The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 16 Places to See & Things to Do

In many ways the beauty of Arizona is embodied by its most famous natural landmark, the Grand Canyon but there is so much more. Discover the endless possibilities now.

Arizona is well-known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery. These beautiful, must-experience places are bucket-list worthy; some are well-known while others are hidden gems you might not have known about. From national landmarks to historical towns and breathtaking outdoor landscapes, here are 16 places to visit on your next Arizona road trip.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

The most obvious landmark and Arizona road trip (and the most breathtaking of them all) is the Grand Canyon. If you have never experienced the sight of this outstanding view, you absolutely have to add this to your bucket list. The hiking trails will leave you speechless. Plus many photo opportunities! Check out the El Tovar Hotel, a historic property that opened its doors in 1905 and has entertained celebrities and presidents for over 100 years. Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s edge, the dining room is as close to the canyon as you can get as well.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

One of Arizona’s best-kept secrets is the historic town of Bisbee. The former mining town is a small, unique community that sits high in the mountains in the far southeast corner of Arizona. With plenty of things to do, activities, events and festivals, shops, and galleries plus hiking, birding, gallery-gazing, or dining, Bisbee offers a plethora of choices to keep you entertained.

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Home to Lake Powell, The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water with desert landscape and dramatic stone walls. One of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for both land-based and water-based recreational activities. You can enjoy a summer’s day with perfect weather, cool water, amazing scenery, and endless sunshine. This is the perfect place to escape to and rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy lodging.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room pueblo about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay served as the floor of the room built on top.

Hoover Dan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard-to-miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You are able to walk across the dam or take a tour. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

An old mining town-turned ghost town-turned tourist attraction, Jerome sits on a mountainside just above the desert floor. Jerome is unique and quirky, to say the least, with the Sliding Jail in Jerome that was originally built around 1928. While you’re there, you can visit the town’s most appreciated historical landmarks including the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.

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Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

Along a 17-mile one-way gravel road, you will find the heart of the valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. While visiting this area, which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, you’ll experience the true Arizona desert feel with miles and miles of beautiful landscape and scenery of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, creating all the wonderful and majestic colors of the Valley.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

With its small-city feel and defined seasons, Prescott has tall Ponderosa pine trees, lakes, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. This charming town has many things to offer, including the old courthouse, Whiskey Row, Elks Theatre, and numerous other tourist attractions. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown restaurants.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections, approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Jutting out of the Sonoran Desert some 1,500 feet, you can’t help but see Picacho Peak for miles as you drive along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. Travelers have used the peak for centuries as a landmark and continue to enjoy the state park’s 3,747 acres for hiking, rock climbing, spring wildflowers, and camping

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

After getting its start as a silver mining claim in the late-1870s, Tombstone grew along with its Tough Nut Mine becoming a bustling boomtown of the Wild West. From opera and theater to dance halls and brothels, Tombstone offered much-needed entertainment to the miners after a long shift underground. The spirits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Brothers live on in the authentic old west town of Tombstone, home of Boothill Graveyard, the Birdcage Theatre, and the O.K. Corral.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Papago Park

Just minutes from downtown Phoenix, Papago Park offers great hiking and a wide array of recreational facilities. Comprised primarily of sandstone, the range is known for its massive buttes that rise and fall throughout the park. Papago is home to two of the region’s most visited attractions, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Sedona is a well-known hotbed of energy—one that’s conducive to both meditation and healing—and this is one of the reasons 4.5 million travelers flock here annually. That and the region’s red rocks: stunning sandstone formations that jut upward thousands of feet and change colors from orange to rust to crimson as the sun passes through the sky.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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. From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Surrounded by mountains, Tucson is a beautiful city set in the Sonoran Desert and is the second-largest city in Arizona. With many historic sites and cultural attractions, Tucson is a place to unwind and explore. Highlights include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, El Presidio Historic District, and Old Tucson Studios. You will also discover hiking trails, and afterward, you can find a bite to eat at one of the many wonderful restaurants Tucson has to offer.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the park is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce its first flower near the age of 35.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

Absolutely Best Road Trips from Las Vegas

The Strip barely scratches the surface

Las Vegas is located in the desert, so daytime temperatures in the summer regularly reach triple digits which can put a damper on outdoor activities. On the plus side, the winter heat is a nice escape for anyone fleeing ice and snow.

