20 Amazing Campgrounds Worth the Road Trip

Sleep under the stars

Camping is great but camping in a one-of-a-kind site with unique features (saltwater pools, sweeping views, horseback riding, we could go on) is even better. The next time you decide to venture into the great outdoors be sure to first consult this list. From campsites nestled in legendary state parks to options located on warm, sandy beaches, here are 20 campgrounds in the worth the road trip.

Shenandoah National Park campgrounds, Virginia

All of the five campgrounds at Shenandoah are open seasonally from early spring until late fall. Reservations are highly recommended on weekends and holidays. 

Mathews Arm Campground (mile 22.1) is the nearest campground for those entering the park from Front Royal in the northern section of the Park. All sites include a place for a tent or RV, a fire ring, and picnic table. Mathews Arm has a combination of reservable and first-come, first-served sites.

Big Meadows Campground (mile 51.2) is centrally-located in the park. All sites include a place for a tent or RV, a fire ring, and a picnic table. All sites at Big Meadows Campground are by reservation only.

Other campgrounds in Shenandoah include Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5) and Loft Mountain (mile 79.5).

Here are some helpful resources:

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Campground, Arches National Park, Utah

Camping in Arches is only allowed in Devils Garden Campground. The demand for campground sites is extremely heavy and the park service recommends making reservations as early as possible. Reservations can be made up to 6 months before arrival and must be made at least 4 days before you arrive. If you don’t have a reservation, plan on camping outside the park. Between November 1 and February 28, 24 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

By the way, I have a series of posts on Arches:

Potwisha Campground, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park campgrounds, California

There are fourteen campgrounds in the parks including two that are open during all four seasons. Campsites hold up to six people. Each has a picnic table, fire ring with grill, and a metal food-storage box. Nearly all campgrounds require advance reservations; sites fill quickly.

Except when weather or safety conditions require a closure, Potwisha Campground is open year-round with a four-month advance booking window. The campground sits at 2,100 feet elevation along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River under an open stand of oaks. Hot and dry weather in the foothills often require fire restrictions in the summer. In the winter, the campground is usually snow-free.

If you need ideas, check out:

Joshua Tree National Park campgrounds, California

The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation. 

You can camp among these truck-size boulders at Jumbo Rocks, one of the park’s eight campgrounds. Only two campgrounds (Black Rock and Cottonwood) have water, flush toilets, and dump stations. Cottonwood is especially popular with RVers. At the Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, RVs are limited to a maximum combined length of 25 feet (RV and a towed or towing vehicle); in the other campgrounds, the limit is 35 feet, space permitting.

Here are some articles to help:

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park campgrounds, South Dakota

Badlands National Park offers two campgrounds. The Cedar Pass Campground is a paid campground with 96 sites total, some designated for RV camping with electric hookups. Reservations for the Cedar Pass Campground can be made through contacting the Cedar Pass Lodge online or by phone at 877-386-4383. Sage Creek Campground is a free, first-come first-serve campground with 22 sites and limited to RVs 18 feet in length or less.

Read more:

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument camping, Arizona

Cottonwood Campground is managed by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department. Nightly fee with 93 sites available first-come, first-serve. No showers or hookups.

Here are some helpful resources:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping, North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains developed frontcountry campgrounds at 10 locations in the park: Abrams Creek Campground, Balsam Mountain Campground, Big Creek Campground, Cades Cove Campground, Cataloochee Campground, Cosby Campground, Deep Creek Campground, Elkmont Campground, Look Rock Campground, and Smokemont Campground. Camping is popular year-round and the park has a variety of options to enjoy camping throughout the year. Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are open year-round. All other campgrounds are open on a seasonal basis.

If you need ideas, check out:

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountains Regional Park camping, Arizona

With nearly 30,000 acres, White Tank Mountain Regional Park is the largest park in Maricopa County. White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for tent or RV camping.

Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45 foot RV and offer water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers.

Read more: A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jekyll Island camping, Georgia

Park your RV or pitch your tent under the magnificent oaks on the northern tip of Jekyll Island. Located opposite the Clam Creek Picnic Area you are near Driftwood Beach, the fishing pier, and fascinating historic ruins. For your convenience, there are camping supplies and a General Store for those pick-up items and bike rentals so you can explore all that Jekyll Island has to offer.

The Jekyll Island Campground offers 18 wooded acres on the Island’s north end with 206 campsites from tent sites to full hook-up, pull through RV sites with electricity, cable TV, water, and sewerage. Wi-Fi and DSL Internet is free for registered guests.

If you need ideas, check out: Celebrating 75 Years of Jekyll Island State Park: 1947-2022

Mesa Verde National Park camping, Colorado

Spend a night or two in Morefield Campground just four 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 including 15 full-hookup RV sites.
Morefield’s campsites are situated on loop roads that extend through a high grassy canyon filled with Gambel Oak scrub, native flowers, deer, and wild turkeys. Several of the park’s best hikes leave from Morefield and climb to spectacular views of surrounding valleys and mountains.

Here are some articles to help:

Kayenta Campground, Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park camping, Utah

Nestled within a grove of junipers, Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amps). Modern restroom facilities are available and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, or the Visitor Center.

New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RVs or tent campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites.  All sites have fire pits, picnic tables under shade shelters, and access to bathrooms with running water and dishwashing sinks.  RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground. The Wingate Campground also holds four yurts. 

Read more:

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park camping, Arizona

Picacho Peak State Park’s campground has a total of 85 electric sites for both tent and RV camping. Sites are suitable for RVs and/or tents. Four sites are handicapped-accessible. No water or sewer hookups are available. Access to all sites is paved. Sites are fairly level and are located in a natural Sonoran Desert setting.

Here are some helpful resources:

Grand Canyon National Park camping, Arizona

Mather Campground is located in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Open year-round, there are 327 sites. Each includes a campfire ring/cooking grate, picnic table, and parking space. There are flush toilets and drinking water throughout the campground. No hookups are available but a dump station is available.

Situated within a picturesque high desert landscape, Trailer Village RV Park park offers paved pull-through full hookup sites designed for vehicles up to 50 feet long. Trailer Village RV Park is open year-round.

The North Rim Campground is open from mid-May 15 through mid-October, weather permitting. The canyon’s rustic and less populated North Rim is home to abundant wildlife, hiking trails, and unparalleled views of this natural wonder. The facility is at an elevation of 8,200 feet with pleasant summer temperatures and frequent afternoon thunderstorms.

Here are some articles to help:

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alamo Lake State Park camping, Arizona

Campground A offers 17 basic sites with both back-in and pull-through sites. Campground B has expanded to 42 mixed-amenity sites. Campground F has 15 full-hookup sites. Campground C offers 40 water and electric sites. Dry camping is located in Campgrounds D and E and each site has a picnic table and fire ring.

Read more: Alamo Lake State Park: Fishing, Camping, Wildflowers & More

Buccaneer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buccaneer State Park camping, Mississippi

Buccaneer State Park Campground has 206 premium single-family campsites and is located in a natural setting of large moss-draped oaks and marshlands on the Gulf Coast. All of the 206 develop campsites have full hookups (water, electric, and sewer). There are also an additional 70 sites (with water and electric) that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and 25 primitive (first-come, first-serve) sites located in the back of Royal Cay camp area.

Fruita Campground, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The Fruita Campground is often described as an oasis within the desert. Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards this developed campground has 71 sites. Each site has a picnic table and firepit and/or above ground grill but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. There is a RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets but no showers. Accessible sites (non-electric) are located adjacent to restrooms.

Here are some helpful resources:

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park camping, Alabama

Gulf State Park Campground offers 496 full hookup sites with paved pads. All full hookup camping pads are at least ~45 feet (most back-ins) to ~65 feet (most pull-through) long with more than enough room for RVs with pullouts, have picnic tables, and pedestal grill tops There are 11 modern, air-conditioned bathhouses throughout the campground.

Meahler State Park camping, Alabama

Meaher State Park has 61 RV campsites. Each site is paved, roughly 65 feet in length and has 20, 30 and 50-amp electrical connections as well as water and sewer hookups. You have a grill and picnic table at your site and plenty of space between you and the next guest. The park has 10 improved tent sites with water and 20-amp electrical connections. All tent sites have a grill/fire pit and picnic table available. The campground features an air conditioned/heated main shower house equipped with laundry facilities for overnight campers and a smaller bathhouse equipped with restrooms only.

Read more: Where the Rivers Meet the Sea: Mobile-Tensaw River Delta and Meaher State Park

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lost Dutchman State Park camping, Arizona

The campground has 135 sites and three group camping areas: 68 sites with electric (50/30/20 amp service) and water and the remainder non-hookup sites on paved roads for tents or RVs. Every site has a picnic table and a fire pit with an adjustable grill gate. There are no size restrictions on RVs. Well-mannered pets on leashes are welcome but please pick after your pets.

Goose Island State Park camping, Texas

Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Goose Island also has 25 walk-in tent sites without electricity and a group camp for youth groups.

Read more: Life by the Bay: Goose Island State Park

Worth Pondering…

As you go through life, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

—Yogi Berra

The 10 Best National Parks That Need to Be on Your Bucket List (2024)

Craving some American beauty? Reconnect with nature by visiting the best national parks in America.

Sometimes—and let’s not beat around the bush, quite a lot recently—it feels like society itself is unravelling. And when that happens, we all need to take a deep breath, pause…and go somewhere nearby to just appreciate nature.

And once you’ve realized how well that works, you might want to ponder taking this enlightening experience one step further and plan either a road trip that incorporates one or two of the best national parks in the U.S. or even a dedicated visit to one a little bit further away.

See the forces of nature at work at stunners like Arches and Bryce (two of Utah’s Big Five), witness the power of water that carved out the Grand Canyon over thousands of years, or unique wildlife viewing like the bighorn sheep and pronghorns at Badlands National Park.

Visiting a national park can be as easy or challenging as you want. For diehard backcountry types, there are trails and rustic campsites that can keep you out in the wilderness for days. For the average visitor, paved roads through the parks offer the opportunity to easily see the best views and features of the park in a short amount of time.

There are 63 major national parks (in addition to hundreds of smaller sites) spanning the entire country including Alaska and Hawaii. Next time you hit the road, pick up an America the Beautiful pass and check out the best national parks in the country (but trust us, all of the parks are amazing and all should be on your list).

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

This natural wonder cradles two billion years of geologic history with 40 layers of rock shaped into buttes, spires, and cliffs. Carved by the Colorado River, the 277-mile gorge is magisterial from any perspective but it’s thrilling to venture below the rim. The safest place to start is the well-maintained Bright Angel Trail which follows an ancient route past sculpted sandstone to a cottonwood oasis.

Look for elk, mountain lions, and condors along the way plus the 1,000 species of plants that survive in this semi-arid desert.

Here are some helpful resources:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

You’ve seen Utah’s wild landscape in almost every John Wayne western but now its time to see it for yourself. The incredible thing about Zion National Park is that it hasn’t changed an iota over the years—you’ll see the same massive sandstone formations, twisty caves, and dark skies bursting with stars that Wayne himself walked through and people have been admiring for thousands of years.

Mosey to spectacular overlooks, hike to Emerald Pools, walk to Weeping Rock, or stroll on Riverside Walk and you’ll get a sense of the grandeur of this spectacular national park.

That’s why I wrote these four articles:

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Located north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park is so named for the 2,000 wind-sculpted sandstone arches gracing the area—the largest such concentration in the world. The most famous of these is the iconic 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch whose image has been depicted on Utah license plates but Arches will amaze you with its sheer range of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. 

Arches is also one of the few national parks where many of the top formations can be seen from the comfort of your car—perfect for those who want the sights without the sweat.

If you need ideas, check out:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Red rocks, pink cliffs, and endless vistas await at this Insta-famous national park in Utah. People travel to Bryce Canyon from around the world to see the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) in the world but the park’s high elevation also makes it a great place for star gazing.

One of the country’s more compact national parks, you don’t need a ton of time to hit the highlights like Thor’s Hammer, Inspiration Point, and the Queens Garden Trail.

For more tips on exploring Bryce Canyon, check out these blog posts:

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Between them, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks contain some of the oldest trees on the planet—and just standing in their presence is a humbling experience. Many of these ancient wooden giants have been on Earth for 3,000 years and there are even a couple of trees where you can actually drive your car through. There are some gorgeous hiking trails here in addition to a small number of campsites.

If you’re on a road trip, try to allocate a reasonable amount of time to explore these wonderful parks.

Read more:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Badlands National Park

This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks. Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep.

As long as they stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Here are some helpful resources:

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. White Sands National Park

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019.

Four marked trails allow hiking and since gypsum, unlike sand, reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

If you need ideas, check out:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Capitol Reef National Park

You’ll probably notice that Utah features quite prominently in this list and there’s good reason—its natural geology and geography make it arguably the most exciting state to visit if you’re the outdoors type. This particular park is not one of the Beehive State’s most well known but that’s precisely why it’s on my list.

As you’d expect there’s plenty offer here including 15 hiking trails to explore along with four-wheel-drive road tours, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Or you could just marvel at the colors, canyons and rock formations, and even harvest fruit from orchards in the Fruita Historic District in the summertime.

Read more:

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

9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains is also home to the highest number of animal species—1,778 species of animals, including a notable populations of black bears and elk and more than 2,600 different plant species call this national park home.

But you might be most familiar with the parks’ famous fireflies. Every year, the synchronous fireflies, Photinus carolinus or Elkmont fireflies put on a synchronous light display in order to find a mate. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light.

For more tips on exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, check out these blog posts:

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Despite the millions that flock here every year, many don’t realize that Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two different deserts; the southern tip of the Mojave Desert makes up its western edge and the Colorado Desert covers its eastern and southern areas.

And as such, The Joshua trees for which the park is named are more prevalent in the higher elevations on the Mojave side but here’s the funny thing, they’re not actually trees. The plants are a member of the Yucca genus and they can grow up to 70 feet tall, though they can take up to 50 years to reach their full size.

