Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

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

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

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

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. Here’s how to outsmart the crowds.

Good morning. Your friendly reminder that with the summer solstice arriving tomorrow, this weekend will have the most daylight of any weekend this year (in the Northern Hemisphere). Enjoy it!

Before earning its spot as one of Utah’s five national parks in 1971, this fantastical landscape spent over 40 years as a national monument. It was during this time that esteemed writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey worked at Arches as a seasonal ranger documenting both his love for the area and his disdain for people’s poor treatment of it in the classic Desert Solitaire. Abbey spent only two years at the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What You Need to Know Before Visiting 

Watch the mercury (and your H20 intake). Heat-related illness is a common affliction for those who fail to respect both the weather and their own bodily needs. Park guidelines suggest consuming a gallon of water per day year-round to stay hydrated during your time at the park and after my hiking experiences in the Southwest desert areas I’d say that advice is pretty spot-on. You’ll find water at the visitor center and at the Devils Garden Campground and trailhead. Since the shade is even harder to come by than water packing a wide-brimmed hat is good advice (I recommend a Tilley).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy—and respect—the power of wind and water. The park’s incredible formations wouldn’t exist without the power of Mother Nature at her most intense. These same erosive forces continue to shape Arches today. Visitors have been stranded on trails and roads when flash floods overtake low-lying areas. Sandstone fins (narrow walls that remain after surrounding rock has been eroded away) are no place to be near during high winds. Skyline Arch doubled in size after dislodging a hefty boulder in 1940, Landscape Arch gave up some of its innards in 1991, and Wall Arch disintegrated in 2008. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park feels crowded but it actually isn’t. Relatively speaking, Arches is a fairly compact park (at roughly 76,000 acres) with very few named routes. This means that viewpoints and trails (not to mention front-gate traffic) can often feel jammed. You can still beat the crowds, however, by going the extra mile—literally and figuratively. Arrive before dawn. Not only is it absolutely awe-inspiring to watch the sunrise light up the sandstone (along with the La Sal Mountains to the southeast) but you’ll nab some solitude on the park’s most popular trails. You can also branch out on Arches’ network of unpaved roads. Developed areas make up only a tiny portion of the park’s acreage and there’s so much more to see once you leave the pavement behind. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Get There

Arches National Park is located off U.S. Route 191, just north of Moab which is centrally situated near Utah’s border with Colorado.

When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Arches National Park?

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

Snow isn’t uncommon during the winter months when temperatures hover in the forties during the day and routinely dip below freezing at night. But if you’re prepared with the proper gear, it’s a real treat to see the vivid red-rock landscape all snow capped. This time of year the park experiences its lowest visitation and you’re sure to snag a site at its sole campground.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

Welcome back, humans! Between the thawed-out trails and crowd-drawing events to Moab, prepare to jostle for space at popular viewpoints and trails. It’s hard to beat Arches this time of year—the mercury begins to rise with daytime highs topping off in the sixties and seventies and tiny wildflowers start to sprout from the desert crust.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

The best way for most folks to experience Arches in the summertime is from inside an air-conditioned vehicle or toward nightfall when temperatures slide into the sixties. That said, you’ll see just as many people crawling along its trails in July as you will in April—and that is a lot. I can’t say it enough: carry lots of water and drink said water, no matter the kind of activity. And come prepared for the monsoon season which is marked by intense thunderstorms prone to causing flash floods; this season begins in July and can last through September.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

Sweet relief! Temperatures dip back down to mirror springtime conditions and come November, the hordes begin to do the same. I have toured Arches in November and it’s been an amazing experience due to the pleasant weather and lack of crowds. Darkness arrives more quickly this time of year but that just leaves more time for stargazing.

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Camp in and near Arches

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you strike out, there are plenty of other options scattered around the greater Moab area including an endless parade of RV parks and resorts stuffed with equally endless amenities. For more rustic surrounds, bunk down at one of 26 different BLM camping areas all of which are first come, first served except for the reservoir-adjacent Ken’s Lake Campground which requires advance reservations from March through mid-November.

What to Do

Along the 18-mile scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sightseeing

Get the lay of the land by driving the park’s 18-mile scenic drive which rolls past a handful of pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s wild landscape. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day Hiking

Yes, it’s worth the hype—you really should see Delicate Arch while you’re at Arches. You don’t have to make the somewhat strenuous three-mile round-trip to do so; instead, bypass the trailhead and drive a little farther down to a pair of viewpoints. The lower one is only 50 yards from the parking lot along an accessible path while the upper one rewards a half-mile climb with a closer look.

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another accessible and very worthy stop is the gravity-defying Balanced Rock which can be seen from its parking lot or from a 0.3-mile loop, roughly half of which is paved. Nearby, the Windows Area is a popular stop especially at sunrise when you can scamper around the back side of North Window to look through and spot Turret Arch bathed in reddish glow. The mile-long Park Avenue Trail which connects its namesake overlook with the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint is a quieter option (though just as beautiful) especially at sunrise and sunset. 

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deeper into the park the impossibly thin Landscape Arch (1.8 miles round-trip), the longest such span in North America at 306 feet, is a must-see. If you’re feeling adventurous continue past this point to complete a 7.9-mile loop of the Devils Garden area. The route travels across sandstone fins and requires good navigation skills.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving

While you can’t go off-roading (or use off-highway vehicles) anywhere in the park, you can get off the beaten path by driving around its quiet interior via a network of unpaved roads, one of which—Salt Valley Road—is accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles. This route travels between the Devils Garden area and the park’s northeast boundary; a 2.6-mile round-trip near the latter deposits you at Tower Arch situated in the fantastically lumpy Klondike Bluffs. If you have four-wheel drive visit Herdina Park, an even more remote area home to several arches and zero crowds. Keep an eye on the weather no matter where you drive and stay off backcountry roads right after a rain when they turn into mush. 

Cycling

Moab is arguably one of the best mountain-biking destinations in the U.S. but you can’t get your fix inside the park where it isn’t allowed. That said, you can still cruise along any of its roads. Just know that you’re going to share space with a lot of cars if you stick to pavement; making the steep, narrow, winding climb from or descent to the visitor center not without its risks especially.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyoneering

A journey through the Fiery Furnace, an unmarked sandstone labyrinth that requires quality boots, a good sense of balance, and an even better sense of direction. While it’s possible to purchase a permit for a self-guided trip ($3 to $6 via recreation.gov), it’s better to buy a ticket for a ranger-led tour ($10 to $16) unless you have previous experience navigating the mazelike canyons or are traveling with someone who does. (Note: The Fiery Furnace has been closed throughout the COVID pandemic.) 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If You Have Time for a Detour

Listen—it’s not if you have time for a detour, it’s that you’d better make time for a detour. Moab is a fantastic base camp for enjoying all the region has to offer. 

The most obvious side trip is one to neighboring Canyonlands National Park about a half-hour southwest from Arches. This section of the park rises like a wedge above the snaking Colorado and Green Rivers whose tight bends carve canyons over 2,000 feet below the overlook. For a more illuminating perspective on the local landscape, set out at dawn for the short hike to cliffside Mesa Arch which glows at sunrise; just know that you won’t be the only person jockeying for the perfect photo.

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

The same road that leads to Canyonlands, State Route 313, will also steer you toward Dead Horse Point State Park whose namesake overlook is worth the price of admission. But you’d be remiss to simply gawk and go; instead, leash up Fido to enjoy the roughly seven miles of trail that trace the rim or pedal the park’s network of beginner-to-intermediate-level mountain-bike trails.

Castle Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although it’s incredible to scope the mighty Colorado River from high above its waters, make time to get down to its level by driving all 44 eye-popping miles of State Route 128 most of which runs directly next to the iconic flow. Dip off the main drag for side trips to ogle—or even climb—the postcard spires of Castle Valley and Fisher Towers; a 4.5-mile trail weaves throughout the latter.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

The 15 Best State Parks for RV Camping

These 15 state parks across the U.S. have campgrounds that you really need to add to your travel list

While national parks are at the top of many RV travel bucket lists, state parks often offer more camping amenities than national parks. State park campgrounds are located in areas that feature natural beauty, recreational opportunities, and historic significance. Some state parks are smaller and may only feature a visitor center and day-use area. Some areas are large as a national park and feature several campgrounds and access to lakes, trails, and nearby towns.

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

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Spanning more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest park and one of the best places for camping. A diverse desert landscape the park encompassing 12 wilderness areas rich with flora and fauna. Enjoy incredible hikes, crimson sunsets, and starlit nights, and view metal dragons, dinosaurs, and giant grasshoppers. Set up camp at Borrego Palm Canyon or Tamarisk Grove Campground. Amenities include drinking water, fire pits, picnic tables, RV sites, and restrooms.

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi

Located on the beach in Waveland, Buccaneer is in a natural setting of large moss-draped oaks, marshlands, and the Gulf of Mexico. Use of this land was first recorded in history in the late 1700s when Jean Lafitte was active in smuggling and pirating along the Gulf Coast. Buccaneer State Park offers Buccaneer Bay, a 4.5-acre waterpark, Pirate’s Alley Nature Trail, playground, Jackson’s Ridge Disc Golf, activity building, camp-store, and Castaway Cove pool. Buccaneer has 206 premium campsites with full amenities including sewer. In addition, Buccaneer has 70 campsites that are set on a grassy field overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

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. The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife. The campground offers 120 electric and water sites with picnic tables and BBQ grills.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park covers 71,000-acres of the Black Hills in South Dakota. This sprawling park of wildlife is made up of granite peaks and rolling plains, lush valleys, and crystal clear waters. Visitors of the park enjoy outdoor activities such as RV and tent camping, fishing, hiking, biking, and swimming. The park also hosts community events throughout the year as well as educational programs at the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. Custer State Park also features a visitor center that highlights the iconic prairie bison. The Wildlife Station Visitor Center provides guests with unobstructed views of the rolling hills and prairie located on the Wildlife Loop Road.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses remained at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst. Today, Dead Horse Point provides a beautiful mesa where you can look 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty. The campground offers 64 RV and tent sites including 44 with partial hookups.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goose Island State Park, Texas

Brown pelicans, whooping cranes, camping, fishing, and the waters of Aransas, Copano, and St. Charles bays draw visitors here. The CCC built Goose Island, Texas’ first coastal state park. It sits on the southern tip of the Lamar Peninsula. Dramatic wind-sculpted trees dominate the park. The “Big Tree,” a massive coastal live oak estimated to be centuries old is one of the natural wonders of Texas.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park has two miles of beaches, a spacious campground, and a new Lodge and Conference Center. Lake Shelby, a 900-acre freshwater lake is one of the closest to saltwater along the Gulf of Mexico. The park has a multitude of activities to participate in that includes hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, exploring, geocaching, and paddling. Reconstruction of The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, is complete and new hostel-style accommodations are available nearby as well. The park offers a 496-site improved campground including 11 modern bathhouses, pull-through sites, back-in sites, waterfront campsites, and ADA accessible sites. The paved camping pads fit large RVs and provide full hookups with water, sewer, electricity, a picnic table, and a pedestal grill.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania

The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through the forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. A series of looping trails limited to foot traffic wander through the campground and day-use areas of the park. Additional multi-use trails explore forests, fields, lakeshore areas, and woodland streams. The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites.

Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laura S. Walker State Park, Georgia

Located near the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to fascinating creatures and plants, including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants. Walking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, saw palmettos, yellow-shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. The park’s lake offers opportunities for fishing, swimming, and boating, and kayaks and bicycles are available for rent. The Lakes 18-hole golf course features a clubhouse, golf pro, and junior/senior rates. Each fairway and landing area is defined with gentle, links-style mounds that accent the course’s three lakes. The park’s campground offers 44 RV campsites with electricity utilities.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

Named after the fabled lost gold mine, the park is located in the Sonoran Desert at an elevation of 2,000 feet. In the late 1800s, Jacob Waltz emerged from this area with gold. When he died in 1891, he was found with 24 pounds of high-quality gold ore under his bed. Purportedly, before he died he left clues to the mine’s location. Needless to say, it is a haven for treasure hunters today. The Park also offers a variety of hiking trails, nature trails, 35 campsites, picnic facilities, and special programs throughout the year.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park, Alabama

This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of north Mobile Bay and is a scenic park with a day-use area and modern camping hook-ups. A self-guided walk on the boardwalk offers an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Formed by the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is a complex network of tidally influenced rivers, creeks, bays, lakes, wetlands, and bayous. The park offers a 300-foot pier with a 200-foot “T”. Meaher’s campground offers 61 RV campsites with 20-, 30- and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hook-ups. Four bay-side cabins (1 is handicap accessible) overlook Ducker Bay. The campground features a modern bathhouse with laundry facilities.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas

Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. The park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Mona­hans westward and north into New Mexico. Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring on foot or horse­back. The park does not have marked trails; you are free to ex­plore at will. Rent sand disks and surf the dunes. Learn about the park and its natural and cultural history at the Dunagan Vis­i­tors Center. Set up camp and witness spec­tac­ular sun­sets.The park offers 26 campsites with water and electricity and a shade shelter.

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

My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky

The farm that inspired the imagery in Stephen Collins Foster’s famous song, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” is Kentucky’s most famous and beloved historic site. Built between 1812 and 1818, the three-story house originally named, “Federal Hill,” by its first owner Judge John Rowan became Kentucky’s first historic shrine on July 4th, 1923. Located near Bardstown the mansion and farm had been the home of the Rowan family for three generations spanning a period of 120 years. In 1922 Madge Rowan Frost, the last Rowan family descendant sold her ancestral home and 235-acres to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The golf course is open year-round. Admire the beautiful grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park in the 39-site campground near Bardstown. Convenience is guaranteed with utility hookups, a central service building housing showers and restrooms, and a dump station.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona

Visitors traveling along I-10 in southern Arizona can’t miss the prominent 1,500-foot peak of Picacho Peak State Park. Enjoy the view as you hike the trails that wind up the peak and often in the spring overlook a sea of wildflowers. The park and surrounding area are known for its unique geological significance, outstanding and varied desert growth, and historical importance. The unique shape has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times. The park offers a visitor center with exhibits and a park store, a playground, historical markers, a campground and picnic areas. The campground has a total of 85 electric sites suitable for RV and tent camping. No water or sewer hookups are available. Enjoy the beauty of the desert and the amazing views.

Roosevelt State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi

Roosevelt State Park offers an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities in a picturesque setting. The park’s scenic overlook provides a panoramic view of the Bienville National Forest. The gently sloping landscape is particularly striking during the fall when the forest is bright with autumn colors.A variety of recreational activities and facilities are available at Roosevelt including a visitor center, banquet hall, meeting rooms, game room, performing arts and media center, picnic area, picnic pavilions, playgrounds, disc golf, softball field, swimming pool and water slide, tennis courts, and nature trails. Fishing, boating, and water skiing are available on Shadow Lake, a 150 acre fresh water lake.The park offers 109 RV campsites, primitive tent sites, 15 vacation cabins, motel, and a group camp facility. These facilities are located in wooded areas with views of Shadow Lake. 27 campsites include electricity and water hook-ups. 82 sites have electricity, water, and sewer hook-ups.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Spotlight on Utah: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, and photographers.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American  Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

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

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake Scenic Byway

Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.

Matheson Wetlands, Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.

La Sal Mountain Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Sal Mountain Loop Road

A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument

The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. 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.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway

The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac

America’s Best State Parks

Check out the best of the best in our list of the most enchanting state parks in America

State parks are giving national parks a run for their money drawing an average of 807 million visitors annually.

Each state has a considerable amount of protected land with state park designation—a whopping 18,694,570 acres, to be exact. With 8,565 parks and 14,672 trails to explore, chances are there’s a local park worthy of a day trip. As a bonus, state parks also offer grandeur, history, and natural beauty.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock State Park, Arizona

Red Rock State Park isn’t your everyday desert landscape. In fact, this 286-acre nature preserve is home to lush green meadows, juniper, Manzanita, and is adorned with miles of striking red rock formations. The park offers 5 miles of interconnected, family-friendly trails that traverse a variety of unique desert habitats.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Take a scenic drive along Arizona State Route 89A which winds its way through Oak Creek Canyon and provides several places to pull over and picnic or snap photos of incredible, colorful rock formations.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

You might be heading to South Dakota to catch a glimpse of Mount Rushmore but while you’re out exploring the Black Hills there’s another South Dakota gem you’ll want to add to your bucket list. Named one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destination and one of the country’s largest state parks, Custer State Park is 71,000 acres of granite cliffs, rolling plains, and beautiful mountain wilderness.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Drive the Wildlife Loop to see a variety of wildlife including bison, antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk. Or, drive along Iron Mountain Road for incredible, panoramic views of the Black Hills and unique vantage points of Mount Rushmore.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Despite its grisly name, the view from Dead Horse Point remains one of the most scenic vistas in the world. Towering 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, Dead Horse Point is an iconic peninsula of rock sitting on top of incredible vertical sandstone cliffs that was formed by geological activity millions of years ago.

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

Park Highlights: Pack a camera and drive along Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway to experience the park’s deep canyons and ridges via a variety of scenic overlooks, including the most notable overlook: Dead Horse Point Overlook.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park, Texas

The wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys at Mon­a­hans Sandhills State Park offering a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as close-up views of a unique desert environment.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring on foot or horse­back. Rent sand disks and surf the dunes. Learn about the park and its natural and cultural history at the Dunagan Vis­i­tors Center. Set up camp and witness spec­tac­ular sun­sets.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

There is something for everyone inside Gulf State Park with two miles of beaches, a spacious campground, and a brand new Lodge and Conference Center. There’s gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls, and a variety of activities, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: Gulf State Park has a multitude of activities to participate in including hiking, biking, fishing, exploring, geocaching, and paddling with beach vendors offering parasailing and kayaking. 

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, 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 hook-ups for RVs. The mild climate of the area makes this park a popular year-round destination.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Highlights: 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.

Worth Pondering…

Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

—Ray Bradbury

Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

These state parks are national treasures

Perhaps no state is more synonymous with national parks than Utah: Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands. Utah’s world-famous “big five” national parks are some of the most popular in America attracting more than 10 million visitors in 2019. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for social distancing.

Those five national parks managed to bring in more crowds than all of Utah’s 44 state parks combined with many state parks seeing annual visitation roughly equivalent to a busy summer weekend at Zion or Bryce Canyon.

But here’s a little secret: Many of those state parks hold their own against the grandeur of the Big Five, usually with a fraction of fellow humans crowding the trails and vistas. With many national parks currently limiting capacity, now’s the ideal time to point your GPS toward one of Utah’s 5 coolest, and less visited, state parks. 

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

If the mind-blowing landscapes of this Grand Canyon-styled park look familiar, it’s probably because the final scene of Thelma & Louise was filmed here. But you don’t need to launch your car off a cliff to appreciate the views: there are plenty of vista points to gaze upon the color-packed vertical cliffs and rugged canyons rising 2,000 feet above the Colorado River with sweeping views extending into nearby Canyonlands National Park.

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

In addition to mountain biking 17 miles of expert single-track along the Intrepid Trail or peering out over the edge hiking the East Rim and West Rim trails, you can also camp in an RV, tent, or even a yurt. Water is NOT available.

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

Kayenta Campground offers 21 campsites with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far reaching views to the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV or tent campers. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This popular park about 30 minutes east of St. George is like a “best of” for Utah’s state park system all rolled into one. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir, or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board on its clear waters. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest but remember to take only photos.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bordering the massive Delaware-sized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12—only 64,000 people visit annually—allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest. Anglers can also test the bluegill and rainbow trout-stocked waters of the laid-back Wide Hollow Reservoir where canoeing and kayaking are also excellent and solitary endeavors.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities.

Utah Lake Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding. The park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass which is also stocked and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But wait, there’s more!

Other spectacular state parks on our bucket list include Snow Canyon, Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sands, Goblin Valley, and Goosenecks. And I would be remiss not to mention spectacular Natural Bridges National Monument which attracted a mere 88,000 recreational visitors in 2019.

Worth Pondering…

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

The 10 Best State Parks in America

These underdogs can hold their own against the national parks any day

America’s 62 national parks may get all the glory and the Ken Burns documentaries but nearly three times as many people visit the country’s 10,234 state parks each year. In total, they span more than 18 million acres across the US—or roughly the size of South Carolina.

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

This summer with so much of the world effectively grounded and many national parks limiting access and services, state parks are poised for a long-overdue place in the spotlight offering a chance to get out, stretch, and explore. Below you’ll find the cream of the state-park crop from picturesque mountainscapes and deserts, lakes and ocean beaches, and expansive hikers’ playgrounds. Time to get outside! Here’s how to do it right.

NOTE: Be sure to double-check each park’s status before making the trip—as with most things right now, their status can change day by day.

Hunting Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

It may be South Carolina‘s most visited state park but that doesn’t stop this secluded barrier island located 15 miles east of Beaufort from being one of the most picturesque destinations in the South thanks to its famous lighthouse, pristine beaches, and popular fishing lagoon. Fun fact: many of the Vietnam scenes from Forrest Gump were filmed here.

Adirondack Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adirondack Park, New York

Part state park, part forest preserve, and part privately owned land encompassing 102 towns and villages, Adirondack Park is massive. Totaling 6.1 million acres, America’s biggest state park is larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. Nearly half of the land is owned by the State of New York and designed as “forever wild,” encompassing all of the Adirondacks’ famed 46 High Peaks as well as 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of river. So pack up the canoe or kayak, get ready to scale Mount Marcy, or simply meander about its 2,000 miles of hiking trails. You’re gonna be here a while.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico

Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces, bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities, you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Located in South Dakota‘s fabled Black Hills region, the state’s first and largest state park is most famous for its photogenic herd of 1,500 wild bison that freely roam the land as well as other Wild West creatures like pronghorns, bighorn sheep, burros, and mountain lions. The scenery is everything you think of when you close your eyes and picture the great American West, laid out amidst 71,000 acres of vast open vistas and mountain lakes. There’s biking, boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, wildlife watching, and swimming. The place is so cool that even President Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House,” so that has to count for something, right?

Myakka State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Myakka State Park, 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.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

The 6,000-acre Gulf State Park offers more than 2 ½ miles of white sand beaches, a convention site, 468-site campground, resort inn, modern 2 and 3 bedroom cabins, nature center, interpretative programs, family resort, marina, 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and an 825-foot pier—the longest on the Gulf of Mexico.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Neighboring the Coronado National Forest, Catalina State Park is located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains and offers a variety of hiking trails available for on-foot travelers, bicyclists, and horse riders alike. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. There are 120 campsites available, 95 with water and 50/30 amp electric service. Most sites are spacious and level easily accommodating the largest of RVs.

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

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Sprawling out across a stark expanse of 600,000 acres, California’s largest state park (and second-largest in the lower 48) is a crown jewel of America’s state park system. By day it has 110 miles of hiking trails to explore and 12 designated wildlife areas and by night the huge desertscape delivers some of the best stargazing in America. The park is also a site of great geological importance as it has been found to contain over 500 types of fossils that are up to 6 million years old. If you can’t picture the prehistoric vibes on your own, there are also 130+ giant metal animal sculptures that pop up out of nowhere as you roam the park’s unforgiving terrain.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

You could be forgiven for thinking you drove to Utah and ended up in the Grand Canyon instead. Mountain biking the Intrepid Trail is a must for thrill seekers, but the more relaxed can simply gaze open-mouthed at the deep-red rocks and glorious hues via panoramic vistas of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The park gets its name from horses that died in this unforgiving landscape and with much of the park open with unfenced cliffs and little signage you’re best exercise a bit of common sense if you want to make it out of here alive.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park, Georgia

Vogel State Park is in the heart of north Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, 11 miles south of Blairsville. One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. At 2,500 feet elevation Vogel State Park maintains a cool evening temperature even in the dog days of summer, making this a great stop for camping. 

Worth Pondering…

Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so emerges with sunshine and air and running water that whole eons might pass in a single afternoon without notice.

—Loren Eisley

Go Here, Not there: 7 State Parks that Rival National Parks

Skip the traffic, crowds, and costs

America’s 61 national parks are some of America’s greatest national treasures. Yellowstone National Park was first, designated in 1872, and 44 years later, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. This was an official way to commit to protecting and preserving America’s most beautiful and unique natural spaces, ecosystems, and habitats for future generations to enjoy.

Fast forward a century plus, and the number of annual visits to national parks has surpassed 300 million.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s great that so many people appreciate this great resource and want to get out and enjoy the parks, anyone who’s sat in an endless line of traffic to enter Zion or Arches in Utah knows that the popularity of national parks can hinder the beauty of the experience.  Visiting a national park becomes less appealing when you take into account the mobs of people elbowing each other to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon and the overcrowded parking lots and scenic overlooks.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the national parks are some truly fantastic state parks that aren’t getting the crowds or the attention. These smaller unsung heroes feature scenery and outdoor adventures that rival national parks. And fewer visitors mean easier access to parking space, hiking trails, fishing spots, and campsites. Another bonus: if you’re traveling with Fido, most state parks allow dogs on trails whereas national parks do not.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 10,234 state parks in the U. S., spanning 18 million acres, so get out there and explore. Here are some notable parks to get you inspired. Go ahead and argue with our choices, but here’s our list of places that we can’t stop drooling over.

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

This park has several dramatic scenic overlooks and an 8-mile hiking trail that includes vistas from the East and West Rim Trails. There’s a 17-mile single track mountain biking trail and road biking options. Three campgrounds include RV campsites, yurts, and hike-in tent-only campsites.

Catalina State Park © 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 invites camping, picnicking and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen Foster State Park, Georgia

Stephen C. Foster State Park named after the popular Southern songwriter is one of the primary entrances to the famed Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia. Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas

The 4,000 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes found at this Texas state park resemble a landscape straight out of the Sahara. The Harvard Oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above 3 feet in height even though their root structure may extend down 90 feet or more. The park offers an interpretive center and museum as well as picnicking and camping…and many visitors’ favorite activity, sand surfing.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 6,000-acre Gulf State Park offers more than 2 ½ miles of white sand beaches, a convention site, 468-site campground, resort inn, modern 2 and 3 bedroom cabins, nature center, interpretative programs, family resort, marina, 18-hole and 9-hole golf courses, tennis courts, and an 825-foot pier—the longest on the Gulf of Mexico.

Myakka River State Park, Florida

Myakka River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 short 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.

Anza Borrego State Park, California

Anza Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One surprise about this area of the southeastern Californian desert is the palm oases which you come upon in the Borrego Palm Canyon through the park’s most-visited hiking trail. When you want to take a break from hiking, you can make yourself at home in Borrego Springs, a small town entirely encompassed by the State park itself and full of art as well as natural beauty. Anza Borrego has numerous camping options with four established campgrounds and 175 total campsites.

Worth Pondering…

It’s a beautiful day for it.

—Wilbur Cross

Immense Cliffs and Stunning Overlooks: Dead Horse Point

Dead Horse Point State Park is perhaps Utah’s most spectacular state park

The park lies on the same broad mesa as The Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Featuring immense cliffs carved by the elements and stunning overlooks, Dead Horse Point State Park draws you in with its breathtaking landscapes, dark starlit skies, and rich history.

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

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs about 6,000 feet above sea level. Two thousand feet below, the Colorado River winds its way from the continental divide in Colorado to the Gulf of California, a distance of 1,400 miles. The peninsula is connected to the 8umesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck.

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

Millions of years of geologic activity created the spectacular views from Dead Horse Point State Park. Deposition of sediments by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown sand dunes created the rock layers of canyon country. Igneous activity formed the high mountains that rise like cool blue islands out of the hot, dry desert.

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

This desert gem sports a visitor center, a 21-site campground with flush toilets and shade ramadas, a group campsite, picnic area, and a nine-mile hiking trail loop.

Water is limited. Visitors should fill their recreation vehicle water tanks before coming to the park. This campground is not suitable for large RVs.

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

For those seeking an extra special overnight experience, the park also offers yurts that sleep six and feature a propane fireplace, kitchen area, outside grill, lighting, and electricity.

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

The plants and animals of Dead Horse Point have adapted to a land of scarce water and extreme temperatures. Plants grow very slowly here. Trees 15 feet tall may be hundreds of years old. Leaves of most plants are small, and some have a waxy coating to reduce evaporation.

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

Most desert animals are nocturnal, active only during cooler evenings and mornings. Some have large ears to dissipate heat while others metabolize water from food.

With Moab nearby, mountain bikers visiting the park can rest assured their bikes are permitted on the park’s paved roads.

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

For a more adventurous biking experience, bikers can also test their skills down the Intrepid Trail located near the park’s visitor center. With slickrock sections, looping singletrack, sandy washes, and incredible scenery, the Intrepid Trail System provides a great taste of what Moab mountain biking is all about. This is the perfect ride for families and offers spectacular views of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park.

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

The Intrepid Trail System has three hiking and biking loops ranging from one to nine miles with varying degrees of difficulty. The easiest and shortest loop is Intrepid, followed by Great Pyramid, with Big Chief as the most challenging. The nested loop trails will offer opportunities for visitors of all ages and abilities, and provide breathtaking views.

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

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck. There are many stories about how this high promontory of land received its name.

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

According to one legend, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top around the turn of the century. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30 yards wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

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

Dead Horse Point is best photographed at sunrise. For the warmest light, shoot between May 1 and mid-August, when the sun rises north of the La Sals, or from late October to mid-February, when it rises to the south.

Four view areas, ideal for photography stops, are located along the highway.

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

Dead Horse Point is reached by following the same route as the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It is 23 miles from U.S. Highway 191 to Dead Horse Point State Park via Utah Highway 313.

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

Worth Pondering…

Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

—Margaret Lee Runbeck