Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona: A Worthwhile Pit Stop along U.S. 93

Most travelers who visit Arizona are surprised to find that the state has such a unique and diverse topography. Flat desert with saguaro, craggy rock summits, ponderosa pine forests, and frosty snow-capped mountains and all this terrain can be accessed by highways and by-ways. One of the most beautiful drives in Arizona is the Joshua Forest Parkway also known as Scenic Route 93.

Although the Joshua Tree National Park in neighboring California gets far more attention, Arizona’s Joshua Tree Scenic Parkway is pretty spectacular too. While not an official park or destination, there are a few spots to pull off and take in the sights. It’s unique, especially looking to the west where a ridge of mountains serves as a magnificent backdrop.

But did you know you can drive through a Joshua Tree forest in Arizona? It’s true. On U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup, a 7-mile stretch of road graced on both sides with Joshua Trees and other hardy desert plants.

If you ever find yourself cruising U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman, do yourself a favor and plan a quick pit stop to see Arizona’s own Joshua Tree Forest.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re like a lot of people when you hear Joshua Tree, one of two things come to mind:

  • Joshua Tree National Forest in California
  • The fifth studio album by the rock band U2

In the 1980s, Joshua Trees became immortalized after the release of the U2 album by the same name. The image of the band in the California desert with a lone Joshua Tree in the background made the yucca specious illustrious with fans, many of whom roamed the California countryside in search of the exact spot in which the famous photo was taken. (The Joshua Tree shown on the U2 album died in 2000 and a plaque now commemorates its place in history.)

While California has the greatest concentration of Joshua Trees and a dedicated National Park, Arizona has a scenic parkway dedicated to the unusually distinct shrub. Along U.S. 93 between Wickenburg, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada there is a small but concentrated stretch of Joshua Trees that is worth a stop.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But first, what is a Joshua Tree?

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) is actually not a tree at all. It happens to be the largest variety of yucca and can grow to more than 20 feet at an average of only one-half inch per year. It provides a habitat for many birds, mammals, and reptiles—and a spectacular visual for us humans.

Why is it called Joshua Tree?

When Mormon settlers first saw the plant they dubbed the Joshua tree; it reminded them of the Biblical story in which the bushy-bearded biblical leader reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. When Territorial Governor John C. Frémont caught sight of it during an 1844 trek through the Mohave Desert, he called it “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree quick facts:

  • New seedlings may grow at an average rate of 3 inches per year in their first ten years then only about 1.5 inches per year after that
  • The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers and annual growth rings making it difficult to determine a tree’s age
  • Each plant has a deep and extensive root system with roots reaching as many as 36 feet deep
  • Can live for hundreds of years; some specimens survive a thousand years
  • The tallest trees reach about 49 feet in height
  • Flowers grow in panicles that appear from February to late April
  • Joshua trees usually do not branch until after they bloom
Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive, which is familiar to anyone who’s road-tripped from Phoenix to Sin City (or vice versa), officially begins near the small town of Wikieup, a dot on the map that’s better known for its pie (you’ll pass Luchia’s) than for its tourism cachet. Other landmarks in town include the Snoopy-piloted Wikieup arrow along with the Wikieup Trading Post and Eat at Joe’s Barbecue as well as the creosote-peppered hills that surround Bronco Wash.

Heading south on U.S. 93 around Milepost 127, you’ll come to the Big Sandy River, and unless it’s been raining, the river is probably just that—big and sandy. Beyond the Big Sandy, sheer, eroded cliffs loom speckled in spots with saguaros and scrub. Pale, striated canyon walls straddle the highway—green, yellow, white, and taupe—and the mountains stretch for miles in front of you.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Milepost 147, you’ll start seeing giant boulders piled on top of each other. They look like hoodoos with saguaros in between. The rocks are an interesting sight but not as interesting as Nothing. Blink and you’ll miss it but Nothing was a real Arizona town and you’ll see it off to the left. It’s marked with a sign and a pile of … well, junk. You’ll have to see it for yourself but Nothing really is something.

Joshua trees become the focal point of this drive around Milepost 162. One of the first you’ll see is a large, gnarly fellow off to the right, and then several more in rapid succession. They’re reminiscent of the baobab trees made famous in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and if your imagination is active, you might see a little blond boy emerge from the trees with a dog and a well-protected flower in hand.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By Milepost 169, the forest of Joshua trees is dense and you’ll see a sign that reads, Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona. It’s a label that formalizes the obvious—that this is an incredibly scenic drive that passes through one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Southwest.

The route continues to Wickenburg, a classic Old West town that celebrates the state’s cowboy heritage with the Desert Caballeros Museum and a string of Western-themed shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to visit, but the highlight of this drive is the trees. Or, rather, the Yucca brevifolia.

Worth Pondering…

I speak for the trees.

—Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

The Best National Parks to Visit in December

Wondering where to travel in December? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in December!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, I list five beautiful national parks plus six bonus parks and a road trip. Whether you are planning a family getaway during Christmas break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, I have lots of great ideas for you.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in December

December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December and camping reservations are difficult to find.

If you have flexibility for your travel dates it’s best to plan your trip for early December or wait until January.

Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than eight hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks keep in mind that by 4:30 pm it could be getting dark giving you very limited sightseeing time. I provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in December

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that I recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is the third most popular national parks in the US with over 4.6 milluin visitors in 2022 so for the best experience I recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.

In December, the weather is chilly in Zion but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.

Early in the month, not only are crowds lower but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year’s).

Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also easier.

For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded early to mid-December is a great time as is January.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather it can get into the 70s.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow but that makes it even more beautiful.

Winter is sometimes called the secret season at the Grand Canyon. It’s the season when the skies are the clearest, the temperatures are the coolest, and the tourist numbers are at the lowest—meaning it’s an excellent time to visit.

The first thing to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park in winter is that the North Rim is NOT open to vehicles between October and May. But the South Rim (where the majority of people go anyway) is still fully operational.

December is also a great time to go hiking.

The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long but around the winter holiday season it becomes even more special.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona such as Sedona or Monument Valley.

Weather: The average high is only 43°F and the average low is 18°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Saguaro instead) but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.

Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F and the average low is 21°F. There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky which is located west of Moab is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.

The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here due to its higher elevation but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer).

Weather: The average high is 37°F and the average low is 23°F at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park with its iconic arches and unique rock formations is one of the most recognizable parks in the US. Delicate Arch is the number one landmark to see inside of the park but lots of other wonderful adventures.

Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.

The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther you can see eight arches in just one hike.

November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical especially around the holidays.

Weather: The average high is 42°F and the average low is 24°F. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get into the 60s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Two more parks to visit in December

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December with the average high coming in about 58°F. This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon did not make my December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing with the average high in the mid 30s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.

If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 since the other four parks made my December list.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in December

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in Chirichua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

December road trip ideas

The American Southwest

Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. It can be chilly/cold particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon but some places warm up very nicely midday such as Monument Valley.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

10 Amazing Places to RV in October 2023

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in October

You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.

—Abraham Maslow

American psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs which outlined the basic human needs that must be met before one can seek social or spiritual fulfillment. Feeling that psychology didn’t take into account human creativity or potential, Maslow defined the concept of self-actualization as a process in which humans continually strive to reach our best selves. Choice played a prominent part in his theories: Here, he reminds us that our progress in life is up to us, if we have the courage to move forward into the unknown.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August and September. Also check out my recommendations from October 2022 and November 2022.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Alpine Helen’s Oktoberfest

Nestled in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the town of Helen was overlooked by tourists for years. They’d stop to top off their tanks on the way to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Brasstown Bald, or Georgia’s beloved Vogel State Park.

Then in 1969, a business owner had enough. He noted the region’s similarity to Bavaria where he’d been stationed while in the Army so he made a proposal: Transform sleepy Helen into an alpine village that appeared to be plucked right out of a German forest.

Slowly, the town changed its face adding half-timber facades, cobblestone alleys, and delicate gingerbread latticework and hand-carved details to eaves and rooflines. Soon after it became Alpine Helen; this year-round bit of Bavaria not too far north of Atlanta held its first Oktoberfest celebration.

Alpine Helen’s Oktoberfest has entertained festival-goers for more than 50 years. Nowadays, more than 500,000 visitors attend the two-month event. The Oktoberfest Parade kicked things off on September 7 and continues daily from September 28-October 20, 2023.

German-style bands from across the U.S. and Germany, more than 30 beers from local breweries and German brewmeisters, authentic Bavarian cuisine, traditional Alpenhorn instruments and plenty of folks in festive costumes make Helen’s Oktoberfest a memorable event.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. A White Oasis

White Sands National Park is one of the most jaw-dropping and surreal places in all of America. Until 2019, White Sands was a National Monument but officially changed to a National Park. What’s the difference? National Parks are protected because of their scenic, recreational, and educational value whereas a National Monument may have objects of cultural, historical, or even scientific interest.

It’s the biggest gypsum dune field in the world. The sand is so perfectly white because it’s made of gypsum whereas most sand is made of silica. Gypsum is very rare in sand form because it is a mineral that dissolves in water. That’s right—it starts to dissolve everytime it rains. But just how much of a big deal is this? White Sands covers 275 square miles of dune fields while the second largest in the world is a whopping 8 square miles in Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Crowley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Where Life is Rice & Easy

At the crossroads of LA 13 and U.S. Highway 90 lies the city of Crowley.

Rice is the bedrock of the region’s celebrated Cajun cuisine and no other Louisiana community is as intimately tied to the crop as Crowley. The swallow ponds and level prairies surrounding the city produce lots of crawfish too, but it was the turn-of-the-century rice mills that gave Crowley its identity and made possible today’s impressive collection of historic structures.

Many historic buildings still play prominent roles in the city’s life. One such example is Miller Stadium, a 1940s-era ballpark and the Grand Opera House of the South that first opened in 1901 and was recently revived as an elegant space for world-class performers. Visitors can relive regional music history at the J.D. Miller Recording Studio Museum downtown or get a taste of prairie life at the Crystal Rice Heritage Farm.

Next door to the opera house, the Crowley City Hall, housed inside a restored 1920 Ford Motor Company building has been restored and features a museum on the city’s history.

Crowley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Crowley City Hall, Historic Ford Building is comprised of four interesting museums—Rice Iterpretive Center, the History of Crowley, J.D.Miller Music Recording Studio, and Ford Automotive Museum. Built in 1920 at the cost of $40,000 the Crowley Motor Co. was the city’s Ford Motor Model T dealership. Designed by an architect for the Ford Motor Co, it was one of 1,000 similar Ford dealerships constructed in the U.S.

Plan a visit for the International Rice Festival (86th annual; October 19-22, 2023) and stay to explore the area. The International Rice Festival, held annually every third full weekend in October, is one of Louisiana’s oldest and largest agricultural festivals.

>> Get more tips for visiting Crowley

Vanderbilt Estate National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. This house belonged to the Most Powerful Family in America

By any standard, past or present, this property with a magnificent view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains would be considered prime real estate. A series of fine homes has stood on the tract since about 1764 and in 1847 the estate was called “one of the finest specimens of the modern style of Landscape Gardening in America.”

Such superlatives attracted the attention of Frederick Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Commodore Vanderbilt who had built a fortune from shipping, ferries, and the New York Central Railroad. One of Frederick’s brothers, George Washington Vanderbilt, is perhaps best-known for his Biltmore estate near Ashville, North Carolina. Collectively the Vanderbilts were known as both the richest and the most powerful family in America in the late 1800s.

Take in the unique colors of fall framing the impressing Vanderbilt Mansion from the Vanderbilt Riverfront Trail and Bard Rock picnic area as well as the formal gardens.

Vanderbilt Mansion is in the Hudson River Valley in Dutchess County, New York, about 90 miles north of New York City and 70 miles south of Albany. 

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Get your history fix at Saratoga National Historical Park

The Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, New York holds activities and attractions for travelers during any season. The significance of the property dates back to the Battle of Saratoga. During a fall evening in the 1770s, American forces defeated the British army forcing them to surrender and locking in crucial foreign support.

Although the park is known for its rich history including the Schuyler House, Saratoga Monument, and Victory Woods, it’s also a popular destination for cycling at any level. Serious hikers and bikers can take part in the 100-mile challenge in the park. All you need to do is log your miles (walking, hiking, or biking) in the park and once you hit that magic number you’ll earn a special reward and some serious bragging rights. 

For some spectacular views of the Hudson River Valley, climb the 188 steps to the 155-foot stone Saratoga Monument; on a clear day visitors can see for miles. The park is especially beautiful during autumn. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival

Venture to Southern California to marvel at the stars and planets at Joshua Tree National Park which as the International Dark Sky Association notes is the “nearest convenient place to go stargazing under a relatively dark sky” for the 18 million people who live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Joshua Tree became an official dark sky park in 2017 and each year it hosts a night sky festival in the fall. As luck would have it, this year’s dates overlap with the ring of fire solar eclipse. From Joshua Tree, the moon will appear to obscure between 70 and 80 percent of the sun.

The 2023 Night Sky Festival is scheduled for October 13-14. This event is sponsored and organized by non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Residential Education Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center in partnership with Joshua Tree National Park and supported by the City of Twentynine Palms.

The annual Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event with limited capacity held primarily at Sky’s the Limit Nature Center and Observatory located just outside the park’s north entrance.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Cherohala Skyway

Retreat to the serenity of the Cherohala Skyway, a picturesque byway that crosses the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. The drive will take people from the Tellico Plains of Tennessee all the way to North Carolina’s Robbinsville. Through this gorgeous route, travelers will ascend to elevations of more than 5,000 feet where they can see the stunning scenery of the mountains and valleys in the area. Tourists will be mesmerized by the breathtaking sights, flowing waterfalls, and lush vegetation as they travel. Visitors can also discover the hiking trails leading to secluded attractions like Bald River Falls and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, home to eons-old, soaring trees. Every turn of the Cherohala Skyway brings tranquility and magnificent surroundings.

>> Get more tips for driving the Cherohala Skyway

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest celebrates Fredericksburg’s German heritage with four stages of continuous oompah music, arts, crafts, shopping, a children’s area, 50 varieties of American, Texas and imported beers, Texas Wine Country selections, great food and fun all weekend long! 

Oktoberfest takes place at Marktplatz in downtown Fredericksburg, Texas the first weekend of October. The festival typically runs from 6 p.m. to midnight on Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults while children 7-12 are $1 and children six and under are free. A two-day pass can be purchased for $15 and a three-day pass is $20. 

In 2023, Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg will be October 6-8, 2023. Future dates for Fredericksburg Oktoberfest include October 4-6, 2024 and October 3-5, 2025.

If you can’t make it to town for Oktoberfest weekend, any time during the fall is a great time to visit the Texas Hill Country.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Apple Central

Fall is here and that means it’s time for apple picking in Julian, California! September and October are prime apple picking months so it’s an ideal time to be outdoors and plan a fun family outing.

And nothing is better than gathering up your own apples and taking them home to your RV for eating, cooking, and baking. So, let’s head to the mountains of Julian for these wholesome fall treats and maybe try some of the famous Julian apple pies.

Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own.

>> Get more tips for visiting Julian in October

Stowe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Vermont in fall says it all

Stowe packs a big punch when it comes to outdoor pursuits—and fall is when the tiny town of 5,000 truly comes alive. In autumn, the abundance of sugar maple trees surrounding this popular northern Vermont ski area put on a spectacular color show. Visitors can enjoy it all while hiking up Elmore Mountain or Stowe Pinnacle, taking a scenic drive along the backcountry roads or venturing out into the Waterbury Reservoir on a private boat cruise. In Stowe, the best time for fall foliage viewing starts in early September and runs through late October.

Worth Pondering…

We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.

—Henry Rollins

The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Two desert ecosystems combine for an otherworldly experience in California’s Joshua Tree National Park

I speak for the trees.

— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Several small motorhomes jockey for parking spots along the cul-de-sac at the Keys View overlook in Joshua Tree National Park. Its 10 minutes to sunset and the vista over the Coachella Valley with the lights of Palm Springs winking in the distance takes my breath away. Where else with two feet planted on solid ground can you get a bird’s-eye view of the daunting San Andreas Fault? That crack sketched into the surface of the Earth is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the landscape. The menacing fault line marks one of the world’s most active tectonic boundaries; geological faults crisscross the entire park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to a National Park. By simply dipping your toe into the waters of the great outdoors your world is touched by greater health, improved mood, increased knowledge, all the while you are offering support to the preservation of one of the world’s finest treasures… and, national parks are a perfect place to go play.

Joshua Tree is one of my favorites in a long list of spectacular national parks in both Canada and the United States. It is arid, untamed, and remote. The super-sized boulders and wild-armed vegetation look like something from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The night sky is dark and splashed with stars. When the wind blows, it really howls. The boulders are the size of large vehicles and the landscape is ablaze with cacti and hardy desert vegetation.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Joshua tree forests lies a world of adventure that appeals to three important factors that compel people to enjoy it: accessibility, the draw of adventure, and inspiration.

The sprawling national park of almost 800,000 acres is the spot in southeastern California where the high Mojave and the low Colorado deserts converge. This transition zone of two distinct desert ecosystems is noteworthy creating a blended area of significant biological diversity. In desert ecosystems, elevation determines everything as desert plants and critters are extremely sensitive to the slightest change.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to bighorn sheep, cactus wrens, roadrunners, and desert iguanas. The threatened desert tortoise occasionally meanders across roadways. As in many desert settings, snakes often curl up below the rocks for shade.

On the adventure front, climbers find here a world-class climbing and repelling playground. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. It’s a true wilderness playground.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there is inspiration. Famous artists and musicians have taken from Joshua Tree ideas that have manifested into creative works that we all know and love… anybody out there a fan of Dr. Seuss? How about U2, Selena, John Lennon, Victoria Williams, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, and Jim Morrison?

And then, there are the Joshua trees. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each is one of a kind. Every slight change of angle in your view produces what seems like an entirely different tree to look at.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving from the park’s northern entrance at Twentynine Palms to the southern entrance just off Interstate 10, you’ll dip from the higher elevation of the Mojave Desert section with some spots topping 5,000 feet to the lower elevation of the Colorado Desert. The higher elevations are home to the park’s namesake, the iconic Joshua trees. The lower, more arid lands are covered with the long, thin branches of the spindly ocotillo, prickly “jumping” cholla cacti, and green-barked palo verde shrubs. In springtime, it’s a blast of colorful wildflowers. Year-round, it’s a landscape with a lot of thorny vegetation encircled by rugged mountain ranges.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you come properly prepared (water, wide-brimmed hat, sturdy footwear, paper map), the trails and rocks of Joshua Tree are a dream for hiking and world-class bouldering. Pets are not allowed on the trails or in the backcountry so plan accordingly for their comfort and safety.

We explored the main roadways and stopped to hike at spots such as the nature trails through the boulders and the luxuriant Cholla Cactus Garden. Staff at the visitors centers can help you pick a suitable trail from among the almost 30 in the park which range from easy to challenging.

The park lends itself to exploring by short road trips or via a walk from one of the trailheads.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Hidden Valley, a popular one-mile loop winds through a rock-enclosed valley that at one time created secluded hideouts for cattle and horse rustlers. It’s was a nice way to get up close to the imposing stones. Farther down the park’s main road to the south, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a quarter-mile, flat pathway meandering through dense “gardens” of the “jumping” teddy bear cholla, a very prickly cacti known for attaching itself to unwary passersby.

The Mojave Desert part of the park is marked by jumbles of massive boulders interspersed with pinyon pines, junipers, prickly pear cacti, and yuccas. Thousands of established routes make the park a favorite destination for rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The huge, ball-shaped masses of rock are granite that formed when molten fluid within the Earth’s crust was pushed to the surface about 250 million years ago. Over millennia of erosion, these granite boulders were left on the surface, many looking like piles of enormous marbles stacked and abandoned.

You can camp among these truck-size boulders at Jumbo Rocks, one of the park’s eight campgrounds. Only two campgrounds (Black Rock and Cottonwood) have water, flush toilets, and dump stations. Cottonwood is especially popular with RVers. At the Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, RVs are limited to a maximum combined length of 25 feet (RV and a towed or towing vehicle); in the other campgrounds, the limit is 35 feet, space permitting.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rustic campgrounds offer a true desert experience. Most sites are at higher elevations, so nighttime can be chilly. Joshua Tree is remote wilderness and cell phone coverage is unreliable at best. Many campsites fill during the peak season of October to May—most can be reserved at recreation.gov.

Many people come to contemplate and photograph the otherworldly Joshua trees that pepper the rolling desert of the park’s Mojave section. Growing at an unhurried rate of ½-inch to 3 inches per year, it is not a tree at all but a species of agave that can grow more than 40 feet tall. The clusters of waxy, spiny leaves provide homes for owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and many other birds. The “trees” are incredibly photogenic and one of the main reasons that people visit the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the park’s remote setting and its dryer-than-dry ecosystem, I find that Joshua Tree draws me back again and again. It’s one of those indulgent destinations—one of the few spots to find the spiny trees, to feel tiny next to enormous round rocks, and to look upward into some of the darkest night skies in Southern California. It’s a camper’s dream.

Temperatures and weather can vary depending largely on elevation. In the winter months, prepare for chilly camping. When hiking, always carry water and warm clothing to layer. In remote areas, keep your fuel tank topped off. Be prepared for hot weather, too, as Joshua Tree is in the desert and can be sunny with very limited shade available.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware that rocks, plants, animals, and historic objects are protected in all national parks. Best practice is to enjoy but to leave them in their place.

Joshua Tree is operated by the National Park Service. If you have plans to visit several parks over the year investigate the America the Beautiful Pass which is valid for one full year from the month of purchase ($80). The pass covers entry to parks and many other government-operated sites but not camping or tour fees.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 792,623 acres; 591,624 of that is designated wilderness

Date established: October 31, 1994 (National Monument in 1936)

Location: Southeast California

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 1,000 feet to 5,500 

Park entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Camping fee: $20-$25

Recreational visits (2021): 3,064,400

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: According to the National Park Service and legend of old, Joshua Tree was given its name by Mormon pioneers traveling west in the 19th century who thought that the branches looked like the biblical figure Joshua, reaching up to the heavens in prayer. 

Iconic site in the park: There are many iconic sites in this park but none more so than spots from where the Joshua Tree grows. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition. Their silhouette leaning against the desert sky sings songs of the Mojave Desert, the only place this “tree” (actually a yucca plant) naturally grows. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: The Jumbo Rock campground is a doorway to some of the best features of the park and it seems that there is not one bad place to camp. Each has its own unique natural feature and some level of privacy. Drive in and choose your camping spot (first come, first served), pay the fee, and set up camp. Try to arrive early in the morning so you can nab a good spot—this place is popular and therefore busy all year long. 

Big adventure: Rock climbing! Joshua Tree is regarded as one of the best climbing destinations in the world offering enthusiasts from around the world thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart—proper equipment and training is mandatory. If you aren’t a technical climber, bouldering the tacky monzogranite rock faces offer another, really fun way to rise from the desert and catch panoramic views of this beautiful place. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado desert ecosystems come together (the Colorado desert is a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert).

According to the National Park Service website there are 93 miles of paved roads, 106 miles of unpaved roads; nine campgrounds with 523 campsites, two horse camps, 10 picnic areas; and 32 trailheads reaching out to 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. That’s a lot of access to Joshua Tree parkland! 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cover art of the first Eagles album (released in 1972) was captured in the Cholla Garden—one of my favorite places in the park. 

The boulders that Joshua Tree National Park is comprised of is a result of billions of years of heating and cooling of the Earth’s crust, and the effects of wind, sun, and erosion. 

Worth Pondering…

I love it there, it’s magical … Joshua Tree is one of those special places where you feel so close to everything.”

—Rita Coolidge

Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree Has Springtime Written All Over it

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California’s High Desert

California’s Mojave Desert has inspired a number of monumental artistic endeavors including the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars and the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree. But Joshua Tree National Park which lies within the boundaries of the Mojave has a landscape and special magnetism all its own. People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons. Sometimes it’s wilderness. Other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves. And find yourself you will—whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, stargazing, or daydreaming about selling all your stuff to move to the desert. Here’s how to do it all on your next trip.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April). If you visit in the hot summer months, plan outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler just to be safe. Most people spend four hours in the park according to park rangers. But Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological and ecological sights mean one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park—especially Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley—are also your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park. Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in town. Definitely swing by Pioneertown which served as a film set for Old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

Joshua Tree National Park Cottonwood entrance © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are less crowded. Get there early; parking lots often fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year—OR, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that buys you entry to any park for a year.

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails 

Once you’re all geared up with hiking boots and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot, especially in summer), it’s time to hit the trails. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners. 

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks which lives up to its name. Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 wonderful miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail so be sure you’re up to the task.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree at 5,187 feet. You can look out across the Coachella Valley and see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs on clear days.

Check out the unparalleled plant and animal life 

I’ll assume you know the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the “Joshua Tree.” In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger, which pretty much sums it up. It’s important to remember that since these trees are native to this 1,235-square mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected—aka, no touchy!

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla. This flat loop leads hikers through nearly 10 acres of landscape dominated by the teddybear cholla. Swaying in the desert breeze they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). A word of advice: do not attempt to pet this teddybear. The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines giving it the nickname “jumping cholla.” Once they’ve latched on the spines are very painful to remove.

You’ll also spot the ocotillo (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yoh), one of the most curious and unique plants of the southwestern United States. Ocotillos produce clusters of bright red flowers at their stem tips which explain the plant’s name. Ocotillo means “little torch” in Spanish.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is known more for its flora than fauna but there’s also plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and migratory flocks as well. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes also roam these parts, and—lest we forget—keep an eye out for our adorable friend, the desert tortoise!

Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re brand new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a baby mountain goat, Joshua Tree’s 9,000+ climbing routes means that everyone’s welcome to give it a go. I also feel the need to note that most of the routes have truly creative names; take, for example, Yabba Dabba Don’t (15-foot climb), Breakfast of Champions (170-foot climb with 2 pitches), Room to Shroom (80-foot climb), Dangling Woo Li Master (100-foot climb), and so on. 

For a route best suited to beginner and moderate climbers, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the ever-charming Trashcan Rock, one of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease and the cool shade that covers it during the afternoon. Intersection Rock also makes a great spot for novices and The Eye ends with a tunnel that opens up onto excellent views across the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look up at the stars

Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary.

Where to bed down at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park about half are first-come, first-serve. The others accept reservations through Recreation.gov.

What to bring and other essential tips

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water… and then pack even more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, a camera, and wide-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley) are also suggested.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree sees every year, explore the park with a buddy and always let people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park so if communication is crucial bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 80 percent of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness—emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid tangling with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name …

— Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

Famous Trees and Where to Find Them

With their imposing size and universal symbolism, trees are the celebrities of the plant world. But some trees can boast special A-list status.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

—Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us a foundation of integrity in his beautiful love letter to trees—how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Trees are remarkable living things. Not only do they provide shade, oxygen, and often fruit, but they can also live remarkably long—the oldest tree in the world is a 4,852-year-old bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California with the appropriate nickname of Methuselah. However, it’s not the only tree to earn well-deserved recognition. Here are five other famous trees and forests you can visit around America.

Giant Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman

Location: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Age: Roughly 2,000 years

General Sherman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman might possibly be the most famous tree in the world. While the age of the tree is impressive (likely to be around 2,000 years old), it’s actually the size of the tree that brings it fame. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet wide in diameter making it the biggest tree in the world. The tree sits in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California where thousands of visitors flock every year. Fences around the tree keep visitors from trampling on the shallow roots. General Sherman is still growing so it’s anyone’s guess how big it will eventually get.

The Big Tree before Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Tree

Location: Goose Island State Park, Texas

Age: In excess of 1,000 years

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the oldest, most well known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017). The tree has its own dark history as well, as it has variously been associated with hangings, cannibalism, or pirates.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Trees

Location: Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might begin to question your map. Where are we anyway? In wonder, the traveler pulls over for a snapshot of this prickly oddity; the naturalist reaches for a botanical guide to explain this vegetative spectacle; and the rock climber shouts “Yowch!” when poked by dagger-like spines.

Mojave yucca in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family. Don’t confuse the Joshua tree with the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. This close relative can be distinguished by its longer, wider leaves and fibrous threads curling along leaf margins. Both types of yuccas can be seen growing together. The Joshua tree provides a good indicator that you are in the Mojave Desert but you may also find it growing next to a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona or mixed with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legend has it that Mormon pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Today we enjoy this yucca for its grotesque appearance, a surprising sight in this arid landscape.

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

Great Smoky Mountains

Location: North Carolina and Tennessee

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

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique because it has over 130 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species that grow in five major forest types: Cove Hardwood, Spruce-fir, Northern Hardwood, Hemlok, and Pine-and-Oak. Other national parks have fewer than 15 native trees. Oak trees are one of the most important parts of the national park. There are 12 species of oak trees in the Smoky Mountains.

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

The oldest tree in the Great Smoky Mountains is a blackgum that still stands at 562 years old. One of the tallest trees in the Smoky Mountains is a white pine tree that reaches 186 feet tall. The Smoky Mountains have a large population of tulip trees, including some that measure over 20 feet wide.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, North Carolina

Location: 15 miles from Robbinsville off Cherohala Skyway (NC-143)

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time. This forest is one of the Nation’s most impressive remnants of old-growth forest. The forest contains magnificent examples of more than 100 tree species, many over 450-years-old and some enormous tulip poplars more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 3,800-acre forest was set aside in 1936 as a memorial to the author of the poem “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in action in France during World War I (See poem below). The floor is carpeted with wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. This forest, part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness, is maintained in its primitive state.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only way to see the memorial forest is on foot. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers two miles and has two loops: the 1.25-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque and the upper 0.75-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove—a grove of the forest’s largest trees. The trailhead parking area has a flush toilet and picnic tables.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer

Joshua Tree National Park Turns 25. But what is a Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park celebrates 25 years as a national park

It should come as no surprise that 3 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year. California’s High Desert is a veritable wonderland of unique desert plant life, beautifully bizarre rock formations, and dreamy views, after all.

Located near the Greater Palm Springs area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego, the park is best known for the oddly shaped Joshua trees which actually aren’t trees at all; they’re yucca plants.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been itching to visit, now’s a great time. The park recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. According to the National Park Service, on October 31, 1994, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to national park status as part of the Desert Protection Bill. The bill also added 234,000 acres to the park, bringing the total acreage of the park to nearly 800,000. 

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua pointing westward to the “promised land”. Native Americans call them “humwichawa,” among other names. They are also referred to as yucca palms, and in Spanish they are called izote de desierto, “desert dagger.”

Native Americans used the plants’ tough leaves to make baskets and sandals. They used flower buds and raw or roasted seeds for food.

Beyond the trees there’s so much to see including incredible sunsets and stellar views of the Milky Way. There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

Plus, there’s no shortage of desert critters including 3-foot-long lizards called chuckwallas, bighorn sheep, leaf-nosed bats, and red-tailed hawks. Also keep an eye out for American kestrels, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, and black-tailed jack rabbits. It’s not uncommon to see coyotes, rattlesnakes (five types of them make their home in the desert), and tarantulas, too. If you’re really lucky, you may spot a desert tortoise or a bobcat.

With eight different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987