2021 National Park Visitor Spending Contributed $42.5 Billion to Economy

How National Park Service visitor spending supports jobs and business activity in local communities

The Department of the Interior recently announced that visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2021 resulted in a $42.5 billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 322,600 mostly local jobs.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature is essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of every family and community in America as well as to the local economies of gateway communities that support our national parks,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “As we continue to welcome families to our parks and public lands across the country, the Interior Department is committed to making investments in our lands and waters that will support tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.” 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What the numbers show: According to the National Park Service (NPS) report, 2021 National Park Visitor Spending Effects, approximately 297 million visitors spent $20.5 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park. Of the 322,600 jobs supported by visitor spending, 268,900 jobs were in park gateway communities.

In western North Dakota, for example, 796,085 people visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park contributing nearly $51.2 million in visitor spending and supporting 675 jobs.

Badlands National Park National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In western South Dakota, 1.2 million people visited Badlands National Park in 2021and spent an estimated $88.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting. These expenditures supported a total of 1,190 jobs, $34.8 million in labor income, $61.0 million in value-added, and $114 million in economic output.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2021, 3.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $170 million in local gateway regions while visiting Joshua Tree National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 2,040 jobs, $76.7 million in labor income, $124 million in value added, and $208 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Joshua Tree National Park.

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

And 14.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These expenditures supported a total of 18.8 thousand jobs, $618 million in labor income, $1.0 billion in value-added, and $1.8 billion in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Benefits to State economies: In 2021, 35.1 million park visitors spent an estimated $2.4 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands in California, the top state for visitor spending. These expenditures supported a total of 30.2 thousand jobs, $1.5 billion in labor income, $2.4 billion in value-added, and $3.9 billion in economic output in the California economy.

California was followed by North Carolina (21.0 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.7 billion in local gateway regions), Utah (14.8 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.6 billion in local gateway regions), and Virginia (22.2 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional findings include: 

  • Visitor spending in 2021 meant $14.6 billion in labor income and $24.3 billion in value added
  • The lodging sector saw the highest direct effects with $7 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The restaurant sector saw the next greatest effects with $4.2 billion in economic output directly contributed to this sector nationally
  • The camping sector saw the smallest direct effect with $490 million in economic output directly contributed to this sector nation-wide
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion under the socioeconomic lens: The National Park Service is initiating a new socioeconomic monitoring project in 2022 that will survey park visitors in 24 parks each year for the next 10 years or more. One of the early parks surveyed under this method was Zion National Park in 2021 offering an updated picture of visitor spending.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Zion National Park was one of the first parks where visitors were surveyed under the new method. The results showed that our previous estimates or ‘profiles’ of average visitors underestimated the time they spent in the park and in gateway communities and we underestimated the amount of money they spent during their trips to the park,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. “The new survey information will enable park managers to further improve the visitor experience and guide how to reach and engage with people who have yet to visit a national park.”  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the NPS, Zion ranked No. 10 in the country for its number of visitors attracting 5 million in 2021.

An interactive tool enables users to explore visitor spending, jobs, labor income, value added, and output effects by sector for national, state, and local economies. Users can also view year-by-year trend data. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual peer-reviewed economics report was prepared by economists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service. It includes information by parks and by states on visitor spending, the number of jobs supported by visitor spending and other statistics.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

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

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names

The stories behind their names

What’s in a name? A lot, it seems, especially in America’s varied national parks. These vast landscapes of pristine and brilliant nature teeming with wildlife, plants, and rare geological formations have history—much of which can be told simply through their names. Some are named after people while others have Native American names with intriguing meanings. Here’s the lowdown on how 10 of America’s national parks got their monikers.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The early French-Canadian trappers called the region which includes the present-day national park, Le Mauvaises terres a traverser which translated means “bad lands to travel across.” Other traders applied the term “bad lands” to this locality as well as to any section of the prairie country “where roads are difficult….”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For hundreds of years, the Dakota people have also described this area as Mako Sica which translates to “bad lands”. This is largely due to the area’s harsh terrain—its lack of water and rocky surfaces meant it was tricky to traverse. The name has stuck in its English form to this day.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park is still pretty rocky and parched but it’s not so bad to travel through these days thanks to the many hiking trails that make its dramatic and unusual landscapes accessible. Take a walk here and you’ll get to see fossils from the now-extinct animals that once thrived here. You can also meet the bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and deer that roam the region and gaze upon some of the most striking geologic formations in the US.

The park received 1,224,226 recreational visitors in 2021.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep gorge in northern Arizona. Scientists estimate the canyon may have formed 5 to 6 million years ago when the Colorado River began to cut a channel through layers of rock. The canyon measures over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though Native Americans lived in the area as early as the 13th century, the first European sighting of the canyon wasn’t until 1540 by members of an expedition headed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Because of its remote and inaccessible location, several centuries passed before North American settlers explored the canyon. In 1869, geologist John Wesley Powell led a group of 10 men on the first difficult journey down the rapids of the Colorado River and along the length of the 277-mile gorge in four rowboats.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Benjamin Harrison first protected the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve and in January 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon area into a national monument. Grand Canyon became an official National Park in 1919.

The park received 4,532,677 recreational visitors in 2021.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Named for its large deposits of petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park covers about 346 square miles encompassing semi-desert shrubs as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The Park is known for its fossils, especially of fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Epoch of the Mesozoic era about 225-207 million years ago.

National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the larger animals roaming the grasslands include pronghorns, black-tailed jackrabbits (hares), Gunnison’s prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. Pronghorns, the fastest land animals in North America, are capable of 60-mile-per-hour sprints. They are the second fastest land animal on Earth.

The park’s headquarters is about 26 miles east of Holbrook along Interstate 40 which parallels the  Puerco River and Historic Route 66 all crossing the park roughly east-west.

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site, the northern part of which extends into the Painted Desert, was declared a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.

The park received 590, 334 recreational visitors in 2021.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America’s second national park (Yellowstone became the first national park on March 1, 1872). Created to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum. One week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park included General Grant National Park into it. Since the Second World War, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly.

The park received 1,059,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The native Cherokee people traditionally called the Great Smoky Mountains Shaconage which translates to “place of the blue smoke.” Euro-American settlers drew from this name in their label of “Smoky Mountains,” with “Great” being added at some point or another to reflect the massiveness and grandeur of the range.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More often than not, the inspiration for the Cherokee name is plain to see on one of the many long, mountain-upon-mountain vistas the Great Smokies serve up from such vantages as Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome. There’s a whitish-blue mistiness to the scenery, a beautiful kind of haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks.

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

That haze is the optical result of a natural photochemical process. The trees, shrubs, and other plants of the dense and diverse Southern Appalachian forests emit natural hydrocarbons called “terpenes” that react with ozone particles from the stratosphere. Moisture condenses on these aerosols which then scatter the shorter wavelengths of light in the blue-violet spectrum to produce the signature haziness.

Seeing the soft-edged blush of the Great Smokies from a roadside pullout or a ridgeline bald never gets old. Next time you soak it in, maybe the old Cherokee name for this extraordinary range will come to mind: the “place of the blue smoke”.

The park received 14,161,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of huge natural amphitheaters carved into sedimentary rocks by the Paria River and its tributaries along the edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau. Water and wind erosion has produced a fantastic array of brightly colored pinnacles, windowed walls, pedestals, fins, and spires.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ancient cultures are known to have occupied the Colorado Plateau for at least 12,000 years. Paiutes were living throughout the area when the first Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. They explained the numerous and colorful hoodoos as “legend people” who were turned to stone by the mythical Coyote. When Captain Clarence E. Dutton arrived with John Wesley Powell in the 1870s, he named many of the current features according to the Paiute names including Paunsagunt (home of the beavers), Paria (muddy water), Panguitch (fish), and Yovimpa (point of pines).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ebenezer Bryce helped settle southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. He arrived on the Paunsagunt Plateau and Paria Valley in 1875 to harvest timber. The canyon behind his home came to be known as Bryce’s Canyon; today it remains the name of both a specific canyon and the national park. After 1900, visitors began to arrive to view the colorful geologic features and initial accommodations were constructed along the plateau rim above Bryce’s Canyon. By the 1920s, efforts were being made to set aside this scenic wonder of the Paunsagunt Plateau.

The park received 2,104,600 recreational visitors in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, named so by explorer John Wesley Powell, who believed this to be the Paiute name for the area, Zion got its new moniker in 1863. It was all down to Isaac Behunin, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area to farm tobacco and fruit trees. He thought it so peaceful that he should rename it, Zion, because, as he wrote: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The great cathedrals he mentioned were probably the incredible, precipitous red cliffs that rise on both sides of the Virgin River. In Hebrew, “zion” means “heavenly place” and standing atop the cliffs or even at their foot it’s easy to see why Behunin considered it a divine landscape. 

The park received 5,039,835 recreational visitors in 2021.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In the arid Sonoran Desert, this national park teems with wildlife, insects, and plants. Horned lizards, roadrunners, and Gila monsters are some of the animals that call this harsh landscape home. But, it’s the plants that most people come to see and one plant in particular that has given the park its name: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to ask a child to draw a cactus, they’d likely sketch out something that looks like a saguaro which has a thick trunk and vertically reaching “arms” covered in fine spikes. It’s estimated there are almost two million of these iconic plants throughout the national park, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve been given the limelight in this National Park’s name. 

The park received 1,079,783 recreational visitors in 2021.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Dark Sky Reserve, this national park has a lot to preserve. If you visit, make sure you see the incredible homes carved into and built around the rocky, sandstone landscape. Dating back to around AD 550, these dwellings housed the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for more than 700 years and there are 5,000 or so archaeological sites to explore within the national park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploration is how the park got its name. When Spanish explorers in the American Southwest first came upon these towering rock formations they said it looked like a landscape of tables, covered with foliage and forest. They named it “Mesa Verde”, which is Spanish for “green table”.

The park received 548,477 recreational visitors in 2021.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Trees are an incredibly unusual-looking trees, in part because they’re not a tree at all! They’re a plant belonging to the Yucca genus that happens to resemble the size and growth pattern of a tree. Joshua trees are slow-growing adding only 2 to 3 inches each year. It takes 50 to 60 years for a Joshua tree to reach full height. They live on average about 500 years.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert. Originally declared a national monument in 1936, Joshua Tree was redesignated as a national park in 1994.

The park received 3,064,400 recreational visitors in 2021.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks

National parks with the best scenic drives

A trip to a national park is about more than just the destination. It’s the journey to these remote corners of preserved natural wonders that are equally enticing including drives to and around the parks.

In fact, many US national parks are best seen from your car—really. We’re not saying you shouldn’t get out and breathe the fresh air and smell the flowers and hike a trail but to get the best overview of wilderness and wildlife scenic drives can’t be beat. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when planning a road trip to a national park 

Prepare your vehicle: National parks are often located in remote areas and it may be a while for help to arrive if you break down. So be sure your vehicle is fully serviced and has a full tank of fuel before you start your adventure.

Download directions: Speaking of being remote, you may not have cell service or Wi-Fi in the parks so make sure to save routing info (including this story) to your phone in advance of your trip. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pack snacks and water: Don’t count on food or supplies on the road—bring everything you need with you including picnic supplies (and be sure to carry out anything you carry in with you). 

