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.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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.

6 Unique Rock Formations

These amazing rock formations remind us that nature is still the best artist of the universe

Geology may sound boring on the surface but when you gaze your eyes on these incredible rock formations, you will find them anything but dull. Passionate rock lovers from around the world plan vacations to see some of the country’s strangest landscapes.

Many of the most spectacular formations are in the West where the mountains and canyons are younger and haven’t been softened by erosion and age. These craggy profiles and volcanic monoliths have intrigued humans for millennia.

Rock on with these six unusual rock formations below from Arches National Park to the Texas Hill Country.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah

Providing a dramatic craggy backdrop for many a cinematic Western movie, Monument Valley runs along the border of Utah and Arizona within the 26,000-square miles of the Navajo Tribal Park. U.S. Highway 163 scenic byway barrels through red rock buttes and spires.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The names of the formations offer lots of Wild West flavor: Grey Whiskers, the Totem Pole, the Sentinel, and the matching Left and Right Mitten Buttes which the Navajo believe represent the hands of the Creator. Director John Ford shot seven westerns here most starring John Wayne including The Searchers (1956) with the landscape playing a featured role. There’s even has a spot in the valley named after him: John Ford’s Point.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rocks of Sedona

You’ll find spectacular red rock buttes like those surrounding Sedona scattered throughout the Southwest but these particular rocks have something that sets them apart: mystical vortexes. Even if you’re not an adherent of the New Age movement, plan on visiting at least one of Sedona’s famous vortexes. They’re at some of the most gorgeous spots around town.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vortexes are thought to be swirling centers of energy that are conducive to spiritual healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Believers identify four primary vortexes: Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Airport Mesa.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro in 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.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.”

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock in Texas

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to 40-story building.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One billion years ago, this granite was part of a large pool of magma or hot liquid rock, perhaps seven miles below the earth’s surface. It pushed up into the rock above in places, then cooled and hardened very slowly turning into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away. Those pushed-up areas are the domes you see in the park. The domes are a small and visible part of a huge underground area of granite, called a batholith. The Enchanted Rock Batholith stretches 62 square miles; most of it is underground.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, Utah

These knobby, colorful columns of red rock are just as weird as their name: hoodoos. The word hoodoo means to bewitch which is what Bryce Canyon’s rock formations surely do.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hoodoos we are talking about are tall skinny shafts of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins. Hoodoos are most commonly found in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. While hoodoos are scattered throughout these areas, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park. At Bryce Canyon, hoodoos range in size from that of a human, to heights exceeding a 10-story building.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch of Arches National Park

The largest arch on the planet, Landscape is rightfully famous. It is amazingly thin, delicate-looking, and photogenic. Landscape is an awesome sight; the amazing width of the stone arch, held in place by such a delicate, slender center. Only a few years ago, a short spur trail passed directly underneath the arch. Because of recent rock falls from the underside of the arch, visitors are no longer allowed to travel underneath the fragile-looking rock span.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch is located near the end of the Devils Garden Trail. There is more to see within the Devils Garden then just the impressive Landscape Arch. Private Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, Double O Arch, and the Dark Angel pinnacle are all within this rocky playground.

Worth Pondering…

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.

—Neil Armstrong

Place of the Great Rock: El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument is a fascinating mixture of both human and natural history

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.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.” From its summit, rain and melted snow drain into a natural basin at the foot of the cliff, creating a constant and dependable supply of water. The pool also attracts birds, coyotes, deer, and other wild creatures.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A pre-Columbian route from Acoma and the Rio Grande valley to the Zuni pueblos led directly past El Morro, probably marking it as a favored camping site for prehistoric travelers.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning in the late 1500s Spanish, and later, Americans passed by El Morro. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved their signatures, dates, and messages. Before the Spanish, petroglyphs were inscribed by Ancestral Puebloans living on top of the bluff over 700 years ago.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The softness of the light-colored sandstone made it easy to carve pictures, names, dates, and messages. Ironically, that is also the reason that the famous inscriptions are slowly disappearing.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smaller national monuments, hidden away in forested, high elevation (7,219 feet), little-traveled land towards the northwest of the state. Some of the surroundings are volcanic, including nearby El Malpais National Monument on the far side of the continental divide, and other parts are featureless grassy plains.

El Moro 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.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not the first Spaniard to see the mesa, Diego Pérez de Luxan, chronicler of an exploring expedition led by Antonio de Espejo, recorded in his journal that the party had camped in March 1583 at a location he called El Estanque de Peñol (The Place at the Great Rock). However, no record of the expedition’s passing has been found on the mesa.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Spanish reigned in New Mexico for nearly 200 years. After being driven out by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, they took back control twelve years later and ruled for generations.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General de Vargas recorded his victory in this way: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The final inscription in Spanish was dated 1774. The Spanish lost control of their North American territories to the Mexicans who in turn lost them to the United States during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. At the close of the Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico became a U.S. territory, and the arrival of the Americans opened a new chapter in El Moro’s long history.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, Lt. James Simpson, an Army topographical engineer, and Richard Kern, an artist, were the first Americans to carve their names on El Morro. More significantly, however, Kern sketched many of the inscriptions and brought them to national attention.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Simpson and Kern, many American wagon trains carrying emigrants to California passed and, as the Anasaziand Spaniards did before them, they left a record of their presence.

The main thing to see is Inscription Loop Trail, a half mile walk past numerous Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as pre–historic petroglyphs.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before venturing out be sure to view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist you in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions.

You can continue your walk up to the top of the mesa for some great views and to see the partially-excavated ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although all can be seen in just a couple of hours, El Morro is an unusual and evocative place, well worth a detour to visit.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

5 Lesser-Known National Park Wonders

These little-known spots wait beyond more famous attractions

National parks comprise an inventory of beauty, wilderness, history, culture, wildlife, landmarks, and memorials extending from the Arctic to the tropics.

The 418-unit-strong system includes the famous “named” national parks as well as national seashores and battlefields, lakeshores and memorials, monuments and recreation areas. It’s a vast collection that contains sites you’ve probably never heard of. And even within those well-known units are unusual phenomena that are, well, phenomenal. Here’s a brief look at some lesser-known park wonders.

Historic graffiti

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The National Park Service doesn’t normally glorify graffiti, but when the taggings date from 1605, they merit attention. In New Mexico, a hunk of sandstone known as El Morro National Monument rises above a permanent pool of water in the sere high desert west of Grants. The monolith has long served as a landmark signifying the presence of reliable water, and over the centuries travelers have welcomed its hulking sight.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Spanish conquerors, U.S. Army soldiers, and Union Pacific Railway surveyors all paused to dip a canteen here—and to etch into the sandstone a permanent record of their sojourn. More than 2,000 signatures and aphorisms are carved into the rock, some flamboyant, others as terse as gravestone inscriptions.

Volcanic wonderland

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The land is positively alive at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Home to all four types of volcanoes—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—this fascinating park in California’s wild northeast corner literally bubbles, steams, and roars. Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features show that the earth is not quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. Plus, there are miles of lush forests and sparkling lakes to explore too.

Pick your fun

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A fun and overlooked feature of Capitol Reef National Park is that it contains orchards where, during the appropriate season, you can harvest fruit. Late in the 19th century, Mormon families sought refuge in the shadow of southern Utah’s Capitol Reef, so named because settlers thought one of its daunting reef-like cliffs, capped by eroded sandstone, resembled the U.S. Capitol.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For 50 years they tended livestock and planted groves of peaches, pears, apricots, cherries and apples in their small, aptly named community of Fruita. The Mormons left, and all that remains of their settlement is a one-room schoolhouse and the orchards. Today, visitors to Capitol Reef can pick the fruit from these same trees.

Where buffalo roam

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife. Bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, wild horses, and bighorn sheep inhabit the park, as do numerous smaller mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area.

Swamp things

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you don’t like spiders and snakes, you ain’t got what it takes to love swamp canoeing in Congaree National Park in South Carolina, home to no fewer than 31 species of spiders and 25 species of snakes, four of them poisonous—and many of them more aquatic than you are. Watch for brown water snakes and venomous cottonmouths up to 48 inches long. Swimming in Congaree is not highly recommended.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983