Searing heat that has settled over the Southwest has National Park Service officials urging visitors to prepare for the high heat and know their limitations
Summer inspires us all to go outside and explore the great outdoors. High temperatures and the risk of heat illness can happen in any national park environment whether it’s an urban, historical, mountainous, or desert park. Be prepared for high temperatures and the increased risk of heat-related illnesses while recreating.
There’s one thing that many Americans (and Canadians) can affirm right now: It’s freaking hot. In case you still had any doubts, the hottest place on Earth is as hot as it’s ever been—at least in terms of recorded temperatures in modern times. Death Valley National Park recorded a high temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius) on Friday (July 9, 2021) and 129.4 degrees on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. When dawn broke Sunday, the low temperature was a sweltering 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). By the late afternoon, the mercury has swelled to a blazing 128.6 degrees. The combination of the two produced the highest daily average temperature ever recorded on the Planet: 118 degrees.
Those temperatures come as Death Valley and other areas in the Western United States continue to be blanketed by scorching heat. The Friday temperature matches 130 degrees recorded in August 2020. While some weather watchers point to a 134-degree measurement in Death Valley on July 10, 1913, that record has been widely disputed—with many in the meteorological community are suspicious of that mark because of temperatures recorded that day in nearby areas. But, that is still hot, brutally hot, especially for the unprepared in the park.
“Expect high temperatures of 110 degrees to 120 degrees. Drink plenty of water and carry extra,” reads a warning on the park’s website. “Avoid hiking (after 10 a.m.). Travel prepared to survive. In the case of a heat related illness, get to a cool place and seek help as soon as possible.”
At Grand Canyon National Park, “an excessive heat warning” was in effect last weekend for the lower portions of the Grand Canyon with temperatures reaching 115 degrees. Elsewhere, an excessive heat warning was also posted for Zion National Park.
At Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to recreate responsibly if they came to the park during this summer’s “record high temperatures.”
“During this time of unprecedented high temperature visitors are asked to consider rescheduling visits to when weather conditions improve. Many visitors and staff have experienced heat illness as temperatures exceed 110 degrees during the day,” park staff reported. “You can recreate responsibly by packing plenty of water and salty snacks, visiting early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are less extreme, and by keeping your outdoor activities short in duration.”
Lake Mead has been under a severe heat wave since late June. High temperatures in the park are anticipated to be over 110 degrees for the next few days and over 105 degrees for the next several weeks, a park release said. Current forecasts show that lows are not expected to be below 80 degrees for the foreseeable future, it added.
Rangers have been very busy responding to multiple medical emergencies caused by the excessive heat. The call volume is extreme and unfortunately not every request for assistance can be granted, the park said, adding that, “visitors are cautioned to prepare for their visit assuming no ranger response.”
Heat related deaths and illnesses are preventable. Despite this, around 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Heat-related illnesses happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself. While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. In these cases, a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down. Heat illness can lead to serious complications and cause damage to the brain and other vital organs and can lead to death if not treated quickly. Heat strokes, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburns, and heat rash are all examples of heat-related illnesses.
Most heat illnesses happen from staying outdoors in the heat for too long. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of heat illness. Older adults, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at highest risk. However, even young and healthy people can be affected if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.
Check the weather before you head out. Sometimes the weather can make your activity unsafe. Remember that the mountain, trail, lake, or canyon that you are planning to hike, climb, or boat on will still be there another day when the conditions are better.
For practical tips on staying safe in the outdoors this summer, click here.
“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”
If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in July
According to a recent survey, 31 percent of U.S. leisure travelers—56 million people—are planning on taking an RV vacation this summer with 65 million planning an RV trip within the year. Unlike the summer of 2020, the pandemic is not the primary reason for the rise in RV camping. The survey shows that remote work, family travel, and exploring America are the top reasons for the continued popularity of RVing this summer.
If you’re looking for a destination worthy of your July vacation days consider places with generally good weather this month and several events booked on the calendar. These destinations come alive for your July RV travels.
Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in April, May, and June. Also, check out our recommendations from July 2019.
Grand Canyon North Rim
Make this the summer you visit the other side of the Big Ditch. The North Rim reopened on May 15 for its summer season. This isn’t your typical high country getaway. The North Rim is defined not just by elevation but by isolation. This is an alpine outback of sun-bathed forests of ponderosa pines, blue spruce, Douglas firs, and aspens interrupted by lush meadows and wildflowers.
If you’ve only visited the South Rim you may be surprised by the lack of crowds at the North Rim. A quiet serenity is normal on this side of the trench. It rises 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart and you’ll likely see more elk and deer than tour groups. There are no helicopter rides, no shuttle buses, and no bustling village. Of the millions of people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year less than 10 percent make it to the North Rim.
Even the journey is part of the adventure. State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the park entrance is a National Scenic Byway as it traverses a stunning mix of broad forests and lush meadows. During your visit enjoy hiking trails, scenic drives, and forested solitude.
South Dakota is one of America’s most beautiful states. It’s also one of its most misunderstood. But once you’re here, you’ll discover why all those Hogs keep coming back to Sturgis every summer. Take a drive along the Needles Highway through fascinating rock formations or drive literally any stretch of the Badlands to see scenery like nowhere else in the world. Custer State Park is one of the few places in America where a buffalo on the road can cause a traffic jam; the annual Buffalo Roundup (September 24, 2021) takes place here when thousands thunder through the park as rangers round them up for medical checks and counts. And not to be forgotten is Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
South Dakotas’s roadside attractions are also among the quirkiest in America. Take I-90 East from the Black Hills and you’ll pass ghost towns, a dinosaur sculpture park, the famous Wall Drug, and the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell. You’ll end up in Sioux Falls, one of those small cities that feel a hell of a lot bigger than it is and a great place to spend some time.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Since the city’s founding in 1610, the Santa Fe Plaza has been its cultural hub hosting bullfights and fandangos. Today, surrounded by historic buildings like the San Miguel Mission and the Palace of the Governors, the plaza continues to be the epicenter of Santa Fe affairs from live music to September’s Santa Fe Fiesta. For a little living culture, support the local commerce at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Santa Fe’s museums delve into art, history, and culture. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum contains the largest collection of her art in the world. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture tells of the achievements of the diverse Native peoples of the Southwest. Santa Fe is a shopper’s paradise, whether browsing or buying art, antiques, or collectibles. Galleries feature pottery, paintings, jewelry, and Native American creations. Canyon Road, the epicenter of Santa Fe’s artistic culture, is the first and last stop for many visitors.
July weather with temperatures in the mid-80s makes this month an ideal time to enjoy the outdoors. A variety of hiking trails include the Dale Ball Trails which cover nearly 25 miles in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Biking, fishing, boating, and golf are other ways to enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Opening in July, Bishop’s Lodge Auberge Resorts Collection features trout fishing, alfresco art classes, horse stables, and trail rides on its 317 secluded acres.
There are many reasons to include Lexington in your July travel plans. The second-largest city in Kentucky, Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” For starters, the folks at visitLEX.com have created country/bluegrass, hip-hop/R&B, and rock playlists for you to listen to as you explore the city and beyond.
If you’ve never toured a horse farm, this is the month to do it and Lexington is the place. Explore Horse Country by touring the homes of champions, seeing new foals frolic in their pastures, and learning about the care of Kentucky’s signature athletes. There are more than 400 horse farms in the area with over 25 offer tours (by reservation).
Or take the self-guided tour of Keeneland Racecourse’s historic grounds. A historic racecourse Keeneland is the world’s largest and most prominent Thoroughbred auction house. Morning Work tours and Backstretch tours are also available by reservation. Because of concerns surrounding COVID, Keeneland continues to limit the number of guests in each tour.
Trot over to the Kentucky Horse Park for an enjoyable, educational experience for horse fans of all ages and disciplines. Take in a show, wander the grounds to visit horses in the barns, and be sure to stop in at the International Museum of the Horse which catalogs the history of the Thoroughbred industry.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park, opened for summertime activities in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow.
Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park ranges in elevations from 5,300 feet to over 10,000 feet at the top of Lassen Peak. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams. In Lassen you’ll find not one but four different types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.
Heritage Driving Tour, Indiana
The 90-mile Heritage Trail Driving Tour winds through Amish Country taking you down rural highways, country lanes, and charming main streets. In Goshen, the Old Bag Factory is a turn-of-the-century factory turned shopper’s paradise. Stop in Shipshewana to stroll the shop-lined streets where you’ll find handcrafted items, baked goods, and the Midwest’s largest flea market. Treat yourself to a horse-drawn buggy ride or ride the restored 1906 carousel at the Davis Mercantile. Enjoy a delightful Amish meal at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury. The Village Shops include home accents in Dutch Country Gifts, Christmas ornaments in The Cabin, women’s and children’s fashions at The ClothesLine, and, of course, handmade coziness at The Quilt Shop.
Roam Free in Greater Zion
Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders but Utah Dixie offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail Creek, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.
These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect.
Located just 15 miles east of St. George, Sand Hollow State Park offers a wide-range of recreation opportunities. With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape it is one of the most popular parks because it has so much to offer. Boat and fish on Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain Recreation Area on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in the modern campground.
Just minutes away from Sand Hollow, Quail Creek State Park offers another reservoir for swimming but in a completely different landscape. The picturesque mountain background with rocky landscape and blue water gives this reservoir a breathtaking view. Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. This park has some of the warmest waters in the state and is a popular area for fishing as well.
The Caverns of Senora
Where the Texas Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Dessert sits thousands of acres of limestone-rich ranch country. Found below the boots and hooves of those who inhabit and work the land is an underground treasure, The Caverns of Sonora. Located 15 miles southwest of Sonora on I-10, the Caverns of Sonora marks the halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.
The Cavern is over seven and a half miles long but only two miles of trails are developed for tours. There are five levels of the cave that vary in depth from 20 feet to 180 feet below the surface. The Cavern is known for its stunning array of calcite crystal formations, extremely delicate formations, and the abundance and variety of formations. You’ll find helictites, soda straws stalactites, speleothems, stalagmites, and cave bacon. The cave is a constant 71 degrees with 98 percent humidity which makes it feel about 85 degrees.
Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
On Lake Winnipesaukee, Wolfeboro is fast becoming the best lake town in the Northeast. The drive to Wolfeboro is about two hours from Boston and five from New York City. The town center of Wolfeboro is actually positioned directly on Lake Winnipesaukee which offers an expansive 72 square miles of water. Your life in Wolfeboro will be filled with sunset swims at Brewster Beach, ice cream cones at Wolfeboro Dockside Grille & Dairy Bar, and ales and snacks at Lone Wolfe Brewing Company. Treat your family to a boat tour aboard the M/S Mount Washington which has offered cruises on the lake for nearly 150 years.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead National Recreation Area is big, it’s diverse, and it’s extreme. Temperatures can be harsh, from 120 degrees in the summer to well below freezing in winter on the high plateaus.
From the mouth of the Grand Canyon, the park follows the Arizona-Nevada border along what was formerly 140 miles of the Colorado River.
Lake Mead is impressive: 1.5 million acres, 110 miles in length when the lake is full, 550 miles of shoreline, around 500 feet at its greatest depth, 255 square miles of surface water, and when filled to capacity, 28 million acre-feet of water. Although much of Lake Mead can only be experienced by boat, a variety of campgrounds, marinas, lodges, and picnic areas around the lake make it possible for non-boaters to also enjoy the recreation area. Most activities are concentrated along the 20 miles of the southwest shore close to Las Vegas. Facilities include two large marinas at Boulder Beach and Las Vegas Bay plus campgrounds, beaches, picnic areas, and the main National Recreation Area visitor center.
“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”
Good morning. Sending Virtual Raspberry Chardonnay Sonic Slushies to my readers in the Southwest where things are getting punishingly hot.
40 million people will experience temps of 100 degrees F or more in the coming days.
The low in Phoenix Tuesday night was 91 degrees. The low! Was 91!
Salt Lake City tied its all-time record at 107.
And even Palm Springs issued an excessive heat warning with a temp of 117 degrees.
But hey, look on the bright side. You could be a Diamondback fan. Losing 20 consecutive road trip games! Which must be some kind of record?
Keep in mind, it’s almost impossible to say that one is better than the next—there’s truly something special about each one of the national parks.
Did I rank the parks according to their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. I ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.
When picking your next national park adventure, consider what you love to do, hope to see, and what’s most important to you. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back—every single national park is worth visiting!
Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets.
Visitors to Mesa Verde can retrace the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans who once lived in the park’s magnificent cliff dwellings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the U.S. with more than 4,500 found within its boundaries including Cliff Palace which contains 150 rooms.
Step back in time at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Steep canyon walls cradle hundreds of ancient pueblo ruins. A Navajo Indian community still inhabits the canyon floor herding sheep during the summer. Two self-guided drives follow the rims of the canyon. At the end of the South Rim Drive, take in the sights from the popular Spider Rock overlook featuring the park’s signature geological formation.
Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.
Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.
A park that will please history buffs as well as nature lovers, Gettysburg is famous for the major Civil War battle that took place on its grounds in 1863. History struck again when it became the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address later that year.
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.
Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.
Water and wind over millions of years have carved the plateau into the park’s distinctive red rock pillars, called hoodoos, into the park’s series of natural amphitheaters. Bryce Canyon National Park awes visitors with spectacular geological formations and brilliant colors.
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.
Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.
Many come to the southwest to visit the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Brilliant colors and unforgettable panoramas make it one of the most popular attractions in the U.S. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please
Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.
President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.
Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.
Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.
Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740 Percent of total national park visits: .24%
Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.
Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835 Percent of total national park visits: .27%
Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477 Percent of total national park visits: .42%
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.
Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483 Percent of total national park visits: .57%
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.
37. Big Bend National Park
Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907 Percent of total national park visits: .58%
Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.
Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383 Percent of total national park visits: .61%
The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.
Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914 Percent of total national park visits: .73%
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.
Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274 Percent of total national park visits: .80%
Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.
Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303 Percent of total national park visits: .81%
Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.
Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226 Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%
As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.
Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086 Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%
Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932 Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%
The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.
Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038 Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374 Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083 Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%
Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655 Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.
Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265 Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%
Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542 Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%
Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.
Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098 Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.
Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254 Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%
Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.
Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720 Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%
Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
The United States is currently home to 63 national parks and you genuinely won’t find a dud among them. But that doesn’t mean some parks aren’t better than others.
The 10 most popular parks might be the easiest to access, but if you’re still hedging your bets on where to take a road trip, we’ve ranked them from good to greatest.
For many living in big cities, the sad truth is that the only time they remember there are parts of America not covered in condos, big box stores, and fast-food outlets is when they’re Instagramming them from 36,000 feet. Which is also when many think to themselves, “Wow, I wish I could see all that beauty up close and without a plane wing in my way.”
Well, turns out, there is! It’s called the National Parks Service. And you can RV there and take in all that awesome beauty.
And as a reminder of the scope of America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty (and its 63-strong national parks created by the coolest dude ever from New York), we thought it’d be fun to take 10 of the most-visited parks in 2020 and rank them by their level of adventure and sheer, mind-blowing spectacle. Turns out, yes, it was fun.
If you ever wondered what your pet iguana feels like when he looks up at you, visit the second-oldest national park in America. Here, outside Visalia, California, not only can you look up at the biggest tree in the world (the 275-foot tall, 60-foot wide General Sherman) but also at five of the 10 largest trees in the world. They’re not easy to get to though: 84 percent of the park doesn’t have roads and is only accessible on foot or horseback.
You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during mild weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.
Along the densely populated mid-Atlantic, no national park makes a faster, prettier escape to nature than this one. The main attraction here is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and offers sweeping views of the valley and, in fall, an explosion of insane colors. It’s also home to a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail if you’re feeling extra ambitious.
Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.
Petrified Forest is known for its treasure trove of fossilized logs, exposed after eons of erosion by wind and water. About 60 million years ago, tectonic action pushed the Colorado Plateau upwards, exposing the layers of rock containing the park’s Triassic fossils. The park is composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood. The park consists of a 28-mile road that offers numerous overlooks and winds through the mesas and wilderness. Visitors can also choose to hike a variety of trails ranging from easy to difficult.
The only national park to get its very own U2 album named after it has exploded in popularity over the past decade, now the 10th most-visited park with 2.4 million visitors. They’re not coming in droves to see if the streets do, in fact, have no name. They’re coming because Joshua Tree boasts perhaps the best collection of rock-climbing faces in the US. The desert park also has 501 archeological sites, and is home to the lower Coachella Valley, making it a popular day trip for snowbirds and music festival goers.
The MOST VISITED PARK IN AMERICA spans four counties across two states and runs through part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Accessible from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, the park has more than 1,660 different kinds of flowering plants—the most of any national park. Its highest point is Clingman’s Dome, where a 50-foot observation deck allows visitors to soak in some spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding beauty. More than 12 million annual visitors make it nearly four times as busy as the second-place Yellowstone.
Give whoever named this park credit: they didn’t mince words. This 120-square-mile national treasure outside Moab is all about arches, 2,000 of them in fact. All formed from millions of years of sandstone erosion. The most famous is the Delicate Arch, a 65-footer that you might recognize from playing the license plate game back when—and yes, it’s on the Utah tag.
Ask anyone to name Utah’s five National Parks and odds are Capitol Reef is the one they forget among its arched-and-canyoned cousins. You should remember Capitol Reef for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth and a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the state. It’s also been designated as a “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association so camping here will yield some of the prettiest stars you’ve ever seen. At just under a million visitors last year, it offers much of the red rocks and striking geology of other Utah parks, without the crowds.
John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A universally recognizable iconic destination, Grand Canyon National Park is a true marvel of nature that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million year ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas.
Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks
From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.
Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.
Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.
This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.
While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.
Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.
If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.
The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.
From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.
One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.
At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon.
Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.
Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area. A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020
While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.
“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”
The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.
Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:
Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.
Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.
Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August
Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.
We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.
Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.
Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.
As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.
Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.
In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.
Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.
Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves
Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.
Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.
The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.
In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.
Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.
Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).
To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.
For RVers, the colder months provide opportunities to make the most of having a hotel on wheels. Make tracks in the snow to spots blanketed in white, follow fellow snowbirds to warmer shores, or simply enjoy the peace and quiet in places that are usually packed all summer long. Here are the best places to visit in your trailer, camper van, or motorhome during the winter. Be sure to check state travel advisories before you set out and please note that some sites may require advance booking.
The curving, dipping dunes of White Sands look snowier than your average ski resort and you can even sled down them. But, with daytime winter temperatures averaging 60 degrees it doesn’t feel that way until the sun dips down and it’s chilly enough for a campfire. There’s no RV camping in the park but there are several spots nearby from basic dry camping at Holloman Lake near the dunes to Alamogordo and Las Cruces where sites have full hook-ups and fenced-in patios.
What could possibly be more bizarrely beautiful than the teetering, towering hoodoo rock formations that rise like totems throughout Bryce Canyon National Park? Those same hoodoos speckled with bright white snow, that’s what. Misty mornings and pink skies make winter landscapes stunning. Several national park campsites with RV sites stay open and there are ranger-led snowshoe hikes too.
Prefer to give winter the cold shoulder? Make tracks for Yuma. The Sonoran Desert city can be unbearably hot in summer but its balmy winters are ideal. Yuma is the ideal city to visit for the winter season. Known as the Sunniest City on Earth, Yuma offers temperate winter weather, perfect for snowbirds to escape the snow and freezing temperatures up North. With sunny skies 91 percent of the year, Yuma is a premiere winter travel destination for those seeking a small town feel with big city amenities.
Temperatures can reach the high 60s here in winter which is much more pleasant than the often sweltering, throat-tightening summer heat. And the longer nights are a blessing in an area famed for its star-scattered dark skies. Snag a space at one of the designated camping areas like Jumbo Rocks and prepare to gaze upwards for hours. It can be chilly at night though that just means you can huddle around a campfire.
The weather on Padre Island near Corpus Christi stays sunny and warm even in winter and your neighbors are more likely to be chilled-out snowbirds escaping the cold than rowdy spring break crowds looking for thrills. Nab a spot at one of several RV parks then revel in the fact you can still feel warm breezes, comb beaches for shells, and watch spectacular sunsets (without catching a chill) in January or February.
Palm Springs is one of those places that look awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year. And the weather is not its only calling card. In Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley, you can camp for the winter in luxurious RV resorts that offer all sorts of amenities. Known for Olympic sized pools, tennis courts, and over one hundred world-class golf courses within 40 miles, this is truly upscale RV living.
The king of canyons is best viewed in peace and solitude—something that’s hard to achieve in peak season. Brave the chill and take your RV here when the mercury drops, the crowds drift away and the undulating rock formations look even more incredible. You can also view elk and deer which are more active on cooler days. Only the South Rim stays open in winter with several RV sites available.
Nestled along the banks of the slow-rolling Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World,” is a gorgeous historic town with world-class restaurants and a thriving Cajun music and folk art scene. Breaux Bridge is a great place to stop off for a meal and an afternoon of antiquing and an even better place to camp at a local RV park and stay awhile. The bridge itself isn’t much to see (though you can’t miss it)—it’s a tall, slightly rusty metal drawbridge that spans the Teche (pronounced “tesh”). The downtown stretch of Bridge Street, though, is adorable. Antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants span several blocks.
This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, hike the Palm Canyon, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.
Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.
Prefer snow-white sand to snow-white snow? Alabama’s Gulf Coast stays pretty mild and sunny all year-round making it a favorite spot for those escaping frigid winters and is now reopening after suffering damage during Hurricane Sally. There are those beaches, of course, and the area also has wetlands with trails, kayaking, and birdwatching. After a day of activities, wind down in one of the fun, quirky bars or seafood restaurants which serve the region’s prized Royal Red shrimp.
Starting on the outskirts of Lake Charles and ending at the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a network of byways where you’ll find more than 400 bird species, alligators galore, and 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches. Also called “America’s Outback,” the Creole Nature Trail takes visitors through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana’s backroads. You’ll pass through small fishing villages, National Wildlife Refuges to reach the little-visited, remote Holly and Cameron beaches. Take a side trip down to Sabine Lake, or drive onto a ferry that takes visitors across Calcasieu Pass. Throughout the trip, expect to see exotic birds; this area is part of the migratory Mississippi Flyway.
With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the Downtown Historic District, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places.
May the joy of today, bring forth happiness for tomorrow—and may the cold Alberta air stay up north!
While there are many national parks that are great to visit in the winter, this list is focused on the parks that are generally warm and perfect for exploring
As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.
November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.
Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.
Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.
Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.
Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.
The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.
Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.
28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.
There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.