Las Vegas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather-wise, the best times to visit Las Vegas are spring and fall with highs hovering around 70 degrees in March and the low 80s in October. March, April, May, October, and November have the best weather for walking the Las Vegas Strip and getting out in the desert for hikes, and exploring the vast wilderness.

Las Vegas RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So your idea of fun isn’t drinking yard-long margaritas inside a mind-bending, alternate universe? I get it. One of the benefits of enjoying a city in the middle of a vast wilderness is, in fact, that wilderness. When you’re in Las Vegas, you’re not limited to casinos on the Strip. Some of the grandest scenery is just a short drive away. Whether you head to the Valley of Fire, the famous Hoover Dam, or Death Valley, we’ve got where to go and what to do in each. These are the very best day trips from Las Vegas.

Not only are these destinations beautiful but whether you drive north, south, east, or west out of Las Vegas you’re sure to see mountains, canyons, or lakes, making each trip about far more than the destination but the whole road trip too!

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Know Before Going on a Road Trip from Las Vegas

Located in the desert, Las Vegas and the surrounding areas are known for varying temperatures throughout the day and year. While these destinations are beautiful year-round, the weather plays a significant role in choosing when to travel.

During the summer months, it’s best to avoid the hottest desert locations located at low elevations. If you visit then, plan more intense activities during the morning and evening hours and plan for scenic drives and swimming during the day. Fall and spring generally have more moderate temperatures allowing for more physical activities during the day. Surprisingly, many places in the desert are occasionally hit with snowstorms during the winter. So stay up to date on weather conditions no matter the season you decide to travel.

The Best Road Trips from Las Vegas

The close proximity of national parks, recreation areas, and other cities make Las Vegas one of the best cities to road trip from. In any direction you travel, you’re sure to hit a beautiful site. Here are some of the best road trip destinations from Las Vegas.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Distance from Las Vegas: 31 miles

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.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Distance from Las Vegas: 37 miles

Hoover Dam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hoover Dam is one of the most recognizable and iconic manmade structures in the world, a 726-foot-high concrete arch-gravity dam that was completed in 1935. Until you visit Hoover Dam it’s difficult to appreciate its sheer size. It’s a dizzying sight from the dam itself. And it’s quite sobering, too, since more than 100 people lost their lives in the building of this spectacular feat of engineering. There are fun stops to make on the way back from a dam visit to complete the trip.

Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seeing Hoover Dam and getting a good tour of the place is crucial to understanding the point in American history when it was built. Take the Dam tour, a one-hour guided tour of the powerplant and its passageways. The tour starts with a film about the development of the dam and includes an elevator ride to the Nevada wing of the plant and eight of the dam’s generators as well as into the tunnels that served as inspection areas.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Distance from Las Vegas: 130 miles to the West Rim (Skywalk Canyon Overlook); 280 miles to the South Rim; and 270 miles to the North Rim

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years 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. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re seeking a secluded escape to Mother Nature, you should be prepared: The Grand Canyon can be very crowded. The South Rim—home to the Grand Canyon Village and the well-worn Bright Angel Trail—is particularly popular for sightseers and hikers. It is on this side that you’ll find the most amenities. However, for a true escapist experience, head to the North Rim.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Distance from Las Vegas: 161 miles

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When it comes to standing in awe of nature’s magnificence, it’s hard to beat Zion National Park. And you don’t have to hike for days to see its sheer beauty; at just under 230 square miles, Zion is relatively small by national park standards, and the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon.

Related: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not surprisingly, Zion boasts towering monoliths with spiritual names. The Great White Throne is a glistening mass of white sandstone that towers out at 6,744 feet. Angel’s Landing is an imposing, dull reddish rock standing opposite the Great White Throne. The Organ is a colossal of red mountains with vertical sides. The Towers of Virgin are majestic—West Temple is at 7,795 feet (3,805 feet above the canyon floor), the highest point in the park. The Watchman is even more ornate and colorful as it soars 2,555 feet from the canyon floor and stands guard for the two RV campgrounds.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Distance from Las Vegas: 186 miles

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths (popular with rock climbers), and oases. 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. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valleys, mountains, and deserts.

