The Top 30 Places to Visit in Arizona

There are a lot of places to visit in Arizona—from admiring the Grand Canyon to experiencing cultural tourist attractions throughout its desert landscape

Arizona’s landscapes are nothing short of stunning. Towering buttes meet hills covered with saguaro cacti. The otherworldly landscape that often feels better suited for Mars than our planet is grounded by what has become Arizona’s other great draw: the proof of human history found in the sites and settlements of Ancestral Puebloans. These archaeological sites which include cliff dwellings, sandstone homes, and petroglyphs dot the state offering a reminder of the people who came before.

With a deep human history and a stunning natural landscape, there is plenty to explore in Arizona, including cities, national parks and monuments, and outdoor attractions. This guide is split into specific sections as Arizona has many different types of places to visit.

So let’s get started.

Best cities to visit in Arizona

Arizona isn’t all desert and canyons; the state has numerous cities that deserve visiting. The following cities are some of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Phoenix from Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Phoenix

Phoenix is the sunny state capital of Arizona. Located in central Arizona, Phoenix is surrounded by mountains and desert landscapes. Its location seems unlikely for a city with skyscrapers and luxury hotels shooting up from what (before 1881) was once sand and dust. However, its incongruous allure is all part of Phoenix’s charm.

Phoenix is the best place to visit in Arizona for a big-city experience. The city is bursting with creativity and attractions including more art galleries than you could see in a whole week.

Phoenix is also home to the Musical Instrument Museum, Natural History Museum, Phoenix Bat Cave, and Desert Botanical Garden.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Tucson

Tucson is another Arizona destination worth repeat visits with history, culture, and outdoor activities galore. Plus, its food game is beyond your wildest expectations. Tucson is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson gave us the Sonoran dog—a bacon-wrapped street dog forged in nearby Sonora and packed into a bun filled with burrito toppings.

Home to the University of Arizona, the city nurtures a vibrant downtown arts scene with the contemporary Tucson Museum of Art forming the backbone of a flourishing community of painters, glass-blowers, and jewelers. When the heat drops at night, that same downtown comes alive with bars, breweries, and upscale restaurants embracing the uniquely Tucson convergence of Mexican and Arizona influences, a dose of green chiles, open-faced quesadillas (cheese crisps), and those exquisite hot dogs

View a great variety of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Two miles of paths lead through 21 acres of displays. Live demonstrations and tours daily.

A desert oasis, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area is a hiker’s paradise. Tucked in a canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Coronado Forest, it is easily accessible from Tucson. Ride the narrated shuttle bus and you can get off and back on at any of the stops for a picnic, hike, or a walk back.

One of the top places to visit, San Xavier del Bac is a Spanish Catholic Mission. This national historic landmark was founded in 1692 and welcomes more than 200,000 visitors per year. The church is considered the finest Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Cottonwood

If Phoenix is best for a big-city feel, Cottonwood is best for the opposite. Part river town, part wine trail, and part historic hub: Cottonwood offers a fun and lively scene that sets it apart from the arid desert to the south and the soaring mountains to the north.

Although it might be best known as a gateway to the nearby red rocks of Sedona, Cottonwood has plenty of charms of its own. They start with the quaint Old Town district and branch out to the banks of the lushly green Verde River and the nearby historic towns of Clarkdale and Jerome.

Any visit to Cottonwood should start with a stop in the Historic Old Town, a district that dates back to the early 1900s when it was a center for the area’s mining and smelter industry. Today, many of the buildings feature the rock and brick architecture of the 1920s and ’30s. Old Town antique stores, wine-tasting venues, six galleries, and three hotels!

Best National Parks to visit in Arizona

What would a trip to Arizona be without visiting a national park? Arizona’s national parks are renowned for their incredible attractions including the famous Grand Canyon.

You can explore the hiking trails, and biking trails, take off-roading tours, or book a scenic helicopter flight—it is up to you. These are the best national parks to visit in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is located just outside Tucson. It is a great place to visit for stunning scenery and hiking trails while visiting Southern Arizona.

The park is most known for its cacti. Indeed, in this national park, you’ll find some of the largest saguaro cacti in the U.S. Some of the cacti live up to 200 years old and grow at a very slow rate. The national park feels like an old American West movie scene and has over 90,000 acres to explore.

Valley View Overlook Trail is a short walk that should take around 20 minutes to complete while hiking to Signal Hill Petroglyphs, a must for anyone interested in ancient art and civilizations.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Petrified Forest National Park

If Petrified Forest National Park sounds fantastic, it’s because it is. However, if you arrive expecting a lush forest full of beautiful trees, you’ll be shocked. The national park is a barren landscape full of fossils and petrified, sliced tree trunks.

The petrified wood is scattered across the national park and you can drive the length of the park in around an hour or two—stopping at whatever spot catches your eye. Some not to miss places include Rainbow Forest Museum, Painted Desert, and Crystal Forest Blue Mesa hiking trails.

Wondering how this natural phenomenon occurs? Petrification of trees takes place when trees have been buried underground without oxygen for thousands of years. Over time, the decaying wood becomes mineralized and turns into fossilized stone creating a replica of the original form, just in a different material.

For a unique natural experience, Petrified Forest National Park is one of the best places to visit in Arizona. We recommend choosing this national park for anyone intrigued by natural mysteries and wanting a memorable experience in Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon! What can I say? The park is one of the best places to visit in the U.S., never mind Arizona. Visiting the Grand Canyon is at or near the top of most people’s bucket list.

South Rim and North Rim are the most popular areas to explore the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is the lesser-seen side of the Grand Canyon and is best for those who want a quieter place to experience this amazing wonder. South Rim is much busier and is packed with different hiking trails.

A popular hiking route is the Bright Angel Trail. The trail is well-maintained and relatively easy. It follows a side canyon, past cliff faces, and various switchbacks before finishing at Plateau Point. Plateau Point has stunning views of the canyon and the park’s scenery.

Of course, you can always splurge on a helicopter ride instead. Many tourists opt to view the canyon from above, which is one of the most exhilarating things to do in Arizona.

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

7. Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of the state. For those who want to experience nature in the north, it is easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument covers over 80,000 acres and is home to the Spider Rock spire. The spire is a 700-foot-high sandstone rock. Spider Rock spire gained its shape by gradual erosion over time and experts believe it was once connected to a ridge. Nowadays, it makes an unusual natural attraction and a great photograph.

You can drop by the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center for expert local guidance on things to see and do. However, you should make sure to try a hiking trail or scenic drive.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

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 its first flower near the age of 35.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Chiricahua National Monument

About 27 million years ago, this Land of Standing-Up Rocks was formed when a violent volcanic eruption spewed forth thick, white-hot ash. This eruption was a thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helen in Washington. As the ash cooled, it fused into an almost 2,000-foot-thick layer of volcanic rock known as rhyolite. The Chiricahua Mountains were created as well during this time. Over the eons, wind, water, and ice sculpted what are today the formations that makeup Chiricahua National Monument.

There are hiking trails, both short loops and longer treks that take you back down the mountain and deep into the gorges and other splendors of this spectacular place. More than 20 miles of trails wind through the park. Duck on a Rock, Totem Pole, and Big Balanced Rock are a few of the more famous formations you will see.

Best State Parks to visit in Arizona

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Catalina State Park

With the Santa Catalina Mountains beckoning in the distance and canyons and seasonal streams dotting the landscape, Catalina State Park provides a delightful respite in the Tucson area. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The park’s 5,500 acres provide miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the nearby Coronado National Forest.

More than 150 species of birds call the park home. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. The state park offers 120 campsites with electric and water utilities suitable for RVs of all lengths. 

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Lost Dutchman State Park

Since the 1840s, many have claimed to know the location of the Peralta family’s lost gold mine in the Superstition Mountains but none of these would-be fortune-seekers became more famous than the Dutchman Jacob Waltz. The German prospector purportedly hid caches of the precious metal throughout the Superstition Wilderness. Fact or fiction, Waltz’s windfall gave the park its name.

You might not find gold during your visit but other treasures include great hiking and biking trails and 138 RV camping sites (68 with electric and water) with sunset views.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Picacho Peak State Park

Picacho rises from the desert seemingly out of nowhere, its sharp buttes like lighthouses guiding travelers home. It wasn’t always a sight for road-weary eyes, though. In 1862, Confederate and Union soldiers clashed here in the Battle of Picacho Pass, a fight marked in history as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

These days during the spring, vibrant wildflowers carpet the ground; come winter, the challenging trails that ascend the sunny peaks draw thrill-seeking hikers.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Red Rock State Park

Oak Creek runs for nearly 2 miles throughout this 286-acre state park adorning the sandstone mesas and red boulders with leafy riparian habitats. If we’re judging Sedona hiking hot spots, it doesn’t get much better than the park’s juniper-studded trails and vortex-framed vistas.

Red Rock State Park is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Arizona which is why it makes sense that it serves as an environmental education hub. From the Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits and film presentations to guided nature walks and full moon hikes programming offers insight into Sedona’s majestic landscape.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Alamo Lake State Park

As far as lakeside parks go, this one in western Arizona has no beach and not much shoreline hiking. But! It’s considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. Anglers: Pack your gear and reserve one of the 15 full-service camping sites or cabins where the front porch makes for an ideal spot to spin yarns about the catch of the day.

Patagonia Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Patagonia Lake State Park

South of Sonoita, the blue waters of Patagonia Lake glisten for 265 acres. Unlike the craggy escarpments that border many desert lakes here it’s all rounded corners and gentle slopes. The surrounding hills ease down to the tall grasses that line the shore. A trail meanders from the beach to Sonoita Creek which formed the lake when it was dammed.

A marina provides boat rentals: canoes, pontoons, rowboats, and paddleboats. In a former life, this land was the home of the Sobaipuri and Papago tribes, both related to the Pima Indians. Today, it’s the home away from home for campers, birders, swimmers, sunbathers, boaters, and anglers.

Best Outdoor Attractions

After exploring the best national and state parks and cities, let’s look at Arizona’s largest category—its outdoor attractions.

Arizona is perfect if you love being outdoors and experiencing natural attractions. The state is full of things to see and do outdoors including visiting Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley. Ready to be inspired? Let’s take a look.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Monument Valley

Monument Valley is located along the Arizona-Utah border. If you want to visit easily, overnight at the Valley’s View Campground, and what a view you’ll enjoy especially at sunset. The valley is one of the most famous landscapes in the U.S. and easily one of the best places to visit in Arizona.

The valley is over 90,000 acres and is full of hiking trails and spectacular rock formations. It is most known for its towering sandstone buttes which you can experience on scenic drives or hiking trails. Don’t miss Forest Gump Point, the iconic viewpoint used in famous movies and is an important filming location in cinematic history.

The valley is a great place to cut through if you are planning an Arizona road trip. There are many things to see while driving through the valley and the scenery is perfect for memorable road tripping.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Lake Powell

If you are heading up to the Arizona-Utah border it is well worth detouring to Lake Powell. The lake is a stunning artificial body of water situated between Monument Valley and Grand Canyon National Park. It is a beautiful place to visit in Arizona. The lake’s bright blue water and orange sandstone surroundings cut a picture-perfect scene.

The lake is fed by the Colorado River and covers over 2,000 miles of shoreline. The Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a significant attraction on the lake and the vast stone arc is the largest natural bridge in the world. It is an excellent attraction to combine with enjoying the lake itself.

Many people spend a day or two staying along the shores of the lake. You may wish to visit on a day trip or book a campsite so that you can stay overnight. Full-service sites are available.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Fascinated by ancient culture and archaeological sites of inhabitation? Montezuma Castle National Monument is the place to visit. The site is home to several cliffside dwellings, built and lived in by Indigenous People around 1100 to 1425 AD.

Sadly, access inside the dwellings has now been prohibited in an understandable attempt to protect the site from excessive damage. However, visitors can take a virtual tour inside the houses. They look incredible from the outside and you can enjoy numerous hiking trails for different views.

Desert Botanical Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. Desert Botanical Garden

I mentioned the Desert Botanical Garden when discussing Phoenix. The garden is located in Papago Park in the center of Arizona’s capital city. However, the Desert Botanical Garden is worthy of a spot on our list in its own right.

Why is the Desert Botanical Garden so spectacular? The 150-acre garden has over 50,000 desert plants and is the ideal place to visit for a convenient desert experience. The botanical garden is an easy and fun alternative for those who don’t have time to visit major desert locations like Saguaro National Park.

Glen Canyon Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon Dam is situated in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a one million-acre reserve encompassing biking trails, hiking trails, and Lake Powell.

Planning a trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Park to visit Lake Powell? I recommend taking a detour to visit the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam is a hydroelectric power plant and has become an iconic attraction along the Colorado River.

Visitors can take boat tours to view Glen Canyon Dam up close or even fly over the dam for a flight experience. The 710-foot infrastructure is incredible from a distance and even more impressive up close. Of course, to save a bit of money, you can always walk across Glen Canyon Dam Bridge where you’ll still have great views over the dam.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead is another impressive artificial attraction. The lake has the highest water capacity of any U.S. reservoir and sits on the Nevada-Arizona border. If you love water activities and lakeside living, Lake Mead is one of the best places to visit in Arizona to unwind and relax.

Allow time to take a Lake Mead cruise as the contrast between desert and an oasis-like body of water is striking and best experienced from the water itself. You can also fish and boat on the lake.

If you are planning a road trip, Lake Mead is ideally located en route to Las Vegas. It is worth detouring to enjoy the lake and consider combining it with a visit to the nearby Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

22. Hoover Dam

Once the tallest dam in the world, the Hoover Dam has a nostalgic kind of power. While it no longer holds that grand title, it is still one of Arizona’s best places to visit. Visitors quickly appreciate its power and strength. It is said that the dam could withstand the force of Niagara Falls which gives you an excellent perspective on how strong it is.

You can view the Hoover Dam from afar or drop by the Hoover Dam Visitors Center to book a guided tour. Tours typically include access to the Hoover Dam tunnels, an elevator ride to the top, and special access to functional rooms throughout the building.

If you are interested in architecture or just want to see a national historic landmark up close, the dam is great to visit. It is also combined with a trip to Las Vegas as the dam sits on the Nevada-Arizona border.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Jerome State Historic Park

Fancy indulging in a bit of history? Jerome State Historic Park is a fantastic place to visit in Jerome. The state park has a couple of acres surrounding Douglas Mansion which has been transformed into a quirky mining museum.

Visitors can wander through two floors of informative exhibits plus outdoor gardens. The museum balances general mining stories and the local town’s history. You can learn about region-specific minerals and mining processes through various mediums including cinematic videos.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. The Superstition Mountains

The Superstition Mountains cover 160,000 acres and are full of gorgeous mountainous and desert scenes. That is not what makes this place famous, though; it is the lost gold mines.

Legends of gold have kept mining companies and independent hunters searching the mountains for years. Many hunters have hit the jackpot and found lots of riches. You can join the crowds or find non-gold-related entertainment in the mountains.

You can visit the Superstition Mountains Museum, explore the surrounding Tonto National Forest, or hike along one of the various trails. These mountains are one of the best places to visit in Arizona for adventure.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

25. Sedona

A magnet for outdoorsy types, Sedona enjoys a picturesque location at the base of Oak Creek Canyon surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land. You could easily get swept away in all the activities to be enjoyed nearby from hiking and biking to rafting and fishing but the town itself is also well worth exploring. Thanks to its longstanding connection to the art world—surrealist painter Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning moved here in the 1940s—there are more than 80 galleries to explore as well as street art and performing arts centers.

More places to visit in Arizona

These destinations are special additions to my guide on the best places to visit in Arizona. Whether they are a museum or sacred tribal lands they don’t fit into the outdoor tourist attraction category. I’ve given them a category of their own.

Here is my final subsection, my special list of more places to visit in Arizona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

26. Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is one of the most unique places to visit in Arizona and there’s no way we couldn’t add this unique church to my list.

While I’m not placing the church in the outdoor attraction category, its exterior is a beautiful sight. The church is wedged between two sandstone buttes and has large, plain glass windows that give it a modern, chic design. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is not your typical church.

You can enter the church to look around or join a service if you wish. The church is near Sedona and plenty of other attractions so it isn’t too much of a detour to make.

Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

27. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is situated on the outskirts of Tucson. However, the museum deserves a place on this list in its own right.

The museum is a bit of everything from a natural history museum to a zoo and a botanical garden. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum covers 98 acres and includes an aquarium section and live animal exhibits plus flora displays in the botanical garden section. There is also an art gallery for visitors to enjoy.

You could easily spend a whole day at the museum. The museum is a chance to experience multiple attractions at once.

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway

Looking for a scenic drive? Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is an incredible, relatively short scenic drive that you can enjoy from Tucson. Short enough to comfortably squeeze into a day yet long enough to provide diverse scenes and attractions, this scenic byway is a great place to drive.

Mount Lemmon Highway starts near the outskirts of Tucson.

I recommend stopping at Babad Do’ag Scenic Overlook, Molino Canyon Vista, Thimble Peak Vista, Windy Point Vista, and Geology Vista Point. There are quite literally dozens of hiking trails and trailheads along the highway as well. You can easily park up and take a detour on foot.

Allow extra time again once you reach Mount Lemmon’s peak. There is Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Mount Lemmon Sky Observatory, and a Fire Lookout Station to visit. Mount Lemmon has a small town near the mountain top where you can grab refreshments and do some light shopping.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Tombstone

A relic of the Wild West that refused to become relegated to the history books, Tombstone has a legacy stretching back some 140 years. The Cochise County town started life in 1877 when prospector Ed Schieffelin arrived here in the hunt for silver. He struck lucky discovering huge reserves of the stuff—as well as large gold deposits—and the town boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unlike many similar places, Tombstone didn’t become a total ghost town. Today, it’s filled with everything from saloon-style restaurants to Western boutiques, all paying homage to the days when prospectors and merchants ran riot here. 

Watson Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Watson Lake

Although it may not be as well-known as big hitters like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, Watson Lake is certainly up there with Arizona’s most beautiful landscapes. This stunning natural lake situated just four miles from downtown Prescott provides a breathtaking backdrop for several outdoor pursuits including swimming, hiking, boating, and kayaking. For the best all-round tour, hike the six-mile Peavine Trail which loops around its granite boulders and follows along the route of the former Santa Fe Railway providing plenty of scenic vistas along the way. 

The Grand Canyon State is packed with wonderful activities and tourist destinations. Visiting Arizona is guaranteed to be memorable and you’ll stay well entertained throughout your stay. The state has so much to offer, whether you want a typical desert experience, a quirky tourist attraction, or a cultural immersion.

Have a fantastic trip. I hope you manage to experience at least a few of these best places to visit in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip south.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

14 Outdoor Adventures You Can Only Have in Arizona

Adventurers, take note: Whatever you’re into, you can get into it in Arizona

Sunny skies, year-round perfect weather, and stellar sunsets complemented by rugged backcountry terrain make Arizona an adventurer’s dreamland. From the North Country’s pine-forested rim that drops into the depths of the Grand Canyon to the picturesque Sonoran Desert landscape of central and southern Arizona, all the ingredients for the quintessential American adventure recipe are at your fingertips.

Check my list of some of the can’t-miss experiences, possibly life-changing opportunities, and adventures that give a glimpse into the incredible backcountry world of the amazing state of Arizona.

Superstition Mountain Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine

Nothing more perfectly sums up Arizona’s sense of adventure than the search for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. The truth behind the legend is harder to pin down than a Gila monster but the gist is that somewhere hidden in the Superstition Mountains just east of Phoenix is a gold mine once tended by German immigrants Jacob Waltz and Jacob Weiser.

The two men pulled untold amounts of the precious metal from the mountain before a murderous run-in with—depending on who you ask—Apaches or each other left all who knew the mine’s location dead.

To this day, adventurers set out into the Superstitions in search of the mine. Sadly, more than a few have met the same fate as Waltz and Weiser.

If you’re not particularly interested in hunting for gold there are still more than a dozen access points into the surrounding wilderness that can take you on a short day walk or a multi-day expedition. Give the Peralta Trail a shot—this nearly five-mile hike is one of the state’s most popular.

Mount Lemmon Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Longboard (or bicycle) down Mount Lemmon

Rising 9,000-plus feet in the north of TucsonMount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and for longboarders one of the truly epic runs in the country. The 20-plus miles of highway are paved smooth and offer great views and a challenging ride.

Don’t take my word for it—check out the plentiful YouTube videos. And watch out for the cactus!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim

You simply can’t have a conversation about Arizona adventures without mentioning the Grand Canyon. The 24-mile Rim-to-Rim hike is an immense challenge that gives those who complete it an intimate understanding of the canyon that’s impossible to attain without dipping below its surface.

Start on the North Kaibab Trail and descend 6,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon where the Colorado River awaits. On the way down, you’ll pass through every ecosystem that exists between Canada and Mexico. Cross the Colorado and connect with the Bright Angel Trail and return to the surface along the South Rim passing hundreds of millions of years’ worth of history preserved in the surrounding rocks.

Most guides suggest planning on two to five days to complete the trail at a regular pace.

4. Ride horses around the legendary landscape of Sedona

If the red-rock cliffs that preside over Sedona don’t make you pause it’s time to book a trip to Mars because Earth has nothing left to offer. In the early evening, the spires reflect a reddish-purple hue that no photo could ever hope to do justice. Whether or not you subscribe to New Age beliefs, it’s easy to understand why people say there’s energy here that’s different than anywhere else on the planet.

There are many ways to explore the desert scenery around the cliffs but none gives you the chance to interact with nature on its own terms quite like riding a horse. Horseback trips typically last between one and three hours with sunrise and sunset options available. Beyond the red rocks, you can catch glimpses of the Verde Valley, the Mogollon Rim, and if you’re lucky some wildlife as well.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Explore the Petrified Forest

While it may not be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, Petrified Forest National Park offers an amazing place to see extinct species. Many of the fossilized logs that dot the floor of the 146-square-mile national park belong to long-extinct trees. Interestingly, the site of the park is not where an actual forest stood but rather an ancient riverbed where fallen plants accumulated.

To get the most out of your Petrified Forest adventure, forget the trails—the National Park Service administers eight off-the-beaten-path routes. Check out Devil’s Playground, an especially old part of the park. Only three permits are handed out for it each week with information on how to access the route supplied only to those granted permission to take on the journey.

6. Off-road to ghost towns

While Arizona is a state known for its epic highways and scenic views, even more, it happens off the state-maintained thoroughfares. For every ghost town worth a visit there’s the main road to take you there and a secret second entrance for those with a hearty sense of adventure and a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

Off-roading or wheeling to the initiated is a great way to see Arizona’s wildlands and get a dose of history as well. Many off-road trails pass through old mining towns and other long-abandoned remnants of human habitation. The Bradshaw Mountains Trail takes you past the ghost town of Bumble Bee which was once a stagecoach stop for the U.S. Cavalry.

Traveling by these backroads is probably one of the most vastly under-appreciated ways to explore the state. There’s simply no way to not feel like a pioneer when you cross a mountain path or stream named for some long-deceased prospector. For a good off-roading guidebook, try the Guide to Arizona Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails, or check out the Off-Highway Vehicle Program at AZStateParks.com.

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

7. Explore both well-known and secret ancient cliff dwellings and ruins

Arizona is home to some of the most famous cliff dwellings in the world. Montezuma’s Castle in the Verde Valley is an 800-year-old, five-story structure built by the Sinagua Indians and one of the best-preserved examples of such a site. Three hours northeast on Navajo Land is Canyon de Chelly and its White House Ruins.

While many of Arizona’s ruins require a guide or sit inside well-developed tourist sites there are still plenty that demand a more intrepid spirit. The Sycamore Canyon Cliff Dwellings north of Clarkdale lie at the end of a tough drive and hike but exploring these magnificent ruins away from the masses is a worthy payoff. Just remember that when there’s no park ranger to keep an eye on things, it’s up to you to ensure these locations remain intact and pristine for the following generation of explorers.

8. Stand in a shaft of light in Antelope Canyon

There are other slot canyons but few if any can truly compete with the beauty of Antelope Canyon. Located east of Page on Navajo tribal land, the roughly quarter-mile-long canyon is a tight squeeze through a wonderland of colored sandstone, speckled shafts of light, and a smooth sandy floor. There are two canyon routes here, the Crack and the Corkscrew; both offer jaw-dropping palettes of light and color. Don’t you dare enter without your camera (and the mandated guide)!

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. See the biggest cacti in North America at Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park boasts some absolutely huge cacti. They dominate the desert landscape and make for some very cool photo ops. Located in the Sonoran Desert, it’s worth dedicating at least a couple of days to this park. Tackle the 1.5-hour King Canyon, Gould Mine Loop hike, walk the Signal Hill trail out to ancient petroglyphs, or go for some backcountry camping if you’re looking for a real adventure. 

10. Tour Hopi country

If you’re fortunate enough to take part in a tour of Hopi land you won’t just see some of the most beautiful terrain in the Southwest—you’ll also be given a lesson in the importance of living in harmony with nature and showing respect for all things, alive and otherwise.

The Hopi inhabit 12 villages spread across three separate mesas in northeastern Arizona. These homes have been occupied continuously for centuries, longer than most—if not all—settlements in the U.S. Your tour will include explanations of Hopi beliefs and culture, panoramic views from the high villages, and of course culinary treats.

Make sure to review the visitor etiquette (which includes refraining from taking photos or recordings of any kind) before you go. This is one Arizona-only adventure you can’t post to Facebook—which makes it all the more special.

Off-road adventure at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Off-road in Sedona

It’s easy to imagine Zeus and the other Greek gods bickering over whether to settle on Mt. Olympus or in Sedona’s sandstone red rocks. During the evening, the massive outcroppings turn a shade of red so intense and worthy of contemplation that they feel like massive antennae signaling to the New Agers who flock from across the planet to admire them.

Like so much of Arizona, Sedona is a place that holds onto its secrets. Many beautiful views are accessible from the road but an entire world opens up when you have an off-road vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. To accommodate, there are several companies offering jeep tours to remote locations among the red rocks. Trips typically last between two and three hours and will take you to sweeping desert views and the ruins of ancient Native American dwellings.

12. Walk in Geronimo’s shadow at Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument is a maze of volcanic rock spires in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Boulders balance on top of each other so precariously it can feel as if the laws of physics have been suspended.

Covering nearly 12,000 acres, this is where Native American warrior Geronimo and other Apaches hid and planned attacks against the invading U.S. Army. Today, the national monument is notable for hiking trails and birdwatching—look out for bald eagles and prairie falcons. For an unbeatable view, be sure to check out Massai Point.

Jerome State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Mine the ramshackle history of Jerome

Lots of people recognize Jerome as a great day trip but it’s time to think bigger. Spend a night or two in this mountainside artist community soaking up the culture and general weirdness.

Visit Jerome State Historic Park which preserves a rambling 8,700-square-foot mansion built in 1916. Once the opulent home of mine owner James Douglas, it now serves as an informative museum filled with photographs, artifacts, mining, equipment, minerals, and models of the network of shafts and tunnels dug through the mountains.

Sitting a mile north of Jerome, Gold King Mine and Ghost Town harbors an assortment of ramshackle buildings, a menagerie of friendly animals, and a sprawling array of rusted machinery that forever teeters between ruin and redemption.

Coronado Pass looking east © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Picnic at Montezuma Pass, hike to a cave

Nestled in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains abutting the Mexican border, Coronado National Memorial commemorates and interprets the Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542 and its lasting impacts on Southwest culture. Located about 20 miles south of Sierra Vista, the memorial is part of Arizona’s Sky Island Mountains filled with spectacular scenery.  

Enter on the park road, which climbs from verdant grasslands into oak woodlands and continues through heavier forest up Montezuma Canyon. Past the visitor center the road is paved for a mile and graded dirt for the upper 2 miles. It twists around tight switchbacks (vehicles over 24 feet are prohibited) and steep grades as the world falls away below.

Montezuma Pass Overlook sits at 6,575 feet flanked by picnic tables and interpretive signs, a perfect spot for an end of summer picnic celebration. Afterward you can make a short scramble (0.8 mile round-trip) to the summit of Coronado Peak, crowned with a shade ramada and additional signs describing the Coronado Expedition.

Adventurous types will want to visit Coronado Cave, one of the few open, undeveloped caves in southern Arizona. You don’t have to worry about squeezing through. The large cavern is 600 feet deep and in most places about 70 feet wide. Legend has it that Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo often hid out in the cave.

FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

The Best National Parks to Visit in January

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in January, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in January, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this article.

Planning a trip to the US national parks in January but don’t know which ones to visit? In January, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the five best national parks to visit in January plus several bonus parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in January

Despite cold temperatures and snow along much of the northern half of the United States, January is still a wonderful month to visit the national parks.

January has one of the lowest numbers for park visitation for the entire year. Many people just took time off for the winter holidays so travel is light in January.

On this list, most of these parks are geared towards escaping the cold weather and visiting some warmer, less snow covered destinations in the US.

Best National Parks to visit in January

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

This national park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro National Park is located in southern Arizona. Temperatures in January are relatively warm making this a great time to visit this park.

The national park is divided into two sections. The Tuscon Mountain District which is located to the west of Tucson has the denser population of cacti and it is the more popular area of the park to visit. To the east is the Rincon Mountain District. You won’t see quite as many cacti here but the mountains form a nice backdrop for photography.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Saguaro in January: This is one of the warmest parks to visit in January. And if you are planning a January road trip, a visit here can be combined with the Grand Canyon, another park that makes our best national parks in January list. However, January is one of the busiest months of the year to visit Saguaro National Park so expect some crowds on the hiking trails and scenic drives.

Weather: In January, the average high is 66°F and the average low is 40ºF. Rainfall chances are very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park (Tuscon Mountain District) is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is worthy of a visit.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

In 2022, Zion National Park was the second most visited park in the U.S. with more than 4.6 million visitors. Crowds are huge from early spring through fall so for the best experience I recommend visiting during the off season.

January is the month with the fewest numbers of visitors to Zion. So, if you want to hike the trails with low crowds, January is the best time to go.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in January: To avoid the crowds. This is the quietest month to visit the park in terms of visitation. You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in January. There is a small chance of snow…but wouldn’t it be beautiful to see Zion with a light dusting of snow?

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:45 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm which gives you 10 hours of daylight. That’s plenty of time to hike a trail or two. Plus, you can stick around for sunset and then have a nice dinner in Springdale.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In January, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Just like Zion, January is the quietest month of the year to visit Arches National Park. This is a good thing because Arches is another extremely popular park to visit in the US with over 1.4 million visitors in 2022.

Arches National Park is a beautiful wonderland of arches, rock formations, and short hiking trails. Not only will you find over 2,000 arches here but you will also see hoodoos, fins of sandstone rocks, massive mesas, and balanced rocks.

You can see the highlights of the park right from your car or by taking short hikes but for those who want to venture deeper into the park there are several very cool hikes to choose from.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in January: To take advantage of lower crowd levels. In January 2022, about 40,000 people visited Arches in January. Two months later, in March, that number rose to 140,000. June saw the most visitors hitting 170,000 people in just that month.
For some people braving chilly temperatures could be worth it to visit the park with just a fraction of the people who visit later in the year.

Weather: The weather is a little bit cooler in Arches than Zion in January. The average high is 42°F and the average low is 22°F. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in January.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Words and photos cannot accurately describe what it is like to look out across the Grand Canyon for the first time. This is a place that needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the immense beauty of this place.

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US. The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the Grand Canyon, there are several rims to visit. The South Rim with its overlooks and hiking trails is the most popular to visit and the views from here are some of the best. Most visitors spend their time on the South Rim when they visit the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in January: The Grand Canyon is busy all year but January and February are the quietest months to visit this national park (July typically gets the most visitors). January is also the coldest month of the year to visit the Grand Canyon so keep that in mind. Even though it is located in Arizona, the South Rim is at a high elevation and this keeps temperatures lower than places like Saguaro National Park and Phoenix. But if you want to visit the Grand Canyon with low crowds, January is one of the best months to go. 

Weather: The average high is only 44°F and the average low is 20°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunrise and/or sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour by airplane or helicopter.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How many days do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Four days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

With its desert scenery, hiking trails, rock climbing routes, hidden oases, scenic drives, and trees that look like they have been plucked from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Tree National Park is a joy to explore.

Hike the Arch Rock Trail, learn about the plants that thrive in the Mojave Desert on the Cap Rock Nature Trail, see Skull Rock, and go hiking in Hidden Valley. A favorite experience is hiking the Hall of Horrors and searching for the hidden slot canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Joshua Tree National Park in January: This national park is located in southern California so even in January, temperatures are relatively warm. Park visitation tends to be high from November through April but crowds thin out just a little bit in January making this month a great time to visit if you want mild temperatures and slightly lower crowds. You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 35°F.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 more National Parks to visit in January

Here are two more great national parks to visit in January. Cooler temperatures in these parks kept them off the main list above but they still make excellent wintertime destinations.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located in Utah not far from Zion and Arches (mentioned above). This park tends to be colder with the average high just getting up to 40°F and the average low at 20°F. Snow is likely this time of year. But if you are planning a Utah’s Mighty 5 road trip, Capitol Reef is worth the visit even in January but bring plenty of warm clothes.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Just like Capitol Reef, Canyonlands National Park was left off of the main list above because it is cold in January. It’s actually a few degrees colder in Canyonlands than Capitol Reef and snowfall is higher (Canyonlands on average receives 6 inches of snow in January). But if you have plans to visit Arches, Canyonlands is just a short drive away and worth it if you have the time.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Best National Parks to Visit in December

Wondering where to travel in December? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in December!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, I list five beautiful national parks plus six bonus parks and a road trip. Whether you are planning a family getaway during Christmas break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, I have lots of great ideas for you.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in December

December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December and camping reservations are difficult to find.

If you have flexibility for your travel dates it’s best to plan your trip for early December or wait until January.

Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than eight hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks keep in mind that by 4:30 pm it could be getting dark giving you very limited sightseeing time. I provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in December

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that I recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is the third most popular national parks in the US with over 4.6 milluin visitors in 2022 so for the best experience I recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.

In December, the weather is chilly in Zion but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.

Early in the month, not only are crowds lower but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year’s).

Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also easier.

For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded early to mid-December is a great time as is January.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather it can get into the 70s.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow but that makes it even more beautiful.

Winter is sometimes called the secret season at the Grand Canyon. It’s the season when the skies are the clearest, the temperatures are the coolest, and the tourist numbers are at the lowest—meaning it’s an excellent time to visit.

The first thing to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park in winter is that the North Rim is NOT open to vehicles between October and May. But the South Rim (where the majority of people go anyway) is still fully operational.

December is also a great time to go hiking.

The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long but around the winter holiday season it becomes even more special.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona such as Sedona or Monument Valley.

Weather: The average high is only 43°F and the average low is 18°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Saguaro instead) but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.

Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F and the average low is 21°F. There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky which is located west of Moab is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.

The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here due to its higher elevation but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer).

Weather: The average high is 37°F and the average low is 23°F at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park with its iconic arches and unique rock formations is one of the most recognizable parks in the US. Delicate Arch is the number one landmark to see inside of the park but lots of other wonderful adventures.

Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.

The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther you can see eight arches in just one hike.

November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical especially around the holidays.

Weather: The average high is 42°F and the average low is 24°F. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get into the 60s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Two more parks to visit in December

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December with the average high coming in about 58°F. This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon did not make my December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing with the average high in the mid 30s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.

If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 since the other four parks made my December list.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in December

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in Chirichua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

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. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. 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.

December road trip ideas

The American Southwest

Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. It can be chilly/cold particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon but some places warm up very nicely midday such as Monument Valley.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

10 Amazing Places to RV in November 2023

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

The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

—C.S. Lewis

Though best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis was also an accomplished poet and literary scholar. During the Second World War, he hosted a series of radio talks for the BBC including a sermon aimed especially at young wartime scholars trying to find their paths (from which this quote comes). His words ring just as true now as they did in that fraught time: If we worry too much about the future, we might miss the opportunities waiting for us right here in the present moment.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in September and October. Also, check out my recommendations from November 2022 and December 2022.

Urbanna Oyster Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Oyster Lovers Experience

An evolution of Urbanna Days that began in 1957, the Urbanna Oyster Festival (67th annual, November 3-4, 2023) as we know it today hosts over 50,000 people in the square mile town over two days. Visitors flock from all over to celebrate the oyster!

In 1988 it was designated as the “official” oyster festival of the Commonwealth of Virginia and maintains that title today.

Come by BOAT or come by LAND! The charming Town of Urbanna closes its streets for this big celebration of everything OYSTER! It’s foodie heaven with over 50 food vendors and every kind of OYSTER! Raw, steamed, roasted, Rockefeller, fried, stewed, oysters in a pot pie and festival food fare like BBQ and crab bisque.

Arts and crafts, antique auto shows, children’s activities, and live bands are spread throughout the town.  The town marina offers historical boats and exhibits on the conservation of the Chesapeake Bay, watermen, and the oyster industry.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Wonderland of Rocks

It’s been more than two years since West Virginia’s New River Gorge became America’s most recent national park and since then outdoor recreation has continued to soar in popularity. The National Park Service manages more than 400 sites across the United States but less than 20 percent (63) are national parks with the scale and amenities that can support heavy visitation. Currently, 20 states do not have a national park.

There are many benefits to having a national park. They can be a boon for regional tourism and bring federal resources for conserving land that may be vulnerable to development or invasive species.

So where could the next national park be? The U.S. is full of worthy candidates. However national parks are created through congressional legislation, and many considerations include available infrastructure such as roads and restrooms. Community advocacy can help fuel the effort. With strong local and federal support, Chiricahua National Monument stands a good chance of becoming America’s 64th national park.

 It’s easy to see why the homeland of the Chiricahua Apache Nation is often called a Wonderland of Rocks. The monument is a labyrinth of towering stone spires (hoodoos) and eye-popping balanced rock formations. Arizona’s representatives in Congress have already introduced a bipartisan national park re-designation bill and advocates see the creation of such a park as an opportunity to establish a long-term working relationship between the NPS and tribes with ancestral roots in national park lands.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Chihuahuan Desert landscape

Gleaming gypsum crystal dunes roll as far as the eye can see at White Sands National Park. With waves towering up to 60 feet tall, the composition of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert landscape is constantly changing due to wind and weather patterns. Hardy plants like yuccas, grasses, and shrubs have evolved to survive in the shifting sands, adding texture to the spectacle of shapes and shadows that define the scenery.

This remarkable landscape is fit to be appreciated on camera, by foot, on Dunes Drive by bike (or car), and famously on saucer sleds down the dunes. Like many national parks in the country, White Sands is remotely located and can require around an hour or more of travel time from your accommodation. The journey is well worth it!

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Lake Martin

Tucked into the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country and part of The Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve, Lake Martin is part of a larger cypress-tupelo swamp. Popular for fishing and general outdoor recreation, Lake Martin is a great place for spotting wildlife. It’s also a nesting spot for waterbirds including herons, egrets, neotropic cormorants, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, and anhingas. Check out the visitor center and adjacent boardwalk for a quick tour, or stroll the 2.5-mile levee walking trail.

Arizona 89A from Prescott to Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Outdoor activities and wine in small-town Arizona

Halfway between Prescott and Sedona, you’ll pass through the community of Cottonwood in the heart of the Verde Valley. Cottonwood makes a fantastic base camp to lace up your hiking boots and explore the outdoors. On the banks of the Verde River just outside of town, you can camp, swim, fish, and hike at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Just a short distance from there, discover American Indian history among ancient hilltop pueblos at Tuzigoot National Monument.

The Verde Valley is one of Arizona’s three nationally recognized viticultural (wine-growing) areas. Save some time to stop and sample the local wines in any of the tasting rooms in Old Town Cottonwood.

The above towns and attractions are just a glimpse of what you’ll find in North Central Arizona’s wild canyons and valleys.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Hit the road, Texas-style

Akoozie in the gift shop at the Spoetzl Brewery demands, Eat Meat. Drink Beer. That pretty much sums up any good day trip to Shiner, a small town that’s home to roughly 2,000 souls and the famed brewery that produces iconic Shiner beers.

For the meat, options abound along the route to Shiner. For lunch, consider a stop in Lockhart for some of Central Texas’s best barbecue. There’s Smitty’s Market where the line starts right next to the open pit and the ’cue is served on sheets of paper, old-school style like all the best Texas barbecue. Other celebrated Lockhart options include Black’s Barbecue and Kreuz Market.

There’s also City Market and Luling BBQ literally across the street from each other in the town of Luling.

The beer part of this adventure, naturally, happens most deliciously in Shiner. Czech and German immigrants founded a brewery here in 1909 after discovering artesian water. Bavarian Kosmos Spoetzel bought the operation, named it for himself, and continued using traditional methods as its brewmaster from 1914 to 1950. Today, Spoetzel is one of the largest independent craft brewers in the country selling beers in all 50 states and Mexico, every drop of it brewed here.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

If you love outer space, this visitor center is a must-see. It’s one of the most highly-rated destinations in the country and almost everybody reports that they loved their experience. You could easily spend an entire day here learning about the history and the future of space travel.

Guests have access to a variety of activities and learning experiences. You can touch a real moon rock, speak to astronauts, and get up close and personal with a rocket.

Tons of tours, videos, and exhibits are suitable for all kinds of people. The only downside of this experience is the price point. It’s a bit discouraging to see that entrance fee, especially if you have younger kids who might not get their money’s worth. Overall, this place is worth a visit though!

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Why I LOVE Utah

If you have never been to Utah, make sure and put it on your list of places to visit! We fell in LOVE with Utah for so many reasons. Number one is all of the National Parks in the state like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. But also so many state parks and the beautiful Scenic Byway 12. The scenery is constantly changing and each place has its unique beauty. From high in the mountains with aspens and cooler temps to down in the canyons or red or white rock faces and warmer temps. Utah is an adventurers’ paradise!

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Tombstone Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Spending a perfect day in Tombstone

Start the perfect day in Tombstone with a hearty breakfast at O K Café Tombstone then visit the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park where the history of the Wild West comes alive.

Afterward, take a trip to Boothill Graveyard for a unique, albeit somber, experience, as it’s the final resting place for many of Tombstone’s early residents.

Have lunch at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon for a taste of authentic Western cuisine in a setting that’s straight out of the 1880s. After the meal continue the day’s excitement with a stagecoach tour around Tombstone offering a different perspective of this historic town.

The evening’s entertainment is a performance at the Bird Cage Theater, a haunted landmark that once served as a saloon, gambling hall, and brothel. Finally, end the day with dinner and a nightcap at Crystal Palace Saloon.

Celebrating pecans © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Louisiana Pecan Festival

This celebration of one of the South’s top crops offers a unique autumn attraction for up to 75,000 attendees each year in Colfax, Louisiana. Held on the first full weekend in November (November 3-5, 2023), the Louisiana Pecan Festival typically kicks off on Friday with Children’s Day which features a petting zoo, rock walls, games, and other free family-friendly activities. Festival attendees will enjoy a parade, live music, arts and crafts booths, a cooking contest, carnival rides, and fireworks throughout the weekend.

Visitors can sample and purchase pecan specialties including pies, pralines, jams, and candies as well as catch numerous live performances by the Louisiana Pecanettes dance team composed of local high schoolers. This event is also a great place to gobble goodies like funnel cakes, fried chicken, and alligator on a stick from vendors.

Worth Pondering…

When the Frost is on the Punkin

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,

And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,

And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,

And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;

O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,

With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

—James Whitcomb Riley

Explore Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands

Larger-than-life hidden treasures and some of the world’s greatest destinations for biodiversity, Sky Islands—which, to be clear, are mountains—dot Southern Arizona’s landscape, erupting up up up from valley floors toward the Sonoran Desert sky. But what makes this type of mountain so special for the region, its environment, and explorers? Read on.

What Are Sky Islands?

Sky Islands are a classification of the mountain—an unofficial nickname given to 55 mountain ranges across Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Mexico that rise so high, so quickly, that multiple habitats can be found from base to peak.

Climbing Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved[

As you climb up Sky Islands, you may go from an arid, saguaro-studded desert to a brisk, pine-filled forest in as little as an hour’s drive (in the case of Mount Lemmon, in Tucson). This makes these habitats especially attractive for wildlife, birds, and memorable hiking and biking. Sky Islands are also ecologically separated from other mountain ranges by distance and lowlands of a different environment.

The terminology is better known locally than anywhere else even though the parameters for what qualifies as a Sky Island can be applied to mountain ranges around the world. Knowing the term and its definition is less important than knowing how best to have an adventure on them.

Hiking Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ways to experience the Sky Islands

Listen to the audio tour available on the Mount Lemmon Science Tour app produced by the University of Arizona College of Science as you climb up Mount Lemmon in Tucson.

Hike a portion of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek that goes from Arizona’s border with Mexico—up, through, and over several Sky Islands—to the state’s border with Utah.

Go birding in Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista, a site popular for seeing the elusive elegant trogon and more than a dozen species of hummingbirds.

Get involved with the Sky Island Alliance which hosts events aimed at protecting the diversity of Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities near Tucson

The Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges make up Tucson’s Sky Islands hugging the city’s northern and eastern edges. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore a Sky Island—and one that requires the least amount of physical exertion—is by listening to the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app which times fun facts and interesting tidbits with the one-hour drive from the mountain’s base to its peak. The flora and fauna surrounding the drive become a lot more interesting and you’ll learn some history about the area, too.

Saguaro National Park East below the Rincons makes up the dramatically different environment separation that Sky Islands require. More than saguaros can be found here as you bike, hike, or drive through the enormous national park.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities in Cochise County

The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains are crisscrossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers.

And cool, damp canyons like Ramsey Canyon create some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow grapes for award-winning wine alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati, and javelina wander under forest canopies while elegant trogons and hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In the fall, butterflies abound.

Montezuma Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor adventure

Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas just south of Sierra Vista marks the start of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile hiking path that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single-track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.

Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo’s grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)

After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles via a dirt road toward the Yosemite of Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder’s paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it’s just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature. When you’re ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Cafe, Country Store & Lodge, or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and wildlife

In Douglas, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border provides a year-round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.

The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County following the northward-flowing San Pedro River. With near-tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista is one of the country’s top birding spots.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic sites and small towns

In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided hidey holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army, and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo, and the Earp brothers roamed the area leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Nicolas Cage.

Wayne is known to have frequented the communities among the Sky Islands including Patagonia and Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town. Both towns’ charming main thoroughfares while small are dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation and some decent local lore.

In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone but the ranches remain run by the descendants of the original families.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The John Slaughter Ranch (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.

The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives and fronted with a massive stained glass window—the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created.

Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it’s said to be haunted.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

16 Under the Radar National Monuments to Visit

For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, these 16 lesser known national monuments may be perfect spots for your next road trip

Since Wyoming’s iconic Devils Tower became the first U.S. National Monument in 1906, America is now populated with well over 100 of these unique cultural and geographic gems. In addition to volcanic landscapes like Malpais and Mount St. Helens and Utah’s oft-photographed Cedar Breaks there are numerous others that you might be less familiar with—and which absolutely merit a visit. From ancient petroglyphs to the geological wonders these are 16 under-the-radar national monuments to visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Breaks, Utah

Like a mini Bryce Canyon, minus the crowds, Cedar Breaks contains a stunning assortment of hoodoos and cliffs in southern Utah. Technically an amphitheater, the monument is three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, filled with craggy rock formations jutting up from the base like natural skyscrapers. Considering the monument’s high elevation, it gets cold and snowy in the winter which lends vivid color contrast from the white powder atop the orange-hued hoodoos and lush green forests surrounding it. It’s a popular destination for snowmobilers as well who can ride along the rim and gaze out over the illustrious expanse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Petroglyph, New Mexico

Located on the western edge of Albuquerque lies one of the most concentrated collections of ancient petroglyphs on the continent. Native American tribes settled here hundreds of years ago and they left their mark in the form of symbols carved into volcanic rock across the desert terrain. With around 24,000 images and symbols, there’s plenty to see here. In addition to the petroglyphs, the monument contains hiking trails throughout its 17-mile park along with dormant volcanoes and canyons.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petroglyph National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona

Some folks might be surprised to learn that Arizona has another national park unit dedicated to the preservation of a rare cactus. Saguaro National Park in Tucson is famed far and wide while Organ Pipe Cactus is more of an under-the-radar gem. Located along the Mexican border at the southern edge of the state, the monument is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. One glimpse at this sprawling, soaring species will clue you in to where the cactus gets its name. An ideal place for desert camping and hiking, the monument also has horseback trails, scenic drives, and biking opportunities.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Natural Bridges, Utah

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges. The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means rock mounds, massive Kachina means dancer while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state, means place of emergence. A nine-mile scenic drive overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

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

6. Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observator 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Mount St. Helens National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

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

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. South Rim Drive and North Rim Drive, each more than 30 miles long, are excellent driving routes along the canyons. The scenery is spectacular, including the White House Ruin cliff dwellings and the 800-foot sandstone spire known as Spider Rock.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

9. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes, and seemingly endless Slickrock. The monument is a geologic sampler with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Hovenweep, Utah and 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. The towers of Hovenweep were built 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Montezuma Castle, 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Tuzigoot, Arizona

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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

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

14. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, 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 is 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

A Wonderland of Rocks is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base seemingly ready to topple over at any time. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Built and used over a 200-year period, Aztec Ruins 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. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called roads, earthen berms, and platforms

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

The time to prepare for your next expedition is when you have just returned from a successful trip.

—Robert Peary

The Least Visited U.S. National Parks

These least-visited national parks in the U.S. have all of the beauty and none of the crowds

Currently, there are 63 national parks in the U.S., alongside countless more national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites overseen by the National Park Service (NPS). These protected spaces represent some of the most important natural and cultural landscapes in the country.

The NPS recently released its latest annual visitation data which will help us (and you) decide where to plan your next hike, whether you’re looking for a communal vibe, or a more secluded and isolated experience.

With almost 13 million visits last year, the Great Smoky Mountains remain undefeated when it comes to the most visitors of any national park. But other, no less spectacular parks see a fraction of those numbers. If you want to head off the beaten path, here are 21 of the least visited NPS service sites in the U.S.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 38,786

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tumacácori National Historic Park

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

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 50,017

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 50,396

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

State: Pennsylvania

2022 visits: 57,238

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is the best-preserved iron plantation in North America. Hopewell Furnace consists of a mansion (the big house), spring and smokehouses, a blacksmith shop, an office store, a charcoal house, and a schoolhouse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 60,501

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 61,377

The most noticeable natural features in Chiricahua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 64,387

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga National Historic Park

State: New York

2022 visits: 70,742

Site of the first significant American military victory during the Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga is considered among the most decisive battles in world history. Here in 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender, an event which led France to recognize the independence of the United States and enter the war as a decisive military ally of the struggling Americans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

State: Utah

2022 visits: 71,249

Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908. Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 78,557

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. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

State: Virginia

2022 visits: 83,483

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site, and have been restored to their original condition. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

State: Texas

2022 visits: 87,386

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire circle of life gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

State: New York

2022 visits: 100,665

See the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and buried in Hyde Park at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The home is also the location of the first presidential library.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

State: South Dakota

2022 visits: 105,776

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 116,639

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 131,359

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave. For those looking to stay above ground, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting Coronado National Monument

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 133,317

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. 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.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 155,242

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 162,755

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. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 204,522

Some of the tallest trees on the east coast are located inside Congaree which was named after the Native American tribe that used to reside in the area. Unlike many hardwood forests, Congaree was largely spared by the lumber industry in the late 1800s and was eventually designated as a national monument and then a national park. The terrain includes the forest, the Congaree River, and the floodplain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 212,534

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. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cowpens National Battlefield

These 21 lesser-known and visited parks have minimal visitors, plenty to do, and much-needed peace and quiet. Consider adding these least-visited national parks to your 2023 list of road trip destinations.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Celebrate Volcano Week!

Volcano Week 2023 takes place during the first week of February

It’s Volcano Week! You may not have heard of this annual celebration hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) but it’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about the lava-filled peaks that continue to shape our Earth. 

There are about 1,350 potentially active volcanoes around the world, 161 of which are in the U.S. and its territories.

Volcano Week 2023 takes place February 5-11.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some volcanic eruptions are witnessed by people who remember what they’ve seen by writing it down, painting about it, telling stories, or collecting detailed scientific data. Other eruptions go unseen, hidden in the distant past. How do we discover, learn about, and remember those eruptions? We have to look at many lines of evidence to reconstruct the activity and eruptions of volcanoes,” the park service said.

Volcanoes are diverse! They range from the majestic Mount Rainier to colossal shield volcanoes like Mauna Loa (Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) and volcanic fields that can cover hundreds of square miles such as at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Some volcanoes are picturesque, others less so. They vary in size from small cinder cones that stand only a few hundred feet tall to the most massive mountains on earth. Some have textbook-perfect conical shapes and others are more irregular in form.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some volcanoes erupt only once and last for only a few days or less while others may have periods of activity that span expanses of time as great as a few million years.

Each volcano is somewhat unique, but most can be classified into several types. The most common types of volcanoes are cinder cones, composite volcanoes (stratovolcanoes), shield volcanoes, and volcanic domes.

Several other types of volcanoes exist and are part of the diversity of volcanic landforms found on land. Examples of these volcanoes are also found in national parks.

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

Cinder cone volcanoes

Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the world. They may look like an idealized depiction of a volcano as they are steep, conical hills that usually have a prominent crater at the top. Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the National Park System.

Capulin Volcano and Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments were established specifically to preserve especially large and picturesque cinder cones. These volcanoes are the tallest cinder cones in the National Park System with a height of approximately 1,000 feet each. Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park is a cinder cone that formed after the caldera-forming eruption.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 24 units in the National Park System contain cinder cones, including:

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

Composite volcanoes

Composite volcanoes can be the most picturesque of all volcanoes. A classic composite volcano is conical with a concave shape that is steeper near the top. These mountains commonly have snow-covered peaks standing high above the surrounding mountainous terrain.

Composite cones are large volcanoes (many thousands of feet tall) generally composed of lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, and mudflow (lahar) deposits, as well as lava domes. Composite volcanoes are active over long periods (tens to hundreds of thousands of years) and erupt periodically. Composite volcanoes are also called stratovolcanoes.

Mount Rainier is an active volcano and the tallest peak in the Pacific Northwest. It is also considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the Lower 48. Brokeoff Volcano (Mount Tehama) in Lassen Volcanic National Park is a deeply eroded large composite volcano. It consisted of lava domes, lava flows, and pyroclastic deposits that are between 590,000 and 385,000 years old.

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

At least eight units of the National Park System contain composite volcanoes, including:

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shield volcanoes

Although shield volcanoes are the largest volcanoes on Earth, they do not form soaring mountains with conical peaks like composite volcanoes. Instead, they are broad volcanoes with gentle slopes and are shaped somewhat like a warrior’s shield lying flat on the Earth. Shield volcanoes have a convex shape as they are flatter near the summit.

Shield volcanoes are truly massive with volumes that dwarf other types of volcanoes even large composite volcanoes. Shield volcanoes are usually constructed almost entirely of basaltic and/or andesitic lava flows which were very fluid when erupted. They are built by repeated eruptions that occurred intermittently over vast periods (up to a million years or longer).

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

At least 13 units of the National Park System contain shield volcanoes, including:

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

Volcanic Domes

Domes form from the slow extrusion of highly-viscous silicic lava. These lavas are too thick to spread out into a lava flow. Most domes are small and many do not have a crater. Domes are sometimes called lava domes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park contains multiple lava domes. Lassen Peak (see above photo) is the world’s largest dome with a peak elevation of 10,457 feet. It was emplaced 27,000 years ago. Chaos Crags are a set of six lava domes that grew during eruptions approximately 1,050 years ago. In Valles Caldera National Preserve, at least seven lava dome complexes formed along the ring fracture of the Valles Caldera during post-caldera volcanic activity.

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

At least 12 units of the National Park System contain volcanic domes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other types of volcanoes

Maars and tuff rings

Maars and tuff rings are low-standing volcanoes with wide, bowl-shaped craters. They commonly have a donut-like profile. Their low edifices consist of shallowly-dipping deposits of tuff made mostly of ash and angular, nonvesicular pebble-sized pyroclasts (lapilli).

A maar is a volcanic crater in which the crater lies below the surrounding ground level and is surrounded by a low pyroclastic cone. Because they are topographic lows, maars frequently contain lakes in their craters. A tuff ring is a pyroclastic cone with a crater above the surrounding ground surface. Tuff ring craters are usually dry.

Big Bend National Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least six units of the National Park System contain maars or tuff rings, including:

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fissure volcanoes

Fissure volcanoes are produced by eruptions that occur along elongated fissures versus at a central vent. Fissure eruptions occur when magma-filled dikes intersect the surface. Fissure eruptions usually do not build substantial edifices but instead, feed lava flows that can travel great distances. Fissure eruptions may also occur in rift zones on shield volcanoes. They also frequently occur in monogenetic volcanic fields.

Fissure eruptions may be large or small, depending on the magma supply and length of the fissure. Fissure volcanoes have been the site of the largest volume of volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history in terms of the magnitude of lava erupted.

Mount St. Helens, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least four units of the National Park System contain fissure volcanoes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monogenetic volcanic fields

Volcanic fields are clusters of volcanoes or areas covered by volcanic rocks. Monogenetic volcanic fields consist mostly (or exclusively) of monogenetic volcanoes. These volcanoes (cinder cones, maars, tuff rings, and eruptive fissures) each experience one period of activity. Most monogenetic volcanic fields include areas covered by basaltic lava flows and clusters of cinders cones and/or maars and tuff rings, sometimes with a composite volcano or shield volcano located near the center of the field.

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 13 units of the National Park system contain all or parts of monogenetic volcanic fields, including:

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Calderas

Calderas are collapse features that form during large-volume volcanic eruptions when the underlying magma chamber is partially emptied and the ground above it subsides into it. Calderas are large, generally with a diameter greater than 0.6 miles. The largest calderas are tens of miles wide. A defining characteristic of calderas is that they have diameters that are much wider than their included vents.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 16 units of the National Park System contain calderas, including:

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish which in due time is to be separately served. We have instances of vents within hailing distance of each other pouring out totally different kinds of lava, neither sympathizing with the other in any discernible manner nor influencing other in any appreciable degree.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah (1880)

The Ultimate Guide to Arizona Public Lands

From secluded corners of national parks to lesser-known state parks, here’s where to explore on public lands in Arizona

Arizona is called the Grand Canyon State for good reason but that natural wonder is far from the only gem in the state’s public-lands network of hidden lakes, lush rivers, towering red-rock formations, and slot canyons. Translation: there’s a slice of Arizona public land perfect for every kind of adventurer whether you want to stargaze deep in the backcountry or strike out from the city for a day hike.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Best for: The giant redwoods of the cactus world

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro cacti exist only in North America and the Tucson area showcases this tree-like cactus species that can grow to over 40 feet tall. Head to Saguaro National Park for stunning desert mountain vistas framed by these big-armed plants. Don’t write off the summer months—saguaros start to flower in late April and they can bloom into early June. Park your RV in the campground at Catalina State Park or a full-service RV resort in Tucson.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Best for: Zipping across a desert lake on Jet Skis

Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area defies the odds. Here, minutes from the iconic twists of Horseshoe Bend, you’ll find the massive, man-made Lake Powell. Boating is popular here and it’s easy to rent paddling gear or a motorboat at a lake-side marina. You can camp in primitive sites on the beaches of Lake Powell near Page at a 5-star RV resort at Lake Powell Wahweap Marina RV Park, the new Antelope Point Marina RV Park, or even rent a houseboat to camp right on the lake itself.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Arizona State Parks

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Best for: A family scavenger hunt to identify dozens of different cacti

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

Along the state’s border with Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers stunning views and, you guessed it, cacti—31 species, to be exact. Traveling with the family? See how many varieties you can spot along the monument’s trails. Got kids that can’t be trusted so close to sharp and spiny plants? Cruise the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive instead. Always be sure to stock the car with a few gallons of water in case of a breakdown—this classic desert landscape gets hot in summer. Camp in the park for unspoiled night skies or book a full-service RV site in the nearby artsy town of Ajo.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

Best for: Geology tripping 

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in the “Land of Standing Up Rocks” at the Chiricahua National Monument. Located in southeastern Arizona near the town of Willcox visitors experience this site of unique rock formations. Around 27 million years ago a volcanic eruption threw an enormous amount of ash into the air that fell back to the earth and eventually hardened into volcanic rock. Over the years that rock eroded into a wonderland of rock spires which creates a kind of rock garden you might expect to have been designed by Dr. Seuss. The spires—precarious, surreal pinnacles that can be several hundred feet in height—dominate the park’s landscape, while caves, mountains, and lava flows add variety to the setting. The park offers campsites or stay in an RV park in nearby Willcox. 

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area

Best for: Off-roading, hiking, wild sunsets

Yuma Crossing Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the state’s southwestern borders with California and Mexico, the Imperial Sand Dunes are like a massive waterless beach stretching for more than 40 miles. Some of the dunes reach 300 feet tall. Head to nearby Yuma for a permit and an ATV rental. The Colorado River flows through the heart of town. Visit the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and wander the Pivot Point Interpretive Plaza, Gateway Park, and West Wetlands before crossing the river on 4th Avenue.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tonto National Forest

Best for: Hiking and fishing on man-made lakes

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just because Phoenix doesn’t get much rain doesn’t mean you can’t cool off in nearby lakes and rivers. And the Tonto National Forest though it’s packed with saguaro has both of these. Canyon Lake, about 45 minutes from Phoenix, is one of the smaller lakes along the Salt River and is a great place to paddle beneath cliffs topped with cactus. The lake is home to walleye, catfish, and yellow bass and is stocked monthly from November to March with rainbow trout. The Boulder Recreation Site offers a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock. Lost Dutchman State Park features convenient locations for exploring the region as well as a campground with paved camping sites and electric and water utilities. Several trails lead from the park into the surrounding Tonto National Forest. Take a stroll along the Native Plant Trail or hike the challenging Siphon Draw Trail to the top of the Flatiron.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Tribal Park

Best for: The most scenic desert landscapes you can possibly imagine

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo Nation spans the northeast corner of Arizona and the southeast corner of Utah and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever find, period! Monument Valley is 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. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. When you go, make sure to stay in the campground and eat at the restaurant within the park for a taste of traditional Navajo cuisine.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Coronado National Forest Sky Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Forest Sky Islands

Best for: Birding and hiking in the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coronado National Forest’s 15 Sky Island mountain ranges offer awesome scenery, diverse vegetation from deserts to conifer forests, and a wide variety of recreation settings. Popular activities include hiking, camping, and birdwatching. The Coronado also offers mountain bike trails, OHV areas, lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian facilities, and a ski area. Campsites are available from an elevation of 3,000 feet up to 9,000 feet, offering a year-round season of camping opportunities and a full spectrum of vegetation and climate zones. Madera Canyon lies on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. Its higher elevation grants relief to desert dwellers during the hot months and allows access to snow during the winter. The extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains is easily accessed from the Canyon’s campground and picnic areas.

Prescott National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott National Forest

Best for: Where the Desert Meets the Pines  

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in mountainous central Arizona, the Prescott National Forest embraces over 1.25 million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded desert to pine-clad mountains with the elevation ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The forest contains 10 campgrounds and seven picnic areas. Most of the developed recreation sites are located in the pines with five of the campgrounds and two of the picnic areas situated near manmade lakes. Nearly 450 miles of scenic trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, or mountain biking are offered on the Prescott National Forest. Due to its proximity to downtown Prescott, Thumb Butte Trail is one of the most popular in the Prescott National Forest. Lynx Lake is a popular recreation area with mild weather, a cool ponderosa pine forest, a serene 55-acre lake, trout fishing, boating, hiking, and bird watching.

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Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park 

Best for: Petrified wood and Painted Desert

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils. The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch