The Complete Guide to Custer State Park

Traveling to the Black Hills in South Dakota and wondering what there is to see and do in Custer State Park? In this post, I cover all the main landmarks, hiking trails, and animal sightings that you can experience in Custer—the best things to do in Custer State Park.

Located in the rugged beauty of the Black Hills in South Dakota, Custer State Park emerges as a sanctuary of natural splendor and wildlife diversity. Encompassing over 71,000 acres, this iconic park is a testament to the breathtaking landscapes that define the region’s towering granite peaks, expansive rolling grasslands, and crystal-clear mountain waters.

Established as South Dakota’s first state park in 1912 and named in honor of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the park weaves together a rich tapestry of history and untamed wilderness.

Home to a thriving population of wildlife including the iconic bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and more, Custer State Park beckons adventurers with its myriad trails, scenic drives, and the allure of its five pristine lakes. From the annual bison roundup to the historic Peter Norbeck Center, Custer State Park invites visitors to explore its diverse offerings, promising an immersive journey into the heart of one of South Dakota’s most cherished natural treasures.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of Custer State Park

Iconic bison herd: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a notable event attracting thousands of spectators and showcasing the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation.

Scenic drives: The park boasts two famous scenic drives—Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. These routes offer breathtaking views of granite peaks, pristine lakes, and opportunities to witness wildlife including bison.

Diverse wildlife: Beyond bison, the park is home to a variety of wildlife species including prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, mountain goats, coyotes, river otters, pronghorn, cougars, and feral burros. This diversity attracts nature enthusiasts and provides unique opportunities for wildlife observation.

Outdoor recreation: Custer State Park offers a range of outdoor activities from hiking trails to water-based activities in its five picturesque lakes. Visitors can enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing while surrounded by the park’s natural beauty.

Historic contributions: The Park’s history is shaped by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which played a vital role in the 1930s by building roads, campgrounds, and dams. The Peter Norbeck Center, a National Register of Historic Place, showcases the park’s natural history and cultural heritage through exhibits.

Expansive terrain: Covering over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park features diverse landscapes including rolling prairie grasslands and rugged mountains. The varied terrain contributes to the park’s scenic beauty and provides a habitat for its diverse wildlife.

The Needles, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Proximity to attractions: Situated in the Black Hills, the park is near other notable attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park offering visitors a chance to explore the broader region.

Visitor center: The modern visitor center opened in 2016 serves as an informative hub offering insights into the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. Visitors can engage with exhibits and a short film to enhance their understanding of Custer State Park.

Annual events: In addition to the bison roundup the park hosts various events and programs including naturalist-led activities, festivals, and educational programs. These events provide visitors with unique opportunities to connect with the park’s natural and cultural offerings.

Preservation efforts: Custer State Park has a history of expansion and preservation with an additional 22,900 acres added in 1964. The park’s ongoing efforts focus on maintaining ecological balance and preserving the natural beauty that defines this South Dakota gem.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established in 1912, Custer State Park located in the Black Hills of South Dakota holds a storied history as the state’s first and largest state park. The park’s origins trace back to a collection of sixteen sections of land which were later consolidated into one expansive block due to the challenges posed by the rugged terrain.

The 1930s saw a transformative period for the park, as the CCC played a pivotal role in constructing miles of roads, campgrounds, and dams. These efforts laid the foundation for the park’s growth and facilitated water recreation activities.

In 1964, an additional 22,900 acres were added further expanding its boundaries. Notably, the park is home to a herd of over 1,500 bison and the annual bison roundup initiated in 1965 has become a celebrated event drawing thousands of spectators. Today, Custer State Park stands as a testament to conservation efforts offering visitors a unique blend of natural beauty, wildlife diversity, and a rich tapestry of historical significance.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Importance of conservation and recreation for Custer State Park

Custer State Park holds a dual significance as a vital hub for both conservation and recreation. On the conservation front, the park’s expansive 71,000 acres serve as a haven for diverse wildlife playing a crucial role in the preservation of ecosystems unique to the Black Hills region.

The resident herd of over 1,500 bison alongside prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and various other species underscores the park’s commitment to biodiversity. The annual bison roundup not only captivates visitors but also stands as a carefully orchestrated conservation effort, ensuring the ecological balance of the park.

Additionally, Custer State Park’s historical role in the 1930s with the CCC constructing essential infrastructure exemplifies a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Simultaneously, the park’s recreational offerings from scenic drives like Needles Highway to hiking trails and water-based activities provide a dynamic and immersive experience for visitors.

Beyond its natural allure, Custer State Park’s proximity to other iconic attractions such as Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park positions it as a cornerstone for tourism fostering an appreciation for the region’s natural beauty.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Diverse vegetation and unique plant species

Ponderosa pine forests: Custer State Park is characterized by extensive stands of ponderosa pine forests contributing to the park’s scenic beauty and providing habitat for various wildlife species.

Aspen groves: Aspen groves dot the landscape especially in areas with higher elevations. These groves contribute to the park’s diverse and visually striking vegetation.

Prairie grasslands: The Park features expansive prairie grasslands showcasing a mix of native grass species that play a crucial role in maintaining the park’s ecosystem and supporting its diverse wildlife.

Wildflowers: Throughout the park, a vibrant display of wildflowers adds splashes of color to the landscape. These include species like lupine, fireweed, Indian paintbrush, and various others creating a visually appealing and ecologically significant environment.

Ferns and mosses: In shaded and moist areas, ferns and mosses thrive adding to the diversity of plant life within the park. These species are often found along streambanks and in the vicinity of the park’s lakes.

Black Hills spruce: This native evergreen species is part of the diverse forest composition contributing to the park’s unique plant community. The Black Hills spruce is well-adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions.

Chokecherry and Saskatoon serviceberry: These shrub species are found throughout the park and are important for both wildlife and traditional uses. Chokecherries, in particular, are a vital food source for various bird species.

Alder thickets: Along waterways and in moist areas, alder thickets thrive. These dense shrub communities provide habitat for a variety of birds and small mammals.

Rocky Mountain juniper: Scattered throughout the park, the Rocky Mountain juniper is a hardy evergreen species that adds to the park’s diverse vegetation particularly in rocky or higher elevation areas.

Custer State Park’s diverse vegetation not only enhances its natural beauty but also plays a critical role in supporting the varied wildlife species that call the park home. The combination of forests, grasslands, and unique plant communities creates a rich tapestry of ecosystems within this South Dakota treasure.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Bison: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a spectacle that showcases the park’s commitment to wildlife management and conservation.

Prairie dogs: The Park is home to thriving prairie dog towns where these social rodents create intricate burrow systems. Their presence contributes to the park’s unique prairie ecosystem and provides a critical food source for various predators.

Bighorn sheep: Custer State Park supports a population of bighorn sheep with these iconic mammals often spotted on the rugged mountainous terrain. The park’s varied landscapes offer suitable habitats for their survival.

Elk: Elk can be found throughout the park especially in areas with a mix of forests and meadows. Their presence adds to the diversity of large herbivores in the region.

Pronghorns, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mule deer: The Park is home to mule deer which are often seen in grassland and forested areas. These agile herbivores contribute to the park’s overall biodiversity.

White-tailed deer: White-tailed deer are prevalent in Custer State Park utilizing the diverse habitats including woodlands and open grasslands. Their adaptability to different environments makes them a common sight for park visitors.

Mountain goats: Adapted to the rocky terrain, mountain goats find suitable habitats in the park’s higher elevations. Their presence adds to the alpine character of certain areas within the park.

Coyotes: Thriving in a variety of environments including prairies and woodlands, coyotes are common in Custer State Park. They play a role in controlling rodent populations and contribute to the park’s ecological balance.

River otters: In aquatic habitats such as lakes and streams, river otters are active residents. Their playful behavior and sleek presence add to the diversity of wildlife experiences in the park.

Pronghorns: These swift and agile antelope-like mammals can be spotted in the park’s open grasslands. Their unique adaptations make them well-suited to the prairie environments of Custer State Park.

Cougars: Though elusive and rarely seen, cougars inhabit the park’s forests and rocky landscapes. Their presence as a top predator contributes to the park’s overall ecosystem dynamics.

Feral burros: Not native to the region, feral burros are a charming addition to the park’s fauna. Known for approaching vehicles in search of food, they add a unique and sometimes amusing element to the visitor experience.

Custer State Park’s diverse fauna is a testament to the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation and habitat preservation. The mix of large herbivores, predators, and smaller mammals creates a balanced and thriving ecosystem offering visitors a chance to witness the wonders of the Black Hills’ natural biodiversity.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities in Custer State Park for visitors

1. Scenic drives

Visitors to Custer State Park can embark on unforgettable scenic drives such as the renowned Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. Needles Highway winds through impressive granite spires providing breathtaking views and opportunities to witness the park’s diverse wildlife. Wildlife Loop Road offers a leisurely drive through key habitats allowing visitors to observe bison herds, prairie dog towns, and a variety of other animals.

2. Hiking trails

The park boasts an extensive network of hiking trails catering to various skill levels. Trails like the Little Devils Tower offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape while Sylvan Lake Shore Trail provides a scenic lakeside stroll. Hiking enthusiasts can explore the diverse ecosystems from dense forests to open meadows offering a close encounter with the park’s natural beauty.

3. Wildlife viewing

Custer State Park is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. The park’s vast landscapes offer ample opportunities for wildlife observation with bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and a myriad of bird species calling the park home. Wildlife Loop Road is especially popular for its accessibility and the likelihood of spotting iconic animals in their natural habitats.

Burros, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Fishing

The park’s five picturesque lakes including Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake provide excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers can cast their lines for a variety of fish species creating a serene and rewarding experience surrounded by the park’s scenic beauty. Fishing is permitted and regulations ensure the sustainability of the aquatic ecosystems.

5. Boating and swimming

Visitors seeking water-based activities can enjoy boating and swimming in the park’s lakes. Sylvan Lake with its clear waters and scenic surroundings is a popular spot for both boating and swimming. The calm lakes offer a refreshing escape allowing visitors to connect with nature while engaging in recreational water activities.

6. Annual bison roundup

An iconic event in Custer State Park is the annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024), a spectacle that draws thousands of spectators. This tradition, dating back to 1965 involves herding the bison for health checks and population management. Visitors have the unique opportunity to witness this significant conservation effort and gain insights into the park’s commitment to wildlife management.

7. Visitor Center Exploration

Opened in 2016, the park’s visitor center serves as an informative hub. Visitors can delve into exhibits detailing the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. The center provides a comprehensive introduction to Custer State Park enhancing the overall visitor experience with interactive displays and a 20-minute film.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Camping

For those seeking a more immersive experience, Custer State Park offers several campgrounds nestled within its natural landscapes. Campers can enjoy the tranquility of the Black Hills with campfire evenings under starlit skies. The park provides a range of camping options from rustic sites to more developed facilities.

Custer State Park’s diverse activities cater to a broad range of interests inviting visitors to engage with its natural wonders, wildlife, and recreational offerings. Whether exploring by car, foot, or boat, the park provides an enriching experience that showcases the unique beauty of the Black Hills region.

As our journey through Custer State Park concludes, it leaves an indelible mark—a canvas of granite peaks, untamed bison, and winding scenic drives. The echoes of preservation and nature’s allure linger. Until the next adventure beckons, Custer State Park remains a cherished chapter in the tapestry of exploration.

Plan your next trip to Custer State Park and the Black Hills with these resources:

Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

In summary, Custer State Park is a harmonious blend of conservation, recreation, and cultural heritage. Its diverse landscapes from prairie grasslands to granite peaks provide a captivating environment. The park’s commitment to preservation evident in the annual bison roundup and historic contributions reflects its dedication to stewardship.

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

10 Amazing Places to RV in July 2024

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

I think you travel to search and come back home to find yourself there.

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Venturing into the world is often seen as a rite of passage whether it’s leaving the family home or moving to a different continent. For MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leaving her home country of Nigeria to live in the United States and traveling around the world to promote her books began a journey to find herself.

Whether a sense of wanderlust is inherent in us or not, exploring beyond the life we know filled with familiar people is one path to discovering who we really are—which elements of our cultural identity fit and which we prefer to leave behind.

As Adichie observed, it’s the journey that helps us find who we are, and discover where home really is. 

’Tis the season for mosquito spray, sunscreen, and summer heat. As you’re making travel plans don’t forget to double-check that your A/C and fridge are working properly. And while you’re at it, it can’t hurt to check your batteries, too,

Are you planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in May and June. Also check out my recommendations from July 2023 and August 2023.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

Find my Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park here.

If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Spotted Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Kłlilx’w (Spotted Lake)

Spotted Lake is a geological wonder located in Osoyoos, the southernmost town in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. The lakewater holds a wealth of minerals—including calcium, sodium sulfate, and magnesium sulfate—and as the summer heats up, the lake’s water gradually evaporates. What’s left is a mesmerizing sight: vibrant dots of mineral pools scattered like a mosaic and creating an otherworldly landscape. 

The mirage-like effect is more than just a popular sight—it’s considered sacred to the Syilx people, the Indigenous First Nations of the Okanagan region. For centuries, the Syilx have revered this site utilizing its mud and therapeutic waters for various medicinal and healing purposes. Due to the lake’s cultural and ecological significance, access to the lake itself is restricted. Visitors can instead observe the landscape from the highway or from a designated viewing area.

UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Alien Capital of the World

Fancy coming face-to-face with an extraterrestrial? Roswell, New Mexico’s claim to fame is a mysterious UFO crash that allegedly occurred here in 1947. Known as the Roswell Incident locals claimed that the debris found near the crash site was from a flying saucer and that the U.S. government covered it up.

Roswell’s location in the middle of the New Mexico desert means that visitors can enjoy not only UFO watch towers and the International UFO Museum but also scenic wilderness areas. Fanatics can attend the annual UFO Festival held every year in early July (July 5-7, 2024). Get your picture with the famous welcome sign to prove to skeptical friends that you really did visit the Alien Capital of the World.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Savannah’s Waterfront Independence Day Celebration

Savannah’s Waterfront is hosting its annual Independence Day Celebration on Tuesday, July 4, 2024. The event is free and open to the public.

The annual Independence Day Fireworks Show begins at 9:30 pm. and is expected to last about 20 minutes. Spectators on the waterfront can bring chairs and blankets; however, coolers are discouraged. The show takes place from a barge in the Savannah River in front of the Savannah Convention Center. River Street and the ramps will close at 6:30 pm. and cars parked on the ramps and parking lots will need to remain there until the street opens to vehicular traffic after the show.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Banff National Park

Established in 1885 as Canada’s first national park and the flagship of the nation’s park system, lies the allure of Banff. Even the name sounds like an adventure waiting to happen. Situated in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Banff National Park is a mix of awe-inspiring landscapes from majestic mountains to pristine turquoise lakes.

Moraine Lake and Lake Louise have been coined the crown jewels of this park with their stunning clear waters and gorgeous backdrops. Banff is home to the historic Banff Springs Hotel which looks like a castle straight out of a fairy tale. Let’s not forget about the impressive Chateau Lake Louise where you can hike or canoe to your heart’s content. Whether you’re hiking or simply relaxing and taking it all in at one of its world-renowned hotels, Banff’s beauty and magnetism are unparalleled.

It’s certainly no secret why Banff National Park has been attracting visitors from around the world for decades. If you haven’t yet, I hope you can join those lucky visitors this summer!

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Jasper National Park

Jasper is Banff’s laid-back cousin. While it’s certainly less crowded, it’s equally as stunning offering a charming, serene and untouched wilderness experience. Jasper National Park is vast and is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies.

Its quaint community welcomes travelers from all over the world and boasts the world’s largest dark sky preserve where no artificial lighting is visible. The prestine park features glaciers, lakes, incredible falls, hot springs, wildlife, and some of the most scenic drives in the world including the Icefields Parkway.

Jasper National Park is a trip worth the trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Where the buffalo roam

This 71,000-acre state park is so good it would be easy to mistake it for a national park. Home to 1,400 bison—not to mention elk, pronghorn antelope, black bears, and a herd of wild burros—this is definitely a destination for wildlife lovers. Custer State Park also offers excellent hiking, mountain biking, and paddling in a wilderness that is remote, rugged, and beautiful. At night, the park is no less enthralling, offering some of the best stargazing in the country. Here, a sense of adventure is a prerequisite to entry.

Here are some helpful resources:

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Best Hill Country hit: Fredericksburg

A short drive from the cosmopolitan hubs of Austin and San Antonio lies the Texas Hill Country. Amongst this plethora of hamlets and hills, Fredericksburg reigns supreme. Here, you’ll find more than 60 wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms in the area as well as over 700 historically significant structures—most notably, Sunday Houses. These types of small homes built by German settlers were used on Sundays when families would head from their rural homesteads into town to get supplies, do business, and go to church services.

Those German settlers—who first arrived in 1846—have a lasting legacy in eateries like Otto’s German Bistro and lodging like Behr Haus Bed & Breakfast. Visitors can learn about the region’s German history on a trolley excursion with Fredericksburg Tours.

Other worthy stops here include The National Museum of the Pacific War, a tribute to service members in the Pacific during World War II (including native son, U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz) and Enchanted Rock, the second-largest granite dome in the United States and a Dark Sky International designated park.

International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, Rhode Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Newport, Rhode Island

With opulent Gilded Age mansions and beautiful beaches, Newport is a lovely summer destination. Visitors and residents alike stroll along the scenic Cliff Walk, bike along Ocean Drive, browse farmers markets, and picnic on the beach. Every Saturday throughout the summer, visitors can watch exciting polo matches with competitors from around the world, and tennis fans will want to catch the annual International Hall of Fame Open from July 14-21, 2024.

The 55th Annual Newport Classical Music Festival is set for July 4-21, 2024. For a quintessential Newport day experience the historic mansions and enjoy fresh seafood at one of Newport’s many waterfront restaurants.

Bishop’s Palace, Galveston, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Galveston

Summers in Texas can be hot and humid but the cool waters of the Gulf of Mexico are inviting all year long. Galveston features 32 miles of beaches for those looking to relax in the sun. But the barrier island is also home to historic architecture, a vibrant art scene, excellent seafood restaurants, and fun, quirky shops. Join a walking tour to learn more about the local history, jump on a boat to spot dolphins in the gulf, or go fishing from a pier. 

Worth Pondering…

If I had my way, I’d remove January from the calendar altogether and have an extra July instead.

—Roald Dahl

Custer State Park: A Majestic Corner of South Dakota’s Black Hills

Custer State Park is one of the most beloved and diverse parks in the U. S. featuring breathtaking natural scenery, diverse wildlife, and a wide range of outdoor activities

An ever growing one of a kind event is putting South Dakota’s Custer State Park ever more on the map. Those who experience the thrill of the park’s annual late-September Buffalo Roundup quickly discover that nearby Mount Rushmore is not the only dramatic site in this southeast corner of the Black Hills region. Some two million guests a year who now make the trek here are on to something, after all.

Composed of one of the oldest and most diverse geologic foundations in America that makes for hairpin curves and tunnels that you can follow for fourteen miles along Needles Highway, Custer State Park is as much a natural treasure as any lands that make up America’s national parks. And you will no doubt eventually wonder why this spectacular landscape hasn’t been declared one.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t worry about it: South Dakotans are perfectly content to manage it themselves and a great job they do indeed with fine roads and an excellent tourism infrastructure. No matter the park’s official status a few days or a week in and around these 71,000 acres promise to reveal one adventure after another.

Within the southern part of the Black Hills National Forest the mile-high town of Custer serves as a gateway to the state park that lies just a few miles to the east. As your base, book yourself straight into the cute family-run Bavarian Inn in the hills just outside of town. Another of all things named for the notorious commander around here, The Custer Wolf is a locally popular casual pub restaurant.

Strolling Mt. Rushmore Road—effectively Custer’s main street whose broad width was designed to allow oxen freight carts to turn around—you’ll delight in many of the town’s fun and quirky brightly painted buffalo statues.

Also there, Keely and Damien Mahony operate the Black Hills Balloons adventure outfit. The American wife and Irish husband’s crew will take you on a short early morning drive to a forest clearing while you watch the balloons get filled in anticipation of the launch of your hour-long flight. Below you, Black Hills ridges and valleys are filled with ponderosa pine, while fog swirls around rock spires and rises from the surface of forest ponds below.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After your flight, you’ll be ready for a hearty breakfast at Baker’s Bakery & Café hash house whose tagline You’ll Love Our Buns is placed under a cheeky logo of a waitress with baked buns peeking out from her skirt.

For lunch or dinner the Pounding Fathers Restaurant/Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company is the place to sample some of dozens of Dakota state beers on draft. So massive is the complex that you could get lost there after knocking back a few (opened seasonally from May through October).

Just north of the Custer State Park boundaries book ahead for the super popular 1880 Train that runs between the towns of Hill City and Keystone. You’d think you’re in an Old West movie when at one point the vintage train will create a steamy scene by blasting sand through the flues to clear soot and whenever the tracks curve over the hour journey and you spot the engine chugging along. Conductors with old-timey facial hair help set the mood.

Anyone whose route ends in Keystone certainly needs no introduction to Mount Rushmore National Memorial which lies minutes away.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seemingly content as they are with the superb vantage point from the Grand View Terrace and to take in the extensive displays in its visitor’s center the vast majority of park goers don’t follow the half-mile-long looping Presidential Trail whose wooden stairs drop and rise again and get you right below the talus slope. You’ll have a close up of the presidents all to yourself at various viewing platforms to suss out just where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangled from and scampered down those granite faces.

Headed west back to the town of Hill City, stop and sample what at Prairie Berry Winery will surely be your most unusual wine tasting ever—that is, unless you have already tasted rhubarb wine or their raspberry-inflected Red Ass Rhubarb blend. They have a brew pub as well for that mango IPA you never knew you wanted.

Taking up a huge house that you wish you could live in, Hill City’s Alpine Inn restaurant was built in 1884 as a hotel serving the mining and railroad companies. The lunch menu is ample but for dinner it’s just two sizes of filet mignon or spaetzle primavera followed by a massive homemade dessert selection. It’s cash-only and it’s wildly popular.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A massive site off the highway between Hill City and Custer, The Crazy Horse Memorial mountain carving is a truly odd slice of Americana. Still far from completion since sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began blasting rock away in 1948 the work depicts the warrior whose Oglala Lakota people knew as Tasunke Witko, famous for his role in the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn. Funded by donations and entry fees and finally advancing quickly with newer rock carving technologies, the memorial now includes the chief’s hand pointing in the distance to go along with his long-ago finished head.

The memorial museum is filled with artifacts and art from many Indian nations across the continent. One wall display you might not have expected is made up of small early 20th-century advertising illustrations of romanticized Indian and Western figures and scenes that were made for a gum company by Winfried Reiss, a German born artist recently rediscovered for his murals in the Empire State Building and Harlem Renaissance portraits.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back in Custer, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a slice of Brooklyn in the Black Hills. Were Skogen Kitchen actually in Brooklyn, the restaurant with the Norwegian name would be a hit there too for its urban vibe and dishes like hiramasa sashimi and duck leg.

Rapid City is now well-known for its nearly-life-sized bronze statues of presidents around town. Back in the 1930s, the WPA erected a truly delightful curiosity on a hill outside of town, where the life-size concrete creatures in Dinosaur Park have fared remarkably well in the near century of their existence. You can expect the unexpected in this southwest corner of South Dakota.

Custer Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

Parks Galore

If you are planning your next camping trip, don’t forget to look at state parks. You just might find your new favorite camping spot!

In today’s post, I shine the spotlight on state parks—thousands of facilities across the United States established and operated at the state level. They’ve been preserved for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational features—often all three in one location. In contrast to many iconic U.S. national parks, state parks just might be the unsung heroes of outdoor recreation.

State-operated facilities have much to offer. For working folks with minimal travel time, a nearby state park can make a great weekend destination.  

Many RVers have a national park bucket list. If you’re one of them, have you also considered state parks, some of which could be in your backyard? State parks are great places to get outside and explore, and they typically are less crowded than national parks. Even if state parks are usually smaller, you still can find stunning views, great camping options, and fun activities. You also can learn more about local history while supporting the surrounding community.

State parks are not operated by the federal government as national parks are, so they rely on entrance and camping fees to maintain the land and facilities. By RVing to a state park, or even purchasing a day pass, you are helping to preserve the park for other visitors to continue to enjoy. These camping and entrance fees also may be less expensive than national park fees or those charged at a private RV park.

Whether you’re looking for a scenic area to visit for a day, a relaxing spot to spend a weekend, or a place to stay for a week or more, consider a state park. In Canada, the equivalent would be a provincial park of which there are many great options. For inspiration, peruse the info below.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find a State Park

There’s nothing better than being out in nature enjoying its beauty; many would even say it is healing to the soul. Depending on where you live, this can be a beautiful time of year to take in the scenery, hike, fish, camp, leaf peep, or simply enjoy the sounds of nature. And what better place to do it than in a state park?

According to stateparks.org, there are 10,366 state park areas across the United States. They include 241,255 campsites and 9,457 cabins with over 40,000 miles of trails as well as countless waterways and rivers—all covering 18.6 million acres of land. That means RV travelers and others have numerous opportunities to explore a variety of places.

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

So, you may be asking yourself, “Where do I even begin to start exploring over 10,000 park areas?” For starters, here are articles on specific state parks you might find useful:

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

And let’s not forget Canada, also brimming with natural beauty and a vast number of provincial parks—nearly 1,200. Provincial parks in Canada are protected areas of land and water designated and managed by each province to encourage recreation and sustainable tourism and promote science and education. They range from ecological reserves with no facilities to day-use and overnight-stay parks with unserviced and serviced campgrounds including RV waste dumping, and toilet and shower facilities. Features include hiking trails, waterways, and beaches, and outdoor equipment rentals.

The province of Alberta ranges from fossil-filled flatlands to the jaw-dropping Rocky Mountains. The province currently manages more than 470 parks which provide cozy walk-in tenting options and roomy RV campsites.

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

Recommended Provincial Park: Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Beachcombing, bird watching, or sunbathing—there is plenty to do in the 600-plus provincial parks of British Columbia. The park system boasts more than 10,700 vehicle accessible campsites and approximately 2,000 walk-in or backcountry ones. Of the parks, 230 have accessible facilities for those with disabilities. Winter activities and basic camping are popular in BC’s provincial parks.

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

Recommended Provincial Park: Wells Gray Provincial Park

To find more information on Canada’s provincial parks, check the individual website for each province.

Here are seven of the most enchanting state parks in America.

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

Lost Dutchman State Park – Apache Junction, Arizona

The Lost Dutchman State Park is located in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, about 40 miles east of Phoenix. RV camping is available at 138 sites, with 68 of them providing water and electric hookup services; restrooms and showers are located nearby. Hiking, mountain biking and year-round wildlife viewing opportunities are available for guests.

Get more tips for visiting Lost Dutchman State Park

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park – Custer, South Dakota

Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison – one of the largest publicly owned herds on the planet – who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from, including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.

Get more tips for visiting Custer State Park

Vogel State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park – Blairsville, Georgia

Vogel, one of Georgia’s oldest state parks, sits at the base of Blood Mountain inside Chattahoochee National Forest. The park is particularly popular during the autumn months when the Blue Ridge Mountains put on a colorful display of fall foliage. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

Get more tips for visiting Vogel State Park

Gulf State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park – Gulf Shores, Alabama

This Alabama state park promises that you’ll never be bored if your family brings their RV here to camp. Almost 500 improved RV sites are available at Gulf State Park, with pull-thru, back-in, waterfront, and ADA accessibility. All RV sites provide full hookups plus Wi-Fi. Eleven modern bathhouses are scattered throughout the park, and some sites are located near the pool, playground, tennis courts, and hiking trails.

Get more tips for visiting Gulf State Park

Elephant Butte State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park – Elephant Butte, New Mexico

The largest and most popular lake in New Mexico, Elephant Butte Lake State Park provides a setting for every imaginable water sport. The campground offers developed sites with electric and water hookups for RVs. The mild climate of the area makes this park a popular year-round destination. If you like camping, fishing, boating, or just being outdoors, Elephant Butte is for you. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats.

Get more tips for visiting Elephant Butte Lake State Park

Myakka State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka State Park – Sarasota, Florida

At 37,000 acres, Myakka is one of Florida’s most complete outdoor experiences. Given you need ample time to see and do it all, you can camp in one of 80 camping sites. The road through the park is seven miles long and offers several great places to get out, enjoy the wildlife and scenery, and take a walk. The park road also makes an excellent bike trail. By bike, you enjoy the 360-degree view of the spectacular tree canopy over the road and the constant sounds of birds.

Get more tips for visiting Myakka State Park

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

McKinney Falls State Park – Austin, Texas

Listen to Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges and splashing into pools. Follow trails winding through the Hill Country woods. Explore the remains of an early Texas homestead and a very old rock shelter. You can camp, hike, mountain or road bike, geocache, go bouldering, and picnic. You can also fish and swim in Onion Creek. Hike or bike nearly nine miles of trails. Stay at one of 81 campsites (all with water and electric hookups). 12 sites offer 50-amp electricity while the remaining 69 sites offer 30-amp electric service. 

Get more tips for visiting McKinney Falls State Park

Worth Pondering…

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

—John Muir

Highlights of a Fall Adventure to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and Bison Roundup

When the Black Hills turn golden, magic happens

Few truly wild places remain in the U.S. Custer State Park is one of them. Nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats, and a band of burros. Trail rides, scenic drives, bike rides, and safari tours are perfect ways to explore this impressive South Dakota attraction

Below are two highlights of a fall visit to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and the legendary Bison Roundup.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

As names go, Needles Highway does the job well. Along this winding 14-mile stretch of South Dakota Highway 87 in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, eroded granite spindles and pillars tower all around, hundreds of rocky splinters stitching the sky. 

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Eye © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On foot and horseback in the early 20th century, South Dakota Gov. Peter Norbeck mapped out the entire striking, spiking passage of what is now known as the Needles Highway. All you need are four wheels. Set aside an hour for a scenic drive through forests of ponderosa pine and spruce, past meadows of aspen and birch, around hairpins, next to rock walls, through tight tunnels.

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing. The route includes the not-quite-9-foot-wide (8 feet 9 inches wide by 9 feet 8 inches high) Needles Eye Tunnel; creeping through it feels like threading its namesake.

Cathedral Spires Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it easy

Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect a travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy Needles Highway.

If a coveted parking spot remains at the cramped Cathedral Spires Trailhead near the tunnel, grab it. Even the view from the lot is pretty but sure-footed visitors can get even bigger, more dramatic vistas from the trail. 

This trail features areas unique to the Black Hills area such as the Cathedral Spires/Limber Pine Area, a Registered National Natural Landmark. This is a one-way trail and does not connect to the Black Elk Peak Trail System.

The 2.3-mile out-and-back starts gently enough. Soon, though, hikers encounter steps, switchbacks, and steep scrambles. The trail ends in a flat mountain valley, spires rising like a Gothic holy place—albeit the kind with mountain goats flaunting their fleet feet. Keep a camera close at hand. Goats give great faces, their spindly little horns right on brand with the well-named scenery.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunday Gulch Trail offers perhaps the most unique scenery of all the park’s hiking trails. Descending into Sunday Gulch the trail crosses the stream several times while passing over large boulders and near magnificent granite walls. Sunday Gulch presents a variety of unique plants rarely seen in other areas of the park. Spruce, pine, and a mixture of hardwoods line the trail.

The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail offers passing motorists an opportunity to stretch their legs on a leisurely walk the whole family will enjoy. This trail makes a complete loop around Sylvan Lake and is among the easiest trails in Custer State Park. Enormous granite formations line portions of the lake making it one of the most picturesque in the Black Hills. While most of this trail is relatively flat, a portion contains steps and crosses exposed rocky areas. Sections of the trail are not suitable for strollers.

The Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it slow

Don’t worry about cramming everything at Custer State Park into one day. A $20 park pass allows entry for seven consecutive days. Annual passes are available too.  The park’s lodging offers a choice of four resort areas with plenty of activities and camping sites.

Take it steady

Mountain goats have four appendages helping them stay upright in this craggy landscape. No shame in doing the same with a good pair of hiking poles.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bison Roundup

On a fall trip to South Dakota, feel the thunder of bison on the move at Custer State Park’s annual buffalo roundup and arts festival.

It is the quiet before the thunder. The morning sun has further gilded the golden grasslands of Custer State Park, spread over more than 70,000 acres in western South Dakota. Cowboys and cowgirls mill on their mounts, dotting ridgelines above a sprawling valley. Riders chat; horses whiny. Most eyes fix on the sight below—hundreds of cocoa-hued bison, grunting, wandering, and waiting. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, a hoot. A whipcrack. More shouts. Riders begin to move in an annual choreography to gather the herd from the open range, check its health, and chart its future.

The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival attracts more than 20,000 spectators who edge the vistas the last Friday of each September (September 28-30, 2023) to watch riders corral the beasts. But this isn’t herding cattle. (And, if we’re getting technical, they aren’t buffalo.) The bison is North America’s largest mammal. Bulls can weigh up to a ton and reach 6 feet tall. And they can move, running 35 mph with the ability to turn on a dime.

Around 1,300 head of bison call the park home. But they don’t just live here. They are the lifeblood, the heartbeat of this place. Once 30 million strong and the cornerstone of life for Native Americans who used them for food, fuel, shelter, and spiritual celebration, bison were driven to the brink of extinction by settlers.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer bison descend from the private herd of a South Dakota rancher named James Scotty Philip whose wife was part Cheyenne. Philip and his family worked at the turn of the 20th century to rescue the dwindling species and eventually sold a few dozen animals to the state of South Dakota.

More than a century later, the herd thrives, freely and at home on this range in the Black Hills, a sacred landscape to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other peoples. However, the park holds only so much grass, disrupting the bison’s instinct to roam. With bulls consuming dozens of pounds a day, it’s critical to manage the population so that all have enough to eat. 

Riders work in teams to guide the animals, collecting wayward groups and stragglers. The crews are alert and watchful, striving for balance. Pushing but not driving. Finding flow, not forcing it. Hundreds of hooves pound the ground in a musical rumble. The bison move as one, like flocks, like fishes. Dust rises, billows, drifts. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After several miles and several hours, the herd is contained and visitors can gather at the corrals outside the new-in-2022 Custer State Park Bison Center to watch crews work. Calves get shots, ear tags, and brands. Cows are checked for pregnancy. A few hundred heads depart for auction. After a few days, the remaining animals are released. 

The sun is now bright overhead, the dust continues its unhurried return to the earth. But the history here still thrums, long after the thunder has quieted.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Game plan

Before you go, decide on the North or South viewing area—they’re both great but not close together. Arrive early to stake out a good spot. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. and the roundup starts around 9:30.

What to eat

You can buy breakfast and lunch on-site: pancakes and coffee in the viewing areas and a hearty chuckwagon-style lunch at the corrals.

Keep your distance

Don’t be the one who goes viral for trying to befriend a bison. Admire these huge animals from afar.

Enjoy the fest

An arts fest lasts all weekend. Sip a beer and browse bison-themed art, hand-woven bullwhips, and turquoise jewelry.

Pronghorns along the Wildlife Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your fall trip

There is much more to see and do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Let’s explore further:

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

State Parks and National Parks: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

A comprehensive guide to choosing the perfect camping experience

State parks and national parks offer standout RV camping experiences, each set in unique, natural landscapes. While there are key differences between them, the main distinction comes down to ownership.

National parks, large areas of untouched nature, belong to all Americans. Because of this, any changes or developments in these parks require federal government approval. Essentially, every citizen has a say in how these parks are managed.

On the other hand, state parks are owned by the residents of a specific state and are managed by that state’s government. They are funded by the state which also sets the rules for the park’s use. This includes who can use the park and how it can be used. A recent example of this is a law in Florida that prioritizes state residents over visitors from other states when making camping reservations in Florida State Parks.

Considering these basic differences between the national and state park systems, it’s clear that each can offer a unique camping experience. Each type of park has its pros and cons, so understanding these can help you plan a great RV camping trip. Use this article as a guide in your decision-making process, helping you plan a wonderful camping experience.

Lovers Key State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

Advantages

State parks offer a host of appealing benefits for families seeking a retreat from the daily hustle without the need for a substantial road trip. With more than 6,600 state parks scattered across the U.S., chances are there’s one conveniently located near you. This proximity to home can often make camping at a state park more cost-effective than venturing to a national park. Additionally, state parks tend to charge lower fees and in some cases entrance is free.

In terms of amenities, state parks typically offer more developed facilities than national parks. You’re likely to encounter well-maintained camping sites, picnic tables, and multiple access points. What you probably won’t find, however, are massive crowds vying to witness one of the iconic natural wonders often protected within national parks.

Palmetto State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disadvantages

On the downside, state parks, as a general rule, are smaller than their national counterparts. Their compact size and easy accessibility can make them popular camping destinations so depending on the park and the season you might need to book your spot several months or more in advance.

The smaller scale of state parks also means they house fewer unique ecosystems or natural attractions. Multi-day back-packing expeditions may be off the table but you can still expect a range of wonderful trails and spectacular sights that can be explored within a few hours.

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

National parks

Advantages

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But 424 NPS units across the country also include national monumentsnational seashoresnational recreation areasnational battlefields, and national memorials

All told, national parks span thousands of acres and sometimes cross multiple state borders. Depending on where you live, a national park may take longer to get to than a state park. However, chances are, it will have at least one or two spectacular and unique attractions within its expansive boundaries.

Because of their size, you’ll find amazing, epic experiences in national parks that you won’t find anywhere else. From wildlife viewing opportunities to multi-day hikes or horseback riding trips through a variety of ecosystems, national parks provide many activities that you won’t find in state parks.

In addition, national parks often provide educational opportunities and visitor programs. For example, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, you can book a guided tour of the massive cave.

U.S. national parks frequently make it onto the bucket lists of people from around the world. There’s a certain prestige to ticking a park such as Joshua Tree or Zion off your to-dos. Expect them to be popular and you won’t be disappointed.

If you are looking for a back-to-nature camping experience, you can find it in a national park. Campsites at national parks are basic so you can unwind in a beautiful and peaceful natural environment without interruption.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Disadvantages

Undoubtedly, each national park with its unique features and attractions offers a spectacular and singular experience. However, it’s important to consider some potential drawbacks of these awe-inspiring locations.

For instance, they are typically more expensive to visit compared to state parks due to their remote locations resulting in greater travel distance and higher entrance fees. This distant placement could deter campers with limited vacation time.

Furthermore, the qualities that make national parks so endearing also render them exceedingly popular. This popularity can make securing a campsite during the busy season from May to October particularly challenging. National parks tend to offer limited camping, if at all.

Some campers may also perceive the lack of amenities at more rustic national park campsites as a disadvantage. If you’re hoping for comprehensive facilities such as hookups, you’re not likely to find it here.

What you should consider when choosing between state parks and national parks

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

How much time do you have?

Your choice between a state park and a national park for your RV camping trip will hinge on several considerations. Firstly, how much time can you allocate?

If you have only a week of vacation, the journey to a national park might not be feasible. In such cases, a local state park could present the perfect getaway. Conversely, if you have the luxury of several weeks or more, an RV camping trip to a national park can create memories that will last a lifetime.

What’s your budget?

Inevitably, money also has to factor into your decision-making process. What’s your budget including travel expenses, park entrance, and camping fees? If you’re on a tighter budget, camping at a state park makes better sense than traveling to a national park and paying higher fees when you get there.

Gulf State Park, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s important to you?

What do you want from your camping experience? Are you simply looking for a base camp while you explore nearby attractions? Do you want to immerse yourself in the wonders of nature for a few days or a week? Do you want state park amenities like a playground or splash park for the kids or a cafe where you can enjoy an icy cold brew coffee or ice cream? State parks will give you more amenities while national parks offer a more immersive natural experience. Consider what’s important to you before you book a vacation at either a national or state park.

Conclusion

Choosing between national parks and state parks for your camping trip involves considering various factors. Let’s organize these considerations for each.

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks

  • Size and experience: National parks are vast areas of protected land that provide unique and immersive experiences with nature. Despite a higher cost, the exceptional sights and features usually justify the expense.
  • Amenities: National parks generally offer fewer amenities than state parks.
  • Crowds: Popular park attractions often draw large crowds during the summer months leading to potential traffic jams and challenges in finding parking or a campsite.
  • Mitigation strategies: You can avoid the crowds by traveling during off-peak seasons or using less crowded access points. Additionally, consider exploring less popular attractions within the park.
Vogel State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks

  • Accessibility and variety: State parks are generally easier to access than national parks and can offer a wide range of natural experiences at a lower cost.
  • Park rules: Since each state manages its parks differently, rules can vary from park to park.
  • Amenities: If amenities are a priority, state parks usually offer a broader selection. It’s recommended to check with the specific park for available facilities.

One of the fantastic aspects of the U.S. is the ability to choose from diverse camping experiences. The vast expanses of national parks offer unforgettable adventures while state parks provide convenience and a distinctly regional experience. Exploring both allows for a broad spectrum of camping experiences, each with its unique charms.

State parks to visit

When most people think about America’s parks, they think of national parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon but many state parks can rival even some of the best national parks. The U.S. is home to more than 6,600 state park sites which protect over 14 million acres of diverse landscapes from arid deserts to coastal forests and soaring mountains. If you were to explore one every day, it would take you over 18 years to see every state park. Don’t know where to start? Check out these five standout state parks around the country and the features that make them well worth the visit.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Many visitors come to Custer State Park—covering over 70,000 acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—to swim, paddle boat, fish, or simply admire the view of the incredibly picturesque Lake Sylvan. However, the park is perhaps best known for its herd of approximately 1,500 free-ranging bison, one of the world’s largest bison herds. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and there is a good chance you’ll come to a halt when bison cross in front of you. Watch out for wild turkey, deer, elk, wild burros, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, too.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky

One of Kentucky’s more quaint state parks, this site centers around the former plantation that inspired the imagery featured in My Old Kentucky Home which is recognized as the official state song and arguably best known for its ties to the Kentucky Derby.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park offers tours of the historic Federal Hill mansion, though tickets are required ($16/adult; $14/senior). Guests can also hit the links on the park’s 18-hole golf course and in the summer visit the outdoor theater to catch a production of The Stephen Foster Story music which features more than 50 songs from the creator of My Old Kentucky Home.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Hunting Island State Park is a popular vacation destination located in the South Carolina Lowcountry and attracts nearly one million visitors a year. The park features five miles of beachfront, a saltwater lagoon, and the state’s only publicly accessible lighthouse.

Located on 5,000 acres of the barrier island, Hunting Island State Park offers a variety of activities. In addition to the beach, you can enjoy hiking trails, fishing, and boating. The park also includes a visitor center, a theater, and interactive exhibits.

Hunting Island State Park campgrounds feature full hookups, water, and electricity. Some sites feature gravel pads while others are paved. There are also cabins available. There are also restroom facilities, a shower house, a grocery store, and a dump station.

The campground has an excellent range of sites with campsites able to accommodate RVs from 28 to 40 feet. However, a two-night minimum is required. Most sites are located near the beach and are easy to maneuver.

Hunting Island State Park also features a fishing pier. The pier extends 1,120 feet into Fripp Inlet. You can fish in the saltwater lagoon, Johnson Creek, and the harbor river.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point is located at the end of a mesa 2,000 feet above the Colorado River on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. Many excellent photos are taken here. It’s also a certified International Dark Sky Park.

There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Nestled within a grove of junipers, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). Modern restroom facilities are available, and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, or the Visitor Center.

New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains thirty-one 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground.

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

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.

The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.

Worth Pondering…

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

—Lewis Carrol

The Best RV Camping September 2023

Explore the guide to find some of the best in September camping across America

Where should you park yourself and your RV this month? With so many options out there you may be overwhelmed with the number of locales calling your name.

Maybe you’re an experienced RV enthusiast, or maybe you’ve never been in one—regardless, these RV parks are worth your attention. After finding the perfect campground, you can look into RV prices, and the different types of RVs, and learn how to plan a road trip. Who knows, maybe you’ll love it so much you’ll convert to full-time RV living.

I didn’t just choose these RV parks by throwing a dart at a map. As an RVer with more than 25 years of experience traveling the highways and byways of America and Western Canada—learning about camping and exploring some of the best hiking trails along the way—I can say with confidence that I know what makes a great RV campground. From stunning views and accommodating amenities to friendly staff and clean facilities, the little things add up when you’re RV camping. And these campgrounds are truly the cream of the crop.

Here are 10 of the top RV parks and campgrounds to explore in September: one of these parks might be just what you’re looking for. So, sit back, relax, and get ready for your next adventure at one of these incredible RV parks!

RVing with Rex selected this list of parks from those personally visited.

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

Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Tennessee

Formally known as River Plantation, Sun Outdoors Sevierville Pigeon Forge is located along the Little Pigeon River in eastern Tennessee. The park is located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the popular attractions of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Big rig friendly, guests can choose from a selection of modern and spacious, full hookup RV sites that include concrete pads, a fire ring, and a picnic table. Our back-in site was in the 75-foot range with 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and Cable TV centrally located. Amenities include a swimming pool with hot tub, basketball court, game room, fitness center, outdoor pavilion, fenced-in Bark Park, and dog washing station.

Galveston Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas

With both beach and bay sides, Galveston Island State Park offers activities for every coast lover. Hike or bike four miles of trails through the park’s varied habitats. Stop at the observation platform or photo blinds, and stroll boardwalks over dunes and marshes.

Twenty camping sites are available on the bay side of the park. Each site offers 50/30 amp electric, water, picnic table, and nearby restrooms with showers. These sites are for RV camping only. Additionally, 10 sites are available for tent camping only.

Jack’s Landing RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Jack’s Landing RV Resort, Grants Pass, Oregon

Jack’s Landing RV Resort offers 54 RV sites adjacent to Interstate 5 (Exit 58). The nicely landscaped park has paved roads and concrete parking pads. Jack’s Landing is big rig friendly with pull-through sites in the 70-75 foot range (also back-in sites) and conveniently located with 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer connections, and cable TV. Paved sites and fairly wide paved streets. Pleasingly landscaped and treed. The main office has restrooms, showers, a laundry, a gym, and a small ball court. The only negative is freeway noise.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Vogel State Park, Georgia

Named the Best State Park for RVers by USA Today, Vogel State Park sits at the base of Blood Mountain inside Chattahoochee National Forest. Vogel is particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves. RV campers can choose from 90 campsites with electric hookups.

While at Vogel, you can hike the park’s 17 miles of trails, ranging from easy to more advanced. Go fishing and paddling in Lake Trahlyta. Nearby, hike to waterfalls like Helton Creek Falls and Desoto Falls and don’t miss the opportunity to see the view from Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest point.

Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge, Henderson, Louisiana

Fuel up the rig and pop Louisiana into the GPS because it’s time to visit Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge. Formerly Cajun Palms RV Resort, the park transitioned to Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge in May 2023. It’s located 15 miles east of Lafayette in Henderson and offers 452 RV sites and 25 new luxury cabins.

The resort invites guests to pull up and unplug. They can hang by one of the resort’s three pools—each comes with private cabanas. (One even has a swim-up bar.) Plus there’s an adults-only hot tub for guests 21 years old and older.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Hunting Island State Park, Hunting Island, South Carolina

Hunting Island is South Carolina’s single most popular state park attracting more than a million visitors a year as well as a vast array of land and marine wildlife. Five miles of beaches, thousands of acres of marsh and maritime forest, a saltwater lagoon, and an ocean inlet are all part of the park’s natural allure. The Hunting Island Lighthouse is the only one in the state that is publicly accessible. From the top, guests can stand 130 feet above the ground to take in the breathtaking, panoramic view of the Atlantic Coast and surrounding maritime forest.

Camping is available at the northern end of the park near the ocean. 102 sites offer water and 20/30/50 amp electric service. Campground roads are paved while the sites are packed soil. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet; others up to 28 feet. The campground is convenient for hot showers with restroom facilities, beach walkways, and a playground.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Custer State Park, South Dakota

Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison—one of the largest publicly owned herds on the planet and known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from, including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.

Meather State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Meaher State Park, Spanish Fort, Alabama

This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of Mobile Bay and offers picnic facilities and modern camping sites with utilities. Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman. A self-guided walk on two nature trails includes a boardwalk with an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile Delta.

Meaher’s campground has 61 RV campsites with 20-, 30- and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hookups. The campground features a modern bathhouse with laundry facilities. Located near Meaher State Park is the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center; which features a natural history museum, live native wildlife, a theater, a gift shop, and canoe/kayak rentals. 

Terre Haute Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Terre Haute Campground, Terre Haute, Indiana

Previously known as Terre Haute KOA, Terre Haute Campground has a variety of RV site options including 30 and 50-amp electric service, water and sewer, cable TV with over 20 channels, Wi-Fi, concrete and gravel sites, and concrete or brick patios. Amenities include a swimming pool, camp store, laundry, outdoor kitchen, pedal track, playground, jump pad, dog park, gem mining, miniature donkeys, horseshoes, and the Terre Haute Express.

Californian RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. The Californian RV Park, Acton, California

The Californian RV Park is in a picturesque setting on the side of a hill with shade trees in beautiful autumn splendor. Our pull-through site was adequate for our needs but required us to disconnect the toad since the utilities are located at the rear of the site. Amenities include a seasonal pool and spa, laundry room, and exercise room.

Worth Pondering…

Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.

—John Ruskin

10 Amazing Places to RV in August 2023

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

The joy of living is his who has the heart to demand it.
—Theodore Roosevelt

Joy may not typically be thought of as something we can demand but these words of wisdom from the 26th U.S. president offer us the opportunity to shift our perspectives on the concept. Moments of joyfulness abound—this month, let’s all insist upon experiencing them.

Good morning and welcome to August. It really is the best month and not just because my birthday is in it. It’s the perfect time to…

This August, I’ll not lament the fleeting days of summer. No, I will embrace it: There is still much to see and do—and places to travel in an RV. August is a time for lazy exploration and taking advantage of the last drops of the season while recharging for the months ahead. There are routes to be taken, mountains to climb, seafood to be eaten, and lakes to discover. Get out there and make the most of it.

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

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Where the buffalo roam

When it comes to wildlife preserves, South Dakota’s Custer State Park is on par with just about any national park in the country. It is home to a large herd of bison that roam the sprawling landscape there just as they did hundreds of years ago.

But there are plenty of other wild creatures to see in the park as well. The animals commonly found there include elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs along with white-tailed and mule deer. You might even spot some of the park’s wild burros which famously approach passing vehicles looking for a handout.

>> Get more tips for visiting Custer State Park

Spotted Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Spotted Lake

Canada‘s Spotted Lake is famous for its summer style which is heavy on the polka dots. That’s because the lake’s water actually evaporates every summer. It leaves behind large spots which are colorful deposits of a dozen minerals.

The photo above shows enigmatic Spotted Lake near Osoyoos, British Columbia. It could also be called Doubletake Lake since that’s likely what many people do when they witness this odd body of water. Its spots result from a high concentration of a number of different minerals including magnesium sulfate, calcium, and sodium sulfates. At least a dozen other minerals are found in the lake’s water in varying concentrations.

By late summer, much of the water evaporates and only a mineral stew remains. It’s primarily crystals of magnesium sulfate that contributes to the spotty appearance. Different minerals yield different colors.

Originally known to the First Nations of the Okanagan Valley as Ktlil’k, Spotted Lake was for centuries and remains revered as a sacred site thought to provide therapeutic waters. 

Glacial Skywalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Columbia Icefield

Nestled among the towering mountain peaks in the border of Banff and Jasper National Park is the famous Columbia Icefield. This extensive valley of interconnected glaciers is home to the largest non-polar ice fields in the world and is an once-in-a-lifetime adventure you don’t want to miss.

Hop onto an Ice Explorer and tour the Athabasca Glacier or take a guided walking tour to explore the glacier safely on foot. While at the icefields, check out the Skywalk, a 1,312-foot long walkway that sits 918 feet above the valley. At the top, you’ll be able to walk out to a platform made entirely of glass to experience unobstructed views around and beneath you. You’ll feel like you’re walking on air, while taking in the fresh mountain air at the same time.

>> Get more tips for visiting the Canadian Rockies

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. A taste of Bavaria in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Like taking a trip to Germany, only in North America, Helen, Georgia, is a Bavarian-inspired village town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Incorporated in 1913, Helen was once a logging town on the decline; however, it slowly reemerged as a Bavarian alpine town in 1968 that now provides tourists the chance to experience Germany in the Appalachians instead of the Alps.

Helen has many recreational and cultural activities. Its annual Oktoberfest in the fall is a favorite tradition filled with festivities. However, for visitors looking to spend their summer vacation in Helen, the city also offers tubing, the Anna Ruby Falls, zip-lining, and Unicoi State Park which offers trails for hiking and biking, swimming, and boating on Unicoi Lake.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Shenendoah Night Sky Festival

Conveniently located within a day’s drive from two-thirds of Americans, Shenandoah National Park’s Night Sky Festival (August 11-13, 2023) is a low-lift way to dabble in astronomy if you’re at all curious. The nearly 200,000-acre park located among the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia will host ranger talks, public stargazing sessions, lectures, presentations, and activities for kids.

If you plan on attending one of the outdoor evening activities, be sure to be prepared for the weather and bring a flashlight with a red filter. All events are free with park admission.

>> Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Wood stork may soon be off the Endangered Species List

Getting kicked off a list may sound like a bad thing but when that list is of critically endangered species, it’s certainly good news. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed removing the wood stork, a wading bird native to the Americas from the list following decades of conservation efforts.

The wood stork was first listed in 1984 when it was on the brink of extinction with less than 5,000 breeding pairs. Today, thanks to expanded environmental protections in Florida’s Everglades and the nearby Big Cypress National Preserve that number has doubled to more than 10,000. USFWS emphasized that the wood stork’s rebound indicates an even greater need to continue protecting the species and the habitats it calls home.

Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. There’s a new Camp Margaritaville RV Resort in Louisiana with a swim-up bar, renovated luxury cabins, and a Bark Park for dogs

Gas up the rig and pop Louisiana into the GPS because it’s time to visit Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge. Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge has 452 RV sites and 25 new luxury cabins.

Last winter, Camp Margaritaville announced it was transitioning the Cajun Palms RV Resort into Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Breaux Bridge. The resort reopened as Margaritaville property on May 23. It’s located 15 miles east of Lafayette in Henderson.

The RV resort invites guests to pull up and unplug. They can hang by one of the resort’s three pools—each comes with private cabanas. One even has a swim-up bar) Plus there’s an adults-only hot tub for guests 21 years old and older.

It’s also ideal for a family getaway as it has a water park for little ones, cornhole, minigolf, and a playground that opened in June. There are also arts and crafts sessions—think sand art, tie-dye, and ceramics.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Splashing around at Blanco State Park

Blanco State Park is unique for several reasons. In addition to being one of Texas’ first state parks, it’s also one of the smallest state parks in the state and is entirely located within Blanco city limits.

The Blanco River has drawn area residents for hundreds of years, in part because the springs offer a consistent water source during droughts. The Blanco River attracted Native Americans, the Spanish, and early settlers to its waters. Springs in the park provided water even when the river was dry. In 1721, the Spanish named the river Blanco for its white limestone banks.

Settlers arrived in the area in the 1800s. They established ranches, grazed cattle, and built homes near the Blanco River. Ranchers donated or sold their land to create Blanco State Park in 1933. With 104.6 acres, it is one of the smallest state parks in Texas.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Queen of the Copper Camps

Twenty miles north of the Mexican border and about an hour’s drive from Tucson, Bisbee is a funky artist haven with copper mining town roots. It sits nearly a mile high in the Mule Mountains which means it’s 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in the summer than it is in Arizona’s major cities. Victorian homes and buildings are perched precariously on the town’s steep mountainside which has over 350 staircases carved right into it for access.  

Once known as the Queen of the Copper Camps, Bisbee has proven to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper as well as significant amounts of silver, lead, and zinc.

Discover Bisbee’s past by visiting the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and taking the Queen Mine Tour. The tour will bring visitors underground to explore the mine on an ore ride while they learn more about the stories of the miners who worked here. Those who have an interest in the paranormal can book one of several ghost tours in Bisbee to hear the eerily fascinating reports of unexplained happenings and even sightings of spirits donning Victorian attire. Public art features prominently throughout town, from colorful murals and mosaic walls to cars that have been transformed into unique works of art.

On the road to Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Climb a Mountain 

Mount Lemmon, an oasis in the middle of the desert, is 20 degrees cooler than Tucson on average. Driving up the mountain, the plants slowly change from cactus and shrubs to oak and ponderosa pines. The area offers hiking, camping, and fishing. While you are up there, consider stopping by the Mount Lemmon Cookie Cabin for cookies, pizza, chili, and sandwiches. While you’re at 9,000 feet, check out the Arizona stars at the Mount Lemmon Sky center.

>> Get more tips for visiting Mount Lemon

Worth Pondering…

It’s a sure sign of summer if the chair gets up when you do.

—Walter Winchell

Camping the Shoulder Season

Welcome to one of the best seasons, shoulder season—that moment when minimal tourists occupy your favorite spot

It’s that time of year again! There’s a shift in the temperature, the sun is setting a little earlier, and the leaves are turning from their vibrant green to rich autumn color. For many RVers, this change in the season and the back-to-school grind ignites a longing for evenings around the campfire, cool weather hikes, and s’mores.

Whether you’re looking for a seasonal spot to explore over fall break or a shorter weekend getaway, there are epic destinations located all over the US to scratch that camping itch! Here are a few of my favorites:

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

If you’re in the eastern United States, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great area to explore. The park is within driving distance of several eastern US cities which makes it doable if you only have a weekend to get away.

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

This park is situated on the border of east Tennessee and western North Carolina and offers beautiful hikes, history, and scenery. When visiting this park be sure to check out Clingman Dome for epic views, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail where you can find historic log cabins as well as spot a black bear or two, and Cades Cove with countless waterfalls off this loop.

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

If you have a little more time on your hands, you can either begin or end your drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway when visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. One more thing to do while you’re visiting is hike seventy-one miles of the famed Appalachian Trail. Make it a point to add part of that trail to your bucket list!

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park campgrounds
  • Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge
  • Two Rivers Landing RV Resort

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Fall camping season is the perfect time to visit Zion National Park. October and early November not only offer small crowds but also days that are still warm enough to enjoy hiking through the water of The Narrows and cool enough to hike the iconic Angels Landing.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV camping is located within the park or outside the national park gates. It’s recommended that you utilize the shuttle system in this park so be prepared for that. Or, if you own an e-bike this park is the perfect place to enjoy a bike ride without car-populated roads.

If you’re pressed for time make sure to hike The Narrows trail to at least Wall Street, Angels Landing to at least Scout Lookout, and Emerald Ponds. These three trails will deliver a great experience while visiting this park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • South Campground and Watchman Campground (Zion National Park)
  • Zion River Resort RV Park & Campground
  • Sand Hollow RV Resort

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s the state’s largest and first state park named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and covers an area measuring 71,000 acres. Also operating as a wildlife reserve, the area is famous for its bison herds and abundance of other species including whitetail and mule deer, pronghorns, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, wild burros, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and prairie dogs. Mountain lions and bobcats have also been spotted during the night.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to stunning landscapes including pristine lakes, streams, and granite spires. As such visitors can enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, and picnicking.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Custer State Park campgrounds
  • Rushmore Shadows Resort
  • Rafter J Bar Ranch Camping Resort

Get more tips for visiting Custer State Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

One of the most recognizable and well-photographed natural areas in the country, Arches National Park encompasses just over 100 square miles of eastern Utah and boasts more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches. Positioned over a massive subterranean salt bed these graceful rock formations are the result of thousands of years of erosion and geological activity. The unique and variable landscape of Arches offers an array of outdoor recreational opportunities, from hiking and horseback riding to climbing.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the perfect time for visiting Arches National Park. The temperatures during the day range from 60 degrees to 80 degrees. The lows will dip down into the 30s to the 50s. 

When hiking at Arches in the fall it’s important to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun: pack water bottles, wear sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Devils Garden Campground (Arches National Park)
  • Sun Outdoors Arches Gateway
  • Spanish Trails RV Park

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an adventurous West Texas destination for kayakers, hikers, and mountain bikers. The 801,000-acre park at the U.S.-Mexican border was named after a bend in the Rio Grande River which separates the two countries. The terrain includes, of course, the majestic river but also mountains, canyons, deserts, and several thermal hot springs. The highest point is Emory Peak located 7,832 feet above sea level in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because it is one of the most remote national parks in the continental U.S. only a few small towns surround Big Bend including Lajitas, Study Butte, and an actual ghost town called Terlingua. With a population of 430, the village of Marathon is the biggest nearby “city” although it’s about a 40-minute drive from the park’s entrance.

Inside the park, the National Park Service also offers a wide variety of programs for visitors including guided walks from rangers. Those who prefer self-guided activities can enjoy bird-watching, hiking, bicycling, fishing, and horseback riding. And for a truly unique experience don’t forget about stargazing.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby RV parks and campgrounds:

  • Rio Grande Village RV Park (Big Bend National Park)
  • Rio Grande Village Campground (Big Bend National Park)
  • Maverick Ranch RV Park at Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

More shoulder season camping destinations

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A few other shoulder season camping spots perfect for exploring in the fall are:

Heading to any of these destinations during the fall camping season provides a chance to see these beautiful spots with fewer crowds, cooler temperatures, and one last chance to soak in the outdoors before the cold, dreary winter months set in.

Now the biggest question you have to answer is how will you choose where to go?

Worth Pondering…

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet

These State Parks Should Be On Your Radar

Ready to get your outdoor adventures started? Why not choose one of these awesome state parks, prep the RV, and hit the road? Your wanderlust is sure to thank you!

National parks are some of the very best attractions America has to offer. These beautiful spots are especially wonderful for RVers and outdoorsy people because they provide opportunities to park your rig in gorgeous places, spend time outdoors, and connect with nature.

The problem? The most popular national parks are often extremely crowded, especially during the busy summer travel season.

Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some people, these crowds are a real buzzkill and they will simply avoid the parks altogether. Others will choose to spend less time in the more crowded parks or they’ll simply visit during the off-season. No matter which of these options you choose, you will likely be looking for ways to fill those days when the crowds are too heavy to visit a national park but you still want to get out into nature.

Babcock State Park, West Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where state parks come into play. There are hundreds of amazing state parks all over the country and these are often completely overlooked as they are overshadowed by the national parks that everyone knows and loves. Why not avoid the crowds at national parks and take the time to visit some of these amazing state parks instead?

Below I’ve listed some of the most crowded national parks and the best state parks I could find to replace them. In some of these cases I’d even go so far as to say the state park alternative is as good as, or better than, the national park itself, and that’s saying something!

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Zion National Park, try Sand Hollow State Park

Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail CreekSand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.

Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is an amazing place. Unfortunately, it is also extremely crowded. More than a few individuals were frustrated when they discovered that timed entry tickets were required to enter this past summer and I fully expect this to happen again when the busy season rolls back around.

These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Badlands National Park, try Custer State Park

Even the wide-open Badlands National Park can get overly crowded during peak season. Fortunately, the crowds don’t feel quite so bad here, but if you’re looking for a way to avoid crowds altogether, you can always choose to go to the fabulous Custer State Park instead.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is easily one of the best state parks in the country and seeing as it’s just a short drive from Badlands, it should be woven into any trip to the area. This is one of the best places for seeing bison, pronghorns, and other local wildlife, and the granite peaks, rolling hills, and clear waters make for some fantastic photos.

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

Instead of Arches National Park, try Dead Horse Point State Park

Like the state park above, Dead Horse Point is one of the best state parks in the US. This is awesome because it’s located just outside of Arches National Park and near the town of Moab.

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

Therefore, if you ever find Arches too crowded for your taste, you can just leave and head to this incredible park. Dead Horse Point State Park is stunning. This is one of those unique state parks just as awesome as a national park. Incredible red canyons and high desert woodlands beg to be explored and the vast trail system makes it easy to do just that. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time in this amazing place.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Saguaro National Park, try Catalina State Park

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of Shenandoah National Park, try Shenandoah River State Park

Shenandoah River State Park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure. Twelve riverfront tent campsites, a developed campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. The developed campground has 32 sites with water and electric hookups suitable for RVs with sites up to 60 feet. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers.

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

Instead of Joshua Tree National Park, try Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Like Custer and Dead Horse Point mentioned above, Anza-Borrego is one of the best state parks in America. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California Desert.

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

The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word borrego, or bighorn sheep. The park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti, and sweeping vistas. Visitors may also have the chance to see roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer, and bighorn sheep as well as iguanas, chuckwallas, and the red diamond rattlesnake.

Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of New River Gorge National Park, try Babcock State Park

The New River Gorge National Park provides incredible outdoor recreation opportunities and stunning landscapes but there are also several nearby West Virginia State Parks waiting to be discovered and explored. These state parks offer accommodations, mountain adventures, and unparalleled scenic views. One such state park is Babcock, home to 4,127 acres of iconic scenery and stunning views.

Glade Creek Grist Mill, Babcock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Babcock State Park is best known for the Glade Creek Grist Mill, a fully functional replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that once ground grain on Glade Creek long before Babcock became a state park. Other attractions include recreational activities like hiking, fishing, and mountain biking. Babcock is home to 28 cozy cabins tucked away in the woods. Babcock also includes a 52-unit campground, and 28 sites with electric hookups.

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