The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

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

Location: Northwestern Arizona

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

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

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

The 5 Best Hikes in Arches National Park

There’s something special about every trail in Arches which makes it difficult to call any five “the best”. However, based on popularity, here are the five best hikes in Arches.

With more than 2,000 sandstone arches, plus hundreds of looming rock pillars, funky buttes, and striking cliffs, Utah’s Arches National Park offers a different remarkable view around every corner. Hiking trails in Arches vary from short and easy (and wheelchair accessible) to longer and more strenuous. No matter your ability and fitness level, you can find a trail or two that allows you to marvel at geological wonders in an otherworldly red-rock setting. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scenic drive through the park is stunning but why just drive through it when you can get up close and personal with some of the magnificent sandstone fins, famous arches, and steep canyons. Trails provide access to outstanding viewpoints and arches not visible from the road. In some cases, trails travel under arches affording a unique perspective on the park’s namesake features.

Here are five hikes of varied length that represent the best that Arches has to offer. That said, there are no bad hikes in the park. Any trail that gets you out enjoying nature and breathing the clean, arid air is a great one!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Delicate Arch Trail

Delicate Arch is a spectacle that many visitors want to see when coming to Arches National Park. It’s Utah’s most famous arch and for good reason. Because of that, the trail up to Delicate Arch is usually really busy. To avoid the crowds, get started before 6:30 am. The trail to see Delicate Arch up close and personal is 3 miles roundtrip and climbs 480 feet. The trail has no shade, some steep climbing, and exposure to drop-offs. On your way down it is worth checking out the wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs.

Carefully consider weather conditions (summer heat or winter ice) and your own health and fitness before beginning this hike. Take at least 2 quarts of water per person for this hike and sun protection.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking is available at the Wolf Ranch Parking Lot, but be aware it fills up quickly.

The path leading to the Lower Delicate Arch viewpoint is wide and is hard-packed making it perfect for those in wheelchairs. From this viewpoint, you’ll be able to see Delicate Arch as well.

This trail is front and center on my bucket list for our next visit to Arches—hopefully very soon.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail length: 3 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 480 feet

Required Time: 45-60 minutes

Required Time: 2-3 hours depending on fitness level

Parking: Wolfe Ranch Parking Lot

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail, but service animals are welcome

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch Trail

Landscape Arch, one of the world’s longest stone spans, stretches 306 feet yet is only about 11 feet thick at its center. You may wonder how such a narrow span of rock can stay in place. In fact, arches are constantly changing. In 1991 a 60-foot-long slab of rock fell from the bottom of the arch. You can see remnants of this rockfall beneath the arch today.

This is probably one of the easiest hikes you’ll do when you visit Arches National Park. Start your hike at the Devils Garden trailhead. The trail is hard-packed to Landscape Arch. The total distance to the arch and back is 1.9 miles. The trail is relatively flat with some rolling ups and downs but no real elevation gain, only moderate hills. The trail meanders through tall fins to a spectacular view of Landscape Arch. Along the way, you’ll see side trails to Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many people combine this hike with the Devil’s Garden Trail or the Double O Arch trail for a longer hike. The trail path changes to a sandy surface after the Landscape Arch viewpoint.

Landscape Arch is part of the Devils Garden section of Arches National Park. The trail to Landscape Arch passes through tall sandstone fins, a narrow rock wall that eventually forms the Signature Arches before opening up to reveal Landscape Arch. It’s the perfect trail for families and adventures looking for a relatively easy hike with a spectacular view at the end of it.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail Length: 1.9 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

Elevation Gain: 250 feet

Required Time: 45-60 minutes

Parking: Devils Garden Parking Area

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail, but service animals are welcome

Park Avenue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Avenue Trail

After passing the visitor center and climbing steeply along switchback roads, the first major area of the park you’ll see is Park Avenue and the Courthouse Towers area. You can walk among massive monoliths and towering walls and see views of the La Sal Mountains.

The massive sandstone towers that make up the western background of Park Avenue are called the Courthouse Towers. Like the prows of enormous ships, these landmarks jut out into the desert below, some of them over 600 feet tall.

Park Avenue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park Avenue trailhead is located on the Arches Entrance Road, 2.5 miles north of the visitor center on the north side of the road. The parking lot has a paved walkway that heads for 320 feet to a Viewpoint. From there, a well-worn trail leads down the Avenue and towards the Courthouse Towers Parking Lot. Along this trail, you will get a 360-degree view of the La Sal Mountains in the east and distinctive formations like Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, and The Organ. Either arrange a pickup at the northern parking lot or simply do an out-and-back. Either way, this trail is sure to captivate the entire family.

Park Avenue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail Length: 2 miles round-trip

Difficulty Level: Easy

Elevation Gain: 320 feet

Required Time: 30-60 minutes

Parking: Park Avenue Parking Area

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail, but service animals are welcome

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balanced Rock Loop Trail

Balanced Rock, one of the most iconic features in the park, stands a staggering 128 feet tall. While this formation may appear to be an epic balancing act, it’s actually not balanced at all. The slick rock boulder of Entrada Sandstone sits attached to its eroding pedestal of Dewey Bridge mudstone. The exposure of these two rock strata layers is ideal for the formation of arches and balanced rocks.

Balanced Rock defies gravity but this won’t always be the case. Eventually, the 3,600-ton boulder will tumble down erosion continues to shape the landscape. In the winter of 1975-76, Balanced Rock’s smaller sibling “Chip-Off-the-Old-Block” collapsed proving that there is no better time than the present to see this awe-inspiring giant.

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike many of the other named features in the park, Balanced Rock can be seen from the park road. It is located 9.2 miles from the Arches Visitor Center. Although parking is limited, many visitors stop to complete the short hike (0.3-mile roundtrip) around the rock’s base for unusual and up-close perspectives.

At sunset, Balanced Rock becomes saturated in a deep red-orange making it a great place to end a fun-filled day in the park. This is also an ideal place for stargazing and night photography. Its location is just far enough from the city lights of Moab and provides whimsical rocky spires in the foreground.

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail Length: 0.3 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

Elevation Gain: 55 feet

Required Time: 15-30 minutes

Parking: Balanced Rock Parking Area

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail, but service animals are welcome

Fiery Furnace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fiery Furnace and Surprise Arch Trail

The only way to enter the Fiery Furnace is with a ranger or with an individual permit. Rangers offer Fiery Furnace hikes spring through fall. Tickets for these hikes are in high demand and reservations are required. At the time of writing, ranger-led hikes in the Fiery Furnace were yet scheduled for 2021 due to the pandemic.

The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of narrow sandstone canyons that requires agility to explore. Everyone hiking the Fiery Furnace should be aware of the challenging nature of the terrain and properly equipped for current conditions including temperature extremes. A physically demanding hike, you will walk and climb on irregular and broken sandstone along narrow ledges above drop-offs and in loose sand. There are gaps you must jump across and narrow places that you must squeeze into and pull yourself up and through. In some places, you must hold yourself off the ground by pushing against the sandstone walls with your hands and feet.

Fiery Furnace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be prepared for extreme temperatures.  Due to the maze-like nature of the terrain, all participants must complete the hike once they enter the Fiery Furnace. You must wear good hiking shoes or boots with gripping soles. No sandals or high heeled shoes are allowed. Each person must carry at least one quart of water. You should stow water and other gear in a backpack so that your hands are free to help navigate the terrain. Tripods are not recommended. No children under the age of 5 are allowed on the hike.

Fiery Furnace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail Length: 1.6 miles loop

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Elevation Gain: 385 feet

Required Time: 2-3 hours

Parking: Fiery Furnace Parking Area

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail

Windows Section © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Windows Section

The Windows Section is considered by some to be the beating heart of Arches National Park. The area contains a large concentration of arches and is one of the most scenic locations in the park. North Window, Turret Arch, and Double Arch are just a few of the awe-inspiring expanses you’ll find in just over two square miles. Other named features in this area include Garden of Eden, Elephant Butte, and Parade of Elephants.

In the words of Frank Bethwick, leader of a 1933-34 scientific expedition, “These arches are of thrilling beauty. Caused by the cutting action of wind-blown sand (not stream erosion), one marvels at the intricacies of nature.” This section of the park offers both beauty and variety—hiking, sightseeing, stargazing, photography, and enjoyment for the whole family.

Windows Section © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Double Arch is an easy, relatively flat walk to two massive, soaring arches that are joined at one end. Double Arch is the tallest and second-longest arch in the park. You can view the arch from the parking lot or take a short walk to its base.

The Windows Section contains a large concentration of arches and is one of the most scenic locations in the park. Take an easy trail to view North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch.

From the visitor center, drive 9.5 miles up Park Avenue (0.3 miles past Balanced Rock) and turn right toward the Windows Section. Drive an additional 2.5 miles to the loop at the end of the road where the parking area for the trailhead is located.

Double Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail Length: 1-mile loop

Difficulty Level: Easy

Elevation Gain: 150 feet

Required Time: 30-60 minutes

Parking: Windows Section Parking Area

Note: Pets are not allowed on this trail, but service animals are welcome

Worth Pondering…

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Palmetto State Park: Nature-filled Getaway in Central Texas

This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land

A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water including the San Marcos River, Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.

Along the entrance road to Palmetto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life, some seen almost nowhere else in Texas.

Back in the early 1930s, a small piece of that swamp, midway between Gonzales and Luling, became Palmetto State Park. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts to blend nature into their construction, the park today looks almost as natural as it did eight decades ago.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just an hour from Austin or San Antonio and two hours from Houston, this picturesque park is a short drive for many Texans and easily accessible off of Interstate 10. If you’re looking for more than just a day trip, extend your retreat with a night or two of camping or a stay in the park’s quaint cabin.

You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps.

CCC-built picnic pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On land, hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos. Host a gathering at the park’s CCC-built picnic pavilion which has an air-conditioned kitchen. 

Choose one of the 19 tent sites or 18 RV sites. Camp with up to 99 of your friends at the secluded group site. Or rent our air-conditioned cabin (for up to six people).

Hiking trail at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first thing I look for at a park is a trail to hike and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto State Park offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive Trail have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

A swamp at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine a Texas swamp fed by warm mineral springs and occasional river flooding that provides a home to unique plant and animal life some, seen almost nowhere else in Texas. Riotous birdsong is Palmetto’s soundtrack. The 270-acre park has attracted 240 species of birds, including an invasion of hummingbirds each spring. In the fall, look for butterflies everywhere. Fox squirrels and a variety of wildlife inhabit the park due to the presence of the river nearby.

Palmetto at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, everywhere you look is the park’s namesake plants adding a tropical feeling, unlike the surrounding Texas countryside. Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants from which the park gets its name surround the park’s swamp. These palmettos grow in East and Southeast Texas as well as the Palmetto State (South Carolina) and much of the southeastern US. The state park boasts the westernmost stand of dwarf palmettos in the country.
The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you get finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park. Make sure you check river conditions with park staff.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River is one of the most popular recreational rivers in Texas. The river arises from Aquarena Springs within the city limits of San Marcos and flows approximately 75 miles through heavily wooded banks to join the Guadalupe River. A wide variety of water types including a few rapids, many small riffles and an abundance of clear, quiet pools are present. The average width of the stream is 30 feet; however, it narrows between steep banks in its lower reaches. In periods of low water, numerous log jams are found, especially downriver.

San Marcos River at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good point of entry is Luling City Park, located adjacent to State Highway 80, just east of the city limits. The park provides about one-half mile of shoreline and camping is permitted.

Paddlers will enjoy a gentle family-friendly ride on this quiet river lined with beautiful trees and wildlife. Since private land borders the river, put-in and take-out points are limited.

CCC-built pavilion at Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Didn’t bring gear? The park staff has you covered with rentals of life jackets, kayaks, canoes, tubes, and hydro-cycles (basically bikes with pontoons). The park also participates in the tackle loaner program allowing you to borrow fishing poles free of charge.

The staff and volunteers at Palmetto State Park are eager to show you a safe and relaxing experience. Make sure you check in with them at park headquarters on your way in. While you’re there, pick up a souvenir at the well-stocked park store.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Entrance Fee: $3 daily

Camping Fee: $12-$20 + daily entrance fee

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

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

Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. But these 244,000 acres of the otherworldly landscape are gorgeous with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service, Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago, sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse, and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers. Later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually, most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months, wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

While breathtaking at a distance, the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. They introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive— the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some are short including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off-trail.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses.

Even if you go hiking, you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points. One not-to-miss feature—you probably couldn’t miss it if you tried—is what is called “The Wall,” 60-mile long, many miles-wide escarpments of pinnacles, buttes, fins, and mounds that separate the upper and lower prairies.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options, you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall Drug where ice water is still free.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 244,300 acres

Date Established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City

Park Elevation: 2,460 feet-3,282 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad,” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition, referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 Recreation Visits: 916,932

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt

Find Open Space on a Post-pandemic Arizona Road Trip

Miles away from ordinary

It’s arguably the most iconic highway in the United States. But motoring down historic Route 66 isn’t the only sightseeing road trip you can enjoy in Arizona. Every corner of this state has things to see and do and ways to recreate. And most importantly in this era of COVID, you can experience it all without another soul around for miles.

Route 66 between Kingman and Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the things that make Arizona a great destination is that they have the benefit of major metropolitan areas in Phoenix and Tucson while most of the state offers large areas of public lands to explore. You can find yourself alone in some of the most amazing landscapes with a little planning and knowing what you’re looking for.

The pandemic has severely impacted Arizona’s tourism. Airport traffic is down 55 per cent year to date while state park visitation is down 16 per cent. This is a state that before COVID in 2019 marked 6.1 million international visitors who spent $4.6 billion.

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona presents many opportunities for socially distanced travel in the great outdoors. For example, Aravaipa Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona and only 50 people are allowed in each day so it’s possible you won’t come across anyone else. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge attracts people for the same reason. It’s very rugged with little in the way of infrastructure and few visitors.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To really get away from it all get off the main highways onto the back roads of the state. There are many secondary routes with breathtaking scenery and quirky history such as centuries-old cliff dwellings, mining ghost towns, and still thriving cowboy bars. There are also three distinct wine-growing regions beckoning off the beaten path. Just be aware that some of these routes pass through tribal lands which at the time of writing were closed to travel due to the pandemic.

Red Rock State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hard part will be deciding where to go. There are 30 state parks, six national forests, 11 U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, dozens of national parks, national monuments, wildlife areas, and numerous certified Dark Sky Places.

Narrow down the experience you want whether it’s a road trip to see iconic landmarks or a more active trip away from the crowds. First, decide what you want your road trip to include. To minimize the number of people around you take the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and other iconic destinations off your list and focus on off-the-beaten-path places—and Arizona has plenty of these. Here are a few ideas to get you started.


Hiking Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t have to go far from civilization to immerse yourself in a stunning landscape. The Superstition Mountains lie just east of Phoenix but are a world away. The Siphon Draw trail gains 2,500 feet over 3 miles before it reaches the top of Flat Iron (gulp). But wait, don’t let that stop you! Of all the Superstition Mountains hiking trails, Flat Iron may be the most demanding in the shortest distance but also the most rewarding.

A much more doable hike for the average joe is in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge off U.S. Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma. Two mountain ranges dominate the 665,400-acre refuge of which more than 80 percent is designated as wilderness. The Palm Canyon Trail is a mile-long stroll through the desert. You’re pretty much on your own out here and may spot more bighorn sheep and mule deer than fellow humans. This area does attract serious climbers though to Signal Peak, Ten Ewe Mountain, and Castle Dome Peak.

The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness area 85 miles north of Wilcox is another good bet for isolated hiking and backpacking. The area is a great mix of all of what makes Arizona so unique: canyons, cliffs, caves, deserts, and rivers. The entire canyon hike which can be accessed at either end takes 10 hours but take your time for side forays.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two well-known areas that still have plenty of open space to explore are Monument Valley and Chiricahua National Monument. Monument Valley on the northeast Arizona-Utah border is one of the most photographed places on earth and the site of many a western film shoot due to its towering sandstone buttes. Chiricahua is in the extreme southeast near the border of New Mexico. Hiking here will take you from massive rock formations through pine forests to the Sonoran desert.


With so many national forests, there are dozens of options for both on and off-road cycling. For mountain bikers, the pinnacle might just be the Rainbow Rim Trail at the Grand Canyon. Located on the north rim in Kaibab National Forest, it’s the only single-track in the canyon and runs for about 20 miles through meadows and forests. Arizona Outback Adventures recommends bikers acclimatize first however as the route traverses between 7,500 and 9,000 feet elevation.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the other end of the spectrum is the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument way south in the Sonoran desert bordering Mexico. This is a UNESCO biosphere reserve that attracts few visitors. So you’ll have the roads to yourself. Just be aware that bikes are not allowed on hiking trails or after dark.

Mount Lemmon scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road riders will want to head for Mount Lemmon, an hour north of Tucson. At 9,000-feet-high, it’s the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and attracts both cyclists and longboarders (a type of skateboard popular with downhill racers). But it’s a hard climb of almost 7,000 feet of twists and turns although the incredibly fast downhill makes it worthwhile for many. Just be aware that you’ll be sharing the road with motoring sightseers.

Lynx Lake near Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Depending on whether you want a lazy float trip, a thrilling whitewater adventure, or something in between, there are options in Arizona.

On the California border, Lake Havasu is adventure central with all manner of watersports, offroading, cycling, hiking, and golfing. It’s one of the more popular areas of Arizona but with 400 miles of coastline and 40 miles of navigable waterways, you can still find space of your own.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another popular lake lies along the border with Utah. Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir attracts upwards of two million people a year. But follow the Colorado River south to Lees Ferry and you’ll find exception kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Various outfitters run trips here for those too inexperienced to navigate on their own.

The global pandemic has changed the way people view travel. For many, it’s now about really experiencing a place and finding space for themselves. There is no better way to do that than exploring the outdoors. Arizona stacks up well with options in every corner of the state.

Lower Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers

The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

At one of America’s newer National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Meditteranean chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salinas Valley in west-central California is the site of an ancient history spanning 23 million years. Over the course of that time, the “pinnacles” have migrated some 200 miles from their original home on the San Andreas Fault where the volcano that they were born from once stood. Today, that volcanic rock from the Pacific Coast Range has morphed to form monoliths, spires, peaks, cliffs, and other formations that jut out from the pastoral hills of the region. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first 2,500 acres of the rugged Pinnacles were made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since 1908, the monument significantly increased in size to 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park. 

Hiking and rock climbing are popular activities in Pinnacles National Park as is watching for the majestic California condor overhead. Pinnacles National Park is a nesting place for the endangered soaring bird, the largest in North America.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the early 1980s, the California condor population had dwindled to just 22. The birds were placed in captive breeding programs, and Pinnacles became one of the release sites. Other condors from the Big Sur area also frequent the area which increases the odds of seeing one of these rare creatures.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remarkable rocks sculpted by 14 million years of volcanic turmoil. The rocky spires and pinnacles have long attracted rock climbers. So have talus caves (formed when massive boulders tumbled into narrow canyons) inhabited by protected bat communities. A well-maintained 30-mile trail system, partially created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, beckons hikers to this rugged landscape. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the temperate climate makes for year-round exploration opportunities.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into east and west access points which are connected by trails. But, there is no road connecting the east and west entrances of the park.

The eastern access road (CA 146) branches off CA 25, 30 miles south of Hollister, and leads up a wide, partly wooded valley alongside Bear Creek, and past the park campground. The mountains are visible to the west though they seem unremarkable from a distance as the volcanic formations are hidden behind more conventional rocks.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles Campground offers 149 tent, group, and RV sites with 30-amp electric service. Water is located throughout the campground. Showers and a dump station are available. During the spring and summer seasons, campers can enjoy the campground swimming pool and ranger programs at the campground amphitheater.

The road bends around a side canyon and ends next to the visitor center just as the main valley (Bear Gulch) starts to become relatively narrow. The center has exhibits, a small selection of books for sale, a public telephone, and flashlights for use in the caves.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding vegetation is typical of the chaparral zone, mostly small oak trees, and bushes, reflecting the low elevation, moderate rainfall, and long hot summers of this part of California. The main hiking area is to the west, further along, the canyon—within 2 miles are Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and many rock climbing sites, while 2 miles further are the extensive formations of the High Peaks. Many trails intersect, allowing for a short loop or a longer all-day hike.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bear Gulch Cave provides a home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats as they rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer. The colony in the Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The lower half of the Bear Gulch Cave is usually open from mid-July through mid-May each year, depending on the presence of the colony of bats. The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young. Bring a flashlight if your hike leads through a cave.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west entrance has just a ranger station plus parking and is reached by a narrow, 12-mile road from Soledad that is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From the road’s end, three trails depart to the north, west, and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.

Fact Box

Size: 26,000 acres

Date Established: January 10, 2013

Location: West central California, in the Salinas Valley

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: In 1880, the area where the national park is now was known as “the Palisades” until a newspaper article came out in 1881 describing the trellised areas as “the Pinnacles.” Further exploration of the area and additional marketing of it as a tourist destination helped the new name to stick. It has been officially known as Pinnacles since it was protected as a National Monument in 1908. 

Iconic site in the park: The geologic formations are known as “the pinnacles” are a series of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that have eroded over time to take the shape of colorful and ornate cliffs, crags, and talus cave formations that rise from a forested landscape. 

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did You Know?

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.

American writer John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and lived there until he went to Stanford University in 1919. The location inspired several of his works, one of them being East of Eden

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Entrance Fees: $30/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping Fee: $37/night

Worth Pondering…

May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view……where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.

—Edward Abbey

Lake Pleasant, an Oasis in the Sonoran Desert

With more than 23,000 acres of water and beautiful desert landscape, Lake Pleasant is one of the most scenic recreation areas in the Valley

The desert is parched and grows little but cactus. Except for roadrunners outwitting coyotes, the desert supports no wildlife. Arizona residents and seasoned snowbirds have heard it all before from first-time visitors. Sometimes they just smile and head for Lake Pleasant.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away amid rolling hills just 30 miles north of Phoenix, Lake Pleasant Regional Park is a sudden and dramatic escape. This expansive playground combines all the things we love about the desert—endless sunshine, rising mountains, saguaro-clad slopes, and waves of spring wildflowers—with the addition of unexpected water. For outdoor enthusiasts, this 23,000-acre park is a dream destination.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

­­Lake Pleasant History

In the mid-1920s, the Waddell Dam confined the waters of the Agua Fria River as a private irrigation project. The dam originally was named after Carl Pleasant, the engineer who designed it. The completion of the New Waddell Dam in 1994 turned Lake Pleasant into a major storage facility for Colorado River water delivered by the Central Arizona Project (CAP). The new dam tripled the size of the lake and submerged the old dam. Pleasant is the second-largest reservoir in central Arizona, behind only Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Water is pumped into the lake via the CAP canal during winter and is released during spring and summer to meet higher demands.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Fishing

A dozen fish species swim in Lake Pleasant. Those fishing from shore generally goes after catfish, sunfish, and carp. From a boat, anglers can explore coves, channels, and deep holes. The lake is a popular spot for largemouth bass, striped bass, and Arizona’s only population of white bass. Others that might end up on a line include tilapia, bluegill, bigmouth buffalo fish, and white and black crappie.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boat Ramps and Marinas

A 10-lane boat ramp helps keep the traffic flowing onto the water even during busy times. There also is a four-lane ramp at the north end of the lake.

Never fear if you don’t have a boat. You can rent just about anything that floats at Scorpion Bay Marina. Hourly and daily rentals include pontoons, fishing boats, ski boats, kayaks, and other water toys. The marina has a general store and the Scorpion Bay Grill with indoor and patio dining.

Located on the southeastern shore outside the regional park Pleasant Harbor Marina has two four-lane boat ramps, boat rentals, a waterside restaurant, and daily cruises. Look for the world’s largest floating water slide to reopen for the season in late spring. The RV resort has more than 300 full and partial hook-up sites as well as dry camping. There is a $6 entry fee per vehicle for everyone visiting Pleasant Harbor Marina.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Pleasant Hiking Trails

Landlubbers will have plenty to keep them busy. A network of hiking trails spreads across the park some tracing the shore while others explore surrounding desert hills. It’s always fascinating to witness this contrast—groves of saguaros standing guard over a large body of water. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some hiking options. All mileages are one way.

Beardsley Trail (4.1 miles): This is the longest Lake Pleasant trail as it traverses open desert parallel to South Park Road before it junctions with the epic, county-circling Maricopa Trail

Pipeline Canyon Trail (2 miles): This trail highlights the best display of spring wildflowers with the heaviest concentration stretching from the southern trailhead to the floating bridge a half-mile away

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roadrunner Trail (0.8 miles): It follows the water’s edge connecting the Discovery Center with the 10-lane boat ramp

Wild Burro Trail (2 miles): It’s so named because it provides the best chance to see some of the park’s long-eared residents

Yavapai Point (1.5 miles): The trail makes a moderate climb to the crest of a hill at the edge of the water that offers some impressive views

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picnic Areas

Picnickers will find numerous covered ramadas and tables dotting the landscape. Day-use areas include tables, grills, drinking water, and restrooms. The Sunset Ridge Area sits atop a hill with commanding views of the lake. It has 21 picnic sites with tables, grills, and a porta-john.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discovery Center and Playground

In 2016, the original dam observation/visitor center building was expanded and given a stylish update. The Discovery Center now offers visitors a good introduction to the lake with exhibits on history, wildlife, plant communities, and information on upcoming events. Spotting scopes and signs on the balcony help you identify points of interest that range from features of the dam to the distant ridge of Four Peaks. Children will love the adjacent playground filled with animal-themed slides and swings. The Discovery Center is now open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, until further notice.

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Lake Pleasant

Imagine starry nights or the light of a full moon shimmering on the water. Snag a campsite to enjoy that show. Lake Pleasant offers 148 sites for RV and tent camping spread across the Desert Tortoise and Roadrunner campgrounds. Campsites cost $15-$40 per night, depending on amenities.

Developed sites have water, electricity, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring. Sites can be reserved up to six months in advance at or by calling 602-506-2930.

Primitive camping is allowed along much of the shoreline in such areas as Two Cow and Fireman’s coves. Locations change with fluctuating water levels. Park staff can provide more details.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Location: From central Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to the Carefree Highway (SR-74) exit. Drive 15 miles west, then turn north on Castle Hot Springs Road.

Park Elevation: 1,700 feet

Surface Water: 10,000 acres

Park Entrance Fee: $7 per vehicle.

Campsite Rates: $22-$32

Lake Pleasant © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park offers forest, meadows, mountains, and wildlife including a herd of 1,300 bison

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centers, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds, and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of America’s largest state parks, Custer has been home to diverse cultural heritages for thousands of years and has provided an array of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation for visitors since the early 1900s. Custer State Park is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “Tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison and not get too close. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. Bear in mind, they are wild. Keep your distance.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, in 2021). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, but it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Arrive early to pick your spot. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m. Crews will work the remainder of the herd in October.

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road—which are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels, and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person. The Needles Highway is much more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

Wild burros seeking handouts in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other top trails include Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail, and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following an action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Each campsite offers gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. Or, you can relax in a one-room, log-style camping cabin or historic lodge located throughout the park.

The clear mountain waters are inviting and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Yes, You Can Avoid Crowds in the National Parks & Here is How

Tips on finding quieter havens and hidden gems

Given the astonishing beauty and richness of the 63 U.S. national parks, it’s no wonder they’re so popular: They received 237 million visitors in 2020—only a 28 percent drop from the year before despite widespread closures and travel slowing nearly to a halt due to the pandemic. This year will likely attract many more visitors drawn to outdoor spaces relatively close to home.

These are some of my tips for finding beautiful, less crowded spots, and moments of solitude even in the most popular of these wonderful destinations.

Petrified Forest 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; here 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 wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness and beauty, and a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker!

Painted Desert © 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.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find Little-known Havens within a Park

Most national parks are pretty big places but visitors tend to congregate at some of the most well-known and iconic sites leaving other areas blissfully quiet. For example, Yosemite Valley includes some of the park’s most famous attractions but the valley is a tiny fraction of the park. Visit the Hetch Hetchy area, often described as the twin of Yosemite Valley, and hike to Wapama Falls or Rancheria Falls. Or drive to the lesser-visited northwest corner of Yellowstone and walk the Bighorn Pass Trail that follows the striking Upper Gallatin River.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Rocky Mountain avoid the popular Bear Lake Corridor area and take the dramatic Ute Trail through the park’s alpine tundra or the lovely Colorado River Trail in the park’s Never Summer Range.

In Joshua Tree, take a walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of the ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its birdlife. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit during the Off-season

Many parks accommodate the majority of their visitors in the three summer months leaving the rest of the year relatively fallow (although these shoulder seasons are growing shorter as more people are adopting this strategy). The waterfalls of Yosemite are typically at their peak in May when it gets 10 percent of the park’s annual visits compared to 16 percent in August; fall foliage at Acadia is at its most colorful in October when it sees 13 percent of its annual visitors, compared to 22 percent in August; and wildflowers in the Grand Canyon are usually most prolific in April (9 percent of visitors versus 13 percent in July). For even more solitude, go for the real off-season—usually winter—when many parks such as Arches and Zion are quiet and beautiful.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get Out of your Car and Walk

It’s the natural law of parks that the number of people you see decreases exponentially with each mile you go from the trailhead and walking is the most intimate way to experience the parks. It allows you to appreciate the parks through so many of the senses: See the tracks of elusive mountain lions at Glacier National Park, hear the iconic call of the canyon wren as you hike through the Grand Canyon, smell the sweetness of Ponderosa pine bark warming in the sun in Yosemite, taste the salt air as you walk the Ocean Path at Acadia, and feel the solid granite beneath your feet as you explore the trails of Isle Royale.

Shuttle stop at Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use Shuttle Trams when Available

Traffic congestion and lack of parking plague many parks and the National Park Service is responding with shuttle buses at popular destinations such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Denali. Use these transit systems to avoid the traffic and parking headaches that too many of us face in our everyday lives.

Steller’s jay at Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rise Early and/or Stay Late

Get to attraction sites and trailheads early in the day and consider hikes late in the day—parking spaces are more readily available at these times and you’ll experience the parks at the “golden hours” when the light is at its finest—soft and rich—for viewing and photographing and when wildlife is more likely to be seen. Experience the dawn chorus of birds, one of the world’s great natural phenomena, and enjoy it in relative solitude.

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

Purchase Park Passes and Supplies before Arriving

Nearly all national parks require an entrance pass/fee. Of course, you can obtain passes at the parks you visit but this will probably require waiting in line at the park entrance station or visitor center. You can obtain passes in advance on the National Park Service website and some parks have an express lane for visitors who already have a pass. You can also save time and money purchasing the goods and services you’ll need (food, fuel, camping supplies) for your visit before you enter the park. These items are often available in the parks but only at a few locations and you’ll probably have to wait behind other visitors to make your purchases.

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit National Monuments and Other National Park Service Sites

There are 423 national park service (NPS) sites in total and only 63 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park” including the most recent New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. In addition to monuments and national parks, there are national lakeshores and seashores, memorials, parkways, preserves, reserves, recreation areas, rivers and riverways, and scenic trails. Into military history? There are national battlefields, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national military. History buff? You’ll find national historical parks, national historic sites, and international historic sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, pronghorns, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

North Dakota is not a place you might expect to wow you with wild terrain. As you drive through the remote western part of the state along two-lane highways, there appears to be nothing in sight but flatland for as far as the eye can see. Then as you near the areas surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park a visible trace of wilderness filled with badlands, dense vegetation, grasslands, and diverse wildlife appears seemingly out of nowhere. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to “bag a buffalo.” His first visit to 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, an ethos that would shape the future of conservation efforts and of the National Park Service.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office, he established the United States Forest Service, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments, and five national parks—protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land.

This park doesn’t get a lot of play on the national stage, mostly because of its out-of-the-way location. My hope is that this article will inspire others to journey there—not only is it among the most historic of all national parks but it is absolutely beautiful as well. With that, I’ll delve into some of the reasons why we loved being there.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighboring state of South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt is home to many colorful badland formations—sedimentary deposits created over the course of 65 million years by the effects of erosion caused by wind, sun, hail, snow, and rain. One unique distinction of the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt is that vegetation grows from and all around them. Tucked into the folds of the badlands are large deposits of petrified wood—massive trees turned to solid quartz over the course of millions of years. At Theodore Roosevelt, you will find the third-largest deposit of petrified wood in the United States following Yellowstone and Petrified Forest national parks. The most concentrated area can be found along the Petrified Forest Loop trail, a 10-mile hike located in the south unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is composed of three units that are bound together by the Little Missouri River. The north unit is quiet and rugged; the south unit is home to abundant populations of watchable wildlife; and the Elkhorn Ranch, or west unit, is where Teddy Roosevelt lived for nearly 13 years. Drives between the three areas can take several hours each so plan to devote at least a couple days in both the north and south units and one afternoon in the Elkhorn unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora, and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista, an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset; Badlands Overlook, which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines; and Cottonwood Campground, for a picnic under the tall trees. For another easily accessible point in the South Unit, including for those using wheelchairs, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 off I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook, the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, colored buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the park on foot is the best way to get up close with the terrain and wildlife, and you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails. The hikes are mostly short (under a mile or two) and flat, as the highest buttes only rise a few hundred vertical feet. But be mindful of the summer heat: Average highs climb to the high-80s and it often feels hotter and drier, so bring plenty of water.

In the South Unit, two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats.

Whatever scene you are watching, you will be blessed one way or another with a view that differs only slightly from that which captured the heart and imagination of Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 70,466.89 acres

Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947)

Location: Western North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: This park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Dakota Territory. The site where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is now located was selected after his death in 1919 to honor his dedication to preserving America’s wilderness. The land was set aside by an act of congress. He was known as the “conservationist president” for dedicating his life to obtaining federal protection for lands and wildlife species under threat. During his time in elected office he established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt