Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

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

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

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

Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Bryce Canyon is a must-see national park and I’ve highlighted the best viewpoints, hikes, and places to camp

Like many of America’s national parks, Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park has many cool pockets to explore. Nothing compares, though, to the feeling you get when standing before the hoodoos that make up the Bryce Amphitheater.

Bryce Canyon is home to the largest collection of hoodoos on Earth. It is not a canyon at all, actually, but a 6-square-mile field of intricately carved statues that were crafted over the course of millions of years by the forces of erosion. Facing east and south, vast mazes of high promontories, deep canyons, jagged spires of balancing rocks, and other mysterious formations are adorned by bold colors of red, coral, pink, and white.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape at Bryce Canyon is totally unique—entirely different than nearby Zion as well as other Utah national parks—partly attributed to its high elevation location ranging from 8,000-9,000 feet. The air is thinner, the environment colder, and the wind much stronger. These elements come together to create an otherworld on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Stepping onto any lookout you will almost certainly feel as though you are stepping foot onto the edge of another world. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park is a world-famous park with hundreds of sights to see. Hiking trails, swimming holes, hidden caves, rocky crags, and a plethora of natural wonders dot the landscape and invite visitors to explore and discover the natural beauty of Utah. The park encompasses thousands of acres meaning every time you visit there’s a chance to see new things and find new vistas to lay your eyes on.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Tour

Hitting the scenic auto trails in the national parks is often the best place to start to gain an understanding of the lay of the land. Many of the park roads were developed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early days of the park service in an effort to provide access to the most interesting features. A scenic tour along the 38-mile (round trip) Bryce Canyon National Park Rim Road provides access to 13 viewpoints that peer over the amphitheaters. It is a perfect first outing to get acquainted with the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking Trails

A 1-mile walk between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point offers panoramic views of the amphitheater and is suitable for anyone. Each overlook is situated at a trailhead where you can descend into the hoodoos to explore deeper.

Sunset Point is usually the first stop on everyone’s list and is a top spot to capture shots of a golden forest of stone. There is no shortage of onlookers capturing selfies and panoramic shots of the amphitheater but you’ll likely find yourself distracted only by the geologic wonder. This area is called the Claron Formation and is made up of deposits from the Claron lakebed comprised of 50-million-year-old limestone that shows rich and vibrant color created by its iron oxide mineral compounds. Whether you are intrigued by geologic processes or just want to marvel at the area’s undeniable beauty, all visitors stop in their tracks at this famed overlook particularly when the sun falls onto the canyon spires.

The Rim Trail

There are multiple trails to try for your first time visiting this iconic national park with the most well-known and well-traveled being the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail allows visitors to gaze into the park’s natural amphitheater and shouldn’t prove too difficult for the less-exercised members of your hiking party. It’s rated easy and while long, there aren’t too many elevation changes. The most famous piece of imagery in the park, Thor’s Hammer” is viewable in its most iconic state from this trail.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This trail is about 10.7 miles long and features opportunities to view wildlife in its natural state. Utah wildlife you might encounter includes rocky mountain elk, pronghorns, migratory hummingbirds, and even nesting peregrine falcon (the world’s fastest bird).

The Rim Trail is located closest to the Sunset Campground in Bryce Canyon National Park which has hundreds of sites suitable for an RV. The Sunset Campground doesn’t have as many amenities as the North Campground but it is much more conveniently located to all of the most popular hiking trails.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Loop Trail

Standing inside of the amphitheater allows you to become a part of the landscape. The Navajo Loop trail is the park’s most popular hiking trail because of its accessibility and amazing beauty. Descending first into the Wall Street section you are thrust upon an iconic scene in the park, a 700-year-old Douglas fir tree that arises in the midst of a slot canyon searching for sunlight in the sky (see photo below). Hiking farther, you will find a vast network of trails leading into the hoodoos where you can chart your own course. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peekaboo Loop Trail

Despite its child-friendly name, this trail may not be as fun for younger members of your party. With a medium rating, this 5.2-mile trail has elevation changes and rough terrain alike and might not be the best option for a fun family hike. However, that doesn’t mean there still isn’t plenty going for it. Utah’s natural rock formations and wildlife are able to be seen in all their glory easily.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding is an option on this trail for party members who might have some experience riding on rocky and uneven terrain. Trotting over the red rock and gravelly paths makes for a unique experience. With a river running aside this trail which can flood in the spring and fall wildlife naturally gathers along this trail and virtually pose for photo ops.

This trail is located close to the Sunset Campground which has multiple campsites which can house RVs. That means the walk from your campsite to the beginning of the trail won’t make you tired before you even start out exploring.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairyland Loop

Fairyland Loop is a trail that sees fewer hikers due to its sheer difficulty. With 8.2 miles of trail running over steep and difficult terrain, the Fairyland Loop is no joke. Be prepared for limestone hoodoos in all their glory as well as nesting falcons and other sites of natural beauty to absorb. This trail is definitely difficult but that means more open air for you. Plus, it is pet-friendly so suit up Fido and bring him along.

The Fairyland Loop connects with other trails in the park meaning you can branch out and explore instead of taking the same route that others have done before at one point or another. The Fairyland leads to a lesser-known overlook of the park’s canyon and “Thor’s Hammer” in all their majestic beauty.

Since the Fairyland Loop is located closer to Sunset campground I recommend camping there if you’re planning on doing the entire Fairyland Loop in one day—it’s a tough trail and you’re going to need all the energy you can muster.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Camp in Your RV

Bryce Canyon has two campgrounds: North Campground and Sunset Campground. Both campgrounds contain hundreds of sites with different amenities and rules and permissions. The fee varies from site to site but typically it doesn’t go higher than $25-$35.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amenities that are included at the campsites include laundry, power hookups, swimming pools, showering facilities, electricity, Wi-Fi, animal care, freshwater, and even food! If you’re looking for a comprehensive hiking experience but still want to get everything you like at a moment’s notice, both campgrounds should do it for you.

While the North Campground is further away from hiking trails, it’s also the campground with more modern amenities. If this is of note to you, then you’ll do well to remember it. The Sunset Campground is more stripped-down but it offers prime access to hiking trails around the park as it’s much closer to trailheads. It’s basically up to you: do you want more amenities or do you prefer to be closer to the trailheads?

Fact Box

Size: 35,835 acres

Date Established: September 15, 1928 (dedicated a National Monument in 1923)

Location: Southwestern Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: The national park was named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant who homesteaded there in 1874. He was sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) who first scouted the area during the 1850s to determine its viability for settlement and development. Ebenezer Bryce considered to be the first true pioneer of the region lived at the foot of a canyon and herded cows; after a herding mishap he once famously declared that the area is “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Did you know?

The Bryce Amphitheater is 12 miles long, 3 miles in width, and 800 feet deep.

As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Worth Pondering…

It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.

—Ebenezer Bryce, early homesteader at Bryce Canyon

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

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

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Sheer beauty on an awe-inspiring scale and plenty of wide open space to enjoy it: this is what travelers search out in the months to come. And Utah has it.

From A to Z, Utah’s five national parks include some of the best-known favorites in the U.S. There might also be one or two that aren’t on your radar—yet.

Here’s a look at The Mighty 5.

MIGHTY FIVE

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Just like its name suggests this stunning national park is famous for its natural sandstone arches—over 2,000 of them. There are photo ops galore as the warm golden hues of the rock formations provide a striking contrast with the endless blue skies. Visitor favorites include Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch. There’s also Balanced Rock which is exactly what it sounds like and must be seen to be believed. Arches is located just north of Moab near Utah’s eastern border.

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,65

Standing like sentinels and witness to millions of years of the Earth’s existence, the jagged hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are as haunting as they are beautiful. The towering red rocks also provide a playground for the many varieties of wildlife—from Rocky Mountain elk to the Utah prairie dog—that call Bryce Canyon home. At elevations of up to 9,100 feet, this park offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter—and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. At more than 337,597 acres, this is Utah’s largest national park. It’s also where visitors will find Mesa Arch, the star of so many photographs in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve heard of a wrinkle in time—but how about a wrinkle on the earth? Also known as a geologic monocline, the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef has cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. Also of note: the 21-mile Capitol Reef Scenic Drive has vistas galore.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

It was Utah’s first national park, and it’s also one of the top three most-visited national parks in the U.S. Larger-than-life Zion has a lot to live up to and it delivers with soft-hued sandstone cliffs glinting pink, white, and red in the brilliant sunshine. Zion’s other charms include Angels Landing, The Narrows, and the Emerald Pools Trails.

Beyond the Mighty 5, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, San Rafael Swell, and Snow Canyon State Park.

MUST-SEE HIDDEN GEMS

NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails, some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

LITTLE GRAND CANYON

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is a destination on many people’s bucket lists. But did you know Utah has its very own version of the Grand Canyon? Little Grand Canyon is located in the deepest part of the San Rafael River canyon located directly beneath the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell. The Swell covers a large area and until modern times posed a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Only two roads actually cross it including I-70 (from Salina to Green River) which cuts right through its middle. Several rest stops are provided in scenic areas. You’ll have breathtaking views into Eagle, Devils, Black Dragon, and several other deep, sheer-walled canyons.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Wedge Overlook you can look out over the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael. It’s a majestic viewpoint that does indeed resemble the world-famous Colorado River chasm. When you approach the edge—carefully—and peer over the side, the river hundreds of feet below and then gaze out at the distant mesas, you realize there is nothing “little” about this canyon. The big difference between The Wedge and other scenic vistas is the solitude. You will probably be the only one on the rim.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to get to know the Swell on a more personal basis—and still remain in your car—drive the Buckhorn Draw Road, designated as one of Utah’s Scenic Backways. Also, drive the spur down to the Wedge Overlook. These are maintained gravel/dirt roads, washboardy in spots, but nothing which will pull your muffler off. They will guide you through the changing faces of the Swell from dry desert to juniper and pinion trees to streambeds where a trickle of water enables lush vegetation in the canyon bottoms.

This is a hot, dry country and you need to be prepared for emergencies. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Carry water, food, and emergency supplies. If your vehicle breaks down on a backroad it may be days before someone happens along that way.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ideal time to hike the Swell is during spring or fall when temperatures are moderate. Morning or evening hikes are enjoyable during the summer. Carry water if you are hiking any distance.

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

Every U.S. National Park Ranked

Every single national park is worth visiting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Oh No, Mother Nature Played Favorites

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the Mighty 5 national parks to national monuments and state parks

Summer is right around the corner that means it’s time to visit Utah’s National Parks

Utah is known for its many national parks, most notably the Mighty Five:

  • Arches National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park 
  • Zion National Park 
Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the incredible mountains to the powerful desert red rocks and the Mighty Five are just the beginning. Utah does not lead the nation in most national parks per state. California has nine national parks and Alaska has eight. 

But, Utah’s gems are abundant. Utah is home to the Mighty Five (national parks), 46 state parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, 23 accredited Dark Sky places, and The Greatest Snow on Earth.

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

Follow these tips for safe, responsible national park visits in Utah: 

  • Plan ahead
  • Stay on marked trails
  • Prepare for your trip with adequate water, sun protection, clothing, and gear
  • Arrive at popular recreation sites early in the morning and visit hidden gems as part of your trip
  • Respect the restrictions in national and parks intended for public safety and protection of the environment
Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s National Parks traditionally see a high-volume of visitation between March and September with the summer months being the most trafficked. Choose to visit during early morning hours, late afternoon and early evening, and try to avoid weekends and holidays. 

Utah’s vast, unique landscapes inspire adventure and discovery. Through the pandemic, Utah’s national and state parks, dark sky places, and off-the-beaten path destinations have called travelers from within the state and across the country and to come and explore. Utah’s mighty places allow visitors to have a truly rarified, unique experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. Even though the park is considered a desert its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in 24 hours. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

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

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Mighty Five, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Caynon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, Sand Hollow State Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

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

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

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

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

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

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

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

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

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

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

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

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

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

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

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

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

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

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

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

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

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

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

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

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

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

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

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Park Trails You’ll Want to Hike This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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

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

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

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

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

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

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

Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah

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

Hiking Badlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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

Hiking Capitol Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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

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

Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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

Hiking New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Hiking Shenandoah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Edward Abbey

Spotlight on Utah: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American  Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake Scenic Byway

Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.

Matheson Wetlands, Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.

La Sal Mountain Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Sal Mountain Loop Road

A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument

The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway

The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.

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

The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

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

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

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

Blue Mesa Loop, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Edward Abbey