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

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

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

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

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

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

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

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

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

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

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

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

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

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

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

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

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

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

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

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

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

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

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

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

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

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

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

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

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

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

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

State: California

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

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

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

State: Colorado

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

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

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

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

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

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

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

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

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

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

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

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

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

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

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

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

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

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

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

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

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

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

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

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

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

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

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

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

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

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

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

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

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

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

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

New River Gorge National Park

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

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

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

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

Discover the National Water Trails System during National Fishing and Boating Week

Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors and spend more time in nature. Fishing and boating allow you to release stress, relax, and enjoy wildlife.

The water is open. Take this opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with your family. National Fishing and Boating Week take place June 4-12, 2022.

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

Coosa River at Wetumpka (Alabama Scenic River Trail) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a water trail?

Water trails (also known as blueways) are marked routes on navigable waterways such as rivers, lakes, canals, and coastlines for recreational use. They allow access to waterways for non-motorized boats and sometimes motorized vessels, inner tubes, and other craft. Water trails not only require suitable access points and take-outs for exit but also provide places ashore to camp and picnic or other facilities for boaters.

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the National Water Trails System?

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail (Champlain Canal) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Trails System Act of 1968 authorized the creation of a national system of trails comprised of National Recreation Trails, National Scenic Trails, and National Historic Trails.

National Water Trails are a subset of the National Recreation Trails. National Recreation Trails are co-sponsored by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and American Trails.

It’s a network of lake and other waterway trails designated as such by the U.S. Department of Interior. The system offers families vacation and recreational opportunities in scenic regions of the U.S.

Enjoy a trail.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Têche Paddle Trail

State: Louisiana

Location: Iberia Parish, St. Landry Parish, St. Martin Parish, and St. Mary Parish

Length: 135 miles

Driving Directions: Access points include Port Barre, Arnaudville, Cecilia, Breaux Bridge, Parks, St. Martinville, Loreauville, New Iberia, Franklin, Patterson, and Berwick

Bayou Teche at St. Martinsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Bayou Têche is a watershed within the Mississippi River Basin draining approximately 58,500 acres of natural, agriculture, and urban lands into Vermilion Bay. Bayou Têche flows through the towns of Port Barre, Arnaudville, Breaux Bridge, Parks, St. Martinville, Loureauville, New Iberia, Jeanerette, and Charenton (Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana lands), Baldwin, Franklin, Patterson, Berwick, and small villages in between. Each town has a standard motorboat launch and many are being equipped with floating docks designed for kayaks and canoes.

Coosa River at Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Scenic River Trail

State: Alabama

Location: From where the Coosa River enters the state in its northeast sector to Fort Morgan on the Gulf of Mexico

Length: 631 miles

Driving Directions: Numerous boat-launches along the Coosa and Alabama Rivers

Tensaw-Mobile Delta at Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Alabama Scenic River Trail is a recreational and tourism route destination for paddled and powered boats. At approximately 631 miles in length, the trail is the longest in a single state in the U.S. The Trail begins at the point where the Coosa River enters Alabama and continues down the Coosa River to its confluence with the Tallapoosa near Wetumpka. From this conjunction, the trail follows the Alabama River to its junction with the Tombigbee/Warrior system. The Trail then proceeds along the Mobile River and through the Tensaw-Mobile delta, along the Tensaw River, and its tributaries to Mobile Bay.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Canyon Water Trail

States: Nevada and Arizona

Location: Clark County (Nevada) and Mohave County (Arizona)

Length: 30 miles

Location: The 30-mile water trail is assessable at three points: Hoover Dam, Willow Beach, and Eldorado Canyon.

Lake Mead upstream from Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Black Canyon Water Trail is located within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The trip begins as the river flows at the base of Hoover Dam and meanders through 30 miles of the Colorado River where it enters Lake Mohave. Approximately 12 miles downstream from Hoover Dam, you arrive at Willow Beach, the only road-accessible portion of this stretch of river. Rental crafts are available. The river, in the next segment, becomes a lake but maintains the canyon environment with small bays and beaches appearing as you continue downstream.

Congaree River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Blue Trail

State: South Carolina

Location: River trail from Columbia south and east to State Route 601 landing

Length: 50 miles

Congaree River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: Starting near Columbia, the blue trail offers paddlers an opportunity to learn about the historic significance of the area. Continuing downstream paddlers cross the fall line and enter the Coastal Plain known for its countless sandbars, high bluffs, and extensive floodplain habitats. The highlight of the trail is the section along the Congaree National Park, a protected wilderness that is home to the largest continuous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S. Paddlers and hikers alike can enjoy the network of 20-miles of hiking trails within the park and take advantage of opportunities to camp, fish, watch birds, and study nature.

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail

State: Georgia

Location: Saint Marys to Tybee Island

Length: 189 miles

Georgia Coast Saltwater Paddle Trail at St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The paddle trail connects Cumberland Island National Seashore, four State Parks, six other state-protected areas, 77 Historic Sites, and other points of interest including National Monuments and city and regional parks. Saint Marys has a rich history dating back to the mid-1500s. The two points of access, Howard Gilman Waterfront Park and North River Landing allow access to the Saint Marys River and Cumberland Sound. West of Cumberland Island is the mouth of the Crooked River, home of Crooked River State Park which has a well-defined and popular kayak trail.

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail (Champlain Canal) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail

State: New York

Location: The Hudson River from Hadley to Battery Park in Manhattan and Champlain Canal at Whitehall to its confluence with the Hudson River at Fort Edward

Length: 256 miles

Hudson River Greenway Water Trail at Whitehall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Hudson River Greenway Water Trail extends from the edge of the Adirondack Park at Hadley and the head of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall to Battery Park in Manhattan. Designed for the day-user as well as the long-distance paddler, it includes 94 designated access sites. Day use attractions include wildlife marshes, islands, historic sites, cities, downtowns, and hiking trails.

Colorado River at Laughlin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mohave Water Trail

States: Nevada and Arizona

Location: Lake Mohave and Colorado River below Davis Dam to the Laughlin/Bullhead City Bridge

Length: 76 miles

Colorado River at Laughlin looking across the river at Bullhead City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Mohave Water Trail stretches along the Arizona and Nevada shorelines of Lake Mohave and the Colorado River below Davis Dam to Laughlin/Bullhead City. It provides access to sandy beaches, scenic desert areas, and unique historic sites including submerged cultural resources. Boat rentals, shuttle, and guide service for paddle craft, scuba diving, fishing, camping, and overnight accommodations and restaurants are available at two marinas and in Laughlin and Bullhead City.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina Smoky Mountain Blueways

State: North Carolina

Location: Southwestern Mountains of North Carolina

Length: 167 miles

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The trail is located in the Little Tennessee Watershed and contains portions of the five major rivers: Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Tuckaseegee, Oconaluftee, Cheoah, and the lakes of Fontana, Nantahala, Glenville, and Santeetlah. The Little Tennessee River Basin encompasses the Nantahala National Forest and two National Park units—The great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. In the Nantahala National Forest, visitors enjoy a variety of recreational activities from camping, whitewater rafting, canoeing, fishing, hunting, hiking over 600 miles of trails, and horseback riding.

Ohio River at Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio River Water Trail

States: West Virginia and Ohio

Location: The Ohio River and Little Kanawha River

Length: 57 miles

Ohio River at Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: The Ohio River Water Trail is accessible from Marietta and Belpre in Ohio and Williamstown and Parkersburg in West Virginia. It is crossed by Interstate 77 and US Route 50.

There are over 100 species of fish in the Ohio River including spotted bass, sauger, freshwater drum, and channel and flathead catfish. Three of the islands on the Trail are part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors are welcome to pull their canoes and kayaks up onto the shore and explore these islands on foot during the day.

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail System

State: Georgia

Location: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Length: 120miles

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: There are multiple trails available for varying degrees of experience from one to five days in length. Each trail provides opportunities for viewing wildlife in a pristine natural setting. Alligators, black bears, egrets, sandhill cranes, and other species of animals inhabit the cypress swamps and open watery prairies of the Okefenokee. Visitors can access the trail system from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, Kingfisher Landing, and Stephen C. Foster State Park. There is also limited access from the north to Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Tennessee River at Chattanogga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tennessee River Blueway

State: Tennessee

Location: Water trail joining many sites on both sides of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga (Chickamauga Dam) downstream to Nickajack Dam.

Length: 50 miles

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway at Chattanooga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Description: Tennessee River Blueway encompasses a 50-mile stretch of the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. Experience Chattanooga’s bustling revitalized waterfront with its historic bridges and a few miles downstream the solitude of the Tennessee River Gorge. Pause to watch a great blue heron rookery on Maclellan Island and bald eagles in Moccasin Bend National Archeological District. Paddle in the wake of the ancients who first rippled these waters some 14,000 years ago.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

Five national parks that fall under the radar

Nearly everyone has heard of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains but many other national parks aren’t as famous. There are lots of rewards for heading off the beaten path. It’ll be easier to find a place to park or camp and you won’t bump elbows with as many other people.

Let’s shine a spotlight on some lesser-known national parks that you may not even be aware of but may decide to visit.

Let’s explore!

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

About the U.S. National Park System

Yellowstone was the first national park and there are 62 others in 30 states and two U.S. territories. The National Park Service (NPS), established in 1916, oversees these parks.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park service maintains a total of 423 different sites. With so many protected sites, it’s no wonder we see so many of those brown and white signs with the NPS arrowhead logo. It’s also no surprise that you may not have heard of some of these parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But just because they’re not a household name doesn’t mean they aren’t just as beautiful and worthwhile as some of the better-known parks.

Read Next: Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

The most celebrated parks draw millions of visitors every year. But at least several of these lesser-known national parks may not ring a bell with you.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

About the Park: South Carolina’s national park protects the nation’s largest remaining stand of bottomland hardwood trees. It’s in the central part of the state near the capital, Columbia.

This lesser-known park is 26,276 acres and protects the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 77, take Exit 5 and turn onto State Highway 48 East/Bluff Road. Go approximately eight miles and take a slight right onto Old Bluff Road. Follow Old Bluff Road for 4.5 miles to the park entrance sign (on the right). The visitor center is a mile ahead.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The old-growth trees include giant bald cypresses and longleaf pines. They’re rare in the region because most were logged. The miles of trails are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. For canoeists and kayakers, the Blue Trail starts in Columbia and follows the Congaree River to its confluence with the Wateree River.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

About the Park: Overshadowed by four other national parks in the state, Capitol Reef is the lesser-known. Located in south-central Utah, it has stunning sandstone canyons and cliffs. It became a national park in 1971 after almost 30 years as a national monument.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: From Interstate 70, take Exit 149, then State Route 24 west for 43.8 miles. Turn right (continuing on UT-24) for another 37.3 miles.

From Interstate 15, take Exit 188, then US-50 east toward Scipio. Take a left on UT-50 for 0.7 miles, then turn right onto US-50 East for 24.4 miles. Turn right onto UT-260 South and continue 4.2 miles, then right on UT-24 for 71.3 miles.

Read Next: Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Geologists call the unusual Waterpocket Fold a wrinkle on the Earth’s crust. The 60-mile “reef” of Navajo sandstone was once part of a tourist attraction called Wayne’s Wonderland. Hiking, backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering are the main recreational pursuits. It’s also certified as an International Dark Sky Park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

About the Park: You’ll find the largest concentration of petrified wood in the world at this park east of Winslow. Besides the scenic wonder, including parts of the Painted Desert, you can see fossils that are 225 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Westbound travelers on Interstate 40 should take Exit 311, drive the 28 miles through the park, and connect with Highway 180 at the south end. Then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 North to return to Interstate 40 via Holbrook.

Those traveling east on I-40 should take Exit 285 into Holbrook, then travel 19 miles on Highway 180 South to the park’s south entrance.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: Petrified wood is basically a fossil that forms when sediment covers the original tree or plant. So it’s like a 3D impression made from minerals.

It takes about an hour to drive through the park and stop at some overlooks. Make a little more time to walk the pet-friendly trails. You’ll get to see the ruins of an ancient village and petroglyphs plus the famed Painted Desert and Crystal Forest.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

About the Park: President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom the park is named, was a leader in conservation. The park covers 70,400 acres and is a haven for bison, elk, and wild horses. The Little Missouri River runs through all of the three park units, creating a vibrant ecosystem amongst the rolling North Dakota badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: This national park’s location is a major reason that it is relatively unknown. The South Unit entrance is in Medora, North Dakota off of Interstate 94, exits 24 and 27.

Read Next: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85, about 14 miles south of Watford City. This is about an hour and a half drive north from the south entrance. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is between the north and south units. You can access it via gravel roads.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: This area was President Roosevelt’s escape from the politics of Washington, D.C. even long before he was president. He is known to have credited this land and the experiences he had ranching and hunting here for shaping him into the man he was.

The park has three units, and the one to the north is the most rugged. All of the areas have scenic drives and hiking trails. The park’s lesser-known status means it is often very quiet and peaceful.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles National Park, California

About the Park: One of the reasons Pinnacles National Park is lesser-known than some of the other national parks in California is that it is fairly new. First established as a part of the Pinnacles Forest Preserve, then a National Monument in 1908, it was officially designated as a National Park in 2013.

The unique geological features of the park are the remains of the extinct Neenach volcano that eroded away. The spires, pinnacles, caves, gorges, and rock fractures left from this fault-line activity create visually stimulating hikes and exploration opportunities for visitors.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Directions: Pinnacles National Park is located in south-central California, about 80 miles southeast of San Jose. The park is divided into two halves with no road connecting the two sides, although you can hike from one side to the other over the separating ridgeline.

To get to the west entrance, go 10 miles east on Highway 146 from Soledad, a town located 85 miles south on Highway 101 from San Jose, California. To get to the east entrance, drive 30 miles south of Hollister, CA on Highway 25 and turn right onto the park entrance road.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why You Should Visit: The pinnacles for which the park was named is known for attracting rock climbers to scale the peaks and steep walls. Caves formed by fractures and erosion are home to at least 13 species of bats. A number of these caves have trails that wind through them, like Bear Gulch Caves. Other notable wildlife that calls the park home are prairie falcons and the California condors released after being hatched in captivity.

Read Next: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

One of the biggest knocks against national parks is that they’re too crowded. That’s less of a problem at these under-the-radar treasures. They aren’t as famous as some of the other national parks, but maybe they should be.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

Hike and Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

One thousand year-old trees and native wildlife abound in this pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia

The Francis Beidler Forest harbors one of the last large virgin stands of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp in the United States. A significant number of rare and unusual plants and animals are found in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species.

Frances Beidler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Part of an 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beidler Forest boasts the largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. The 3,408-acre pristine ecosystem features thousand-year-old trees and extremely rich diversity of species including Prothonotary warblers that nest in the cavities of cypress tree knees.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to walk through this unique and wild sanctuary. The Audubon Society also offers daytime bird walks, night walks, and two-hour kayak and canoe trips through the blackwater swamp in March, April, and May when the water level is high.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Charleston and Columbia off Interstate 26 in Santee Cooper Country.

Related: South Carolina Has It All

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike through Ancient Beidler Forest

Francis Beidler Forest offers two trails, the old-growth virgin forest cypress-tupelo swamp boardwalk, and the newer grassland-woodland trail. Pets and bikes are not allowed on either trail.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.75-mile self-guided boardwalk trail (handicapped accessible) allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp…to see it the way nature intended.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new trail system meanders through Longleaf Pine, grassland, and woodland habitats being restored by Audubon South Carolina. Free to the public and open from sunrise to sunset, the new trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a new section of the sanctuary. The diverse habitat attracts birds and other wildlife not typically seen on the Beidler Forest boardwalk such as painted buntings, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, loggerhead shrikes, eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and many sparrow species.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking for the trail is located only a few feet from the Beidler Forest gate off Mim’s Road. Be sure to watch the bird feeders for buntings, woodpeckers, and sparrows.

Related: 40 Things Only Southerners Will Understand

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naturalist-guided walks and programs also are available seasonally and by reservation.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

Now’s your chance to paddle in the still blackwater of a primeval swamp and experience nature as it existed a thousand years ago. The water level is up in Francis Beidler Forest this time of year making it possible to navigate through the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is one of only two old-growth floodplain forests remaining in the state. The other is at Congaree National Park
When the water level in the floodplain is high enough, the Audubon Center offers guided canoe trips through this ancient forest located within the Four Holes Swamp.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trips are offered on a regular basis Friday through Sunday. Four-hour trips are scheduled each of the three days at 1 p.m.; two-hour trips are available at 9 a.m. Saturdays.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tours start from a remote landing on Mellard Lake, one of the swamp’s “holes”. Paddling through this open section of blackwater, surrounded by dense, undisturbed vegetation, you’ll feel totally removed from the rest of the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After just a few minutes, you’ll enter the woods, thick with 100-foot bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. It’s not unusual to see a variety of wildlife from yellow-bellied slider turtles to brown water snakes to Prothonotary warblers.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware, paddling through the swamp can be a bit tricky, especially at lower water levels. It helps to have some kayaking experience to maneuver through the floodplain’s narrow passages. In the spring, you’ll want to steer clear of trees covered with Poison Ivy. But it’s a trip unlike any other in the Lowcountry and so worth the navigational challenges.

Related: 5 Things I Learned While RVing The American South

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost is $30 for adults ($15 for children 8 to 12) for the four-hour excursion; $20 for adults ($10 for children 6 to 12) for the two-hour trip. The price for the tour also includes admission to the Beidler Forest boardwalk.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations are required in advance. These trips are popular, so you’ll want to book early.

Worth Pondering…

As the leaves of the trees are said to absorb all noxious qualities of the air, and to breathe forth a purer atmosphere, so it seems to me as if they drew from us all sordid and angry passions, and breathed forth peace and philanthropy. There is a severe and settled majesty in woodland scenery that enters into the soul, dilates and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.

—Washington Irving (1783-1859), American writer

My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

These parks may not have the same stellar reputation as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular

I don’t know if 2022 is going to be another year for record-setting attendance in parks but visitation has been trending up for years and there’s no sign of a change in the trend.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Yellowstone for instance. It’s fairly busy every year. In 2022, the park celebrates its sesquicentennial (aka its 150th birthday), so it’s a good guess that the publicity involved is going to keep visitation trending upward.

But what if I gave you a great alternative? Kind of like a junior version of Yellowstone—thermal features, trees, hiking, camping—but without having to wait in line to get in.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s what my recommendations for 2022 are all about: While the busiest parks are still learning to adapt to crowds, let’s head to under-appreciated parks—ones that compare favorably to the more crowded parks, but without the crowds. 

In today’s post, I’ll focus on my favorite under-appreciated parks and where they go to get away from it all.

So just between you and I, here are some places to hide out in 2022. If you tell anyone about them, tell them not to tell.

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen would be that alternative to Yellowstone I was alluding to. Both put on an amazing display of geothermal wonders. Both have great camping, hiking, lakes, and streams. But by visiting Lassen, you’ll be able to enjoy all of these with a bit less planning and at a more relaxed pace.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California’s breathtaking national parks are no great secret. Each year, millions of tourists flock to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree. Lassen Volcanic, one of the state’s least visited parks, is a great place to explore craggy high peaks, chilly alpine lakes, and forests full of towering ponderosa pines.

One might think that because it’s in California, Lassen was destined to be crowded. However, its location is in the northeast corner of the state, so for many of those in the big cities, it might as well be on the moon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to eight different hydrothermal areas with boiling aquamarine hot springs, hissing steam vents, and bubbling mud pots much like the ones found in Yellowstone. Avid hikers won’t want to miss out on summiting Cinder Cone, a now dormant volcano with tremendous views of Lassen Peak and the Fantastic Lava Beds while families will love the stunning wildflowers and raised boardwalks of Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest hydrothermal area.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of easy-to-moderate hikes to pick from, but I’m going to recommend one that’s short but challenging — just because it’s something that Yellowstone can’t offer. The Cinder Cone Trail goes up a volcanic cinder cone with a view at the top that will knock your socks off. So yes, expect it to be like a stair-stepper machine, and bring good boots. Only 2.5 miles in, steep in places, and no shade. Bring water. If this is too far for you, give it a bit of a try just to have the experience. No shame in turning back.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The east side of the park was heavily impacted by fire in 2021. This might keep some people away, and some restoration operations might impact your visit, so keep an eye on the park’s reopening plans.

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Instead of the Grand Canyon, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While the vast majority of the Grand Canyon is inaccessible wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt is easily accessible. Both are geological wonders, but at Theodore Roosevelt, these wonders are a lot more accessible. There’s even a river that runs through it. Not the mighty Colorado, but the-you-can-wade-across-it Little Missouri.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If there was one person that is a central figure in the national parks, it’s Theodore Roosevelt. His birthplace is a national historic site. His inauguration site is a national historic site. He has an island turned into a national memorial for him. Millions come to see his face carved into Mount Rushmore. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So you’d think that Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the North Dakota badlands that inspired his love of the outdoors would be a mecca for national park visitors, coming en masse to share the experience that helped mold the man who molded the national park system.

And you’d be wrong. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is a park for isolation. Both the north and south units offer great hiking, expansive vistas, easily accessible wilderness, abundant wildlife, and not many visitors.

This is a wonderful park for hiking due to the elevation (or lack thereof) and abundance of trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oh, and for wildlife, too. There are bison, pronghorns, wild horses, and ground squirrels.

The adjacent wilderness area is also a good alternative to Petrified Forest National Park with the Petrified Forest Loop well worth the trip. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is an easy 45-minute hike. The canyon looks amazing from the rim but wait until you experience a hike down into it. Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step down means a step back up on the return.

If you’re headed to the north unit, check out the 1.5-mile Caprock-Coulee Trail. You can do the Nature Trail portion for an easy 0.8 miles or the entire 4.5 miles for something more strenuous.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The front country campgrounds are nice, too, located in the cottonwoods for a good amount of shade.

Although the north and south units are the largest, the third unit, Elkhorn Ranch, is the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch. Only the foundation remains. The area is still quite remote. The last few miles of the road are unpaved, and often in poor condition.

Read More: Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking the park’s many trails lets you get up close and personal with Congaree National Park. Whether you are looking for a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail or desire to make a longer trek into the backcountry, there are options available for visitors of all skills and abilities. Depending on what you want to see, trails can lead you to oxbow lakes, the Congaree River, or stands of magnificent old-growth trees that help make up the tallest deciduous forest in the United States. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you are planning a short day trip or an overnight trip into the backcountry, traveling on Cedar Creek by canoe or kayak is a great way to experience Congaree National Park. This waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest that contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. Opportunities are plentiful for viewing various types of wildlife such as river otters, deer, turtles, wading birds, and even the occasional alligator!

Read More: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit these 10 National Parks

All the awe. None of the crowds.

America’s national parks continued to dominate the travel sphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another great idea! Hit the parks in the fall when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists all but vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the valleys, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature transforms into the most vibrant time of the year.

Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of 10 of my favorite national parks.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories, and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange, and yellow with sunflowers and asters bloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Climb the 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Yes, the nation’s newest national park has sublimely colorful scenes every fall, and yes, the photo opportunities are only one reason to visit. Whitewater rafting is another. Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge which became America’s 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit—as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, October 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles, and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

If you love fall foliage but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (though I do recommend a hike or two) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through—slowly. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and gold. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those who want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades. And the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In the summer months, hiking in Arches can feel like slogging through a convection oven with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to close the park for the day. During fall the heat and the hordes dissipate dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage.

A certified dark sky park, Arches is well suited for stargazing. Stargazing is a year-round activity but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 8), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12), and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic is a national park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California Park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ever-present evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak. Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early as does winter. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher elevations. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and the Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in different ways.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country (and world-renown) is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow hoodoos bathed in warm autumn light with streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is located in the Midlands region of South Carolina. With a humid subtropical climate, the park experiences mild winters and very warm, wet summers. The park is accessible in all seasons, but is best experienced in the spring and fall when temperatures are at their most comfortable and insects are generally not a problem. September through November is a wonderful time to visit Congaree with average daily temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Fall colors peak between the end of October and early November. Water levels are ideal at this time of year for taking a paddling trip on Cedar Creek.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

You’ll love Zion in the fall! The temperatures are milder to enjoy the best Zion hikes, there are fewer people than in summer, and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape. Though the climate in Zion is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. Red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes, creating ample opportunities for nature photographers.

Zion has a very long fall foliage season due to the variety in elevations. At higher elevations in Zion, you can see trees turning bright by mid-September. The peak season in the park usually lasts from late September to early October. However, at lower elevations, you can enjoy picturesque fall colors as late as mid-November.

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

Bottom Line

The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the summer crowds. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in the fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.

Worth Pondering…

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

—George Eliot

Road Trips That Will Reinvigorate Your Soul After a Very (Very) Long Year

Since a transformative trip is what most everyone needs at the moment, I’ve rounded up 10 experiences guaranteed to reinvigorate your soul

Not to dwell on the past, but it’s been a pretty rough 18 months for most folks. And we’d like to put that chapter behind us. These days, lots of stuff comes with a degree of anxiety or worry, however, there’s absolutely no reason that a road trip should cause such stress. In fact, I’m of the mindset that the exact opposite is true.

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re anything like me, after a year and one-half of being cooped up with travel restrictions, the inner drive to make up for lost time and get out and explore is real. A great spot to take a selfie? Sure, that can be cool. But I’m not looking for just another pretty place. Right now, it’s a deeper and more meaningful travel experience that’s calling.

For some, that might mean a spa getaway. Others find fulfillment in more eye-opening cultural pursuits—an artsy destination (Berea, Kentucky), tasting incredible culinary delights (Cajun cuisine), or sipping fine wine (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). And, of course, connecting with nature can be thoroughly invigorating.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You start to pay more attention to little things, such as the warmth of the rising sun on your skin, the sound of the morning’s first bird song, the crunch of the sand and stone beneath your hiking shoes. The wide-open spaces and distant views of dramatic landscapes can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. It can invoke a renewed feeling of discovery and excitement and zest for life that for too long has been drowned out by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.

To experience this can be wholly rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul and it has a way of reminding us of what is truly important and valuable in our lives.

Interested in some travel ideas guaranteed to have you feeling peaceful, joyful, and totally relaxed? Scroll on for 10 relaxing vacations in America that we all deserve right about now!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek Out Energy Vortexes in Sedona

Sedona is a deeply spiritual destination known for its spectacular red-rock formations, epic hiking, and energy vortexes. If you’re not familiar with the latter, they’re often described as “swirling centers of energy” that radiate from the earth. The most powerful vortexes (Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon) are great spots to meditate, sit alone with your thoughts, or connect to Mother Earth. This deeply spiritual destination boasts some of the most magical scenery anywhere in the world. Need some solo time? Strikeout on a less-trafficked trail like Wilson Mountain and you’ll feel like the only person on the planet. Staring at the enormous red rock formations just really puts things in perspective.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Zion National Park

There’s something incredibly therapeutic about communing with nature—and it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so in such a staggeringly beautiful place. Insert Zion National Park. Located in southwestern Utah, Zion brims with breathtaking scenery—high plateaus, steep cliffs, deep canyons, forested trails, flowing rivers, and waterfalls. Exploring this majestic natural preserve is a true mind, body, and soul experience. Strenuous treks like Observation Point will push you physically. Covering 148,016 acres with tons of remote corners, Zion provides ample space to be alone with your thoughts. So if you’re seeking a sense of mental clarity, consider it found. And, needless to say, the sheer grandeur of Zion Canyon is all but guaranteed to awaken spiritual awareness.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Commune with Nature at Joshua Tree National Park

Yes, it’s an Instagram goldmine. But most people visit Joshua Tree National Park for the purpose of getting up close and personal with nature (epic photos are just a bonus). The desert really does have this incredibly healing energy. Plus, it’s so serene. Few National Parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold. Soul-searchers can hoof it to the middle of nowhere, staring out at the arid landscape, and enjoy uninterrupted quiet to think. Joshua Tree also shines as one of the best places in the country, err the world, for stargazing. Peering up at the celestial bodies in the sky is sure to shift your perspective on things.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Saguaro National Park

To the indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is a sacred being. Uniquely adapted to the rigors of the desert, the saguaro forests alongside the palo verde and ironwood forests with all the beings they shelter and sustain form a single interlocked ecosystem of great diversity. The fruit that the saguaro cactus bears is dependable even in drought years so that humans and others owe their survival to the beneficence of the saguaro.

Hogsback, Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive Utah Scenic Byway 12

Sometimes you find yourself on a road that you can sense is something truly special. It is not just the landscapes, though you can’t take your eyes off them. It is something about the drive itself. Driving along Scenic Byway 12 is less about driving and more about staying oxygenated, so breathtaking is this 122-mile highway of pure driving bliss. Peaks ranging from 4,000 to 10,000-feet in elevation, extreme engineering feats allowing vehicle passage, rock formations, plateaus, alpine forests, and other eye-candy compete for a mind-blowing beautiful drive. And it seems to have a history. There’s something in the engineering—the Hogsback stretch comes to mind—and in the lay of the road. The way the road connects with the land feels somehow a part of the landscape. Utah State Route 12 is such a road.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the Serenity of Congaree

Established in 2003 and often referred to as the “redwoods of the east,” Congaree National Park is home to the largest and tallest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. This designated wilderness area is located in central South Carolina and is a sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life. It’s also historically significant, once being home to Native Americans and later a refuge for escaped enslaved people. Congaree also offers an accessible boardwalk hike for everyone to enjoy as well as breathtaking canoeing, birding, and tent camping experiences. Honor nature and history when visiting Congaree National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is where America’s 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter, and naturalist and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal. Buffalo and pronghorns graze in every direction giving meaning to the song Home on the Range. The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive in the world. If you venture off the uncrowded paved road that winds through the park you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes, I’ve found that these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stand Amongst the Sequoias

They say hugging trees is a form of therapy. Why not? We’ve heard of stranger stuff. And, hey, whatever works, right? Jokes aside, just being in the presence of towering, thousands-year-old sequoia trees has a wonderfully calming energy that’s hard to put into words but easy to feel in your soul. Take a deep breath, inhale the earthy aroma, and you’ll feel better in minutes. And enjoy the numerous trails and picnic areas in one of California’s iconic national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See the Grand Canyon

It’s easy to be absorbed by the wonders of Grand Canyon National Park. Stretching more than 1.2-million acres, the park’s outer edges include the South Rim (open year-round) and the North Rim (closed from mid-October to mid-May) which are 210 miles apart. Our problems often seem big until we’re standing in front of something as massive and majestic as the Grand Canyon with its striated red rocks that seem to go on forever. The busier South Rim offers easy access to panoramas, paved paths along the rim, and hikes like the Bright Angel Trail which zigzags to the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim which sits at 8,000 feet offers a quieter pace with scenic drives and trails leading to pictographs and dramatic sunset views, All of a sudden those trivial little things that took up so much attention no longer matter. This immense, pilgrimage-worthy destination just seems to have that effect on people.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Appalachian Trail

Need a mood boost? To quote Elle Woods, “endorphins make people happy.” We’re not just advocating for any old form of exercise (though physical activity, in general, has a slew of obvious benefits) but rather movement in a magical setting. Hiking the iconic Appalachian Trail pairs quad-torching trekking with fresh, alpine air and scenery so splendid it all but promises a spiritual awakening. Now that’s a win for your mind, body, and soul. Guess the only thing left to do is decide where to start your trek.

Driving Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picture It

You’re on the wide-open road in a fully-stocked RV, heading towards your own secluded campsite under the stars. Turns out, RV life is pretty good. 

Worth Pondering…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.

―John Muir

NPS Birthday Celebration: 10 National Parks without the Crowds

August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!

On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks are actually free year-round. Out of the 423 parks only 108 charge entrance fees (except on the six fee-free days), many of which are actual “parks”—including Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park.

That said, the remaining 315 national parks (many of which are historic sites, trails, battlefields, and monuments) offer free entrance every day of the year including Great Smoky Mountains National park, Casa Grande National Monument, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, John Muir National Historic Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during warmer weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Free Days

Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.

The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

If you’re planning to visit a national park on your summer RV trip, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans are flocking to the national parks this summer.

Imagine traveling across the country to visit one of the most stunning national parks only to find it was at capacity and the park was closed to additional visitors.

Arches is one of a number of headliner national parks seeing overcrowding as summer gets into full swing in a year when leisure travel volume is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels or even exceed them. The influx of visitors is forcing the park to temporarily shut its gates almost daily. And disappointed visitors aren’t the only consequence of overcrowding. The natural environment is impacted and the local community is affected, too.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since October 2020, visitor numbers at Arches National Park have consistently climbed as much as 70 percent in some months compared with previous years according to the National Park Service (NPS). On multiple days last week, the park started turning visitors away before 8 a.m. In previous years, Arches would sometimes turn people away on weekends. Now it’s happening almost daily. Arches had over 25,000 more visitors in May of this year compared to May 2019. Visitors who can’t get into Arches often go to nearby Canyonlands National Park or opt for recreation opportunities on public land outside of the national parks which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 will be our busiest year on record according to a park spokesperson. The big spikes in visitation are mostly at the most popular 12 to 15 destination national parks. This year, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks reported their highest first-quarter visitation numbers since they started collecting such data roughly 30 years ago, a state report says. Yellowstone recorded almost 108,000 visits and Grand Teton saw over 194,000. Those represent increases of 20.7 percent and 22.8 percent from 2020, respectively. 

Yellowstone National Park saw more than 483,100 people in May, the most visitors ever recorded at the park during that month. Yellowstone also saw a 50 percent increase in Memorial Day weekend visitation compared with 2019 and Yellowstone and Grand Teton had their busiest Aprils ever. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has seen record visitation each month throughout the year. Zion had over 80,000 more visitors in May than in 2020. For the first four months of 2021, Mount Rainier National Park recorded over 130,000 visitors, one of the busiest beginnings to the year that they’ve had in the last 25 years.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As of now, six national parks require advance reservations of some kind: California’s Yosemite National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park, Maine’s Acadia National Park, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and Utah’s Zion National Park. Will advance reservations spread to other popular parks? That begs the question, “Do we really want recreation.gov handling this crowding too?”

The NPS encourages visitors to explore lesser-known parks throughout the park system which includes 423 NSP sites: national seashores, national monuments, national recreation areas, national historic sites, and a host of other designations. Other options include state parks, regional and county parks, and city parks.

Instead of sticking to the top attractions this summer get off the beaten path and look for the hidden gems. Explore these NPS sites that include seven national monuments, four national historic sites and parks, three national parks, and one national seashore located in nine states from coast to coast.

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

Walk in ancient footsteps at Hovenweep. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

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.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Follow the ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts.

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

Known as an “iron plantation,” Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

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.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

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

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

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

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

A “Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. 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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

Built atop a small 120-foot ridge is a large pueblo. 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. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth which offer great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley.

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