Related: Joshua Tree National Park Turns 25. But what is a Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees, giant boulders, cholla cacti, and rugged mountains are some of the classic wonders that make up Joshua Tree National Park. The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly-named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1-mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Distance from Las Vegas: 256 miles

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon isn’t really a canyon. Rather it is a “break” or series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters. Erosion has shaped colorful limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of nature-chiseled spires, fins, pinnacles, and mazes collectively called “hoodoos”.

Related: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rim of the canyon is between 8,000 to 9,100 feet above sea level. In summer, daytime temperatures are in the 80s but fall to the 40s by night. Bryce Amphitheater is the park’s largest amphitheater and can be viewed from several points—Bryce, Inspiration, Sunset, and Sunrise points. Hiking is the best way to experience stunning mazes. The park has over 50 miles of hiking trails with a range of distances and elevation change. Most trails descend into the canyon and wind around the oddly shaped formations.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Distance from Las Vegas: 280 miles

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you delight in gazing at towering red rocks or driving through rugged canyons, then go to Sedona. If you admire exquisite art or are captivated by amazing architecture, then go to Sedona. If you want to see ancient cliff dwellings, hear tales of Hollywood cowboys or thrill to outdoor adventures, then (you guessed it) go to Sedona. Sedona is a must-stop.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona is a well-known hotbed of energy—one that’s conducive to both meditation and healing—and this is one of the reasons 4.5 million travelers flock here annually. That and the region’s red rocks: stunning sandstone formations that jut upward thousands of feet and change colors from orange to rust to crimson as the sun passes through the sky.

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

6 More Road Trips from Las Vegas (In case you’re not inspired yet!)

Mount Charleston (42 Miles): A cute mountain town, perfect for getting out into nature.

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

Nelson Ghost Town (48 miles): Just past Henderson and Before Boulder City take a right (south) on 95 South and visit this old Gold Mining town now loved by photographers and music video producers alike.

Lake Havasu (155 miles): Visit the famous London Bridge or get out on the lake for some watersports.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (217 miles): And while there be sure to add on a visit to Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Antelope Canyons.

Related: Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park (379 miles): The giant trees of Sequoia will fill you with awe—and give you a crick in your neck from staring up at them.

Road Trips from Las Vegas: Final Thoughts

With so many beautiful places located around Las Vegas make sure you get out of Sin City and explore the natural wonders of the desert! With activities for all types of adventurers, there is something for everyone. It’s rare you’ll drive more than an hour without stopping to take photos of the impressive sites!

Worth Pondering…

Las Vegas is a 24-hour city. It never stops.

—Eli Roth

Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit these 10 National Parks

All the awe. None of the crowds.

America’s national parks continued to dominate the travel sphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another great idea! Hit the parks in the fall when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists all but vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the valleys, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature transforms into the most vibrant time of the year.

Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of 10 of my favorite national parks.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories, and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange, and yellow with sunflowers and asters bloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Climb the 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.

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

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Yes, the nation’s newest national park has sublimely colorful scenes every fall, and yes, the photo opportunities are only one reason to visit. Whitewater rafting is another. Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge which became America’s 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit—as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, October 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles, and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

If you love fall foliage but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (though I do recommend a hike or two) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through—slowly. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and gold. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those who want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades. And the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In the summer months, hiking in Arches can feel like slogging through a convection oven with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to close the park for the day. During fall the heat and the hordes dissipate dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage.

A certified dark sky park, Arches is well suited for stargazing. Stargazing is a year-round activity but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 8), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12), and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic is a national park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California Park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ever-present evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak. Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early as does winter. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher elevations. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and the Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in different ways.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country (and world-renown) is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow hoodoos bathed in warm autumn light with streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is located in the Midlands region of South Carolina. With a humid subtropical climate, the park experiences mild winters and very warm, wet summers. The park is accessible in all seasons, but is best experienced in the spring and fall when temperatures are at their most comfortable and insects are generally not a problem. September through November is a wonderful time to visit Congaree with average daily temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Fall colors peak between the end of October and early November. Water levels are ideal at this time of year for taking a paddling trip on Cedar Creek.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

You’ll love Zion in the fall! The temperatures are milder to enjoy the best Zion hikes, there are fewer people than in summer, and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape. Though the climate in Zion is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. Red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes, creating ample opportunities for nature photographers.

Zion has a very long fall foliage season due to the variety in elevations. At higher elevations in Zion, you can see trees turning bright by mid-September. The peak season in the park usually lasts from late September to early October. However, at lower elevations, you can enjoy picturesque fall colors as late as mid-November.

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

Bottom Line

The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the summer crowds. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in the fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.

Worth Pondering…

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

—George Eliot

The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time takes your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. There will never be a photograph captured of the Grand Canyon that can adequately describe its depth, breadth, and true beauty.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and a history that our eyes will never behold. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll start to appreciate the vastness as its depths open up as each emerging shadow moves across its void. It is perhaps for those reasons that it has earned a rare spot among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and why everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space (millions if you really want to get technical). There are endless ways to experience it depending on what the body and mind are looking for and one’s level of endurance. The Grand Canyon is not “one place” but a desert wilderness with many areas to explore—North Rim, South Rim, and West Rim (outside of Grand Canyon National Park); the Village of Supai and Kaibab National Forest—there are different stories to seek out and to create in each of them. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer—but not much. They emerge from cars or tour buses on the South Rim to peer out and take a selfie. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they’re gone, the once-in-a-lifetime visit checked off their bucket list. According to Grand Canyon National Park officials, the average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors’ parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world’s largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they’ll decide this is the place they must return to, again and again.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey, and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can’t quite be imagined. Only the condors and ravens seem to have mastered the terrain. A vast world like this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to gaze, and to rest.

First, let’s take a quick look at the two most visited locations: the North and South Rims.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Rim is visited less frequently than the South Rim for a variety of reasons—it is more remote and difficult to get to than the busy South Rim, it is further removed from major population centers, it maintains a short season (May 15–October 15) because of its heavy snow and higher elevation (about 8,000 feet; 9,200 feet at the highest point), and it offers fewer easy access points to peer into the valley of views than its southern counterpart does.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon just once in your life, you’ll want it to be the South Rim, first to get a load of the views that drew awareness to the area in the first place. They really are spectacular. If you’ve already seen the South Rim, a visit to the northern side is where you can find solitude in backcountry camping and hiking and unique sites to photograph such as the Cape Royal viewpoint.  

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is the best-known area of the park and is the passageway to iconic viewpoints such as Yavapai and Mather Points, both of which often serve up to many the first views of the colorful gorge as it is located just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. At night, catch the sunset at Hopi Point and Mojave Point, two of the most popular places in the park to drink in the pink sky. Near to all of them are iconic lodges, located just steps from the canyon rim. The panoramic views in this area seem to stretch on endlessly and visitor amenities abound including shops, restaurants, free shuttle access to iconic viewpoints, trail access, historical sites, exhibits—and the list goes on and on. 

El, Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will find everything you need for a Grand Canyon adventure in Grand Canyon Village. This historic village has excellent shopping for all the hiking and camping gear you need, as well as authentic American Indian crafts and plenty of canyon souvenirs. The village also has stellar lodging options and a top-rated walking tour. Highlights of the tour include Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Kolb Studio.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your Grand Canyon tour at the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Here you can pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour brochure for in-depth information on the canyon and its history. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also learn how Grand Canyon Village grew up around the Santa Fe Railroad starting in 1901. Stop by the rustic Grand Canyon Railway Depot which welcomes Grand Canyon Railway passengers to the village. One fun way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway which runs from the historic town of Williams into the heart of the park allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities in the Village including helicopter tours, horseback rides, scenic train rides, and mule trips. Do you remember the Brady Bunch adventure when Mike, Cindy, and the clan ventured down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule? This is an actual thing! But, why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses. From the South Rim, you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, the hiking can’t be beaten. Some of the best hikes include Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail, and Rim Trail. The simplest walk is the Rim Trail which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, but—with the exception of Phantom Ranch—they are if you plan to spend the night.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top. The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

Shuttle transport, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who aren’t up for a hike into the canyon, a shuttle transports visitors along the rim of the canyon, stopping at many breathtaking vantage points. You can also enjoy the views directly from Grand Canyon Village and enjoy lunch at one of the village’s restaurants: Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, or Maswik Lodge.

Part of the Grand Canyon but outside of the National Park is Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West. Walk the glass panels on the Skywalk. Soar over the canyon in a helicopter or on a zipline. Float down the Colorado River on a river tour. Take in the epic views at Guano Point and Eagle Point. And, you can stay on-site at the Cabins at Grand Canyon West.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

Date Established: February 26, 1919 (established as Grand Canyon National Monument on January 11, 1908)

Location: Northwestern Arizona

Park Elevation: South Rim, 7,000 feet; North Rim, 8,000 feet

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: Though open 365 days a year, Grand Canyon weather can present a few extremes. While the South Rim is warm in the summer, it’s also very busy and the temperature on the canyon floor can reach over 100 degrees. Spring and fall can be pleasant, but unpredictable.

How the park got its name: According to research by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, the park got its name from a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor named John Wesley Powell who declared it the “Grandest of Canyons” after rafting the length of the Colorado River in 1869, after which the name stuck. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: Mather Point, just steps from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is often the first view that visitors have of the park. Just after gathering the info needed in order to better plan their stay, visitors can step out onto a narrow railed overlook to take in some of the most extensive views that the canyon has to offer, including Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trail stretching down to the bottom of the canyon. From here you can also catch a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: There are two popular rim-to-rim hikes for adventurous souls yearning to gaze 4,000 feet skyward from the base of the Colorado River that bisects the canyon. The rim-to-river-to-rim hike starts at the South Rim—the most popular route being down the South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and up the Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles.) The true rim-to-rim hike starts on the Bright Angel Trail at the North Rim, descending to the bottom of the canyon for stays at the Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground, ascending the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. This adventure covers 24 miles and takes about 3 days. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

Entrance Fees: $35/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal land passes accepted

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

Road Trips That Will Reinvigorate Your Soul After a Very (Very) Long Year

Since a transformative trip is what most everyone needs at the moment, I’ve rounded up 10 experiences guaranteed to reinvigorate your soul

Not to dwell on the past, but it’s been a pretty rough 18 months for most folks. And we’d like to put that chapter behind us. These days, lots of stuff comes with a degree of anxiety or worry, however, there’s absolutely no reason that a road trip should cause such stress. In fact, I’m of the mindset that the exact opposite is true.

Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re anything like me, after a year and one-half of being cooped up with travel restrictions, the inner drive to make up for lost time and get out and explore is real. A great spot to take a selfie? Sure, that can be cool. But I’m not looking for just another pretty place. Right now, it’s a deeper and more meaningful travel experience that’s calling.

For some, that might mean a spa getaway. Others find fulfillment in more eye-opening cultural pursuits—an artsy destination (Berea, Kentucky), tasting incredible culinary delights (Cajun cuisine), or sipping fine wine (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia). And, of course, connecting with nature can be thoroughly invigorating.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You start to pay more attention to little things, such as the warmth of the rising sun on your skin, the sound of the morning’s first bird song, the crunch of the sand and stone beneath your hiking shoes. The wide-open spaces and distant views of dramatic landscapes can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. It can invoke a renewed feeling of discovery and excitement and zest for life that for too long has been drowned out by the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders.

To experience this can be wholly rejuvenating for the mind, body, and soul and it has a way of reminding us of what is truly important and valuable in our lives.

Interested in some travel ideas guaranteed to have you feeling peaceful, joyful, and totally relaxed? Scroll on for 10 relaxing vacations in America that we all deserve right about now!

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek Out Energy Vortexes in Sedona

Sedona is a deeply spiritual destination known for its spectacular red-rock formations, epic hiking, and energy vortexes. If you’re not familiar with the latter, they’re often described as “swirling centers of energy” that radiate from the earth. The most powerful vortexes (Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon) are great spots to meditate, sit alone with your thoughts, or connect to Mother Earth. This deeply spiritual destination boasts some of the most magical scenery anywhere in the world. Need some solo time? Strikeout on a less-trafficked trail like Wilson Mountain and you’ll feel like the only person on the planet. Staring at the enormous red rock formations just really puts things in perspective.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Zion National Park

There’s something incredibly therapeutic about communing with nature—and it certainly doesn’t hurt to do so in such a staggeringly beautiful place. Insert Zion National Park. Located in southwestern Utah, Zion brims with breathtaking scenery—high plateaus, steep cliffs, deep canyons, forested trails, flowing rivers, and waterfalls. Exploring this majestic natural preserve is a true mind, body, and soul experience. Strenuous treks like Observation Point will push you physically. Covering 148,016 acres with tons of remote corners, Zion provides ample space to be alone with your thoughts. So if you’re seeking a sense of mental clarity, consider it found. And, needless to say, the sheer grandeur of Zion Canyon is all but guaranteed to awaken spiritual awareness.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Commune with Nature at Joshua Tree National Park

Yes, it’s an Instagram goldmine. But most people visit Joshua Tree National Park for the purpose of getting up close and personal with nature (epic photos are just a bonus). The desert really does have this incredibly healing energy. Plus, it’s so serene. Few National Parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold. Soul-searchers can hoof it to the middle of nowhere, staring out at the arid landscape, and enjoy uninterrupted quiet to think. Joshua Tree also shines as one of the best places in the country, err the world, for stargazing. Peering up at the celestial bodies in the sky is sure to shift your perspective on things.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Saguaro National Park

To the indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is a sacred being. Uniquely adapted to the rigors of the desert, the saguaro forests alongside the palo verde and ironwood forests with all the beings they shelter and sustain form a single interlocked ecosystem of great diversity. The fruit that the saguaro cactus bears is dependable even in drought years so that humans and others owe their survival to the beneficence of the saguaro.

Hogsback, Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive Utah Scenic Byway 12

Sometimes you find yourself on a road that you can sense is something truly special. It is not just the landscapes, though you can’t take your eyes off them. It is something about the drive itself. Driving along Scenic Byway 12 is less about driving and more about staying oxygenated, so breathtaking is this 122-mile highway of pure driving bliss. Peaks ranging from 4,000 to 10,000-feet in elevation, extreme engineering feats allowing vehicle passage, rock formations, plateaus, alpine forests, and other eye-candy compete for a mind-blowing beautiful drive. And it seems to have a history. There’s something in the engineering—the Hogsback stretch comes to mind—and in the lay of the road. The way the road connects with the land feels somehow a part of the landscape. Utah State Route 12 is such a road.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the Serenity of Congaree

Established in 2003 and often referred to as the “redwoods of the east,” Congaree National Park is home to the largest and tallest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. This designated wilderness area is located in central South Carolina and is a sanctuary for diverse plant and animal life. It’s also historically significant, once being home to Native Americans and later a refuge for escaped enslaved people. Congaree also offers an accessible boardwalk hike for everyone to enjoy as well as breathtaking canoeing, birding, and tent camping experiences. Honor nature and history when visiting Congaree National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is where America’s 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter, and naturalist and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal. Buffalo and pronghorns graze in every direction giving meaning to the song Home on the Range. The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive in the world. If you venture off the uncrowded paved road that winds through the park you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes, I’ve found that these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stand Amongst the Sequoias

They say hugging trees is a form of therapy. Why not? We’ve heard of stranger stuff. And, hey, whatever works, right? Jokes aside, just being in the presence of towering, thousands-year-old sequoia trees has a wonderfully calming energy that’s hard to put into words but easy to feel in your soul. Take a deep breath, inhale the earthy aroma, and you’ll feel better in minutes. And enjoy the numerous trails and picnic areas in one of California’s iconic national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See the Grand Canyon

It’s easy to be absorbed by the wonders of Grand Canyon National Park. Stretching more than 1.2-million acres, the park’s outer edges include the South Rim (open year-round) and the North Rim (closed from mid-October to mid-May) which are 210 miles apart. Our problems often seem big until we’re standing in front of something as massive and majestic as the Grand Canyon with its striated red rocks that seem to go on forever. The busier South Rim offers easy access to panoramas, paved paths along the rim, and hikes like the Bright Angel Trail which zigzags to the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon’s North Rim which sits at 8,000 feet offers a quieter pace with scenic drives and trails leading to pictographs and dramatic sunset views, All of a sudden those trivial little things that took up so much attention no longer matter. This immense, pilgrimage-worthy destination just seems to have that effect on people.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike the Appalachian Trail

Need a mood boost? To quote Elle Woods, “endorphins make people happy.” We’re not just advocating for any old form of exercise (though physical activity, in general, has a slew of obvious benefits) but rather movement in a magical setting. Hiking the iconic Appalachian Trail pairs quad-torching trekking with fresh, alpine air and scenery so splendid it all but promises a spiritual awakening. Now that’s a win for your mind, body, and soul. Guess the only thing left to do is decide where to start your trek.

Driving Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picture It

You’re on the wide-open road in a fully-stocked RV, heading towards your own secluded campsite under the stars. Turns out, RV life is pretty good. 

Worth Pondering…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.

―John Muir

Which National Park to Visit Based on Your Academic Interests

Are you ready? Whether you want to explore local places or plan a road trip, you’ll find a national park to suit your academic interests.

Summer is the perfect time to go camping and hiking in the great outdoors. There’s no better place to enjoy the outdoors than at one of the many national parks. But there are so many national parks out there that it can be very difficult to choose which one to visit.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could always go with the national park easiest to get to, but even then, it can still be hard to decide. Let your intellectual interests help you!

Here are some recommendations on what national park to go to—based on your college major or the academic pursuit most aligned to your interests. For some of us, it’s a long stretch into the distant past.

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

Biology: Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 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.

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geology: Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a world-renowned showplace of geology.

Geologic studies in the park began with the work of John Strong Newberry in 1858, and continue today. Grand Canyon’s excellent display of layered rock is invaluable in unraveling the region’s geologic history. Extensive carving of the plateaus allows for the detailed study of the Earth’s movements. Processes of stream erosion are also easily seen and studied.

The Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon into four plateaus of the Colorado Plateau Province. The Province is a large area in the Southwest characterized by nearly horizontal sedimentary rocks lifted 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archaeology: Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is known for its Native American sites. With villages built into the cliffside and rocks painted with petroglyphs, it’s a place that has a strong connection to the people of the past.

What else would an archaeology major want in a national park? The visitor center also has the park’s museum and research collection—so there’s an added bonus.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Art: Petrified Forest

This national park is a great fit for a student of art. The part that should be most appealing to those interested in art isn’t the tree stumps preserved as stone, which the park is named for, but the Painted Desert.

Being surrounded by something so magnificently “painted” should make an artist feel right at home. In all seriousness, though, this national park is a beautiful and strange landscape that looks very little like anywhere else. If you want something new to draw or paint, this park might be the muse you’re looking for.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of where to go to begin discovering what the national parks have to offer. No matter what national park you choose to visit, you’ll be met with stunning sights and wonderful nature. You can’t go wrong with any of the national parks, so hopefully, this list has helped you choose.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Traveling To a National Park this Summer? Prepare For High Temperatures!

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For practical tips on staying safe in the outdoors this summer, click here.

Worth Pondering…

“‘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.”

—Sydney Smith

10 Amazing Places to RV in July

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, South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Needles Highway, Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota

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.

Corn Palace, Mitchell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Horse farm in Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington, Kentucky

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). 

Keeeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park, opened for summertime activities 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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Camping at Lake Mead near Las Vegas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

“‘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.”

—Sydney Smith

Every U.S. National Park Ranked

Every single national park is worth visiting!

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!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

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.

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

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.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

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.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

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.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

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.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

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 National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

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.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

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.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

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.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

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.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

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.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

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.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

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.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

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.

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

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

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.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

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.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

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.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

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.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

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.

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im