Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020

While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:

  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
  • 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
  • Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
  • Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
  • Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
  • Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
  • Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 by the numbers

  • 237,064,332 recreation visits
  • 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours
  • 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits—down from 11 parks in 2019
  • 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15 percent of reporting parks)—down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30 percent of National Parks)
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5 percent of all parks in the National Park System
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites

Blue Ridge Parkway (14,099,485)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (12,400,045)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Gateway National Recreation Area (8,404,728)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8,016,510)

George Washington Memorial Parkway (6,237,391)

Natchez Trace Parkway (6,124,808)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4,888,436)

Cape Cod National Seashore (4,083,505)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,068,529)

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Yellowstone National Park (3,806,306)

Zion National Park (3,591,254)

Rocky Mountain National Park (3,305,199)

Grand Teton National Park (3,289,638 million)

Grand Canyon National Park (2,897,098)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,755,628)

Acadia National Park (2,669,034)

Olympic National Park (2,499,177)

Joshua Tree National Park (2,399,542)

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit lesser-known national parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August

Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.

We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.

Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.

Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.

In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

The Top 10 National Parks to Discover this Spring

Spring is the best time to visit some of America’s most beautiful national parks

Deserts ablaze with lupine and paintbrush, rivers surging with snowmelt, high meadows lush with columbine and alpine sunflower, elk and deer venturing out of their winter hideaways with new babies in tow are a few of the many reasons to make a springtime pilgrimage to one—or many—of America’s national parks. Here we highlight 10 national parks that are particularly special to visit this spring.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Spring is the perfect time to head to the national parks. One park that’s awesome in spring is Sequoia, home to some of the largest trees in the world. It offers a beautiful forest where you can camp, hike, and explore all the awesome nature around. It is home to General Sherman, the largest tree by volume which you can take a short hike see along with several other cool tree stops along the way.

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August. Sequoia is definitely one not to be missed in spring!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

For many, springtime offers an opportunity for a first trip of the year. And if you are just getting back out there, the last thing you want is a crowded park. This spring, avoid the crowds and visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a unique and exciting adventure.  This park allows visitors to explore a world over 700 feet below the earth’s surface. Famous for protecting the third and seventh largest cave chambers in the world, Carlsbad Caverns holds a total of 116 caves—offers rooms of limestone, stalagmites, stalactites, cave pearls, and underground lakes.

Spring is a great time to visit Carlsbad Caverns as the bat population makes its presence known. Seventeen species of bats live in the park and many are present in April and May including Mexican Free-tailed Bats who emerge from caves in groups flying up and counter-clockwise for three hours. It’s an incredible sight.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Temperatures start to rise, flowers begin to bloom, and as the snow melts, hikers across the country begin to plan their first hikes of the season. Look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With over 800 miles of trails, the park offers beauty everywhere you look. Trails are available for walking, hiking, and mountain biking and lead to other fun activities like fishing and camping. During spring, trails are surrounded by blooming wildflowers—over 1,660 varieties, more than any other national park in North America. A group of flowers known as spring ephemerals appear in early spring, flower, bear fruit, and die within a short two-month period. These flowers include trilliums, orchids, violets, and iris and will bloom during March and April.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is at its best in spring as there is a minimal chance of thunderstorms that are present in the other seasons. The beauty of this spot is unparalleled as it has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world. Hoodoos are the beautiful, irregular, colorful rock columns you’ll see throughout the park. The main viewpoints are Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point.

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Few national parks strut their stuff as showily as Joshua Tree in spring when the park’s namesake trees send their enormous, space-age blossoms reaching for the sky. Those aren’t the only blooms, of course—visitors pour into the park to see the desert sands awash with colors so bright you’ll have trouble putting away your camera to explore.

But explore you must, because Joshua Tree’s otherworldly rock formations must be seen to be believed; there’s a reason Hollywood directors have set everything from westerns to sci-fi classics in these eerie landscapes. Joshua Tree can be accessed from two directions: Coachella Valley to the south and from the adjacent towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree to the north.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Photographers know to visit Arches National Park in spring when the ochre and vermillion formations of eroded sandstone appear more vivid by the surrounding greenery. Temperature is another reason to visit now as summer can be brutal in the southern Utah desert with temperatures heading north of 100 degrees starting in late May.

At just 80,000 acres, Arches is one of the most manageable of the southwestern red rock parks with its most popular features such as Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and the Windows Section accessible from the park’s main road. Temperatures in the spring are pleasant enough to make longer hikes like the 2-mile out-and-back to the rock towers of Park Avenue and the 7.2 Devils Garden Primitive Loop perfectly comfortable. For those who can’t get enough of red rock country, Canyonlands National Park, Arches’ larger but less-visited sister is just 40 minutes south of Moab.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In Shenandoah National Park the spring bloom is not limited to the slopes and meadows but paints the forests with watercolors as well with azaleas, trilliums, and wild geraniums blanketing the forest floor. The earliest blooms tend to be along the lower-elevation valleys of the Rose, South, and Hughes rivers and along Mill Prong while May is peak time for pink azaleas and June sees the arrival of mountain laurel. Further south, head for Linville Falls or hike the Linville Gorge Trail to fully immerse yourself in nature’s rhododendron garden.

The spring bird migration brings its fans looking for scarlet tanagers, cerulean warblers, and other colorful transients along Pocosin Trail. The Passamaquoddy Trail and Lewis Mountain are other popular spots for flowers, birds, and wildlife.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Spring is waterfall season in Zion when the Virgin River roars through the canyon and seasonal tributaries tumble down the canyon walls. The famed Emerald Pools are a wonder at any time of year but in spring the misty 110 foot cascade widens into a curtain of water that catches the light in a halo of rainbows. More waterfalls plunge from the 1,000-foot walls of Parunuweap Canyon.

Hiking is ideal this time of year when temperatures are in the 70s and the ochre and crimson cliffs are particularly photogenic against the bright green foliage of freshly green cottonwoods.

Just north of St. George, don’t miss the lava flows and Snow Canyon State Park where you’ll see the desert painted with wildflowers like desert chickweed, buttercup, and sand verbena.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Yellowstone isn’t the only national park where you can watch baby bison wobble along on their spindly new legs; Theodore Roosevelt National Park is bison central, charged with the mission to protect one of America’s most beloved—and most hunted—species from going extinct.

In addition to bison and other wildlife sightings the park celebrates all aspects of prairie life including the prairie crocus, abundant across these high plains just after snowmelt. And don’t forget the prairie dog—these highly social animals have their own gigantic “town” sprawling across acres of the park where they pop from their burrows to look curiously at visitors and call to their neighbors with dog-like barks. Late May and early June is when prairie dog babies first come out to play in the springtime sun.

Saguaro in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

The cactus that gives Saguaro National Park its name has long been recognized as a symbol of American West but these giant plants are only found in a small portion of the United States. They are more than massive cacti but also shelters and reserves of water for much of the wildlife that calls this park home. And what season do these giant centerpieces bloom? You guessed it: spring!

Springtime brings with it the beauty of flowers. Deserts and saguaro forests burst with colors from blooming wildflowers like the gold Mexican poppy, red penstemons, and desert marigolds. Even trees, shrubs, and other cacti are in bloom including creosote bushes, chollas, and hedgehogs.

Bottom line

You’ll find plenty of the three W’s—wildflowers, wildlife, and water—when you visit these national parks in spring.

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

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

You won’t want to miss the diverse wildlife, great views of the national park, and all of the history that is found within the old buildings and structures at Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad valley surrounded by mountains. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove.

For most of its history Cades Cove has been a place to visit. But for more than 100 years it also was a great place to live. The first settlers in the cove arrived sometime between 1818 and 1821. By 1830 the population of the area had increased to 271 and by the 1850s the population of Cades Cove peaked at 685, occupying 137 households.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting Cades Cove allows you to take in the quiet beauty that welcomed the early settlers. Around two million visitors come each year. It’s one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s most popular places to visit.

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 at times. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings in any area of the national park. Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored 18th and 19th century structures. Trailheads to seven hiking trails are easily reached from the Loop Road.

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

Our first stop was the John Oliver Place, one of over 80 historic buildings in the park. John Oliver arrived in the cove prior to 1820 and bought this land in 1826. It remained in the family until the park was established more than 100 years later. Large families often lived in such small building.

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

Our next three stops were churches—Primitive Baptist, Methodist, and Missionary Baptist. Some of the earliest settlers established the Primitive Baptist Church in 1827. A log building served their needs until this one was built in 1887. The church closed during the Civil War.

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

J.D. McCampbell, a blacksmith and carpenter, built the Methodist Church for $115. He later served many years as the minister. Methodists were not as numerous as Baptists in the Cove, but enough of them got together in the 1820s to establish the church in a log building that lasted until this one replace it in 1902.

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

A group of Baptists expelled from the Primitive Baptist Church because they favored missionary work, formed the Missionary Baptist Church in 1839. The church ceased to meet during the Civil War. It resumed activity after the war. This building dates from 1915.

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

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, Drive-through Barn, and Sorghum Mill.

Cades Cove, Cable Hill Historic Area, Visitor Center © 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 Hill Historic Area, Cantilever Barn © 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 Hill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © 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, Cable Hill Historic Area, Gregg-Cable House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

John P. Cable bought land in the Cove in the late 1860s and built a water-powered grist mill and sawmill in about 1870. Today, Great Smoky Mountains Association operates Cable Mill as an historical exhibit.

Leaving the Cable Mill Area we made brief stops at Dan Lawson Place, Tipton Place, and Carter Shields Cabin.

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

Absorbed in this idyllic setting, we can easily appreciate what drew early pioneers to make this fertile valley their home. Being history buffs as well as nature lovers and photographers, we are drawn to Cades Cove more than any other place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

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