Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

The unique floodplain ecosystem in central South Carolina is home to some of the tallest trees on the East Coast

There’s a perfect refuge in the midst of the Southeast: Congaree National Park, a 41-square-mile patch of old-growth forest. Congaree is the last stand of a forest ecosystem that was long ago cleared to supply timber and to make room for farmland and development.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The vast majority of the original forest has been destroyed, something that occurred over several centuries. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s that local folks realized they had something special you couldn’t find anymore.

Today, Congaree is what’s left of a 30-to-50 million-acre forest that once stretched from Maryland to Florida and as far west as Missouri. The timber industry was active in the area until the 1970s when a coalition of conservation groups worked with South Carolina’s U.S. Senators to get a national monument designation for the park. It was expanded, designated as a national park in 2003, and later as a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The East Coast isn’t known for its uninterrupted wilderness. But when you start to consider the understated beauty of places like the Okefenokee Swamp—a shallow, 438,000-acre, peat-filled wetland—or the Everglades, or even the northern woods that cover much of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, the eastern wilderness concept makes sense.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park sits roughly in the middle of a giant triangle formed by three busy interstates connecting Columbia (the state capital), Sumter, and Santee. The farther we traveled from the asphalt of the city, the thinner traffic became. The state’s rural areas felt alive. But the pace seemed slower, too, as we drove along the mostly-empty roads.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other than a handful of signs here and there, you wouldn’t know there’s a national park nestled amid these hundreds of acres of old growth forest.

For a long time, not a lot of people did know. According to Park Service statistics, Congaree attracted fewer than 96,000 visitors annually 20 years ago. That number has crept up a bit—146,000 people found solace there in 2018—but it’s a trickle compared with the millions of people that visit the Grand Canyon National Park or the Great Smoky Mountains every year.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some reason, people are not familiar with the park or even this part of the state. A lot of people who come to South Carolina want to go down to Charleston. The middle of the state is a lesser-known entity.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those who do make it to Congaree National Park are in for a treat. The entry road winds toward the visitor center through a thick canopy of trees. More than 20 miles of trails and more than 10 miles of the Congaree River snake through the park. About 15,000 of its 27,000 acres are designated wilderness areas.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the bald cypress trees have been here for centuries. The average canopy height is 130 feet and among the tallest trees are a 167-foot-tall loblolly pine, a 157-foot-tall sweetgum, a 154-foot-tall cherrybark oak, and a 135-foot-tall American elm. The forest floor is teeming with wildlife—everything from bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, and otters to turtles, snakes, alligator gar, and catfish. It is also an important hub for migratory waterfowl.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree is a floodplain forest, so it’s a unique ecosystem most people aren’t familiar with. At any given time of the year, the forest floor could be dry, muddy, or flooded with a foot of water. Regardless of the season and the amount of water among the trees, anytime is a good time to visit because there are so many different ways to experience the park. All the different seasons and phases are beautiful.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a warm November day we enjoyed an afternoon walk on the raised boardwalk that cuts a 2.4-mile loop around the north end of the park. There were several places to descend from the boardwalk onto solid ground.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One thing to keep in mind is that conditions can change from month to month and even from day to day. One day, you might need a pair of walking shoes; another, a kayak might be a better bet. There’s a canoe and kayak access trail for the days when the river floods large parts of the forest.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree is unique in the East. You can go out and it’s just you and nature. Even on a busy day, you don’t have to go too far to get away from folks.

Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. The visitor center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on federal holidays

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, 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

National Parks are Best in Autumn

Six of the best national parks to visit in the fall

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.

Of course, that’s not true of every national park—there are more than a few best visited during other seasons of the year. But, generally speaking, autumn can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, depending on when and where you travel you will get the added bonus of a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Rocky Mountain national parks.

So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be six of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.

Cade’s Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a very popular national park which often creates crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall—especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season—the crowds taper off along with the temperatures. If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler. If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hills run with red knotweed in late summer. Because this national park has a volcanic landscape, much of it is austere though bright color pops on autumn days particularly along its hillsides and in its meadows where cadmium-yellow rabbitbrush, crimson knotweed, white pearly everlastings, and golden and rust-colored grasses are seen peaking in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Technically, they are late blooming wild flowers rather than true “autumn color.” Though because of their timing, we classify them as fall color.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Great Smoky Mountains or Zion but it holds treasures of its own especially in the fall. Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange, and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Most people don’t think of South Carolina as a fall foliage destination but autumn there is long and colorful and best of all begins much later in the season than other destinations which means you’ll be able to get in a “second autumn”. The best time to see the leaves here is mid-November through the first half of December. Take the 2.4-mile boardwalk hike through the park or one of the many trails into the backcountry for miles upon miles of color. Another great option is to paddle along Cedar Creek in a canoe. It meanders under canopies of spectacular fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are really the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets everything with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and prepare for an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

The unique floodplain ecosystem in central South Carolina is home to some of the tallest trees on the East Coast

America’s National Parks are home to some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. Hundreds of millions of visitors flock each year to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada and the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon enjoy endless popularity, many other parks offer wonders just as breathtaking but fly under the radar. Ever heard of Lassen Volcanic? How about Pinnacles? These are national parks located in California that are every bit as magical as the rock formations of Arches. Congaree National Park is another park which offers a multitude of wonders for those who make the trip into its ancient forests.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The woodlands of Congaree make up the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. Congaree packs an astounding amount of biodiversity and habitats within its borders. The trees here are some of the tallest in the eastern U.S., with record-breaking loblolly pines, tupelos, and sweetgums towering more than one hundred fifty feet to jut high above the forest canopy.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. Within the many streams and lakes that dot the park live an abundance of wildlife, from river otters and bullfrogs to alligators. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker swoops through the trees, and dwarf palmettos blanket portions of the forest floor.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike many parks, Congaree is almost devoid of roads. Even approaching the park you’d almost have no idea that it was there. No crowded highways, tourist towns, and neon lights line the entrance to welcome you. Small signs point the way until you reach the main park entrance.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Road is only about a mile long and leads to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, named for one of the individuals who spearheaded the campaign to protect Congaree. As at most national parks, here you can stock up on maps, get your national parks passport stamped, and pick up the activity guide for the Jr. Park Ranger program. Be sure to ask the rangers what the current trail conditions are, or better yet, call before you go.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the majority of the park lies within the Congaree River floodplain, wet weather can lead to many of the park’s trails becoming impassable. When this occurs the park’s interpretive boardwalk trail is usually open. This 2.4-mile loop passes through a variety of the park’s unique ecosystems. Numbered stops and a guidebook help explain the unique areas you pass through. The lower portion of the boardwalk wind through a forest comprised of water tupelo and bald cypress.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This area is a swamp much of the time. Occasionally the waters rise to cover even the elevated boardwalk, so once again check with a ranger before venturing off. As it loops back towards the visitor center it passes by the tranquil waters of Weston Lake and then climbs through some dryer terrain. Here you’ll find the loblolly pines which are the stars of this ancient forest.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the trails are passable, there are miles of them which delve deep into the wilderness areas of the park and provide access to the river itself. During wetter periods visitors’ best choice for exploring the park is by canoe or kayak. Check out the park’s website or chat with a ranger to get an idea of the areas which are accessible and which of those you would like to explore.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree is unique in the East. You can go out and it’s just you and nature. Even on a busy day, you don’t have to go too far to get away from folks.

Congaree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. The visitor center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on federal holidays

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the time to explore this biological wonderland. Sometimes the flash of a red-headed woodpecker, the whisper of the wind through Spanish moss, or the towering crowns of a loblolly pine are more than enough to remind us how precious the natural world really can be.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, 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

National Parks Offer At-Home Learning Resources for the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has turned many parents into teachers and the National Park System has a rich collection of teaching materials they can use

Remembering 9/11 

We will remember every rescuer who died in honor.  We will remember every family that lives in grief.  We will remember…

—George W. Bush

Good morning. Today, we’re pausing to reflect on two events that forever changed the world: 

  1. It’s the 19th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks which killed nearly 3,000 Americans. 
  2. Exactly six months ago, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. More than 900,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19.

To all those who’ve suffered or lost loved ones in these tragedies, we’re thinking of you and sending strength.

No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

—Virgil

August is gone, classrooms are in flux as some are open, many are not, and many parents are being recast as homeschoolers. Looking for some additional content to keep your kids busy? Look to the national parks.

According to the National Parks Traveler, the National Park System (NPS), 419 units strong, is rich with educational materials touching biology, botany, biodiversity, wildlife, paleontology, archaeology, and so many more “oligies.” And that’s not to overlook the cultural and historical resources to be found in places like Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Arizona, Saratoga National Historical Park in New York, and Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia.

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

Whether you’re hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic on the East Coast or in the West or somewhere in between, there are virtual programs developed by the National Park Service and friends groups and cooperating associations you can tap into to not only keep your children busy but learning from a wide range of subjects.

Saratoga National Historical Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic when school systems first shuttered and only offered a review of previously covered material for the rest of the school year, this fall school systems have vowed that there will be new content and curriculum and that it will be more rigorous and engaging.

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

That said, I have major concerns about an educational system that relies on students sitting in front of a computer screen for many hours. I also have concerns about how to keep them engaged and motivated for many weeks and possibly months. Although we’re told how resilient children are, and that’s often true, they are struggling to adjust to a new normal like the rest of us and I’m concerned about their emotional health and level of academic engagement.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supplemental educational resources from the National Park Service are welcome because I believe that in many areas of the country it will fall to parents to help their children find more opportunities for learning and projects that are interesting and engaging. Some families already are aware that the National Park System is a source of knowledge and inspiration. Their children are aware of and participants in Junior Ranger programs so plugging into NPS materials would be a no-brainer for them.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington’s National Park Fund is offering a new series of virtual field trips to Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks. Virtual Field Trips can be a great resource for home-schooling parents and teachers especially since all the past field trips are recorded. The ones labeled ‘Junior Ranger’ are especially good for younger children while all the other field trips are relevant for Middle and High School students.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creating educational materials for school-age children is nothing new for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the driving force behind the popular Kids in Parks program, a particularly useful program if you can head out to a nearby park for outdoor learning. The Kids in Parks program has a suite of materials that can be used by teachers, parents who are now teaching, and students to engage them in outdoor activities that promote learning in nature.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kids in Parks works with individual parks to convert their preexisting hiking trails (and other types of trails) into ‘TRACK Trails’ through the installation of signs and brochures that turn an ordinary hike into a fun-filled, discovery-packed adventure. Each TRACK Trail has four brochure topics students can use to learn about and connect with nature: Flowers, Lichen, Dragonflies, Nature’s Relationships, Birds, etc. (They have a catalog of 30+ brochures).

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

Children that register their adventures through the website earn a series of prizes designed to make their next outdoor adventure more fun and encourage repeat use of the program. Over the past 11 years, Kids in the Parks have had 700,000 children and 1.7 million people hike their trails.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Congaree National Park TRACK Trail is a flat 2.4 mile loop through a floodplain forest on boardwalks. Congaree National Park is home to one of the few old-growth floodplain forests east of the Mississippi River. With trees an average of 130 feet, the forest at Congaree is one of the tallest broad-leaved (or deciduous) forests in North America. Grand bald cypress, water tupelo, and loblolly pine trees surround you along this trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the foundation has converted some of their most popular TRACK Trail brochures into e-Adventures that youngsters can do on a smart phone or tablet. They can complete these e-Adventures in their backyard, schoolyard, local park, on an official TRACK Trail, or anywhere in between.

Worth Pondering…

Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.

Visit a National Park but Skip the Big Name Ones

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

— John Muir

Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

Escape the crowds and traffic jams at these lesser known national parks

The glories of the national park system draw hundreds of millions of visitors each year, even in normal times. But in this upside-down year, with the pandemic still limiting travel within and outside America, it’s likely the National Park Service’s 419 sites, 62 with a “national park” designation, will attract even more people looking to get away this summer.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For potential park-goers who wish to avoid these crowds (and this season, who doesn’t?), one strategy is to skip the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the other top 10 parks that typically receive the majority of visitors. There are alternatives that are awe-inspiring for your summer and fall fresh-air retreats, ones that offer many of the Top Ten’s sights, sounds, wildlife, and activities.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need to drive—isn’t that the reason you have an RV­—but these lesser-known crown jewels, all off the beaten path, are mercifully free of the large groups and vehicle traffic found in the more popular parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wherever you decide to go, remember that this is a new world. As the majority of on-site visitor centers remain closed, contacting the parks before your trip for up-to-date information and any necessary permits is recommended. For the parks’ main draws—the great outdoors—the reopenings are staggered and may be confusing; your desired destination may be limited to day-use, or welcome visitors during restricted hours. Local stores may be closed, too, so plan to bring food and needed supplies. Plan to arrive early to avoid crowds, limited parking, and the likelihood of being turned away at the gates.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But heading to a new park and taking these new precautions will be worth it as you breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs on the trail, and rejuvenate in the natural world.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands, instead of Arches

Instead of ogling the sandstone formations in traffic-jammed Arches, opt for a wilderness desert experience amid the reddened Wingate sandstone in Canyonlands. Canyonlands is southwest of the tourist mecca of Moab, Utah. Most visitors take the Island in the Sky scenic drive with stops at the spectacular overlooks, but otherwise the 527-square-mile park has few roads. Hardier souls go for multiday paddles down the gentle Green River, which, after its confluence with the Colorado, plunges into Cataract Canyon.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the desert begins to cool in August, hikers and canyoneers can lose themselves to wonder on trails and backcountry routes that pass Ancestral Puebloan art sites and ruins. And though it’s not widely known, Canyonlands has its own natural sandstone arches (more than 80). You just have to walk a good distance to see them.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Restrooms opened at the end of May along with backcountry trails for overnight use but the two visitor centers remain closed until further notice.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest, instead of the Grand Canyon

In east-central Arizona, 110 miles from Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest adjoins the Painted Desert, 7,500 square miles of badlands and hills tinted lavender and red by Triassic Age strata. The annual visitation of this park is one-tenth that of the nearby Grand Canyon.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Petrified Forest, a drive-through park, holds the greatest and most spectacular concentration of fossilized, coniferous tree logs in the world. Once a lush and subtropical climate, the forest of 200-foot-tall trees was buried by volcanic ash and preserved 225 million years ago.

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

Now petrified into waxy, bright quartz, the tree pieces lay scattered across the Painted Desert along with hundreds of plant and animal fossils including dinosaurs, reptiles, and ferns. The park also protects 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan rock art. There are few trails, so hiking cross-country with map and compass is the optimal way to take in and discover the splendors of this park’s primordial remains.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reopened to limited day use last month, the park has a 28-mile paved road with turnoffs for viewpoints. Its visitor center and other facilities are likely to open after mid-July.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic, instead of Yellowstone or Yosemite

In place of the crowded Yellowstone or Yosemite a panorama of wildflowers, volcanic peaks, and steaming fumaroles can be seen at Lassen Volcanic. The 30-mile park highway reopened in late May along with most of the trails and overnight backcountry camping.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The still-smoking, glacier-clad Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous 48 states that erupted in the 20th century (Mount St. Helens erupted 40 years ago last month). Today, more than 100 years after magma first flowed from the Lassen Peak amateur volcanologists can delight in finding the remains of the four types of volcanoes: shield, cinder cone, strato, and plug.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 167-square-mile park is also crisscrossed with 150 miles of trails for day hikes or extended backcountry trips. These wind up through different plant zones to alpine lakes, and hikers can expect to see a wealth of wildlife, there are more than 300 vertebrate species alone. If you fly fish or paddleboard, check out Manzanita Lake.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree, instead of Great Smoky Mountains

Congaree, a park named after the original Native American inhabitants, was created in central South Carolina to preserve 15 different species of trees that are the tallest such specimens anywhere. These include the most statuesque loblolly pine in the world, towering 167 feet above the surrounding tupelo forest. Tree lovers know Congaree with only 159,445 visitors last year as the Redwoods of the East—this year it’s worth forgetting about nearby Great Smoky Mountains and its 12 million-plus visitors.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree reopened some of its hiking and paddling trails for day use on May 28, but the visitor center remains closed until further notice. It’s best to experience this floodplain park—locals will bristle if you call it a swamp—on the water paddling several different canoe trails or fishing for yellow perch or bass on its lakes. When the park offerings increase in its second phase of reopening, consider an overnight Congaree River paddle trip.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

5 Lesser-Known National Park Wonders

These little-known spots wait beyond more famous attractions

National parks comprise an inventory of beauty, wilderness, history, culture, wildlife, landmarks, and memorials extending from the Arctic to the tropics.

The 418-unit-strong system includes the famous “named” national parks as well as national seashores and battlefields, lakeshores and memorials, monuments and recreation areas. It’s a vast collection that contains sites you’ve probably never heard of. And even within those well-known units are unusual phenomena that are, well, phenomenal. Here’s a brief look at some lesser-known park wonders.

Historic graffiti

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The National Park Service doesn’t normally glorify graffiti, but when the taggings date from 1605, they merit attention. In New Mexico, a hunk of sandstone known as El Morro National Monument rises above a permanent pool of water in the sere high desert west of Grants. The monolith has long served as a landmark signifying the presence of reliable water, and over the centuries travelers have welcomed its hulking sight.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Spanish conquerors, U.S. Army soldiers, and Union Pacific Railway surveyors all paused to dip a canteen here—and to etch into the sandstone a permanent record of their sojourn. More than 2,000 signatures and aphorisms are carved into the rock, some flamboyant, others as terse as gravestone inscriptions.

Volcanic wonderland

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The land is positively alive at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Home to all four types of volcanoes—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—this fascinating park in California’s wild northeast corner literally bubbles, steams, and roars. Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features show that the earth is not quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. Plus, there are miles of lush forests and sparkling lakes to explore too.

Pick your fun

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A fun and overlooked feature of Capitol Reef National Park is that it contains orchards where, during the appropriate season, you can harvest fruit. Late in the 19th century, Mormon families sought refuge in the shadow of southern Utah’s Capitol Reef, so named because settlers thought one of its daunting reef-like cliffs, capped by eroded sandstone, resembled the U.S. Capitol.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For 50 years they tended livestock and planted groves of peaches, pears, apricots, cherries and apples in their small, aptly named community of Fruita. The Mormons left, and all that remains of their settlement is a one-room schoolhouse and the orchards. Today, visitors to Capitol Reef can pick the fruit from these same trees.

Where buffalo roam

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife. Bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, wild horses, and bighorn sheep inhabit the park, as do numerous smaller mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area.

Swamp things

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you don’t like spiders and snakes, you ain’t got what it takes to love swamp canoeing in Congaree National Park in South Carolina, home to no fewer than 31 species of spiders and 25 species of snakes, four of them poisonous—and many of them more aquatic than you are. Watch for brown water snakes and venomous cottonmouths up to 48 inches long. Swimming in Congaree is not highly recommended.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

The Absolute Best Places to RV This May

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

May is like the Friday of months. No, you’re not quite to summer yet, but already people are making vacation plans, and generally slowing down after a nose-to-the-grindstone winter and spring. It’s the kickoff of fun season, when amusement parks open and beach town parking lots start filling up.

But it’s only the cusp of Summer, and you’ll find many destinations are still relatively empty and affordable—and some places really make the most of the pre-summer anticipation. So both at home and abroad, here are five spots you should absolutely check out for your May travels.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Alabama

Before the summer crowds take over the glorious beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, there’s this little beach concert in Gulf Shores called the Hangout Music Festival the weekend before Memorial Day.

Alabama Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Up the road in Montgomery, the most underrated city in Alabama opened the Legacy Museum in April 2018. Housed in an old slave warehouse, the museum chronicles the African-American experience “from slavery to mass incarceration,” in the museum’s words. It’s a chilling look at the history of black America.

Old Talbott Tavern, Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Louisville, Kentucky

OK, it’s no big secret that the only horse race most people can name happens in May. And it’s also no secret the Kentucky Derby is the only thing most people can tell you about Louisville. So maybe if you’re making your way to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, you should also take some time to check out other stuff the city has to offer.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Try some of the legendary restaurants in the city, or head to the East Market District of Downtown, also referred to as NuLu (New Louisville) neighborhood that is becoming known for unique art galleries, specialty stores, antique shops, and a growing number of local restaurants. On the first Friday of the month, hop aboard a ZeroBus for the First Friday Hop. It’s an all-in-one art show, shopping adventure, and street party.

Heaven Hill Bourbon

Check out Muth’s Candies (home of the famous Modjeska—a caramel-covered marshmallow confection) and Joe Ley Antiques (an 1890s schoolhouse filled with two acres of treasures). 

Need a sugar fix while you’re out shopping? Head over to Please & Thank You, home of what’s touted as the world’s best chocolate chip cookie. The café and record shop sells coffee, sweets, sandwiches, and more. Enjoy a cup of java as you peruse the vinyl record selection.

Makers Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Then there’s the nearby Kentucky Bourbon Trail, full of nearly a dozen distilleries with names like Jim Beam, Makers Mark, and Evan Williams.

If you’re in town for the Derby you don’t even need to attend the race to have fun. This is, after all, one of the biggest party weekends in any city all year.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Bisbee, Arizona

Southeastern Arizona’s Mule Mountains provide out-of-towners the freedom to set out on cactus-dotted hiking trails and discover old copper mines. The thrill of discovery, peaks when happening upon Bisbee, a mining-town-turned-arts-colony tucked into the desert.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Explore Old Bisbee for a history lesson and museum tour as you travel on foot up Main Street to Tombstone Canyon. Next, browse the countless art galleries, studios, and bungalow-style houses that pepper the Warren District. Stop at Mimosa Market, a 100-year-old neighborhood grocer that has mastered the craft of sandwich making. Spend the night at an eccentric sleeping habitat, perhaps a retro Airstream or vintage bus at The Shady Dell Vintage Trailer Court.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Columbia, South Carolina

Just a two hour drive from Charleston, stately Columbia has plenty going on in spring, from weekly markets to kayaking on the Saludia River. An interesting time to visit is late May to early June, when a rare viewing of synchronous fireflies turns nearby Congaree National Park into a scene from Disney’s Fantasia, causing the swamps to glow with thousands of tiny humming insects. The fireflies in Congaree will blink in unison on evenings with the right weather conditions. Best of all, the action happens less than a quarter mile from the parking lot, so you won’t have to battle a two-hour hike to witness the breathtaking light show.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a reenactment and it isn’t just a restoration. It’s a 300-acre historic area that attracts nearly 1 million visitors every year. Tour the blacksmith shop, let the kids play Revolutionary Era games, and watch live moments in America’s past.

Historic Jamestown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

And, then visit the Jamestown settlement and Yorktown battleground for a full historical experience.

Worth Pondering…

Remember, don’t sweat the small stuff. Life’s too short, and the older I get, the shorter it gets. So, just enjoy your life, do the best you can, live according to the Golden Rule and LIVE, LOVE & LAUGH!

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

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

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

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

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Petrified Forest

2018 visitor count: 644,922

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mesa Verde

2018 visitor count: 563,420

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Carlsbad Caverns

2018 visitor count: 465,912

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic

2018 visitor count: 499,435

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Big Bend

2018 visitor count: 440,091

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Pinnacles

2018 visitor count: 222,152

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Congaree

2018 visitor count: 145,929

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

10 National Parks to Visit Now That the Government Shutdown Is Over

Come along and visit these 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love

Good news! The government shutdown is over! Not only will you be getting your tax refunds, but you can also visit— trash free—America’s most treasured scenic and historically important federally-administered land. Of course, we’re talking about the National Parks Service sites.

But instead of talking up Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, two of which you’re already familiar, below are 10 national parks that don’t always get enough love.

Petrified Forest National Park

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

Pinnacles National Park

California has so many well-known national parks that smaller parks tend to be overlooked. But Pinnacles should be on your must-visit list. Its unique landscape of towering rock formations that form “pinnacles” is the result of volcanic activity in the area some 23 million years ago.

Congaree National Park

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park

Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. The park’s main driving tours include the paved Scenic Drive and two long, mainly unpaved, loop tours through the park’s Cathedral and Waterpocket Districts.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

A Nor-Cal beaut, Lassen is home to numerous active volcanoes which include fun, fumaroles (openings in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge). RV here, if you really want to “blow up” on social media.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine, an area created much the way uplift and water formed the Grand Canyon.

Arches National Park

Another reason to hit up southern Utah? Arches. And not like the St. Louis “Gateway Arch.” We’re talking an area that includes over 2,000 natural arches formed over 100 million years by a combo of water, ice, and extreme temperatures.

Big Bend National Park

Few national parks can match the scenic variety of Big Bend. A land graced with desert, mountain, and river environments makes for a compelling study in contrasts. The Chihuahuan Desert, with its vastness and stark beauty, is joined by the abrupt canyons of the Rio Grande and the forested peaks of the Chisos Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Located in the Badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named for the 26th President. This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife including bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, wild horses, and bighorn sheep. Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?