The Ultimate Guide to Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park is filled with great hiking, beautiful Navajo sandstone formations, ancient lava rock (basalt), and out-of-this-world views, so come along, as we tour this amazing hidden gem.

On the edges of ecosystems, eras or civilizations, you’ll find some of the most remarkable travel destinations. Snow Canyon State Park is one such place. Located at the edge of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau, Snow Canyon State Park explodes with dramatic geology perfect for your outdoor adventure—and photo opportunities.

Cut by water, sculpted by wind and time, Snow Canyon’s Navajo sandstone cliffs share the same history and geology as Zion National Park to the east. You may find yourself wondering why it isn’t a national park.

As recently as 27,000 years ago lava flows exerted their powerful force reshaping the canyons and creating the park’s distinctive landscapes. The blend of Navajo sandstone cliffs, petrified sand dunes, and broad lava fields make this terrain a fantastic playground for both adventurous travelers and families looking to give kids an outlet to expend some of their boundless energy.

Snow Canyon State Park is one of those state parks often overlooked by people touring Utah. While Utah is obviously known for The Mighty Five and as a prime destination for winter recreation as well, there are also 43 state parks. Many of these parks are just as majestic as the national parks but without the crowds. Also, state parks are generally dog friendly.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Snow Canyon State Park?

Snow Canyon State Park is located in southwestern Utah near the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. If you are planning to stay close to the park, the best city to stay in is St. George because it is just an 11-mile drive.

When to visit Snow Canyon State Park

Spring and fall have average high temperatures of 80 degrees and 73 degrees respectively creating a sweet spot for active adventures at Snow Canyon. Summer can get pretty warm with very little shade available but getting out early in the day is ideal. Winter packs mild temps and all activities remain available. 

Despite its name, the park rarely sees snow. (The park is named for Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, Utah pioneers, not the white precipitation.)

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History of Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon State Park is about 7,400 acres located within the 62,000 acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The reserve was established to protect the desert tortoise! I wish I would have been able to see one on our visit here. It was created in 1959 and opened to the public in 1962.

It is likely that humans have been using this park for more than 10,000 years based on the artifacts found in the park. The users of the park ranged from Paleoindian mammoth hunters to 19th century settlers.

Why is it called Snow Canyon?

When people hear the word snow they often think of frozen white stuff falling from the sky. While it is possible for Snow Canyon to receive snow, it’s not common.

Snow Canyon was originally called Dixie State Park but was later renamed. The snow in Snow Canyon is in reference to two early Utah leaders, Lorenzo and Erastus Snow.

The park is also known as movie sets for a few Hollywood films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do at Snow Canyon State Park

There are more than 38 miles of hiking trails, excellent biking trails, opportunities for technical climbing, and more than 15 miles of equestrian trails.

Hiking

Hiking is the prime activity in the canyon. As soon as you drive in, you can quickly see why. Gorgeous red and white sandstone streaks together with black lava flows spilling along the canyon floor- create a perfect playground for exploring on foot. Along with slot canyons to enter and lava tubes to explore, the sweeping vistas and overlooks might have you grabbing for your camera. You’ll need more than one day to do a thorough job of exploring the park’s 18 hiking trails

Check out my list of the most popular below. Distances are roundtrip.

Note: Most of these trails do not have shade. Come prepared with water (1 liter per person) and plenty of sun protection (UV clothing, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses).

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lava Flow Trail

Distance: 2.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some uneven surfaces

Hike through a jumbled lava field, the vivid remains of a long ago volcanic eruption.

The Lava Flow Trail, also known as the Lava Tubes is a 2.5 mile, family-friendly trail that takes you back in time. The trail takes you past three lava cave entrances. Entering the caves can be a little dangerous as it can get dark and slippery at times. There is a dedicated parking for the trail head.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jenny’s Canyon Trail

Distance: 0.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy, level with a few slopes and steps

This is a very short trail with easy access from the road; a great children’s trail that leads to a short, sculpted slot canyon. According to the park brochure, kids enjoy this trail the most due to the geological features and because it’s a slot canyon.

It will take you half an hour to complete the hike but it might take you longer if you decide to take time to admire the Snow Canyon Sand Dunes on your way.

Petrified Dunes Trail

Distance: 1.2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some uneven surfaces and steep slopes

This route crosses massive Navajo sandstone outcrops and sand dunes frozen in time.

A favorite of many, this hike takes you to one of the best viewpoints of the park. The trail is relatively well marked but you’ll definitely want to wander around and explore the unique formations in the area. It’s located in the heart of Snow Canyon State Park and one of the most photographed hikes in the canyon due to its unique beauty.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pioneer Names Trail

Distance: 0.5 miles

Difficulty: Easy, fairly level with some steps and slopes

This crescent-shaped trail passes pioneer names written in axle grease dating back to 1881.

This trail is accessible from two different parking lots. From the North lot, it is less than a quarter-mile to the end and the southern lot is a little more than a mile long. The hike takes you to a canyon wall that was written on by early pioneers. The axle grease writing has been preserved by an arch that hangs over it and provides a reminder of the early settlers in the area. It’s a sandy trail, so make sure to bring a good pair of shoes.

Butterfly Trail

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate, some steep slopes, steps, and uneven surfaces

Winding along the west side of Petrified Dunes this trail leads to West Canyon Overlook and lava tubes.

You can access this trail from its own parking lot or continue from Petrified Dunes Trail (see above) since they intersect. It is best known for winding along the petrified dunes and leads to several overlooks and lava tubes.

The best time to do it is in spring and fall. Start in the morning to better appreciate the great views. It’s not a family hike since it has plenty of uneven surfaces.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnson Canyon Trail

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty: Easy, level with some rocky slopes and steps

Leads to a sheltered canyon of willow and cottonwood winding through lava flows and red rocks to an arch spanning 200 feet.

Passing through stream beds, lava flows, and a beautiful canyon this trail is a grand experience. The canyon is more shaded than many of the other hikes making it one of the best hikes for the summer and fall months. It’s a great place to take a rest and enjoy quality time with your family and friends, and it will only take 1 hour to hike it. This trail also has seasonal closures, so check the availability before you plan your trip.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Biking

Besides simply biking the main road through the park, two other bike-friendly trails exist. The first is Whiptail Trail, an out-and-back, paved path that runs from the south entrance and through about two-thirds of the canyon. Delightful for bikers of all experience levels but the last quarter mile is steep. There’s always the option to turnaround before this steep climb.

The second bike path is West Canyon Road. Once a road, as its name suggests, it is a dirt and gravel path. Beefier tires than those of a road bike are needed but you won’t need a high-end mountain bike to enjoy this trail. The road runs four miles up the canyon and takes the west fork at the end of the canyon that will lead you past the Whiterocks Amphitheater at the northern end. This path traverses parts of the park that no other trail will show or lead to.

Access the West Canyon Road at Sand Dunes picnic and parking area for an eight-mile round-trip excursion.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock Climbing

Well-known for its incredible rock cliffs, you’ll find from short sports clip-ups to mixed multi-pitch routes in Snow Canyon. With more than 7,100 acres available, rock climbing is one of the top outdoor activities to do here. Take a look at these areas and pick your next rock climbing route.

For a full list, visit mountainproject.com.

Johnson Canyon

Ideal for trad climbing, this trail allows you to descend at the dead end of Johnson Canyon. If you go during the week, it is almost always empty so you will have the wall for yourself. These are the coordinations: 37.17970°N / 113.6347°W. You can climb all year long.

Hackberry Wash

At this trail, you can do trad and sport climbing. If, if you are coming from St George this will be the first crag in the park. It is close to Jenny Trail (see above). The best time to climb is spring, fall, and winter. 

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Island of the Sky

This sandstone is located in the middle of Snow Canyon. To reach the top you have ledges, dihedrals, and ramps that will be a huge help. The level of difficulty is moderate and it has an elevation of 3,780 feet. There is no easy pathway in this sandstone, be prepared. You can visit any time of the year. 

Balkan Dome

One of the shortest routes in Snow Canyon but is fun to try. You can reach this part via the Pioneer Names Trail (see above). Everything is covered with sandstone that sometimes makes it harder to climb, so be patient. Is located across the Islands of the Sky and is an ideal route for sport climbing. The best time to go is summer, fall, and spring. 

West Canyon

Probably the most complete trail since you can not only do trad and sport climbing but also hike. This canyon features five routes that range from 5.8 to 5.11c. You can access it via the Three Ponds trail. The coordination is 37.19330°N / 113.6425°W.

Horseback riding

There are several trails open to horseback riding in Snow Canyon: Beck Hill Trail, Chuckwalla Trail, Gila Trail, Lava Flow (only between West Canyon Road and turn-off to White Rocks Trail), Rusty Cliffs, Scout Cave Trail, Red Sands (from West Canyon Road Trail to the west), Toe Trail, West Canyon Road, and the equestrian trail (starting at Johnson’s canyon lot and running parallel to whiptail until the sand dunes lot, from here the trail parallels West Canyon Road).

If you don’t have your own horses, a guided experience is offered by local companies. Take a leisurely stroll with an equestrian friend and soak in the views, floral, and fauna and everything Snow Canyon has to offer the senses.

Petroglyphs

If you hike the Gila Trail to about the halfway mark, trail markers designate petroglyph sites. These illustrations, carved into stone by Native Americans, are delicate historical landmarks and are fun to examine.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyoneering

Canyoneering combines hiking with rappelling allowing exploration into slot canyons and down-climbing through the canyon. It’s a unique outdoor adventure that doesn’t exist in most places but the area has lots of options. Snow Canyon has two canyoneering routes, both of which require an access permit. If you want to explore Island in the Sky or Arch Canyon, secure a permit through the state park’s website or contact a guide company to take you.

Wildlife

Snow Canyon isn’t just famous for its hiking trails, rock climbing walls, and sandstone cliffs but also for its unique wildlife. You can find coyotes, kit foxes, quail and roadrunner, and sometimes tortoises and peregrine falcons in this State Park.

Millions of people come from across the country to watch leopard lizards, gopher snakes, canyon tree frogs, and sometimes tortoises and peregrine falcons. 

There are thirteen sensitive species protected by law within the park including the Gila Monster which is the only venomous lizard in the United States. The best time to watch the wildlife is at dawn and dusk. You will have plenty of time to go hiking and observe the wildlife since the park opens at 6:00 am and closes at 10:00 pm. 

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

A night or two under the stars is the perfect escape from a fast-paced lifestyle. Snow Canyon State Park is the ideal place to find those stars and quiet nights. The campsites will have you feeling like you’re camping in the Flintstones’ backyard with views of a cinder cone towering above and petroglyphs etched into rocks. 

There are 29 camping sites at the Snow Canyon State Park; 13 are standard sites with no hookups and 16 are sites with partial hookups that come with water and electricity. Most sites are not big-rig friendly. Group camping is also available. All sites are reservable online through reserveamerica.com.

Final thoughts

Snow Canyon State Park is truly one of the most beautiful places in all of Utah! Southern Utah is a well-known location for outdoor activities and Snow Canyon should be on any outdoor lover’s list whether you visit with friends or family.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Snow Canyon State Park FAQ

Is Snow Canyon State Park worth visiting?

Absolutely! It’s one of the most popular parks in Southern Utah and has so many hidden gems like the Petrified Dunes or Lava Tubes that will blow your mind. It’s a great place to try new outdoor activities like hiking, biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and camping. Also, it’s less crowded than Zion National Park or any other National Park located in Utah.

Are dogs and other pets allowed in the park?

If you’re planning a trip with your furry friend, this is going to make you really happy because you’re allowed to bring them with you! However, they must be on a leash around the campground and they can only accompany you to the Whiptail Trail and the West Canyon Rim Trail. Take into consideration that the leash must be a maximum of six-feet long.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Address: 1002 N. Snow Canyon Road, Ivins, UT 84738

Phone: 435-628-2255

Hours of operation: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Directions

From I-15 northbound: Take exit 6 (Bluff Street). Go north on Bluff Street to the intersection with Snow Canyon Parkway. Turn left onto Snow Canyon Parkway and proceed approximately 3.5 miles and turn right onto Snow Canyon Drive. Follow this road to the south entrance of the park.

From I-15 southbound: Take exit 10 (Washington). Turn right off the ramp then an immediate left at the light. Follow this road for approximately 5 miles to the intersection with Bluff Street/ SR-18. Proceed through the light and continue on Snow Canyon Parkway for approximately 3.5 miles and turn right onto Snow Canyon Drive. Follow this road to the south entrance of the park.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day-use fees:

Utah resident: $10 per vehicle (up to eight people); $5 per vehicle (up to eight people); seniors 65 and older (with UT driver’s license); $5 pedestrian/cyclists (up to four people)

Non-resident:  $15 per vehicle (up to eight people); $5 pedestrian/cyclist (up to four people)

Camping fees:

Non-hookup sites: Standard sites $40 per night; hookup sites (water/electric) $45 per night; extra vehicle fees (one extra vehicle per site permitted) $20 per night

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.

—John Muir

The Complete Guide to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms on the planet

Start training your neck muscles now: When you visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks you’ll spend a lot of time looking up—way up—at some of the largest living organisms in the history of the planet.

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, the main attractions in these twin parks in Central California are approximately 40 different sequoia groves. These behemoth trees only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation and the parks are home to seven of the 10 largest trees in the world.

Amazingly these trees which stretch up to nearly 300 feet high aren’t even the tallest things in the parks. In fact, they’re positively dwarfed by geological formations like the namesake Kings Canyon, a glacial valley hemmed in by 4,000-foot-high granite walls and Sequoia’s Mount Whitney the highest point in the Lower 48 at 14,494 feet.

Located in the Southern Sierra Nevada about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kings Canyon and Sequoia are actually two national parks for the price of one. They share a border and a long history dating back to the early days of the conservation movement in America.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established the country’s second national park, Sequoia, to protect the area’s namesake giants from the encroaching logging industry. Just a week later he added General Grant National Park to the roster.

In those early days, America’s first Black national park superintendent (and the only African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Army), Col. Charles Young, led efforts to build a road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest and by 1903 the landscape had opened to tourists coming in by wagon. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established Kings Canyon National Park which absorbed the former General Grant Park. 

Today Sequoia comprises 631 square miles which include the famed Generals Highway which cuts through dense sequoia groves; Moro Rock, a climbable granite dome; the pristine Mineral King glacial valley; and Crystal Cave, a marble cavern.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bifurcated 722-square-mile Kings Canyon meanwhile sits atop Sequoia like two lopsided bunny ears: To the west, a squiggly sliver of parkland surrounds the General Grant Tree and the neighboring village and visitor center; to the east, a much larger swath of wilderness is centered around Kings Canyon proper, dotted with iconic vistas like Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring River Falls and Muir Rock. The meandering ribbon of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two sections as it cuts through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest. 

Despite their world-famous supertall attractions, Kings Canyon and Sequoia remain blissfully crowd-free much of the year.

Tuning in to the soundscape is one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness. Find a secluded spot, take a few steps off the trail, maybe sit down, maybe close your eyes, and just be silent and listen to the sounds of the park for a couple of minutes.

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

Plan your trip 

The parks are relatively centrally located within the state and a bit of a trek to reach from major cities: You can expect about a five-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles.

When planning your trip, note that it’s hard to generalize about the weather in these parts. There’s an enormous elevation shift from the foothills in Sequoia (as low as 1,370 feet) to the big tree groves in both parks to Sequoia’s towering Mount Whitney. As a result, temperatures can regularly drop to 30 degrees as you ascend higher through the parks. Fortunately, the NPS maintains a helpful website with forecasts for specific areas.

The foothills tend to have milder winters and hot, dry summers with average highs in July and August reaching into the upper 90s and average winter lows dropping to the mid-30s. In Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove summer temperatures are significantly milder usually in the mid-70s in the daytime and the 50s at night. Even if it’s scorchingly hot when you enter the parks (it has been known to hit 114 degrees) you may still need a light sweater by the time you’re surrounded by sequoias. Plan and pack accordingly—layers are your friend. 

Castle Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the winter can be peaceful and the parks look gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow, things slow down during those months. Several roads, including 180 from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove, Mineral King Road, and Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road close due to treacherous, icy driving conditions and many of the parks’ lodging options shutter. Currently, Highway 180 to Cedar Grove is closed at the Hume gate until spring 2023.

In general, you’ll want a car in these parks. From late May through mid-September there’s also a shuttle bus system with free routes covering such areas as the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, the General Sherman Tree Trails, and Wuksachi Lodge. Meanwhile, the $20 Sequoia Shuttle (reservation required) transports guests in from the gateway town of Visalia.

Overcrowding isn’t much of a concern even during the summer high season in July and August. Avoiding crowds has a lot to do with timing. Weekdays are always more forgiving than weekends. If you can get to the entrance station before 9 a.m. you’re likely to be rewarded with ample parking at your destination

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

Where to stay

The jewel in the crown of lodging options in these parts is Sequoia’s 102-room Wuksachi Lodge which features an architectural style that screams national parks lodge thanks to its native granite and oak, hickory, and cedar touches. Located 2 miles from Lodgepole Village the hotel is a perfect jumping-off point for hiking trails that lead out into Cahoon Meadow and Twin Lakes. It’s now open year-round but things can get a little dicey in the winter if you’re not used to driving in snow because it sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet; remember to pack those snow chains! Amenities in mobility- and hearing-accessible rooms include widened doorways, visual fire alarms, and phones with flashing lights.

In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove Village is home to two seasonal lodging options in the park’s western section: The 36-room John Muir Lodge (open late March to late October) includes a stone fireplace in the lobby that’s an inviting spot to cozy up next to as you plan tomorrow’s adventures.

Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grant Grove Cabins, a collection of timber and tent-style cabins are open from April through October. Book early and request Cabin No. 9, one of the few with an en suite bathroom instead of a shared bathhouse, a particular luxury on those cold Sierra nights. The lodge does not have an elevator so anyone with mobility issues will want to request a room on the first floor. 

For a slightly more off-the-beaten-path option, the 21-room Cedar Grove Lodge is remotely located in Kings Canyon’s eastern wilderness. It’s only open late May through late October after the snow has melted but it rewards the intrepid with access to scenic Zumwalt Meadow, Roaring Falls, and Muir Rock.

The parks also play host to more than a dozen campsites, four open year-round: Azalea Campground, under a stand of evergreen trees near King Canyon’s Grant Grove; Potwisha Campground, set among a hot and dry oak woodland in Sequoia; Lodgepole and South Fork Campgrounds, in a remote area of the Sequoia foothills.

Park campgrounds differ wildly in terms of amenities, locations, and crowds so study the options before you go. Reservations are made available one month in advance though you can often snag a spot on the day of your visit. Most offer a few accessible campsites with amenities like paved paths to restrooms and raised fire pits for people with impaired mobility. 

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

Where to eat 

At the Peaks Restaurant at Wuksachi Lodge tuck into hearty fare like pan-seared ruby-red trout and braised short ribs while taking in the Sierra views. The restaurant also serves a daily breakfast buffet. Nearby, head to the seasonal Lodgepole Café for grab-and-go picnic goodies like breakfast burritos and hot dogs.

In Kings Canyon, the seasonal Grant Grove Restaurant serves dishes like beef chili and a trout sandwich. In the park’s other section, Cedar Grove Grill is open May through mid-October and serves hearty burgers and sandwiches on the drive out to Zumwalt Meadow and Roaring River Falls.

Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Visit the parks’ enormous trees

We know what you’re here for—very big trees! And, yes, you’ll see giant sequoias everywhere but there are a few not-to-miss standouts. In Sequoia, the General Sherman Tree ranks as the world’s largest by volume and stands 275 feet tall with a base width of 36 feet. You can access it by two trails. One runs a half-mile downhill from a parking area; it’s paved and includes a few stairs but the climb back uphill can be tiring. If you have a disability parking placard you’ll have access to a small lot on Generals Highway with a wheelchair-accessible trail.

About a five-minute drive down the road in the Giant Forest Grove you’ll reach the free Giant Forest Museum with informative exhibits about this unique landscape and the 1.2-mile Big Trees Trail which is a great option for people with limited mobility. It’s flat, paved, and easy to navigate with benches for rest stops. 

In the Grant Grove area in Kings Canyon just 1.5 miles from the visitor center you’ll meet the General Grant Tree—aka the nation’s Christmas tree—the world’s second-largest tree with a height of 268.1 feet and a base circumference of 107.5 feet. The one-third-mile paved loop trail passes through a dense collection of sequoias with other highlights including the Fallen Monarch, a hollow sequoia log wide enough to walk through, and the historic Gamlin Cabin, which dates to 1872. The trail has tactile informational signs with Braille and raised illustrations. 

Although these generals are popular especially in the summer don’t stop there: They’re a great jumping-off point for exploration. People visiting the parks will find a lot of opportunities for solitude if they’re willing to hike for even 15 minutes. The Giant Forest and Grant Grove both have miles and miles of wonderful trails that see surprisingly few hikers. On these trails, you’ll have time and space to linger, take in the evergreens’ woodsy scent, and listen for the chirps of squirrels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and other birds.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb Moro Rock

Yosemite has Half Dome, Sequoia has Moro Rock—and much like its more famous cousin to the north this granite dome beckons visitors to summit its dramatic topography. While the climb up Half Dome isn’t for the faint of heart, Moro Rock can be doable for relatively in-shape visitors who can handle steep stairs. A concrete and stone path leads up more than 350 steps to postcard-perfect views out over the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

There are handrails much of the way so while you might not fear falling over the rather prodigious cliffs lining the trail this is still a strenuous climb made more challenging by the high elevations which top out above 6,700 feet. The climb can take as little as a half-hour but pace yourself and enjoy the experience to protect those lungs in the thinner air. In summer, keep your eyes and ears peeled for peregrine falcons nesting on the rock.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a guided horseback ride

Two stables operate within Kings Canyon. Grove Stables offers one-hour guided trail rides that loop past the General Grant tree and through a grove of giant sequoias; for an additional fee tack on a second hour through a second sequoia grove to a Sequoia Lake overlook.

The Cedar Grove Pack Station located outside Cedar Grove Village also has one- and two-hour guided trail rides but experienced riders can opt for a half-day or full-day itinerary.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the stars

The parks are amazing after dark, once you get used to the idea. Find a wide-open space to stargaze or take long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way. During a full moon take a night hike. Just be careful out there. The parks have a 24-hour dispatch center but help is definitely less readily available if you get into trouble late at night.

If you’d rather not go it alone, the parks occasionally schedule ranger-led moonlight walks (check the events calendar). This is also a great time to listen for the distinctive hooting of great horned owls and the squeaks of bats flying overhead.

Fun fact: While 17 species of bats call these parks home only three emit sounds the human ear can hear.

Gateway towns 

If you want to spend time in the communities outside the parks’ boundaries stick to the stretch along State Route 198 that leads into Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance Station. About 35 miles west of the park is Visalia, a small agricultural city in the San Joaquin Valley with handsome architecture (including an art deco post office), a boutique-filled downtown, and plenty of microbreweries. 

Even closer to the entrance station is Three Rivers Village with a surprising array of businesses dotting the foothills including local shops like Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (don’t miss the California walnut turtles), art galleries and artist studios, a nine-hole golf course, and even a jazz club.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

If you’re driving from San Francisco slow down to enjoy the underrated Central Valley. The state’s agricultural heart boasts some surprising hot spots. Merced’s recently revitalized downtown includes the chic new Hotel El Capitan and its tasting-menu restaurant Rainbird where you can sample innovative dishes like green garlic chawanmushi (egg custard) with coal-roasted kombu. The area is also home to excellent farm stands and a rustic-chic vineyard. 

From Los Angeles, Bakersfield is a worthwhile pit stop thanks to the numerous RV parks and the country’s largest collection of Basque restaurants. Established in 1893 as a boardinghouse, the Noriega Hotel was honored with a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Award and it’s beloved for dishes like pickled tongue.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The city’s also the birthplace of the so-called Bakersfield Sound, made popular by country artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Learn more about Nashville West at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a museum and music venue and the Kern County Museum.

By the way, I have a series of posts on Bakersfield and the Bakersfield Sound:

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

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

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Facts box

  • ​Location: Central California about 260 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from Los Angeles
  • Size: 865,964 acres or 1,353 square miles 
  • Highest point: Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet 
  • Lowest point: The foothills entrance, 1,370 feet 
  • Miles of trails: 866
  • Main attraction: Sequoia groves with record-breaking trees
  • Entry fee: $35 per private vehicle for up to seven days; $30 for motorcycles; $20 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $70 for annual passes 
  • Best way to see: By car or by the free park shuttle (between May and September)
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: September, after the summer crowds leave and before the snow falls

Worth Pondering…

No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912) 

The Beginner’s Guide to Hiking

Hiking for beginners can be intimidating but there’s really not much to it. You don’t need any special skills to hike; you just have to be able to walk and know where you are. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in nature, get a good workout in, and recharge your batteries. This guide will give you some essential hiking for beginners’ tips to make your hike safe and fun.

Hiking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the outdoors. Transported by your own two feet and carrying only what you need for the day on your back you can discover the beauty of nature at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. And, with a little planning and preparation, it’s an activity that almost anyone can do.

Hiking, a timeless and invigorating outdoor activity has been a favorite pastime for individuals seeking a harmonious blend of exercise, nature, and adventure. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or a novice to the world of outdoor activities, hiking provides an excellent opportunity to reconnect with nature, improve physical well-being, and embark on a journey of self-discovery.

In this article, I’ll delve into the essence of hiking, highlighting its benefits and why it is an ideal activity for beginners. Moreover, I’ll underscore the inclusivity of hiking, catering to individuals of various fitness levels.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is hiking and its benefits

Hiking is a form of outdoor recreation that involves walking or trekking through natural landscapes, often along trails or footpaths. Unlike more structured exercises, hiking allows participants to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature offering a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The benefits of hiking extend beyond the physical realm encompassing mental and emotional well-being.

Physical fitness

One of the primary advantages of hiking is the positive impact it has on physical health. As a weight-bearing exercise, hiking helps improve cardiovascular health, strengthen muscles, and enhance overall endurance. The varied terrain encountered during hikes engages different muscle groups providing a comprehensive workout for the body.

Mental well-being

The therapeutic effect of nature is well-documented and hiking serves as a conduit to experience it firsthand. The serene landscapes, fresh air, and the rhythmic act of walking contribute to reduced stress levels, improved mood, and enhanced mental clarity. Hiking provides a valuable opportunity to unplug from technology and connect with the present moment.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Social interaction

While hiking can be a solo endeavor, it also presents an excellent opportunity for social interaction. Group hikes allow individuals to share the experience with friends or meet like-minded individuals fostering a sense of community and camaraderie. Conversations flow more freely in the relaxed setting of nature strengthening social bonds.

Why hiking is ideal for beginners

Hiking’s appeal lies in its simplicity and adaptability making it an excellent choice for individuals new to outdoor activities. Here are several reasons why hiking is an ideal starting point.

Low entry barrier

Unlike some sports or fitness routines that require specialized equipment or skills, hiking has a remarkably low entry barrier. A comfortable pair of walking shoes, appropriate clothing, and a water bottle are sufficient for a beginner’s hike. This simplicity encourages more people to try hiking without the need for significant initial investment.

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

Flexible intensity

Hiking offers a wide range of intensity levels accommodating individuals with diverse fitness backgrounds. Beginners can choose trails with gentle inclines and shorter distances gradually progressing to more challenging routes as their fitness improves. The ability to tailor the intensity of a hike makes it accessible to individuals of all ages and fitness levels.

Connection with nature

For those unaccustomed to regular physical activity the prospect of heading to a gym can be intimidating. Hiking, on the other hand, provides a natural and scenic environment offering a more appealing setting for exercise. The desire to explore nature often serves as a strong motivator for beginners to lace up their hiking boots and hit the trails.

Varied terrain

Hiking trails come in various forms from easy, well-groomed paths to more rugged and challenging terrains. Beginners can choose trails that match their comfort level and gradually progress to more demanding routes. This adaptability ensures that hikers can tailor their experience to suit their fitness and skill levels.

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

Accessibility for people of different fitness levels

One of the most remarkable aspects of hiking is its inclusivity. Regardless of age, fitness level, or prior experience, there is a hiking trail suitable for everyone. Here’s why hiking is accessible to people of different fitness levels:

Trail diversity

Hiking trails are available in a range of difficulty levels from beginner-friendly to advanced. Novices can start with flat, well-marked trails, gradually progressing to more challenging routes with steeper inclines and uneven terrain. National and state parks often classify trails by difficulty helping hikers make informed choices.

Customizable distances

Hiking allows individuals to customize the length of their journey based on their fitness level and preferences. Beginners can start with short, leisurely hikes and gradually increase the distance as they build stamina. The ability to set one’s pace makes hiking an accommodating activity for people at different fitness levels.

Hiking Custer State Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Supportive hiking communities

The hiking community is generally welcoming and supportive providing resources and encouragement for individuals at all levels. Local hiking clubs and online forums offer valuable advice, trail recommendations, and shared experiences fostering a sense of inclusivity and making the transition into hiking smoother for beginners.

Adaptability to health conditions

Hiking can be adapted to accommodate various health conditions and mobility levels. Many trails are wheelchair-accessible and nature reserves are increasingly mindful of creating inclusive outdoor spaces. Those with health concerns can consult with healthcare professionals to find suitable trials and modifications that cater to their specific needs.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Choose your hiking gear

One of the wonderful things about hiking is that you don’t need a bunch of high-tech gear to get out there. With a few essential items for the trail and a sense of adventure, you’re ready to head into the wilderness.

Hiking footwear

Footwear is one of the most important items you need to choose and it’s a very personal choice. Some hikers prefer supportive over-the-ankle boots while others enjoy lightweight trail-running shoes. The terrain you’ll be walking on can also affect your decision. 

Food and water

As a beginner hiker, it can be tough to know how much food and water you need. A good general recommendation for how much to eat is 200–300 calories per hour. About a quart for every two hours of moderate activity in moderate temperatures is a good starting place for water intake. These amounts depend heavily on several factors such as the intensity of your hike, the weather, your age, your sweat rate, and your body type. As you gain more experience, you’ll get a better sense of just how much you need.

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

Appropriate clothing

Wide-brimmed hat or hat with a neck cape protects the head, face, and neck. Light-colored, light weight, long sleeve shirt protects shoulders, arms, and back. Light color reflects back more heat and light weight allows perspiration to evaporate.

In the realm of outdoor activities, hiking stands out as an accessible, adaptable, and immensely rewarding pursuit. Whether you’re seeking a stroll through scenic landscapes or a more challenging trek to test your limits, hiking offers something for everyone.

The physical, mental, and social benefits make it an ideal activity for beginners. So, lace up your hiking boots, explore the trails, and embark on a journey that not only enhances your well-being but also allows you to discover the wonders of nature.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources for hikers of all levels of experience:

Worth Pondering…

As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was about to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.

—A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The Complete Guide to Saguaro National Park

Iconic giant cacti are the stars in this photo-ready Southwestern desert preserve

A 40-foot saguaro strikes an invincible pose: bristling with defenses, assertively towering over every other living thing in the landscape, seemingly confident in its life span of 200 years or longer.

—Larry Cheek, Born Survivor

A sea of towering columnar saguaro cacti stretches out before you like a brigade of soldiers guarding the desert landscape. Formidable with their spiny armor, it’s hard to imagine America’s largest cactus is the species that needs safeguarding.

Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, this enduring symbol of the Southwest which requires just the right amount of heat and moisture to survive faces threats such as invasive species. The 91,327 acres that comprise Saguaro National Park in southeast Arizona provide the perfect climate as well as protection for vast forests of saguaro (pronounced Sa-WAH-ro) cacti to thrive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These desert monarchs can grow upwards of 60 feet tall, weigh more than two tons, and live for two centuries. But while they’re certainly the park’s stars they’re far from the only reason it attracts more than a million visitors annually. For one thing, there are 24 other cactus species ranging from the fuzzy-looking teddy bear cholla to the pancake-shaped Engelmann’s prickly pear.

Despite the harsh desert environment an abundance of flora and fauna flourish here including such native species as the roadrunner, horned lizard, kangaroo rat, and the prehistoric-looking Gila monster. At the park’s higher elevations topping out at 8,666 feet, you’ll find oak woodland and pine forests that are home to black bears and the elusive coati which resembles a raccoon.

Saguaro National Park’s two distinct districts—the western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District—are separated by the city of Tucson. The western district is lower in elevation, has denser patches of saguaro, and is known for its iconic Southwest landscape. The eastern section larger and more mountainous contains six biotic zones and 6,000 plant species and it’s second in biodiversity to the Amazon rainforest.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Herbert Hoover established the area as a national monument in 1933 and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laid the groundwork for tourism by building walking paths and installing picnic benches and visitor shelters. It wasn’t until 1994 that the area earned national park status.

Today the park’s proximity to Tucson combined with recently installed handicap-friendly amenities ranging from paved walking paths to picnic tables with overhanging ends for wheelchair access makes it one of the nation’s most accessible national parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip ​

Approximately 30 miles apart, Saguaro National Park’s eastern and western districts hug Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city with a population of 541,482. From downtown, you can drive to either park entrance in 20 minutes. The western district gets twice as many visitors as the eastern district thanks in large part to its proximity to the bucket-list Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see below).

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each district has its own visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Both offer accessibility features including designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms and drinking fountains, paved paths, and captioned orientation programs. Both also have bookstores, information centers, and water-filling stations.

The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon of water per day and during hot summer months at least one quart per hour when hiking. Be sure to have a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a pack with clothing layers since it can get cold at higher elevations. Neither visitor center has Wi-Fi and cellphone service is spotty throughout the park.

The Red Hills Visitor Center (also called the West District Visitor Center) hosts a daily educational program on the Native American perspective on the saguaro that’s well worth the time.

The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (the East District Visitor Center) serves as the starting point for the scenic Cactus Forest Loop Drive, an 8-mile, cacti-lined road that you can drive or bike. To reach the hiking trails from the visitor center you must drive into the park on the Loop Drive. The first trailhead with parking is about 2 miles along the drive and begins at the Mica View Picnic Area.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bajada Loop Drive is the best way to explore the western district’s foothills providing plenty of photo ops at pullouts and picnic areas plus access to trailheads. Although the 6-mile loop is unpaved you certainly don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It begins at Hohokam Road, a mile and a half west of the visitor center.

Since the park has no concessions pack a picnic lunch. Six picnic areas are accessible by vehicle—two in Saguaro East and four in Saguaro West—and each has a charcoal grill, a wheelchair-accessible pit toilet, and paved ground surfaces.

Saguaro is open daily except for Christmas Day. Annual visitation would almost certainly be higher if the summer months weren’t unbearably hot with triple-digit daytime temperatures. If you do visit in the summer, plan activities for early morning or the end of the day. This may be the desert but June 15 through September 30 is monsoon season so expect severe afternoon thunderstorms and even flash floods.

Cool temperatures ranging from the high 50s to the mid-70s make November to March prime time to visit.

And in spring—specifically the last two weeks of April through the first week of June—the park is a photographer’s paradise with cacti sprouting vivid blooms in hues of white, fuchsia, and canary yellow. June is a favorite time in the park. The flowers are usually at their peak. It’s an amazing sight to see but this isn’t the time of month to hike. Take in the blooms on a scenic drive.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat ​

You won’t find any lodging options in Saguaro National Park or even camping options in the park’s western section. To experience the desert, reserve one of the eastern district’s six designated backcountry campsites ($8 a night) which can be accessed only on foot and require a base level of fitness to reach. Limited facilities include vault toilets. Water is unreliable, so you should pack your entire water supply for your trip, carry a filter, and check current water reports at the visitor center (520-733-5153).

Manning Camp, the home of former Tucson mayor Levin Manning that sits atop the Rincon Mountains is a tough uphill day hike but worth the effort. To do this hike in a day takes a solid eight hours but you go from seeing saguaro forest and Gila monster lizards to aspen groves and owls in one day. It’s a unique ecosystem up there.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the Douglas Spring Trail or the Arizona Trail both of which have campgrounds along the way if you prefer to break the trek up into two days. The original Manning cabin built in 1905 now hosts trail crews and researchers, and from April through September a ranger is stationed here. The six tent sites are nestled in a conifer forest at nearly 8,000 feet and temperatures rarely exceed 85 degrees—a welcome relief from the valley floor’s sweltering heat. A waterfall fed from a large pond makes this one of the rare sites with a reliable water source.

The amenity-rich Gilbert Ray Campground sits just outside the west entrance to the park close to the Brown Mountain Loop trail. It features 130 RV sites ($20 per night) and five designated tent sites ($10 per night) plus picnic tables and modern restrooms with handicap accessibility.

RV parks ranging from luxury resorts to the basic are less than a 30-minute drive away in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do ​

Hike

With 192 miles of marked hiking trails, Saguaro National Park offers treks for visitors of all abilities. No matter your fitness level, be sure to plan your hikes to avoid the midday desert heat and pack plenty of water. And remember, those photogenic cacti are covered in spines so keep to the trail to avoid getting pricked.

For an easy stroll that doubles as an intro to the desert ecosystem walk the quarter-mile Desert Ecology Trail along the Cactus Forest Drive in the East District or the half-mile Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West. Both paved trails include resting benches and interpretive exhibits on the park’s plants and animals.

The 0.7-mile Mica View Trail in the east which begins at the Mica Picnic Area parking lot was recently flattened and hardened to meet ADA standards and support wheelchairs. On this hike, you’ll likely glimpse Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers in their saguaro nest holes and you’ll take in views of Tanque Verde Peak and Mica Mountain.

If you want to challenge yourself, try the eastern district’s Tanque Verde Ridge Trail by the Javelina Picnic Area off of the Cactus Loop Drive. The strenuous 18-mile hike gains 4,750 feet of elevation and passes through all six of the area’s biotic zones.

On the west side, access the King Canyon trailhead outside of the park off of Kinney Road and zigzag up to the summit of 4,687-foot Wasson Peak, the highest point in the Tucson Mountain Range. Approximately 7 miles round trip with 1,939 feet of elevation gain, this moderate hike passes rock walls carved with ancient petroglyphs and an old stone miner’s hut.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike

In this, one of the country’s most bike-friendly national parks, take your pick of four excellent scenic loops for road cyclists and mountain bikers. The popular and aptly named Cactus Forest Loop next to the East District Visitor Center runs for eight miles on a paved, rolling road that you’ll share with vehicles. On the park’s west side, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive off of Kinney Road, a gravel path passes a giant forest of saguaros.

Watch the sunset

The desert sunset may rival the saguaros as the park’s most Instagrammed natural wonder. As dusk falls, the setting sun turns a brilliant red that paints the sky in pinks and oranges worthy of a Monet painting. On the easy-to-access Desert Discovery Trail off of Kinney Road in the West District, catch sunset views through a forest of saguaros. On the east side, the Cactus Forest Loop Drive remains open until 8 p.m. giving you plenty of time to pull off and savor sunset at the Javelina Rocks Overlook near the loop’s end.

Learn

Rangers typically lead four to six different daily talks and interpretive tours that explore topics including desert survival, the lifespan of a saguaro, and misunderstood predators such as the mountain lion. Both park visitor centers have cactus gardens with interpretive signs you can explore on your own or with a ranger. Also, both districts co-host monthly stargazing nights with a local astronomy group. Participants must sign up in advance.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

View petroglyphs

Most of Saguaro National Park’s rock art dates back to the prehistoric Hohokam culture. Abstract designs including spirals and squiggly lines as well as drawings of animals, humans, and astrological objects have been etched onto the surface of sandstone and other rocks throughout the park.

The best place to view the petroglyphs is along the Signal Hill Trail which starts at the Signal Hill picnic area off of Hohokam Road in the West District. Starting at the Signal Hill Picnic area, the 0.3-mile trail gently climbs to a hill with more than 200 petroglyphs believed to have been created between 550 and 1,550 years ago.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns​

Tucson is flanked on either side by Saguaro’s western Tucson Mountain District and the eastern Rincon Mountain District making it an ideal base for day trips. A dream destination for fit foodies, Tucson owns bragging rights to being one of America’s most bike-friendly cities as well as having America’s first and only UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation.

On the Loop, a network of 131 miles of paved bicycle paths you can access Saguaro National Park as well as a plethora of other parks, shops, and restaurants on two wheels. Transit Cycles and Bicycle Ranch are the city’s go-to bike shops.

For a hearty breakfast before hitting the park, head to Prep & Pastry’s east side location on Grant Avenue and order the oven-roasted sweet potato hash and breakfast sandwich with avocado. After working up an appetite biking or hiking in the park reward yourself with a prickly pear mojito and a braised lamb tostada at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails run by James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Head to Penca, an upscale Mexican eatery in the heart of downtown for the best happy hour in town: two tacos for $5 and $5 sangria.

Two not-to-miss open-air shopping centers anchor downtown’s hip Mercado District on the west end of the city’s modern streetcar line: Mercado San Agustín and the MSA Annex. At the latter, a collection of 10 indie businesses housed in repurposed shipping containers pick up nostalgic Saguaro National Park-inspired gear at Why I Love Where I Live and home goods crafted by local artisans at Mesa.

The burgeoning town of Marana, an alternate gateway to the West District is located about 15 miles north of the visitor center. Don’t miss the pork carnitas at La Olla Mexican Café and stop by Catalina Brewing Co. to try craft ales brewed with local ingredients such as prickly pear fruit and mesquite flour.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route ​

Located down the road from the West District Visitor Center, the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum ranks as the state’s second-most-visited attraction behind the world-famous Grand Canyon. Part natural history museum, part desert botanical garden, and part zoo, this 98-acre, indoor-outdoor attraction showcases more than 55,000 plants from 1,200 native species along 2 miles of gravel and paved trails.

View native animals such as coyotes, raptors, hummingbirds, ocelots, and piglike javelinas in re-created habitats. Learn about the area’s geology in the Earth Sciences Center and view nature-inspired exhibits throughout the year at two on-site art galleries.

Geology fans detour to 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park, a 15-minute drive southeast of Tucson in the community of Vail to explore its extensive underground cave network. One of North America’s largest dry caves it took more than two years to map the 2 miles of passageways open to visitors.

Guided tours, which range from 40 minutes to 3.5 hours, require a decent fitness level, as you’ll be descending 350-plus stairs, scrambling down ladders, and crossing rock bridges to view stalactites and stalagmites sculpted throughout millions of years.

Back above ground, you can mount a horse at the park’s La Posta Quemada Ranch for a guided trail ride.

If you’re a fan of art and history, visit the village of Tubac, 40 miles south of Tucson. Established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, Tubac has emerged as a destination for artists with top-notch galleries and studios. For tasteful souvenirs, this is your one-stop shop for turquoise and silver jewelry, Navajo blankets, and mesquite furnishings. 

Tumacacori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historical Park, less than a 10-minute drive from the village explores the region’s Spanish colonial past. The expansive grounds include a museum, the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, and the state’s second-oldest church.

Saguaro National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

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

Fact box

Location: Southeast Arizona

Size: 91,327 acres

Trails: 192 miles

Elevation: 2,180 to 8,666 feet 

Main attraction: The iconic saguaro cactus

Entry fee: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass including all passengers; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)

Best way to see the park: On foot or by bike along the Bajada Loop Drive or the Cactus Forest Loop

When to go: Winter and spring

Worth Pondering…

Stand tall.
Reach for the sky.
Be patient through dry spells.
Conserve your resources.
Think long term.
Wait for your time to bloom.
Stay sharp!

—Advice from a Saguaro

The Complete Guide to White Sands National Park

The dramatic dunes become your personal sandbox here in southern New Mexico

The world’s largest gypsum dune field covers more than 275 square miles in southern New Mexico with White Sands National Park the centerpiece of this remarkable landscape. Great waves of white roll across the open plains of this 145,000-acre park with stark mountains rising in the distance.

In the morning light when shadows add dimension to the dunes it’s possible to lose your sense of perspective in the endless undulations. In the blinding midday sun when you’re sitting atop a 60-foot dune and the wind is howling you can feel as if you’re adrift on a great bleached sea, sand hitting your face like salt spray from the ocean.

It’s a magical environment and a true natural marvel. White Sands is also one of the newest parks in the National Park Service (NPS) having been elevated from a national monument in 2019. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sands form after the playa in the park’s western end which has a very high mineral content fills with water. When the water evaporates, the minerals form gypsum deposits that get carried away by the wind eventually forming white sand dunes not unlike an ocean breeze sculpting a beach. The park contains roughly 40 percent of the gypsum dune field; the remainder is on the adjacent White Sands Missile Range which the military controls and restricts to the public.

​This is the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert and the bare Sacramento Mountains rise dramatically above the Tularosa Basin. Far from being barren, however, the park is full of life. Even the sand itself is in constant flux with the massive dunes moving upward of 30 feet per year thanks to the winds that shape them.

The park is also home to a range of species including more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 30 reptiles, and even one fish. At least 45 species are endemic to White Sands including the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard. In summer, because of the heat, most of the animals are nocturnal but it’s possible to see the park come alive in the dawn light and just before sunset. Indeed, it’s often surprising just how full of life this pocket of the Chihuahuan Desert is.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Of course, the gypsum dunes are the main attraction and they provide dramatic photo opportunities especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset. March through June is peak season for the park’s nearly 800,000 annual visitors but even then it doesn’t feel crowded. Also, most visitors tend to stick to Dunes Drive, an 8-mile road through the park so you can easily avoid them by parking and hiking a trail.

​Since White Sands National Park is in a remote part of the state it takes more than a few hours behind the wheel to get there no matter where you’re coming from. But this part of the West seems designed for long drives that go by quickly thanks to the open landscapes. 

​The park usually closes at 8 p.m. in spring and summer (6 p.m. in winter) but during full-moon nights from May through October it stays open an extra few hours so visitors can enjoy the spectacle—and it is a spectacle. The full moon lights up the white sand which reflects the light into the night sky creating an almost spectral atmosphere. It’s an experience worth the extra effort and one you’ll not soon forget.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Plan your trip

El Paso, Texas is 98 miles south of White Sands National Park via Highway 70, the main road to the park. Albuquerque, New Mexico is 223 miles north. Either option is a good starting point for a road trip exploring southern New Mexico which could include stops in the towns of Las Cruces and Roswell and even a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park roughly 180 miles southeast of White Sands.

​In the summer, temperatures in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert can soar above 100 degrees, and in winter they can plummet below freezing. That’s why spring, early summer, and fall are the best times to visit with midday temperatures usually around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s. If you plan to hike bring layers of clothes for any temperature as conditions can shift dramatically.

​Restrooms and visitor facilities are limited. The park’s single entrance has a visitor’s center with a gift store that offers some basic food options (essentially a convenience store) but that’s the only place in the park offering services. In other words, bring plenty of water no matter what time of year you visit as well as snacks.

An even better idea: Pack a full picnic as there are three picnic areas with shaded tables (and nearby restrooms) inside the park. You’ll find restrooms at the visitor’s center and along Dunes Drive and one of the only handicap-accessible restrooms at Interdune Boardwalk right off the main road just before the pavement on Dunes Drive ends.

​There’s no Wi-Fi signal in White Sands National Park and very limited cell reception so plan to navigate the park using paper maps or those saved on your device. White Sands Missile Range is still an active military facility and one of the strange charms of visiting the area is having to wait on Highway 70 if a drill is being conducted in the area. The roadblocks rarely last more than an hour—though they can last up to three—but that can throw off the timing of a trip if, say, you’re planning to make it back to Las Cruces for dinner. (Check the park website for information on road closures.) 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​Where to stay and eat

There are no hotels or campgrounds inside White Sands National Park. Even primitive backcountry camping is currently closed. You must stay in a nearby city or campground. (See gateway towns)

Things to do

Take a drive

White Sands is famous for its white sand so you must get out in it even if that means just cruising along Dunes Drive which begins at the park’s entrance. But even from a car, you can get a sense of this natural phenomenon’s uniqueness as the road curves through and around the dunes.

You feel as if you’re exploring a distant planet in a sci-fi movie. Although paved for a short distance most of the road is hard-packed sand because the dunes shift each year and the road must adjust accordingly. The park maintains it frequently enough, though, that a two-wheel drive will suffice. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go hiking

Of course, hiking up the dunes themselves is the best way to feel what makes these white waves so special—the tiny gypsum grains underfoot. Of the park’s half-dozen trails, the easiest is the half-mile Interdune Boardwalk. This wheelchair-accessible trail on an elevated boardwalk makes its way through the interdune landscape where the desert and its limited vegetation meet the barren dunes.

​For something slightly more challenging hit the Dune Life Nature Trail, a 1-mile, self-guided loop through the desert. The hike which starts from the first parking area you pass after entering the park isn’t difficult but requires walking up two dunes with loose sand. The jaunt is an easy way to see the dunes in all their glory and maybe spot animal tracks such as those from a lizard or even a kit fox (however rare it may be).

​For something strenuous opt for the park’s longest hike, the Alkali Flat Trail which begins at the far end of Dunes Drive. This 5-mile round-trip hike leads you around Lake Otero where the gypsum sand begins its life. There’s no shade or water available on any of the park’s trails but it’s especially critical to bring some fluids along for this hike as you’ll be exposed to the heat for at least a few hours.

Despite the trail’s name, you’ll be climbing up and down dunes most of the way. The upside? You’ll probably be all alone. As you walk it’s likely the wind will quickly erase your footprints making the hike feel even more remote. 

​White Sands’ elevation is roughly 4,000 feet which you’ll notice when hiking over long distances or up the dunes. Bring plenty of water and dress in layers if you take a longer hike; the elevation means the temperature can shift dramatically over a few hours and dehydration can set in quickly in the heat of the day. Don’t start a hike if the temperature is already above 90 degrees. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Other activities

Biking is allowed on Dunes Drive and it’s a unique way to experience the park. Since much of the road is unpaved, however, it’s best not to ride a road bike with skinny tires. You’re better off with a mountain bike or beach cruiser with wide tires. Outdoors Adventures in Las Cruces rents a range of bikes including e-bikes with fatter tires (from $30 per day).

​You can even sled on the dunes. Buy plastic saucers in the park’s gift store then just find a good dune for some sliding-in-the-sand fun (and sand in your shoes to prove it). 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Gateway towns

Alamogordo, the nearest city to White Sands National Park is 17 miles northeast of the park. This town of 31,000 serves mainly as a civilian hub for White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base just a few miles outside of town. This part of New Mexico has a long military history with a special connection to the early space program and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Learn more about that history at Alamogordo’s New Mexico Museum of Space History whose exterior resembles a NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution with exhibits encompassing a wide range of subjects from the early days of the U.S. space program including rockets, astronaut suits, and satellites.

An outdoor exhibit, the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park features many early space-flight vehicles including the Little Joe II rocket, a testing rocket for the Apollo program. Look for one of the museum’s highlights out front: the grave of Ham the Astrochimp, the first hominid launched into space, in 1961.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​One of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand is a destination that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo it’s an easy day trip from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

The city’s lodging choices are basic including a Fairfield Inn and Suites and a Hampton Inn. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 15 miles south of town has 15 RV sites with water and electrical hookups and 24 other sites as well as restrooms with showers.

​Alamogordo’s dining options are similarly basic but still good. D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, is a bar and grill serves steaks, pasta, and salads. Rizo’s Restaurant, a classic Mexican joint has excellent street tacos and larger burritos as well as a few non-Mexican options like a club sandwich. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The significantly larger city of Las Cruces (population: 113,000), 52 miles southwest of the park has more to offer. In the historic Old Mesilla neighborhood once an Old West border town, Billy the Kid stood trial for murder. The neighborhood’s can’t-miss centerpiece is the Basilica of San Albino, an adobe cathedral finished in 1908. The area around the city brims with pecan orchards and wineries so you can easily spend more than a day here.  

A good lodging bet is the moderately priced, 200-room Hotel Encanto de las Cruces designed to feel like a Spanish colonial outpost with terra-cotta tiles, stucco arches, and a bubbling fountain in an indoor courtyard. Amenities include a pool, bar, and restaurant, as well as several wheelchair-accessible rooms.

We have visited Las Cruces on numerous occasions and hace stayed at Hacienda RV Rsort and Sunny Acres RV Park. I would recommend either for anyone wanting a long term stay or just an overnight or anything in between.​

The city’s dining scene tends towards Mexican as restaurants are apt to do in this part of the state. La Nueva Casita Café is an excellent choice for that cuisine. For something more upscale, with a farm-to-table vibe, try Willow + Blaine whose small but superb New American menu features items like a 6-ounce beef filet, confit duck leg. and beet gnocchi. After dinner, treat yourself at Caliche’s Frozen Custard; choose your flavor (chocolate or vanilla) then your topping, perhaps local salted pecans.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​​En route 

If you’re driving from Albuquerque (or the north more generally) stop at the Valley of Fires recreation area about 5 miles northwest of Carrizozo along U.S. Route 380. Here, when Little Black Peak erupted roughly 5,000 years ago a lava flow coursed through the valley creating a black strip on the landscape as the magma cooled.

​Also, consider an escorted visit to White Sands Missile Range to see the test site of the world’s first atomic bomb. This open house as the military calls it happens only twice a year usually on the first Saturday of April and the third Saturday of October so check the missile range’s website for information.

You won’t see much beyond an obelisk marking the spot where the bomb went off and some trinitite (sand melted from the extreme heat of the blast) that’s preserved under a large glass case but it’s worth it to say you set foot on ground where the Atomic Age dawned. You’ll also be able to say you ventured into the seldom-seen (at least by civilians) missile range.  

​If you’re coming from El Paso, a road trip loop makes for a good three- to five-day trek through New Mexico. Take Interstate 10 up to Las Cruces (46 miles) then U.S. Route 70 over to White Sands National Park (52 miles). You can spend a night in Las Cruces before Whites Sands then another night in Alamogordo. From there, head over to Carlsbad via Roswell (193 miles) where the aliens crash-landed in 1947. After spending the night in Carlsbad visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, another underrated gem in the National Park system. From there it’s only 149 miles back to El Paso. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

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

Fact box

  • Location: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico
  • Total acres: More than 145,000 
  • Highest elevation: 4,116 feet above sea level
  • Lowest elevation: 3,887 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails and how many: 9 miles across five trails
  • Main attraction: The gypsum sand dunes 
  • Cost: $25 per vehicle for a seven-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of the many short trails through the dunes as the sun rises
  • When to go: Fall (September and October) or spring (March through early June) when the summer heat is not extreme and the nights are not below freezing as they can be in winter

Worth Pondering…

Life is not obvious here. It is implied, or twice removed, and must be read in signs or code. Ripple marks tell of the wind’s way with individual sand grains. Footprints, mounds, and burrows bespeak the presence of mice, pocket gophers, and foxes.

—Rose Houk and Michael Collier

Big Bend National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Desert in Texas

If you’re ready to see what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, mountain peaks meet the Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande, soak in hot springs, or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies—the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012.

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at this natural marvel requires a good amount of driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

The park has two main visitor centers: one at Panther Junction near the south end of Highway 385 and another at Chisos Basin where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

Getting There

This park is far from everywhere which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: it’s over seven hours from San Antonio.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

The national park has over 150 miles of trails from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet).

For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to 3- or 4-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY (Do It Yourself) adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike and the 105-degree waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

So, on to the options! For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning now.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Chisos Basin Campground (elevation: 5,400 feet) is nestled in open woodland within a scenic mountain basin. Campers enjoy the views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. The sunset through the nearby “Window” is a Big Bend highlight. Some of the park’s most popular trails begin nearby. Chisos Basin offers 56 camping sites. Trailers over 20 feet and motorhomes over 24 feet are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Rio Grande Village Campground (elevation: 1,850 feet) is set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande River. Paved roads connect each campsite and grassy areas separate each site. Flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. Dump station nearby. Campers enjoy birdwatching, hiking, exploring. A camp store with showers and a park visitor center are nearby. Rio Grande Village offers 93 camping sites.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground (elevation: 2,169 feet) is a quiet oasis in the western corner of Big Bend National Park. Reservations are required. Conveniently located between the Castolon Historic District, the scenic Santa Elena Canyon, and the tail end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, this small 22-site campground is one of the least-known and quiet campgrounds in the park. There is one group campsite and 21 individual sites. This is a remote campground in a remote park. It is dry camping, no hook-ups, and no generators are permitted.

Rio Grande Village RV Campground (elevation: 1,800 feet) is operated by Forever Resorts and offers 25 back-in RV sites with full hookups. Adjacent to the Rio Grande Village camp store the campground features a paved lot with grassy, tree-lined edges. This campground has the only full hook-ups in the park. Periodically, a few sites may not be available for a 40 foot or longer RVs due to the size of the parking lot and orientation of the spaces.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park offers 8 pull-through sites with electric, water, and sewer connections and 12 back-in sites with electric and water hookups and a dump station nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maverick Ranch RV Park offers 100 full-service sites including 60 pull-through sites. Guests of the Maverick Ranch RV Park enjoy all of Lajitas Golf Resort amenities and activities including the Agave Spa, Black Jack’s Crossing Golf Club, horseback trail rides, and shooting activities including 5-Stand Sporting Clays, 3-Gun Combat Course, Cowboy Action Shoot, ziplining Quiet Canyon, mountain bike trails, and fitness center. Situated 12 miles southwest of Terlingua on FM 170, Lajitas Golf Resort is located between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Looking for the most unique place to stay in the Big Bend? Located in Terlingua just across the road from the Historic Terlingua Ghost Town, The Buzzard’s Roost is a collection of three, fully furnished, traditional Sioux-style tipis.

The summer heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

The summer is blazing hot with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees and even reaching 110. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities is in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

Entry fee: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)

Best way to see it: Day hikes

Best time to visit: In the cooler months, between November and April

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Arizona State Parks for Every Interest

Try new outdoor things this year

Arizona’s 34 state parks have something for everyone—from contemplative nature walks to stargazing to camping. Here’s my abbreviated look at some of the more niche offerings to add to your bucket list.

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for hiking

Sedona‘s picturesque wonderland of red boulders is on display at Red Rock State Park, a 286-acre nature preserve. Hikers can pick from several trails—Eagle’s Nest Loop, Coyote Ridge, a guided nature walk, full-moon hike and more—many of which lead to Oak Creek and the iconic Cathedral Rock.

Located in the Superstition Mountains on the eastern edge of metro PhoenixLost Dutchman State Park offers hikers plenty of trails to explore, not to mention an opportunity to seek the gold supposedly hidden in the 1870s by German native Jacob Waltz, aka the Dutchman. You might not find gold but on the Native Trail you’ll spot cholla, prickly pear, and ocotillo cacti. Moderate trails like Treasure Loop or Prospector’s View are available for semi-seasoned hikers while advanced hikers will want to climb Siphon Draw Trail and Flatiron.

Note: Since trails often get overcrowded on the weekend aim to hike on a weekday for a better experience and even better views.

Check out Spring Is the Season to Hike Arizona State Parks for more hiking inspiration.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for wildflowers

As you travel I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, you can’t miss the 1,500-foot distinctive rock formation of Picacho Peak State Park. The peak is obvious but hiking the trails especially during spring will be nature’s eye candy—a blanket of Mexican gold poppies as far as the eye can see.

For more wildflower viewing, Catalina State Park near Tucson is home to around 5,000 saguaros. Between February and April, lupine, desert chicory, penstemon, and more wildflowers bloom into vibrant color.

Read Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom and Wildflower Season Has Arrived in Arizona! and Where to See the Best Blooms? for more floral inspiration.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for family fun

For families who love the outdoors, Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area is the perfect destination. With more than 120 campsites situated in a Ponderosa pine forest near Show Low plus boating, swimming, Junior Ranger activities, a park store, and a visitor center Fool Hollow offers plenty of opportunities for family fun.

For families not too keen on roughing it but who would still like to enjoy nature, Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood (30 minutes from Sedona) has cozy log cabins with heat and air-conditioning. Game night, anyone? Families can also sign up for guided horseback rides, go fishing in the lagoons, photograph birds, or spend an afternoon at the playground complete with a zip line.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for water sports

Water activities reign supreme at Patagonia Lake State Park in southern Arizona. A sandy beach slopes down to the shoreline making it easy to dip in for a swim. To get on the water, rent a canoe, rowboat, or pontoon from the marina. You can also put in your own boat including motorized boats for water skiing at the ramp. Better still, the town of Patagonia lies near one of Arizona’s three wine-growing regions, Sonoita-Elgin. End your day at the lake or take some time away for a tasting room tour of the area’s award-winning wineries.

If you want to chill waterside, bring your yoga mat to the tranquil beaches of Cattail Cove State Park or ply the calm waters of the 45-mile-long Lake Havasu with a kayak or paddleboard, available for rent at the park. This Lake Havasu City-area park is renowned locally for its sandy beaches and gets quite popular during the summer months.

Best Arizona State Parks for stargazing

As of 2023, there are more than 200 places in the world designated official dark-sky places by the International Dark-Sky Association. In Arizona, two state parks hold this distinction: Oracle State Park and Kartchner Caverns. This means they “possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.”

Oracle State Park, located just north of Tucson earned its designation in 2014 thanks to star-studded skies so free of light pollution that you can see the Milky Way. Stargazers should head to the American Trailhead Parking Lot for celestial viewing opportunities. Since 2010, Kartchner has been hosting nighttime astronomy programs for visitors and has achieved 99 percent compliance with its Lightscape Management Plan which has improved outdoor lighting codes countywide.

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for history

Fort Verde State Historic Park showcases the original buildings used in the 1870 and 1880s by General Crook’s army in the small north-central town of Camp Verde. History buffs will appreciate that this state park near Camp Verde is considered the best-preserved example of an Indian Wars period fort in Arizona.

At Tubac, in southern Arizona, the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park preserves the ruins of a Spanish Presidio site, San Ignacio de Tubac. The on-site museum houses interpretive exhibits, and nearby sits a Territorial school from 1885—the second oldest schoolhouse in Arizona.

Back up north near Winslow, Homolovi State Park is home to more than 300 American Indian archaeological sites from the Hopi people many sites dating to the 1200s. A paved trail to the ruins with interpretive signage makes this a particularly appealing accessible option, too.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for camping

Making its second appearance on this list is Patagonia Lake State Park for its camping options—pitch your tent, drive your RV, or reserve one of the furnished cabins. Campsites come with picnic tables and fire rings, some even have ramadas. Cabins boast porches from which you can spot blue heron or whitetail deer. Or, amp up the adventure level by booking one of the boat-in campsites.

If you want a riverfront campsite along the Colorado River, book early at Buckskin Mountain State Park in western Arizona near the California border. There are 80 spots, many of which sit at the water’s edge. While away the hours with picnics, swimming, watching wildlife, playing basketball or volleyball or simply enjoying the views along this 18-mile stretch of river between Parker and Headgate dams.

Overnight camping near Tucson is available at the 120 electric and water sites in Catalina State Park. Each campsite has a picnic table and BBQ grill. Roads and parking slips are paved. Campgrounds have modern flush restrooms with hot, clean showers, and RV dump stations are available in the park. There is no limit on the length of RVs at this park.

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for Fishing

Couched in the Bill Williams River Valley, 37 miles north of the town of Wenden, Alamo Lake State Park gives anglers an opportunity to catch largemouth bass, black crappie, or tilapia in the 3,500-acre lake.

For a lesser-known gem, Dankworth Pond State Park in Safford—about two hours east of Tucson and three hours east from Phoenix—features a fishing dock and quiet environs for a peaceful day of tossing in a line. You’ll likely snag largemouth bass or rainbow trout in the small but mighty pond.

BONUS: Most unique State Parks

Ten miles north of Payson Tonto Natural Bridge State Park showcases a true Arizona treasure: the world’s longest and largest travertine bridge. Most natural bridges found throughout the world are created from sandstone or limestone which makes the travertine aspect of Tonto especially unique. You can see the bridge from any of the four trails in the park.

Witness the underground beauty of Kartchner Caverns, a living cave that discoverers kept secret for years until they could ensure its preservation. The caverns are carved out of limestone and speleothems, which have been slowly growing for 50,000 years.

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

Carefree: An Idyllic Arizona Community with Hiking, Biking, and a Thriving Arts Scene

Now a hub for wellness, shopping, and outdoor adventure, Carefree, Arizona, was once a 400-acre goat farm

North of Phoenix and Scottsdale there is a small community that feels almost too good to be true. The town of under 4,000 people was once a 400-acre goat farm that the founders bought for $44,000 in 1955. Their vision was to start a community with an easygoing, airy vibe—so they named the plot of land Carefree.

Today, Carefree has the feel of a small town but is close to northern Scottsdale and less than an hour from downtown Phoenix. Because it sits at the edge of the urban area it’s easy to head north into the Sonoran Desert which has abundant hiking and camping

And while Carefree’s location is one of its standout qualities, the town itself offers a unique feel that draws visitors year after year. Its home to the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere and has a desert garden in the downtown area. There’s plenty of shopping, great food, and an undeniable artist vibe, too.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip to Carefree including what to do, where to stay, and when to go.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Carefree

Spending time in downtown Carefree is a must. There are shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore but the area’s biggest draw is the four-acre desert botanical garden marked with a huge sundial—one of the world’s largest.

Once you’ve got the lay of the land, head to the surrounding hills for hiking, trail running, and biking. The desert landscape of the neighboring Cave Creek Regional Park is covered in hiking paths, picnic spots, and campsites. Most weekends, there’s a bird tour, fitness hike, or wildflower walk scheduled. The park offers over 11 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. The trails within the Cave Creek Regional Park are very popular with dramatic elevations and spectacular views of the surrounding plains.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground consists of 55 campsites for tent or RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull-through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. Cave Creek Regional Park provides clean restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost.

Four miles north of town, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers a similar cactus-covered landscape with seven miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, and people on horseback. Park trails range in length from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

One of the last remaining year-round spring-fed streams in Cave Creek flows through Spur Cross. Its banks are covered with plants and trees including mesquite, cottonwoods, and willows. Abundant water and plant life make this a home to many species of animals including javelina, mule deer, and coyotes. Over 80 species of birds have been observed in this habitat, per Audubon bird counts. Beyond the banks of the stream lies one of the region’s densest stands of saguaro cactus.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park contains nearly 90 archaeological sites used by the Hohokam Indians between 700-1200 A.D. Hohokam petroglyphs dot the area. Both the Hopi and the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian communities have identified the Spur Cross Ranch as a sacred place.​

Meanwhile, 12 miles to the southeast, Brown’s Ranch Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is known for its unique rock features including the impossible-looking Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock. This trailhead features interpretive exhibits about the human history of the Preserve and serves as the major access point to the vast network of trails in the area. It provides access to such unique destinations as Granite Mountain, Cholla Mountain, and Brown’s Mountain as well as the before-mentioned Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains 20 miles east of Carefree, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for green) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water sweet waters. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there.

If hiking and biking are not your thing, spend some time exploring the shops and galleries of Carefree. Start your day at the historic Spanish Village which is both one of Carefree’s oldest buildings and the community’s arts and culture hub. Inside the beautiful white stucco gates, you’ll find gems like the Desert Moon Market, an eclectic collection of women’s clothing, jewelry, home goods, and gifts, and the Grace Renee Gallery which showcases contemporary paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and jewelry. You also won’t want to miss a visit to the M & E Stoyanov Fine Art Gallery in downtown Carefree or The Lazy Lizard which sells a mix of new and used home furnishings.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to stay in Carefree

The above-mentioned Cave Creek Regional Park offers a clean and quiet family campground set among Saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and cholla cactus. The park includes 2,922 acres with a visitor center, several hiking trails, equestrian trails, and various programs throughout the year.

The campground has 59 campsites all with electricity and water. Campsites 1-38 are larger campsites and also have paved parking pads. Campsites 30-55 (and E, F, G, H) are smaller and have gravel parking pads. Sites 10 and 20 have horse corrals. Each campsite also has a table, fire ring, and grill. Campground amenities include flush toilets, hot showers, a picnic area, and a dump station. Cell service is good.

Like Scottsdale, Carefree has become a hub for wellness seekers looking to reset and relax in the open desert atmosphere. Civana, a wellness resort and spa to the east of Carefree has been a top destination for many. Guests get access to more than 10 daily complimentary classes—from a desert hike to aerial yoga—and a spa with a hydrotherapy thermal circuit of hot and cold pools.

Just to the south of Carefree in Scottsdale is a property that’s worth a mention. The Boulders Resort & Spa has long been recognized for its 33,000-square-foot spa, two golf courses, six dining options, four outdoor pools, and a location at the foot of an eye-catching rock formation.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to eat in Carefree

For such a small town, there’s a surprisingly large selection of cafes, restaurants, and bars in Carefree. It’s all about healthy eats with big flavor at Confluence, a well-loved restaurant with open-air patio seating and a standout tasting menu—you can choose from four, five, or seven courses.

Those looking to fill up on protein following a long day on the trails should head to Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse which has a meat-heavy menu and a rooftop deck designed for post-meal stargazing. Meanwhile, for an entirely different feel, book a table at the English Rose Tea Room which serves tea-time ready fare (think quiches, sandwiches, soups, and salads) in a beautiful, floral-laden tearoom with crystal chandeliers.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Carefree

Although Carefree tends to be cooler than Phoenix, it’s still super hot in the summer with the average temperature in June, July, and August in the triple digits. The best time to visit is easily the spring before the heat of summer sets in and in the fall when the weather cools down. Those looking for cooler weather should come during the winter when the average monthly temperature is in the mid-60s.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

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

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

6 Positive New Year’s Resolutions for 2024

New Year’s resolutions have long been a way to take stock of what’s truly important in our lives, allowing us to pause and reflect on the year behind us as well as plan for the year ahead

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

—Susan Sontag

For many people, New Year’s Day is a time to set a goal or resolution for the coming year. But for writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag, a prayer was a more fitting mantra for January 1. This poignant quote, published in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, a collection of Sontag’s journals and diaries written between 1964 and 1980, captures a sense of yearning for courage to face the unknown. It’s an honest and vulnerable feeling anyone can relate to seeking the bravery and strength to press on.

It’s officially 2024! 

2024 is here © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As each New Year arrives, many of us find ourselves swept up in the excitement of a fresh start. But the potential can sometimes turn to pressure as we set grand (and often unrealistic) New Year’s resolutions. While detailing specific goals—like vowing to get healthy, cutting back on TV or social media time, and finally pursuing that big dream you’ve had—works for many, others may benefit from a different approach.

Marriage and family therapist Paula Delehanty recommends framing resolutions as practices instead of restrictions. The resolution could be, “I’m going to practice smiling more”. The emphasis is not on how can I improve myself but rather on how can I add to my happiness.

I’ve selected six science-backed practices that can help add to your happiness this year—and every year. Some you may already have on your radar, like giving back, giving thanks, and nurturing your relationships but I also suggest adding camping and hiking to your list.

Horse back riding in Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Give back

The Greek storyteller Aesop once wrote, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”—and a new study is proof. The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that small kind gestures can have a significant impact on recipients even if givers don’t typically realize it.  

Researchers conducted a series of experiments involving different situations and participants. In each they studied how people perceived various small acts of kindness such as offering someone a ride home, baking them cookies, or paying for a cup of coffee. They consistently found those on the receiving end of a kind gesture appreciated it more than the giver had anticipated. 

This one is a win-win for all involved. Volunteering has been linked to a longer lifespan, increased happiness, and even lower blood pressure. And research has shown that donating money activates the pleasure centers in the brain.

Canoeing at Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Nurture your relationships

In 1938, scientists began tracking Harvard University sophomores during the Great Depression to understand what makes for a long and happy life. Almost 80 years later, in 2017, they had their answer: “Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” study author Dr. Robert Waldinger said at the time.

And relationships aren’t limited to only friends and family. We form them with campground staff and grocery store workers as well as with animals and the environment. It’s about connection and how genuinely we connect. 

3. Give thanks

Each day, pause and take stock of your good fortune. Regularly practicing gratitude has been linked to greater social connectedness, improved physical health, and decreased stress, according to an expert in the science of gratitude at the USC Marshall School of Business. To reap the benefits of regular gratitude 13 tips are offered including keeping a gratitude journal and finding a gratitude rock.

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

4. Turn up the tunes 

How’s that for a resolution you can keep? Science has shown that music can both positively affect our well-being and connect us to others. Neurological researchers have found that listening to music triggers the release of several neurochemicals that play a role in brain function and mental health.

Board certified music therapist Elisha Ellis Madsen suggests creating playlists to promote and encourage specific behaviors. For example, a morning playlist “that sets the tone for the day with positive and uplifting tunes,” and another to help you relax you as you prepare for bed. 

She also recommends singing. The act “reduces cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and releases endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine (feel-good hormones).”

A road trip wouldn’t be a road trip without a good old sing-along. Whilst on the road, regardless of how you sound, singing at the top of your lungs is just de rigueur it’s road trip law!

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

5. Hiking and biking

Exercise is great for personal health. It’s no secret that physical movement benefits the body and the mind: Exercise triggers a release of endorphins that can help alleviate some effects of anxiety and depression. Health Guide reports that physical exercise can also boost your mood, improve your sleep, and help you deal with depression, anxiety, stress, and more.

Trading in your car for a bicycle or pair of walking shoes is a simple way to increase the amount of exercise you get. Bicyclists are less prone to dying early than those individuals who do not ride, at all. At least one study found that spending one hour a day on a bike can reduce your risk of death by 18 percent. Adding an extra half an hour to your routine can drop your risk of death by nearly 28 percent.

What about walking? Simply choosing to add in some extra steps during your day can also lower your risk of death. One study found that walking can reduce the risk of death by 39 percent.

Camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Camping

Spending time outdoors isn’t just a good way to have fun—it’s good for you. Studies show there are real health benefits to heading outdoors for an adventure. Experience the healing power of nature while camping.

After just 20 minutes connected to nature, people can experience a drop in stress hormones.

Scientists have found that when you wake up with the sun rising and go to bed when the sun goes down, your body can reset to your natural sleep cycle- providing you with your exact sleep needs. 

Time in nature can increase vitality, boost your mood and increase your overall well-being.

Spending time with friends and family without the daily distractions can lead to a renewed closeness and appreciation for your loved ones.

Along with setting up your campsite, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, and canoeing are so much fun you won’t even realize you are exercising.

Worth Pondering…

Whether you like them or not, New Year’s resolutions are great to create a positive change in your life.

—Darius Foroux