an arrow that points to numbers 1-6.

The lowest in its range reads all clear, the midpoint reads severe, and at the top of the scale reads war zone.

Visitors laugh at the meter but a ranger told us, “It’s no joke.  Lots of folks call us up and ask what the meter says before they come out here.”  

By the way, I have a series of posts on Congaree National Park:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Hoodoos galore

When May comes around in Bryce Canyon National Park, the snow is nearly gone which means the park’s main road and popular trails are likely to be open. Highs are typically in the 60s during the day, too―ideal conditions for hiking the park’s trail. Visitor numbers start to ramp up this month but it’s still early enough in the season that you’re unlikely to have to jostle for a view at the popular Bryce Point which overlooks Bryce Amphitheater, a landscape of otherworldly rock spires (called hoodoos).

With elevations reaching 9,115 feet, Bryce offers about 150 miles of visibility on a clear day. Plus, since it’s exposed to very little light pollution the park offers optimal conditions for stargazing. In fact, in 2019 the International Dark-Sky Association designated Bryce Canyon an International Dark Sky Park. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Enjoy the season in Charleston

Charleston is a year-round destination but May brings something special. Spring is turning to summer and it’s time for the beach and boats but also Spoleto and the arts. The acclaimed annual performing arts festival, Spoleto runs from May 22 to June 9. But before that, the North Charleston Arts Fest (May 1-5, 20124) highlights dance, music, theater, visual arts, and literature. Named America’s favorite city (again) in the 2023 World’s Best Awards, Charleston’s warm weather in the low 80s makes May a perfect time to explore all the city has to offer. 

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

5. Almost Heaven

Nicknamed The Mountain State and Almost Heaven (thanks to John Denver’s classic song), West Virginia is the home of America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Spring is truly one of the best seasons to visit the park. In early spring before the trees leaf out, wildflowers of many colors and varieties carpet the forest floor. Later, the leaf canopy appears and you can see shades of light and dark green as the leaves mature.

Hiking, river rafting, biking, and exploring by car are some ways to enjoy New River Gorge’s 70,000 acres of land and the New River which despite its name is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth.

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

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Spring in Boston

Boston, the capital of Massachusetts is a vibrant city offering plenty to see and do. The weather in Boston in May tends to be cool and fresh but sunny. There also aren’t too many tourists at this time of year but everything is still bustling to a nice degree. So spring is the perfect time for exploring the city.

As part of a fun-packed Boston itinerary, you should make time to relax with a picnic among the colorful tulips on Boston Common. This lush green space in the center of the city looks stunning in May as everything starts to bloom.

Head over to nearby Quincy Market for lunch choosing from the myriad of cuisines available (opt for a lobster roll) before doing the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile tour of American Revolution points and landmarks.

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. North Georgia Mountains

Anyone who has spent time around charming mountain towns like the Alpine village of Helen or Blue Ridge knows that North Georgia offers a wonderful array of wilderness areas for nature lovers to explore. And May just so happens to be an excellent time to do so!

Picture this: You’re exploring the southern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains with the morning light revealing a misty haze coming off the trees of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.

The white-tailed deer and black bears begin to emerge with their young and a dazzling array of birds, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies flit and buzz about as they search for nectar. Wildflowers begin to crop up everywhere with native Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and Honeysuckle adding sweet smells that waft on the gentle breeze.

The spring rains turn everything in these hills a brilliant verdant green, and the temperatures at this elevation (3,000+ feet) remain relatively cool because you’re still in the Deep South.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Texas Hill Country’s most getaway-worthy German town

May is the best time to head on down to Fredericksburg, Texas. The average temperatures sit right in the mid-70s during May offering cooler and calmer weather before the blistering Texas summers hit.

Nestled in the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is one of the best small towns in the South. Head out to the rolling hills to discover thousands of colorful wildflower varieties. Keep an eye out for the blooming Bluebonnets while strolling the area’s meadows to catch a glimpse at one of the must-see Texas Hill Country spectacles.

Wine lovers will also be happy to visit Fredericksburg in May as there are plenty of wine tastings and tours along the famous Wine & Wildflower Wine Trail.

History buffs will also love this cute Texas town as it is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. Here, you will find elaborate exhibits illustrating the Pacific Theater with thousands of artifacts and historic machinery.

Make sure to stop in at one of the city’s unique dining venues to try some authentic Fredericksburg food. From Texas Hill Country cuisine at the Cabernet Grill to German cuisine at Der Lindenbaum, your stomach will be thanking you for visiting Fredericksburg in May.

Check out Top 10 Reasons to Visit Fredericksburg for more inspiration.9. Island life.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Oceans of fun

As only established town found on Mustang Island, Port Aransas boasts countless family-oriented activities that people of all ages would enjoy.

Get the most out of the Texas coast at this original island life destination with 18 miles of shoreline featuring wide, sandy beaches. This breathtaking island offers fabulous outdoor activities from parasailing to bird watching to sport fishing, dolphin watching, and kayaking. 

As one of the cutest towns in Texas, you will find plenty of year-round festivals and activities including the famous BeachtoberFest, Texas SandFest, and the Whooping Crane Festival. If you are looking for a place to stay during your visit, there are plenty of cute coastal homes and hotels perfect for a large family vacation or a last-minute getaway.

For more ideas, check out Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Pahá Sápa (Hills that are black)

Western South Dakota’s stunning Black Hills region is a beautiful part of the U.S. to visit any time of year but May might just be the very best month of all.

Perfectly comfortable weather conditions coupled with fewer tourists than peak summer season make May the ideal time for taking on the spectacular Black Elk Peak hiking trail. Summit views from an old fire watchtower across four U.S. states are extraordinary.

Mount Rushmore is arguably South Dakota’s most famous landmark and late May marks the beginning of the iconic granite sculpture’s esteemed evening light show.

Custer is one of the most beloved U.S. State Parks, in part thanks to its amazing family-friendly, 18-mile wildlife loop drive.

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

Worth Pondering…

When April steps aside for May, like diamonds all the rain-drops glisten; fresh violets open every day; to some new bird each hour we listen.

―Lucy Larcom

The 10 Best National Parks That Need to Be on Your Bucket List (2024)

Craving some American beauty? Reconnect with nature by visiting the best national parks in America.

Sometimes—and let’s not beat around the bush, quite a lot recently—it feels like society itself is unravelling. And when that happens, we all need to take a deep breath, pause…and go somewhere nearby to just appreciate nature.

And once you’ve realized how well that works, you might want to ponder taking this enlightening experience one step further and plan either a road trip that incorporates one or two of the best national parks in the U.S. or even a dedicated visit to one a little bit further away.

See the forces of nature at work at stunners like Arches and Bryce (two of Utah’s Big Five), witness the power of water that carved out the Grand Canyon over thousands of years, or unique wildlife viewing like the bighorn sheep and pronghorns at Badlands National Park.

Visiting a national park can be as easy or challenging as you want. For diehard backcountry types, there are trails and rustic campsites that can keep you out in the wilderness for days. For the average visitor, paved roads through the parks offer the opportunity to easily see the best views and features of the park in a short amount of time.

There are 63 major national parks (in addition to hundreds of smaller sites) spanning the entire country including Alaska and Hawaii. Next time you hit the road, pick up an America the Beautiful pass and check out the best national parks in the country (but trust us, all of the parks are amazing and all should be on your list).

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

This natural wonder cradles two billion years of geologic history with 40 layers of rock shaped into buttes, spires, and cliffs. Carved by the Colorado River, the 277-mile gorge is magisterial from any perspective but it’s thrilling to venture below the rim. The safest place to start is the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail which follows an ancient route past sculpted sandstone to a cottonwood oasis.

Look for elk, mountain lions, and condors along the way plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

Here are some helpful resources:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

You’ve seen Utah’s wild landscape in almost every John Wayne western but now its time to see it for yourself. The incredible thing about Zion National Park is that it hasn’t changed an iota over the years—you’ll see the same massive sandstone formations, twisty caves, and dark skies bursting with stars that Wayne himself walked through and people have been admiring for thousands of years.

Mosey to spectacular overlooks, hike to Emerald Pools, walk to Weeping Rock, or stroll on Riverside Walk and you’ll get a sense of the grandeur of this spectacular national park.

That’s why I wrote these four articles:

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Located north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is so named for the 2,000 wind-sculpted sandstone arches gracing the area—the largest such concentration in the world. The most famous of these is the iconic 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch whose image has been depicted on Utah license plates but Arches will amaze you with its sheer range of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. 

Arches is also one of the few national parks where many of the top formations can be seen from the comfort of your car—perfect for those who want the sights without the sweat.

If you need ideas, check out:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Red rocks, pink cliffs, and endless vistas await at this Insta-famous national park in Utah. People travel to Bryce Canyon from around the world to see the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) in the world but the park’s high elevation also makes it a great place for star gazing.

One of the country’s more compact national parks, you don’t need a ton of time to hit the highlights like Thor’s Hammer, Inspiration Point, and the Queens Garden Trail.

For more tips on exploring Bryce Canyon, check out these blog posts:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Between them, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks contain some of the oldest trees on the planet—and just standing in their presence is a humbling experience. Many of these ancient wooden giants have been on Earth for 3,000 years and there are even a couple of trees where you can actually drive your car through. There are some gorgeous hiking trails here in addition to a small number of campsites.

If you’re on a road trip, try to allocate a reasonable amount of time to explore these wonderful parks.

Read more:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Badlands National Park

This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks. Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep.

As long as they stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Here are some helpful resources:

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. White Sands National Park

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019.

Four marked trails allow hiking and since gypsum, unlike sand, reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

If you need ideas, check out:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Capitol Reef National Park

You’ll probably notice that Utah features quite prominently in this list and there’s good reason—its natural geology and geography make it arguably the most exciting state to visit if you’re the outdoors type. This particular park is not one of the Beehive State’s most well known but that’s precisely why it’s on my list.

As you’d expect there’s plenty offer here including 15 hiking trails to explore along with four-wheel-drive road tours, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Or you could just marvel at the colors, canyons and rock formations, and even harvest fruit from orchards in the Fruita Historic District in the summertime.

Read more:

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

9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains is also home to the highest number of animal species—1,778 species of animals, including a notable populations of black bears and elk and more than 2,600 different plant species call this national park home.

But you might be most familiar with the parks’ famous fireflies. Every year, the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus or Elkmont fireflies put on a synchronous light display in order to find a mate. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light.

For more tips on exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, check out these blog posts:

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Despite the millions that flock here every year, many don’t realize that Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two different deserts; the southern tip of the Mojave Desert makes up its western edge and the Colorado Desert covers its eastern and southern areas.

And as such, The Joshua trees for which the park is named are more prevalent in the higher elevations on the Mojave side but here’s the funny thing, they’re not actually trees. The plants are a member of the Yucca genus and they can grow up to 70 feet tall, though they can take up to 50 years to reach their full size.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Camping In Utah: Explore the Mountains, Lakes, and Red Rock Country

Some of America’s most spectacular camping spots are in Utah

Whether you want to experience the wonders of red rock country, the many activities in the mountains, or the sparkling shores of the Great Salt Lake, you’ll find there is a little something for everyone in Utah.

When is the best time to go camping in Utah?

There are activities to enjoy year-round in Utah. In the warm spring and summer months, you can hike miles of trails through red rock country or go canyoneering through slot canyons. By winter, the mountains provide a wonderland for activities like skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.

Spring is the perfect time to go camping in Utah when the temperatures are more comfortable, there are fewer crowds than in the summer, and the wildflowers are blooming. 

Driving in Utah

Utah has some of the most scenic roads in the country but not all routes are suitable for RVs. Make sure you have an RV-safe GPS to get turn-by-turn directions based on your vehicle’s specifications. Current weather and traffic conditions are regularly updated on the UDOT website. 

Some of the major highways in Utah include:

  • Interstate 15 runs north-south all the way through Western Utah and connects most of the state’s major cities including Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, and St. George
  • Interstate 70 branches off I-15 in the western half of the state near the Cove Fort Historic Site and continues to Maryland on the East Coast
  • Interstate 80 spans east-west in Northern Utah through Salt Lake City, over the Wasatch Mountains, and northeast into Wyoming
  • U.S. Route 6 runs east-west through Central Utah. Stretches of the route are concurrent with the other major highways including I-15, I-70, and US-50.
  • U.S. Route 191 runs north-south through Eastern Utah and passes through Moab and serves as the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
  • U.S. Route 89 spans north-south through Central Utah’s Wasatch Mountains
Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic drives in Utah

Although many roads in Utah provide beautiful views some routes have been designated as Scenic Byways. However, not all of these routes are RV-friendly.

Utah Scenic Byways include:

Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway

This scenic route twists and turns through the towering cliffs in Zion National Park. It follows up a series of switchbacks and through a tunnel built right into the rock cliff. Keep in mind the road has a vehicle length limit of 40 feet (or 50 feet for vehicle combinations) and is not suitable for large RVs. 

Scenic Byway 12

Scenic Byway 12 is a designated All-American Road that connects Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Park. The byway leads over Boulder Mountain Pass and through Red Canyon tunnels.

Scenic Byway 24 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 24

This scenic stretch of US Route 24 runs through Capitol Reef National Park. The route begins in Torrey and heads east through the park passing by the visitor center. It continues through a remote area before reaching the small town of Hanksville and then follows north to connect with I-70. 

Mt. Carmel to Long Valley Scenic Byway

This byway follows a beautiful stretch of US-89 for about 60 miles. It begins in the town of Kanab and leads north toward Mt. Carmel Junction. Several roads branch off the byway and provide access to Grand Staircase National Monument. The road winds through red rock canyons and a forested mountain landscape until it comes to an end at the US-89 and US-12 junction.

Logan Canyon Scenic Byway

If you’re camping in Utah during the fall, the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway is the perfect route to take to see the seasonal foliage. The route runs east-west on US-89 from Logan to Garden City and on to Bear Lake. This area provides access to all kinds of outdoor activities like hiking, camping, fishing, and skiing.

National Parks in Utah

Utah is best known for its Mighty Five National Parks. The parks are all within a relatively short drive of one another and some can be connected via the scenic byways listed above.

If you plan on visiting at least several of the parks purchase an America the Beautiful Pass ahead of time. This annual pass is $80 and good for the entire year. Considering the entrance fee to these national parks are $35 for each location the annual pass pays for itself after visiting just three parks.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion is the westernmost national park in Utah located 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The landscape is dominated by giant sandstone cliffs and slot canyons providing ample opportunities for outdoor adventures. Hike the park’s scenic trails such as the famous Angels Landing, climb or canyoneer in the slot canyons, or enjoy tubing on the Virgin River.

There are three campgrounds in Zion including South Campground and Watchman Campground. There are also several campgrounds and RV parks within a short drive of the park.

Bordering the eastern entrance to the park is Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. This vast, 4,000-acre ranch offers spacious RV sites, a variety of glamping accommodations such as cabins, yurts, and Conestoga wagons as well as on-site activities available through East Zion Adventures.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Less than two hours east of Zion, Bryce Canyon is known for its massive hoodoos and spires. At 9,100 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon is nearly double that of Zion (at just 4,000 feet). The landscape becomes blanketed in snow during the winter and one of the two campgrounds in the park closes for the season. 

Sunset Campground is open April 15–October 31 with three loops of campsites. Reservations are required during the peak season May 20–October 15. North Campground has 99 campsites that are available all year on a first-come, first-served basis.

You can get sweeping views of Bryce Amphitheater from both Sunrise and Sunset Points. If you want a closer look hike the Queens Garden/Navajo Loop to make your way down into the canyon. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is perhaps Utah’s most underrated National Park. The park is 116 miles northeast of Bryce Canyon via the Scenic Byway 12. Much like Zion, the landscape is centered round the massive red rock cliffs.

There is only one developed campground in Capitol Reef and it is open year round: Fruita Campground accepts reservations during the peak season March 1–October 31. The campground has spacious sites for all types of RVs as well as a dump station and potable water. The area is remote with no cell service, so come prepared and be ready to unplug. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is not only the most iconic park in Utah but one of the most famous national parks in the country. The park is home to the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. The natural arches and giant rock formations provide amazing views. Stop by the viewpoint overlooking the famous Delicate Arch or take the 3-mile hike to see the arch up close.

As a relatively compact national park, Arches does not have the acreage of some of the other national parks for guests to spread out. As a result, a timed program is in place to manage the crowds that the park sees between April and October. For additional information refer to 10 National Parks That Require Early Reservations for 2024 Visits.

There is one campground located in the park, Devils Garden Campground. Due to the park’s popularity, reservations are essential if you want a spot. There are numerous full-service RV parks in the Moab area and BLM land for boondocking just a short drive from the park entrance.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is about an hour’s drive from Moab. The park is divided into four districts; the Island In The Sky District is the most popular and the easiest to access. The Needles District is located in the southeastern part of the park with scenic hiking trails, a campground, and a visitor center. The Maze is the most remote district in the park. Those visiting the Maze will need to be completely self-sufficient as there are no services available. Lastly, the Rivers District provides access to the Colorado and Green Rivers which carve the park’s massive canyons.

One of the best known highlights in the park is the Mesa Arch. This iconic rock formation is located in the Island In The Sky District just off Grand View Point Road. The arch is easy to access from the trailhead at just a half-mile walk with minimal elevation gain.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah State Parks

While the Mighty Five National Parks get all the attention, there are several Utah State Parks with equally impressive views. Some notable parks include:

  • Dead Horse Point State Park is just a short drive from Moab and Canyonlands National Park. The park also has two RV campgrounds along with hiking trails and beautiful canyon views.
  • Deer Creek State Park sits about an hour away from Salt Lake City on the shores of Deer Creek Reservoir. The park has great views of the Wasatch Mountains, a campground with waterfront sites, and opportunities for fishing and boating. 
  • Goblin Valley State Park located about an hour from Capitol Reef has hiking trails, unique rock formations, as well as an RV-friendly campground with about 23 sites.
  • Jordanelle State Park makes a great home base just 40 minutes from Salt Lake City. The park is located on the shores of Jordanelle Reservoir and offers several activities like hiking, biking, swimming, boating, and fishing.
  • Rockport State Park is also just 40 minutes away from Salt Lake City on the shores of Rockport Reservoir. The park has five developed campgrounds with both RV and tent sites available. 
  • Utah Lake State Park is Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 square miles. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and jet skiing.  Anglers will find channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish.
  • Located just 15 miles east of St. George, Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV, or tent camp in the modern campground.
Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping near Salt Lake City

There are numerous campgrounds and RV parks to choose from in the Salt Lake City area.

This includes Salt Lake City KOA Holiday, Sun Outdoors Salt Lake City (formerly Pony Express RV Resort), nearby state parks, forest campgrounds, and private RV parks like the highly rated Mountain Valley RV Resort in Heber City.   

Camping on the Great Salt Lake

If you’re camping in Salt Lake City, you’ll be close to all kinds of attractions, restaurants, and businesses. However, if you want to camp even closer to the Great Salt Lake, there are a few state park campgrounds that will put you just a stone’s throw from the beach.

Antelope Island is the largest island on the Great Salt Lake. The island is preserved as a state park with a few RV-friendly campgrounds, beach access, and several hiking trails that overlook the lake.

Great Salt Lake State Park also has a campground open year-round. The campground can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length. The sites include water and electricity and have access to the park’s dump station. The park additionally offers boat slips and public viewpoints overlooking the lake.

Camping on Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Powell camping

Lake Powell is located in Southern Utah and stretches into Northern Arizona. It is located in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as part of the Colorado River. There are several RV campgrounds in the area including NPS-managed campgrounds and privately operated parks that provide spacious RV campsites and access to the river for activities.

Bullfrog RV & Campground is operated by Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas on the north end of Lake Powell. The campground has spacious tent and RV sites with full hookups and concrete pads. They have a camp store as well as a dump station, potable water, and a launch ramp.

Camping near Moab

Moab is a prime destination in Eastern Utah for outdoor enthusiasts thanks to its close proximity to the iconic Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and several other parks and trails.

The city has a wide variety of restaurants, guided tours are available, and there are numerous RV camping accommodations to choose from. One of the best options in the area is Moab Valley RV Resort with spacious RV sites, tiny home rentals, and all the amenities needed for a comfortable stay.

Boondocking in Utah

Did you know that nearly 42 percent of Utah is public land? According to the BLM, the bureau manages over 22.9 million acres of public land in the state. This provides endless opportunities for RVers to go boondocking off the grid away from the crowded campgrounds.

Plan your Utah camping trip

Camping in Utah is a great adventure to experience in your RV. For more tips check out these blog posts:

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

10 Amazing Places to RV in April 2024

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in April

April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

—William Shakespeare

From time immemorial, spring’s awakening has signaled to humanity the promise of new beginnings. In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98, a love poem published in 1609, the prolific poet and playwright personifies the glorious month of April as the herald of youth, vitality, and hope. For the Bard, the coming of spring—the twittering birds, ambrosial flowers, and long-awaited sunny skies—brought with it all the delights of a fresh start.

We have made it to the fourth month of the year, the one we kick off by fooling acquaintances with sport. A warning to my readers: Watch out for tricksters in the RV travel realm.

April is a time of change. With the vernal equinox in the recent rearview mirror in the Northern Hemisphere, nature is slowly stirring from its months-long slumber preparing to soon be in full bloom. April also has outsized importance compared to other months: The ancient Romans tied the month to the goddess Venus because of its beautiful and life-affirming effects and for thousands of years the month was seen as the true beginning of the year.

Today, April is full of moments of mischief, reverence, and a budding excitement for the warmer times ahead. These six facts explore the history of the month and why it’s sometimes considered one of the best times of the year.

When it comes to the names of months, April is a bit of an outlier. Other months are either intimately tied to Roman history and culture—whether named after Roman gods (January, March, June, etc.), rituals (February), or leaders (July and August)—or are related to Latin numbers (September to December). April, however, is simply derived from the Latin aperire which means “to open.” This is likely a reference to the beginning of spring when flowers open as the weather warms.

Although April’s name isn’t etymologically tied to Roman culture, April (or Aprilis, as the Romans called it) was a month dedicated to the goddess Venus known as Aphrodite in the ancient Greek pantheon. On the first day of April, Romans celebrated a festival known as Veneralia in honor of the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. This has led some scholars to wonder if the month’s name was actually Aphrilis about the goddess.

One of the most important holidays in April (and occasionally March) is the celebration of Easter which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. Much like Christmas, this holiday has pagan origins and its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for the month, Ēosturmōnaþ. That name literally meant Ēostre’s month, a reference to the West Germanic spring goddess of the same name.

The only known historical text mentioning Ēostre comes from the Venerable Bede, a Christian monk who lived in the eighth century and who mentions the goddess (and the festivals dedicated in her name) in his work The Reckoning of Time. Because so little evidence of Ēostre exists some wonder if the goddess was a complete invention of Bede’s and whether she was real or not. Ēostre remains the namesake of April’s holiest days for Christians.

One of the oddest annual traditions on the modern calendar falls on the first day of April otherwise known as April Fools’ Day. Once a day reserved for harmless pranks pulled on friends and family, April Fools’ Day now reaches into the furthest depths of the internet with multimillion-dollar brands and corporations getting in on the fun.

Although the tradition is certainly an oddity, it’s strange still that no one is exactly sure where April Fools’ Day comes from. Some historians think when France moved to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, those who still celebrated the New Year in April (having not gotten the memo, wilfully or otherwise, about the calendar change) were labeled April fools.

Others have tied the tradition to an ancient Roman festival called Hilaria which took place in late March, along with many more theories. A more modern version of April Fools’ Day took root in 18th-century Britain before evolving into the mischief holiday we know today.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in February and March. Also, check out my recommendations from April 2023 and May 2023.

Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Visit Yuma

As the weather warms up and the paloverde explodes into bloom, there’s no better time to visit Yuma, Arizona for a unique outdoor adventure. Soak up every minute in Yuma the way you’ve always wanted to—without regrets. Kick off an adventurous stay at full throttle with high-speed boating. Find solace in the sunset from a pontoon, a paddleboard, or one of Yuma’s three national wildlife refuges. Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or just starting, add Yuma to your bucket list.

Yuma is home to a variety of unique attractions that you won’t find anywhere else. Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is a must-see destination for history buffs while Colorado River State Historic Park provides a glimpse into the military history of the area. The Yuma Art Center features rotating art exhibits and cultural events and you can find beautiful, colorful murals scattered all around town.

Visit one of the date farms and enjoy a date milkshake in the shade of a Medjool date palm tree then explore some of the more offbeat destinations such as Lauren Pratt’s Little Chapel, the McPhaul Suspension Bridge (also known as the Bridge to Nowhere), the Center of the World, or the Museum of History in Granite.

Here are some helpful resources:

Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The Texas Hill Country

This year, all eyes are turned to the Texas Hill Country since it falls smack-dab in the path of totality for the 2024 solar eclipse on April 8. As the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, the day will turn to night. North America saw a total eclipse in 2017 but the last time the land now known as Texas experienced one was back in 1397.

Visibility will depend on two things: location (the Hill Country will get close to four and a half minutes of totality out of a possible seven and a half) and weather (Central Texas’s annual average of 300 sunny days bodes well).

Plan your next trip in the Texas Hill Country with these resources:

Temecula Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Forget Napa, Temecula is the underrated wine region to visit in 2024

For as great as they are, Napa and Sonoma wine regions are missing a rustic, casual wine-tasting trip with some great juice in its own right—Temecula wine country is the underrated wine region to visit this year.

There have only been commercial wineries in the Temecula Valley since the mid-’60s but in the intervening 55 years the industry has grown immensely and there are now almost 50 active wineries. It’s an officially recognized AVA with hot afternoons and cooler nights thanks to the breeze off of the Pacific Ocean which gives the area the right growing conditions for lots of different grapes, particularly Mediterranean varieties.

With all those wineries to explore (and lots of other things to do in Temecula), it makes a fantastic day trip from most anywhere in Southern California.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Appalachia’s spectacular mountain road 

Discover the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains as you wind your way along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This 469-mile-long route passes through charming towns, dense forests, and stunning mountain vistas. With ample opportunities for hiking, picnicking, camping, and wildlife spotting, it’s the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The parkway’s famous Linn Cove Viaduct is a must-see engineering marvel. Rest up at cozy lodges like Peaks of Otter Lodge or Pisgah Inn for a true mountain getaway experience. 

Check this out to learn more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

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

5. Springtime in the Smokies

This stunning national park is a great spot to visit any time of the year—which is probably why it’s the most popular one in America.

But come springtime, the Smokies are extra special: all covered over in a flood of newly-bloomed wildflowers from rhododendrons to black-eyed Susans and lots of others in between. In fact, over 1,500 types of flowering plants call the park their home, which naturalists celebrate by hosting the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at the end of April and beginning of May (74th annual; May 1-4, 2024). Just make sure you reserve your campsite early! As with all national parks, sites have a tendency to fill up fast when the weather’s lovely.

Here are some helpful resources:

6. Festival International de Louisiane

For the Festival International de Louisiane (April 24-28, 2024), downtown Lafayette is turned into an international music hub, complete with live performances, street musicians, arts and crafts boutiques and more. Multiple countries are represented at this fest, making Festival International one of Louisiana’s premier multicultural events. All of the events, including cultural workshops, are free.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Triassic World

Who knew petrified wood could be so beautiful? While you might think the Grand Canyon is the only stunning place in Arizona, this spot will prove you wrong. Petrified Forest National Park is a unique preserve where you can enjoy several breathtaking views. The park is full of colorful badlands and is a great place to go backpacking or simply enjoy a day hike.

Anything rock is found here. You can see trees dating more than 200 million years—turned to stone. And flora and fauna fossils as well as petroglyphs! Start at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and learn about all the stops and sights that are RV-friendly around the park. You can easily spot petrified wood near some of the parking areas and lots of wildlife.

Here are some articles to help:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. The amazing Badlands

There are not too many hills and curves in this part of South Dakota and its big-rig friendly too, so the Badlands can make nice spring RV trips. Spring makes for a cool drive through the paint-colored hills. You can see bighorn sheep, buffalo, and prairie dogs that haven’t been scared off by crowds. There are several designated areas where you can pull over and enjoy the rock formations, or take a hike.

The park is very RV-friendly. You can park along the roadways and most of the roads are paved. If you have time, check out Mount Rushmore and the famous Black Hills. Finding open RV parks this time of year is a little challenging. Basic hookups are at the nearby 24 Express RV Campground. Or, if you book now, the national park’s Cedar Pass Campground is open on April 19.

Here are some helpful resources:

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Jekyll Island

Part of the Golden Isles, Jekyll Island provides a plethora of biking trails, beach access, wooded exploration, and a fun water park. Quiet and spacious, this island is big on downtime and memory-making. For even more island time, spend a day at the neighboring St. Simons Island. This chain of islands provides one of the most unique spring destinations.

Jekyll Island Campground provides everything you need for a great vacation.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Bryce Canyon National Park moving to spring schedule

The possibility of a snowstorm after April 1 can’t be ruled out at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah but the park just the same will be transitioning to its spring season schedule on April 5.

No reservations are required to enter Bryce Canyon but planning ahead will help park visitors to enjoy a predictable visit even on the busiest days. 

Starting April 5, the Bryce Canyon Shuttle will be available to help ease traffic congestion at popular viewpoints and trailheads. Unlimited use of the shuttle is included with your park admission. Shuttle service will run until October 20 and begin every day at 8 a.m. In spring and fall, the last bus will depart the park at 6:15 p.m. Final bus times will extend to 8:10 p.m. from May 10 to September 22.  

Visitors riding the shuttle are encouraged to take advantage of free parking at the shuttle station in Bryce Canyon City. As in years past, vehicles 23 feet and longer are restricted from parking at Bryce Amphitheater viewpoints during shuttle operating hours. 

North Campground remains open all winter for first-come, first-served camping and will transition to reservation-based camping from May 18 through October 7. Reservations are available on a 6-month rolling basis. 

Sunset Campground is closed each winter and will open for first-come, first-served camping April 15 through May 17. Reservation-based camping on a 14-day rolling basis is available May 18 through October 14. Sunset Campground returns to first-come, first-served camping on October 15 before closing for the winter season on November 1. 

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bryce Canyon:

Worth Pondering…

Spring is the time of the year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.

—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

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

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

Utah’s Most Visited Park in 2023 Wasn’t One of the Mighty 5

Visitation to Utah’s Mighty 5 appears to be stabilizing after a rapid decline in 2020 and an uptick in 2021 tied to the pandemic. But one other park in the state bucked all the trends last year.

A little more than 10.6 million people visited Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks in 2023 representing an increase of nearly 1 percent from the previous year per recently updated National Park Service (NPS) visitation data. Last year’s total also finished slightly below the 10.7 million visitors recorded in 2019.

Three of the five national parks did experience year-over-year growth though none of the parks broke any visitation records like what happened at four of the five parks in 2021. A record 11.3 million visited the park during a revenge travel surge as pandemic-era restrictions were lifted, a 45 percent increase from figures posted in 2020.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimately, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area located along the Utah-Arizona border led in visitation among all NPS entities in Utah last year bringing in a record 5.2 million visitors. Its visitation surged by a whopping 83 percent over 2022 visitation figures and it bested Zion National Park’s total by close to 600,000 visitors.

Some people say that Lake Powell offers some of the finest water recreation opportunities available. Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the United States and visitors can bring their watercraft or choose to rent houseboats, personal watercraft, powerboats, kayaks, and other water toys.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Behind the 2023 trends

Glen Canyon which includes Lake Powell previously hit a record high of 4.5 million in 2017 but it failed to reach 4 million after 2019 between a mix of the COVID-19 pandemic and Lake Powell’s record-low water levels amid an ongoing drought.

Its popularity surge is likely a byproduct of record snowpack levels that helped the reservoir gain dozens of feet in elevation over the spring and summer last year. Its rise allowed more boat ramps to reopen.

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation. The recreation area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah encompassing scenic vistas, geologic wonders, and a vast panorama of human history.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established on October 27, 1972, to provide opportunities to explore and enjoy Lake Powell and surrounding lands stretching from Northern Arizona through Southern Utah.

Tucked among the red rocks canyon and mesas on the Colorado Plateau, Glen Canyon’s unique desert region is characterized by expansive areas of exposed and uplifted rocks. Their beauty is carved out by the Colorado River, its several tributaries, powerful wind, and time.

The park preserves a record of more than 10,000 years of human presence, adaptation, and exploration—a story that highlights the connections of people with the landscape.

Wahweap RV Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best camping sites at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is an ideal place for camping adventures of all kinds. There are tons of nearby hikes, adventurous activities, and sights to see. You’re sure to find the perfect spot for your RV camping adventure.

Campgrounds Operated by NPS

These campgrounds do not take reservations and do not have phone numbers.

Lees Ferry Campground

Camping fee: $20 per site/per night

Designated sites: 54

Details: No hookups, RV dump station, grills provided, modern bathroom/comfort station, potable water available, launch ramp 2 miles, gas and supply store at Marble Canyon about 5 miles away

Lone Rock Beach Primitive Camping Area

Camping fee: $14 per vehicle/per night

Details: Primitive camping is on a sandy beach or in dunes, no designated campsites, open fires permitted (must be within four foot squared area), 4 micro flush toilets, 6 vault toilets, 1 comfort station/wheelchair accessible, outdoor cold shower, Off Road Vehicle area, dump station, potable water (seasonal), and day use area

Stanton Creek Primitive Camping Area

Details: Designated primitive camping areas that are accessible by vehicle and sometimes by vessel as well, no designated sites, no potable water, when pit toilets are unavailable campers must bring portable toilets for use and proper disposal into the sewer system

Beehives Campground

Camping fee: $14 per night

Designated sites: 6

Location: Across the highway from Wahweap South Entrance

Details: Picnic table at each site, no hookups, no dump station, no restrooms, portable toilets required, no campfires or glass containers, 3 night camping limit

Wahweap RV Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds Operated by Park Concessioners

Book your campsite through the consessioner.

Wahweap Campground & RV Park

Location: Wahweap developed area

Operated by: Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas

Camping fee: Fees vary

Designated sites: 112 dry campsites (no hook-ups), 90 full hook-ups, and 6 group camping sites Reservations: Visit www.lakepowell.com or call 800-528-6154.

Details: Facilities include restrooms, laundry, showers, store, phones, dump station, and potable water; amphitheater, picnic area, and swim beach nearby

Bullfrog RV & Campground

Location: Bullfrog developed area

Operated by: Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas

Camping fee: Fees vary

Designated sites: 78

Details: Facitities include restroom, phones, dump station, and potable water station; ½ mile to laundry, store, post office, and launch ramp.

Reservations: No reservations

Note: The concessioner also operates a separate RV park with 24 sites, full hook-ups, restrooms, showers, ½ mile to laundry, store, post office, launch ramp; for reservations visit www.lakepowell.com or call 800-528-6154

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halls Crossing RV & Campground

Location: Ride the ferry located at Bullfrog Marina and Halls Crossing, stop at the Village Store to check-in – and don’t forget to pick up food and beverages while you are there

Details: With Halls Crossing RV Park & Campground, you’re just steps from food, fun, and the Village Store.

Antelope Point RV Park

Designated sites: 104 full hook-up spaces, 15 pull-through spaces

Note: While the Antelope Point RV Park is not physically within the boundaries of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it is adjacent to the Antelope Point Marina, restaurant, and gift shop

Details: This site is for RVs only, maximum length is 70 feet, 2 RV dump stations

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most recent Utah travel stories

Worth Pondering…

So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.

—John Wesley Powell, 1869 Colorado River Exploration.

Look to the Stars! National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of their dark skies by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various night-time events in addition to stargazing. 

These events are right around the corner so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are even designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights…”

Some national parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification are:

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. There are so many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why it’s no surprise that my posts on Southern Utah are some of my most popular posts. Here’s a sampling:

I also have an article on the Best National Parks for Stargazing.

National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

These annual events are held at similar times annually so if you’ve missed one you can start planning for next year. 

National parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Pro tip: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Alrighty, let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2024.

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 1-8

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But did you know it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around? 

You can take in those skies in early June at their annual Star Party. The event is free but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is good for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset and the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes will be taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, June 5-8

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019!

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their Annual Astronomy Festival includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. Last year, they had a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it:

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.  

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So, you’re close to many historical sites and museums as well.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions.

The event includes ranger talks, other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations include a span of topics, including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission. 

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 5-7

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks! 

The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory! 

This fall, you can attend their 15th annual stargazing event. This year’s festival will have many of the same events as 2023 with new guest speakers, ranger programs, and art projects.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October (Dates TBA)

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. They haven’t announced the 2024 dates yet, but it’s typically held around the second weekend of October. You can click that link to see if they’ve updated their website with dates and ticket information.

It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

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

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome

A Guide to Utah’s Public Lands

Two-thirds of Utah is public land managed by federal agencies

An abundance of public lands helps make Utah a great place for an RV road trip with plenty of beautiful places to roam free of No Trespassing signs in every corner of the Beehive State.

Federal agencies manage two-thirds of the state for various uses, from wilderness preservation to strip mining to weapons testing. With 42 percent of Utah’s land under its umbrella, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the lion’s share of public land (22.8 million acres) followed by the U.S. Forest Service (8.15 million acres) and National Park Service (NPS)  with smaller pieces held by the Department of Defense, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation.

All that public land leaves plenty of things to fight over. Conservative rural leaders want to see these lands moved from federal to state control to make them more available for mining, drilling, and livestock. Others believe more of this land should be managed for recreation and to preserve their natural values.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah is best known for its Mighty 5 national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef all enshrining specific elements of southern Utah’s red rock geological wonders. Other big landscapes enjoying special protection are Bears Ears National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the San Rafael Swell but southern Utah has several lesser destinations including numerous state parks established on former federal land.

Among the amazing resources embedded in these landscapes both protected and unprotected are vast troves of dinosaur fossils and artifacts that continue to shed light on worlds lost to time. Ancient Native Americans left a rich record of rock art, dwellings, and cultural items in places like Nine Mile Canyon, San Rafael Swell, and Bears Ears.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping and hiking

Rules are tighter for national parks than they are for other pieces of public land. In a place like Arches, for example, hikers are not supposed to veer off-trail, and activities like climbing and canyoneering require permits. The rules are different depending on which national park you’re at so reading over the regulations before going is a good rule of thumb.

Rules on other public lands like those owned by the BLM are not as strict. If you want to spend a night on BLM land, you have options. There are numerous developed campgrounds on Utah’s BLM lands which typically require a fee to maintain those facilities.

However, if you want to rough it a little you can also try dispersed camping away from developed areas—this means camping in places with no services like trash removal, toilets, or running water. Many dispersed camping sites may have a fire ring but others may not be marked at all. Typically these sites are along secondary roads and dispersed campers should camp on bare soil and stay at least 100 feet away from water sources.

Regardless of the type of public land you’re at you should follow some some basic rules. For example, anyone on public land should expect to minimize their impact on the environment like disposing of any waste or trash properly. Another good rule of thumb is don’t approach wildlife. It may make for a cool photo but things like feeding a chipmunk or approaching a bison can either harm the environment or cause harm to yourself depending on the situation.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mighty 5 national parks

If you do decide to head to one of Utah’s Mighty 5 you’ll have to pay a fee to enter but you have a few options. For a short-term visit, you can buy a standard entrance pass at the gate of any national park in Utah which will change from park to park. If you’re trying to visit busier places like Arches you’ll need to register to get in as part of the timed entry systems.

If you want to make more frequent visits to national parks or national monuments an annual pass is your best option. An annual pass that covers day-use fees for national parks and other public lands is $80 for a year. Veterans and seniors can get free or discounted passes. Passes can be purchased online or at national parks.

There are also dozens of state parks throughout Utah which range from Bear Lake to the north to Sand Hollow to the south. As with national parks, you’ll need to pay for a day-use pass or an annual pass. Passes can be purchased online or in person at state parks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skiing

Closer to Utah’s population centers are national forests that hum year-round with outdoor recreation. Home to the Cottonwood canyons outside Salt Lake City, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache (UWC) National Forest encompasses five major ski areas and abuts at least four others that operate on private land.

Utah has a total of 15 ski resorts. Beaver Mountain and Cherry Peak are located just outside Logan. The Ogden area has three resorts: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. Around Park City, a legendary ski destination, the resorts are Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and Woodward.

Resorts near Salt Lake are found in two areas: Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Big Cottonwood is home to Brighton and Solitude while Little Cottonwood has Snowbird and Alta. The Provo area has Sundance. Southern Utah has the final two resorts: Brian Head and Eagle Point.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Local leaders chafe against federal control

Because public land cannot be taxed, the federal government awards counties millions of dollars every year under the Payment instead of Taxes (PILT) program according to the amount of public land within their borders. Last year, Utah counties received a record $43.5 million in PILT money but state leaders say they are still getting short-changed.

To raise money for public schools, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) oversees 3.4 million acres of state land largely in the form of square-mile sections scattered around a sea of BLM land. Some of this land is the subject of complicated swaps with the federal government to remove SITLA holdings inside protected landscapes such as Bears Ears and the San Rafael Swell in exchange for federal land in less sensitive areas.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a law ordering the federal government to hand 31 million acres of mostly BLM land to the state. A decade later, not much has come of the state’s demands although an economic analysis committed by Utah officials concluded the state would likely spend more administering these lands than it would reap in revenues absent a massive run-up in oil and gas production.

However the controversy persists with numerous lawsuits seeking to advance greater state control over public land within Utah. The most significant is Utah’s effort to invalidate President Joe Biden’s 2021 order restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments which President Donald Trump had reduced by a combined 2 million acres.

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

Growing interest

Today, visitors are flocking to Utah’s public lands in such great numbers to the point that it is overwhelming the federal agencies. The state’s 13 national park units saw 11 million visitors a year while its 44 state parks also drew nearly 11 million.

But it wasn’t just parks that were popular destinations. Hit particularly hard are the Wasatch Mountains where skiers, mountain bikers, and hikers explore Little and Big Cottonwood, American Fork, Mill Creek, and many other canyons resulting in traffic jams and overcrowding on trails.

Proposed solutions include a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta, tolls on drivers, and recreation fees collected at developed sites.

Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why we LOVE Utah

If you have never been to Utah, make sure and put it on your list of places to visit! We fell in LOVE with Utah for so many reasons. Number one is all of the National Parks in the state like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. But also so many state parks and the beautiful Scenic Byway 12. The scenery is constantly changing and each place has its unique beauty. From high in the mountains with aspens and cooler temps to down in the canyons or red or white rock faces and warmer temps. Utah is an adventurers’ paradise!

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road