The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

From colorful badlands to cavernous canyons and old-growth wetlands, the National Park Service boasts incredible diversity when it comes to hiking trails. Whether you’re looking for an intense mountain ascent or an easy forest stroll, bucket list-worthy hikes come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and lengths. Here are 10 national park trails that belong on your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Blue Mesa Loop, Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Boardwalk Loop, Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes You’ll definitely want mosquito repellant, especially in the summer months.

Manzanita Lake Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manzanita Lake Loop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

While much of the attention at this serene California park is drawn to its namesake Lassen Peak, a worthwhile trek for ardent day-hikers, there’s a more leisurely and accessible option that affords some of the most striking vistas in the park. Manzanita Lake is a tranquil, shimmering oasis in the northwestern portion of Lassen Volcanic offering a peaceful 1.8-mile loop trail around pristine, bright-blue water. From certain vantage points, the views of Lassen Peak are incomparable and the jaunt through dense forest feels downright rejuvenating for the soul.

Rim Trail, Grand Canyon N ational Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle to start the hike then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done.

Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you don’t know what a hoodoo is you’ll know after crossing this spectacular hike’s eight miles of hoodoo-covered trails. These unique rock columns can be found throughout the trail eventually culminating in Fairyland Canyon, a valley of staggeringly large and vast formations as tall as 150 feet. The colorful hoodoos are some of the brightest and most unusual in the park giving the whole area an otherworldly feel. Because of this trail’s length and constant up and downs it’s one of the least crowded hikes in the park.

Big Trees Trail, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California

One of America’s newer national parks is one of the smallest at just over 26,000 acres but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get lost in its stunning terrain. The easy Lower Bear Gulch Cave trail takes hikers under moss-covered boulders and across alpine springs often at the same time. This short trail passes through strikingly angular rock formations before dipping down through Bear Gulch Cave—be sure to bring a flashlight. After you’ve hiked through Lower Bear Gulch you can double back and take a higher route past the 300 foot Monolith rock pinnacle, one of the largest in the park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park offers a wide range of hiking opportunities with something suitable for every age and experience level during every month of the year. The Narrows is the most popular hike in Zion and one of the best slot canyon hikes anywhere. It is pure fun and can be tailored to suit any ability level. The trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow the river covers the bottom in many spots which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. The cool water makes this hike particularly pleasant during the hot months of summer.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Devil’s Garden Hike and Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park in southeast Utah is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Devil’s Garden Loop is at the far end of the park where the main road terminates. This is a 7.2-mile trail with some wonderful rock scenery and eight arches along the route. This is one of the more difficult hikes in the park with some scrambles over slickrock and exposed ledges. However, you don’t necessarily need to do the entire loop to experience some of the attractions in this area.  A 1.6-mile round-trip hike on relatively flat ground will take you to Landscape Arch which spans more than the length of a football field. Also in the same area are Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. Both of these hikes leave from the Devils Garden Trailhead.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

Yes, these are the Most Visited National Parks in 2020

Outdoor experiences provided refuge from the pandemic for 237 million visitors to America’s national parks in 2020

While some people will spend their summer at the beach, many families will head out this summer to experience some of the great National Parks that America has to offer. Last year’s COVID closures resulted in fewer visitors but with people seeking outdoor activities many folks visited at least one National Park Service (NPS) site. Although overall visitation dropped, a number of parks experienced record crowds and welcomed new visitors. Trails, overlooks, and open spaces provided safe ways for visitors to recreate responsibly, get some fresh air, and stay active.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” said NPS Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every National Park Service operation and parks continue to work with public health officials to navigate changing conditions. A maximum 66 of the 423 parks of the National Park System were fully closed for two months or more. The majority of parks—particularly those with outdoor spaces—remained accessible to the public. Just a handful of historic and cultural parks, primarily historic homes with limited indoor space, remain closed.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additional information from the 2020 visitation report includes:

  • Recreation visitor hours dipped from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 1.05 billion in 2020, a 26 percent decrease
  • 15 parks set a new recreation visitation record in 2020
  • Five parks broke a visitation record they set in 2019
  • Blue Ridge Parkway claimed the title of most-visited site in the National Park System
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintained its long-running position as the most visited National Park in 2020, a position it has held since 1944
  • Grand Canyon National Park dropped from the second-most visited national park—a position it held for 30 years—to the sixth most-visited
  • Yellowstone National Park moved from the sixth most-visited national park in 2019 to second most-visited—a position it has not held since 1947
  • Four parks began reporting official visitor statistics for the first time: Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve
Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2020 by the numbers

  • 237,064,332 recreation visits
  • 1,054,952,540 recreation visitor hours
  • 8,039,768 overnight stays (recreation + non-recreation)
  • Three parks had more than 10 million recreation visits—Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Seven parks had more than five million recreation visits—down from 11 parks in 2019
  • 60 parks had more than one million recreation visits (15 percent of reporting parks)—down from 80 parks in 2019
  • 19 national parks had more than one million recreation visits (30 percent of National Parks)
  • 25 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top six most-visited parks (1.5 percent of all parks in the National Park System
  • 50 percent of total recreation visits occurred in the top 23 most-visited parks (6 percent of all parks in the National Park System)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited NPS sites

Blue Ridge Parkway (14,099,485)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (12,400,045)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Gateway National Recreation Area (8,404,728)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8,016,510)

George Washington Memorial Parkway (6,237,391)

Natchez Trace Parkway (6,124,808)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (4,888,436)

Cape Cod National Seashore (4,083,505)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4,068,529)

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 10 most visited national parks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12,095,720)

Yellowstone National Park (3,806,306)

Zion National Park (3,591,254)

Rocky Mountain National Park (3,305,199)

Grand Teton National Park (3,289,638 million)

Grand Canyon National Park (2,897,098)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2,755,628)

Acadia National Park (2,669,034)

Olympic National Park (2,499,177)

Joshua Tree National Park (2,399,542)

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit lesser-known national parks

Every national park-lover needs to visit Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the Grand Canyon at some point but consider visiting some of the lesser-known parks as well. One of my favorite “sleeper” parks is Petrified Forest in Arizona where you’ll find remains of a colorful prehistoric forest, some of the logs more than 100 feet long and up to 10 feet in diameter. But there’s so much more: artifacts of the ancient indigenous people who lived here including the remains of large pueblos and massive rock art panels, fossils of plants and animals from the late Triassic period (the dawn of the dinosaurs), a striking and vast painted desert (a badland cloaked in a palette of pastel colors), a remnant of historic Route 66 complete with a 1932 Studebaker, and a wilderness of more than 50,000 acres where you can find wildness, beauty, and quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other favorites include Congaree in South Carolina (the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast) and California’s remote Lassen Volcanic, one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome.

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

10 National Parks to Visit during Wildflower Season

These parks are home to the country’s most vivid blooms from late March through August

Spring has sprung and brilliant pops of wildflowers are covering hillsides throughout the country—and, to no surprise, some of the best blooms are on display right in the heart of national parks. If you’re hoping to see them, it’s time to start planning.

We’ve rounded up the best national parks for wildflower lovers whether you’re an avid hiker or devout photographer focused on getting the perfect shot.

Before you head out, make sure to check local park and state travel restrictions and remember the principles of Leave No Trace: Do not pick or take home anything you find within protected park boundaries and always hike and take pictures from the main trail.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic offers spectacular opportunities for wildflower viewing from late May through September. Blooming times vary each year and are greatly affected by the winter’s snowpack. Blooming time also varies with each wildflower species. For example, mountain mules ear, snow plant, and western wallflower bloom earlier in the season while California corn lily and silverleaf lupine tend to bloom later.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

As one of the most biologically diverse national parks (the area boasts over 1,500 species of flowering plants), the Smokies come alive each spring with a colorful carpet of thyme-leaved bluets (four blue petals surrounding a yellow spot). Plus, as one of the lower elevation parks on this list, the blossoming season starts early. Peak bloom occurs from late March through July, with the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage landing in mid-May. Make sure to check out the ¾-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail or push bigger miles and chase a couple of waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Over 80 percent of the plants in Pinnacles are in bloom from March through May when afternoon temps hover between 65 to 78 degrees, perfect for hiking. Radiant orange bush poppies, playful monkeyflowers, and brilliant blue larkspur go on full display at this hidden gem in central California. The 2.4-mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is full of rainbow-hued blooms while the more strenuous 8.4-mile High Peaks-Balconies Loop tacks on the possibility of spotting an endangered California condor.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

In addition to abundant wildlife, there are no fewer than 860 species of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park, about 20 percent of which are aster species. Other common Shenandoah wildflowers include lilies, flowers of the pea family, mint, and mustard.

Simply put, wildflowers thrive in Shenandoah which is one of the best places to see national parks wildflowers. This enormous diversity is especially noticeable in spring at the park’s lower elevations along South River and Rose River which are two of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah. Through summer and fall, you can see wildflowers showing off their colors all along Skyline Drive and in Big Meadows.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Protecting areas of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is spread out across various elevations. This, of course, comes with a huge variety of desert plants and wildflowers. The blooming season, however, depends greatly on winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Generally speaking, you’ll see the first wildflowera in the Pinto Basin as early as February and March. As the months go on, the colors creep upward to higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to still have abundant wildflowers as late as June in desert areas higher than 5,000 feet. Flowers to look for include desert paintbrush, beavertail cactus, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, California barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, and the Joshua trees themselves

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park, California

Due to its large range of elevations (1,360 to 14,505 feet), the blooming season in Sequoia is long and verdant with marigold fiddlenecks bursting in the foothills while corn lilies and paintbrush dot higher altitudes like Alta Meadow. April and May are best for spring wildflower hunting at lower elevations while the alpine environment really comes to life from July through August.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Wildflowers are common throughout Bryce Canyon, primarily growing in meadows or along trails. Many wildflowers in the park are adapted to the rocky soil including columbines and the Rocky Mountain paintbrush. Bryce Canyon wildflowers can be found in every color and range in size from tiny to almost three feet tall. They can be found at all elevations, flowering in the summer especially from May to July. A particularly interesting plant native to the area is the paintbrush several species of which can be found in Bryce Canyon including the Wyoming Paintbrush and Bryce Canyon Paintbrush.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

The high temperatures, limited rain, and drying winds of the desert can present a harsh environment for wildflowers. These unforgiving conditions make the abundance of Zion’s wildflowers seem even more spectacular set against a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs.

In the early spring, many plants take advantage of the seasonal rains to flower and reproduce quickly before the precious water is gone. Zion’s many springs and seeps also provide micro-habitats where temperatures are cooler and water is available year round. Throughout the summer on the Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and Riverside Walk trails you may see “hanging gardens” where flowers cling to the cliff walls.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is home to hundreds of flowering plants. There are approximately 650 herbaceous (having little or no woody stem) wildflowers in the park. Some of the common species displaying a white flower are the sacred datura, evening primrose, tidy fleabane, yarrow, baby white aster, and white violet. Some common yellow flowering wildflowers are broom snakeweed, yellow ragweed, Hooker’s primrose, and blanket flower. Red or orange flowered plants include the globe mallow, red columbine, penstemon, Indian paintbrush, and crimson monkeyflower. Pink and purple wildflowers include the Rocky Mountain bee plant, fleabane, Palmer lupine, Grand Canyon phacelia, and Rocky Mountain iris.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Visitors to the Sonoran Desert are eager to view hillsides covered in flowers as they may have seen on postcards and calendars. Those famous photos are taken during years when rainfall, temperature, and timing are favorable. Since soils and terrain are also an important factor there is no way to predict any year’s bloom. Saguaro National Park has some flowers in bloom virtually every month of the year and visitors can expect to see at least three flowering seasons: Spring wildflower (March-April), cactus flower (April-May), and summer flower (June-September).

Worth Pondering…

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

—William Blake

Oft-Overlooked National Parks to Escape the Crowds

They might not be as famous as Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon but these five often overlooked parks are perfect for experiencing the great outdoors

As humans, we crave nature. Nature has been proven to be “deeply powerful and healing for our minds, bodies, and souls.” In fact, research from Harvard Medical School has found that mood disorders can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Nature also helps with pain and post-operative recovery, calms ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and decreases the risk for certain health problems. Despite all the benefits that spending time in nature boasts, people are spending less time outside than ever before.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A study conducted by The Nature of Americans National Report found that over half of adults reported spending five hours or less in nature each week. Parents of children ages 8 through 12 said that their children spent three times as much time using technology than they did playing outside. In comparison, there were 1 billion fewer outdoor excursions such as hikes and climbs, in 2018 than in 2008.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to the pandemic, the reasons why people spent so much more time indoors ranged from work to technology to a cost of entry. However, with so many people now spending the majority of their time at home, this is the perfect time to explore nature.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are timeless and fun because the parks have been preserved and kept to their natural states as much as possible. There are 62 national parks in the United States across 29 states and two territories. The possibilities of being one or more national parks in your state or nearby are high.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also very affordable. Usually, the average entrance ticket to a national park is $30 per vehicle while the annual pass is only $80. The annual pass covers entrance fees to all 419 units within the National Park Service although only 109 charge an entrance fee.

Following are five often-overlooked national parks where you can escape the crowds.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Swampy land may not be the first place on your list to roam but Congaree National Park is beautiful in its own way. The park preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States. It is estimated that 70 to 95 percent of bottomland hardwood forests were destroyed from the start of European settlement to the present. Congaree is the last of the hardwood forests that once stretched across the eastern US. The park has one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the world. Champion trees are the largest trees of its specific specimen and Congaree holds 15 of them.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Some of the natural wonders created by Mother Nature are just a road trip away, so take the time this autumn to enjoy the great outdoors. National parks are an integral element of America. They offer rich histories, a wide selection of different environments, and a much-needed breath of fresh air. National parks will help you get in touch with your wild side, and who knows? It might just teach you a thing or two about the healing powers of the natural world, too.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

Redding For an Outdoor Adventure

The Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay is a Redding icon and acts as a massive sundial—perfect for this sunny city

With mountains all around, miles of hiking and biking trails, a river running through it, and national parks nearby, Redding is an outdoor paradise for all ages. Cradled by Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, Redding has 300+ sunny days per year. It’s a great place to escape the chill of spring and the gray days of winter, too.

Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding is also home to the famous Sundial Bridge, world-class fishing, and 200 miles of hiking and biking trails for all abilities. Head out on a day-trip to see the bubbling mud pots and boiling lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park, or get refreshed by the waterfall at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. This 129-foot gusher is considered one of the most beautiful in the state. 

Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding, an old train town named for a California & Oregon Railroad land agent, is the largest city in the Shasta Cascade region of Northern California. Redding has built a national reputation as an outdoors destination around it trail system, so much so that the National Trails Association is headquartered here. The Sacramento River Trail is paved along both sides of California’s largest waterway and the Sacramento River Rail Trail follows a course that was touted as “the road of a thousand wonders” when it was built in 1888.

Sacramento River looking west from the Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding brags that it’s the “Second Sunniest City in the U.S.,” with 300-plus clear days (86 percent of the time). From the end of May to early September, families can cool off at WaterWorks Park with a trio of waterslides, action rides, and a lazy river.

The area’s wealth of outdoor activities include Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the renown Sundial Bridge, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake, and Lake Shasta Caverns.

Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center in the guise of a traditional forest camp. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge that was the first American project by celebrated Spanish bridge architect Santiago Calatrava. The supporting pylon and curving, translucent deck perform as the world’s largest sundial.

Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eight miles west of Redding, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is located at the juncture of the Klamath Mountain range and the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley, making it home to a special collection of plant and animal life, and year-round beauty. The park features Whiskeytown Lake, Shasta Bally Mountain (6,209 feet), and numerous waterfalls providing outdoor enthusiasts opportunities for water recreation, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Lake-based recreation is popular.

Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding is the jumping off point for the spectacular lunar landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park. The park boasts incredible mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite as well as fascinating thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone with just a small fraction of the visitors. Lassen features three of the four different types of geothermal features including steam vents, mud pots, and hot springs; all four types of volcanoes (shield, plug dome, cinder cone, and composite); and all types of naturally occurring lakes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The focal point of the park is 10,457-foot Mt. Lassen, one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes and the southern-most peak in the Cascade range. Most of the park’s major attractions are along the 29-mile link in State Route 89 that encircles the peak’s east side.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning a visit? Surrounded by pristine mountains, lakes, and rivers, Redding offers a wide range of RV parks and campgrounds including Green Acres RV Park, Marina RV Park, Premier RV Park, Redding RV Park, and Win-River Resort.

JGW RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our home base while touring the Redding area was JGW RV Park, a big-rig friendly resort located 9 miles south of Redding on the Sacramento River. This is a beautiful 5-star RV park with water, sewer, and 30/50-amp electric service centrally located. The majority of pull-through sites are back-to-back and side-to side. There is no cable TV; however, we’re able to obtain a satellite signal between trees and pick up numerous local stations on the antenna. Our site backed onto the Sacramento River. Interior roads are paved and in good condition with concrete pads.

JGW RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson 

Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

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

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

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

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

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

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

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

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

National Parks are Best in Autumn

Six of the best national parks to visit in the fall

If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.

Of course, that’s not true of every national park—there are more than a few best visited during other seasons of the year. But, generally speaking, autumn can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, depending on when and where you travel you will get the added bonus of a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Rocky Mountain national parks.

So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be six of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.

Cade’s Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a very popular national park which often creates crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall—especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season—the crowds taper off along with the temperatures. If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler. If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s hills run with red knotweed in late summer. Because this national park has a volcanic landscape, much of it is austere though bright color pops on autumn days particularly along its hillsides and in its meadows where cadmium-yellow rabbitbrush, crimson knotweed, white pearly everlastings, and golden and rust-colored grasses are seen peaking in the waning days of summer and early autumn. Technically, they are late blooming wild flowers rather than true “autumn color.” Though because of their timing, we classify them as fall color.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Great Smoky Mountains or Zion but it holds treasures of its own especially in the fall. Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange, and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park

Most people don’t think of South Carolina as a fall foliage destination but autumn there is long and colorful and best of all begins much later in the season than other destinations which means you’ll be able to get in a “second autumn”. The best time to see the leaves here is mid-November through the first half of December. Take the 2.4-mile boardwalk hike through the park or one of the many trails into the backcountry for miles upon miles of color. Another great option is to paddle along Cedar Creek in a canoe. It meanders under canopies of spectacular fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are really the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets everything with snow. 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 prepare for an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

Incredible Geological Formations in National Parks where you can avoid the Crowds

Enjoying the splendor of some of America’s most breathtaking national parks can be tough when you’re dealing with crowds of tourists

Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, California’s Joshua Tree, or Utah’s Bryce Canyon are some of the best known, they also can be overrun with visitors. Here are four remarkable, underrated geological formations that are worth checking out.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. Before you go, check the park’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention—and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here—around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass—the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents—including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Capitol Reef. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the wind erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky—the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. In comparison, Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively. Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

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

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In a state filled with rock formations, canyons, and awe-inspiring natural features, Canyon de Chelly is a lesser-known but uniquely historical canyon located in the northeastern corner of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon is the grandest of all canyons and Mesa Verde is known for its iconic ruins within epic canyons, Canyon de Chelly has a very similar history with equally as beautiful landscapes and fewer tourists. Although Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument, it is under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Because this monument is still inhabited by Native Americans today, the regulations within the monument are a lot stricter, making access to the park more exclusive but not difficult with some advanced planning.

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

The easiest way to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument in its entirety is from the ten overlooks along its rim. The canyon is surrounded by Canyon de Chelly Highway, a 130-mile, partially paved loop that is completely bikeable but not recommended for most vehicles on the unpaved stretches. You can drive between these overlooks along the North and South rim drives.

At the time of writing all Navajo Nation Tribal Parks were closed until further notice. 

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

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

3 Classic California Road Trips to Drive in Your Lifetime

California’s iconic sunshine, endless outdoor experiences, and ever-changing landscapes is your road trip dream come true

California is, hands down, one of the best places for a road trip. It’s the third largest state in the US and its 164,000 square miles are packed with glorious, varied terrain highlighted by 66 scenic byways. Rocky desert landscapes give way to rolling farmlands, and two-lane highways carve through quiet groves of towering sequoias before climbing into the high, rugged peaks of the 352 mountain ranges.

Famous Sundial Bridge at Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With all that, it’s no wonder you simply cannot get to know the Golden State unless you hit the road. We’ve gathered together three essential California road trips to get you started. Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Redding to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Distance: 188 miles

Lassen Volcanic National Park and the area around form one of the more beautiful parts of California especially if you’re a mountain junkie who loves craggy peaks and volcanic rock. But it’s one that even locals often miss, partly because of its distance from major population centers. But those who make the trek should plan for a minimum of three days with plenty of day hikes and geologic curiosities—this is, after all, volcano country. 

Sacramento River as seen from the Sundial Bridge in Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in Redding, a bustling city on the Sacramento River, travel north on 1-5 to Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California. Continue north on I-5, passing through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and maybe stopping to take in the ragged spires at Castle Crags State Park before reaching Mount Shasta where you can stop to stroll through town or hike in the mountain’s foothills.

Lassen Peak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, escape from the interstate and head south on Highway 89. This section of the highway is actually part of the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway which travels from Oregon in the north down to Lassen along the Cascade Mountain Range. Take some time to hike McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park and see the 129-foot-tall waterfall that shares a name with the park. Or kayak and paddleboard on serene Lake Almanor. Finish your trip with a day, or two, wandering through Lassen Volcanic National Park which is filled with mud pots, geysers, lava fields, shield and cinder cone volcanoes, mountain lakes, and even a few green meadows where you’ll find wildflowers in the spring. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Rush Highway (Highway 49)

Distance: 295 miles

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold seekers or “49ers” who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to provide time to strike it rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada too. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start off with a history lesson at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa, just north of Oakhurst. As you drive north along the route, you’ll pass a number of Gold Rush–era buildings and towns. In Coulterville, Hotel Jeffery, first built in 1851, is known for paranormal activities and claims John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as past visitors. Jamestown’s Railtown 1897 Historic State Park gives a glimpse of what transportation was like in the late 1800s and Columbia State Historic Park and the town of Jackson are both well-preserved mining towns. 

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 49 passes over the South Fork of the American River near Placerville which is a popular place for river rafting. A little farther north here, in Coloma, you can actually try your own luck with a gold pan at Sutter’s Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Continue up through Auburn State Recreation Area where the north and middle forks of the American River meet stopping in Auburn’s Old Town and later Nevada City for Victorian-era homes and a little more historic charm.

Along the Gold Rush Trail in Murphys© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there Highway 49 heads northeast through Tahoe National Forest but there’s more mining history to see before you end in Vinton. Be sure to stop at Empire Mine in Grass Valley, one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest, and richest gold mines in California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Desert Drive

Distance: 290 miles

Plenty of travelers make the trip from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to marvel at its spiky namesake trees. But many think of Joshua Tree as a destination and miss out on all the beautiful and sometimes quirky things the deserts of Southern California have to offer along the way. In fact, you should really spend a full week exploring the rock formations, wildflower meadows, art installations, and architectural hot spots of this region.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in San Diego, point your vehicle northeast on Highway 163 to Highway 78 heading toward Julian, a year-round getaway for the day, a weekend, or longer. Julian is also well-known for its famous homemade apple pie served year-round. Born during the 1870s gold rush, Julian is a small town cradled in the mountains, surrounded by apple orchards.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue east to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, famous for its wildflower super blooms in the springtime. But even when the flowers aren’t blooming, the landscape is striking, with its badlands, slot canyons, and cactus forests. Near the park entrance, keep an eye out for the 130-foot prehistoric animal sculptures created by Ricardo Breceda.

Borrego Desert sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve explored the park, you can either head north on Highway 79 and cut through Anza en route to Palm Desert—the drive through wooded Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is a nice break from the desert sun—or continue on Palm Canyon Drive toward the Salton Sea.

Salton Sea from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in late afternoon light © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Salton Sea is fascinating: It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas and is rapidly drying up. Skirt the southside of the body of water then make your way toward Slab City, an abandoned Navy base that’s become an off-grid living community and the massive, hand-built and brightly painted art piece Salvation Mountain just outside.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Slab City, take Highway 111 north to Palm Springs, an oasis of midcentury modern architecture that’s home to plenty of pools that provide respite from the heat. From Palm Springs, follow Highway 62 to Yucca Valley and Pioneer Town for a drink or a meal or maybe a concert at the famous saloon Pappy and Harriet’s. Joshua Tree has long attracted artists and bohemian types, so while there’s plenty of natural scenery to enjoy such as Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

