The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

Forest
Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

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

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

Experience the Wonders of the Desert at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Salton Sea

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a gem of a state park. With desert landscapes, slot canyons, and dirt roads to explore, and hidden oases, this is a great place to add to your southern California itinerary.

Anza Borrego is about 90 miles east of San Diego, due south of Palm Springs, and is larger than the other 279 California State Parks combined. This huge desert expanse is ripe for winter exploration. It includes the strange and alien Salton Sea just to its east, 35 miles long and almost 20 miles wide.

The park’s name comes from a combination of 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego for bighorn sheep which De Anza found in his explorations. Dunes and lofty mountains ring the park’s diverse desert and depend on sparse rainfall to yield diverse wildflowers, cacti, and exotic California fan palm trees.

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

Visitors can find mule deer, kit, foxes, roadrunners, eagles, and the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep. Additionally, rattlesnakes, iguanas, and chuckwallas call the park home.

Begin your exploration at park headquarters, visitor center, and developed campground on the edge of Borrego Springs, a town offering provisions for travelers, restaurants, and several motel options. Start your tour in the primarily underground, calm visitor center offering the history of the indigenous peoples that populated the area thousands of years before settlers arrived.

The center does an excellent job explaining the region’s geography; its adjoining garden is full of the plants you’ll find throughout the park. This is the Colorado Desert where the Colorado River met the Gulf of California millions of years ago. Today’s visitors touring the Grand Canyon wonder where all that rock went—the answer is the Anza Borrego desert!

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

Begin an early morning hiking adventure to beat the heat starting at the park’s main campground and following the Palm Canyon trailhead a mile and a half up a bone-dry canyon. With a vertical foot gain of about 300 feet, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’ll hear unexpected running water, find a pretty stream, increase vegetation, and revel as the narrow canyon opens upon a beautiful California fan palm oasis. 

As you take in the lush oasis, keep your eyes on the bluffs and ridges above for views of the elusive Peninsular big horn sheep. Throughout the park, you’ll find a variety of desert plants including creosote, blue Palo Verde with yellow flowers, brittlebush, indigo bush, Cholla cacti, barrel and hedgehog cactus, and Mojave yucca. A favorite, the tall, 18-foot rangy Ocotillo, shoots its spines skyward and with just a bit of rainfall bursts forth in bright red plumage.

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

Visit the Indian Hills area and explore pre-Colombian rock art and petroglyphs. You’ll also find several morteros and bedrock motors used by ancient peoples to grind acorns. When nighttime comes, the park and Borrego Springs, an International Dark Sky Community offer outstanding opportunities for taking in a wondrous, star-filled night sky.

Explore just east of the park to find the eerie Salton Sea where an inland ocean formed in 1906, the result of huge Colorado River floods sending waters raging down recently excavated irrigation canals flooding the desert for 18 months and creating a 25 x 35-mile inland ocean almost 60 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level.

Angelinos stocked this new sea with gamefish; with the advent of air-conditioning, a half dozen resort towns sprang up around the sea, all vying for southern California crowds. Lakeside resorts grew quickly, speculation led to boom times, and lakeside resorts like Desert Shores, Riviera Keys, and Salton City grew on the west and Bombay Beach and others on the east. Resorts drew big crowds for fishing, water sports, and nighttime performers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Good fortune did not bless the area as tropical storms Kathleen and Doreen slammed the Salton Sea area in 1976 and 1977. Heavy rains and floods with nowhere to go but into the sea raised the lake level steadily flooding most of the resort towns. Property values collapsed, owners abandoned homes and trailers, leaving only skeletons and ghost resorts behind.

More recently, the ongoing California drought continues to lower the lake level, perpetuating this ecological disaster area. Today, visit the Salton Sea Visitor’s Center in Mecca and explore this intriguing territory.

Anza Borrego has a nice campground for tents and RVs near Borrego Springs which offers several motel options and restaurants. Several additional more primitive and backcountry camps provide further opportunities.

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

Best time to visit Anza-Borrego State Park and Salton Sea

The best time to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is from late fall through early spring, when temperatures are mild.

Winter: During the day the temperatures get to 70°F although they start off chilly in the low to mid-40’s. Rainfall is the highest during the winter months, but even so, it’s still relatively dry. Only about an inch of rain falls each month during the winter season.

Spring: Temperatures climb throughout the spring. In March, the average high is 78°F and by early June the average high is approaching 100°F. On unusually warm days even in March temperatures can hit or get over the 100 degree mark. Rainfall is low. From late February through March, it is possible to see wildflowers although the number of flowers varies greatly from year to year.

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

Summer: Summers are very hot and dry. The average high temperature is 105°F and can get up to 120°F on the hottest of days.

Fall: Fall is the reverse of spring. Temperatures cool off and rainfall is low. In October, the average high is 90°F and in November the average high is 78°F.

Happy desert travels!

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

On This Day: Gold Found at Sutter’s Mill

January 24: Gold!

California’s most famous gold rush dates to the morning of January 24, 1848 when James Marshall made his customary inspection of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter. During the previous night, Marshall had diverted water through the mill’s tailrace to wash away loose dirt and gravel and on that fateful day he noticed some shining flecks of metal left behind by the running water.

He picked them up and showed them to his crew and, as he later told the story: “My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. . . Then I saw another.”

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

James Wilson Marshall, a foreman at John Sutter’s lumber mill near Coloma, California was on the edge of the American River when he spotted something glittering in the sun on January 24, 1848. When he brought the shiny flakes to his boss, Sutter ordered him to be quiet while they secretly tested the material.

As Sutter feared, Marshall had found gold. The two men did not know it yet but California’s fabled Gold Rush was about to explode and California and the United States would change forever.

Sutter was dismayed because he owned nearly 50,000 acres and knew that his dreams of an agricultural empire would be ruined if crazed gold prospectors rushed in and overran his property. Despite all his efforts at secrecy, however, rumors started spreading.

Men began to write letters; by the summer newspapers on the East Coast were announcing the news and in an address to Congress on December 5, 1848, President James Polk—a strong supporter of America’s Manifest Destiny—officially confirmed the discovery of gold in California helping to spur the Gold Rush and ensuring the acceleration of America’s westward expansion.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California was still part of Mexico at the time Marshall discovered gold but Polk took care of that by acquiring California with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. At the end of the year Polk delivered his address to Congress and the California Gold Rush erupted the next year as 90,000 49ers rushed to California in 1849 looking for the gold Polk confirmed was there. California was admitted into the Union the next year as part of the Compromise of 1850.

Between 1848 and 1855 about 300,000 prospectors flooded into California, mostly Americans but tens of thousands also came from as far away as China, Hawaii, Europe, Peru, and Australia. It is estimated they recovered over $7 billion in gold. It all began with that January 24, 1848 discovery by Marshall, a find that touched off an irresistible gold fever that made men abandon what they were doing and head off to California to strike it rich.

Today, a few mines and the remains of several boom towns have been preserved in a variety of state parks. Most of them, including the Marshall Gold Discovery site, the fabulous Empire Mine, the historic town of Columbia, the rich gold deposits at Plumas Eureka, and the controversial hydraulic mining pits at Malakoff Diggins are located in or near the Mother Lode region of the central Sierra Nevada foothills.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The riverfront embarcadero and commercial district of the Gold Rush preserved at Old Sacramento teemed with activity as would-be miners disembarked from riverboats and regrouped before setting out for the Mother Lode. Outfitters and other merchants there thrived on the gold trade portrayed in the re-created Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Store. The mining boom that Captain John Sutter himself set in motion nearly destroyed his Nuevo Helvetia agricultural empire headquartered at Sutter’s Fort. A portion of his Mexican land grant became the bustling Gold Rush boomtown of Sacramento.

While gold-seekers were pouring through Sacramento and into the Sierra, deposits of the precious metal were also discovered in the Klamath Mountains of northwest California. Today, ruins of the historic town of Shasta and the Chinese temple at Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park recall the days of the Klamath gold rush.

In combination, the Mother Lode and the Klamath gold fields produced the modern-day equivalent of more than $25 billion in gold before the turn of the century with operations continuing at Empire Mine until as late as 1956.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between the 1860s and the turn of the century, prospectors found gold in a number of locations in California. One of the Wests largest authentic ghost towns is Bodie in the eastern Sierra Nevada, now a state historic park that preserves the abandoned buildings of the rough-and-tumble mining town that sprang up in response to a gold strike in 1877.

In Southern California, three historic gold mining areas lie within the state parks. Park headquarters at Red Rock Canyon State Park is on the site of what was once an important community in a region that produced several million dollars in gold primarily in the 1890s -including one 14-ounce nugget.

At Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, visitors can tour the remains of the Stonewall Mine which produced $2 million worth of gold between 1870 and 1892.

At Picacho State Recreation Area on the lower Colorado River, visitors can view Picacho Mill, the last visible remnant of Picacho, a gold mining community that boasted a population of 2,500 in 1904.

Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check out these articles to learn more:

Worth Pondering…

All the gold in California

Is in the bank in the middle of Beverly Hills

In somebody else’s name.

So if you’re dreamin’ about California,

It don’t matter at all where you’ve played before.

California’s a brand-new game.

Tryin’ to be a hero, winding up a zero,

Can scar a man forever right down to your soul.

Living on the spotlight can kill a man outright

‘Cause everything that glitters is not gold.

—written by Larry Gatlin and recorded by Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band in 1979 

2024 National Park Free Entrance Days: Top 10 States to Visit

NPS has announced its free entrance days for 2024 so here are the states with the highest number of national parks and the highest concentration of national park sites

The National Park Service (NPS) sites which include national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, national historic sites, and other protected areas are incredible public spaces to enjoy and learn about nature. Some national park sites charge entrance fees but NPS has announced six fee-free entrance days in 2024:

  • January 15: Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr
  • April 20: First day of National Park Week
  • June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Act anniversary
  • September 28: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

A great way to take full advantage of these free entrance days is to visit multiple national park sites in one day. While that may be difficult or even impossible in many areas there are several states with a high concentration of national park sites.

10 best states for national park sites

The following states are great places to travel to visit national parks at any time of the year whether or not you make it for the free entrance days.

1. Alaska

The Last Frontier has eight national parks and a total of 23 NPS sites including national monuments and other federally preserved areas. While Alaska is the largest state, three of the national parks are fairly close together—you can visit Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks within one day.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. California

The Golden State has nine national parks, the most of any state. The most popular national park in California is Yosemite but even the park with the smallest number of annual visitors, Pinnacles, is incredible and worth a visit. With a total of 28 national park sites, there is no shortage of beautiful locations to visit.

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Utah

The Beehive State has five national parks (The Big Five) and they are much closer together than those found in Alaska and California—in fact, it takes about seven hours to drive from Zion to Canyonlands and stop at the three other national parks in between. However, it’s worth it to slow down and spend more time at each park so consider sticking to one park each day.

Here are some articles to help:

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Arizona

Arizona and Colorado, the next state on the list, both have four national parks. However, Arizona has a higher total of NPS sites at 22 making it a great place to take a national parks road trip. Grand Canyon National Park is the best known in Arizona but Saguaro National Park and the lesser known Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area also offers incredible vistas and outdoor opportunities.

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Colorado

With four national parks and a total of 13 NPS sites, Colorado is another great option for national park enthusiasts. Mesa Verde National Park is remarkable because apart from its national park status it is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it preserves the rich cultural history of many indigenous tribes.

Here are some articles to help:

6. Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands have two national parks and a total of eight national park sites which is especially impressive when you remember that’s within an area of 10,392 square miles per the United States Census Bureau. One of the parks, Haleakalā, is located on the island of Maui which was recently devastated by fires so make sure to avoid the areas closed to tourism.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Washington

The crown of the Pacific Northwest is home to three national parks and a total of 15 NPS sites. Mount Rainier is perhaps the best known of the three but North Cascades and Olympic both protect a huge array of diverse wildlife. Washington is also home to a former plutonium factory that makes up one-third of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Read more:

8. Florida

This state is home to three national parks including Dry Tortugas which can only be reached via plane, ferry, or boat. The other two, Biscayne and Everglades are within about an hour’s distance of each other meaning you can visit both in one day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Virginia

Although Virginia only has one national park, it is home to a total of 22 NPS sites. Given its area of 42,775 square miles that means there is a fairly high concentration of NPS sites within the state making it an excellent area to explore for national park lovers.

Here’s an article to help you do just that: The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. New Mexico

Set in the Southwest, New Mexico boasts many breathtaking landscapes that are often overlooked by visitors. Besides all its desolate yet dramatic desert scenery, the state is home to the rearing Rocky Mountains, the roaring Rio Grande, and plenty of colorful canyons, cliffs, and caves. New Mexico has two national parks (Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands), three national historical parks (Chaco Culture, Pecos, Manhattan Project), one national heritage area (Northern Rio Grande)m, and 11 national monuments including four administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

That’s why I wrote these seven articles:

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

Bonus: Tennessee

Tennessee is home to part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which welcomes the most annual visitors of any national park site in the United States. It also has a total of 13 NPS sites meaning there are a plethora of exploration opportunities.

By the way, I have a series of posts on the Great Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

The Magic History of the Tamale + 31 Years of Masa Dreams

Tamale is a traditional Mexican dish made of masa or dough which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper

“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot, and she got ‘em for sale.” 

Although this song has a double meaning it definitely alludes to the women selling tamales who “got two for a nickel, got four for a dime” from a cart on the busy streets of major cities in the Americas. 

From Blind Blake to Eric Clapton to Kanye West to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, countless musicians have crooned about one of the world’s most versatile foods. Even the child entertainers The Wiggles wrote a song called Hot Tamale though it was later changed to Hot Potato

No matter your musical taste, the world of tamales has something to please your palate. From pork to potato-filled, these tightly wrapped taste sensations will make you smile.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of the tamale

The history of tamales is long and storied, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Tamales were first mentioned in Aztec texts and they were also mentioned in the journals of Spanish conquistadors. Tamales were a favorite food of the Aztecs and Mayans and they were often eaten as a portable meal while traveling. The Aztecs would wrap tamales in corn husks and the Mayans would wrap them in banana leaves.

Tamales came to the United States with the Mexican immigrants who brought their traditional recipes. Tamales became especially popular in the American Southwest where the climate is similar to that of Mexico. Today, tamales are enjoyed by people all over the world and they come in a variety of flavors and styles.

Women made tamales and the painstaking process was part of their daily routines and important religious traditions. Tamales were originally cooked over hot ashes in a buried fire. Later, when Spanish conquistadors brought pots and pans women started steaming the corn-wrapped packages. The Spanish also introduced more flavors adding meat and lard to the vegetable delights.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legends surrounding the tamale

The history of tamales is surrounded by mystery perhaps because the delicacies are hidden in inedible corn husks or because they are regularly mentioned in religious stories passed down through generations. 

One important tamale legend dates back thousands of years and features Tzitzimitl, the grandmother of the ancient god Chicomexóchitl. She was said to sacrifice her grandson and use his meat to make the first twenty tamales.

The tamale is also described in the Popul Vul, the Mayan’s major mythological document which says that humans acquired their lasting form from corn.  The legends continued over the years. 

Tamales were often offered to the gods during religious ceremonies. Spanish missionaries incorporated these native traditions to spread Catholicism in Mexico. Where tamales had been used in pagan rituals of the past they soon became associated with Christan holidays as explorers spread their ideas and religion. 

Even today, some mystery remains around tamales. Some believe there is a curse on whoever eats the tamale that sticks to the pot. But if you cook them correctly there should be no tamales stuck at all!

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Symbolism of tamales

What is the significance of the tamale as a food symbol? Corn tamales were commonly sent with hunters, travelers, and soldiers on their journeys to provide them with sustenance and luck and they were commonly chosen as the feast for spiritual and community gatherings. It is thought that the Aztecs used the word tamalli to wrap everything around their bodies.

It is now a world-famous dish with a long and fascinating history that has spread beyond continents and cultures. They are still popular in many Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia where they were created.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a Tamale?

So what exactly is a tamale? Tamales are made of masa which is ground corn moistened with water. The masa is wrapped in whatever leaves are available such as corn husks, banana leaves, or even tree bark.

The wrapping gives the tamale its name as it comes from the word tamalli, the Náhuatl word meaning wrapped. Inside the tender masa is a filling of tender meats, aromatic spices, and carefully chopped vegetables. There are as many tamale-filling flavors as there are families who make them as each cook adds her own twist.

Pork tamales with red chilis are one of the most well-known varieties but fillings like shredded chicken, black beans, and beef are also popular. Imagination is the key; there are even turkey tamales!

The tamale has come a long way since the early Aztecs ate them at war. With the addition of flavorful fats and meats like lard and pork butt the flavor of the tamale has skyrocketed. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tamales in America

So how did tamales cross the border into the United States? One historian believes that Mexican migrants brought tamales to Mississippi when they came to pick cotton in the early 1900s.  Another historian writes that tamales hitched a ride with U.S. soldiers returning from the US-Mexican War in 1848.

Everyone agrees that by the 1870s in Los Angeles, tamales were plentiful on street carts. In fact, they were considered such a nuisance that officials tried to ban them. The story was the same in San Antonio, Texas.

In Mississippi, tamales became a hallmark of African American food even inspiring jazz songs. These days, the tamale bends so many ingredients and ways of life. History professor Monica Ketchum says, “The modern tamale is a blending of cultures.”

It also brings together families and is a wonderful reminder of the past. Because of the labor-intensive method of making tamales, they are no longer a daily or weekly treat but are more often made for special occasions like the  Day of the Dead, Christmas, and New Year’s. 

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to make tamales at home 

No matter what kind of tamales you make know that it can be a long process. For instance, the Oaxacan style includes 120 specific steps! The ratio of masa to filling is of utmost importance. To make excellent tamales you want to be able to taste the succulent fillings not just the dough. A 50/50 ratio is best.

Tamale dough

Depending on where you live, you can often find masa in stores or you can always make your own. When mixed into dough, masa has a custardy texture. The corn dough is mixed with spices and lard and your goal is to create the consistency of peanut butter with nothing sticking to the sides of the bowl. When the dough is no longer sticky, you’re ready to go!

While you knead the dough, have the corn husks soaking in water. Trimming the husks is important for properly sized tamales. About five inches is a good length. Next, place two tablespoons of masa on each corn husk and spread it out with a spatula or putty knife.

Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Popular tamale fillings

When it comes to the pork filling, experts recommend using your filling when it’s cold placing it in a line down the middle of the husk so it doesn’t run to the edges during cooking. Whether you fill your tamale with tender beef, green chiles, potatoes, and garlic, or shredded chicken, corn kernels, and red sauce, the combinations are as endless as your imagination.

For pork with red chile sauce, use pork butt or shoulder as well as spices like oregano and cumin, topped with a spicy red chile sauce. Another popular filling is black beans and cheese.

31 Years of Masa Dreams

The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December (31st annual; December 2-3, 2023) is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls, and, of course, the largest-ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best-tasting tamale.

Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream, and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.

Food Network ranked the Indio International Tamale Festival in the top 10 All-American Food Festivals in the nation. The festival is a special occasion that kicks off the holiday season bringing the entire community together.

More than 300 vendors will be featured plus a tamale eating contest, five stages of live entertainment, and wine and beer gardens. Attendees will be able to sample a wide variety of tamales from traditional recipes to vegan and vegetarian options.

Admission is free.

Worth Pondering…

Do you want to make a tamale with peanut butter and jelly?  Go Ahead!  Somebody will eat it.

—Bobby Flay, celebrity chef, restaurateur

The Ultimate RV Lifestyle Destinations Guide: RV Trip Ideas Based on Location

Looking for exciting RV trip ideas and travel suggestions?

This ultimate guide brings all of my destination resources to one place! Browse LOTS of RV road trip ideas based on location or interests.

We have been living the RV Snowbird Lifestyle for over two decades, cataloging our trips from year to year. I’ve shared countless articles and resources to help fellow RVers enjoy similar travels. Now, I’m bringing it all together in this ultimate destinations guide filled with many great RV trip ideas.

You can use this guide as an index to discover new ideas or dig deeper into places or things you’ve always wanted to see. I’ve organized it into two parts: location and activities/interests.

So, whether you’re interested in Arizona or scenic drives, Texas or birding, Georgia or hiking, you’ll find excellent resources to help with planning your next adventure!

RV trip ideas based on location

In this section, I organize my many location-based articles and resources into an easy-to-scan index. You’ll see helpful articles and links to useful resources.

When something catches your interest, click through to the links to learn more!

SOUTHWEST

The Southwest has stunning and unique landscapes you can’t see anywhere else in the world. We have fallen in love with the Southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California.  From red and orange rock formations in the desert to green and lush mountains, there’s so much to see in this one area of the country and hiking and birding that can’t be beat. Then there is the beautiful national parks, state parks, and regional/county parks—and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona

Visit Arizona for the iconic red rock formations of Sedona to the majestic Grand Canyon. Or for the vibrant cities such as Phoenix and Tucson which offer a range of shopping, dining, and entertainment options.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

New Mexico is a great destination for RVers due to its diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage. From deserts to mountains, RVers can enjoy a range of scenic drives and outdoor activities. The state is also home to a number of historic Native American pueblos as well as Spanish colonial missions which provide a unique cultural experience.

New Mexican cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican ingredients and techniques. While familiar items like corn, beans, and squash are often used, the defining ingredient is chile, a spicy chile pepper that is a staple in many New Mexican dishes. Chile comes in two varieties, red or green, depending on the stage of ripeness in which they were picked.

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah

Every state thinks its fun. Every state claims to have something for everyone. But not every state has five national parks (The Mighty Five), 46 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. While it’s mathematically impossible to finish your Utah bucket list, I’ll help you plan the trip you’ll be talking about forever!

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California

What is the quintessential wine experience in the Golden State? Where are the must-see natural wonders? Which beach is best? How do you decide which theme park to visit? Where best to spend the winter? Scroll through my favorite places to go and things to do and start dreaming about your next California adventure today. 

SOUTHEAST

Over the last decade, the United States’ southeastern portion has become the ultimate place to visit for people who love outdoor activities and sports. You will find plenty to do from whitewater rafting to camping and hiking the trails when you visit the area. The twelve states located in the Southeast include Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kentucky.

Jekyll Island Club © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia

From the mountains down to the coast and everything in between, Georgia offers well-known and off-the-beaten-path experiences in cities both big and small. From ghost tours and island resorts to hidden gems here are a few can’t miss attractions, stays and towns when visiting Georgia.  

Edisto Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Carolina

South Carolina is a state of variety with beautiful beaches, remote islands, charming cities and towns, watery wilderness, great golf, interesting history, rolling hills and mountains, and much more. From the Upcountry mountains through the vibrant Midlands and to the Lowcountry coast, the Palmetto State amazes.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama

From the foothills of the Appalachians through countless river valleys to the sugar white beaches of the Gulf, natural wonders abound. The 22 state parks which encompass 48,000 acres of land and water provide opportunities to fish, camp, canoe, hike, and enjoy the great outdoors.

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

Louisiana

Break away from the Interstate and take a road trip down one of Louisiana’s 19 scenic byways. From historic treasures and music festivals, to country kitchens and coastal wetlands teeming with wildlife, each drive offers you an authentic taste of Louisiana food, music, culture, and natural beauty. Start planning your trip here.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky

With everything from world-class horse racing to world-class bourbon, the list of things to do in the Bluegrass State seems almost endless. But with so many options, where do you even start? Here are a few experiences that stand above the rest.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Florida

The Sunshine State connects you to natural landscapes, vibrant wildlife, and a host of outdoor activities and interactions.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas

Mention Texas to someone from another state and they might picture cowboys herding longhorn cattle across the open range or scheming, wealthy oil barons a la TV’s Dallas. The Lone Star State which was admitted to the United States after winning its own independence from Mexico still sometimes seems—as the state tourism slogan goes—like a whole other country. And, boy, do we have a LOT of helpful articles on this popular RV destination!

MIDWEST

The Midwest, also known as America’s Heartland, lies midway between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains and north of the Ohio River. The Midwest is generally considered to comprise the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio

Ohio is home to a wide range of attractions from sprawling parks with stunning waterfalls to bustling cities and college towns. 

Shipshewanna © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indiana

Appreciate a slower pace of life in a state known for its rural charms, Amish communities, and architecturally impressive cities.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Dakota

North Dakota has uncrowded, wide-open spaces, and amazing vistas that take your breath away at must-see national and state parks, and recreational areas.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

Worth Pondering…

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

—Gandalf the Wizard, Lord of the Rings

The Complete Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Spot North America’s largest bird in California’s smallest park

Pinnacles National Park checks all the boxes for nature lovers. Thirty miles of hiking trails from gentle creek-side strolls to stiff cliff-hanging switchbacks, giant monoliths, rust-colored rock cloaked in a kaleidoscope of lichen.

There’s beauty everywhere you look. About 100 varieties of wildflowers bloom throughout the year and more than 180 bird species including North America’s largest bird, the critically endangered California condor and its majestic roughly 10-foot wingspan can be spotted in the park. A concerto of calling quails, gobbling turkeys, drumming woodpeckers, and whistling hummingbirds are also present.

Don’t let Pinnacles National Park’s status as California’s smallest and least-visited national park fool you. This mesmerizing volcanic wilderness on the southern edge of central California’s Gabilan Mountain Range is a hot spot for ecological diversity and outdoor recreation. It is blanketed by a vast network of chaparral forests, pine and oak woodlands, golden grasslands, and 3,000-foot peaks. The park is where Chalon, Mutsun, and other Native Americans lived and used bedrock mortars to grind acorns and pine nuts for millennia.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by its ever-popular park brethren—Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon top the in-state visitor list—Pinnacles holds a unique title of its own: California’s youngest national park. When the 26,674-acre wonderland achieved national park status in 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park and the Golden State’s ninth such accreditation, the most of any state. The designation shed the park’s longstanding national monument rank assigned by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago.

A prime illustration of tectonic plate movement, Pinnacles National Park formed about 23 million years ago after numerous eruptions of the Neenach volcanic field near present-day Lancaster, California, 195 miles southeast of the park. In cooperation with the San Andreas Fault, the park traveled north to its current address over millions of years where wind and water erosion have since shaped its eye-popping matrix of rock-strewn terrain. To this day, scientists estimate that Pinnacles is migrating northwest at a rate of 1.5 to 2 inches per year—or, the same speed that our fingernails grow.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a state teeming with natural beauty and park options, Pinnacles’ 41 square miles of spellbinding topography flies under the radar and can be explored relatively crowd-free most of the year especially on weekdays. In 2022, there were 275,023 visitors in the park, an uptick from its historical average of 150,000 to 200,000 people. Still, last year’s figure marked the eighth-lowest head count for national parks in the Lower 48.

For many park visitors, condors and caves is what sets Pinnacles apart from the rest of the national park system. The California condor, one of the rarest birds in the world is often seen soaring over Pinnacles. “And there are two talus caves that are unusual as they are technically above ground. When visiting this moving mountain just find a sunny spot to take in the wonder around you!

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Just east of the Salinas Valley, Pinnacles’ low-key status stems from its semisecluded location in central California. The park has two entrances—the east and west—with no connecting road between the two. To get from one side to the other, you must exit and drive around the park which takes about an hour and a half.

To access the west entrance, take Highway 101 either south from San Francisco or north from Los Angeles to Soledad. From there, you’ll take Highway 146 east to the gate. To access the east entrance, travel Highway 101 south to Highway 25 south. If traveling from the north, you’ll access Highway 25 through Hollister; if traveling from the south, you’ll connect to Highway 25 near King City.

A great time to visit Pinnacles is between mid-February and early June when the weather is moderate and the wildflowers are showy. Visitation numbers tend to peak at this time especially on weekends. For solitude, arrive early on a weekday and you’ll have no problem with crowds or parking.

As an alternative, a fall visit is recommended. I would aim for October or early November. It has often cooled off by that point but the evenings have not become cold yet. All of Bear Gulch Cave is open at that point and you may also see male tarantulas on the move looking for a mate.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If planning a summer trip, brace yourself for hot and dry weather with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. Park rangers suggest visitors wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen and drink a liter of water per hour of hiking. You’ll need layers come winter (the park’s cool and wet season) but you’ll have the park all to yourself. No matter the season, pack a pair of binoculars for potential California condor sightings and don’t forget your long-lens camera.

The park’s two talus caves are a top attraction: balconies, best reached through the west entrance and Bear Gulch, best reached from the east entrance. Home to active bat colonies, be sure to check Pinnacles’ website in alignment with their seasonal openings. When the bat population is hibernating in fall, winter, and spring, caves are typically open; if it’s pupping season after bats are born—usually mid-May to mid-July—caves will temporarily close to protect the mammals.

Fun fact: Bear Gulch Cave has the largest maternity colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats, a sensitive species between San Francisco and Mexico.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Important note: The caves are not accessible for visitors with mobility issues and require a bit of rock scrambling. Those prone to claustrophobia should reconsider as well due to the maze—albeit brief—of low ceilings and tight passageways. Park officials ask that you bring a headlamp or flashlight to navigate the momentarily dark crevices (iPhones work as well but it helps to be hands-free). Of course, talk with your health care provider before you go to see what’s best for you.

If entering from the west entrance, stop at the West Visitor Pinnacles Contact Station for books and trail maps, to speak with a ranger, and brush up on the park’s history via the 10-minute park film. The Prewett Point Trail, a new accessible trail delivering panoramas of the High Peaks and Balconies Cliffs, starts at the visitor station. On the park’s east side, a section of the Bench Trail was recently paved for wheelchair access. It, too, provides High Peaks views.

Bear Gulch Nature Center and West Visitor Center are open based on staff availability.

San Benito Wine Country near the east entrance to Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

There are no restaurants, gas stations, or lodging in Pinnacles. On the east side of the park, Pinnacles Campground offers a combination of 134 tent, RV, and group camping sites in a serene setting of blue, valley, and coast live oak trees. A camp store sells minimal groceries; you’d be better off packing a picnic lunch prior to your arrival.

Several small gateway towns—Soledad (10 miles), King City (30 miles), Hollister (65 miles), and Salinas (37 miles)—have a variety of restaurants and accommodations.

Outside the park, fun area pit stops include the charming Soledad Mission, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, a museum and memorial dedicated to the renowned local author. For added fun, download a map of The Artichoke Trail, a collection of 40 restaurants, farm stands, and markets celebrating Monterey County’s widely grown vegetable.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Spot a California condor

Seasoned birders and avian newbies alike travel to Pinnacles each year for one reason: the chance to spot a California condor, one of North America’s rarest birds. In the 1980s, Pinnacles’ year-round banner bird was on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, hunters, and poisoning from lead ammunition in carrion or animal remains, a condor’s main food source. To save the endangered species, conservationists captured 22 birds remaining in the wild and placed them in a breeding program. Considered an ideal habitat for the high-flying vulture, Pinnacles was chosen as a release site in 2003 and two captive-bred birds were set free inside the park. Today, the population has rebounded to 89 condors in the central California flock, many of which fly through the park.

With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, the ability to ride thermal updrafts to 15,000 feet, a top-end flight speed of 55 mph—covering some 200 miles in a single day—the massive scavenger (which can weigh up to 20 pounds) is a spectacle to witness as it drifts above the park’s surplus of volcanic peaks. One of the best spots to look for condors is in the High Peaks before 11 am. If you sit and wait while looking up at the sky, you may find them. In the park’s east section, condors frequently cruise thermal winds southeast of the campground.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro tip for spotting your first condor

Learn the difference between a condor and a turkey vulture. They look similar in the sky. However, a condor’s airplane-esque wingspan is about 4 feet wider than its ever-abundant park relative.

From underwing, condor feathers form a striking white triangle on their leading edge whereas a turkey vulture has a silver-gray plumage on its trailing edge. Flight patterns differ in that a condor has a flat and steady aerial style; a turkey vulture’s pattern is V-shaped and rocking. Binoculars will help you detect the disparity in head color, too, both of which are bald. Adult condors have a yellowish-orange or pinkish head and appear as if they’re wearing a black feather boa; adult turkey vultures have bright red heads.

The biggest identifier between the two birds is man-made: All California condors (save for wild-born juveniles) don at least one numbered wing tag—and many sport two—to track health, behavior, and nesting sites in and around the park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike to a cave

There’s no better place to appreciate the geologic wonder of Pinnacles than by visiting one of its two main talus caves: Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave. They were formed when a medley of jumbled rockfall—thousand-ton boulders and other volcanic leftovers from the cliffs above— roofed in the steep and narrow fracture-and-fault-made canyons below.

Legend has it that Tiburcio Vásquez, the infamous California bandito, hid in the sometimes-pitch-black caves while evading the law in the 1800s. This was more than a half-century before the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in the 1930s building a system of steps, trails, and passageways.

The shortest cave to reach is Balconies Cave, best accessed from the Chaparral Parking Area in the park’s west district where the easy-to-moderate Balconies Trail will lead you to the cavern in 0.7 miles. Turn on your flashlight or headlamp as you crawl under boulders and scramble through the uneven ground in the dark—you’ll be through it all in five minutes, so be sure to enjoy the thrill of rushing water (depending on the season) and dance between darkness and light enveloping you. Return to the parking lot via the scenic Balconies Cliffs Trail, completing a 2.4-mile loop.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park in the Bear Gulch lot in the east district to begin your adventure to the Bear Gulch Cave. After a half-mile jaunt, turn left on the Moses Spring Trail (0.7 miles) which winds its way through dramatic pinnacles, some miniature caves and rock debris covered in multicolored lichen en route to the cave’s mossy entrance.

The deeper you get inside of the cave, the narrower the trail walls become. Fret not; white arrows will direct you as you cross puddles, climb stairs, bend, and dip your way through the damp rock jumble eventually letting you out at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a picture-perfect oasis to have lunch and rest. When you’re finished, hike back through the cave or take the short Rim Trail route back to your car.

The park’s diversity of lichen is one of the more overlooked aspects of Pinnacles, so be on the lookout. Lichens are an interesting organism that is part fungus, part algae, and they adhere to rock. At Pinnacles, they display a kaleidoscopic array of colors through the park.

For the venturesome parkgoer, it’s possible to hike the entire park in a single day on a 9-mile-or-so loop from either side and see everything Pinnacles has to offer: Both caves, the High Peaks, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and the trickling Chalone Creek, one of the park’s flattest strolls on the Old Pinnacles Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird watching

Pinnacles’ varied ecosystem as well as its position on the migratory Pacific Flyway reveal a variety of birding opportunities. Peregrine and prairie falcons are known to nest cliffside on the Balconies Trail (tip: Look for white excrement painting its cliff walls). The greater roadrunner can often be seen dashing after snakes and lizards on the park’s paved roads. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, golden eagles, wild turkey, great horned owls, and a variety of hummingbirds are common park residents.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildflowers

From March to May, Pinnacles’ hillsides burst into bloom revealing more than 100 species of bright-colored wildflowers. California buckwheat, elegant clarkia, bush poppy, and larkspur paint the park in a rocky rainbow blossom. For adventurists, Pinnacles’ volcanic breccia rock affords plentiful climbing routes, but only for the well-trained climber. Far removed from the pollution of artificial light, the park’s uber-dark setting displays some of the clearest night skies in central California for stargazers.

Check this out to learn more:

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

Park location: East of Central California’s Salinas Valley

Area: 26,674 acres

Highest peak: North Chalone Peak at 3,304 feet above sea level

Lowest valley: South Chalone Creek at 824 feet above sea level

Miles of trails: 30-plus miles

Main attraction: Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven straight days; $25 for motorcycles; $15 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $55 for Pinnacles annual passes

Best way to see: On foot by hiking one of its 15 trails

When to go to: Mid-February through mid-May for mild weather and splashy wildflowers

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

Apple Central: Julian, California

The mountain town of Julian is synonymous with apples and apple pies

Fall is here and that means it’s time for apple picking in Julian, CaliforniaSeptember and October are prime apple picking months so it’s an ideal time to be outdoors and plan a fun family outing.

And nothing is better than gathering up your own apples and taking them home to your RV for eating, cooking, and baking. So, let’s head to the mountains of Julian for these wholesome fall treats and maybe try some of the famous Julian apple pies.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Julian apples

The town of Julian is the place to go for apples. Located just an hour northeast of San Diego in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains at an elevation of 4,225 feet, Julian is a refreshing throwback to simpler times.

Once a bustling gold mining town, Julian’s mines eventually dried up but a new treasure had already been taking hold—apples. All thanks to a widower named James T. Madison who relocated here from New Orleans and quickly discovered the fertile soil of Julian was perfect for fruit orchards.

Madison traveled to San Bernardino with a four-horse wagon and returned with it filled with apple trees. And the rest is history. 

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the 1890s, Julian was proclaimed the “greatest apple belt in the world” and its fruit and pies were winning one national award after another. Julian’s legacy lives on today with its apple farms and famous apple pies.

The center of town is just three blocks of restaurants, specialty shops, and a few excellent options for apple pie.

It’s also a popular destination, for those in the know—people who want to get out for the day, to hike, explore the scenic backroads, or see historic sites.

To explore Julian, set out on foot for a historic self-guided walking tour. There are about 30 places to check out including 20 that have plaques explaining the history of the building or place. The Pioneer Museum is worth stopping in as well; its collections run from American Indian artifacts to antique furniture and tools to one of the best displays of antique lace in the state.

There are plenty of hiking opportunities in and around Julian. One great destination is the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. The park encompasses nearly 3,000 acres of forest; it’s primarily mixed conifer forest but also includes manzanita, elderberry, scrub oak, chamise, and California wild lilac.

One great trail reaches the summit where you will have sweeping views of the orchards and vineyards below and even far-reaching views of the coast. It’s about a 5-mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. From Julian take Farmer Road 2.2 miles, turn right for 50 yards and left onto Farmer Road. Drive about one quarter mile and park on the right near the preserve sign.

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian Apple Picking

Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own.

Apple picking season arrives in early September and lasts until Mid-October.

Here’s a listing of places to pick apples in Julian. However, it’s a good idea to check the website or give these businesses a call for updated information before you go.

Where and when to pick Julian apples

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peacefield Orchard

Address: 3803 Wynola Rd, Julian

Dates: Saturdays and Sundays each weekend in September

Peacefield Orchard U-Pick and Farmstand is open Saturdays and Sundays from 9 am to 2 pm (or until the day’s ripe apples run out). So, it’s a good idea to arrive early as it gets hot! Please wear close-toed shoes.

Orchard tours and u-pick by appointment are also available. Please make reservations for groups larger than two cars. Pick Granny Smith, Red and Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and Jonagold on 2½ acres, widely spaced lanes made for plenty of space.

Cost: $20 per bag (½ peck) with no entry fee.

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian Mining Company

Address: 4444 CA-78, Julian

Dates: Begins October 15, 2023

Julian Mining Company is all about connecting living history with a working farm. Yes, there are apples but this orchard offers a whole lot more.

Apple picking begins October 15 with a variety of fun activities like fall goodies, pumpkins, gold mining and gold panning, fossil digging, a mini train ride, and of course, apple picking. The farm is open Saturdays 10-4 and Sundays 12-4.

Cost: $18 per bag (can be shared) and $3 per person entry fee

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Volcan Valley Apple Farm

Address: 1284 Julian Orchards Dr, Julian

Dates: Opening the whole orchard September 8, 9, and 10 and every Friday, Saturday, Sunday until the apples are gone

A seasonal u-pick orchard with 8,000 trellis-grown apple trees and seven apple varieties, Volcan Valley Apple Farm is all about family fun.

Hours of operation are Friday-Monday, 9 am to 4:30 pm (last sale). Gates close at 5. 

Cost: $15 per bag which holds about 6-7 pounds and includes one admission. Active military with an ID pay $10. Extra admission is $5 per person. Children 5 and under are free. 

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crosscutt Farm and Orchard

Address: 1209 Farmer Road, Julian

Dates: September 16–24, 2023

Gather your friends and family and be ready when the family-owned and operated Crosscut Farm and Orchard opens for apple picking this September.

Reservations are required. Walk-ins are not permitted. 10 people per group minimum, 50 people per group maximum.

Reservation times are 10 am-noon, 1 pm-3 pm, and 3 pm-5 pm but feel free to bring a picnic lunch and spend the day.

Cost: $20 per bag and $5 per person entry fee (kids 4 and under are free) which includes parking, a narrative on apple farming and local history, a cider demonstration, and a picnic site.

Apple dumplings © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop in for a slice of apple pie in Julian

You can’t be in Julian and not try a big slice of flaky, sweet, delectable apple pie, a true Julian treasure. Several pie companies in town offer either sit-down or window service but you just have to do it.

These are the best apple pies in the universe (and even better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top). I guarantee you’ll be taking a pie or two home with you.

But which bakery has the best apple pie in Julian? It seems like every family in Southern California has their personal favorite and some are hard set on only eating apple pie from their bakery.

There are four pie shops in Julian and yes, for the sake of science, I tried them all:

  • Julian Pie Company (2225 Main Street)
  • Mom’s Pie House (2119 Main Street)
  • Apple Alley Bakery (2122 Main Street)
  • Julian Café and Bakery (2112 Main Street)
Julian Pie Company © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian Pie Company

A locally owned family business specializing in apple pies and cider donuts, Julian Pie Company has been producing its stellar pies since 1989 and bakes traditional apple pies plus variations of apple with cherry, boysenberry, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, or rhubarb. You can also order pecan pies and pumpkin pies or a pie with an all fruit filling that doesn’t include apple.

Along with the most widely distributed apple pie throughout Southern California, they carry apple cider donuts, apple nut bread, and apple memories, bits of extra pie crust cut out into hearts that are perfect to snack on during the ride home.

The Julian Pie Company is housed in a small building that looks like a house off of the main street in Julian. There are outdoor picnic tables to enjoy your slice of pie on or a row of tables indoors. If eating at the store, try a scoop of Julian Pie Company’s cinnamon ice cream to go with your pie. You can also try ordering your apple pie with melted cheddar cheese on top.

Julian Pie Company whose pies you can find in stores all round SoCal is popular for a reason. A short crumbly piecrust, juicy, oozy filling, soft, rich apple and a crisp delicate pastry bottom! Perfect.

Mom’s Pies © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mom’s Pie House

Located on Main Street, Mom’s Pie House is indeed owned by a mom who has lived in Julian for over 30 years and has been baking using Julian apples since 1984. A tasty, mouth-watering homemade pie, Mom’s flakey crusts and not-too-sweet fillings are delicious.

The shop is known for its excellent crusts, of which it makes two—the Flakey, a pastry-style crust, and the Crumb which is sprinkled on the top of the pie instead of being rolled on.

Mom’s Pie House has many variations of apple pie, including the Apple Caramel Crumb Pie and Apple Sugar Free Pie. You can also get apple boysenberry or apple cherry pies with either the Flakey or Crumb crust. Mom’s also serves up pecan, pumpkin, rhubarb, cherry, and peach pies.

You’ll also find other equally delightful confectionary goodness but not to be missed are their apple dumplings loaded with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg and baked in cream cheese to absolute perfection.

The entrance to the shop is a long corridor that takes you past the open kitchen and into a cozy dining area where you can enjoy your slice of pie.

Apple Alley Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apple Alley Bakery

Apple Alley Bakery turns out a delicious apple pecan pie with a crunchy crumb topping plus a killer lunch special that includes your choice of a half sandwich and a side of soup or salad and slice of pie for dessert.

Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, this little bakery serves up apple pies made fresh each morning. The interior has a cabin feel with ample seating. There are also tables outdoors for those who want to enjoy their pie in the crisp Julian air.

Apple Alley Bakery has some fun twists on their apples pies including a Mango Apple Pie and a Caramel Apple Pecan Pie.

Apple Alley Bakery also serves sandwiches, potpies, soups, and salads for lunch.

Julian Cafe & Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian Cafe and Bakery

Julian Café and Bakery is a small restaurant housed in a cozy log room. You can eat at the restaurant for some good comfort food like meatloaf or country fried chicken followed by a slice of pie or just step up to the pie ordering window for a pie to go.

The claim to fame of the pies of Julian Café and Bakery is the Apple Pumpkin Crumb Pie with layers of creamy pumpkin pie atop soft apples and topped with a crumb crust. The Apple Pumpkin Crumb Pie is available seasonally and is a great addition to Thanksgiving. Also noteworthy, Julian Cafe and Bakery’s boysenberry-apple is the perfect mix of sweet and tart.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pie Fun Facts

The first mention of a fruit pie in print is from Robert Green’s Arcadia (1590): thy breath is like the steame of apple-pyes

Oliver Cromwell banned the eating of pie in 1644, declaring it a pagan form of pleasure; for 16 years, pie eating and making went underground until the Restoration leaders lifted the ban on pie in 1660

Pumpkin pie was first introduced to the holiday table at the pilgrim’s second Thanksgiving in 1623

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pie by the Numbers

  • Nearly one out of five (19 percent) of Americans prefer apple pie, followed by pumpkin (13 percent), pecan (12 percent), banana cream (10 percent), and cherry (9 percent)
  • 36 million Americans identify apple pie as their favorite
  • 90 percent of Americans agree that a slice of pie represents one of the simple pleasures of life
  • 47 percent of Americans for whom the word comforting comes to mind when they think of pie
  • Americans buy around 186 million apple pies every year; and that’s just from stores, not restaurants
  • 6 million American men ages 35-54 have eaten the last slice of pie and denied it

Worth Pondering…

Pie, in a word, is my passion. Since as far back as I can remember, I have simply loved pie. I can’t really explain why. If one loves poetry, or growing orchids, or walking along the beach at sunset, the why isn’t all that important. To me, pie is poetry that makes the world a better place.

―Ken Haedrich, Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie

The Complete Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the otherworldly landscape and see bubbling mud pots and hot springs in this northern California park

On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak awoke from a 27,000-year sleep with a violent explosion, the first of hundreds that rocked this Northern California mountain over the course of the next year carving out a lava-capped crater 1,000 feet across.

But the biggest eruption by far came on May 22, 1915 when a tremendous plume of steam shot into the air shattering the lava cap and sending glowing chunks of molten lava high into the sky. As they fell back onto the mountain which was already blanketed in a record 30-foot snowfall the hot rocks triggered an avalanche a half-mile wide that thundered into the valley creating a mudflow of such tremendous force that it swept over hills and into more valleys beyond, burying farms and homesteads.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No lives were lost thanks to the early alert of the initial explosions but more than a century later that torn and blasted landscape known as the Devastated Area remains. Located just northeast of Lassen Peak, it’s one of the many attractions of the 106,000-acre Lassen Volcanic National Park, an awe-inspiring showcase for the sheer power of the Earth’s volcanic forces. The most popular attraction, Bumpass Hell—a hissing, bubbling expanse of sulfuric mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles—on the park’s southern end serves as an eerie reminder that these forces are still active today.

Four kinds of volcanoes can be found in the world: cinder cone, composite, plug dome, and shield. Lassen Volcanic has all four along with chiseled rock spires, lava fields, and huge boulders tossed about like bowling balls by the formative explosions of 1914 and 1915. 

This magical landscape was protected in 1907 as two separate national monuments, Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone then Congress unified them into one national park in 1916. The park was created to protect all these amazing volcanic features after the eruption and ever since then people have come to see this otherworldly landscape.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps due to its out-of-the-way location, an hour’s drive on mountainous roads off Interstate 5, Lassen Volcanic National Park receives just 500,000 visitors a year. It’s kind of this gem that people don’t know about just three to four hours from San Francisco.

You’ll experience the eerie majesty of Lassen’s cratered landscape—and pass a series of geological wonders—as you drive the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway which makes a semicircle around Lassen Peak, still 10,457 feet high even after blowing its top.

To the east are three additional park sections—Butte Lake, Juniper Lake, and Warner Valley—all accessed by separate roads from the northeast and southeast. Since you can’t reach these areas from the park highway check maps beforehand to determine your route if you plan to visit them.  

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Two entrance stations at the park’s south and north ends provide access to Lassen Volcanic Park Highway which runs generally north to south making a horseshoe bend around Lassen Peak. 

Driving from San Francisco, the park is 247 miles to the north. Enter the park at the southwest gate and stop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to get oriented. Here you’ll find maps and signage explaining what’s open in the park, current trail conditions, and information on ranger programming. If you’re driving from Portland, 453 miles to the north you’ll enter at the northern entrance and continue to the Loomis Museum where a smaller visitor center provides updates on park conditions and happenings.

Be sure to download the park app which provides a guided audio tour of 16 stops along the park highway almost all of which can be seen from pullouts on the road or from accessible parking areas. There’s no cell service in the park but you can use the free Wi-Fi at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center to download the app. If entering from the north, you must download it ahead of time as the Loomis Museum has no Wi-Fi. “If you don’t download it in advance, the last reliable cell service north of the park is in Shingletown,” notes Arreglo, referring to a small community about 17 miles west of the north entrance. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late summer and fall of 2021, California’s devastating Dixie Fire burned 73,240 acres in the park. In addition to leaving behind huge swaths of blackened pine forest, the fire buckled park roads and destroyed lookouts and other facilities, some still closed for repairs. Nonetheless, the average visitor doesn’t experience many significant impacts. Most damage to attractions along the park highway was repaired before the park reopened this past summer. 

Lassen Volcanic gets snow early and it stays late often lingering well into June on the higher trails. Wildflowers which begin to emerge in late May and blanket the slopes and valleys all summer have become even more profuse since the fire. 

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park has opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nights can be cool even in summer though daytime temperatures can climb into the 90s. By mid-fall, temperatures creep towards freezing. The park remains open year-round despite cold winters although most of the campgrounds close and the park highway isn’t plowed then. Rangers close the gates located just inside the north entrance and just past the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the south end with the first significant lasting snowfall typically in November. The Kohm Yah-mah-nee center remains open providing the only park services until the Loomis Museum reopens in May. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s only hotel-style lodging, the Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Warner Valley remains temporarily closed due to damage from the Dixie Fire. The pine-paneled cabins encircling the sunny meadow survived intact but infrastructure repairs are still necessary before reopening. 

​The park has seven campgrounds with all sites featuring picnic tables, fire rings, and lockable bear-proof cupboards.

Manzanita Lake Campground just inside the park’s northern entrance in a shady pine forest uphill from the lakeshore is the largest and best developed campground with 179 sites ($26 per night) and amenities including hot showers, an RV dump station, a laundry, and a camp store. It also features 20 uber-rustic one- and two-room camping cabins (both shower areas have an accessible stall with bench seat and hand rails) and a larger eight-bed bunkhouse ($76 to $101 per night) without electricity. They have beds but you’ll need to bring your own bedding and linens. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Summit Lake North and South campgrounds which bookend a pretty, pine-fringed alpine lake in the park’s center have 46 sites ($24 per night) between them. The 101 sites ($22 per night) at Butte Lake Campground cluster in a dense pine forest adjacent to the lake reachable by a 6-mile dirt road. 

​At Juniper Lake Campground 18 sites ($12 per night) line the shore of the deep blue lake shaded by tall ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and you’ll find a mostly level campground with wheelchair-accessible sites. 

​​Butte Lake and Manzanita Lake campgrounds have wider roads making them good choices for those traveling in an RV. Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake, and Butte Lake campgrounds will be reservation-only starting in 2023 (check the park website for exact dates). Make your reservations through recreation.gov. 

​The park’s only restaurant, Lassen Café & Gift inside the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center serves soup, salads, and other simple fare along with hot coffee and ice cream. You can pick up to-go sandwiches and snacks at the Manzanita Camp Store. 

​Picnicking is the way to go in Lassen so stock up on supplies before heading into the park. Devastated Area, Kings Creek Meadow, and Lake Helen are all in the park’s center. Manzanita Lake feature level picnic sites, accessible parking, and restrooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Drive Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway. From the jagged cliffs of Chaos Crags and mounds of black lava boulders at Chaos Jumbles to the azure waters of Lake Helen and the viewpoints overlooking Hat Creek, Little Hot Springs Creek, and Diamond Peak every stunning stop on the 30-mile park highway route is indicated by a numbered road marker matching the numbers on the park map. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Visit geothermal spots

Lassen Volcanic is dotted with areas of constant geothermal activity where boiling water spurts from vents, pools of mineral-rich mud bubble and spit, and fumaroles release vaporous clouds of steam that hang in the air like a ghostly mist.

Not far past the south entrance, stop at wheelchair-accessible Sulphur Works located right on the park highway to marvel at the silica-crusted mud pots and breathe in the malodorous vapor that gives them their name. It’s a moderate 3-mile round-trip hike to Bumpass Hell, the largest and most active of the park’s geothermal areas named for hapless explorer Kendall Bumpass who fell into one of the mud pots and suffered severe burns. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go stargazing

While not certified as an International Dark Sky Park, Lassen Volcanic’s high elevation, crystal clear air, and lack of light pollution make it a perfect setting for celestial viewing. As such, the park schedules numerous viewing activities including monthly full moon hikes, astronomy demonstrations, and an annual Dark Sky Festival in early August. Plan your trip to be here during a meteor shower like the Perseids and you’ll see quite a show from Summit Lake or another high point in the park. You’ll see more sky in wide-open spots like the Devastated Area and the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Have fun in the snow

In winter, the park highway is plowed until just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and its expansive parking lot offering easy access for those who come to see the craggy landscape made even more dramatic when iced in white. Lassen Volcanic is also popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The hill behind the visitor center also becomes a sledding area with people banking trails and going down on tubes, discs, and toboggans.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Hit the hiking trails

Plunging 30 feet straight down from a rock shelf, Kings Creek Falls near Summit Lake is a must-see for those who can manage the 2.3-mile round-trip loop to the overlook. Rated moderate for its 486-foot elevation gain, the trail follows the creek through wildflower-strewn meadows and meanders through fire-damaged pine forests already showing optimistic regrowth. The final stretch, a series of cliff-hugging stone steps known as the Cascades Foot Section is more challenging but is easily avoided by doing the hike as an out and back rather than as a loop.  

​Another short but considerably more ambitious hike is the 2-mile round trip to the Ridge Lakes which leaves from the Sulphur Works parking lot and gains 1,000 feet of elevation reaching a string of impossibly blue glacier-scooped bowls on Lassen Peak’s shoulder. Then there’s Arreglo’s favorite, the Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes Trail, a moderate four-mile round trip with 700 feet of elevation gain which departs from a trailhead just north of Lassen Peak’s parking lot. “It takes you through Paradise Valley to three gorgeous subalpine lakes one after another with these incredible views of Lassen Peak rising above them.” 

Sun Dial Bridge, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The closest lodging to the park is 10 minutes from the south entrance at the rustic-chic Highlands Ranch Resort. Stay in one of seven splurge-worthy, easy-to-access cottages, some with lofts to accommodate larger groups and dine at the all-American bistro in a firelit, high-beamed dining room.

​However, most non-camping park visitors stay in gateway towns on different sides of the park. 

Redding, the area’s largest town is popular with those driving north from San Francisco. Located on Interstate 5, 47 miles from the park’s south entrance, the town was founded as a rail hub for transporting minerals, lumber, and cattle from the surrounding mines, forests, and ranches and trains still whistle nightly through its quaint downtown.

Sacramento River from Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area’s wealth of outdoor activities include Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the renown Sundial Bridge, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake, and Lake Shasta Caverns. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center in the guise of a traditional forest camp. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge that was the first American project by celebrated Spanish bridge architect Santiago Calatrava. The supporting pylon and curving, translucent deck perform as the world’s largest sundial.

Surrounded by pristine mountains, lakes, and rivers, Redding offers a wide range of RV parks and campgrounds including Green Acres RV Park, Marina RV Park, Premier RV Park, Redding RV Park, and Win-River Resort.

JGW RV Park, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our home base while touring the Redding area was JGW RV Park, a big-rig friendly resort located 9 miles south of Redding on the Sacramento River. This is a beautiful 5-star RV park with water, sewer, and 30/50-amp electric service centrally located. The majority of pull-through sites are back-to-back and side-to side. Our site backed onto the Sacramento River. Interior roads are paved and in good condition with concrete pads.

Centrally located on the Sacramento River, Red Bluff is just 32 miles south of Redding on I-5.

Red Bluff KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big-rig friendly, Red Bluff KOA Journey (formerly Durango RV Resort) is a 5-star resort located on the Sacramento River. The park is well laid out and designed. Most sites are pull-through, 70-90 feet in length, and 30-35 feet wide. In addition, there are 11 riverfront sites and 21 water-feature spaces (fountains); these sites have utilities on both sides of the concrete pads enabling fifth wheels and travel trailers to back onto the sites and motorhomes to drive forward maximizing the view and water features. In addition, there are several buddy sites.

​Farther from the park is the uber-photogenic former lumber company town of McCloud, 81 miles northwest of Lassen Volcanic’s north entrance. Here, pastel-painted clapboard buildings cluster in the shelter of Mount Shasta’s eastern slope. The McCloud Mercantile Hotel occupies the upper floor of the former McCloud Lumber Company store, each of its 12 antique-furnished rooms themed to reflect a colorful local resident or significant event. The moderately priced hotel offers two accessible rooms with open floor plans, roll-in showers, and whirlpool tubs. 

​On the east, 30 miles from the park’s south entrance, the tiny town of Chester borders Lake Almanor. It’s basically just a place to overnight with the Timber House Brewing and Lodge a favorite of those seeking a retro Wild West vibe enhanced by modern comforts. Accessible rooms are available. For breakfast, head to Cravings for homemade corned beef hash. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​En route 

All routes to Lassen Volcanic National Park include at least one stretch of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that encircles the park and continues north to link the park with Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park. 

Check this out to learn more:

Facts box

​Location: Northern California

Size: 106,000 acres

Highest point: Lassen Peak, at 10,457 feet 

Lowest point: Hot Springs Creek, at 5,275 feet

Miles of trails: 150

Main attractions: Bumpass Hell, the Devastated Area, Lassen Peak, and other geothermal and volcanic features

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)

See Steaming Volcanoes at This Eerie National Park

Lassen Volcanic Park boasts a fascinating eruptive history that has dramatically shaped the landscape

Lassen is also one of the oldest national parks in the country. The former hunting ground for the Atsugwei, Yana, Yahi, Maidu, and Kohm people became the fifteenth national park in 1916.

When a national park has over 20 volcanoes, you can expect some pretty spectacularly strange landscapes. Gurgling mud pots, curves of red earth, sulfur vents, fumaroles, lava tube caves, and boiling springs all sit in a northeastern patch of California mixed in with lakes, waterfalls, and snowy mountains. Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the few places on earth that has all four types of volcanoes (cinder cones, composite, shield, and plug dome)—for all the science types out there.

Lassen Volcanic National Park© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The birth of this park as a federally protected area really began in the summer of 1914 when three climbers ascended Lassen Peak in an attempt to uncover the reasons why the dormant volcano had recently started rumbling deep beneath its surface. As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mud flow that flooded across the region. The climbers narrowly escaped and survived the event—an event that would become one of intense study for many years to come.

In 1915, the peak blew its top. The catastrophic eruption forced rock, trees, and debris miles down into valleys, devastating the surrounding areas and changing its landscape forever. Then in 1917, the volcano fell dormant. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The geothermal activity and spectacular jagged landscape is one of California’s best kept secrets as only about 500,000 travelers visit the park each year—as opposed to the few million found just south in Yosemite—even though it’s easy to reach at just 130 miles north of Sacramento.

In Lassen’s 166.3 square miles of protected land, you’ll find rigorous hikes, the 30-foot Kings Creek Falls, and wheelchair-accessible viewpoints of the rugged volcanic wilderness. You can experience the best of the park during a day trip but to do Lassen justice and maximize your trip spend three to four days in the national park. Here’s everything you need to know about the volcanic park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit… pretty much any time of year

Lassen Volcanic National Park can be visited year round—but expect snow for the majority of the year. Determining the best time of year to go will depend on what you hope to experience in the park.

The winter season lasts from December to March but snowfall continues through June making winter-centric activities in the park available through spring. In cooler months, visit the southwest areas of the park which begin at 6,700 feet of elevation and receive the most snow—up to 30 feet each season. Manzanita Lake is a popular spot for snowshoeing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is the most popular time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park though visitor numbers are still low enough that the park can feel quite empty. Warm-weather hikes in Manzanita Lake start around May though Bumpass Hell Trail often remains closed due to snow hazard until July. As the sun comes out you might increase your chances of spotting some of the 250 species of wildlife in the park looking to basque in the sunshine.

May through September brings wildflowers in the meadows. Peak blooming occurs between July and September depending on the elevation of the area. And while leaf peeping isn’t a huge draw to the park as it’s mostly populated with evergreen trees you’ll still find some changing leaves on aspen, alder, and cottonwood trees in the autumn months. The best place to enjoy fall colors is Hat Meadow.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike around and on top of volcanoes

No matter what, you’ll want to begin at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center locatrd one mile from the Southwest Entrance which is open year-round. The visitor center offers an information desk, exhibit hall, auditorium, amphitheater, park store, dining area with fireplace, patio, and a gift shop and cafe. Free Wi-Fi is available inside.

There you can choose from between the 150 miles of trails in Lassen.

At Butte Lake, hike the challenging four-mile trail to the summit of Cinder Cone and be rewarded with views of the volcano’s crater.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The three-mile round-trip Bumpass Hell Trail leads to a boardwalk over the largest hydrothermal area in the park. The path takes guests within a safe distance of aquamarine pools in the 16-acre basin.

For a longer trek, head out on the park’s 17 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hike at least seven miles in Lassen Volcanic National Park and you could achieve the Reach Higher Trail Challenge which supports the recovery of the native Sierra Nevada red fox. Plus you’ll be rewarded with a nifty, commemorative bandana. Are you ready for the challenge?

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Totally don’t worry about eruptions

No trip to the park is complete without a visit to the most famous volcano in the park, Lassen Peak, also known as Yah-mah-nee or “snow mountain.” It’s the world’s largest plug dome volcano at 10,457 feet elevation and it last erupted in 1917. But don’t worry—volcanologists know well in advance when an eruption could happen and park rangers wouldn’t let you venture out if it were a possibility. Despite often being snow-covered into August, Lassen Peak Trail is open for hiking year-round. Or stay grounded and enjoy the stunning views of the gigantic mountain jutting out behind the tree-lined lake.

To experience Lassen’s famous hydrothermal activities fed from the natural underground hot water system head to Sulphur Works where you’ll witness mud pots boiling and steam hissing from vents. Just like at Yellowstone, you’ll want to stay on designated paths to avoid severe burns though you’ll get to witness strange colors of the earth and smell some pungent sulfur.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in Lassen National Park

Camping permits are free in Lassen and there are eight campgrounds within the park. RVs and trailers can be accommodated at the Manzanita Lake, Butte Lake, and Summit Lake campgrounds. Campsite reservations are highly recommended July through early September and can be made only through recreation.gov.

You can also find camping cabins at the Manzanita Lake Campground. Thanks to the lack of light pollution those who sleep over often see the shimmering Milky Way or a spectacle of meteor showers while stargazing.

If roughing it isn’t your thing, book lodges, cabins, or bungalows at the historic Drakesbad Guest Ranch which is the only lodging in the park. The ranch will prepare your meals while you soak in the on-site hydrothermal spring-fed pool after a day spent exploring the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasures indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California journals, 1860-1864