Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the ancient Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is almost as renowned for its well-preserved pioneer settlements as for its natural beauty. More than 90 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, and gristmills—have been preserved here, including the largest collection of log structures in the eastern United States.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching up mountains to the horizon.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No place this size in a temperate climate can match the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s variety of plant and animal species. Here are more tree species than in Northern Europe, 1,500 flowering plants, over 200 species of birds, and 60 of mammals.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 270 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

During our recent visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It offers mountain streams, old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From River Plantation, our RV park nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Sevierville, we drove through not one, not two, but three tourist traps (and shopping destinations) with heavy stop-and-go traffic—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg—in order to reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We turned off the main parkway in Gatlinburg (at traffic light #8) and followed Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard Road and entered the national park.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Passing the Noah “Bud” Ogle and Rainbow Falls trailheads, we began the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This narrow, but paved, road twists and turns for 6 miles beside forests, waterfalls, and mountain streams.

Roaring Fork is the name of the stream which the road roughly parallel. It is one of the larger and faster flowing streams in the park. Drive this road after a heavy rain and the name will be apparent.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We passed several historic structures including the old Jim Bales place and the small two-room cabin where Ephraim and Minerva Bales raised nine children. But their situation was not at all unusual, and individual privacy was something these people knew little about. Life for the Bales family was as sparse and hard as the ground around them.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Eph” and “Nervie” owned 70 acres of rocks and cultivated 30 of them. The rest remained in timber for cooking, heating, and construction use. The house was never larger than it is now, except for a missing back porch.

The large cabin was the living room; the smaller one, the kitchen. Building required trees and hard work, so no one built anything larger than necessary.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The corn crib stands beside the house. Small, almost fragile, it is typical of many outbuildings on Roaring Forks. Its size tells us something about life here. Why build a large crib when a large crib was practically impossible. Rocky fields lay all around the house and up the hillside across the creek leaving little land for corn to grow.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road passes by the fence in front of the house, splitting the farm in two. One quickly feels the harshness of travel here. Rocks, rocks, nothing but rocks. Whether clearing fields, trying to farm, or making fence, moving rocks was a way of life.

Life was a difficult struggle for these mountain people.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular scenic drive with continuing traffic with most trailheads at capacity leaving few parking options! It’s an enjoyable scenic area but not the place to find solitude. But, where to go to beat the crowds?

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will flow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

—John Muir

Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Finding joy in the outdoors

The world was flipped upside-down when COVID-19 spread to the US and Canada affecting each aspect of human life and social interaction. As humans we have a weapon to fight against the negative effects that come with social isolation—the great outdoors.

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

Many cities across the country issued shelter-in-place orders, directing individuals to stay home to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. The resulting loneliness often led to higher stress levels, increased depression, impaired immunity, or other negative health impacts.

As days go by without social relationships, our mental and physical health is at risk. These ill effects can counter by spending time in the outdoors.

Trapp Family Lodge near Stowe, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a study conducted by the University of Exeter in England, researchers found that people who spent more time outdoors were less likely to feel anxiety or depression. Another study found that exposure to sun rays was associated with lower blood pressure. People who feel more connected to nature tend to feel more life satisfaction, vitality, and general happiness.

Forest bathing, or nature therapy, has become a popular technique to promote the health benefits of being outside. Exposure to green space has been proven to induce relaxation.

Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since COVID hit, people have been taking the opportunity to explore the outdoors more. A survey conducted by Civic Science found that 43 percent of Americans 13 years or older said they have participated in more outdoor activities because of social distancing rules.

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what can you do during this time to combat the stress and fatigue that follows social isolation? Go outside! Go on a scenic drive! Go to a state park! Go for a hike! And find the peace that nature provides!

As the weather cools get outside and soak up the beautiful sights and sounds of the autumn season. The yearly spectacle of fall puts changing leaves at the forefront of our imagination but you don’t have to imagine the beauty.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are several great suggestions for fall trips to help you get the most out of this amazing time of year in America’s most beautiful places. So, come along and find out what to do and where to go this fall. Step out of summer and into an autumn adventure. And snap some photos while you do!

Roaring Fork Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

This 522,427-acre park straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee comes alive with red, yellow, and orange from mid-September to early November thanks to a collection of 100 tree species, most of them deciduous. The best way to view the likes of flaming cove and northern hardwood, maple, and beech trees is via a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or Cades Cove or a hike along area trails such as the Appalachian Trail or Oconaluftee River Trail.

Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Vermont

Vermont

The state’s loveliest drive might just be its largest highway, Route 100—a 200-mile-plus thoroughfare that vertically dissects the state from Massachusetts to Canada. In fact, nature photographers from all over the country hit the highway for guaranteed peak foliage photography. But the main event comes when you turn off Route 100 onto the Green Mountain Byway which takes you from Waterbury to Stowe. This means leaf-watching against a backdrop of bucolic mountains and farmland, cider donuts from Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and a detour into the Ben and Jerry’s Factory (for pickup orders only).

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia

Surrounded by the beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak, and access points along the Appalachian Trail. This national byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians. From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and piedmont. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive signs are features of this route.

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah River State Park, Virginia

Just 15 minutes from the town of Front Royal, Virginia awaits a state park that can only be described as lovely. This park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountains to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east. A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, and river access make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Ten riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

Often described as a ‘miniature’ version of Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods is arguably, equally spectacular. What Valley of the Gods may lack when it comes to the size and volume of its free-standing monoliths, spires, and fins, it makes up for with solitude. It would be a rare occurrence to pass through Monument Valley without seeing another visitor but at Valley of the Gods you’re likely to have the whole place to yourself to explore and enjoy. Take in a scenic hike or stop for a picnic in the crisp fall air.

Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery Island, Louisiana

Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks draped with Spanish moss cover this geological oddity which is one of five “islands” rising above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes. The island occupies roughly 2,200 acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO brand pepper sauce factory as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The Tabasco factory and the gardens are open for tours.

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It’s a beautiful day for it.

—Wilbur Cross

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

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

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast. Winding through the heart of it is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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

Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country to learn, practice, and play in the whitewater. Long distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the southeast side of the park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the road. There are even caves that worm into the karst formations underlying the Smokies’ extreme western portions.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend time roaming from the park’s 870-feet-above-sea-level basement to its 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and you will, in essence, have negotiated diverse vegetative topography akin to what you would find hiking the Appalachian Trail’s 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine. And above all, this park is very beautiful. It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

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

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

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Appalachian wonder that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line holds many stories. There are stories in the log cabins, plank churches, and architectural wonders that farmers built for their crops and livestock in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, stories of ridge runners and moonshiners in the mountains, Native American stories, and stories of nature.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a valley surrounded by a one lane, 11-mile loop road that puts visitors among wildlife, historic buildings, and trails from where you can head off on foot to explore deeper. The driving road is closed Saturday morning until 10 am during the spring and summer, allowing access to cyclists and people to wander without traffic. Visiting during the week in the off-season, we had the road mostly to ourselves! 

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

Venture into this park draped over the ridgeline of the Appalachian Range and you’ll discover five different forest types; both grassy balds and heath balds near the mountains’ summits and an undergrowth that abounds with rhododendrons, magnolia, ferns, holly, and mountain laurel.

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

The Smokies were settled in the 18th century, logged into the 20th century, and have been flourishing almost as wilderness again since 1934 when this landscape was destined to become a national park. Despite the roughly 9 million visitors who traipse through the park each year, it continues to be a wellspring of biological diversity.

Mountain Farm Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could immerse yourself in Native American and early settler history in Cherokee, North Carolina. Stop in at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and visit the park’s excellent Mountain Farm Museum often the site of hands-on Junior Ranger programs and demonstrations and then walk the 1.5 mile Oconaluftee River Trail to view the wayside exhibits detailing local Cherokee and Native American history.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day. Or avoid the crowds with a hike to the fire towers atop Mt. Cammer or Mt. Sterling. Both are steep hikes (the 2 miles up to Mt. Sterling are rumored to be the steepest in the park) but the views from the crest of the Smoky Mountains are unparalleled.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to lose an entire day or days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s an odd feeling being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees. Odd and especially awesome when the blue haze that rests upon the tops of those trees is met by a distinct peacefulness that occurs there during the quiet of off-season. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird alert! More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics. Many other species use the park as an important stopover and foraging area during their semiannual migration.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual spring mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

National Parks are Best in Autumn

Six of the best national parks to visit in the fall

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.

Of course, that’s not true of every national park—there are more than a few best visited during other seasons of the year. But, generally speaking, autumn can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, depending on when and where you travel you will get the added bonus of a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Rocky Mountain national parks.

So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be six of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.

Cade’s Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a very popular national park which often creates crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall—especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season—the crowds taper off along with the temperatures. If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler. If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hills run with red knotweed in late summer. Because this national park has a volcanic landscape, much of it is austere though bright color pops on autumn days particularly along its hillsides and in its meadows where cadmium-yellow rabbitbrush, crimson knotweed, white pearly everlastings, and golden and rust-colored grasses are seen peaking in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Technically, they are late blooming wild flowers rather than true “autumn color.” Though because of their timing, we classify them as fall color.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Great Smoky Mountains or Zion but it holds treasures of its own especially in the fall. Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange, and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Most people don’t think of South Carolina as a fall foliage destination but autumn there is long and colorful and best of all begins much later in the season than other destinations which means you’ll be able to get in a “second autumn”. The best time to see the leaves here is mid-November through the first half of December. Take the 2.4-mile boardwalk hike through the park or one of the many trails into the backcountry for miles upon miles of color. Another great option is to paddle along Cedar Creek in a canoe. It meanders under canopies of spectacular fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are really the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets everything with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and prepare for an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

The 5 Best National Park Road Trips

Looking for the perfect getaway? Forget the plane tickets, and pack up the RV! America’s many wonders are just a fun drive away.

Even in the best of times, the allure of national park road trips tantalizes individual wanderers and wide-eyed families alike. But during the pandemic, as we continue to practice social distancing to stay safe and help mitigate the spread of the virus, this type of vacation seems particularly ideal.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right now, most travelers are looking to drive instead of fly as well as avoid throngs of people at crowded tourist attractions. So, pack up the RV, hit the road, and explore one of America’s amazing national parks. First, though, check to ensure your recreation vehicle is road-ready so you don’t run into any maintenance issue along the way.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mother of all national park road trips

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, road trip optimizer Randy Olson put together a 14,498-mile journey. During this mammoth two-month adventure, you’ll see each of the 47 national parks (51 in 2020) within the contiguous mainland United States. Driving from Maine to Florida, southern California to northern Montana, and everywhere else in between, this epic trip is the fastest way to get your national park passport full of stamps! If you dare to take on this adventure, consider starting at Great Smoky Mountains in the fall and completing your epic journey in the Southwest as you explore Saguaro, Organ Pipe, and White Sands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks

In addition to visiting a pair of national parks, driving in this part of America allows you to cruise through Custer State Park—to get joyfully stuck in a bison traffic jam and cruise past four presidents carved into the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to ‘bag a buffalo’. This was his first visit to this area and “the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born”. This ethos would shape the future of America’s conservation efforts and of the national parks that serve as America’s playgrounds.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the Badlands is the real star here and driving along it west to east will place grasslands on your left and the gruff yet almost celestial Badlands on your right. There’s nothing quite like this place in America, and driving through it will become a memory that never fades away.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks

Combining the five famous sights of Southern Utah makes for an epic national park road trip. As National Geographic explains, “this multiday adventure on remote byways is a journey through the slick-rock heart of the American West linking Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.”

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you consider the proximity of the parks, the fiery colors, and the limitless potential for stunning photos and stellar day hikes, this might just be the best of the national park road trips. The trailheads lead to some of the most breathtaking vistas in America. And if you can squeeze the time there are two national monuments of almost equal splendor, Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks. Driving through Utah’s national parks is definitely one of the best road trips in America.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This part of the United States is especially lovely in autumn when the fall foliage delivers a cornucopia of color. The Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are just around the corner on the western end of Tennessee. Many visitors to this region enjoy touring Cades Cove and the Blue Ridge Parkway—taking their time to explore the rich culture, natural beauty, and fun-filled activities the area offers.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may be tempted to head to New England in the fall, but this portion of Tennessee and North Carolina should tempt you to visit for an autumnal national park road trip. Looking for something not far away? Check out these other road trips that showcase stunning fall foliage.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado deserts come together. It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to this park. Rock climbers find thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. The Jumbo Rock campground is a centralized doorway to some of the best features of the park. It’s the “every adventurer” park—a true wilderness playground. And there’s the name sake, Joshua trees. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Visual Marvels: America’s Seven Natural Wonders

The Seven Natural Wonders of America are a list of the most astonishing natural attractions

Ever since the list of the Seven Wonders of the World was first inked by either Antipater of Sidon (second half of the 2nd century BC), Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC, Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), or Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–240 BC)—depending upon which ancient historian you believe—all manner of “Seven Wonders” lists pop up from time to time including the New Seven Wonders of the World, of the Natural World, of the Modern World, of the Architectural World. Well, this could go on for a while.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it is that original collection of wonders, now referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one that still exists), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis (at Ephesus near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey), the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in present-day Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandra—that sparks the imagination, stirs the soul, and stokes the curiosity. These are the finest creations of the ancient world and at the very least inspire wonder in their sheer archaeological greatness.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That much can be said of any wonder, whether natural or manmade, and then add into the mix the almost obsessive need for the world to categorize and break down everything into parts. That’s how these types of lists came to be in the first place. Often for reasons to promote tourism, numerous countries have tallied their own wonders as have almost all the United States.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

One of the world’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is a true marvel of nature. John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas. Just about everywhere you look the views are amazing and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The horseshoe-shaped, russet rock hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are a true sight to behold. This is one of the world’s highest concentrations of hoodoos and their colors alternate between shades of purple, red, orange, and white.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time. There are several easy trails located near the rim of Bryce Canyon to hike as well as ranger programs that take you on guided hikes through the park.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee, whose name means “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the Creek language, is now part national wildlife refuge, part privately-owned park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) that is widely known for harboring an incredible cache of biological and ecological wonders. The swamp’s dark, coffee-colored tannic water is the base for a living jumble of pine, cypress, swamp, palmetto, peat bog, marsh, island, and sand ridge.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hodgepodge of animal and bird life, among the hundreds of species are black bear, alligators galore, snakes galore, deer, anhinga, osprey, and sandhill crane call the swamp home.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches

Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. And the arches are just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, The Windows, it goes on.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in this rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Mount Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.

—Thomas Browne

Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Spending the day at Cades Cove is a must for every visitor to the Smoky Mountains

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the ancient Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is almost as renowned for its well-preserved pioneer settlements as for its natural beauty. More than 90 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, and gristmills—have been preserved here, including the largest collection of log structures in the eastern United States.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove, on the beautiful Tennessee side of the park, offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park. Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The valley has a rich history. For hundreds of years Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove but archeologists have found no evidence of major settlements.

Cades Cove, John Oliver’s Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Settlers came to this area in 1819, migrating here from Virginia. Later they came from North Carolina, enriching their culture from the old world with knowledge gained from the Indians. They cleared the land for farming and set about building log houses, barns, smokehouses, and corncribs. By 1830, the population had already grown to 271 and by the 1850s the population of Cades Cove peaked at 685, occupying 137 households.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With this population growth the soil quality deteriorated. The opening states of the West brought the opportunity of more fertile frontiers and by 1860 only 269 people remained.

Cades Cove, Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Largely isolated by the mountains that surrounded them, the residents of Cades Cove were by necessity a close-knit, hardworking, and self-sufficient group. Plentiful game, such as deer and bear, provided meat to accompany garden vegetables. Over the years mills, churches, and schools were built to support the growing community.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1927, the state governments of North Carolina and Tennessee began buying up land for a national park. Many of the Cove’s families willingly sold their properties, but others initially fought the effort. Members of several families signed life leases that allowed them to remain on the land during their lifetime.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Gregg-Cable House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today the National Park Service maintains the location as it looked in the 1800s. An 11-mile Loop Road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wandering the Cable Mill Historic Area, we explored the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built in 1972,the Visitor Center is a place for visitors to obtain information and buy books, post cards, maps, guides, batteries, and other items.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, LaQuire Cantilever barn and millrace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Large barns were common in the Cove where farmers needed shelter in the cold months for livestock. The overhang in cantilever barns such as the one here provided shelter for animals as well as storage space for farm equipment.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A second barn in the Mill Area with a drive-through in the center and stalls on either side, was more typical in East Tennessee than the cantilever barn. Two men with pitchforks, one on a wagon of hay in the drive-through and the other in the loft, could transfer the hay to the loft in a short time. The drive-through sometimes served as a storage place for farm animals.

Cades Cove, Primitive Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper to times. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve been to many frontier museums and exhibits, but Cades Cove is unique in that an entire valley has been preserved, allowing a rare opportunity to see what the pioneers saw generations ago.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From our home base at River Plantation RV Park in Sevierville, we traveled south on US-441 to Pigeon Forge; at Traffic Light #3 we turned southwest on US-321 to Townsend; turned south (left) on SR-73; west on Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove Loop Road. We returned home via Townsend and Marysville on US-441 to Sevierville.

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

One of the biggest questions that most travelers to the area ask is, “when is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains?” Like other big questions, people may ask themselves, the answer to this depends heavily on the person asking the question.

What are your plans for this week or next?

Mowing the lawn, playing golf, or shopping.

You can do any of those things most anytime, any day for the rest of your life. Now is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

One reason to visit now is that the summer crowds are gone and leaf peeking season is a month away. Stay home during July, August, and October, unless you enjoy bumper to bumper traffic jams. 

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another reason to visit now is nature. Wildflowers are still blooming, trees are displaying their finest greens, and animals are active. Plan to go between now and late-September, if possible.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following is a plan for you to see the most on a long day trip. If time is available, break your tour into two or three more manageable days.

Get an early start on a weekday and head for Townsend, Tennessee.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood. They are great but they’re not woods and waters and flowers and wildlife. They are Disneyland.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Interstate 40 and then Highway 321 through Maryville. This is a one hour, 45-minute drive. In Townsend, turn right at the “Y” and head for Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An 11-mile one-way loop road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the busy months, it can take most of the day to drive the 11 miles. It can be gridlock. You won’t have that traffic problem this time of year if you avoid weekends.

Cades Cove, John Oliver Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for animals such as deer, wild turkey, and bear. There are a couple of side roads to the left, part-way around the loop, called Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Take them about a mile to the end and then back. They provide good possibilities for seeing wildlife.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wander the Cable Mill Historic Area, explore the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill. During our visit we spent considerable time here walking the area, soaking up nature and the history of the area, and talking with docents.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Cades Cove loop stop at a couple of the well preserved log cabins and churches and imagine your great grandparents or some pioneers living back then. Continue around the loop and then back down towards Townsend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back at the “Y” go straight toward Gatlinburg. The 18 miles will take you 45 minutes to drive on the winding, stream-side road. Definitely stop at Sugarlands visitor center to see the displays, view the short movie, and browse the gift shop. It is well worth the stop.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Sugarlands, turn right toward Cherokee, North Carolina. On the way up the mountain to Newfound Gap, there are a couple of great hikes like Chimney Tops (four miles round-trip) or Alum Cave Bluffs (about four-and-a-half miles roundtrip). But if you take time for these hikes, you will have to complete the rest of the tour another day.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Newfound Gap there is a giant parking lot, restrooms, the Appalachian Trail crossing and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Parking lot at Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past Newfound Gap, turn right and go seven miles to Clingman’s Dome. You will find ample parking, a small gift shop, and a one-and-a-half mile roundtrip paved path to the top of the mountain. Everything is really different up here at 6,643 feet in elevation. The trees, the plants, the views, the air, are all just a different, unique, and refreshing environment.

Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Clingman’s Dome, retrace your route back to the main road through the park (Highway 441) and again head toward Cherokee. Stop at Oconaluftee visitor center. Wander the old time farm that often has folks docents demonstrating soap making ad other pioneer skills. Oconaluftee is also the best place to see elk outside of the Cataloochee Valley, which is a whole other trip.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

The Absolute Best Places to RV This July

There is nothing that compares to the freedom of the open road, especially when following it takes you to some of the most magnificent scenery and interesting places in the United States and Canada

July means independence. Or, more accurately, watching people eat an inhuman amount of hot dogs before drinking and playing with fireworks to celebrate independence.

All of this is great fun, but it only gets you to the fourth day of the month. After that, you’ve got four weeks when the weather is nicer, the pace is slower, and half of America is on vacation. So why not take some time off as well?

To help you plan your mid-summer getaway, we found places with some amazing stuff going on. Here are the best places to travel this July. And be sure to catch up on all our recommendations for the best places to visit in April, May, and June.

Canadian Rockies, Alberta

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Canadian Rockies stretch 900 miles northwest from the Montana border. The lakes and peaks combined create gob-smacking scenery at any time of the year. But since an RV/car is indispensable for visiting the Rockies, accessing their beauty is easiest in the warmer months, when the highways are clear of ice and snow.

Glacial Skywalk along the Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Banff and Jasper are the two most popular destinations for visitors to the Rockies. They are connected by a 140-mile Icefields Parkway that offers unobstructed mountain views on both sides.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you doubt the Appalachians can hold their own with any other mountain range on the continent, travel this 469-mile stretch of road from Rockfish Gap, Virginia, to Swain County in North Carolina. Coupled with sweeping views of some of the oldest mountains on earth, you’ll see 300 miles of forest, tons of wildlife, rock tunnels, and two national parks (Shenandoah and Smoky Mountains).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the way, you’ll find the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, Chimney Rock in North Carolina, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.

New Hampshire

Wolfsboro in the Lake Region © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For outdoor-adventure types in the east, no place beats New Hampshire in July. White Mountain National Forest is more green than white this time of year, with some of the best mountain biking and off-road cycling trails in the country.

Weirs Beach in the Lake Region © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing along Squam Lake makes for a calm, serene mountain getaway. Or hit Newfound Lake in the state’s Lake Region for the largest freshwater swimming beach in the state.

Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere in New England compares to the Gilded-Age splendor of Newport, a coastal town set upon cliffs dotted with some of the most spectacular mansions of the 19th century. The must-do activity here is, obviously, touring the Newport Mansions, but that’s far from the only draw.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newport also hosts the annual Newport Regatta, one of the biggest sailing races in America bringing with it the best sailing parties. Held in July, the Regatta is the ideal time of year to visit, but even if you miss it there are still plenty of wide, sandy beaches to lounge on for the day, and a surprisingly good wine region just on the outskirts of town. 

Great Smoky Mountains

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This isn’t just Blue Ridge Parkway, Part II. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 816 square miles unto itself, and you won’t see much of it from where the Blue Ridge Parkway drops you in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Touristy goodness of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Actually, for this trip, we’d recommend coming into the park from the other entrance in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and taking in all the touristy goodness of the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area, the Ripley’s Aquarium, and, in nearby Pigeon Forge, Dolly Parton’s own amusement park, Dollywood. The latter has has roller coasters and other thrill rides, but the Southern cooking, country music, musical revues, barbecue and bluegrass festivals and more that make it more than just some fair-food-and-cheap-thrills theme park.

Smoky Mountains on steroids © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Great quote from travel writer Doug Lansky: “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he comes to see.” Think about it.