Avoid the Crowds at Lesser Known National Parks

Escape the crowds and traffic jams at these lesser known national parks

The glories of the national park system draw hundreds of millions of visitors each year, even in normal times. But in this upside-down year, with the pandemic still limiting travel within and outside America, it’s likely the National Park Service’s 419 sites, 62 with a “national park” designation, will attract even more people looking to get away this summer.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For potential park-goers who wish to avoid these crowds (and this season, who doesn’t?), one strategy is to skip the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and the other top 10 parks that typically receive the majority of visitors. There are alternatives that are awe-inspiring for your summer and fall fresh-air retreats, ones that offer many of the Top Ten’s sights, sounds, wildlife, and activities.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may need to drive—isn’t that the reason you have an RV­—but these lesser-known crown jewels, all off the beaten path, are mercifully free of the large groups and vehicle traffic found in the more popular parks.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wherever you decide to go, remember that this is a new world. As the majority of on-site visitor centers remain closed, contacting the parks before your trip for up-to-date information and any necessary permits is recommended. For the parks’ main draws—the great outdoors—the reopenings are staggered and may be confusing; your desired destination may be limited to day-use, or welcome visitors during restricted hours. Local stores may be closed, too, so plan to bring food and needed supplies. Plan to arrive early to avoid crowds, limited parking, and the likelihood of being turned away at the gates.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But heading to a new park and taking these new precautions will be worth it as you breathe in the fresh air, stretch your legs on the trail, and rejuvenate in the natural world.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands, instead of Arches

Instead of ogling the sandstone formations in traffic-jammed Arches, opt for a wilderness desert experience amid the reddened Wingate sandstone in Canyonlands. Canyonlands is southwest of the tourist mecca of Moab, Utah. Most visitors take the Island in the Sky scenic drive with stops at the spectacular overlooks, but otherwise the 527-square-mile park has few roads. Hardier souls go for multiday paddles down the gentle Green River, which, after its confluence with the Colorado, plunges into Cataract Canyon.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the desert begins to cool in August, hikers and canyoneers can lose themselves to wonder on trails and backcountry routes that pass Ancestral Puebloan art sites and ruins. And though it’s not widely known, Canyonlands has its own natural sandstone arches (more than 80). You just have to walk a good distance to see them.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Restrooms opened at the end of May along with backcountry trails for overnight use but the two visitor centers remain closed until further notice.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest, instead of the Grand Canyon

In east-central Arizona, 110 miles from Flagstaff, the Petrified Forest adjoins the Painted Desert, 7,500 square miles of badlands and hills tinted lavender and red by Triassic Age strata. The annual visitation of this park is one-tenth that of the nearby Grand Canyon.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Petrified Forest, a drive-through park, holds the greatest and most spectacular concentration of fossilized, coniferous tree logs in the world. Once a lush and subtropical climate, the forest of 200-foot-tall trees was buried by volcanic ash and preserved 225 million years ago.

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

Now petrified into waxy, bright quartz, the tree pieces lay scattered across the Painted Desert along with hundreds of plant and animal fossils including dinosaurs, reptiles, and ferns. The park also protects 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan rock art. There are few trails, so hiking cross-country with map and compass is the optimal way to take in and discover the splendors of this park’s primordial remains.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reopened to limited day use last month, the park has a 28-mile paved road with turnoffs for viewpoints. Its visitor center and other facilities are likely to open after mid-July.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic, instead of Yellowstone or Yosemite

In place of the crowded Yellowstone or Yosemite a panorama of wildflowers, volcanic peaks, and steaming fumaroles can be seen at Lassen Volcanic. The 30-mile park highway reopened in late May along with most of the trails and overnight backcountry camping.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The still-smoking, glacier-clad Lassen Peak is one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous 48 states that erupted in the 20th century (Mount St. Helens erupted 40 years ago last month). Today, more than 100 years after magma first flowed from the Lassen Peak amateur volcanologists can delight in finding the remains of the four types of volcanoes: shield, cinder cone, strato, and plug.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 167-square-mile park is also crisscrossed with 150 miles of trails for day hikes or extended backcountry trips. These wind up through different plant zones to alpine lakes, and hikers can expect to see a wealth of wildlife, there are more than 300 vertebrate species alone. If you fly fish or paddleboard, check out Manzanita Lake.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree, instead of Great Smoky Mountains

Congaree, a park named after the original Native American inhabitants, was created in central South Carolina to preserve 15 different species of trees that are the tallest such specimens anywhere. These include the most statuesque loblolly pine in the world, towering 167 feet above the surrounding tupelo forest. Tree lovers know Congaree with only 159,445 visitors last year as the Redwoods of the East—this year it’s worth forgetting about nearby Great Smoky Mountains and its 12 million-plus visitors.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree reopened some of its hiking and paddling trails for day use on May 28, but the visitor center remains closed until further notice. It’s best to experience this floodplain park—locals will bristle if you call it a swamp—on the water paddling several different canoe trails or fishing for yellow perch or bass on its lakes. When the park offerings increase in its second phase of reopening, consider an overnight Congaree River paddle trip.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir