The Ultimate Guide to Canyonlands National Park

The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s huge! The four districts are approximately the area of 172,121 football fields! Ringing in at over 520 square miles, Canyonlands is the largest of Utah’s five national parks and doubtless one of the most stunning. Known for its sweeping vistas of colorful desert landscapes carved by rivers into countless canyons, Canyonlands National Park draws thousands of visitors each year both with its views and its endless outdoor recreational opportunities.

With seemingly unlimited wild landscapes to explore it can be tough to know where to start an adventure. The Green and Colorado Rivers help to do some of the narrowing down by trisecting the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into four distinct areas, each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.

The lack of development narrows it down even further by providing only a couple of roads into the park boundaries. Such paved access opens a door to the red rock wilderness where the scenery is enhanced by a colorful Southwest sunset that gives way to soft dusky skies and brilliant starry nights. It is very much a place to write home about. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighbor Arches to the north, Canyonlands is served by the small but busy gateway city of Moab where visitors can enjoy a variety of restaurants, shopping opportunities, museums, and cultural events. Other small towns in the Canyonlands area include Monticello and Spanish Valley.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

The weather at Canyonlands is characterized by the wide temperature fluctuations of a high desert environment; the area sometimes sees temperatures change by more than 40 degrees in one day. The summer is excruciatingly hot and prone to sudden afternoon thunderstorms while the spring and fall bring temperate climates—and crowds.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its untamed landscape, Canyonlands offers unparalleled outdoor adventure opportunities both on land and on water. Visitors can enjoy the park on foot, horseback, or bicycle, or take to its two formative rivers for both flat- and whitewater boating. The Park Service also hosts several organized, ranger-led activities such as geological talks and stargazing parties. Check the official park calendar for up-to-date information on these opportunities.

What is today known as Canyonlands National Park is the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples including the Ute, Southern Paiute, and Pueblo people. The Indigenous story of Canyonlands begins long before European men named it such—indeed before they ever set foot in this jaw-dropping desert.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands features two on-site campgrounds which are accessible and open to RV camping. However, neither campground offers hookups and both have a tendency to fill up fast.

Fortunately, campers can also choose from a wide array of privately-owned RV parks and campgrounds in the Moab area as well as several free or low-cost dispersed camping or boondocking options.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky 

The Island in the Sky mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. Island in the Sky is the easiest area of Canyonlands to visit in a short period of time offering many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails or four-wheel-drive roads can take you into the backcountry for a few hours or many days.

The Island in the Sky area is the closest of the four districts to Moab which serves as a jumping-off point into Canyonlands as well as to neighboring Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains. Island of the Sky is the place to get your 101 briefing on the area.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the paved park loop road aside the canyons on the high mesa provides easy access to stops along the road at archeological sites as well as at trailheads that lead to easy-to-moderate hiking trails into your private wilderness. In the evening, scenic viewpoints welcome visitors to cap off a day of exploration with the magic of sunset skies.

More on Canyonlands National Park: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

This popular area is not only ideal for day trippers but is also heaven for mountain bikers and off-roaders who want to take 4WDrive vehicles onto the legendary 100-mile White Rim Road which provides an up-close and personal meeting with the interior canyons. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several short trails explore the mesa top with minimal elevation change enjoying canyon views from above. Moderate trails involve elevation such as climbing a sandstone feature or descending partway into a canyon. Long trails at Island in the Sky begin on the mesa top and descend via switchbacks to the White Rim bench or beyond to one of the rivers. All are considered strenuous with an elevation change of 1,000-2,000 feet and require negotiating steep slopes of loose rock as well as sections of deep sand.

Mesa Arch Trail is a short hike (0.5 miles) that leads to a cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a classic sunrise spot and is popular among photographers. It has stunning views toward the La Sal Mountains any time of day.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first come, first served. The campground is open year-round. The spectacular Green River Overlook is nearby. The nightly camping fee is $15 per site. Sites fill quickly from spring through fall. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. You can get drinking water outside the visitor center spring through fall. RVs are limited to 28 feet in length.

To reach Island in the Sky, drive 10 miles north of Moab on US 191 or 22 miles south of I-70 on US 191. Turn onto UT 313 and then drive southwest 22 miles. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is about 40 minutes. Be aware that a navigation system may send you the wrong way.

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles 

The Needles form the southeast corner of Canyonlands and were named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. Hiking trails offer many opportunities for day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.

The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails as challenging as they are rewarding. Many different itineraries are possible.

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four short, self-guided trails along the paved scenic drive highlight different aspects of the park’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven. Trail guides are available at the visitor center and the trailheads.

Roadside Ruin (0.3 miles), Pothole Point (0.6 miles), Cave Springs (0.6 miles), and Slick Rock (2.4 miles) are some of the most popular easy/moderate trails but you’ll likely find after consulting a map and with expert rangers at the visitor center that there are plenty of creative ways to chart your own adventure while flexing your outdoor survival skills. 

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conditions of other trails are more primitive, traversing a mixture of Slickrock benches and sandy washes. Longer trails are especially rough and require negotiating steep passes with drop-offs, narrow spots, or ladders. Water in the backcountry is unreliable and scarce in some areas. Trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Although most trails can be hiked in a day by strong hikers many form loops and may be combined with other trails for longer trips. Net elevation change is generally several hundred feet or less except for the Lower Red Lake Trail which drops 1,400 feet to the Colorado River.

Newspaper Rock, The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs in the Needles section of the park is easy to access on your way in. Having the ability to walk up to and stand face to face with remnants of ancient peoples who lived so long ago in areas that are now our national parks is a grand reminder of the history of the precious American wilderness and its long and important connection with humanity. 

More on Canyonlands National Park: Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

The Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites plus three group sites in different locations around The Needles district. The nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. RV’s maximum length is 28 feet.

To reach Needles, drive 40 miles south of Moab on US 191 or 14 miles north of Monticello then take UT 211 roughly 35 miles west. UT 211 ends in The Needles and is the only paved road leading in and out of the area. Be aware that GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Maze

The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and the proper equipment or gear for self-rescue. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.

The Maze is the Wild West of the park—remote, rugged, and open to those who are eager and equipped to experience the Utah backcountry without signs and/or other visitors leading the way. In the Maze, you are left with the proverbial horse you rode in on, a map, your best-charted plans, your instincts to guide you as well as the company you keep. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four-wheel-drive roads in The Maze are extremely remote, very difficult, present considerable risk of vehicle damage, and should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. A high-clearance, low-range, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required for all Maze backcountry roads.

The Hans Flat Ranger Station is 2.5 hours from Green River. From I-70, take UT 24 south for 24 miles. A left-hand turn just beyond the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park will take you along a two-wheel-drive dirt road 46 miles southeast to the ranger station.

From the ranger station, the canyons of The Maze are another 3 to 6 hours by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Another four-wheel-drive road leads into The Maze north from UT 95 near Hite Marina (driving time is 3+ hours to the park boundary). Use a map to reach The Maze. GPS units frequently lead people astray.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rivers

Also well worth visiting in Canyonlands are the rivers themselves. The Colorado and Green rivers wind through the heart of Canyonlands cutting through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons. In stark contrast to the hot, sunny desert above, the river corridors are remarkably green, shady, and full of life.

Both rivers are calm upstream of The Confluence, ideal for canoes, kayaks, and other shallow water craft. Below The Confluence, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon with remarkable speed and power creating a world-class stretch of whitewater.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Canyonlands: Colorado River and Canyon Vistas

As you can see in that basic outline of the Canyonlands wilderness, there are endless things to do and see while hiking, camping, off-roading, exploring the waterways, taking photographs, and blazing your path in this famous and also challenging park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 337,598 acres, largest national park in Utah

Date established: September 12, 1964

Location: Southeastern Utah, on the Colorado Plateau

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 3,700 feet to 7,120 feet

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Park camping fee: $15 (Island in the Sky), $20 (Needles)

Recreational visits (2021): 911,594

How the park got its name: Citing From Controversy to Compromise to Cooperation: The Administrative History of Canyonlands National Park by Samuel J. Schmieding, explorer John Wesley Powell designated the region “The Cañon Lands of Utah” in a 1878 report written for the U.S. government. The word cañon was anglicized in the early 20th century and in 1963 the National Park Service merged them into one—Canyonlands.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic Site in the Park: In the Island of the Sky district is Mesa Arch,the most iconic landmark in Canyonlands and among the most photographed landmarks in the national parks. The pothole arch frames Utah’s White Rim country and the La Sal Mountains—a vista view that is magnificent—and that is before the first ray of sunlight pops over the horizon. That first light bounces off of the rock beneath the arch casting an epic glow onto the roof of it framing a keyhole view of the valley with illuminated light. Every morning, photographers hike their gear along the 0.5-mile trail to the 1,200-foot-high cliff-side to watch the scene unfold, each vying for their own take of the classic shot. Photograper or not, this landmark is a must-see for any visitor to the park, just know that it is only at sunrise when you will see this magnificent light show. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: One of the engineering marvels in the U.S. National Parks are the roads that were constructed, both recently and long ago, to enable visitors to experience America’s most special wilderness places.

More on Canyonlands National Park: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

The Island in the Sky paved scenic driving road is the easiest way to explore Canyonlands National Park in a short amount of time. It is the only paved road in this area of the park winding for 34 miles along the high mesa with panoramic views of the red rock wonderland stretching from the canyon bottom 1,000 feet below. The star of the show is at the end of the loop at the Grand View Point, the highest point on the mesa and a scene that is considered by many to be the best view found anywhere in the park.

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Canyonlands was the 31st national park and was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Because of its twisted labyrinth of slot canyons, what is now known as The Maze was one of the last sections of the contiguous United States to be mapped. Mapping became easier once planes were invented. 

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert scenes from the film Thelma and Louise were captured in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Canyonlands is one of 11 International Dark Sky Parks in the state of Utah. Others national parks with this designation include Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon.

Worth Pondering…

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

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

Outside the Mighty 5

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

Utah’s much more than The Mighty 5. Sure, its famous national parks—Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capital Reef National Park, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park—are must-sees but spectacular scenes don’t end at the parks’ boundaries. 

Just beyond their star-studded borders, you’ll find equally-impressive red-rock slot canyons, sandstone cliffs, and limestone plateaus. What these less-popular locales lack in national designation they make up for with easy access, peaceful meandering, and uninterrupted wilderness delight. 

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

Famous: Capitol Reef National Park

Nearby fave: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

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. This area is also remote with fewer services than national parks so ensure you’re prepared to keep yourself safe.

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

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.

Hike highlights include Lower Calf Creek Falls and Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Famous: Zion National Park

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby fave: Sand Hollow State Park and Quail Creek State Park

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Sand Hollow, Quail Creek, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, and explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV, or tent camp in the modern campground.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with a rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. After a fun day, settle into the park’s campground on the western shore. It offers 23 campsites with shaded tables, modern restrooms, tent sites, and pull-through and back-in sites for RVs up to 35 feet in length.

Get more tips for visiting Sand Hollow State Park

Get more tips for visiting Quail Creek State Park

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famous: Bryce Canyon National Park

Nearby fave: Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest

“Stumbled upon.” “By accident.” “Surprised by.” That’s how some visitors happen to find Red Canyon. As Bryce Canyon’s lesser-known neighbor road travelers encounter Red Canyon en route to the national park and stun them when Scenic Byway 12 runs directly through two red-rock arch tunnels.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The winding highway displays orange-red pinnacles, spires, columns, and hoodoos. These limestone and sandstone formations line the road making it easy for drivers to stop for photo ops. But for those looking to stay longer, Red Canyon offers camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and off-roading.

Anchored by the town of Panguitch, Red Canyon makes up a small part of Dixie National Forest’s 170-mile wide nature preserve.

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

Famous: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park

Nearby fave: Dead Horse Point State Park

Oh, the views! The panorama from Dead Horse Point State Park is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world. Driving to each of the park’s many overlooks reveals a completely different perspective into Utah’s vast canyon country. The park is a slender peninsula of land extending off the massive plateau that is home to Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district.

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

The park sits above the beautiful White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park and offers views of Moab, the La Sal Mountains to the south, and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. The area got its name from its use as a natural horse corral around the turn of the century. According to legend, some horses died of exposure on the plateau.

A visitor center and art gallery provide a good primer to the park’s geology and key features visible from the many overlooks. The visitor center parking lot also serves as an excellent starting point to access the 16.6 miles of non-motorized single-track mountain biking and eight miles of hiking trails that sprawl across the park.

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

Reserve a campsite or yurt at any one of Dead Horse Point State Park campgrounds. Take in the spectacular star show from this International Dark Sky Park.

Get more tips for visiting Dead Horse Point State Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac

5 of the Most Underatted, Crowd-free National Parks in America

Tired of crowds? Try these underrated national parks instead

Contrary to popular belief, fall is the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage, and crowds swarming like they’re at a rock concert.

Come fall, however, the tides start to shift—kids are back in school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation so that’s one less thing to worry about. 

This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 national parks not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials, and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of—let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit. 

These are places with the same level of the staggering natural beauty of the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). From middle-of-nowhere in Texas to the solitude of North Dakota, America’s least visited national parks provide the purest sense of discovery and awe be it a majestic petrified forest, ancient cave dwelling you never knew existed, or a canyon so stunning it gives Arizona a run for its money. These are the best of the bunch when it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

With five national parks and some of the most majestic ski resorts in the nation, Utah has a reputation for nature. However, at least a few of those national parks are notoriously swarming with tour buses and so crowded that they hold public meetings to address closure concerns. But unlike Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches, Canyonlands National Park is a singular beauty that offers just as much wow, without any of the woes.

Essentially neighbors with the much more popular Arches, Canyonlands is a high-desert dreamscape in southeastern Utah marked by river-carved canyons, twinkling starlight, and 337,598 acres of rusty red rock mesas, buttes, arches, and spires that look more like a Dr. Seuss fever dream than real life.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Island in the Sky district. The most accessible of the park’s districts (the others being The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves), Island in the Sky is an otherworldly realm of sandstone cliffs rising some 1,000 feet over the surrounding canyons. Driving out along the road offers endless overlooks but be sure and get out to explore on your own two feet for a closer look at this jaw-dropping terrain. Mesa Arch is a must-see—the enormous rocky arch is at the end of a ½-mile trail acting as a colossal frame for the deep canyons behind it. For something a tad more hardcore hike 1,400 feet down to the White Rim along the Gooseberry Canyon trail, a 5.5-mile trek along cliffs and slopes with views for days.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb the sandstone towers at Island in the Sky. Considering this is the place that inspired 127 Hours, the James Franco movie is about a rock climber who resorts to extreme measures to escape a narrow canyon it’s no wonder Canyonlands is a climbing mecca. Just be careful, please. Island in the Sky is also the most popular place in the park for rock climbing, especially along the district’s towering sandstone walls. Permits are not required but climbers must bring their gear, abide by a slew of rules and regulations, and most importantly, be prepared.

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

With Big Bend National Park in way-out-there West Texas, you know exactly what you’re getting: it’s big, and boy is it bendy. That’s thanks to its 1,200 square miles of vast desert terrain, craggy mountains, prickly fauna, and the meandering Rio Grande carving its way along the Mexican border and forming a gigantic bend between the two countries.

Visitation to this remote park has slightly increased of late to a modest 400,000 but its still 4.5 hours from the nearest major airport and big city (El Paso) and those numbers pale in comparison to the millions who flock to the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite every year. It’s worth the 300-mile voyage, though, for the opportunity to hike the Chisos Mountains, float the mighty river, watch for roadrunners, and see the night sky aglow under an endless canopy of stars.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Chisos Mountains which is the only mountain range contained entirely within the borders of a national park. And considering that park is Big Bend that might explain why you’ve never heard of them. Altogether, the expansive desert park is a hiker’s haven with more than 150 miles of designated trails through mountains and limestone canyons. A good starter course is the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, a moderate two-mile round-trip route from the Chisos Basin Trailhead that provides stunning mountain panoramas without a ton of elevation gain. For something more strenuous hoof it up the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile jaunt through juniper and pine forest to the top of an expansive ridge that rewards hikers with staggering vistas of the canyon below.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Float the Rio Grande. A star attraction in the park, the wide river offers a unique vantage point from which to experience its canyons. Kayaks, canoes, and rafts are all available from area outfitters or you’re welcome to bring your own. Just keep in mind that the middle of the river is the international border and while it’s perfectly fine to dip back and forth between the two countries landing is technically illegal and could turn your leisurely float trip into an arrest. The most popular aquatic outing is Santa Elena Canyon, home to the tallest canyon wall in the park. Depending on the water levels rapids may or may not exist but regardless of the adrenaline, it’s a majestic sight to paddle from Lajitas downriver through the canyon with day trips and overnight excursions both optional. 

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

It’s no surprise that the most underrated Dakota is also home to a national park so underrated that most folks—even diehard nature enthusiasts—don’t even know it exists. But Theodore Roosevelt National Park stands in stunningly stark contrast to preconceived notions about a state assumed to be grassy, flat monotony.

It’s a park in western North Dakota that seems to erupt out of a sea of prairie where rolling badlands and winding rivers carve their way through a landscape teeming with bison and prairie dogs. In this region of the country where the Great Plains collide with badlands and the more mountainous west you’ll find a landscape so mesmerizingly wild complete with wild horses and petrified forests it’ll become instantly clear why North Dakota inspired Teddy Roosevelt to become a conservationist and advocate for national parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go wild with immense wildlife. While you won’t find grizzly bears, wolves, or mountain goats here (for better or worse) you will find an impressive amount of larger-than-life fauna. Bison are the most prominent giants here easily seen on scenic drives and hikes along with black-tailed prairie dogs whose chirping noises are like an adorable chorus. Big-horn sheep and elk can also be found here albeit rare and longhorn cattle are known to mosey through the park’s north unit. Wild horses, meanwhile, are popular denizens in the south unit of the park (the two main units of the park are about an hour apart). Although not native to the region the horses are indicative of Roosevelt’s history as a rancher and they’re one of only a few NPS sites where wild equines roam free (another is Cumberland Island National Seashore). Usually seen in small groups they can commonly be seen along I-94 and from trails at Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill, the tallest point in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Petrified Forest Loop, an epic 10-mile loop in the northwest corner of the south unit. Not only are you likely to see wild horses out in the prairies but this wildly diverse trek contains a variety of different features and terrains including fossilized logs, badlands, canyons, cliffs, and wide-open plains. Start at Peaceful Valley Ranch and bring plenty of sunscreen and water no matter the season—much of the route is exposed to the sun. The Wind Canyon Trail, an easy .4-mile trip through a wind-blown canyon is a south unit sensation for its unparalleled views of the Little Missouri River. In the north, units expect to find even more badass badlands at the 1.5-mile Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This same trailhead can be used to access the Buckhorn Trail for a quick detour to a prairie dog town.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

This a bit of a misnomer, don’t come to Petrified Forest National Park expecting a forest. Rather, hidden away in a quiet nook of northeastern Arizona along a sleepy stretch of Route 66 this nondescript park is a barren desert landscape where the only trees have been fossilized for millions of years. A far cry from Arizona’s other national parks especially the attention-hogging Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest is comparatively unvisited and untapped, a place where what brief trails exist are likely to be empty.

But it’s a worthwhile stopover for its low-key staggering scenic drives, its Jurassic-level lore, and its boulder-sized petrified logs, the latter of which are in greater abundance here than almost anywhere on Earth. These ancient remnants of a time 200 million years ago when this area was once a tropical forest filled with sequoia-sized trees. Long since fallen buried under sediment and slowly crystallized into solid quartz what remains are majestic logs shimmering with tints of green and purple. 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the entire length of the park. Considering that Petrified Forest is the only national park bisected by Route 66, America’s most iconic thoroughfare this park feels particularly apt for a scenic drive. Driving the entire 28-mile length of the park from end to end is one of its chief attractions. At the north entrance, the Painted Desert Visitor Center has an introductory film that provides some historical and geological context before moseying towards the southern end of the park home to the largest concentration of petrified wood and the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center. Along the way, look for scenic overlooks for views of the Painted Desert, colorful badlands, ancient petroglyphs, and luminous logs shimmering from the side of the road.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stroll the Blue Mesa Trail. This short-but-sweet one-mile loop trail combines two of the park’s primary draws, petrified wood, and badlands. This easy paved trail is located at the end of Blue Mesa Scenic Road atop a mesa that steadily descends into a desert canyon strewn with petrified wood. On all sides, craggy badlands sparkle with tints of deep blue and purple, a color scheme echoed by the colossal logs twinkling in the Arizona sun. In general, there are only a handful of hiking trails in the park and all of them are short and easy but they pack a punch. Another biggie is the Giant Logs trail, a half-mile loop behind the Rainbow Forest Museum home to the largest specimens of petrified wood in the park including the 10-foot-wide Old Faithful.  

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Nestled in the fertile landscape of verdant southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is in a league of its own. The seventh national park to be designated in the U.S. and the first in Colorado it also became the first national park created to protect a place for man-made cultural significance. Declared by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 the culture and history here in indeed significant. As far back as the year 600 AD this region was home to Ancestral Puebloan peoples who built and lived in extensive cliff dwellings leaving behind thousands of archeological sites and some 600 cliff dwellings. Here in this 50,000-acre park archeology, history, and nature collide.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the cliff dwellings. The star attraction at Mesa Verde and something that sets this park entirely apart from anything else in the National Park Service most cliff dwellings is only accessible on pre-booked ranger-guided tours. And for good reason, because these places of immense archeological and cultural significance are delicate and vital to Puebloan history. A simple step in the wrong spot can leave lingering damage. The cream of the crop is Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Built mainly of sandstone bricks and mortar between the years 1190 and 1280, its Puebloan population once surpassed 100, and 30-minute tours of this veritable cliff city showcase the stunning ingenuity, effort, and engineering that went into the construction of its various rooms and structures. Whether here or at other cliff dwellings like Long House or Balcony House visitors learn about daily life for the ancient peoples who dwelled, hunted, and thrived here for centuries.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traverse the Chapin Mesa. With a name that translates in Spanish to “green table,” Mesa Verde is indeed a lush and beautiful place for a hike and the Chapin Mesa area does not disappoint. For a route that combines more Puebloan history with immense nature tries the Petroglyph Point Trail. It’s a 2.5-mile round trip hike that starts at the Spruce Tree House Overlook before navigating stone staircases, boulder-clad passageways, and cliffs to reach the mesa top. Along the way, you’ll see a huge wall of petroglyphs, a further illustrious indication of ancient human activity here.

Get more tips for visiting Mesa Verde National Park

Worth Pondering…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

10 Amazing Places to RV in October 2022

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

I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention…To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.

—Henry Rollins

To iconic punk artist Henry Rollins being stagnant and unimaginative is among the biggest transgressions one can make in life. From his time as the frontman for the pioneering hard-core band Black Flag to his work as a vocal advocate for social change, Rollins is constantly challenging himself and others to break the mold. As a musician, poet, radio host, and actor, he is known for his passion, intensity, and refusal to stop creating. With these words from his 1997 collection of writing, The Portable Henry Rollins, Rollins challenges us to travel down life’s unbeaten paths, do things our way, and embrace the qualities that make us unique.

Going down the path less traveled or choosing to go off the beaten path involves taking risks, choosing a different journey, and pushing your comfort zone.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August and September. Also, check out my recommendations for October 2021 and November 2021.

San Antonio Riverwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escape to San Antonio’s Riverwalk

A century ago it started as a flood management project, but today San Antonio’s Riverwalk is a flourishing urban waterway and one of the most cherished attractions in Texas. Visitors can drift underneath cypress trees by hopping on board one of the iconic riverboat tours that ply the nearly 15 miles of waterway. The banks of the river come alive all day (and all night) with musical performers, endless shops and boutiques, and numerous dining options. Plan your visit during the week of July 4th to experience the Bud Light Stars, Stripes, & Light exhibition when one thousand American flags will line the banks of the river. 

Get more tips for visiting San Antonio’s Riverwalk

Canyonlands National Park

Wilderness of Countless Canyons and Buttes

Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing and adventure.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park preserves one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possess remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem. With elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet Canyonlands experiences very hot summers, cold winters, and less than ten inches of rain each year. Even daily temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jacksonville

Located on the outskirts of Medford in southern Oregon, Jacksonville is both a scenic small town and a National Historic Landmark. Gold deposits brought prosperity and settlers before Oregon officially became a state, but today, Jacksonville is better known for its yearly Britt Music & Arts Festival and a plethora of antique shops. The Jacksonville Trolley provides a 45-minute tour of the area’s unique history and architecture in the summer months. Or, come in October and get the haunted version.

Get more tips for visiting Jacksonville

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys Seafood Festival

Located on the easternmost fringes of the Florida-Georgia line, the city of St. Marys is perhaps best-known as the launching point for those visiting Cumberland Island, the largest of Georgia’s idyllic seaside isles. Though Cumberland’s sprawling sandy beaches and centuries-old ruins are truly a sight to behold, St. Marys is fully capable of holding its own as a fascinating destination packed full of historic landmarks, museums, wild horses, and dining venues.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The St. Marys Seafood Festival returns on October 1. The festival brings a full day of family fun in St. Marys including a 5K and 10K run, a themed 10:00 a.m. parade featuring floats, fire trucks, tractors, golf carts, and, of course, seafood concessionaires. You’ll also find entertainment, demonstrations, arts and crafts vendors, and more

St Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A favorite part of the day will be the food! The restaurants will be offering seafood festival specials and there will be food trucks and vendors with sensational seafood fare.

The festival is on the waterfront in St. Marys historic district and offers visitors a relaxing small-town feel. Cumberland Island National Seashore celebrates 50 years this month.

Get more tips for visiting St. Marys

Hidalgo Pumphouse

The Killer Bee of Hidalgo

Located across from Reynosa, Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley, Hidalgo has a rich, multicultural history and a vibrant community. It has two of the largest annual events in South Texas: the music, culture, and heritage festival Borderfest (early April) and the holiday show Festival of Lights in December. Also, it is home to the day trip-worthy Old Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum & World Birding Center.

Hidalgo Killer Bee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in terms of the town’s enduring symbolism, it is hard to beat the 2,000-pound Killer Bee statue that inhabits the entrance to Hidalgo’s City Hall. How did this large insect sculpture come to stand in Hidalgo? And perhaps more importantly, why?

The buzz started in 1990 when the first colony of “Africanized” killer bees was found to have reached the United States via Brazil—the outcome, literally, of a scientific experiment gone wrong. The bees decided to settle just outside of Hidalgo upon arrival where news of the event provoked widespread panic among many.

The Killer Bee of Hidalgo or “The World’s Largest Killer Bee” as it’s advertised was commissioned by the City of Hidalgo. The black and yellow sculpture reaches to about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long, not including its ominous antennae.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Champions

Astonishing biodiversity exists in South Carolina’s 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. Prehistoric foragers hunted the area and fished its waters.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Attempts to make the land suitable for planting as well as grazing continued through 1860. The floodplain’s minor changes in elevation and consequent flooding stifled agricultural activity but the intermittent flooding allowed for soil nutrient renewal and enabled the area’s trees to thrive.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bald Cypress, in particular, became a target for logging. By 1905, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company owned by Francis Beidler had acquired much of the land. Poor accessibility by land confined logging to tracts near waterways so that logs could be floated down the river. In the perpetual dampness, though, many of the cut trees remained too green to float. Operations were suspended within ten years leaving the floodplain untouched.

The Boardwalk Loop is a must when visiting Congaree. It is 2.4 miles right through the swamps and jungle-like forests.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

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

America’s Most Visited National Park

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park. Feel the cool spray of a waterfall. Camp under the stars. Explore a historic grist mill. There’s plenty to see and do in the park!

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves a rich cultural tapestry of Southern Appalachian history. The mountains have had a long human history spanning thousands of years from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European settlement in the 1800s to loggers and Civilian Conservation Corps in the 20th century. The park strives to protect the historic structures, landscapes, and artifacts that tell the varied stories of people who once called these mountains home.

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

Biological diversity is the hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park’s amazing diversity of plants and animals. Over 17,000 species have been documented in the park: Scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000 species may live here. Why such wondrous diversity? Mountains, glaciers, and weather are the big reasons.

Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River. Dominated by plant-covered, gently contoured mountains the crest of the Great Smokies forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina bisecting the park from northeast to southwest in an unbroken chain that rises more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 875 to 6,643 feet. This range in altitude mimics the latitudinal changes you would experience driving north or south across the eastern United States say from Georgia to Maine. Plants and animals common in the southern United States thrive in the lowlands of the Smokies while species common in the northern states find suitable habitats at the higher elevations. 

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

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world formed perhaps 200-300 million years ago. They are unique in their northeast to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate along their slopes during climatic changes such as the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. The glaciers of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without invading them. During that time glaciers scoured much of North America but did not quite reach as far south as the Smokies. Consequently, these mountains became a refuge for many species of plants and animals that were disrupted from their northern homes. The Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years allowing species eons to diversify. 

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Vermont State House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour through Vermont History

Against its backdrop of wooded hills, the Vermont State House is one of the most picturesque statehouses in the country. This State House is Vermont’s third and was built in 1859 on the same site as the second. It was reconstructed with a similar plan but on a larger scale and with a distinctly different ornamental scheme reflecting the Renaissance Revival style popular at the time. The State House was rebuilt in two and a half years and cost $150,000. It remains one of the nation’s oldest and best-preserved state capitols still in use. On the front portico which is the only remaining portion of the earlier Greek Revival, State House of the 1830s stands a statue of Ethan Allen, fabled leader of the Green Mountain Boys.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daughter of the Stars

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—take a hike, meander along Skyline Drive, or picnic with the family. 200,000 acres of protected lands are a haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky…and you.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way to experience Shenandoah is on Skyline Drive. It’s one of the most incredible drives in America. When you enter from the north, you start by descending into an old-growth forest and then climb the ridge with its sweeping curves that feature scenic vistas of rolling, forests, and mountains on either side of the road. When you reach the end of the road, you’ll want to hook up with the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby to keep the great views rolling. Plan a Shenandoah escape today!

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refresh and Relax at Patagonia Lake

Whether it’s an ocean, river, or lake, water is the break everyone needs from the hot Arizona sun. Patagonia Lake State Park is an escape offering shade, water, boating activities, camping, picnic tables, and grills for summer barbecuing. The park has fully equipped cabin reservations available but these sell out fast. If you’re late to the reservation game, check out their boat-in campsites or pick from 105 of their developed campsites.

Worth Pondering…

October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!

―Rainbow Rowell, Attachments  

13 Essential Stops on an RV Tour across Utah

The marvelous range of sights in Utah attracts many campers every year and with good reason

The freedom and solitude of RV travel has vaulted this form of recreation to new heights of popularity and with cutting-edge rental platforms on the market, there’s no better time to set out on your very own RV adventure than the present.

When it comes to destinations, the spacious highways and spectacular natural beauty of Utah make it a perfect match for an extended RV road trip. There are a huge number of RV trips in Utah just waiting to be had! From deserts to snow-capped mountains, from red sandstone arches to endless blue skies, there’s beauty and adventure high and low, attracting hikers, nature lovers, and plain old sightseers alike.

While there’s no shortage of gorgeous attractions to see across the Beehive State, check out the list below for some must-visit highlights during your adventure.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah is no stranger to incredible natural beauty but if you only have time for one national park during your RV trip, make sure it’s Bryce Canyon. Officially established in 1928, this preserve contains the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos, a jagged rock spear formed by erosion.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is a true paradise for hikers equipped with a wide array of options ranging from the 1.5-mile Queen’s Garden Loop Trail to the challenging 8.2-mile Fairyland Loop. Not a huge fan of outdoor adventure? No worries—the park is equipped with spectacular vista points like Sunrise Point and Sunset Point with each spot offering a world-class view with minimal amounts of walking required.

Bryce Canyon is home to two campgrounds both of which are open to RV traffic. North Campground offers 49 RV-only sites and Sunset Campground offers 50, though there are no hookups. 

Get more tips for visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

True wilderness is a hard thing to find nowadays—a retreat from civilization into a place that is seemingly untouched by man may seem like a fairy tale. But that is exactly what Zion National Park can offer.

It may be one of Utah’s most famous tourist attractions but visitors will soon discover it’s popular for good reason. Zion has many hiking trails that allow you to experience what the wilderness is truly like. More populated trails are perfect for beginners who still want to see the beauty of the West. And beauty there is! Sandstone cliffs swirled with reds, pinks, and creams reach high into the sky making a wonderful contrast against the bright blue horizon. The narrow slot canyons are a wondrous sight and the unique desert plants and animals will keep you enthralled in the environment.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s the best part of a visit to Zion National Park, you ask? You never have to leave the beautiful surroundings! The park has three campgrounds, two of which are located right in Zion Canyon. South campground has primitive sites available and Watchman Campground has sites with electric hookups available.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park embodies everything that Utah is famous for—a desert landscape filled with natural beauty. There’s plenty to experience in this “red-rock wonderland”—the most famous, of course, being the arches. There are over 2,000 of these natural stone arches in the park and each one is unique.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll be able to spend your days exploring the trails that wind through the arches, pinnacles, and giant balanced rocks. Ranger programs are available as well to help you get the most out of a visit. There are daily guided walks, hikes, and evening programs that will teach you all about the park and let you take in as much of the beauty as possible.

Devil’s Garden Campground is 18 miles from the entrance to Arches National Park. Being surrounded by the stunning desert throughout your trip certainly helps you appreciate the park even more.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

While you’re in the Moab area to visit Arches, don’t forget to see the other major attraction: Canyonlands National Park. At over 337,000 acres, this park dwarfs the more popular Arches to the north and it has a wide variety of wonders for any eager adventurer to explore.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into four distinct areas each offering a unique perspective on this stark desert ecosystem. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa while the Needles are tall, sharp spires; the Maze is a seemingly-endless system of crevasses and canyons, and finally, visitors can see where the Colorado and Green rivers intersect at the Colorado Plateau. The park also boasts some original Native American rock paintings inside its iconic Horseshoe Canyon.

Canyonlands offers two developed campgrounds: Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) Campground and The Needles Campground. While both are open to RVs, no hookups are available,

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Pak

Tucked into the heart of Utah’s south-central desert, Capitol Reef National Park surrounds a wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold. The Fold’s unique geological features include the Chimney Rock pillar, the Hickman Bridge arch, and the Capitol Reef formation itself which is renowned for its white sandstone domes. Like other Utah national parks, Capitol Reef is an International Dark Sky Park and thus a great place for stargazing.

Capitol Reef National Park is also home to over 2,700 fruit-bearing trees situated in its historic orchards; cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, mulberries, and more are seasonally available for fresh picking.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is one developed campground open to RV traffic inside Capitol Reef National Park: Fruita Campground. Although there are no hookups, a dump station and potable water are available. Be sure to double-check the size limits as each individual space is different and some of them are quite small.

Get more tips for visiting Capitol Reef National Park

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

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Established as a protected natural landscape in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a one-of-a-kind site and certainly worth an RV trip if you’re making your way to Utah. The site is the size of Delaware and the erosion it’s seen over time has made it into what’s basically a giant, natural staircase—one that’s seen more than 200 million years of history. It’s all there for you to walk through and discover yourself!

The Monument is home to two campgrounds: Deer Creek and Calf Creek. Both are small, primitive, and apt to fill up quickly.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

You might recognize it from Forrest Gump, Mission: Impossible 2, Back to the Future Part III, or National Lampoon’s Vacation—but chances are, you will recognize it. A Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley is one of the most iconic landscapes anywhere in the world let alone in the state of Utah and it’s well worth passing through and even stopping to discover more.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

The View Campground includes 30 RV spots and 30 wilderness campsites which attract outdoor enthusiasts who want to capture the essence of rustic living and dust of authentic Navajo history.

Get more tips for visiting Monument Valley

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are often referred to as a miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. 

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. 

Get more tips for visiting Valley of the Gods

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeastern Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks and as a result, is not heavily visited. A nine-mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). Moderate hiking trails, some with metal stairs or wooden ladders, provide closer access to each bridge.

A 13-site campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Hidden within the mountains above Cedar City is the brilliant geology of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding areas are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.”

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. Situated on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau, the raised area of earth located in Southern Utah between Interstate 15 and Highway 89, the monument sits entirely above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Point Supreme Campground is surrounded by meadows of wildflowers in the summer. At 10,000 feet elevation, it is a comfortable place to camp during the hotter summer months. Point Supreme has 25 campsites and accommodates both tents and RVs. Camping is available from mid-June to mid-September.

Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Just across the border from Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients, Hovenweep National Monument is a can’t-miss destination for anyone interested in America’s prehistoric origins. The site includes the ruins of six villages dating back to A.D. 1200 and 1300 and these stunning structures include multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. A true testament to time, Hovenweep National Monument is as educational as it is awe-inspiring!

Hovenweep National Monument hosts a 31-site campground that can accommodate RVs up to 36 feet in length. The campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 1.2 million acres of unparalleled opportunities for land- and water-based recreation. Within the recreation area, Lake Powell is the second largest human-made lake in the United States and is widely recognized as one of the premier boating destinations in the world. Stretching from the beginning of the Grand Canyon at Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is graced with scenic views, unique geology, and evidence of 10,000 years of human history.

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

In terms of campgrounds, there’s a lot to choose from including many primitive sites operated by National Park Service. These campgrounds do not take reservations and do not have phone numbers. There are also park concessioner-operated campgrounds with full-service sites available. Campgrounds operated by park concessioners include Wahweep RV Park and Campground, Bullfrog RV Park and Campground, Halls Crossing RV Park and Campground, and Antelope Point RV Park.

Get more tips for visiting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through scenic landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch near Bryce Canyon National Park. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other major attractions include Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Hell’s Backbone, Hole-in-the-Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Burr Trail, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, and The Hogsback, a narrow ridge barely wider than the two-lane roadway with cliffs falling away on either side.

Mile for mile, few of America’s national scenic byways can compete with the diverse scenery and number of natural attractions along Scenic Byway 12. Recognized as one of the most beautiful drives in America, the byway showcases some of Utah’s uniquely scenic landscape.

Get more tips for driving Scenic Byway 12

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

10 Underrated National Parks for Avoiding the Crowds

A guide to 10 national parks without the crowds

One thing is for sure as summer gets into full swing: some of the most popular national parks are going to be crowded. But if you intend to visit a national park this summer to get away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life, don’t worry. Some of the least visited national parks in the country are also some of the most fun and there are still plenty of unique places to get away from the summer crowds.

I love the Great Smoky Mountains and Zion and no matter how many times I visit, the Grand Canyon will never cease to take my breath away. But when the swarms of tourists around Yellowstone’s Old Faithful start to make a day at the park look more like a rock concert I know it’s time to look America’s most popular parks in the eyes and say, “It’s not you, it’s us.”

National forests and state parks certainly offer alternatives to the hustle and bustle of major attractions, but there is also a segment of the 63 crown jewels that, stacked up against the more Instagram trend-inspired visits, seldom get their due.

Say goodbye to claustrophobic crowds and hello to getting remote, in a national park where your woes have less to do with slow-moving tour buses and more to do with the possibility of dormant volcanoes becoming…not dormant. Of America’s 63 national parks, these 10 deserve a spot at the top of your anti-social bucket list, especially if you’re looking to emphasize the “wild” part of your next wilderness adventure.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California is filled with some of the most iconic—and crowded—national parks in the nation including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. One park that miraculously flies under the radar though is Lassen Volcanic National Park, the least visited in the state with around 500,000 annual visitors (for reference, Yosemite sees about nine times that amount).

Nestled in central Northern California, this sleeper hit has a lot of elements similar to Yellowstone: your bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and freezing royal-blue lakes. Another thing the two share? The potential for a volcanic eruption at any moment! Lassen Peak is an active volcano, though its most recent eruptions took place back in 1917, so there’s (probably) nothing to fear as you trek up the mountain and drink in the views of the Cascade Range. If you’d rather keep things closer to sea level, try paddling on pristine and peaceful Manzanita Lake or exploring the Bumpass Hell area, a hydrothermal hot spot filled with billowing basins and kaleidoscopic springs.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

In the national park Venn diagram between Everglades and Redwood, Congaree National Park is the overlap. This tiny 26,000-acre park smack dab in the center of South Carolina has the murky look and feel of Florida’s Everglades, complete with unnervingly dark water, along with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi. The result is a singularly unique park woven with meandering creeks and the namesake Congaree River which provides a killer backdrop for paddling.

Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp, it’s a massive floodplain; the river routinely floods, carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, and laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Talk about the remote. In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande River with Mexico just on the other bank (the park is named for… wait for it… a gigantic bend in the river). Even though it offers some of the most awe-inspiring backpacking in the US, fewer folks visit Big Bend each year than watch the Longhorns play in Texas Memorial Stadium for two or three Saturdays.

If you’re going, traverse the high country of the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park, or go lower to the trails on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Or just spend the day kayaking to your heart’s content. Once night falls, you’ll witness one of the greatest celestial panoramas you’ll likely ever see as Big Bend’s far-flung location gives it the darkest measured skies in the continental US.

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Nothing is petrifying about Petrified Forest National Park nor is there anything forested about it. Hidden away in northeastern Arizona along a dusty stretch of Route 66 that looks like something from Cars, this mysterious 221,390-acre park has a lot more to it than meets the eye—except for people since the park gets less than one-fifth the visitors the Grand Canyon sees each year.

Unlike any forest you’ve been to, Petrified Forest gets its name from the copious boulder-sized petrified logs strewn across the arid desert landscape. Some 200 million years ago, mighty trees stood here in what was once a tropical forest before being washed away by ancient rivers, buried under sediment, and slowly crystallized by volcanic ash and silica.

Today, long gone are the rivers and leaves, replaced by petrified wood composed almost entirely of solid quartz and bedazzled by minerals like iron, carbon, and manganese, which give the logs shimmering tints of purple and green. Hiking trails here are short, but they pack a wallop of wow as you get up close and personal with these prehistoric gems.

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Located near the charming desert town of Moab in southeastern Utah, Canyonlands has a lot in common with that other canyon park. For instance, both colossal chasms were carved by the Colorado River, both are high desert meccas of red-hued earth and both boast endless vistas of a landscape that looks all too otherworldly to exist on this planet. We suggest recruiting a buddy or two, hopping in a 4×4, and driving down White Rim Road, a 100-mile trip around and below the mesa top. You’ll spend hours taking in tremendous Mars-like desert panoramas while the crowds over at nearby Arches National Park are stuck in traffic.

To get even more secluded, visit in the wintertime when the vast landscape morphs into a wonderland of snow-swept mesa tops dotted with hoof prints from mule deer. Here, the four primary sections—Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon—are ripe for exploration. And at night, turn your gaze upward: Canyonlands is home to some of the darkest skies in the country.

Get more tips for visiting Canyonlands National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

You might not even know it’s there: in the vastly misunderstood state of North Dakota, usually thought of as just flat, rolling grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park appears as if out of nowhere: where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, craggy, tree-dotted canyons flank the road. Petrified forests and river washes spread out between them and mountains somehow appear like magic. The rangers still say “you betcha,” though. Some things about North Dakota are correctly understood.

This is where the Badlands start cutting into the landscape, carving sharp rock faces and hoodoos into the countryside, where the night sky alternates between panoramic star show and explosive thunderstorms, and where packs of buffalo and wild horses roam with abandon among its river valleys and painted hills. And there’s history: the only National Park named after a single person, it was a source of inspiration for our bespectacled 26th President, heavily influencing his conservation policies. You can still visit his Elkhorn Ranch–the foundation stones of the cabin, anyway–and perhaps be inspired yourself.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

While it may be cliché to say the Sonoran Desert looks like the background of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, it’s certainly not untrue: hiking, biking, and driving through the forest of nearly 2 million lanky, 40-foot-tall cacti that make up Saguaro National Park is almost certain to take you back to those Saturday mornings eating Froot Loops in front of the TV. Long overshadowed by the Grand Canyon, Saguaro’s namesake giants—found only in southern Arizona and northern Mexico—sit just outside Tucson, making this one of the easiest-to-access national parks in the entire system.

Yet in 2021, it received just over a million visitors. (Compare that to Yellowstone’s 5 million.) But its relative obscurity is also its greatest strength: Here, you can still feel like you’re lost in nature without delving into the wilds of some remote backcountry. Hike the 7.9-mile Wasson Peak loop for sweeping vistas or trek amongst the saguaros on the Garwood Trail.

Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Designated in December 2020 as the United State’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park in southern West Virginia is home to more than 65,000 acres of lush Appalachian mountains and forest, as well as various superlatives: It’s best recognized by its dizzyingly tall bridge—the third-highest in the US—and its 53 miles of the New River, which despite its name is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on the planet.

Although the misty mountains may look soothing, this is not a place for the faint of heart: In New River Gorge, rock climbers can scale to extreme heights, and river rafters can careen through Class IV and Class V rapids. Oh, and also there are ghosts–those who perished in the gunfights, cave-ins, and explosions during the days when the area was the frontier of coal mining. Even fearless ghost hunters might find themselves spooked by the various ghost towns tucked in throughout the area.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

No offense to Batman, but the Dark Knight’s luxurious bat cave can’t hold a candle—or a flickering, old-fashioned lantern—to the tunnels of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Hidden away in the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico, the park’s immense underground labyrinth of cavities was created hundreds of millions of years ago.

The caverns hide dozens of subterranean splendors, including stalactites, stalagmites, and a population of 700,000+ Brazilian free-tailed bats that migrate upward nightly in a quiet fluttering tornado. Plus underground treasures like the aptly-named Big Room, the largest cave chamber in North America, reachable only via a hike that’ll take you as deep underground as the Empire State Building takes people into the sky.

Get more tips for visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

Get more tips for visiting Pinnacle National Park

Worth Pondering…

We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.

—Gretel Ehrlich in Waterfall

The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Mighty 5

All of these locations add up to unbelievable choices for hiking trails that would take more than a lifetime to complete. So, it’s time to get hiking.

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence”

—Henry David Thoreau

There are thousands of miles of great hiking trails throughout Utah. Some trails are most well-suited to rugged, multi-day backpacking, but there are innumerable “out and back” and “loop” hikes ranging from quick trots to stunning formations, and moderate paths than can be done in a few hours to full-day explorations.

Head to southern Utah where there are five national parks in a relatively small area. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park are all located here.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tips

Before setting out on any hike, check with local rangers or guidebooks about a hike’s difficulty ratings, descriptions, and cautionary advice.

Always carry plenty of water in both the deserts and mountains. Each person should carry one liter of water for every two hours of hiking time. For a full-day hike, that adds up to one full gallon per person. It’s important to keep hydrated, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Bring plenty of high-energy snacks that will help keep your energy up back to your car.

Practice Leave No Trace principles along the trail and respect nature’s desired and needed permanence.

Courthouse Towers, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park Hiking Trails

A day of hiking in Arches National Park pairs world-famous landmark views with a humbling sense of respect for the desolate stretches of sandstone formations. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. The Primitive Loop

Found within the park’s Devil’s Garden, Primitive Loop is a fantastic longer hike. The eight-mile trail will help stretch your legs while showcasing a brilliant section of Arches National Park.

The entire garden is a labyrinth of trails that burst off in a variety of directions. But the main trail takes you along thin ledges and some tricky but thrilling rock scrambling with rock cairns guiding the way. Some of the many arches you’ll see along the hike include the gorgeous Double O Arch and Private Arch. Double O is the second biggest in Devil’s Garden with one being 71 feet wide and the other 21.

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

2. Delicate Arch

Starting at Wolfe Ranch Parking Lot, this 3-mile moderate trail takes you to the most beloved parts of Arches National Park. In a park full of natural arches, this one stands alone, free-standing, and utterly breathtaking.

Owing to its length and popularity, the trail can get crowded. It’s one worth getting up at the crack of dawn for sunrise or waiting patiently for sunset. This will help you avoid the crowds while also seeing the arch at the best times of the day. As anyone who’s been around a desert sky would know, the clear horizon, open sky, and arid colors combine to create a kaleidoscopic world of lights and shadows that will fuel you for the rest of your trip.

Park Avenue, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Park Avenue Trail

The natural arches may bring in travelers from around the world but the park’s wide range of intricate rock formations will linger long in your memory. An easy way to see some of the strangest and sometimes confusing formations, hike the Park Avenue Trail.

The 4-mile out and back hike is easy and has minimal elevation gain. Start with the brief trek to Park Avenue with the beguiling rocks reminding hikers of a city’s downtown. Then walk down into the vast canyon, passing endless rows of mesmerizing conglomerates on your way to the memorable Courthouse Towers.

Along the way, enjoy long-range views of the La Sal Mountains as you walk by iconic formations such as the Organ, Sheep Rock, and Three Gossips.

The Three Gossips, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Family-Friendly Hikes

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes:

  • Windows Primitive Loop (1 mile): A relatively short hike where you’ll find three separate arch formations
  • Double Arch (.8 mile): One of the most popular hikes in the park, this short trail ends beneath a spectacular arch
  • Broken Arch (2 miles): Another popular loop trail that leads hikers through a sandstone arch
  • Landscape Arch (1.6 miles): Consider this trail a must-do hike to see the largest arch in Arches National Park; plus, two more arches are easily reached with a short side trip
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park Hiking Trails

Canyonlands National Park is an enormous region; in fact, it’s the largest national park in Utah. As a result, the park is divided into three regions: The Needles, Island in the Sky, and The Maze. The Needles District is the park’s hub for well-developed trails and the most popular place to hike. Island in the Sky offers similarly groomed trails, but now they’re nestled high atop a mesa that’s wedged between the Colorado and Green rivers. Last but not least, The Maze is a desolate and disconnected region (there are no services within 50 miles in any direction), and a classic destination for experienced backpackers.

No matter which region of the park you visit first, consider adding these great hiking trails to your next trip itinerary.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Druid Arch Trail

In the Needles District, the 10.8-mile moderate trail takes you off the beaten path. The entire district is great for overnight hiking and this is its crown jewel.

The primitive trail begins at the Elephant Hill Trailhead. Follow the cairns which guide you through a slot canyon before turning right towards Chesler Park. The remoteness of the trail means every blind turn offers a surprise and a magnificent view. You’ll feel like you’re exploring and not merely hiking.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The Mesa Arch Trail

The iconic hike is only 0.5 miles long and will see some crowds compared to other longer treks. However, it’s worth braving and if you want, come at sunrise for an even more memorable hike.

Mesa Arch could be a rival to Delicate Arch for the most beautiful arch in Utah. At sunrise, the sun peeks through the gap shining sections of the desert in light, the rest becoming a gorgeous silhouette. For an even better vista, head to the left of the arch for a short rock scramble. This will provide a complete view without the frame of the arch.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Murphy Point Trail

Covering 3.6 miles with little elevation, the Murphy Point Trail follows the canyon’s rim with vibrant desert views. The trail begins in a desert field leading up to the canyon. The views continue to get better until you find yourself on the precipice. Then turn and follow the rim. Along the way, you’ll look over the rolling Green River, the White Rim Road, and the impeccable Candlestick Tower. Complete the trek at sunset with a headlamp handy for the best experience.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Family-Friendly Hikes

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes in the Island in the Sky region:

  • Aztec Butte (2 miles): A somewhat challenging climb to a scenic viewpoint in the Island in the Sky area where you’ll see ancestral Puebloan structures called granaries
  • Upheaval Dome Overlook (1.6 miles): A short, steep hike to get the best view of perhaps the most interesting geological feature in Utah
  • Grand View Point (2 miles): An easy day hike to a magnificent viewpoint overlooking canyon country
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes in the Needles region:

  • Cave Spring (.6 mile): An opportunity to learn about the park’s cultural history and desert plant life on a short hike
  • Pothole Point (.6 mile): A short, educational hike about what life was like in desert potholes; great for families with small children
  • Slickrock Foot Trail (2.4 miles): A scenic trip through the geology of the park; this trail stays high and gives a great overall perspective of the entire southeastern corner of Canyonlands National Park
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park Hiking Trails

The seemingly endless stretch of cliffs you’ll see at Capitol Reef are beholden to The Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long ripple on earth’s surface. Millions of years ago, a faultline shift caused a series of uplifts, ultimately creating the daunting stretch of cliffs and canyons you see today. Nowadays hikers from around the world visit the park to experience the geologically spectacular landscape from an easily accessed network of hiking trails.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cohab Canyon Trail

The gilded Cohab Canyon features honeycomb walls mixed with reds, oranges, and oxidized iron. It’s arguably the most multi-faceted canyon in Capitol Reef National Park. Its captivating beauty was once home to the many wives of the polygamists in Fruita.

As you walk along the 3.4-mile return trail, the canyon makes way for mini archways and dramatic hoodoos that exist within the Kayenta Formation. To lengthen the hike, join a duo of trails that lead to views above the Fremont River and Fruita.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Cassidy Arch Trail

You don’t have to go to Arches to admire nature’s incredible engineering. The moderate trail is 3.4 miles long and takes you to the famous Cassidy Arch.

The hike is beautiful throughout, guiding you along the edge of a canyon with plenty of epic views. Just be warned, you’ll often walk alongside a large drop-off.

The arch isn’t just a beautiful sight; it’s one of the few you can walk across. The memorable experience is sure to get the heart racing but will make for some amazing photos.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Upper Muley Twist Canyon

Those seeking a true adventure should consider the Upper Muley Twist Canyon. The 14.8-mile, difficult trail takes you by arches, through narrow slot canyons, and along an elevated rim.

The trail follows the canyon as it carves its way through the Waterpocket Fold showcasing Wingate and Navajo sandstone along the winding canyon. The rock has eroded creating a swath of interesting formations from arches to honeycombs.

The trail meanders through narrow canyons and by slip rock to dramatic views. The trail is marked by cairns but a map is recommended.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Family-Friendly Hikes

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes:

  • Capitol Gorge (1 mile): A quick hike through a beautiful, deep canyon that leads hikers to historic inscriptions from pioneers and miners
  • Grand Wash (2.2 miles): A trailhead at the end of The Grand Wash Scenic Drive leads hikers into a deep canyon with spectacular narrows
  • Fremont River Trail (1 mile): While not too long, this hike starts easy but gets relatively steep; expect impressive views of the Fremont River with every step
  • Hickman Natural Bridge Trail (.9 mile): One of the park’s most popular trails, hikers will see artifacts of the Fremont people and an impressive 133-foot long natural arch
The Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park Hiking Trails

Hiking through Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the best ways to see the park’s famous hoodoos, spires, and sandstone fins. An interconnected network of trails makes it easy to keep hiking all day where trails branch off toward new landmarks and discoveries all without ever straying too far from the park’s main road. Whether you’re a family of adventurers or venturing into a solo backpacking expedition, Bryce Canyon’s trails won’t disappoint.

The Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. The Rim Trail

To see a lot of the park on a single trek, put on your hiking boots and explore the Rim Trail. 11 miles return, the moderate trail comes with a steep incline to begin. But once you’re at elevation, you’ll have splendid, heart-stopping views in every direction.

Start at Bryce Canyon Point which you can reach on the park’s shuttle. The highlight of the experience is capturing the Bryce Amphitheater in all its glory. Hike into the amphitheater on one of three hikes or continue to admire more of the trail’s prismatic topography.

Navajo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Bryce Point to Sunrise Point

This 8-mile moderate hiking trail provides many of the park’s intriguing geological wonders in one place. The trail begins with a beautiful trek to Sunset Point. After your walk at elevation, descend into the famous amphitheater via the Navajo Loop Trail. Venture down into the aptly named Wall Street with sandstone spires soaring left and right.

The magical vistas continue to get better as you trek beside the hoodoos along the brilliant Queen’s Garden Trail. Here, the rock monuments soar through the pines before being replaced by the Two Bridges Hoodoo. Eventually, you’ll reach Sunrise Point for an awe-inspiring view.

Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Fairyland Loop Trail

Beginning at Fairyland Point, a stop along the shuttle route, the Fairyland Loop Trail is one of the best day hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park. Covering 8 moderate miles, the trail will take you to Sunset Point for an enthralling golden hour.

The trail takes you by many spectacular hoodoos but the real highlight is Tower Bridge. Named after the famous bridge in London, the natural phenomenon stands imposingly above the rest of this unforgettable landscape. For many, this is a common turnaround point.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Family-Friendly Hikes

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes:

  • Navajo Loop Trail (1.4 miles): A popular trail that makes a short 1- to 2-hour loop from the rim at Sunset Point down to the floor of Bryce Canyon; the trail visits favorite hoodoo formations such as Wall Street, Twin Bridges, and Thor’s Hammer
  • Queens Garden Trail (1.8 miles): A short trail descending below the canyon rim that takes hikers to fascinating rock formations including Gulliver’s Castle, the Queen’s Castle, and Queen Elizabeth herself
  • Bristlecone Loop Trail (1 mile): A short loop that stays entirely above the canyon rim as it traverses a subalpine fir forest; the trail is named after the bristlecone pine trees, the oldest tree species in the world which is found more frequently along this trail than along other trails in Bryce Canyon
  • Connector Trails (2 to 4 miles): A series of short “connector” trails that take hikers from the canyon rim to various points along the Under the Rim Trail
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park Hiking Trails

Zion carries a reputation as a bucket list destination for adventurous trail seekers around the world. Here you can gaze down the commanding Zion Canyon from atop Angels Landing, reconnect with nature on a multi-day backpacking expedition, or visit one-of-a-kind destinations like Emerald Pools via easily accessed day hikes. However you imagine a perfect day hiking, Zion National Park has the trails to fill your itinerary. To start planning your trip, browse the park’s trails below.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. The East Rim Trail

For an epic full-day trek, don’t look past Zion’s East Rim Trail. The lengthy 22 miles will have you working up a sweat as you venture deep into the park exploring every inch of the eastern canyon. The hike is rated as moderate to difficult.

You can start in two different spots with the East Entrance being the most common. From there, trek up and down into the spectacular Echo Canyon. In the other direction, you’ll hit the fascinating Weeping Rock first.

To get here, jump off at Shuttle Stop 7 readying your legs for 2,400 feet of ascent up the side of Echo Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The Narrows

Zion National Park was carved by the Virgin River. The Narrows Trail takes you along the water, deep into the intricate slot canyon. As you wander beside and sometimes through the river, the walls of the canyon rise to either side, curling and rising above your head.

The vibrant colors of the rock cover all shades of browns, reds, oranges, and yellows with some black scars added for good measure. The trek is a sensory experience with each splash of water echoing along the trail.

You can hike the moderate to difficult trail in either direction with a popular choice being the 16 miles down to Chamberlain Ranch to camp overnight. Before arriving at Zion, you’ll need to grab a permit for this hike.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Emerald Pools Trail

The Angels Landing hike may be one of the most popular in the United States. But it’s been written and walked to oblivion. The Emerald Pools trail is an underrated, easy-to-moderate hike that’s as fun for adventurers as it is for families.

The trail’s name promises a certain type of natural grandeur and it certainly delivers. Along the short 3-mile trek, you’ll enjoy a trio of emerald pools sparking under the Utah sun. You’ll reach the first pool in a single mile, one that also features a breathtaking waterfall. A brief stroll will take you to the Middle Emerald Pools Falls, one that will have you sitting and admiring the views for a while yet.

Those feeling adventurous can add in some light scrambling to reach the Upper Emerald Pools. To reach the trailhead, make your way to Shuttle Stop 5.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Family-Friendly Hikes

Also consider the following family-friendly hikes:

  • Northgate Peaks Trail (4.2 miles roundtrip): This family-friendly hike offers expansive views of Zion and makes for an excellent summer route due to its high elevation
  • Pa’rus Trail (3.5 miles): This easy out-and-back is not only one of the park’s most pleasant strolls, but the paved trail is also open to dogs on-leash, cyclists, and is wheelchair accessible
  • Riverside Walk/Gateway to The Narrows (2.2 miles): A short, paved stroll along the Virgin River to the stunning mouth of Zion’s iconic slot canyon

Worth Pondering…

I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.

—Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

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

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

The Ultimate Guide to the Mighty 5

The national parks in Utah have long been the perfect playground for RVers. Connecting all five is a rite of passage for many travelers both here and abroad.

When it comes to natural beauty Utah is on the A-list of the most beautiful states in America. With varying landscapes like mountains and deserts, canyons and arches, it is easy to see why.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Utah is home to five of the most stunning national parks the US has to offer. Dubbed the “Mighty Five”, these national parks deliver towering canyon walls, out-of-this-world rock formations, and picture-perfect views. 

So what is the Mighty 5? They’re five parks stretching through the desert landscape of southern Utah and are perfect for a road trip. From east to west, the parks are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the first time I heard about these five parks, I knew I needed to visit them, and I think you’ll want to too. We took a road trip through this area and visited these parks before heading into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This is a trip everyone should put on their bucket list. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below I’ve compiled everything you need to know to plan your own Utah Mighty 5 road trip.

Plan your trip: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Each of the five Utah national parks has something unique to offer. From sweeping canyons, hoodoos, and natural amphitheaters to rugged orange cliffs that showcase the best of the Wild West. Whether you’re looking to explore them all or just one, my guide will take you through what makes each of Utah’s national parks so spectacular.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Because the Mighty 5 sits in a desert environment, summer months can be sweltering hot and winters snowy and cold. I recommend doing this Utah Mighty 5 road trip in the late spring and early fall months. I’ve personally done this road trip in October and early November and found the weather to be perfectly nice and pleasantly cool.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches is classic Utah where jaw-dropping scenery comes standard. But what elevates Arches National Park to one of the best in the United States is its spellbinding collection of natural monuments. No place on earth has as many sandstone arches. In fact, you’ll find over 2,000 if you’re willing to put the steps in.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s name gives away the surprise. But to the glee of all travelers, the arches aren’t the only incredible geological wonders here. On the many hikes and along the scenic road, spot enormous boulders balancing on another and admire soaring fins and rock spires that stand like iconic statues and Romanesque churches.

The nature of Arches National Park means there is an abundance of short, family-friendly trails. But those chasing seclusion will be rewarded with a resplendent backcountry. The park also forms a part of the Spanish National Historic Trail.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Hike the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch to see this famous beauty.

Plan your trip: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands 

Helpful Tip: Try to avoid the midday sun when hiking in Arches. Even in the cooler months, most hikes here offer zero shade and the sun can be brutal. Always pack a hiking hat when going out to explore.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Arches National Park is just outside of Moab in eastern Utah
  • From Moab: 5 miles
  • From Grand Junction: 109 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 230 miles
Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Parks Pass: $55
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Utah’s largest national park, Canyonlands harbors some of the rawest and most inspiring landscapes in the American West. The park has been carved by the imposing Green River and Colorado River which converge in the heart of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the amazing Utah national parks, this may be the most untouched. It’s a veritable telescope showing travelers the true artistic qualities of Mother Nature. The park is split into several arresting districts such as the Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. But with no connecting scenic roads, you have to leave then re-enter to see them all.

This frustration is always eclipsed by the park’s stunning beauty. The grand expanse has relatively few visitors, so the backcountry is a tranquil yet rugged paradise. On the way, you may discover ruins from ancient Puebloans and long-gone explorers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the main road in the Island in the Sky district to get to Grand View Point and enjoy the view. A lot of people recommend Mesa Arch as well. It’s popular for sunrise but you’ll be sharing the view with tons of people.

Plan your trip: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

Helpful Tip: You have to leave the park to drive to each individual district. The Needles is about a two hour drive from the Island in the Sky entrance. The Maze is even more remote and offers only backcountry hiking and recreation. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Canyonlands is 40 minutes from Moab in eastern Utah
  • Moab: 32.5 miles
  • Grand Junction: 124 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 244 miles
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Pass: $55
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

In south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National park exists in the shadows of other renowned Bryce Canyon and Zion. But if we’ve learned anything from the national parks in Utah, is that they’re all impressive in their own ways.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef is in the heart of red rock country, a treasure trove of domes, canyons, and cliffs. It’s a park that gets better the more you explore with a plethora of hiking trails, 4WD trails, scenic roads, and the fascinating Fruita district.

Without the popularity of other Utah national parks, you’ll contend with less traffic on the equally beautiful paths that take you to cathedral monoliths and endless desert views.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the scenic drive past the Fruita district to get pretty views. Back at the visitor center ask the rangers if any of the orchards are open so you can try the fruit. And don’t leave without stopping at the Gifford House to get some of the best pies around.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: If you’re able to snag a campsite at the Fruita campground, do it! The grass is super green and lush. Some of the best views in the park are located off of dirt roads, so bring a high clearance vehicle if you’re able to.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Capitol Reef is just outside of Torrey in Southern Utah
  • Grand Junction: 186 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 218 miles
  • Las Vegas: 327 miles
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $20 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $15
  • Walk/Ride: $10
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Rising like a church choir out of the red-orange dirt in southwestern Utah, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park have created a natural wonderland.

Plan your trip: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Delicately shaped by millions of years of wind, rain, and snow, Bryce Canyon is a paradise for hikers and photographers alike. The park has natural bridges and is teeming with rock spires that form spectacular amphitheaters. It’s like the park is an orchestra and we are the lucky audience.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout, you’ll find hiking trails that take you from the lowly Paria Valley to above 9,000 feet in the forests along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. In between are exceptional experiences, epic views, and some of the best rock climbing in the state.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Watch the sunrise and sunset over the hoodoos at sunrise and sunset point, respectively. Hike down into the amphitheater on the Queens and Navajo Loop trails and look out for the hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Pack a sweater, even if you’re visiting in the summer months. We visited in early November, and the temperatures at night dropped below freezing. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Bryce Canyon is south of Bryce in Southern Utah
  • Las Vegas: 260 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 268 miles
  • Zion National Park: 72 miles
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Bryce Canyon Annual Pass: $70
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

As Utah’s oldest national park, Zion has lost none of its grandiosity since its opening in 1919. It’s a place of wonderment, the crown jewel of Utah’s epic national park system. Located in Southern Utah, its esteem has been well earned because of its array of vast and narrow canyons, rainbow rock formations, natural monuments, and stunning vistas.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon discovery in 1863, Zion was labeled the Promised Land. It still rings true today, a place that promises (and delivers) spectacular hikes, some of the best canyoneering anywhere on earth punctuated by desert waterfalls that add extra life to the colorful but arid landscape.

Don’t pass up on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In a state made for road trips, the short and sweet journey is the icing on the cake.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Plan to spend at least half a day hiking the Narrows. Drive through the tunnel to get a stunning view of the canyon and head over to the Kolob Canyon entrance to enjoy the views without the crowds. The Pa’rus trail is super underrated but will give you beautiful views without much effort! 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Try to get on the earliest shuttles to avoid crowds in the most popular hikes. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • The national park is located in Springdale in southern Utah
  • From Las Vegas: 160 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 308 miles
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Zion Annual Pass: $70

Worth Pondering…

Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.

—Wendell Berry