Top 5 National Park Sites To Visit in New Mexico this Spring (2024)

New Mexico’s newest national park tops the list with more than half a million visitors last year

Some of New Mexico’s highest mountains and deepest caves are preserved for residents and visitors to the state alike via the National Park Service (NPS).

The Service has two national parks in New Mexico along with nine national monuments, two national historic parks, and one national preserve.

Millions of people flock to these sites every year as New Mexico’s mostly mild winter gives way to a hotter spring and often sweltering summer.

Here are the Top 5 popular National Park Service destinations based on visitation data from 2023.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park – 729,096 visitors

White Sands was a national monument since 1933 before being designated a national park in 2019.

It’s situated just west of Alamogordo and northeast of Las Cruces in south-central New Mexico alongside White Sands Missile Range.

The park is known for its namesake, the white gypsum sand dunes that sprawl across it’s about 145,000 acres.

Visitors can hike, camp, or even sled along the iconic dunes.

Here are some helpful resources:

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park – 394,121 visitors

About 700 feet beneath southeast New Mexico is the Carlsbad Caverns known for enormous underground rock formations and thousands of stalactites and stalagmites that wowed visitors since they were discovered in 1898.

Carlsbad Caverns became a national monument in 1923 and a national park in 1930.  

The park is amid the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains in the southeast corner of New Mexico just outside Carlsbad to its east.

Most visitors opt to travel underground via a hike down the cavern’s natural entrance or a ride down the park’s massive elevator shaft to view the iconic formations but there are also hiking trails and other recreation opportunities on the surface.

Here are some articles to help:

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument – 314,528 visitors

Ancient drawings and indigenous symbols survive today in New Mexico from 400 to 700 years ago at Petroglyph National Monument.

The monument is just outside Albuquerque amid the city’s West Mesa, a volcanic escarpment seen by all those who visit New Mexico’s largest urban area.

Hiking trails can take visitors alongside petroglyphs for a glimpse into the past and the lives of Native Americans and Spanish settlers who carved the symbols into the volcanic rocks.

That’s why I wrote this article: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument.

Bandelier National Monument – 199,501 visitors

Ancient pueblos once dwelled in the 33,000 acres protected at Bandelier National Monument north of Santa Fe and just outside Santa Fe National Forest.

The monument is sacred to the state’s indigenous community and presents an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with New Mexico’s past and enjoy breathtaking mountain views.

Bandelier can get snow throughout winter and early spring until May but visitors can journey to the monument all year for short hiking trails amid the remains of ancient dwellings.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument – 167,107 visitors

Volcanic terrains are a rare sight throughout the U.S. but can be enjoyed at El Malpais National Monument which is situated between the Acoma Pueblo and Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.

Geologic features like lava flows, cinder cones, lava tube cave, and sandstone bluffs are all available to enjoy at the monument.

Visitors can find short to challenging hikes, scenic overlooks, and journey underground to explore the area’s cave systems.

The name was given by early Spanish explorers who encountered the lava flows and  it translates to the badlands or bad country.

If you need ideas, check out:

Five other National Park sites to visit in New Mexico

Capulin Volcano National Monument – 88,514 visitors

  • Region: Northeast New Mexico
  • Closest city: Raton
  • Activities: Hiking, auto tours

Valles Caldera National Preserve – 76,090 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Los Alamos
  • Activities: Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, hunting, camping
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument – 54,836 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Grants
  • Activities: Hiking, camping

Pecos National Historic Park – 50,709 visitors

  • Region: Northern New Mexico
  • Closest city: Pecos
  • Activities: Museum, hiking, guided tours, fishing in the Pecos River
Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument – 47,554 visitors

  • Region: Northwest New Mexico
  • Closest city: Aztec
  • Activities: Hiking, historic trails, Heritage Garden

What missed the list?

  • Chaco Culture National Historic Park – 40,198 visitors
  • Salinas Pueblos Missions National Monument – 39,556 visitors
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings – 33,973 visitors
  • Fort Union National Monument – 9,570 visitors

More New Mexico travel stories

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Best National Parks to Visit in October

Wondering where to travel in October? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in October!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashoresnational recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

In October, fall colors sweep across much of the United States. The majority of the parks that you will see on this list are parks that are ablaze in fall colors. Some of these are obvious picks such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains but a few may surprise you. In this guide, I list six beautiful national parks to visit in October plus four bonus parks and a road trip to link several of these together.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Visiting the National Parks in October

From mid-September through November, the leaves change from green to vivid hues of yellow, orange, and red across much of the United States. To see these brilliant fall colors, October is the best month of the year to plan your national parks road trip.

On this list are parks that show off some sort of fall colors and some are more spectacular than others. Shenandoah National Park is gorgeous this time of year and one of the top national parks to visit to see fall colors. But there are also parks like Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt that put on a show which are places that you might not associate with fall colors.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in October

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse through the park.

Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in October. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the kaleidoscope of fall colors.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Shenandoah in October: The last two weeks of October are prime time to visit the park to see fall colors. Plus, the weather is perfect for hiking.

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 40°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and October is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison, pronghorn, and other wildlife from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt is a relatively quiet park to visit all year. We visited in early October and had an awesome experience. The weather was still warm, crowds were very low, and the hint of fall colors was a nice bonus.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in October: The weather is getting cooler but this is a beautiful time to visit the park. The trees turn a nice shade of yellow adding a splash of fall color to the park. 

Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 30°F. On hotter than average days, the temperature can get up into the 80s. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan Your Visit

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

3. New River Gorge National Park

Location: West Virginia

Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. There is some debate among geologists about the age of this river with estimates ranging from 3 to 360 million years. During this time, the river carved out a 73,000 acre gorge in West Virginia. The sandstone cliffs and whitewater rapids create world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destinations. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through the forests leading to overlooks and historic settlements.

There are two big reasons why New River Gorge is one of the best national parks to visit in October: Bridge Day and, you guessed it, fall colors.

On the third Saturday in October (October 21, 2023), the New River Gorge Bridge closes to traffic and opens to pedestrians. This is one of the largest extreme sporting events in the world. On Bridge Day, BASE jumpers leap from the bridge and rappelers ascend and descend from the catwalk. There is also a zipline that runs from the bridge to Fayette Station Road (the High Line) that you can sign up for in advance.

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

Why visit New River Gorge in October: To participate in Bridge Day and to see fall colors in the park. For peak colors, plan your visit for the last week in October into early November.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 46°F. October is one of the driest months of the year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 6:45 pm.

Top experiences: Do the Bridge Walk, hike the Long Point Trail, drive Fayette Station Road, go mountain biking and rock climbing, enjoy the view from Grandview Overlook, hike the Castle Rock Trail, and visit Sandstone Falls.

Ultimate adventure: Go white water rafting on the New River (rafting season is April through October).

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

How many days do you need? If you want to visit the three main areas of New River Gorge National Park (Canyon Rim, Grandview and Sandstone) and have enough time to go whitewater rafting, you will need three to four days. However, with less time, you can visit the highlights and hike a few of the trails.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Zion National Park is one of the best places in the United States to go hiking.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion is a busy park to visit all year round but in October visitation begins to ease at least a little bit. And October with its warm weather and splash of fall colors is a gorgeous time to go hiking in Zion.

October is also a great time to visit the rest of Utah’s Mighty 5: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyons National Parks.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in October: For fewer crowds, some fall colors, and pleasant hiking weather. If you have plans to hike the Zion Narrows, this is a good time of year to do it. The water temperature is still relatively warm and the water level is low, prime conditions for doing this hike.

Weather: The average high is 78°F and the average low is 50°F. On unusually warm days the temperature can get into the 90s. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 6:50 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook.

Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you need? If you plan to hike, spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

The colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country. Bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep roam this larg mixed-grass prairie region. The sunrises and sunsets are magical, the hiking trails are short and sweet, and for those looking for more solitude, you can take your pick from a handful of backcountry experiences.

This is not a park that you might expect to see some fall colors but in October there are a few trees in the gullies their colors as they turn yellow and red.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Badlands in October: For fantastic weather, few crowds, and the chance to see some fall colors. 

Weather: The average high is 65°F and the average low is 38°F. On unusually warm days, it can get into the 80s. October is the end of the rainy season with 1.5 inches of rain.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Badlands Loop Road and visit the overlooks, watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, hike the Notch Trail, hike the Door and Fossil Exhibit Trails, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, hike the Castle Trail, and count how many bison you can find.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate experience, venture into the backcountry. In Badlands National Park, you are permitted to hike off-trail and the Sage Creek Wilderness and Deer Haven Wilderness are great places to go hiking and spot wildlife.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? One day in Badlands National Park gives you just enough time to visit the highlights and hike a few short trails. Make sure you catch either sunrise or sunset in the park because these are one of the best times of day to look out across the landscape. To fully experience the park add an additional day or two and be sure to make a pit stop at nearby Wall Drug.

Plan your visit

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

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 12.9 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).

This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in October: For great weather for hiking and an array of fall colors.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 41°F. Rainfall is about 5 inches for October which is one of the driest months of the year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7 pm.

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in October

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

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

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

October road trip idea

South Dakota Road Trip

With one week, you can go on a road trip in South Dakota visiting Badlands and Wind Cave National Park. Add on Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and even Devils Tower for an epic road trip. The aforementioned Minuteman Missile National Historic Site a few miles from Badlands National Park.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

16 Under the Radar National Monuments to Visit

For travelers who love to avoid the crowds, these 16 lesser known national monuments may be perfect spots for your next road trip

Since Wyoming’s iconic Devils Tower became the first U.S. National Monument in 1906, America is now populated with well over 100 of these unique cultural and geographic gems. In addition to volcanic landscapes like Malpais and Mount St. Helens and Utah’s oft-photographed Cedar Breaks there are numerous others that you might be less familiar with—and which absolutely merit a visit. From ancient petroglyphs to the geological wonders these are 16 under-the-radar national monuments to visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cedar Breaks, Utah

Like a mini Bryce Canyon, minus the crowds, Cedar Breaks contains a stunning assortment of hoodoos and cliffs in southern Utah. Technically an amphitheater, the monument is three miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, filled with craggy rock formations jutting up from the base like natural skyscrapers. Considering the monument’s high elevation, it gets cold and snowy in the winter which lends vivid color contrast from the white powder atop the orange-hued hoodoos and lush green forests surrounding it. It’s a popular destination for snowmobilers as well who can ride along the rim and gaze out over the illustrious expanse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Petroglyph, New Mexico

Located on the western edge of Albuquerque lies one of the most concentrated collections of ancient petroglyphs on the continent. Native American tribes settled here hundreds of years ago and they left their mark in the form of symbols carved into volcanic rock across the desert terrain. With around 24,000 images and symbols, there’s plenty to see here. In addition to the petroglyphs, the monument contains hiking trails throughout its 17-mile park along with dormant volcanoes and canyons.

>> Get more tips for visiting Petroglyph National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona

Some folks might be surprised to learn that Arizona has another national park unit dedicated to the preservation of a rare cactus. Saguaro National Park in Tucson is famed far and wide while Organ Pipe Cactus is more of an under-the-radar gem. Located along the Mexican border at the southern edge of the state, the monument is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild. One glimpse at this sprawling, soaring species will clue you in to where the cactus gets its name. An ideal place for desert camping and hiking, the monument also has horseback trails, scenic drives, and biking opportunities.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Natural Bridges, Utah

Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden whereas arches are usually high and exposed as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges. The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges. 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 overlooks the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observator tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.

>> Get more tips for visiting Mount St. Helens National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

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

8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A one-of-a-kind landscape and the cherished homeland of the Navajo people, Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a truly special place. Sheer cliffs rise on either side of this flat-bottomed, sandy ravine. Native Americans have worked and lived there for thousands of years and today Navajo people still call it home. South Rim Drive and North Rim Drive, each more than 30 miles long, are excellent driving routes along the canyons. The scenery is spectacular, including the White House Ruin cliff dwellings and the 800-foot sandstone spire known as Spider Rock.

>> Get more tips for visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

9. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes, and seemingly endless Slickrock. The monument is a geologic sampler with a huge variety of formations, features, and world-class paleontological sites. A geological formation spanning eons of time, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a territory of multicolored cliffs, plateaus, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It is divided into three distinct sections: the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Canyons of the Escalante.

>> Get more tips for visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Hovenweep, Utah and Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. The towers of Hovenweep were built from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Montezuma Castle, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

>> Get more tips for visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Tuzigoot, Arizona

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and Great House is preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

A Wonderland of Rocks is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base seemingly ready to topple over at any time. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Built and used over a 200-year period, Aztec Ruins is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called great houses and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a great kiva—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called roads, earthen berms, and platforms

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

The time to prepare for your next expedition is when you have just returned from a successful trip.

—Robert Peary

The Best National Parks to Visit in May

Wondering where to travel in May? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in May!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning a trip to the U.S. national parks in May and don’t know which ones to visit? May is a beautiful time to visit the national parks now that the snow has melted across most of the country and roads have reopened. In this guide, I cover five great parks to visit plus five bonus parks and a road trip that links several of these parks together.

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

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in May

May is an awesome time to visit the national parks. By May, warmer weather settles across most of the US. The snow has melted, the grass is green, the trees have leaves, and most roads are now open.

There are a handful of national parks that close their roads in late fall for snowfall and these roads don’t reopen until mid to late spring (or even early summer for some parks). You can still visit these parks in March and April but it is not until May that you have access to the full park.

May tends to be a busy month to visit the national parks but crowds are still lower than the summer months. If you want warm weather without massive crowds, May is a good time to plan your national parks trip.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in May

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse the park.

Why visit Shenandoah in May: This is the best month to see wildflowers blooming in Shenandoah National Park. Plus, the weather is warm, the trees have leaves, and the entire park is lush and green.
Weather: The average high is 66°F and the average low is 46°F. Rainfall averages about 4.5 inches per month through the year and May is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes, plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District (East) and the Tucson Mountain District (West). Saguaro is a hot place to visit in May. So, why am I recommending it? Because this is the best time to see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.

The Saguaro cactus begins blooming in late April with peak blooming season in May. By the end of May into the first week of June, the blooming season ends.

Why visit Saguaro in May: To see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.

Weather: In May, the average high is 93°F and the average low is 60°F. Rainfall is extremely low.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:30 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive, hike Valley View Overlook Trail and Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park, one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your visit

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Mesa Verde National Park

Location: Colorado

Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Mesa Verde in May: In May, the roads reopen in the park and ranger-guided tours of the cliff dwellings begin for the year. The weather is fantastic and crowds are lower than what you would see here during the summer months.
Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.

Top experiences: Take a ranger guided tour of a cliff dwelling, see the Spruce Tree House, hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, drive Mesa Top Loop, explore the Far View sites, and hike the Point Lookout Trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? One to two days are all you need to take a cliff dwelling tour and go on the scenic drives through the park. Consider spending a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. 

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree is hot and humid in May and with higher levels of mosquitoes, it’s not a great time to visit the park unless you want to see the synchronous fireflies.

With over 2,000 species found world-wide, there are only three species of synchronous fireflies that can be found in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring display of synchronous flashing while the fireflies search for a mate. This special and unique phenomenon is extremely popluar. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In order to protect critical firefly habitat and provide optimum visitor experience, tickets are required to enter the park during for this event. A set number of vehicle passes are issued for each evening of the event. Vehicle passes for this event are distributed by lottery hosted at www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/300008.

Why visit Congaree in May: To see the synchronous fireflies.

Weather: The average high is 83°F and the average low is 60°F. On hotter than normal days, the high temperature can get up into the high-90s. In terms of rainfall, this is one of the drier months to visit the park but now that it is getting warmer expect humid weather. Mosquitoes can also be bad this time of year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

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

5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 13 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).

In May of 2022, 1.3 million people visited this national park (you read that right…1.3 million people in one month). To put that into perspective, that’s about the same number of people that visited Capitol Reef National Park all year! And Capitol Reef was the 21st most visited national park lastt year.

And May isn’t even the busy time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The busy season is the summer months and peak visitation is July with 1.6 million visitors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in May: For great weather and lower crowds than the summer months.

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 45°F. Rainfall is about average for the year with the park receiving about 7 inches of rain.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

1 more National Parks to visit in May

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park was included in my series for the best parks to visit in April since that month is a great time to see wildflowers in the park. The weather in May is very good with average high temperatures in the low 80s and low rainfall but this tends to be the busiest month to visit Pinnacles so keep that in mind while planning your trip.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in May

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

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

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

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

May road trip idea

In 10 days, you can drive point-to-point from Washington DC to Gatlinburg, Tennessee visiting three national parks along the way—Shenandoah, New River Gorge, and Great Smoky Mountains. You can also drive the Blue Ridge Parkway from Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

The Least Visited U.S. National Parks

These least-visited national parks in the U.S. have all of the beauty and none of the crowds

Currently, there are 63 national parks in the U.S., alongside countless more national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites overseen by the National Park Service (NPS). These protected spaces represent some of the most important natural and cultural landscapes in the country.

The NPS recently released its latest annual visitation data which will help us (and you) decide where to plan your next hike, whether you’re looking for a communal vibe, or a more secluded and isolated experience.

With almost 13 million visits last year, the Great Smoky Mountains remain undefeated when it comes to the most visitors of any national park. But other, no less spectacular parks see a fraction of those numbers. If you want to head off the beaten path, here are 21 of the least visited NPS service sites in the U.S.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 38,786

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River. Jesuit, and later Franciscan, priests ministered to the O’odham Indians and Spanish settlers until 1848.

>> Get more tips for visiting Tumacácori National Historic Park

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

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 50,017

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 50,396

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Aztec Ruins National Monument

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

State: Pennsylvania

2022 visits: 57,238

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is the best-preserved iron plantation in North America. Hopewell Furnace consists of a mansion (the big house), spring and smokehouses, a blacksmith shop, an office store, a charcoal house, and a schoolhouse.

>> Get more tips for visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 60,501

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Morro National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 61,377

The most noticeable natural features in Chiricahua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 64,387

There is only one place on Earth where you can find wild horses, secluded white beaches, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and the skeletal remains of a once-famous mansion. Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island including miles of unspoiled beaches.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga National Historic Park

State: New York

2022 visits: 70,742

Site of the first significant American military victory during the Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga is considered among the most decisive battles in world history. Here in 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender, an event which led France to recognize the independence of the United States and enter the war as a decisive military ally of the struggling Americans.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

State: Utah

2022 visits: 71,249

Formed by the power of water in a place where water is all but absent, three stone bridges in the Utah desert have been protected as a national monument since 1908. Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches which result from a variety of other erosion forces. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges.

>> Get more tips for visiting Natural Bridges National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 78,557

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

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

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

State: Virginia

2022 visits: 83,483

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park encompasses approximately 1,800 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home where Lee made his formal surrender and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The walking tour allows you to see all buildings which are original to the site, and have been restored to their original condition. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park

State: Texas

2022 visits: 87,386

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire circle of life gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

>> Get more tips for visiting Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

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

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

State: New York

2022 visits: 100,665

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

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

State: South Dakota

2022 visits: 105,776

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 116,639

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Tuzigoot National Monument

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Coronado National Memorial

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 131,359

The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley which was the route believed to have been taken by the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition. If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave. For those looking to stay above ground, the scenic overlook at Montezuma Pass (elevation 6,575 feet) provides breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting Coronado National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

State: Arizona

2022 visits: 133,317

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park

State: Georgia

2022 visits: 155,242

Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

State: New Mexico

2022 visits: 162,755

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

>> Get more tips for visiting El Malpais National Monument

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 204,522

Some of the tallest trees on the east coast are located inside Congaree which was named after the Native American tribe that used to reside in the area. Unlike many hardwood forests, Congaree was largely spared by the lumber industry in the late 1800s and was eventually designated as a national monument and then a national park. The terrain includes the forest, the Congaree River, and the floodplain.

>> Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Cowpens National Battlefield © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cowpens National Battlefield

State: South Carolina

2022 visits: 212,534

Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a decisive battle that helped turn the tide of war in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. On this field on January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led his army of tough Continentals, militia, and cavalry to a brilliant victory over Banastre Tarleton’s force of British regulars. The battle at the Cow Pens is one of only a few successful double envelopments in history.

>> Get more tips for visiting Cowpens National Battlefield

These 21 lesser-known and visited parks have minimal visitors, plenty to do, and much-needed peace and quiet. Consider adding these least-visited national parks to your 2023 list of road trip destinations.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Celebrate Volcano Week!

Volcano Week 2023 takes place during the first week of February

It’s Volcano Week! You may not have heard of this annual celebration hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) but it’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about the lava-filled peaks that continue to shape our Earth. 

There are about 1,350 potentially active volcanoes around the world, 161 of which are in the U.S. and its territories.

Volcano Week 2023 takes place February 5-11.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some volcanic eruptions are witnessed by people who remember what they’ve seen by writing it down, painting about it, telling stories, or collecting detailed scientific data. Other eruptions go unseen, hidden in the distant past. How do we discover, learn about, and remember those eruptions? We have to look at many lines of evidence to reconstruct the activity and eruptions of volcanoes,” the park service said.

Volcanoes are diverse! They range from the majestic Mount Rainier to colossal shield volcanoes like Mauna Loa (Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) and volcanic fields that can cover hundreds of square miles such as at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Some volcanoes are picturesque, others less so. They vary in size from small cinder cones that stand only a few hundred feet tall to the most massive mountains on earth. Some have textbook-perfect conical shapes and others are more irregular in form.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some volcanoes erupt only once and last for only a few days or less while others may have periods of activity that span expanses of time as great as a few million years.

Each volcano is somewhat unique, but most can be classified into several types. The most common types of volcanoes are cinder cones, composite volcanoes (stratovolcanoes), shield volcanoes, and volcanic domes.

Several other types of volcanoes exist and are part of the diversity of volcanic landforms found on land. Examples of these volcanoes are also found in national parks.

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

Cinder cone volcanoes

Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the world. They may look like an idealized depiction of a volcano as they are steep, conical hills that usually have a prominent crater at the top. Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the National Park System.

Capulin Volcano and Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments were established specifically to preserve especially large and picturesque cinder cones. These volcanoes are the tallest cinder cones in the National Park System with a height of approximately 1,000 feet each. Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park is a cinder cone that formed after the caldera-forming eruption.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 24 units in the National Park System contain cinder cones, including:

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composite volcanoes

Composite volcanoes can be the most picturesque of all volcanoes. A classic composite volcano is conical with a concave shape that is steeper near the top. These mountains commonly have snow-covered peaks standing high above the surrounding mountainous terrain.

Composite cones are large volcanoes (many thousands of feet tall) generally composed of lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, and mudflow (lahar) deposits, as well as lava domes. Composite volcanoes are active over long periods (tens to hundreds of thousands of years) and erupt periodically. Composite volcanoes are also called stratovolcanoes.

Mount Rainier is an active volcano and the tallest peak in the Pacific Northwest. It is also considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the Lower 48. Brokeoff Volcano (Mount Tehama) in Lassen Volcanic National Park is a deeply eroded large composite volcano. It consisted of lava domes, lava flows, and pyroclastic deposits that are between 590,000 and 385,000 years old.

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

At least eight units of the National Park System contain composite volcanoes, including:

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shield volcanoes

Although shield volcanoes are the largest volcanoes on Earth, they do not form soaring mountains with conical peaks like composite volcanoes. Instead, they are broad volcanoes with gentle slopes and are shaped somewhat like a warrior’s shield lying flat on the Earth. Shield volcanoes have a convex shape as they are flatter near the summit.

Shield volcanoes are truly massive with volumes that dwarf other types of volcanoes even large composite volcanoes. Shield volcanoes are usually constructed almost entirely of basaltic and/or andesitic lava flows which were very fluid when erupted. They are built by repeated eruptions that occurred intermittently over vast periods (up to a million years or longer).

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 13 units of the National Park System contain shield volcanoes, including:

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

Volcanic Domes

Domes form from the slow extrusion of highly-viscous silicic lava. These lavas are too thick to spread out into a lava flow. Most domes are small and many do not have a crater. Domes are sometimes called lava domes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park contains multiple lava domes. Lassen Peak (see above photo) is the world’s largest dome with a peak elevation of 10,457 feet. It was emplaced 27,000 years ago. Chaos Crags are a set of six lava domes that grew during eruptions approximately 1,050 years ago. In Valles Caldera National Preserve, at least seven lava dome complexes formed along the ring fracture of the Valles Caldera during post-caldera volcanic activity.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Park, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 12 units of the National Park System contain volcanic domes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other types of volcanoes

Maars and tuff rings

Maars and tuff rings are low-standing volcanoes with wide, bowl-shaped craters. They commonly have a donut-like profile. Their low edifices consist of shallowly-dipping deposits of tuff made mostly of ash and angular, nonvesicular pebble-sized pyroclasts (lapilli).

A maar is a volcanic crater in which the crater lies below the surrounding ground level and is surrounded by a low pyroclastic cone. Because they are topographic lows, maars frequently contain lakes in their craters. A tuff ring is a pyroclastic cone with a crater above the surrounding ground surface. Tuff ring craters are usually dry.

Big Bend National Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least six units of the National Park System contain maars or tuff rings, including:

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fissure volcanoes

Fissure volcanoes are produced by eruptions that occur along elongated fissures versus at a central vent. Fissure eruptions occur when magma-filled dikes intersect the surface. Fissure eruptions usually do not build substantial edifices but instead, feed lava flows that can travel great distances. Fissure eruptions may also occur in rift zones on shield volcanoes. They also frequently occur in monogenetic volcanic fields.

Fissure eruptions may be large or small, depending on the magma supply and length of the fissure. Fissure volcanoes have been the site of the largest volume of volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history in terms of the magnitude of lava erupted.

Mount St. Helens, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least four units of the National Park System contain fissure volcanoes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monogenetic volcanic fields

Volcanic fields are clusters of volcanoes or areas covered by volcanic rocks. Monogenetic volcanic fields consist mostly (or exclusively) of monogenetic volcanoes. These volcanoes (cinder cones, maars, tuff rings, and eruptive fissures) each experience one period of activity. Most monogenetic volcanic fields include areas covered by basaltic lava flows and clusters of cinders cones and/or maars and tuff rings, sometimes with a composite volcano or shield volcano located near the center of the field.

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 13 units of the National Park system contain all or parts of monogenetic volcanic fields, including:

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Calderas

Calderas are collapse features that form during large-volume volcanic eruptions when the underlying magma chamber is partially emptied and the ground above it subsides into it. Calderas are large, generally with a diameter greater than 0.6 miles. The largest calderas are tens of miles wide. A defining characteristic of calderas is that they have diameters that are much wider than their included vents.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 16 units of the National Park System contain calderas, including:

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish which in due time is to be separately served. We have instances of vents within hailing distance of each other pouring out totally different kinds of lava, neither sympathizing with the other in any discernible manner nor influencing other in any appreciable degree.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah (1880)

National Wilderness Month: September 2022

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.

—Edward Abbey

September marks the anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnsonn September 3, 1964. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, the result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness. The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

—Howard Zahniser

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. This law established these areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 803 areas (111,706,287 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year. 1984 marks the year when the newest wilderness areas were added. 

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall, however, only about 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

These wilderness areas are located within national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation lands and waters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans turned to these areas for physical recreation, mental well-being, and inspiration, and our public lands and waters became places of healing and sanctuary.

Wilderness is in the arid deserts, cypress swamps, alpine meadows, sandy beaches, and rocky crags. From Alaska to Florida, wilderness protects some of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in America. It offers a refuge for wildlife and a place to seek relaxation, adventure, or something in between for us. What does wilderness mean to you?  

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the Outdoors

Celebrate Wildnerness Month by getting out and visiting some of America’s state parks and national parks. Or, for more local ideas here are a few suggestions on how you can get started to actively appreciate and enjoy our beautiful wilderness:

In addition, the fourth Saturday in September (September 24, 2022) celebrates the connection between people and green spaces in their community with the annual National Public Lands Day. The day is set aside for volunteers to improve the health of public lands, parks, and historic sites. This day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort.

With 803 designated locations, searching for a National Wilderness Area to visit may seem like an impossible task. Consider the following eight wilderness areas for RV travel.

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1964

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although there is no guarantee that you’ll find buried treasure, you are sure to discover miles and miles of desolate and barren mountains, seemingly endless and haunting canyons, raging summer temperatures that can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and a general dearth of water.

Elevations range from approximately 2,000 feet on the western boundary to 6,265 feet on Mound Mountain. In the western portion rolling land is surrounded by steep, even vertical terrain. Weaver’s Needle, a dramatic volcanic plug, rises to 4,553 feet. Vegetation is primarily that of the Sonoran Desert with semidesert grassland and chaparral higher up.

Peralta Trailhead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the harsh setting, much of Superstition Wilderness, especially the Peralta and First Water Trails is overused by humans. These two trailheads receive about 80 percent of the annual human traffic and the U.S. Forest Service calls the 6.3-mile Peralta one of the most heavily used trails in Arizona. Other trails within the Wilderness are virtually untrodden. There are about 180 miles of trails as well as other unmaintained tracks.

Get more tips for visiting Superstition Wilderness

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Wilderness, California

Designated: 1976

Size: 595,364 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 transformed Joshua Tree National Monument into a national park and expanded the wilderness. The additions thrust north into the Pinto Mountains, northeast into the Coxcomb Mountains, southeast into the Eagle Mountains, and southwest into the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Most of the park away from road corridors is Wilderness, a meeting place of two desert ecosystems.

The lower, drier Colorado Desert dominates the eastern half of the park, home to abundant creosote bushes, the spidery ocotillo, and the “jumping” cholla cactus. The slightly more cool and moist Mojave Desert covers the western half of the park serving as a hospitable breeding ground for the undisciplined Joshua tree. You’ll find examples of a third ecosystem within the park: five fan-palm oases where surface or near-surface water gives life to the stately palms.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree Wilderness

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness, Georgia

Designated: 1974

Size: 353,981 acres

Managed by: Fish and Wildlife Service

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine waking to a mist-enshrouded wetland echoing with the calls of herons and ibis. Your camping site is a wooden platform surrounded by miles and miles of wet prairie or moss-covered cypress. The only sounds you hear are the calls of native wildlife and those you make upon taking in such beauty. This is what it is like to experience a night in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wilderness Area.

The Okefenokee NWR encompasses the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the oldest and best-preserved freshwater areas in America. Native Americans called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits that cover much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on. “Okefenokee” is a European interpretation of their words. The Okefenokee Swamp forms the headwaters for two very distinct rivers. The historic Suwannee River originates in the heart of the swamp and flows southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The second is the St. Marys River, which originates in the southeastern portion of the swamp and flows to the Atlantic Ocean forming part of the boundary between Georgia and Florida.

Get more tips for visiting Okefenokee Wilderness

Mt. Wrightson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1984

Size: 25,141 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising a magnificent 7,000 feet from the desert floor, 9,452-foot-high Mount Wrightson is visible from great distances. At the core of the Santa Rita Mountains, this Wilderness has rough hillsides, deep canyons, and lofty ridges and peaks surrounded by semiarid hills and sloping grasslands. Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir dominate the upper elevations. The stream-fed canyons support an abundance of plant and animal life. At the foot of Madera Canyon on the edge of the Wilderness, a developed recreation area serves as a popular jumping-off point for hikers and backpackers.

Get more tips for visiting Mt. Wrightson Wilderness

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness, California

Designated: 1972

Size: 79,061 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In May of 1914, Lassen Peak began a seven-year series of eruptions including a humdinger in 1915 when an enormous mushroom cloud reached seven miles in height. Today, the Lassen Volcanic National Park serves as a compact laboratory of volcanic phenomena and associated thermal features (mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs, sulfurous vents) with Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) near the center of the park’s western half. Lassen Peak and its trail are non-Wilderness but almost four-fifths of the park has been designated Wilderness, a land of gorgeous lakes teeming with fish, thick forests of pine and fir, many splendid creeks, and a fascinating hodgepodge of extinct and inactive volcanoes.

Best of all, this mountainous country remains relatively uncrowded by California standards. At least 779 plant species and numerous animals have been identified here. The eastern border of the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness is shared with Caribou Wilderness and one trail crosses the boundary. About 150 miles of trails snake through the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. A 17-mile-long section of the Pacific Crest Trail crosses from north to south.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic Wilderness

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

West Malpais Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 1987

Size: 39,540 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “the badlands,” a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years’ worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatters cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.

Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.

Get more tips for visiting West Malpais Wilderness

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1978

Size: 312,600 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness is bordered by the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness to the west.

Located at the heart of the vast and lush Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness hugs the Mexican border and celebrates a desert full of life: 550 species of vascular plants, 53 species of mammals, 43 species of reptiles, and more than 278 species of birds. The monument conserves 90 percent of the organ pipe cactus range in the US. The organ pipe is a large multispined cactus rare in the United States.

From Mount Ajo at 4,024 feet, atop the Ajo Range on the eastern border, the land falls away to broad alluvial desert plains studded with cacti and creosote bushes, isolated canyons, dry arroyos, and stark desert mountains. Summer temperatures have been known to reach an unbelievably scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit but winter brings daytime temperatures in the 60s and chilly nights. About 95 percent of the monument has been designated Wilderness making this Arizona’s third largest Wilderness.

Organ Pipe camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No reliable water sources exist in Organ Pipe Cactus except at the 208-site campground near the visitor’s center. The camp is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Mountains Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 2019

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains Wilderness provides the backdrop to the Mesilla Valley and New Mexico’s second-largest city: Las Cruces. From picnickers to horsemen, family outings to day hikes, these mountains offer recreation, important wildlife habitat, and watershed protection. The striking granite crags and spires of the Organ Mountains range from 4,600 to just over 9,000 feet and are so named because of the steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ. The wilderness includes the Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Mountains Wilderness

Worth Pondering…

The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.

—Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring

Monument Hopping: El Malpais and El Morro

Trek back through time

Hiking El Malpais and El Morro national monuments prompt a different view of the past.

If people had been there to see it—and there’s a chance Ancestral Acoma or Zuni people were—lava flowing across what’s now El Malpais National Monument might have looked a little like a dark ocean swelling with waves. 

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When an eruption began, magma poured and oozed from an erupting vent or fissures in the earth spreading across the ground into channels. Everything in its path would be knocked over, surrounded, buried, or ignited by the extremely hot temperature of lava. As the liquid fire continued to flow, it sometimes moved underneath and lifted a blackened crust.

As it reached the rim of sandstone mesas around the southeastern edge of El Malpais, lava rolled away from the rock walls, slipped into cracks, or filled in corners. Here, some of the continent’s newest rock now abuts the sandy floor of the ancient inland sea. 

Behind the park’s western visitor center, lava ran over Precambrian granite. So it’s 1.5-billion-year-old rock and on top of it is a 10,000-year-old rock.

Related: New Mexico’s Land of Fire & Ice: Hike through Volcanic Rock and Ice Caves at This National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service (NPS), El Malpais has the unusual distinction of having a twin park in El Morro National Monument to its west along State Route 53. Together they offer an action-packed adventure. 

I contemplated the geological forces as we drove west on State Route 53 crossing a landscape that has reshaped itself over thousands of years. Every time I stepped out of my car, I shifted back in time by thousands of years. At the eastern edge of the park, the newest flows are about 3,000 years old, give or take a millennium—just a blink of an eye in geologic time. Elsewhere, the lava was last liquid 150,000 to 170,000 years ago.  

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surviving in this region has long meant journeying around, not the shortest path to your destination but the one that passed by water sources which are how Spaniards began visiting what’s now El Morro National Monument. A drive of fewer than 30 minutes takes you from one park to the next. But for anyone on horseback, it would have taken at least a day. Back then, the road we now call State Route 53 which threads between heaps of lava rock and sandstone would have been a major trade route.

For thousands of years, people have found their way to a small pond fed by a reliable spring below a towering cliff. There, they rested, watered their horses, and camped under a diamond-specked sky. Quite a few labored to chisel their names into the sandstone wall.

Travelers knew to head to El Morro’s massive, cream-colored sandstone buttress for the pool of water at its base, the only reliable source in a region with no perpetual streams or rivers.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain and snowmelt still gather there, in a deep-green pool ringed by cattails that rattle in the breeze. Spaniards stopped here on their way to preach to the Zuni and Hopi or to colonize the region. Later, government survey teams and homesteaders spreading into the new U.S. territories in the Southwest did, too. They used knife blades or horseshoe nails to sign their names and record their destinations and purposes, even a poem, on the soft surface of the 200-foot-tall monolith of Inscription Rock. Those markings layer alongside much older petroglyphs and pictographs.

Related: A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

A short, steep hike leads to the mesa-top home of an Ancestral Zuni village perched on sandstone. The trail loops past a few rooms and kivas after dipping and twisting over sandstone bleached as white as the clouds above. 

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today that wall at El Morro National Monument serves as a guest book of history. Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate “passed by here” in 1598; hundreds of others did so as well, before and after. Inscription Rock is just one reason to put El Morro on your must-see list.

A superintendent in the 1920s scrubbed out signatures added after 1906 when El Morro became a national monument assessing them as illegal graffiti and leaving bald patches on the surface. No record remains of who made the arduous drive to see the area’s second national monument or who visited around 1918, during a major war and another pandemic. Now, as water works through and over the sandstone, the etchings’ lines soften, lichen obscures some, and rockfall has taken down others. It’s hard to hold history in place.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission is free—to the visitor center, the half-mile paved Inscription Trail, and even the campground. If you’re up for a little challenge tack on another mile or so and clamber up the Headland Trail. On the mesa top, you can explore the ruins of Atsinna Pueblo and snag some snaps of the nearby Zuni Mountains and remnants of ancient volcanoes.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in these faded bluffs, in the creases of lava flows, I start to see landscape-scale reminders that history is also happening now. We don’t live at the end of the timeline, a terminus point from which history is a fixed and distant object we look back on. Rather, it’s something that is in constant flux, written moment by moment. 

Related: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor centers for El Malpais (off I-40 at exit 85) and El Morro (between mile markers 44 and 45 on State Route 53) provide restrooms, maps, and rangers’ advice.

Travel on an ancient pathway by hiking the eight-mile Acoma-Zuni or Zuni-Acoma Trail (depending on your direction of travel). Trailheads are on SR-117 and SR-53 so set up a car shuttle.

A three-mile loop hike at El Calderon off SR-53 skirts cave entrances and climbs a cinder cone. Wildflowers may be abundant.

At El Morro, a trail passes along the base of Inscription Rock then switchbacks 200 feet up the mesa passing through an ancient pueblo before looping back to the visitor center in just over two miles.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camp at El Morro is one of nine sites spread among the junipers, each with a fire pit, a picnic table, and a view of stars thick overhead in this official International Dark Sky Park. Open on a first-come, first-served basis with water available seasonally.

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Click through for a look at national parks you can enter for free—everyday

Why wait for a National Park Fee Free Day when you can visit these 10 natural beauties for free all year round? The U. S. is filled with free parks just waiting to be explored. Finding a list can be tough so we pulled together a few of our favorites to get you and your family out the door exploring America’s best idea.

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

Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons.

Montezuma Well National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Montezuma Well National Monument

Visit the spot where life began, according to Yavapai legend, at Montezuma Well National Monument. Although access to the nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument costs $10, the Montezuma Well is free to access. There, you’ll see Native American ruins alongside the well and follow a nature trail as it winds below trees beside Beaver Creek—all part of what makes it one of Arizona’s hidden gems.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado and Utah: Hovenweep National Monument

Discover six prehistoric villages that once housed more than 2,500 people between A.D. 500 and 1300, and you can still see multistory towers clinging to the edge of rocky cliffs. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, making it one of the best places to go stargazing.

Boston National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Massachusetts: Boston National Historic Park

There are no fees at the federally or municipally owned historic sites within Boston National Historical Park. This includes Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Bunker Hill Museum, USS Constitution, and Dorchester Heights Monument.

New Mexico: Aztec Ruins National Monument

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Morro National Monument

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. The natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New York: Saratoga National Historic Park

Here in the autumn of 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender. This crucial American victory renewed patriots’ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world.

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other: a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles protecting a diversity of plants and animals.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

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

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

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

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

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

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

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

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

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

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

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

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

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

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

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

A “Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

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

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

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

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

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

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

Built atop a small 120-foot ridge is a large pueblo. With 77 ground-floor rooms, this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third-story structures, and housed 250 people. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

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

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

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

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

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

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch