Incredible Geological Formations in National Parks where you can avoid the Crowds

Enjoying the splendor of some of America’s most breathtaking national parks can be tough when you’re dealing with crowds of tourists

Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Joshua Tree, or Utah’s Bryce Canyon are some of the best known, they also can be overrun with visitors. Here are four remarkable, underrated geological formations that are worth checking out.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Before you go, check the park’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention—and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here—around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass—the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents—including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the wind erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky—the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. In comparison, Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively. Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In a state filled with rock formations, canyons, and awe-inspiring natural features, Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known but uniquely historical canyon located in the northeastern corner of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon is the grandest of all canyons and Mesa Verde is known for its iconic ruins within epic canyons, Canyon de Chelly has a very similar history with equally as beautiful landscapes and fewer tourists. Although Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, it is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Because this monument is still inhabited by Native Americans today, the regulations within the monument are a lot stricter, making access to the park more exclusive but not difficult with some advanced planning.

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

The easiest way to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument in its entirety is from the ten overlooks along its rim. The canyon is surrounded by Canyon de Chelly Highway, a 130-mile, partially paved loop that is completely bikeable but not recommended for most vehicles on the unpaved stretches. You can drive between these overlooks along the North and South rim drives.

At the time of writing all Navajo Nation Tribal Parks were closed until further notice. 

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

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: People Still Live Here & I Can See Why

Stunning scenery blends with Navajo culture

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

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.

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

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

Chinle in the Navajo Nation © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

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

The sheer walls, shaped and smoothed by thousands of years of rain and wind, provide a dramatic backdrop for those who still live and farm within the canyon.

Navajo guides at 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.

Hiking White House Trail at Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, and many areas, including the backcountry, are accessible only with a permit and an official Navajo guide. Start your visit to Canyon de Chelly at the visitor center to learn more about the history and rules at this unique place. To enhance your visit, a motoring guide and a trail guide are available at the bookstore in the visitor center.

Begin your visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument at the Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads—the North and South Rim drives. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800-foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls and a site of special significance for the Navajo.

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

From the visitor center to the last overlook is about 16 miles one-way. There are seven overlooks from which to view Canyon de Chelly. Watch for changes in vegetation and geology as the elevation rises from 5,500 feet at the visitor center to 7,000 feet at Spider Rock. Allow two to three hours for this drive—and considerably longer, if you’re a photographer.

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

The third overlook, Junction, affords the first look at the canyon’s depth, and the signs warn that it’s a sheer drop of 600 feet to the bottom. Junction has views of Chinle Valley and the confluence of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly.

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

The scenery elevates to spectacular at the Sliding Rock Overlook, about 700 feet above the canyon floor and site of ruins that once slipped off the canyon walls. Face Rock Overlook is even higher and sort of a prelude to the most magnificent of all—Spider Rock Overlook. From here you can see the volcanic core of Black Rock Butte and the Chuska Mountains on the horizon.

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

According to legend, Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to weave and now lives on top of the spire that is covered with white limestone. The legend says the white stuff is the bones of bad children who were carried off by Spider Woman.

Sharing the White House Trail with Navajo sheep herders at Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also worthwhile, but not quite as scenic, the North Rim Drive has only three overlooks from which to view Canyon del Muerto. Some of the most beautiful cliff dwellings are along this 34-mile route from start to finish. Allow a minimum of two hours for this drive.

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

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.

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

For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”. The trail begins at the White House Overlook and is a two- or three-mile round trip, depending on which signs you believe. Allow two to three hours to complete the trail. The drop from the rim to the canyon floor is 600 feet. Since the trail is considered moderately strenuous, hiking boots are recommended. Ensure you take plenty of drinking water, especially if you’re hiking in the summer’s heat.

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Native American Proverb

Alternatives to the Most Crowded National Parks

Many of America’s national parks are overflowing with visitors. To get away from the crowds, seek an alternate route.

Summer is one of the best times for RV travel, which is why many of our best places are horribly overcrowded during the warmer months.

Fear not, we’ve scoured America to find alternatives that are as spectacular as their more popular cousins.