Following are 10 of the best US national parks for scenic drives this summer and beyond.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for Seussian landscapes

The route: Park Boulevard, drive from North (SR-62) or South (I-10) entrances

Route length: 35 miles

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transform from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to get an idea of what you’ll see on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park? Pick up a copy of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. The scraggly armed trees with tufts of needles reaching towards the sky strongly resemble a “truffula tree” and the entire desert landscape has an almost whimsical feel. Make no mistake though, the rocky wonders and unusual vegetation you’ll see driving through this park—which straddles the Mojave and Colorado deserts—are both real and incredible.  

Read More: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Best scenic drive through the park: best for fall foliage

The route: Newfound Gap Road from US 441

Route length: 29 miles

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

The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

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

The largest national park in the east and the most visited park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains stretches from North Carolina to Tennessee. This park is ideally situated for driving itineraries with 384 miles of roads from which to choose your driving adventure. Newfound Gap, named for the high mountain pass at the state line, offers views for days, great animal spotting, and a high perch to view the hardwood forests and changing leaves come the fall. 

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for natural architecture

The route: Arches Scenic Drive

Route length: 18 miles

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The red sandstone arches that give this Utah national park its name seem too perfectly balanced to be created by something as fickle as wind and sand. Surely, you’ll think as you drive around the amazing structures, a human architect must have lent a hand? This drive will take you past all of the soaring highlights; be sure to get out the car to get the full scope and perspective of these towering rock formations. 

Tip: After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park features trees dating back more than 200 million years that have turned to stone by absorbing minerals from the water that once surrounded them. The park also includes fossilized flora and fauna, petroglyphs, wildflowers, colorful rock formations, and wildlife. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the petrified wood, petroglyphs, and fossils.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for petrified logs

The route: Petrified Forest Road

Route length: 28 miles

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trip from one end of the park to the other is about 28 miles. There’s so much to see from the Painted Desert in the north to the southern half of the drive where most of the petrified wood lies. Hiking trails along the way take visitors close to the sights. Starting in the north at Exit 311 off I-40, stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center to see an 18-minute film, hands-on exhibits, and a short walking trail.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive passes through a variety of environments, colorful rock formations, and scenic pullouts with spectacular views. At the Crystal Forest Trail, petrified logs can easily be seen within steps of the parking area. It’s possible to spot wildlife along the drive as well.

Read More: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for towering monoliths

The route: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

Route length: 54 miles

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 54-mile route starts at the intersection of Highway 9 and I-15 about nine miles east of St. George and ends at the Mt. Carmel Junction. From November until March, you’ll be able to drive the entire route but from spring through fall the Zion Canyon section is closed to cars. Take the free shuttle which makes nine stops and takes about an hour and a half.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the park’s main section: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Read More: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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. 

Best scenic drive through the park: best for panoramic canyon views

The route: Desert View Drive

Route length: 23 miles

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Desert View Watchtower is located at Desert View. Traveling west, other stops along this route include Navajo Point, Lapin Point, Tusayan Pueblo and Museum, Moran Point, Grandview Point, Duck on a Rock, and Pipe Creek Vista.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Best scenic drive through the park: 700 years of Ancestral Pueblo history

The route: Mesa Top Auto Loop

Route length: 6 miles

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites. From remains of early pithouses and masonry villages to multi-storied cliff dwellings, archeological sites along this loop show how early Pueblo architecture evolved.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the road, you’ll find short, easily-accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. Short trails along the Mesa Top Loop lead to surface sites such as pithouses and pueblos; overlooks of cliff dwellings tucked into alcoves; and viewpoints where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape that was home to generations of Ancestral Pueblo people.

Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily, 8:00 am to sunset.

Read More: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Best scenic drive through the park: best for historic and geologic features

The route: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Route length: 30 miles

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most interesting of the paved sightseeing routes in Big Bend National Park giving the greatest variety of habitats, geology, and a variety of interesting short walks and interpretive pull outs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road skirts the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District and winding up at Santa Elena Canyon trailhead where the pavement ends. Heading south from the Ross Maxwell junction there are a number of pullovers to interpretive sites, trailheads to short and longer hikes, and scenic vistas.

Read More: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Most scenic drive through the park: best for surreal and otherworldly

The route: Badlands Loop Scenic Byway

Route length: 39 miles

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with numerous opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities. Don’t miss the Big Badlands Overlook in the east or the Door, Window, and Notch Trail turnoff just a few miles further south down the road; in the west, make sure to stop at the Pinnacles Overlook and the Yellow Mounds Overlook towards the western end of the loop road. 

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Most scenic drive through the park: best for colorful wildflowers

The route: Skyline Drive

Route length: 105 miles

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. The only public road through the Park, it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These cement posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Read More: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

Smoky Mountain Day Trips from Gatlinburg

From Clingmans Dome to pioneer history

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is known as the Gateway to the Smokies for a reason. This tiny East Tennessee mountain resort with a population of just 3,754 is nestled against the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are a wild expanse of rounded ridges, often shrouded by the mists that give the national park its name.

Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies are part of the vast Appalachian chain among the oldest mountains on the planet. Formed more than 200 million years ago these ancient peaks were once much higher but have been worn down by the eons of time. You can contemplate that remote past while huffing your way up to the top of a 6,000-foot peak overlooking the seemingly endless expanse of undulating ridges that stretch off into the distance. There are mesmerizing viewpoints all across the park as well as one mountaintop lodge that can only be reached by foot.

Along US-321 from Gatlinburg to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland. Rich blooms of springtime wildflowers come in all colors and sizes while flame azaleas light up the high-elevation meadows in summer. Autumn brings its own fiery rewards with quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes. In winter, snow-covered fields and ice-fringed cascades transform the Smokies into a serene, cold-weather retreat.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This mesmerizing backdrop is also a World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

As well as Gatlinburg, other Tennessee towns offering easy access to the national park include Cosby, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park is so big—spanning two states, Tennessee and North Carolina—it can be hard to know where to start exploring. This is also the most-visited national park in the United States with more than 14.16 million visitors in 2021 so it can take a little planning to get away from the crowds. Fortunately, Gatlinburg makes it easy for first-timers to get outdoors both inside the national park and at smaller but no less lovely parks inside the city limits.

Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly space to get outside or the best ways to get into the national park, we’ve got you covered. Here are my top picks of Gatlinburg’s green spaces. 

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you’re looking for an easily accessible way to see the Smokies, this 5.5-mile looping driving trail should be your go-to. As you slowly make your way down a winding paved road, you’ll pass gorgeous forest scenery and plenty of spots where you can pull over for woodland hikes or soak up the vistas from scenic overlooks.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail is named for Roaring Fork, a fast-moving mountain stream, and its tributaries create several surging cascades along the route including Grotto Falls reached via an easy 2.6-mile round-trip hike and Rainbow Falls at the end of a more challenging 5.4-mile tramp. Near the end of the loop, the Place of a Thousand Drips spills dramatically through the forest but it only performs during wet weather.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s history here too. Built in the 1920s by an eccentric lawyer seeking a healthier life in the wilderness, Ely’s Mill is no longer a working mill but stopping here gives a sense of what agricultural life was like in these mountains in the past. Today, there’s a shop with locally-made crafts some rather charming wood cabins where you can spend the night and demonstrations of blacksmithing and other traditional skills.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn left at Traffic Light 8 in Gatlinburg and follow the signs to the national park. En route, you’ll pass the worn, wooden facade of Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place, a historic 19th-century homestead offering another evocative glance into the region’s past.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the park’s most popular driving routes starting about 30 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. Between town and Cades Cove you’ll pass Metcalf Bottoms one of the Smokies’ biggest and best picnic areas with a swimming area set on a pretty stretch of the Little River. The scenery along the Loop Road is stunning and there are numerous historic stops including restored churches and pioneer cabins and the old Cable Grist Mill built in 1867 but it can get very busy all along the route. If possible, avoid weekends especially during fall.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historically, Cherokee and other Native American peoples used Cades Cove as a way to traverse the Smokies on foot (the valley was named for Cherokee leader, Chief Kade). Modern park visitors like to drive through this meadow-like section of the park scanning the verges for wildlife. Cades Cove is famous for black bear activity; you’re likely to see them as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, river otters, elk, and woodchucks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s best known as a driving loop, every Wednesday and Saturday morning from May to September, the route is closed to cars so you can walk or cycle (rental bikes are available). The Visitors Center near the midpoint of the driving loop is a solid source of information for deeper explorations.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More visitors centers can be found in downtown Gatlinburg (520 Parkway) and in Sugarlands (2 miles south of Gatlinburg), Oconaluftee (2 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina), Sevierville (3099 Winfield Dunn Pkwy), and Townsend (7906 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering remarkable 360-degree views over a rippling sea of forested hills from the top of its curving, concrete observation tower. You’ll need to walk up a steep, paved half-mile-long footpath to get here (wheelchairs are not recommended because of the slope) but once you get to the top, you’ll have conquered the third-highest peak in the eastern United States.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The views are spectacular, particularly in fall when the changing foliage repaints the landscape in a palette of reds, browns, and golds.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

To get here, drive about 23 miles south from Gatlinburg along the Parkway; Clingmans Dome is at the end of a 7-mile spur road.

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

10 Amazing Places to RV in May 2022

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in May

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

—J.R.R. Tolkien

One of the most beloved lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is this bit of wisdom imparted from the wizard Gandalf to the young hobbit Frodo. In the first book, 1954’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Frodo inherits a cursed ring and realizes he must take a frightening journey to destroy it. After confiding to Gandalf that he wishes the task had fallen to someone else, the wizard reminds Frodo that no one gets to dictate what challenges they face. Rather than lamenting unavoidable hardships, time is better spent focusing on the choices within our control, and making our time on Earth (or Middle-Earth) meaningful.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in March and April. Also check out my recommendations from May 2021 and June 2021.

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

Great Smoky Mountains

Established in 1926, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is comprised of the ridge upon ridge of seemingly endless forest on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Called the Smokies due to the ever-present morning fog, this mountain range is world-renowned for the diversity of its plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and its history of southern Appalachian mountain culture. With nearly 80 historic buildings, spectacular displays of wildflowers, and abundant wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers myriad activities to enjoy.

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

Observing wildlife is one of the most popular things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. With a wide variety of animals including approximately 1,500 black bears, the park is a biologist’s paradise. Over 17,000 species have been recorded at the park and experts estimate that there are thousands more to discover. Fishermen can try their hand at catching brook, brown, or rainbow trout swimming throughout the 700 plus miles of fishable streams in the park.

Texas Ranger Museum, Waco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waco

Waco’s bad rap as a hotbed of cult activity has all but been erased by the flurry of excitement around HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” and Chip and Joanna Gaines’ modern farmhouse empire. Visitors can shop the Magnolia Trail or take a guided tour of homes and retailers featured on the show—you can even stay in Airbnb homes the duo remodeled (or ones that have been done in a similar style).

Antique shops and airy cafes aren’t the only things Waco has to offer. Sightseers will want to tour one of the many historic estates in the area like the Earle-Harrison House & Pape Gardens, the East Terrace Museum, and the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House. Lovers of natural history will want to check out the Mayborn Museum on the Baylor University campus while nature lovers will want to get into the great outdoors and hike or cycle the trails at Cameron Park.

Texas Ranger Museum, Waco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in 1968, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum is the official hall of fame, museum, and archives for the Texas Rangers, the oldest law enforcement agency in the United States and a symbol of the American West. The museum also is the headquarters for Ranger Company F.

Related: RV Travel Bucket List: 20 Places to Visit Before You Die

While in Waco, take a tour of the Dr Pepper Museum & Free Enterprise Institute, a place that serves up history, nostalgia, and Waco’s favorite authentic soda fountain drinks. Most people agree: there’s nothing like a cold Dr Pepper float on a hot summer day, especially when enjoyed in the ambiance of a classic 1950’s soda fountain.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City Different

In recent years, Santa Fe has emerged from the desert as an oasis for incredible food, art, culture, and natural beauty in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Nicknamed “The City Different,” New Mexico’s capital city serves as a thriving creative hub; for proof, look to the trippy installations at Meow Wolf, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the classic Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. (One might argue that a day trip to El Malpais National Monument or El Moro National Monument could be equally inspiring.)

Related: The Amazing Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe is also home to many a tasty snack. We’re not just talking Hatch chiles—though those should be enjoyed, too, specifically in a cheeseburger at Shake Foundation and atop world-class Tex-Mex fare at a classic joint like Tia Sophia’s. And don’t skimp on the booze—this is allegedly the birthplace of the margarita, after all. Hit up Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, which boasts a 60-year legacy and more than 200 varieties on its binder-like menu.

Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Charm of Cottonwood

Located in the heart of Arizona and the heart of wine country, Cottonwood is ideally situated above the heat of the desert and below the cooler temperatures of Arizona’s high country. Surrounded by the red rocks of Sedona to the northeast and Mingus Mountain to the southwest, its lower elevation makes it a perfect spot for your next Arizona adventure.

Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Town Cottonwood is known for its Main Street with over 60 businesses including charming boutique hotels, wonderful restaurants, shops, antique stores, and wine tasting rooms. The Verde Valley Wine Trail runs right through town and has more stops here than anywhere else on the trail. Sit back and sip, savor, and enjoy the fruit of the vine in Old Town.

Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood is also home to Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Less than two miles from Old Town, this landmark has earned a reputation as a favorite fishing hole, bird lover’s paradise, and hiker’s dream. Its trails meander through sycamore and cottonwood trees along the banks of the Verde River making it a jewel in the center of Cottonwood all year round. Visit Cottonwood, the heart of Arizona wine country, where everyone is welcome!

Related: 14 of the Most Beautiful Lakes for RV Travel

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Czech out La Grange

You’ll discover a fanciful cache of history and culture in the Central Texas community of La Grange, a town steeped in German and Czech culture. Much of the town’s history is encased in dignified old architecture laid in the late 1800s. The three-story Fayette County Courthouse is a masonry and stone Romanesque Revival structure with a clock tower over the main entrance.

Texas Quilt Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the original buildings in La Grange are more than a century old, a number of them have been renovated and serve as creative outlets, blending history and modern-day function. The Texas Quilt Museum opened November 2011 in a two historic 1890s buildings, which provide a stunning showcase for both antique and contemporary quilt art with their high ceilings, brick walls, and original hardwood floors.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Top Auto Loop Road

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites. From remains of early pithouses and masonry villages to multi-storied cliff dwellings, archeological sites along this loop show how early Pueblo architecture evolved.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the road, you’ll find short, easily-accessible paved trails to view twelve archeological sites. Short trails along the Mesa Top Loop lead to surface sites such as pithouses and pueblos; overlooks of cliff dwellings tucked into alcoves; and viewpoints where you can enjoy the beauty of the landscape that was home to generations of Ancestral Pueblo people.

Highlights include Square Tower House Overlook, and views of Cliff Palace from Sun Point View and Sun Temple. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open daily, 8:00 am to sunset.

Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charleston to Savannah

Lined with massive oak trees that drip with Spanish moss and elegant antebellum plantations, the two-hour drive between two of America’s favorite southern cities makes for a fantastic road trip. Stroll the charming cobblestone streets of Charleston, South Carolina, and wander past secluded gardens and historic buildings that boast intricate iron-wrought balconies. Seek respite in the scorching heat of summer in the cool shades of Waterfront Park.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Historic District by horse-drawn carriage in Savannah, Georgia, and embark on leisurely strolls along the Savannah River. Shop and indulge in the regional cuisine on River Street where historic cotton warehouses have been converted into trendy boutiques and restaurants making sure to sample fried green tomatoes and hearty plates of shrimp and grits.

Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Giant Peach Does Exist

You can’t miss it as you drive down I-85 in South Carolina. The Peachoid, as it’s called, is a massive peach-shaped water tower. In Gaffney, the Peachoid is more than a water tower. According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.”

Without a doubt, the best known, most photographed water tank in America. It is painted to match the kind of peaches grown in the area using 20 colors and 50 gallons of paint.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park

The 1,445-acre Lackawanna State Park is in northeastern Pennsylvania ten miles north of Scranton. The centerpiece of the park, the 198-acre Lackawanna Lake is surrounded by picnic areas and multi-use trails winding through the forest. Boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming are popular recreation activities. A series of looping trails limited to foot traffic wander through the campground and day-use areas of the park. Additional multi-use trails explore forests, fields, lakeshore areas, and woodland streams.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground is within walking distance of the lake and swimming pool and features forested sites with electric hook-ups and walk-in tent sites. Campground shower houses provide warm showers and flush toilets. A sanitary dump station is near the campground entrance. In addition the park offers three camping cottages, two yurts, and three group camping areas. The maximum reservation window is 12 months in advance to the date.

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Creek Scenic Drive

Amidst the red rock of the Moab area, the Indian Creek Corridor scenic byway leads to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Traversing across high sage plains, the route eventually leads to Indian Creek and Newspaper Rock Recreation Site.

Related: The Ultimate RV Travel Bucket List: 51 Best Places to Visit in North America

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Utah Scenic Byway traverses a high altitude (6,000 feet) sage plain before plunging into Indian Creek Canyon on its way to Canyonlands National Park. Along the way it passes the Dugout Ranch, one of the oldest operating cattle ranches in southeast Utah. The byway accesses Newspaper Rock BLM Recreation Site and cuts through the Canyon Rims BLM Recreation Area, a vast landscape of desert and low elevation mountain terrain with hiking and four wheeling opportunities.

Worth Pondering…

When April steps aside for May, like diamonds all the rain-drops glisten; fresh violets open every day; to some new bird each hour we listen.

―Lucy Larcom

9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Looking to get closer to nature and linger longer at a US national park? RV camping is the perfect way to experience the majestic wide-open spaces of the national parks.

Camping in an RV within a national park provides a comfortable base to immerse yourself in a park’s beauty from sunrise to sunset (and beyond for great stargazing). National park campsites also create a fun sense of community between RV campers who share everything from vehicle advice to travel tips, BBQ recipes, and s’mores around the campfire.

The national parks listed below are top destinations not only for the quantity and quality of RV campsites within the parks but for the access that RVs have to tour the parks on paved roadways with key park attractions being within roadside viewing distance. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top tips to consider when RV camping at national parks

Most national parks use Recreation.gov as the website to make reservations for campsites. Each park has its own quirks about the timing and process for making reservations, so check out your target park’s rules and regulations prior to booking. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make reservations as far in advance as possible. National park RV campsites can become fully booked within minutes of dates being offered, particularly for summer high season and holiday weekends. 

For your RV campsite, research the length restrictions and available hookups for water, electricity, and sewage dumps. You don’t want an unpleasant surprise after a late arrival to a remote campground.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not able to secure a RV campsite within a national park, be aware that many private RV parks and resorts operate just outside the boundaries of most National Parks. Reservations at commercial campgrounds will be easier to make and these campgrounds provide more services and amenities than those within park limits. 

Bringing bicycles or a towed car with your RV can greatly expand your options for exploration in a national park particularly to areas with limited RV access. Also, consider leaving your RV in the campground and using park shuttle services when available. 

Following are nine of the best US national parks for RV camping.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. 

Main Park Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Arches’ Main Park Road traces 18 miles from the entrance to Devils Garden Campground on a nicely paved roadway with numerous pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s epic arches and other rock formations. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed. After your visit here, you can add stops to southern Utah’s BryceCanyonlandsCapitol Reef, and Zion for an epic Utah national parks RV road trip. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 1 campground with 51 sites

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Related Article: To Visit a Popular National Park this Summer, Start Planning Yesterday

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic RV route through the park: Desert View Drive portion of SR-64 is a scenic road that begins near Grand Canyon Village. Private vehicles can drive east along the canyon rim for 23 miles to the Desert View Services Area and the East Entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 519 sites available for RVs

Mather Campground is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. There are 327 sites. Each includes a campfire ring/cooking grate, and picnic table. There are flush toilets and drinking water throughout the campground. No hookups are available; however, there is a free dump station. Most RV spaces are pull-through.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trailer Village is the only in-park RV campground with full hookups (sewage, water, and electrical with 30-amp and 50-amp sites available) Trailer Village features paved pull-through sites which can accommodate vehicles up to 50 feet long. Trailer Village is concessioner operated. Reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drives in the park: The main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains are the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road which winds for 29 miles neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. 

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 9 campgrounds 924 sites available for RVs

Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers, electrical, or water hookups in the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Few roads pass through Joshua Tree but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive with spur roads to specific attractions. Driving the park north to south will give you roadside views not only of plenty of the park’s namesake trees but notable landmarks like Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rock formations. As you continue south watch as the landscape and flora transforms from the Mojave to the Colorado Desert ecosystems.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 8 campgrounds with 495 sites available for RVs

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Related Article: Tips for Reserving a National Park Campsite

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years from AD 600 to 1300.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 1 campground with 267 sites

Morefield Campground is located 4 miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents and RVs and includes 15 full-hookup RV sites.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

With over 229 square-miles, more than 35 hiking trails, and cliffs towering more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, Zion National Park is a pretty incredible place. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the main section of the park: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. The shuttle system was established to eliminate traffic and parking problems, protect vegetation, and restore tranquility to Zion Canyon.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV Campsites: 2 campgrounds with 303 sites

South Campground (127 non-hookup sites) and Watchman Campground (176 sites, 95 with electric hookups; reservations recommended) are near the south entrance at Springdale.

Tip: This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures often exceed 95 degrees.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, outdoor adventure, historic sites, and dark skies rank among the features visitors enjoy in Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tip: Big Bend is best enjoyed from late fall through early spring. Winter months bring beautiful days and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are scorching and outdoor recreation can be uncomfortable and unsafe. In the winter, five visitor centers are open, ranger programs occur more frequently, and local outfitters offer more activities. In the summer, many of these operations are reduced.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).

Related Article: My Favorite Under-appreciated National Parks to Visit in 2022

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 5 campgrounds with 196 sites for RVs

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to reserve a campsite well in advance. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. Reservations required. You can book your site up to six months in advance.

Note: At Chisos Basins RVs over 24 feet (trailers over 20 feet) and are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

Badlands Loop Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: The 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (also known as SR-240) connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Cedar Pass Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 2 campgrounds with 118 sites

In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find 96 RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. Reservations recommended.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most scenic drive in the park: Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Number of RV campsites: 4 campgrounds with 357 sites

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with four campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah National Park. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. Many sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance.

Related Article: National Parks Inspire Love of Nature

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah’s four main campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service and are open seasonally from early until late fall and feature spacious tent, trailer and RV sites:

  • Mathews Arm Campground (mile 22.2) 
  • Big Meadows Campground (mile 51) 
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (mile 57.2) 
  • Loft Mountain Campground (mile 79.5)

Worth Pondering…

If we set aside time each day to be in a peaceful environment, to walk in nature, or even just to look at a flower or the sky, then that beauty will penetrate us and feed our love and our joy.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Vietnamese monk and Zen master, How to Love

The Best Locations to Visit this Spring According to TikTok

As warmer days approach, you might start thinking about your next vacation—and if you’re looking for an unexpected gem you might not have to look very far

International luggage delivery company MyBaggage recently published its list of the 10 most popular places in the U.S. to visit this spring based on a potentially surprising methodology: TikTok views. And for the most part, the winners weren’t typical beach destinations in Florida or tourist attractions in California or New York.

The Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rather, the list primarily featured locations near mountain ranges, national parks, and other natural attractions—mostly in the western and southern U.S.

To get the list, MyBaggage ran a series of location-based hashtag searches through TikTok and sorted the results by total views. At the time the report was compiled, videos tagged with Macon, Georgia had 53.7 million views on the app, according to MyBaggage. Texas Hill Country had 51.3 million views, by comparison.

Check out the top 10 for some great ideas on where to potentially travel this spring:

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Macon, Georgia

TikTok views: 53.7 million

Average temperature in May 2021: 71 F

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Macon, Georgia is a nature lover’s wonderland. Nestled in the middle of the state, it’s the perfect place for a getaway to experience the great outdoors. Hike through 180 acres of upland forest at Amerson River Park, pick fresh produce at Lane Southern Orchards or Dickey Farms, hop on your bike for a ride through the Historic Downtown, or kayak along the bubbling Ocmulgee River.

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

Step back in time and visit Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. Ocmulgee has had 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. Explore the museum with over 2,000 artifacts and visit the Earth Lodge with its original floors that are dated to 1015. The park’s 702 acres include fields, forests, and wetlands located along Walnut Creek and the Ocmulgee River. The Ocmulgee Wetlands allows visitors a glimpse into an ecosystem including birds, animal, reptiles, and plants. Immerse yourself in the wetlands environment by taking a stroll on the park’s boardwalk.

Related Article: The Best RV Destinations to Explore this Spring

Guadalupe River at Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Hill Country, Texas

TikTok views: 51.3 million

Average temperature in May 2021: 76 F

The Hill Country lies in southwestern central Texas. Although it has no technical geographic boundaries, it generally is defined as the area west of Austin and north of San Antonio—bordered by Interstate 35 on the east, U.S. 83 on the west, U.S. 90 on the south, and Texas State Highway 29 on the north. It is a land of steep, rolling hills; woods; streams and rivers; and small towns. Towns include San Marcos, Boerne, New Braunfels, Canyon Lake, Fredericksburg, Kerrville, and Johnson City.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a strong German heritage dating to the 1800s, several Hill Country towns are known for their German restaurants and bakeries. Other attractions include wineries, state parks, barbecue restaurants, festivals and fairs, and wildflowers. Canyon, Buchanan, and Marble Falls are three major lakes in the area and among the primary rivers are Medina, Guadalupe, Colorado, Pedernales, and Llano. RV parks and resorts are abundant throughout the Hill Country and along I-35 and I-10.

Related Article: The Best Stops for a Spring Road Trip

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

TikTok views: 28.9 million

Average temperature in May 2021: 51 F

Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona is also known as the Red Rock Country, which—as the name implies—is home to red-rock formations and canyons amongst the desert trails and cacti. The springtime offers visitors a mild temperature to enjoy those red rocks before the heat of summer sets in.

Bell Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winding through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, Red Rock Scenic Byway (Highway 179) is often called a “museum without walls.” This All-American Road winds through the evergreen-covered Coconino National Forest and past two famous and beautiful vortexes—Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock. Stop at the several scenic pullouts for great views and enjoy the prehistoric red rocks with nearby parking (RV friendly). There are all levels of hiking and biking trails.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

TikTok views: 14.8 million

Average temperature in May 2021: 79 F

Coachella Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the Coachella Valley with the snow-capped peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains as a backdrop, Palm Springs has long been an upscale escape for area visitors and famous figures. Movie stars and mob bosses ditched L.A. to vacation here during the town’s first boom in the 1920s, popularizing a Spanish-Mediterranean architectural style.

Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town received another tourist boost during the ’50s when this became a hip Rat-Pack hangout. They brought with them significant Mid-Century Modern architects who crafted uber-cool homes, many of which were restored in the 1990s.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the village has grown and attractions consist of much more than just hanging out poolside. Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Related Article: 12 of the Best State Parks for Spring Camping

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

Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee

TikTok views: 5.2 million

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

The Great Smoky Mountains, also a national park, are a mountain range along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee where visitors can hike, camp, go whitewater rafting, and experience remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. It’s the country’s most-visited national park. The Appalachian Trail also runs through the Great Smoky Mountains.

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

Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. 

Related Article: 10 Inexpensive Outdoor Activities for Spring

Other locations in the top 10 most popular destinations include:

  • Oregon Coast, Oregon
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming
  • Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
  • Garden of the Gods, Colorado
  • Port Townsend, Washington

Worth Pondering…

You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.

—Florida Georgia Line, Cruise

Plan Your Travels around a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Discover these UNESCO heritage sites on your next RV road trip

Even if you’ve explored Everglades National Park in Florida and caught glimpses of alligators, manatees, and other wildlife, or visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia where important chapters in the birth of the United States were written, did you know that they’re among 24 places throughout America honored as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization?

And, there are 20 World Heritage Sites in Canada and each one is special in its own way.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

UNESCO designates natural destinations and cultural attractions that are “of outstanding universal value” and meet one or more of 10 criteria. Among these are to exhibit “exceptional natural beauty,” provide habitats for threatened species, and be associated with events of “universal significance.”

Among diverse places on the list are East Africa’s Serengeti region, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids of Egypt, and great castles and cathedrals throughout Europe.

Mission San Juan (San Antonio Missions) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

UNESCO sites in the United States and Canada are equally varied. They range from alluring mountain parks to an ancient pueblo, from architectural treasures to cultural icons. You might like to use them as a wish list of places to visit in the future.

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

It’s no surprise that Everglades National Park is included on the UNESCO list. It’s the largest tropical wetlands and forest wilderness in the country, the biggest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, and the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. It’s also home to 36 threatened or protected species.

Related: 7 UNESCO Heritage Sites for RV Travel

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The setting is very different in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park which straddles the Rocky Mountains along the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s an area of soaring snow-capped mountains, high-altitude lakes, and rushing glacier-fed rivers where cedar hemlock forests and alpine tundra provide habitats for more than 300 species of animals. The park serves as a symbol of goodwill between Canada and the United States.

Mission Conception (San Antonio Missions) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 54 World Heritage Sites in North America and each one is special in its own way. But, which ones are worth the visit? To help you figure out which sites to see, we’ve ranked each World Heritage Site based on quality of experience, RV accessibility, “wow” factor, popularity, and significance in history and culture.

However, it’s impossible to say one is better than the other. So, in the end, we leave the decision up to you.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sprawling below the Chihuahuan Desert is an extensive cave system waiting to be discovered. Bats are the primary residents of this site which UNESCO recognizes for both its beauty and ongoing geologic activity that scientists can study. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico include some 100 limestone caves that form an otherworldly underground labyrinth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One massive chamber, almost 4,000 feet long, is called the Big Room. Among names given to other caves are Kings Palace, Papoose Room, and Hall of the White Giant. The hundreds of thousands of bats that live in the caverns emerge around sunset to seek their evening meal. It’s also home to a section of the Capitan Reef, one of the world’s best-preserved and most accessible fossilized reefs.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pueblo people definitely left their mark on the American West, and their way of life remains intact at sites like Mesa Verde. The region is chalk full of thousands of archaeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings dating back to the 5th century. Carved into cliffs sitting 8,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by inhospitable desert landscapes, the tenacity and ingenuity of these ancient people is undeniable.

Related: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park entrance is about 45 minutes from Durango and the best time to see Mesa Verde is May through October when some of the dwellings allow the public to visit. Check out the tons of petroglyphs all along the Petroglyph Point Trail.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On your visit to Texas, expect to see a lot of missions—they’re everywhere, especially in San Antonio. First up was Mission San Antonio de Valero, also known as the Alamo which Franciscan priests built to help Spain and the Catholic Church colonize, convert, and defend New Spain. Over the next 13 years, four more missions were built along a 10-mile stretch of the San Antonio River, and together they make up an impressive UNESCO site.

Mission San José © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Alamo is impressive, but if you want to see the best mission, check out the “queen” of all the San Antonio Missions—Mission San José. Once the heart of a vibrant Spanish community founded in the early 18th century, San José attracted people from all over the area. The church was built in 1768 and is still standing today.

Related: Wander the (San Antonio) River’s winding Path and Experience the Spirit of San Antonio

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

Tennessee and North Carolina share the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is home to the oldest mountains in the U.S. as well as over 3,500 plant and animal species. The park draws more visitors than any other national park in the country, and it’s not difficult to see why. Between rolling, mist-covered hills, crisscrossing trails, and expansive vistas, this gorgeous national park truly takes your breath away.

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

The best seasons to visit the park are autumn and spring when you’ll get a firework display of fall colors and a dense covering of wildflowers. Must-see spots include Mogo Falls, the park’s tallest waterfall and the peak of Mount Cammerer where you’ll be rewarded with incredible 360-degree views.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Grand Canyon National Park has been around for millions of years and is still going strong. The mile-deep canyon draws visitors from all over the planet to gaze into its depths, marveling at red and burnt orange rock formations and the carved work of the Colorado River. A visit to the park will awaken your spirit of the American Southwest as you learn about Native American culture and stand in awe of the canyon’s sheer magnificence.

The South Rim is open year-round, but to beat the crowds visit during the spring or fall when balmy temperatures offer a pleasant climate for activities like hiking and camping.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Renowned for their scenic splendor, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are comprised of Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes national parks in Alberta, Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks in British Columbia.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The seven parks of the Canadian Rockies form a striking mountain landscape. With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems, and deeply carved canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty attracting millions of visitors annually.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The unusual landforms of Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi resulted from the dynamic interaction of geology, climate, and time. In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples created rock art in what is today Southern Alberta. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From an extensive cave system and mile-deep canyon to an ancient pueblo and scenic splendor, UNESCO sites throughout the U.S. and Canada have varied and very intriguing stories to tell.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs