11 National Parks Perfect to Visit This Fall

What better place to witness the changing of the seasons than at your favorite National Park?

Every year across the national parks, the leaves shift from their familiar green into a rainbow of warm colors. With this change of seasons also come fewer crowds and cooler temps as kids shuffle back to school and winter creeps closer. I’d argue it’s one of the best times to visit most national parks—though some truly stand out during the autumnal season. 

Each summer, millions of people head into the great outdoors to enjoy America’s national parks. And while the warmer months are no doubt the most popular time to visit parks overall, there are still some parks that are just as good—or even better—to visit in the fall. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a lengthier fall vacation, here are the top 11 national parks to visit this fall.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon isn’t just one of America’s most recognizable and iconic natural features. It’s also a great destination for a fall vacation. Temperatures can be over 100 degrees in the summer at the bottom of the canyon. While it can still be warm in the area through the fall, average temperatures do start to drop down to a more manageable range of 70 -80 degrees. This means that October and November are great months to visit.

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Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Here’s another national park that’s a great choice to visit in the fall because of dropping temperatures. Joshua Tree National Park’s desert location means extreme heat can make it difficult to enjoy the park in the summer months. A fall visit will allow you to enjoy countless hiking trails with cooler weather.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those planning a trip will likely want to look into accommodations ahead of time—Joshua Tree National Park is fairly remote. There are two main towns nearby: Twenty-Nine Palms and a town also named Joshua Tree. Camping is also a possibility in the park but you’ll want to secure a reservation as soon as possible. The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

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Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Zion is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall for several reasons. Firstly, the weather is more pleasant in fall than in the summer when temperatures can be brutally hot. Secondly, the changing colors of the cottonwoods and brush compliment the giant sandstone walls within Zion Canyon. Lastly, the crowds are less extreme at this time of the year than during the busy summer holiday period. It can still be busy with people looking to see the colors changing, but less so than the summer holidays.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Zion for fall colors is between mid-October and early November. The exact timing can vary year to year but this is generally a safe bet to see some great fall foliage in the park. Fall is an amazing time of year for most of the parks in Utah so you could extend your trip and visit the other parks in Canyon Country.

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

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another excellent choice for those looking to see some changing colors alongside their outdoor adventure. Located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only home to gorgeous fall leaf displays but also countless hiking trails as well as wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.

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

Great Smoky Mountains is home to some of the most scenic fall drives in the country. Don’t miss Cade’s Cove, a lush valley surrounded by mountains and filled with history. The drive up to the viewpoint at Clingmans Dome is perhaps the most famous in the park. There are layers upon layers of mountains stretching as far as the eyes can see rich with color this time of the year.

Not far out of the park is the Blue Ridge Parkway. This National Scenic Byway links Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. This scenic drive is famous for its views and fall colors.

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Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is one of the lesser-visited national parks due in part to its remote location. Lesser known doesn’t mean less to do, however. The park is home to countless hiking trails, opportunities for river rafting and kayaking trips, camping, and even hot springs. Like Joshua Tree, fall is one of the better times to visit as the area enjoys cooler weather. Temperatures are perfect during October and November. You’ll enjoy beautiful warm days and cooler nights.

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Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is covered in deciduous trees and during fall turns into a golden paradise. Similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah is a fall classic and offers visitors some of the most abundant and vibrant colors in the country. This park takes on a completely new look once the colors change and it’s just hard to beat those scenic drives through the park as the fall leaves drop all around you.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah is home to one of the best scenic fall color drives in the country. Skyline Drive is the main road through the park and runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has around 70 different overlooks and spending a day or two exploring this incredible stretch of road is often the highlight of a visit to the park.

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Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. The powerful dance of wind, rain and red sandstone over many eons created the 2,000-plus fantastical arches at Arches—but it did not leave much shade or shelter. Visits in 100-degree summer or 10-degree winter weather can be unpleasant but in autumn you’ll enjoy temperate conditions and smaller crowds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aesthetically pleasing erosion is the big lure stirring the soul with unusually balanced rocks, fins, spires, and arches. The autumn light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

The park and its surrounding area offer excellent mountain biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, and hiking. Many people who travel here turn their trip into a national park two-fer adding on nearby Canyonlands, a 30-minute drive south.

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New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The country’s newest national park, the 7,000-acre New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia can be visited any time of year—but it stands apart in the fall. October, after the heat subsides, is a particularly popular time to visit. It’s also when the annual Bridge Day event takes place (in 2022, on October 15), and thousands of visitors congregate to walk across the park’s eponymous bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, visitors who head to the New River Gorge in the fall will be rewarded with stunning fall foliage which arrives first in the mountains and works its way down into the valleys throughout the season.

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Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Badlands National Park

Only a few centuries ago, over half the North American continent was carpeted in the same type of mixed grass prairie one encounters in Badlands National Park. The park retains the largest intact prairie of any in the National Park Service providing an enduring home to the animals that keep this type of ecosystem healthy: bison, prairie dogs, ferrets, pronghorns, coyotes, big horn sheep, golden eagles, and others.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer months, violent thunderstorms and blazing temperatures can make touring the Badlands challenging but come fall the weather mellows to the 60s and 70s. Some of the grasses are yellow in autumn too making it easier to spot wildlife and shutterbugs are rewarded with gold-hued landscapes.

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Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Saguaro National Park

Named for the United States’ tallest cactus (it can reach up to 50 feet), this Sonoran Desert park is split into two parts by the city of Tucson. The Sonoran people also known as the Hohokam settled here in 2100 B.C. and built some of the earliest canal irrigation systems on the continent. The park is pitted with their ruins and tagged with petroglyphs.  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The temperatures drop to an average of 70 degrees in October and November making the fall ideal for comfortable visits. It’s also fun to drop by Tucson in the fall thanks to its mix of Mexican and American seasonal celebrations that include pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Halloween activities, and All Souls processions.

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Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Congaree National Park

To finish my list, here’s a hidden gem! Take time to explore Congaree National Park in South Carolina in autumn when there are fewer insects and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities such as bird-watching, canoeing, and kayaking. Hike the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail which is a great way to get to know the park. Pick up a self-guided brochure or join a ranger-led walk. More adventurous types may want to hike the 11-mile Kingsnake Trail which takes parkgoers through some of the more remote parts of the park.

In the winter, this park tends to flood and in summer the humidity and heat make human bodies feel like they’re flooding. But autumn is the Goldilocks time in South Carolina’s only national park devoted to the natural world. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree harbors the biggest old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the Southeast. It’s an arboreal paradise and 15 trees growing here are the largest known specimens of their kind on the planet including loblolly pine, cherry bark oak, American elm, sweetgum, and swamp chestnut oak—all of which are over 130 feet tall. Sheltering in and among those trees are feral pigs, bobcats, alligators, river otters, and deer.

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Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, October and November are really the best times to get out of doors and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before the winter cold settles in. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and get ready to have an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet

Five Fall Road Trips in Arizona

Get on the road again with five sojourns perfect for your Arizona fall season

Despite what it seems like by the time September rolls around, summer is not endless. It is winding down. So it’s time to start planning your quest to see some fall colors.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon North Rim Drive: Highway 89 from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Lodge

Driving Distance: 208 miles from Flagstaff

Turn-by-Turn Directions: Head north from Flagstaff on US-89 to Bitter Springs. Here, turn left onto US-89A. Follow this north to SR-67. Turn left and drive south on SR-67 to the lodge. 

There’s nothing like tracing the Grand Canyon’s edge with the Colorado River raging below. If that isn’t enough to inspire a drive on Highway 89, I’ll also tempt you with Marble Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, and the aspen golds of the North Rim.

Navajo Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan this trip for early fall, since the Grand Canyon’s North Rim closes for the season on October 15. Launching from Flagstaff, you emerge from the pine forest to a desolate expanse of land with sightlines for miles. The road moves over rounded slopes while reddish sandstone cliffs tower on either side. At Bitter Springs, veer left on Highway 89A to Marble Canyon which offers a good stopping point for breathtaking photo-ops and sustenance. First up, pics: Stand on the Navajo Bridge, a historic span over the Colorado River. Then, food: Marble Canyon Lodge serves hearty lunch and dinner with outdoor seating to boot. 

Marble Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Marble Canyon marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon and nearby is a campground and popular put-in for river runners and Horseshoe Bend paddlers. Push on southwest, nestling close to the bewildering spectrum of reds, yellows, and oranges of Vermilion Cliffs rising from Paria Plateau. 

You’ll spot junipers and pines the closer you inch to Kaibab National Forest but once you reach the North Rim the scenery explodes in leafy canopies of firs, spruces, tall pines, and aspens.

Leaving Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Arizona Drive: Highway 83 from Tucson to Bisbee by way of Sonoita and Sierra Vista

Driving Distance: 109 miles from the starting point in Tucson

Turn-by-Turn Directions: Follow I-10 east to SR-83. Drive south on SR-83 to SR-82. Take this east to SR-90. Head south on SR-90 to Sierra Vista and continue southeast on SR-90 to SR-80. Follow this east to Bisbee. 

The southern half of the state can’t compete with Flagstaff’s autumnal glow. And yet… This south-of-Tucson trip is fraught with scenic vistas. 

On the road to Sonoita © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Tucson, you’re on I-10 for only a short stretch before you get to ease off the accelerator and enjoy the leisure of Highway 83. The road weaves through the Santa Rita Foothills where desert flora fades into one of the finest grassland valleys of the Southwest—45,000 acres to be exact. Las Cienegas National Conservation Area preserves this landscape of cottonwood trees, spiny mesquite, and the rare marshes of a perennial creek. Stop and stretch your legs before the quick drive to Sonoita. 

Sonoita and nearby Elgin boast the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in Arizona and the Santa Rita, Whetstone, and Huachuca mountain ranges that envelop grasslands and vine-covered hills. Take Highway 82 east to explore the tasting rooms; this will also link to SR-90, your route to Sierra Vista.

Lesser Goldfinch at San Pedro House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Huachuca Mountains punctuate the expansive views in Sierra Vista. Pine trees crowd the peaks and thick-leafed oaks in crimson and orange blanket the lower elevations. And all around, the sycamore and maple trees of Ramsey Canyon and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area bloom in full fall color. 

Bisbee and the Mule Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finally, arrive in Bisbee in style. By style, I mean Mule Pass Tunnel, a dramatic entrance through the Mule Mountains that leads travelers into the stair-clinging slopes of Bisbee.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail Bypass: Highways 60 and 188 from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake

Driving Distance: 80 miles from Apache Junction

Turn-by-Turn Directions: From Apache Junction, drive east on US-60 to SR-188. Turn left and follow SR-188 north to Roosevelt Lake. 

Superstition Mountains along Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) winds through the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that meanders past three lakes and carves through canyons and over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam. 

Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed. 

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel Advisory: In 2019, the Woodbury Fire burned several areas on the Apache Trail, and a 7-mile section of the road from Fish Creek Hill Overlook (milepost 222) to Apache Lake Marina (Milepost 229) remains closed. 

For a still-scenic alternative, leave Apache Junction via Highway 60. The Superstition Mountains with their jagged peaks are to the north. The “Supes” backcountry area delineates the transition from the Southern Sonora Desert to the Central Mountains. Take in the sight of thousands of saguaros set against colorful rock layers as you approach Miami. 

Along Highway 60 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, you have two options: Continue on Highway 188 or hang in town to peruse the shops on Main Street, grab a bite to eat (crispy fried chicken at Dick’s), or visit the impressive Bullion Plaza Cultural Center & Museum. 

Then it’s north on 188. Unlike the original alignment of the Apache Trail, here the bends are gentle and the curves wide. No white-knuckling the steering wheel. Roosevelt Lake’s serene blue sparkle comes into view.

Along Highway 177 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Pueblo Back Way: Highway 177 from Phoenix to Tucson through Winkelman and Oracle

Driving Distance: 163 miles from Downtown Phoenix

Turn-by-Turn Directions: Drive east on US-60 out of Phoenix. Turn right and head south on SR-177. In Winkelman, pick up SR-77 and follow it south to Tucson. 

Globe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel east on US-60 to Superior and Globe. Visit Besh-Ba-Gowah Museum, search out a rare find at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post, or munch on quiche at the Copper Hen. Follow SR-77 past the Pinal Mountain-shrouded ghost town of Christmas. You’ll want to spend time in Winkelman delighting in the fall glory of Aravaipa Canyon.

Besh-Ba-Gowah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue south to see the Galiuro Mountains rise from the golden grasslands. Thickets of oak, Ponderosa pines, maple trees, and Douglas fir cover the slopes, the tallest of which tops at 7,671 feet. Stop for a quick visit to the mining camps of Mammoth and Copper Creek.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next up: Oracle, where the hardwood forests of the Santa Catalina Mountains meet the desert. Oracle is your destination; good news because after sundown you’re rewarded with the celestial sights of the city’s International Dark Sky. 

In the morning, venture up to Oracle State Park, then south again on Highway 77 past Oracle Junction to Catalina State Park on the northwestern edge of Tucson.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs & Mad Max Cities: I-10 to Palm Springs and home through Joshua Tree National Park

Driving Distance: 653 miles round trip from Downtown Phoenix

Turn-by-Turn Directions: From the I-10, go south on CA-78 to CA-115. Turn right. Drive north on CA-115 to Wiest Road. Turn right and head north on Wiest. At Noffsinger Road, turn right, then make a quick left on Highland Canal Road. When you reach Beal Road, turn right and follow it to Salvation Mountain.

 “Let’s plan a fall colors drives on Interstate 10!” Said nobody, ever! But hear me out. This trip features all the hallmarks of an autumn getaway: quieting the noise, slowing the pace, and discovering new places.

Colorado River near Ehrenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading west on I-10, saguaro sightings become fewer and sand gathers in windswept piles. After crossing the Colorado River (you’re in California now), drive south on Highway 78. But first, fuel up in Ehrenburg, Arizona, and avoid the high cost of gas in the Golden State. This is the route to the Salton Sea through the hottest, driest corner of the Sonoran Desert

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salton Sea sounds like a magical place ruled by a Greek god. In reality, it’s more mythological than magical. Accidentally created thanks to an irrigation “oops” in the 1900s, the Salton Sea once reigned as a 1950s retreat. Today, over-salinity has nearly dried it up. What’s left: brackish, murky water, a shore lined with decomposing bird and fish bones, and an abandoned beach town or two. Well, almost abandoned. 

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bohemians and wanderers have made their way here to set up desert communes of makeshift homes and life-size art. One striking example is Salvation Mountain, an art installation of discarded tires, old windows, rusted auto parts, and bright paint spelling out spiritual messages. The work is so strangely beautiful that it boasts a stamp of approval from the Folk Art Society of America and has been covered in National Geographic.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Salvation Mountain, drive north on Highway 111 to join I-10 to the Coachella Valley cities of Indio, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs. Immerse yourself in the fall foliage of the San Jacinto Mountains which loom over the valley at nearly 9,000 feet. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ferries you from the foothills to the peaks and hiking trails letting you wander among the vibrant leafy color.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the trip home, opt for the roundabout drive through Joshua Tree National Park. Start at the West Entrance, then follow a paved, two-lane road scattered with scenic pullouts and dotted not with maples and oaks, but with yucca, ocotillo, “jumping” cholla cactus, and its namesake Joshua trees.

Worth Pondering…

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, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

National Wilderness Month: September 2022

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.

—Edward Abbey

September marks the anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnsonn September 3, 1964. It created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land, the result of a long effort to protect federal wilderness and to create a formal mechanism for designating wilderness. The Wilderness Act is well known for its succinct and poetic definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

—Howard Zahniser

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 54 areas (9.1 million acres) in 13 states were designated as wilderness. This law established these areas as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). Since 1964, the NWPS has grown almost every year and now includes 803 areas (111,706,287 acres) in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In 1980, the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added over 56 million acres of wilderness to the system, the largest addition in a single year. 1984 marks the year when the newest wilderness areas were added. 

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall, however, only about 5 percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected as wilderness. Because Alaska contains just over half of America’s wilderness only about 2.7 percent of the contiguous United States—an area about the size of Minnesota—is protected as wilderness.

These wilderness areas are located within national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation lands and waters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans turned to these areas for physical recreation, mental well-being, and inspiration, and our public lands and waters became places of healing and sanctuary.

Wilderness is in the arid deserts, cypress swamps, alpine meadows, sandy beaches, and rocky crags. From Alaska to Florida, wilderness protects some of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in America. It offers a refuge for wildlife and a place to seek relaxation, adventure, or something in between for us. What does wilderness mean to you?  

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy the Outdoors

Celebrate Wildnerness Month by getting out and visiting some of America’s state parks and national parks. Or, for more local ideas here are a few suggestions on how you can get started to actively appreciate and enjoy our beautiful wilderness:

In addition, the fourth Saturday in September (September 24, 2022) celebrates the connection between people and green spaces in their community with the annual National Public Lands Day. The day is set aside for volunteers to improve the health of public lands, parks, and historic sites. This day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort.

With 803 designated locations, searching for a National Wilderness Area to visit may seem like an impossible task. Consider the following eight wilderness areas for RV travel.

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1964

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

The Superstitions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although there is no guarantee that you’ll find buried treasure, you are sure to discover miles and miles of desolate and barren mountains, seemingly endless and haunting canyons, raging summer temperatures that can surpass 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and a general dearth of water.

Elevations range from approximately 2,000 feet on the western boundary to 6,265 feet on Mound Mountain. In the western portion rolling land is surrounded by steep, even vertical terrain. Weaver’s Needle, a dramatic volcanic plug, rises to 4,553 feet. Vegetation is primarily that of the Sonoran Desert with semidesert grassland and chaparral higher up.

Peralta Trailhead © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the harsh setting, much of Superstition Wilderness, especially the Peralta and First Water Trails is overused by humans. These two trailheads receive about 80 percent of the annual human traffic and the U.S. Forest Service calls the 6.3-mile Peralta one of the most heavily used trails in Arizona. Other trails within the Wilderness are virtually untrodden. There are about 180 miles of trails as well as other unmaintained tracks.

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Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Wilderness, California

Designated: 1976

Size: 595,364 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Joshua Tree Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 transformed Joshua Tree National Monument into a national park and expanded the wilderness. The additions thrust north into the Pinto Mountains, northeast into the Coxcomb Mountains, southeast into the Eagle Mountains, and southwest into the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Most of the park away from road corridors is Wilderness, a meeting place of two desert ecosystems.

The lower, drier Colorado Desert dominates the eastern half of the park, home to abundant creosote bushes, the spidery ocotillo, and the “jumping” cholla cactus. The slightly more cool and moist Mojave Desert covers the western half of the park serving as a hospitable breeding ground for the undisciplined Joshua tree. You’ll find examples of a third ecosystem within the park: five fan-palm oases where surface or near-surface water gives life to the stately palms.

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The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Wilderness, Georgia

Designated: 1974

Size: 353,981 acres

Managed by: Fish and Wildlife Service

The Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Imagine waking to a mist-enshrouded wetland echoing with the calls of herons and ibis. Your camping site is a wooden platform surrounded by miles and miles of wet prairie or moss-covered cypress. The only sounds you hear are the calls of native wildlife and those you make upon taking in such beauty. This is what it is like to experience a night in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Wilderness Area.

The Okefenokee NWR encompasses the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the oldest and best-preserved freshwater areas in America. Native Americans called the swamp the “land of trembling earth” because the unstable peat deposits that cover much of the swamp floor tremble when stepped on. “Okefenokee” is a European interpretation of their words. The Okefenokee Swamp forms the headwaters for two very distinct rivers. The historic Suwannee River originates in the heart of the swamp and flows southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The second is the St. Marys River, which originates in the southeastern portion of the swamp and flows to the Atlantic Ocean forming part of the boundary between Georgia and Florida.

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Mt. Wrightson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1984

Size: 25,141 acres

Managed by: National Forest Service

Mt. Wrightson Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rising a magnificent 7,000 feet from the desert floor, 9,452-foot-high Mount Wrightson is visible from great distances. At the core of the Santa Rita Mountains, this Wilderness has rough hillsides, deep canyons, and lofty ridges and peaks surrounded by semiarid hills and sloping grasslands. Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir dominate the upper elevations. The stream-fed canyons support an abundance of plant and animal life. At the foot of Madera Canyon on the edge of the Wilderness, a developed recreation area serves as a popular jumping-off point for hikers and backpackers.

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Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness, California

Designated: 1972

Size: 79,061 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Lassen Volcanic Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In May of 1914, Lassen Peak began a seven-year series of eruptions including a humdinger in 1915 when an enormous mushroom cloud reached seven miles in height. Today, the Lassen Volcanic National Park serves as a compact laboratory of volcanic phenomena and associated thermal features (mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs, sulfurous vents) with Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) near the center of the park’s western half. Lassen Peak and its trail are non-Wilderness but almost four-fifths of the park has been designated Wilderness, a land of gorgeous lakes teeming with fish, thick forests of pine and fir, many splendid creeks, and a fascinating hodgepodge of extinct and inactive volcanoes.

Best of all, this mountainous country remains relatively uncrowded by California standards. At least 779 plant species and numerous animals have been identified here. The eastern border of the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness is shared with Caribou Wilderness and one trail crosses the boundary. About 150 miles of trails snake through the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. A 17-mile-long section of the Pacific Crest Trail crosses from north to south.

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Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

West Malpais Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 1987

Size: 39,540 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Malpais Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “the badlands,” a name that perfectly describes this region of New Mexico where countless volcanic eruptions sent rivers of molten rock and flying cinders over what is now a bleak valley of three million years’ worth of hardened lava. Native American settlers probably witnessed the last of the eruptions. Their former home is now a land of craters and lava tubes, cinder cones and spatters cones, ice caves and pressure ridges, and a surprising amount of vegetation. Even on terrain that one would presume to be barren, wind-deposited debris has thickened enough to support grasses, cacti, aspen, pine, juniper, and fir.

Preserved within the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area, West Malpais Wilderness is home to Hole-In-The-Wall, the largest island-like depression in these lava fields. Over the years, moisture and soil collected on some of the oldest lava to form this 6,000-acre stand of ponderosa pine.

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Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness, Arizona

Designated: 1978

Size: 312,600 acres

Managed by: National Park Service

Organ Pipe Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness is bordered by the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness to the west.

Located at the heart of the vast and lush Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness hugs the Mexican border and celebrates a desert full of life: 550 species of vascular plants, 53 species of mammals, 43 species of reptiles, and more than 278 species of birds. The monument conserves 90 percent of the organ pipe cactus range in the US. The organ pipe is a large multispined cactus rare in the United States.

From Mount Ajo at 4,024 feet, atop the Ajo Range on the eastern border, the land falls away to broad alluvial desert plains studded with cacti and creosote bushes, isolated canyons, dry arroyos, and stark desert mountains. Summer temperatures have been known to reach an unbelievably scorching 120 degrees Fahrenheit but winter brings daytime temperatures in the 60s and chilly nights. About 95 percent of the monument has been designated Wilderness making this Arizona’s third largest Wilderness.

Organ Pipe camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No reliable water sources exist in Organ Pipe Cactus except at the 208-site campground near the visitor’s center. The camp is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis for a fee.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Mountains Wilderness, New Mexico

Designated: 2019

Size: 160,164 acres

Managed by: Bureau of Land Management

Organ Mountains Wilderness © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains Wilderness provides the backdrop to the Mesilla Valley and New Mexico’s second-largest city: Las Cruces. From picnickers to horsemen, family outings to day hikes, these mountains offer recreation, important wildlife habitat, and watershed protection. The striking granite crags and spires of the Organ Mountains range from 4,600 to just over 9,000 feet and are so named because of the steep, needle-like spires that resemble the pipes of an organ. The wilderness includes the Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail.

Get more tips for visiting Organ Mountains Wilderness

Worth Pondering…

The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.

—Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring

The 8 Best National Parks for a Weekend Getaway

Only have two days for a quick getaway? These stunning national parks are perfect for a weekend trip.

All over the United States, there are national parks filled with trails, wildlife, and plenty of natural wonders waiting to be explored. Even better: plenty of them can be thoroughly enjoyed throughout a two-day weekend.

From the lush green landscapes of the Smoky Mountains to the desert environment of Arches National Park, odds are, there’s a park that’s close to you (or just a car or RV ride away) that can make for an epic quick getaway.

If you’re thinking about a weekend getaway in the great outdoors, consider one of these eight national parks which are among the best for an in-and-out style vacation. And for even more travel ideas, don’t miss The Ultimate RV Travel Bucket List.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

A weekend getaway to Joshua Tree National Park—which is best if you’re coming from the western U.S. like California, Nevada, or Arizona—can include everything from birding and horseback riding to camping and stargazing. While the park is known for its interesting-looking trees, called Joshua trees, it’s also known for its rocky landscape that beckons rock climbers into the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With over 300 miles of hiking trails and 8,000 established rock-climbing routes, there’s something for everyone who enjoys the great outdoors. Just be sure to take a break in the middle of the day so you can stay up late to enjoy the nightly spectacles in the sky from the Milky Way galaxy. The park’s nearly complete darkness allows you to see millions of stars and planets throughout the year.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. While a little planning is a key to getting into the park on busy days, once you’re in for the weekend, you don’t need to leave. The park allows camping along the South Rim and North Rim and those who want to venture past the edge of the canyon into the depths can take a mule ride (though some limitations do apply and spots fill up months in advance).

Weekend getaways are the most convenient from Arizona, California, and Utah.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

One of the coolest national parks in the country is Arches National Park in Utah. The park features more than 2,000 natural rock arches that dot the rugged desert landscape. Camping at the park can be done at Devils Garden Campground from the beginning of March until the end of October. The area offers a tranquil location to lay your head at night and spectacular views to wake up to each morning. Tours via bike, car, and horse are all available daily and allow you to see different sections of the park.

Utah, Colorado, and Nevada are all within a weekend getaway distance to the park.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

With ten different camping locations and plenty to offer in the way of activities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great weekend escape for families or friends traveling together. Trails offer picnic stops where you can munch on a snack or eat lunch near waterfalls. Those who love to fish can do so within the park as long as they have a fishing license for the states of North Carolina or Tennessee. (Fun fact: You can keep up to five of the fish that you catch and be able to cook them for dinner at night.)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ideal for those living in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands takes up 275 square miles of breathtaking landscape in southeastern New Mexico. Its most noticeable feature: miles of undulating dunes made of blindingly white gypsum crystals which were formed 10,000 years ago when shallows sea that had existed for millions of years dried up leaving the gypsum behind. Though long a National Monument, White Sands was elevated to park status in December 2019. Four marked trails allow hiking and since gypsum unlike sand reflects the sun’s heat, the dunes are easy on your feet. And if you’re so inclined, you can rent plastic sleds to slide down them.

New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and West Texas are within a weekend getaway distance to the park.

Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

Hidden in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, America’s newest national park attracted over one million visitors last year so clearly, the secret is out. It’s been called the Grand Canyon of the East and this park’s most prominent feature is a wide, fast-flowing whitewater river that snakes through the gorge. Inside, you can hike on any number of different trails, traverse the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, the third-highest bridge in the US, or indulge in a full-on class five whitewater raft trip along the 53 miles of accessible river. Just bring some dry clothes.

New River Gorge National Park is ideal for those living in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A weekend getaway to Badlands National Park—which is best if you’re coming from the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, or Kansas—can include everything from hiking and horseback riding to camping and stargazing. This bizarre moonscape was created millions of years ago when ash deposits and erosion sculpted sedimentary rock into rippled peaks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fossils show that rhinos and camels once roamed here but today these 244,000 acres are home to bison, bobcats, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep. As long as you stay hydrated, the park’s 800,000 annual visitors find the Badlands fascinating to explore. Hikers scale the rocks to take in otherworldly views of the White River Valley and cyclists coast by colorful buttes and grass prairie. At night, the pitch-black sky reveals 7,500 stars and a clear view of the Milky Way; telescopes provide close-ups of moons and planets.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” 

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nothing compares to sleeping under the stars and with four campgrounds there’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah National Park.

Just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is also ideal for those living in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

12 Dog Friendly National Parks

More than 300 million nature lovers head to a national park annually, many with their four-legged friends. Not all parks, however, welcome them. Which parks are the most pet friendly and which should you avoid when accompanied by a furry friend?

Although most of the 63 national parks don’t allow dogs so as not to disturb the wildlife, a few permit dogs on leash and in designated areas (except service dogs who are allowed to move around more freely).

A tour of America’s national parks is on many RV bucket lists but bringing your pet to these destinations can be a challenge. It’s important to know pet restrictions in the national parks you’re hoping to visit to minimize your impact on these sensitive environments. But an easier alternative is to target the most dog-friendly national parks in the US. Some of these parks offer miles of pet-friendly hiking trails as well as boarding services if you plan a hike to a location where your pups can’t go. 

So let’s check them out!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Stunning sandstone cliffs naturally colored in brilliant orange and pink hues leave visitors amazed in this 229-square-mile national park including a 15-mile-long narrow canyon popular for hiking through. Dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times and are allowed on the Pa’rus Trail. All other trails and wilderness areas are off-limits. Pets are allowed along public roads and parking areas, in developed campgrounds and picnic areas, and on the grounds of Zion Lodge. No pets, other than service animals are allowed on shuttle buses.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

One of the newest areas under the management of the National Park Service is also one of its most dog-friendly parks. Dogs are welcome on all park trails which provide spectacular views of the gorge. 

Several trails lead to spectacular waterfalls where you and your pup can cool off during the summer. There are also several pet-friendly campgrounds down in the gorge if you’re looking for a beautiful place to camp right along the river. 

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Explore miles of ever-shifting dunes with your pup by your side in this unique New Mexico national park. Your pup has to remain on a leash with a maximum length of six feet but dogs are permitted everywhere in this park aside from public buildings. 

Be aware that there is very little shade out on the dunes. So your best bet is to explore first thing in the morning or take your pup out for a sunset stroll if you’re spending the night in this otherworldly national park. 

Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest is a unique stop just off Interstate 40 about two hours east of Flagstaff, Arizona. At one time, the environment here held the ideal conditions for preserving (well, petrifying) vast stands of now-extinct conifers. 

You’re allowed to bring your dogs on all park trails and along paved roads as well as into official wilderness areas off-trail. Just be aware that the park can be hot, offers minimal shade, and contains many fossil deposits that dogs should be discouraged from gnawing on. 

Get more tips for visiting Petrified Forest National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In a park that boasts more than 500 miles of hiking trails only 20 miles are off-limits to our four-legged friends. Dogs are also welcome in park campgrounds, picnic areas, and pull-outs along the park’s famous Skyline Drive. 

Whether you and your pup are looking for some wilderness solitude, picturesque views, or cooling waterfalls, you’ll find them here. Plus, you’re even welcome to explore sections of the famed Appalachian Trail. 

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

While a swampy sanctuary in South Carolina might not be your first thought for a pet-friendly vacation, Congaree permits leashed pets on all hiking trails and campsites. The fall and winter months are the best time to visit after the summer heat dwindles and flood waters recede. 

Plus, you’ll avoid the height of mosquito season. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even rent a kayak or canoe to explore one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America so long as you don’t mind catching the occasional sight of an alligator. 

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Heading down into the canyon with your pup is not an option here but walking on a leash along the paved South Rim Trail is permitted. So you can enjoy the views down into the canyon while your pup gets some exercise. 

The 13 miles of trails along the South Rim give you a chance to get away from the park’s most crowded areas but the South Rim Kennel is an option if you want to board your pup and explore a little further. The Mather, Desert View, and Trailer Village campgrounds are all pet-friendly as well. 

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Pets are allowed on leash in the developed areas of the park and on the trail from the visitor center to the Fruita Campground. Pets are also allowed on the Fremont River Trail from the campground to the south end of Hattie’s Field in unfenced and/or unlocked orchards in the Chesnut and Doc Inglesby picnic areas and campgrounds. The apples were certainly unexpected treats.

Pets are allowed within 50 feet of the centerline of roads (paved and dirt) open to public vehicle travel and in parking areas open to public vehicle travel. Pets are not permitted on other hiking trails, in public buildings, or the backcountry.

Get more tips for visiting Capitol Reef National Park

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads but must be kept on a leash at all times. Dogs are only allowed on two short walking paths—the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. The Gatlinburg Trail is a perfect hike for dogs and it leads right into the town of Gatlinburg. Streams, creeks, little bridges, and friendly folks will all be found along the way. You may see bears during your time here, so if your dog is reactive, just keep that in mind.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

You’ll love Joshua Tree National Park! Pets are allowed within 100 feet of roads, picnic areas, and campgrounds. Pets are also permitted on the paved Oasis of Mara and Keys View trails. Be aware of hot sidewalks and pavement that will burn your pet’s feet and walk only during the cooler parts of the day.

Unpaved roads offer spectacular scenery and a chance to immerse yourself in the desert landscape with your pet while following park regulations and protecting the park. Anywhere you can drive your vehicle you can go with your leashed pet. Some unpaved roads require 4-wheel drive and/or high clearance.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Can you say prairie dogs? So cute and so plentiful in Theodore Roosevelt National Park! Leashed pets may be walked along roads and road shoulders, sidewalks, parking areas, and in campgrounds and picnic areas. Seeing your dogs looking at the prairie dogs from the car will be so memorable. The sidewalk at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center (I-94, exit 32) is a good place to walk dogs and has fantastic views of the badlands all along the way. Pets are not allowed on trails.

Get more tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Visitors take a trip to the prehistoric past when visiting Badlands National Park known to contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Ancient rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats once roamed the area that’s now home to bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets in the 244,000 acres of protected grass and prairie lands.

Dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times and are only allowed in developed areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, and other areas open to motor vehicles. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails, public buildings, and backcountry areas.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Your Dog Can Become A B.A.R.K. Ranger!

The Bark Ranger program was introduced by the National Park Service as a way to encourage responsible national park travel with dogs.

Visit a park. Take the pledge. Get a badge.

Worth Pondering…

The dog lives for the day, the hour, and even the moment.

—Robert Falcon Scott

Extraordinary Places

Beautiful Experiences Extraordinary Places

My ever-growing list of Extraordinary Places will help take your road trip planning to the next level. Hand-picked, I promise each one is worth the detour.

What is an Extraordinary Place?

Extraordinary Places are the places that stay with you long after visiting. They are the places that fill you with wonder. They are epic natural wonders, weird roadside attractions, and deeply meaningful locations. Simply put, Extraordinary Places turn a great road trip into an unforgettable adventure.   

Explore my list and start planning your next RV road trip today.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

There are, essentially, three ways to experience the Grand Canyon: The more remote and less crowded North Rim, the more developed South Rim with more amenities, and the rigorous Rim to Rim hike that lets you experience both. Another important thing to remember is that it’s incredibly difficult to take a good picture that captures the size and scale of the canyon.

A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size. Unique combinations of geologic color and erosional forms decorate a canyon that is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, a World Heritage Site, encompasses 1,218,375 acres and lies on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern Arizona. The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins typical of the southwestern United States. Drainage systems have cut deeply through the rock-forming numerous steep-walled canyons. Forests are found at higher elevations while the lower elevations are comprised of a series of desert basins.

Well known for its geologic significance, the Grand Canyon is one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world. It offers an excellent record of three of the four eras of geological time, a rich and diverse fossil record, and a vast array of geologic features and rock types. It is considered one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion in the world.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park has two miles of beaches, a spacious campground with 496 full-hookup sites, and a brand new Lodge. The Lakeside Cabins and Eagle Cottages are also available for overnight stays. Longleaf pines and the local palmetto forest surround the four “woods cabins”. Remaining “lakeside cabins” along Lake Shelby offer swimming, fishing, and sunrise walks right outside your front door.

Related: Life Is a Highway: Taking the Great American Road Trip

There’s gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls, and a variety of activities but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into. 

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Park features 28 miles of paved trails or boardwalks including seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex that encourage visitors to explore its nine distinct ecosystems. Enjoy the serenity of Gulf Oak Ridge trail as you stroll underneath Live Oak trees draped in Spanish Moss. Take a bike ride on Rosemary Dunes. If you’re hoping to see an Alligator, explore Gopher Tortoise trail along the edge of Lake Shelby. A majority of the trails are suitable for walking, running, and biking.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s proximity to Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Foley, Fairhope, and Mobile provides Gulf State Park with several retail and restaurant options to choose from. The Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, Weeks Bay Reserve, The USS Alabama, and Meaher State Park are all within driving distance.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

This great Navajo Nation valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s about 16 miles from Bluff to the eastern entrance on the right of Valley of the Gods, a miniature version of Monument Valley without the crowds. Its mesas and spires are formed of the same Cedar Mesa sandstone as the somewhat larger formations at Monument Valley. The 17-mile loop drive on a dirt road is suitable for most vehicles in good weather. Drive this beautiful, lonely loop—though not in a large RV and not towing a trailer. Heavy rains often make this road impassable. Valley of the Gods is also a good place to dry camp.

Related: 14 of the Most Beautiful Lakes for RV Travel

The loop finishes on Highway 261 (paved) just south of the descent from the Moki Dugway and north of the turnoff for Goosenecks State Park. Highway 261 will take you south back to U.S. 163.

Black’s Barbecue © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart, Texas

A short trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations anywhere. While you could make it a day trip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it.

Your itinerary includes the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (established 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You’ll be consuming a lot of meat so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please.

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart has one more stop in the store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978). There’s a drive-through and BBQ sandwiches if you so please but you can also head inside for a full plate lunch packed with smoked turkey, sausage links, and moist brisket with sides like mac and cheese, hash browns, and broccoli salad—because you should probably get some greens in.

Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. This “little city with a big heart” as the town slogan goes retains much of its wild cowboy roots and will show you an entirely different perspective on Texas. Check out the Jail Museum for its take on Norman castellated architecture (a popular style for jails during the period; it was built in the mid-1800s). Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course which also has RV camping, an on-site swimming pool, and a fishing hole.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah

Lake Powell is a reservoir on the Colorado River straddling the border between Utah and Arizona. Most of Lake Powell along with Rainbow Bridge National Monument is located in Utah. It is a major vacation spot that around two million people visit every year.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made reservoir by maximum water capacity in the US behind Lake Mead storing 24,322,000 acre-feet of water when full. However, due to high water withdrawals for human and agricultural consumption and because of subsequent droughts in the area, Lake Mead has fallen below Lake Powell in size several times in terms of volume of water, depth, and surface area.

Lake Powell was created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the Glen Canyon Dam which led to the creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The reservoir is named for explorer John Wesley Powell, a one-armed American Civil War veteran who explored the river via three wooden boats in 1869.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California

The General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest tree, measured by volume. It stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base. Sequoia trunks remain wide high up. Sixty feet above the base the Sherman Tree is 17.5 feet in diameter. A fence protects the shallow roots of the Sherman Tree. Help protect the tree by staying on the paved trail.

Related: The Wonderful National Parks of the West

Sherman Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two trails lead to the Sherman Tree. Parking for the Main Trail is off Wolverton Road (between the Sherman Tree and Lodgepole); just follow the signs. The half-mile trail has a few stairs and is paved. As you walk, you’ll enter the Giant Forest sequoia grove. Exhibits along the trail explain the natural history of giant sequoias.

Sherman Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hundreds of sequoias grow in the Giant Forest sequoia grove. The Congress Trail, a paved two-mile loop that begins near the Sherman Tree offers excellent opportunities to see notable trees. Big Trees Trail, a one-mile loop around a lush meadow has interpretive exhibits about the natural history of giant sequoias. For a longer walk, explore the many miles of trails in the area. Beyond the Giant Forest, more sequoia groves await.

Visit the world’s second-largest tree, the General Grant Tree in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park is immense—nearly 800,000 acres—and infinitely variable. It can seem unwelcoming even brutal during the heat of summer. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two deserts, two large ecosystems primarily determined by elevation come together in the park. Few places more vividly illustrate the contrast between “high” and “low” deserts. Below 3,000 feet the Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert) occupying the eastern half of the park is dominated by the abundant creosote bush. Adding interest to this arid land are small stands of spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The higher, slightly cooler, and wetter Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the undisciplined Joshua tree, extensive stands of which occur throughout the western half of the park. According to legend, Mormon pioneers considered the limbs of the Joshua trees to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the “promised land”. Others were not as visionary. Early explorer John Fremont described them as “…the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom.”

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home from about A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the US.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls.

Related: Get in your RV and Go! Scenic Drives in America

Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture.

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park. It has 150 rooms plus an additional 75 open areas. Twenty-one of the rooms are kivas and 25 to 30 rooms have residential features.

Forsyth Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia

Forsyth Park is a large city park that occupies 30 acres in the historic district of Savannah. The park is bordered by Gaston Street on the North, Drayton Street on the East, Park Avenue on the South, and Whitaker Street on the West.

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park contains walking paths, a café, a children’s play area, a Fragrant Garden for the blind, a large fountain, tennis courts, basketball courts, areas for soccer and Frisbee, and a home field for Savannah Shamrocks Rugby Club. From time to time, concerts are held at Forsyth Park. Standing in the middle of the park with the pathway wrapping around it lies the Confederate Memorial Statue. This work of art was donated by the Monroe County Courthouse to commemorate those volunteers who gave their lives fighting for the Confederacy. Surrounded by a fence, it is protected to sustain its culture and longevity.

Worth Pondering…

Life is a gift, not an obligation. So make the very best of every single day you’re given!

—Donovan Campbell

11 National Park Service Sites I Love

National parks get a lot of attention but there’s so much more to the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” creating the National Park Service (NPS), a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for maintaining national parks and monuments that were then managed by the department. The National Park System has since expanded to 423 units (often referred to as parks) including 63 national parks, more than 150 related areas, and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

There’s never a bad time to visit America’s amazing national parks, but the decision of which ones to visit can feel overwhelming. To make it easier, I’ve handpicked 11 of my favorite parks that are must-visits. Start planning your next outdoor adventure today!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

I wonder if Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. I’m sure it’s not, but follow along with me. If building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield seemed crazy, sculpting a mountain into a national treasure in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota must have seemed off-the-charts insane.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But both the baseball field of the movie and the patriotic landmark were works of those people following their passions. And both were great successes. Two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore. Although they come to see patriotism-inspiring 60-foot-tall busts of four presidents carved into granite, they’re also inspired by the natural treasures of the Black Hills.

Was that the plan of the creators of the memorial—“if we build it, they’ll come” to South Dakota and see the Black Hills?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That was one of their good calls. However, not all of their visions came to fruition. For example, behind Lincoln’s head is the Hall of Records. It was originally envisioned as a massive chamber hundreds of feet into the mountain to hold the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other important documents. They got 70 feet in when cooler heads prevailed, so to speak.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

Unlike many national parks, Blue Ridge Parkway is a designer park. I mean that the park wasn’t developed based on a specific landmark or feature (e.g. the Grand Canyon or Badlands). The plan was to build a parkway—but the route wasn’t pre-determined. Instead, landscape architects and engineers were given creative freedom and chose and designed a route that plays out like a symphony. Or a musical, or a story! Pick your metaphor of something that’s crafted to change pace, change feeling, and change perspective.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway is 469 miles of views, history, nature, Appalachia, and America. It’s not a highway, designed for speed. It’s a parkway, designed for savoring the journey.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona

If you’ve been to a national park site, you may have heard one of the rangers say something like “this is your park, it’s owned by all Americans.” This one is not. This park is owned by the Navajo Nation and is managed cooperatively. A few Navajo families still live, raise livestock, and farm in the park. Travel in many areas is restricted so read the signs and follow the rules.

Yes, you can go on a hike with a ranger, but here, for the most memorable experience, take a canyon tour with a Navajo guide. It’s a truly authentic, welcoming experience you’ll remember forever.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

Perched high above the Colorado River, Arches National Park is carved and shaped by weathering and erosion. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed 29 times in all leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises through it, forming it into domes and ridges with valleys in between.

Colonial National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia

Want to go way back in American history? Then you’ll head to some of the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

Related Article: America the Beautiful: The National Parks

Fan of battlefields or not, Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you’re in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Right along the U.S.-Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has the kind of scenery you’d expect when you picture the desert. The monument’s tall, skinny namesake cacti abound in every direction. Take a ride down Ajo Mountain Drive for great views of the “forests” of Saguaro (another species of cactus native to the area).

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make sure you pack plenty of water and layers. Though temps can get dangerously hot in the daytime, desert temps drop dramatically when the sun goes down, even in the summer. And you’ll definitely want to stick around for the night sky here—the desert climate lends itself to clear evenings. In the winter months, rangers offer stargazing activities with telescopes.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Within striking distance of the famous Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument is home to stunning, gravity-defying rock formations including Sipapu Bridge, a 31-foot-wide bridge spanning 268 feet. The park was the first-ever Dark Sky Park to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the famed stargazing, the area is rich in opportunities to learn more about ancient and modern-day Native American culture. Make sure to take time to hike to the park’s well-preserved petroglyphs. Always be respectful by sticking to the trails and leaving any artifacts you may stumble upon exactly where you found them.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Everyone needs to add Joshua Tree National Park to their travel list. Located in Southern California, this national park has unique landscapes—large boulders, Mojave and Colorado deserts, and Joshua trees and yucca trees. The desert is beautiful with the various cacti and wildflowers scattered through the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for several days. Stop by one of the park’s Visitor Centers to hear recommendations on things to do. Some of the popular activities include camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, and stargazing. The pitch-black skies are beautiful in the evenings. Visit the Sky’s The Limit Observatory which is next to the park and observe the stars.

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Hiking is the major highlight as there are over two dozen trails from easy to challenging routes. It’s best to hike early in the morning and avoid the summer’s brutal heat. Favorite hiking trails include 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles) and the Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Both of these trails lead to an oasis of palm trees in the desert. You’ll have an awesome time visiting Joshua Tree National Park.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona

Hidden among the curves and canyons of the southwest is an artificial oasis. The man-made Lake Powell offers opportunities to swim, fish, kayak, and boat straight through the desert. Glen Canyon is known for Horseshoe Bend, that perfect blue curve of the Colorado River through Navajo Sandstone canyon walls. The canyon rim is usually crowded with tourists aiming for the perfect Instagram shot but it is indeed worth seeing in person, especially at sunset.

For a road less traveled, drive the Burr Trail from Bullfrog to Boulder, which will take you through unspoiled vistas of Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Check the weather before you hit the trail—flash floods can make the roads impassable and dangerous.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of the pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket-list destination.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventure starts on the ferry from St. Mary’s, the only way to get to the island which offers a wonderful view of the diverse habitats. Rent a bike, book a tour with park rangers, or bring a pair of good hiking shoes as the island is a wonderful place to explore. You can spot wild horses roaming freely, raccoons, wild boars, alligators, white-tailed deer, and many birds. Stop by the ruins of Carnegie Dungeness mansion which was built in 1884 by Thomas Carnegie and burned in the 1950s.

Related Article: Get Off the Beaten Path with These Lesser-Known National Parks

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

The American Southwest is full of otherworldly places but White Sands National Park, a massive field of pale dunes in southern New Mexico is about as good as it gets for austere, alien majesty. Wander long enough through the endless hillocks of gypsum crystals and you will start to feel like you’re in an altered state (though hopefully not because you’re dehydrated; be sure to bring lots of water). It’s easy to imagine one of the sandworms from Dune bursting up from below or a UFO from nearby Roswell drifting across the shimmering sky.

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome

From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

For more than a hundred years, the United States’ national parks have been inspiring visitors

Comprising a collection of stunningly diverse landscapes, from active volcanoes spewing lava to crystalline glaciers creeping down snow-covered peaks to eerie deserts that look like someone pulled the bathtub stopper on an ancient ocean, US national parks have captured the imagination of millions of park-goers.

Full of history—both geologic, Indigenous, and more recent—and featuring trails that range from ADA-accessible boardwalks to challenging treks that test the hardiest of outdoor athletes, America’s national parks are at once culturally significant, approachable, and wild.

Here’s a quick look at the best of the best with links where you can learn more about these incredible diverse landscapes.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Giant sweeping arcs of sandstone frame snowy peaks and desert landscapes; explore the park’s namesake formations in a red-rock wonderland.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,806,865

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

Read more: Power of Nature: Arches National Park Offers Endless Beauty

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

It’s easy to understand why the Lakota named this place mako sica (badland) when you look over the rainbow-hued canyons and buttes that sit like an ocean boiled dry.

State: South Dakota

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Scenic drives, wildlife, cycling, hiking, stargazing

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021:1,224,226

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Read more: Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

From the moment you enter the national park, there’s spectacular scenery everywhere you look. Head to the Chisos Basin for the most dramatic landscape but any visit should also include time in the Chihuahuan Desert, home to curious creatures and adaptable plants, and down along the Rio Grande, the watery dividing line between the US and Mexico.

State: Texas

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, hiking, scenic drives, stargazing

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 581,220

Related article: The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Read more: 10 of the Best National and State Parks in Texas

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Famous for its otherworldly sunset-colored spires punctuated by tracts of evergreen forest, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the planet’s most exquisite geological wonders. Repeated freezes and thaws have eroded the small park’s soft sandstone and limestone into sandcastle-like pinnacles known as hoodoos, jutted fins, and huge amphitheaters filled with thousands of pastel daggers.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, stargazing

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 2,104,600

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Read more: Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

A forbidding and beautiful maze of red-rock fins, bridges, needles, spires, craters, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands is a crumbling, eroding beauty—a vision of ancient earth.

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops, stargazing

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 911,594

Related article: A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Read more: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Giant slabs of chocolate-red rock and sweeping yellow sandstone domes dominate the landscape of Capitol Reef which Indigenous Freemont people called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

State: Utah

Entrance Fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $20

Great for: Hiking, photo ops, scenic drives, geology, Ancestral Pueblo culture, stargazing

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,405,353

Related article: Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Read more: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Scores of wondrous caves hide under the hills at this unique national park. The cavern formations are an ethereal wonderland of stalactites and fantastical geological features.

State: New Mexico

Entrance Fee: 3-day pass per person $15

Great for: Family travel, photo ops, scenic drives, caving, stargazing

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 349,244

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Read more: Wake Up In New Mexico

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Encompassing nearly 27,000 acres, Congaree National Park is the largest expanse of old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern US. The lush trees growing here are some of the tallest in the southeast forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies left in the world.

State: South Carolina

Entrance Fee: Free

Great for: Wildlife, family travel, walking, canoeing and kayaking

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 215,181

Related article: Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree

Read more: Home of Champions: Congaree National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration and preservation. Ancestral Puebloans lived in and near the Grand Canyon for centuries and their stories echo in the reds, rusts, and oranges of the canyon walls and the park’s spires and buttes.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, family travel, hiking, photo ops, geology, scenic drives, stargazing

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 4,532,677

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Read more: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland from spring’s wildflowers to summer’s flame azaleas to autumn’s quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes and winter’s ice-fringed cascades. This mesmerizing backdrop is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

States: North Carolina and Tennessee

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: History, wildlife, family travel, hiking, scenic drives, fall colors, botany

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

Recreational visitors in 2021: 14,161,548

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

This 794,000-acre park is at the transition zone of two deserts: the low and dry Colorado and the higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave. Rock climbers know the park as the best place to climb in California; hikers seek out hidden, shady, desert-fan-palm oases fed by natural springs and small streams; and mountain bikers are hypnotized by the desert vistas.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Cycling, scenic drives, hiking, rock climbing, photo ops, stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 3,064,400

Related article: Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Read more: Joshua Tree: Admire Two Deserts At Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Anchoring the southernmost link in the Cascades’ chain of volcanoes, this alien landscape bubbles over with roiling mud pots, noxious sulfur vents, steamy fumaroles, colorful cinder cones, and crater lakes.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($10 in winter)

Great for: Photo ops, scenic drives, hiking, stargazing 

Recreational visitors in 2021: 359,635

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read more: Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

More than 700 years after its inhabitants disappeared, Mesa Verde retains an air of mystery. No one knows for sure why the Ancestral Puebloans left their elaborate cliff dwellings in the 1300s. What remains is a wonderland for adventurers of all sizes who can clamber up ladders to carved-out dwellings, see rock art, and delve into the mysteries of ancient America.

State: Colorado

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30 ($20 in winter)

Great for: Ancestral Pueblo culture, scenic drives, tours, stargazing

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 548,47

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Read more: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The New River is the United States’ newest national park but is one of the oldest waterways in the world and the primeval forest gorge it runs through is one of the most breathtaking in the Appalachians. The region is an adventure mecca with world-class white-water runs and challenging single-track trails. Rim and gorge hiking trails offer beautiful views.

State: West Virginia

Entrance fee: Free

Great for: Hiking, biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing, extreme sports

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,682,720

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

Read more: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

The ‘trees’ of Petrified Forest National Park are fossilized logs scattered over a vast area of semi-desert grassland, buried beneath silica-rich volcanic ash before they could decompose. Up to 6 feet in diameter, they’re strikingly beautiful with extravagantly patterned cross-sections of wood glinting in ethereal pinks, blues, and greens.

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenic drives, geology, hiking, biking, Route 66, stargazing 

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 590,334

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park

Read more: Triassic World: Petrified Forest National Park

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is named for the towering rock spires that rise abruptly out of the chaparral-covered hills east of Salinas Valley. Its famous formations are the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano that originated in present-day southern California before getting sheared in two and moving nearly 200 miles north along the San Andreas Fault.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, photo ops, hiking, rock climbing, caving

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 348,857

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Read more: Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

Saguaros (sah-wah-ros) are icons of the American Southwest and an entire cactus army of these majestic, ribbed sentinels is protected in this desert playground. Or more precisely, playgrounds: Saguaro National Park is divided into east and west units separated by 30 miles and the city of Tucson

State: Arizona

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Cycling, wildlife, plants, hiking

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,079,783

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park

Read more: Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

With trees as high as 20-story buildings, Sequoia National Park is an extraordinary park with soul-sustaining forests and vibrant wildflower meadows.

State: California

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Family travel, scenic drives, hiking, photo ops

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,059,548

Related article: The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Read more: Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is like a new smile from nature: in spring and summer, the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves turn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. With the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to do and see.

State: Virginia

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, fall colors

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 1,592,312

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Read more: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wildlife abounds in these surreal mounds of striated earth in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; sunset is particularly evocative as shadows dance across the lonely buttes.

State: North Dakota

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $30

Great for: Hiking, wildlife, scenic drives, Presidential history, stargazing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 796,085

Related article: North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read more: Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Undulating through the Tularosa Basin like something out of a dream, these ethereal dunes are a highlight of any trip to New Mexico and a must on every landscape photographer’s itinerary. Try to time a visit to White Sands with sunrise or sunset (or both), when the dazzlingly white sea of sand is at its most magical.

State: New Mexico

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $25

Great for: Scenery, hiking, photography

White Sand National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 782,469

Related article: A White Oasis: White Sands National Park

Read more: New Mexico’s White Sands Is Officially a National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

From secret oases of trickling water to the hot-pink blooms of a prickly pear cactus, Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.

State: Utah

Entrance fee: 7-day pass per vehicle $35

Great for: Scenery, hiking, family travel, photo ops, biking

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visitors in 2021: 5,039,835

Related article: Rock of Ages: Zion National Park

Read more: Roam Free in Greater Zion: Quail Creek State Park

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer

America the Beautiful: The National Parks

63 national parks draw millions of visitors a year to unique natural wonders and unforgettable terrains

In 1882, choirmaster Samuel A. Ward took a leisurely ferry ride from Coney Island into New York City and was so struck with inspiration at the summer scene that he immediately composed a tune.

A decade later on an 1893 summer day in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates gazed out from a window and saw a “sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies,” that a hymn immediately sprang to mind. In 1910, the music and poetry came together under the title “America the Beautiful.” The work struck an enduring chord, resonating with so many Americans that numerous campaigns have sought to make it the national anthem.

From the earliest days of America, the hand of Providence has been seen not just in the history of events but also in the natural splendor of the land spurring several conservation efforts including the creation of the National Parks System. Wilderness areas for people to enjoy the rugged beauty were set aside while protecting the landscape, plants, and animals.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Established as a national park on August 9, 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park contains all four types of volcanoes found in the world. These include a shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park

This park is notable for its giant sequoia trees, which can absorb up to 800 gallons of water a day in the summer!

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Many fossils of ancient marine animals have been found in the Grand Canyon, these date back 1.2 billion years ago. The age of the Grand Canyon itself remains a mystery, but recent studies speculate it to be more than 70 million years old.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park contains more than 10,000 years of human history recorded within its territory, including 800 archaeological sites. The striking colors in petrified wood are derived from pure quartz, manganese oxide, and iron oxide producing white, blue, purple, black, brown, yellow, and red colors.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and is protected by Saguaro National Park. These giant prickly plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is known for its many natural sandstone arches. Landscape Arch is located at the end of Devil’s Garden Trailhead. Stretching 306 feet, it’s considered North America’s longest spanning arch.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The park used to be home to an ancient civilization, the Anasazi who lived there around 1500 B.C. Traces of their history can be found through rock art, sandstone granaries, and cliff dwellings scattered around the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is an ideal place for stargazing enthusiasts due to its clear skies, high elevation, and low light pollution.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Known for its exceptionally well-preserved prehistoric settlements, Mesa Verde National Park was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Featuring over 100 caves, Carlsbad Caverns used to be part of an ancient underwater reef called Capitan Reef. Many fossilized marine species can be found on the land. The caverns themselves were formed by sulfuric acid in acid rain which slowly dissolved the limestones.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The only national park in the whole of North Dakota. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt in 1947 to honor and preserve his legacy of land protection.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, with half a billion visitors since 1934. The Appalachian Trail runs 71 miles through the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Black bears are very prominent in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s a high chance you’ll spot one. The park estimates there to be around one to four bears in every square mile.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande river falls between Cañón de Santa Elena, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park, United States.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua “Tree” is actually a misnomer as it falls under the same category as flowering grasses and orchids. Only 15 percent of the national park is open for visitors to explore, and the remaining 85 percent is wilderness.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

The park is known for its old-growth bottomland hardwood forests which have some of the largest tree canopies on the East Coast. Towering champion trees are some of the notable trees that inhabit these woods.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is located eight miles west of the park and is known for depicting prehistoric pictographs etched somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

A well-preserved fossilized skull of a saber-tooth cat was discovered by a young visitor in 2010. Fossils of other animals like marine reptiles and rhinos can also be found hidden among the layers of sediment. They’re estimated to date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene periods, over 30 million years ago.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is home to an orchard originally planted by Mormon pioneers in the early 1900s. It’s open to the public for picking during harvest season for a small fee.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park was created when the now-extinct Neenach volcano erupted 23 million years ago. The park contains many caves that provide homes to 14 species of California bats. These caves were created by natural erosion when boulders fell below, filling the canyons.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park

Contrary to its name, The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be between 10 to 360 million years old. It’s one of the few rivers in North America to flow from south to north, as most tend to flow from west to east.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

What makes White Sands National Park so breathtaking and popular are the white dunes which are made up of gypsum. The park covers 275 square miles of white sands, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

Worth Pondering…

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

—Catharine Lee Bates

Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names

The stories behind their names

What’s in a name? A lot, it seems, especially in America’s varied national parks. These vast landscapes of pristine and brilliant nature teeming with wildlife, plants, and rare geological formations have history—much of which can be told simply through their names. Some are named after people while others have Native American names with intriguing meanings. Here’s the lowdown on how 10 of America’s national parks got their monikers.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The early French-Canadian trappers called the region which includes the present-day national park, Le Mauvaises terres a traverser which translated means “bad lands to travel across.” Other traders applied the term “bad lands” to this locality as well as to any section of the prairie country “where roads are difficult….”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For hundreds of years, the Dakota people have also described this area as Mako Sica which translates to “bad lands”. This is largely due to the area’s harsh terrain—its lack of water and rocky surfaces meant it was tricky to traverse. The name has stuck in its English form to this day.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park is still pretty rocky and parched but it’s not so bad to travel through these days thanks to the many hiking trails that make its dramatic and unusual landscapes accessible. Take a walk here and you’ll get to see fossils from the now-extinct animals that once thrived here. You can also meet the bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and deer that roam the region and gaze upon some of the most striking geologic formations in the US.

The park received 1,224,226 recreational visitors in 2021.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep gorge in northern Arizona. Scientists estimate the canyon may have formed 5 to 6 million years ago when the Colorado River began to cut a channel through layers of rock. The canyon measures over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though Native Americans lived in the area as early as the 13th century, the first European sighting of the canyon wasn’t until 1540 by members of an expedition headed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Because of its remote and inaccessible location, several centuries passed before North American settlers explored the canyon. In 1869, geologist John Wesley Powell led a group of 10 men on the first difficult journey down the rapids of the Colorado River and along the length of the 277-mile gorge in four rowboats.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

President Benjamin Harrison first protected the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve and in January 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon area into a national monument. Grand Canyon became an official National Park in 1919.

The park received 4,532,677 recreational visitors in 2021.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Named for its large deposits of petrified wood, Petrified Forest National Park covers about 346 square miles encompassing semi-desert shrubs as well as highly eroded and colorful badlands. The Park is known for its fossils, especially of fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Epoch of the Mesozoic era about 225-207 million years ago.

National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the larger animals roaming the grasslands include pronghorns, black-tailed jackrabbits (hares), Gunnison’s prairie dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. Pronghorns, the fastest land animals in North America, are capable of 60-mile-per-hour sprints. They are the second fastest land animal on Earth.

The park’s headquarters is about 26 miles east of Holbrook along Interstate 40 which parallels the  Puerco River and Historic Route 66 all crossing the park roughly east-west.

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site, the northern part of which extends into the Painted Desert, was declared a national monument in 1906 and a national park in 1962.

The park received 590, 334 recreational visitors in 2021.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, California

On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing America’s second national park (Yellowstone became the first national park on March 1, 1872). Created to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging, Sequoia National Park was the first national park formed to protect a living organism: Sequoiadendron giganteum. One week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park to include the glacially-formed splendor of Kings Canyon. The newly established Kings Canyon National Park included General Grant National Park into it. Since the Second World War, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly.

The park received 1,059,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The native Cherokee people traditionally called the Great Smoky Mountains Shaconage which translates to “place of the blue smoke.” Euro-American settlers drew from this name in their label of “Smoky Mountains,” with “Great” being added at some point or another to reflect the massiveness and grandeur of the range.

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

More often than not, the inspiration for the Cherokee name is plain to see on one of the many long, mountain-upon-mountain vistas the Great Smokies serve up from such vantages as Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome. There’s a whitish-blue mistiness to the scenery, a beautiful kind of haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks.

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

That haze is the optical result of a natural photochemical process. The trees, shrubs, and other plants of the dense and diverse Southern Appalachian forests emit natural hydrocarbons called “terpenes” that react with ozone particles from the stratosphere. Moisture condenses on these aerosols which then scatter the shorter wavelengths of light in the blue-violet spectrum to produce the signature haziness.

Seeing the soft-edged blush of the Great Smokies from a roadside pullout or a ridgeline bald never gets old. Next time you soak it in, maybe the old Cherokee name for this extraordinary range will come to mind: the “place of the blue smoke”.

The park received 14,161,548 recreational visitors in 2021.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of huge natural amphitheaters carved into sedimentary rocks by the Paria River and its tributaries along the edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau. Water and wind erosion has produced a fantastic array of brightly colored pinnacles, windowed walls, pedestals, fins, and spires.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ancient cultures are known to have occupied the Colorado Plateau for at least 12,000 years. Paiutes were living throughout the area when the first Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. They explained the numerous and colorful hoodoos as “legend people” who were turned to stone by the mythical Coyote. When Captain Clarence E. Dutton arrived with John Wesley Powell in the 1870s, he named many of the current features according to the Paiute names including Paunsagunt (home of the beavers), Paria (muddy water), Panguitch (fish), and Yovimpa (point of pines).

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ebenezer Bryce helped settle southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. He arrived on the Paunsagunt Plateau and Paria Valley in 1875 to harvest timber. The canyon behind his home came to be known as Bryce’s Canyon; today it remains the name of both a specific canyon and the national park. After 1900, visitors began to arrive to view the colorful geologic features and initial accommodations were constructed along the plateau rim above Bryce’s Canyon. By the 1920s, efforts were being made to set aside this scenic wonder of the Paunsagunt Plateau.

The park received 2,104,600 recreational visitors in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, named so by explorer John Wesley Powell, who believed this to be the Paiute name for the area, Zion got its new moniker in 1863. It was all down to Isaac Behunin, a Mormon pioneer who settled in the area to farm tobacco and fruit trees. He thought it so peaceful that he should rename it, Zion, because, as he wrote: “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as he can in any man-made church; this is Zion.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The great cathedrals he mentioned were probably the incredible, precipitous red cliffs that rise on both sides of the Virgin River. In Hebrew, “zion” means “heavenly place” and standing atop the cliffs or even at their foot it’s easy to see why Behunin considered it a divine landscape. 

The park received 5,039,835 recreational visitors in 2021.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

In the arid Sonoran Desert, this national park teems with wildlife, insects, and plants. Horned lizards, roadrunners, and Gila monsters are some of the animals that call this harsh landscape home. But, it’s the plants that most people come to see and one plant in particular that has given the park its name: the saguaro cactus.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you were to ask a child to draw a cactus, they’d likely sketch out something that looks like a saguaro which has a thick trunk and vertically reaching “arms” covered in fine spikes. It’s estimated there are almost two million of these iconic plants throughout the national park, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve been given the limelight in this National Park’s name. 

The park received 1,079,783 recreational visitors in 2021.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and Dark Sky Reserve, this national park has a lot to preserve. If you visit, make sure you see the incredible homes carved into and built around the rocky, sandstone landscape. Dating back to around AD 550, these dwellings housed the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this region for more than 700 years and there are 5,000 or so archaeological sites to explore within the national park.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploration is how the park got its name. When Spanish explorers in the American Southwest first came upon these towering rock formations they said it looked like a landscape of tables, covered with foliage and forest. They named it “Mesa Verde”, which is Spanish for “green table”.

The park received 548,477 recreational visitors in 2021.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Trees are an incredibly unusual-looking trees, in part because they’re not a tree at all! They’re a plant belonging to the Yucca genus that happens to resemble the size and growth pattern of a tree. Joshua trees are slow-growing adding only 2 to 3 inches each year. It takes 50 to 60 years for a Joshua tree to reach full height. They live on average about 500 years.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the Mojave Desert. Originally declared a national monument in 1936, Joshua Tree was redesignated as a national park in 1994.

The park received 3,064,400 recreational visitors in 2021.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer