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

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

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

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

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

Getting There

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

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

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

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

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

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

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

Best way to see it: Day hikes

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

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Lon Garrison

Arizona State Parks for Every Interest

Try new outdoor things this year

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

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for hiking

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

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

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

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

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for wildflowers

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

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

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

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

Best Arizona State Parks for family fun

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

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

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for water sports

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

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

Best Arizona State Parks for stargazing

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

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

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

Best Arizona State Parks for history

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

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

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

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for camping

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

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

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

Alamo Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona State Parks for Fishing

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

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

BONUS: Most unique State Parks

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Will Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Carefree

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

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to stay in Carefree

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

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

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to eat in Carefree

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

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

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Carefree

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

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

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

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

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

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

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

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

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

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

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

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

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

6 Positive New Year’s Resolutions for 2024

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

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

—Susan Sontag

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

It’s officially 2024! 

2024 is here © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

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

1. Give back

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

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

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

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

2. Nurture your relationships

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

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

3. Give thanks

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

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

4. Turn up the tunes 

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

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

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

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

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

5. Hiking and biking

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

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

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

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

6. Camping

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Darius Foroux

The FUNdamentals of Hiking for Seniors

Don’t just sit around the campsite! Hiking for seniors is more than doable for everyone. Just follow the 10 FUNdamentals.

Notice I’m posting this on the first day of the New Year for a reason.

Have you heard of First Day Hikes?

First Day Hikes is part of a nationwide initiative led by America’s State Parks to encourage people to get outdoors. On New Year’s Day, hundreds of free, guided hikes are organized in all 50 states. Children and adults all across America participate in First Day Hikes getting their hearts pumping and enjoying the beauty of a state park. Last year nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year collectively hiking over 133,000 miles throughout the country.

As we visit with those we meet across the country in campgrounds, rallies, and camping meetups, we are amazed at how many RVers—especially seniors—are not hikers. And we think the first day of the year is a good time to start.

Some think it’s too challenging, too strenuous, needs too much-specialized equipment, and not enjoyable.

But, they are wrong.

Unless you have a serious underlying health issue, hiking for seniors is for everyone—no matter your age, experience, fitness level, or gear.

Hiking will so enhance your enjoyment of the RV Lifestyle, nature, the geographic area you are visiting, and your relationship with your camping partner that you will be instantly hooked.

So let’s break it down a bit and talk about what you need gear-wise, how to get started, and what advice you should follow.

But, make no mistake hiking is indeed for everyone at every age.

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

1. What is different about hiking for seniors?

Hiking is for everyone.

It’s just walking and exploring outdoors. That’s the simplest definition I can offer.

There’s no set speed you have to hike, no distance required to be counted as a hike, and you don’t have to dress a certain way.

2. How is the best way to start hiking for seniors?

Begin by taking walks around the campground or RV park. Then explore further afield.

Get proper hiking footwear. You don’t need huge, expensive, and heavy boots. Today’s hiking boots are as comfortable as shoes. Wear them on your neighborhood walks, or around the campground when you are camping.

Then start to venture out on trails.

Hiking to Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Best hiking for seniors gear

There is some basic gear that will make your hike more enjoyable like that good pair of hiking boots.

You’ll want a hat to keep the sun from frying your brains (just kidding), a day pack, a water bottle, comfortable clothes, and maybe some hiking poles for extra stability on uneven ground.

A compass is also a good thing to carry with you. Many cell phones have them built-in as apps and that is nice. But there may not be cell coverage in the area you are hiking or your battery may run out of juice. So get, learn how to use it, and bring a compass along on your hikes.

And if you are hiking in bear country, every person in your hiking party should carry bear spray.

Want an RV resource and information on hiking in bear country?

Hiking Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. How far should you hike?

If you are a total newbie and in reasonably good shape and can easily handle those neighborhood walkabouts I talked about earlier, a good wilderness hike to begin with is two two-mile round trip if the terrain is rough and hilly, maybe even less.

Eventually, a moderate distance for most beginners is three to four miles out and back.

Hiking is not speed walking. I consider it a nature stroll. You want to take your time. Look around. Take a lot of photos. Observe God’s creation in all its glory. Learn things. Breathe deeply. Listen.

Hiking Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Use a map

If you are in a wilderness area, you really want to have a map that clearly shows your route.

At most state parks and national parks, hiking trails are marked in brochures and printed maps available from the ranger station.

There are lots of books available for popular areas listing the different trails. The alltrails.com app is a must-have for finding great hikes in the various locations you visit.

You can even Google something like “best hikes near me” and get lots of suggestions.

But the whole point of a map is to know where you are going and how to get back plus a general understanding of landmarks, the terrain, and what you will be seeing.

Hiking Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Tell someone where you are going

In case of an emergency, you want someone to know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Consider sending a text or an email to a friend or relative.

You can say something like: “Greetings from Arches. Wish you were with us! We are going to Double O Arch in the Devils Garden section. It’s only a little over four miles round trip and has some beautiful scenery. I just wanted to let you know! We should be back by 4 pm. I’ll send you a photo when we return.”

By the way, if you do visit Arches, Double O Arch is a great hike. It’s 4.1 miles roundtrip but because you spend the first part climbing it’s officially classified as moderate in difficulty.

Double O Arch is the second largest arch within the Devils Garden area—after Landscape Arch of course. As the name implies, there are two arches here, one large, with a span of 71 feet, stacked atop a much smaller arch with a 21-foot span. Both are part of the same sandstone fin. Double O Arch is located at the far end of the Devils Garden Primitive Loop, 1.93 miles past the Devils Garden trailhead and parking lot at the north end of the Arches Entrance Road. Past Landscape, the trail becomes much more rugged and challenging.

Something else to do: Leave a note in the vehicle you used to drive to the trailhead or back in the RV if you set off from camp. Jot down the date and time, where you are going, the route or trail, and when you expect to be back.

7. Carry a day pack

For short hikes, a day pack is all you need.

You should bring a cell phone with you. Naturally, it should be fully charged. There are inexpensive cases and solar chargers that easily fit in a small pack. And even if cell coverage in the wilderness you are hiking is spotty, the phone is still useful. You can download and store maps on it, use the flashlight, and take photos.

Also, carry a small, dedicated flashlight in your day pack.

Other items we bring include rain ponchos, basic first aid kit, whistle for signaling, water bottle, insect repellant, and sunscreen.

For short hikes, you very well may not need all that. But being prepared just in case always makes good sense.

Be ware of the cholla! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Know the weather

Before setting out on any hike, be aware of the predicted weather conditions you are likely to encounter.

Excess heat and humidity, predicted storms, flash flood conditions, wind, and wildfire potentials are all factors you need to be aware of and take into consideration as you plan your hike.

If it’s expected to be hot, get an early start. Know what time sunset is and give yourself plenty of time to get back before dark.

9. Stick to the trail

The leading reason why hikers get lost is that they decide to go off-trail. So don’t. Besides easily getting disoriented, hiking off-trail damages the landscape.

Hidden obstacles off-trail can trip you up and falls are the leading cause of injuries to hikers. Besides, the trails are there for a reason. They are the best route through the area and almost always offer the best views. So stay on them.

10. Leave no trace

As the signs say, leave nothing but footprints.

But don’t take anything out with you, either—except your trash and photos.

Most public lands prohibit picking wildflowers or removing trees and shrubs.

Lately, we’ve seen notices on some of our hikes asking people not to make rock piles.

The idea is to keep public lands as wild and undisturbed as possible.

There’s a Leave No Trace movement that lists a code of conduct that responsible campers and hikers should follow.

Where will your next hike be?

Worth Pondering…

To me, old age is always ten years older than I am.

—John Burroughs

A Guide to Utah’s Public Lands

Two-thirds of Utah is public land managed by federal agencies

An abundance of public lands helps make Utah a great place for an RV road trip with plenty of beautiful places to roam free of No Trespassing signs in every corner of the Beehive State.

Federal agencies manage two-thirds of the state for various uses, from wilderness preservation to strip mining to weapons testing. With 42 percent of Utah’s land under its umbrella, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the lion’s share of public land (22.8 million acres) followed by the U.S. Forest Service (8.15 million acres) and National Park Service (NPS)  with smaller pieces held by the Department of Defense, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation.

All that public land leaves plenty of things to fight over. Conservative rural leaders want to see these lands moved from federal to state control to make them more available for mining, drilling, and livestock. Others believe more of this land should be managed for recreation and to preserve their natural values.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah is best known for its Mighty 5 national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef all enshrining specific elements of southern Utah’s red rock geological wonders. Other big landscapes enjoying special protection are Bears Ears National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the San Rafael Swell but southern Utah has several lesser destinations including numerous state parks established on former federal land.

Among the amazing resources embedded in these landscapes both protected and unprotected are vast troves of dinosaur fossils and artifacts that continue to shed light on worlds lost to time. Ancient Native Americans left a rich record of rock art, dwellings, and cultural items in places like Nine Mile Canyon, San Rafael Swell, and Bears Ears.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping and hiking

Rules are tighter for national parks than they are for other pieces of public land. In a place like Arches, for example, hikers are not supposed to veer off-trail, and activities like climbing and canyoneering require permits. The rules are different depending on which national park you’re at so reading over the regulations before going is a good rule of thumb.

Rules on other public lands like those owned by the BLM are not as strict. If you want to spend a night on BLM land, you have options. There are numerous developed campgrounds on Utah’s BLM lands which typically require a fee to maintain those facilities.

However, if you want to rough it a little you can also try dispersed camping away from developed areas—this means camping in places with no services like trash removal, toilets, or running water. Many dispersed camping sites may have a fire ring but others may not be marked at all. Typically these sites are along secondary roads and dispersed campers should camp on bare soil and stay at least 100 feet away from water sources.

Regardless of the type of public land you’re at you should follow some some basic rules. For example, anyone on public land should expect to minimize their impact on the environment like disposing of any waste or trash properly. Another good rule of thumb is don’t approach wildlife. It may make for a cool photo but things like feeding a chipmunk or approaching a bison can either harm the environment or cause harm to yourself depending on the situation.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mighty 5 national parks

If you do decide to head to one of Utah’s Mighty 5 you’ll have to pay a fee to enter but you have a few options. For a short-term visit, you can buy a standard entrance pass at the gate of any national park in Utah which will change from park to park. If you’re trying to visit busier places like Arches you’ll need to register to get in as part of the timed entry systems.

If you want to make more frequent visits to national parks or national monuments an annual pass is your best option. An annual pass that covers day-use fees for national parks and other public lands is $80 for a year. Veterans and seniors can get free or discounted passes. Passes can be purchased online or at national parks.

There are also dozens of state parks throughout Utah which range from Bear Lake to the north to Sand Hollow to the south. As with national parks, you’ll need to pay for a day-use pass or an annual pass. Passes can be purchased online or in person at state parks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skiing

Closer to Utah’s population centers are national forests that hum year-round with outdoor recreation. Home to the Cottonwood canyons outside Salt Lake City, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache (UWC) National Forest encompasses five major ski areas and abuts at least four others that operate on private land.

Utah has a total of 15 ski resorts. Beaver Mountain and Cherry Peak are located just outside Logan. The Ogden area has three resorts: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. Around Park City, a legendary ski destination, the resorts are Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and Woodward.

Resorts near Salt Lake are found in two areas: Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Big Cottonwood is home to Brighton and Solitude while Little Cottonwood has Snowbird and Alta. The Provo area has Sundance. Southern Utah has the final two resorts: Brian Head and Eagle Point.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Local leaders chafe against federal control

Because public land cannot be taxed, the federal government awards counties millions of dollars every year under the Payment instead of Taxes (PILT) program according to the amount of public land within their borders. Last year, Utah counties received a record $43.5 million in PILT money but state leaders say they are still getting short-changed.

To raise money for public schools, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) oversees 3.4 million acres of state land largely in the form of square-mile sections scattered around a sea of BLM land. Some of this land is the subject of complicated swaps with the federal government to remove SITLA holdings inside protected landscapes such as Bears Ears and the San Rafael Swell in exchange for federal land in less sensitive areas.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a law ordering the federal government to hand 31 million acres of mostly BLM land to the state. A decade later, not much has come of the state’s demands although an economic analysis committed by Utah officials concluded the state would likely spend more administering these lands than it would reap in revenues absent a massive run-up in oil and gas production.

However the controversy persists with numerous lawsuits seeking to advance greater state control over public land within Utah. The most significant is Utah’s effort to invalidate President Joe Biden’s 2021 order restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments which President Donald Trump had reduced by a combined 2 million acres.

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

Growing interest

Today, visitors are flocking to Utah’s public lands in such great numbers to the point that it is overwhelming the federal agencies. The state’s 13 national park units saw 11 million visitors a year while its 44 state parks also drew nearly 11 million.

But it wasn’t just parks that were popular destinations. Hit particularly hard are the Wasatch Mountains where skiers, mountain bikers, and hikers explore Little and Big Cottonwood, American Fork, Mill Creek, and many other canyons resulting in traffic jams and overcrowding on trails.

Proposed solutions include a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta, tolls on drivers, and recreation fees collected at developed sites.

Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why we LOVE Utah

If you have never been to Utah, make sure and put it on your list of places to visit! We fell in LOVE with Utah for so many reasons. Number one is all of the National Parks in the state like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. But also so many state parks and the beautiful Scenic Byway 12. The scenery is constantly changing and each place has its unique beauty. From high in the mountains with aspens and cooler temps to down in the canyons or red or white rock faces and warmer temps. Utah is an adventurers’ paradise!

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

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 Best Road Trip from Salt Lake City to Moab

Though Utah may appear arid and sparse, there’s plenty to do in the Beehive State. And if you’re willing to embrace the great outdoors, a winding journey from Salt Lake City to Moab features the best scenery the state has to offer.

Salt Lake City and Moab are about a 4-hour drive apart if you navigate straight through from one to the other. However, you want to stop and explore Utah’s gorgeous scenery. The landscape along the way makes you want to grab your water bottle—a must-have in the hot, desert environment—and hike through the red rock formations.

Two intriguing and different Utah destinations—Moab and Salt Lake City—await you to explore their gifts. From high-energy adventure to world-renowned musical talent, your road trip between the two will be filled with history, exploration, and great food.

You will find exciting adventures, history, refined culture, and amazing cuisine along the way. Plan to enjoy a day or two or more on either end—Salt Lake City and Moab offer their special character and are unique in their offerings. Take a day in between the two and make the drive a quintessential Utah road trip.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Salt Lake City

While it may just be the start of the road trip, Salt Lake City is a fascinating metropolis in its own right. Spend the day in the city, sampling food and enjoying local culture before you hit the road. Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and has a history steeped in the Mormon faith. Therefore, there are plenty of interesting religious institutions and monuments to visit. It is also surrounded by a variety of landscapes and terrain that make it a top spot for world-class skiing, hiking, mountain biking and, of course, taking a dip in the Great Salt Lake.

One of the most iconic things to see and do in Salt Lake City is to attend a rehearsal of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With a 360-member volunteer chorus of men and women, their vocals lift the spirits of those attending their rehearsals.

2. Utah Museum of Natural History

Utah is known as a hub of Mormon history but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its culture. Start your day by checking out the Utah Museum of Natural History. It features 10 revolving exhibits, each delving into the culture, history, and geography of Utah and The Great Salt Lake.

3. Temple Square

Take a stroll around Temple Square. It’s a must-see for the wonderful architecture alone. Located in the center of downtown Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is surrounded by the five-block area of Temple Square. The Square is the hub of worship, history, commemoration, gatherings, and music. Visitors can take a free guided tour to visit the temple, museums, libraries, gardens, monuments, and fountains.

4. Great Salt Lake

You can’t visit Salt Lake City without floating in the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. It is located within the Salt Lake City State Park, just 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. The salinity of the water, ranging anywhere between 5 to 27 percent salt, makes it very buoyant. Other activities include sailing, kayaking, and hiking. Bring binoculars because there is a plethora of wildlife to view, such as bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, elk and birds.

5. Brigham Young University, Provo

Home of Brigham Young University, Provo is a good spot to stop and stretch your legs. Wandering around the campus grounds brings back the halcyon days of college life. Mingling with students on the cusp of exploring their future imparts a sense of youthful exuberance, not to mention a trip down memory lane.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Utah Lake State Park, Provo

Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Adjacent to Provo, Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.  The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups.

7. Utah State University Prehistoric Museum, Price

Dinosaur hunters will want to stop at the Utah State University Prehistoric Museum. Wannabe paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists alike will find displays to captivate their attention. The Aggies are proud of their university and take great care in maintaining the museum for their guests to enjoy.

Throughout the West, you will come upon dinosaur museums in the most unlikely little towns. These ancient beasts left copious footprints and fossil evidence that will amaze you and pique your imagination.

8. Ray’s Tavern, Green River

A little way down the road from Moab is Green River, home to Ray’s Tavern. Time your journey to land here for lunch. The order of the day: burgers and fries. Keep it simple and keep it delicious. This local dive bar has morphed into a must-stop eatery on any road trip between Moab and Salt Lake City.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Moab

Moab is an active, popular town (pop. 8,900) in the heart of the beautiful red rock canyon country of southeastern Utah. It plays host to the thousands who visit southeastern Utah to take advantage of the area’s great recreational opportunities. From Moab, one can conveniently hike in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, mountain bike on the famous Moab Slickrock Trail, whitewater raft the Colorado River, tackle the thousands of miles of rugged canyon roads in four-wheel drive vehicles, or horseback ride amidst the alpine beauty of the La Sal Mountains.

You will love the Western vibe in this dusty adventure town.

Downtown Moab is a fun place to shop, eat, and people-watch. A mix of souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and Western outfitters line the downtown area, making it a perfect spot to stretch your legs and absorb the Moab outdoorsy vibe.

10. Moab Food Truck Park

In one corner of downtown Moab is a large food truck park where you can dine on everything from gelato to paninis. There are over nine independently operated food trucks serving a variety of cuisines in a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s family-friendly, pet-friendly, and bicycle-friendly. Around the corner from the park sits a lone, bright yellow truck—Quesadilla Mobilla. Monster quesadillas that will fuel you up with energy for your outdoor exploits are served up at this food truck stop. Grab a picnic table and a fist full of napkins—their ooey-gooey quesadillas are legendary.

11. Hell’s Revenge, Moab

Exploring Hell’s Revenge is at the top of everyone’s list when visiting Moab. The intrepid explorer can pilot their own ATV/UTV up and down the precarious rock formations following in the footsteps of many a skilled driver. For thrill-seekers who are happy to hand over the controls to a professional, there are large all-terrain vehicles where you can buckle in and enjoy the scenic route. With obstacles to attack with names like the Tip-Over Challenge and Rubble Trouble, you know you are in for an exciting ride.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12 Arches National Park

No trip to Moab is complete without visiting Arches National Park. A drive through the park is like visiting the moon or another unearthly planet. Every turn opens up new and unusual gravity-defying red rock formations.

From April 1 to October 31, 2023, visitors are required to have a timed entry ticket to enter the park. Ticketed entry will run from 7 am to 4 pm daily. Those without a ticket may enter the park before 7 am or after 4 pm. The park is open 24/7.

Due to its high elevation (4,085 to 5,653 feet) and intense summer heat even short hikes through the park can be a challenging exertion and sturdy shoes are a necessity. If you don’t have time for a hike, a simple drive-through to enjoy the panoramic vistas is a minimum must-do when visiting the area.

Enthusiastic adventurers will want to make a reservation at Devils Garden Campground to enjoy the immersive national park experience. Try to take a midday nap and rest up for the amazing nighttime starlight dark sky extravaganza.

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

13. Dead Horse Point State Park

At the top of Dead Horse Point State Park, there is a large flat area—the point—surrounded by deep, rocky canyons with precipitous drops. The point is accessible by a precariously narrow road—don’t look down. In pioneer days, wranglers would drive wild horses into the flat and barricade the entrance, corralling them on the inescapable point. Legend claims at one time the horses were forgotten high on the point and died—thus the park’s name.

The beauty of the park’s wild landscape viewed from your perch high up on the point is stunning. No matter which direction you turn, the panorama is breathtakingly beautiful, offering views of Canyonlands National Park, the La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Canyonlands National Park

Avid hikers will love Canyonlands National Park. The park boasts hundreds of miles of hiking trails for all levels. Hiking in Canyonlands National Park requires some pre-planning—water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and a trail map are at the top of the list.

The easy-rated White Rim Overlook is just under 2 miles round trip with a rewarding view. Expert hikers can embark on the 10-plus-mile Alcove Spring Trail that brings you to the base of the Moses and Zeus Towers.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. La Sal Mountain Loop

The La Sal Mountains form a majestic backdrop to the Moab area. A trip on the La Sal Mountain Loop takes you on a 3-hour scenic, winding drive. From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this backroad is an adventure. You will see mesas and buttes used in movies and drive past steep bulging peaks that often serve as the backdrop in photographs of the famed Delicate Arch.

This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR-128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs or trailers. There are no services available along the route so make sure you have all the gas, food, water, and other supplies you may need for at least a few hours.

16. International Dark Sky Experience

Arches National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, an award given to parks with exceptional starry night viewing. These parks offer protected areas with public viewing of the night sky, offering an illuminating experience.

As you drive north through the park at night, the sky darkens and the stars twinkle in a glorious light show. Some of the best spots are the Balanced Rock Picnic Area and the Garden of Eden Viewpoint.

Join a Stargazing Event with a National Parks ranger-led program. The rangers rotate tours between Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments for nightly viewings during the summer months. Gazing at the stars without the ambient city lights is a unique and magical experience.

Hiking Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Hiking for Miles

Nature trails, backcountry hikes, and multi-day excursions are high on the list of every Moab outdoor enthusiast. One of the top spots to hike is Arches National Park. Delicate Arch, one of the most visited sites, can be viewed from one of two trails ranging from a 10-minute easy walk to a more heart-pumping 30-minute climb. Another popular hike through the park is to Balanced Rock, a 20-minute, easy loop trail.

For more Utah road trip ideas, explore these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Moab is the closest big town to the park. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Take a driving tour

You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.

Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.

At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.

A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch sunset or sunrise

The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

Go stargazing

Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go cycling

An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.

Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go river rafting

Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.

Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping options

With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.

Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.

Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.

Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.

I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.

Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are my top picks:

Island in the Sky Campground

Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Campground

The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites

For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown

If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway town

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.

Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.

Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.

En route

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Arches National Park

Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.

Canyonlands 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:

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through Novemer, for more temperate weather

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

The Complete Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Spot North America’s largest bird in California’s smallest park

Pinnacles National Park checks all the boxes for nature lovers. Thirty miles of hiking trails from gentle creek-side strolls to stiff cliff-hanging switchbacks, giant monoliths, rust-colored rock cloaked in a kaleidoscope of lichen.

There’s beauty everywhere you look. About 100 varieties of wildflowers bloom throughout the year and more than 180 bird species including North America’s largest bird, the critically endangered California condor and its majestic roughly 10-foot wingspan can be spotted in the park. A concerto of calling quails, gobbling turkeys, drumming woodpeckers, and whistling hummingbirds are also present.

Don’t let Pinnacles National Park’s status as California’s smallest and least-visited national park fool you. This mesmerizing volcanic wilderness on the southern edge of central California’s Gabilan Mountain Range is a hot spot for ecological diversity and outdoor recreation. It is blanketed by a vast network of chaparral forests, pine and oak woodlands, golden grasslands, and 3,000-foot peaks. The park is where Chalon, Mutsun, and other Native Americans lived and used bedrock mortars to grind acorns and pine nuts for millennia.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long overshadowed by its ever-popular park brethren—Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon top the in-state visitor list—Pinnacles holds a unique title of its own: California’s youngest national park. When the 26,674-acre wonderland achieved national park status in 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park and the Golden State’s ninth such accreditation, the most of any state. The designation shed the park’s longstanding national monument rank assigned by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago.

A prime illustration of tectonic plate movement, Pinnacles National Park formed about 23 million years ago after numerous eruptions of the Neenach volcanic field near present-day Lancaster, California, 195 miles southeast of the park. In cooperation with the San Andreas Fault, the park traveled north to its current address over millions of years where wind and water erosion have since shaped its eye-popping matrix of rock-strewn terrain. To this day, scientists estimate that Pinnacles is migrating northwest at a rate of 1.5 to 2 inches per year—or, the same speed that our fingernails grow.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a state teeming with natural beauty and park options, Pinnacles’ 41 square miles of spellbinding topography flies under the radar and can be explored relatively crowd-free most of the year especially on weekdays. In 2022, there were 275,023 visitors in the park, an uptick from its historical average of 150,000 to 200,000 people. Still, last year’s figure marked the eighth-lowest head count for national parks in the Lower 48.

For many park visitors, condors and caves is what sets Pinnacles apart from the rest of the national park system. The California condor, one of the rarest birds in the world is often seen soaring over Pinnacles. “And there are two talus caves that are unusual as they are technically above ground. When visiting this moving mountain just find a sunny spot to take in the wonder around you!

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Just east of the Salinas Valley, Pinnacles’ low-key status stems from its semisecluded location in central California. The park has two entrances—the east and west—with no connecting road between the two. To get from one side to the other, you must exit and drive around the park which takes about an hour and a half.

To access the west entrance, take Highway 101 either south from San Francisco or north from Los Angeles to Soledad. From there, you’ll take Highway 146 east to the gate. To access the east entrance, travel Highway 101 south to Highway 25 south. If traveling from the north, you’ll access Highway 25 through Hollister; if traveling from the south, you’ll connect to Highway 25 near King City.

A great time to visit Pinnacles is between mid-February and early June when the weather is moderate and the wildflowers are showy. Visitation numbers tend to peak at this time especially on weekends. For solitude, arrive early on a weekday and you’ll have no problem with crowds or parking.

As an alternative, a fall visit is recommended. I would aim for October or early November. It has often cooled off by that point but the evenings have not become cold yet. All of Bear Gulch Cave is open at that point and you may also see male tarantulas on the move looking for a mate.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If planning a summer trip, brace yourself for hot and dry weather with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. Park rangers suggest visitors wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen and drink a liter of water per hour of hiking. You’ll need layers come winter (the park’s cool and wet season) but you’ll have the park all to yourself. No matter the season, pack a pair of binoculars for potential California condor sightings and don’t forget your long-lens camera.

The park’s two talus caves are a top attraction: balconies, best reached through the west entrance and Bear Gulch, best reached from the east entrance. Home to active bat colonies, be sure to check Pinnacles’ website in alignment with their seasonal openings. When the bat population is hibernating in fall, winter, and spring, caves are typically open; if it’s pupping season after bats are born—usually mid-May to mid-July—caves will temporarily close to protect the mammals.

Fun fact: Bear Gulch Cave has the largest maternity colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats, a sensitive species between San Francisco and Mexico.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Important note: The caves are not accessible for visitors with mobility issues and require a bit of rock scrambling. Those prone to claustrophobia should reconsider as well due to the maze—albeit brief—of low ceilings and tight passageways. Park officials ask that you bring a headlamp or flashlight to navigate the momentarily dark crevices (iPhones work as well but it helps to be hands-free). Of course, talk with your health care provider before you go to see what’s best for you.

If entering from the west entrance, stop at the West Visitor Pinnacles Contact Station for books and trail maps, to speak with a ranger, and brush up on the park’s history via the 10-minute park film. The Prewett Point Trail, a new accessible trail delivering panoramas of the High Peaks and Balconies Cliffs, starts at the visitor station. On the park’s east side, a section of the Bench Trail was recently paved for wheelchair access. It, too, provides High Peaks views.

Bear Gulch Nature Center and West Visitor Center are open based on staff availability.

San Benito Wine Country near the east entrance to Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

There are no restaurants, gas stations, or lodging in Pinnacles. On the east side of the park, Pinnacles Campground offers a combination of 134 tent, RV, and group camping sites in a serene setting of blue, valley, and coast live oak trees. A camp store sells minimal groceries; you’d be better off packing a picnic lunch prior to your arrival.

Several small gateway towns—Soledad (10 miles), King City (30 miles), Hollister (65 miles), and Salinas (37 miles)—have a variety of restaurants and accommodations.

Outside the park, fun area pit stops include the charming Soledad Mission, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, a museum and memorial dedicated to the renowned local author. For added fun, download a map of The Artichoke Trail, a collection of 40 restaurants, farm stands, and markets celebrating Monterey County’s widely grown vegetable.

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Things to do

Spot a California condor

Seasoned birders and avian newbies alike travel to Pinnacles each year for one reason: the chance to spot a California condor, one of North America’s rarest birds. In the 1980s, Pinnacles’ year-round banner bird was on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, hunters, and poisoning from lead ammunition in carrion or animal remains, a condor’s main food source. To save the endangered species, conservationists captured 22 birds remaining in the wild and placed them in a breeding program. Considered an ideal habitat for the high-flying vulture, Pinnacles was chosen as a release site in 2003 and two captive-bred birds were set free inside the park. Today, the population has rebounded to 89 condors in the central California flock, many of which fly through the park.

With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, the ability to ride thermal updrafts to 15,000 feet, a top-end flight speed of 55 mph—covering some 200 miles in a single day—the massive scavenger (which can weigh up to 20 pounds) is a spectacle to witness as it drifts above the park’s surplus of volcanic peaks. One of the best spots to look for condors is in the High Peaks before 11 am. If you sit and wait while looking up at the sky, you may find them. In the park’s east section, condors frequently cruise thermal winds southeast of the campground.

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Pro tip for spotting your first condor

Learn the difference between a condor and a turkey vulture. They look similar in the sky. However, a condor’s airplane-esque wingspan is about 4 feet wider than its ever-abundant park relative.

From underwing, condor feathers form a striking white triangle on their leading edge whereas a turkey vulture has a silver-gray plumage on its trailing edge. Flight patterns differ in that a condor has a flat and steady aerial style; a turkey vulture’s pattern is V-shaped and rocking. Binoculars will help you detect the disparity in head color, too, both of which are bald. Adult condors have a yellowish-orange or pinkish head and appear as if they’re wearing a black feather boa; adult turkey vultures have bright red heads.

The biggest identifier between the two birds is man-made: All California condors (save for wild-born juveniles) don at least one numbered wing tag—and many sport two—to track health, behavior, and nesting sites in and around the park.

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Hike to a cave

There’s no better place to appreciate the geologic wonder of Pinnacles than by visiting one of its two main talus caves: Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave. They were formed when a medley of jumbled rockfall—thousand-ton boulders and other volcanic leftovers from the cliffs above— roofed in the steep and narrow fracture-and-fault-made canyons below.

Legend has it that Tiburcio Vásquez, the infamous California bandito, hid in the sometimes-pitch-black caves while evading the law in the 1800s. This was more than a half-century before the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in the 1930s building a system of steps, trails, and passageways.

The shortest cave to reach is Balconies Cave, best accessed from the Chaparral Parking Area in the park’s west district where the easy-to-moderate Balconies Trail will lead you to the cavern in 0.7 miles. Turn on your flashlight or headlamp as you crawl under boulders and scramble through the uneven ground in the dark—you’ll be through it all in five minutes, so be sure to enjoy the thrill of rushing water (depending on the season) and dance between darkness and light enveloping you. Return to the parking lot via the scenic Balconies Cliffs Trail, completing a 2.4-mile loop.

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Park in the Bear Gulch lot in the east district to begin your adventure to the Bear Gulch Cave. After a half-mile jaunt, turn left on the Moses Spring Trail (0.7 miles) which winds its way through dramatic pinnacles, some miniature caves and rock debris covered in multicolored lichen en route to the cave’s mossy entrance.

The deeper you get inside of the cave, the narrower the trail walls become. Fret not; white arrows will direct you as you cross puddles, climb stairs, bend, and dip your way through the damp rock jumble eventually letting you out at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a picture-perfect oasis to have lunch and rest. When you’re finished, hike back through the cave or take the short Rim Trail route back to your car.

The park’s diversity of lichen is one of the more overlooked aspects of Pinnacles, so be on the lookout. Lichens are an interesting organism that is part fungus, part algae, and they adhere to rock. At Pinnacles, they display a kaleidoscopic array of colors through the park.

For the venturesome parkgoer, it’s possible to hike the entire park in a single day on a 9-mile-or-so loop from either side and see everything Pinnacles has to offer: Both caves, the High Peaks, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and the trickling Chalone Creek, one of the park’s flattest strolls on the Old Pinnacles Trail.

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Bird watching

Pinnacles’ varied ecosystem as well as its position on the migratory Pacific Flyway reveal a variety of birding opportunities. Peregrine and prairie falcons are known to nest cliffside on the Balconies Trail (tip: Look for white excrement painting its cliff walls). The greater roadrunner can often be seen dashing after snakes and lizards on the park’s paved roads. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, golden eagles, wild turkey, great horned owls, and a variety of hummingbirds are common park residents.

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Wildflowers

From March to May, Pinnacles’ hillsides burst into bloom revealing more than 100 species of bright-colored wildflowers. California buckwheat, elegant clarkia, bush poppy, and larkspur paint the park in a rocky rainbow blossom. For adventurists, Pinnacles’ volcanic breccia rock affords plentiful climbing routes, but only for the well-trained climber. Far removed from the pollution of artificial light, the park’s uber-dark setting displays some of the clearest night skies in central California for stargazers.

Check this out to learn more:

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Facts box

Park location: East of Central California’s Salinas Valley

Area: 26,674 acres

Highest peak: North Chalone Peak at 3,304 feet above sea level

Lowest valley: South Chalone Creek at 824 feet above sea level

Miles of trails: 30-plus miles

Main attraction: Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven straight days; $25 for motorcycles; $15 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $55 for Pinnacles annual passes

Best way to see: On foot by hiking one of its 15 trails

When to go to: Mid-February through mid-May for mild weather and splashy wildflowers

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)