Where are the Best Spots to Live the RV Life and Why?

These 16 RV getaway spots are ranked based on cost, amenities, internet speed, pet polices, air quality, and more. It’s time to plan your road trip.

If it seemed like the pandemic produced a lot more RVs around your neighborhood, you’re probably right. One of them may even be yours.

Van life was already trending before COVID and has been buoyed by the need for social distancing and the work-from-anywhere possibilities. As travel-hungry adventurers continue to look for ways to escape and see the great outdoors, RV sales are on the rise.

The RV Industry Association (RVIA) forecasts RV wholesale shipments at around 591,100 units by the end of 2022 which is close to the 600,240 shipped in 2021, the industry’s best year on record. Total RV shipments in March 2022 were 64,454, up 18.7 percent over March 2021 and a 69 percent increase over the 38,015 shipped in March 2019.

Although there’s no available data on how many people are traveling in their RVs, Mercedes-Benz U.S. van sales shot up 22.5 percent in 2020, according to USA Today.

So, yes, if it seems like there’s more RVs on the highway it is likely there is: 11.2 million U.S. households own an RV, according to RVIA. And contrary to popular belief, they’re not just retired folks: More than half are under 54 years old. Those in the 18- to 34-year-old age range now make up 22 percent of the market.

So if you’re going to jump on the camper bandwagon to head out on the open road where are the best places to live the RV life? To determine the best RV destinations in the U.S., number crunchers at StorageCafe, an online platform that provides storage unit listings, analyzed data from camping directory CampgroundViews about numbers of campsites, their costs, and amenities such as water, sewer, and electricity hookups, swimming pools, Wi-Fi, cable TV, ‘pull-thru’-type sites (for convenience when parking), and pet policies. They also used a variety of sources to find local air quality, internet speeds, grocery prices, storage options, and the number of nearby retail outlets.

Here are 16 of the best places in the U.S. for RV campers.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Median air quality index: 43=good

Average internet speed: 92 mbps

Grocery cost: 98.2 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 22.9 (the most on this list)

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

Pigeon Forge is located near Gatlinburg and Sevierville and is about five miles from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. A popular year-round family-friendly vacation destination, Pigeon Forge is filled with fun activities. There’s plenty of shopping here and a Dolly Parton theme park.

Plan your trip: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Applegate Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grants Pass, Oregon

Median air quality index: 23=good

Average internet speed: 113 mbps

Grocery cost: 100.3 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 4

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grants Pass sits on Oregon’s Rogue River in the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest. It’s a good spot for rafting and enjoying the lush outdoors. It’s central to places like the historic Gold Rush town of Jacksonville, Applegate Valley Wine Tour near Medford, Crater Lake National Park, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Median air quality index: 44=good

Average internet speed: 99 mbps

Grocery cost: 98.4 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2.7

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for many years. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing.

Plan your trip: Discover Why Rockport is the Charm of the Texas Coast

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Median air quality index: 37=good

Average internet speed: 222 mbps

Grocery cost: 100.0 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 6.1

Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you’re looking for fun and adventure or lazy days on the beach, you can do it all in Gulf Shores and nearby Orange Beach. Dolphin watching, ocean fishing, and golf are popular activities. Discover history and travel back in time when cannons protected the waterways and explore the nearly 200-year-old Fort Morgan. Adjacent to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is Gulf State Park with 6,000 acres spanning the sugar-white sands of the Gulf Coast and is home to nine unique ecosystems. The Gulf State Park Campground offers 496 full hook-up RV campsites.

Plan your trip: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Houston, Texas

Median air quality index: 52=moderate

Average internet speed: 459 mbps

Grocery cost: 98.1 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 3

Moody Mansion, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t pass up the big city on your road trip. America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston and Galveston.

Plan your trip: I Still Dream of Galveston

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson, Arizona

Median air quality index: 56=moderate

Average internet speed: 482 mbps

Grocery cost: 95.5 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 3.1

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson is an Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. The West is full of beautiful national parks but one of the most iconic symbols of the Old West is the saguaro cactus—and Saguaro National Park and Catalina State Park are full of them.

Plan your trip: Why Tucson Is Your Next Great Outdoor Adventure

Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yuma, Arizona

Median air quality index: 46=good

Average internet speed: 298 mbps

Grocery cost: 94.6 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2.8

Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the far west of the state on the Colorado River near the California and Mexico borders, Yuma has one of the nation’s largest mass of inland sand dunes enjoyed by ATVers. Immerse yourself in rich culture and heritage rooted in centuries of history. Popular with snowbirds, Yuma is known as the Winter Lettuce Capital and it holds a Guinness World Record as the “Sunniest City in the World.” Just over the border in Mexico is Los Algodones, a popular spot for medical tourism. Check out the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, a Wild West–era prison (Yuma High’s unusual mascot is the Criminals).

Plan your trip: Of Yuman Interest: Top 7 Attractions In and Around Yuma

San Antonio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio, Texas

Median air quality index: 48=good

Average internet speed: 382 mbps

Grocery cost: 91.4 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2.7

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember the Alamo? This is where you go to see it. From the San Jose Mission to the Alamo, this city is known for its fabulous, historic architecture. With a mix of cultures, Mexican and Tex-Mex food is more authentic than found almost anywhere else in the country. There is a lot to do in San Antonio from visiting the missions to the Alamo and touring the River Walk. You can also spend days enjoying family-fun destinations like SeaWorld and Six Flags or join a ghost and vampire tour. There is no lack of diversions to explore in this city and beyond.

Plan your trip: Wander the (San Antonio) River’s winding Path and Experience the Spirit of San Antonio

Foley, Alabama

Median air quality index: 37=good

Average internet speed: 22 mbps

Grocery cost: 96.2 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 7.1

Just inland from Gulf Shores, Foley offers great value and plenty of shopping, outdoor activities, and RV resorts nearby.

Plan your trip: Where the Rivers Meet the Sea: Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and Meaher State Park

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission, Texas

Median air quality index: 44=good

Average internet speed: 590 mbps

Grocery cost: 90.6 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2 (the fewest of this list)

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies.

Plan your trip: Rio Grande Valley: Birds, Birds, and More Birds

Sundial Bridge, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding, California

Median air quality index: 46=good

Average internet speed: 97 mbps

Grocery cost: 99.9 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 4

Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With mountains all around, miles of hiking and biking trails, a river running through it and national parks nearby, Redding is an outdoor paradise for all ages. Cradled by Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, Redding has 300+ sunny days per year. Redding is also home to the famous Sundial Bridge, world-class fishing, and 200 miles of hiking and biking trails for all abilities. Head out on a day-trip to see the bubbling mud pots and boiling lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The area’s wealth of outdoor activities include Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the renown Sundial Bridge, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake, and Lake Shasta Caverns.

Plan your trip: Redding For an Outdoor Adventure

Lady Bird Wildlife Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin, Texas

Median air quality index: 43=good

Average internet speed: 459 mbps

Grocery cost: 96.7 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 3.3

Lady Bird Wildlife Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin was recently voted the No. 1 place to live in America for the third year in a row— based on affordability, job prospects, and quality of life. It was named the fastest growing large city in the U.S. It was chosen among the top 15 cities in the United States to visit. Austin features centrally located Lady Bird Lake, named after Texan and former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Lady Bird Lake is part of the Colorado River and is a popular place to canoe, kayak, and use stand-up paddleboards. Next to the lake are the 10-mile Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail.

Plan your trip: Grab Some Fresh Air and Commune with Nature at McKinney Falls State Park

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Benson, Arizona

Median air quality index: 47=good

Average internet speed: 41 mbps

Grocery cost: 94.4 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 3.1

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The areas surrounding Benson offer numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation. Coronado National Forest and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area provide areas for hiking, camping, and picnicking. Kartchner Caverns State Park provides an unforgettable way to get in touch with the earth—literally. Located on State Route 90 in the Whetstone Mountains these unique caverns are the most pristine in the U. S. Tombstone invites visitors to walk in the footsteps of the West’s most famous outlaws and good guys, the Clantons and the Earps

Plan your trip: All Aboard & Bound For Benson

North Mountain Park, Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande, Arizona

Median air quality index: 64=moderate

Average internet speed: 71 mbps

Grocery cost: 95.7 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2.5

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

For a change of pace, Casa Grande offers a relaxing respite from the hustle-and-bustle, halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. Casa Grande draws golfers year-round with excellent play at a variety of area courses. Stroll through historic downtown Casa Grande, one of Arizona’s Main Street communities with more than 40 buildings in national and local historic registers. Hike, bike, and even take a farm or dairy tour. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.”

Plan your trip: The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa, Arizona

Median air quality index: 97=moderate

Average internet speed: 481 mbps

Grocery cost: 97.2 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 2.5

Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soak up the sun in Arizona’s third-largest city. The neighboring farms and Agritourism attractions in and around Mesa provide a bounty of seasonal goods for visitors to enjoy. Mesa is neighbors to the Tonto National Forest and visitors to this desert oasis take advantage of being close to one of the nation’s largest playgrounds. Tonto is the fifth largest forest in the United States and one of the most-visited forests in the country. There are three lakes and two rivers in Mesa that allow for desert boating, paddle boarding, kayaking, and water skiing. There are treasures to be found all over Mesa. What treasures you find just depends on where you look.

Plan your trip: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

Lake Okeechobee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okeechobee, Florida

Median air quality index: 38=good

Average internet speed: 319 mbps

Grocery cost: 102.0 percent of U.S. average

Retail outlets per 1,000 residents: 3.3

Lake Okeechobee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located along the northern rim of Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s “inland sea,” the city of Okeechobee offers visitors a relaxing time. Choose from a variety of RV parks and campgrounds just minutes from the beauty of Lake Okeechobee, varied attractions, and annual events. Known as the “Speckled Perch Capital of the World,” Okeechobee holds an annual event in honor of this title—the Speckled Perch Festival held in March. The town provides a convenient access point to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. And the lake and its shores, of course, offer boating, freshwater fishing, hiking, and biking.

Plan your trip: Myakka River State Park: Place of Abundance Offering Varied Experiences

Worth Pondering…

For all of us have our loved places; all of us have laid claim to parts of the earth; and all of us, whether we know it or not, are in some measure the products of our sense of place.

—Alan Gussow

8 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit This Fall

Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites

How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?

574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley.

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

With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites are listed here by their original Indigenous names.

Related: Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado

After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants of these people teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley

Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah

One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great 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.

Related: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. 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. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.

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

Tseyi’ / Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Diné Nation, Arizona

Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.

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

The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Related: Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

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

Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.

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

Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

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

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Arizona

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

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

Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Related: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

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

Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.

Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

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

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

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

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Native American Proverb

The Mystique of the Casa Grande Ruins

A four-story structure of mud and wood, the Great House, is all that remains of a community of Hohokam people who lived here during the 14th century

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. It is situated in the flat plain of central Arizona between the Gila and Santa Cruz rivers just north of Coolidge and about 15 miles east of Casa Grande. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. The area has a low elevation and is very hot—often over 110 degrees for several months in the summer. Even in winter, daytime temperatures can reach 80.

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

Guided tours are offered from late November to mid-April. Tours meet in the shaded Interpretive Ramada located immediately outside of the visitor center’s rear doors. While you are seated for the introduction the guide will explain the history of the ruins, the archeology, and the Hohokam Culture. Your guide then leads the tour into Compound A and points out interesting features. You may enter or leave the tour at any point or you may chose to visit the park on a self-guided tour. There are signs and exhibits to enhance your visit with volunteers and staff eager to hear your stories and discuss your questions. Tours are wheelchair friendly.

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

The Ruins

The Great House can be seen from some distance away owing to the flatness of the terrain and the rather curious appearance from a distance—the structure is protected from the harsh desert sun by a large metal roof supported by four great pillars designed by architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. This is an impressive design made necessary to help preserve the building but it is still rather incongruous. The present cover replaced an earlier wooden construction in 1932.

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

The scale of the ruin is best appreciated from close up—it is 60 feet by 40 feet wide at the base and has caliche walls over three feet thick. Although visitors are not allowed into the building owing to its delicate state and for safety reasons, much can be seen from outside including details of the construction with wooden beams supporting the clay walls and various internal features such as stairways and windows. However, besides the protective canopy, the interior contains other modern items such as re-enforcing beams, metal ladders, and measuring devices on the walls, all contributing to the slightly unnatural scene.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

History

It is believed that the Casa Grande functioned partly as an astronomical observatory since the four walls face the points of the compass and some of the windows are aligned to the positions of the sun and moon during the solstice. There are various smaller ruins to explore the remains of a Hohokam farming village and some are yet to be excavated. A second, similarly sized compound is located 850 feet northeast of the Casa Grande though this is usually closed to the public. Nowadays, the roof and walls of the main building provide shelter for several species of birds most notably a great horned owl.

The Hohokam themselves seem to have abandoned the complex around the 16th century. Apart from other Indian peoples and Spanish missionaries the area was not revisited until the 1880s when American settlers arrived and began to threaten the ruins by removing artifacts as souvenirs. In 1892, the Casa Grande became the first archaeological site in the US to be protected.

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Hohokam or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

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

Fact Box

Size: 472 acres

Established: August 3, 1918

Fees: No fee is currently charged

Operating hours: Limited Hours Due to Covid-19; check with the park before planning a visit

Great horned owl at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why go: The Hohokam were expert farmers who developed a network of 1,000 miles of canals to channel water from the Salt and Gila rivers. The monument preserves structures that are 700 years old.

Don’t miss: The tallest building is four stories high and covered with a shade structure to protect it from further deterioration. Based on holes in the walls that correlate to the path of the sun during the solstice it’s believed the building was used, at least partly, to study astronomy. Guided tours are available in the cooler months.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

“National monument” is a rather confusing designation. We most likely know what we’re getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield but the monuments are rarely the statues or shrines their titles suggest. Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give national parks a run for their money. In fact, many do become national parks.

Still, several of the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate and preserve history. Some are the sites that recognize Native American history and preserve ancient pueblos. They encompass celebration, cautionary tales, and hope. These are the national monuments where we can stop to reflect on the past as we look forward into the future with hope. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Aztec Ruins National Monument provides visitors an opportunity to explore ancient ruins built by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s. Aztec Ruins features ceremonial, public, and storage structures as well as the “Great Kiva”, the oldest and largest reconstructed Kiva in North America. The Great Kiva is a 40-foot diameter semi-subterranean structure which was the central religious site of the complex. Take a self-guided tour and explore the 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Step into the mysteries of history. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.” An estimation of dating puts the origins of this structure around 1350 and the abandonment thereof about a century later in 1450. It wasn’t until 1694 that written historic accounts were journaled by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Other explorers, philanthropists, anthropologists, and politicians banded together over the years to research, restore, and preserve the Great House. It was America’s first archaeological reserve in 1892 and declared a National Monument in 1918. Today, visitors can explore the extensive and fascinating compound with the help of guided tours and an interpretive center that offers answers to questions and leaves you to ponder a few more questions yet to be solved.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Three years after founding Georgia in 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to defend the fledgling colony against Spanish attack from Florida. The site, sixty miles south of Savannah, would become the military headquarters for the new colony. Fort Frederica combined a military installation (the fort) with a settlement (the town of Frederica). Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. By 1743, nearly 1,000 people lived at Frederica. The peace treaty that Great Britain and Spain signed in 1748 sounded its death knell. No longer needed to guard against Spanish attack, the garrison was withdrawn and disbanded. Today, the archeological remnants of Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Explore a variety of structures including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. By about A.D. 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep, planting and harvesting crops along the top of the mesa. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people. Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas. The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years. Though the reason is unclear, ancestral Puebloans throughout the area migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona. Today’s Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Discover this historic five-story Native American dwelling carved out of an ancient limestone cliff with twenty rooms. Begun during the twelfth century, it took about three centuries to complete. Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. Explore the museum and wander the trails through a picturesque sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Afterwards you are able to have lunch in the picnic area along the shore of Beaver Creek.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Explore the legacy of ancient peoples in a desert hilltop pueblo. Discover endless views of varying desert habitats and learn about the Sinaguan people at the museum. Starting in A.D. 1000, the Sinagua built the 110-room Tuzigoot pueblo including second and third story structures. The tribe was largely agricultural and had trade routes that spanned hundreds of miles. These ancient peoples left the area around 1400. The museum features exhibits depicting the lifestyle of the Sinaguan Indians as well as an impressive collection of artifacts collected from the pueblo and nearby sites. A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail traces through the pueblo. The hilltop view offers expansive scenery of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.

Worth Pondering…

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s National Park Service sites at these lesser-known locations

Among America’s 418 National Park Service (NPS) sites, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Natchez Trace Parkway 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.

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

Cowpens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cowpens National Battlefield

2018 visitor count: 189,410

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

El Malpais National Monument

2018 visitor count: 154,368

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

2018 visitor count: 103,218

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

Tuzigoot National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tuzigoot National Monument

2018 visitor count: 98,090

Tuzigoot is a small national monument that preserves the remains of dwellings of the 12th century Sinagua Indians. Tuzigoot comprises a cluster of buildings, on top of a small sandstone ridge close to the Verde River valley.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

2018 visitor count: 62,995

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites, including a four-story earthen structure. Interpretive walking tours and exhibits are available.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cumberland Island National Seashore

2018 visitor count: 55.650

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, full of pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. Walk in the footsteps of early natives, explorers, and wealthy industrialists.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

2018 visitor count: 260,375

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

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hovenweep National Monument

2018 visitor count: 40,574

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss. Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

2018 visitor count: 39,361

Founded in 1876 by John Lorenzo Hubbell, this is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation. This site in Ganado is part museum, part art gallery and still a functioning trading post, virtually unchanged since its early days.

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

—Jimmy Im