Skip: Grand Canyon National Park

Go Here Instead: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

Drive four hours east of the Grand Canyon (and its 6,254,238 annual visitors) and explore the considerably quieter (just 825,660 visitors) Canyon de Chelly National Monument. As a bonus, park access is free, and so are the ranger-led tours that introduce you to the canyon’s remarkable history and the indigenous tribes that have called it home for centuries.

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

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.

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

You cannot hike into the canyon (except for the White House Trail) without a park ranger or a licensed Navajo guide, but even if you come without a plan, the North and South Rim drives offer ample turnouts at viewpoints that are arguably more dramatic than what you can see of the Grand. Spider Rock, an 800-foot spire on the South Rim road, is one of the most popular in the park, but there’s still ample of parking.

Skip: Yosemite National Park

Go Here Instead: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps John Muir summed up Yosemite best when he said, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” While it is undeniably awe inspiring, Muir’s opinion may have changed had he visited the area 150 years later and shared the temple with 4,336,890 other visitors.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to avoid getting hit by a SUV hammering through the Valley floor, head about 110 miles south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Take the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon for both a deep-woods feel and wide-open vistas.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking to amble? Check out the mind-bogglingly large trees in the Sequoia Groves. For a moderate day hike, head out 4.2 miles to Monarch Lakes at the base of 12,343-foot Sawtooth Peak.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will feel tiny, as you gaze upward at the largest trees in the world. You’ll want to see General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, standing 275 feet tall with a base more than 36 feet in diameter. You can also round out your visit with caves, hiking, and in the right season, even snowshoeing.

Skip: Zion National Park

Go Here Instead: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

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

You only have to travel 45 miles east to dodge Zion’s crowds. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is by no means deserted, but the numbers of visitors are measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and entrance is totally free and without long lines to enter the park.

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante is huge and wild, so stop at one of the visitor centers on the monument’s two main paved highways to get oriented. You’ll find them in the towns of Kanab and Big Water (Highway 89) and in Escalante and Cannonville (Highway 12). Just driving these highways is astoundingly scenic.

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

You can wander in and wonder at the last place in continental United States to be mapped. Check out Devil’s Staircase and its myriad hoodoos and rock formations that’ll make you feel like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book.

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

Hikers and backpackers will want to check out some of the monument’s gorgeous slot canyons. Several spectacular ones are accessible from Hole in the Rock Road. Bring paper maps—your phone won’t help you here and your GSP may lead you astray.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

Head into the vast landscape of northeastern Arizona and it’s as if you’ve entered another world

Highways roll endlessly along plains with not a soul in sight. The land rises imperceptibly cliffs reveal themselves in the distance.

Further exploration uncovers a canyon where ancient people once made their homes—and where some live still. The road leads on to a magical place where rocky monoliths burst from the desert floor.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Must-see paid attraction: Monument Valley, “discovered” by Hollywood in the 1940s, can be seen in 3D, 360-degree glory for less than the price of a movie ticket. Admission to the tribal park is $20 a carload, and worth a trip at 10 times the price.

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Must-see free attraction: Drive along the north and south rim of Canyon de Chelly National Monument to see some of the state’s most unusual formations. Spider Rock is among the most popular stops, the narrow spire seeming to defy gravity.

The Mittens, Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Best place to take a selfie: Walk up the boulders bordering the visitor center parking lot at Monument Valley. Once you’ve framed the Mittens—the park’s two most famous formations—snap away.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Best unguided hike: The Wildcat is the only trail in Monument Valley that visitors can experience without a Navajo guide. It brushes so close to the Mittens formations that you can almost feel them holding you. Starting from the campground, the easy, 3-mile trail drops to the valley floor, where blocky towers vault from sand and sagebrush.

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

Burn some calories: Hike down the White House Trail in Canyon de Chelly. You’ll descend about 600 feet from the overlook, constantly enticed by the view of the White House Ruins, an ancient village built at the foot of a sheer cliff. The round trip takes about two hours. Carry plenty of water and ample time to walk back up.

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Best shopping: The Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado dates to 1878 and is the oldest continuously operating post on the Navajo Reservation. Browse the traditional and contemporary textiles, jewelry and other works in the delightfully creaky building.

Most scenic drive: Not long after northbound U.S. 89A crosses Marble Canyon, a vast wall of stone appears to the east. The Vermilion Cliffs stretch for miles, and it’s easy to imagine they were erected by extraterrestrials to protect whatever is beyond the impenetrable barrier.

There is a much simpler geological explanation, but still …

Navajo Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Best bathroom break: Whether you have to go or not, stop at the Navajo Bridge rest area on U.S. 89A in Marble Canyon and stroll across one of just seven Colorado River crossings along 750 miles.

The original bridge, now a pedestrian walkway, opened in 1929. Next to it is the new span, opened in 1995 and built to handle larger, heavier vehicles.

Watch your step — it’s a 467-foot drop to the river. 

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Place to camp: Cottonwood Campground at Canyon de Chelly. 93 sites are available on a first-come first-served basis. Some big rig sites available. A dump station on site. Operated by Navajo Nation Parks.

Sunset at Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Best place to see the sunset: When the sun dips low, the formations in Monument Valley glow with an ethereal light. But sunrise and sunset are magical times across northeastern Arizona thanks to a vast sky over an endless range. No matter where you are, pause, enjoy, and reflect.

You need to know: Towns are few and far between, and cell service is spotty at best. Bring emergency supplies, including water, flashlight, a functional spare tire. and various tools. Odds are all will go well, but it’s best to be prepared.

Near the Navajo Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: A Truly Special Place

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons

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.

Spanning more than 83,000 acres, Canyon de Chelly National Monument offers an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in the wild Arizona landscape, and to learn more about the history of the Navajo people.

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

This unique park is located entirely on Navajo Nation land and offers a rich history with countless options for outdoor recreation.

Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon. Though only a fraction of the Grand Canyon’s size and majesty, Canyon de Chelly offers more than a rugged landscape. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years, and today Navajo people still call it home.

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

Canyon de Chelly’s blend of landscape and cultural heritage allows a glimpse at an area originally inhabited 4,000 years ago and which still sustains people today.

From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

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

The sheer walls, shaped and smoothed by thousands of years of rain and wind, provide a dramatic backdrop for those who still live and farm within the canyon.

Chiseled by millions of years of stream-cutting and land uplifts, the colorful sheer cliffs of Canyon de Chelly National Monument may look harsh and barren, although in fact, natural water sources and rich soil make them anything but. These canyons have supported human inhabitants for thousands of years, from the Ancient Puebloans who planted crops and raised families here 5,000 years ago to their descendants—the Hopi people—who cultivated peach orchards and cornfields among the cliffs.

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

The Navajo—also known as the Dine’—settled in the region much later, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument continues to be a protected land for Navajo people and their culture. The park was established in 1931, largely to preserve its rich archaeological sites, and to this day, the homes and farms of the Navajo are visible from the cliff tops.

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

Visitor Center: Start your visit to Canyon de Chelly at the visitor center to learn more about the history and rules at this unique place. To enhance your visit a free park map, activity schedule,  and trail guide are available.  The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

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

Scenic drives: 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.

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

Hiking: A self-guided hiking trail is located at the White House Overlook on the South Rim. The round-trip hike usually takes about two to three hours, leading down to the White House Ruin and back.

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

Ranger-led programs: A wide range of free ranger-led programs are available between Memorial Day and Labor Day, including talks and guided hikes into the canyons. Because of the sensitive nature of the canyons’ geology and historic artifacts, the only way to enter is with a ranger or an authorized guide from one of the private companies that offer canyon tours.

Camping: Primitive campsites are available at the Cottonwood Campground on a first-come, first-served basis. Showers and hookups are not available, and a camping fee is required.

Getting There

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

There is no entrance fee to visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and the main entrance is just east of Chinle, Arizona. Starting on Highway 191, take Route 7 about 3 miles east to the park entrance and visitor center. Gas, groceries, supplies, and a post office are available in Chinle, and there is also a camp store located at the visitor center.

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

Nearby Parks

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is nestled in a corner of northeastern Arizona where several national parks are within a few hours’ drive of each other, including: 

  • Petrified Forest National Park
  • Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Grand Canyon National Park
Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

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

—Native American Proverb

Arizona Bucket List: Top 10 National Parks

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State, and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. In fact, with petrified forests, volcanic cinder cones, saguaro-studded deserts, and Anasazi cliff dwellings, no state in the country can boast as many National Park Service sites as Arizona.

The unwaveringly sunny weather makes an outdoor lifestyle possible year-round. From alpine forests to saguaro-framed sunsets, the landscape is inescapable in Arizona—and the Grand Canyon is just the beginning.

Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and not yet acclaimed.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Grand Canyon National Park

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Most visitors to Petrified Forest National Park come to see the ancient tree trunks—and they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaro National Park

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

A symbol of the West the majestic saguaro can live 250 years and reach heights of 50 to 60 feet, growing so slowly that a 10-year-old plant might be a mere two inches in height. Saguaro National Park is divided into two units, one on either side of Tucson.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

First settled by the Ancestral Puebloans around 2,500 B.C., this labyrinth of three narrow canyons known collectively as Canyon de Chelly has sheltered indigenous peoples for nearly 5,000 years. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor and, in Navajo legend, is the home of Spider Woman

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ Pipe National Monument

Why: The only organ pipe cacti in the US are found here

Crazy symphonies of prickly arms—nowhere else in the United States can you find these unique living sculptures, Unlike their more well-known Saguaro cousins, Organ Pipe cacti branch out from ground-level.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. Time your visit to experience both sunset and sunrise here and you’ll take some of the most vivid photos of your life.

Chiricahua National Monument

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument’s two unofficial names, the Wonderland of Rocks and the Land of Standing Up Rocks, tell you all you need to know about why it’s become one of southern Arizona’s most popular hiking destinations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Considered one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, Montezuma Castle is carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Why: Well preserved ruins of a four-story, 14th century adobe building

This small national monument contains a well-preserved four-storey building dating from the Hohokam period of the fourteenth century. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona in between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

Why: Scenic, mountainous area bordering Mexico

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Why: Spectacular reservoir bordered by red rock cliffs and sandy beaches

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the US and without doubt the most scenic, stretching 186 miles across the red rock desert from Page, Arizona to Hite, Utah. The lake is surrounded by red rock wilderness, crossed by numerous narrow canyons, and it offers endless possibilities for exploration, both on land and on water.

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

10 National Parks to Visit Now That the Government Shutdown Is Over

Come along and visit these 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love

Good news! The government shutdown is over! Not only will you be getting your tax refunds, but you can also visit— trash free—America’s most treasured scenic and historically important federally-administered land. Of course, we’re talking about the National Parks Service sites.

But instead of talking up Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, two of which you’re already familiar, below are 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love.

Petrified Forest National Park

Most visitors come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors—the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst, the red-brown of jasper. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts and striated canyons.

Pinnacles National Park

California has so many well-known national parks that smaller parks tend to be overlooked. But Pinnacles should be on your must-visit list. Its unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago.

Congaree National Park

Congaree offers the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. This South Carolina park includes the area where Congaree and Wateree Rivers converge. Canoeing, hiking, and fishing are all popular pastimes and may be enjoyed in peace thanks to the sparse number of fellow travelers.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ.

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.

Capitol Reef National Park

Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. The park’s main driving tours include the paved Scenic Drive and two long, mainly unpaved, loop tours through the park’s Cathedral and Waterpocket Districts.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

A Nor-Cal beaut, Lassen is home to numerous active volcanoes which include fun, fumaroles (openings in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge). RV here, if you really want to “blow up” on social media.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon.

Arches National Park

Another reason to hit up southern Utah? Arches. And not like the St. Louis “Gateway Arch.” We’re talking an area that includes over 2,000 natural arches formed over 100 million years by a combo of water, ice, and extreme temperatures.

Big Bend National Park

Few national parks can match the scenic variety of Big Bend. A land graced with desert, mountain, and river environments makes for a compelling study in contrasts. The Chihuahuan Desert, with its vastness and stark beauty, is joined by the abrupt canyons of the Rio Grande and the forested peaks of the Chisos Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Located in the Badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named for the 26th President. This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife including bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, wild horses, and bighorn sheep. Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?