If you need ideas, check out:

Worth Pondering…

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

—Michael Frome

10 Amazing Places to RV in April 2024

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

April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

—William Shakespeare

From time immemorial, spring’s awakening has signaled to humanity the promise of new beginnings. In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98, a love poem published in 1609, the prolific poet and playwright personifies the glorious month of April as the herald of youth, vitality, and hope. For the Bard, the coming of spring—the twittering birds, ambrosial flowers, and long-awaited sunny skies—brought with it all the delights of a fresh start.

We have made it to the fourth month of the year, the one we kick off by fooling acquaintances with sport. A warning to my readers: Watch out for tricksters in the RV travel realm.

April is a time of change. With the vernal equinox in the recent rearview mirror in the Northern Hemisphere, nature is slowly stirring from its months-long slumber preparing to soon be in full bloom. April also has outsized importance compared to other months: The ancient Romans tied the month to the goddess Venus because of its beautiful and life-affirming effects and for thousands of years the month was seen as the true beginning of the year.

Today, April is full of moments of mischief, reverence, and a budding excitement for the warmer times ahead. These six facts explore the history of the month and why it’s sometimes considered one of the best times of the year.

When it comes to the names of months, April is a bit of an outlier. Other months are either intimately tied to Roman history and culture—whether named after Roman gods (January, March, June, etc.), rituals (February), or leaders (July and August)—or are related to Latin numbers (September to December). April, however, is simply derived from the Latin aperire which means “to open.” This is likely a reference to the beginning of spring when flowers open as the weather warms.

Although April’s name isn’t etymologically tied to Roman culture, April (or Aprilis, as the Romans called it) was a month dedicated to the goddess Venus known as Aphrodite in the ancient Greek pantheon. On the first day of April, Romans celebrated a festival known as Veneralia in honor of the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. This has led some scholars to wonder if the month’s name was actually Aphrilis about the goddess.

One of the most important holidays in April (and occasionally March) is the celebration of Easter which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. Much like Christmas, this holiday has pagan origins and its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for the month, Ēosturmōnaþ. That name literally meant Ēostre’s month, a reference to the West Germanic spring goddess of the same name.

The only known historical text mentioning Ēostre comes from the Venerable Bede, a Christian monk who lived in the eighth century and who mentions the goddess (and the festivals dedicated in her name) in his work The Reckoning of Time. Because so little evidence of Ēostre exists some wonder if the goddess was a complete invention of Bede’s and whether she was real or not. Ēostre remains the namesake of April’s holiest days for Christians.

One of the oddest annual traditions on the modern calendar falls on the first day of April otherwise known as April Fools’ Day. Once a day reserved for harmless pranks pulled on friends and family, April Fools’ Day now reaches into the furthest depths of the internet with multimillion-dollar brands and corporations getting in on the fun.

Although the tradition is certainly an oddity, it’s strange still that no one is exactly sure where April Fools’ Day comes from. Some historians think when France moved to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, those who still celebrated the New Year in April (having not gotten the memo, wilfully or otherwise, about the calendar change) were labeled April fools.

Others have tied the tradition to an ancient Roman festival called Hilaria which took place in late March, along with many more theories. A more modern version of April Fools’ Day took root in 18th-century Britain before evolving into the mischief holiday we know today.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in February and March. Also, check out my recommendations from April 2023 and May 2023.

Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Visit Yuma

As the weather warms up and the paloverde explodes into bloom, there’s no better time to visit Yuma, Arizona for a unique outdoor adventure. Soak up every minute in Yuma the way you’ve always wanted to—without regrets. Kick off an adventurous stay at full throttle with high-speed boating. Find solace in the sunset from a pontoon, a paddleboard, or one of Yuma’s three national wildlife refuges. Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or just starting, add Yuma to your bucket list.

Yuma is home to a variety of unique attractions that you won’t find anywhere else. Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is a must-see destination for history buffs while Colorado River State Historic Park provides a glimpse into the military history of the area. The Yuma Art Center features rotating art exhibits and cultural events and you can find beautiful, colorful murals scattered all around town.

Visit one of the date farms and enjoy a date milkshake in the shade of a Medjool date palm tree then explore some of the more offbeat destinations such as Lauren Pratt’s Little Chapel, the McPhaul Suspension Bridge (also known as the Bridge to Nowhere), the Center of the World, or the Museum of History in Granite.

Here are some helpful resources:

Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The Texas Hill Country

This year, all eyes are turned to the Texas Hill Country since it falls smack-dab in the path of totality for the 2024 solar eclipse on April 8. As the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, the day will turn to night. North America saw a total eclipse in 2017 but the last time the land now known as Texas experienced one was back in 1397.

Visibility will depend on two things: location (the Hill Country will get close to four and a half minutes of totality out of a possible seven and a half) and weather (Central Texas’s annual average of 300 sunny days bodes well).

Plan your next trip in the Texas Hill Country with these resources:

Temecula Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Forget Napa, Temecula is the underrated wine region to visit in 2024

For as great as they are, Napa and Sonoma wine regions are missing a rustic, casual wine-tasting trip with some great juice in its own right—Temecula wine country is the underrated wine region to visit this year.

There have only been commercial wineries in the Temecula Valley since the mid-’60s but in the intervening 55 years the industry has grown immensely and there are now almost 50 active wineries. It’s an officially recognized AVA with hot afternoons and cooler nights thanks to the breeze off of the Pacific Ocean which gives the area the right growing conditions for lots of different grapes, particularly Mediterranean varieties.

With all those wineries to explore (and lots of other things to do in Temecula), it makes a fantastic day trip from most anywhere in Southern California.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Appalachia’s spectacular mountain road 

Discover the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains as you wind your way along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This 469-mile-long route passes through charming towns, dense forests, and stunning mountain vistas. With ample opportunities for hiking, picnicking, camping, and wildlife spotting, it’s the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The parkway’s famous Linn Cove Viaduct is a must-see engineering marvel. Rest up at cozy lodges like Peaks of Otter Lodge or Pisgah Inn for a true mountain getaway experience. 

Check this out to learn more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

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

5. Springtime in the Smokies

This stunning national park is a great spot to visit any time of the year—which is probably why it’s the most popular one in America.

But come springtime, the Smokies are extra special: all covered over in a flood of newly-bloomed wildflowers from rhododendrons to black-eyed Susans and lots of others in between. In fact, over 1,500 types of flowering plants call the park their home, which naturalists celebrate by hosting the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at the end of April and beginning of May (74th annual; May 1-4, 2024). Just make sure you reserve your campsite early! As with all national parks, sites have a tendency to fill up fast when the weather’s lovely.

Here are some helpful resources:

6. Festival International de Louisiane

For the Festival International de Louisiane (April 24-28, 2024), downtown Lafayette is turned into an international music hub, complete with live performances, street musicians, arts and crafts boutiques and more. Multiple countries are represented at this fest, making Festival International one of Louisiana’s premier multicultural events. All of the events, including cultural workshops, are free.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Triassic World

Who knew petrified wood could be so beautiful? While you might think the Grand Canyon is the only stunning place in Arizona, this spot will prove you wrong. Petrified Forest National Park is a unique preserve where you can enjoy several breathtaking views. The park is full of colorful badlands and is a great place to go backpacking or simply enjoy a day hike.

Anything rock is found here. You can see trees dating more than 200 million years—turned to stone. And flora and fauna fossils as well as petroglyphs! Start at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and learn about all the stops and sights that are RV-friendly around the park. You can easily spot petrified wood near some of the parking areas and lots of wildlife.

Here are some articles to help:

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. The amazing Badlands

There are not too many hills and curves in this part of South Dakota and its big-rig friendly too, so the Badlands can make nice spring RV trips. Spring makes for a cool drive through the paint-colored hills. You can see bighorn sheep, buffalo, and prairie dogs that haven’t been scared off by crowds. There are several designated areas where you can pull over and enjoy the rock formations, or take a hike.

The park is very RV-friendly. You can park along the roadways and most of the roads are paved. If you have time, check out Mount Rushmore and the famous Black Hills. Finding open RV parks this time of year is a little challenging. Basic hookups are at the nearby 24 Express RV Campground. Or, if you book now, the national park’s Cedar Pass Campground is open on April 19.

Here are some helpful resources:

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Jekyll Island

Part of the Golden Isles, Jekyll Island provides a plethora of biking trails, beach access, wooded exploration, and a fun water park. Quiet and spacious, this island is big on downtime and memory-making. For even more island time, spend a day at the neighboring St. Simons Island. This chain of islands provides one of the most unique spring destinations.

Jekyll Island Campground provides everything you need for a great vacation.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Bryce Canyon National Park moving to spring schedule

The possibility of a snowstorm after April 1 can’t be ruled out at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah but the park just the same will be transitioning to its spring season schedule on April 5.

No reservations are required to enter Bryce Canyon but planning ahead will help park visitors to enjoy a predictable visit even on the busiest days. 

Starting April 5, the Bryce Canyon Shuttle will be available to help ease traffic congestion at popular viewpoints and trailheads. Unlimited use of the shuttle is included with your park admission. Shuttle service will run until October 20 and begin every day at 8 a.m. In spring and fall, the last bus will depart the park at 6:15 p.m. Final bus times will extend to 8:10 p.m. from May 10 to September 22.  

Visitors riding the shuttle are encouraged to take advantage of free parking at the shuttle station in Bryce Canyon City. As in years past, vehicles 23 feet and longer are restricted from parking at Bryce Amphitheater viewpoints during shuttle operating hours. 

North Campground remains open all winter for first-come, first-served camping and will transition to reservation-based camping from May 18 through October 7. Reservations are available on a 6-month rolling basis. 

Sunset Campground is closed each winter and will open for first-come, first-served camping April 15 through May 17. Reservation-based camping on a 14-day rolling basis is available May 18 through October 14. Sunset Campground returns to first-come, first-served camping on October 15 before closing for the winter season on November 1. 

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bryce Canyon:

Worth Pondering…

Spring is the time of the year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.

—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

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

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

10 Visitor Centers You Shouldn’t Miss

10 National Park Visitor Centers that are worth exploring

National Park Visitor Centers offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of the parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Stopping at the National Park Visitor Center is a must!

Our first National Park Visitor Center experience happened by chance. We stumbled upon the visitor center on our way into a park. Stopping at the visitor center wasn’t even on my radar at the time. The visitor center is now the first place that we stop when going to a new national or state park, state, city, or town and I am saddened when I see people pass up on their opportunity to stop at one.

When I was a National Park newbie (for lack of a better word) I really didn’t know what to expect from park Visitor Centers. I thought that they were just a place to stretch your legs and maybe grab a quick snack from a vending machine. But, I was SO WRONG! The National Park Visitor Centers are so much more than any ol’ dingy rest area off of any ol’ winding interstate!

Below are a few reasons that I sing the praiss of National Park Visitor Centers and highly encourage you to not pass them up!

The ability to travel and explore new places is one of the best parts of the RV lifestyle. There’s no better way to truly experience the country. You get to know the areas you travel through and you have the opportunity to participate in local events and visit interesting landmarks.

Visitor centers are one of the best ways to learn about a new area. There are countless visitor centers scattered across the country and they serve a wide variety of purposes. Some of them educate, others entertain, and others showcase interesting features of the area. Lots of national and state parks have at least one visitor center but some businesses, churches, museums, and other interesting locations have them as well.

Since I’m talking visitor centers, here’s a great related article: Why Stop At Visitor Centers?

It’s hard to define what the best visitor centers are but I’ve selected 10 fantastic options below. Check out my list and consider adding one or two of these to your upcoming travel plans. For your convenience, I’ve also provided some additional resources.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

If you’re a fan of geology or just want to see something incredibly unique, it’s hard to top Carlsbad Caverns. The main attraction of this area is the caverns themselves and there are numerous guided tours available.

Enjoy the hands-on exhibits to help you understand how the cavern was formed, discover the animals and plants that make the desert their home, and be amazed by the history of the park.

Before starting on your cavern adventure you may want to enjoy the free, 16-minute, park film Hidden World showing at the visitor center every 30 minutes. Check at the information desk for times.

Browse through a variety of gift items including t-shirts, hat, mugs, and Native American art. You can also enjoy snacks, drinks, and hot and cold meals. The bookstore offers a variety of items including books, photos, passport books, and junior ranger products.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many interesting historical sites and beautiful natural landmarks. Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center is an excellent starting point as you enter the park’s North District. Learn about the park’s plants and animals with natural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Access public restrooms and drink vending machines. The Backcountry Permit Office is here, too.

Sugarlands is a top-rated visitor center.

Near Cherokee, North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is an ideal starting point as you enter the park’s South District. Explore cultural history exhibits. Enjoy ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Peruse the park bookstore and shop. Find public restrooms and drink vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib and others.

About half-way through the Cades Cove Loop Road, pause to speak with park staff and visit various exhibits at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Learn about Southern Mountain life and culture and see a gristmill (operates spring through fall), the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Enjoy seasonal ranger-led activities and peruse the park bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smokies, weather permitting, and get your park questions answered at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station Peruse a small bookstore and shop. Public restrooms are available.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Grand Canyon National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon draws crowds from all over the country. The park offers several visitor centers including the South Rim (Grand Canyon Village), Desert View, and the North Rim. Since they may be closed during different periods of the year, be sure to check their availability. All of the visitor centers provide a great experience but the South Rim center is especially noteworthy. Trip planning and hiking information is available through exhibit kiosks and sidewalk signs outside of the building.

Park in one of four large parking lots and get your first look at Grand Canyon by walking to nearby Mather Point. With your vehicle parked at the Visitor Center, you can also board free shuttle buses and be transported around the village and out to scenic overlooks.

Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, the park’s 20 minute orientation film, is presented on the hour and half-hour on the large screen in the theater.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Zion National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, one of five national parks in Utah (Mighty Five) is known for its distinctive red rock and otherworldly geological formations.

Located near the South Entrance of the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is an excellent place to begin your exploration of Zion Canyon. Park rangers and outdoor exhibits will help you plan your visit and make the most of your time. Inquire at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk about permits for backpacking, canyoneering, and other trips into the wilderness. Visit the bookstore for maps, books, and gifts.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main facility in the North Unit of the park. Stop by to talk with rangers, explore museum exhibits, check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, or visit the Badlands Natural History Association bookstore. There’s something for everyone at the visitor center.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors to Badlands National Park can get answers to their questions from rangers at the information desk. There, park staff can distribute maps and other park materials, provide directions and local area orientation, hand out Junior Ranger booklets, and answer any questions you might have about earth science, wildlife, history, and more. There is also a self-serve passport stamping station at the information desk.

If you’re not stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during your trip to the Badlands, you can also access rangers at the White River Center, via email or by calling (605) 433-5361

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Sequoia National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sequoia and Kings National Parks, California

The park’s visitor centers, ranger stations, and a museum offer opportunities to explore the nature and history of these parks, watch park films, and get trip-planning information. Park stores within visitor centers offer books and other products related to the park. All purchases in these stores support park programs through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

While the parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, not all visitor centers are open year-round. Some close seasonally.

Foothills Visitor Center is one mile past the Ash Mountain entrance station along the Generals Highway. Stop here for information, maps, books, gifts, and restrooms. Browse exhibits about the ecology and human history of the foothills and join a free ranger-led program.

Giant Forest Museum is housed in a historic market in the Giant Forest sequoia grove at 6,500 feet elevation. Explore exhibits about sequoias and learn why this landscape grows the biggest of big trees. Stop here before you explore the grove. During wilderness permit non-quota season, permits can be picked up at a self-issue station outside the museum.

Kings Canyon Visitor Center is in Grant Grove Village at an elevation of 6,500 feet. Learn about three regions in Kings Canyon National Park: giant sequoia groves, Kings Canyon, and the High Sierra. Watch a 15-minute movie. A park store sells books, maps, and educational materials.

Located in the conifer zone at an elevation of 6,700 feet, Lodgepole Visitor Center provides opportunities to view exhibits, get trip planning advice, get a wilderness permit, watch several park films, or shop at the gift shop. New exhibits immerse visitors in the wilderness environments of the parks, from the foothills to the highest peaks and to underground caves, as well as exploring the human history of the southern Sierra Nevada with tactile exhibits and soundscapes from every park environment.

Cedar Grove Visitor Center is next to the South Fork of the Kings River in mixed conifer forest at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Learn about the natural and cultural history of the Cedar Grove area. Nearby services include accessible restrooms and a pay phone.

Located in a mixed-conifer forest at 7,600 feet, the Mineral King Ranger Station houses some exhibits on Mineral King’s human and natural history. Food storage canisters are available. Obtain wilderness permits here.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaro National Park is separated into two districts: Rincon Mountain District (East) and Tucson Mountain District (West), each with their own visitor center.

Red Hills Visitor Center (Saguaro West) Tucson Mountain District has cultural and natural history exhibits of the Sonoran Desert.

The visitor center at Saguaro East is smaller and more rustic. There is an interesting and well done exhibit just outside the center that walks you past about 15 major plants that live in the Sonoran Desert. You can see the living plant and plaque with a name and description of each plant.

Both visitor centers are open all year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm everyday except Christmas where you can view  a 15 minute program called Voices of the Desert giving a Native American perspective of the Sonoran Desert. There is also a bookstore operated by the Western National Parks Association.Various Ranger guided programs are held throughout the year. During the winter months (November to mid-April) several different programs are offered daily.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Congaree National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is open year-round. It is the main hub for Congaree National Park which is the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U. S. and home to one of the largest concentrations of champion trees. The center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. 

Visitors can find the Congaree National Park Passport Stamp at the center. Restrooms and a small gift shop can be found at the center. The Whippoorwill Cafe & Bakery and A Charming Country Cottage Nestled in the Woods are restaurants near the center.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Arches National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Visitor Center is located at the entrance of Arches National Park just off U.S. Highway 191 about 5 miles north of Moab. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except December 25. The center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms that can be accessed 24 hours a day.Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, climate, and wildlife.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

Petrified Forest National Park Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park is connected by the 28-mile-long Main Park Road which winds past viewpoints, trailheads, and other attractions. Visitors can get up close to petrified logs by wandering along trails in the park’s southern section. Petrified Forest National Park is a high-desert geologic treasure chest that features loads of petrified wood and eye-popping views of The Painted Desert, which sweeps through the park

Painted Desert Visitor Center is located at exit #311 off of I-40 in Petrified Forest National Park. It provides information, brochures, book sales, exhibits, restrooms, and a gift shop.The center is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm year-round with extended hours as staffing permits.

The Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center is located to the south and offers exhibits, books and gifts, limited food service, and restrooms.

Additional resources to enhance your visit:

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

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

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

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome

Preparing for Sweater Weather

The fall equinox arrives on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Autumn has caught us in our summer wear.
—Philip Larkin, British poet (1922–86)

It’s officially the last day of summer which means that pumpkin spice and sweater weather are basically upon us. Rather than bemoan the end of one season, I’m looking forward to everything autumn brings with it—including crisp morning air and apple cider. Consider today’s post your fall kickoff complete with a leaf-peeping guide and some great road trips for the season.

Saying farewell to the long, warm days of summer can be bittersweet but the sheer majesty of the changing fall foliage makes the transition a little bit easier. As autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter days set the trees ablaze with color, now is an ideal time to plan a leaf-peeping road trip, hike, or other excursion to take in the views.

It is the summer’s great last heat,
It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.
—Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fall season officially begins on Saturday, September 23. This date marks the autumn equinox or the date between the summer and winter solstices when day and night are nearly equal lengths. (We also know it as the first day of the year when you can order a pumpkin spice latte with no shame.)

During an equinox, the Sun crosses what we call the celestial equator—an imaginary extension of Earth’s equator line into space. The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line.

After the autumnal equinox, days become shorter than nights as the Sun continues to rise later and nightfall arrives earlier. This ends with the winter solstice after which days start to grow longer once again. 

The word equinox comes from Latin aequus, meaning “equal” and nox, the Latin word for “night.” On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal in length.

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

But why do leaves change color in the fall?

Autumnal leaves in vibrant hues are a beautiful part of the season but those leaves are also a vital part of keeping trees alive. The trees with leaves that change color in fall are deciduous. (Evergreen trees with needles which stay green to continue the photosynthesis process through the winter are coniferous.) Deciduous trees usually have large, broad leaves.

Most of the year, these leaves are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from sunlight during photosynthesis. The leaves convert the energy into sugars to feed the tree.

As the season changes, temperatures drop and days get shorter. Trees receive less direct sunlight and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.

The lack of chlorophyll reveals yellow and orange pigments that were already in the leaves but masked during the warmer months. Darker red leaves are the result of a chemical change: Sugars that can get trapped in the leaves produce new pigments (called anthocyanins) that weren’t part of the leaf in the growing season. Some trees like oaks and dogwoods are likely to produce red leaves.

Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When do fall leaves change color

Leaves can change their color from as early as mid-September through early November. Typically, the second and third weeks of October are the peak times but it shifts depending on your location and your local weather conditions.

Foliage starts to change in the northern-tier states out West and in the Midwest by late September. By October 2, the leaves in some areas will be past their prime. 

Much of New England as well as the Pacific Northwest will be at or near peak fall color by October 9. 

A little further south in the Blue Ridge Mountains, mid-October is your best bet.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina/Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See below for times of the year of peak foliage around the country:

  • Oregon: Best viewed while driving along scenic highways from mid-September through mid-October; however, color conditions vary daily based on humidity and fog density. 
  • North Carolina: North Carolina’s leaf patterns move east across the state. The first leaves in the western part of the state begin to peak the week of October 9. By October 23, the entire state should peak and the show will be pretty much over by November 1.
  • Vermont: Optimal viewing from September 18 through October 2 although the leaves will begin to change in early September.
  • New Hampshire: Leaves in New Hampshire will be at their best the last week of September. By October 16 most of the state will have changed.
  • Washington: Washington State leaves normally hit their peak the week of October 9 and past their peak by October 23.
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for viewing fall leaves

Here is a list of my picks for the most idyllic spots in the U.S. for viewing fall leaves. Some are off the beaten path, some are on more popular, scenic routes for you to enjoy whether on foot or by vehicle. I’ve also included the dates for peak foliage viewing for each location.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Peak Viewing: October 9-28

Virginia’s Skyline Drive is a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The speed limit is 35 mph with 75 overlooks to pull over and enjoy the sights of the Shenandoah Valley below. Often called one of America’s favorite mountain drives, Skyline Drive is “good for the soul.” 

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Peak viewing: Mid September to mid October

Aside from aspens, cottonwoods, and other deciduous trees making the slow turn to brilliance, the abundant sandstone rocks change colors here, too. Shorter days and angled fall light combine to give Moab’s signature sandstone deeper, more varied colors than usual. Several different leaf-peeping routes include the La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway, the Gemini Bridges Trail, the Poison Spider Mesa Trail, and the Moab Rim Trail. Jeeps are required on all routes except the La Sal

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Peak viewing: Mid to late October, depending on elevation.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any terrain more perfectly orchestrated for fall color viewing than the Great Smoky Mountains. Lots of sumac adds to the brilliant reds but the Park boasts an amazing diversity of trees and terrain that add to the color spectrum—some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway. 

Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kancamagus Scenic Highway, Lincoln, New Hampshire

Peak viewing: September 25-October 7

The Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire known by the locals as The Kanc provides some of the most spectacular fall foliage viewing in New England. The Kanc’s 35-mile scenic pass that connects Lincoln to Conway (Route 112) has some tricky hairpin turns and no gas stations so be prepared. It does have plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the grandeur of the vistas. 

Julian apples © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian, California

Peak viewing: Early to mid-November.

In Julian, autumn is the grandstand season both for apple-pie eating and leaf-peeping. Sample the town’s homemade apple confections then watch black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A scenic 45-minute drive leads to Palomar Mountain State Park where you can put some miles on your feet while you admire bracken ferns and leafy oaks on the Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop. Or hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, home to some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County. 

Worth Pondering…

It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!

—A. A. Milne

The Ultimate East Coast National Parks Road Trip 

From Shenandoah in Virginia to Congaree in South Carolina, this road trip hits four national parks, covers 780 miles, and guides you away from the crowds

How’s the saying go? “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But if you want to connect the most spectacular East Coast national parks and experience the best adventures in between maybe the saying should go: “It’s not just the destination because the journey is kickass, too.”

Follow my plan and you’ll paddle wild rivers, climb storied cliffs, and find yourself in miles of empty, stunning wilderness. Set aside a couple of weeks to complete the whole drive or carve off one leg at a time.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Royal, Virginia to Afton, Virginia

Distance: 108 miles

Route: This is a short but worthy stretch of road through Shenandoah National Park and some gorgeous mountain drives along the way.

The park: Just 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park protects a particularly pretty stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains offering a quick getaway for denizens of the Mid-Atlantic. And they show up—nearly 1.6 million of them visited the park in 2021. And most stick to Skyline Drive which draws a line through the middle of the park or flock to the summit of Old Rag, a dramatic, rocky peak with tough climbs and killer views.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To avoid the crowds, try the 3.4-mile Chimney Rock loop hike. Or bring your fly rod. The park is packed with pristine backcountry trout streams, 70 of which hold healthy populations of native brook trout. Rapidan River, a headwaters stream, offers cool history along with its bevy of trout as President Hoover established a mountain retreat where two streams join to form the Rapidan.

Need to know: You can fish for trout year-round in Shenandoah but Rapidan is catch and release only.

Stay: Skyland puts you in the heart of Shenandoah as the park lodge occupies 27 acres off milepost 41 of Skyline Drive. Even better than the location are the digs: newly renovated rooms and cabins are well appointed and the mountain views from 3,680 feet are stunning.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When it comes to developed campgrounds, Mathews Arm Campground is your best bet in the north end of Shenandoah. Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain are the most centrally located campgrounds and give you quick access to some of the most popular sites in the park like Dark Hollows Trail and the Byrd Visitor Center and camp store. Loft Mountain, the largest campground in the park is the only one south of US 33. Book your campsite several months in advance via the NPS system—things fill up quickly in peak summer and fall seasons.

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

Afton, Virginia to Fayetteville, West Virginia

Distance: 170 miles

Route: You’ll head deep into the heart of the Southern Appalachians to explore the 63rd and most recently designated national park—New River Gorge with one of the region’s deepest gorges and some of its tallest mountains.

Detour: About 60 miles away in nearby West Virginia, Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area is a hotbed of traditional climbing with hundreds of established multi-pitch routes that traverse the mountain’s unique fins of Tuscarora quartzite which rise from the canopy like a dragon’s back. If you have time, sign up for a three-day trad camp where you’ll master anchors and protection placement.

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

The park: The 70,000-acre New River Gorge National Park protects some of the best whitewater rafting and rock climbing on the eastern seaboard. Less known? The 13-miles of singletrack built specifically for mountain biking. Hit the Arrowhead Trails on the south side of the gorge for fast and pedaly flow through a dense hardwood forest. The three-mile long Adena loop has the toughest climbs and quickest descents.

Need to know: Unlike many national parks, bikes are allowed on a variety of trails throughout New River Gorge including some non-technical paths that cruise by historic mining camps.

Stay: The cabin-heavy Adventures on the Gorge Resort sits on the rim of the New River Gorge, with a 350-acre campus packed with ziplines, pools, aerial adventure courses, and low key restaurants. The resort’s in-house guides will take you climbing and rafting, too. Choose from glamping tents to deluxe cabins.

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

Fayetteville, West Virginia to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Distance: 275 miles

Adventure along the drive: Take a quick detour back into Virginia on your way to Tennessee to stop at the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area—5,279-foot Rogers is the tallest peak in the state. Start in Grayson Highlands State Park and hike four miles through high-elevation mountain balds, scramble over rock outcroppings, and spy the herds of feral ponies that live free range on the ridges.

Detour: Before you hit the Smoky Mountains, soak in one of the only natural hot springs in the Southern Appalachians in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Mineral waters fill tubs in the Hot Springs Resort and Spa on the edge of the French Broad River. Book a private tub and make time for a beer at Big Pillow Brewing in downtown.

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

The park: A little over 12 million. That’s how many people visited the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year. That’s the bad news. The good news? Most of those people stick to the scenic roads and short nature trails which means the best way to ditch the crowds is to hit the backcountry. Head to the less crowded eastern side of the park accessed at a remote entrance to the park off of Heintooga Ridge Road to backpack or trail run the 13.8-mile Hemphill Bald Loop which cruises along at 5,000 feet in elevation across mountain top meadows before sinking deep into a forest of old growth poplars, babbling trout streams, and remote campsites.

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

Stay: Camping is popular year-round and the park has a variety of options to enjoy camping throughout the year with 10 locations.

Eat and Drink: Skip the madness in Gatlinburg and head to the much quieter Townsend where traditional Southern fare is given an upscale treatment at the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. What isn’t grown onsite is sourced locally. Cheese plates are dressed with home-grown figs, and local trout is paired with tomato jam and grits.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Columbia, South Carolina

Distance: 230 miles

Route: This route begins on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most biodiverse in the country and ends in a serene swamp with a stop in everyone’s favorite North Carolina mountain town of Asheville along the way.

Adventure along the drive: Just outside of Asheville, The Riveter combines professionally built bike jump lines with a 16,000-square foot climbing gym, yoga studio, and bar. Send it inside and out then cross the street and grab a beer at Sierra Nevada’s sprawling East Coast campus.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Detour: The Chattooga River in Georgia offers 20 miles of class III-V whitewater in a pristine setting that’s designated Wild and Scenic and was the filming ground for the cult classic film Deliverance. It’s one of the most unique rafting experiences you can get on the East Coast because the number of rafters is limited and groups are spaced out to preserve the remote nature of the river. Knock out eight-mile section 4 for the biggest rapids or combine sections 3 and 4 as an overnighter with a riverside camp.

The Park: Congaree National Park doesn’t get the recognition of Great Smoky but don’t let the lack of hype—or crowds—deter you. The landscape is unlike any other as the park protects the largest expanse of old growth bottomland forest in the east. The best way to explore the park is by boat paddling a canoe along Cedar Creek where a marked 15-mile trail takes you through gnarled cypress knees and loblolly pines that reach more than 100 feet tall.

Need to know: There’s no current in the creek, so it’s an ideal out-and-back paddling adventure.

The Barnyard RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay: Congaree is just 30 minutes from downtown Columbia where Sesquicentennial State Park offers 69 sites with water and electric service. Alternatively, stay at The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington.

Worth Pondering…

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

The Best National Parks to Visit in October

Wondering where to travel in October? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in October!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashoresnational recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

In October, fall colors sweep across much of the United States. The majority of the parks that you will see on this list are parks that are ablaze in fall colors. Some of these are obvious picks such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains but a few may surprise you. In this guide, I list six beautiful national parks to visit in October plus four bonus parks and a road trip to link several of these together.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Visiting the National Parks in October

From mid-September through November, the leaves change from green to vivid hues of yellow, orange, and red across much of the United States. To see these brilliant fall colors, October is the best month of the year to plan your national parks road trip.

On this list are parks that show off some sort of fall colors and some are more spectacular than others. Shenandoah National Park is gorgeous this time of year and one of the top national parks to visit to see fall colors. But there are also parks like Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt that put on a show which are places that you might not associate with fall colors.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in October

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Shenandoah National Park

Location: Virginia

Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse through the park.

Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in October. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the kaleidoscope of fall colors.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Shenandoah in October: The last two weeks of October are prime time to visit the park to see fall colors. Plus, the weather is perfect for hiking.

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 40°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and October is no different.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.

Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.

Plan your visit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Location: North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.

This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison, pronghorn, and other wildlife from your car.

Theodore Roosevelt is a relatively quiet park to visit all year. We visited in early October and had an awesome experience. The weather was still warm, crowds were very low, and the hint of fall colors was a nice bonus.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in October: The weather is getting cooler but this is a beautiful time to visit the park. The trees turn a nice shade of yellow adding a splash of fall color to the park. 

Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 30°F. On hotter than average days, the temperature can get up into the 80s. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.

How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).

Plan Your Visit

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

3. New River Gorge National Park

Location: West Virginia

Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. There is some debate among geologists about the age of this river with estimates ranging from 3 to 360 million years. During this time, the river carved out a 73,000 acre gorge in West Virginia. The sandstone cliffs and whitewater rapids create world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destinations. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through the forests leading to overlooks and historic settlements.

There are two big reasons why New River Gorge is one of the best national parks to visit in October: Bridge Day and, you guessed it, fall colors.

On the third Saturday in October (October 21, 2023), the New River Gorge Bridge closes to traffic and opens to pedestrians. This is one of the largest extreme sporting events in the world. On Bridge Day, BASE jumpers leap from the bridge and rappelers ascend and descend from the catwalk. There is also a zipline that runs from the bridge to Fayette Station Road (the High Line) that you can sign up for in advance.

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

Why visit New River Gorge in October: To participate in Bridge Day and to see fall colors in the park. For peak colors, plan your visit for the last week in October into early November.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 46°F. October is one of the driest months of the year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 6:45 pm.

Top experiences: Do the Bridge Walk, hike the Long Point Trail, drive Fayette Station Road, go mountain biking and rock climbing, enjoy the view from Grandview Overlook, hike the Castle Rock Trail, and visit Sandstone Falls.

Ultimate adventure: Go white water rafting on the New River (rafting season is April through October).

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

How many days do you need? If you want to visit the three main areas of New River Gorge National Park (Canyon Rim, Grandview and Sandstone) and have enough time to go whitewater rafting, you will need three to four days. However, with less time, you can visit the highlights and hike a few of the trails.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Zion National Park is one of the best places in the United States to go hiking.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion is a busy park to visit all year round but in October visitation begins to ease at least a little bit. And October with its warm weather and splash of fall colors is a gorgeous time to go hiking in Zion.

October is also a great time to visit the rest of Utah’s Mighty 5: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyons National Parks.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in October: For fewer crowds, some fall colors, and pleasant hiking weather. If you have plans to hike the Zion Narrows, this is a good time of year to do it. The water temperature is still relatively warm and the water level is low, prime conditions for doing this hike.

Weather: The average high is 78°F and the average low is 50°F. On unusually warm days the temperature can get into the 90s. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 6:50 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook.

Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you need? If you plan to hike, spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park

Location: South Dakota

The colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country. Bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep roam this larg mixed-grass prairie region. The sunrises and sunsets are magical, the hiking trails are short and sweet, and for those looking for more solitude, you can take your pick from a handful of backcountry experiences.

This is not a park that you might expect to see some fall colors but in October there are a few trees in the gullies their colors as they turn yellow and red.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Badlands in October: For fantastic weather, few crowds, and the chance to see some fall colors. 

Weather: The average high is 65°F and the average low is 38°F. On unusually warm days, it can get into the 80s. October is the end of the rainy season with 1.5 inches of rain.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Badlands Loop Road and visit the overlooks, watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, hike the Notch Trail, hike the Door and Fossil Exhibit Trails, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, hike the Castle Trail, and count how many bison you can find.

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate experience, venture into the backcountry. In Badlands National Park, you are permitted to hike off-trail and the Sage Creek Wilderness and Deer Haven Wilderness are great places to go hiking and spot wildlife.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How many days do you need? One day in Badlands National Park gives you just enough time to visit the highlights and hike a few short trails. Make sure you catch either sunrise or sunset in the park because these are one of the best times of day to look out across the landscape. To fully experience the park add an additional day or two and be sure to make a pit stop at nearby Wall Drug.

Plan your visit

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

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Location: Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 12.9 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).

This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.

With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.

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

Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in October: For great weather for hiking and an array of fall colors.

Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 41°F. Rainfall is about 5 inches for October which is one of the driest months of the year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7 pm.

Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

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

How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.

Plan your visit

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in October

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. 

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

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

October road trip idea

South Dakota Road Trip

With one week, you can go on a road trip in South Dakota visiting Badlands and Wind Cave National Park. Add on Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and even Devils Tower for an epic road trip. The aforementioned Minuteman Missile National Historic Site a few miles from Badlands National Park.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Blue Ridge Mountains Are Fall Road Trip Gold

Foliage as far as the eye can see

It’s hard not to be drawn to those majestic blue peaks running down the western spine of the Old Dominion. Part of the Appalachian Range—and one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, dating back more than 1 billion years of existence—the Blue Ridge Mountains are home to America’s Favorite Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a stretch of one of the most visited footpaths in the world, the Appalachian Trail.

The spring shows off the first blooms of dogwood and redbud but the high season around these parts is fall when visitors swarm to see the glorious, flame-colored foliage. Here, there’s a setting for every speed whether you’re cruising along the scenic Skyline Drive at 35 mph or doing some extreme hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Following are some of the most beautiful places to visit in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Located at the northern end of the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah rocks a whopping 500-plus miles of hiking trails. Bears, wild turkeys, and deer are out in large numbers in the spring and summer; in the fall it’s all about chipmunks. Hikers can cross the Appalachian Trail off their bucket list (about 105 miles of the iconic trail runs through Shenandoah), tackle sweeping summits, and go chasing waterfalls.

If you plan to camp out or book lodging in the park reserve your spot a good year in advance—particularly if you’ve got your eye on October, the busiest time of year. For a great place to stay near Shenandoah post up in a camping site at Big Meadows where you can spend your evenings stargazing.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive

Shenandoah surges in the fall months when tons of people come out to do the Skyline Drive. The 105-mile highway runs through the park along the crest of the mountains and has 70 overlooks along the way that are perfect for selfies or a panoramic portrait of the hazy blue peaks and fiery orange treetops. The drive has a 35 mph speed limit and is absolutely packed with cars so come prepared with snacks and a high-octane leaf-peeping playlist.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

One slow-paced, less-crowded alternative to Skyline Drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway boldly nicknamed America’s Favorite Drive. The full 469-mile parkway stretches from Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah, trails through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. More than 200 miles of this gorgeous road run through the Blue Ridge Mountains at a meandering 45 mph.

Highlights along the Virginia stretch include the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests plus a number of overlooks with incredible mountain scenery. Pick a scenic spot for a picnic like Mabry Mill (the Parkway’s biggest attraction, located at Milepost 176), or catch some authentic Appalachian mountain music in Southwest Virginia. If you need speed you can still access the various attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway at a number of access points off the major north-south Interstate 81.

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crabtree Falls

About six miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nelson County, Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical drop in Virginia and one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Crabtree has five major cascades spilling down more than 1,200 feet. The first overlook is near the parking area and easily accessible and experienced hikers can tackle the trail to the upper falls and an additional four overlooks.

The Mill Mountain Star

Should you ever find yourself driving on Interstate 81 near Roanoke, Virginia, one of the finer roadside attractions in the state is the Mill Mountain Star (also known as the Roanoke Star). The world’s largest free-standing illuminated star made its debut as a Christmas decoration in 1949 and quickly became the iconic symbol of this railroad town. Fun fact: It was dedicated by Roanoke native John Payne, who played Fred Gailey in the original Miracle on 34th Street.

Giant stars aside, this area also happens to be a bucket-list destination for cyclists; it’s been designated “a silver-level ride center” by the International Mountain Biking Association. The extensive greenway system is great for casual riders and families while the challenging terrain at Carvins Cove attracts mountain bike aficionados from across the country. Whether you bike, hike, or drive up the view of the Roanoke Valley from the top of Mill Mountain is worth it.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia’s Triple Crown on the Appalachian Trail

Hikers can catch three of the most stunning vertical ascents on the Appalachian Trail in one 32-mile loop known as the Triple Crown (you can also do any of these hikes as a standalone from their trailheads). You’ll need some serious bouldering skills—and some climbing gear—to make it up the rock walls to Dragon’s Tooth, a 35-foot quartzite rock spire. Next, a moderately difficult hike will take you to McAfee Knob, a huge rock ledge offering incredible panoramic views of the mountains (a great spot to watch the sunrise, too). The final gem on the last stretch of the loop is Tinker Cliffs which is made of limestone that’s more than 250 million years old.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rogers

The highest peak in Virginia at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers has one of only six living high-altitude spruce-fir forests—the only one of its kind in the state. The downside is that the thick forest and rhododendron thickets make it tough to get a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings. But ambitious hikers approaching the summit from the Massie Gap Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park may be rewarded with a different spectacular sight—wild ponies.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Music Center

If you got really into the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, you’ll want to check out this region where music icons like Ralph Stanley, The Carter Family, and The Statler Brothers were discovered. Southwest Virginia is known for its Appalachian musical heritage, from old-time string bands and bluegrass to gospel and blues. The Blue Ridge Music Center—one of the major venues on Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail—is located at the bottom of the state off the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP 213). You can usually watch a concert whenever the center is open or tour the museum to learn about the history of music in the mountains. Come in August and you can catch the annual fiddler’s convention in the nearby town of Galax.

Asheville, North Carolina

Want to keep the Blue Ridge Mountains party going but miss the comforts of city life? Continue just a few hours southwest to Asheville where you’ll find a high concentration of hipsters and a local culture to match. Hit the non-profit Center for Craft to check out boutiques and small-batch vendors, hang out at Fleetwood’s for rock bands and comedy nights, or find your niche and try your hand at one of The Chop Shop Butchery’s classes. You can always head out of town for a day trip deeper into the mountains to natural havens like Pisgah National Forest. Afterward, you’ll still have plenty of time left to get down to some classic bluegrass hits back in town.

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman