Capitol Reef National Park: 14 Amazing Things to See and Do

In Capitol Reef, pioneer orchards meet wild and unexpected geology. It offers all the recreation, activities, and beauty national parks are known for but often with fewer people than other Utah national parks. Take a scenic hike to a stunning natural bridge, harvest fresh fruit in season, and explore the backcountry.

Capitol Reef often an overlooked national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this national park is absolutely amazing. In this post, learn about the best things to see and do in Capitol Reef National Park with tips on how to plan your time.

About our experiences in Capitol Reef National Park

On our most recent visit we spent six wonderful days in Capitol Reef. And the longer we were here, the more we wondered why this park is so overlooked. The scenic drives, the hiking trails, and the history of the Fruita district are amazing. But there is so much more to this park.

If you love the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring a vast, remote area you have several options. Cathedral Valley with its sandstone monoliths and sweeping desert vistas is a beautiful, unique way to spend a day in Capitol Reef. Or, you can Loop the Fold, another remote driving day along the waterpocket fold.

There are also slot canyons to explore, quiet, low-traffic hiking trails in remote areas of the park and some of the most dramatic landscapes in Utah which you can see right from your car.

I can’t wait to share with you the beauty, the history, and the amazing geology of this national park. And I am looking forward to a return visit this October. Maybe I will see you here!

Note: Scenic Drive will be closed summer 2024 for a rehabilitation project. Get the full details on the National Park Service website.

While in Capitol Reef National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trails, pack out what you bring to the hiking trails, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interesting facts about Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park preserves the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. This wrinkle also called a monocline was formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when movement along a fault line caused upward shifting of the west side relative to the east side. The layers on the west side of the fault were lifted up 7,000 feet higher than the layers on the east.

Since this upheaval water has been slowly eroding away the sedimentary rock layers forming waterpockets. This erosion is revealing fossils, massive domes, canyons, arches, and monoliths.

The park gets its name from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble the United States Capitol building. Early settlers found the long ridges of the waterpocket fold impassable similar to reefs in the ocean. Put these two together and you get Capitol Reef National Park.

Capitol Reef is very long and skinny running in a north-south direction. The park is 60 miles long north to south but only 6 miles wide (average) east to west.

Most visitors spend their time along State Route 24, the main road that cuts through the park. To get to the more remote northern and southern sections of the park you can drive on gravel roads and some of these require a 4WD.

Capitol Reef officially became a national park on December 18, 1971. In 2023, it received 1.3 million visitors making it the 22nd most visited US National Park last year. It is one of five national parks in Utah (collectively called Utah’s Mighty 5). Capitol Reef was the fourth most visited national park in Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion took first place and Canyonlands took 5th place).

State Route 24 through Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

1. State Route 24

State Route 24 is the main road that runs through the park. This road runs east-west for 16 miles inside the park boundaries following alongside the Fremont River.

State Route 24 is a very scenic stretch of road. In the east, the road twists and turns along the Fremont River past massive domes and cliffs of white Navajo sandstone. As you approach Fruita the views open up as you drive through a valley filled with orchards and historic buildings along the Fremont River. As you continue to head west towards Torrey you will drive past immense red sandstone mountains, cliffs, and rock formations.

There is no fee to drive on SR 24 so you can tour this part of Capitol Reef without paying a park entrance fee. This “no fee zone” includes several of the other best things to do in Capitol Reef including Sunset and Panorama points, the petroglyphs, and a few hiking trails.

2. Panorama Point

Panorama Point offers beautiful views over State Route 24 as it winds its way through the park. This viewpoint is located just off Highway 24 and it is a quick and easy way to get a spectacular view of Capitol Reef Park.

Getting here: On Utah Route 24 there is a sign marking Panorama Point and Sunset Point. Turn here and it’s a very short drive on a gravel road to the parking lot for Panorama Point. If you continue down this road you will get to Sunset Point and the Goosenecks Overlook.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Sunset Point

Continue down the gravel access road until it ends at a small parking area. From the parking lot two different trails lead to two different viewpoints (Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook).

Sunset Point is an easy 0.8 mile round-trip hike to a gorgeous overlook. Sunset Point gets its name because it is one of the best spots in Capitol Reef to watch the sunset.

4. Goosenecks Overlook

Walk back to the parking lot and then it is just a short uphill walk (0.2 miles round trip) to a viewpoint over the Goosenecks. This is where the Sulphur Creek carved out a canyon, its curving path resembling that of a gooseneck.

Time: Plan on spending 45 minutes to one hour here visiting both Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook.

5. See the petroglyphs

You can see rock art figures (petroglyphs) created by ancient Native Americans on the drive along State Route 24. Park in the small parking lot on SR 24 located between the Hickman Bridge trailhead and Fruita. It’s a very short walk to a viewpoint where you can see these figures carved onto the rock wall.

6. Explore historic Fruita

The historic Fruita district is the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. This is where you will find the visitor center, the start of several great hikes, campground, and historic buildings.

In the late 1800s, pioneers began settling in the area. The first landholder was Nels Johnson followed by other members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The settlers planted orchards and grew sorghum for molasses and syrup.

Now, most of the original buildings are gone but you can still see the one-room schoolhouse, the Gifford House and barn, and the orchards which are still maintained by the National Park Service (NPS).

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Have pie at the Gifford Homestead                                                           

The Gifford Homestead, one of the last remaining buildings in historic Fruita sells handmade items made by local craftsmen such as dolls, soap, quilts, jams and jellies, and books. But the big draw is the pie. Stop in for a slice of locally baked fruit pie and ice cream.

The Gifford House Store and Museum is open March 14 (Pi Day) through November 25 daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m with a 45-minute closure from noon to 12:45 pm. The house will be closed November 6, 22, and 23.

8. Go hiking

One of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park is to go hiking. The scenic drives are amazing but there’s no better way to explore the canyons and get a bird’s eye view over the park than from the hiking trails.

In the center of the park near Fruita there are 15 day hikes you can do. There are also numerous other hikes in the more remote areas of the park including Cathedral Valley and along Notom-Bullfrog Road.

To help narrow down the long list of day hikes here are some favorites. All hiking distances are round-trip.

Cassidy Arch (3.4 miles, moderate): This is one of the most thrilling trails in Capitol Reef National Park. This short hike features stunning scenery, views over the Grand Wash, and the chance to stand on Cassidy Arch.

Hickman Bridge (1.8 miles, moderate): This is one of the best short hikes to do in Capitol Reef. Walk along the Fremont River and then hike up to a spectacular viewpoint where you can look out over Highway 24. The trail ends at Hickman Bridge, a large, natural arch that is tucked away near the back of the canyon.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Wash (4.8 miles, easy): Hike through a wide canyon similar to the Zion Narrows but without having to walk through a river. This is a long hike if you walk the entire length of the canyon but you can turn around when you are ready. The best part of the hike where the canyon is the narrowest (called The Narrows) is about one mile from the start so this hike could be as short as 2.5 miles.

Cohab Canyon (3.4 miles, strenuous): This short but strenuous hike offers stunning views over Fruita and along Highway 24. This hike is one of the easiest ways to get an aerial view over Fruita.

Chimney Rock Trail (3.6 miles, moderate): After a short and strenuous climb this trail stays relatively flat as it makes a loop along the sandstone mountains. The views of Fruita and the waterpocket fold are spectacular.

Rim Overlook (4.6 miles, strenuous): It’s a tough hike to get to Rim Overlook but what a view! This viewpoint sits on the edge of cliff high above Fruita. From here, you get one of the best views along the waterpocket fold.

Navajo Knobs (9.5 miles, strenuous): First, you’ll hike to the Rim Overlook. The trail continues to the Navajo Knobs where you have 360-degree views arguably one of the best viewpoints in Capitol Reef National Park.

Cathedrals Trail (2.5 miles, easy): This easy hike offers very nice views of the monoliths of Cathedral Valley. The best part of this hike is the first half as you walk alongside this chain of sandstone formations. The trail ends on top of hill where you have panoramic views of Cathedral Valley.

Headquarters Canyon (2.6 miles, easy): This slot canyon hike is short and sweet. It is located in a remote region of Capitol Reef along Notom-Bullfrog Road so there’s a chance you could have it all to yourself.

Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch: These three slot canyons are located relatively close to one another on Notom-Bullfrog Road. They range from 7 to 14 miles round-trip and are moderate to strenuous. There could be pools of water in the canyons. If you are looking for a challenging slot canyon these are hikes to consider.

Sulphur Creek: This 5.8-mile one-way hike is typically done point-to-point which requires a having a second vehicle as a shuttle. This is not a maintained trail so route-finding skills and prior hiking experience are necessary. However, this is a great hike to consider if you want to hike through a deep canyon and in a river similar to the Narrows in Zion.

There are also several great backcountry routes in Capitol Reef. Some of these are long day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Lower Muley Twist Canyon, and Halls Creek Narrows fall into this category.

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

One of the best things to do in the park is to drive the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This paved road is 7.9 miles long (one way) and takes you past some of the most stunning scenery in the park.

Note: Scenic Drive will be closed summer 2024 for a rehabilitation project. Get the full details on the National Park Service website.

Scenic Drive starts in Fruita and ends at Capitol Gorge Road.

To drive the Scenic Drive you will have to pay a $20 fee. You will pay this at a self-pay station just past the Fruita Campground. The pass is valid for 7 days.

10. Capitol Gorge Road

This short, scenic drive begins where Scenic Drive ends. Capitol Gorge Road is a 2.3 mile gravel road that is suitable for standard vehicles under 27 feet length.

At the end of Scenic Drive the road will fork. Go left to drive Capitol Gorge Road. If you turn right you will drive Pleasant Creek Road, a rougher gravel road that leads to Pleasant Creek, South Draw, and Boulder Mountain.

Capitol Gorge Road is a very pretty scenic drive. This road twists and turns through a canyon and you have wonderful views the entire way. Capitol Gorge Road ends at Capitol Gorge, one of the hiking trails in the park.

11. Pioneer Register

When Mormon settlers passed through this area in the late 18th century and early 19th century they scrawled their names on the canyon walls. This collection of names is called the Pioneer Register. Basically, it is historic graffiti. In this same canyon you can also see American Indian petroglyphs.

Note: Do not write your name or leave any marks on the canyon walls. This area is under surveillance by the national park service and the fine is huge if you get caught writing on the walls.

To get here, you will hike the Capitol Gorge Trail. This trail which enters a wide canyon was the only road through the waterpocket fold until Highway 24 was constructed. It is a 1.5-mile round trip hike to the Pioneer Register although the trail continues through the canyon to The Tanks.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Cathedral Valley

Cathedral Valley is the rugged, remote northern district of Capitol Reef National Park. Few people travel out this way to see this valley and its sandstone monoliths, colorful Bentonite hills, and vast desert scenery. But that’s part of its appeal. If you like the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring the backcountry, the Cathedral Valley Loop is an awesome drive to put on your to-do list.

The Cathedral Valley Loop is a 58-mile scenic drive that is located north of the historic Fruita district. There are no paved roads on this loop so you must have a high clearance vehicle and having a 4×4 is strongly recommended.

It takes 4 hours to drive the entire loop but with short detours, overlooks, and adding on one or two short hikes, the Cathedral Valley Loop takes a full day.

13. Loop the Fold

This is another incredibly scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park. This remote drive loops around the waterpocket fold in the southern part of the park. Like Cathedral Valley, Looping the Fold takes roughly one full day.

On this loop, you will drive down Notom-Bullfrog Road. It starts off as a paved road but eventually turns to gravel; however, it is usually suitable for standard cars (after rainstorms, a 4WD may be necessary). Along Notom-Bullfrog Road you have the option to hike many slot canyons. Headquarters Canyon and Surprise Canyon are two very easy slots to add onto this drive.

The loop continues on Burr Trail Road. You’ll climb up the legendary Burr Trail switchbacks and the higher you go the better the views. Hike out to Strike Valley Overlook where you get panoramic views of Strike Valley and Notom-Bullfrog Road (more information above).

Just beyond the overlook the road becomes paved and you enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The drive twists and turns through canyons before arriving in Boulder. Take Utah Highway 12 north to return to Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park. Along the way, you will drive up and over Boulder Mountain which offers more incredible views along the way.

This is another incredible experience to have in Capitol Reef National Park. Since it is so remote, crowd levels are extremely low.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Strike Valley Overlook

This is one of the most unique viewpoints in Capitol Reef National Park.

From this viewpoint, you are looking out over one of the edges of the waterpocket fold. Nearly 150 million years of geologic history can be seen from here. It’s a beautiful, colorful spot as you look out over Navajo and Entrada sandstone, Mancos Shale, Carmel Formation, and numerous other layers of sedimentary rock.

This is a remote viewpoint and getting here can be a little tricky. If you have plans to Loop the Fold you will drive right past this viewpoint. You can also get here by driving Burr Trail Road from Highway 12.

From Burr Trail Road, a 3-mile access road leads to the trailhead. Standard vehicles will only be able to make it a quarter of a mile down this road then you will have to park and walk the rest of the way. High clearance vehicles should be able to make it to the parking area but sometimes 4WD is necessary.

From the parking area, it is a 0.9 mile round-trip walk to the viewpoint. The Upper Muley Twist Canyon hike also starts here.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How much time do you need in Capitol Reef National Park?

Plan to spend at least a few days in the park. With the scenic drives and hiking trails you could easily spend a week here and never run out of things to do.

With half of a day, you can visit the sights along Highway 24 (Panorama and Sunset Points, Goosenecks Overlook, the petroglyphs, and hike Hickman Bridge) and spend some time in Fruita. This works great if you are driving through Capitol Reef on a road trip through Utah.

With one day in Capitol Reef visit the sights along Highway 24 (Panorama and Sunset Points, Goosenecks Overlook, the petroglyphs, and hike Hickman Bridge), visit Fruita, drive Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge Road, and add on one more hike (Cassidy Arch, Grand Wash, and Cohab Canyon are all great picks).

With two days in Capitol Reef, follow the suggestions above for day 1 and on day 2 you can hike a longer trail, visit Cathedral Valley, or Loop the Fold.

Each additional day you add will give you more time for scenic drives and hike more trails. If you want to visit Cathedral Valley, Loop the Fold, visit the heart of Capitol Reef, and hike a few of the longer trails, I recommend spending a minimum of four days in Capitol Reef.

Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park

The spring and fall months are the best times to visit Capitol Reef National Park. Weather conditions are pleasant and you can avoid the larger crowds that arrive in the summer.

During the summer months expect soaring temperatures and large crowds (although Capitol Reef does not get the legendary crowds like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion).

During the winter months the park is less crowded but temperatures get below freezing and snow is likely. Snow can close the roads and make hiking more difficult.

How to get to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located in southern Utah. The closest town is Torrey which has several hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and a grocery store.

Most people visit Capitol Reef National Park when road tripping through Utah’s Mighty 5.

Here are the driving distances and times for nearby destinations:

  • Salt Lake City: 225 miles, 3.5 hours
  • Moab: 144 miles, 2.5 hours
  • Goblin Valley State Park: 68 miles, 1.5 hours
  • Escalante: 75 miles, 1.75 hours
  • Bryce Canyon National Park: 120 miles, 1.25 hours
  • Zion National Park: 182 miles, 3.25 hours
  • Las Vegas: 330 miles, 5 hours
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to camp

Inside Capitol Reef National Park, Fruita Campground offers 65 reservable sites. Full hookups, or any utilities for that matter, are unavailable. Should you want to stay there, reservations are a must—the earlier the better, as it fills quickly.

If you are up to it, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forests provide other places to camp. Just remember that these are mostly primitive sites.

Torrey offers several RV parks for visitors exploring the area particularly those visiting Capitol Reef National Park. Here are some of the top RV parks in Torrey:

  • Sandcreek RV Park: Located 5 miles west of Capitol Reef National Park, this family-owned park offers full hookup RV sites, tent camping, and cabins. They provide free WiFi and are pet-friendly.
  • Wonderland RV Park: Situated just 3 miles from Capitol Reef, this park offers spacious RV sites with full hookups, tent sites, and log cabins. They provide amenities such as 30/50 amp service, free Wi-Fi, shade trees, and clean restrooms.
  • Thousand Lakes RV Park: Located 6 miles from Capitol Reef, this park offers stunning views of red rock mountains and sagebrush-covered plateaus. They provide amenities like a pool, playground, laundry facilities, and a gift shop.

These RV parks generally offer similar amenities including full hookups, WiFi, and proximity to Capitol Reef National Park. Many are pet-friendly and provide additional facilities like showers, laundry, and picnic areas. Prices and specific amenities may vary so it’s best to check with each park directly for the most up-to-date information and to make reservations especially during peak travel seasons.

Practical information about Capitol Reef National Park

Park hours: Capitol Reef is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

Park fee: $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days. You will pay this fee to enter Scenic Drive. You do not need to pay this fee if you only visit the sights along Highway 24 or if you drive the Cathedral Valley loop or Loop the Fold.

More information about Capitol Reef National Park

Planning a visit to the U.S. national parks? Visit From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks to learn more about the parks with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The Complete Guide to Custer State Park

Traveling to the Black Hills in South Dakota and wondering what there is to see and do in Custer State Park? In this post, I cover all the main landmarks, hiking trails, and animal sightings that you can experience in Custer—the best things to do in Custer State Park.

Located in the rugged beauty of the Black Hills in South Dakota, Custer State Park emerges as a sanctuary of natural splendor and wildlife diversity. Encompassing over 71,000 acres, this iconic park is a testament to the breathtaking landscapes that define the region’s towering granite peaks, expansive rolling grasslands, and crystal-clear mountain waters.

Established as South Dakota’s first state park in 1912 and named in honor of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the park weaves together a rich tapestry of history and untamed wilderness.

Home to a thriving population of wildlife including the iconic bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and more, Custer State Park beckons adventurers with its myriad trails, scenic drives, and the allure of its five pristine lakes. From the annual bison roundup to the historic Peter Norbeck Center, Custer State Park invites visitors to explore its diverse offerings, promising an immersive journey into the heart of one of South Dakota’s most cherished natural treasures.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of Custer State Park

Iconic bison herd: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a notable event attracting thousands of spectators and showcasing the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation.

Scenic drives: The park boasts two famous scenic drives—Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. These routes offer breathtaking views of granite peaks, pristine lakes, and opportunities to witness wildlife including bison.

Diverse wildlife: Beyond bison, the park is home to a variety of wildlife species including prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, mountain goats, coyotes, river otters, pronghorn, cougars, and feral burros. This diversity attracts nature enthusiasts and provides unique opportunities for wildlife observation.

Outdoor recreation: Custer State Park offers a range of outdoor activities from hiking trails to water-based activities in its five picturesque lakes. Visitors can enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing while surrounded by the park’s natural beauty.

Historic contributions: The Park’s history is shaped by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which played a vital role in the 1930s by building roads, campgrounds, and dams. The Peter Norbeck Center, a National Register of Historic Place, showcases the park’s natural history and cultural heritage through exhibits.

Expansive terrain: Covering over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park features diverse landscapes including rolling prairie grasslands and rugged mountains. The varied terrain contributes to the park’s scenic beauty and provides a habitat for its diverse wildlife.

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

Proximity to attractions: Situated in the Black Hills, the park is near other notable attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park offering visitors a chance to explore the broader region.

Visitor center: The modern visitor center opened in 2016 serves as an informative hub offering insights into the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. Visitors can engage with exhibits and a short film to enhance their understanding of Custer State Park.

Annual events: In addition to the bison roundup the park hosts various events and programs including naturalist-led activities, festivals, and educational programs. These events provide visitors with unique opportunities to connect with the park’s natural and cultural offerings.

Preservation efforts: Custer State Park has a history of expansion and preservation with an additional 22,900 acres added in 1964. The park’s ongoing efforts focus on maintaining ecological balance and preserving the natural beauty that defines this South Dakota gem.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established in 1912, Custer State Park located in the Black Hills of South Dakota holds a storied history as the state’s first and largest state park. The park’s origins trace back to a collection of sixteen sections of land which were later consolidated into one expansive block due to the challenges posed by the rugged terrain.

The 1930s saw a transformative period for the park, as the CCC played a pivotal role in constructing miles of roads, campgrounds, and dams. These efforts laid the foundation for the park’s growth and facilitated water recreation activities.

In 1964, an additional 22,900 acres were added further expanding its boundaries. Notably, the park is home to a herd of over 1,500 bison and the annual bison roundup initiated in 1965 has become a celebrated event drawing thousands of spectators. Today, Custer State Park stands as a testament to conservation efforts offering visitors a unique blend of natural beauty, wildlife diversity, and a rich tapestry of historical significance.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Importance of conservation and recreation for Custer State Park

Custer State Park holds a dual significance as a vital hub for both conservation and recreation. On the conservation front, the park’s expansive 71,000 acres serve as a haven for diverse wildlife playing a crucial role in the preservation of ecosystems unique to the Black Hills region.

The resident herd of over 1,500 bison alongside prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and various other species underscores the park’s commitment to biodiversity. The annual bison roundup not only captivates visitors but also stands as a carefully orchestrated conservation effort, ensuring the ecological balance of the park.

Additionally, Custer State Park’s historical role in the 1930s with the CCC constructing essential infrastructure exemplifies a commitment to environmental stewardship.

Simultaneously, the park’s recreational offerings from scenic drives like Needles Highway to hiking trails and water-based activities provide a dynamic and immersive experience for visitors.

Beyond its natural allure, Custer State Park’s proximity to other iconic attractions such as Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park positions it as a cornerstone for tourism fostering an appreciation for the region’s natural beauty.

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

Diverse vegetation and unique plant species

Ponderosa pine forests: Custer State Park is characterized by extensive stands of ponderosa pine forests contributing to the park’s scenic beauty and providing habitat for various wildlife species.

Aspen groves: Aspen groves dot the landscape especially in areas with higher elevations. These groves contribute to the park’s diverse and visually striking vegetation.

Prairie grasslands: The Park features expansive prairie grasslands showcasing a mix of native grass species that play a crucial role in maintaining the park’s ecosystem and supporting its diverse wildlife.

Wildflowers: Throughout the park, a vibrant display of wildflowers adds splashes of color to the landscape. These include species like lupine, fireweed, Indian paintbrush, and various others creating a visually appealing and ecologically significant environment.

Ferns and mosses: In shaded and moist areas, ferns and mosses thrive adding to the diversity of plant life within the park. These species are often found along streambanks and in the vicinity of the park’s lakes.

Black Hills spruce: This native evergreen species is part of the diverse forest composition contributing to the park’s unique plant community. The Black Hills spruce is well-adapted to the region’s climate and soil conditions.

Chokecherry and Saskatoon serviceberry: These shrub species are found throughout the park and are important for both wildlife and traditional uses. Chokecherries, in particular, are a vital food source for various bird species.

Alder thickets: Along waterways and in moist areas, alder thickets thrive. These dense shrub communities provide habitat for a variety of birds and small mammals.

Rocky Mountain juniper: Scattered throughout the park, the Rocky Mountain juniper is a hardy evergreen species that adds to the park’s diverse vegetation particularly in rocky or higher elevation areas.

Custer State Park’s diverse vegetation not only enhances its natural beauty but also plays a critical role in supporting the varied wildlife species that call the park home. The combination of forests, grasslands, and unique plant communities creates a rich tapestry of ecosystems within this South Dakota treasure.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Bison: Custer State Park is renowned for its resident herd of over 1,500 bison making it one of the largest publicly-owned herds in the world. The annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024) is a spectacle that showcases the park’s commitment to wildlife management and conservation.

Prairie dogs: The Park is home to thriving prairie dog towns where these social rodents create intricate burrow systems. Their presence contributes to the park’s unique prairie ecosystem and provides a critical food source for various predators.

Bighorn sheep: Custer State Park supports a population of bighorn sheep with these iconic mammals often spotted on the rugged mountainous terrain. The park’s varied landscapes offer suitable habitats for their survival.

Elk: Elk can be found throughout the park especially in areas with a mix of forests and meadows. Their presence adds to the diversity of large herbivores in the region.

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

Mule deer: The Park is home to mule deer which are often seen in grassland and forested areas. These agile herbivores contribute to the park’s overall biodiversity.

White-tailed deer: White-tailed deer are prevalent in Custer State Park utilizing the diverse habitats including woodlands and open grasslands. Their adaptability to different environments makes them a common sight for park visitors.

Mountain goats: Adapted to the rocky terrain, mountain goats find suitable habitats in the park’s higher elevations. Their presence adds to the alpine character of certain areas within the park.

Coyotes: Thriving in a variety of environments including prairies and woodlands, coyotes are common in Custer State Park. They play a role in controlling rodent populations and contribute to the park’s ecological balance.

River otters: In aquatic habitats such as lakes and streams, river otters are active residents. Their playful behavior and sleek presence add to the diversity of wildlife experiences in the park.

Pronghorns: These swift and agile antelope-like mammals can be spotted in the park’s open grasslands. Their unique adaptations make them well-suited to the prairie environments of Custer State Park.

Cougars: Though elusive and rarely seen, cougars inhabit the park’s forests and rocky landscapes. Their presence as a top predator contributes to the park’s overall ecosystem dynamics.

Feral burros: Not native to the region, feral burros are a charming addition to the park’s fauna. Known for approaching vehicles in search of food, they add a unique and sometimes amusing element to the visitor experience.

Custer State Park’s diverse fauna is a testament to the park’s commitment to wildlife conservation and habitat preservation. The mix of large herbivores, predators, and smaller mammals creates a balanced and thriving ecosystem offering visitors a chance to witness the wonders of the Black Hills’ natural biodiversity.

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

Activities in Custer State Park for visitors

1. Scenic drives

Visitors to Custer State Park can embark on unforgettable scenic drives such as the renowned Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road. Needles Highway winds through impressive granite spires providing breathtaking views and opportunities to witness the park’s diverse wildlife. Wildlife Loop Road offers a leisurely drive through key habitats allowing visitors to observe bison herds, prairie dog towns, and a variety of other animals.

2. Hiking trails

The park boasts an extensive network of hiking trails catering to various skill levels. Trails like the Little Devils Tower offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape while Sylvan Lake Shore Trail provides a scenic lakeside stroll. Hiking enthusiasts can explore the diverse ecosystems from dense forests to open meadows offering a close encounter with the park’s natural beauty.

3. Wildlife viewing

Custer State Park is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. The park’s vast landscapes offer ample opportunities for wildlife observation with bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk, and a myriad of bird species calling the park home. Wildlife Loop Road is especially popular for its accessibility and the likelihood of spotting iconic animals in their natural habitats.

Burros, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Fishing

The park’s five picturesque lakes including Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake provide excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers can cast their lines for a variety of fish species creating a serene and rewarding experience surrounded by the park’s scenic beauty. Fishing is permitted and regulations ensure the sustainability of the aquatic ecosystems.

5. Boating and swimming

Visitors seeking water-based activities can enjoy boating and swimming in the park’s lakes. Sylvan Lake with its clear waters and scenic surroundings is a popular spot for both boating and swimming. The calm lakes offer a refreshing escape allowing visitors to connect with nature while engaging in recreational water activities.

6. Annual bison roundup

An iconic event in Custer State Park is the annual bison roundup (September 27, 2024), a spectacle that draws thousands of spectators. This tradition, dating back to 1965 involves herding the bison for health checks and population management. Visitors have the unique opportunity to witness this significant conservation effort and gain insights into the park’s commitment to wildlife management.

7. Visitor Center Exploration

Opened in 2016, the park’s visitor center serves as an informative hub. Visitors can delve into exhibits detailing the park’s wildlife, history, and layout. The center provides a comprehensive introduction to Custer State Park enhancing the overall visitor experience with interactive displays and a 20-minute film.

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

8. Camping

For those seeking a more immersive experience, Custer State Park offers several campgrounds nestled within its natural landscapes. Campers can enjoy the tranquility of the Black Hills with campfire evenings under starlit skies. The park provides a range of camping options from rustic sites to more developed facilities.

Custer State Park’s diverse activities cater to a broad range of interests inviting visitors to engage with its natural wonders, wildlife, and recreational offerings. Whether exploring by car, foot, or boat, the park provides an enriching experience that showcases the unique beauty of the Black Hills region.

As our journey through Custer State Park concludes, it leaves an indelible mark—a canvas of granite peaks, untamed bison, and winding scenic drives. The echoes of preservation and nature’s allure linger. Until the next adventure beckons, Custer State Park remains a cherished chapter in the tapestry of exploration.

Plan your next trip to Custer State Park and the Black Hills with these resources:

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

Conclusion

In summary, Custer State Park is a harmonious blend of conservation, recreation, and cultural heritage. Its diverse landscapes from prairie grasslands to granite peaks provide a captivating environment. The park’s commitment to preservation evident in the annual bison roundup and historic contributions reflects its dedication to stewardship.

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

The Complete Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Find otherworldly hoodoos, red cliffs, and magical sunrises and sunsets in Utah

Some national parks sprawl for millions of acres and encompass wildly diverse terrains; others, such as southern Utah‘s compact Bryce Canyon National Park do one thing really well. At 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon ranks 51st out of 63 national parks by size.

But what it lacks in acreage, it makes up for with the world’s highest concentration of hoodoos or totem-pole-like rock columns. (Note that, despite its name, this isn’t technically a canyon but instead a series of more than a dozen natural amphitheaters carved into a plateau’s edge.)

Geologists will tell you that erosion caused the hoodoos. But for a more colorful creation story, we turn to the Indigenous Paiute people who have lived here since about 1200 BC. According to lore this area was home to the To-when-an-ung-wa or Legend People, a prehuman race who mistreated the land and misused its resources. For their misdeeds, the trickster god Coyote punished them by transforming them into stone.

Now these spires have funky names that refer to their odd shapes—Thor’s Hammer and the Poodle, for example—and they form the basis of nearly every experience within the park: Visitors check off viewpoints that overlook them, hikers weave among them, and photographers jockey for position to shoot them in every type of light from the warm glow of sunrise to the milky shine of a full moon.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mormon pioneers first settled the area in the 1850s and the eventual park’s namesake, Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce reportedly called the mazelike terrain “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

The plan to set this land aside as a national park began in 1915 when U.S. Forest Service Supervisor J.W. Humphrey transferred to the region and immediately became transfixed with the “indescribable beauty that greeted (him).” He sent word back to Washington, D.C. and worked to improve road access and tourists began visiting from Salt Lake City before the end of the decade.

President Warren G. Harding named the area a national monument in 1923, Congress passed a bill the next year to establish a national park, and it officially earned that designation in 1928. Today, this otherworldly landscape is a must-visit stop on southern Utah’s circuit of five national parks with some 2.4 million people making the trip in 2022.

Best of all, despite the park’s dramatic terrain you don’t need to be particularly adventurous to enjoy its greatest spoils. Bryce Canyon’s most popular views are also the most accessible. Thirteen of its 14 viewpoints have good to very good access for those using wheelchairs or other mobility devices and the distance from the parking lot to the view is typically less than 500 feet.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Bryce Canyon National Park is a trek from the nearest major city but the drive through the desert gives you a chance to slow down and get on the same wavelength as this almost mystical landscape. Las Vegas is about 267 miles southwest of the park while Salt Lake City is 273 miles north and Cedar City is about 90 miles west of the park entrance.

The park is laid out along an 18-mile north-south road with one entrance at the northern end just outside Bryce Canyon City. Your first stop should be the Visitor Center, next to the entrance; inside, pick up maps, stroll through museum exhibits about the park’s geology and fauna, shop in the bookstore, and get hiking tips from rangers.

Bryce Canyon National Park’s popularity means it can get crowded during the tourist season May through September. To reduce congestion and long lines at parking areas the park runs a shuttle bus that can make your visit much more pleasant. Simply park your car at one of five stops in Bryce Canyon City, hop on the shuttle, and let the driver do all the work. The buses typically arrive every 15 minutes but you can check for real-time updates on brycecanyonshuttle.com.

Many visitors expect southern Utah to be scorching but due to Bryce Canyon’s high elevation—between 6,620 and 9,105 feet above sea level—its weather remains surprisingly moderate. Even in the hottest summer months temperatures usually top out in the high 70s. In July and August, the rainy season, you might experience an intense afternoon thunderstorm or two. And from December to February, there could be snow—though snow can fall as early as October and as late as May.

Defining the peak season versus shoulder season is more of an art than a science. March to October would be considered by many to be the park’s peak season right now. But despite high visitation numbers during that period it’s not difficult to find a bit of solitude. By setting off on a hike or, say, a bike ride on the shared-use path you’ll find the crowds quickly thin.

For smaller crowds, visit in February to see the reddish hoodoos dusted with snow when a hush falls over the park and all you can hear is the crunch of distant boots on powder. When the snowpack surpasses a foot deep rangers lead snowshoe hikes even providing the snowshoes and poles—just dress warmly. With the Fairyland and Paria View roads closed to vehicular traffic, they also make for great cross-country skiing paths.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Wake up with the sun and catch the hoodoos in all their morning glory at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, the park’s only hotel with 114 rooms set across the main building adjacent motel accommodations and cabins. Opened in 1925, the rustic lodge structure calls to mind Lincoln Logs complete with a steeply pitched green roof.

Inside the cabins, you’ll find gas-log fireplaces and lodgepole pine walls while the lodge and motel rooms are simply furnished with Arts and Crafts–style pieces and custom wool blankets based on colors and patterns used by the Southern Paiute tribe. You can make a reservation 13 months before your visit and the property is open seasonally.

If you prefer camping (and, why wouldn’t you!) the first-come, first-served North Campground just beyond the Visitor Center is open from spring through fall with 99 campsites set in a lovely pine grove with gently rolling hills. Sunset Campground about 1.5 miles south of the Visitor Center features 100 sites west of Sunset Point. Thanks to the popularity of its trailside location, peak-season reservations are recommended each year from May 20 through October 15 and can be booked at recreation.gov. Neither campground has showers; both cost $20 nightly for tents or $30 for RVs.

The Visitor Center also issues $5-per-person permits for backcountry camping with seven campsites located along the 22.9-mile Under-the-Rim Trail and three on the 8.8-mile Riggs Spring Loop Trail. Keep in mind that the elevation change on these trails ranges from 6,800 to 9,115 feet, so plan—and dress—accordingly, based on the season.

Dozens of lodging options in nearby towns can accommodate most traveling styles: cabins (Cottonwood Meadow Lodge in Panguitch), RV parks (Riverside Ranch in Hatch), inns (Bryce Trails Bed and Breakfast in Tropic), dude ranches (Rockin’ R Ranch in Antimony), and even covered-wagon glamping resorts (Whispering Pines Glamping in Alton).

For pure convenience you can’t beat the recently renovated 105-year-old Ruby’s Inn now a Best Western Plus property just outside the park entrance in Bryce Canyon City. Rent one of the hotel’s bikes and go exploring in nearby Dave’s Hollow or along the park’s paved trails and then refuel on hearty comfort fare at the hotel’s family-style Western buffet and steakhouse.

For a proper meal within the park limits you currently have one option: the restaurant at the lodge with the seasonal Valhalla Pizzeria & Coffee Shop. The restaurant doesn’t disappoint with its cozy stone fireplace and menu of locally inspired favorites such as almond-crusted rainbow trout, elk, and white bean chili and open-faced bison meat-loaf sandwiches.

For a more casual option, the General Store near Sunrise Point and the North Campground sells grab-and-go salads, pizza, and sandwiches; you can also stock up on camping supplies including canned goods, split wood, and cooking fuel in case you want to prepare a meal back at your campsite.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Drive to viewpoints

Marvel at the unparalleled vistas from Bryce Canyon National Park’s 14 official viewpoints which deliver that perfect photograph for your slideshow or Instagram grid. The park’s shuttle bus stops at four of them: Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunrise Point, and Sunset Point.

Sunset Point accessed just after mile marker 2 ranks as the most popular thanks to its proximity to Thor’s Hammer, the best-known and most recognizable hoodoo while Bryce Point (accessed via a road between mile markers 2 and 3) is best viewed early in the morning when magical sunrises appear to set the hoodoos on fire.

The other viewpoints can all be reached by foot or car. Just past mile marker 12, don’t miss Natural Bridge which dazzles with a scene that’s pretty enough to be a painting: Think verdant ponderosa pines peeking through a reddish natural arch.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a hike

Go for a hike—you’ll find one for every skill level. On the easier end of the spectrum take in excellent views of the Bryce Amphitheater on the Sunset to Sunrise Trail, a paved one-mile segment of the Rim Trail. Due to the park’s terrain only a half-mile stretch of this portion of the Rim Trail is officially wheelchair-accessible. Alternatively, the hard-surface Bristlecone Loop at the park’s southern end can accommodate some wheelchair users with assistance.

Another easy and especially popular (read: crowded) walk, the 0.8-mile Mossy Cave Trail ends at a grotto with icicles in winter and its namesake moss in summer. For a more moderate challenge, opt for the 1.8-mile Queen’s Garden Trail which takes you down into the canyon for a glimpse of a hoodoo that looks remarkably like Queen Victoria.

If you’re a hiking pro set aside about five hours for the 8-mile Fairyland Loop; you’ll cut through a ponderosa pine forest and past the ridged China Wall which stretches along the horizon like its namesake and the Tower Bridge which features a precariously freestanding span. Be warned that you’ll be navigating a calf-burning elevation change of 1,716 feet (almost exactly as tall as Chicago’s Willis Tower).

To maximize the number of hoodoos you can see on one hike, take advantage of the shuttle bus system to find great one-way routes that start at one bus stop and end at another. For one of my favorite hikes, get off the bus at Bryce Point and then hike down into the amphitheater along the Peek-a-Boo Loop Trail following the path clockwise. After you view Cathedral Wall, pick up the Queen’s Garden Trail to ascend back up to Sunrise Point and the shuttle bus.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See the sights on horseback

Channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl on a guided horseback or mule tour with concessionaire Canyon Trail Rides. From April through October, book two-hour or three-hour rides online at canyonrides.com then meet your guide at the corral between the park’s lodge and Sunrise Point.

Both routes take you down to the canyon floor; the longer option then traces Peek-a-Boo Loop Trail whisking you past the famed Wall of Windows which looks a bit like a fortress dotted with holes from which medieval knights might have fired their arrows and cannons.

To appreciate Bryce Canyon a visitor really needs to get below the rim by foot or on horseback and the horse rides offer a way for someone who physically can’t walk up and down the canyon trails to be up close and personal with the rock formations.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spot wildlife

A variety of animal species roam these acres including mule deer, pronghorn, smaller critters such as feisty golden-mantled ground squirrels (they’re so prevalent at picnic areas and overlooks that the NPS website calls them trip-over common), and the reintroduced Utah prairie dogs which reside in the roadside meadows near the park entrance. Because of the higher altitude and cold winters, reptiles and amphibians are not as common as you might expect but keep your eyes peeled for the masters of camouflage, short-horned lizards (or horned toads).

And, depending on the season you can view 175 bird species including various hummingbirds that flit around thistles and other flowers from May through July.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the park after dark

Named an International Dark Sky Park in 2019, Bryce Canyon National Park delivers a coveted trifecta for stargazers: high elevations, pristine air quality, and a remote location far from the nearest sources of light pollution.

If you visit during a full moon, enter the park’s lottery for one of the few slots on a two- to three-hour guided nighttime hike. Submit your name between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. at the Visitor Center and check whether you’ve been selected between 4 and 4:15 p.m. The moon’s glow bounces off the oddly shaped hoodoos creating an eerie interplay of light and shadows. The park usually offers one of two hikes depending on ranger staffing: an easier one along the rim and a harder one that descends into the canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

Just north of the park entrance, Bryce Canyon City is little more than a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and the kitschy Western-themed shops of Old Bryce Town. But it makes for a comfortable hub if you’re not staying in the park.

About a 10-minute drive north of the entrance the road meets up with Utah State Route 12, a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road dotted with towns worth checking out or using as your hub.

About 20 miles to the northwest along Route 12 sits Panguitch with its National Register of Historic Places–designated historic district and abundant opportunities for angling; the town didn’t take its name from the South Paiute word for big fish for nothing.

If you instead turn southeast on 12 and go about 8 miles you’ll reach Tropic which has welcoming coffee shops and restaurants while an additional 40 miles will drop you into Escalante where picturesque slot canyons surround the town.

If you’re combining your visit to Bryce Canyon National Park with Zion National Park consider a stay in Kanab about 75 miles south of Bryce Canyon near the Arizona border and a half-hour drive from Zion.

Surrounded by sagebrush, sandstone cliffs, and abandoned western-genre movie sets, the self-styled Little Hollywood is home to several unique lodging options. Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile arguably ranks as America’s pet-friendliest hotel with its pet park, dog-walking services, in-room cubbies and snuggling areas, and a shop stocked with treats.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route

From Las Vegas, the four-hour drive along Interstate 15 takes you through the adventure gateway of St. George, Utah. Adrenaline-pumping thrills include ATVing in Sand Hollow State Park or mountain biking on Gooseberry Mesa and the area even boasts a burgeoning wine region with roots dating back to the early Mormon settlers—before they banned sacramental wine. And you should certainly take a detour to Zion about an hour’s drive northeast of St. George to see its gorgeous namesake canyon.

From Salt Lake City cross off another of the state’s Big 5 national parks: Capitol Reef, nicknamed the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow by the Navajo because of the riotous colors of its canyon walls sits about two hours northeast of Bryce Canyon National Park near Torrey. Along the four-hour drive south from the capital don’t miss several natural landmarks including Timpanogos Cave National Monument and Fishlake National Forest a hot spot for splake and trout fishing.

Bryce 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:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

  • Location: Southern Utah about 270 miles south of Salt Lake City
  • Size: 35,835 acres
  • Highest point: Rainbow Point, 9,115 feet
  • Lowest point: Yellow Creek, 6,620 feet
  • Miles of trails: 60
  • Main attraction: Viewpoints overlooking the hoodoos
  • Entry fee: $35 per vehicle, valid for 7 days; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: By car or free shuttle bus
  • When to go to avoid crowds: November (if you want lower visitation and a low chance of snow) or February (if you prefer a snowier experience)

Worth Pondering…

When lighted by the morning sun the gorgeous chasm is an immense bowl of lace and filigree work in stone, colored with the white of frost and the pinks of glowing embers. To those who have not forgotten the story books of childhood it suggests a playground for fairies. In another aspect it seems a smoldering inferno where goblins and demons might dwell among flames and embers.

—The Union Pacific System, 1929

Jasper National Park: A Canadian Gem

Glacier walks and mountain hikes, scenic cruises and epic road trips, Jasper is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies and it’s got the diversity of wildlife, wild views, and adventures to prove it

Nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park stands as a testament to the breathtaking beauty of nature. This expansive wilderness designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts a plethora of wonders from rich biodiversity to awe-inspiring landscapes. Let’s embark on a journey to explore the magic that makes Jasper a must-visit destination.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the wild: Flora and fauna

Jasper is a haven for nature enthusiasts housing a diverse range of plant and animal life. From elusive wildlife like bears and wolves to rare alpine flowers, the park offers a glimpse into thriving ecosystems.

Flora

Subalpine wildflowers: In the subalpine meadows, vibrant wildflowers bloom during the summer months. Look for species like Indian paintbrush, alpine aster, and yellow columbine creating a colorful tapestry against the backdrop of the Rockies.

Coniferous forests: Dense coniferous forests dominate certain areas of Jasper. Engage with towering spruce, fir, and pine trees providing habitat for various wildlife and contributing to the park’s lush greenery.

Lichens and mosses: Jasper’s ecosystems are adorned with lichens and mosses adding an enchanting touch to rocks and trees. These small but crucial organisms play a role in the park’s overall biodiversity.

Aquatic plants: Lakes and rivers within Jasper host a variety of aquatic plants. Submerged species contribute to the health of freshwater ecosystems and provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life.

Elk in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Elk: One of the iconic species in Jasper, elk are often spotted in Jasper Townsite and throughout the park. During the mating season known as the rut, the bugling calls of male elk echo through the valleys.

Bighorn sheep: Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep especially in the rugged mountainous terrain. These majestic creatures navigate steep cliffs with ease, showcasing their adaptability to the park’s challenging landscapes.

Mountain goats: Adapted to the rocky terrain, mountain goats find suitable habitats in the park’s higher elevations. Their presence adds to the alpine character of certain areas within the park.

Rocky Mountain goat in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grizzly bears: Jasper is home to grizzly bears, a powerful symbol of the untamed wilderness. These apex predators play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of the park.

Mountain caribou: The elusive mountain caribou inhabit the alpine regions of Jasper. Adapted to harsh environments these caribou are uniquely adapted to life in the high-altitude wilderness.

Mule deer: Mule deer are a common sight especially in the lower elevations of Jasper. Their distinctive large ears and graceful movements make them a delight to observe.

Wolves: Wolves, though elusive, are part of Jasper’s predator-prey dynamics. Their presence is essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem by controlling populations of herbivores.

Coyotes: Coyotes are adaptable canines that thrive in various habitats within Jasper. Their nocturnal calls add to the park’s soundscape creating an atmospheric experience for visitors.

Birds of prey: Jasper hosts a variety of birds of prey including bald eagles, golden eagles, and owls. These majestic birds contribute to the park’s avian diversity and are a delight for birdwatchers.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique habitats

Delve deeper into the park’s ecology discovering unique habitats like subalpine meadows and dense coniferous forests. Each ecosystem plays a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of Jasper’s natural environment.

Peaks and glaciers

The park’s skyline is dominated by towering mountain ranges and impressive glaciers creating a mesmerizing panorama. Explore the rugged beauty of the Athabasca Glacier and the sublime elegance of Mount Edith Cavell.

Peaks

Mount Edith Cavell: Standing tall at 11,033 feet, Mount Edith Cavell is an iconic peak named after a heroic World War I nurse. The Angel Glacier graces its northeastern face adding to its breathtaking splendor. The glacier’s name is a reference to its white wings of ice.

Mount Athabasca: Dominating the skyline, Mount Athabasca is a prominent peak in Jasper. Its challenging North Face attracts alpinists seeking a formidable ascent while the Athabasca Glacier lies at its base.

Whistlers Mountain: Accessible by the Jasper SkyTram, Whistlers Mountain offers panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. It stands as a sentinel overlooking the town of Jasper.

Pyramid Mountain: With a distinctive pyramidal shape, Pyramid Mountain is a recognizable landmark in Jasper National Park. The Pyramid Lake at its base reflects its grandeur making it a favorite subject for photographers.

Mount Robson: While not within Jasper National Park, Mount Robson, located just outside the park boundary is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet.

Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glaciers

Athabasca Glacier: The Athabasca Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in North America. Flowing from the Columbia Icefield, visitors can take guided tours to walk on the glacier and witness its crevasses and seracs.

Angel Glacier: Adorning the northern face of Mount Edith Cavell, the Angel Glacier is a striking feature that captivates onlookers with its sweeping wingspan. It’s a testament to the dynamic forces shaping the landscape. The hike from the parking lot itself is quite fascinating as the paved trail takes you through a lunar, rocky moraine. 

Dome Glacier: Nestled in the Tonquin Valley, the Dome Glacier is surrounded by rugged peaks and pristine alpine scenery. This remote glacier offers a tranquil and awe-inspiring escape for those willing to explore off the beaten path.

Tonquin Valley Glaciers: The Tonquin Valley is home to several glaciers including the Eremite, Maccarib, and Vulture Glaciers. These glaciers contribute to the dramatic beauty of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

Columbia Icefield: While not exclusively within Jasper, the Columbia Icefield spanning the border of Jasper and Banff National Parks is a vast expanse of ice feeding multiple glaciers including the Athabasca Glacier.

Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lakes and waterfalls

Jasper’s iconic lakes such as Maligne Lake and Pyramid Lake mirror the surrounding peaks offering postcard-worthy views. Discover the thundering Athabasca Falls, a testament to the park’s raw, natural power.

Lakes

Maligne Lake: Renowned for its vivid blue waters, Maligne Lake is the largest natural lake in Jasper. Boasting a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, it offers boat cruises to Spirit Island providing a quintessential Jasper experience.

Pyramid Lake: Nestled at the base of Pyramid Mountain, Pyramid Lake is known for its tranquil setting and scenic views. A causeway provides access to the island in the middle of the lake offering panoramic vistas.

Medicine Lake: This unique lake seems to disappear in the winter earning it the nickname disappearing lake. A geological phenomenon, Medicine Lake is a captivating sight surrounded by forests and mountains.

Beauvert Lake: Adjacent to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Beauvert Lake is a serene and picturesque lake surrounded by lush forest. Its calm waters reflect the surrounding mountain scenery creating a peaceful ambiance.

Annette Lake: Annette Lake is a smaller yet charming lake located near Jasper town. It’s a popular spot for picnics, fishing, and leisurely walks along its shores.

Beauvert Lake in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waterfalls

Athabasca Falls: A powerful and breathtaking waterfall, Athabasca Falls is a must-see attraction in Jasper. Carving through a narrow canyon, the falls create a dramatic spectacle as the Athabasca River rushes through the rocky terrain.

Sunwapta Falls: Divided into two distinct drops, Upper and Lower Sunwapta Falls showcase the force of the Sunwapta River as it descends through rugged mountain landscapes. The viewpoints provide excellent vantage points for photography.

Tangle Falls: Located along the Icefields Parkway, Tangle Falls is a roadside attraction known for its picturesque setting. Surrounded by lush vegetation, it’s an easily accessible waterfall for those exploring the park by car.

Stanley Falls: Found near the town of Jasper, Stanley Falls offers a more secluded waterfall experience. A short hike through the forest leads to this hidden gem where the pristine waters cascade over rock formations.

Horseshoe Lake Falls: Accessible by a hike around Horseshoe Lake, this waterfall provides a serene and secluded escape. The journey to the falls offers glimpses of the surrounding landscapes and the pristine beauty of Horseshoe Lake.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor activities and adventure

Jasper is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts with an extensive network of hiking trails catering to all skill levels. Dive into the backcountry for a more intimate encounter with the park’s untamed wilderness.

Wildlife viewing opportunities

Wildlife abounds in Jasper, providing ample opportunities for spotting elk, bighorn sheep, and the elusive mountain caribou. A camera and a keen eye are your best companions on these thrilling wildlife excursions.

Seasons in Jasper

While summer invites hiking, camping, and wildlife adventures, winter transforms Jasper into a snowy wonderland. Explore the seasonal delights that make Jasper a year-round destination.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking and nature trails

Valley of the Five Lakes: Embark on a picturesque hike through the Valley of the Five Lakes where vibrant turquoise lakes await. The loop trail is family-friendly and showcases the beauty of Jasper’s alpine scenery.

Cavell Meadows: Enjoy a moderate hike to Cavell Meadows offering stunning views of Angel Glacier and the surrounding mountains. Wildflowers carpet the meadows during the summer, creating a vibrant tapestry.

Opal Hills: For more seasoned hikers, the Opal Hills trail provides challenging terrain and rewarding panoramic views of Jasper’s landscapes including Maligne Lake and the surrounding peaks.

Wildlife viewing

Maligne Valley Wildlife Excursion: Join guided wildlife excursions in Maligne Valley to spot iconic species like bears, elk, and bighorn sheep. Experienced guides share insights into the park’s diverse fauna and their natural habitats.

Miette Hot Springs: Relax in the Miette Hot Springs, the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies. Surrounded by mountain scenery the pools offer a soothing experience after a day of exploration.

Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Drives

Icefields Parkway: Take a scenic drive along the Icefields Parkway, one of the most stunning roadways in the world. Marvel at glaciers, turquoise lakes, and towering peaks as you traverse this picturesque route.

Pyramid Lake Road: Explore the Pyramid Lake Road, offering stunning views of Pyramid Mountain and access to Pyramid Lake. The drive provides opportunities for wildlife sightings and serene moments by the water.

Outdoor adventure

White-water rafting: Experience the thrill of white-water rafting on the Athabasca River. Guided tours cater to various skill levels providing an exhilarating adventure against the backdrop of Jasper’s landscapes.

Mountain biking: Traverse mountain trails on a mountain biking adventure. Jasper offers a variety of trails suitable for different skill levels providing an active way to explore the park.

Boat tours and kayaking

Maligne Lake Boat Tour: Cruise on Maligne Lake and admire the stunning scenery including the iconic Spirit Island. Boat tours offer a relaxing way to soak in the beauty of the glacial lake.

Pyramid Lake kayaking:

Rent a kayak and paddle on Pyramid Lake surrounded by mountain vistas. It’s a tranquil way to explore the lake at your own pace.

Glacial Skywalk in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cultural experiences

Jasper Heritage Rodeo: Immerse yourself in the cowboy culture at the Jasper Heritage Rodeo. Experience rodeo events, live music, and a lively atmosphere celebrating the region’s western heritage.

Jasper Planetarium: Explore the cosmos at the Jasper Planetarium where stargazing sessions and educational programs provide insights into the wonders of the night sky.

Camping options

Whistlers Campground: Whistlers Campground is the largest campground in Jasper National Park with close to 800 sites. It is closest to town and has all services including water, sewage, electricity, playgrounds, running water and flush toilets, shower facilities, and interpretive programs. You can also access the bike trails to get to and from Jasper townsite without having to bike/walk on the roads.The Municipality of Jasper operates a municipal public transit bus that makes stops at Whistlers Campground making it easy to get into town and not need to worry about parking when you arrive in town. Currently, Whistlers is the only campground in Jasper with full hook-up sites. Whistlers also have a number of pull-through spots for large units.

Wapiti Campground: Also close to town, Wapiti is the second largest campground with just over 350 sites. Wapiti is about a 6 minute drive from Jasper townsite down the Icefields Parkway and is also accessible by gravel and dirt walking/bike trail. Wapiti campground is also included in the new Jasper Public Transit route meaning you can catch a ride into town on the bus and avoid the hassle of paying for and finding parking in Jasper town.

Wabasso Campground: Wabasso Campground is further from town (about a 25 minute drive from the town of Jasper) and can be less busy at times. They have some electric hook ups, water taps, new bathroom buildings with hot water and flush toilets, and there’s a playground.  Wabasso is situated along the Athabasca River and has a lovely trail along the water as well as large sandy beach areas along the river when the water levels are lower.

Miette Campground: Formally named Pocahontas, Miette Campground is close to Jasper National Park’s eastern gate (about a 40 minute drive to the town of Jasper). There are no services here but they do have flush toilets. There is no cell reception but you are close to the Miette Lodge, hotel, and restaurant which may have a phone for use if needed.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor services and amenities

Plan your visit with ease by understanding the various services and amenities available. From visitor centers to recreational facilities, Jasper caters to the needs of every traveler.

Jasper Information Centre: The Information Centre provides valuable resources for visitors, including maps, brochures, and information on park activities. Knowledgeable staff can assist with trip planning and offer insights into park attractions.

Shuttle services: Shuttle services operate within the park providing convenient transportation to popular attractions and trailheads. These services enhance accessibility for visitors without personal vehicles.

Jasper National Park visitor app: Stay informed with the Jasper National Park visitor app offering real-time information on trail conditions, weather updates, and park activities. It’s a handy tool for planning your day and staying connected.

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving to Jasper National Park

Whether arriving by car or RV, Jasper is accessible from various points. Navigate the routes and modes of transportation to plan a seamless journey to this natural wonder.

From Edmonton: Take the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) west towards Jasper. The scenic drive offers picturesque views and takes approximately 4-5 hours to reach Jasper from Edmonton.

From Calgary: Travel west on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) to Banff and then take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) north to Jasper. The drive from Calgary to Jasper takes around 5-6 hours.

From Vancouver: Drive east on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) and then take the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) east towards Jasper. The drive from Vancouver to Jasper typically takes around 8-9 hours.

Tips for planning a visit

  • Park entry fees
  • Park daily entry fee: $11; seniors, $9.50
  • Parks Canada Discovery Pass: $75.25; seniors, $64.50
Jasper Townsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun facts and trivia

  • Dark Sky Preserve: Jasper National Park is the largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve in the world. This designation ensures minimal light pollution providing unparalleled opportunities for stargazing and observing the northern lights.
  • Parks Canada’s Centennial: Jasper National Park was established in 1907 making it one of the oldest national parks in Canada.
  • Maligne Lake’s depth: Maligne Lake, the second-largest glacier-fed lake in the world is also one of the deepest lakes in the Canadian Rockies reaching depths of approximately 318 feet.
  • Athabasca Glacier movement: The Athabasca Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefield is constantly moving. Its rate of flow is about an inch per day making it a dynamic and ever-changing natural phenomenon.
  • Tonquin Valley’s remote beauty: Tonquin Valley located north of Jasper is a stunning and remote wilderness area accessible only by hiking or horseback riding. It offers pristine landscapes and is a haven for those seeking solitude.
  • The Jasper Tramway: The Jasper SkyTram, one of the highest and longest aerial tramways in Canada takes visitors to an elevation 7,472 feet for panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
  • UNESCO designation: Jasper National Park along with other Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing its outstanding natural beauty, geological features, and ecological significance.

Worth Pondering…

The mountains are calling and I must go.

—John Muir

The Complete Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the bully pulpit president who helped birth America’s conservation movement through sheer force of will: It protects an imposing landscape that is simultaneously both desolate and full of life.

Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep and you can spot them all with a little patience.

When the sun goes down the layers of sedimentary rock come alive in the softer light: black veins of lignite, blue-gray layers of bentonite and rust-colored deposits of scoria. Stand atop a butte during the golden hour and the park takes on a whole new hue—and temperament. Perhaps no national park has such a split personality from afternoon to evening.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1884, Roosevelt himself retreated to this wide-open country after his wife, Alice Lee, and his mother, Mittie, died only hours apart. The Bad Lands he wrote of the area, “grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”

In later years, he credited this landscape as having soothed him after his personal tragedies and set him back on course. “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once noted.

The North Dakota Badlands not to be confused with South Dakota’s Badlands National Park have been cut over eons by the muddy Little Missouri River as it flows north and the national park comprises three separate units totaling more than 70,447 acres.

The South Unit lies along Interstate 94 adjacent to the tiny gateway town of Medora (just 112 full-time residents) and serves as the main recreational focus for most visitors with its scenic driving loop and two dozen trails.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Unit lies 70 miles away (an 80-minute drive) and while it has services such as a visitor center and a road through the badlands, it receives far fewer visitors.

The Elkhorn Ranch Unit—the homesite of Teddy’s Roosevelt 1880s cattle ranch—lies in between. It has no services and most visitors make it a quick stop.

Visiting them all is manageable over two or three days.

Summer is peak season for the park’s 700,000 annual visitors but even then you’ll be all alone on hiking trails in the park’s far corners pondering with the same awe what Lewis and Clark must have experienced when they stumbled on these badlands during their 1805 journey across the continent.

With numerous activities outside park boundaries, easy drives inside it, and plenty of trails—ranging in length from 0.1 miles to 96—Theodore Roosevelt National Park appeals to those ages 50 and over whether they’ve just completed an Ironman triathlon or are simply looking for a paved stroll.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

The largest nearby city is two hours east (137 miles) in Bismarck, the state capital.

Many visitors drive up from South Dakota’s Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore 260 miles to the south (more than four hours by RV). That may seem like a haul but the route north along U.S. Route 85 offers some of the best stretches of the unbounded openness of the Great Plains. You’ll see views that extend so far off into the rolling distance that it often feels as if you can see the Earth’s curvature.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s entrance fee is $30 per vehicle with the pass valid for all three units of the park for seven consecutive days. (A $20 annual America the Beautiful Senior Pass for those 62 or older gives holders access to all national parks and many federally managed recreational lands.)

Restroom and visitor facilities spread throughout the main drives make pit stops easy. The surrounding area’s recent oil-shale boom spurred the expansion of cell networks meaning good coverage for such a sparsely populated area (although you may experience the occasional dead zone depending on your carrier). Only the main visitor centers offer Wi-Fi, however.

Shoulder seasons when visitor numbers drop and animals roam more freely are the best times to visit. Summers are hot with average temperatures in the high 80s and the occasional thunderstorm. Spring rain showers often transform the hillsides to a bright green interspersed with the red scoria rock underneath. In fall, leaves of the giant cottonwood trees along the Little Missouri River turn golden and there may be no better time to camp in the park. Winter, when temperatures can plunge to single digits is much slower in terms of visitation and many side roads are closed but fresh snow on the badlands may be one of the most remarkable sights of all.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

There are no hotel options inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park but it does have two campgrounds for RVs and tents although no hookups. Both are locate in towering cottonwood groves near the Little Missouri River with views to the bluffs beyond. Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit has 72 sites; Juniper Campground in the North Unit, 48.

Sites are spread out enough that you have some privacy and each has a fire grill and a picnic table. The camps have potable water and flush toilets in summer but no showers.

There are no restaurants or stores in the park to buy food, water, firewood, or other supplies so bring everything you need. Despite the lack of amenities there’s always the thrill of waking up in the morning with wild horses or a bison walking through the cottonwood trees.

You can reserve a campsite up to six months in advance at recreation.gov although half the sites are first come, first served. Permits are $14 per night ($7 for seniors) in summer and $7 ($3.50 for seniors) from October through April.

For lodging, restaurants, and stores near the park, Medora is your best option (see the Gateway towns section).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be one of the West’s most unheralded national parks but those who have experienced its charms know it’s all about the bewitching badland views. It’s also one of the region’s most accessible national parks for a quick tour: Both the South and North units have scenic driving loops on which you can take in the majority of sites from the comfort of your car and many of the most remarkable features—the South Unit’s prairie dog town near Skyline Vista, for example—have paved walking trails adjacent to parking areas making them wheelchair accessible.

Drive

You can see a whole lot from your car without having to get out and do extensive hiking like up to an edge of a glacier or something. The bison, wild horses, and prairie dogs—you can see them all just as easily from your front seat as after a three-mile hike.

The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset, Badlands Overlook which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines, and Cottonwood Campground for a picnic under the tall trees.

For another easily accessible point in the South Unit including for those using wheelchairs the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 of I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, scoria-topped buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.

The 28-mile round-trip road in the North Unit impresses with similar stellar views including two Little Missouri River overlooks, the Oxbow and Riverbend overlooks. Both will wow you but Oxbow delivers the more impressive view of the river below and the Achenbach Hills which stretch to the horizon across the muddy water.

Elkhorn Ranch is undeveloped—meaning no visitor services—but the drive to it parallels the river valley and once there you can walk next to the stone foundations that once supported Roosevelt’s cabin.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

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

The hiking can range from moderately difficult down to easy depending on the time of year and where you’re going. It can be more intense especially during a hot summer day but we’re not talking huge elevation gains.

In the South Unit two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. For example, you’ll see and better understand the layers of ancient history: gray bentonite clay from distant volcanoes, black coal from plants and animals that once lived in the humid swamps that covered the area, and brick-colored clinker that formed from burning coal lit by wildfires or lightning strikes.

In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.

Biking

Cycling, an increasingly popular park activity offers a novel way to explore the main roads at a slower pace although you’ll be competing with cars on busy summer days.

Average road cyclists can complete the South loop in three or four hours. Dakota Cyclery in Medora rents bikes.

Medora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats. It all can feel overdone at times but discovering the town’s charm only happens when you fully embrace the kitsch.

Medora’s many lodging options are mostly middle-of-the-road motels and basic kitchenette cabins. The best place to book: the 76-room Rough Riders Hotel in the heart of town named for the volunteer cavalry unit Teddy Roosevelt commanded in the 1890s (it’s rumored the 26th president gave a speech from one its balconies). It’s a mix of Old West charm—tin ceilings, for example—and modern conveniences such as walk-in showers.

For dining, start your morning at Farmhouse Café which does everything well from pancakes to steak and eggs. Come lunchtime, its salads and sandwiches.

For dinner, the Boots Bar and Grill features tasty pub food and Theodore’s Dining Room serves a bison osso bucco. At the Pitchfork Steak Fondue restaurant, chefs load steaks onto, yes, pitchforks and plunge them into hot oil to cook. Enjoy your meat fest al fresco with tables on a bluff overlooking town—and the setting sun.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Medora has three main attractions. The Medora Musical bills itself as the West’s rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show. For two hours nightly there’s singing and dancing and live horses on stage—all in an outdoor amphitheater with sunset views.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, a museum devoted to Western cultures and Native Americans gives you a glimpse into the area’s ranching and rodeo history.

Saddle up yourself at the Medora Riding Stables on the edge of town for hour-long rides up buttes and into canyons.

Just outside Medora, the 26-room Chateau de Mores State Historic Site is the former summer home of a wealthy cattle baron. Constructed in 1883, it’s now a museum delivering an authentic look into what life in the badlands might have been like back then.

Being the park’s gateway, Medora fills up with visitors during the peak months of June, July, and August so you’ll need reservations for lodging and many of its activities.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Driving west from Bismark take the worthwhile detour at Exit 72 on I-94 to see North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway, seven oversize metal sculptures spread along a 32-mile stretch of two-lane highway. The first art installation, Geese in Flight claims a Guinness World Record for largest scrap-metal sculpture (110 feet high and 154 feet wide).

If you’re driving north from Rapid City, South Dakota—the gateway to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore—keep your eyes peeled as you drive out of the town of Bowman for a cheeky art installation on the western side of Highway 85: a kitchen stove sitting alongside a ditch with its door open. A sign reads Open Range. It’s more of a comment piece than real artwork but it makes its point regardless.

Driving northeast from Billings, Montana stop at Makoshika State Park outside the city of Glendive for a taste of the geologic badland formations to come at Theodore Roosevelt National Park plus view the fossil remains of dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex. A triceratops skull in the new visitor center is worthy of the natural history museums in Chicago and New York.

Theodore Roosevelt 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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Location: Medora, North Dakota

Size: 70,447 acres

Miles of trails: 100-plus miles spread over 36 trails

Main attraction: The Badlands overlook at Painted Canyon

Cost: $30 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 its many trails through the Badlands or relaxing on an overlook as the sun sets

When to go: Fall (September and October) when the leaves of the giant cottonwoods turn golden

Worth Pondering…

It was here that the romance of my life began.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

The Complete Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

A thrilling collection of ancient canyon-carved cliff dwellings welcomes visitors in Colorado

Most of the country’s 63 national parks are beloved for their wild and rugged beauty but Mesa Verde National Park is a cultural treasure unlike any other.

Located in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado it preserves the heritage and hand-built architectural accomplishments of the Ancestral Pueblo people, an ancient civilization that produced awe-inspiring handiwork between 550 and 1300 A.D. Home to 5,000 archaeological sites including 600 canyon-carved cliff dwellings, the 52,485-acre park strewn with verdant clusters of pinyon, juniper, and Gambel oak trees safeguards the United States’ largest archaeological preserve. ​

President Theodore Roosevelt established the park in 1906 and in 1978 Mesa Verde National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Yellowstone National Park, the first such accreditations given in the United States.

The region’s first Spanish explorers gave the area its name—Mesa Verde is Spanish for green table—inspired by its vast and lush mountainous shrublands. Geologists will tell you that Mesa Verde National Park is technically a cuesta (not a mesa) due to its sun-tilted topography which the Ancestral Puebloans used to grow corn, their primary food.

​For reasons unknown, by the late 1200s following seven centuries of building and harvesting the Ancestral Puebloans had all but deserted the cliffs, canyons, and villages of modern-day Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While there were surely plenty of explorers in the area in the years after, it wasn’t put on the map until a snowy December day in 1888 when local ranchers Charlie Mason and Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace—the largest cliff dwelling in the park and the main attraction. Fast-forward to 2022 and this sacred Indigenous site where 100-mile views into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico can be had on clear days attracts close to 600,000 visitors annually. ​

An interpretive sign in the park offers this plea to visitors from T.J. Atsye, a park ranger and direct descendant of the people who once lived here: “To Pueblo people, this is still a living place. We make pilgrimages back to Mesa Verde to visit the ancestors and gather strength and resilience from them. I ask you to please visit with respect. If you’re genuine, and true, and respectful, the ancestors will welcome you.”

​Easy to navigate, Mesa Verde National Park is divided into two distinct sections: Chapin Mesa which features two short, drivable roads and where parkgoers spend most of their time and Wetherill Mesa highlighted by a paved 5-mile walking loop. You won’t need more than a day to experience the park but to explore its best sites—Cliff Palace, for example—you need to purchase tickets for ranger tours in advance of your arrival.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

The gateway city of Cortez is 10 miles west of the park.

​Most visitors drive to Mesa Verde National Park as part of an extended road trip that includes stops in Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and other attractions in scenic southwestern Colorado including national monuments and the San Juan Skyway, a scenic 236-mile mountain loop through Telluride and other charming former mining towns.

​Mesa Verde National Park’s entrance is on the park’s northern edge directly off U.S. Highway 160 with the lone visitor center nearby. To maximize your day give yourself 30 minutes at the center to take in its interactive exhibits, small museum, bookstore, and gift shop before venturing into the park.

​From the entrance, it’s about an hour’s drive on Mrsa Verde National Park’s slow and serpentine main thoroughfare to the cliff dwellings at Chapin and Wetherill mesas in the park’s far southern quadrant. Be sure to stop at the Park Point overlook, Mesa Verde National Park’s highest point (8,572 feet) for scenic views of the San Juan Mountains’ 14,000-foot peaks. You might even spot a golden eagle riding the warm air currents above the Mancos Valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​The thoroughfare forks at mile marker 15 (near Far View Lodge) with offshoots leading to each of the two mesas. From Far View Lodge, it’s a 5-mile drive to Chapin Mesa’s two loop roads and 12 miles to Wetherill’s loop trail. The road to Wetherill Mesa, the park’s less-visited side closes at the end of October and reopens in May. Chapin Mesa is open year-round; its cliff dwellings can’t be toured in the winter but many of the dwellings in both mesas can still be seen from the park’s overlooks.

​The season is crucial when planning your trip to Mesa Verde National Park. April and May are pleasant and the temperatures are comfortable but you can get snow. September is going to give you the best, most consistent weather in the unpredictable Rockies.

​Summertime temps range from the mid- to upper 80s so bring plenty of water (you’ll be driving at between 7,000 and 8,400 feet) and stay hydrated. With cool mornings and 65- to 75-degree temperatures early fall delivers prime camping conditions. Frigid mountain air sweeps through Mesa Verde in winter shutting down the park tours. When the most popular sites reopen for tours in April temperatures are still chilly (with highs in the low 50s) before jumping into the 70s in May.

​There’s limited to no cell phone service inside the park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

The closest hotel is the moderately priced Far View Lodge in the heart of the park 15 miles from the entrance and perched atop a mesa, 8,250 feet above sea level. Its 150 rooms sport private balconies perfect for sunset and wildlife viewing (elk, coyotes, mule deer). Metate, the hotel’s signature restaurant (it serves only dinner) offers contemporary American plates including pan-seared rainbow trout.

​Far View Terrace just a short walk from the hotel serves coffee and snacks at the Mesa Mocha Espresso Bar as well as cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch (think omelets and sandwiches). Both the hotel and terrace are open from April to late October. In Chapin Mesa, the Spruce Tree Terrace Café serves basic concession food and stays open through December then reopens in spring.

​Four miles beyond the park entrance, in a picturesque canyon of native Gambel oaks, you can sleep under some of the darkest skies you’ll experience in a national park at the 267-site Morefield Campground (open April through October). Amenities include picnic tables, firepits, and 15 electrical hookups for RVs.

There’s also a full-service village with a gift shop, grocery store, showers, and all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Knife Edge Café. Outside the park in nearby Cortez the affordable Retro Inn open year-round offers brightly colored, accessible rooms and complimentary breakfast.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

​See the biggest cliff dwellings

These ancient marvels are the park’s main draw. You can explore a handful of them but only on ranger-led tours (the one exception: the self-guided Step House tour in Wetherill Mesa) most running from mid-April to late October. Tickets cost $8 to $25 per dwelling and can be purchased up to 14 days in advance. While the tours are not wheelchair-friendly or suited for those with physical limitations, anyone can view the dwellings from good vantage points. 

​The park’s absolute must-see is Cliff Palace in Chapin Mesa near the start of the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. This rock, mortar, and timber-constructed village built in the 13th century is jaw-dropping with its 150 rooms, 23 circular kivas used for ceremonial gatherings, intricate ventilation system, and remarkable dry stack masonry. Their walls are within 2 degrees of square but without any builder’s squares. It’s a testimony to how well the Ancestral Puebloans could lay stone.

At its peak, the alcove settlement could have housed upwards of 150 people. Touring it involves climbing uneven steps and ladders but those with physical limitations can get a good view of the site and a terrific postcard shot from Sun Temple on Mesa Top Loop Road.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Just shy of 2 miles farther down Cliff Palace Road is Balcony House with 38 well-preserved rooms as well as kivas and plazas. Another 13th-century masterpiece it’s considered the park’s most adventurous tour due to its tight passageways, 32-foot entrance ladder, jagged stone steps, and 60-foot ascent up an open cliff face. It’s for thrill seekers and the physically fit but the easy Soda Canyon Overlook Trail (1.2 miles round trip) affords an alternate view.

​Square Tower House on Mesa Top Loop Road in Chapin Mesa, the park’s tallest dwelling, stands 26 feet high. Inhabited during the mid-1200s the three-story structure features intact wooden beams and an original clay kiva roof. If the strenuous mile-long hike to tour the house deters you, get a bird’s-eye view of the dwelling from the overlook here which provides one of the best vistas in all of Mesa Verde National Park.

​Due to rockfall, Spruce Tree House in Chapin Mesa, the park’s best-preserved dwelling has been closed since 2015. But snag a stellar aerial view of the park’s third-largest cliff dwelling from the wheelchair-friendly porch at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum located less than a mile before the start of the two loop roads.

Tucked beneath a sandstone archway, the dwelling was constructed between 1211 and 1278 A.D. When ranchers discovered it in 1888 they climbed down a large Douglas spruce tree (now called a Douglas fir) to enter it, thus the name.

​In Wetherill Mesa tour Long House, the park’s second-largest dwelling highlighted by a dance plaza and multiple seep springs that provided the Ancestral Puebloans with water. From the beginning of the paved, 5-mile Long House Loop Trail near the mesa parking lot walk 1.5 miles to the Long House trailhead. From there it’s an arduous 2.25-mile hike (round trip) to the dwelling.

​For a more leisurely stroll (just a 1-mile loop) the mesa’s wheelchair- and bike-friendly loop trail passes through an eerie-looking burned forest that leads to the Nordenskiöld Site No. 16 trailhead. To view the two-level, 50-room village excavated by a Swedish geologist in 1891 walk the flat, half-mile gravel path to an overlook.

​Near the parking lot is Mesa Verde National Park’s only cliff dwelling that doesn’t require a tour ticket, the easy-to-walk-around Step House carved inside a 300-foot alcove. When excavated, the dwelling housed stunning handcrafted baskets in its six pit houses (insulated semisubterranean homes) evidence that Ancestral Puebloans occupied it six centuries before the park’s most famous dwellings were constructed circa the 13th century. Access it via a moderate, half-mile offshoot (1-mile round trip) at the beginning of the loop trail.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Drive the Mesa Top Loop

This 6-mile, 11-stop scenic road which runs parallel to the Cliff Palace Loop in Chapin Mesa traces the Ancestral Puebloans’ seven-century footprint in and around the park with rousing overlooks and stops at various archaeological sites. At the loop’s end you’ll see Sun Temple (1275 A.D.), a large D-shaped complex that experts believe served as an observatory for astronomical events such as the winter solstice that guided the Puebloans’ planting and harvesting activities.

​Go hiking

Mesa Verde National Park has a few noteworthy short hiking trails though the rough, challenging terrain means they aren’t suitable for the mobility-impaired. In Chapin Mesa, the half-mile Farming Terrace Trail near Cedar Tree Tower provides a window into the Ancestral Puebloans’ unique agricultural system with its check dams and terraces.

From the Spruce Tree House Overlook in Chapin Mesa the steep Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 miles) loops through a fragrant pinyon-juniper forest where hikers slip between mammoth boulders en route to a 35-foot-wide rock-art panel with more than 30 figures (human and animal), spirals, and handprints.

​Closer to the park’s entrance three trailheads ranging from easy to difficult start at the Morefield Campground: Knife Edge (2 miles), an ideal trek for savoring Colorado’s pastel sunsets; Point Lookout (2.2 miles), replete with views of the snowcapped San Juan and La Plata ranges; and Prater Ridge (7.8 miles), a challenging, two-loop combo that splits Prater and Morefield canyons above Montezuma Valley where an estimated 35,000 people lived in the 1200s.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The Old West town of Durango, 36 miles east of Mesa Verde National Park on U.S. Highway 160 lures the bulk of parkgoers with its charming shops and art galleries, eclectic restaurants and microbreweries, outdoor recreation options, and rich railroad history. Indeed, a train ride aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a must.

From downtown Durango, the 1880s steam engine winds through the spellbinding San Juan Mountains skirting the edge of cliffs and crossing lofty bridges over the clear and ever-flowing Animas River chugging its way to the historic mining town of Silverton. It’s a thrilling nine-hour, round-trip adventure (May-October) with two hours spent exploring Silverton. Even the vision-impaired enjoy the ride hearing the steam whistle as the vintage locomotive pulls the train up steep grades. For alpine aromas and the best views, book a gondola seat.

​Splurge on a stay at the 15-room Rochester Hotel (with multiple wheelchair-accessible rooms). Built in 1892, the former boarding house-turned-boutique hotel recently reopened downtown following a modern makeover. Just two blocks away, the 88-room Strater Hotel is moderately priced and feels like you’re sleeping in a museum with period wallpaper and American Victorian walnut antiques awash in a building dating to 1887.

​Start your morning with a breakfast burrito at Durango Coffee Company on downtown’s Main Street. Around the corner, for lunch, munch on mouthwatering al pastor tacos or a chicken torta at the Cuevas Tacos food truck. Come dinnertime sink your teeth into a juicy grass-fed burger topped with Belford cheese at the James Ranch Grill, 10 miles north of downtown on U.S. Highway 550. Cream Bean Berry’s delicate artisan ice cream on Main Street will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. Across the street, sip a cold one at Carver Brewing Company, one of Colorado’s first brewpubs.

​Blink twice and you might miss the closest town to Mesa Verde National Park—Mancos, a sleepy dot on the map 8 miles east of the park on U.S. 160. Accommodations are sparse here but the moderately priced Western-themed lodge rooms at the Starry Nights Ranch Bed & Breakfast make for a homey overnight.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before heading into the park fuel up for the day at the Absolute Bakery & Café on the Mesa Verde Stack, an egg-and-hash browns combo slathered with homemade green chile. At lunchtime, Chef Ben’s Cubano Sandwich is a must-try.

​Ten miles west of the park on U.S. 160 is Cortez, a terrific launch point for driving the 116-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway with its multiple national landmarks. The town’s lodging options are mostly hotels—the Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez has a pool and wheelchair-accessible rooms. For home-cooked comfort foods order the country fried chicken or elk shepherd’s pie at the Loungin’ Lizard cantina.

Mesa Verde 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:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

  • Park location: The Four Corners region in southwestern Colorado
  • Size: 52,485 acres
  • Highest peak: Park Point’s Fire Lookout Tower at 8,572 feet above sea level
  • Lowest valley: Soda Canyon, about 6,000 feet above sea level
  • Miles of trails: 20-plus miles over 12 trails
  • Main attraction: Cliff Palace
  • Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee May until October, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 per vehicle from November through April
  • Best way to see it: Ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings
  • When to go: May through September when the park’s most significant sites are open. September has the best weather.

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

5 Expert Tips to Prepare for Your Utah National Parks Adventure

Headed off to one of Utah’s National Parks for vacation? Maybe you have the whole The Mighty Five in your sights? Here’s some expert advice on how to prepare.

A family road trip through Utah’s five national parks and the surrounding areas makes for a quintessential American vacation. Of course if you’re traveling over summer vacation you may not be the only one on the road. In fact, June is one of the busiest months for Utah’s national parks. What does that mean for you? Well, if you can be flexible with your travel, it can yield big rewards. 

Here are five tips to help you prepare, courtesy of Aly Baltrus, the former chief of interpretation and visitor services at Zion National Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Pack the essentials

We’re human; we forget things. For your trip to any of The Mighty Five, some things are more essential than others. Visitors are advised to carry a lot of water—at least one gallon per person per day. In Zion, there’s several water refilling stations so you don’t have to carry in absolutely everything you’re going to drink during your stay unless you have a permit for more remote areas. 

Arches National Park near Moab has water at the visitor center near the entrance and at the Devils Garden Campground. There’s a water bottle filling station in the visitor center of Bryce Canyon National Park. In other areas of the national parks in Utah, water is significantly scarcer particularly in Canyonlands National Park.

If there are any concerns, check at the visitor center to learn about water availability and always plan ahead. Many travelers carry water coolers or extra jugs of water in their cars to fill up before a hike.

Good hiking shoes are important. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive brand. Make sure they fit you and you’ve used them before taking long hiking trips. Flip-flops are not appropriate footwear for the vast majority of trails in the national parks. Similarly, budget tools can help you in the outdoors. If folks are hiking into the Narrows, simple locking plastic bags can be helpful to keep your snacks and cell phone dry.

And remember to follow Leave No Trace principles—plan to pack out everything you pack in (garbage, etc.) and have a plan for when nature inevitably calls.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Know the terrain

Being prepared isn’t exclusive to the things you can wear or bring along in your pack. Sometimes, it requires understanding what’s required in certain weather conditions. If you are from lower elevations, take your time when hiking. It is much harder to hike in higher elevations. If you are around for a few days, ease yourself into hiking by starting with easier hikes. (For example, Bryce Canyon reaches up to over 9,000 feet of elevation).

Baltrus’s special expertise in Zion helps visitors understand the unique qualities of the park. There is very little shade in Zion. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats, plenty of water, and some salty snacks are a must when you’re packing for a trip there. The same rules apply to most hikes throughout The Mighty 5. While several hikes are family friendly these wonders are significantly more enjoyable if everyone knows what to expect and comes prepared.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Go at your own pace

It’s exciting to be in the outdoors and everyone should consider going at their own pace. If you have very little hiking experience you don’t want to start out with a 40-mile, hardcore backpacking trip.

Several of Zion’s trails including Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point have steep climbs and drop-offs. These are not the best trails for people who are afraid of heights or those who have heart issues. If you’re traveling with friends or family discuss your preferences and skillset before you head out on the trail.

The park’s visitor center is an ideal place for this conversation because skilled staff will be able to provide advice on trail conditions, skills needed, and offer alternative trail options. What’s more, rugged national parks like Capitol Reef and Canyonlands have several front country, family-friendly trails and experiences, they are equally known for their expansive backcountry—not a place you’ll want to venture without good preparation, packing, wayfinding skills, and a stop at the visitor center for current conditions.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Know your companion’s limits

As with the above point, it helps to travel with people who won’t push you too far outside your comfort zone. Sure, a little challenge makes us feel good. But following a buddy’s plea to just do it his way this time may not end well. Peer pressure is sometimes a problem when visitors are part of a bigger group.

Friendships are important but your well-being is even more so. Be honest and up-front about your hopes for the trip and your experience. That will encourage others to do so, as well, and you can address issues of conflict early, instead of on the trail. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. How to avoid the crowds

Utah’s national parks can be a popular draw which means deciding when to visit a park feature can be as important as deciding what to see in the first place. In order to avoid the most crowds come early in the morning or after 2 p.m. And note that from April through October (between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.), Arches National Park requires a timed entry ticket to enter the park.

Many of Utah’s best sights are especially spectacular at sunrise and sunset during which some of the longer trails receive less traffic. But hikes of any distance at these times do require extra care.

Add a headlamp or flashlight to your pack and be prepared for the possibility of cooler temperatures. In other cases, you’ll be joining the crowd for a sunrise: Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park receives a lot of traffic around the sunrise hours because it’s a very short hike meaning photographers can easily haul in their gear and grab a truly iconic image at an easily accessible destination. The same goes for the Rim Trail of Bryce Canyon which is easily accessible from the scenic drive and the perfect time to see the hoodoos play with the changing light.

But visitors should also note that there a number of dazzling Utah State Parks that are near to The Mighty 5 and they make for a good stop when the national parks are particularly busy.

On the other hand, take some time to get to know your fellow travelers and celebrate the vast, natural beauty together.

You’ll likely hear a number of different languages on Zion National Park’s multi-passenger shuttle and in popular places to cool off in the peak season of summer like in the Virgin River at the Mouth of the Narrows. Elements took eons to create the varied wonders of Utah’s national parks. Visitors who rush through will only get a small taste of the power of these places. Visitors who plan extra time at each park will enjoy a less hurried, more intimate stay.

Learn more about how to visit Zion National Park. The ideas here apply to all of Utah’s incredible natural sanctuaries. Generally, people should plan to be as self-sufficient as possible. Be prepared, don’t take additional risks, and practice good trail etiquette.

Snow Canyon State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Southern Utah State Parks near the Mighty 5

Utah’s natural beauty extends well beyond the borders of the Mighty 5 National Parks. Some of Utah’s best state parks dot the landscape of Mighty Five country swaddled by adventurous national forest or the rugged Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

There are eight enticing state parks along the The Mighty 5 road trip which means each day you’ll have the option to stop at the national parks if it’s your first time to Utah or leave them for the other travelers if you’re looking to see Utah from another angle.

Learn more…

Most recent Utah travel stories

Worth Pondering…

A strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.

—Zane Grey

The Complete Guide to Coconino National Forest

From the famous red rocks of Sedona to Ponderosa pine forests, from southwestern desert to alpine tundra, the Coconino National Forest is one of the most diverse and unforgettable destinations in the country

Stretching across two million acres of northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest is a captivating tapestry of natural wonders and diverse ecosystems. Originally established in 1898 as the San Francisco Mountains National Forest Reserve, it gained its current designation as a U.S. National Forest in 1908.

Named after the Coho Native American people, the forest encompasses three distinct districts: Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock. From the awe-inspiring peaks of the San Francisco range to the iconic red rock formations near Sedona, the landscape is as varied as it is breathtaking.

With elevations ranging from 2,600 to 12,633 feet, the forest boasts a mosaic of environments including deserts, ponderosa pine forests, alpine tundra, and ancient volcanic peaks. Beyond its stunning natural beauty, Coconino National Forest preserves a historical narrative reflecting the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental conservation. Today, it stands as a sanctuary for outdoor enthusiasts beckoning visitors to explore its trails, discover hidden canyons, and connect with the timeless allure of the Arizona wilderness.

Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Features of the Coconino National Forest

San Francisco Peaks: Dominating the Flagstaff District, the San Francisco Peaks are a majestic volcanic range showcasing the highest point in Arizona—Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. This ancient volcanic field covers 1,800 square miles featuring tree-covered cinder cones, lava flows, and the intriguing Lava River Cave. The peaks provide a diverse and captivating landscape for exploration.

Red rock formations: The Red Rock District unveils the iconic red rock formations, mesas, and canyons that have made the region famous. These geological wonders sculpted by millions of years of erosion contribute to Sedona’s status as Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction. The vibrant red hues and intricate formations create a breathtaking and unique landscape.

Mogollon Rim: Defining the southern edge of the forest, the Mogollon Rim stretches across central Arizona marking the boundary of the Colorado Plateau. The Mogollon Rim District features a dense ponderosa pine forest, lakes, and perennial streams. This area serves as a transition zone between the high-altitude plateaus and lower elevations, offering diverse ecological habitats and picturesque scenery.

Diverse vegetation zones: Coconino National Forest boasts varied vegetation zones from the arid lowlands with shrubs and sagebrush to the towering stands of ponderosa pine in high-altitude plateaus.

Verde Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historical landmarks: The forest preserves historical landmarks including Walnut Canyon National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. These sites offer insights into ancient civilizations and volcanic activity adding cultural depth to the Coconino National Forest experience. Exploring these landmarks provides a connection to the region’s rich history.

Recreational lakes: Natural lakes like Mormon Lake, Ashurst Lake, and Marshall Lake dot the landscape offering recreational opportunities such as fishing and boating. Additionally, manmade reservoirs like Upper Lake Mary and Lower Lake Mary provide water resources and scenic spots. These lakes contribute to the diverse recreational activities available within the forest.

Distinct districts: Divided into three districts—Flagstaff, Mogollon Rim, and Red Rock—the forest ensures a varied experience. The Flagstaff Ranger District surrounds the San Francisco Peaks, the Mogollon Rim Ranger District showcases a dense ponderosa pine forest, and the Red Rock Ranger District captivates with its famous red rock formations. Each district offers unique ecosystems ensuring a comprehensive exploration of Coconino National Forest’s vast and varied terrain.

Schnebly Hill Road in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History

Established against the backdrop of the late 19th-century expansion and evolving land management practices, the Coconino National Forest has a rich and storied history. In 1898, President William McKinley responded to Gifford Pinchot’s advocacy for forest conservation by creating the San Francisco Mountain Forest Reserve. However, local opposition in Williams, Arizona, viewed the reserve as detrimental to Coconino County. In 1905, the Forest Reserves transitioned to the Department of Agriculture, marking a pivotal shift toward federal management.

Finally, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt merged various forest reserves including the San Francisco Mountains to form the Coconino National Forest. Covering two million acres, this diverse landscape became a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and a testament to the delicate balance between human settlement and environmental preservation. Today, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the enduring importance of conservation and sustainable land management in the American West.

Oak Creek near Sedona in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unique location of Coconino National Forest

Located in northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest covers a vast two million acres extending from the vicinity of Flagstaff. Its elevations range from 2,600 feet to Arizona’s highest point, Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. What makes it special is the wide range of landscapes it includes. From the red rock formations near Sedona to the famous San Francisco Peaks in the Flagstaff District and the dense ponderosa pine forests along the Mogollon Rim, the Coconino National Forest boasts a diverse mix of ecosystems.

It not only surrounds lively towns like Sedona and Flagstaff but also shares boundaries with four other national forests, making it an essential part of the expansive Arizona wilderness. The forest’s strategic location contributes to its unique blend of geological wonders, rich biodiversity, and recreational opportunities making it a must-visit for those wanting to explore the varied beauty of the American Southwest.

Red Rock Scenic Byway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation and plant species in Coconino National Forest:

Ponderosa pine forests: The Coconino National Forest is renowned for its extensive ponderosa pine forests covering vast expanses of the landscape. These towering and aromatic trees thrive in the high-altitude plateaus particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet contributing to the forest’s distinctive and pleasant fragrance.

Engelmann spruce and blue spruce: At the highest elevations particularly around the San Francisco Peaks the forest hosts coniferous species such as Engelmann spruce and blue spruce. These hardy trees are adapted to the challenging conditions of alpine environments adding to the unique character of the highest reaches of the Coconino National Forest.

Bristlecone pine: The high-altitude regions including areas near Humphreys Peak are home to the bristlecone pine. These ancient trees, known for their twisted and gnarled appearance are among the oldest living organisms on Earth adding a sense of historical depth to the forest.

Corkbark fir: A variety of subalpine fir known as corkbark fir is found in isolated areas of the Coconino National Forest specifically around the San Francisco Peaks. This unique tree species contributes to the biodiversity of the high-elevation zones.

Juniper-pinyon woodlands: In the lower elevations between 4,500 and 6,500 feet the forest transitions to juniper-pinyon woodlands. Species like alligator juniper and Utah juniper dominate this region accompanied by Arizona cypress, manzanita, and pinyon pine.

Quaking aspen: Scattered among the ponderosa pine forests particularly between 6,500 and 8,000 feet, quaking aspen stands offer a visually striking contrast with their white bark and vibrant golden leaves in the fall. Aspen stands are often the first to regenerate after wildfires contributing to forest renewal.

Alpine tundra vegetation: Above 11,000 feet, the Coconino National Forest features the only alpine tundra region in Arizona. Here, vegetation is sparse with small grasses, lichens, and alpine wildflowers dotting the landscape showcasing the resilience of life in extreme conditions.

Deciduous trees in Oak Creek Canyon: Part of the Red Rock District, Oak Creek Canyon stands out for its deciduous trees. In the fall, the canyon becomes a popular leaf-peeping destination as deciduous trees such as oak and maple dominate the vegetation offering a burst of autumnal colors.

Grand Canyon Railway in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fauna

Elk: The Coconino National Forest is a sanctuary for elk where these magnificent creatures roam through the ponderosa pine forests and open meadows. With their impressive antlers and graceful presence, elk are a common sight especially during the cooler months when they gather in larger groups. The forest’s diverse landscapes provide ideal habitats for elk making it a key destination for wildlife enthusiasts hoping to witness these majestic herbivores in their natural environment.

Mule deer: Mule deer are a familiar sight throughout the Coconino National Forest adapting to various habitats across the region. Whether traversing the high-altitude plateaus or navigating the edges of the ponderosa pine forests, these adaptable herbivores are integral to the forest’s ecosystem. Their presence adds to the allure of the Coconino National Forest offering glimpses of these agile and resilient mammals against the backdrop of the diverse landscapes.

Mountain lion: The elusive mountain lion, a symbol of stealth and power finds a home in the Coconino National Forest. Though rarely seen by visitors these solitary predators play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance within the forest. Navigating the rugged canyons and dense woodlands, mountain lions are a testament to the wild and untouched nature of this expansive landscape.

Black bear: Iconic symbols of North American wilderness, black bears inhabit the Coconino National Forest with occasional sightings reported particularly in the Mogollon Rim District. These omnivores contribute to the forest’s biodiversity foraging for food in the diverse ecosystems that range from dense forests to open meadows. The presence of black bears underscores the importance of the Coconino National Forest as a haven for various mammalian species.

Bobcat: In the Coconino National Forest the elusive bobcat with its tufted ears and spotted coat adds a touch of mystery to the forested landscapes. These skilled predators navigate the transition zones where forests meet open spaces. The bobcat’s presence highlights the delicate balance maintained by the forest’s ecosystem.

Abert’s squirrel: The ponderosa pine forests of the Coconino National Forest are home to the distinctive Abert’s squirrel. Recognizable by its tufted ears and grayish fur, this arboreal squirrel is well-adapted to life among the towering pine trees. Their presence adds a lively element to the forest canopy contributing to the rich biodiversity of the Coconino National Forest.

Golden eagles: High above the diverse landscapes of the Coconino National Forest, golden eagles soar through the expansive skies. These majestic raptors showcase the importance of the forest as a habitat for various bird species. With their keen eyesight and impressive wingspan, golden eagles contribute to the avian diversity that characterizes the skies above this vast and varied landscape.

Gila monster: In the lower elevations, the Coconino National Forest is home to the Gila monster, a unique and venomous lizard. Thriving in the desert shrublands within the forest, the Gila monster adds a touch of exoticism to the region’s wildlife. This distinctive reptile is a testament to the diversity of habitats within the Coconino National Forest.

Mexican spotted owl: The old-growth forests in parts of the Coconino National Forest provide a crucial habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, a species facing conservation challenges.

Trout species: The lakes and streams within the Coconino National Forest such as Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek teem with various trout species. These aquatic ecosystems not only provide recreational opportunities for fishing enthusiasts but also contribute to the overall biodiversity of the forest. The presence of diverse trout species reflects the health and vitality of the forest’s waterways.

The Coconino National Forest’s diverse fauna from iconic large mammals to elusive predators, arboreal creatures, and unique reptiles, underscores the ecological richness of this Arizona landscape. Conservation efforts within the forest contribute to the overall health of these ecosystems providing a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to experience a rich tapestry of biodiversity.

Arizona Route 89A in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities in Coconino National Forest

1. Hiking and trail exploration

The Coconino National Forest offers an extensive network of hiking trails that cater to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether exploring the lush landscapes around Oak Creek or trekking through the high-altitude plateaus near Flagstaff, visitors can immerse themselves in the diverse beauty of the forest. Trails like the West Fork of Oak Creek Trail provide a scenic journey through canyons and alongside babbling creeks, creating a memorable hiking experience.

2. Scenic drives

For those who prefer a more leisurely exploration, scenic drives within the Coconino National Forest offer breathtaking views of its diverse landscapes. The Forest Roads such as the scenic drive along the Mogollon Rim provide opportunities to witness the forest’s grandeur from the comfort of a vehicle. Visitors can take in panoramic vistas, ancient volcanic peaks, and the iconic red rock formations surrounding Sedona.

3. Wildlife watching

The forest’s diverse ecosystems make it an ideal habitat for a wide array of wildlife. Visitors can engage in wildlife watching activities hoping to spot elk, mule deer, and a variety of bird species. The forest’s status as a wildlife corridor enhances the chances of encountering these creatures in their natural habitats creating a unique and enriching experience for nature enthusiasts.

4. Fishing in lakes and streams

Coconino National Forest features numerous lakes and streams including Upper Lake Mary and Oak Creek providing excellent opportunities for fishing enthusiasts. Trout species thrive in these clear waters offering a serene and picturesque setting for anglers. Fishing permits are typically required adding to the regulated and sustainable nature of this recreational activity.

5. Camping and picnicking

The forest provides an array of camping options from established campgrounds to dispersed camping in more remote areas. Camping allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the natural surroundings with the sound of rustling leaves and the scent of ponderosa pine filling the air. Picnic areas are also available providing a peaceful setting for outdoor meals amidst the forest’s beauty.

6. Mountain biking

Mountain biking enthusiasts can explore designated trails that wind through the Coconino National Forest offering a thrilling way to experience its diverse terrain. Trails like the Soldiers Pass Trail near Sedona cater to bikers of various skill levels providing an adrenaline-packed adventure through red rock formations and shaded canyons.

7. Rock climbing

The unique geological features of the Coconino National Forest especially around Sedona make it a popular destination for rock climbing and bouldering. Climbers can challenge themselves on the red sandstone cliffs with routes that offer both breathtaking views and a sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit.

8. Stargazing

The forest’s expansive and less light-polluted areas make it an excellent location for stargazing. Visitors can witness a dazzling night sky especially in higher elevations where constellations, planets, and the Milky Way become visible. Stargazing events and programs are occasionally hosted to enhance the celestial experience for visitors.

The Coconino National Forest provides a diverse range of activities ensuring there’s something for every nature lover and outdoor adventurer. Whether seeking serene moments in nature, engaging in recreational pursuits, or embarking on thrilling adventures visitors can tailor their experience to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity this forest has to offer.

Jerome in the Coconino National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Coconino National Forest stands as a testament to the extraordinary diversity and beauty that the American Southwest has to offer. From the towering ponderosa pine forests and iconic red rock formations to the serene lakes and high-altitude plateaus, this expansive landscape captivates the senses and beckons explorers to its scenic trails.

Here are a few more articles to help you explore the area:

Looking for more on national forests? Here are some articles to help:

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

The Complete Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in South Datoka

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple the painted walls and serrated peaks of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands making for a stunning surprise in remote western South Dakota. They are both badlands—a geologic term for soft sedimentary rocks that erode easily—and Badlands, a title derived from the Native American Lakota name mako sica or bad lands referring to the scarcity of water, the difficulty of navigating peaks and valleys, and weather extremes that bake the ground in summer and freeze it in winter.

As badlands, the 244,000-acre national park preserves a naturally excavated landscape revealing Earth’s history. Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists—often seen working in an active lab at the park’s main visitors center—continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for buffalo, animals that again inhabit the park a deceivingly still preserve that teems with life provided you slow down to see it. Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and pronghorn are just a few of the endemic prairie species that star in the uniquely American safari that visitors can self-guide on foot or by car.

At sunset and sunrise the vivid hues of mineral deposits in the rocks radiate warmth. Overnight, countless stars pierce the dark night sky. Whether because of time of day or eons past change is a motif central to the Badlands still eroding under nature’s forces by about an inch a year.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip to Badlands

The beauty—and the challenge—of Badlands National Park is its remote location. The park lies only about 60 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota but about 375 miles north of Denver and 500 west of Minneapolis. The drive from either is fairly rural with farm fields or prairie which only emphasizes the drama of Badland’s colorful eroded hills.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May when you won’t have to time your hikes to avoid the heat or the crowds.

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

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well-marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Think of Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. You can access free public Wi-Fi in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the main visitors center about eight miles into the park from the Northeast Entrance—one of three main entrances all in the North Unit—but expect spotty cellular service elsewhere.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring Cedar Pass Lodge serves as Badlands National Park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the park’s two visitor’s centers, campgrounds, and picnic area. The lodge, visitor’s centers, and restrooms are fully wheelchair accessible.

Come prepared with ample supplies of water; you’ll find few places to refill water bottles. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own food, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines and, possibly, snake bites.

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks which makes them accessible to all visitors.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

The Badlands has no iconic hotel or even many services but with little commercial fanfare to get in the way it is easy to appreciate its ancient geological, Native American, and homesteading past.

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping for the super experienced Badlands National Park offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails.

For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. Two sites are fully wheelchair accessible but most of the terrain around the campsites is accommodating. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with minirefrigerators, microwaves, and deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just south of the park at Circle View Ranch check into cozy B&B accommodations on a 2,800-acre working cattle ranch. For more adventure book the property’s Hamm Homestead Cabin built in 1880. It’s still without running water and electricity and you’ll have to bring your own bedding, water, and camp supplies but the experience on the edge of the White River is 19th-century authentic.

You’ll also find motels and chain hotels including Econo Lodge and Best Western properties in the gateway town of Wall on the park’s far north side.

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in must-try Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall or the gateway town of Interior in the southeast for casual roadhouses and taverns including the Badlands Saloon & Grille, best for hamburgers, in Wall.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Hike

While breathtaking at a distance the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive—the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip but they introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail also in the northeast follow a fully accessible boardwalk.

The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off trail and many do especially to climb the buttes. But this is often harder than it looks and rangers warn inexperienced hikers against it as coming down can be more challenging than going up.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive

Even if you go hiking you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connecting the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall winds up and down the contours of the Badlands threading steep passes with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops (most overlooks on the road have wheelchair-accessible boardwalks).

Instead of following the loop road out of the park continue west via the Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s a dirt road but hard-packed and offers a chance to see across the park’s largely roadless wilderness area and to look for wildlife.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch wildlife

The Badlands appear still but the more time you spend contemplating the scenery the more life you’ll see in it. Buffalo and pronghorn graze the grasslands, prairie dogs scamper around their towns, and bighorn sheep deftly pick their way across rock ledges.

The Pinnacles Overlook off the Badlands Loop Road is a good place to look for bighorn sheep. Off Sage Creek Rim Road, Roberts Prairie Dog Town teems with the burrowing mammals and bison often graze nearby. Cliff swallows come and go from mud nests built on Badlands formations.

Caution: If you encounter a wild animal on a trail, stay at least 100 feet away.

Hunt for fossils

The thousands of years of geologic history revealed in the eroding Badlands have upturned fossils such as the mosasaur, a marine lizard living about 75 million to 69 million years ago when sea covered the area during the Cretaceous Age of the dinosaurs. Prehistoric crocodiles and horses attest to the subtropical climate between 37 million and 34 million years ago and the drier conditions that followed, between 34 million and 29 million years ago supported early ancestors to camels, pigs, rabbits, and rhinos.

The Fossil Exhibit Trail displays fossil replicas and reconstructions of the extinct animals who once roamed here. At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center you can view park paleontologists working on nearby specimens at the Fossil Preparation Lab. Hunting for fossils on your own—to photograph, not take, of course—is best pursued after a rainstorm when these remains tend to stand out on the wet ground.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn history

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

In 1887, the Dawes Act stripped more than 90 million acres of tribal land nationally from indigenous people to be given out in free 160-acre plots as authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862. Because of the poor soil for farming, however, the government didn’t distribute plots until the early 20th century.

At the Homestead Overlook on Badlands Loop Road view a former homesteading region where prairie grass meets rock walls. Homesteaders would try to bale hay growing atop buttes such as Hay Butte visible from Sage Creek Rim Road.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plus, for an in-depth experience

Visit the remote southern Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation established in 1889 and owned by the Oglala Lakota Tribe. During World War II, the U.S. government took more than 340,000 acres from the reservation to establish the Aerial Gunnery Range which the military used for bombing training.

Most of the unit lies within the former bombing range. Here, about a 20-mile drive from the North Unit visit the seasonal White River Visitors Center open only in summer for exhibits on the history and culture of the Lakota people.

You’ll find few paved roads in Stronghold and the park largely restricts access to Sheep Mountain Table on the border with the North Unit. The park’s highest area at 3,300 feet, it’s reached via a backcountry road that requires a high-clearance vehicle or a 14.6-mile round-trip hike.

Gateway towns to Badlands

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), Badlands National Park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park before you get there: Billboards on Interstate 90 touting free ice water have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936.

Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

For more to do, consider staying in Rapid City, the state’s second-largest city with 75,000 residents, an hour’s drive northwest of the park. It’s also a gateway to the Black Hills region—home to scenic Custer State Park and three more national park areas—providing a convenient perch between Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Downtown Rapid City pays homage to Rushmore with a series of life-size sculptures of 43 American presidents. The town nurtures a lively urban core best on display at Art Alley covered in murals by local artists. Visit the Journey Museum to see many of the fossils uncovered in the Badlands.

From excellent Indian/Nepalese food at Everest Cuisine to Italian at Botticelli, Rapid City offers a global dining scene. Don’t miss Tally’s Silver Spoon, a diner with a gourmet heart specializing in dishes featuring local ingredients from breakfast (think buffalo hanger steak and eggs) to lunch (shaved ham and foie gras sandwiches) and through dinner (grilled quail).

While chain hotels abound the city’s Hotel Alex Johnson vintage 1928 will appeal to history and style buffs. Built by namesake Alex Carlton Johnson, former vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad the 143-room hotel showcases his love of Native American culture in sculpture and iconography in a grand Germanic Tudor building updated with modern amenities such as a rooftop bar and accessible rooms.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

En route to Badlands National Park

Just north of the park, Prairie Homestead preserves the 1909 sod home of the homesteading Brown family complete with barking prairie dogs in the yard.

If you’re driving north from Denver (or even driving around) on Highway 18 stop in Hot Springs, South Dakota, for a soak in its naturally warmed waters. Bathing options range from pools as hot as 102 degrees at Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa to the water-park-like Evans Plunge Mineral Springs. Or wade into the warm waters of Fall River at Brookside and Chautauqua parks.

Dry off to check out the Mammoth Site, an active dig site with more than 1,200 fossils of mammoths as well as prehistoric prairie dogs and giant short-faced bear.

About 10 miles north of Hot Springs lies Wind Cave National Park. Below its more than 33,800 acres of prairie and forest lies a vast cave system with rare boxwork formations that resemble honeycombs made of calcite.

From there, it’s a scenic half-hour drive north to biodiverse Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre home to pine forests, granite spires and prairie grassland. Its 18-mile Wildlife Loop drive offers a DIY American safari where you’re likely to see buffalo (about 1,500 roam in the park), elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and prairie dogs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the town of Custer just west of the park refuel at Black Hills Burger & Bun where the kitchen staff prepares everything in house from grinding the meat to baking the buns.

You can’t visit the Black Hills region without taking in the 60-foot-high faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln carved into granite at Mount Rushmore National Memorial a little more than 20 miles southwest of Rapid City.

Don’t miss its Native American counterpart less than 20 miles west of the memorial at Crazy Horse Memorial the still-under-construction mountainside sculpture of the eponymous Oglala Lakota leader.

Badlands 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:

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

Fact box

  • Where the park is: Western South Dakota
  • Size: 244,000 acres
  • Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet
  • Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails
  • Main attraction: Striated rock formations
  • Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle for 7-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring and fall

Worth Pondering…

This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Badlands. In the night the Badlands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.

—John Steinbeck

The Ultimate Guide to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers a wealth of things to do and places to go year-round. Its huge lakes cater to boaters, swimmers, sunbathers, and fishermen while its desert rewards hikers, wildlife photographers, and roadside sightseers.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is a National Park Service (NPS) site with 1.5 million acres of mesmerizing landscapes, canyons, valleys, and two vast lakes of vibrant blue waters. This park is a playground for adventurers who love hiking, watersports, fishing, boating, scuba diving, and more.

This national recreation area offers a chance to see the Hoover Dam, enjoy the waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead, and retreat into nature in one of the park’s 9 designated wilderness areas.

Where Is Lake Mead National Recreation Area?

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is located in southeastern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. The closest major city to this park is Las Vegas, 26 miles away. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area opening hours and seasons

This national recreation area is open year-round, 24 hours a day. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This facility is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. 

Driving to Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are nine access points to this national recreation area so the route you choose will depend on the area from which you are coming and the entrance you want to utilize for your arrival. The best and most popular entrance is the one that takes you to the visitor center. U.S. Highway 93 is the main road used by those driving to the park. 

Getting around Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The best way to get around this park is by private vehicle. This vast recreation area has so many sites and attractions to explore; the best way to do this is by driving to the different areas and exploring on foot.

Of course, another good way to explore the park on the water is by boating or paddling on the bright blue waters of Lake Mohave and Lake Mead. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your itinerary. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see and do in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area covers 1.5 million acres of canyons, lakes, valleys, and mountains. There is no shortage of adventure at this park. Check out some of the most popular activities and sights at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. 

Boating

Over 290 square miles of waterways are within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lake Mead and Lake Mohave provide some of the best boating opportunities for those who love to explore the park on the water. Whether you want to speed through the open water or float in a private cove, there are many fun and relaxation opportunities here. 

Boat rentals are available at the marinas on Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Many types of boats are available to rent, including sports boats, fishing boats, paddle boats, pontoons, and houseboats. These locations also rent out water skis and wakeboards for even more adventures. 

Tip: Be sure to read the park’s boating rules and regulations to ensure you have a fun, safe time.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canoeing and kayaking

Thanks to all the water within the park’s boundaries, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities at this national recreation area. The views from the calm lake waters and majestic mountains surrounding them are breathtaking.

The Black Canyon Water Trail and Mohave Water Trail are the most popular trails for paddling but there are also many hidden coves throughout the park just waiting to be discovered.

Guided tours

A variety of guided tours are offered at this national recreation area. The park’s visitor center is a wonderful place to learn about the various tour options.

Some of the guided tour options include cruises, ranger-led hikes, and hunting and fishing adventures. The most popular tours include the Cruise to the Hoover Dam and the Float Down the Colorado River. There are also self-guided options should you choose to explore on your own. Taking advantage of the many tour options is a fantastic way to learn about and explore this impressive area. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

Although most visitors are attracted to Lake Mead National Recreation Area because of lakes Mead and Mohave more than 87 percent of the park protects a vast area of the eastern Mojave Desert. Perhaps the best way to explore this diverse ecosystem is on foot, traveling across open expanses of rock formations that contain all the colors of the rainbow.

Which trail is right for you? There are a variety of hikes that vary in difficulty and length. These trails are in the Lake Mead and Lake Mojave areas. The hiking trails show off the park’s diverse ecosystems and take hikers past incredible rainbow-colored rock formations, canons, and washes.

Some of the favorite trails include the Historic Railroad Trail, River Mountains Loop, and Owl Canyon. The best time to hike here is from October to April. The temperatures are cooler during these months and the journey is much more enjoyable. Visitors are not recommended to hike during the summer months as the temperatures are dangerously high. 

Scenic drives

There are two main scenic drives in Lake Mead National Recreation Area: Lakeshore Road and Northshore Road. These drives travel through the mountains, canyons, and desert basins. Driving these roads offers visitors excellent opportunities to enjoy the views and capture photos of the bright blue waters and colorful mountains.

Visitors also enjoy stopping for picnics while driving along these roads. Cyclists, pedestrians, and wildlife use these scenic roads, so stay alert and mindful of those sharing the road with you. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor center

The Lake Mead Visitor Center is an excellent place to visit before starting your park adventures. This facility is just a few miles north of the Hoover Dam and has so much to offer park visitors. 

Park rangers are stationed at the visitor center to help you plan a fantastic adventure or answer any questions. You can obtain park maps brochures, get a national park passport stamp, or turn in a Junior Ranger booklet to earn your Junior Ranger Badge.

There is also a store inside this facility that is run by the Western National Parks Association. This store offers guests a chance to buy books about the park, Native American arts, crafts, jewelry, posters, clothing, and postcards.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best times to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area

You’re guaranteed an unforgettable trip any time you’re able to visit this national recreation area. There are better times than others to plan a trip here especially if you hope to participate in particular activities. Take a look at the best times to visit this park.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for summer fun

Lake Mead National Recreation Area is an exciting place for summer fun. The best time to visit during the summer months is in June. The high temperatures typically reach the upper 90s and the lows dip down to the low 70s. There is an average of 0 days of precipitation during the time making the summer adventure opportunities never-ending.

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area to avoid the crowds

The best way to explore a new place is without having to worry about crowds and traffic. If you want to experience this national recreation area without crowds, plan to come in November. This time of year is the least busy making it a perfect time to enjoy the park at your own pace. 

Best time to visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area for ideal weather

Weather can make or break a trip, so planning around typical weather patterns is a great idea. If you want to experience this park when the weather is ideal, plan to come in April. The daily lows are in the mid-50s and the highs are in the upper 70s. It typically only rains an average of 1 day in April but it’s wise to come prepared for rain just in case.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual events in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

This national recreation area hosts several events on a regular basis throughout the year. Some of the regularly scheduled events include star parties, guided hikes through the wetlands, and hikes to Majestic Canyon. There are also some annual events.

National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup

Each September, Lake Mead National Recreation Area participates in the National Public Lands Day Litter Cleanup. This free event is an excellent way for visitors to positively impact the park and help remove litter from the beaches and other areas. A benefit to visiting on this day is that participants will receive a voucher to visit a federal public land at no charge. 

Rage Triathlon

Each year in April, the Rage Triathlon takes place at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. This race has taken place since 2001 and offers a fantastic way to experience this park. It winds through beach campgrounds and along river and mountain trails. The Rage Triathlon is considered one of the region’s most scenic desert landscape triathlons.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area has an abundance of options for those who want to stay within the park’s boundaries or in a nearby town. Check out some of the best places to stay both in and near this recreation area. 

Inside the park

There are many options for accommodations within this national recreation area. From campgrounds to resorts and lodges, the options are many. Check out some of the different places to stay within this park.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds

Spend your next camping adventure on the lake. With over 900 camping and RV sites at 15 different locations, there is a variety of desert and lakeside landscapes sure to please everyone. Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s campgrounds offer restrooms, running water, dump stations, grills, picnic tables and shade. RVs and tents are welcome.

Most of the campgrounds can be reserved but there are a few that are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the campgrounds are operated by the National Park Service such as Boulder Beach, Callville Bay, Cottonwood Cove, Echo Bay, Las Vegas Bay, and Temple Bar.

Concessioner campgrounds including recreational vehicle hook-ups are also available within the park. These campgrounds include Katherin Landing and Willow Beach.

Bottom line:

If you prefer to set up camp and sleep under the stars, you will find so many options at Lake Mead that you may have difficulty narrowing down where to pitch your tent.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina

Cottonwood Cove Resort and Marina is a beautiful option for those wanting to stay within the park’s boundaries. This Spanish-style resort is right off the shores of Lake Mohave and offers red-roofed motel rooms and lots of amenities for a comfortable stay. 

This lodging option features covered outdoor patios with tables and chairs for lounging and taking in breathtaking sunsets and lakefront views. There are also outdoor barbecues for those who prefer to cook outdoors. 

Another unique choice for visitors who want to get off the grid is renting a houseboat during your stay. This is a great way to experience the lake and take a break from the duties of home.

Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing

Several types of accommodations are available at Lake Mohave Resort at Katherine Landing. Visitors can choose from mid-century-style rooms, a full hook-up RV or tent site, and even private homes. This resort has gorgeous views of the desert scenery and Lake Mohave.

The lodge offers standard double or standard king rooms. These rooms feature a private bathroom, air conditioning, coffee makers, and satellite televisions to make you feel at home. There is also a spectacular restaurant on-site to take care of any cravings you may have during your stay. 

Visitors who stay here can enjoy world-class boating, water skiing, scuba diving, wakeboarding, and fishing for largemouth, smallmouth, and striper bass. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temple Bar Marina Resort

Temple Bar Marina Resort is located on Lake Mead on the Arizona side of the park. This resort offers lake view lodging, an RV park, access to hundreds of beaches and coves, an on-site store, gift shop, café, bar, and launch ramp. This is an incredible option for a home base when visiting this national recreation area. 

Temple Bar has standard motel rooms and cabins for those who want a more traditional type of stay. Visitors can choose from standard rooms with lake views or desert views, fishing cabins, or suites with kitchen access. Whatever type of stay you prefer this resort has a perfect solution for your travel needs. 

Towns near Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are several towns near this recreation area for those who prefer to set up a base camp outside the park’s boundaries. Whether you seek a quiet, small town or a lively, larger city, there’s a perfect place for you in these towns.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boulder City, Nevada

Boulder City is a charming small town with a rich historical heritage, only 6 miles from the park. For those wanting to stay near the recreation area, this town has a variety of options for dining, lodging, and entertainment.

This city has a variety of accommodations including RV resorts, contemporary hotels, and budget-friendly motels. Whether you’re looking for a unique stay in a themed motel, a luxury stay in a hotel, or a relaxing visit to a resort, there are plenty of options in this city. 

Food enthusiasts are in for a treat in this city. A variety of restaurants, including cafes, sushi bars, diners, and Mexican taquerias are scattered throughout this town.

For recreation, there are incredible opportunities available in this town. From kayaking to golfing, visiting museums, and exploring several types of parks, there’s no shortage of fun here. You are also in the perfect location for exploring famous landmarks like the Hoover Dam. 

Boulder City is an ideal home away from home for those visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Its proximity to the park and its incredible opportunities for food, fun, and lodging make the choice of where to settle an easy one. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Henderson, Nevada

Henderson is located approximately 19 miles from the national recreation area. This city is a great place to make a home base during a visit to this park. It has perfect options for those traveling with family, friends, or solo. 

The accommodations in this town range from luxury hotels to smaller, more affordable motels to 5-star luxury resorts. Whatever budget or type of stay you have in mind, you can find a perfect option for your vacation needs here. 

This city has fantastic restaurants including pizza parlors, formal dining rooms, authentic cultural cuisine, diners, and cafes. This city has something to offer every palate. 

If you’re looking for fun, this is the right place. Henderson has countless opportunities for outdoor recreation including hiking, playgrounds, splash pads, skate parks, and bicycle trails.

Where to eat in Lake Mead National Recreation Area

There are eight different restaurants within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. These restaurants serve a variety of cuisines and are located in or near the marinas. Here are two popular choices.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Harbor House Café and Lounge

The Harbor House Café and Lounge is a floating restaurant and bar right on Lake Mead. This dining option serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks daily. 

The menu seems endless at this restaurant. From freshly tossed salads to stacked sandwiches, breakfast specialties, and fish and chips, there’s something for every palate here. Some of the most popular menu items include the classic club sandwich, buffalo chicken wrap, and the Harbor Burger.

Be sure to stop by this café and lounge when visiting Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Not only will you enjoy a fantastic meal but you can also take in the gorgeous views of the surrounding slips, lake, and mountains. 

Temple Bar Café

Temple Bar Café is located at the Temple Bar Marina. This restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Breakfast burritos, stacks of fluffy pancakes, signature sandwiches, juicy burgers, and sizzling pizzas are just some of the items on the menu here. Customers rave about patty melt, Rueben sandwiches, homemade biscuits and gravy, and home-cooked weekly specials. 

For a delicious meal in this recreation area, you won’t regret a stop at Temple Bar Café. It’s a great place to rest up and refuel for more adventures in the park.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Mead National Recreation Area facts

1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established in 1964. This was America’s first national recreation area. 

2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is the third largest NPS area other than the parks in Alaska. This recreation area covers 1.5 million acres. 

3. This area was occupied by desert Indian cultures that existed 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. It’s believed that the ancestral Puebloan people were the first to inhabit this land. These people group hunted game, gathered edible plants in the area, and practiced farming.

4. Lake Mead is a large reservoir on the Colorado River. This lake was formed by Hoover Dam located in Black Canyon. Lake Mead is the largest U.S. reservoir by volume coming in right before Lake Powell. 

5. An abundance of animals call Lake Mead National Recreation Area home thanks to its diverse ecosystems. These animals have special adaptations that help them survive the harsh environment. Some commonly seen animals here include the Desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and 19 species of bats. 

Final thoughts

Whether you seek outdoor adventure or solitude in nature, Lake Mead National Recreational Area is a bucket list location. With so many options to hike, fish, boat, view wildlife, attend a guided program, and tour amazing places, it’s easy to spend several days exploring this beautiful park. Book your trip to Lake Mead today and discover what brings in millions of visitors from around the world each year.

Details

  • Area: 1,495,806 acres
  • Established: October 13, 1936
  • Recreation visits in 2023: 5,798,541
  • Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 consecutive days

Worth Pondering…

Most travelers hurry too much…the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open … with real inward attention. …you can extract the essence of a place once you know how.

―Lawrence Durrell