The best parks for snowbirds to explore this winter
While the most familiar of America’s parks are the national parks and state parks, America’s parks operate under a variety of names including county parks, regional parks, metro parks, natural areas, national forests, national grasslands, national wildlife refuges, landmarks, monuments, historic sites, geologic sites, recreation trails, memorial sites, preserves, scenic rivers, and wildlife areas.
So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America.
Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a park for snowbirds to discover this winter.
The giant Saguaro cactus is the most distinct feature is this park that straddles the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.
The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom.
Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.
Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S., Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.
The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.
Gulf State Park’s two miles of beaches greet you with plenty of white sun-kissed sand, surging surf, seagulls and sea shells, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. Visits here can be as active or as relaxing as you like. Try exhilarating water sports, go fishing, learn about coastal creatures at the nature center or simply sprawl out on the sands.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Sonoran Desert.
Maricopa County Parks offer hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping, educational programs and guided hikes. Some parks also offer horseback riding, golf, boating, fishing, and archery. There are 11 parks in Maricopa County, which ring around the Phoenix metro area.
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
Every destination has a story, no matter how small
When compared to lush tropical forests or sweeping grasslands, deserts may not seem like the most welcoming habitat to plan a trip around. However, a closer study of these vast expanses of earth and sand reveals a world of boundless opportunity with activities to suit any traveler. For those who wish to trek amidst remarkable rock formations, observe some of nature’s hardiest creatures, and gaze skyward towards a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets, the vast deserts of the southwestern U.S. are a paradise on earth.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the remote reaches of southern Utah near the town of Bryce (convenient, eh?). Weather-wise, Bryce Canyon makes the mercury mercurial, with big temp shifts from season to season and even day to day. This is due to Bryce’s dizzying elevation—a cool 8,000–9,000 feet—and makes it a much cooler park than nearby Zion.
In spite of the name, there’s no single canyon in Bryce “Canyon”—the region is actually made up of multiple natural amphitheatres, many of which are rife with thin stone spires referred to as “hoodoos”. The park is packed with trails suited for amateur and experienced hikers alike. Even if you’re not keen on exploring the great outdoors, make sure to stop at Sunrise Point—this overlook provides an all-encompassing view of the park in all its glory.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Roughly 250 million years ago, the state we now know as New Mexico was covered in a shallow expanse of water known as the Permian Sea with layer upon layer of dissolved gypsum sinking to the sea floor over the years. Fast-forward to the modern era and this prehistoric sea has dried up leaving the largest gypsum dunefield on earth in its wake.
Though the 145,000-acre expanse of pillowy sand is the main attraction around here, be sure to make a pitstop at the park’s visitor center for an introduction to the inner workings of the harsh desert ecosystem. A surprising amount of nocturnal insects, reptiles, and mammals call the park home today, but some of the most fascinating beasts in the area died out millions of years ago. Though you can’t see them in person, keep a close eye on the sand around you—fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats have been discovered buried just below the earth.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this particular preserve in eastern Arizona comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transmuted into colorful slabs of stone through a process called “permineralization”. Jasper Forest and Crystal Forest are two popular sites for encountering masses of petrified wood, but the park has more to offer than just former trees.
A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks. It’s like you’ve been transported into a painting. The park is also a fascinating destination for archeology buffs with multiple sites containing relics from bygone indigenous civilizations that once thrived here.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Encompassing portions of both the Colorado and Mojave deserts, this world-famous preserve consists of over 790,000 acres making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. While the park earned its name thanks to an abundance of spiky Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), there are hundreds of desert species that call the area home ranging from tiny toads to roadrunners to bobcats.
The park is home to a wide array of hiking trails for daytime visitors but overnight campers are in for a special treat—Joshua Tree’s location in the remote reaches of interior California ensures an incredible view of the stars on a clear night.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Yearning to see towering, giant saguaros in their native environment? Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor near Tucson. Unique to the Sonoran Desert, the park’s giant saguaros reach as high as 50 feet and can live longer than 200 years.
In addition to a broad expanse of desert, Saguaro National Park features mountainous regions—some reaching more than 8,000 feet above sea level. These varied landscapes provide ideal habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna including wildlife such as javelina, coyote, quail, and desert tortoise in the lower elevations and black bear, deer, and Mexican spotted owl in the upper elevations
We use the word wilderness, but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn’t that why I’ve come here? In wilderness I seek the wildness in myself and in so doing come on the wildness everywhere around me. Because, after all, being part of nature I’m cut from the same cloth.
Whether its golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, shopping, or hiking, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise
Palm Springs is one of those places that looks awfully good to an awful lot of people at this time of year. And the weather is not its only calling card.
In Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Indio, and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley, you can camp for the winter in luxurious RV resorts that offer all sorts of amenities. Known for Olympic sized pools, tennis courts, and over one hundred world-class golf courses within 40 miles, this is truly upscale RV camping.
There are two weekly markets that are more than just shopping trips, they are events. On Thursday evenings, Palm Canyon Drive turns into Villagefest, a street fair with fragrant food stands, local and imported crafts, and tantalizing fresh produce. Live music accompanies you as you stroll past the many stalls.
Starting at 7:00 am, Saturday and Sunday mornings, the College of the Desert in Palm Desert hosts another street fair.
A mile-long strip, El Paseo features locally owned boutiques; top international retailers such as St. John, Gucci, and Burberry; brilliant fun and fine jewelry; eclectic artworks; sleek and sophisticated home décor; and professional services including day spas, and interior design know-how. With so much to do and see, it’s easy to pass an entire day on El Paseo.
East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cactus, and other plants. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.
In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.
Nine campgrounds and three visitor centers are available for park visitors, as well as a number of well-marked short walks with informative signage.
Nestled in the scenic hills of Desert Hot Springs, a Hopi-inspired pueblo sits against a hillside. Not just any pueblo, but one built with natural materials collected throughout the desert. When homesteader Yerxa Cabot settled in Desert Hot Springs, he build a home so unique it remains a preserved museum to this day. Cabot’s pueblo spreads an impressive 5,000 square feet, divided into 35 rooms and adorned with 150 windows and 65 doors. What a sight it is to see!
While the structure’s architecture is a unique sight to behold, there’s more to see here than Cabot’s Hopi-style pueblo. Inside, the house has been turned into a museum with rooms filled with Indian artifacts, artwork, and memorabilia. One not to be missed artifact is Waokiye, a 43-foot sculpture of a Native American head.
Nestled at the feet of the Indio Hills, the Coachella Valley Preserve is the Old West just minutes from the desert cities. One of the area’s most beautiful attractions especially if you like to hike, the Preserve is a natural refuge where visitors can discover rare and wonderful wildlife species. Enjoy some of the 20,000+ acres of desert wilderness and over 25 miles of hiking trails, most of which are well marked.
By a quirk of nature there’s water here, too, but it doesn’t usually come in the form of rain. The Preserve is bisected by the San Andreas fault, and this natural phenomenon results in a series of springs and seeps which support plants and animals which couldn’t otherwise live in this harsh environment.
Complete your journey by letting the Palm Springs Aerial Tram do the climbing, 6,000 feet of it. Along the way a wondrous panorama of the desert lands stretches below and beyond. From Mountain Station at the top, there are short nature hikes or longer trails of varying lengths. Be sure to bring a warm jacket as the temperature difference is dramatic at this elevation and snow is not uncommon.
One of the things I had a hard time getting used to when I came to California in ’78 was Santa Claus in shorts.
RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road
January is a great time to travel and if you’re looking for someplace warm with ample sun there are some great destinations to consider especially for the RVing snowbird escaping the ravages of a Northern winter.
The bad news is COVID-19 has taken its toll on the tourism industry and as we head into winter, it’s now impacting snowbird travel. Canadian snowbirds won’t be flocking south this winter to escape the cold and snowy weather. With their wings clipped by border closures, Canadian snowbirds are trading in the golf clubs for snow shovels, preparing for the long Canadian winter ahead.
Naturally, RVers—and, in particular, Canadian snowbirds—are looking forward to the relaxation of these restrictions. But where are the most amazing places to RV this month?
Wildlife World Zoo Aquarium and Safari Park, Litchfield Park, Arizona
Wildlife World Zoo has Arizona’s largest collection of exotic and endangered animals with more than 600 separate species, rides, a petting zoo, and daily shows. Wildlife World Zoo is a 215-acre facility which specializes in African and South American animals. The Log Flume Ride surrounds three primate islands and takes riders past aquatic animals and through the Aquarium’s south pacific reef tunnel tank—the longest acrylic tunnel in Arizona—before splashing down three stories. With more than 75 indoor exhibits, the aquarium hosts sea life from sharks to stingrays to piranha and sea lions. Slow down and enjoy the view from high atop the Idearc Media Skyride. This round trip through the tree tops is approximately 15 minutes and will give you an unparalleled view of the park.
Stargazing at Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia
Pack your binoculars and head down south for blackwater and dark skies. This remote park is not only the primary entrance to one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders, the Okefenokee Swamp, but is also a certified “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association. With minimal light pollution, guests to Stephen C. Foster can experience some incredible stargazing. During the day, cruise through the black waters and cypress trees while watching alligators and wildlife cruise by. At night, when the day winds down, enjoy the serene sounds of nature and take in the light show above.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Few landscapes warp the mind quite like Joshua Tree National Park, a lumpy, Seussian dreamscape that beguiles the imagination. There are a couple of ways to best explore the park, and both take place on foot: hiking to points of interest and rock climbing. A climbing mecca, there are 8,000 climbing routes in Joshua Tree. While the best hikes in Joshua Tree show off the best of the rock outcroppings especially at Arch Rock Nature Trail and Hidden Valley Nature Trail, the most interesting flora can be found while on the road. The Cholla Cactus Garden showcases one of the parks most peculiar and comical plant inhabitants and the Ocotillo Patch in the Pinto Basin ignites after rain when the 30-foot-tall ocotillo cactus blooms.
Crystal River, Florida
After months spent roaming the coast, the cooling temperatures of early autumn begin to drive manatees back to the rivers of Florida, packing the state with huge populations of these iconic mammals. Manatee viewing season peaks in the dead of winter, but those who get an early start can spot some of the year’s early movers without the hassle of huge crowds, providing an intimate viewing experience that’s tough to recreate once the season really kicks in. Your best bet for spotting manatees is Crystal River, an area rife with natural springs that create a safe haven for the gentle beasts with year-round populations calling the waterways home.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, Arizona
Yuma is officially the sunniest place on earth so it must have been particularly torturous for those locked in the tiny, airless cells of Yuma Territorial Prison. The first prisoners, incarcerated in July 1876, were even made to build their own cells—during a searing Sonoran Desert summer. Though it was held up as a model example of a prison for its time, punishments were harsh by modern standards. Those who broke prison rules were kept in a dark, solitary cell while those who attempted to escape were attached to a ball and chain. The last prisoners were moved to new facilities in Florence in 1909 and now the buildings including adobe structures are part of Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park comprising a museum that gives a fascinating insight into 19th-century prison life. Visitors can peer into the iron-barred cells, some of which held six prisoners at a time and the stifling solitary chamber and view photographs of former inmates.
Texas Gulf Coast
Stretching some 350 miles from Beaumont and the Louisiana border all the way to South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley, this region is renowned for its wildlife and natural beauty as well as the home of America’s space program. You’re never far from the sand on this trip—from the Galveston Seawall through the bird-watching trails of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island beach life. There’s good food and good fun all the way down the curve of the Texas coast. Other highlights include Goose Island State Park, the beach towns of Rockport-Fulton and Port Aransas, and the waterfront city of Corpus Christi.
Naples is a city located along the southwestern Florida coast on the Gulf of Mexico. The city is known best for its high-end shops and world-class golfing. Naples Pier has become an icon of the city and is a popular spot for fishing and dolphin watching. On both sides of the pier you’ll find beautiful beaches with white sand and calm waves. At nearby Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outdoor enthusiasts will find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years.
Golden Isles, Georgia
Although Georgia’s beaches are some of the biggest attractions for visitors to the Golden Isles, there are numerous other activities and events to enjoy during your stay in St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, or Brunswick. The temperate climate and beautiful scenic backdrop provide ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Quaint shopping boutiques, first-class dining experiences, unique attractions, and historical tours of the islands and mainland provide one-of-a-kind experiences that will make your trip unforgettable.
Dauphin Island, Alabama
A narrow, 14-mile-long outdoor playground near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island provides a getaway atmosphere with attractions aimed at the family. The Dauphin Island Park and Campground is a great place to enjoy all the island has to offer. The 155-acre park offers an abundance of exceptional recreation offerings and natural beauty. The campground is uniquely positioned so that guests have access to a secluded beach, public boat launches, Fort Gaines, and Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The campground offers 150 sites with 30/50 amp- electric service and water; 99 sites also offer sewer connections.
Avery Island, Louisiana
Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks draped with Spanish moss cover this geological oddity which is one of five “islands” rising above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes. The island occupies roughly 2,200 acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO brand pepper sauce factory as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The Tabasco factory and the gardens are open for tours.
We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.
Desert regions might conjure up images of soaring temperatures, rolling sand dunes, and prickly cacti. And while these areas can be excruciatingly hot during the summer, they transform in the winter with falling temperatures, serene landscapes, and even, on occasion, powdery snow.
One benefit of winter travel is you’ll usually experience fewer crowds. Winter light can be harsh for photography but it can also create incredible shadows and sunrises and sunsets you just don’t find during the summer months. Depending on the rainfall and temperatures, the latter part of winter may signal impressive spring wildflowers.
From California to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, these eight desert areas are beautiful to explore in winter.
Joshua Tree is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.
Winter brings cooler days, around 60 degrees and freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations. With the right timing, it doesn’t get more magical than seeing freshly fallen flakes gracing the smoothly rounded boulders that seem straight out of The Flintstones and the Joshua trees that look like something from an alien planet. Don’t miss other highlights of Joshua Tree including the fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). These trees are some of the tallest palms native to North America and can live around 80 or 90 years.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Organ Pipe is where “summer spends the winter” with warm days (60s) and chilly nights (40s) common from late fall to early spring. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake.
This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
New Mexico is one of our favorite winter road trip destinations and Santa Fe is one reason why. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax. As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.
Palm Springs, California
Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise. Palm Springs and its many neighboring cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, once an inland sea and now a desert area with abundant artesian wells. An escape from winter’s chill and snow, it is also a destination filled with numerous places to visit and things to do.
The Indian Canyons are one of the most beautiful attractions for any Palm Springs visitor, especially if you love to hike. There are so many great trails to choose from—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours. Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
This sprawling west Texas park has plenty of room (nearly 1 million acres) to spread out and explore from Chisos Mountains hikes and hot springs to the Santa Elena Canyon, a vast chasm along the Rio Grande. Due to its sheer size and geographic diversity this is the perfect park to immerse yourself in for a week or more with plenty of sights and activities to keep you busy.
The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend receives very little precipitation as storm systems are blocked by the mountain ranges that surround it. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should prepare for a variety of conditions. Air temperature changes by five degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation change; temperatures in the high Chisos Mountains can be 20+ degrees cooler than temperatures along the Rio Grande. Be prepared for this kind of variation during your trip. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California with just over 640,000 acres. There are over 10,000 years of human history recorded here including Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. Winter is a popular time to visit Borrego Valley as it’s sunny and warm. When you have sufficient winter rain, spring wildflowers begin to show as early as February. Hiking and mountain biking are popular in the canyon washes and over the ridges of red desert rock.
Winter also sees the visitor center open daily. The visitor center is an experience in itself as it was built with the environment in mind. It was built underground and has a landscaped roof topped with plants, native soil, and rocks. You can reserve camping sites in the park which has 175 developed sites, eight primitive campgrounds, and plenty of options for dispersed camping.
Arches National Park, Utah
The red rock expanse of Southern Utah is stunning in all seasons, but winter is unique. Arches is one of the most beautiful national parks to visit in winter (seriously!). The quietness of the park is perfect for those hoping to photograph the beauty of Arches in winter. Yes, it does snow in Arches National Park although not often. When it does snow, it tends to be a light covering that melts fairly quickly. If you’re timing is right, you will be able to see the arches and fins covered in snow creating a unique landscape where the orangey-brown rock contrasts beautifully with the white snow. And wherever you roam, you find few other travelers and plenty of peace and solitude.
Located in Arizona’s high desert under the towering southwestern rim of the vast Colorado Plateau, Sedona is blessed with four mild seasons marked by abundant sunshine and clean air. Almost the entire world knows that Sedona, strategically situated at the mouth of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, is a unique place. Characterized by massive red-rock formations, as well as the contrasting riparian areas of Oak Creek Canyon, the area surrounding this beloved community is at least as beautiful as many national parks.
During the winter months, Sedona transforms into a dazzling wonderland with light dustings of snow and millions of twinkling stars amidst the dark night sky. Sitting at 4,500-feet elevation, the town enjoys moderate winters. Mild temperatures during the day are perfect for hiking the famed Red Rock Country. Snow occasionally dusts the upper reaches of the surrounding mesas and mountains in a most picturesque fashion.
Alone in the open desert,
I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.
The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.
Summer will always be the most popular time to visit national parks. For generations, families have flocked to these precious natural wonderlands to commune with nature—and to crowd hiking trails, overtake campsites, and transform peaceful naturescapes into theme parks. But sometimes you long to experience the natural sounds of nature without the discordant noise of humanity. And to do that may involve packing warm clothes.
Winter is a magical time for many of the parks. The trails clear. The campsites are less likely to be serenaded by a guitar-picking yodeler. Fire danger is down. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have it mostly to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in winter.
Zion National Park, Utah
In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines just to board the tram. End this madness and go during winter. Just 13 percent of Zion visitors journey to the park between November and March for a wintertime visit in one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
With average summer highs of 99 degrees, Joshua Tree is just too hot to enjoy for much of the year. However, a great time to visit is in the winter. During January, February, and much of March, Joshua Tree will treat you to mild temperatures and relative quiet. See this strange beauty before the mercury rises and the Coachella Valley Music Festival and spring break crowds arrive. Joshua Tree is not only a national park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge but also the name of the funky little town outside the park. Give yourself time explore the park as well as the shops and curiosities along the main drag on Twentynine Palms Highway (State Route 62).
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and hoodoos dusted with snow then you owe it to yourself to do so. The entire park is an embarrassment of riches come wintertime. There’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and a winter festival. The drier air this time of year makes the desert skies unparalleled for stargazing; you’ll find regularly scheduled astronomy programs including full-moon snowshoe hikes at the newly designated International Dark Sky Park. Nowhere else on Earth will you get as vivid a look at Mars overhead while feeling like you’re standing on the Red Planet.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
You may have been curious about Congaree National Park but it wasn’t a place you wanted to visit in summer because the area gets so hot and muggy. Winter, it turns out, is a great time to explore without contending against the park’s dreaded “Mosquito Meter.” The park is a cypress swamp intersected with creeks and lakes. The cypress trees grow with the bases of their trunks underwater. The simplest path for new visitors is the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Trail. Its raised planks are less likely to be washed out than the muddy trails on the ground. Also, this is not a park I’d visit in midsummer, as the bugs are unbearable. Autumn, winter, and early spring (before the bugs come out) are the most enjoyable times of year to visit.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with cactus wrens and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat. Even better, the backcountry campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag, allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park is famous for the approximately 2,000 arches located throughout the park. Driving from the park entrance to the end of the road at Devil’s Garden is a total of 18 miles, one-way. There are numerous spots to pull out and take in the sights of the park. Crowds? No way. Heat stroke? Not very likely! Traffic jams? Nope. Winter is off-season at Arches which means it’s the perfect time to visit. Snow certainly falls in Arches but it rarely sticks around for more than two or three days. It’s a photographic jackpot: one day you’ll get the contrast of snow on the red rock landscapes and the next day the sun will shine, melt the snow, and blue skies will complement the park’s sandstone formations. Basically, winter in Arches is a win-win.
Pinnacles National Park, California
Located along the San Andreas Fault in central California, Pinnacles National Park is of geological significance and is known for its beautiful and diverse habitats that range from spectacular wildflowers to oak woodlands and chaparral scrub, caves, and rock spires. The giant boulders you see at Pinnacles today were formed as a result of volcanic activity that occurred over 23 million years ago. Enjoy hiking trails, rock climbing, exploring caves, star gazing, camping, and bird watching. Boasting a Mediterranean climate, the Park enjoys mild winters with moderate precipitation.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
The largest protected area of Texas, Big Bend is most appealing in winter. Temperatures hover in the 60s, perfect for taking on the park’s nearly 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails which span desert, riverside, and mountain terrain. The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. Elevation in the park ranges from 1,800 feet along the river to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures can vary by 20 degrees between the two. Summers are hot; the desert floor is often above 100 degrees. Winter is pleasantly mild and usually sunny. Snow is rare and generally light. Winter visitors should be prepared for any weather; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Colder temperatures, shorter days, and snow bring a slower pace to one of the nation’s most visited national parks. After the December holidays, winter visitors find paths less traveled throughout the park. Dramatic winter storms bringing several inches of snow are contrasted with sunny days. Crisp air and a dusting of snow bring a new perspective to the temples and buttes emerging from the canyon floor and provide a perfect backdrop to view the canyon’s flora and fauna. The South Rim of the park is open year round. Winter solitude blankets the North Rim of Grand Canyon which is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter. Pack your jacket and winter gloves, avoid the crowds, and come experience a Grand Canyon winter wonderland!
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Glistening white slopes extend as far as the eye can see. A ski resort in the dead of winter? Hardly! Those white slopes are glistening with grains of sand, not snowflakes. Black-diamond trails drift and shift with the wind. Cars inch forward on a hard-packed white surface. The black-diamond signs refer to the difficulty of navigating gypsum dunes rather than groomed ski trails. And even though the road may look freshly plowed, it is packed sand, not snow that forms the white surface.
Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes the fashioning hand.
Out west, the landscapes are vast and beautiful. There’s no place better to check them out than at these National Parks.
Magnificent mountains, diverse forests, and unusual geological features are among the significant features found in the National Parks of the West. These extraordinary landscapes are great places to enjoy outdoor recreation, to learn about nature and history, and to savor a scenic driving tour.
These areas give you a chance to get back to nature, explore the wilderness, and gaze up at pristine night skies. The western United States has a plethora of National Parks and each one is distinct and unique. We don’t expect you to visit all 12 straight away, we’ll give you some time…
It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It’s historic. One mile deep and 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon is a mesmerizing force of nature. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s almost overwhelming to stand at the South Rim at dusk and watch rose-hued rock faces turn a fiery burnished bronze.
Arches National Park is characterized by its pinnacles, rock fins, and 2,000 gravity-defying arches. The spans of these natural stone wonders range from three feet across to 290 feet in the case of Landscape Arch, but the most famous of all is the 52 foot-tall Delicate Arch—so iconic it appears on Utah license plates.
Arches’ nearby neighbor, Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves.
Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.
The park’s namesake tree, the Joshua tree, is an admired inhabitant that resembles something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book. For years, novice and expert climbers have ventured to the park to climb giant, sculpted slabs of rock while hikers explore the vast desert terrain.
At first glance, you might wonder where the forest went. Stone log fragments litter an otherwise drab section of the high desert. However, this span of desert was once a lush, green, forested oasis with 200-foot conifers and was ruled by dinosaurs. Of the 50,000 acres of designated wilderness, the brilliantly-colored petrified wood, impressive fossils, and the Painted Desert incite the most excitement.
Mesa Verde is the only national park dedicated solely to human endeavor and houses some of the largest and most important cliff dwellings in the world. Built by the Ancestral Puebloans, the known archeological sites number more than 5,000 and include mesa-top pueblos and masonry towers, as well as intricate, multi-storey dwellings wedged beneath overhanging cliffs.
Aside from being home to the world’s largest tree (by volume) and protecting vast areas of towering inland redwoods, a big part of Sequoia’s appeal is that it isn’t all that crowded. Take a stroll under the big trees in the Giant Forest, view wildlife in Crescent Meadows, climb to the top of Moro Rock.
Drive along the Badlands Loop Road to experience magnificent craggy buttes, pinnacles, and spires that seem to surprise the surrounding prairie grasslands. This Mars-like landscape has several accessible trails and overlooks including the Pinnacles Overlook, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.
Home of the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is much more than a single sandstone canyon. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of eroded auburn spires, or hoodoos, on Earth. Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time.
Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, Zion comes along and blows your socks off. Carved by the Virgin River, the landscape is a geological masterpiece, defined by its canyons, plateaus, and soaring sandstone cliffs. But it’s the variety, not just the magnitude that gives the park its grandeur.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks
Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.
Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.
The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.
The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.
While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.
Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.
Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.
Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.
The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.
There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.
Looking for the perfect getaway? Forget the plane tickets, and pack up the RV! America’s many wonders are just a fun drive away.
Even in the best of times, the allure of national park road trips tantalizes individual wanderers and wide-eyed families alike. But during the pandemic, as we continue to practice social distancing to stay safe and help mitigate the spread of the virus, this type of vacation seems particularly ideal.
Right now, most travelers are looking to drive instead of fly as well as avoid throngs of people at crowded tourist attractions. So, pack up the RV, hit the road, and explore one of America’s amazing national parks. First, though, check to ensure your recreation vehicle is road-ready so you don’t run into any maintenance issue along the way.
The mother of all national park road trips
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, road trip optimizer Randy Olson put together a 14,498-mile journey. During this mammoth two-month adventure, you’ll see each of the 47 national parks (51 in 2020) within the contiguous mainland United States. Driving from Maine to Florida, southern California to northern Montana, and everywhere else in between, this epic trip is the fastest way to get your national park passport full of stamps! If you dare to take on this adventure, consider starting at Great Smoky Mountains in the fall and completing your epic journey in the Southwest as you explore Saguaro, Organ Pipe, and White Sands.
Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks
In addition to visiting a pair of national parks, driving in this part of America allows you to cruise through Custer State Park—to get joyfully stuck in a bison traffic jam and cruise past four presidents carved into the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to ‘bag a buffalo’. This was his first visit to this area and “the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born”. This ethos would shape the future of America’s conservation efforts and of the national parks that serve as America’s playgrounds.
But the Badlands is the real star here and driving along it west to east will place grasslands on your left and the gruff yet almost celestial Badlands on your right. There’s nothing quite like this place in America, and driving through it will become a memory that never fades away.
Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks
Combining the five famous sights of Southern Utah makes for an epic national park road trip. As National Geographic explains, “this multiday adventure on remote byways is a journey through the slick-rock heart of the American West linking Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.”
When you consider the proximity of the parks, the fiery colors, and the limitless potential for stunning photos and stellar day hikes, this might just be the best of the national park road trips. The trailheads lead to some of the most breathtaking vistas in America. And if you can squeeze the time there are two national monuments of almost equal splendor, Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks. Driving through Utah’s national parks is definitely one of the best road trips in America.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This part of the United States is especially lovely in autumn when the fall foliage delivers a cornucopia of color. The Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are just around the corner on the western end of Tennessee. Many visitors to this region enjoy touring Cades Cove and the Blue Ridge Parkway—taking their time to explore the rich culture, natural beauty, and fun-filled activities the area offers.
You may be tempted to head to New England in the fall, but this portion of Tennessee and North Carolina should tempt you to visit for an autumnal national park road trip. Looking for something not far away? Check out these other road trips that showcase stunning fall foliage.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado deserts come together. It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to this park. Rock climbers find thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. The Jumbo Rock campground is a centralized doorway to some of the best features of the park. It’s the “every adventurer” park—a true wilderness playground. And there’s the name sake, Joshua trees. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.
Escape to mountains, lakes, beach, and desert. You can also escape to small towns.
Looking to get away this summer? Travel is a popular pastime every summer, but with months of lockdowns and stay-home orders confining Americans to their homes due to the pandemic, many people are more ready than ever for a change of scenery.
Atlanta has so much to do, but sometimes you just want to get out of the city and explore what the surrounding areas have to offer! Or possibly, like us you’re an RVer and can’t locate a decent campground within 50 miles.
Distance from Atlanta: 83 miles
Oh, Macon! Home to a downtown area that’s got so much to do! Visit Amerson River Park and walk the paths while watching the kayakers paddle by on the Ocmulgee River. A visit to the Ocmulgee National Monument is a must-do, take a hike or bike the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, or spend the day on Lake Tobesofkee.
America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston.
Distance from Houston: 50 miles
Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!
Begin your adventure in the capital city of the 48th state known for year-round sunny skies and reliably warm temperatures. Phoenix is the epicenter of a sprawling metro area (the country’s 5th most populated) known as the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find dozens of top-notch golf courses, scores of hiking and biking trails, and the well-regarded, family-friendly Papago Park and adjacent Desert Botanical Gardens.
Distance from Phoenix: 100 miles
A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.
Los Angeles is home to renowned museums, diverse experiences, 75 miles of sunny coastline, and hundreds of miles of bike and hiking trails. LA’s cultural attractions include the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Getty Center, and art galleries. No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to Hollywood, the home of movie studios, many of L.A.’s most popular and historic tourist destinations, and its world-famous namesake boulevard.
Joshua Tree National Park
Distance from Los Angeles: 130 miles
Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.
Chicago is a city unlike any other. There are a few things you need to do like eat a Chicago style hot dog, see “The Bean,” and take a river boat cruise. Located on the south bank of the Chicago River, the Riverwalk stretches 1.25 miles from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. Chicago’s nearly 600 parks and 26 miles of lakefront make it easy to enjoy the great outdoors in the middle of the city. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find there’s no other place like Chicago.
Distance from Chicago: 110 miles
Northern Indiana is home to nearly 20,000 Amish, a culture that remains true to centuries-old traditions. A few days in Amish country will introduce you to delicious made-from-scratch meals, amazing craftsmanship, delightful theater works, tons of shopping, and horse-drawn carriage rides. You can take in the amazing works as you drive the Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail. Shipshewanna is home to the Midwest’s largest outdoor seasonal flea market where 700 vendors cover 40 acres of land selling everything from home decor and clothing to plants and tools. Take care when driving—buggies travel well under the speed limit.
Beyond the traditional D.C. attractions—the Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments—you’ll find fresh food and cultural events. You can peruse a farmers market and take in the scenery from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Plan to spend some time along the Tidal Basin, a 2-mile-long pond that was once attached to the Potomac River and serves as the backdrop to some of D.C.’s best-loved sites.
Shenandoah National Park
Distance from Washington, DC: 75 miles
Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a land bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deer, songbirds, and black bear, there’s so much to explore. The Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the US at any time of the year but especially during autumn. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.
I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.