National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

America’s way-overlooked natural treasures

If national wildlife refuges are the scrappy kid brothers to their pride-of-the-family national park siblings, America’s national monuments are the forgotten Tom girls of the family. Sure, Canyon de Chelly is a national monument. But go ahead: name another. Mount Rushmore is close, but is actually a national memorial. As is Glen Canyon, a national recreation area.

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

The confusingly named destinations—most are actually huge swaths of natural beauty, not statues waiting to be toppled—vastly outnumber the national parks: There are 128 total across 31 states. And with national park-quality beauty paired with a fraction of national park visitation, now is the time to get to know some of these lesser-visited family members you’ve been neglecting. These are just a few of our favorites. 

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Also, get the latest information about your destination before proceeding.

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

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observatory tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit. But don’t worry: those seeking a more solitary experience will still find plenty of open room for social distancing within this 110,000-acre monument along 200 miles of trails.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Like Bryce, the best time to view Cedar Breaks’ stunning rock formations and hoodoos is at sunrise and sunset.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

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

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

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

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Toward the east the Ajo Mountain loop drive is a beautiful 21-mile one-way desert tour that offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. 

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California

Rising from the sandy Coachella Valley desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of Mt San Jacinto. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas.  Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jacinto Mountain is home to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors by cable car from the desert up 6,000 feet to alpine forests in 15 minutes.

The Palm Canyon Fault which runs along the base of San Jacinto Mountain is part of the San Andreas Fault System. The Indian Canyons, located at the base of San Jacinto Mountain and managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, boasts the largest system of native fan palm oases in the US.

Gold Butte National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Welcome to Nevada’s tribute to Mars, a crimson desert landscape where tremendous geometric rock oddities protrude from the sands, seemingly divorced from gravity and logic. Here, endangered tortoises roam the lands alongside bighorns and mountain lions whose domain is sandwiched between Grand Canyon-Parashant and Lake Mead. Ancient rock art can be spotted throughout the 300,000 acre wilds along with ancient rock shelters and ghost towns, showing how this climate has provided inhospitably but beautiful to civilizations both ancient and modern.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis

Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

The reappraisal of Utah over the past decade has been astounding. Long mistaken as a bland expanse of wasteland, more and more people are coming to appreciate the state’s charms and otherworldly beauty. And especially now, its combination of mind-blowing— and isolated— natural landscapes make it ripe for exploration in an RV.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the snow-capped mountains of the north to the iconic red-rock desert landscapes of the national park-packed south, Utah’s terrain changes with every bend in the road. Taken alone, each of these 11 places construct a solid argument for Utah’s scenic dominance. Together, they cement Utah as one of America’s most gorgeous destinations.  

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

Situated near the banks of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah, Moab is the gateway to many of Utah’s grandest locales. Here you’ll find easy access to iconic Arches National Park, the lesser-visited Canyonlands National Park, and diamond-in-the-rough Dead Horse Point State Park all of which combine to make Moab a mind-blowing amalgam of everything that Makes Utah so grand in scope. 

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

But the town in the middle of this vortex is also a thing of beauty. The longtime mountain biker magnet attracts more than its fair share of funky artists, spirit seekers, and people looking to live life to the fullest. In fact, you could easily spend your entire Utah vacation here and still make it one for the books without setting foot in a park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Attracting more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zion‘s stunning landscape offers a variety of terrain from desert to mountains with many visitors looking to hike Angels Landing and The Narrows. Those looking to take it easy can cruise the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (shuttle service has resumed with advance ticketing) or meander the wide-open Pa’rus Trail along the valley floor.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon, Utah’s second-most popular national park is a short 90-minute drive from Zion making it a heck of a one-two punch of southern Utah wow. Yet the landscape undergoes a complete transformation along the way, serving up some of the most epic canyon vistas on Earth. Marvel at the huge concentration of hoodoos (rock spires) that line the seemingly never-ending canyons as you cruise the 18-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping off at the park’s 13 scenic viewpoints including Sunset Point and Natural Bridge. Can’t get enough canyons? Check out the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument for more.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

The land encompassing Cedar Breaks was described in 1868 by early Mormon settlers as “a paradise on the mountain”. A colorful palette of weathered pinnacles and cliffs, Cedar Breaks National Monument is home to some of the most dramatic desert erosion features on this planet. The multi-colored geological amphitheater found at Cedar Breaks is 2,500 feet deep and 3 miles wide with the highest point of the amphitheater’s rim standing at 11,000 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah’s outdoor tour de force continues over at Capitol Reef National Park where a star-studded assortment of cliffs, domes, arches, and canyons do their best to overwhelm the senses of the relatively few visitors who make their way to this park. A bit more off the beaten path with roughly half the visitation as Bryce Canyon and one-quarter of Zion, this fascinating park is something of a cross between those two more famous cousins. In addition to 15 hiking trails and plenty of room for 4WD road touring, visitors can also harvest fruit from the various cherry, apple, and peach orchards in historic Fruita during summer. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. Hiking trails provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

The debate over the quintessential image of the American West starts and ends in Monument Valley. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border within the huge Navajo Nation near the Four Corners, this stunningly cinematic landscape has served as an acting background for everyone from John Wayne to Forrest Gump—and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can tour this living artist’s canvas by driving its 17-mile dirt road, posting up for some glorious sunset photography or even spending the night in a traditional native dwelling while learning about Native American culture over campfire stories and Navajo tacos. Unfortunately, all Navajo tribal parks—including Monument Valley—are currently closed until further notice due to the pandemic.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers similar scenery and is located on BLM land and is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Equal parts refreshing and beautiful, clear, green water dominates Quail Creek State Park. Red, white, and orange cliffs surround the shore, and are set against the Pine Valley Mountains as a backdrop. Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes, ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests, and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon, but those who linger will be rewarded with a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jack Kerouac

Paradise on the Mountain: Cedar Break National Monument

Like standing on the crest of a breaking wave, Cedar Breaks National Monument rests at the end of the Markagunt Plateau, its amphitheater stretching below with multicolored cliffs, spires, and pinnacles

“The Mighty Five”—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches—are the five spectacular national parks found in Utah. All are on the Colorado Plateau, a premier location to see, marvel, and enjoy the creations of earth’s geological history.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service oversees a total of 32 parks, national monuments, recreational areas, and historic sites that are located on the Colorado Plateau, many rivaling the geological beauty of Utah’s Mighty Five. Cedar Breaks National Monument is one such geological paradise of the Colorado Plateau and well worth a summertime visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks is a 6,155 acre preserve of high desert landscapes. The park ranges in elevation from 10,662 feet in the northern region to 8,100 feet near Ashdown Creek on the western boundary. Cedar Breaks is the crown jewel of the Markagunt Plateau and marks the top of the “Grand Staircase” of the Colorado Plateau.

Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway at Brian Head © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even for this modern world, Cedar Breaks National Monument is located in a remote area. There are no park dining or lodging accommodations. The closest town is Brian Head, best known for its winter ski resorts and cool summer rentals.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to the high elevation, Cedar Breaks National Monuments and the roads that connect it to the outside world are usually closed from mid-November to late May. During the summer months the monument offers a 28-site campground with grills, restrooms, showers, and fresh water. An overnight stay at the monument allows visitors to experience the region’s world famous dark skies. Warm clothing and sunscreen are a must even during the days of summer.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land encompassing Cedar Breaks was described in 1868 by early Mormon settlers as “a paradise on the mountain”. A colorful palette of weathered pinnacles and cliffs, Cedar Breaks National Monument is home to some of the most dramatic desert erosion features on this planet. The multi-colored geological amphitheater found at Cedar Breaks is 2,500 feet deep and 3 miles wide with the highest point of the amphitheater’s rim standing at 11,000 feet.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weathering and erosion sculptured the multicolored cliffs, spires, pinnacles, and other unique features at Cedar Breaks. Without such processes, Cedar Breaks would be just another of the many alpine plateaus so common in the American West. The landscape has been under construction for nearly 100 million years and those slow moving forces of nature continue to shape and reshape the landscape today.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archeologists believe that the Southern Paiute people have lived in the Cedar Breaks region since at least 1100 BC. They called the giant amphitheater “u-map-wich” which when translated to English means “place where the rocks are sliding down.”

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earliest American settlers called the area “the badlands” or “breaks” in reference to common cliff like edges that they came upon while traveling across the relatively flat plateaus. Utah juniper trees were the common vegetation of the area and early settlers incorrectly called these trees “cedars” thus soon giving rise to the name Cedar Breaks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An incredible dark sky is one of the attractions for visitors to Cedar Breaks. In January 2018 the monument was designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. Cedar Breaks is the 16th of the 417 National Park Service units to be so designated. In fact, the State of Utah now has seven designated IDA Dark Sky Parks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildflowers bloom in profusion during the summer months with the national monument holding an annual Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival each July. Utah juniper, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and Limber pine make up a diverse and dense forested region. At the highest of elevations, the ancient Bristlecone pine is found. The oldest Bristlecone pine found in Cedar Breaks is believed to be about 1,700 years old.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first tourists to arrive by car to Cedar Breaks occurred in 1919. Between 1920 and 1923 a rustic road was carved from Zion National Park to Cedar Breaks allowing more tourists to discover the splendid landscape. A late 1930s road advertisement proclaimed that Cedar Breaks National Monument had “countless grotesque and magnificent geological forms, caused by water erosion, anointed with all colors of the rainbow.” That description still stands today.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near “The Mighty Five” national parks of Utah and just a few hundred miles north of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Cedar Breaks is all too often passed by. But for those wanting to view nature at its finest, geology’s creative beauty, and dark skies seldom seen today, a trip to Cedar Breaks National Monument is certainly a journey worth traveling.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Look! Nature is overflowing with the grandeur of God!

—John Muir

5 RV Trips for 2019

A new year and an empty calendar! Does inspiration know any finer muse?

A new year and an empty calendar! Does inspiration know any finer muse?

When it comes to RV travel, the arrival of January fuels daydreams of adventures and far-flung exploration.

Here we explore five new and evolving travel opportunities across America, everything from a cool oasis in the West Texas desert and the centennial of America’s most famous geological marvel to wildlife adventure. And with the exception of two— Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival in July and the Custer Park Buffalo Roundup in September—these ideas aren’t tied to a specific date, making them worthy of a trip any time of year.

Start marking up that calendar now.

Balmorhea’s New Beginnings

Expect big changes at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas, which will reopen its swimming pool this winter after major repairs and unveil a revamped motor court and upgraded campground this spring.

Renovations of the lodging facilities had already started when, in May 2018, crews discovered an eroding wall near the high dive in the pool. Officials shut down the swimming hole, dry-docking visitors looking for a respite from the heat.

Pool repairs started in September and should be wrapped up in time for you to take a flying leap into the crisp, fish-filled water by the time temperatures heat up again.

The Grand Canyon

In 2019, the park dedicated to America’s most famous geologic marvel will celebrate its 100-year anniversary with a series of talks, concerts, and special exhibitions throughout the year. And while you can certainly have an awe-inspiring experience without venturing far from the designated lookout points, there’s more to see and experience.

The park becomes extremely crowded when school lets out in June, so plan your visit before then, if possible. To avoid the crowds, plan a trip between May and October to the North Rim: less than 10 percent of the canyon’s 6.2 million annual visitors see this side of the park.

Louisiana

To many, Louisiana is known as the place where jazz music was born, where over-stuffed po’ boys are bountiful, and where the greatest Mardi Gras celebrations take place.

The list of lesser-knowns from this swampy Southern state is deliciously new to the visitor: a steaming hot bowl of gumbo, freshly-made beignets, crawfish, jambalaya, boudin, and crackling. Thankfully, the uninitiated can head down one of Louisiana’s Culinary Trails to acquaint themselves with the candid Creole/Cajun flavors.

But there is more to the Cajun appeal than just the food. Between bites of their tasty cuisine, boredom is never a problem in Cajun Country. Nature experiences are abundant on the Creole Nature Trail, an All-American Road.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

At an elevation of over 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks National Monument looks down into a majestic geologic amphitheater, a three-mile long cirque of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. Like a naturally formed coliseum, the Amphitheater plunges 2,000 feet taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, towers, hoodoos, and canyons. The colorful wildflower bloom is generally at its peak during the first two weeks of July, which coincides with the annual Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival, a wonderful reason to visit the park.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park in the Black Hills encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo.

Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to wildlife such as pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros. Whether hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, or camping, you’ll find your adventure along the park’s roads and trails.

Worth Pondering…
From wonder into wonder, existence opens.

—Lao Tzu