Doctors Can Prescribe Year-Long Pass to Canada’s National Parks

Doctors can now prescribe access to nature with the Parks Canada Discovery Pass to patients through the national nature prescription program

Imagine going to your doctor and, instead of a prescription for some named or generic pharmaceutical, you instead receive a prescription for a 30-minute walk in nature. This is not actually that far-fetched. Put down the Prozac and pick up your walking shoes.

Enjoying nature at Devonian Gardens Botanical Park near Edmonton, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician, wrote: “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” He could not have imagined the advent of the Smartphone, nor a 24/7, digitally enhanced, Instagram-able world.

Enjoying nature in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Much has been written about the evils (and glories) of technology but the resulting dissociation from our natural surroundings leaves us emotionally and physically worse off. We are bereft of nature. Our bodies—and our minds—need nature. And there is hard science to prove it.

In fact, there is enough science about the health benefits of nature to get the attention of the medical profession. Nature as medicine. Just don’t tell Big Pharma.

Enjoying nature in Elk Island National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canada is famous for its pristine waterways, soaring snowcaps, and beautiful forests from coast to coast to coast. Thanks to a new partnering agreement, health care professionals in four Canadian provinces can now prescribe time in the national park system to boost people’s mental and physical health.

Related Article: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Parks Canada is collaborating with a program called Park Prescriptions (PaRx). Doctors, nurses, and other licensed health care professionals who register with the program can prescribe nature—and even a Parks Canada Discovery Pass—to their patients.

Enjoying nature at Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“We are very lucky in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces at our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities. Medical research now clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature,” Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, said in a written statement.

“This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges and couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”

Enjoying nature at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PaRx is an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation, driven by health-care professionals who want to improve their patients’ health by connecting them to nature. Featuring practical resources like quick tips and patient handouts, its goal is to make prescribing time in nature simple, fun, and effective.

Each prescriber who registers with PaRx will receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code and instructions for how to prescribe and log nature prescriptions.

Enjoying nature at Banff National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parks Prescriptions began as a grassroots movement in the United States over a decade ago. We are proud to be Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Parks Canada has provided 100 adult Discovery passes this year and will reassess this number in future years. An annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass covers admission to more than 80 destinations for 12 months. The pass sells for $72.25 and provides unlimited access to national parks, national marine conservation areas, and national historic sites for 12 months. The park system is already free for anyone 17 and under.

Enjoying nature at Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The BC Parks Foundation is the official charitable partner of BC Parks and the provincial park system. It launched PaRx—Canada’s first national nature prescription program—in November 2020 in British Columbia. In 2021, it expanded the program to Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Enjoying nature at Brae Island Regional Park near Langley, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winning a prestigious Joule Innovation prize from the Canadian Medical Association, it has garnered widespread enthusiasm across the country with over 1,000 prescribers registered. Doctors, nurses, and other licensed health care professionals are able to add Parks Canada Discovery Passes to the doses of nature they prescribe.

Enjoy nature at Sunshine Valley, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Until now, the nature prescriptions revolved around working out what kind of nature time people should consider, and not something tangible like a park pass. For now, only people in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario are eligible for the Parks Canada passes but the PaRx hopes to expand to Quebec, Alberta, and New Brunswick soon and eventually roll out in every province and territory.

Enjoying nature in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2022 than being able to give the gift of nature to my patients,” said PaRx director Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician. “There’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety, and I’m excited to see those benefits increase through this new collaboration.”

Enjoying nature in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Participating prescribers who can prescribe a Parks Canada pass are asked to prioritize patients who live close to national parks, historic sites, or marine conservation areas, and who could benefit from it the most.

For years doctors have discussed the healing qualities of nature and in 2006 a group of doctors in Albuquerque, New Mexico launched Prescription Trails, the first nature-prescribing program. Other programs launched soon afterward, and in 2019, Betty Sun of the Institute at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy said there were 71 programs of this nature operating in 32 different U.S. states.

Enjoying nature at Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature prescriptions were one of the top eight global wellness trends in 2019 and are cropping up around the world. Countries such as the United Kingdom are now investing in park prescription pilots to help tackle mental and physical health problems and the resulting strain on their health care systems and economies.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Enjoying nature at Banff National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PaRx was recently recognized by the World Health Organization in its COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health where it was featured as a way to inspire protection and restoration of nature as the foundation of our health—one of only two case studies cited from North America.

Enjoying nature at Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Research shows that children and adults who are more connected to nature are not only more likely to work to conserve it but also engage in other pro-environmental behaviors,” said Lem. “I like to think that every time one of my colleagues writes a nature prescription, we’re making the planet healthier, too.”

Enjoying nature along the Fraser River in Hope, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PaRx has been endorsed by the BC Family Doctors, Saskatchewan Medical Association, Nurse Practitioners Association of Manitoba and Ontario College of Family Physicians. It offers practical, evidence-based online resources like quick prescribing tips and printable fact sheets, plus a green-time target of “two hours per week, 20+ minutes each time.”

Related Article: Best Parks and Gardens to Connect with Nature

As Canada grapples with the ongoing pandemic, it’s a critical time for health care professionals to promote the mental and physical health benefits of heading outdoors.

Enjoying nature near Valemont, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Our goal is to make sure that people who need it can get out easily and affordably to benefit from the healing power of nature,” said BC Parks Foundation CEO Andy Day. “So far, through the generosity of our donors and partners, we have provided free trips and nature therapy sessions during the pandemic to health care workers, seniors, refugees, and vulnerable youth. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see the impact nature has on people.”

Worth Pondering…

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.

—E. O. Wilson

Experience the Journey Within

How the forest can change your life

Who could have imagined that being confined to our homes would bring so many people closer to nature?

As we wrap up the first month of 2022, let’s remind ourselves to hit the “reset” button. America offers RV travelers the opportunity to do just that and tap into true joy and fully relax and reset. Improving your health and well-being can be as simple as getting outdoors to enjoy parks and forests and trails. The health benefits of outdoor recreation inspire healthy, active lifestyles, and a connection with nature.

Enjoying nature at Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Humans are custom-designed for nature awareness. Before there were computers, smartphones, and televisions, most of our time was spent outside in the fresh air, tuning in with birds, plants, trees, and all the aspects of nature.

This deep level of knowledge and understanding about edible plants or how to move quietly in the forest and get closer to wildlife was developed out of a need for survival.

Enjoying nature at Roosevelt State Park (Mississippi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But beyond the surface appearance of a basic need to find food, shelter, and navigate without getting lost, using our sensory awareness in nature also brings significant benefits to our health and wellness.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Just check out some of these nature awareness quotes by famous people.

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”
—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

Enjoying nature in Custer State Park (South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even
spiritual satisfaction.”
—E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)

Enjoying nature at the Coachella Valley Preserve (California) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir (1838-1914)

Enjoying nature on the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a reason why history’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and leaders tend to have close relationships with nature!

Yet today things are quite different.

Related Article: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

Most people today have barely any awareness of the natural world.

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve become preoccupied with technology, video games, and how to fit into an expanding world. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, they simply don’t stimulate the human brain in the same way that nature does.

That is why so many people around the world are now coming back to the wilderness and intentionally rebuilding practices of nature awareness into their daily life.

Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Enchanted Rock (Texas) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country have received the designation.

Francis Beider Forest (South Carolina) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park (Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With national and state parks, millions of acres of national and state forest, and thousands of miles of trails, America offers a lot of opportunity and free access to the outdoors with numerous options for outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, birding, photography, canoeing, rafting, skiing, and simply taking a walk in the woods. Activities such as these have proven major benefits for human health and wellness due to their ability to clear the mind, engage our senses, and get our bodies moving.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Birding (Little blue heron) at Corkscrew Sanctuary (Florida) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time in the outdoors is something we need at any age. Spending time in nature is inherently calming. The patience that birding requires only serves to enhance this meditative effect. As birders learn to appreciate nature’s slower pace, it inspires reflection, relaxation, and perspective. The exercise benefits that come from walking outdoors also contribute to increased happiness and energy levels.

Birding (Sandhill cranes) at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a fun hobby you can do anywhere, anytime, without spending much cash upfront? You can’t go wrong with birding, commonly known as bird watching.

Birding (Black skimmer) at South Padre Island Birding Center (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can do it purely for fun or keep a life list—a birding term for the running list that bird enthusiasts keep of all the different species of birds they see. Whatever your goal, you’ll be rewarded by the sights and sounds of beautiful and interesting feathered creatures.

Birding (Great kiskadee) at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. 

Related Article: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Anyone who spends time birdwatching knows intuitively why they keep going back: It just feels good. Being in nature—pausing in it, sitting with it, discovering its wonders—brings a sense of calm and renewal. 

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

National Parks inspire life-changing love of nature by taking people out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary

Teddy Roosevelt was on to something. It’s been 149 years since the former president set aside 3,500 acres in Montana and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park. Now, there are 6,000 similar parks around the world and more than 400 national parks and monuments spread across all 50 U.S. states. The first 10 U.S. national parks were all in the West, and include Yellowstone (1872), Sequoia (1890), Yosemite (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915), and Haleakala (1916).

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the park service manages 63 national parks including iconic parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains. These spectacular parks are some of the most famous destinations in the U.S. They’re iconic and beautiful, and deserving of their stellar reputations.

But there are 423 parks, monuments, preserves, reserves, seashores, recreation areas, and other units under the protection of the National Park Service.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From golden sand dunes to hardwood forests, from historic sites and iconic monuments to the winding trails that crisscross the U.S. Encompassing mangrove forests, massive glaciers, active volcanoes, and towering mountains, these protected areas provide visitors with a firsthand look at the unique beauty of the untouched American wild.

Related: How National Parks Saved Us?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Famously called “America’s best idea” by historian Wallace Stegner, the national park system offers families a wonderfully affordable way to visit these cherished and beautiful landscapes, view wildlife in their natural habitat, learn about geological and cultural history, and appreciate the great outdoors. 

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

Many parks have interpretive exhibits and dioramas in the Visitor Center, and often movie theaters. They’re always well worth the time, and you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the park.

The park rangers and volunteers are a huge resource as well. Chatting with one of the staff will often yield insider knowledge about the best places to visit at that time. If you have a specialized interest such as birding, photography, hiking, or history, let the staff know and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most parks have self-guided tours and hiking trails. Hike as much as you can. There are often hidden treasures of the park that can only be discovered on foot.

Related: These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

The following National Park Service sites are just a sample of the hundreds of other worthwhile destinations in America.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amphitheater of multi-hued rock at Utah’s Cedar Breaks National Monument is shaped like a massive coliseum. Filled with hoodoos, spires, fins, arches, and columns, these intricately shaped sculptures were formed by wind, rain, ice, and streams. More than 2,000 feet deep and 3 miles across, the huge bowl is sculpted along the steep west-facing side of the 10,000-foot-high Markagunt Plateau.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin.

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world’s best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the United States, and more annual visitors than any other national park in the country. The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina with incredible views. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia’s largest barrier island, is full of untouched maritime forests, beaches, and marshes. Visitors can find solitude while camping under the stars in the 9,800 acres of a designated wilderness area or can see one of the many historic sites and structures such as Dungeness (an abandoned mansion that was originally built as a hunting lodge in 1736). Access to the island is by ferry out of St. Marys.

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway lazily meanders through the Appalachian Highlands in Virginia and the Blue Mountains of North Carolina. Some of the parkway’s most spectacular stretches can be found in North Carolina, south of Asheville.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the most unusual places in California, yet is relatively little visited. Lassen is spectacular. It’s the only place you can see several volcanoes that all have a different type of cone. Lassen is renowned for its volcanic past and its massive eruptions from 1914 through ’18, and as a destination for its lava-plug-dome volcanic peak, geothermal areas, great day hikes, and wilderness, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no symbol more emblematic of the American Southwest than the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)—standing tall with arms reaching out from the trunk toward the sky. And if you want to spend the day with these goofy, prickly characters, Saguaro is one of the easiest national parks to visit. It’s separated into two sections, each of which can be easily tackled in a day: East (also called the Rincon Mountain District) and West (aka the Tucson Mountain District). In between are I-10 and the city of Tucson so getting here by the interstate is pretty straightforward.

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

Located in southern West Virginia, the New River Gorge National Park offers something for everyone. New River, estimated to be over 250 millions year old, is the second oldest waterway in the world after the Nile. Its meandering course through the Appalachian mountains hides many natural wonders that appeal to every type of outdoor enthusiast.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. The good news for RVers is that the majority of campgrounds near the park are RV-friendly. The key is to call ahead to confirm any maximum length restrictions before you arrive. Like many National Parks in the Western United States, there are plenty of free dispersed camping options on BLM land nearby.

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking in nature helps me destress, reprioritize, feel more energy, and boost my chances of living longer.

A new study finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that walking can lead to a longer life. And you don’t even need to aim for the magical (and completely arbitrary) 10,000 steps per day. The benefits of walking are relative: If you’re only getting about 2,000 steps per day now, getting to 4,000 will come along with some added benefits.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This new study found that people who took 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70 percent lower risk of dying from all causes during an 11-year follow-up, compared to those who took fewer steps.

Related: The Power of Mindfulness

Researchers found incremental benefits when people took more steps which ultimately began to taper off around 10,000.

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

They also found that speed didn’t matter. Step intensity, or the number of steps per minute, didn’t influence the team’s findings. In other words, a slow saunter could be just as beneficial as a quick walk. The key was the number of steps.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The researchers didn’t really examine how walking contributed to a longer life. That said, physical activity is linked to better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, weight reduction, lower blood sugar, more efficient use of cholesterol, and better brain health. And all you really need is time and a pair of comfortable and supportive walking sneakers that fit well!

When I became aware of mindfulness practices in tandem with hiking, my time in nature took on new meaning.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness can be explained in a lot of different ways, but most simply, it’s the ability to be present and aware of the current moment. It’s bringing awareness to what you are directly experiencing through your senses.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Similar to mindfulness, many studies tie nature therapy, or ecotherapy, to increased awareness and decreased stress. Research has even tied nature to increasing the part of our nervous systems that helps our minds and bodies relax and calm down after being provoked. No wonder I fell in love with mindful hiking: Mindfulness and nature are two of the best strategies especially when combined—available at my fingertips—to relieve stress and re-focus.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So let’s get into how. Whether you’re a mindfulness beginner or an experienced pro, mindful hiking can be both a great entry point and a great way to take your mindfulness practice to the next level. 

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Set an intention. Mindful hiking is intentional beyond briefly noticing a leaf or an interesting rock as you hike. So, set your parameters before you start. Are you going to practice mindfulness for three 15-minute intervals? Are you going to start your practice from the beginning of the trailhead or after you get into your hiking rhythm? Make sure you have a plan so that you can be as focused as possible once you start.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When I walk—which I do almost every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether on the trails through the forest or looping the campground—I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace several times in a single walk. There is an appeal in such recursiveness as it sharpens my observation skills. But I walk to observe and think more clearly which means to walk with the ever-broadening scope of attention to reality.

Hiking Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I spend a lot of time on my computer, writing. So to boost blood circulation and keep fit, I walk the trails up and down and around. And I believe it behooves us old fogeys to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how tiny, to keep our brains in gear.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sometimes to help me be intentional, I’ll include an affirmation to set the tone for my mindful hike. I might say to myself: “I don’t need to be anywhere else right now. I can take this time to focus and be in nature.” At first, this will feel a bit awkward, but you’re just reminding yourself of your purpose.

Remove distractions. Once you’re ready to start your mindful practice, try to remove unwanted distractions. This will help you to focus and be in the moment. 

Hiking Waterboro Sanctuary, Waterboro, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, if you have made it a goal to practice mindfulness for a certain amount of time on your hike, pick a point in the distance and practice mindfulness until you reach that tall tree, large boulder, or giant saguaro. If you’re a hiker that loves music, put the headphones away while you’re trying to be in the present. Being focused requires more energy than you think. Removing the distractions in your control can help you.

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you begin, take a physical inventory of how you feel. Notice your body. What muscles are tight? Where are you feeling fatigued? Where are you feeling strong? Notice your mind. Are you feeling foggy? Are you focused on other things? Taking a physical inventory helps you see the impact of your mindful hike as you compare it to how you feel at the end of your practice. It can also help to take those things that try to tug at our focus, acknowledge them, and set them aside as we move into our mindful practice.

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

Take several deep breaths. Try breathing in for four counts, holding for two, and exhaling six. Do this as many times as you like. Your breathing will flood the body with oxygen which helps to ground you in the present and relax as you begin to focus on your senses.

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you begin to deepen your mindfulness, your senses become the entry point to the next phase of your practice. Focus on one sense at a time. Notice what you can see. A leaf dancing in the breeze. A leftover snow patch from winter. The outline of a lake in the distance. Narrow your focus to one specific thing. Trace the outlines of the object with your eyes. Take your time. Next move to the details in the center. What lines do you see? What colors are you noticing? Think about all the details you observe.

Hiking Waterboro Sanctuary, Waterboro, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Softly take your attention from a specific object and move it to what you smell. Take a couple of deep inhalations and notice all you can with each. The wet soil from recent rain or mountain run-off. The scent of the deep forest. Notice how the smells change as you continue your walk down the trail or as you take several deep breaths. 

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slowly take your attention from what you smell and listen to what’s around you. First, focus in on sounds closest to you—a branch cracking close by or your steps on the trail. Next, extend your attention out farther. What do you hear in the distance—the low rumbling of a waterfall or a bird up high in a tree?

Related: Hiking Arizona

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

After you have trained your ears to be active and take in the surroundings, notice what you can feel. Focus on what muscle groups you’re using to hike. Notice how your feet feel in your hiking boots. Feel how the air brushes past the skin on your face as you move or how the breeze floats by as you’re still.

Hiking Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you meditate on your body, take a final scan of how you feel. Do you feel calmer? More focused? Is your body more relaxed as you have walked along the trail or rested in a still spot? Use this as a time to do a post-practice inventory.

Mindful hiking has become one of my favorite ways to destress. Unlike meditations where you sit and close your eyes, mindful hiking allows you to be out in nature and its healing powers. 

Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For me, sometimes the motivation for walking in nature is to escape our fast-paced world but mindful hiking leads me to escape in a new way. I can escape from my stress, negative feelings, and restlessness while still remaining present in my body and in the present. Mindful hiking is an easy addition to any outing and though it may take some extra effort, I hope you enjoy feeling less stressed and more grounded as you practice.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

The Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can improve both mental and physical health

Mindfulness is a key component of many meditative and contemplative practices and it can also be an illuminating approach to everyday life. To be mindful is to focus our awareness and attention on the experience of the present moment. We can be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions; the natural world and our immediate environment; the people around us; and other parts of our lives.

On the road to Peralta Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A huge body of research now shows that mindfulness can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It improves our focus, resilience, and memory, and it has a whole host of health benefits including increased immune function and powerful anti-aging properties.

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

On the trail at Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices encourage us to slow down and notice what we can be directly aware of at any given moment. A recommended way to begin is to sit in a quiet place and notice the movement of our breathing. By bringing mindfulness to this one simple and flowing experience, we may be able to temporarily let go of our habitual thinking, daily narratives, and worries.

On the trail in Lake County, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with formal meditation practices, we can be mindful in our everyday lives. Eating a meal, walking, driving, and other seemingly mundane tasks are all opportunities for mindfulness. The more we ground ourselves in the present, the more fully we can experience being alive.

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

On the Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is mindfulness so effective? In a world that’s hectic and fast-paced, it’s beneficial to stop and re-center by noticing what’s around you.

Hiking the lava fields, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I often find myself stuck in one of two places. I am either ruminating on a past—perhaps revising what I had seen and done and trails hiked on past snowbird travels before COVID. Or I am desperately concerned about and planning the future—what if I’m no longer able to drive my motorhome or what if someone I love gets really sick?

Relaxing at Racoon State Recreation Area, Indiana

It’s easy to spend the majority of a day doing what’s been described as “rehashing the past” or “rehearsing the future.”

Related: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

The biggest problem with rehashing or rehearsing is that those thoughts are often a source of stress and anxiety. This is where mindfulness can become a powerful antidote. Spending time each day meditating and grounding ourselves in the present has been tied to less stress, fewer unwanted thoughts, heightening creativity, encouraging appreciation, and combating overall mental and emotional fatigue.

Along the byways of Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices have also been found to reduce stress, boost immune systems, and improve brain functions.

How could simply tuning into your thoughts and feelings lead to so many positive outcomes throughout the body? Researchers believe the benefits of mindfulness are related to its ability to dial down the body’s response to stress.

Along the boardwalk at Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chronic stress can impair the body’s immune system and make many other health problems worse. By lowering the stress response, mindfulness may have downstream effects throughout the body.

On a Hyannis Harbor Cruise, Massachusetts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because mindfulness is so helpful at easing negative and stressful feelings, it can contribute towards us living healthier, happier lives. It may even slow down the aging process because while stress has the side-effect of speeding up our biological clock, mindfulness can help to slow it down.

Related: Camping Benefits Mind and Body…Here Is How

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

In a study from Stanford University, a 90-minute walk in a natural area was shown to lower the risk of depression and one survey found that 65 percent of people who put away digital devices while on vacation enjoyed their way more (not surprising, right?). But where can you go to truly unplug? Turns out, that’s the easy part. I’ve got some ideas to get you started. Stay tuned for a follow-up article.

Relaxing at Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the quotes below, practitioners discuss the essence of mindfulness and its myriad benefits.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself.
—Henry Miller, writer

Walking the trails at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness… It [is] the direct and immediate experiencing of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought.
—Henepola Gunaratana, Buddhist monk

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

Mindfulness, though so highly praised and capable of such great achievements, is not at all a ‘mystical’ state, beyond the ken and reach of the average person. It is, on the contrary, something quite simple and common, and very familiar to us.
—Nyanaponika Thera, Buddhist monk and author

Along Champlain Canal, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are… It is called mindfulness.
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen monk and teacher

The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

Ikigai essentially means the reason for which you wake up in the morning

In an earlier article, I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods.

Hiking Silly Mountain Park near Apache Junction in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Japan, the secret to living a longer, happier, and more fulfilled life can be summed up in one word: Ikigai. In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason”—in other words, your reason to live. This ideology dates to the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185), but only in the past decade has it gained attention from millions around the world.

Woven together, these simple life values give clues as to what constitutes the very essence of ikigai: A sense of purpose, meaning, and motivation in life.

On a scenic drive near Hemet in California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For years, researchers have tried to find the reasons behind a long and healthy life. While the answer is likely a mix of good genes, diet, and exercise, studies have suggested that finding meaning in life is also a key component.

There’s no single way to find your ikigai but you can start by asking a few simple questions: What makes you happy? What are you good at? What (and who) do you value? What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Related: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Hiking near Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finding joy in the small things—the morning air, a cup of coffee, or the ray of sunshine—should be part of what motivates you to get up each morning.

Recent data reveals that people in the U.S. can expect to live an average of 78.7 years.

Bird watching at Crystal River in Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside.

Nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression—and even prevent cancer.

Hiking Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and brain. While a small but impressive shelf of psychological research in recent decades suggests that spending time in nature improves cognition, relieves anxiety, and depression, and even boosts empathy, scientists in Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons.

According to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, the average American spends at least eight hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Then we try to relax by watching TV. Bad idea.

How to have a healthier, happier old age and how to apply it to their own lives

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest in Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exercise in green space

Trees produce phytoncides which help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost immunity. The microbes in forest soil have been found to reduce depression and may contribute to the health of our microbiome. A 15-minute walk is all it takes to reap the benefits, but researchers have found that a weekend in the woods improves immunity for up to a month while a short afternoon run or walk somewhere green means better sleep at night.

Related: Best Parks and Gardens to Connect with Nature

Wawasee Lake near Syracuse in Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Read books

Although reading is sedentary and solitary, frequent reading has been linked to a longer, healthier life. A Yale study of 3,600 over-50s found that reading increased longevity by almost two years; readers of books outlived readers of newspapers and magazines. While those who read for more than 3.5 hours a week lived longest, the researchers said: “30 minutes a day was still beneficial”. Meanwhile, every expert seems to recommend reading as a means of getting to sleep.

Hiking lava fields in Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep learning

Old brains are just as equipped to build new neurons and synapses as young ones. But this process works best when we repeatedly force ourselves to learn new things. The brain loves novelty: crafts, games, even cooking from a new recipe trigger the creation of neurons but the more complex and more difficult the new activity the greater the rewards. Choose something that also involves social interaction and a bit of movement.

The beauty of the Cherohala Skyway in North Caro;ina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cultivate optimism

Studies have found that older people with a negative attitude to aging have worse functional health, slower walking speeds, and lower cognitive abilities than those with a more positive attitude. Negativity, unsurprisingly, puts stress on the body elevating cortisol levels which in the long term can impact heart health, sleep quality, weight, and cognition. You really are as old as you feel, it seems.

Worth Pondering…

Never forget your dreams.

—Corczak

How National Parks Saved Us?

Ready to get back into nature, visitors are overwhelming some U.S. national parks

“There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires,” wrote that ultimate advocate for nature, Henry David Thoreau, in his famous 1862 essay, Walking.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The U.S. is home to 63 national parks and 423 National Park Service (NPS) sites and it took a global pandemic to make many realize just how fortunate we are to have them. With flights grounded and borders closed, many Americans are road tripping to find some of that wilderness inspiration. Americans have taken to the national parks this summer in huge numbers as they discover the healing power of nature for the very first time. As bucket-list trips across the world were canceled, Americans discovered tent and RV camping, hiking, sightseeing, and unwinding in their own backyards—and in doing so found that the trip of a lifetime is just a drive away.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2020 the world shut down, but something inside us cracked open. For the first time in decades, the natural world took priority over extraneous distractions. There was a collective urgency to return to nature. But instead, they’ve often confronted crowded trails, traffic jams, and parking nightmares. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the country’s most famous national parks are grappling with an increasingly unsustainable rise in visitors. Zion National Park, for example, saw nearly 676,000 visitors in June, topping the number during the same period in 2019 by a wide margin. In June 2019, the park saw 595,000 visitors. The number dipped in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic to about 377,000 visitors. Two other Utah parks, Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park saw their busiest June ever with nearly 110,000 and 190,000 visitors respectively. Arches National Park temporarily delayed entry almost daily because of high visitation volumes but at the time of writing the official data had not been released. Utah national parks have seen visitation rise steadily over the past decade with some parks seeing their average annual attendance nearly double.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maine’s Acadia National Park hosted nearly 1.2 million visitors through June of this year, a 33 percent jump over the same period in 2019, just before the pandemic. Watching the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain is a gorgeous view—so breathtaking that on some days, as many as 500 cars could be found vying for the scenic overlook’s 150 parking spots. In response, some of the most popular national parks have been forced to close their gates early in the day.

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

“Watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a wonderful experience,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine at a Senate subcommittee hearing on overcrowded parks in late July. “Staring at the taillights of the car in front of you as you are trying to get up the mountain and find a parking place? Not so much.”

That competition has become more manageable since Acadia officials began using a reservation system in May.

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

Marquee destinations like Montana’s Glacier National Park and nearby Yellowstone have seen the number of annual visitors double since 1980. Yellowstone saw 4 million visitors in 2019 and Glacier tallied more than 3 million. Like Acadia, Glacier also has implemented a ticketed-entry system for summer-season visitors seeking to access Going-to-the-Sun Road between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

In 2019 alone, there were 327 million visits to U.S. national parks—or the equivalent of every American making a park visit, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

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

Concerns that U.S. national parks are being “loved to death” have been raised for years but 2021 seems to be emphatically underlining them. “The growth in visitor numbers poses “one of the greatest challenges (the National Park Service) has ever faced,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told the hearing.

U.S. national parks—“America’s Best Idea,” as Ken Burns referred to them in his 2009 documentary series—are doing what they were intended to do: provide memorable encounters with the often spectacular beauty and wonder of the natural world. Especially now, visitors can hardly be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and soak it all in.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Out of the country’s 423 NPS sites half of the visits are taking place at 23 parks with the worst crowding at just a couple of dozen iconic places (think Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Arches, Rocky Mountain, Lake Mead). Visitors can plan a more pleasant stay at a lesser-known park. Following are 10 of the least visited parks along with the number of recreational visits in 2020. Each park offers a visitor center, hiking trails, and numerous opportunities to commune with nature.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National park crowding may ease in the future as other travel options open up. But lessons learned now can help parks improve visitor experiences. 

As Yogi Berra, famous for his terse and memorable expressions, would have put it, the last thing that should be said of these treasures is “It’s too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore.”

Worth Pondering…

National Parks are being “loved to death” and solutions are urgently needed to manage, disperse, and educate crowds while increasing access for all.

—Lebawit Lily Girma, travel writer

How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Use the three-number formula of the Nature Pyramid to make yourself healthier and happier

We all know that 2020 was a grueling year. Many of us have been cooped up for too long. Research shows that Americans actually spent 92 percent of their time inside. Being outside comes with many positive benefits for our mental and physical health.

Dr. Rachel Hopman, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, suggests the Nature Pyramid. The “20-5-3” rule, or nature pyramid, recommends the amount of time we should spend outdoors to reduce stress and boost our overall happiness. Think of it as the food pyramid except that instead of recommending you eat this many servings of vegetables and this many of meat, it recommends the amount of time you should spend in nature to reduce stress and be healthier. Learn and live by the 20-5-3 rule.

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20 minutes

Like the food pyramid, the bottom is what you need to be doing the most. You should spend 20 minutes outside in nature three times a week. That means put your phone away and revel in the beauty of being outside. A recent study shows that people who used their phones while being outside or on a walk showed no benefit from its effects.

In nature, our brains enter a mode called “soft fascination.” Hopman described it as a mindfulness-like state that restores and builds the resources you need to think, create, process information, and execute tasks. But turn off your phone—alerts from it can kick you out of soft-fascination mode.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 hours

Broken down, per month, we should spend five hours in semi-wild nature. For instance, going to a state or county park or nature preserve can provide city dwellers with feelings of being more relaxed and less stressed.

A 2005 survey conducted in Finland found that city dwellers felt better with at least five hours of nature a month with benefits increasing at higher exposures. They were also more likely to be happier and less stressed in their everyday lives.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Finnish government-funded another study in 2014 in which the scientists placed people in a city center, a city park, and a forested state park. The two parks felt more Zen than the city center. No shocker, here. Except that those walking in a state park had an edge over the city-park people. They felt even more relaxed and restored. The takeaway: The wilder the nature, the better.

Nature has these effects on the mind and body because it stimulates and soothes us in unusual and unique ways. For instance, in nature, you are engulfed in fractals, suggested Hopman. Fractals are complex patterns that repeat over and over in different sizes and scales and make up the design of the universe. Think: trees (big branch to smaller branch), river systems (big river to stream and so on), mountain ranges, clouds, seashells.

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 days

At the top of the pyramid, we should spend three days immersed in nature each year. Try camping in the woods to spend some time off the grid. This nature time can boost creativity and problem solving and relieve burnout. This dose of the wildest nature can reset your thinking, tame burnout, and just make you feel better.

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country—a third of them privately owned—have received the designation.

Frances Beidler Forest, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

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, unusual, or range extensions for plants and animals occurs in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species. 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.

Year designated: 1979

Size: 3,408 acres

Ownership: National Audubon Society

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree River Swamp, South Carolina

The 21,811-acre swamp—located within Congaree National Park—is the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Flooding from the Congaree and Wateree rivers provides the nutrients to sustain one of the tallest temperate hardwood forests in the world. This unique ecosystem has been designated both an International Biosphere Reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area.

More than 20 miles of hiking trails offer visitors the opportunity to explore the floodplain and its national and state champion trees. The most popular is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop featuring an elevated section that winds through the old-growth trees and a low boardwalk that takes you through a primeval bald cypress and tupelo forest. You can also paddle your way through the swamp on the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail running 15 miles along the blackwater tributary all the way to the Congaree River.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 21,811 acres

Ownership: Federal

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Okefenokee Swamp, located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the largest and most primitive swamps in the country. It contains a diversity of ecosystems and is a refuge for native flora and fauna including many uncommon, threatened, and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 337,300 acres

Ownership: Federal, State

Caverns of Sonora, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Caverns of Sonora, Texas

The Caverns of Sonora contain unusual formations such as bladed helictites and coralloid growths and are internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful show caves on the planet. The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 103 acres

Ownership: Private

Plain Chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a living museum of the lowland forested area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The refuge’s jungle-like vegetation provides habitat for over 400 species of birds and about one-half of all butterfly species found in the United States.

Year designated: 1966

Size: 2,059 acres

Ownership: Federal

Enchanted Rock, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, located within Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest rock mountains in the United States. It is a classic illustration of a batholith and of the exfoliation process. The coarse-grained pink granite is massive and uniform in composition and texture and is some of the oldest igneous rock known in North America.

Year designated: 1971

Size: 667 acres

Ownership: State

Fishing in the Bottomlands near the Gulf, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands, Alabama

Mobile-Tensaw River Bottomlands is one of the most important wetlands in the nation. The site contains a variety of habitats, including mesic floodplains, freshwater swamps, and brackish water marshes, and supports several rare and endangered species.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 179,000 acres

Ownership: Federal, State, Private

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, Arizona

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary is a good example of a cottonwood-willow riparian forest and is one of the last permanent stream-bottom habitat areas in southern Arizona. The site retains a substantial part of the indigenous aquatic biota, including the endangered Gila topminnow. The birdlife includes several Mexican species and is the only known nesting site in the country for the rare rose-throated becard.

Year designated: 1970

Size: 314 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Ramsey Canyon is a stream-cut, vertical-sided gorge. Cold air drainage from the upper canyon results in a well-defined microclimatic habitat that supports Mexican flora and fauna and plants that normally occur only at higher elevations. The site is also frequented by more species of hummingbirds than any other area in the United States.

Year designated: 1965

Size: 279 acres

Ownership: Nature Conservancy

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest desert state park in the nation. The site contains some of the best examples of the various biotic communities and geological phenomena of the Colorado Desert region.

Year designated: 1974

Size: 622,810 acres

Ownership: State, Municipal, Private

Worth Pondering…

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.

—E. O. Wilson

Lake Pleasant, an Oasis in the Sonoran Desert

With more than 23,000 acres of water and beautiful desert landscape, Lake Pleasant is one of the most scenic recreation areas in the Valley

The desert is parched and grows little but cactus. Except for roadrunners outwitting coyotes, the desert supports no wildlife. Arizona residents and seasoned snowbirds have heard it all before from first-time visitors. Sometimes they just smile and head for Lake Pleasant.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away amid rolling hills just 30 miles north of Phoenix, Lake Pleasant Regional Park is a sudden and dramatic escape. This expansive playground combines all the things we love about the desert—endless sunshine, rising mountains, saguaro-clad slopes, and waves of spring wildflowers—with the addition of unexpected water. For outdoor enthusiasts, this 23,000-acre park is a dream destination.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

­­Lake Pleasant History

In the mid-1920s, the Waddell Dam confined the waters of the Agua Fria River as a private irrigation project. The dam originally was named after Carl Pleasant, the engineer who designed it. The completion of the New Waddell Dam in 1994 turned Lake Pleasant into a major storage facility for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The new dam tripled the size of the lake and submerged the old dam. Pleasant is the second-largest reservoir in central Arizona, behind only Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Water is pumped into the lake via the CAP canal during winter and is released during spring and summer to meet higher demands.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Fishing

A dozen fish species swim in Lake Pleasant. Those fishing from shore generally goes after catfish, sunfish, and carp. From a boat, anglers can explore coves, channels, and deep holes. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Others that might end up on a line include tilapia, bluegill, bigmouth buffalo fish, and white and black crappie.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boat Ramps and Marinas

A 10-lane boat ramp helps keep the traffic flowing onto the water even during busy times. There also is a four-lane ramp at the north end of the lake.

Never fear if you don’t have a boat. You can rent just about anything that floats at Scorpion Bay Marina. Hourly and daily rentals include pontoons, fishing boats, ski boats, kayaks, and other water toys. The marina has a general store and the Scorpion Bay Grill with indoor and patio dining.

Located on the southeastern shore outside the regional park Pleasant Harbor Marina has two four-lane boat ramps, boat rentals, a waterside restaurant, and daily cruises. Look for the world’s largest floating water slide to reopen for the season in late spring. The RV resort has more than 300 full and partial hook-up sites as well as dry camping. There is a $6 entry fee per vehicle for everyone visiting Pleasant Harbor Marina.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Hiking Trails

Landlubbers will have plenty to keep them busy. A network of hiking trails spreads across the park some tracing the shore while others explore surrounding desert hills. It’s always fascinating to witness this contrast—groves of saguaros standing guard over a large body of water. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some hiking options. All mileages are one way.

Beardsley Trail (4.1 miles): This is the longest Lake Pleasant trail as it traverses open desert parallel to South Park Road before it junctions with the epic, county-circling Maricopa Trail

Pipeline Canyon Trail (2 miles): This trail highlights the best display of spring wildflowers with the heaviest concentration stretching from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roadrunner Trail (0.8 miles): It follows the water’s edge connecting the Discovery Center with the 10-lane boat ramp

Wild Burro Trail (2 miles): It’s so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents

Yavapai Point (1.5 miles): The trail makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers some impressive views

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picnic Areas

Picnickers will find numerous covered ramadas and tables dotting the landscape. Day-use areas include tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. The Sunset Ridge Area sits atop a hill with commanding views of the lake. It has 21 picnic sites with tables, grills, and a porta-john.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discovery Center and Playground

In 2016, the original dam observation/visitor center building was expanded and given a stylish update. The Discovery Center now offers visitors a good introduction to the lake with exhibits on history, wildlife, plant communities, and information on upcoming events. Spotting scopes and signs on the balcony help you identify points of interest that range from features of the dam to the distant ridge of Four Peaks. Children will love the adjacent playground filled with animal-themed slides and swings. The Discovery Center is now open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, until further notice.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Lake Pleasant

Imagine starry nights or the light of a full moon shimmering on the water. Snag a campsite to enjoy that show. Lake Pleasant offers 148 sites for RV and tent camping spread across the Desert Tortoise and Roadrunner campgrounds. Campsites cost $15-$40 per night, depending on amenities.

Developed sites have water, electricity, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. Sites can be reserved up to six months in advance at maricopacountyparks.org or by calling 602-506-2930.

Primitive camping is allowed along much of the shoreline in such areas as Two Cow and Fireman’s coves. Locations change with fluctuating water levels. Park staff can provide more details.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Location: From central Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to the Carefree Highway (SR-74) exit. Drive 15 miles west, then turn north on Castle Hot Springs Road.

Park Elevation: 1,700 feet

Surface Water: 10,000 acres

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle.

Campsite Rates: $22-$32

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 25 Cities

Take a short drive to a different world

One thing the pandemic has taught us—beyond how much we hate Zoom—is that nature is not a luxury. It is essential for human survival. And while many city folks have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors, you don’t have to commit to some epic cross-country RV trip just to get some fresh air.

With that in mind, we searched the country for the best outdoor getaways—national parks, national forests, state parks, and the like—to find seven iconic destinations within easy driving distance of major US cities. Regardless of your level of experience in the outdoor world, these spots offer natural beauty and invigorating adventure in spades. Now hit the road already.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Close to: Washington DC (70 miles), Baltimore (108 miles), Pittsburg (214 miles), Philadelphia (250 miles)

While most well known for its sensational displays of fall foliage, this nature-packed park just outside DC makes for one great urban escape any time of year. The 105-mile Skyline Drive running the length of the park is Shenandoah’s most famous asset but the park also boasts nearly 200,000 acres of backcountry camping and numerous waterfalls, views of which you’ll share with black bears, red-tailed hawks, and the full slate of charming wildlife forest creatures. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Mathews Arm Campground (MP: 22.1), Big Meadows Campground (MP: 51.2), Loft Mountain Campground (MP: 79.5)

Coolest pit stop: Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful towns in America—and it’s just 37 miles from Shenandoah and home to the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s home of Monticello, and the picture-perfect pedestrian Historic Downtown Mall, C-ville’s more than worthy of a pit stop.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Forest, California

Close to: Los Angeles (128 miles), San Jose (234 miles), Sacramento (257 miles), San Francisco (279 miles), Las Vegas (285 miles)

National parks may protect some of the best-known natural landmarks but national forests have just as remarkable landscapes. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests including Sequoia. Named for the world’s largest trees, Sequoia National Forest has the greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world. One of America’s finest national forests features a gargantuan 1.1 million acres in three counties of Southern California and offers an abundance of recreation opportunities for people to enjoy. The Forest offers 52 developed campgrounds, hiking on more than 1,147 miles of trails including 47 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, over 314,448 acres of wilderness, 222 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, 2,617 rivers and streams, world-class whitewater rapids, 158 ponds and lakes, boating, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more.

River Run RV Park, Bakersfield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: River Run RV Park (Bakersfield), Orange Groove RV Park (Bakersfield), Bakersfield RV Resort (Bakersfield)

Coolest pit stop: As you drive on Generals Highway between the Lodgepole area in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, you will pass by several popular areas within the national forest. Here, you will find access to campgrounds, Buck Rock Lookout, the Big Meadows area, Jennie Lakes Wilderness, and Montecito Sequoia Lodge.

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coconino National Forest, Arizona

Close to: Phoenix (134 miles), Tucson (203 miles), Las Vegas (267 miles), Albuquerque (290 miles)

This unsung 1.8-million-acre national forest has a little bit of everything for the outdoor enthusiast. From mountains like the famous San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon-Esque Oak Creek Canyon to the magnificent Zion-like desert landscapes of Red Rock Crossing and Arizona’s largest natural lake (Mormon Lake), one thing you won’t be here is bored. Pack some extra energy if you wanna see it all. 

Grand Canyon Railway RV Park, Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Black Barts RV Park (Flagstaff), Grand Canyon Railway RV Park (Williams), Distant Drums RV Resort (Camp Verde)

Coolest pit stop: Flagstaff brings a wintery vibe to challenge your notions of what Arizona is all about. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got Route 66 running west of town as well as the nearby freakishly beautiful artsy paradise of Sedona. This road trip basically plans itself.

Cradle of Forestry, Pisgah National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

Close to: Charlotte (126 miles), Knoxville (137 miles), Atlanta (173 miles), Chattanooga (248 miles)

While the iconic Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the foliage-packed Blue Ridge Parkway are perhaps the most-well known nature retreats around these parts, the lesser-visited Pisgah National Forest outside Asheville remains content to fly under the radar. Explore the forest for top-tier wildflower-dotted mountain landscapes, verdant rolling hills, and serene waterfalls in addition to vibrant swimming holes and rushing whitewater. 

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

Where to stay if you’re camping: Asheville Bear Creek RV Park (Asheville), Asheville West KOA (Asheville), Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground (Swannanoa)

Coolest pit stop: The national forest is only 30 minutes outside Asheville, so there’s no reason not to visit one of America’s best mountain towns. When you’re done with all the craft and stuff there, nearby Chimney Rock State Park makes another excellent diversion for heart-stirring mountain vistas.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Close to: San Diego (87 miles), Los Angeles (151 miles), Phoenix (372 miles)

This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, hike the trails, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site at Palm Canyon and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, The Springs at Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course

Coolest pit stop: Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adirondack Park, New York

Close to: New York City (214 miles), Boston (234 miles), Buffalo (268 miles)

Clocking in at a mind-boggling 6.1 million acres—more than twice the size of Yellowstone— Adirondack Park’s nearly endless list of attractions includes more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers, and 200,000 acres of forest. Explore iconic mountain towns like Lake Placid, scale some mountains, do some canoeing, or just kick back and relax: You’ve heard of Adirondack chairs, right? 

Village of Lake George © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Lake George Riverside Campground (Lake George), North Pole Resorts (Wilmington), Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Paradise Pines Camping Resort (North Hudson)

Coolest pit stop: Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont makes for a nice diversion on the route from Boston or NYC. Serious question: Has there ever been a bad time to visit Vermont?

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palmetto State Park, Texas

Close to: Austin (56 miles), San Antonio (64 miles), Houston (142 miles), Corpus Christie (146 miles), Dallas (247 miles)

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water (including the San Marcos River), Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land. You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay if you’re camping: Palmetto State Park offers 18 RV and tent camping sites

Coolest pit stop: Luling is home to the Luling Oil Museum and is renowned for watermelons, barbecue, and colorfully decorated pump jacks. Texans know Gonzales as the “Cradle of Texas History” where the first shots were fired for Texas Independence. If you’re hankering for barbecue, head north to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

—John Muir