Discover Native American Cultures on the Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway traverses a portion of the American Southwest that once experienced cannot easily be forgotten

The Trail of the Ancients is the ultimate American Southwest road trip into the Native American history of the region running through four states.

Long before the United States existed there were many civilizations throughout the lands that now make up the country. Today, visitors can learn about the history and heritage of these lands in the Four Corners region on the Trail of the Ancients. The route is found in the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The Trail of the Ancients explores many of the state parks, Indian reservations, national parks, and national monuments of the region. On this trail, travelers can see some of the best landscapes of the region along with some of the land’s deepest history. But it’s not all about history; you will also see the enduring traditions and practices of the Ancient’s living descendants today.

The Trail of the Ancients is a collection of Scenic Byways that highlight the archeological history of the region. Along this route, visitors can delve into the cultural history of the Native American peoples of the Southwest.

Here are some helpful resources:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients Byways

  • Utah: Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
  • Colorado: Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway
  • New Mexico: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
  • Arizona: Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road

The Trail of the Ancients connects historic points of interest of the Navajo, Utes, and early Puebloan peoples. Along the way, visitors see snow-capped mountains, red rock landscapes, green valleys, canyons, and some of the most iconic landscapes of the Southwest.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Colorado

The Colorado section of the Trail of the Ancients has been a National Scenic Byway since 2005. It traverses the arid and cultural terrain of the Ancestral Pueblo. This is a land with cliff dwellings, rock art, and broken pottery sherds.

The scenic drive starts on US 160 at Mesa Verde National Park, home to over 4,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi People between 450-1300 AD. Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park designated by UNESCO and you can spend days here exploring over 4,500 archaeological sites and extraordinary setting. 

From the park, the drive heads to the town of Dolores by following the US 160 west and CO 145 and CO 184 north. The premier archaeological museum, Anasazi Heritage Center honors the history of the Anasazi People and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region with exhibits on archaeology, local history, and lifestyle including how they weaved and prepared corn. A short trail will bring you to two pueblos. The Anasazi Heritage Center is also the visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which protects more than 6,000 ancient ruins.

From Dolores, head west on CO 184 and then north on US 491 passing pastoral farmland with mountain peaks in the distance. As you approach the town of Pleasant View, turn right onto Country Road CC. Heading west for 8.5 miles, you arrive at Lowry Pueblo, an Anasazi ruin constructed around 1060 AD. It housed approximately 40-100 inhabitants who subsisted as farmers and made elaborately decorated pottery.

Retracing back a few miles, you arrive at Country Road 10 which heads southwest towards Utah for 20 miles on a dirt road. After crossing the border into Utah, stop at the Hovenweep National Monument. Along the canyon rim stand two, oddly-shaped stone towers created by the master builders of the Anasazi’s people, the meaning of which are still unknown.

The Monument also has a total of six groups of ruins and is known for its square, oval, and D-shaped towers. Explore the Square Tower Group by walking the two mile loop trail from the Visitor Center. Stargazing is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this peaceful and moving setting. Make a night of it with camping which is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

The scenic drive comes to an end as you arrive at the US 191. 

Here are some helpful resources:

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-Utah

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on US Highway 491 and travels to the junction in Monticello with US Highway 191. Turn south onto US 191 and travel to Blanding where you find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Musuem, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area.

From Blanding the route follows US 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and west on US 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument along the way. It then turns south at the junction with UT 95 and UT 261 and proceeds to the top of the Moki Dugway, a 3 mile stretch of gravel road that descends the 1,000 foot cliff from Cedar Mesa to Valley of the Gods. Along the way you will find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Just before dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road #274 leading to Muley Point and views into Johns Canyon.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway the route continues past the entrance to Valley of the Gods and on the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosencks State Park. At Goosenecks you encounter a view of the largest entrenched river meander in North America.

UT 261 continues to the junction with US 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat or turn left to drive to Bluff. Turning right will take you to Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley; turning left will take you to Bluff and back to Blanding.

Along US 191 between Bluff and Blanding is the junction with Utah Highway 262 where you turn east and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument OR you can access Hovenweep from Bluff on US Highway 162 and follow the signs.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients-New Mexico

The Trail of the Ancients passes through the unique geology of the Colorado Plateau high desert offering a rich but fragile mix of natural resources. The stunning rock formation, Shiprock, is a central scenic point that is visible from most places on the Trail of the Ancients. Shiprock provides a focal point for the interpretive theme of the landscape and helps to integrate the trail stops. The visible cultural heritage of the Four Corners area boasts numerous archaeological sites, modern communities, and Indian lands.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a USESCO World Heritage Site, is the centerpiece of the New Mexico segment of the byway. Occupied at the height of Ancestral Pueblo culture between around 850 and 1250 AD, it served as a major center of the ancestral Puebloan civilization. Remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings, engineering projects, astronomy, artistic achievements, and distinctive architecture, it was a hub of ceremony/trade for the prehistoric Four Corners area for 400 years.

The Navajo people arrived late on the scene. Their roots trace back to the Athabascan people of northwestern Canada. Spanish explorers first used the name Navajo. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ meaning The People. Contact with other groups and the introduction of farming and ranching brought lasting changes to the lives of the Dine’. The Navajo reservation is the largest in the continental United States both in size and population.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic turnouts along the Trail of the Ancients reveal vast valleys, towering mountains, badlands, clear blue lakes, raging rivers, and gentle streams.

The route traces a massive hook shape on the New Mexico northwest as it explores some of the loneliest parts of the state. Sites along the way include the El Morro National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Crownpoint (stop here for the monthly Navajo Rug auction), Casamero Pueblo, El Malpais National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Here are some helpful resources:

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

Trail of the Ancients-Arizona

In Arizona, Trail of the Ancients consists of two distinct roads, The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road and Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road.

The Dine’Tah Among the People Scenic Road consists of two sections of a single road. The road crosses the state line between New Mexico and Arizona. The official scenic road is only on the Arizona side of the line. The southern section runs from Lupton north through the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to the state line. Then it picks up again further north in the Lukachukai Mountains when the road crosses back into Arizona wraps around the north side of Canyon de Chelly National Monument and turns southwest to end at Chinle. At no point does the route leave the Navajo Nation.

The Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road is a 27-mile route along US Highway 163 from Kayenta to the Utah state line. Monument Valley is known as Tse’ Bii’ Ngzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks) among the Navajo.

Forrest Gump Road in Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arguably, Monument Valley offers one of the most iconic drives of the entire American Southwest with Route 163 (featuring the Forrest Gump Road) being one of its most scenic. This area has been the backdrop of countless Western movies (as well as where the character Forrest Gump in the famous namesake movie decided to give up running as the road’s nickname suggests). These roads in Arizona are not designed as national scenic byways but they are of immense cultural and scenic value.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

15 Fascinating Historic Sites in the American Southwest 

The American Southwest blends nature and history in a beautiful way. Coyotes, canyons, and brilliant sun-kissed rock formations mark the region’s desert terrain. It’s also home to hundreds of national parks and monuments including the Grand Canyon. While there are a number of places you will want to see on your trip, be sure to stop and check out these Historic Sites in the Southwest.

The stories of the American Southwest extend well beyond the history of the United States. From the Indigenous peoples who built cliffside castles to the Spanish explorers who established missions and the cowboys of the Wild West—the history of this region is incredibly diverse.

To learn more about what makes the Southwest so captivating, check out 15 of the region’s best historic sites and the fascinating stories behind them.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Montezuma Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona

Embedded into the side of a sheer limestone cliff, Montezuma Castle dates back to around 1100 BC and was established as a national monument in 1906. The cliffside abode was named incorrectly by settlers who believed it to be of Aztec origin. In reality, the Sinagua peoples who inhabited the Verde Valley of Arizona for thousands of years, built and occupied the castle. Naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the site of the cliff dwellings was chosen due to preexisting caves and nearby water resources; inhabitants used wooden ladders to move throughout the settlement’s five levels.

To see the historic monument, start at the Visitor Center before walking up to the base of Montezuma Castle on a 0.3-mile loop trail. Then, you can drive to Montezuma Well, a naturally occurring sinkhole and the site of more cliff dwellings. The land around the well was home to prehistoric groups of people approximately 1,000 years ago before being settled by Anglo-Americans in the late 19th century.

Check this out to learn more: Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Four Corners Monument, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona

Located in Navajo Tribal Park, the Four Corners Monument is the only point in the country where four states meet. Marking the point where the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah state lines coalesce, the historic landmark also marks the boundary between the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Tribe Reservation. 

However, the monument’s history goes further back than just statehood. During the Civil War, Congress created several new territories—including Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—to discourage residents from joining the Confederacy. In 1861, Congress voted for a marker to be placed in the monument’s exact location to demonstrate the southwest corner of the Colorado territory.

Palace of the Governors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Dating to 1610, the Palace of the Governors is the oldest public building in the contiguous U.S. still in continuous use. For nearly three centuries, the building was home to a rotating roster of Spanish, Mexican, and American governors as control over the New Mexico territory shifted and changed. Additionally, the native Pueblo peoples took over the palace during the Pueblo Revolt of the 17th century while the Confederacy occupied it during the Civil War.

Today, the Palace of the Governors is part of the New Mexico History Museum with interpretive galleries displaying its history and a palatial courtyard that connects to the rest of the museum. For visitors to Santa Fe, the palace features a block-long portal where Native American vendors sell their artisan wares and crafts.

Plan your next trip to Santa Fe with these resources:

Whiskey Row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Whiskey Row, Prescott, Arizona

This legendary block in Arizona earned its moniker in the late 19th century when the street consisted of whiskey saloons favored by the local cowboys and miners. After a lit candle burned most of the downtown area in 1900, a group of locals famously rescued the actual bar from the Palace Saloon and began drinking their sorrows away. A year later, a new downtown was erected in a more fire-safe brick and the same bar was installed inside the new Palace Restaurant and Saloon.

Today, visitors can belly up at the historic bar or visit myriad other notable sites located on the city block. Rumored to be haunted by a lady in white, Hotel St. Michael has housed a number of famous guests over the past century including the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Doc Holiday. And while galleries and shops now decorate the historic square, famed establishments like the Jersey Lilly Saloon still embody the historic spirit of Whiskey Row.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Before it became the site of perhaps the most infamous battle in the Southwest, the Alamo was known as the San Antonio de Valero Mission. In 1724, Spanish colonizers established the church to convert the area’s Native American peoples.

It wasn’t until the 1835 Texas Revolution that the former mission became a war fortress and battle site. Stationed in the Alamo in 1836, Texas revolutionaries fought against Mexico in the Battle of the Alamo, a bloody 13-day squirmish that resulted in the deaths of all the defenders. Although they lost the battle, Texas later won independence from Mexico and would eventually become an American state nine years later.

Today, the Alamo is open and free to visitors although reservations must be made in advance. With guided and self-guided tours available, the Alamo is also part of the San Antonio Missions Trail giving cyclists easy access to the city’s network of historic missions.

If you need ideas, check out:

Besh Ba Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum, Globe, Arizona

One mile southwest of the City of Globe, Arizona, stand the remains of a large pueblo village constructed by the Salado culture who occupied the region between 1225 and 1450.

The pueblo is known today as Besh Ba Gowah, a term originally given by the Apache people to the early mining settlement of Globe. Roughly translated, the term means place of metal

The partially reconstructed pueblo structures along with the adjacent museum provide a fascinating glimpse at the lifestyle of the people who thrived in the ancient Southwest.

Besh-Ba-Gowah had about 400 rooms of these about 250 were ground floor rooms. Precise numbers are impossible due to modern destruction of sections. Entrance to the pueblo was via a long narrow ground level corridor covered by the second level. The corridor opened onto the main plaza. This may have had a defensive purpose.

Check this out to learn more: Exploring a Remarkable Pueblo: Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park

Mesa Verde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park’s cliff dwellings are just one wonder to be found at this national park in Colorado which also includes protected wilderness.

Located in Southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde, Green Table in Spanish, National Park offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and experience a unique cultural and physical landscape. Including more than 4,000 known archeological sites dating back to A.D. 550, this national treasure protects the cliff dwellings and mesa top sites of pit houses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples who lived here for more than 700 years. This national park gives us a glimpse into the places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage.

The cliff dwellings are some of the most notable and best preserved sites in the United States. After living primarily on the mesa top for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo peoples began building structure under the overhanging cliffs of Mesa Verde—anything from one-room storage units to villages of over 150 rooms. Decades of excavation and analysis still leave many unanswered questions, but have shown us that the Ancient Pueblans were skillful survivors and artistic craftsmen.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Mesa Verde:

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chinle, Arizona

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Dine’ families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons. A place like no other, the park and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Canyon de Chelly sustains a living community of Navajo people who are connected to a landscape of great historical and spiritual significance—a landscape composed of places infused with collective memory. NPS works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage park resources and sustain the Navajo community.

Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see the original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Here are some helpful resources:

Aztec Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Aztec Ruins National Monument, Aztec, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Coolidge, Arizona

Casa Grande Ruins, the nation’s first archeological preserve, protects the Casa Grande and other archeological sites within its boundaries.

For over a thousand years, prehistoric farmers inhabited much of the present-day state of Arizona. When the first Europeans arrived, all that remained of this ancient culture were the ruins of villages, irrigation canals, and various artifacts. Among these ruins is the Casa Grande, or Big House, one of the largest and most mysterious prehistoric structures ever built in North America. See the Casa Grande and hear the story of the ancient ones the Akimel O’otham call the Hohokam, those who are gone.

Check this out to learn more: The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites and features volcanic rock carved by Native American and Spanish settlers.

Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples and early Spanish settlers.

Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands, and crosses; others are more complex. Their meaning, possibly, may have been understood only by the carver. These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them.

If you need ideas, check out: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

12. Coronado Historic Site, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Home to the partially reconstructed ruins of the ancient Pueblos of Kuaua, this historic site dates back to 1300 DC. Inhabited by the ancestral Puebloans, Kuaua was the largest Pueblo complex in the region with roughly 1,200 ground-floor rooms and 10 to 20 large kivas. Each kiva (underground ceremonial room) is painted with layers of intricate murals revealing stories of the Pueblo peoples and representing some of the best examples of pre-Columbian art in the U.S.

Today, the village is known as the Coronado Historic Site named for Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who discovered the village in 1540 during his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. The Puebloans were gracious toward their guests at first although their hospitality eventually faded and Coronado and his troops moved on. History buffs can visit these reconstructed kivas to see the well-preserved murals, as well as walk the site’s interpretive trails, complete with views of the Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande.

Hovenweep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character, Hovenweep National Monument was once home to more than 2,500 people in 900 A.D. In 1923, Hovenweep was proclaimed by President Warren G. Harding a unit of the national park system. The name Hovenweep is a Paiute/Ute word meaning deserted valley.

A group of five well-preserved village ruins over a 20-mile radius of mesa tops and canyons, these ancient Pueblo ruins include towers that remind visitors of European castles. Straddling the Utah-Colorado border, the ruins were built about the same time as medieval fortresses.

The largest and most accessible of the six units of ruins is Square Tower where several well-preserved structures are located. The area was home for several prehistoric farming villages. Throughout the ruins, visitors may find castles, towers, check dams (for irrigation), cliff dwellings, pueblos, and houses. Petroglyphs (rock art) can also be found in the area.

Here are some helpful resources:

Tuzigoot Ruins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

The Southern Sinagua built a ridge-top pueblo at Tuzigoot around 1100 AD and continued to add new rooms until the 1400s. This pueblo housed about 50 people. The Sinagua would often use a large pueblo as a dwelling and community center surrounded by additional smaller dwellings and outbuildings connected to agriculture.

While the region has a mostly arid climate, the marsh and river provide a source of fresh water, wild game, fish, and turtles to the Sinagua. Although summers are hot, a very long growing season allowed for the organized cultivation of crops as a supplement to food taken from the marsh and the river.

Despite the comfortable natural setting, the Sinagua left the pueblo at Tuzigoot for unknown reasons around the year 1450. Possibly the valley became overcrowded and the Southern Sinagua moved to different locations or were absorbed by other tribes. When the Sinagua abandoned Tuzigoot, they left behind many artifacts, some of which are on display in the visitor center.

Today, much of the ruin at Tuzigoot has been reconstructed to provide a safe and stable environment for visitors; however, the main tower is mostly original and is open to the public. The pueblo is accessible as part of a short loop trail. An additional trail leads out to a viewing area overlooking the marsh that was so important to the Sinagua.

Read more: An Ancient Village on the Hill: How Life was Lived at Tuzigoot

Tumacacori © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tumacácori, Arizona

Tumacácori sits at a cultural crossroads in the Santa Cruz River valley and is where O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people mixed with Europeans.

From his arrival in the Pimería Alta in 1687 until he died in 1711, Padre Kino established over twenty missions. The Jesuit missionaries administered them until the time of their expulsion in 1767. From 1768 until after Mexico got her independence in 1821 the missions were operated by the Franciscan missionaries. Some are still in use today while others have fallen into ruin.

Tumacácori National Historical Park in the upper Santa Cruz River Valley of southern Arizona is comprised of the abandoned ruins of three of these ancient Spanish colonial missions. San Jos de Tumacácori and Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, established in 1691, are the two oldest missions in Arizona. San Cayetano de Calabazas, was established in 1756.

Check this out to learn more: Tumacácori National Historic Park: More Than Just Adobe, Plaster & Wood

Worth Pondering…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

—Miriam Beard

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who crave adventure.

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles, where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

This is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands is a small, easy, fun park to visit. This national park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Lubbock

14 Outdoor Adventures You Can Only Have in Arizona

Adventurers, take note: Whatever you’re into, you can get into it in Arizona

Sunny skies, year-round perfect weather, and stellar sunsets complemented by rugged backcountry terrain make Arizona an adventurer’s dreamland. From the North Country’s pine-forested rim that drops into the depths of the Grand Canyon to the picturesque Sonoran Desert landscape of central and southern Arizona, all the ingredients for the quintessential American adventure recipe are at your fingertips.

Check my list of some of the can’t-miss experiences, possibly life-changing opportunities, and adventures that give a glimpse into the incredible backcountry world of the amazing state of Arizona.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine

Nothing more perfectly sums up Arizona’s sense of adventure than the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The truth behind the legend is harder to pin down than a Gila monster but the gist is that somewhere hidden in the Superstition Mountains just east of Phoenix is a gold mine once tended by German immigrants Jacob Waltz and Jacob Weiser.

The two men pulled untold amounts of the precious metal from the mountain before a murderous run-in with—depending on who you ask—Apaches or each other left all who knew the mine’s location dead.

To this day, adventurers set out into the Superstitions in search of the mine. Sadly, more than a few have met the same fate as Waltz and Weiser.

If you’re not particularly interested in hunting for gold there are still more than a dozen access points into the surrounding wilderness that can take you on a short day walk or a multi-day expedition. Give the Peralta Trail a shot—this nearly five-mile hike is one of the state’s most popular.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Longboard (or bicycle) down Mount Lemmon

Rising 9,000-plus feet in the north of TucsonMount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and for longboarders one of the truly epic runs in the country. The 20-plus miles of highway are paved smooth and offer great views and a challenging ride.

Don’t take my word for it—check out the plentiful YouTube videos. And watch out for the cactus!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim

You simply can’t have a conversation about Arizona adventures without mentioning the Grand Canyon. The 24-mile Rim-to-Rim hike is an immense challenge that gives those who complete it an intimate understanding of the canyon that’s impossible to attain without dipping below its surface.

Start on the North Kaibab Trail and descend 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River awaits. On the way down, you’ll pass through every ecosystem that exists between Canada and Mexico. Cross the Colorado and connect with the Bright Angel Trail and return to the surface along the South Rim passing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of history preserved in the surrounding rocks.

Most guides suggest planning on two to five days to complete the trail at a regular pace.

4. Ride horses around the legendary landscape of Sedona

If the red-rock cliffs that preside over Sedona don’t make you pause it’s time to book a trip to Mars because Earth has nothing left to offer. In the early evening, the spires reflect a reddish-purple hue that no photo could ever hope to do justice. Whether or not you subscribe to New Age beliefs, it’s easy to understand why people say there’s energy here that’s different than anywhere else on the planet.

There are many ways to explore the desert scenery around the cliffs but none gives you the chance to interact with nature on its own terms quite like riding a horse. Horseback trips typically last between one and three hours with sunrise and sunset options available. Beyond the red rocks, you can catch glimpses of the Verde Valley, the Mogollon Rim, and if you’re lucky some wildlife as well.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Explore the Petrified Forest

While it may not be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, Petrified Forest National Park offers an amazing place to see extinct species. Many of the fossilized logs that dot the floor of the 146-square-mile national park belong to long-extinct trees. Interestingly, the site of the park is not where an actual forest stood but rather an ancient riverbed where fallen plants accumulated.

To get the most out of your Petrified Forest adventure, forget the trails—the National Park Service administers eight off-the-beaten-path routes. Check out Devil’s Playground, an especially old part of the park. Only three permits are handed out for it each week with information on how to access the route supplied only to those granted permission to take on the journey.

6. Off-road to ghost towns

While Arizona is a state known for its epic highways and scenic views, even more, it happens off the state-maintained thoroughfares. For every ghost town worth a visit there’s the main road to take you there and a secret second entrance for those with a hearty sense of adventure and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

Off-roading or wheeling to the initiated is a great way to see Arizona’s wildlands and get a dose of history as well. Many off-road trails pass through old mining towns and other long-abandoned remnants of human habitation. The Bradshaw Mountains Trail takes you past the ghost town of Bumble Bee which was once a stagecoach stop for the U.S. Cavalry.

Traveling by these backroads is probably one of the most vastly under-appreciated ways to explore the state. There’s simply no way to not feel like a pioneer when you cross a mountain path or stream named for some long-deceased prospector. For a good off-roading guidebook, try the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails, or check out the Off-Highway Vehicle Program at AZStateParks.com.

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

7. Explore both well-known and secret ancient cliff dwellings and ruins

Arizona is home to some of the most famous cliff dwellings in the world. Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley is an 800-year-old, five-story structure built by the Sinagua Indians and one of the best-preserved examples of such a site. Three hours northeast on Navajo Land is Canyon de Chelly and its White House Ruins.

While many of Arizona’s ruins require a guide or sit inside well-developed tourist sites there are still plenty that demand a more intrepid spirit. The Sycamore Canyon Cliff Dwellings north of Clarkdale lie at the end of a tough drive and hike but exploring these magnificent ruins away from the masses is a worthy payoff. Just remember that when there’s no park ranger to keep an eye on things, it’s up to you to ensure these locations remain intact and pristine for the following generation of explorers.

8. Stand in a shaft of light in Antelope Canyon

There are other slot canyons but few if any can truly compete with the beauty of Antelope Canyon. Located east of Page on Navajo tribal land, the roughly quarter-mile-long canyon is a tight squeeze through a wonderland of colored sandstone, speckled shafts of light, and a smooth sandy floor. There are two canyon routes here, the Crack and the Corkscrew; both offer jaw-dropping palettes of light and color. Don’t you dare enter without your camera (and the mandated guide)!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. See the biggest cacti in North America at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park boasts some absolutely huge cacti. They dominate the desert landscape and make for some very cool photo ops. Located in the Sonoran Desert, it’s worth dedicating at least a couple of days to this park. Tackle the 1.5-hour King Canyon, Gould Mine Loop hike, walk the Signal Hill trail out to ancient petroglyphs, or go for some backcountry camping if you’re looking for a real adventure. 

10. Tour Hopi country

If you’re fortunate enough to take part in a tour of Hopi land you won’t just see some of the most beautiful terrain in the Southwest—you’ll also be given a lesson in the importance of living in harmony with nature and showing respect for all things, alive and otherwise.

The Hopi inhabit 12 villages spread across three separate mesas in northeastern Arizona. These homes have been occupied continuously for centuries, longer than most—if not all—settlements in the U.S. Your tour will include explanations of Hopi beliefs and culture, panoramic views from the high villages, and of course culinary treats.

Make sure to review the visitor etiquette (which includes refraining from taking photos or recordings of any kind) before you go. This is one Arizona-only adventure you can’t post to Facebook—which makes it all the more special.

Off-road adventure at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Off-road in Sedona

It’s easy to imagine Zeus and the other Greek gods bickering over whether to settle on Mt. Olympus or in Sedona’s sandstone red rocks. During the evening, the massive outcroppings turn a shade of red so intense and worthy of contemplation that they feel like massive antennae signaling to the New Agers who flock from across the planet to admire them.

Like so much of Arizona, Sedona is a place that holds onto its secrets. Many beautiful views are accessible from the road but an entire world opens up when you have an off-road vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. To accommodate, there are several companies offering jeep tours to remote locations among the red rocks. Trips typically last between two and three hours and will take you to sweeping desert views and the ruins of ancient Native American dwellings.

12. Walk in Geronimo’s shadow at Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is a maze of volcanic rock spires in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Boulders balance on top of each other so precariously it can feel as if the laws of physics have been suspended.

Covering nearly 12,000 acres, this is where Native American warrior Geronimo and other Apaches hid and planned attacks against the invading U.S. Army. Today, the national monument is notable for hiking trails and birdwatching—look out for bald eagles and prairie falcons. For an unbeatable view, be sure to check out Massai Point.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Mine the ramshackle history of Jerome

Lots of people recognize Jerome as a great day trip but it’s time to think bigger. Spend a night or two in this mountainside artist community soaking up the culture and general weirdness.

Visit Jerome State Historic Park which preserves a rambling 8,700-square-foot mansion built in 1916. Once the opulent home of mine owner James Douglas, it now serves as an informative museum filled with photographs, artifacts, mining, equipment, minerals, and models of the network of shafts and tunnels dug through the mountains.

Sitting a mile north of Jerome, Gold King Mine and Ghost Town harbors an assortment of ramshackle buildings, a menagerie of friendly animals, and a sprawling array of rusted machinery that forever teeters between ruin and redemption.

Coronado Pass looking east © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Picnic at Montezuma Pass, hike to a cave

Nestled in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains abutting the Mexican border, Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and its lasting impacts on Southwest culture. Located about 20 miles south of Sierra Vista, the memorial is part of Arizona’s Sky Island Mountains filled with spectacular scenery.  

Enter on the park road, which climbs from verdant grasslands into oak woodlands and continues through heavier forest up Montezuma Canyon. Past the visitor center the road is paved for a mile and graded dirt for the upper 2 miles. It twists around tight switchbacks (vehicles over 24 feet are prohibited) and steep grades as the world falls away below.

Montezuma Pass Overlook sits at 6,575 feet flanked by picnic tables and interpretive signs, a perfect spot for an end of summer picnic celebration. Afterward you can make a short scramble (0.8 mile round-trip) to the summit of Coronado Peak, crowned with a shade ramada and additional signs describing the Coronado Expedition.

Adventurous types will want to visit Coronado Cave, one of the few open, undeveloped caves in southern Arizona. You don’t have to worry about squeezing through. The large cavern is 600 feet deep and in most places about 70 feet wide. Legend has it that Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo often hid out in the cave.

FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers

The 25 Most Beautiful Places in the U.S. and Canada

These are 25 of the most beautiful places for RV travel

What is the most beautiful place in America? To compile most beautiful places in the U.S. and Canada is an inherently subjective and impossible task but we’d like to think that this list at least scratches the surface of some of the extraordinary beauty the continent has to offer.

Focusing largely on national parks, mountains, beaches, deserts, and other natural wonders, my list is sure to inspire your next RV road trip. Join me for a journey to some of the most beautiful places that you can visit in an RV from mountains that rival the Alps to red rock wonder with colorful layers to glorious underground caverns.

There are so many amazing places to see, I couldn’t possibly include them all in just one list. But, these breathtaking destinations are definitely worth bumping to the top of your travel bucket list—whether you’re looking to relax on a beach, get off the grid, or explore a charming town—these are the most beautiful locations to consider.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Grand Canyon has to be one of the most photographed sites in the world but there’s no way pictures can do it justice as impressive as they may be. Offering some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, the Grand Canyon truly merits the term breathtaking. The vast geologic wonderland, one mile deep and up to 18 miles across, displays countless layers of colorful rock and practically hypnotic vistas.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Charleston, South Carolina

Historic Antebellum Mansions, Civil War sites, year round festivals, pristine beaches, barrier islands, and mouthwatering Lowcountry cuisine are just a few of the reasons why Charleston is one of America’s favorite destinations. Experience this diverse southern city which blends French, English, West African, and traditional Southern American cultures into the music, art, food, and lifestyle. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Charleston

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park, Utah

Glorious Navajo Sandstone cliffs, rainbow-colored canyons, and incredible biodiversity make Zion one of the most popular national parks in the U.S.

>> Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Sedona, Arizona

Renowned for the radiant red sandstone formations surrounding it, Sedona is set in a serene spot. The towering red cliffs are almost other-worldly in a way and they are definitely worthy of a photo or two. Make sure to check out some of the area’s most popular sightseeing spots while you’re there such as the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Coffee Pot Rock.Located in the center of Arizona, the small city has long been considered a sacred and spiritual place. Many New Age shops, alternative healing and wellness centers can be found around town.

>> Get more tips for visiting Sedona

Lake Winnipesaukee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

Lake Winnipesaukee is the largest lake in New Hampshire. It is approximately 21 miles long (northwest-southeast) and from 1 to 9 miles wide (northeast-southwest) covering 69 square miles—71 square miles when Paugus Bay is included—with a maximum depth of 180 feet. The center area of the lake is called The Broads.

The lake contains at least 264 islands, half of which are less than a quarter-acre in size and is indented by several peninsulas yielding a total shoreline of approximately 288 miles. The driving distance around the lake is 63 miles. It is 504 feet above sea level. Winnipesaukee is the third-largest lake in New England after Lake Champlain and Moosehead Lake.

Experience the beauty of Lake Winnipesaukee during a narrated scenic tour aboard the historic M/S Mount Washington. Learn about the history of the region and local folklore surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in New England.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lake Winnipesaukee

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Stretching 469 miles from the Great Smokies to Shenandoah, the 45 mph, no-trucks route winds past overlook after overlook letting road-trippers marvel at the mountains’ dreamy blue hue. Driving down this highway will allow you to take in the stunning Appalachian Mountains including multiple valleys and peaks such as the Peaks of Otter and Roanoke Mountain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Blue Ridge Parkway

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Banff National Park, Alberta

Canada’s oldest national park showcases the majesty of the Canadian Rockies. The park is known for its staggering peaks, dense pine forests, hot springs, animals (grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and moose all call the park home) and azure glacier-fed lakes such as Moraine Lake set in a bowl amid the Valley of the Ten Peaks.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the U.S. and as such it has a very colorful history including a historic main plaza that will make you feel as if you’re in an entirely different country. The City Different is renowned for its abundance of unique attractions, a wide array of art galleries, extraordinary museums, and magnificent architecture. Not surprisingly, for decades Santa Fe has also been a haven for artists including Georgia O’Keefe. By staying in the downtown area’s historic La Fonda you can walk to the Plaza to discover handmade jewelry and browse beautiful works of art.

>> Get more tips for visiting Santa Fe

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

Monument Valley is a minimalist attraction located along the border of Utah and Arizona. In spite of its simplicity, this red-sand desert may just be one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. A 17-mile Valley Drive leads into the area, and you can spot multiple sandstone buttes that make for amazing pictures. This valley will make you feel like you are part of an Old Western movie, set in the Wild, Wild West. John Ford’s Point is a great way to look over the scenery allowing you to feast your eyes on the Mittens buttes.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

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

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

There are plenty of reasons to visit the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is packed with hiking routes ripe with emerald greenery, waterfalls and bodies of water, and pretty wildflowers ready for photos. Plus, there are many great stops along the way such as Clingmans Dome which contains an observation tower resting on top of the area’s highest peak for breathtaking views. There’s also Cades Cove which is a quiet little valley that feels like a calm, quiet place lost in historical times.

>> Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

The unusual landforms of Writing-on-Stone resulted from the dynamic interaction of geology, climate, and time. In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos. Indigenous peoples created rock art in what is today Southern Alberta. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.

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

12. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. For the most memorable experience take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is an old city that is home to multiple fascinating sites. Its streets are paved with cobblestones and flanked by old buildings like museums and churches that are simply stuffed with history. Downtown, you’ll find one of the biggest National Historic Landmark districts in the U.S. which also connect to the riverfront and the coast. Forsyth Park was built in the 1840s and fitted with a stupendous fountain, romantic benches, and plenty of iconic oaks covered in moss for an even more calming aesthetic.

>> Get more tips for visiting Savannah

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

>> Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Wells Gray Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Wells Gray Park, British Columbia

Wells Gray is not as highly acclaimed as Mount Robson or the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. And having been there, I have no idea why. I mean… this place is awesome!

Wells Gray has something to offer every outdoor interest: lush alpine meadows, excellent birding and wildlife viewing opportunities, hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking. Guiding businesses offer horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, fishing, and hiking. The history enthusiast can learn about the early homesteaders, trappers, and prospectors or about the natural forces that produced Wells Gray’s many volcanoes, waterfalls, mineral springs, and glaciers.

Many people head to Wells Gray for the lakes but there are also over 40 named waterfalls in the park. Many of them are in remote corners of the park but eight of them are easy to reach from Clearwater Valley Road.

>> Get more tips for visiting Wells Gray

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park may sound foreboding but in reality it’s one of the most beautiful places in the US. It is famous for holding an extremely rich and diverse fossil bed that is definitely one of the best that earth has to offer. On top of that, Badlands National Park is packed with incredible rock formations that look stunning at all times of the day with their differently shaded stripes. There are also grasslands if you’re more for wildlife where you can spot all the prairie dogs herding sheep for a calm, serene experience.

>> Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Tombstone, Arizona

You can’t come to the Southwest and not truly experience the Wild West with staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costumes to recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town. With attractions such as OK Corral, Allen Street, Boothill Graveyard, and Courthouse State Historic Park, each shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind and provide the opportunity soak in the town’s history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tombstone

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

An incredibly unique location, White Sands National Park consists of a reaching, widespread expanse of white gypsum crystal sand dunes backdropped by a picturesque blue sky. Though the sight of white sand as far as the eye can see isn’t the most exciting trip for some this tranquil environment is so individual and one-of-a-kind that it is easily one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. Bask in the calm peace, feel the soft, warm sand beneath your toes, and marvel at the vastness of this monument.

>> Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Hoover Dam, Arizona and Nevada

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels to date and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard to miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You are able to drive or walk across the dam for free or take a tour of the dam. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hoover Dam

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Arches National Park, Utah

The Arches National Park looks like a scene out of a movie. Erosion from millions and millions of years has led to the creation of more than 2,000 arches each fashioned naturally from sandstone. It is worth noting that environmental change has caused 43 of these arches to fall to time which means officials warn against getting too close. Still, the sight of these bright, orange structures is well worth the extra caution and you’ll want to plan your trip soon to catch as many of them as possible in full glory.

>> Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called America’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads.

>> Get more tips for visiting Creole Nature Trail

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park on Rio Grande is an absolute wonder of untamed wildlife, spanning over much of the Chihuahuan Desert and all of the Chisos mountains. You can go on a road trip down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, relax in the Langford Hot Springs, view the Sam Nail Ranch’s broken-down husk, and enjoy sights of limestone formations across the Rio Grande. There’s so much to do that you may just need to come back again!

>> Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Black Hills, South Dakota

In the early 1800s, 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. Rampant overhunting decimated their ranks and by 1889 fewer than 1,000 remained. Today, their numbers have climbed to 500,000; Custer State Park manages a healthy herd. Roading the Black Hills you’ll see the iconic buffalo and other legendary sights including the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, sprawling parks and the town made famous for having no law: Deadwood.

>> Get more tips for visiting the Black Hills

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico

In the Chihuahuan Desert lie more than 100 limestone caves and one of them is none other than the Carlsbad Cavern. Spikes hang from the ceiling in droves and clusters and its winding rocky walls are perfect for spelunkers and adventurers. The way you choose to go is up to you. You can go in through the beautiful, conventional entrance or you can begin 750 feet underground. Either way, you’re in for some enticing exploration,

>> Get more tips for visiting Carlsbad Cavern

Worth Pondering…

“Where are we going, man?”

“I don’t know, but we gotta go.”

—Jack Kerouac, in On the Road

16 Under the Radar National Monuments to Visit

For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, these 16 lesser known national monuments may be perfect spots for your next road trip

Since Wyoming’s iconic Devils Tower became the first U.S. National Monument in 1906, America is now populated with well over 100 of these unique cultural and geographic gems. In addition to volcanic landscapes like Malpais and Mount St. Helens and Utah’s oft-photographed Cedar Breaks there are numerous others that you might be less familiar with—and which absolutely merit a visit. From ancient petroglyphs to the geological wonders these are 16 under-the-radar national monuments to visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Breaks, Utah

Like a mini Bryce Canyon, minus the crowds, Cedar Breaks contains a stunning assortment of hoodoos and cliffs in southern Utah. Technically an amphitheater, the monument is three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, filled with craggy rock formations jutting up from the base like natural skyscrapers. Considering the monument’s high elevation, it gets cold and snowy in the winter which lends vivid color contrast from the white powder atop the orange-hued hoodoos and lush green forests surrounding it. It’s a popular destination for snowmobilers as well who can ride along the rim and gaze out over the illustrious expanse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Petroglyph, New Mexico

Located on the western edge of Albuquerque lies one of the most concentrated collections of ancient petroglyphs on the continent. Native American tribes settled here hundreds of years ago and they left their mark in the form of symbols carved into volcanic rock across the desert terrain. With around 24,000 images and symbols, there’s plenty to see here. In addition to the petroglyphs, the monument contains hiking trails throughout its 17-mile park along with dormant volcanoes and canyons.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petroglyph National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona

Some folks might be surprised to learn that Arizona has another national park unit dedicated to the preservation of a rare cactus. Saguaro National Park in Tucson is famed far and wide while Organ Pipe Cactus is more of an under-the-radar gem. Located along the Mexican border at the southern edge of the state, the monument is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. One glimpse at this sprawling, soaring species will clue you in to where the cactus gets its name. An ideal place for desert camping and hiking, the monument also has horseback trails, scenic drives, and biking opportunities.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Natural Bridges, Utah

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges. The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means rock mounds, massive Kachina means dancer while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means place of emergence. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

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

6. Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observator tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

>> Get more tips for visiting Mount St. Helens National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

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

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. South Rim Drive and North Rim Drive, each more than 30 miles long, are excellent driving routes along the canyons. The scenery is spectacular, including the White House Ruin cliff dwellings and the 800-foot sandstone spire known as Spider Rock.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

9. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes, and seemingly endless Slickrock. The monument is a geologic sampler with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Hovenweep, Utah and Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. The towers of Hovenweep were built from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Montezuma Castle, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Tuzigoot, Arizona

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House is preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

A Wonderland of Rocks is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base seemingly ready to topple over at any time. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Built and used over a 200-year period, Aztec Ruins is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called great houses and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a great kiva—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called roads, earthen berms, and platforms

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

The time to prepare for your next expedition is when you have just returned from a successful trip.

—Robert Peary

The Best National Parks to Visit in April

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in April, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in April, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous  National Park Service (NPS) offerings are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But 424 NPS units across the country also include national monuments, seashores, recreation areas, battlefields, and memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in April but don’t know which ones to visit? April brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in April that I cover in this guide plus six bonus parks and a road trip that links several of these parks together.

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the National Park Service website while planning your trip. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in April

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in April, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in April, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

April is a big month for spring break travel. The warmer weather also draws more crowds now that much of the country is warming up.

That warmer weather means that a bunch of parks are now warm enough to visit without facing freezing temperatures and the chance of snow. For the most part, you won’t need a warm coat and gloves to visit the majority of the national parks on this list and in some places, shorts and a t-shirt is what you’ll be packing in your RV.

If you want to visit the national parks with great weather and lower crowds that flood the parks in the summer months, April is a great time to plan your trip.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

People from around the world travel to the Grand Canyon, making it one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. It also makes the list of Seven Natural Wonders of the World and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For millions of years, the Colorado River has been carving out this massive canyon. Grand Canyon National Park is enormous and with four rims to visit, there are many different ways to visit this park.

In April, the North Rim is not yet open (it typically opens in mid-May). The South Rim is the most spectacular area of the park to visit in April with sweeping, iconic views of the Grand Canyon and several epic hiking trails to choose from.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in April: In April, daytime highs finally climb up into the 60s and with a low chance of rain the weather is very pleasant this time of year. Crowds are large in April but not as big as they are in the summer months so if you want good weather and lower crowds, April is a good time to visit the Grand Canyon. This is also one of the best times to go hiking in the Grand Canyon since the days are cool, rainfall is low, and you have over 12 hours of daylight. 

Weather: The average high is 61°F and the average low is 29°F. April is one of the driest months of the year to visit the Grand Canyon.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:50 am and sunset is at 7 pm.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, raft the Colorado River, and take a flightseeing tour or a ranger-guided tour.

Ultimate adventure: Hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon. You can either hike a portion of the South Kaibab or Bright Angel trails out-and-back or combine them into one big loop. Called the rim to river to rim hike, only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How many days do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Four days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

Badlands National Park is a highly underrated park in the United States.

The colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country (it’s the feature photo for this article). Bison and bighorn sheep roam the largest mixed-grass prairie in the United States. The sunrises and sunsets are magical, the hiking trails are short and sweet, and for those looking for more solitude, you can take your pick from a handful of backcountry experiences.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Badlands in April: In April, the weather is getting warmer and this is the last quiet month in the park before visitation really picks up. In 2022, 35,000 people visited Badlands in April and this number jumped to 100,000 in May and increased throughout the summer months. So, in April, you can take advantage of good weather and low crowds. 

Weather: The average high is 62°F and the average low is 35°F. April is the start of the rainy season. March is drier but with low temperatures and the chance of snow, I think April is a better time to visit. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Badlands Loop Road and visit the overlooks, watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, hike the Notch Trail, hike the Door and Fossil Exhibit Trails, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, hike the Castle Trail, and count how many bison you can find.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate experience, venture into the backcountry. In Badlands National Park, you are permitted to hike off-trail and the Sage Creek Wilderness and Deer Haven Wilderness are great places to go hiking and spot wildlife.

How many days do you need? One day in Badlands National Park gives you just enough time to visit the highlights and hike a few short trails. Make sure you catch either sunrise or sunset in the park because these are one of the best times of day to look out across the landscape. To explore beyond the basics plan a second day.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Big Bend National Park is located in southwestern Texas. It bumps up against Mexico and the Rio Grande forms the border between Mexico and Big Bend National Park. Big Bend gets its name from the prominent bend in the Rio Grande on this border.

This national park protects the largest area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US as well as the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is a top hiking destination in with trails leading high into these mountains and into canyons along the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Big Bend in April: In April, crowds are diminishing (March tends to be the busiest month of the year to visit Big Bend) and the weather is warm and sunny. However, if you are here during a heat wave temperatures can get up into the 90s, even reaching 100 degrees, so early April is the better time of the month to visit in order to avoid these hotter temperatures. By May, this park really begins to heat up.

Weather: The average high is 82°F and the average low is 54°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend, go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is both the largest and the least visited national park in Utah. I also think that it is one of the most underrated national parks.

This enormous national park preserves the canyons, buttes, and mesas that have been carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Enjoy the overlooks at Island in the Sky, go hiking in The Needles, drive the White Rim Road, and photograph Mesa Arch at sunrise. The list of things to do here is long and wonderful whether you prefer to visit the overlooks, hike a trail or two, or venture into the backcountry.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Canyonlands in April: The weather is great for hiking and exploring and the crowd levels are increasing but not yet near their peak for the year.

Weather: The average high is 62°F and the average low is 40°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needle, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is small and easy to visit. This park is named for the petrified wood that dates back millions of years to a time when this land was lush and fertile.

But there is more to this park than looking at chunks of crystallized wood. The Painted Desert and the Blue Forest with their colorful, zebra-striped hills are a beautiful sight to see and they are very similar to Badlands National Park, mentioned earlier. There are also a few great trails to hike which are perfect for all ages and ability levels.

Petrified Forest is another park that can go on the underrated national parks list.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Petrified Forest in April: With highs near 70°F, this is one of the best months to visit Petrified Forest with regards to weather. It also makes a great addition to an Arizona or American Southwest road trip if you also plan to visit places like Monument Valley, Sedona, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:45 am and sunset is at 6:50 pm.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: View the Painted Desert from the overlooks, see the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock, see the Teepees on Petrified Forest Road, hike the Blue Mesa Trail, and see the petrified wood at Crystal Forest and along the Giant Logs Trail.

Ultimate adventure: The Blue Forest hike is a favorite experience in Petrified Forest National Park. This 3-mile trail takes you through the badlands, one of the most beautiful parts of the park.

How much time do you need? One day is plenty of time to drive through the park, visit the overlooks, and hike a few short trails but I recommend a second day to explore hikes you missed on the first day.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

With beautiful scenic drives, thrilling hikes, historical sites, backcountry roads, slot canyons, and unique desert landscapes, Capitol Reef National Park is an unexpectedly amazing national park to visit.

If you love the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring a vast, remote area, you have several options. Cathedral Valley with its sandstone monoliths and sweeping desert vistas is a beautiful, unique way to spend one day in Capitol Reef. Or you can Loop the Fold, another remote driving day along the waterpocket fold.

There are also slot canyons to explore, low-traffic hiking trails in remote areas of the park, and some of the most dramatic landscapes in Utah which you can see right from your car.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Capitol Reef in April: Because the weather is pretty close to perfect. In April, Capitol Reef gets an uptick in visitation but it’s not as busy as it will be in May and June.

Weather: The average high is 65°F and the average low is 39°F. Rainfall is very low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:50 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Pinnacles in April: April is the best month to visit Pinnacles to see the wildflowers in bloom. Plus, the weather is fabulous.

Weather: In April, the average high is 72°F and the average low is 39°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:30 am and sunset is at 7:40 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is small and easy to visit. With several days, you can hike through a garden of hoodoos, take in the view from multiple viewpoints, and thoroughly explore the park.

What’s a hoodoo? Hoodoo can also be defined as a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin. Geologically, hoodoos are found all around the world but they occur in the most abundance in Bryce Canyon. Here, hoodoos are the main ingredient of this unique landscape. The thousands of hoodoos in Bryce are what attract so many visitors every year.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Bryce Canyon in April: April is the end of the shoulder season in Bryce Canyon when the weather is cool and park visitation is still relatively low for the year. Go now, because in May, this park really begins to get busy. 

Weather: In April, the average temperature is 54°F and the average low is 29°F. There is a small chance of snow in April. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:50 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim and easily accessible by car or the seasonal shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

2 more National Parks to visit in April

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is a great place to visit in April. The weather is perfect but higher crowd levels kept if off of the list above. However, if you are planning a visit to Canyonlands or the other national parks in Utah, its worth including Arches on your list just get an early start and expect busy parking lots and hiking trails.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

In April, the weather is just about perfect…daily highs of 75°F and one of the driest months of the year. However, those mosquitoes are starting to arrive and by the end of the month, the mosquito meter at Congaree with be ticking up to the mild to moderate levels.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in April

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means rock mounds, massive Kachina means dancer while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means place of emergence. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah. Outdoor activities are what Glen Canyon is all about. There is something for everyone’s taste. 

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

April road trip idea

With 10 days, go on a road trip through four of the national parks in Utah—Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Park. This itinerary is perfect if you are looking for adventure, solitude, and unforgettable experiences. You also have enough time to journey into the backcountry where the real adventures await.

On this itinerary, you can also visit several state parks and national monuments in Utah which are just as great as the national parks. On this list are Natural Bridges National Monument and Dead Horse Point State Park.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More Information about the National Parks

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 25 Places You Must Visit

Arizona is an outdoor-lover’s dream with deep canyons, dramatic landscape, and a host of adventures where the land formations are the star of the show

Arizona is well-known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery. These beautiful, must-experience places are bucket-list worthy; some are well-known while others are hidden gems you might not have known about. From national landmarks to historical towns and breathtaking outdoor landscapes, here are 25 places to visit on your next Arizona road trip.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

The most obvious landmark and Arizona road trip (and the most breathtaking of them all) is the Grand Canyon. If you have never experienced the sight of this outstanding view you absolutely must add this to your bucket list. You can check into El Tovar Hotel which is a historic property that opened its doors in 1905 and has entertained celebrities and presidents for over 100 years. Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s edge, El Tovar has breathtaking views from every window and the resort’s dining room is as close to the canyon as you can get with cuisine that’s almost as memorable as the views as well as several hiking trails that will leave you speechless. Plus many photo opportunities!

>> Get more tips for visiting the Grand Canyon

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

What seems to be one of Arizona’s best-kept secrets is the interesting town of Bisbee. The former mining town is a small, unique community that sits high in the mountains near the Mexican border and in the far southeast corner of Arizona. With plenty of things to do, activities, events and festivals, shops, galleries, and nightlife plus birdwatching, gallery-gazing, dining, or pub-crawling, Bisbee will offer you a plethora of choices to keep you entertained.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Home to Lake Powell, The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water with a desert landscape and dramatic stone walls. One of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for land- and water-based recreational activities.

This gorgeous lake is located in northern Arizona, stretches up into southern Utah, and is part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. You can enjoy a summer’s day with perfect weather, cool water, amazing scenery, and endless sunshine. This is the perfect place to escape to and rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy the lodging and hop aboard a guided expedition.

>> Get more tips for visiting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Due to its distinctive culture, Sedona is truly a place unlike any other. Visitors can navigate remote canyons, rejuvenate at an energy vortex site, and experience the ancient culture of the Sinagua people. Throughout the red rock are multitudes of secluded viewpoints, cliff dwellings, and well-preserved petroglyphs. In downtown Sedona, you’ll find a vibrant art community dense with unique shops and galleries. Hikers and adventurous types will enjoy the various trails and renowned Pink Jeep off-road adventure tours.

>> Get more tips for visiting Sedona

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest. More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Catalina State Park

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Globe

In the foothills of the Pinal Mountains sits the former mining camp known as Globe. Founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1907 this lovely town is brimming with century-old buildings, cottages, and hillside houses. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park features stunning partially restored ruins of a Salado pueblo along with an accompanying museum. The historic downtown area is perfect for strolls and shopping for antiques while the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts is a great spot to explore and experience the talent of some incredible artists.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail

As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) winds through the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that meanders past three lakes and carves through canyons and over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam. 

Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed. 

>> Get more tips for driving Apache Trail

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels which preserve a bygone era. The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway an excursion between a historic depot and the canyon.

>> Get more tips for visiting Williams

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than “the Dutchman” Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name. You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lost Dutchman State Park

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War. These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

>> Get more tips for visiting Picacho Peak State Park

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels to date and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard-to-miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You can drive or walk across the dam for free or take a tour of the dam. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

With its impressive location tucked in the limestone cliffs in the desert of Camp Verde, Montezuma Castle is sort of like an ancient skyscraper. Towing some 80 feet above the valley floor, the 20-room residence was built by the Sinagua people beginning in around AD 1100 and served as an important shelter to escape floods. It was among the first four sites given the designation of National Monument back in 1906 with the site also including further dwellings around Montezuma Well, six miles from the castle.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

>> Get more tips for visiting Alamo Lake State Park

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

An old mining town-turned ghost town-turned tourist attraction, Jerome sits on a mountainside just above the desert floor. Jerome is unique and quirky, to say the least with the Sliding Jail in Jerome that was originally built around 1928 and was built on a clay slick; it soon began to slide and now sits 2,500 feet from its original location. While you’re there, you can visit the town’s most appreciated historical landmarks including the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. For the most memorable experience take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas. Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes, programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

>> Get more tips for visiting Red Rock State Park

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Surrounded by mountains, Tucson is a beautiful city set in the Sonoran Desert and is the second-largest city in Arizona. With many historic sites and cultural attractions, Tucson is a place to unwind and explore. Highlights include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, El Presidio Historic District, and Sabino Canyon. You will also discover hiking trails and afterward find a bite to eat at one of the many wonderful restaurants Tucson has to offer.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tucson

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

Along a 17-mile self-drive route along a one-way gravel road, you will find the heart of the valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. While visiting this area which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, you’ll experience the true Arizona desert feel with miles and miles of beautiful landscape and scenery of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, creating all the wonderful and majestic colors of the Valley.

>> Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

With its small-city feel and defined seasons, Prescott has tall Ponderosa pine trees, lakes, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. This charming town has much to offer including the Courthouse Plaza, Sharlot Hall Museum, Smoki Museum, Elks Theatre Opera House, Watson Lake, and numerous hiking areas including Thumb Butte Trail. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown restaurants or spend a night at one of the beautifully restored bed and breakfasts or hotels.

>> Get more tips for visiting Prescott

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

>> Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oatman

Once a gold-mining boomtown, Oatman hunkers in a craggy gulch of the Black Mountains, 28 miles southwest of Kingman along Route 66. Rising above the town is the jagged peak of white quartz known as Elephant’s Tooth. Often described as a ghost town, Oatman comes close to fitting the category considering that it once boasted nearly 20,000 people and now supports just a little over 100 people year-round.

Though Oatman is only a shadow of its former self, it is well worth a visit to this living ghost town that provides not only a handful of historic buildings and photo opportunities but costumed gunfighters and 1890s-style ladies as well as the sights of burros walking the streets.

>> Get more tips for visiting Oatman

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.

The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Forest

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

You can’t come to the Wild West and not truly experience the Wild West with staged gunfights in the streets and characters walking through town in period costumes to recreate the glory days of this small Arizona town that is great as an Arizona road trip. With top-rated attractions such as OK Corral, Allen Street, Boothill Graveyard/Gift Shop, and Courthouse State Historic Park, each shop, restaurant, and attraction is designed with tourists in mind and gives you the chance to see and soak in the town’s history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tombstone

Ajo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Step back in time at the Historic Plaza and railway Depot. Gaze at Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the downtown Historic District.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus trip: Verde Valley Railway

Park the RV and board the train as you embark on a spectacular journey accessible only by rail. Powering the train are two EMD FP7 diesel locomotives built in 1953 for the Alaska Railroad. They were painted in 2019 with an apropos American bald eagle motif. Alert passengers may spot the U.S. national bird soaring in the canyon. From December to March, visitors have a greater chance of seeing these special raptors since migrating and resident bald eagles share the canyon during nesting season.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Magnificent Off-the-Beaten Path National Parks and Monuments

We all have Yosemite and Yellowstone on our lists, but the best national parks aren’t necessarily the best-known!

Look deep into nature. And then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

One of the best ways to be at one with nature is in a national park.

The National Park System encompasses 423 national park service sites. While most of us are familiar with marquee parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains, many other national sites are awe-inspiring as well. The best part is these spectacular places aren’t as well-known or crowded, providing visitors a much-more private, intimate look at these national treasures.

I’ve gathered some of the off-the-beaten-path favorites—places that also make for an ideal road trip in your RV.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

This national park marvel is tucked beneath the rugged but scenic Chihuahuan Desert in the Guadalupe Mountains of remote southeastern New Mexico. One of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world, the park features more than 100 caverns containing some of the most unique, fanciful, and subterranean fascinating formations in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The primary showstopper here is Carlsbad Cavern, the park’s main cave boasting a 25-story high ceiling, an immense floor as large as six football fields… and lots of bats. 300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats hang from the ceiling during the day but put on a spectacular evening show as they leave the cavern in search of food.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A dominant feature of this Northern California park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Home to pristine mountain lakes, bubbling streams, steaming fumaroles, and wildflower-covered meadows, Lassen is a fascinating piece of heaven on Earth. My biggest surprise when visiting in October was to discover snow-covered mountaintops, eight-foot snowdrifts, and a lake partially frozen over.

Related: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen also boasts breathtaking mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite and fascinating thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone, all without the crowds of these popular national parks. The bottom line, is it’s a must-do hidden gem.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but waits until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step-down means a step back up on the return.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

Related: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

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

There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

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

Related: Escape Crowded National Parks at these 4 Alternate Destinations

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges. Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges which are located in two adjacent canyons.

The park is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Related: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson

11 National Park Service Sites I Love

National parks get a lot of attention but there’s so much more to the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” creating the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for maintaining national parks and monuments that were then managed by the department. The National Park System has since expanded to 423 units (often referred to as parks) including 63 national parks, more than 150 related areas, and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

There’s never a bad time to visit America’s amazing national parks, but the decision of which ones to visit can feel overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve handpicked 11 of my favorite parks that are must-visits. Start planning your next outdoor adventure today!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

I wonder if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me. If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were great successes. Two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.

Was that the plan of the creators of the memorial—“if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That was one of their good calls. However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon or Badlands). The plan was to build a parkway—but the route wasn’t pre-determined. Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony. Or a musical, or a story! Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America. It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.

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

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.” This one is not. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted so read the signs and follow the rules.

Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed 29 times in all leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises through it, forming it into domes and ridges with valleys in between.

Colonial National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Related Article: America the Beautiful: The National Parks

Fan of battlefields or not, Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you’re in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

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

Make sure you pack plenty of water and layers. Though temps can get dangerously hot in the daytime, desert temps drop dramatically when the sun goes down, even in the summer. And you’ll definitely want to stick around for the night sky here—the desert climate lends itself to clear evenings. In the winter months, rangers offer stargazing activities with telescopes.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Within striking distance of the famous Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to stunning, gravity-defying rock formations including Sipapu Bridge, a 31-foot-wide bridge spanning 268 feet. The park was the first-ever Dark Sky Park to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the famed stargazing, the area is rich in opportunities to learn more about ancient and modern-day Native American culture. Make sure to take time to hike to the park’s well-preserved petroglyphs. Always be respectful by sticking to the trails and leaving any artifacts you may stumble upon exactly where you found them.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Everyone needs to add Joshua Tree National Park to their travel list. Located in Southern California, this national park has unique landscapes—large boulders, Mojave and Colorado deserts, and Joshua trees and yucca trees. The desert is beautiful with the various cacti and wildflowers scattered through the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for several days. Stop by one of the park’s Visitor Centers to hear recommendations on things to do. Some of the popular activities include camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stargazing. The pitch-black skies are beautiful in the evenings. Visit the Sky’s The Limit Observatory which is next to the park and observe the stars.

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Hiking is the major highlight as there are over two dozen trails from easy to challenging routes. It’s best to hike early in the morning and avoid the summer’s brutal heat. Favorite hiking trails include 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles) and the Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Both of these trails lead to an oasis of palm trees in the desert. You’ll have an awesome time visiting Joshua Tree National Park.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona

Hidden among the curves and canyons of the southwest is an artificial oasis. The man-made Lake Powell offers opportunities to swim, fish, kayak, and boat straight through the desert. Glen Canyon is known for Horseshoe Bend, that perfect blue curve of the Colorado River through Navajo Sandstone canyon walls. The canyon rim is usually crowded with tourists aiming for the perfect Instagram shot but it is indeed worth seeing in person, especially at sunset.

For a road less traveled, drive the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder, which will take you through unspoiled vistas of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Check the weather before you hit the trail—flash floods can make the roads impassable and dangerous.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket-list destination.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

Related Article: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places but White Sands National Park, a massive field of pale dunes in southern New Mexico is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome