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

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

The floor is literally lava—and it gets fewer than 150,000 visitors a year

Your dreams of a Canadian Rockies road trip this summer just went poof! On Friday, Canada extended restrictions on nonessential travel across the US border until July 22. Those restrictions have been in place since March 2020 when countries across the globe shut down international travel to curb the spread of COVID.

Many are, in a word, frustrated

The US and Canada’s economies are more intertwined than CatDog (animated TV series that follows the life of a conjoined cat and dog). And while goods can be shuttled between the two countries, the tourism and services industries on both sides of the border are feeling the pinch. Lawmakers and businesses in both the US and Canada have lashed out at the Canadian government for what they say is putting politics over science.

“The complete lockdown we’ve experienced is not consistent with science and it’s very, very bad for our economy,” said US Rep. Chris Jacobs of New York.

“We need to open the border for fully vaccinated travelers immediately,” Harley Finkelstein, the president of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify, tweeted.

About those vaccinations…to keep the virus at bay, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the border would stay mostly closed until 75 percent of the population has received the first dose and 20 percent have been fully vaccinated. As of yesterday, 65 percent had received the first dose and nearly 17 percent had been fully vaxxed, per the COVID-19 Tracker Canada project.

Big picture: Canadian and American businesses that rely on cross-border traffic are getting FOMO (Fear of missing out) as other countries open up to international travelers. Yesterday, the European Council recommended that EU countries gradually lift restrictions on non-essential travel from 14 countries including the US.

Canadian Snowbirds: This decision muddies the water for travel to Sunbelt states this winter. Will these restrictions be lifted in time or is it another winter hibernating in the Great White North?



And now onto the “Land of Fire & Ice”…

Contrary to popular belief, Iceland isn’t the only “Land of Fire and Ice” (and the other one isn’t in the Game of Thrones universe, either). In this case, we’re looking at the very real American Southwest state of New Mexico

West of Albuquerque, a barren volcanic landscape dominates the shrubby desert terrain so desolate and raw it was once considered a possible detonation site for the atomic bomb. This is El Malpaís—literally, “the badlands.”

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not quite 4,000 years ago, one of the largest basalt lava flows on record inundated New Mexico. Today, the aptly named El Malpaís National Monument and the adjoining El Malpaís National Conservation Area comprise nearly 400,000 acres of basalt fields, lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones, and steam-explosion craters. Where the lava didn’t touch, you’ll find sandstone arches, cliffs, canyons, and some of the oldest Douglas firs in the Southwest.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scene is reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. In fact, what you’ll see here is sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian-style volcanism,” and you’ll hear Hawaiian terms thrown around—for example, pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy), a word for ropey, slow-cooling lava, the same dark stuff you’ll see beneath your feet.

For centuries people have lived around and sometimes in the lava country. Ancient Indigenous peoples crossed the lava flows with trail cairns and related to the landscape with stories and ceremonies. Spanish empire builders detoured around it and gave it the name used today. Homesteaders settled along its edges and tried to make the desert bloom. The stories of all these people are preserved in the trail cairns, petroglyphs, wall remnants, and other fragments that remain in the backcountry.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The “Land of Fire” moniker should be obvious by now, but what about the ice? Wander inside a lava tube and you’ll quickly understand: the tubes trap cold air, forming underground ice caves. The ice has been forming for thousands of years and can be many feet thick. Despite being in the high desert the caves rarely rise above freezing. 

But it’s the caves’ human history that might be the most fascinating. These caves have been used as a shelter, storage, and for other uses by people in modern times on back to Indigenous cultures. Soot stains in the caves point to Ancestral Puebloans melting ice during periods of drought.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to do in El Malpaís 

Hitting the trails is the big thing to do in El Malpaís. Both Big Tubes and El Calderon have great trails but the Narrows Rim Trail in El Malpaís National Conservation Area is can’t-miss: The 4.5-mile trek follows the edge of the most recent lava flow where the streams of blazing-hot magma met 500-foot sandstone cliffs. This is an amazing trail with incredible views. It is rough and there’s not a lot of shade so make sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and maybe a snack. Also, check the weather before you go.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), not far from Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, also winds through here. The trailheads along CR 42 provide access to the 3,100 miles long CDT that follows the continental divide from Mexico to Canada. This section of the trail winds among the Chain of Craters and passes through piñon, juniper, ponderosa pine, and a variety of shrubs and grasses. Pack in plenty of water as there are no reliable sources of water in the area. Keep an eye on the weather, County Road 42 is a dirt road and is impassable when wet.

La Ventana Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also want to explore the iconic La Ventana Natural Arch, New Mexico’s second tallest arch. This is a world-class arch! It faces southwest so the lighting can be even more spectacular before sunrise and afternoon in the fall, winter, and spring.

Curious how the arch formed? Thinking freeze-thaw? You’re getting warm. It’s from the daily temperature swings of over 50 degrees on the rock’s surface throughout the year. The sandstone expands in the day and cracks apart from the still cool rock hidden behind. The rock at the base and in the center was under the greatest load stress and cracked then failed first. Over time this created an arc that grew from the base as more rock failed and collapsed.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a real experience, in contrast, visit the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano, “The Land of Fire and Ice,” right on the Continental Divide. Walkthrough the twisted old-growth juniper, fir, and Ponderosa pine trees over the ancient lava trails down into the cave and into a dormant volcano. The Ice Cave, an underground “icebox” is found within a twisting lava tube system formed by the Bandera’s ancient explosion. Take a walk around the 20,000-year-old dormant Bandera Volcano and view one of the best examples of a volcanic eruption in the country.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to prepare for a visit to El Malpaís

Before you head into El Malpaís be sure to grab a bike helmet, gloves, knee pads, and a headlamp if you’re looking to go underground. You can nab a permit from either El Malpaís Visitor Center or El Morro Visitor Center and go caving on your own. (Note: The caves are currently closed to the public due to COVID; check the monument’s website for updates.)

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But before you ramble off into the volcanic fields and lava tubes, know what you’re in for. Many visitors arrive ill-prepared. They look at a topo map and don’t see much elevation change on the lava fields. Those hard, uneven surfaces can be strenuous to hike on. Sturdy, well-cushioned hiking boots can be more important than ever on lava.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring lots of drinking water. Remember that El Malpaís is in a high desert and natural water sources are scarce. Hikers should plan ahead and carry the water they need especially when hiking through open land.

Worth Pondering…

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the world gave way to the new.

—D.H. Lawrence

Spotlight on New Mexico: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

New Mexico is a truly unique place with gorgeous landscapes ranging from white sand deserts to snow topped mountains

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

There isn’t a single amazing thing about New Mexico. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is one of the top destinations in the American Southwest. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax.

As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Main Street Downtown Las Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces

Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, offers museums, theaters, historical sites, wonderful food, golf courses, bird watching, hiking, and gracious hospitality. Located in southern New Mexico less than an hour from the Texas border, Las Cruces enjoys warm weather and 320 days of sunshine per year. Las Cruces offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities such as golfing, biking, hiking, and tennis, as well as a diverse assortment of museums, shopping, and festivals.  The weekly Farmers & Crafts Market has been rated one of the best outdoor markets in the U.S. Held every Saturday and Wednesday mornings on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, the market has over 300 vendors who gather to offer fresh local produce, honey, herbs, spices, arts and crafts and much more.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

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.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla

Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserve the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is a beautiful refuge 1.5 miles from historic Mesilla. Over 900 acres of land including Rio Grande wetlands and part of the Chihuahuan Desert with an education building for nature study. Visitors have opportunity to view wildlife in natural surroundings while strolling one of the self-guided nature trails. Mesilla Valley Bosque is an Audubon designated IBA (Important Birding Area).

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. 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

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system.  Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented on the Refuge.

Along the Camino Real © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Camino Real

In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through the remote and unfamiliar country now known as New Mexico. The route Onate followed became El Camino Real, “the royal road.” 

The byway begins just north of Las Cruces, in Fort Selden, built in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on El Camino Real and continues to cross 90 miles of flat but waterless and dangerous desert, the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man”) before reaching Socorro. The road then heads north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe reaching its end at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate’s journey. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

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

Elephant Butte Lake State Park

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

Roswell UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roswell

Roswell is a great trip if you want that out-of-this-world vacation without the hassle of kitting out your RV for spaceflight every time you want to leave the Milky Way Galaxy. This desert town promises a unique getaway unlike any other—on this planet, at least. The city had been around since the mid-19th century, but it only got its claim to fame in 1947 when a UFO allegedly crash-landed nearby in what became known as the “Roswell Incident.” While the truth is still out there the town has embraced its notoriety with enthusiasm from the one-of-a-kind UFO-centric McDonald’s to alien-themed playgrounds and buses. And if you’re not into exploring the outer limits, you’re still in luck here. The town also boasts a thriving arts scene, beautiful nature areas, and deep ties to the history of the Wild West. 

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

From ancient natural wonders to Native American and Southwestern culture, to scenic vistas and alien lore, New Mexico is one of the most wonderfully unique destinations in America

Road trips have the unique ability to make you feel like you’ve thoroughly explored a region on a Lewis and Clark-esque journey. In reality, even the most extensive road trips leave many stones unturned especially in states with seemingly limitless natural beauty. New Mexico would probably take months on the road to fully explore. That’s okay. You don’t have to see every inch of New Mexico on one tank of fuel but the state’s famous national monuments are a good place to start.

Albuquerque from Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, only California and Arizona have more national monuments and that’s not even counting New Mexico’s historic parks. Rather than visit all 11 national monuments we’ve listed our favorites among them which will give you a feel for what makes this state’s geography so unique and memorable. Whether it’s a volcanic field or a white-sand desert, New Mexico’s unusual landscapes are just waiting to be visited. Here’s how to plan the perfect New Mexico road trip through its epic national monuments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Albuquerque to rock carvings

Road trips might be about the journey rather than the destination but no one wants to wait too long before stopping at their first viewpoint or reaching the first stop on their itinerary. When you set out from Albuquerque you’ll only have to wait mere minutes before seeing your first national monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically located within the city limits of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque’s West Mesa. Petroglyphs are rock carvings where drawings are made by chiseling on the outer layer of the stone to expose the paler rock underneath. One of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, this area features designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks 400 to 700 years ago by Native Americans and Spanish settlers. The symbols give you a window into the life of a centuries-old civilization and serve as a record of cultural expression.

There are also four different hiking trails just a short drive from the information center ranging in length from one to four miles roundtrip. Three of these trails allow for petroglyph viewing. To see the area is less time and then continue on your journey, consider mountain biking. Bikes are permitted on the Boca Negra Canyon multi-use path.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head to the headlands

About two hours west of Duke City, El Morro begs the traveler—ancient and modern—to rest awhile. This national monument is an area both of scenic beauty and historic significance. The bluff (el morro means “the headland” in Spanish) has a reliable source of water making it a great base for ancestral Puebloans and a good stopping point for both Spanish and American travelers. Along the path, only a half mile long and perfect for the casual visitor, are ancient petroglyphs as well as inscriptions from Spanish conquistadors as early as 1605 and, more recently, American travelers passing through in the 1850s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico’s volcanic landscape

From El Morro, your route continues back toward Albuquerque and it’s worth the detour to head to El Malpais National Monument. The rough lava landscape so scarred by its volcanic history that “malpaís” in fact means “badland.” Like El Morro, the landscape is quite barren though there is evidence of prior volcanic activity including several lava tubes you can explore.  Even though these badlands cover a large area you can see much of it by following the main park road. Numerous hikes and longer treks are available. Malpais is certainly worth a visit.

White Sands National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South to the white desert

Since you’re half way to the border of Arizona at this point, it’s time to turn around and head south. But we’re not stopping at Albuquerque. We’re passing your starting point by about four hours (250 miles) to White Sands National Park taking Interstate 25 south to Las Cruces and US-70 northeast.

At the end of 2019, White Sands was designated a national park—but it was a national monument for 86 years. It’s on the itinerary because you haven’t really seen the New Mexico desert until you’ve seen White Sands, a remarkable place that looks like the Sahara Desert collided with the Alabama Gulf Coast. That’s because its sand is made of gypsum, a mineral salt left by a long-lost lake tens of millions of years ago.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the southern edge of a 275-square-mile dune field in the Tularosa Basin, the monument is best explored by the eight-mile Dunes Drive from the visitor center into the heart of the rippled gypsum knolls. In addition to driving the alien terrain you can also get out and cycle, take advantage of picnic areas, or even camp under the stars. Indeed, backcountry camping sites among the dunes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

There are five hiking trails through the park ranging from the half-mile Playa Trail focusing on outdoor educational exhibits to the more strenuous Alkali Flat Trail, a five-mile round trip hike taking you to the edge of Lake Otero. Despite its name, the trail is not flat taking you over steep dunes and into the heart of the spectacular park.

Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From delicate dunes to craggy peaks

To cap off your New Mexico road trip, travel south to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. A stark departure from the flat, arid landscape that has defined much of this road trip, this area is home to dramatic ranges with rocky spires and the park is full of open woodlands with towering ponderosa pines.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument includes the Organ Mountains, Doña Ana Mountains, Sierra de las Uvas Mountains Complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. The Organ Mountains are defined by their angular peaks, narrow canyons, and views of the Chihuahuan Desert habitat. It’s popular among horseback riders, mountain bikers, campers, and hikers. The Doña Ana Mountains have an abundance of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails as well as rock climbing routes. The more remote Potrillo Mountains comprise a volcanic landscape including lava flows and craters.

Before driving back to Albuquerque, consider spending an evening in Las Cruces to explore Historic Mesilla and savor the area’s Hatch Valley chile peppers in one of its tempting green chile burgers—or even in a sweet frozen custard.

La Posta in Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Discover Art, Bats & Aliens Everywhere

An amazing trippy desert wonderland

You could visit New Mexico for the beauty of nature alone and leave perfectly happy. The Southwest state is full of national parks and monuments that show off volcanic rock formations, cave dwellings, and stark white sand dunes that could’ve been imported straight from the Sahara, if not another planet entirely. Throughout it all, Native American culture, historic architecture, and an Old West independent spirit are woven into the cultural fabric. And at this confluence of traditions, history, and geology, you’ll find a place unlike anywhere else on the continent. 

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve also got Breaking Bad filming locations, nuclear test sites, and probably at least a few aliens. You’ll find world-class museums and some of the best regional cuisine in America and ancient settlements still thriving after centuries. The Land of Enchantment is all but demanding to be your next big road-trip destination. In the meantime, here’s what you’re missing. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheatre at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

La Fonda on the Plaza, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe 

Most of the action in Santa Fe is in the walkable, easy-to-navigate Historic District where adobe architecture complements a legacy of Spanish Colonial history and Native American heritage. Santa Fe is a food lover’s paradise. The cuisine is as unique as the city itself. Spanish colonizers brought chile with them when they founded Santa Fe in 1610 and it has shaped the state’s cuisine for more than 400 years. Santa Fe’s culinary world allows diners to experience a true cultural exploration with every bite. Savor a taste of the Southwest with delectable dining experiences at La Fonda on the Plaza or El Farol. Every bartender in town is trying to outdo each other with their Margaritas, but Santa Fe cements its legacy as one of the best cities in the country for art whether browsing the shops near the Plaza town square or the galleries on Canyon Road. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Stretching 275 square miles, the dunes here aren’t composed of your typical beach sand but rather from gypsum crystals left behind from a nearby dried-out lake bed. The result looks more like a white-sand version of the Sahara than New Mexico. You half expect to see camels waltzing by. The dunes are a jarring sight so far inland and best experienced by hiking or zipping down the sand in one of the plastic saucers sold at the visitor center. The White Sands Missile Range (north of the national park) has its place in history as the site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais

El Morro and El Malpais national monuments stand in western New Mexico fewer than 50 miles apart. They preserve rugged, demanding landscapes that have attracted travelers from ancestral Puebloans to early 20th century homesteaders. El Morro means “The Headland,” a landmark above the desert that guided travelers to a towering cliff and natural water reservoir. Many carved petroglyphs, names, and dates into the soft sandstone to show who came before. El Malpais is Spanish for “The Badlands.” There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook.

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Albuquerque

New Mexico isn’t always about the beauty of nature. Albuquerque has all the traffic, grit, and congestion of any big city—although it’s not without its share of Southwestern charm. Walk the cobblestone streets of Old Town where the city was founded in 1706 or visit during the week-long Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon festival in the world which usually takes place every autumn. An even more rewarding mode of transportation is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway which carries guests nearly three miles to an observation deck more than 10,000 feet high in the Cibola National Forest with sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley east of the city. 

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla 

Just outside Las Cruces, the tiny town of Mesilla is one of the most unexpected surprises in the entire state. Formerly part of Mexico and the focus of more than one border dispute, Mesilla is rich in culture and fosters an independent spirit while still celebrating its heritage. Visit during Cinco de Mayo weekend to really see the people come alive. Mesilla Plaza is the heart of the community with the twin steeples of Basilica of San Albino as the most identifiable landmark. The church is more than 160 years old but still welcomes the public for regular mass. The heritage is also represented in the shops and restaurants in the Mercado district. Eat dinner at the haunted Double Eagle or stick with traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posta.

UFO Museum, Roswell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roswell

So was it space aliens or a weather balloon that crashed outside Roswell back in 1947? We’ll probably never get a straight answer from the authorities but that doesn’t stop the fifth-largest city in New Mexico from embracing its UFO legacy. There’s the International UFO Museum and Research Center where kitsch counts just as much as scientific evidence and the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, a blacklight journey through vintage sci-fi imagery. There’s even a McDonalds on Main Street built in the shape of a flying saucer. But lest you think it’s all probes and spaceships, Roswell also has four art museums that have (almost) nothing to do with space creatures.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had. It certainly changed me forever….The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning sunshine high over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend….In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the world gave way to the new.

—D.H. Lawrence

The Amazing Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments

Finding beauty, solitude, and a connection with those who came before

Located in western New Mexico, El Morro and El Malpais national monuments are a mere 46 miles apart. They preserve rugged, demanding landscapes that have attracted travelers from ancestral Puebloans to early 20th century homesteaders.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A way-station of sorts, El Morro is a towering cliff was a reliable spring at its base that quenched the thirst of travelers. Many carved petroglyphs, names, and dates into the soft sandstone to show who came before. Despite the broken lava fields that cover the landscape, El Malpais saw settlement as early as 1300. Today visitors study the signatures at El Morro, or peer into the lava tubes that worm beneath El Malpais’ surface. But there’s also the backcountry of both that attract visitors who look for beauty, solitude, and perhaps a connection with those who came long before. I was one such traveler.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along I-40 midway between Gallup and Albuquerque, I turned south off the interstate. I am visiting two impressive national monuments: El Malpais and El Morro. While they are a short distance apart, each monument is unique and meaningful especially when experienced on one trip.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “The Badlands.” There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe, and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is much to see. I found expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves some filled with ice even in summer as well as soft-looking sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many points of interest are accessible from New Mexico Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point. I look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are common on lava landscapes where creating a traditional trail or footpath is not possible due to the extreme nature of the terrain. Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. Making sure I have the next cairn in sight before leaving the one I’m at.

The uneven nature of the terrain demands that I keep my eyes on the land while walking and pay more attention since the surface is not even. Hiking poles are not useful here needing both arms for balance as I climb up and down over the sharp lava tubes as I locate the rock cairns that mark the way. To enjoy the views, I stop, get a secure footing, and then look around to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes. This trail is sobering, the warm November sun, deep sinkholes, and steep drop-offs forcing me to constantly reckon with what matters, namely, my preparation to meet the challenges I encounter. The hike into the lava fields and back takes time. Arriving back on sandy terrain at last, I appreciate the softness underfoot.

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I stop to explore La Ventana Natural Arch, “The Window.” Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder. Standing at the base of this awe-inspiring 120-foot natural stone arch, I look up through it into the heart of the mountain.

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing down the highway, I drive through The Narrows where lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find. At the Lava Falls Area, I explored the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marveled at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava. It is quiet here.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ancestral Puebloans who lived here, at a place now known as the Dittert Site must have relied heavily on the seasonal pools, before the local climate changed and water became increasingly scarce. Areas of El Malpais have been accessed by the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and Ramah Navajo people for thousands of years once building pueblos here as well as continuing to practice cultural traditions today.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My travels through El Malpais now lead me to El Morro as for so many travelers over hundreds and thousands of years. El Morro means “The Headland,” a massive sandstone bluff rising 200 feet above the desert floor guiding me to water. Hills rise to form a cuesta, a geologic feature with banded sandstone bluffs and cliffs forming a natural water reservoir at the center. The top of the formation acts as a self-contained watershed, bringing snowmelt and the runoff of desert rainstorms down walls funneling this life giving resource to the small, clear pool (See photo above), a reliable year-long source of drinking water.

Inspiration Walk, El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before venturing out I view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions. I walk the Mesa Top Trail, a loop that starts from the pool, travels alongside Inscription Rock, and climbs up through gamble oak and juniper across the top of the rocks themselves to the ruins of Atsinna, meaning “place of writings on the rock.”

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Puebloan ancestors of the Zuni settled this place, undoubtedly for this water source in the badlands. They left petroglyphs of lizards and birds, bighorn sheep and bear on Inscription Rock. Later in time, more names were carved into this stone: Spanish conquistadors and Catholic Church bishops, U.S. Cavalry captains and Army expedition leaders, ordinary soldiers and scouts, and homesteaders heading west.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest Spanish carving found on El Morro reads, Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605. Translated, the inscription proclaims: “Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”

We follow the backroads of history and trails across the badlands remembering those who came through the wilderness before. The words and ideas and landmarks they left for us, show us the way to find what we seek. And what we need. These trails are well-marked at El Malpais and El Morro, to help us make our way safely.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

America’s way-overlooked natural treasures

If national wildlife refuges are the scrappy kid brothers to their pride-of-the-family national park siblings, America’s national monuments are the forgotten Tom girls of the family. Sure, Canyon de Chelly is a national monument. But go ahead: name another. Mount Rushmore is close, but is actually a national memorial. As is Glen Canyon, a national recreation area.

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

The confusingly named destinations—most are actually huge swaths of natural beauty, not statues waiting to be toppled—vastly outnumber the national parks: There are 128 total across 31 states. And with national park-quality beauty paired with a fraction of national park visitation, now is the time to get to know some of these lesser-visited family members you’ve been neglecting. These are just a few of our favorites. 

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Also, get the latest information about your destination before proceeding.

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

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observatory 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. But don’t worry: those seeking a more solitary experience will still find plenty of open room for social distancing within this 110,000-acre monument along 200 miles of trails.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Like Bryce, the best time to view Cedar Breaks’ stunning rock formations and hoodoos is at sunrise and sunset.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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. 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.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

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

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

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. The monument’s namesake, 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.

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

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Toward the east the Ajo Mountain loop drive is a beautiful 21-mile one-way desert tour that offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. 

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California

Rising from the sandy Coachella Valley desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet at the summit of Mt San Jacinto. Providing a picturesque backdrop to local communities, visitors can enjoy magnificent palm oases, snow-capped mountains, a national scenic trail, and wilderness areas.  Its extensive backcountry can be accessed via trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jacinto Mountain is home to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes visitors by cable car from the desert up 6,000 feet to alpine forests in 15 minutes.

The Palm Canyon Fault which runs along the base of San Jacinto Mountain is part of the San Andreas Fault System. The Indian Canyons, located at the base of San Jacinto Mountain and managed by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, boasts the largest system of native fan palm oases in the US.

Gold Butte National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Welcome to Nevada’s tribute to Mars, a crimson desert landscape where tremendous geometric rock oddities protrude from the sands, seemingly divorced from gravity and logic. Here, endangered tortoises roam the lands alongside bighorns and mountain lions whose domain is sandwiched between Grand Canyon-Parashant and Lake Mead. Ancient rock art can be spotted throughout the 300,000 acre wilds along with ancient rock shelters and ghost towns, showing how this climate has provided inhospitably but beautiful to civilizations both ancient and modern.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis

Rivers of Ancient Fires: El Malpais National Monument

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

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. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

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.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe, and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas.

El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area was established in 1987. Its 114,277 acres is managed in a joint effort between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). El Malpais hosts more than 100,000 visitors annually; visitation is highest in July and August and lowest in December and January.

There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many points of interest are accessible from New Mexico Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route, which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In El Malpais many trails are actually routes marked with cairns. Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are common on lava landscapes, where creating a traditional trail or footpath is not possible due to the extreme nature of the terrain.

Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. As you travel, make sure you have the next cairn in sight before leaving the one that you are at. Keep your eyes on the land while walking; the uneven nature of the terrain demands that you pay more attention since the surface is not even.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To enjoy the views, stop, get a secure footing, and then look around. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes. Sturdy hiking boots are advised as is ample drinking water.

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

East of the highway are some 62,000 acres of lush, pine-covered rimrock called the Cebola Wilderness. Exploration of this area of the park will reward visitors with prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing down the highway, you’ll drive through The Narrows; here lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here, and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find.

At the Lava Falls Area, you can explore the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marvel at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive to the Big Tubes Area, where you can explore two of the network of gigantic caves formed by the flowing lava: Big Skylight and Four Windows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape.

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

Worth Pondering…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

—Wallace Stegner

Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Celebrate the beauty and natural wonders of America’s National Park Service sites at these lesser-known locations

Among America’s 418 National Park Service (NPS) sites, some stand out as must-sees for most RV travelers: Blue Ridge Parkway, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Natchez Trace Parkway all come to mind as bucket-list sites.

And indeed, these and other parks welcome millions of visitors each year. Yet there are many other lesser-known parks equally worth your time—parks with extraordinary wildlife and unique natural features that mere thousands of visitors experience annually.

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

Cowpens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cowpens National Battlefield

2018 visitor count: 189,410

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.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

El Malpais National Monument

2018 visitor count: 154,368

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

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Coronado National Memorial

2018 visitor count: 103,218

In the Coronado National Forest bordering Mexico, Coronado National Memorial celebrates the achievements of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led the first recorded European expedition to America, in 1540. The attraction for most visitors is the rugged and scenic terrain, which is crossed by several hiking trails.

Tuzigoot National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tuzigoot National Monument

2018 visitor count: 98,090

Tuzigoot is a small national monument that preserves the remains of dwellings of the 12th century Sinagua Indians. Tuzigoot comprises a cluster of buildings, on top of a small sandstone ridge close to the Verde River valley.

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

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

2018 visitor count: 62,995

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites, including a four-story earthen structure. Interpretive walking tours and exhibits are available.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Cumberland Island National Seashore

2018 visitor count: 55.650

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, full of pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. Walk in the footsteps of early natives, explorers, and wealthy industrialists.

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

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

2018 visitor count: 260,375

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

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hovenweep National Monument

2018 visitor count: 40,574

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss. Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied.

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

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

2018 visitor count: 39,361

Founded in 1876 by John Lorenzo Hubbell, this is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation. This site in Ganado is part museum, part art gallery and still a functioning trading post, virtually unchanged since its early days.

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

—Jimmy Im