The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.

Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.

These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Arches’ nearby neighbor, 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: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs. 

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

Visit a National Park but Skip the Big Name Ones

America’s big name parks are attracting major crowds. Here’s where to avoid them.

As summer creeps into full swing and cities across America do the dance of easing and then reinstating COVID-19 restrictions, people are clamoring to be someplace—most anyplace—besides their own homes. While there is no form of travel that’s 100 percent safe right now, there are certainly more responsible options than others for scratching the itch.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks with their wide-open space are more befitting a socially distant vacation than, say, popular resort towns or theme parks. But even vast wilderness expanses have potential for riskier areas—visitor centers, for one, and popular trailheads near crowded parking areas. And then there are the crowds at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or the scenic drive at Zion National Park which has been so popular since reopening that the park had to cap access at 6:30 a.m.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now more than ever, this is the time to visit some of America’s lesser-known national parks. Steering clear of the hoard of tourists at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, exploring new territory provides a sense of discovery with the added benefit of fewer people. The adventure doesn’t stop at park boundaries, either, as these less-famous parks are often surrounded by small communities rich with their own charms.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As enticing as all this sounds, it’s important that travelers tread carefully in and around all national parks since these smaller gateway communities are not equipped to handle a potential outbreak brought in from visitors. It’s a double-edged sword for small businesses that rely on tourism dollars to survive. That is why it’s important to maintain the same caution on your road trip as you maintain at home. Wherever you are, social distancing and adherence to health mandates are important in order to support these communities while keeping them safe.

So, with safety top of mind, here are some alternative parks to consider for your 2020 summer escape.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Judging by the fact that Congaree sees about 3 percent of the annual visitors of parks like Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, it seems many people don’t even know this South Carolina park exists. Located in the middle of the state, the swamp-like terrain feels part Everglades and part Sequoia with the tallest trees east of the Mississippi and intertwining waterways ripe for paddling.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s front and backcountry areas are open including all hiking trails, Boardwalk, restrooms, picnic shelter, Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, and canoe landings. Note that parts of the Boardwalk and Weston Lake Loop Trail remain closed due to flood damage. Cedar Creek is a narrow waterway that weaves through hardwood forest so tall and dense that it blocks out the sun. For easy hiking, out-of-the-way trails like the River Trail and Oakridge Trail are currently accessible. The park is within 20 miles of the state capital of Columbia. The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington offers a convenient home base for exploring the area.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres, in fact) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm offering shaded respite along the meandering Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size, geographic diversity, and faraway locale, this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding communities are rich with character but low on crowds like the dusty ghost town of Terlingua which is emerging as a tranquil artist’s enclave and the peaceful riverside town of Lajitas. There are several campgrounds and RV parks in Big Bend and surrounding communities.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is once again beckoning visitors itching to hike, drive along the Mesa Top Loop Road, and marvel at the park’s famed cliff dwellings and structures. At just over 50,000 acres, the park is perfect for its mesa-skimming scenic drives and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re traipsing through the clouds surrounded by panoramic views of the surrounding valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has reopened using a phased approach. Some areas are open on a self-guided basis while other facilities and areas remain closed. Cliff dwellings are closed and tours are canceled until further notice. But there are many superb viewpoints along the Mesa Top and Cliff Palace Loop Roads

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Badlands, petrified wood, bison, pronghorns, and wild horses make it clear what endeared President Theodore Roosevelt to this tranquil part of the country. And you’re more likely to encounter chirping prairie dogs on your hike than people.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, eroded sandstone formations, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, and the meandering Little Missouri River. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

Visitors can access South Unit Visitor Center, trails, picnic areas, roads, and backpack camping. Painted Canyon and North Unit visitor centers and all campgrounds remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The world-famous caverns—brimming with stalagmites, stalactites, and a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats—has partially reopened. The visitor center is open from 8 am to 5 pm daily. For social distancing entrance tickets to the cavern are limited to 575 visitors per day and available on a first-come, first-served basis at the visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bat flight amphitheater is closed to protect the bats and social distancing for visitors and staff. Bat flights can still be observed from the visitor center parking lot and a ranger presented Bat Flight Program can be listened to on a vehicle radio.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With nearly 50 miles of trails through the peaceful Chihuahuan Desert, from Rattlesnake Canyon to Guadalupe Ridge, there’s plenty to explore, and plenty of opportunity to break away from crowds and convene with cacti and roadrunners.

Worth Pondering…

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

— John Muir

Visual Marvels: America’s Seven Natural Wonders

The Seven Natural Wonders of America are a list of the most astonishing natural attractions

Ever since the list of the Seven Wonders of the World was first inked by either Antipater of Sidon (second half of the 2nd century BC), Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC, Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), or Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–240 BC)—depending upon which ancient historian you believe—all manner of “Seven Wonders” lists pop up from time to time including the New Seven Wonders of the World, of the Natural World, of the Modern World, of the Architectural World. Well, this could go on for a while.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it is that original collection of wonders, now referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one that still exists), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis (at Ephesus near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey), the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in present-day Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandra—that sparks the imagination, stirs the soul, and stokes the curiosity. These are the finest creations of the ancient world and at the very least inspire wonder in their sheer archaeological greatness.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That much can be said of any wonder, whether natural or manmade, and then add into the mix the almost obsessive need for the world to categorize and break down everything into parts. That’s how these types of lists came to be in the first place. Often for reasons to promote tourism, numerous countries have tallied their own wonders as have almost all the United States.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

One of the world’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is a true marvel of nature. John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas. Just about everywhere you look the views are amazing and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 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.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The horseshoe-shaped, russet rock hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are a true sight to behold. This is one of the world’s highest concentrations of hoodoos and their colors alternate between shades of purple, red, orange, and white.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time. There are several easy trails located near the rim of Bryce Canyon to hike as well as ranger programs that take you on guided hikes through the park.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee, whose name means “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the Creek language, is now part national wildlife refuge, part privately-owned park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) that is widely known for harboring an incredible cache of biological and ecological wonders. The swamp’s dark, coffee-colored tannic water is the base for a living jumble of pine, cypress, swamp, palmetto, peat bog, marsh, island, and sand ridge.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hodgepodge of animal and bird life, among the hundreds of species are black bear, alligators galore, snakes galore, deer, anhinga, osprey, and sandhill crane call the swamp home.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches

Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. And the arches are just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, The Windows, it goes on.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in this rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Mount Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.

—Thomas Browne

Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

High ancient sea ledges, deep rocky canyons, flowering cactus, and desert wildlife are the treasures above the ground in the Chihuahuan Desert. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests. Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture created an extraordinary variety of formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One full day allows you time to tour the main cavern and take a nature walk or a drive before watching the bats fly at sunset. For a second day’s activity, reserve space on a tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave, if you’re ready for a more rugged caving experience.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Visitor Center, select either the Natural Entrance Tour or the Big Room Tour (both are 1.25-mile walks). Try the first unless you have walking, breathing, or heart problems. It starts at the natural entrance and is mostly downhill, except for one stretch where you climb 83 feet; an elevator whisks you back to ground level. The Natural Entrance Tour is more intimate and may be less crowded than the Big Room.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cave climate is cool and averages about 56°F year-round. You may want to bring a light jacket or sweater. Comfortable, rubber-soled shoes with good traction are appropriate.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park was first designated a National Monument in 1923. It became a National Park in 1930. Carlsbad Caverns was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The main cavern gets crowded, especially in summer and on major holiday weekends. Either spring or fall, when the desert’s in bloom, is an excellent time to go. You’ll see the bats fly from April or mid-May through October.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park above ground looming south to Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is off US 62/180, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 164 miles east of El Paso, Texas. For the visitor center, turn west at Whites City and drive seven miles.

Worth Pondering…

The beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur … absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above. I forgot time, place and distance.

—Jim White

8 Weird and Wacky Destinations for a Family Road Trip

America is home to some weird and wacky attractions that may not be in your typical travel guide, but would be sure to blow any Happy RVer’s mind!

There’s nothing more American than a road trip. So this summer, why not pack up the car and veer off the beaten track to explore something a little bit different?

This list of destinations, from a palace made of corn to a UFO crash site, provides plenty of inspiration and enough surprises for the whole family.

Be prepared for a natural wonderland. underground marvels, and a few horse-drawn buggies along the way.

Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step out of your car and into a natural wonderland. The vibrant colors of the Petrified Forest will keep your eyes engaged, while these fascinating ancient fossils will engross your mind. Check out the Rainbow Forest Museum first, so you can orient yourself and determine your trail route.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a break from being a road warrior and go caving instead. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Experience the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails at your own pace. Ranger-guided tours include King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Hall of the White Giant, Lower, Spider, and Slaughter Canyon cave.

Amish Farm Country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Lancaster County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re determined to unplug and unwind, find your way to Lancaster County for a truly old-fashioned time. From buggy rides to dinner theater, there’s plenty to see and do—including traditional “mud sales,” or outdoor auctions, that specialize in handcrafted products and support the local fire department.

Lassen Volcanic National Park in California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the Cascade Mountains’ 15 volcanoes. The mountain famously erupted from 1914 until 1921 and largely changed the landscape to what you see today around the Cinder Cone. But the park is more than just a volcano. It’s a set of peaks surrounded by a lush wilderness. This park is a laid-back spot with great camping and volcanic landscapes right next to verdant forests.

Wall Drug in South Dakota

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed, just like they did more than 80 years ago. Attracting 2 million visitors each year, Wall Drug is a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering road weary travelers free ice water.

Peachoid Water Tower in Gaffney, South Carolina

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Peachoid (known locally as The Peach) was commissioned to be built in 1980-81 by the Gaffney Board of Public Works. A seven ton, 60-feet long leaf was applied to one side. A New Jersey artist, Peter Freudenberg, painted the sphere after studying local peaches for many hours. It took fifty gallons of paint in twenty colors. According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.”

Roswell in New Mexico

UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If UFOs and cosmic mysteries intrigue you, plan a pit stop in Roswell, New Mexico. Roswell’s rise to fame began in 1947, when a local rancher claimed to have found debris from a flying saucer. The myths and facts have become stranger over the years, cementing this town’s place in national history. Today, you can also enjoy fine cuisine, art museums, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, which is perfect for camping and hiking.

Worth Pondering…

If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.

—Fay Weldon

The Least Visited National Parks and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s national parks at these lesser-known sites

Among America’s 61 national parks, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon all come to mind as bucket-list sites. And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

We’ve rounded up the least-visited national parks and make a case for why each is worth a visit. Some are little-known, others are obscurely located, but all celebrate the beauty of America’s natural wonders—and, as a bonus, can be enjoyed with fewer crowds.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde is the largest archeological preserve in the U.S., with over 500 distinct sites and 600 cliff dwellings. Those dwellings were once the homes that native peoples used for several centuries. Today, visitors can explore the dwellings, learn about the native culture, and marvel at both the safeties and dangers offered by living several hundred feet off the ground, in structures tucked into small openings on the cliff face.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The only cave system on our list of least-visited parks is located in New Mexico beneath the Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad is not just one cave; more than 100 caves form the park, Carlsbad Cavern itself forming the natural entrance to the park as the tallest cave. The Big Room, a large limestone chamber, is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located in the northern part of California, Lassen Volcanic is best known for the astounding hydrothermal sites within its bounds. Many established trails take you past—and through—those bubbling springs, including Bumpass Hell, an area with acres of bubbling mud pots. As the name implies, Lassen Peak is a volcano. On the side of the mountain, visitors can observe lava rocks left by its last eruption in 1917.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Deep in the heart of Southwest Texas lies the well-known, but rarely visited, Big Bend National Park. In spite of its remote location, Big Bend is worth the drive. The entire Chisos Mountain Range, a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande form spectacular scenery here. Visitors enjoy hiking and backpacking and it’s a certified dark-sky park, offering an unparalleled view of the night sky.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago. Pinnacles offers hiking and climbing, with spectacular views; come during spring to see blankets of colorful wildflowers, and stay after sunset to take in the star-studded sky.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

The Most Instagrammable Travel Destinations for 2019

The RV lifestyle makes it easy to explore these Instagram-worthy travel destinations

For fun and adventure, consider our top Instagram-worthy travel destinations for 2019.

This compelling list of photogenic destinations captures some of nature’s most beautiful spots.

The RV lifestyle makes it easy to truly immerse yourself in the culture of a destination while checking off those bucket list destinations.

Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah

Driving through Monument Valley makes you feel as though you’ve just traveled back in time. It combines old country western feels with road trip vibes, and offers some of the most perfectly framed photo ops that are totally ‘Instaworthy.’

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Nearly 800,000 acres of desert east of the Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree National Park rewards visitors with a full range of peculiar treasures: spiky yuccas, spiny cacti, spindly ocotillos, gangly Joshua trees, and geological formations, including Jumbo Rocks.

The lower Colorado Desert merges into the higher Mojave Desert, and cholla cactus and ocotillos give way to Joshua trees. An even bigger wow (think Instagram-worthy) can be had at Keys View. To the west, distant San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak—both topping 10,000 feet—scrape the sky. Looking south, you can spy the Salton Sea.

Canadian Rockies, Alberta

The Canadian Rockies stretch 900 miles northwest from the Montana border. The lakes and peaks combined create gob-smacking scenery at any time of the year. But since an RV/car is indispensable for visiting the Rockies, accessing their beauty is easiest in the warmer months, when the highways are clear of ice and snow. Banff and Jasper are the two most popular destinations for visitors to the Rockies. They are connected by the Icefields Parkway, a 140-mile highway that offers unobstructed mountain views.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina/Virginia 

One of the most scenic roads in America, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile road that winds along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains providing a unique view of picturesque landscape and history. The Parkway connects Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park at the north end with North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the south end.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Step out of your car and into a natural wonderland. The vibrant colors of the Petrified Forest will keep your eyes engaged, while these fascinating ancient fossils will engross your mind. Check out the Rainbow Forest Museum first, so you can orient yourself and determine your trail route.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Take a break from being a road warrior and go caving instead. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Experience the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails at your own pace. Ranger-guided tours include King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Hall of the White Giant, Lower, Spider, and Slaughter Canyon cave. If you visit from May to October, be prepared to witness the spectacular flight of bats at twilight.

Sequoia National Park, California

I love being close to nature, especially feeling the fresh clean air passing through my lungs and hearing birds sing as a river passes by. Sequoia National Park is a truly special place that is definitely Instagram-worthy. Those huge trees hold an amazing energy and knowledge. At over 3,000 years old, some even pre-date the birth of Christ.

Moki Dugway, Utah

Driving the Moki Dugway in southeastern Utah is not for the faint of heart. A three-mile section of gravel switchbacks chiseled into a nearly vertical cliff side, Moki Dugway descends 1,200 feet down to the western end of the Valley of Gods (known for its buttes and towering pinnacles). The few guardrails don’t hide the wreckage of the occasional vehicle that went over the edge. 

Worth Pondering…

Every picture I take is like a diary entry.

—Gilles Peress